When the struggle with accepting one's spiritual path proves to be so strenuous that it seems denial will trump faith at every turn, the Universe will often send signs to help one reconcile with the ambivalence that seems to grip many of us when transitioning from one belief system to another. Sometimes those signs may be small, but are often too poignant to be considered mere coincidences. Yet, many of us will dismiss them as such. Denial, dismissal, and confusion tend to become the norm until one day the signs bloom into awe-inspiring, irrefutable miracles.
Today, I consider myself a pantheist, where I believe everything—all religions—come from one central Source. But before I came to accept this belief, I had to first break the confines of conditioned thought. It was a difficult, agonizing struggle, one that twice nearly brought me to suicide. Thankfully, my unrelenting curiosity and unquenchable thirst for knowledge kept me from stepping off that edge to instead continue to trip and stumble down my life path in search of meaning and my place in the Cosmos. The entire time, the Universe sent me signs, but they were always leading me to destinations where I felt I didn't belong, or rather the destinations themselves didn't fit the preconceived notions I already had in place regarding my spiritual life. I obstinately ignored one sign after another until one day, one appeared so monolithic that it was all but impassible.
The following is about that one sign that caused me to take pause, a sign that no logic could explain and no science could measure. This was the first of many to come that would eventually lead me to where I am today. It was also the first sign that made me realize that if nothing else, God has a sense of humor that is completely unrivaled.
A very long time ago, I was sitting in my office one afternoon and staring out the window as the sun shined brightly from behind white billowing clouds on a cool early-summer day. I was on my lunch break, and as every day, I sat in the window choking down a salad and talking to the sky, sending a barrage of questions Heavenward.
I had just returned from a weekend with Marilynn, a dear friend in Cleveland. She and I went back a few years when she district-managed a novelty store I worked in during high school. Well, I grew up and went to college, she relocated to Ohio and we lost touch for a few years. It was just that spring that she had managed to contact me, and with great eagerness, I hopped in my Chevy and high-tailed it down to her house.
I had always admired Marilynn. She was like the big sister I never had, and we had spent plenty of nights stocking the store and talking about my boy problems and parent problems and all the other problems teenagers faced. She was a true mentor in that she never preached, just politely offered wisdom with hopes I'd figure out life for myself. And I always did—after a snag or two.
When I arrived at Marilynn's, we both noted how neither of us had changed much, except for the weight I was now gaining as a result of many a good meal at my new job at a catering facility. We sat and talked for hours and caught up on old times. But after a while, I had to ask her why she had disappeared out of my life so suddenly. She was there for my high school graduation and the next thing I knew, she was gone out of my life without a trace. Six years passed without a word from her, so I couldn't help but express my hurt feelings about it. It was then that she poured me a cup of strong coffee and began to tell me about her life during her absence from mine.
I sat, unblinking. The woman that I knew who was the district manager of the highest- ranking novelty store in the United States, a married woman with two wonderful sons, with money, a home, cars and a career that had her traveling from one end of the country to the other, a self-made woman who had it all, had lost everything.
It seemed that Marilynn's marriage wasn't as happy as outsiders thought.
She was the top district manager in her company, but her prominent life came crashing down with one phone call from her ex-husband who was a law enforcement agent at the time. She had endured physical and mental abuse from him for years, and when she finally gathered the strength to leave him, he quietly acquiesced and even promised no contest in the beginning. Though his composure seemed uncharacteristic, Marilynn was relieved that this chapter of her life was closing without having to face another bout in the living-room boxing ring.
She had no idea what her husband had secretly plotted against her.
Marilynn received a call from her area manager within a week of initiating the divorce, informing her that she was being relieved of her position with the company. When Marilynn asked for a reason, her manager offered no answers. But after weeks of investigating and asking other managers, one company employee confessed that the area manager had received a phone call from a law enforcement agency claiming that Marilynn was suspected of drug abuse and trafficking. Devastated, Marilynn attempted to fight the accusation, but heavy legal fees on top of the impending divorce left her no choice but to leave quietly and seek employment elsewhere.
Predictably, the divorce did not go as smoothly as Marilynn had hoped. Her husband accused her of being an unfit mother to not only gain custody of their two sons but to drain Marilynn's savings with child support. So now without employment, Marilynn was facing losing everything she ever owned.
It was then that Marilynn's aunt stepped forward and introduced her to a Buddhist practice. Marilynn, not being of a religious mind, scoffed at the idea, to which her aunt asked, "What have you got to lose?"
With smiling eyes, Marilynn then began to tell me of this practice and how it had turned her life around. She managed to keep her house, maintain visitation rights with her boys and find employment closer to where she lived. Her life was now mending and she was happy to see that I had returned to her, as well.
My curiosity piqued, I had nothing but questions about her practice and all she had learned from it. Joyfully, she shared everything she knew and then sent me home to ponder whether I would be interested in learning more.
