“I am scared that I won't get it right
But fear won't rule my heart tonight
I can change
I can change
I can still change
I can still change.”
-Lake Street Drive, I Can Change
I've been walking past something important for months.
It’s an elderly woman, and she sits in the window of her ranch-style home that’s overgrown with weeds and needs a good paint job.
The home is on my daily walking route. Every day, I look for the woman in the window. Sometimes she’s reading… sometimes she’s watching television… but most of the time, she’s just staring out the window.
It’s as if she’s waiting for someone to make her day different than the day before.
There usually are no cars in the driveway, so I wonder if she lives alone. I wonder if she has anyone to talk to. I wonder if she feels forgotten.
Every time I walk past I think: Should I knock on the door?
Then come the “buts.” But would I say? But what if I scare her? But what if she falls getting to the door? But what if she thinks I’m going to exploit her? But what if this whole idea is a bit stalkerish?
Fear—fear always stops me.
So I keep walking…
Until a week ago. A week ago, I went to her door, but not before getting the push I needed.
The push came from a man I met on the streets of Kigali, Rwanda on July 13.
I was walking very early one morning as the sun came up. Although I was told it would be safe to walk the streets of the city by myself, I was afraid. I played it safe by walking inside the grounds of the Kiberinka Cultural Center where my daughter Natalie and I stayed with our team from African Road.
The man was walking down a steep hill. As he passed the back gate to the cultural center, he turned his head and saw me.
“Hello!” he called out in English, stopping in front of the gate.
“Hello,” I replied, continuing to walk toward him until we were face to face at the gate.
I noticed the man was very thin, and although his clothes were well worn, he’d taken great care with his appearance. He carried a nearly empty backpack over his shoulder.
“Do you have a job for me?” the man asked sincerely in impeccable English.
My heart dropped. I explained that I was just visiting for short time and how sorry I was that I could not help him.
“Do you have friends here in Rwanda?” he persisted. “You see, I’ve been walking the city for months and months looking for work, and I am very tired.”
I looked down at his flip flops and saw they looked like they’d covered hundreds of miles.
“What jobs can you do?” I asked.
“I can cook, clean, or do anything … I will do anything. Please tell your friends about me.”
“What is your name?” I asked as the man turned to go.
Jatau began walking down the hill, and watched him go, feeling like this was not right.
Suddenly I had an idea. I ran up to the room where I was staying and tore a piece of paper from my journal. I wrote down the name and number of a new local friend, praying he would forgive me for giving out his information without asking. I also wrote down my phone number.
I ran back to the gate and climbed on top of the retaining wall. Jatau was nearly out of sight. I could see police officers congregated at the bottom of the hill. I was afraid of looking foolish… of calling attention to myself… of getting in trouble… of mispronouncing his name, but I called out anyway. At the top of my lungs I screamed, “JATAU!!!!!”
He stopped, and I called his name again, surprising myself at the perfect pronunciation that came from my awkward lips.
Jatau began to run up that hill.
When he arrived at the gate, I handed him the paper. “Here is the phone number of my friend Rev. Philbert Kalisa who does remarkable work here in Rwanda. He may have some ideas. I will tell him about you, but you must call him.”
Jatau looked troubled.
“Do you have a phone?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“Wait here,” I said. I ran back to my room and got a two-thousand franc paper bill.
When I handed him the money, Jatau began to cry.
“Thank you,” he said tearfully. “Thank you.”
“I pray that you don’t have to walk much longer,” I said.
“You have helped me go on today,” Jatau said, his face breaking into a beautiful smile that transformed his face.
On the day we left Rwanda, Rev. Phibert made a point to have lunch with Natalie and me. He let me know that Jatau called. They were going to meet, and he was going to be trained.
Philbert is my hero… and the hero of many. He is one of the East African Changemakers that I came to know and love on the African Road learning trip. He's devoted his life to bringing together perpetrators and survivors of the Rwandan genocide through acts of reconciliation. I felt like I’d barely touched the surface of his teachings when it was time to leave.
Leaving friends like Philbert and the children of the Togetherness Cooperative made re-entry into America quite difficult for me. Although Natalie and I were counseled by our dear friend Kelly, co-founder of African Road, nothing could have prepared me for the despair I felt. How could I miss people I’d only known for such a short time? I could not explain it to anyone. It did not even make sense to me.
