“Not everyone is meant to stay in your life forever. Sometimes they are only there long enough to teach you the lessons you needed to learn.”
After spending some time in January cleaning out closets, I’m finally getting around to purging the file cabinets in my office. Two legal-sized, four-drawer cabinets filled with bits and pieces of my life. Some organized. Some items crammed into random folders when life was too crazy to sort through.
It is slow going, but I am making progress.
Most of the things landing in the trash should have been tossed years ago. My decisions to keep or toss are coming fairly easy.
I run into trouble when I find the photos, the handwritten notes, or other reminders that take me back in time. Those are the things that bog me down.
Yesterday I unfolded a flyer advertising an appearance by Jane Goodall sponsored by Miami Metrozoo from almost twenty-four years ago. My memories start to fall all over themselves.
In an instant, I see her sitting in the back seat of a Metrozoo golf cart. She sits so quietly with her gray hair pulled back into a casual ponytail. Looking peaceful, just like in her photographs.
I stop, introduce myself, and express my admiration for her, and her work. Ask if I can get her anything.
In a soft voice, she says, “Thank you, a glass of water would be nice.”
Learning I am a member of the staff, she asks what my role is at the zoo. “I’m the director of volunteer services.” I tell her the volunteers are special, giving so generously of their time and energy; doing their part to help with the rebuilding of Metrozoo after the devastation of Hurricane Andrew. “They just want their beautiful zoo back.”
As a colleague steps up to talk to her, I excuse myself to go get her water.
Bringing back a plastic cup filled with ice and cold water, I hand it to her. She calmly says she prefers plain tap water. I quickly go for a replacement, totally embarrassed that I didn’t think about where she lived, spent most of her time. Her years of research observing chimpanzees had been done in the forests of Africa. No ice cubes there.
I apologized for my ignorance and insensitivity. She smiled saying, “Please don’t concern yourself, it happens all the time.”
After telling her what an honor it had been to meet her, I excused myself and went back to my office to work. I was looking forward to her talk that evening at Florida International University.
Jane Goodall’s presentation was captivating. She talked about her research on the behavioral patterns of chimpanzees and what they taught her about conservation. Explaining the threats facing chimps and other environmental crises, she spoke with such conviction and urgency of protecting this one planet we all must share. The audience loved her and gave her a much-deserved standing ovation.
Staff members had been assigned to transition the members of the audience as they exited the auditorium. Our job was to direct people to various spots in the lobby; help them obtain more information, learn ways to donate to the Jane Goodall Institute, purchase her latest book, and wait in line to have her personally sign it.
I was to assist with the book signing process. Sitting at the table with Jane (as she had instructed me to call her), I briefed her on the process and we went to work.
Her job was to greet her fans and sign their books.
My role was to politely control the process so the signing wouldn’t last all night. I was to keep the line moving by informing people NICELY we wanted to respect Jane’s time so there would be no pictures and no hugs. Hoping kind words and a smile would keep the people happy and the line moving.
As she interacted with the people in line, I knew she was tired because it had been a long day, and Miami was only one stop on her lengthy U.S. tour.
There seemed to be no end to the line, but she signed the last book just as she had signed the first one. Her warm smile and her graciousness never wavered.
When the last book was signed, I got her a fresh glass of water, room temperature with no ice cubes this time. As she sipped her water, we had an opportunity to talk for a few minutes.
Said she had talked all day about her life, she was curious about me. She was full of questions. Where had I grown up? Did I have children? Was I a Florida native? What was I passionate about?
Tried to keep my answers brief, explaining my early childhood years had been spent on a farm running barefoot and playing outdoors. Recently relocated from the Cincinnati Zoo to my current position, I was homesick for my buddies at the zoo, my friends, and the neighborhood where I had lived for forty years. I was missing my family so much. Moving away from life as I knew it had been very difficult.
What was I passionate about? Words tumbled out of my mouth, “Always wanted to be a mom, be a teacher, and volunteer to make a difference. I’m just not sure I’ve figured out how I am to make a difference. Still trying to discover my purpose.”
Even though I knew her story, I didn’t really understand her world so what was I to say to her other than I admired her for making such an impact on the world? However, curiosity made me ask when she knew studying chimpanzees was to become her life’s work. Her answer was simple, “One day I just had a feeling that this was what I was meant to do.”
After signing my book and one for my animal-loving, book-loving daughter, I helped her pack up. Knew meeting her had been a once in a lifetime encounter. One that would not be repeated, but we had shared a brief connection. One I would never forget.
We wished each other well, said our goodbyes and she was gone.
Even though it was late when I got home, I called Tom who was still trying to get our house sold before he joined me in Florida. I told him of my experience and the dynamite Christmas gift for Sherry. Two nights before, he and Sherry had gone to see her speak in Cincinnati and had been blown away by her talk.
Meeting this amazing woman is still one of the coolest things that ever happened to me. I was inspired by her example. Learned so much from one brief conversation, looking into her eyes and knowing she was truly listening.
She taught significant lessons about the importance of being present, calm, peaceful, and living a commitment to creating good in the world.
Ending on a Positive Note: We learn from everyone we meet. Some of the lessons we learn stay with us for a lifetime because of their significance.