I stood in a park on a fall day, leaves a kaleidoscope of colors around me. I held a bouquet of burgundy flowers in front of my simple black dress, a gold ribbon wrapped around my waist. In front of me two of my dearest friends sniffled, trying to hold back a river of emotion, clutching the tissues they’d secretly wrapped around the stems of the flowers they also held. A third dear friend with hair the color of flame wore a white dress and said “I do” to a man who had won her heart.
Afterwards, there was music and dancing, the forest floor a stage, the sky a ceiling. We ate cookies instead of cake — chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal, and toffee. I snapped a picture of the bride with her head thrown back, laughing as the groom twirled her around during their first dance. It’s the closest I’ve come to witnessing a fairy tale.
Those moments don’t come often in life, the ones full of holy magic and wild wonder, the sort that make you want to ease time down to a trickle and let it run over your hands, your heart slowly, slowly. As I breathed in the scent of campfires and sugar my mind drifted back to another moment, years ago, that felt entirely different.
It happened during a year when I’d gotten on a plane twenty times, when peanuts and pretzels in little packages felt like a solid meal. It came during a season where I cried in hotel bathrooms and stared at the ceiling at midnight. It snuck up on me when, if I wasn’t traveling, I spent most of my time looking into a computer screen. The world felt flat and pixelated, the desire to prove myself in some mysterious way a constant drumbeat in my weary bones.
One day I went to coffee with the bride — although it would be years before she took on that role. Months had somehow slipped by without a meaningful conversation between us. I’d been distracted and exhausted, distant and a bit depressed. She sat across from me and pulled a letter from her purse. It said many kind and beautiful things. But they all came down to this: She loved me, and she missed me.
I felt like the Apostle Paul with the scales falling off my eyes. I could suddenly see what all my hustling had done to the people closest to me. Later, in the car on the drive home I told myself things had to change.
I’d like to say the alterations were easy. But I was hooked on approval like an addict in a dark alley, every round of applause or “like” on social media another hit. I felt the withdrawals of saying “no” to good opportunities, of choosing to be present in my everyday life where I was quite ordinary rather than on a stage where no one could see my flaws. I worried that I wasn’t keeping up or that I was letting everyone down.
But slowly the shift began to happen. I began to breathe. I felt the exhaustion start to evaporate. I rediscovered my laugh and how it felt to wake up on a Saturday morning in my own bed. I fell in love with the people around me all over again — husband, daughter, friends.
At one point during the wedding day the bride grabbed me by the elbow, pulled me close and whispered into my ear, “Thank you for everything you’ve been to me. I love you.” I felt almost undone with gratitude that she had chosen to speak truth to me years ago, to not just let me go. I looked around again at the leaves, at my closest friends with the sun on their faces and cookies in their hands, at the flower girl spinning in her dress, arms up to the sky, at all I could have missed. I thought to myself, “You just can’t do this on social media.”
I have learned this: We can’t be all things to all people. But we can be something to someone. It is our privilege and joy and duty to decide who those someones will be. On a beautiful autumn afternoon I celebrated with one of mine — bride, friend, sister of my heart. I felt so thankful she’d stood by me and that on this day she let me stand by her.