Charm bracelets were all the rage when I was a teenager. Tiny replicas of the Eiffel tower, new bikes, tiny dog figures, and figure skates tinkled from the wrists of the Popular Girls. I admired the look and the high style, but I never expected that I’d be in the circle of lucky ones who could afford such a wondrous thing. Even if… even if I did get a magical white box from the local jeweler for my birthday. Even if… Even if there was a gold bracelet inside. Even if…. that came to be, what good would it be? What charms would I wear? Little diapers for babysitting jobs? Miniature bibles for Vacation Bible School? Tiny little cow pies symbolizing the weekly visits to my grandparents on the family farm? Somehow the whole thing just seemed out of my league.
Then in my early twenties I got married, moved to the West coast, got some college diplomas, lived in lookout towers and backpacked to Europe, traveled for extensive periods in several different but similar VW buses. Got a meaningful job. Was able to afford a small and cozy bungalow with my husband. Without even knowing it, I had filled not one, but many bracelets from my lucky and adventurous life.
Just yesterday I uncovered a letter I wrote when I was 28, wondering if it was possible to have a “charmed life.” Because when I compared my life to others, at that ripe age, I was convinced this was my destiny. After all, the charms of success, or what success meant to me then, were all around me.
This was before….before the After. Before Life showed up, full force. When destiny was still panting to catch up with me. Fast forward ten years. So far so good. I had two beautiful (if hyperactive) children, my husband and I had worked hard to rescue our marriage with positive results. I lived in a house I loved in a community that nurtured my artistic and intellectual side. Another charm bracelet filled. But without my seeing it, the chain on my perfect little charm bracelet was developing some weak links. And I was just barely feeling Destiny’s breath on my neck.
And then it overtook me. By the time I was 45, my father had died of a sudden heart attack. I had lost a sister to a long depression and suicide after I had tried desperately to save her. My 13-year-old daughter had faced the trauma of having witnessed her aunt’s attempt on her life. She struggled in school and began to sink into a despair that I knew was deeper than the Goth clothes she began to wear.
Fast forward five more years. One of my brothers had fallen from a roof and become paraplegic. And homeless. He had gone to live with my mother. She had ruptured a disc attending to him. They were both in separate hospitals at the same time. I flew across the country to help out just as I was finishing a teaching year. In the middle of the chaos, I decided to take early retirement. It seemed the only way I could continue as my family rescuer and trauma manager. After my eventful and largely unproductive rescue mission, I returned to the last days of my job, where I was in charge of distributing yearbooks and keeping students safe, something that had recently become essential because a few weeks before there had been a school shooting 40 miles away. It was in this stressed-out state that I neglected to sign a paper that would ensure early retirement benefits. I lost them.
Five more years. I attended to my other brother while he was in liver failure, bidding his preteen daughters goodbye. He rallied eventually, found a new liver, moved on. The next year my daughter was about to bottom out and it was still unclear whether she was going to continue to choose a self-destructive life.
The chain was broken, the charms scattered every which way. This was before my close friend and neighbor drowned in a fly-fishing accident, leaving his grieving widow behind, next door, in huge need of help.
It was also before another “after:” my 29-year-old son nearly died in a house fire, getting himself out a minute before the place hit flash point and exploded. (A friend who was a neighbor of his, a trauma specialist, told me that witnessing the event traumatized her.)
It has been more than thirty years now since that wide-eyed young woman wrote the letter. Eventually things in my external world began to settle down enough for me to come back to a semblance of stability. Gradually…for now. A time before other “afters” yet to come, no doubt. But that will come later.
After now…. What I’ve learned again and again is that during challenging times, when it would appear that Destiny has taken me to the mat, what was there, on the mat with me, was almost always a calm. When I listened from that place, the thing that needed doing was right in front of me. The more I was able to stay where I was, the more I was able to trust in the way of things…or at least recognize that I had no idea what would happen next, the better able I was to navigate.
I’m not interested in charm bracelets any more.
The trinkets are just way too small. There’s no amulet that could begin to hold the power of the blessings that have come from watching my daughter as she faced her dark side and turned into the bright being she is today. No charm could symbolize the gift of my son’s long hospitalization and recovery from his serious burns. Nothing short of the Big Mystery can explain how he escaped to become the good man he is now. No little jingle of rattling trinkets could begin to remind me of the depth of character I have witnessed from friends and family who face tragedy and death with deep keening or with silent dignity.
Each of these experiences has taken me deeper, has uncovered strength I simply didn’t know existed when I was 28. I’ve found my own wisdom and gathered knowledge from others who have endured and learned to survive. These are the blessings, not the charms of life.