When I was growing up, my mother’s best friend was a woman named Cosmina Mandruleanu. I liked her for a lot of reasons: her name, of course; her ash-blond hair and throaty voice and loud laugh; her bangle bracelets and black nylons and the way she was generous with the Juicy Fruit gum she always kept in her purse. She was someone who made smoking seem alluring; if she looked at you in that sidelong way when she exhaled, you felt as though you were sharing a risqué secret. She told me her grandmother was a Romanian gypsy who had passed on to her the Gift: Cosmina could tell fortunes. Mostly she used tea leaves, but she also read palms or used a crystal ball or her grandmother’s ancient Tarot cards. She said her gifts were in her mind, that she could use anything, even a pair of pliers, as a catalyst for accessing her powers. But people liked the traditional props, and so she accommodated them. She once told my mother that she, too, was a bit psychic, which made my mother fluff up with pride and say, “You know, I thought so.” When I asked Cosmina if she thought I had the Gift as well, she looked at me for a long time. Then she said, “You are a good student of human nature. That’s a start.”
Cosmina once volunteered to tell fortunes at my junior high school’s annual fund-raiser, so that the adults would have something to do besides drink weak coffee and watch Dunk the Principal. She sat in a corner of the gymnasium behind a TV tray on which she had draped a black cloth, and she wore a long black skirt and a black blouse over which she had a fringed red shawl. She’d knotted a black scarf at the base of her neck to cover her bright hair, and her makeup was more dramatic than usual: thick lines of kohl were drawn around her eyes. I offered her a dollar to have my own fortune read. She refused at first; she said she read adults only, it wasn’t right to read children, especially children of your friends. Finally, though, she relented. I stood before her in my pedal pushers and sleeveless blouse, my breath caught in my throat. She laid her hands on her crystal ball and closed her eyes. Then she peered into it. After a moment, she said, “Your task will be to learn in what direction to look for life’s great riches, and not to deny the veracity of your own vision.”
I stared at her, then whispered, “What does ‘veracity’ mean?”
She leaned forward and whispered back, “Truth.”
When I got outside, I wrote Cosmina’s words on the back of a flyer. That night, I read them again, then put the paper in a handmade wooden box I’d been given by my grandfather. It was large, about twelve by twenty, and four inches deep, made of black ash; and it had box-joint corners of which the maker was justifiably proud. He’d woodburned Japanese chrysanthemums into the lid, and they were beautiful--spidery and reaching, botanical fireworks. I’d wanted to save the box to use for something important. Here it was.
My best friend Penny’s grave has a simple headstone, light gray granite inscribed with her name, the date of her birth, and the date of her death, which was four months ago. Below that, as agreed, are these words: Say it. Penny believed that people didn’t often enough admit to what they really felt, and she thought that made for a lot of problems. Being close to her meant that you had to attempt unstinting honesty, at least in your dealings with her. Her husband, Brice, could get annoyed about this, and so could I--a lack of deceit requires a kind of internal surveillance that can feel like work, and there are, after all, times when a lie serves a noble purpose. But overall, I think both he and I understood the value of such candor, and appreciated Penny’s efforts to steer us toward it. And then there was this: we wanted to please her because we both loved her so much. Loved and needed her.
And here she is.
I lean back on my hands and look out over the acres of graves. I used to feel that cemeteries were wasted space, that they could be put to far better use as parks, or golf courses, or even to allow for more living space. But I’ve changed my mind. There is a wide peace here, even in sorrow; and it’s sitting beside Penny’s grave that I can best feel her.
“Going to Atlanta tomorrow,” I tell her.
“It is good. Early flight, though. You know I hate those early flights.”
“Your sweet peas are blossoming,” I say. I planted some recently, at the base of her headstone.
I know. I see. Pink.
“Where are you?”
She always leaves when I ask that question; I don’t know why I keep asking it. Well, yes I do. I keep asking it because I keep wanting to know where she is.
I sit for a while longer, appreciating the feel of the sun on my back, the sound of the mockingbird in the tree nearby imitating the whistle of a cardinal. A few rows away, I see an old man sitting on a fold‑up chair, his hat in his hands, his head bowed. I can see his lips moving. It might be prayer. Or he might be like me: he might be having a conversation. Out here, there are a lot of people like me. We don’t often speak to each other, but I think it’s safe to say we gratefully acknowledge each other’s presence, that little mercy.
The next afternoon, I’m at the Oshaka Women’s Club in Atlanta, where I’ve been hired to give a talk. I’m standing at the window in the speaker’s room and looking through the slanted blinds at the women gathered on the lawn, chatting amiably, laughing, leaning their heads together to share a certain confidence. They’re pretty; they look like so many butter mints, dressed in pastel greens and pinks and yellows and whites. It’s a warm spring day after a rainy night, and the women who are wearing high heels are having trouble with them sinking into the earth.
I sit down on the silk love seat to review my notes, but I don’t have to: I’ve delivered this speech called “You.2: Creating a Better Version of Yourself” so many times, in so many places, that I’ve pretty much memorized it. But looking at my notes gives me something to do besides stare at the flowered wallpaper, the Oriental rug, the gold-and-crystal sconce lighting, which I’ve already examined thoroughly. It also keeps me from what has become a persistent sadness; it’s taking me a while to get over Penny’s death. The last thing a motivational speaker needs is to appear low on energy, mired in despair.
This organization likes you to be there early, and they keep you in the speaker’s room until you go on; they feel it’s more exciting to their audience if they see you for the first time when you come onstage, smiling, waving, dressed in your power suit--in this case, a white St. John skirt and jacket, offset by a turquoise necklace and earrings.
