I had about 15 minutes. And I thought, as I have a thousand times, I should call J. And I thought, as I have a thousand times, It's been way too long since we've talked. I cannot call her for 15 minutes. And I thought, for once, Fuck it. I called. And we talked for 20 minutes and I was late to where I was going and I was so glad I called.
J is my most beloved how-to-lead-an-arts-organization mentor, a woman I lucked into working for during my years in Chicago in my 20's. I firmly believe I got a better education simply listening to her phone calls than I could have gotten in any classroom. I wasn't just eavesdropping. She actually asked me to come in and listen to her talk on the phone. I worked my ass off for J, and I also spent a lot of time listening to HER work. She wanted me to learn.
J is perhaps the first real adult person (who wasn't a family member) who believed in me deeply. As an artist and as a leader and as a person. Shit, I was 26 years old and she let me lead big sections of meetings with twelve artistic and managing directors around the table. We're talking about directors of companies like Hubbard Street Dance and Chicago Opera Theater and Joffrey Ballet coming together on a $65 million project. This was incredible trust--and willingness to help me sort it out if I screwed up. I suspect you know how rare and big and amazing that kind of trust is.
And yet. Until this week, I hadn't talked to J in years. Life happened. My dad died right after I moved back to North Carolina, I got a horrible flu the weekend the $65 million project had its grand opening back in Chicago, I had major romantic heartbreaks right in a row. So many things in my life were unraveling. Other than visiting her for two hours one quick time after she retired, I wasn't reaching out.
And then it had been too long.
So I sent Christmas cards.
Once, about three years ago, J ran into a friend of mine, and she sent me a note through the friend. In her inimitable handwriting, it said, "Honey, call home." I did. I left a message. She left a message back. I dropped the ball.
Today, I picked up the damn ball. The mushy dusty deflated embarrassing ball. I called J at the house she retired to in another state. And she answered the phone.
She remembered to ask specific things about my mother, she asked about writing and theatre and my creative work, she asked about my child. She told me her 81-year-old perspective on the state of the world, she told me she's gardening, she told me she's serving on Boards (and still generally kicking ass--my words). She told me, still, again, and in that specific way that is most meaningful to hear, that she believes in my creative work.
It took me years--YEARS--to let go of all the ways I couldn't make a perfect phone call and with the perfect amount of time and be a perfect protege who would make her perfectly proud.
Surely, I'm not the only one. Maybe you're holding yourself to some kind of perfection standard in reaching out to someone important in your life. Your eternal, in-your-head, weighing-on-your-heart to-do list has had "Make two hours to call X" or "Write X a long letter" or "Find a weekend to go visit X" on it for a really really long time. As I've written here, oh, at least 31 times: You are not alone.
What if you let it go? What if, instead, you pick up the phone imperfectly?
Because maybe, just maybe, you'll get to talk for 5 or 10 or 20 minutes. And then you'll get to hear some amazing human being say, "Honey, I love you" before you hang up the phone.
. . .
"Can you believe how long it's been? he asked her in amazement during their last Saturday-night tryst. I can believe it, she said sadly, pulling at the flesh of her stomach. We're clocks, Abelard. Nothing more. Abelard shook his head. We're more than that. We're marvels, mi amor."
--The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz