I was 23 and I was flailing.
I had bravery on my side but it had taken a beating. I sometimes forgot that it was on my side because it was hiding in the corner somewhere. I didn’t have the strength to say, “Hey! Bravery! Get your butt over here! I need you right now!”
I couldn’t remember who I was. “Who I was” felt like a long lost friend from my past. Someone I hadn’t seen in a while whom I used to love a lot and missed.
I was someone who had moved from my home country to a new one at the age of four and then back at the age of 15. I was someone who left my family to travel overseas at the age of 18 for five months. I lived in Scotland. I lived in Egypt. I had dreadlocks and dreams that were bigger than my giant backpack.
Somewhere along the way, after my travels and into my 20s, I forgot who I was.
The brave girl who always said a giant “Yes!” to the Universe was now saying a lot of “No.” Basically, I made a series of choices in my youthful idealism that I had to live out. I realized slowly that those choices had taken me away from myself. I allowed myself to drift into the wilderness. I didn’t fully realize that’s what had happened until I had an awakening.
I started to crave authenticity again. I started to miss myself.
This new girl, the one who had taken over my body, was timid, neurotic, stressed out and fearful. She had anxiety, panic attacks and was battling depression. She was a shadow of her former self. She was young and lost and trying to find her way back home in the dark.
It’s a slow process of waking up when you’re startled from a dream. You’re groggy and tired and you hit the snooze button a lot. That’s exactly what it was like realizing I needed to make some big changes that weren’t going to be easy. I knew it had to be done but I kept hitting the snooze button for that extra delicious five minutes of denial.
In particular, I was in a relationship that wasn’t healthy for either of us any longer. Looking back, I see it with clearer vision and more maturity.
I see it now as something beautiful but young. Something flawed but human. Something that “could have been” but that strayed instead.
The relationship wandered off the path somewhere and it never came back the same. It was no one’s fault, per se. In fact, if it was anyone’s fault, it was mine. I have to own that. I have to own that I create everything in my universe, as we all do, and I created this division. This separation. This wandering. I also know that the other person was an equal contributor and he knows this too. We’ve talked it over many times since. He is now a sweet, though distant, friend.
At the time, however, I was in need of a wake-up call.
One to which I would respond.
One on which I couldn’t hit the snooze button.
That wake-up call came when I was driving to work one morning on Interstate 77 South. I ran out of gas. I was running late and I had been reckless. I hoped I would make it on fumes. I didn’t. Instead, I ended up on the side of the road in high heels and pissed off. I called my partner but he was in a meeting and couldn’t leave right away to help me. I grabbed my purse and slammed my car door. I started the walk back to the exit I had just passed. I was mad at myself, mad that I was late, mad at my partner for not being able to come and help me and suddenly a minivan pulls over.
I get a little nervous because I’m already off balance and now I’m paranoid about who this person is and if I should accept their help or not.
I timidly walk up to the rolled down window and see that it’s a middle-aged woman behind the wheel. She’s wearing work clothes like she’s a business lady and she seems totally normal. What a relief. She says, “Hey what’s up? Can I give you a ride?” I said, “Yes, thank you so much!” and jumped into the passenger seat gratefully.
I had no clue I was saying “Yes” to so much more than a gallon of gas. I was saying yes to my awakening.
She slowly pulls back onto the freeway and asks me my name and where I was headed. She tells me she isn’t usually on the road at that time of day. Normally she’s downtown but she’s on her way to a funeral and had to leave work early.
“Wow,” I think. “Lucky she was around.”
“I noticed you were talking on your phone. Who was that,” she asked. I mumble something about it being my partner and that I had hoped he could come and help me but he was busy, etc., etc. I tell her more than she asked because I guess I was dying for someone to hear me. This lady seemed so open and kind and I was vulnerable and tired.
She then says, “Tell me the whole story. In a nutshell, I’m a stranger. You’ll never see me again after this. You’ve got nothing to lose.”
I think it’s weird for half a second and of course I won’t tell her “the whole story,” but then I think it’s amazing and so I do. She listens. I end with, “And I’m staying because I think things will change. I’m waiting for them to change, I guess. Or maybe I’m waiting for a sign that it’s OK to go. I don’t know.”
She then does the funniest thing. As she’s driving, she flips down the sun visor on my side of the car, opens the little mirror and points at it fiercely.
