Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Feeling Connected to the Universe: My Circle of Life Day

One of my happiest sensations is feeling attuned to the universe. It can come about from a satisfying encounter with a friend -- a fun coffee break, a quick but mood-elevating accidental meeting on the street, or a long phone conversation during which each party listens and expresses in an equal and caring manner. I often glean this lift after positive exchanges with complete strangers. (It's one of the many reasons why I love traveling.) It could be learning that a Facebook friend whom I have never met ate lunch at the same chain restaurant as me clear on the other side of the country the same day I did. (It's one of the reasons why I love Facebook.) It could be thinking about a person from my past only to have that person contact me that day. Or it could be something very, very small like using an unusual word in conversation before hearing that word that evening in a TV commercial I'd never seen before.

These kinds of connections/coincidences and so, so many more happen to me very frequently. Though I am not attending a church at the present time, I consider myself a spiritual person and always have. I feel God -- someone else might call it Spirit, the Universe, what have you -- guiding, supporting, and protecting me.

Two days ago I experienced a day just bursting with synchronicity. It was my "Circle of Life Day" -- March 25, the day in 1995 my mother passed on and the day in 2006 my son Charlie was born. (Cue the soundtrack to The Lion King, please.) My mother didn't live long enough to meet her grandsons, and they are growing up without knowing their direct blood relatives in the older generation. Yet this is the day that links three generations of my family. This is the day that turned death into life.

For his seventh birthday, I had planned to take Charlie to New York City for the day. Since we live north of Boston, that's no easy task. But Charlie had been given an incredible chance in the Big Apple, and I wanted him to be able to accept it. On a Facebook page I'd joined for the parents of child actors and models in New England, I saw a notice about a casting for the advertising campaigns of two major clothing lines. Bolstered by my characteristic what-the-heck attitude that gets me both opportunities and trouble, I submitted three candid shots of Charlie from my iPhone. Lo and behold, didn't I receive an e-mail telling me to bring him to NYC for a brief photo session!

Let me make this perfectly clear: Charlie has NO modeling experience, NO headshots, NO resume, NO agent, NO NOTHING. Still, based on one photo she saw, a prolific college filmmaker asked him to audition for her latest indie project. Alas, due to the unrelenting series of snowstorms occurring EVERY WEEKEND the second half of this winter, we simply could not manage to get our physical bodies to Rhode Island to meet her. Needless to say, the part was given to another child who lives much closer.

Regarding the New York opportunity, our choices were to come that very day (Sunday) or the next day. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out it's pretty tough to pull together a trip to New York on just a couple of hours notice, so I opted for Monday. The weather was supposed to be lousy (a storm coming in, naturally!), and it was a school day. Yet it was also Charlie's birthday. Now I've learned that it's not uncommon for a parent to remove his or her child from school for a special treat the day of the birthday. Personally, I have never done such a thing, but this day looked to be the perfect chance. Seriously, how exciting would it be for a seven year old to take his first trip to the Big Apple on his birthday to try out for the first time with a hot casting director for two major jobs? Pretty darn exciting, that's how!

New York was my mother's city. She (like my father) grew up there, and they came back into the city to give birth to me after moving to the suburbs. My mother absolutely loved the city. She worked at Doubleday Books and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She loved the theater, the symphony, and art, art, art! I can't think about or visit the Big Apple without reminiscing about my mother.

This trip with Charlie would have been right up her alley -- not only because it involved her city but also because it involved modeling. Back in the day, she modeled hats for department stores such as Lord & Taylor and Bergdorf Goodman. She would have been very proud of Charlie for landing the audition.

Any other day pulling off such a feat as getting us down to the Big Apple on such short notice would have been near-miraculous. But on this day plans fell into place like never before. It seemed positively meant to be. First I reserved seats on the Bolt Buses that enabled us to arrive in a timely fashion and leave the audition without rushing. Next up: child care, always the stickiest piece of the puzzle for me. My older son would go to school, of course. But it didn't start early enough, and neither did the before-school program. So I had to find a family to take in Christopher at the crack of dawn. As Charlie and I would not be back for the 6 p.m. pickup from the after-school program, Chris also needed to go to someone's home afterward. And what if we were delayed? He might have to spend the night -- a school night, no less -- at that someone's home.

