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Why I stopped trying to turn my mistake into a perfect redemption story

I flew from New York to Miami for a conference that forgot to show up. Here's what I learned.

It was the heart plummeting, gut wrenching stuff of work anxiety nightmares: I flew from New York to Miami for a conference that forgot to show up. It took until 8 pm in my hotel the night before I thought the conference started for me to realize that it was not that weekend. 

My mind did a million quick—if flawed—hail mary calculations. Might there be a different similarly niche conference that happened to be in Miami this very same weekend? 

Oh but wait: my Grandpa happens to be turning 90 this weekend on the west coast of Florida… I could rent a car and drive across the Everglades to celebrate! Now that was what would make this undoubtedly positive. That was what would quiet the questions. But I didn’t go. He got my voicemail a full 24 hours late, his wife was injured, and it just didn’t work.

While I was grasping at Cinderella endings, I still managed to do my first thing right after a very dramatic wrong: I owned it and communicated the steps I planned to take so that my office wouldn’t have to feel the mistake. And thank goodness for humans who give other people the space to be human, because they reacted to that news beautifully. 

But after a few emails and phone calls, I still woke up on Saturday alone in Miami feeling like I had no right to be there. 

A brief aside: for better or for worse, I am a New Yorker. I am a perpetual speed walker and public transit loyalist; I can name every stop on the 1 train and I’ve walked Manhattan from its northern tip to its southern tip twice. In NYC, walking is my sense of agency.

Ah, my Miami self thought, maybe walking will be my salvation and my re-written positive. I, confident solo NYC female, will walk an impressive amount of this tropical city. Who knows what I’ll find. 

What I found, it turns out, was that people in Miami walk within neighborhoods but not between them. The City of Miami would really rather I drive across the river to Little Havana. But—ha!—a curious side staircase orphaned in the middle of some grass! The steps lead to a narrow pedestrian path that starts part-way across a bridge! Here at last, I thought, was my metaphor. Cue voiceover: she had found her bridge against all odds. But wait, there’s more! It’s a drawbridge. And—oh no, oh lord, *rip headset off and yell CUT*—it is starting to beep, and maybe even starting to OPEN, and now that I think about it there are no cars driving across and a figure in that booth over there is frantically waving me away. Retreat! Avoid eye contact with the drivers, hurry back down the path and the stairs and the moat of grass that was probably a sign that no one takes this bridge. 

Miami, if you’re listening, I’ll do you a solid: that staircase is a liability and should not be open to unsuspecting pedestrians if it’ll let them out onto the drawbridge past the signals that tell them whether the bridge is open for crossing. You’re asking for a lawsuit. 

But alas, it did and I took it and had to walk it back in full view of people calmly following the directions of a Miami Saturday. I didn’t tumble into a river and face a harrowing swim across, mostly I just continued and eventually got to Little Havana just in time for the rain. 

That night I returned to my hotel with a step count just shy of ten miles. “Ten! It has to be ten. Ten will sound so good, so solid, so complete.” Out I went to the hotel’s oddly triangular 27th floor corridor to bring the 9.9 mile count up to 10—a painfully stubborn attempt to write the perfect redemption narrative even as it was happening. 

I sensed the futility as I hoped that no one was looking out their hotel room peephole. I began to feel that looking too hard for the good is its own straightjacket. The blissfully unaware night before Miami, I heard Lindy West apply a similar phenomenon to the body positive movement: yes, all bodies are beautiful, and we want everyone to love them. But if they don’t love them, do they end up perceiving that as yet another failure—replacing (or adding to) the Failure to Have The Perfect Body with the Failure to Be Body Positive? 

The night of the ten-mile step count I went back out to see some of Miami’s public art. The rain hadn’t let up, and there was barely anyone at Wynwood Walls. I Facetimed my sister. I saw a gallery exhibit featuring one of my favorite muralists. And my shoulders started to untense. I felt lighter not because it—It, IT, this godforsaken trip—had become an unequivocal good, but because it didn’t need to.

The little moments of that trip ranged from the comically surreal to the seasonal purists’ cardinal sin: I watched chickens cross the road and asked them why (#dadjokes); I watched a Hallmark Christmas movie alone on November 9th. And the plot thickened as I found I’d been looking not just for the perfect buttoned-up story, but for signs from above or beyond or outside that this was meant to be happening. The chickens, the drawbridge before it opened, my Grandpa’s birthday party before it didn’t work out, the sign at a gallery that yelled COURAGE in neon: my permission from the universe to let this be happening. 

The problem with assigning external validation is that it leaves no impetus for me to assert my own power. The truest and most reliable power source was to be found in acknowledging that my mistake-laden weekend was valid even without divine providence. I arrived less firmly at “everything happens for a reason” than at that baffling Oscar Gamble quote, “they don’t think it be like it is, but it do.” Sometimes it just do. 

We don’t get to write perfect redemption narratives. We don’t get to turn all our “bads” into goods. We write imperfect narratives. They’re written in our actions, but mostly in our reactions—whether we give ourselves the space to be, the space to own, and the space to admit that even while we’re trying to make something into a blessing it might still have the weight of a curse. It might ALWAYS have the weight of burden and our stomachs might always drop—but less and less over time—when we remember the full-body panic and shame at realizing we had shown up for a conference that had other plans (the ultimate ghosting). The key is in giving the facts, the event, the person, and the reaction space to be even if the ghosting doesn’t magically lead us to our soulmate. 

We imagine the silver lining Cinderella soulmate story going something like this: “He was meant not to show up, because the cute bartender took pity on me and we talked all night and now we’re married with successful careers and four kids.” Occasionally, maybe. But how will we ever know if that ghoster only didn’t show up because of a death in the family, and that if he had been able to show up, the two of you also would have talked all night and maybe you’d even have started a foundation together that would have won you a Nobel Peace Prize? We don’t know. We can’t.  

And so we step, and when the drawbridge (literally and mockingly) starts to pull us in, we step back, and down, to the side, and then around. And we find another bridge. Not necessarily a better one. But a bridge. 

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