I get what I need in the most unexpected places.

“How do you keep your chin up when everyone tries to knock you down?” is one question I always (selfishly) ask my interview subjects.

Facing adversity has never been my forte. I get thrown very easily. As I once heard Mark Wahlberg say, “The sad scenes come naturally because I’m a complete emotional wreck most of the time.” Similarly, I get spun out on a dime and have acquired an arsenal of strategies to scoop myself off the floor.

Like everyone, I love my family yet, at the same time, they drive me crazy. Sure, they give a hoot that I recently published my first book, but they also are quick to see that I don’t get a big head. While they would bust skulls and break teeth if anyone messed with me, they don’t naturally overflow with the compliments that I crave.

“Good morning Papa!” I said last week while standing in my grandfather’s kitchen. At 97, the medical miracle wasn’t doing so hot. It was an effort for the avid golfer and one-time minor league baseball player to walk to the mailbox and back. He couldn’t drive the BMW to pick up his sweetheart for lunch. My mother and I had flown down there to cheer him up.  

“I don’t need anything!” he grumbled. “While I’m grateful for your help, I can make my own toast and tea.”

An ex-boyfriend once told me that my favorite phrase was, “Don’t tell me what to do!” I inherited this mental stubbornness from a group of people I refer to as the Clayton Clan.

The week made me marvel at the little things. In spite of his protests, we cheered my grandfather on when he finished his Meals on Wheels. Everyday he moved a little faster and stayed up later. Papa was back in action—thanks to those small steps to success. While the dapper dresser often jokes about “going out in style” he wasn’t quite ready for the lights to dim.

His sister, my great-aunt Laverne is equally tough. She is also positively the most upbeat person I’ve ever met in spite of losing her sons and surviving two bouts of cancer. Don’t ask Laverne a question unless you want an honest answer. She is there to give it to me straight, which is usually that my family will stand by my side whether or not my book is a bestseller. “Tons of people don’t have diddly squat so just be grateful for what you got,” she says after I bitch and moan about my finances one morning.

I live in a city of beautiful, accomplished people where you constantly feel pressured to keep up the pace. Daily, I measure myself by impossible standards and occasionally lose my footing. After a week of sleepless nights and 28 years of swimming through a sea of slanders I snapped at lunch last week.

“Honey, when are you gonna get a real job?” a family friend asked as she sipped her lemon water. “You know money doesn’t grow on trees,” she carried on, “so until you start selling lots of books you better keep that waitressing gig.”

“I DO have a job,” I said through clenched teeth as she carried on with her dinosaur advice. I cried for the next couple of days over a silly comment that she probably doesn’t remember saying.

All of us are searching for appreciation from others and all the while setting ourselves up for failure. I, in particular, take offense too often and easily let myself become deterred.

Three days later, I picked my spot on a bench at the Greyhound station in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A beautiful, black woman sat down next to me. We smiled at one another.

“This place is a freak show,” she said.

“You should have seen it at 5AM Wednesday morning,” I said. “Crazy shit was seriously popping off.”

We continued to chat for the next hour. She told me about her children and sweet new nursing gig. I learned how she had worked 16-hour days for four years to keep her family afloat. She was only two years older yet our lives couldn’t have been more dissimilar. “You don’t have any kids?!” she asked to which I replied, “I can barely take care of myself!”

Yet, there was a heart-to-heart connection, which I sensed when she said, “You are identical to my best friend who I love so much. After she pulled up her picture she asked why I had decided to be a writer —specifically since “you guys are perpetually broke, right?”

“Pretty much,” I said nodding my head. “Well…” before a long pause. I was used to asking the questions. Instead of searching for the right thing to say I spoke from the heart. “I guess I really love it,” I said.

She reached over to give me a quick hug. Her bus was leaving and it was time to say goodbye.

I realized that while I may never be in the same time zone again as this woman, we will be operating on the same wavelength. We are people who chose their careers for nothing other than love of the game.

While my family gives me unconditional love, sometimes the sweetest presents come in the form of a stranger.

 

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