It was an offer I couldn't refuse: an invitation to speak to the Four Arts Club of Elkhart, Ind., on my all-time favorite topic: "The Art of Life."
I like life. I like talking about it and writing about it and, most of all, I like living it, all of which I've been doing for a pretty long time. Never mind how long.
That does not, of course, make me an authority on the subject. You can earn a lot of frequent-flier miles and never have a clue about how to fly a plane.
Most of what I know about life I learned from people I've loved. Love is an excellent teacher.
I could talk about that until the cows come home. So I flew to Indiana, checked into a hotel and fell asleep, looking forward to the luncheon the next day.
Whenever I go places where my column has appeared for a good while (I'm told the Elkhart Truth has carried it for about 20 years), it's like a family reunion. Without the fistfights, of course. People I've never met treat me like a long-lost cousin.
"How's your brother?" they say, and "Did you bring pictures of your grandchildren?"
They do this because they are good, caring people, who have read my stories for years and feel as if they know me, even though we just met. I get a lot more hugs than handshakes.
That is the power of story. Words matter. Stories can turn strangers into family.
Imagine my surprise the next morning when I opened my suitcase to get dressed for the luncheon and discovered I had packed two shoes that didn't match.
To my credit, both were black. But one was pointy-toed and the other was round with a slightly higher heel that made me list to the left and walk with a limp.
I also had the ugly sneakers I'd worn on the flight, but decided I would rather list and limp.
Some people might have trouble taking seriously a talk on "The Art of Life" by a woman wearing shoes of different styles.
But the audience was gracious and didn't seem to mind. What is family, if not forgiving?
So I told them a few of the things I've learned about life from people who lived well.
From my grandmothers, for example, I learned the meaning of unconditional love, and to avoid dipping snuff around people who make you laugh.
Important things like that.
Mostly I talked about my brother, Joe, who despite being blind since birth and severely handicapped by cerebral palsy, has stubbornly insisted on living his life on his own terms.
Finally, I told them a story I was told as a child and hope to teach to my grandchildren someday. It goes like this:
Before you were born, when God knit you together in your mother's womb, he reached down and took your tiny heart in his hand and breathed on it in such a way to inscribe on it your calling -- the reason for which you were being sent into the world to love and to be loved and to be God's love in the flesh to everyone you meet.
Since that day, amid all the noise and endless distractions, your heart with every beat has kept whispering that calling. Sometimes it's hard to hear it. You have to listen closely.
There are other voices, too, that you've collected over the years -- voices of guilt and fear and shame and negativity. They say "You can't do that" and "You ought to do this" and "What on Earth will people say?"
(Mine, for some reason, all speak with a Southern accent.)
But they come from your head, not your heart, and they never whisper, they shout, forever trying to drown out the one, true thing you need to hear.
Don't listen to the bad voices.
Listen to your heart.
Follow your calling.
Do what you want.
If there is any art to living, I believe that it is that.
But you might also want to try to wear matching shoes.
Sharon Randall is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service (www.sharonrandall.com).