How Fire Ignites Our Lives
February 14, 2015Posted by on
“All sorrow can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.” Isak Dinesen
He called me about 5 p.m. on Friday just as I was leaving my office to join some co-workers at the company’s end-of-week cocktail gathering. “I left something for you at the house.” I laughed. “What, a Valentine?” “Yes,” he said. “I left a Valentine for you.”
When I got home, there is it was, wrapped in white. A huge, beautiful heart with chocolates inside. Just like the fantasy that Valentine’s day is supposed to be. I’d been clouded in sadness for a long time, which doesn’t at all mean that I wasn’t content or happy in my life. You see, no matter how necessary, divorce carries with it a residue of sorrow. Seeing that Hallmark-esque heart, I realized how hard I’d been holding on to it.
The frightening dreams had returned and I’d asked my therapist why they were back. “Because you are ready now,” she told me. I protested. “But why the dream about him killing me? Why is that one back? It’s horrible.”
“He did kill you,” she said. The stillness hung in the air. It seemed like an eternity before she spoke again. “The person you were is gone. You are having the dream because you are now in a place where you can process it and let it go. Make no mistake, though, emotionally and psychologically, he killed you.” I’d been playing that conversation back in my mind for a week, thinking about its truth and the power of acknowledgement. The dream had miraculously stopped. Then, of course, there was the sadness. So many things happened in such a short span of time after the divorce, including his criminal indictment. Add to that, he paid child support for only four months, then began sprouting fanciful arguments about how he had overpaid and that I owed him money. There were so many other pieces too. Thinking about it all made me profoundly sad. Watching it is a raw and ugly spectacle.
But here in front of me stood a delightful, red roses-decorated box of chocolates.
In the last year, I needed so much help managing a house, two children and of course, myself. Derek The Handyman had patched walls, tuck-pointed the bricks, shoveled the snow, added handles to doors, unclogged toilets, cleaned out garbage, swept floors and did so many other things, the majority of then unasked. When I mentioned to him one day that I wished I had a place to put my radio in the kitchen, he built a shelf for it. I had been so grateful to Derek that I never thought he might be grateful to me. His Valentine’s heart assured me he was.
A little bit of love and inspiration come in unexpected packages. This heart motivated me to make some love to add to this Valentine’s Day and to the next of days. It feels good to think of adding love and letting go of sadness.
There is a manuscript of poems on my desk today. A friend sent them asking for thoughts and comments. In turn, he said he would take a look at my manuscript. It has been a long time since I worked on my book. It’s time to open it up again. Wish me luck, send me love. Happy Valentine’s Day.
December 31, 2014Posted by on
— Elwood, The Blues Brothers
“Life seemed to be going along fine and then, splat,” was how H phrased it. We were talking about how a moment occurs when life suddenly changes. S-P-L-A-T. It’s the fly breezing along in the wind when suddenly — it becomes little more than road kill on a car’s window shield. Its ride is over. There is no way to reclaim its former life. It no longer looks like it once did. Like it or not, realize it or not, in a seeming moment, transformation occurs.
In H’s case, it was her multi-decades marriage to a seeming pillar of the community that collapsed under the dual strains of alcoholism and affairs. No matter how much she might have anticipated the end, seen the signs, the “splat” moment felt like a surprise. The big house was sold. She moved to the city. Took a job, then another. The old life becomes a distant memory.
S-P-L-A-T. Until the conversation with H, I hadn’t thought of these situations under the auspices of “splat” but it certainly made all the sense in the world. If you live long enough, the “splats” simply can’t be avoided, which isn’t to say they don’t occur when you are young, as it did when I was just two years old and climbed up the stove that would change my life.
As far as I know, there is not an instruction manual to guide you through a splat. As a child with a life-threatening injury, I think my coping mechanism was to fight. Fight, in the sense of pushing hard to regain my physical ability not only to walk to but swim, do gymnastics, play tennis and the like. Fight, in the sense of pushing myself to achieve socially and academically. Today, when I think of my “splat” situations, my approach is very different — more surrender than anything else. Pema Chodron, the beloved Buddhist teacher, author, nun and mother says it this way, “Don’t run away from your fear. Lean in to it.” Our natural tendency is to fight, flee or move away from what is uncomfortable just as I did as a child.
