“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
This morning has ushered in a lot of reflection and as with most stories, this should also start from the very beginning…
“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
― Albert Einstein
Leave it to me to want to come into the world on a Friday morning. In 1984, through a fantastic stroke of genius – and after 18 years of marriage, my parents finally had their first (and only!) child and from day one, I was immersed in a world of strange coincidence and wonder. My name had already been chosen for me – Amanda Pearl – partly because of the simple beauty, and partly because of family history. My mother was the third in a line of amazing, strong African American women named Lola and would be damned if I was the fourth; which is where Amanda comes in. The direct translation from Latin is “Lovable; one who is loved” and my family made more than sure of that. Middle names have a good and long tradition of being lineage based – and mine is no different. My parents couldn’t be more different from each other and it has very little to do with their ethnic background – but, that definitely plays a significant hand! When they went down to the courthouse to apply for their marriage license, they were asked assorted bits of information, including parents names, maiden names, place of birth, etc – and all of a sudden, they got the strangest question: “You two aren’t…related…are you?” As it happens, both of their mothers have the same maiden name – Pearl. If that wasn’t weird enough, I just happened to pop into the world on Pearl Harbor Day. And if those weren’t enough coincidences to handle on the day of my birth – my mom shares her maiden name with the street I grew up on.
My first word was “Hi” and it couldn’t be more fitting – I used to crawl, then skip and frolic, from table to table when my family would take me out to dinner. I was an extrovert by nature and as social as they came; playtime was my favorite, and as an only child playtime with friends was even better. But the more I would interact with others, the more I became aware – even at a young age – that the world was cruel and slightly unfair. To their own credit – and absolutely nothing to do with me – my parents separated before I was 2 and got a divorce shortly after. When I was 3, my father’s dad passed away and as the stories go – I sat there with him in the hospital on his last day, and asked where he was going. He told me he was going to a much better place, where he would be better – and all I could wonder was could I go there to? I remember the look in his eyes – partially bewildered and taken back by my question, partially amused by the workings of a child’s mind. When he passed away, the void he left permeated physical space – it crept into my heart; but at the time, I lacked the words, maturity or knowledge to express any of this.
As with most people, growing older meant growing stranger – growing wilder, growing weirder. It took a long time for me to grow into myself – and as I sit here at 28, I can’t say much has changed. The “big glasses”-“big braces”-“big hair” snafus that seemed to be singular occurrences for most girls hit me like a hat trick in elementary school. I was highly intelligent…which meant I was peculiar, learning long division on my own and with my head in the books. Social, sure – to a point; but as with every other consecutive phase in my life, I got along better with teachers, aides and instructors and found it increasingly hard to relate to people my age. I went from being a fan of mud baths and minimal clothing to a math-nerd, book-worm, and then thanks to both coaching and coaxing from my family, an athlete. I choose my schools based on academic and athletic merit…leaving the school district I grew up in for al all girls middle school, then twice in High School – once to play basketball and the second time, to escape it. And each time, I had a similar thought: I had built these support systems like ecosystems around me only to disrupt them by leaving. The only constant seemed to be me – moving on, moving forward and lamenting on what I saw in the rear view mirror.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
― James Baldwin
As a child, I always found myself to be of the more “emotional” variety and I think my parents would agree 110% – as a child, the news would make me upset. I’d frequently find myself in tears without much of a rhyme or reason – and when your parents are bombarding you with statements like “If you don’t know why you’re crying, you need to stop” life can get pretty frustrating. When I was in elementary school, my parents noticed that I would get sick with far more frequency than the other kids – I would end up in the nurse’s office with a sour stomach, begging to see a doctor. I now wish I’d been more specific – after finding out I had ulcers, I was also placed in therapy…in 5th grade. In a few weeks, I’d grown absolutely sick of the phrases “Well, how about you draw us a picture.” and “Let’s see if you can put this puzzle back together…” – why wouldn’t they just let me talk about my feelings?! The coup de grâce was in 6th grade when a close friend of mine passed away – I’d just started on a competitive basketball team and we were about to leave for my very first away tournament; to this day, I still feel like I don’t have closure – but it’s also helped me process death differently. The school therapist was the opposite of helpful, and bless her soul, my sixth grade art teacher – and granted, art was my least favorite subject at this point – became my safety net. Through her guidance, I learned that the arts were created to embrace the emotions, and there was no shame in that. There is a confidence that we ought to possess, for life possesses us.
“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.”
– نعومي شهاب ناي –
It’s not often that I’m at a loss for words; but a year ago to this day, that’s exactly where I stood: mouth gaping open, head in my hands and tears forging a river from my duct to the floor. Losses, I’m told, come in threes – and this situation was no different. First, there was my great uncle who passed away, natural causes mind you but that’s of no importance to me; a loss is still a loss, the world is always dimmer in the moments we suffer. Then I got the news that a friend had his life taken in the strangest of circumstances: whether it was his own doing or there was foul play, the circumstances are upsetting to say the very least. Last but not least, was the toughest blow for me to take…
My step mom has been in my life as far as I can remember, and best friend, Jan, has been like an Aunt to me. Being a product of divorce, I was given wisdom at a young age that family isn’t determined by blood – it’s determined by heart, and my step mom’s love for me is a shining beacon of an example. Jan has been through more than any one person should have to endure in a lifetime – and I’m not just flippantly saying that; how many people that you know have survived brain cancer…twice. That said, I’ve heard from a young age that God doesn’t give us problems that we can’t handle – well, Jan may as well be Job reincarnated. A year ago, the unthinkable happened – her granddaughter’s husband opened fire on his two children, shooting both in the head and then himself. Bless their souls, one of the children survived – but we waited weeks on pins and needles for the news.
In that time, I’d gone into myself and had refused to resurface; I wasn’t the bubbly girl skipping to her cubicle with a smile on her face anymore. I was sad. I was 28 and afraid of the world, and I’d never felt so alone. But loneliness is like drowning, it can’t consume you unless you let it: so I reached out. I put my pride aside and – slowly, one by one and over time – I came face to face with my fears. What I needed to remember was that verbalizing the truth doesn’t make it any more or less true, but it makes us human. To reach out and be touched is the human condition and by no means should we deprive ourselves of it.
As painful and tragic as this week was last year, at the end of it all, I have to – we have to – remember that even in tragedy life is magical, precious and beautiful. It’s true that people cannot hurt us if we don’t let them into our souls, but if we don’t open up – people can’t love us, either. The battles you’re fighting in your head – those demons you struggle against, have the courage to fight them and the tenacity to talk about them. People – strangers, family, friends, mentors – they’re kinder and stronger than you think, but they’re also just as broken as we are – and there’s no telling what they’ve been through…
“ “Put away your pride: be kind to strangers, love your neighbors, hug your friends.
Cherish the people close to you and remember that everyone is fighting their own battles;
but if this year has taught me anything, its that we don’t need to fight them alone.”