For mothers with family nearby, a simple phone call can be enough to fix this type of problem. But I don't have and never have had family to assist me with child care. If I was lucky enough to locate help, I expected that it would be split between two families: one each before and after school. Well, you can only imagine my SURPRISE, RELIEF, and JOY to get a YES to ALL OF IT from the very first mother I approached! As she had earlier asked me to accompany her son home from school that day, I had to get right back to her to inform her that would be impossible and actually I was in need of child care. She had just started a new, full-time job so was in some need herself. However, her father lives in the community next door. Plus, she has a husband. Compared to me, she's in much better shape care-wise.

This is really working out! I thought to myself after hearing from her. Truly shocked (but in a good way), I set about getting ready: doing laundry, picking out Charlie's audition clothes and a backup outfit, selecting Christopher's clothes for school the next day and the top and bottom I'd wear into the city, printing up the bus receipts, filling the gas tank, getting cash at the ATM, and packing a duffel bag for the trip.

The next morning I dropped Christopher off at the family's house at 6:41. I was running late from having spent too much time online trying to obtain directions to the Boston bus station's rooftop parking lot. I found the address and glanced over a map showing the congested streets near it, but I couldn't find actual directions to it. I didn't have time to call up Mapquest, yet honestly it didn't even occur to me because it was too early in the morning and my brain wasn't working properly. Indeed, it was disconcerting to think that I would be heading out without a clear idea of how I was going to get us to the parking lot on time! I'd been to it before, mind you. However, that was more than two years ago.

While driving to Boston, my mind ran amuck trying to figure out a Plan B if we missed the bus. I could try to get us seats on another bus, but there were several issues with this option. The buses from the various companies all seem to leave at roughly the same time, so missing one pretty much means missing all (or almost all). If I found a bus scheduled to leave a little later than ours, would it arrive in enough time for us to make the audition's three-and-half-hour window? We had to go way downtown to the tryout. Would any bus meeting our criteria have any available seats? I would have to shell out for two more round-trip tickets. They are not cheap! And the tickets I already had -- costing a total of $102 -- would go to complete waste unless Bolt offers compensation for missing a bus. I didn't know. Another option would be taking a train to the Big Apple, but the same concerns would apply. (The Boston train station happens to be conveniently located adjacent to the bus station.) Or I might have to drive. Argh. That would take just as long, and I would not be able to relax because I would be at the wheel! Where on earth would I park? I'd never in my life brought a vehicle into New York City and for good reason! It is NOT a car-friendly city. I could park at the Darien, Connecticut, train station, I thought. I knew this parking lot well from having grown up in Darien, which is a straight shot into the city. But what I didn't know was the Metro-North train schedule. I recall from years ago there being just one train per hour heading into Manhattan. If we failed to arrive at the right time, the journey could take an extra hour or so, possibly causing us to miss the audition window. What's more, we could very likely hit heavy traffic on our way to Darien. There were plenty of opportunities for that driving through Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport on the busy I-95 corridor. Conclusion: being late for our bus would be an utter disaster. I couldn't let that happen.

So I plugged along, talked to the other drivers ("Come on, come on! Are you kidding me? NO, NO, NO!"), and prayed FERVENTLY. ("Please, God, we can't be late. We need to make this bus! We need to make this bus!") At the Sumner Tunnel, I asked the tollbooth lady to tell me the exit "for the bus station and 93 South." I expected her to say "the South Station exit" and give me the number. (I really only wanted to know the number.) But she answered "Government Center." Argh. Not what I wanted to hear because now I was confused! I didn't have time to discuss this any further. Plus, a long line of cars waited behind me. It was rush hour after all. So off I went, taking the Government Center exit as instructed. Immediately, I was confronted with the first of countless detour signs. Great, just what I needed! I had forgotten about them, but now it was all coming back to me. The traffic pattern in this area of Boston was and still is a complete mess. It took all my concentration to follow these blasted signs through the maze leading to 93 South. Somehow I managed it and soon reached the South Street exit. The problem: the bus departure time was fast approaching. It was 8:10 at this point; the bus left at 8:30. I still had to get through traffic and lights then find and park in that rooftop lot whose location was HAZY in my mind. Charlie and I also had to load up on snacks for the four-a-quarter-hour-long trip to New York. This latter task was absolutely crucial because sitting for so long next to Charlie (or any other young child, for that matter) with only one nut bar in my purse would be a nightmare. (Charlie ate a different bar during the drive.)