The trip home was a blur as my brain swirled with a torrent of questions. Though I had not been very religious lately, I prayed daily, asking questions, seeking answers. I was hoping this was one of those answers, but as old teachings surfaced and life-long conditioning kicked in, I began to fear that to engage in another religion meant to negate what I had already believed. This internal struggle sent me into a tail-spin of depression for many years, though I know God tossed me all kinds of clues along the way to simply say, "Lighten up, Chantel."
And so I found myself back in my office choking down a salad at lunch and looking out to pristine lawn of the catering facility's well-manicured grounds.
"Lord, why all the different religions and beliefs? Everyone claims to have the answer, yet no one seems to. Everyone's 'right' way is riddled with holes, contradictions, paradoxes, or outright hypocrisies. How can you possibly expect us to sort it all out?" I muttered softly to the bright sun rays breaking through the clouds. "You know, I didn't ask Buddhism to creep into my life again. I tried learning that years ago, but you're not in it. Help!"
And then my spirit guide Jake quietly replied, "But God is in it. The signs are all in front of you, Chantel."
"Jake, what do you know? I don't even know if you're real or not. Go away." I grumbled as I stabbed at the salad with my fork in frustration. The ghost had been tailing me for four years now, offering guidance and wisdom. And even though everything he said came to pass, I still dismissed him as my overactive imagination, if not the onset of some type of schizophrenia.
"Chantel, I'm not here to confuse you or tempt you to Hell. I just want to help."
"Well, you're not helping. Unless you wanna show up in a white robe with holes in your hands and feet, I'm not interested in anything you have to say."
The rest of the day I tried to distract myself from my thoughts, but it was a painfully slow workday. Around three o'clock, I noticed how eerily quiet the administration wing was. After exploring the dark and empty offices, I realized that the entire staff had taken off early, including my supervisor and the facility's manager. Following their example, I headed out at four-thirty instead of my usual six o'clock.
I didn't make it a mile from work when I cruised by a woman walking along, carrying what looked like a ton of books in a couple of tote bags. I saw her stop, slowly lower the totes to the sidewalk and then take a few breaths. It wasn't hot outside, so I didn't think too much about what I saw and I kept driving.
"Go back and get her." Jake chided.
"Are you crazy? She could be a psycho or something."
"Go back...and get her." I could hear the heat in Jake's otherwise cool voice. With a growl and a huff, I made a u-turn and pulled up to the curb where she was still standing.
"Ma'am, you need a lift? Where are you headed?"
"Oh, thank God. I'm just going up the road a bit, not more than a mile or two." The woman rushed up to my car window, still a bit winded. Now that she was closer, I could see she looked to be in her sixties. She was dressed like a school teacher, but something about her seemed amiss. I didn't know if it was her excessively heavy makeup or her threadbare skirt and blouse. I simply dismissed it all and shoved my car door open. She grabbed her bags and hefted one to me, which I then shoved into my back seat. She then got in the car, dragging the second bag onto the car floor between her ankles.
"Where to?" I looked her over once again. Yes, a lot seemed out of place with this woman and I was telepathically grumbling profanities to Jake for making me pick her up. I looked at him in my rear view mirror where I saw him sitting in my back seat, and he only offered me a smirk. My eyes narrowed menacingly on him.
"I'm just going across the freeway. It's a beauty supply store on the corner." The woman finally caught her breath and I pulled off into what was now the beginning of rush-hour traffic. Great.
"I just can't tell you how grateful I am that you stopped," she beamed. "A friend borrowed my car this morning and I haven't heard from him since. And here I have a five- fifteen appointment with my real-estate clients at this store. Thank God you came by. I would have never made it if I had to walk all the way."
I sighed softly as we were now in the thick of rush-hour traffic. The freeway was normally only three minutes away, but in this stop-and-go bottleneck, it would take at least ten. My gaze drifted out my driver's side window. I was in no mood for small talk that day. Besides, the thirty seconds of awkward silence in the car seemed like the electromagnetic pulse before a nuclear detonation.
"So, you mind me asking what religion you practice?" Kaboom! The bomb had landed and here I was stuck in traffic without access to a fallout shelter. I grinded my teeth and looked up to those sunny skies where I imagined God laughing his divine rear off at me.
"This is so not funny." I mumbled and shook my head.
"I guess you could say I'm eclectic."
"Oh, study all kinds of stuff, do ya? Well, now, there's nothing wrong with that, child. I feel the need to tell you that all paths lead to Rome."
With that, I cut a glance to the woman who looked back at me with a bright smile. I shrank in my seat. Traffic hadn't budged an inch.
"You know..." she began.
Oh, god, here it comes.
