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…


Barbara Herrick said...

So, OK. Hoping and prayer for a great outcome. When my cousin was sick and on chemo, this was the prayer that I could in good conscious pray: that the medicine worked and worked fast. That's what I'm praying for you. Barbara Herrick

Unknown said...

The thing that sent chills down my spine was that you put the milk down as you were hearing about needing a biopsy. PLEASE read The China Study and the info regarding IGF-1 at NutritionFacts.Org. It's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to evidence that dairy protein and animal protein in general is feeding cancer in our society. Your kids need you. Please look into it! Congrats on finding yoga. This post inspires me. I'm 40, too, and ready to truly value my opportunity of life!

Dean said...

You are an inspiration. I hope God blesses you ten fold

Marlene said...


Brian said...

Im thinking this page is for women only, but I was brought here by a link from another story and read yours as well. I too,react the way you do when I see coins laying on the ground, carpet, couch cushion, sidewalk, etc. Only I was told a story when I was very young that I never forgot and want to share with you. I wasnt brought up in a religious home, though my Mother did pray a lot to God. She believed in Guardian Angels, and an afterlife. I only mention my Mom because I never had a father. I knew who he was, about him, but he refused to see me. After the death of a family member, my Mother began finding pennies all over our house. In random places. This was when I was a child. She noticed a pattern, which prompted her to look it up. The same thing kept coming back. That they were a hug from Heaven. A loved one, or a Guardian Angel was letting you know they were there. A subtle reminder. 14 years later, my "Father" passed away. I was a Sophomore in H.S. I was left with so many unanswered questions, so much hate, and anger. I believe that's where all my tears came from at the wake and funeral. I was on Christmas break when he died, so I had plenty of time to sit and question him, and myself, and cry in my room. I began finding pennies. Heads up, every time. I found them in my blankets, in my shoe, at the top of the stair case, tucked in a corner, in my car, pretty much everywhere. I began questioning my sanity after I noticed, as you said, a "Pattern." I told my Mother and she began to weep, but continued to smile until I was done telling her. She reminded me of a story she had told me when I was 3. As my grief faded, so did the amount of pennies I would find. The night before my last day of Senior year, I got a call from my Grandmother. My Pa was sick, and we were very close. He was my best friend, and tought me everything it was to be a Man. He insisted that I take him to the hospital. I did, and didnt shed a tear as he was gasping for air the entire ride because I knew there was nothing on the face of this Earth that could take my Pa. He was iron. The next day at school, we were doing what Seniors do on their last day, and I got paged to the Deans office. I assumed my friends and I had been ratted out for our Senior Prank. I was a frequent in the Deans office, but I got good grades, played sports, and was very sociable, so I wasn't scared, until I saw the look on his face. I knew it wasn't about my prank, or a parting good bye, and the thought of my Pa gasping for air came back into mind. He told me my Mother had called, and did not wat to ruin my last day of High School so she waited as long as she could, but I needed to get to the hospital immediately. With our whole Family there, and me at his bed side holding his hand, Pa passed away. The pennies came back, and faded away with my grieving. I lost my Great Grandmother about a year ago, very unexpextedly, I was just as close, if not closer with her. And like clockwork....... No, you are not crazy, but yes there is a pattern. I said a prayer for you as I read your story. My Mother too is a single Mom of 3. I know what she went through raising us. I am the oldest, and probably was the hardest. I too, pray that since March, you have gotten nothing but good news concerning your doctor visit. In your time of need you will continue finding coins, pick them up, THEY ARE A HUG FROM HEAVEN.

Christina said...

Two things that enter my head is that it has to be tough with all this craziness happening. In all of the chaos in my life this pointed me to God himself and start asking important life changing questions like "Am I really saved" and "How do I talk to God" and "How do I listen to God?".

What stands out to me in you finding those coins is that on every coin there is the phrase "In God We Trust" I believe my trials pointed me to God before I was saved and now my trials refine me and I can learn to have joy in my trials because to the Christian there are promises like the one in James 1:2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

But when I wasn't a Christian I had nothing to put my hope in and when trials came my way it crushed me every time. Jesus also spoke the words. Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. - This is in Matthew 11:28.

Something caught my eye that you wrote and wanted to point out Jesus didn't trust people when he was living because he knew human nature. I found this in John 2:23-25.

My whole point in stopping by and commenting is because I was wanting to encourage you to seek truth and God so he can give you a joy that lasts rather than temporary happiness.

If you would like to hear a message on Testing and trials I am leaving a link.

Unknown said...

i don't think that your finding meaning in coins should be looked at as a falsity. the universe speaks to all of us in different ways. for some people it's the music that plays on the radio, for others it's finding feathers in their path - for you it seems to be coins.

i hope that you are keeping all that change you have been finding. if you haven't - you should start.. and keep it in a jar where you can see it - every time you look at it, it will remind you of all the good things that are possible even when things are feeling especially shitty.

wishingsoon said...

Hi as I read your blog I was not sure what you are actually experiencing, or what is the possible illness. I wanted to offer some hope to that you may consider, it is a great book called Outsmart Your Cancer by Tanya Harter Pierce I have it very informative


sincerely my heart is with you

Unknown said...


I read your post about your son M. I wanted to offer a place to look around, and see if maybe connecting with this group of (wonderful caring brave determined) parents and clinicians and educators would be helpful to you and your family. At the focus is education surrounding attachment disorders and the effects of complex trauma on the development of children, and how to share that information with schools, first responders, and families so our kids don't end up in jail, or worse, dead. You can always see my profile/blog to see who I am and why I am so involved, but has even more informed and helpful people that may be able to help you get support and services without a court paper trail. I too have been at the other end of those threats and knives and rage, and some days it seems like there's no end and no help in sight, but there can be. I hope this has helped a little. You're not alone, and neither is M.
AmyLynn Arrington
PS If you decide you'd like to join attach, (gives you access to email lists for parents, support group phone calls, etc) and you find you can't afford it right now, PLEASE just let me know, and I'll take care of it. Attach has helped me so much, I want to pay it forward.