Long post ahead. Also, this is part of a larger piece of writing I am working on, so know that a few things might feel out of context. I think it will all explain itself if you read to the end. And if you don’t, your life will likely go on just fine, so win-win either way!
For the past two years in March, I have gone to Washington, DC to attend the Americans for the Arts conference. I stay with my friend Ellen in her great big beautiful house near the National Cathedral, and I enjoy much of the art that the city has to offer.
This past March, the trip got a little topsy turvey because Ellen had to be unexpectedly out of town the entire time I was there. While I never did get to see Ellen, despite staying in her house, she connected me to her friend Glen. Glen is retired, after a successful legal career, and now serves on the board of Americans for the Arts, so meeting him was a piece of cake since we were both at the conference anyway.
Gotta love when the Universe makes it easy, don’t ya?
At any rate, Glen, for no reason beyond Ellen asking him to, took the time to meet me and to learn about me.
What was so lovely about Glen was that he didn’t speak at me or to me; he spoke with me. He asked me questions about myself and then just sat back and listened. He never one time mansplained anything to me—not once!
He told me a few stories about himself but more for context than for the shock and awe another man of his stature might have expected…and quite frankly demanded.
Oh patriarchy, you are incorrigible!
We laughed about some experiences I had had that would have been completely different for him, what with my multiple state school degrees and his Ivy League ones, and me being a “she” and he being the much more correct “he.” And then let’s not forget that I am a lowly arts advocate who runs a nonprofit in the middle of nowhere, and he has been an attorney at some major national institutions in Washington, DC. You can imagine that Glen would garner more attention and respect than I would from, say, an event like Renaissance Weekend (not the giant turkey leg kind of Renaissance weekend, but an Ivy league, intellectual gathering of extremely important people. Just ask them, they’ll be so happy to tell you just how important they each are).
More on that later!
I immediately clicked with Glen, which was good because I was meeting him minutes after the biggest, most recent, confirmation that I must be a total loser.
The Universe really seems to enjoy hurling me emotionally about, kind of just to see what I am made of. Most days, I’m made of some pretty kick ass material, and I win the match. But the days that I don’t, the days that the Universe says, “I’ve geared up for this one.” are brutal.
This was one of those days.
The better way to tell this story is to share a series of emails between Glen and me…and a surprise guest or two.
I’m going to take a big personal risk here and get a little spiritual (NOT organized religion!). Get comfortable—this is a bit of a long story.
I was a single mom for the first 12 years of my son, Quinn’s, life. We were poor—lived in income-based housing poor. And while they weren’t the projects of a big city, they also weren’t the cream of the crop living accommodations, as you might imagine.
At any rate, The Prince of Egypt came out in 1998, about 10 months after we had moved into that apartment. I was absolutely fixated on “Through Heaven’s Eyes” because when I had found myself pregnant, I was doing summer stock theatre in Southern Utah in 1995 (that’s a whole other story I will save for an in person meeting with a nice bottle of wine!). At any rate, when I called my parents to see if I would go to hell if I had an abortion, my beloved (and progressive if there is such a thing) Catholic stepdad said, “D, you won’t go to hell, but a baby is like a thread in a tapestry, and every thread that’s removed weakens the tapestry as a whole. You are the only one who can speak for the little person, but you need to do what you need to do.”
I remember being in the theatre to see The Prince of Egypt, a few years later, and that song absolutely wrecked me, and inspired me, to my very core. The whole movie really moved me, to be honest. At any rate, that song became my anthem. I was the single thread, the stone at the bottom of the mountain, and I couldn’t see my value, but I trusted that I had more to offer than I could understand at the time.
I clung to that song.
Fast forward to yesterday. Shortly before we met, I received an email that I had not been selected to receive a Fellowship from a major Foundation in Minneapolis (I was in the top 35 of 687 applicants, but they only fund the top 24). Suddenly, I was back in a very similar spot, wondering what my value was, where I fit.
And then I met you, and for whatever reason (I imagine because Ellen asked you to), you took an interest in me. And then I heard Brian Stokes Mitchell sing (at an event for AFTA honoring Rita Moreno), and then you introduced him to me today. I was almost mute with the awe of meeting the man whose voice and lyrics literally carried me through some very difficult times.
Thank you for enthusiastically embracing me yesterday and this morning. Thanks for introducing me to “Stokes,” and for making me feel valuable. I’m typically a pretty “put together” person, but these last two days have tried my emotions. In so many ways, I will always feel like and be the shepherd “boy” and not the richest king, but I will also always remember listening to that song, in my little apartment, and believing that there was more for me somewhere out there. And I will always tie that to Brian Stokes Mitchell. And now, I will also tie that hope to you.
No need to respond—what could you possibly say to this? Just wanted you to know that you were a really important glimmer in a very dark moment, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.
I do hope (and intend) to stay in touch with you.
