When we try to make plans, the universe laughs. It’s happened many times in my life; I would make a plan and the opposite would happen. It was like the Alanis Morissette song Ironic, but with more cosmic wit. I picture a happy cloud of interstellar gases and stardust, all collected together in the form of something that resembles Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, holding their soft belly and laughing while saying, “wait ‘til you see THIS shit!” Today was a day for the universe to laugh my way.
I was lined up as a speaker at a conference for business professionals. I had 10 minutes to dazzle them with my hilarious “Two Truths and a Lie” game and my hot tips for writing good marketing copy for their business. The speaker after me had won the Stanley Cup a few years prior. Nobody was there to see me. I was excited regardless. My slide deck (or a PowerPoint as we elderly millennials call it) was prepared. I was feeling snazzy in my navy jumpsuit and four-inch high heels that made me teeter like a baby giraffe due to lack of practice and joint pain. I was armed with my thumb drive and new digital business card to share during the networking portion.
Indiana Jill & the Bump of Doom
And with an accidental bump of my hip against my van door… I locked them all inside on my driver’s seat after I parked. No cell phone, no laptop, no keys, no money, no thumb drive, no speaker’s notes, no protein bar to make up for my lack of breakfast. I’m not sure the look on my face as I tried to wedge my fingers in the slight gap in the door and pulled like a frantic maniac hoping that somehow my 120lb of fury could pop the latch. I said, “Fuck!” The universe laughed, realizing I hadn’t learned my lesson yet, and then said, “I can do better!”
I tottled in my heels the short half-block to the address printed on the event flier. I figured I’d just wing the speech without my comedically-timed slide animations. “Suite 102 please,” I told the security guard, not seeing a unit with that number on it. “We don’t have a suite 102,” he responded. Seriously? The address on the event flyer wasn’t correct? He followed up with, “What are you looking for?”
My brain gave me snarky answers like “whiskey” and “life’s purpose”, but I settled on telling him the truth that I was supposed to be speaking at a conference put on by a real estate company. “Oh yeah,” he responded. “Right this way!”
He ushered me into the real estate office suite… which was completely empty. Like not a living soul. Not even dead souls. Just grey cubicles and uninspired seating. “Fuck,” my mind said to itself. I’m pretty sure the only sound I heard was the universe letting out a snort.
Dead End. Try Again.
After the security guard rejected my request to borrow his cell phone or computer to contact my car insurance company, I teetered my way back to my minivan trying to determine if bodily fluid was going to come out of me in the form of salty tears, nervous sweat, or raging steam. I imaged the event coordinator entering panic mode in my absence, making frantic phone calls that were going unanswered, sending angry texts and emails to figure out where I was. I imagined his frustration and disappointment at me for ruining his event. I envisioned the cancellation of potential future work contracts that didn’t even exist between us. Would he understand what I had been through this morning? Or would he only see things from his perspective of me leaving him high and dry? What other choice did I have!?!
If there was a silver lining, it’s that my lucky parking spot was directly in front of a coffee and kava bar. Rainbow pride flags lined the windows. It was two of my favorite beverages with my favorite form of decor. The excitement wore off as I then realized all forms of payment were locked away. Fuck again. Game, set, match in favor of the universe.
I took a deep breath, thinking some oxygen might help me formulate a plan. I decided to walk into the cafe and hoped someone kava-drinking Gen-Zer or gay Samaritan would sense my distress and save me. This was reverting to old ways. I thought I had given up the princess archetype that needed saving. But in that moment, I was quickly losing the fortitude to keep it all together. As I walked toward the door a middle-aged man in a baseball cap asked me a question, “How’s your day going?”
My first inclination (and deeply-rooted people-please instinct) told me to muster a smile and tell him I was fine; maybe even thank him for asking or return the question out of politeness. I surprised myself when in that moment a new feeling arose in me and I didn’t respond with my usual. I pivoted on the sharp heel of my shoe, looked him in the eye and said, “Honestly, not great!” I gave a tight-lipped half-smile as anger started to fill me like slowly rising magma. He just smiled back, genuinely and warmly. And then the energy shifted. Something was different, though I didn’t know what.
“How you react to this moment will impact the rest of your day,” he replied with a smile.
Fuck. He was right.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Choice is a powerful thing. I’ve come to the realization that having a choice is perhaps the MOST powerful thing we have. Whenever I’ve explored why I wanted to earn more money, it wasn’t to buy more stuff. It was to have more choices: choice of where to live, how to spend my time, how to educate my children, how to care for my body and mind, how many tacos I want to eat. Money means more options to shelter or flee when things get bad. It’s the difference between flying out of your country with a passport and visa or escaping on foot for however long your legs can carry you. It’s true that money doesn’t buy happiness, but it does buy options to be happier.
When we feel like choice is taken away, when we’re prisoners of a situation, that’s when life starts to feel unbearable. It’s being a child and having a meal grow cold in front of you that you are being forced to eat. It’s the mold-infested home that you stay in because there just aren’t other affordable options or moving is too costly. It’s the unhealthy relationship you stay in because you’re financially trapped or physically threatened. It’s politicians (who often can afford themselves access to more options) legislating to take away individuals’ ability to make important choices with their bodies and lives. I understand why people have strong emotions around losing choice.
