Chapter 2: I Believe In Redemption Stories

September 2014

“I’m taking a forty day road trip across the country. A pilgrimage to meet with people who are living their dreams. Be one of my people.” I was curled up in a rocking chair on a cold tile floor as I typed the request, August in arid Scottsdale, AZ clawing at my window and my soul.

image by Jeremy Stanley for Kate Spade, On Purpose — Masoro, Rwanda, 2014

“What?!? That’s amazing. Are you really doing this? How? When? Where are you going? And yes, I want in. I would be honored.” His words tumbled out from somewhere in Rwanda. There to document images and stories of the artisans Kate Spade’s On Purposeline had trained over the past year, he seemed to be spending more time there than his home in Brooklyn.

Jeremy Stanley. He told me once upon a time he had lived in Charlotte. I laughed at that picture. “I didn’t quite fit,” he said. Of course not. “You are hands dirty with the dust of taxis and out loud life and from here to there and ‘where is our next adventure?” I replied. Jeremy fit nowhere and everywhere and maybe that’s part of why I felt drawn to him.

I told him of my plans for the trip and the Kickstarter to fund it and his encouraging words flowing back from the other side of the world fanned the tiny flame of brave inside of me. “I’m working on a side project too,” he said. As his words appeared on my screen about the women he worked with, survivors of rape and genocide, and his desire to show them their beauty, their worth again, something tightened in my chest.

My story wasn’t the same as theirs. My family hadn’t been killed before my eyes. I hadn’t been raped at gunpoint repeatedly by a host of men taking my village. But I knew what it was like to have things taken from you that you didn’t want to hand over. I understood being a strong woman one moment and a broken one the next as a man stood over you.

They were like me. I was like them. We were the same.

I wasn’t ready to tell him this story though. Not when he was a world away and I had never seen his face. Instead I just said thank you. “I have seen so much ugly this year, but this, this is redemptive.”

That is when his words had arrived; the ones about it being a hard time. The ones about redemption and it being a good story. They rocked me. I have always been good at living the life I was supposed to. The outer layer was shellacked and well coiffed and so right. Until I couldn’t anymore. Cracks had begun showing in that layer a few years prior to this conversation I was having and now only tiny pieces of it still existed. How could it possibly still be a good story after everything which had happened?

His words felt true. They felt true and right and I believed the man behind them.

The first time Jeremy and I had a real conversation, he was in the middle of a coup in Thailand and I had just completed a Twitter rant about hot man Pinterest boards. I figured then it was a pretty good indicator of how life would go. His destiny was to be off changing the world in some exotic locale, where as I would just remain exactly where I was, making ridiculously unnecessary points to no one on the internet. But here we were, in the middle of this conversation with these words making me believe maybe I could be more. And I was determined. I would live a good story and and see every piece of it redeemed. It would begin with this trip.

I said goodbye to this bearded man on the other side of the world and got to work.

Something was buzzing.

Something was buzzing and something else was cutting into my armpit while a sharp pain radiated up through my spine and my numbed leg couldn’t move, as though a vine were tying it down. Forcing my eyes open, I looked down to find my phone vibrating on my stomach. My eyes continued further down my body to the computer cord wrapped around my leg. I moved slightly and a cascade of papers slipped from under my arm and onto my face. Clawing them off, I felt the pain again in my back and reached under me to find the pen that went with the papers shoving its way into my kidney.

5:30 a.m.

I had been asleep for four hours. I dragged myself out of bed, threw on some socks and tennis shoes, and slunk into the bathroom to brush my teeth. The person reflected in the mirror was not something I wanted to see. I couldn’t remember if it had been three or four days since I had washed my hair and the dark circles under my eyes were beginning to look like bruises. My phone continued to beep with messages as the East Coast was awake and wanting to talk about the Kickstarter and my trip.

Shoving earbuds into my ears, I tried to stretch out the kinks for a brief moment, then hit the canals while pulling up the day that awaited me. A few more pledges in. Small ones. Not enough to make up for the large donor we had lost the prior day. Just over half way through the fourteen day Kickstarter and my forty day trip had been completely funded. Everyone said it was a miracle and couldn’t believe it had happened so quickly. And they were right. It was too quickly. A donor’s pledge had been vacated on Kickstarter putting me back at just over halfway funded.