From talking with H, it seems she did what Pema suggests in per post-splat life and that is to open her heart and experience what it is to be genuine. What it is to be human, what it is to experience life truthfully in all its pain, with all its beauty. Even when you still don’t believe life will get better.
And then there is another thought that seems to go hand-in-hand with her new-age advice:
“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look.”
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
As today drew to a close not only for the work day but for the year, H and I were the last to leave the office. “Here’s to good things in 2015,” I said. “And to a no-splat year.” She who coined “splat” nodded in agreement.
Good luck to us all in the New Year. May we not be squeamish about taking a good look at ourselves. Let’s not let life harden us. Let’s try to always see the tenderness, beauty and grace in being alive, together.
Tell me about your S-P-L-A-T moments.
September 30, 2014Posted by on
“You’re a tight ass!” Sarah shrieked with a laugh as she dug her elbow into the middle of my fanny.
Lying face down on a massage table, the face port paper crinkled in my ears though I could hear Sarah quite clearly. The first of my physical therapy sessions had begun. It was akin to torture. Therapy sounds happy and pleasant. Add the “physical” into it and it quickly became a series of muscle manipulations that well, hurt. Sarah, the physical therapist, tried to allay my concerns, telling me that many clients with extraordinarily tight muscles had come before me. “You’ve had this injury for a year and a half. Your muscles have completely tightened around the injury to stop the pain. It’s not that unusual,” she said.
Unusual or not, it hurt. Plus, I hated being one of many.
“Every week, I’d like to see you and work these muscles out,” she said. “It’s something you really cannot do yourself because you are so tight.” Did she really have to mention that “tight” stuff again?
That said, she consulted my file and gave me several instruction sheets with exercises to do everyday.
It was like I was three years old all over, learning to walk again as I had when I burned my leg.
“It’s going to take some time, bear with it.”
I’d hear this before many, many years ago.
It was like coming full circle.
I glanced at the file she held in her hand.
“Could you do me a favor and update my name. It’s no longer hyphenated. Just Gallagher, “I paused.
“Actually, it’s always been Gallagher. I never changed it.”
Sarah laughed. “You’ve been a client since 2004,” she said as she peeled off the hyphenated name.
“2004? That’s when my now-ex began stealing from me,” I said quietly, as much under my breath as I could. It was hard to even admit. “Or at least when I think he began stealing from me.” I had to breathe now. Deeply.
This healing thing was a little more complicated than I anticipated. It was as much emotional as it was physical.
That’s when I remembered the conversation I had with my mentor, Mr. B.
“Annie,” he said in his gruff voice, as he picked me up at 5:45 am for a trip to Detroit. “I think your blog has played out this burned leg thing.
“You should really start writing about what’s going on with you now. There’s anger, there’s challenge….there’s good stuff,” he said, letting the “f’s” in stuff linger for emphasis. Mr. B. knew. Duplicity as we say in the trade is good stuff. It’s interesting and creates a good story line.
“Let me think about that, Mr. B. Let me think about that.”
“Just remember Annie, fire isn’t always the flames. It it’s the emotions too.”
This was a whole different ball of wax. Something that needed some thinking work.
September 13, 2014Posted by on
The day had arrived for my appointment with the pain specialist and it was, appropriately, gray and rainy. As I thought about the appointment, my heart started beating faster. I was in my 20s when I had the last appointment with the plastic surgeon for my leg and I’d forgotten the anxious feeling that always arrived with those appointments. It was back.
I breathed deeply and tried to exhale the anxiety, which probably only made it worse. I’d had maybe 20 plastic surgeries and debridement procedures for the burn. When I had the last surgery at 18, I remember waking up in the middle of the procedure lying face down and gagging on the breathing tube. Then the memory went back further. I was maybe 3 years old and I couldn’t walk. During the roughly three months in the hospital, I was kept immobile in a crib covered with netting so I couldn’t get out. It took months of painful physical therapy to re-learn how to walk.
These memories swirled in my head as I sat in the waiting room, feeling increasingly light headed. “Gallagher,” the receptionist called. When the nurse walked me to the exam room and took my vitals, my blood pressure, normally 110/70, had inched up to 140/80.
