Leave it to me to bring out a twenty-year-old t-shirt to wear on the second day of the trip. I’ve always been one to find the hilarity in wearing a shirt with “FBI” emblazoned upon the front or a Napoleon Dynamite quote and a liger on the back.
Fast backward to last week, when I was in Grand Forks for my book signing. And there I was, wearing my faded, kelly green (the most unflattering color ever) Sioux Crew shirt that I purchased in 2002 at one of my early University of North Dakota football games. The one I wore steadily through college, but dug out of storage specifically for this trip.
Actually, go back a little further. The night before I was going to head out for my trip, my concerned neighbors worried that I didn’t have anyone driving with me. They know of my battles with exhaustion and offered to help me. I absolutely appreciated it, but I was fine to go alone. Before you roll your eyes and say, “Why is Jackie still so stubborn?” I promise it’s more than that. I fervently believe that I don’t have anything to prove to anyone, including myself. But I am still navigating my own independence and place in the world. And sometimes you just need to do that on your own.
I didn’t have a lot of apprehension about my exhaustion, because it’s become such a large part of my daily life, but I did have a little apprehension about my apprehension (that’s called: anxiety).
As I was nearing the halfway point to my destination, I felt the strange and overwhelming sensation. It was only a year ago when anxiety got the best of me and left me stranded in Fargo, so the thoughts can and do still creep in. Thankfully it was minor, and my quick recognition and actions after, kept it that way.
I turned my New York Times podcast off, because let’s face it, the world is scaring the shit out of me right now. And I called my mom. I breathed and lectured myself: You’re doing this. You’re fine. Stop or you’ll never be allowed to go anywhere alone. (You can continue to roll your eyes, that habit of mine hasn’t died)
When I arrived in the town I called home for nearly a decade, I felt at ease and happy.
I walked around campus in the perfectly comfortable (for me) 90 degree and humid afternoon and felt waves of nostalgia. I heard an old professor’s voice in the desolate Gamble Hall: “These walls will still be standing long after you leave UND.” And walking up the old staircase into the newly renovated law school, I smelled what I remember as my overwhelming fear as I walked into that first fall day. As I wandered about the quiet summer campus, I allowed years’ worth of memories to flow through me.
The morning after the signing, I ran back to campus to deliver a book to the law library. And I decided to do something I don’t usually do: order a coffee at Starbucks. Considering that my overnight bag consisted of shorts, that old green t-shirt, and no makeup, I wanted to be in and out quickly.
As I stood in line for my latte, amidst the new 10,000+ sq ft Student Union (I have no idea how big it is, I made that up), one other woman waited for her coffee. She looked at me, smiled, and said, “Nice shirt, I used to have one like that, too.”
As I walked towards her and patted her shoulder, I said, “Then you must be old, like me.”
We shared a laugh and kept talking. The shirt led to the new Union which led to the new law school which led to Gamble Hall which led to her chemistry major which led back to the law and my classmate, Gabe, who was an undergrad chemistry major, which kept us talking up a storm like we were longtime friends.
We were at UND four of the same years. Packing sandwiches to eat in classrooms, trying to work our way through. Me arguing politics and her (doing really hard things that I assume someone who is good at chemistry does, but clearly science escapes me). But as far as we know, we were never in the same spot at the same time, until that morning.
When the “What do you do?” and “Where do you live?” eventually led back to my mishap in 2018, I pulled Unwillable out of my purse to show it to her. I also admitted that I was wearing my ratty old shirt, because a kind neighbor wanted to drive me to Grand Forks to save me from my exhaustion and anxiety. And that neighbor just happens to be UND’s former football coach and athletic director (a legend). I didn’t feel weird at all telling her about that part of my life. I could see she was the type of person who would understand. And she did.
We took a selfie to send to our mutual friend, Gabe, and hugged about five times at our new friendship. She even got a little welled up at my (abbreviated I swear) story. But the best part was when she sweetly smiled and said, “Do you believe in God?” And as I held my hands in namaste position, I looked up and said, “Yes, and I believe he arranged for this today.” We hugged one last time and I promised to visit her in Austin, TX. And then I was off to the law school, and back to my car for the drive ahead.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on the lesson of that trip and I’m still not sure I can. Maybe it’s back to my old themes of how AE destroyed me to the point that I can feel alone in a crowd. Or maybe it’s my health coach’s idea to pay attention when I feel, “Brave, confident, and independent.” Maybe it’s God dropping people into my life when I need them the most. Or that but for my illness, I wouldn’t have been standing at the Union coffee shop, in a ragged shirt, to meet an unknown woman from Texas, who is now a special part of my life.
Maybe it’s how I’m finally again learning to ride the waves of being by myself and with others.
Or maybe it’s that by just being me, I have lots of brand-new friends who feel like really old friends. And I don’t have the words to describe how that feels.
I do know one thing, it felt like a powerful few moments. And I strongly believe that life is built on moments. Big, little, and random, I’m trying to enjoy them all.
“Woah, we’re halfway there Woah, livin’ on a prayer Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear Woah, livin’ on a prayer” ~ Livin’ on a Prayer by Bon Jovi