Sunday, March 11, 2012

Pennies from Heaven

Unexpected gifts in unexpected change

The day my life changed forever started like most other days. It was the first day of a new term, and after an exhausting year of prepping new classes, I was looking forward to teaching four months of familiar and much-loved art history. For the first time in years, my personal life was stable, my finances seemed secure, my health was good. I was content and grateful in my roles as mother, teacher, friend.

One thing about that morning stands out in my mind: the gold Sacajawea dollar on the classroom lectern.

Random coins have special meaning to me. When a penny appears on the sidewalk at my feet, or a dime sits on the bus seat beside me, something in my lizard brain says, pay attention. I am fully aware that our minds see patterns where none exist. The fact that I attribute meaning to spare change amuses me—it’s my own personal form of augury, a less messy alternative to reading sheep entrails, less complicated than charting the movements of birds across the sky. I view this behavior as relatively harmless, a way to give false but comforting meaning to the otherwise random chaos of my life.

I picked up the coin, meaning to ask the other instructors if someone had left it there by accident. I never got the chance. Now as I remember, I think of Judas, of his 30 pieces of silver.

Even Jesus trusted bad guys.

At my cubicle, there was a brief email from our HR director, requesting a 2:00 meeting. I thought nothing of it. I chatted with colleagues, helped faculty members with minor course issues, answered questions for students, thinking how fortunate I was to have meaningful work that I enjoyed, that changed lives.

Two months later and twenty pounds lighter after a stress-induced diet of near constant vomiting and sleepless anxiety, I celebrated my fortieth birthday in a way I never could have imagined. After years of hard work, sacrifice, and a level of organizational commitment that in retrospect was definitely unwarranted and possibly insane, I was an out-of-work single mother of four children.

On my fortieth birthday, as I walked home from my yoga class, the early spring morning unwrapped itself like a gift before me. I was not surprised to spot a worn penny on the ground. I picked it up, turned it over, noted with satisfaction that the date, 1972, was the year I entered this world.

I started yoga just a week ago, after my doctor called as I was picking up some milk at Fred Meyer.

“The results weren’t good,” she said. “You need a biopsy, soon.”

The words washed over me as a sickening wave of memories: green antiseptic walls, sterile mask pressed against my mouth, my father, pale-faced, trembling, fighting for breath. This is what words like “biopsy” mean to me. At that nadir, I was ready to curse God and die.

Instead, I put back the milk, picked up a yoga mat, got $20 in change (to which I added a bright copper penny that mysteriously appeared beside the door to my car), and headed straight for Bikram Yoga to try out their “20 Days for $20.”

In that first week of heat and sweat and pain and postures my body argued were impossible (or at least very implausible, my instructor’s comments that I must have done yoga in a former life notwithstanding), I discovered that what I had viewed as purgatory was actually an unexpected and welcome gift: the gift of time.

I have always charged headlong through my life, sprinting a marathon of calculus and ballet and Bach and Chinese and Thucydides and behavioral economics and cloth diapers and peach canning and sewing baby clothes and learning family law and managing other people's problems and…The truth is: I am tired. Weary. Exhausted.

There has never been enough time for me.

Now, faced with days that should have been filled with work, instead I have time. Time to spend with my children, who are growing quickly and will soon be gone. Time to rest, to read, to write. Time to learn a Bach prelude and fugue that challenged me for 20 years. Time to complete a book design project for a friend who soon will die. And yes, time to try yoga.

Yoga. Those of you who know me are laughing out loud.

But the truth is that I have never felt better, not in my entire life, than I do today, at the age of 40. I am confident, smart, talented, strong, determined, beautiful. Sure, life has knocked me down more than once, and will doubtless knock me down again.

Bring it.

Strip all the externals—the relationships, the career, the false sense of security those provided—and what am I left with? Me. I am left with myself. A tautology, of course, but isn’t self what we spend our whole lives trying to define? In my unexpected gift of time, I have discovered that I am the sum of more than all my parts. My work, my children, my relationships—these are all good things. But they are not me.  In these painful months, I have focused inward, and I have found strength and yes, even joy far beyond that which anything extrinsic could ever provide.

Every day I survive, with a little more hope, a little more appreciation for grace. The coins I have found in the past two months have been harbingers of change. They have also been messages of hope.

Change is painful. Change is frightening. Change is often beyond our control. But if we embrace it, submit to it, learn from it, change is good. That is the message I have taken in my valley of shadows, from random coins found at random times and places in the inauspicious beginning of what will prove to be my best decade so far.

P.S. If the biopsy turns out badly, I am going to look damn good in my coffin! Oh wait, I want to be cremated…