Gridlock Life Lesson

It was Friday the 13th. A bright full moon night. My husband, Pete and I were headed out to Manitou Springs (in Colorado Springs), basically around 40-ish minutes away from where we live. I was to give a talk at the Storytellers Project, a popular monthly venue followed by a loyal and pretty large group of storyteller aficionados.

We gave ourselves over an hour to get there by 7 p.m., when Sharon Friedman, the Owner/Director of the Project requested I be there. No problemo. We loaded up the car with some extra books (Strength from Tragedy) hopefully to sell and autograph. Most of you already know the book and topic about my nearly 20-year friendship and correspondence with Anne Frank’s father, Otto Frank.

I was both excited and terrified. Because though I’ve been giving this talk for years now, this would be the first time I was to be speaking “off-book”. In other words, no cheat sheet. No fat notebook in front of me filled with the entire story, quotes, references, etc. Nope. I was to wing it and just tell the story from my heart as I needed to convince myself I already knew it and to tell it in a far more personal way than I’d ever spoken of it before. I was waaay out of my comfort zone.

My youngest son, Jesse, a professional communication and presentation specialist (www.lftstage.com) was adamant.

“Mom, you HAVE to tell this story without any notes! You’re a storyteller!”

Besides, we were told that this was going to be filmed and how would that look with me thumbing through a notebook and also trying to make direct eye-contact with the audience. This wasn’t an exercise in READING the story. It was TELLING the story. Those were the very words I hear before every talk I give to free me from me. Release my ego. Step outside of myself. And just “tell the story.” This speaking is never about me. I am merely a channel.

Leading up to the Story Project, I’d been practicing, rehearsing, speaking out loud mainly to my Maine Coon cat Boo who was so sick of me telling this story over and over again to him he swatted me to stop. I hoped that wasn’t an indication of its dramatic impact.

So, now on our way in the car, I began practicing my Lamaze breathing techniques learned eons ago, I pant-breathed to calm myself down as Pete offered me chocolate chip cookies and his ever-present steady support. It looked like we would be there well ahead of time and then WHATTTT??? All cars came to a complete stand still. We were in a bumper-to-bumper gridlock that made L.A. traffic seem like a fun ride at Universal Studios. I’m talking nothing moving. We could see miles and miles ahead of us this line of red tail lights like a crimson snake. All unmoving. Total and complete stoppage. OMG! This had to be a temporary blip. We’d move in a second or two, right? Wrong. We were major stuck. And the clock was ticking. And there were no exits anywhere. I began to escalate my breathing from soft “hee-heeee” to full-on-in-labor gasps. Holy Mother of God! This was one of my worst and most prevalent nightmares come alive. The one about not only being late to a performance/class/talk, etc. but I either could never find it in time or I was too late and it had already begun without me, or had ended completely. This was it.

Then we began to see ambulances, firetrucks and police cars roaring passed us. Okay, this wasn’t just a traffic jam. This was serious. The GPS told us that there were TWO accidents up ahead. Lordy. I text my daughter-in-law, Branda who was to meet us there with her mother and step-father, Laura and Ed, and I text Sharon too and told them of our dilemma. Giving them a play-by-play of where we were (stuck in Castlerock) and if/when I would be able to be there in time.

Trying to calm my pounding heart I talked to Pete about those ahead of us in the accident and that had we been there an hour earlier it could be us facing some tragedy. We prayed for them and that helped stop me from riding the “me” train. Someone was hurting badly and I was merely delayed. Big difference. The worst? I might not make it to the talk and if that was the case that was what was supposed to happen. I talked to Otto and said if he didn’t want me to make this talk I wouldn’t and just surrender to the outcome. But if he did…well could he please help get this show on the road??? NOW???

In a few moments the cars began moving. We never saw the aftermath of the crashes, just two stalled cars by the road. Not sure if they were the end-result of it all, but Glory of all Glories, we made it! Just as the third speaker was telling her story. I was to be the last one after her.

The good thing was that I was so relieved to actually be there in time to speak that I lost all my fear of remembering all the words. I just wanted to get on with it and tell the story!!!! I never wanted to tell it so much in my life. And ironically what had just happened to me was echoed in what I talked about to the audience. The fact that I had once hit bottom so badly in my life and lost everything material, never believing nor knowing how I would ever get up off the floor. And, by contrast, my dearest mentor, Otto Frank, was a constant source of hope and resiliency—he having lost everything and everyone in his life in the Holocaust. There was no comparison to my angst and his pain. The reality of his positive choice to not be a victim but a loving father-figure to all of us who reached out to him humbled me. Just as did the reality of our temporary freeway gridlock and the fear of missing my talk. Later we discovered that someone was killed in the accident. My inconvenience. This person’s LIFE.

We all are going to die one time or another. That night was simply not our time and I was filled with both sorrow for such an abrupt and cruel ending to whomever was snuffed out on that moonlit freeway—and relief that Pete and I were still alive. We soon found ourselves wonderfully welcomed into an embrace of people happy to see us there with them at last. Soft candles flickered around the room and the faint scent of aromatherapy filled the air at the spa where the talk was held. It felt like we had stepped into Nirvana after our brief stint in traffic Hell.

In the end, I did remember the story. It came to life almost relieved that it wasn’t confined anymore by written words or scripts. And though it sure wasn’t a smooth ride getting to that talk I was forced to weigh the blessings over the setbacks. There were far more than ever. I recounted the words that Otto said to me when I asked him if he knew who betrayed him and he simply said, “It doesn’t matter.” Some things just don’t matter. Being alive for as long as I’m able to share chocolate chip cookies with dear Pete and to live this life of love and goodness with my beloved family and friends, and to tell a story about a man who was the epitome of hope and belief, well, that’s worth celebrating.

And after all that Lamaze breathing? I look at that strange twist of fate as a rebirth—a blessing. A chance to really focus on what does matter–that fine line between being stopped forever and just temporarily delayed. It’s all out of our hands anyway, right? May as well enjoy the ride while we’re in it.

Chocolate cookie, anyone?

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