By the grace of God, I am thrilled to report, I succeeded in covering the remaining half a dozen or so blocks. At one of the last intersections, I was convinced I was supposed to turn left. But there was a no-left-turn sign in front of me and no way to stay straight. The driver behind me obnoxiously honked at my hesitation and slow-to-come decision to turn right and pull over. But I had no choice. There was nowhere else to go! As I sat idling next to the curb, my heart thumped inside my turquoise down jacket and my brain felt like it was going to explode. Seconds away from dropping my face in my hands and bawling, I noticed at the next light a sign way up high pointing the way to "South Station parking."

It was a beacon from God!

I couldn't believe it. I had done it. We weren't on the bus yet, but I had FOUND THE LOT. Next I launched into prayer aimed at finding a SPACE in the lot. One thing at a time, one thing at a time. Done. "Quick, Charlie, to the elevator!" (Lucky for me, my younger son is a seriously fast sprinter. Boy, was I grateful for that on this day!) Honey Dew Donuts. Ten minutes and counting. Two donuts, one bagel, one muffin, and three drinks. Awesome. Running to the bus gate. The other passengers had already boarded. OMG, made it! The bus pulled out of its space. We had literally TWO MINUTES to spare!

Settling into my seat, I couldn't help but marvel at how amazing it was that we were sitting on the bus. Truly, it was one of my closest calls ever for such a costly and exciting or important commitment. I felt led to that rooftop parking lot just as I was about to give up. My correct decisions under extreme pressure to turn right here and left there reminded me of another time in my life when I absolutely made the right split-second call under the gun, quite literally.

I was in Kathmandu, Nepal, in the spring of 1990 when the country was embroiled in a democracy revolution. My traveling partner chose to stay back at our hotel during a day of protests; I willingly hit the streets. By 11 a.m. the throng of demonstrators shouting "WE WANT DEM-O-CRA-CY!" (in English to garner the world's attention) had reached into the thousands and filled the narrow streets. Looking around I grew concerned about how this would end. I remember thinking: People are not going to just go home at the end of the day. Something bad is going to happen. I stepped away from the protest to return to the neighborhood of my hotel. I needed a break and to find some lunch. A couple of hours later, I was ready to return to the streets. Being a former news reporter, I like to be at the center of the action . . . or on the periphery anyway. It wasn't difficult finding the crowd. I just followed the noise. At an intersection with the main road leading to King Birenda's palace, I saw to my left a line of police officers and military wielding guns; to my right, the advancing protesters. They were mostly Nepalese, but scattered foreigners were among them. Joining ranks with the protesters would have come naturally to me since I had marched with them that morning. Instead, I turned left and took my place directly behind the men with the weapons. Soon after the protesters reached the uniformed officers. Small skirmishes broke out, and tear gas was shot into the air. Everyone nearby must have felt the sting enter their throats and nostrils. I certainly did. The demonstrators momentarily backed off but did not give up. They regrouped and continued to push toward the palace gates. Tear gas was shot off two more times before I decided that the situation was getting too hairy for me. I retreated and returned to my hotel. I later learned about the Tiananmen Square-type incident that followed. One hundred or so people, including tourists like myself, were killed in the conflict outside the palace. That afternoon I made two good decisions: to fall back behind the armed men and to leave the area before I got hurt or worse. When telling this story -- and I rarely get the opportunity these days -- I always describe my first decision as completely instinctual. No conscious thought went into making it. I saw the two groups of people then without hesitation walked toward one, stationing myself out of harm's way. To this day, I get the chills when I think about that day. I have a strong sense that I was being guided and shielded by God.

Though the circumstances were infinitely less dire this week, the feeling of being led was no less strong.

Charlie was a champ the entire ride to New York. We talked, looked out the window, and he played Minecraft on my iPad. Once again it was a case of Thank You, Technology! (See blog post by that name, 6/9/12.) I wanted him to rest or fall asleep. But he was too busy constructing a house made of butter in lightning speed, hanging paintings on every square inch of the yellow walls, and blasting them to bits with arrows.


