Just Start Gayle, Just Start: Chance Encounters at a Barry Manilow Concert

She tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Do you know how to make this light stick work?”  My daughter Gigi took her light stick, cracked it and made it glow to its warm red color.  “It’s easy, see?” Gigi said, adding, “Are you at the concert by yourself?”  Gayle was attending alone, sitting behind us in Row D.  At 11 years old, Gigi didn’t even know who Barry Manilow was.  At quite a bit over 11, I remembered Barry Manilow from high school but wouldn’t have bought tickets to a concert then or probably now.  But our friend Ann’s mother had taken ill and she gave us the tickets just days before.  What a hoot, I thought, to see Barry Manilow live.  Gigi and I went to YouTube the night before and played more than a few Barry Manilow videos to prepare ourselves.

Now, we readied our light sticks which I imagine are the modern equivalent of cigarette-lighters-at-concerts from back in the day and we began to talk to Gayle.  This was her more than 20th Barry Manilow concert and she had loved him since she was 10.  Gigi and I felt a little sheepish admitting we were even at the concert much less that it was our first one and that we were only in Row C by the accident of a friend’s mother’s illness.

The 7:30 start time at The Chicago Theater came and went and we continued talking to Gayle.  She lived downtown and worked at a social media company.  Oh, and she told us she was a writer of sorts, secretly writing short stories about life without the courage to try to publish any of them.  I couldn’t resist.  “Gayle, you are in social media.  Of all people you know about creating a platform for writing.  You just have to start.  Start with a blog,” I suggested.

“It’s funny you say that,” she mused.  “Just this morning I went to a program on social media and the advice was that there is never a good starting point so you just have to start.  What are the chances I’d hear the very same message on the very same day.”

“The chances are very good,” I said, drawing on my own experiences with this sort of serendipity.  “When we are ready to do something, I think we get the same message many times over.  It’s just that we work very hard to ignore it.  Gayle, the universe is telling you to just start.  Take it from me, you should just get started.”

It was 8:10 p.m. and an announcer finally let us know that the concert was minutes from starting.  Gigi waved her glow stick in anticipation.  The crowd filled in while we were talking and the theater was now full.

“You know Gayle, Gigi and I were not supposed to be at this concert.  It’s only through serendipity that we are.  You want to write.  I’m in the same boat.  Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that we connected,” I said.

Gayle nodded her agreement and handed me her card.  “Stranger things have happened.  I think I need to get started with my blog.”

The curtain rose and all lights were on Barry Manilow.  He opened with It’s a Miracle.

As the Chicago Tribune said in its review of the evening, even now he writes the songs that make his fans sing.

With so much inspiration in the air, it was nice to find some of our own.

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Strange Signs and Silver Linings

Every cloud has a silver lining

It had been years since I’d spoken to Larry when an email popped up about his new position.  As quickly as it arrived in my in-box, I picked up the telephone to ask him about his new job.  It was an exciting position that allowed Larry to return to his journalism roots and run a news editorial operation.  We dished about our early careers in writing and Larry even asked me contribute on a freelance basis to his new news outlet.

When he asked what I had been up to lately, I told him about my Anne on Fire blog.  It was then that our conversation took a different and wholly unexpected turn.  He had never known about my accident.  Telling him about my experience jogged something in him and his story unfolded.

Larry was 15 when he came home from school and heard a knock on the door of his Iowa home.  A friend told him his younger sister had been hit by a car.  By the time he ran the half-mile and found her, she was fading in and out of consciousness.  Larry asked someone to call and ambulance.  As they sped to the hospital, Larry’s sister moaned in pain, her pelvis and internal organs shattered.  As doctors worked to save her life, Larry called his parents and told them what had happened — as his sister walked home from school, a run-away kid they knew had stolen his parents car and hit her at about 50 miles an hour.  Larry’s sister died 48 hours later, never regaining consciousness.

Larry sunk into a period of grief that seemed to never end.  “It was totally unfair.  My sister was only 13.  It was the worst thing that had ever happened to me in my life and it left an incredibly deep scar that I had no way to deal with.  I was too young to know how to grieve,” Larry told me.  “I became obsessed with getting revenge against the guy who killed my sister.”  The bitterness that rose up in Larry create a hair-trigger temper as he grew older.  “I could go into a complete rage at the snap of a finger,” he said.  It seemed only natural that the unresolved anger also lead Larry to drink.  “When you drink a lot, you don’t care and the pain goes away.”

