Yesterday was a fascinating day at work.
All the students were doing standardized testing and I was stationed in the library.
Toward the end of the day, I went in search of the librarian so I could check out a biography about photographer Diane Arbus.
Both of us were new to the school this year and this was the first chance I had to talk with her. We struck up a conversation and I was completely transfixed for the next 30 minutes.
During the winter break, “A” had gone by herself to one of her favorite places in the world, Death Valley. She rented a Jeep, and had her laptop, a tent, a camera, a sleeping bag, some books, and a bunsen burner with which to cook food.
For an entire week, she barely saw another human being as she drove and hiked all over the desert. She slept either in her tent or locked inside her jeep.
The photos she showed me from her journey were filled with the astonishing, stark beauty of the desert. They transported me from cold and snowy New England to the blazing sunshine, gorgeous sands, and snow capped mountains of Death Valley.
But what really amazed me was how utterly fearless this woman is. She is barely five feet tall and so tiny that I felt like a giant standing next to her even though I am a small-boned, slim woman. The sheer force of her personality belied her small stature and her face glowed with the inner light of one who is determined to live the life out of each day she is given.
She had first discovered Death Valley by accident. Wanting to explore someplace new several years ago, she did a search to discover how far away from New England she could fly for the cheapest price. That search yielded Las Vegas, which held no attraction for her at all. So she decided to use Las Vegas as her home base and explored where she could drive from that city. She finally settled on Death Valley.
So she flew to Vegas, rented a car, and set out to Death Valley for the first time, armed only with the basic necessities and a map. It was love at first sight and she travels back there every chance she gets.
I asked her if she was afraid being out in the vast wilderness by herself and she immediately said no, not for one second. What was there to be afraid of?
I could immediately think of a few things: Wild animals. People with nefarious intentions. Illness. Mechanical problems.
But she had no fear. She loved being alone surrounded by such incredible beauty and was totally at peace with her own thoughts.
She then began to show me photos from other trips she had taken around the world, some with her family and some alone. The pictures were mesmerizing, filled with color, adventure, and wonder. “A” had taken several selfies at many of these places, revealing the wide smile of someone in love with life.
Further conversation revealed that her life has not been an easy one. She was a young single mother at one time, working at odd jobs and finally forced to go on government assistance for a season in order to survive. She was raised by her mentally ill mother and one of her siblings is a drug addict. Eventually, she got her degree in education and was recently named Teacher of the Year. She has even given a TED talk!
As I walked out of school yesterday, I was reminded anew that every single human being we come in contact with is a wonder. Everyone has a story and it is never what we think it is. People are endlessly fascinating.
Quick exercise: when you hear the term “librarian” what comes to mind? Most likely you listed terms such as: quiet, boring, mousy, shy, nose always in a book, ultra-serious, maybe a bit stern.
“A” is none of those things. She shatters every single stereotype people have about librarians.
Our relatively brief conversation inspired me to more fully pursue the things that make me come alive; challenged me to be more intentional about facing my fears and finding exhilaration on the other side; and encouraged me to guard against my tendency to label, my maddening ability to assume that I know the story.
Take the time to get to learn the stories of the people you work and live with. Be humble. Never make assumptions.
Every single person you meet has something to teach you.
“I am not what you see.
I am what time and effort and interaction slowly unveil.” —Richelle E. Goodrich