The other day, I looked out my office window and saw something that made my jaw drop.
After a weeklong run of unseasonably warm, beautiful spring weather, Baltimore was shrouded in a cold and dreary day. We had been spoiled by blue skies, sunshine and flip-flops, only to be plunged back into the kind of damp, bone-biting cold that sticks with you even when you’re under a blanket with your fingers wrapped around a warm mug-o-something.
I had to admit, the nasty weather was much better suited to my mood.
My darling Vinnie had succumbed to one of the illnesses that plague ferrets in old age, and I was mourning his loss. Even now, I struggle with the fact that coming home from work to hold him and feel his whiskers tickling my cheek is no longer part of my ritual. The fact that he is gone hits me at odd moments. I’ll walk past a newstand on campus and start to grab a handful of free weeklies to line his cage, and it will hit me like a painful kick in the gut that this is no longer necessary. Or when I feed Sylvester, I’ll automatically open the cupboard and reach for the ferret food (which is no longer there, since I gave it to my ferret-friendly neighbors) too, my mind still stuck in old routines and rituals. Then I’ll dissolve into tears.
Grief and sunshine don’t always mix, so I sort of welcomed a day that looked more like tears than good times. On top of that, I’m immersed in leading quite a few new initiatives at the office. Some of these could actually be called “fun.” I rather spend my day-jobbing hours exploring new things and being creative than doing the same-old-same-old, so I do look forward to chances to tackle the unknown. At the same time, my project lead role means that when these things come down the pike, I’m spending large portions of the day in meetings. And not just as a participant, but as the one who is running the show.
Since I’m an introvert, day after day of this sucks away my energy like a Hoover swooping down on a dirty carpet.
Guess that wasn’t enough to have on my plate, because on top of that the need for some emergency plumbing and a broken lawnmower had also taken a big shit on my bank account and dashed my hopes of having any fun money for a while.
So, grieving, stressed and energy drained, my writing had been suffering. That, of course, made my foul mood even worse. Writing is usually balm for my soul. Not being able to write felt like leaving a raw, throbbing scrape untended.
That cold dreary morning, in a rare moment of peace between meetings, I turned and looked out my window -perhaps to commune with gray skies that felt like kindred spirits. And I was met with a surprise.
My window overlooks a space we call “the quad,” a field that sits in the middle of my office building, the gym and outdoor pool, a stretch of classroom buildings, and the university commons. Off to one side of the quad a group of students huddled around something, hunched in their sweats and jackets. On closer inspection, I realized the “something” was a dunking booth.
A poor lone guy sat in the booth wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Every now and then, someone with a good aim would hit the target with the ball and send him plunging into the water below with a splash. The poor dude looked miserable, not to mention cold.
“Talk about life throwing you curveballs,” I thought to myself. With the nice weather we’d been having, a student group had surely thought a dunking booth would be a cheerful fundraising idea. On the day their event was scheduled, the weather had turned cold and damp, leaving the hapless “dunkee” to shiver and hope that those with good aim might also have sympathetic hearts.
I don’t know about you, but I am always seeing signs and metaphors in snippets of life. Maybe that is part of my writer’s nature, or even the reason I write at all. But at that moment, I saw that poor cold frat boy as a message from the universe. I was too far away to see the goosepimples that surely dotted his legs, but I knew they had to be there.
“Life is a cold, hard bitch,” the message-in-the-dunking-booth said. “Always turning your plans upside down and giving you shrinkage.”
In a better place, I’d have been congratulating the frat boy for having the gumption to sit in that booth, soaked to the gills while the cold air plastered his wet clothes against his body and yet another fellow student tried for the throw that would send him back into the water. I’d have thought about bringing him a hot drink.
Down-in-the-dumps me just looked at him and thought “Yep, he’s just like me. The curveballs just keep coming and knocking him down.”
To get out of my funk right then, I should have gone home and written about the experience. It might have re-lit my creative pilot. The healing power of writing would have soothed my frazzled spirits.
Instead, I sulked for a few more days.
Seeing the signs life throws at me helps me weave meaning into my stories. But it doesn’t always help me pull myself up out of the doldrums. Luckily, life’s signs go both ways.
A few days after the frat boy dunkin’ episode, I came home from a four-meeting day exhausted and overwhelmed. I wanted nothing more than to crawl in my bed, but I couldn’t because we had so many plans for the weekend. My stomach muscles ached because although I was still in the throes of writer’s block, I had at least given myself a stern-talking to about skipping the gym and gotten my butt back into that routine. I’d overdone the ab workout and my rib cage was bitch-slapping me. I walked into the house, threw my keys on the table, and felt the familiar kick in my already aching gut when I passed the spot where Vin’s cage and hammock used to be.
There was a big cardboard box waiting for me on the couch. Lee had called me at work to tell me I’d received a delivery, but I hadn’t given it much thought. I’d been doing some online shopping for Mother’s Day, and just assumed the package contained one of the gifts I’d gotten.
I sat down and ripped the package open, reached under the layers of wrapping, and pulled out a book.
I hadn’t ordered Mom a book. What was this?
I looked down, and was greeted by this:
There in my hand was the first print book to make it to press with a piece written by me between its covers. I knew my contributor copies would be coming, but didn’t expect to see them before Mid-May.
Before I read any of the other stories, I flipped to the contributor bios and read about the others who had made it into Chicken Soup for the Soul: Here Comes The Bride. Writers with multiple novels to their credits. Local newspaper columnists and major magazine freelancers. Writers like me, just beginning to build their publication credits. Stay at home moms and software engineers. Teachers and pastors and administrative assistants. Mothers or fathers of many children, and women with housefuls of beloved pets. Wealthy travelers and people struggling to keep their heads above water. Grandmothers and a high school student. Young newlyweds and widows.
Like me, each and every one of these writers had their own experiences dodging life’s curveballs. Like me, they’d all had to sit in the dunking booth at some point. Like me, they had remembered what the “splash” felt like but managed to come up for air. Each had stories to share, and we had all given a piece of ourselves and our experiences to this collection of tales.
I wondered how many of them had recently come home from whatever their day had brought them to find their box of books. How many were, just like me, leafing through a copy, flipping now and then to their story or their bio and grinning from ear to ear?
Life’s curveballs knock you down. But if you are a writer, they also give you tales to tell.
Here Comes the Bride is full of love stories. But it is also full of wedding mishaps and relationship struggles and obstacles and issues that were overcome. It is lost engagement rings and brides or grooms with cold feet. It is the stories of how people overcame tough stuff to find their way to special moments and meaningful relationships.
My tale of the runaway dog who almost ruined my wedding was the curveball I’d thrown into the mix. And now, years later, the story made me glow all over with the satisfaction of being published and a feeling of connection to a group of strangers who shared their adventures in the same book.
Now that, my friends, is a sign.