More Than A Memento

© Tonya Rieley Hengerer

In life, we often go through our days interacting with others, but not really connecting.  It’s just the way it is.  Most days we are busy, stressed, and distracted–replaying yesterday and worrying about tomorrow.  It can be difficult to be in the moment, to observe and listen, to be present–to look and actually see.  Not that we mean to or want to, but sometimes we operate on a superficial level.  This is partly because we are so engaged in our own worlds, disconnected and unable to relate to something outside of ourselves.

I’m reminded of an experience I had this summer while visiting my most favorite place–England.  My husband and I were spending the day in a Cotswolds market town in Gloucestershire, a charming place with honey-colored, stone architecture and baskets full of colorful, cascading flowers adorning the front of every other building.  As we made our way along the busy street, a courtyard with shops and galleries caught our attention.  We walked into the brightly lit space, sunlight streaming down from the skylights above, illuminating the shops before us.  I immediately noticed the simple but stunning jewelry in one of the galleries.  I walked in and began to browse.  My gaze landed on an understated, wide, silver band with an anticlastic shape.  It was lovely.  I wanted to try it on, but I didn’t see anyone.  I looked across the hallway, and sitting opposite the gallery, in a studio, was the artist.  She was petite with short, blonde hair–maybe in her mid to late forties, an attractive woman.  She was sitting, bent over her wooden, work table with a giant light craning over her.  She wore some sort of head-gear with a magnifier on it.  I walked over.  “Hi, I’m sorry to disturb you, but could I try on one of your rings?” I asked.    She looked up with kind eyes and a warm smile.  “Of course,” she answered.  She stood up and came over, pausing  a minute to clean the silver tarnish from her hands, before handing me the ring.  I tried it on; and, it fit perfectly.  “I’ll take it,” I said.

As she prepared and wrapped the ring for me to purchase, I commented that her jewelry was beautiful and asked how she started working in this medium.  I was expecting a one or two-line reply, but what I got instead was one of the most powerful and meaningful interactions that I’d ever had with another person.  She began speaking to me as if I were a confidant, someone she’d known for years.  She was dignified and comfortable in the unfolding of her answer to my question.

She shared that she’d worked in the healthcare field, been married to her husband for close to 20 years and had two children.  Then one day, her husband asked for a divorce; she was devastated.  She went on to confide that she had emotionally spiraled into a dark place, having a nervous breakdown and becoming anorexic.  The words she was saying were not congruent with the healthy, self-assured woman standing before me.  I listened, but shifted uncomfortably.  “Why was she telling me this?” I wondered.  The answer: Because I had asked.

She went on to share her story and lay herself bare in this real and raw way.  She explained that during her recovery, she struggled with obsessive thoughts about food.  Initially, she was only surviving on fewer than 100 calories a day.  “It’s really counterintuitive.  You’d think if you were anorexic, you wouldn’t think about food; but it’s not so.  I thought about it constantly,” she said.

Her therapist suggested a hobby that would be engaging in order to distract her mind from the relentless thoughts about food.  So, the idea of working with precious metals and making jewelry was born.  She went on to tell me of the endless days that she’d sit, working, creating–thoughts of food inundating her waking hours.  That is until one day.  It was just another day of obsessive thoughts bombarding her tired mind, when she realized that 30 seconds had passed, and she hadn’t even thought about food.  She had become totally engrossed in her work–completely in the moment.   It was a small victory, but something on which she could build.  She continued on her path of recovery, saying her art was her salvation.  She had suffered and struggled, but she was steadily rebounding.  She kept working, day after day, determined to overcome the obsessive thoughts that had her in their grip.  Then, it happened again.  She was creating a piece of jewelry and realized that she was smiling.  And it hit her:  she was so immersed in the moment, in the pleasure and peace of creating, that she hadn’t thought about food for quite a while.

I stood there, listening to this woman who had been a stranger to me only minutes earlier, a light of truth radiating from her.  I felt incredibly moved, not only by her story, but by the way in which she shared it, without ceremony or airs, but sincerely, matter-of-factly, and without apologies.  Empathy and admiration for this person overwhelmed me, and I was compelled to reach out in some manner.  I stepped forward and put my arms around her.  She acknowledged the moment and said that sharing her story was part of her ongoing recovery.  She assured me that she was fine now;  she was healthy, happily re-married, her children in college and her jewelry in demand.

The visit was drawing to a close.  As we chatted, she proceeded to place the carefully wrapped box with the ring into a bag, adding her card and a piece of candy.  She handed it to me and smiled.  I smiled back, thanked her and said good-bye.  This unusual, spontaneous and fleeting moment of connection was over.  As I walked away, a sea of emotion flooded over me.  Having just listened to this woman’s poignant journey and witnessed her triumph, the enormity of it struck me; and I wept.

Here’s the thing:  At one time or another, most of us have found ourselves in a dark place of sorts.  This woman suffered and struggled, but she had made her way back to herself.  I felt a strong sense of compassion and respect for her.  It was her resilience and grace that she so effortlessly conveyed that was immensely stirring.  I’m grateful that I walked into her gallery that day.  She transformed the simple act of buying a holiday memento into a spiritual experience, a routine interaction into a moment of connection with another human being that I would not soon forget.

I wear the ring that she made nearly everyday.  It’s not a particularly expensive or flashy ring.  Its value lies more in what it symbolizes to me:  a reminder to be in the moment, to try not to worry, and most importantly–to really see the people around me.  Also, remembering that we don’t ever know what private battle someone may be waging, but hopefully winning, because we took the time to care.

fourth generation farmgirl

In life, we often go through our days interacting with others, but not really connecting.  It’s just the way it is.  Most days we are busy, stressed, and distracted–replaying yesterday and worrying about tomorrow.  It can be difficult to be in the moment, to observe and listen, to be present–to look and actually see.  Not that we mean to or want to, but sometimes we operate on a superficial level.  This is partly because we are so engaged in our own worlds, disconnected and unable to relate to something outside of ourselves.

I’m reminded of an experience I had this summer while visiting my most favorite place–England.  My husband and I were spending the day in a Cotswolds market town in Gloucestershire, a charming place with honey-colored, stone architecture and baskets full of colorful, cascading flowers adorning the front of every other building.  As we made our way along the…

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