A Thin Margin for Error

A while back, I was program director of a radio station pioneering talk radio for women. I was also a divorced mother. My work days were a fast, fun mixture of production, planning and talent coaching. There was plenty of pressure, especially at day's end to get out of the door on time to meet the daycare deadline.

One day, the station was buzzing: Gloria Steinem would be in-studio at 5 p.m. I really wanted to stick around and meet the feminist icon, whose work was key in opening doors for so many women and whom I grew up admiring.

But I was torn. Regular commuters know: Rush hour traffic can be vexing. A five-minute departure delay can put you 20 minutes late at your destination.

I opted to push my luck. I greeted Ms. Steinem, then high-tailed it to my car, a little later than normal. It was raining, but with luck, I could make all the lights, enter the freeway and arrive at my kids' after-school program, within the allotted time-frame.

I listened as radio hosts Lori and Julia spoke with Gloria Steinem. They gushed and fawned but also had some honest reflections on where the women's liberation movement succeeded and where it missed the mark.

They did a good job. It was an enjoyable conversation, a good example of our "girlfriends on the radio" format.

I tapped the gas, just one more intersection before the freeway. I checked my clock, so far, so good.

Suddenly, things were not good. My minivan had hit a patch of standing water, causing it to hydroplane, flinging it out of control. The car spun around and landed backwards in the ditch.

Thankfully, no other cars were hit. But as I tried to drive out, my wheels just spun. The minivan was swamped in mud. I was stuck.

I hopped out to survey, but before I could even grab my phone and call for help, a red pick-up truck pulled off the road. The driver got out. He wasted no time with pleasantries.

"I got a rope in the truck. I can yank you out." It was a statement, but also a question.

"Yes. Please do," I nodded.

Within moments, my van was freed from the mud, and the man who suddenly appeared was now disappearing back into his pick-up, waving off my thanks and refusing a monetary tip.

I checked the clock. Less than five minutes had passed. Miraculously, I was still on track: I could make the daycare deadline. My kids would be the last ones there. They'd probably be tired and cranky, given that our day started 10 hours earlier, but there would be no fine and no write-up... just apologies all around.

It was all OK. Except that it wasn't.

The irony -- that my ability to manage my schedule depended quite literally on being rescued by a stranger, showing up at just the right moment -- did not escape me.

But a larger issue came into focus: Our foremothers didn't blaze the trail so that I could become a stressed-out, harried, working mom, speeding her way through life, putting herself and others in danger.

That humbling truth landed with a sting.

My margin for error was too tight. I was not thriving, I was barely surviving.

I longed to be a big, bushy plant with pretty blossoms and hearty roots. But in reality, I was more like a scraggly, single flower poking through a crack in the sidewalk. This was not my vision for my life, nor was it what I aimed to model for my children.

This "wake-up" call (along with others) forced me to prioritize "thriving" above all else. For if we don't push back on all the forces that conspire to make us crazy, who will?

We have to rescue ourselves. We have to yank ourselves right out of the muck that's swamping us. And shift away from unsustainable habits and ways of being.

And there's no silver bullet. Change is slow, incremental growth.

"You didn't get this way overnight," my new meditation coach pointed out.

Patience was required. Fortunately, we live in a time when many tools are readily available. Among my favorites: meditation, a daily spiritual practice, renouncing multitasking, a good therapist, forgiveness training and perhaps most importantly, frequent visits with a group of girlfriends.

I have such a group of girlfriends: We get our hair done together about every eight weeks. Julie is the colorist, Donna cuts our hair and Shelly provides the space. Suzy and I show up for conversation and to get our hair done.

Our group has been together for decades. They went to high school together; I'm the newcomer, having joined in 15 years ago.

Over the years, we have seen each other through marriages, divorces, childbirth, kids growing up, kids getting married, grandchildren, job loss, new jobs, aging parents... highs... lows... you name it!

We have different political views and religious backgrounds; that doesn't matter. We have been there for each other through thick and thin. We talk, we share, we support and most importantly, we laugh.

I leave with my hair looking great but also with a fresh outlook and feeling rejuvenated.

These days, my best test for thriving is a quick check-in on my "margin for error." Does a delay at the grocery check-out send me into a panic? Or can I enjoy the slow-down and simply breathe and relax? Do I need people to need me less? Or can I be of service?

I am probably not the one to call for a rope and pick-up truck, but I can offer kindness and compassion to a friend or stranger who is suffering or just having a bad day.

I am willing to thrive. Are you?