During that unsettling period, I managed to follow through with my family, work, and volunteer obligations. One Sunday, I dragged myself to the cat shelter and cleaned robotically. As Avery and I were finishing up, she left to go see the hamsters in another part of the store. That is when I noticed eight-year-old Rosie. She’d been there for many months. I didn’t think I’d ever seen a cat’s face look so sad. I re-opened her cage and I rested my face against hers. That’s when the tears ran down my cheek. Rosie understood how I felt. For the first time in many days, I felt peace and comfort.
Two weeks later, I went back to the shelter feeling more settled and optimistic. I was not surprised to see Rosie was still there. I got her out and brushed her. Natalie took a photo. When I got home, I spontaneously posted the photo on Instagram with this caption:
A few days later, I discovered a direct message in my Instagram inbox. A follower named Suzanna said she thought we lived in the same area, and that she needed to meet Rosie.
On the 10thof August, Suzanna drove an hour with her two boys to adopt Rosie. Soon after, I received breathtakingly beautiful photos of Rosie in her new home—a home she had adapted to very quickly.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. It didn’t even look like the same cat. In a matter of days, Rosie’s face had transformed. No longer did her eyes squint with sadness and despair. They were wide open, like the heart of the family that had taken her in.
Suzanna and I had a long talk on the phone last week. During the conversation, I learned why getting Rosie that day was so monumental.
August 10th was the anniversary of Suzanna’s great-grandmother’s birthday. She would have been 100 years old that day. Each year, Suzanne tries to do something special. That day, she spontaneously took her boys on a long car ride to meet Rosie.
Suzanna sat in the PetsMart parking lot for a moment taking deep breaths. What am I doing? she thought anxiously.
“Why are you so nervous, Mama?” her children asked.
Suzanna explained that it was a big deal to take on another life, not to mentioned and they had just moved and things were still in a bit of disarray.
“But remember, if you don't walk down the hill, you'll miss everything,” her son Hudson said.
That’s when Suzanne told me about her great-grandmother who would walk down a steep hill each day to get her mail, dragging her oxygen tank behind her.
“Why do you go down the hill when you can drive, Great-grand Mama?” Suzanna would ask her, thinking, isn’t she afraid she might fall? Isn’t she worried she will tire or hurt herself?
“Because if I don't do the hard thing, I'd miss all the beautiful things, Suzanna,” her great-grandmama told her. Then she'd list off the specific beauties that she passed on her way down the hill.
All of sudden, I thought about Jatau walking down that hill day after day, in hopes of finding a job that could change the circumstance of his life.
I thought about how being seen and loved by a stranger he met along that hill eased the pain on his face and added fuel to his journey, just like Rosie.
After hanging up with Suzanna, I bought a potted flower at the store. I went home and wrote the note to an elderly stranger I’d not been able to write. I tucked it inside a copy of my book, Only Love Today, and I drove to the home I’d walked by a hundred times.
When I pulled into the driveway, there was a sign nailed to the house that said: Come to the back door.
My plan to leave the gift on the doorstep suddenly changed. I took a deep breath and went to the back of the house. I was surprised to see a long wheelchair ramp to the back door. As I walked up the ramp nervously, I saw an elderly man sitting in the back porch.
With sweaty hands, I knocked. A nurse approached the door.
Oh boy. This is going to sound crazy, I thought to myself.
“Hello,” I said holding up the gift bag and potted flower. “This is a little gift for the lady who sits in the front window.”
I prepared myself for a quizzical look, maybe some interrogation, and perhaps a door slam, but I received a warm smile.
“Oh, she’s at the dentist right now,” the nurse smiled taking the gifts. “But she will love this.”
“Thank you so much,” I said, experiencing an inexplainable release in my heart.
As I began to walk down the wheelchair ramp, I purposely grasped the railing the way I suspected the little lady did that morning. I imagined she noticed how the sun felt on her face, the purple wild flowers growing in the weeds next to the house, and the strength in her legs that still carried her.
We must walk down the hill to see the beauty life has to offer,
Even when we are afraid,
Especially when we are afraid.