Yet the more minutes I spend in this life, I realize how many things we assume we don’t have a choice in when the reality is we almost always have a choice to make. The options aren’t always good or known, but there is almost always some alternative. For my brother, as a child sitting in front of a cold plate of spaghetti, that meant throwing it at my mom. Not a good choice, but he didn’t have to sit in front of the spaghetti any longer.
We build our own prisons when we tell ourselves, “I could never leave my job. It pays too well.” The truth is, you could. You do have that choice. You may just not know what comes next. “I can’t leave my marriage. I made a commitment to him.” Actually, you can. Is it the best thing to stay? Well, only you know what your right thing to do is.
There are some things in life that are not choices, like race, ethnicity, country of origin, physical and mental abilities, the gender we’re assigned as babies, and sexual orientation. We can’t necessarily choose how people react to us— only how we carry ourselves and respond to them.
I didn’t choose to be a lesbian. My attraction is what it is. However, living as a lesbian was a choice. I convinced myself for many years that I couldn’t come out, that my choices to get married and have children and be a stay-at-home-mom and homeschool my babies, regardless of how good my life was in those areas, made me stuck. I felt I didn’t have a choice to leave my marriage because he was a good man and hadn’t shown any shred of behavior to warrant breaking that commitment. I felt like I didn’t have a choice to come out until my body started fighting back, my mental and physical health declined. It forced me to a point where I felt like the only “choice” I had WAS to come out or cease to exist.
The Red Pill or The Blue Pill
Back to kava land and my new friend, the philosopher in the baseball cap, sitting outside reminding me that my choice at that moment would affect the course of my day. I struggled to admit it at the moment, but he was right.
“So what are you going to do?” he asked. I found his calmness, in contrast to what I was feeling, to be uncomfortable.
“Figure it out,” I replied curtly, and I walked inside thinking I would ask one of the business employees for help. The barista was already slammed with drink orders. I looked around for the first solo person with a cell phone and asked them if I could borrow it. They agreed and within minutes my insurance company told me the lock-popping would be covered and the technician would be there within the hour. I would just have to wait outside and look for him since he had no way to reach me with my cell phone locked in the vehicle.
I walked back outside to where the philosopher was still sitting at his table, nursing a coffee, and took a seat at the empty table next to him. He looked over at me again and smiled. “What did you decide to do?”
“I got help. The locksmith will be here soon.” I felt myself relax. The tiny, never-dying optimist in me wondered if perhaps I could still make my speech that morning.
The philosopher pulled a $20 bill out of his pocket. “Would you like to get yourself a drink while you wait?” Polite Jill inside of me told me to decline. But my truth roared up again and said, “Thank you so much” with a genuine smile while I took the bill. “I’ll pay you as soon as my car gets opened.” “Don’t worry about it,” he responded.
I walked back outside cradling a large coconut shell full of cloudy-looking kava. This would calm me down. I sat back in my seat outside, soaking in the beautiful sunny weather, admiring the palm-lined street, and took a sip. “Well, since I can’t do any work right now and I’m sitting here under a palm tree drinking out of a coconut shell, I might as well pretend I’m on vacation this morning!” I joked to him.
“You are exactly where you’re supposed to be today.” He responded. “Today’s presentation was not meant for you. But the next one will be…”
Conversations with God
Have you ever talked to someone and thought, “I wonder if this is God?” (Or Spirit or Source or the Universe, or whatever name you believe or don’t believe). Growing up and occasionally attending a variety of different churches, I never felt God through a priest or a pastor. They just seemed like the head of the God fan club. I envisioned that true interactions with the divine would come from the unexpected… the people we could have ignored or written off, who would deliver us the most powerful teachings. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to feel God as not some foreign or external power on high. The Hindu belief that God is within each of us felt truer to me. The God in the philosopher saw the God in me and I realized this was not going to be an everyday, ordinary conversation.
“When people reach the end of their rope, they join the carnival,” he started. “Literally, people run off to the carnival when they feel they have nowhere else to go. I was a chef and took a job traveling with a carnival in my early days. I met some really interesting people through there.” He paused. “It was a rough crowd and every day I would have to remind myself to approach each person with an open mind. Approach with an open mind. It changed my life when I started viewing everyone that way. I learned some valuable lessons.”
We talked about judgment and hitting rock bottom, trauma, grace, forgiveness, the shift in the world, the new era of consciousness people were entering, divisive hate, and mostly choice. He sat with me for a period of time that felt timeless. I couldn’t have estimated it if I tried. The clock said we were there almost two hours, far longer than the insurance company predicted the locksmith to arrive and far past the time to deliver my speech. I was grateful for the company. I’m not sure how else I could have spent a nicer two hours.
The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
In today’s Choose Your Own Adventure, I could have freaked out and been a panicked crab for hours, or I could have sipped kava under a palm tree while being disconnected from technology. Easy choice, right? But that is not how the universe laid it out to me in advance. I couldn’t see the complete picture of those options. I just had to choose the next right thing to do.
I need these reminders when life isn’t going according to plan:
1) Recognize I almost always have a choice to make, even if the outcomes are unclear.
2) Approach everyone with an open mind… even if (and especially if) they smile at you even while you’re shooting daggers out of your eyeballs.
3) Ask yourself whose “plan” is your life anyway? And who am I to say it’s not going exactly the way it’s supposed to?
The universe wasn’t actually laughing at me today. (Well, maybe it snickered a little.) Like any benevolent influence, this was a teaching moment.