Dr. F. walked in and immediately put me at ease. “I read all your forms,” she said as she examined my burned leg and did a reflex check of both legs. She asked again about the injury as she had me do a series of movements with my arms and legs. “I’d like you to have x-rays taken but I think I know the source of your pain. It’s an SI injury. We can fix this.”
SI, or the sacroillac joints, connect the spine to the pelvis. The most common symptom of SI joint dysfunction is pain, often experienced in the back of the hips, the thighs or in my case, the groin. “How would I have done this?” I asked. Apparently even stepping the wrong way can create this condition but any condition that alters the normal walking pattern can put stress on the SI joints.
Among other things, my prescription includes a series of manipulations to my pelvis to move it into alignment and six weeks of physical therapy. Dr. F. offered me steroid injections as well to treat the inflammation and relieve the pain thought I’m not so sure how I feel about that. I’m not partial to shots.
It’s nice to feel ‘fixable’ and even better that this really had nothing to do with my burned leg injury.
“We see injuries all the time,” Dr. F. noted when she did her exam. “Nothing really surprises us any more.”
I should have known.
September 3, 2014Posted by on
I remember the moment it happened. My body was turning and I felt a snap in my upper leg. Time stopped for a moment as I twisted to the ground. As I pulled myself up from the floor, the pain was alternatively in my hip, lower back and groin. Ouch. A whistle blew and the drill was over. As a basketball coach for middle-school girls, the effort of playing in their rotation was obviously a bit too much. The old body was not meant to go man-on-man with sixth grade girls in free court play.
Injuries of the older body are a great deal different from when you are actively playing sports as a youth. The body reacts differently. However it might be characterized, I feared I had become a delicate flower and I was not liking it
The diagnosis was a groin tear on the right side and I was advised to cease all physical activity for at least six months. Silly, I thought and I resisted. But six months later, the pain was still there. Again, I was told to halt most physical activity and let the injury heal.
It was a full year before I began regular physical therapy. And then I heard the words, T-R-A-C-T-I-O-N, which in many ways is strangely akin to the Medieval torture rack. Lay face down and the machine slowly pulls the body apart. But even that was not enough. “I’m referring you to a non-surgical pain specialist,” Dr. Jen said. “You see, you have scar tissue on top of your scar tissue and I think an evaluation would help.”
“Scar tissue on top of scar tissue” – the phrase echoed in my head.
That right side thing again. I scarred the scars. It was a dreadful thought. Already I was envisioning the first visit to the so-called “non-surgical pain specialist” to explain the current injury on top of the old injury. If history is my guide, the specialists usually got unnecessarily caught up in the first injury (burn) at the expense of any current injury. “So, how did this happen? How many surgeries were involved? How many graft sites? Do you have heat or cold insensitivity now?” At first, it’s fun to be a novelty but that quickly devolves into being an ongoing curiosity, which is not so much fun.
In any event, the visit with the pain specialist is next week. I’ll let you know how it goes.
July 31, 2014Posted by on
“Man plans, God laughs” goes the old Jewish proverb.
It’s nice to know God has a sense of humor. We make plans. They don’t always turn out as expected.
There are probably many reasons why I stopped writing the blog about a year ago. What I know is that I just stopped. I thought I’d lost the fire. People asked from time to time. I didn’t have a good answer.
This week, after much too long a stretch of time, I met with one of those people dearest to me. We talked about the blog and I gave the “I lost the fire” explanation.
But she saw it differently. “You stopped because you had too much fire going on,” she said, rolling her eyes a bit at my density. In consideration of that perspective, I do admit, the flames have been rather high. That’s why I was thinking in terms of an “inner lack” rather than, well, a raging fire. She suggested that all would come back as the flames inevitably ran their course.
She made me laugh at myself. It was laughter suggesting possibility, not mockery. Laughter in the right form — representing joy, creation, love, faith and passion.
I’m not sure of the next plan but I see the fire much more clearly.
July 15, 2013Posted by on
The oven felt like it was 900 degrees but Sue let me know that the two fire “holes” on either side of the main oven were at least 2300 degrees.
We were at a glass blowing workshop at Ox-Bow, the Art Institute of Chicago‘s summer program in Michigan, and at first I thought that literally ‘playing with fire’ would not be my speed. But much to our group of seven’s surprise, we began working the glass and hot ovens within about an hour of our instructor’s tutorial in the glass studio and were making glass.