She says with passion, “Look in that mirror and say that again!”
So I say slowly, timidly, “Um, I’m waiting for things to change?” She flips the visor back up, looks me in the eye and asks, “Do you believe you? Are things going to change?” I instantly know that they’re not. They aren’t going to change because I am the same and he is the same and “we” are the same. If things are going to get better then I need to be the one to make a change. I need to muster up the courage to let go so we can both find ourselves again and we can both be free.
She then tells me a series of things that I’ll never forget.
Highly personal and powerful in relation to whom I’ve become and how I let go but I won’t share all of those private details here. Suffice it to say, it was a moment in my life where I felt the presence of God working for me and on my behalf in a way that moved me to action.
This woman was a messenger.
She woke me up from my groggy stupor and called things like they were. She shook me. She threw cold water over my head. She stood for my power and not for my confusion and denial. I didn’t even know her. This woman was a stranger!
I ran out of gas and a stranger picked me up and my life changed forever.
When we returned to my car with the gas can, she said, “Hey, I have a ticket that I’m not going to use to go see Maya Angelou speak at Case Western Reserve University this afternoon. I had planned on going but then this funeral came up so it’s going to go to waste. Would you, by chance, be interested in going to hear her?”
I couldn’t believe my ears.
I’m a huge fan. Of course I said “Yes!” She took the ticket out of her purse, wrote a Maya Angelou quote on the back of it and gave it to me. I thanked her and I left.
I called my boss right away to tell her something big had come up and I wasn’t going to be able to make it into work. She was very generous and allowed me to take the afternoon off. I turned around and headed back downtown to hear Dr. Angelou speak. I was a few minutes late when I arrived at the chapel so I snuck in the back quietly and shuffled into a pew. There were introductions and applause and then Maya Angelou walked up to the pulpit. She stood there looking out at the audience. I have chills right now and my eyes are filling with tears because every.single.time I tell this story I remember it like it’s happening right now. It’s so powerful it makes me shiver.
She stood there. She didn’t say anything. She started to sing.
This little light of mine…
I’m gonna let it shine…
This little light of mine…
I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine…
I’m gonna let it shine…
Let it shine…
Let it shine…
Let it shine.
It was the moment I had been waiting for two years through not being able to get out of bed in the morning, through antidepressants and hours of counseling and through buckets of tears.
It was the light through the cracks in the darkest room. It was hope.
I left the relationship and I tattooed the word “hope” on my right wrist on my 24th birthday so I would never forget and so I could remind everyone around me.
The man I left was lovely. He was flawed and beautiful and human and he was my friend. I am grateful to him for so much of who I’ve become. But, at that time, for reasons that are between him and me alone, it was not working for me and it wasn’t just that. I had created a whole narrative in my life about whom I was and what I believed in and none of that was working either. This wasn’t about him.
This was about me being true to me. Me being my authentic self. Me living bravely and no longer hiding in the corner.
We don’t all have an angel disguised as a helpful stranger to wake us up. It doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes we have to do the work ourselves. Sometimes we have to light the candle in the dark on our own; hand shaking, flame flickering, wax dripping everywhere in a beautiful mess. Sometimes we get the wake-up call from our yoga teachers, our family and friends or from something we read in a book, see on television.
It doesn’t matter from where it comes—it just matters that we pay attention.
Everyone goes through varying degrees of difficulty during the course of their lives. People walk into abusive relationships, people get sick, and people betray us. People die. The world is not always a blissfest. What we can cling to, however, is the knowing that we are never alone.
Even among strangers we are never alone. Sometimes especially among strangers.
There are always people willing to take a stand for greatness and life and joy and hope in others. Those people are always around us. Those people are our teachers in this life.
And though it’s our job to do the work, to roll up our sleeves and make stuff happen for ourselves, there are messages in the sand at every corner. Writing in the sky. We breeze by a lot of it and don’t even notice. We say, “Stuff like that doesn’t happen to me.” But it does. We call it “coincidence.” We call it “luck.” We brush it aside as a fluke. But these messages are little love letters from the Universe to us. They are directional signs on the hike to the top.
That Maya Angelou ticket stub is on my magnet board to this day. It’s seven years old now. I look at it almost every day when I grab my coat, feed the dog or carry a basket of laundry up the stairs.
It’s a reminder of a stranger who was brave enough to tell the truth and it’s a tiny monument to my awakening.
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