Thank you Great-grandmama, Suzanna, Jatau, and Phibert for doing the hard thing… for not living afraid.
What was imprinted on my heart again and again during my time in Rwanda was that fear is a mighty damaging obstacle. It stops us and separates us; it keeps us from each other and from fulfilling our purpose.
Fear appears in many disguises and speaks through many voices:
But you could never do that.
But you don’t have the means.
But you might look foolish.
But you might get hurt.
But others won’t approve.
But you don’t know them.
But they are different than you.
But you don’t know what you are getting into.
But you are not prepared for this.
But you don’t know how will turn out.
Yes, fear comes in many forms, but we simply cannot deny the path, the not-so-easy route, our hearts are telling us to take.
And this is WHY:
But what if there is beauty waiting for us outside our comfort zone?
But what if the time is now and the world needs us to lead?
But what if someone is watching us and our efforts will give that person courage to try?
Clasp your shaky hands together, take a deep breath, and begin your descent…
You never know who might call out your name with perfect pronunciation.
You never know who might have the key to unlock your cage.
You never know who might be waiting for you to make her day different than all the days before.
Your day will be different too.
Decide fear will not be your obstacle,
As you do the hard thing,
And see all the beautiful things you would’ve missed if you'd lived afraid.
Dear friends of The Hands Free Revolution, oh my goodness, you blew me away last week when I returned to writing with a piece called Little Victories after a substantial online break. I read every email message you sent me and cherished every beautiful, pressure-relieving affirmation you offered. I find it amazing that as many blogs are dying out, you still come to read my lengthy posts and even make it all the way to the bottom! This is where the really good stuff is! Thank you for not missing the important invitations. Today I have three for you:
1) Please meet my dear friend Rev. Philbert Kalisa who is a Changemaker who partners with African Road. This interview explains his remarkable story and ministry which implements practices that could heal and unite people in all parts of the world. His website can be found here.
2) Please meet me in Scottsdale, AZ (9/15) … Cleveland, OH (10/20) … or Boston, MA (11/14) this fall at these lovely speaking events. Details and links found here, on my speaking page.
3) Please meet Oscar. When Oscar’s foster mom at the cat shelter saw the beautiful results of my Instagram post about Rosie, she asked me to show him to our very special community. Oscar is a spry ten-year-old Siamese cat who enjoys cuddling, listening to the radio, and being with other cats. While he is content living as a foster, he would sure like to have a forever home. Like Rosie, I believe the best years of his life are ahead of him. Serious inquiries about Oscar, including his location, can be emailed to email@example.com. Please make “Oscar” the subject line. Thank you! I cherish your presence and support so much, my friends.
Staci Gainor says
Thank you for sharing this post; what an incredible blessing. I am smiling through my tears.
Rachel Stafford says
Thank you, dear Staci. It feels so good to have your hand in mine.
Thank you so much for this. Words can never express how your stories have literally changed my life. I now ask the people at the drive through window how they are doing before I place my order. I say hi to strangers more than I ever have. I cherish the memories I am making playing crib with my dad. I’m trying to feel the fear and do it anyway.
Rachel Stafford says
Gosh, this touched my heart!!! Thank you, Susan. Such peace you just gave me.
Lovely and so encouraging! Tears and grins! Thank you.
This was so beautiful and perfect for me today. Thank you X
As always, your words are so beautiful and exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you for making a difference! I send a virtual hug to you and your sweet family. 🙂
Rachel Stafford says
Thank you, dear one.
Melissa K says
I have missed your soul soothing words. Your blog keeps me inspired as I do not have any social media platforms to follow you on! I appreciate the encouraging words you share and the examples you give on spreading love & kindness. May this blog continue to reach the ones that do not want to “follow” social media. Your posts seem to align with my inner thoughts/issues/desires. Thank you for sharing, even when it is difficult. I appreciate your bravery.
Hugs & Love,
Rachel Stafford says
I am so glad you are here, my faithful friend. We have been walking beside each other for a long time. Thank you for coming to my blog, where the deepest parts of my life and heart are shared. Hugs and love right back!
I really needed this today. Thank you. I’m going to try desperately to take your advice and walk down the hill.