On the best of days, I’m not much of a planner. When I was in college, I declared my major based on the classes I liked the most. When I graduated, I applied for jobs that looked interesting versus those that might actually set me on a career path. I got married, because it seemed like a good idea at the time. I had my first daughter 15 months later, because…surprise! I certainly didn’t plan on having two more children after the first – and no one at any point could have convinced me that God had a big enough sense of humor to make sure that all three were girls. And even if I was a planner, in no way, at any point, could I have even begun to write stories that would include all of moves and jobs and changes and chaos that have made up the last couple of decades.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried planning things, but it seems that no matter how hard I try, nothing ever goes quite the way I imagined. And yet, there’s not much I would change. I might have focused a little more in college. And I definitely would NOT have asked for the “The Rachael” from Friends haircut at a Hair Cuttery in 1993. But other than that, I am lucky to have the life that I have had. It has been exhausting and overwhelming and chaotic and crazy. But it has never, ever … EVER … been dull.
But like the allegorical forest and trees, sometimes it can be hard to see the beauty of your own life when you’re in the midst of the chaos. On occasion, it takes sitting in the front seat of a tow truck in the middle of nowhere to realize just how lucky you really are.
I don’t get a lot of free time. I think that goes without saying for any one with kids. But recently, the girls were going to be with their dad for the weekend. I was going to finally have a chance to catch on some things. Do a little work. See some family and friends. Basically, have some fun. Part of that weekend was taking a little road trip to pick up a cat that my parents were adopting from my boyfriend’s mother. This would have been simple enough, except for the fact that the cat was coming from South Africa…as cats do, right?
I will spare the long back story and skip to the part where the cat’s flight was an hour and a half late and I ended up in a cargo warehouse at Dulles airport at 8am on a Saturday morning. Then, I’ll fast forward a bit to the part where I was standing outside the customs office in the main terminal waving what I can only assume were cat immigration documents in the face of a very large, very grumpy customs officer at 10am demanding that my cat be released from cargo. I am not going to lie, it was not my most dignified moment. But, finally, two hours later, we were on the road.
I should now point out that I had a three-hour drive ahead of me. On I-95. On a Saturday. With a cat who was now free in my car after having just spent 33 hours in a crate on various aircraft crossing the Atlantic Ocean. We had barely gotten through the worst of the 15-miles per hour, bumper-to-bumper traffic south of Fredericksburg when suddenly my car started losing power. I managed to get onto the shoulder and even with my limited mechanical knowledge (which mainly consists of matching the lights on the dash with the pictures in the owner’s manual then standing with the hood open staring blankly at all the wires and engine-y looking things), this car was not going any where on its own any time soon.
Again, there’s a lot of filler I could add here, most of it involving me trying to keep a cat from climbing out of a car and running directly into interstate traffic. And there’s a lot I could say about the fact that it was already 1:30pm by this point. I still had to get said cat another hour and a half down the road, settled in a new home, then somehow get two hours back to my house in time for a concert that my sister was taking me to as an early birthday present. And not a cheap concert, but a “hey, I got us really good seats for this once-in-a-lifetime show” kind of concert. But I’ll stick with the moral of the story, which either has something to do with seeing our own stories through someone else’s eyes or not shipping cats overseas, I’m still not sure which one it is.
By the time my knight-in-shining-tow-truck finally arrived, I was sweaty, covered in I-95 road dust, tired and out of coffee. I struggled my way out of the car while trying to shove the cat under the backseat and told the driver what was going on. I also explained that I had a free range cat in the car that would need to be carefully, but forcibly, crammed into a crate that she would probably have nightmares about for the rest of her natural life. We decided that it would be best to throw a blanket over her, wrap her up, bring her around to the back of the car and get her into the crate that way. The cat had other ideas about how this would go down. By the time she was locked away and I was sitting in the front seat of the tow truck, I had some minor bleeding, there were holes ripped in the front of my dress and I was covered in cat hair. But at least we were being rescued.
As we started the drive to an unknown garage in a town that I only knew as “about three exits away,” the tow truck driver asked me my story. Somehow, we spent the next 25 minutes talking about the places I had lived, the cat from South Africa, all the places I had traveled, my three amazingly beautiful daughters, the concert I was going to and the adventures I had had. He ignored calls on his radio as he kept asking questions. He wanted to know about Africa, a place I lived for a couple of years. He asked about the different states I had lived in. He wanted to know about what I did for a living. We talked about the challenges and joys of raising kids – especially daughters. We laughed about the cat. By the time we arrived at the garage, we were old friends and when I climbed out of the cab he looked at me and said, “I’m glad you have lived such a beautiful life.”
As I stood there in the dusty parking lot of the garage, covered in cat fur and road dirt, I thought about what he had said. In fact, I spent the next two and half hours thinking about it as I waited for my sister to come pick me (and the cat) up. I thought about it as the garage closed and I had to move myself, all of my belongings from the car, a cat, a litter box, and food and water bowls into the waiting room of the tow truck office next door to the garage. I thought about it as I contemplated the nearly $1,000 repair and the ordered part that wouldn’t arrive until Wednesday of the following week. I thought about it again when my sister and I arrived at my house and I realized that I had left my keys – all of them, including the house key – in a car that was now locked in a closed garage in a town who’s name I didn’t know nearly two hours away. I thought about it when we showed up for the concert nearly an hour late (thank goodness for opening bands). And I thought about it again, when I finally got into bed and this sweet, tired, well-traveled cat climbed up next to me and settled in like we were the best of friends.
Nothing about my day had gone as planned. Nothing about the entire weekend had gone as planned. In fact, 2017 in general is not shaping up to be my hallmark year in terms of “expected events.” And now, I had another crazy, hectic day ahead of me trying to sort out transportation and delivering the cat to my parents. Kids still had to be picked up and work still had to be done. But I had a story.
Life rarely goes the way we think it will. No matter how carefully we plan it out, cars, cats, kids, and in my case, customs officers, are going to throw us off schedule, off track and off balance. Yet, in the midst of it all, we’re writing our story. And, really, it’s in those days or weeks or even months when we feel lost in the chaos that we’re developing our most interesting chapters.
Like most things, a story is no good to anyone if we keep it bottled up. So tell your stories. Take your worst days and make them into something that you laugh over with a friend. See the beauty in the chaos. Most importantly, realize that what may have a felt like a life of improvising, last-minute problem solving, lost keys, broken cars, unexpected events and never having enough time might just look like a grand adventure to someone else. After all, even the most madcap life is filled with beauty – as long as we take the time to see it.