Thanks for doing what you couldn’t possibly have even known you were doing—sometimes we are allowed to be handmaids to the Universe, and this was one of those times!
And I went to bed, overwhelmed by the grief at losing the Fellowship and amazed to have met both these men and to be in Ellen’s house alone in DC and to have had the time to write so many thoughts and to have seen Rita Moreno and Sonia Sotomayor and to be a mess of a middle aged woman and to…
This wasn’t lying on an exam table looking at that grainy lima bean-shaped heartbeat, but I felt exactly as vulnerable and devastated and hopeless. My tears, again, soaked the this time lovely, not at all flat pillow, before I drifted off to a restless night of sleep.
In the dark of morning, about 4 am, I was up to get ready for my flight, and this was waiting for me.
Thanks so much for the trust you’ve shown by sharing your story with me. Given the very self-assured woman I met on Monday, I am, on one hand, surprised to learn your background. On the other hand, I’m not at all surprised in light of what you’ve successfully overcome. (Your experience at the Renaissance Weekend has even greater significance to me now.) If Quinn was paying attention growing up, I imagine that he has the same strength of character that you clearly have.
When I offered to introduce you to Stokes, I figured that, like many others in the room, you were simply a fan. Now that I know your very personal connection to him (or, at least, to “Jethro”), I’m so happy that I did. May I have your permission to share your email with him? No wrong answer here. If you prefer that I not, I certainly won’t. But knowing him as I do, I think he’d be touched by the impact that song had on you.
I do hope you plan to stay in touch.
By all means share away. Too often, people have no idea how they influence others. It’s a gift to hear that, and I’m happy for him to know.
And I boarded a flight for Minneapolis. Again, I had been immersed in a kind of bubble these last five days. Disappointment certainly entered the atmosphere, but it was buffered by kindness and mystery.
So much of my life has been this way, and I still can’t unpack it to understand why, despite digging around to find the answers.
The Universe almost always gives to and takes from me in such rapid succession that it leaves me breathless and unsure of where I stand.
And then I landed in the Minneapolis airport to this.
Dayna – your message that you sent to Glen that he passed on to me made my day.
Thank you so much for sharing your heart and soul- not only in the message, but with others. If your experience doesn’t attest to the power of the arts, I don’t know what does.
I believe there are no accidents in life.
Even your not getting the grant will lead you to something else that can take you on an even grander journey. Life is mysterious.
With your permission I would love to pass your message onto Stephen Schwartz, the composer and lyricist of Prince of Egypt. I think your message will make his day too.
It was great meeting you.
Here’s wishing you many blessings and great joy on your journey,
I read and re-read that email. I’m not a famous person chaser; In fact, I tend to shy away from them when I do have the opportunity to meet them. I feel awkward and don’t know what to say.
In this case, meeting Stokes had sent me reeling to all kinds of personal insecurities. When I retold this story, people said, “Did you tell him how much you loved The Prince of Egypt?
I didn’t. How could I explain to a complete stranger, someone whose voice had given spark to words that had helped save me time and time again, what that had meant without sounding like a completely crazy person?
And what, pray tell, could he possibly have said to that?
I felt like my niece, who, when an actress playing Anna from Frozen showed up for her fourth birthday, burst in to tears. It was simply too much for her little brain and emotions to manage.
But I didn’t cry in front of him, and I didn’t tell him that he had had a profound effect on my life, and I didn’t really say much of anything at all.
And it turns out I didn’t need to tell him all that in person, because he found out anyway.
Well Stokes, to say that I am stunned by this response is the understatement of my day, year, maybe decade.
I’m sitting in the Minneapolis airport, and my mouth is almost on the floor. I desperately wish I could tell my 24-year old self, watching that movie, that she would one day be responding to an email from the man who has that glorious voice. Unbelievable.
Please share it with Mr. Schwartz with my deep gratitude for his inspired writing. It, he and you, had such a profound effect on my life.
Eternal gratitude to you for this note and for your talent. I hope to meet you again some day along our journey.
Why yes, I do call him Stokes now. You know, because we’re email friends. And because he now knows what he meant to me, and because he also now knows that I’m still the stupid mess I was all those years ago, except in a completely different way, which is both tragic and typical.
Thanks, Dayna. I know Stephen will be so pleased to read it.
Until next time-
I’m sorry to ruin the phenomenal chain of this, but Stephen Schwartz did not write back.
Although as Lester (my best friend from college who will get her own posts later) said, “Don’t be surprised if Stokes and Stephen write to ask about doing a musical about you. The Universe is like that!”
She’s big on the Laws of Attraction, which is not to say that I am not, but I don’t know that I can go quite that far. I mean, sure, these essays are pretty interesting and even amusing in places, but a whole musical? That might be just too big a stretch.
But I think the Universe and I drew on this one. So there’s that.