"I'm Christian, myself. My husband, daughter and I were missionaries. We traveled all throughout Africa for a while, spreading the Good Word. I'll tell you, they taught us a lot as well. My husband, God bless him, died a few months ago of cancer. And my daughter...well, I lost her back last year. She was working with a troubled-youth group as part our church program. She left the church one night to take a few of them back to the half-way house and I didn't see her again until the police called me downtown to identify her body. I keep asking God why he would take her. She was so sweet. Angelic. Like you." I don't think the woman took a single breath.
Again I cut a glance over to her and forced a tight-toothed smile. Traffic was at a standstill and I was hoping whoever caused the accident that created this backup was suffering horribly because right now I was suffering too.
"I never had plans to bury our daughter." The lady continued. "I tell ya, that's just something you never think you'll ever have to do, bury your own child. Anyhow, I was gonna take this over to the church today...." She reached into her tote bag and I reached for the car door handle. We weren't moving, so I figured I could make a quick enough escape with a bullet wound to my posterior if things suddenly turned Detroit-style. The woman pulled out a cigar box and began to open it. My heart nearly stopped and my hand tightened upon the door handle.
"This is my daughter's hair." The woman's fingers gently lifted the lid to reveal a thick plat of auburn hair at least eight inches long. "She was going to donate it so wigs could be made for children enduring cancer treatment. I never got around to donating it after she died and I don't know if anyone can still use it or not. I'm gonna have my pastor say a blessing over it and pray that the hair is still good enough to use."
My heart settled a bit, though it was strange seeing a braid of chopped-off hair curled up in a cigar box like that.
Oh! Traffic's moving!
"You're very spiritual, though. I can sense it. You know, I can recite Psalms Twenty-Three in seven different languages."
"Really now?" That was all the invitation she needed. I heard Psalms Twenty-Three that day in Hebrew, Latin, French, German, Swahili, Arabic, Dutch, and English. By time she was finishing up, I had gotten past the bottleneck, across the freeway and was now cruising at a good 45-miles-per-hour in a 30-miles-per-hour zone.
"So where is this beauty shop?" We had passed several already, but in Detroit, that was common. There was a black American hair-care store on every corner it seemed.
"Oh, just another mile or so." She happily replied. "You know God has many ways of connecting with us. So many ways. Just as many languages there are, so are there paths to understanding and wisdom, paths to his heart."
"Um hm. So is this the store?"
"Nope, a bit further."
Someone kill me now.
"This one!" She pointed and I was quick to pull up to the curb, unlock the doors and grab her bag off the back seat.
"Well, here you go. Good luck with your meeting. See, you're even a few minutes early." Naturally, I kept the engine running.
"You're more than welcome to come in with me. The people who own this store are Buddhists. You seem like you'd be interested in talking with them."
Shocked, I just stared at the woman in silence for a long minute before I declined with a sigh and shake of my head. "I really need to get home."
"Oh, you sure about that?"
"Yeah, I had to leave work early so..."
"You left work early so you would see me, so you would pick me up and so I could talk to you. You left work early so I could tell you that you are an angel. You don't know it yet. You don't feel it and this entire conversation has just thrown your brain for a whirl. Now, again, the people inside are Buddhists. Do you want to come in?"
By this time, I didn't know what to think. I swallowed hard and shoved back tears. "No, I can't."
"Can't or won'?"
"Why don't you give me your phone number? I'd like to talk with you again." I hedged.
"No, this is the only time we're meant to meet, so I could tell you that you're an angel. Did I say that already?"
"Yeah, got it. So you're not gonna give me your phone number?"
"Okay, but I'm telling you, we won't meet again." With that, she wrote her number on a sheet of fluorescent pink paper. She even told me the name of the mortgage company she worked for and what city it was in. I tucked the paper in my purse, nodded to her and pulled away from the curb.
I felt like I was on Candid Camera and just couldn' get my head wrapped around what had transpired. Later that night I went to look for that bright pink piece of paper in my purse and it was nowhere to be found. I couldn't recall the woman's name nor could I recall the name of the company she worked for. I had made it a point to return to the beauty supply store with the Buddhist owners, but that never happened either as I could never seem to draw up the courage to simply venture in and ask about their religion instead of inquiring about hair extensions in the color 1B.
For weeks I tried to resign the event to just another strange happening in my life—and there were many. And for weeks, dreams and premonitions continued to draw me ever closer to a fate I was sure I wanted no part in. I felt like I was being dragged along as my heels dug into the ground, and the entire ordeal reminded me of the Broadway gospel musical my mother took me to when I was a very small child, "Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God." I've come to this point in my life where I will now often interchange "God" in that title with "Fate." There just seems to be no way to avoid traveling the road that's been mapped out for us.
Though we try to pretend that every pit stop along our life's journey is random and every road sign is inconsequential, deep down inside we know better. Our souls know better. And just when you get arrogant enough to think you've outwitted Fate by actively taking a detour off of your spiritual path, you'll find yourself running headfirst right into a fluorescent pink billboard that reads:
Welcome and enjoy your stay.