For three days we worked almost eight-hours a day, learning the ancient art of glass blowing and skills like jacking, blocking, shearing, blowing and keeping the body relaxed as part of the craft of glass-making. These were no small things. Working with fire, high heat and the time pressure of cooling glass, one wrong move meant injury, burns and more significantly for our sort-of-competitive group, a broken piece.
Admittedly, Day 1 consisted mostly of making glass blobs and later, some interesting paperweights – all in the name of learning how to use the “pipes”, gather the liquified glass from the oven and begin the process of working with the material. It also set the foundation for working in teams. Glass work is typically not a solitary toil — a lead artist tends to direct a team, who assists with blowing the glass and other assorted tasks such as reducing the intense heat from the glass with a properly placed paddle.
When Day 2 dawned, our group felt confident despite a few minor surface burns the previous day. I was particularly impressed with myself from Day 1 – few jitters and no burns. Going in to the class, I worried briefly about how I’d handle the fires and my proximity to them. Over the years, I experienced a few, mostly minor, reactions to fire ranging spontaneous heat rash to persistent sensitivity to hot and cold weather. When I burned my leg, whatever remaining skin was left was removed through a surgical process called debridement. New skin grafts were placed over the remaining muscle and bone, resulting in scar tissue and a fair amount of nerve damage. It never troubled me in any meaningful way and I’ve had full and complete use of my leg all my life. I’ve always felt that as a burn survivor, I am a lucky one. Even with the glass blowing class, I never felt it was a challenge to overcome fire in any way — I’ve long been over that — but simply an exciting skill to learn.
And then Day 2 brought the wadded newspaper tool. The ” tool” consists of six to eight sheets of newspaper, literally wadded together, folded over, drenched in water and held in your hand.
As part of the glass-making process, an artisan takes a “gather” of molten glass from the main oven and begins a process called marvering on a metal table to elongate and flatten the glass. Moving to a specially designed bench, the artisan then smooths and/or blows the glass out, using one of a variety of tools — the jack, a wooden cup or the newspaper — depending on the goals for the project. In the day’s demonstration our instructors Jonas and MC showed up the form and approach to using the wadded newspaper. It all seemed like a textbook approach. I felt ready.
But when I sat in the chair, using the newspaper to guide the glass, I felt the heat sear through my hand. My reaction was visceral. I felt the heat not only through my hand but come up through my right foot like phantom heat. “I can’t use the newspaper,” I blurted. “I can’t.” Calmly, MC the instructor responded. “No problem. There are always other ways to do the same thing with glass. Let’s give it a heat in the oven and marver it again.” I put the newspaper down and the sensation went away. I looked at my team mates Susan and Ann and they appeared nonplussed. Inside, my heart was racing and I felt pangs of heat shooting through my body. I took a deep breath, walked the pipe to the oven and gave the glass a heat.
By Day 3, I decided to pick up the newspaper tool again and used it without incident, creating two bowls, a yellow glass and a big ole, colorful paperweight. This was an awesome experience. Playing with fire wasn’t so much about fire but about understanding an ancient craft, working with friends and moving behind my limits. I am not afraid of fire in any way. It simply ignites the work in so many dimensions. Thank you Louise Silberman for creating this opportunity and for your support of artists and artisans at Ox-Bow.
- Let It Blow (dish.andrewsullivan.com)
July 7, 2013Posted by on
“People are constantly concerning themselves with what they do: have I achieved enough, written the greatest screenplay, formed the most powerful company? But the world will not be saved by another great novel, great movie, or a great business venture. It will only be saved by the appearance of great people.” Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love
For a good part of the last 20 years, I’ve worked with Dave Baum to help people and organizations tell stories. They hire us for programs called communications skills, presentation skills or doing-business-with-the-media skills, but what we really teach is the power to connect with people through stories. I can hear Dave’s gravely voice telling people we’re a nation that has forgotten how to tell stories. Instead, we fall back on bullet points, silly things like paradigms and word-heavy PowerPoint presentations at the expense of being great communicators.
To hear a great story is a rare and good thing. To hear a great story about a great person is even rarer and even better.
