Pennies for Heaven

Sometimes, we receive unexpected gifts in unexpected change.

One thing about that morning stands out in my mind is the gold Sacajawea dollar on the classroom lectern. Random coins have special meaning to me. When a penny appears on the sidewalk at my feet, something in my lizard brain says pay attention. I am fully aware that our minds see patterns where none exist. The fact that I attribute meaning to spare change amuses me -- it's my own personal form of augury, a less messy alternative to reading sheep entrails, less complicated than charting the movements of birds across the sky. I view this behavior as relatively harmless, a way to give false but comforting meaning to the otherwise random chaos of life.

I picked up the coin, meaning to ask the other instructors if someone had left it there by accident. I never got the chance.

At my cubicle, there was a brief email from our HR director, requesting a 2:00 meeting. I thought nothing of it. I chatted with colleagues, helped faculty members with minor course issues, answered questions for students, thinking how fortunate I was to have meaningful work that I enjoyed, that changed lives.

Two months later, I celebrated my fortieth birthday in a way I never could have imagined. After years of hard work, sacrifice and a level of organizational commitment that in retrospect was possibly unwarranted, I was an out-of-work single mother of four children.

On my fortieth birthday, as I walked home from my yoga class, the early spring morning unwrapped itself like a gift before me. I was not surprised to spot a worn penny on the ground. I picked it up, turned it over, noted with satisfaction that the date, 1972, was the year I entered this world.

I had just started practicing yoga, a response to one of those calls from my doctor following a routine pelvic examination.

"The results weren't good," she said. "You need a biopsy, soon."

The words washed over me as a sickening wave of memories: green antiseptic walls, sterile masks, my father, pale-faced, trembling, fighting for each breath as leukemia slowly took him from us. This is what words like "biopsy" mean to me.

At that nadir or my existence, as I held the phone in my hands and felt the last bit of safety slip away, I was ready to curse God and die.

Instead, I picked up a yoga mat (and a bright copper penny that mysteriously appeared beside the door to my car) and headed straight for Bikram Yoga to try out their "20 Days for $20."

In that first week of heat and sweat and pain and postures my body argued were impossible (or at least very implausible, my instructor's comments that I must have done yoga in a former life notwithstanding), I discovered that the abrupt pause in my professional life, which I had viewed as a cruel purgatory, was actually an unexpected and welcome gift: the gift of time.

I have always charged headlong through my life, sprinting a marathon of work and children and relationships. The truth is, I was tired. Weary. Exhausted.

There had never been enough time for me.

Faced with days that should have been filled with work, instead, I had time. Time to spend with my children, who were growing quickly and will soon be gone. Time to rest, to read, to write. Time to learn a Bach prelude and fugue that challenged me for 20 years. And yes, time to try yoga.

Yoga. Those of you who know me are laughing out loud.

But the truth is that I had never felt better, not in my entire life, than I did that day when I turned 40 and was given the gift of time. Strip all the externals -- the relationships, the career, the false sense of security those provided -- and what was I left with? Me. I was left with myself. In my unexpected gift of time, I discovered that I am the sum of more than all my parts. My work, my children, my relationships -- these are all good things. But they are not me. In those painful months, I focused inward and found strength and yes, even joy.

The coins I found in those months were harbingers of change. They were also messages of hope.

Change is painful. Change is frightening. Change is often beyond our control. But if we embrace it, submit to it, learn from it, change is good. That is the message I learned in my valley of shadows, from random coins found at random times and places in the beginning of my fifth decade.