The day was wet and cloudy, yet we made it to the city twenty-five minutes ahead of schedule. That enabled us to eat a leisurely lunch and clean up before hailing a taxi downtown. The Freedom Tower at Ground Zero loomed outside our foggy windows as we sped by. We arrived right at the start of the day's audition session. I signed in, and Charlie was immediately photographed "six or seven times," he said. That was it. With time to spare, we walked a couple of blocks to the South Street Seaport. I took some rainy-day snapshots. We wandered through a few shops. And we sipped mango smoothies overlooking the gray East River. Then I realized something was missing. My duffel bag. My panic attack started to return as I racked my brain about where I could have left it. Let me tell you: not much makes me crazier than losing my belongings or my kids' belongings, even if they were just a spare child-size outfit, one raincoat, and lunch leftovers. (See Hunter-Downer Mom, 3/21/12.) Back to the seaport shops we'd just visited. Not there. Back to the audition location. Found it!

No one was being photographed when we walked in, so the impromptu visit gave me a chance to chat with the casting director. He had just been to Boston visiting two modeling agencies, he said. He asked me why Charlie didn't have an agent. He seemed genuinely interested in my son and wanted to know if we would be willing to travel to New York City for jobs. We didn't talk long, but it was a good conversation. I left the building with a spring in my step from the insight I'd gained.

Like the others, this turn of events struck me as serendipitous -- as though Charlie and I were being watched over from Above.

Now I don't harbor ANY expectations that my son will be picked from the thousands of kids being considered for the two advertising campaigns. It bears repeating: unlike most (if not all) of the other child candidates, Charlie has no agent, no headshots, no resume, no experience, no nothing. If, by some quirk of nature, Charlie IS tapped, it would be akin to Lana Turner getting signed by MGM while sipping a drink at a soda fountain.

We still had a little time remaining before boarding the bus but not enough for a museum visit. The weather prevented stopping by a park, and walking just for the fun of it would also be out of the question. So I decided we would just make our way back uptown. We'd have no trouble flagging a taxi outside the photo-shoot location, I'd been told. Of course, we then did have trouble. Leaping over puddles at intersections, Charlie and I hoofed it many blocks before I managed to spot a cab. Back at the bus stop, we once again stocked up on provisions. Then we hung out at Chipotle. Adam Lambert's "If I had You" came over the sound system. I was dumbfounded. Rarely do I hear this rendition anymore because it is a few years old. But when I do, I take note. It is the song I choreographed a dance to for Christopher when he landed his own modeling/acting contract a couple of years ago. (That one turned out to be a scam.)What a coincidence to hear it this day! I thought. I took some last pictures to memorialize our trip before Bolt Bus brought us safely back to Boston, though one hour late due to heavy traffic at rush hour.

During the return journey, I checked in on Christopher. Turns out my older son had been coughing up a storm. If he vomited, he would be sent back to me for the night. Otherwise, he could sleep on a pull-out couch at the home of the family helping me. Bless his soul, he got through the night episode-free.Thank you, Christopher!

I had been very nervous about the weather. I hate to drive in poor conditions, especially on a highway and with another person at the controls. I had chosen seats in the middle of the bus to New York and back. Charlie wanted the open front seat with the clear view of the highway, but I said no. I didn't tell him why. In addition to being concerned about the bus trips, I was slightly on edge about the return drive from the bus station to our home. The weather was supposed to be worse later in the day, and it looked like I might encounter a mixture of rain and snow at a fairly late hour in the dark.

The driving turned out to be a breeze! The roads were dry. The traffic was light. I made record time. Feeling protected again!

I turned on the TV back at home. Nancy Pelosi was on the news celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act. The links with my past just kept on coming! In early 1995, I utilized the FMLA to take care of my then-ailing mother. Like the Adam Lambert song, I can't remember when it last crossed my mind.

Still high from the New York experience and profoundly grateful for Charlie's terrific behavior under tough circumstances, the next day I called up the casting director's website. In my haste to plan the trip, I had neglected to check out his work. So I scrolled down the home page filled with male and female high-fashion models posing for GQ, Details, and Interview magazines with cars and bicycles and while arm wrestling or standing in a police lineup. And there, off to the right, in the only photograph featuring children, was Charlie's doppelgänger. I mean DOPPELGANGER. I was flabbergasted! Despite wearing large dark-rimmed glasses (the product he was modeling), he had the same face, same hair, and same smile as my younger son. He even looked the same age. No wonder the casting director liked Charlie!

What a day it had been! What connections! What similarities! What fortuitous events! It was a hard day, a very trying day. But it was MY kind of day because I felt completely in harmony with the universe, God, my mother, and my son.

It was a perfect Circle of Life Day.

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