I thought about the video I had made to pump up my community.“I believe in redemption stories. I believe in the comeback kid.” But did I really? Part of me believed this trip was supposed to happen. A written in the stars, kismet, piece of my story. But the other part of me, the practical side of me was yelling, “YOU ONLY HAVE SEVEN DAYS LEFT. There isn’t enough time. And you haven’t eaten in two days. This is never going to work.”

As all of these thoughts melded together in my head, I looked ahead of me on the walking path. Someone had lost a bunch of multicolored balloons and they were caught in the highest branches in a stand of trees several feet away. It was probably the lack of sleep and maybe a little bit of the stress; definitely that I hadn’t eaten anything in forty-eight hours played into the moment but I began to melt down right there in the middle of asphalt.

Even if I have to climb the damn tree and cut the strings myself, I will make sure it flies.

What if that was my dream?

Caught between earth and sky, having taken partial flight and straining to sail away towards the sun. It was now stuck instead in the hardened limbs it happened too close to upon launching. Even in my exhaustion, I refused to give up. I snapped a picture with my phone and posted it to one of my Facebook groups, “Even if I have to climb the damn tree and cut the strings myself, I will make sure it flies.” It was settled in my heart.

The next few days were an endless parade of moments caught between my phone and laptop, posting updates and thank you’s. Funders began to filter in and momentum built back up. The day before the end of the campaign, the Kickstarter went over the fully funded mark for the second time. The final time.

Fully funded.

And there he was. The very first person to pop up. Jeremy just happened to see it go over the mark. He made me stop, pause in the chaos and be in that moment. “Tell me what you are feeling right now, in this second. How do you feel?” I sent him a picture of my glowing face and tried to articulate my joy and overwhelmed heart.

And I was reminded of his words that first day when I had told him of the trip.

“I’m sorry about the things you have been facing, but you ARE brave. They are shaping you and your story and it will be redeemed. You will be healed. It will be a hard part of your story but it will be a good story.”

Those sentences in that tiny box on my computer screen unlocked something in my chest and air swooshed into my lungs. It will be a good story. It felt true. There are things people say or you read which aren’t quantifiable. You have no scientific or hands-on proof to back up the words you are experiencing, but the weight of them settles into your gut and they feel right.

The feeling of joy melted very quickly into excitement and a bit of anxiety as I began to prepare for the trip. I was leaving just a week and and a half after the campaign finished up and there was so much to do. My itinerary needed to be finalized, plane tickets purchased, and I found myself beginning to purge things from my life.

One of my friends, Jen, told me about a garage sale she was planning. She had been through a difficult divorce a few years prior. “I’m getting rid of everything he gave me or anything that reminds me of him; all the things he touched are gone. I’m getting rid of the things that no longer serve me.” Those words felt right. That was the moment I decided to go into my adventure without my long hair. It represented too many dark things for me and I was ready to lighten the load.

A few days later I sat in the swivel chair looking in the mirror at my honey haired stylist, Andrea, “Take it off. I’m ready.”

She stared back at me. We had argued for the past two years about how many inches she was allowed to trim from my hair each time I sat before her. I was done being a long haired girl. It had defined me for thirty-two years and it was time to let it go. I was leaving for an adventure in a week and if ever there was a time to be brave; it was now.

Andrea didn’t need to be told twice. She eyed my hair, twisted it into sections, grabbed her scissors, and snipped. Two lengths of eight inches of my hair lay on the counter before me. Lighter. I felt lighter. I looked at the hair on the floor. Pieces of the past on the ground at my feet. No longer attached to my person. I wouldn’t be carrying them into the future with me.

The night before I left, I found myself sitting before the mirror looking at my new short hair and down at my too early already packed bags and it hit me. “Well, obviously. Well, yes. This is who you are. This isn’t shocking. You have found her.” It was as if looking in that mirror I finally recognized myself after all these years. I had yet to walk out the door and already the journey had begun.