It was June, 2001, and it was the first time I had ever felt strong, independent, and capable. Not that my family hadn’t encouraged me to explore my personality. For the better part of seventeen years they had patiently supported my every weird, geeky, alternative, freakish whim, at least the ones I felt comfortable enough to speak about. Here, though, in downtown Nashville, was the first time I was given the reigns of those whims, and I was using it to wander aimlessly. My clothes were way too black and way too hot for June in Tennessee. My self-confidence was an illusion, and my body image issues had no concern for the fact that I might die of heat stroke if I ventured out of my comfort zone of body cloaking drapes. I was, to sum it up, awkward.
I’ve told the story of what came next a few times. I met a boy and his tribe. I made friends with a group of Rainbow Gathering kids and street gypsies, and the experience changed my life and how I would choose to live and love for the rest of it. I would find the courage to follow my heart.
Don’t worry, I’m not telling that story again; I’m honouring the woman who made it possible.
Mrs Judith Flannery. Mrs Flannery throughout my high school career. Judy thereafter.
Mrs Flannery was my college counselor, and her presence lit up Holy Names High School like a Christmas tree. She was always smiling, always encouraging, and always finding new ways to inspire the swarms of girls that filled the halls of the nook of a school perched in the Oakland Hills. To our class in particular, she was the embodiment of Spirit, and even on my darkest days I couldn’t help but smile when she spoke to me.
My senior year a close friend and I convinced Mrs Flannery to agree to be the voice of reason and eyes of supervision on a trip to a week-long country music festival in Nashville. To our astonishment, she agreed. Not only did she agree, but she got excited! It was settled. We got our parental permission and made our plans, and a week after graduation we boarded a plane to Nashville.
I was slightly startled when Mrs Flannery suggested that first day that we each explore for a while in whatever way we wished before meeting for dinner. This was how “adults” took vacation, and I had never been an “adult” on a vacation. Where would I go? What would I do?
Then it dawned on me. Anything I wanted.
The introvert in me smiled to herself. The latent explorer in me leapt with joy. We were free!
At dinner I told Judy about my encounter with the cute street kid selling hot dogs in the parking lot, fully expecting a lecture or tighter reins. Instead, her response was, “Well, why don’t you go? You have a room key. Just call me if you’re not going to be there when I wake up.”
Really? I had never been trusted not to get myself killed in my life! In retrospect, I may not have been proving that by following a group of strangers around Nashville at all hours of the night, but I returned unscathed each and every time, so Judy continued to encourage my little tryst in Music City. She even looked the other way when they snuck into one of the concerts we attended. They were charming. Even Judy was enchanted, or at least tolerant enough to act like it.
The day we left Nashville I trekked downtown alone to say my goodbyes. The trip home was quiet and bittersweet, and even I had no idea what I was carrying back with me that day. A sense of purpose. A sense of self. A confidence. An awakened heart and spirit. Judy didn’t need to. She never asked. She simply sat next to me at the airport and hugged me for as long as it took for me not to feel lost. As she had done for the previous 4 years, she made everything seem like something I would not only survive, but really live through.
We kept in sporadic touch over the years. Facebook can be a blessing that way. I was always happy to tell Judy how my life was going, and she always had some words of support or wisdom and a bright, cheery story to tell me. I know things weren’t always sunshine and flower in Judy’s world, but you would never know it. It was inspiring.
I write this today because the friend with whom I took that trip informed me last week that Judy had passed away.
Before I could message back, she added, “the first thing I thought about was our trip to Nashville”.
I was touched with an unexpected sadness, but overwhelmed by the feeling of how blessed I was to have known Judy and how grateful I am that she was a part of my life. Without her, who knows how I would have been introduced to my soul.
Thank you, Judy. From the bottom of my inspired, free, open heart.