Traveling through South Dakota’s Badlands last week, there were any number of good stories and great sights. But none touched me as much as the Crazy Horse memorial, which blends a great story about two great people. Crazy Horse was the legendary Sioux chief who defended his people and their way of life. While at Fort Robinson, Nebraska under a flag of truce, he was stabbed in he back by an American soldier and died in 1877. When the white man asked him derisively, “Where are your lands now?”, he replied, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”
Some years later, Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote to the sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, inviting him to the Black Hills to carve Crazy Horse, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes also.”
When he arrived in the Black Hills in 1947 to begin carving, Korczak was almost 40 and had only $174 left to his name. Born in Boston and of Polish descent, the sculptor was orphaned at age one and grew up in foster homes. He was completely self-taught and neer took a formal lesson in art, sculpture, architecture or engineering. He worked on the sculpture until his death in 1982, leaving detailed plans to be used with his scale models so that the project could be completed. Since his death, his wife Ruth with seven of their children, continue to direct the work, which is estimated to take another 50 years to complete. When finished, it will be the world’s largest mountain carving. The four heads of Mount Rushmore, for example, could easily fit on the side of Crazy Horse’s head.
Mostly, I have thought of stories in terms of written words. Now, I looked out to see stone tell a remarkable story — not only of a great Indian chief but of a great white man who dedicated his life for a worthy cause. If you go to Crazy Horse, you’ll see too that there is more than just the mountain sculpture. Korczak’s family maintains a private non-profit foundation at the site, housing educational and cultural programming, providing a place for American Indians to create and sell arts and crafts, operating the Indian University of North America and the Indian Museum of North America. A medical training center for American Indians is in the works.
When the course of history has been told
Let these truths here carved be known
Conscience dictates civilizations live
And duty ours to place before the world
A chronicle which will long endure
For like all things under us and beyond
Inevitably we must pass into oblivion.
Korcak Ziolowski, From a Poem to be Inscribed on the Crazy Horse Memorial
July 1, 2013Posted by on
Driving along I-90’s wide expanses in South Dakota, the highway meets a horizon of clouds. Grasslands and the sky, bright green and blue merge together and stretch out as far as the eye can see. There is a feeling of freedom there, the pressures of life falling away, thoughts turn to the beauty of nature and the stillness of the land.
We were almost 1,000 miles away from Chicago on our “girl’s road trip,” my daughter and me, along with another mom and daughter. School ended weeks ago following a flurry of pre-teen drama for the girls. They were exhausted and bewildered. As their mom’s, we were both frustrated and disheartened with the situation as well, not knowing the right way to respond. There was a big ‘let-down’ feeling as we began the trip.
Months before this developed, however we had planned our get-away. Now, the idea had ripened well, better than we could have imagined — there would be lots of downtime driving, conversation in the car and maybe even new understandings as we moved into the long summer months. Our goal was to drive west and reach Mount Rushmore though our plan was not particularly strict or time-sensitive. We had a lot of ideas and only one initial hotel reservation booked in Minnesota for the first night.
Driving from Minneapolis, we spent a night in Mitchell, South Dakota, and reviewed our tour guide books. Gassing up the Land Cruiser on Day 2 of the trip, we planned a stop at an 1880s town en route to Rushmore. Here the girls could dress up in period costumes and dally at buildings from a reconstructed bank to a one-room schoolhouse.
After paying the admission fee, it was Ann who noticed the rocks just past the check-in gate, loaded unceremoniously in a dusty bin in the corner. “Look at those,” she said and we sauntered over to a box of large, pink-hued rocks. “Let’s get one before we leave,” she said and I nodded in agreement. “If you like those rocks, then you’ll really like the big one in the town. It’s over a ton,” Jake the ticket-taker commented. Jake looked like a friendly old man, dressed in period costume, smiling broadly and offering us helpful tips about the town’s history and sites. “Be sure to get to the saloon for the live music show. It starts in 15 minutes.” Since we were the only visitors at the time, he seemed to want to make conversation. “The pink rocks are South Dakota’s state mineral,” he added. “Be sure to come back.”
Hours later, after touring the town, we returned to the box. Ann lifted out maybe a dozen of the rocks and arranged them neatly on a table by the ticket check-in so we could examine them more closely. They were weighty pieces, some weighing a couple of pounds, each of varying interest in their size and color.
