I Believe In Signs and Strangers

I’ve always unwittingly depended on the kindness of strangers — actual strangers and strangers in a broader, more metaphysical sense.

I sometimes think that I’m destined for drama, and not in a Meryl Streep kind of way. This is life-wrecking romantic heartbreak, day-to-day regular heartbreak, girl shit, love triangle, panic attack, concussion-inducing head crash sort of drama. I’m sort of an emotional cretin.

Despite this, I usually find my footing after ungracefully ice-dancing across the frozen pond of life, only to hit a crack and fall headfirst into the water.

That’s what I do, over and over again. And when you reach THAT point, where you’ve fallen into freezing water over and over again, you sort of need help getting out.

I’ve done and continue to do a lot of work to better myself, but at the end of the day, like that off-kilter Southern belle Blanche DuBois, I’ve always unwittingly depended on the kindness of strangers — actual strangers and strangers in a broader, more metaphysical sense.

Whatever the universe’s take on my mangy track record, by divine intervention or random consequence, it seems to bail me out of my jams, eventually. By bail me out I don't mean that I win the lottery, move to Maui and become a macadamia nut connoisseur/terrible surfer. It’s only kind of like that, except all the lessons I’ve learned are internal, and I’m a still poor, land-locked nut without fancy nuts.

It’s the subtleties of life, when I’m ready to pay attention to them, that teach the greatest lessons. Because every day is nuanced, no? When I’m in the right state of mind, not necessarily happy, but tuned in, I take note of and am moved by the crazy, sad, incredible beauty that exists everywhere: a kid running, falling on her face, and laugh-crying until she reaches her mother’s arms; dogs doggedly chasing squirrels in the park — they will never catch them, and they will never stop trying; a sweet old angel man with an umbrella cane and cloudy eyes who changes your life.

I sat next to him on a park bench about a week after going through a mental breakdown.

At first, I was the only one on the bench. I was fragile, lost and alone, but the warm sun on my face felt like comfort from an old friend. In my journal, I was writing about, and thereby reliving, a past abusive relationship in an attempt to “admit and let go.” Then the old man walked up. Clutching his umbrella for support, he stopped in front of me. “Mind if I sit down?” he asked. “No,” I said and shifted over.

I continued writing as he slowly made his way to the bench. He lit a cigarette, which broke my heart a bit because my grandpa died of lung cancer. I put my pen down and shut my journal. He asked me a few questions: what do you do? What are you writing? How about this weather?

I was in so much emotional pain, I couldn’t see straight, and while I usually quite like talking to strangers, especially elderly ones, I was having a hard time. Small talk felt like torture. Perhaps sensing my reluctance to chat, the old man took over the conversation and started telling me about his life.

He was a widow. His wife, who he’d been married to for 50 years, died 8 years ago. He has a son and a daughter, whom he sees rarely because they live out of town. No grandkids. He really wanted grandkids. Because his life is lonely, he still goes to work at the finance company he started years ago. The work keeps him going.

With the sun on our faces, he looked at me and said, “it’s not always easy; in fact, most of the time it’s really hard, but you have to try to give yourself a good life any way you can.” It reminded me of that Bruce Springsteen lyric, “some folks are born into a good life, and other folks get it any way, any how.”

I tried to swallow down the cry ball in my throat but I ended up making a wailing baby-goat noise. I nodded at this man I had met seven minutes ago, who seemingly saw into my beat-up soul and was speaking to it.

“Well, it’s time for me to get back to the office,” he said, butting out his cigarette on the ground. “Keep writing. I bet you’re really good.”

“Thank you,” I said, unable to stop staring at him.

Before getting up, he bent down, picked something up off the ground and studied it. He dropped it in my hand. “Here’s a lucky penny,” he said. “You don’t have to do anything, just wait for it.”

“Thank you. I really needed that today,” I said, tears escaping down my face from underneath my oversized sunglasses.

“I know, dear,” he said. “You take care.”

He winked at me, and I watched my elderly angel walk away into the sun. It was like the final scene of “Ghost” where Patrick Swayze (Sam) says to Demi Moore (Molly), “the love inside, you take it with you,” before walking up to heaven, except the old man didn’t die and we weren’t in love. I fully released the tears that were choking me and put the penny in my bra, which was dirty, but I wanted it close to my heart.

That man, and his penny, helped me more than three months of therapy did. It was a reminder of the good in people, the good in myself, the good in the world, and the idea that sometimes “you don’t have to do anything,” because the universe has your back if you trust that it does.

I regaled my old-man angel-penny story to my friend Megan the other day, and she told me that if you find a penny on the floor, it means a deceased loved one is sending you a message, and letting you know that she or he is there, looking out for you.

I am fully obsessed with this theory now.

In fact, just yesterday I was having a little crying fit in my bedroom while searching for my misplaced healthcare card and got startled by what I thought was someone walking into the room. I gasped, stopped crying, and looked around. There was no one there, but the shock had snapped me out of my fit, and I began to breathe slowly.

In my relaxed state, I found my card, put my roughed-up room back together, smiled to myself, and as I went to leave the room, I noticed a penny on the floor in the middle of my room.

Angels. Everywhere.