Even by his mid-30s, the grief remained unbearable.  “I was in a lot of pain and it would surface as anger.  I would hang on to every frustrating thing that happened at work and in my fury, I would plot to get back at the person.  This backfired on me a lot and I got to the point where my life was not working and I had to do something,” he said.

In addition to being involved with a religious woman at the time who helped guide him to a new sense of faith, Larry found the courage to see a counselor.  “I started to get the feeling that my sister sensed my anger over what happened to her.  I felt that she didn’t want to be the cause of all the pain in my life.  This is very difficult to articulate but I started sending prayers to her and I got the distinct feeling that she received my messages and would send back her own messages to me in the form of coincidences and serendipity.”

Even though Larry had gone through anger management programs before, this counselor seemed to have a profound effect on him.  Under the counselor’s direction, Larry gathered up everything he had about his sister — photos, newspaper articles, letters — and re-lived the whole horrible experience by writing down all the details he could.  “The counselor told me that I had to grieve the experience so I could release it, that when things happen to you as a child, you have no filter and the experience goes right to your emotional core.  The impact lives on when you are an adult until you can sort it out and understand it,” Larry said.

“There is no question in my mind that my sister guided me to this counselor.”

I’ve known Larry for 15 or more years, always in a professional business capacity.  As he told his story, I couldn’t believe what I was learning and how we were connecting on a personal soul-to-soul level.  The details of Larry’s story were very different from mine but I could not deny the similarities in spiritual guidance.  I too felt guided to explore my own childhood experience, though I’ve always believe my guides have been my deceased parents.  “What they cannot tell us in life, they bring to us in death,” kept running through my mind.

“You know one of the most important things I’ve learned?” Larry asked me.  “You have to be open and aware.  Spirit speaks in whispers and quiet messages.  Now, I’m always looking for the small things to guide me,” he said.  “You know, I’m kind of guy’s guy and this has all taken a lot of work on my part and more than a little faith.  Whatever you call it — god, spirit, a higher power — it’s out there.”

Larry survived the worst experience of his life and that resonated with me.  “Larry, when you look at it all in retrospect, would you ever say that your experience was a gift?” I asked, mostly because that is the way I’ve come to think of my own accident.

Larry paused.

“I’ve never thought of it that way before but it’s true.  The key part of my story is that I survived.  It’s made me more confident.  When I am in a situation where I’m over my head, I can handle it.  I’d much rather have my sister here with me, but if that isn’t possible, I’m open to the gifts she keeps sending me,” he said.

The more I talk to people, the more certain I am that we all share the same experience.  The details are different and our solutions may vary.  More often than not, it seems as if the guides to a better, richer experience are there for us when we open the door.

What are the Chances?

In my main ‘day job’ I work with lawyers, lots and lots of lawyers.  Today as I was yukking it up with Craig-The-Lawyer, he mentioned a key meeting tomorrow and asked me to ‘light a candle’.  Without skipping a beat, I quickly retorted, “Well, I’ll do my best but I have a little problem with fire.”

“What is that,” he asked innocently?

Muttering an internal “dang it” for blathering on so quickly with that comment, I pulled out some of my stock burned-leg phraseology, “Oh, when I was a kid I climbed up a stove and burned the crap out of my leg.”

“Did you?” he said and again I added too much more content.

“I did.  I was trying to get a cookie or a cracker from the cabinet above the stove and well, it didn’t go so well.  My shoe got stuck on the burner and it wasn’t pretty.”

“You’re kidding?” he half-queried.  I realized I might now be stuck in one of those lawyer-socratic-phrase interchanges where I would soon head down the proverbial “slippery slope” of this repartee.  I’d offered too much.  I was conversational toast.

“You know, the same thing happened to me,” he said.

“You’re kidding!” I countered, bemused and intrigued at the same time.”

“Yeah, I must have been four or five and I wanted to get some of the cookies we kept in the cabinet above the stove.  But keep in mind that I was kind of short fellow then so I took the phone book with me, climbed up the stove and put the book over the burner.  Wouldn’t you know it but I accidentally turned the burner on high.  I got the cookie, but the book got torched and I’ll tell you, the whole thing scarred me for life.”

“It was a gas stove, wasn’t it?” I interrupted, now taking over the role of questioner.

“Matter of fact, it wasn’t.  It was an electric stove.  My wife was talking about getting a gas stove the other day and I told her that based on my experience with the electric stove, we could not get a gas one.  That would be certain death for me,” he laughed.

“Wait.  Are you telling me you had the exact same experience I did but you didn’t get burned?”  I couldn’t believe anyone would have a similar story, an almost verbatim same experience.