Jake, the ticket taker, talked with us as we undertook our inspection. “I’ve been working here about six years and I enjoy all the people,” he said. “You know, I used to be one of those type A people and it took a couple of heart attacks for me to learn about what’s really important. Now, I’m content, happy to focus on the simpler things in life.”
He continued, “My wife is someone who collects rocks, and I can’t tell you how much I’ve paid in extra baggage fees when she packs the big ones in her suitcase.” He chuckled. “But it doesn’t bother me at all, I have to say. She enjoys it and says the rocks have something special in them.”
After about 15 minutes of inspection, changing our minds about which one we each wanted, we selected our stones. Mine looked something like a pink marbled ham but I kept coming back to that particular stone, the largest of our loot. Our raw minerals were bulky and heavy but we were pleased. “Do we pay for these with you Jake?” I asked. “Nope, you have to lug them over to the main gift shop check-out. They only let me take tickets,” he laughed.
We carried the rocks across the room to check-out and plopped them up on the counter. “These are beautiful ones,” said the kindly woman at the cash register. “Did they call to you?” she asked. Ann and I laughed. “Well, we usually are not so good at following up on our ideas but we actually came back for these so yes, I guess they called to us. It took us a while to pick out the ones we wanted,” I answered.
“That’s how it is with rose quartz,” she said. “They aren’t just regular stones, they touch your heart. You picked nice ones.”
I am sure we looked puzzled.
“Do you collect rocks,” we asked.
“Why yes, yes I do,” she replied.
“Do you happen to be married to Jake, the man who takes tickets?”
“Yes, that’s true. Jake is my husband and I’ll tell you, he worked a career at U.S. Steel and was a very focused man for a long, long time. I used to work with the rose quartz to calm him down. And one of the things I learned is that the rose quartz helps the heart, especially the heart of a hard-hearted man. He’s a different person now. One of the things I learned about the rose quartz is that if you feel a lack in your heart, put your hands on it and it fills you. But definitely do not throw it at the person who is causing you the problems,” she laughed as she said it. “Now, let me wrap these up for you.”
Rose quartz it seems ” is all about delivering kindness, patience and gentleness to others,” among other meanings, such as opening the heart.
We packed our quartz crystals in the car and began the drive to Mount Rushmore. I thought about the girls and their end-of-year dramas. Maybe we could all use some rose quartz in the car. There was something very nice about driving along the open roads with open hearts. This was going to be a good trip.
P.S. Ann and I did also visit the ton of Rose Quartz at the old village. It was as Jake said, a big stone. See below.
- Quartz Series: Rose Quartz! (thesouladvocate.wordpress.com)
- Rose Quartz – a Stone for Protection (thepassionflower.com)
- The Heart Chakra: The Conduit for Internal and External Unity (mindbodywellbeingdotnet.wordpress.com)
June 23, 2013Posted by on
“Hello,” she said to me in a thick foreign accent, when I turned around to take a peek at the actor Richard Dreyfuss, who was sitting at the table next to me. I heard her “hello” but turned quickly back to my table companions, thinking she couldn’t possibly be talking to me.
I was out with clients in La Jolla, California following a presentation skills training session I conducted. Our group was a mix — some in-house marketing people, me and the company’s outside agency. They were shooting a commercial the next day so anticipation rode high among our rag-tag group of creatives, out to dinner at a restaurant on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
Our table faced the ocean, waves crashing against the window before the tide receded. “Richard Dreyfuss is at the table behind us,” my friend Anita announced quietly to our table. I saw her told her phone low to her lap so she could take a picture of him.
“Hello,” she said to me again when I turned my neck and took another look at the table behind me. She was blond and exotic looking, wearing a tight, sleeveless, sequined white and black dress. I didn’t know why she was talking to me; I thought it was a mistake. I turned back to my table companions. By now, we had all pulled out our phones to google Richard Dreyfuss. From the accounts we read, it appeared that his third wife was a Russian woman named Svetlana. Was this Svetlana?
The sun began to set with its warm orange glow as we talked about our work and our connections. Maria, the producer, lived just blocks away from me in Chicago. Jaime, the agency head, and I realized we had met and worked together more than a decade ago and had a variety of both personal and professional friends.
