Who's Your Ethel?

Photo Exhibition in Brasilia, Brazil
Image by babasteve via Flickr

If you’re lucky, we all find someone — maybe several someones — just when you need them most. Wise, compassionate, no bullshit, they’ll listen to your woes just long enough to let you know they’ve heard, then offer some of the optimism, ideas, direction you so badly crave. They’re a hit of pure, fresh oxygen.

They’re probably not friends or neighbors or colleagues. Maybe a former teacher or a minister or rabbi you trust. Someone who’s been bruised enough to know how much that hurts, but who has successfully healed and gone on (and up) to better things, whether that’s work, marriage, friendship. They can see the silver lining when all you see is clouds. They know you and know what’s a crappy (or wonderful, unimagined – really? you think?) choice for you, no matter how sexy it looks or well-paid it is or how much your parents think you should do it or your husband or all your grad school friends.

They’re a lot easier to find when you’re 16 or 23 or maybe even 35, in and around others seeking, questioning, a little uncertain what happens next…not so much when you’re old enough to be someone’s parent or grand-parent. It’s not cool, certainly in New York City, to admit much, if any, professional doubt or fear. Then, your Ethel needs to be someone who also understands how much you trust them even asking for some of their time.

I spent an hour today, a miserably rainy day in Manhattan, with Ethel, and thank God. I hadn’t seen her in perhaps a decade, back when when I was an adult student at her school, recovering from a brief, miserable marriage and trying out a wholly new identity, a new career I might enter and wondered if it even held a place for me. I got mostly A’s there and was inordinately proud of them. I was studying interior design, a passion of mine. People laugh and scoff, but it demands some of the skills that work well in journalism — see a space, envision a finished room (see the world, imagine a book or a film or a story) — and I loved every minute of my classes there, small, supportive, so challenging we’d go home and cry with fright. Then we’d pull it off and grin with victory. I showed one of my lighting designs (a nearby cupola my inspiration, glimpsed from school’s second floor window) to a manufacturer who said he’d consider producing it. That was cool.

I didn’t go into the field then, but as journalism increasingly resembles the Titanic, I needed to talk to someone who could see past my resume and my fears about what else I might do next. We caught up with one another, brainstormed, and I took plenty of notes. Today I was anxiously awaiting the outcome of a crucial writing-related meeting, and feared the worst. She reassured me there were many other opportunities out there should this one not come to pass. I left calm, comforted, grateful.

The meeting produced the result I hoped for, which I’ll describe more when I can. It’s good. But what a blessing and a gift to know, and be able to turn to, this lovely woman who replied within an hour to my fearful, questing email after a decade’s silence.

Who’s your Ethel? What have they helped you conquer or face?

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