“What I’m telling you is that I seem to be a whole lot smarter than you,” he teased.  “I brought along that phone book and it worked a whole lot better than your strategy did.”

And so it was true.  My mind raced.  How many families kept cookies in the cabinet above their electric stove?  How many little kids had exactly the same precocious crazy idea as Craig-The-Lawyer and I did?  How many more people did I know who would share some sort of similar death-defying childhood feat?

In my earlier blog post, Cabinets Above Stoves (https://annegallagher8.wordpress.com/2010/11/11/cabinets-above-stoves/), I wrote about my strange sensitivity for placing goodies above the cooker.  It doesn’t seem so strange anymore.  In fact, I can attest to countless conversations with my relatives and childhood friends who, as adults, will tell me, “You know, I have to tell you.  I’ve told my kids about your accident and it’s how we talk about being careful in the kitchen.”  At first, it used to take me aback to hear these things, as if burning-my-leg-by-climbing-up-a-stove was my lasting legacy.  Over time however I found it almost reassuring — that if I was to be the poster child for stove-related accident prevention, I could live with being a something of an off-beat hero.

By the way, the wry title of this post “What are the Chances?” is obviously a rhetorical question.  Years ago, I might have thought that running into people like Craig-the-Lawyer who have similar stories to share was an anomaly.  Now, I know that it is just the path I’m on these days.  Lots of serendipity.  No coincidences.

Sister Mary Pastry and the Virgin Mary’s Appearance

French Fruit Tarte

As regular visitors to Chesterton, Indiana‘s European Market (www.chestertonseuropeanmarket.com) on Saturday’s, we’ve seen the pastry stand for years, nestled among the fruit and vegetable stands and directly across from the cheese stand.  It’s a curiosity in the heat of summer, staffed by a nun in full black habit and displaying an array of delicious French pastries, brioche, croissants, fruit tarts and the like.   When we passed by the stand and my kids asked, “Who is that nun?” I said the first thing that came to mind, “Oh, why that’s Sister Mary Pastry,” and immediately felt the heavy burden of Catholic guilt for making fun of a nun in full habit.  The name stuck.

When we visited the market last, I brought Mack my older son who usually prefers to sleep in on Saturday mornings.  As we passed the pastry stand, he paused to inspect the goodies and that’s when we realized that Sister Mary Pastry was French but spoke English well.  Excited, Mack turned to me and said, “Mom, speak to her in French.”  I hesitated, not wanting to pull out my limited French from study abroad in Paris and Aix-en-Provence from years ago.

“Oh, you speak French?” Sister smiled and we began a conversation in mixed French and English.  “How did you come to sell pastries at the market?” I asked.  Sister’s story unfolded.  Fraternite Notre Dame (www.fraternitenortredame.org), a French-based order with a mission of serving the poor, has its mother house in Chicago’s underserved Austin neighborhood.  As a way to raise funds for the order, the nuns began baking pastries to sell in the Chicagoland area.  The proceeds support their soup kitchen and other ministries for the poor. 

Jean Marie, the order’s bishop, is a mystic with internal stigmata.  Sister told me that in 1977, the Virgin Mary appeared to Jean Marie with spiritual messages to pass along to the faithful.  Now, on the 14th of every month, the Bishop celebrates the Mass of the Apparition at 5 a.m. at their Chicago church, 502 N. Central Avenue.  During the mass, Virgin Mary appears to the Bishop, delivering messages, graces and often miraculous healings.

“Would you like to come to our mass?” Sister asked me.  “Please come.  You would like it.”

The next mass is July 14th.  I plan to attend.

Serendipity or Just Life

Heading to Miami for work this evening, I couldn’t help but think of my father, who absolutely loved Florida. He died in 1993 and I’ve been thinking about him a lot as I work on writing the story of my burns and how they were healed (physically and metaphorically). His favorite book was How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and right next to that was his dog-eared copy of Tom PetersIn Search of Excellence. By some small miracle, I was at O’Hare an hour before my flight and I ducked in to Barbara’s Bookstore in United’s Terminal B. Browsing along the small aisles, I hit the bookshelf with my bag and down fell How to Win Friends and Influence People, the special Anniversary edition celebrating the book’s over 70 years in print. Of course I bought it. Reading it on the plane explained a lot about my dad, who followed the Carnegie tenets to a “t”. I mean this was his bible. Now, I’d say I ran into some cosmic serendipity tonight. My friend and audio engineer Todd Hoyer would say, “Bah humbug, that’s just life, don’t make anything out of this.” So, I wonder dear readers — how do you distinguish when the universe is calling from when it’s just stuff that happens? Please tell me your experiences.