An Education

free-spirits-ii-13891She was unlike anyone that I had ever known, a free spirit who seemed to float blissfully above the rules of society. She walked through life as though she owned the world, but in reality had few possessions of any merit. More often than not she kept her feet bare, unfettered, even at formal occasions. She was from the north but boasted that once she had found the south there was no turning back. She was an artist, an intellectual, a high school dropout. I could hear her coming in the battered and ancient pick up truck that was her pride and joy. It allowed her to haul items that might one day come in handy for one of her many projects that were rarely fully completed. Her mind skipped merrily from one idea to another with grand bursts of genius. Such it was with our friendship, glorious kinship until she was drawn like a moth to other places.

When she left we both pledged our fealty and promised that we would make great efforts to stay in touch. I even drove a rather long distance to her new home once, a littered slot in a trailer park that was made merry by a colorful garden that she had planted in an old wooden box. She greeted me warmly and we spent an afternoon sipping on herbal teas and laughing at her stories while her children ran like free range chickens in old fashioned play. She never owned a television and didn’t want one. She preferred entertainment from imagination and it was all she really needed because hers was so vibrant. She reminded me of a gypsy princess, exotically beautiful with a fiery personality. I had seen her face down the devil himself and walk away with her head thrown back in haughty victory.

Her husband was a car mechanic and she was madly in love with him, so much so that she had run away with him on the back of his motorcycle. It broke her parents’ hearts and even her relationship with them for a time. Eventually they came around when they saw how deliriously happy she was. She had left the mundaneness of her upstate New York upbringing for adventures that few of us ever experience. She purposely kept few possessions feeling that they held her back whenever wanderlust took hold. Her family was free to go wherever and whenever the winds blew. There were cars to be repaired by her husband everywhere, and her art was as easily created in a small unknown town as in a large urban area.

Eventually she was gone again, too far away this time to pursue. She was not one for exchanging phone numbers or addresses and our acquaintance was in a time before cell phones, email and social media. Our friendship became only a wonderful memory of time spent with a truly ephemeral spirit. Somehow I had known all along that it would not be a permanent thing. I simply enjoyed the moment, knowing that some people cannot set down roots. They must always be on the go, discovering parts of the world that most of us never see.

I still think of her and so many others who have passed through the parade of people I have known. I wonder if any of them ever realized how much I learned from them, how important they were in shaping me into the person that I am today. Each of us encounter individuals who find their way into our hearts, and while their stay is only temporary their influence is forever. There is something about them that we never quite forget no matter how many years and decades pass. Now and again we think of them and hope that they are doing well.

I gravitated toward strong-willed women at a time when I was shy and weak. I observed their behaviors and learned from them. It was an education without walls, so real and meaningful. I surrounded myself with ladies who had known grief, abuse and hard times. They had emerged with dignity and an unwavering sense of themselves. I was their intern, someone longing to learn from them. Like a sponge I soaked up their spirit and determination to face down whatever challenges arose. They did not have degrees or certifications but they were perhaps the smartest people I had ever known. I encountered them when I was struggling to find myself and they showed me how to be what I wanted to be, not what others wanted for me. They taught me how to respect even the most humble and broken among us, treating them with the dignity that everyone deserves.

I suppose I might attempt to find some of them like Diane or Rosie or Debbie. It isn’t that difficult a task with the Internet and all of its resources. Somehow though, I don’t think that it would be wise to do so. I believe that I was only supposed to know them for a certain time during which they would help me to emerge from my awkward cocoon. Their spirits have remained in my heart and they have been there again and again smiling and guiding me.

They would be old ladies now with middle aged children and perhaps a number of grandchildren. We might not even recognize one another even if we were to pass in a crowd. We went our separate ways long ago. Our personal demands overtook us leaving little time for the idle chit chat that we enjoyed when our babies toddled under our watchful eyes. We each found new homes, new jobs, new adventures that moved us farther and farther apart until one day we had lost each other, but never the memories.

We are the sum total of all of the events and people that we have ever known. Their influence lives inside of us and is even passed down to our children long after our acquaintances are done. We find the individuals that we most need at exactly the right times. It is almost magical the way that happens. There are so many who gave me so much of themselves along my journey who are now strangers. I would so like for them to know how much they helped me and how grateful I am that I once knew them. I’d like to think that things turned out as well for them as they did for me.

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