And there she was again. She was saying ‘hello’ to me. This third time I turned to her and said, “Hello, are you talking to me?”
“Yes, I have been trying to get your attention,” she said with a heavy accent. At first I thought she was Polish.
“Well, hello then, ” I chirped back.
“Tell me about your table,” she asked, raising an eyebrow in an intriguing way. “I’ve been interested in your table tonight.”
“Well, we are a bunch of people from Chicago. That’s about it,” I reported.
“Are you Republicans?” she asked.
“Well, I can’t speak for everyone but I know we all have an independent streak, which is not quite Libertarian but very individual,” I hedged, wondering why she would ask such a question
Without having to wonder, she offered, “Well, my husband Richard Dreyfuss does not like conservatives,” nodding to the white-haired man across the table from her, and confirming what we already knew. Yes, this was Svetlana, the third wife. “Let me introduce you to my friend,” she said, gesturing to the man sitting next to her. “He is a doctor.” The man nodded. “A doctor of our muscles,” she said.
“Oh, he is a physical therapist?” I asked.
“Yes, that is exactly what he is,” she said.
Our earnest conversation continued, and my seat-mate Bill joined in as we asked questions and got to know Svetlana. “You ask me so many questions. You need to know I could kill you in five ways and you would never know it,” she hissed, intimating that the heel of her Chanel shoes might indeed be one of these secret weapons.
“Did we do something to make you angry,” I asked?
“No, not yet. You must know that I am Russian and have learned very much before coming to America.”
Just then, I felt someone move close to me. It was Richard Dreyfuss, pausing as he walked past and whispering in my ear, “What do you think of my wife,” he asked. “She is an interesting woman to be sure. How long have you been married?”
“Ten thousand years,” he said. Svetlana heard this and reiterated. “Yes, ten thousand years. Is there any question?”
We talked a little more and then Svetlana moved on to the bar, joined by all our table companions except Bill. Richard was now sitting all alone. “Bill, let’ move to his table,” and in an instant we were sitting across from him at his table.
The three of us talked. We talked about life, about Richard’s career and about things. Richard talked about the moment he knew his life was changing. His star was ascending and he was performing in a Shakespearean production. “I knew that if I continued, there would be no turning back. That my life would no longer be my own. That I would become a celebrity and everything would change,” he said.
“I did it anyway and the rest is history. But when all is said and done, I’m just a person. A person having a conversation with you, which is nice because I can’t have conversations with people at will, so this is very nice,” he said. Indeed it was nice. I thought of his work — American Graffiti, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The list went on. This was a unique moment.
Eventually a woman came to the table to let Richard know they were ready to leave when he was. Taking the cue, he thanked us and excused himself, collecting his wife at the bar and leaving the restaurant. We were the only patrons left and we called cars to take us back to our hotel in downtown San Diego.
Later I surfed the web, learning that Dreyfuss had been a cocaine addict in the 70s, among other many other colorful life facts. And then there was this tidbit:
“Dreyfuss attributes much of his ability to end drug addiction to a life-altering vision experienced in hospital after a bad car crash. Under the influence of drugs while driving, Dreyfuss knew the crash was his fault. Though he was the only one injured, in his recovery state he was moved by the image of a beautiful little girl in a white dress. The girl served to remind him of the kind of innocent life he could have destroyed, and it compelled him to save his own life, he says, by confronting his drug demons.”
If only we had more time, I would have asked him about this too. Was it a brush with the divine, a figment of his imagination or a sign that came just when he needed it? And why did he heed it? What made it so powerful that it made him change? (Read Sarah Hinze’s account of this incident here.) But, for now I was satisfied — we had a moment, a very nice moment.
I thought about his comments, when he knew his life was changing, when he knew he could never go back, when he knew he would be a celebrity. And how he brought us to his table, to talk, to discuss, to have that moment.
If we think about it, we all have moments when we know our lives are poised to change, when we can no longer go back. These are the fires of our lives — whether it’s an actual incident like burning on a stove or a shift in our minds. Sometimes things change forever and we don’t know it at the time. But Richard Dreyfuss did, he saw his life moving from the precipice of rank-and-file actor to celebrity, and knew nothing would be the same again. Imagine that moment. Would we all take the risk ahead of us when we are fully aware of the moment?