A fifty-something woman wearing a yellow apron over a print dress comes into the room holding a little gold-rimmed plate full of food: tea sandwiches, cut‑up melon, cookies. “I’m just helping out in the kitchen before your talk,” she says. “I have to tell you, I am really looking forward to hearing you speak. I hope you won’t mind my telling you this, but you said something in your last book that truly helped change my life: Getting lost is the only way to find what you didn’t know you were looking for. It is so true. It helped me to flat out leave a man who was just a son of a bitch, plain and simple. It took a real leap of faith to do what you said. I did have to get kind of lost--to abandon certain ways of thinking, of being, really--and it was scary. But doing that gave me the courage to walk away from someone I should have left a long time ago. And six months later, I found someone else who is much better for me. I’m so happy to thank you in person for helping me to do that.”
She looks at her watch, unties her apron. “Oh my, I didn’t mean to run on. I’d better get a seat.”
She goes out of the room and I check my makeup one more time, straighten my suit jacket, and here comes Darlene Simmons, the club’s president, to escort me onto the stage.
When we come out from behind the curtain, the room immediately quiets. I sit in one of the two wingback chairs onstage, and Darlene goes up to the lectern and does the introduction. Then I go up and begin my talk.
Forty minutes later, I end by saying, “When I was a junior in high school, I was sitting in my world history class when the teacher suddenly asked this question: ‘What is truth?’ There was a long silence, we all just sat there, and then finally Janet Gilmore, the smartest girl in the class--and also, unfairly, the prettiest--raised her hand and she said, ‘Truth is what you believe.’ Mr. Sanders nodded approvingly. I was thinking, What does this have to do with history? But of course it has everything to do with history, because history is shaped by the belief systems of those who made it.
“Our own individual life history is also shaped that way. In large part, when you factor out fate, what we are is because of what we believe about ourselves. Wherever we are in the world, we mostly live in the small space between our ears.
“I challenge you to acknowledge and affirm your innermost beliefs: bring them into the light. When you know what the truth is for you, you can help create not only your history, but your destiny.”
I thank the audience, then step from behind the lectern to applaud them. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that many women are inspired, but some who walked in here cynical are walking out the same way. In some respects, I’m among them. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years as a motivational speaker, it’s that most people need someone else to tell them what they already know. I include myself in this. I include myself most keenly. That, in fact, is how I start my talks: I say I am forever a physician in the act of healing myself, that to be human is to live in wonder and in need, and in perpetual evolution. I say that no matter what our occupation, our real job is to help each other out. Penny was the one who helped me. It kills me to use the past tense when I talk about her. It frightens me to think that there may never be anyone who can take her place.
Times when we were stumped and unable to advise each other about problems, we used to go out on my porch at night with my grandfather’s box. We would light candles and hunch over a table and inquire of the oracle. In addition to Cosmina’s fortune, which I wrote out all those years ago, the box holds a lot of different things for playing medium: cards, books, stones.
Penny and I asked about relationships, about work, about friends and relatives, and occasionally about politicians. We asked if the end of the world was nigh; we asked if the Twins would win the series. We were often playful but just as often we were deeply respectful. It was eerie how “on” the answers sometimes were, how using two or even three different methods for posing the same question could yield the same answer. I think on more than one occasion we kind of scared ourselves.
And then there was the time after Penny was first diagnosed, when I did the cards alone. I sat at my kitchen table and closed my eyes and simply thought, Penny. I was too afraid to ask a specific question. But the question was heard anyway, because I pulled the death card. I reshuffled the deck once, twice, and made a new spread. Pulled a card. Got the same thing.
I laid my head down on my arms and wept. Since that day, I, the motivational speaker, have not been able to motivate myself into making a new life without her.
“I’ll stop soon,” I used to tell Penny, who in recent years had begun advising me to quit working or at least cut down enough so that we could travel together. It was a dream of ours to go to Japan; I think Penny bought every book published about traveling there. We also wanted to take a leisurely driving trip across the southern states. Brice didn’t like to travel and was all in favor of Penny “getting it out of her system” with me. I had never married, and though I almost always had a relationship, sometimes a serious one, I never thought any of those men would be as much fun to travel with as Penny would be. We were passionate about many of the same things: small towns, vintage quilts, unique breakfast places, cobalt-blue glassware, spontaneous conversations with all kinds of people in all kinds of places. Penny was the kind of person who could go into a convenience store for a Coke and come out soul mates with the cashier.
We also seemed to operate on the same kind of schedule; it was a happy day when we admitted to each other that we loved taking the phone off the hook and napping in the mid-afternoons. “Do you sleep more than twenty minutes?” I asked. I felt a little guilty that my naps lasted thirty or even forty-five minutes. “I have gone for two hours!” she said, and I high-fived her.
We planned on alternating extravagant hotels with cheap motels on our road trip. “Maybe we’ll find a crumbly old pink one!” Penny said. “With one of those pools the size of a puddle!” It was our belief that tacky motels would be much more interesting, even if the beds gave pause. We wanted to walk the Freedom Trail in Boston and take donkeys down into the Grand Canyon. We wanted to feel the power of the vortexes in Sedona, Arizona, and to buy some crystals there. Oh, we had plans. So many plans that I kept putting off.
“But when will you stop?” she would ask, year after year, and I would say, “Something will tell me when.” Once, exasperated, she said, “You act like there’s all the time in the world, and there isn’t!” To this I had no reply.