Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Answer Girl

I am now, and have always been, a magnet for queries and questions. Why? I'm not sure I know. But it is the truth. I can stand in the middle of a room, minding my own business, and someone will enter the room, then make a beeline for me.

"Do you know...?"
      "Where is...?"
          "Can you tell me...?"
               "Who do I...?"

Just the other day, as I arrived with my children at the beach, I spied a woman who was walking up and down, looking intently at her cell phone. She looked up long enough to spot me, then made the (seemingly) inevitable beeline for me.

"Do you know anyone who has bipolar disorder?" Given the setting, I was really thrown by the question.

"No," I lied, smiling, and she walked away, resuming her examination of whatever text information was on her cell phone display. The truth is, I do know people who are bipolar and have read a lot about the disorder. For some reason, I did not want to engage in a discussion on this topic with a stranger at the beach. Moments later, I was glad that I hadn't, because one of my kids was having a problem, and I needed to address that.

I have always wondered why people come to me with their questions. I am rather shy (though, if you knew me well, you would not think so). I enjoy a good conversation, but might not have the courage to start one, if in the company of strangers.

When I was a young teen, there was nothing more embarrassing for me than to have people ask me questions, as if I would know the answers. There were always adults around who looked, to me, as if they would know. Why ask me, rather than them?

And the kids at school were always asking me about the homework, or what the loudspeaker announcement had been, or what the teacher had just said.

When I was young professional musician, colleagues would turn to me, asking "what page are we on?" or "what did she say" or "what are we supposed to be doing" or just plain "huh?" Half the time, these folks were asking me for answers to questions that were actually being answered in that moment that they were asking me the question, which meant (much to my consternation) that I was missing that information, as well as they.

"Where am I supposed to go?"
      "What is happening?"
            "What time is it?"
                   "What do I do next?"

Well, yes, many... okay, most times I did (and do) have the answers to the questions. It is not as if I was unwilling to provide answers. I just don't usually feel as if I am the most qualified person around to be "the answer person". Sometimes the people who are actually in charge are standing right nearby.

One particularly embarrassing moment occurred when I was talking with a singing colleague at a performance venue, before a pre-concert warmup. He and I had arrived earlier than our other performer friends, and we were just shooting the breeze. Then, the director of the group came up, and we were exchanging pleasantries, when all at once a gentleman came up to me and asked, "where do you want this microphone and these music stands?"

I felt instantly awkward. I could feel my face going pink. The director, after all, was standing right next to me, looking older, more wise, and in charge. I sucked up my embarrassment.

"I'm sorry, I don't know. But here, let me introduce you to the director of our group--he can tell you everything."

I later related this story to a friend of mine. She was merrily chuckling to herself, as I told my tale, throwing up my hands and finally asking her, "why ME?!"

"Because," she said, "you know."


"You know," she repeated, "you have the answers, and the universe knows it. If you don't have the answer, you know who does. Everyone can see this on your face!"

I thought she was crazy.

"You think I'm crazy, don't you? That is exactly what I mean."

"That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard."

She laughed. "You think of yourself as shy. You hold yourself back. You let others take the lead. But when people look at you, they see competence, they see a leader, they see that you hold the answers to their questions, and--more importantly--they see someone they are not afraid to approach with a question that might be embarrassing for them to ask."

"You are describing a kiosk."

"NO! I am describing you, who stand on the bridge that divides confusion from clarity! The universe has chosen you for this role. Accept it. Take it seriously! The people who approach you need you!"

That gave me something to think about. I had never considered this possibility. I later realized that my friend's insight had allowed me to cross my bridge, rather than merely stand on it.

Now, years later, the questions continue to come, and most of the time, I fulfill this small duty. I have thought a lot about that bridge between confusion and clarity. I continue to wonder how it can be possible that I ever stand on this bridge, when I feel myself to frequent the shores of confusion. But I have, more or less, accepted the observation of my friend as a truth that I must embrace.

I also have the sense, the apprehension, that most (if not all) individuals probably spend some little time on just such a bridge, helping others to cross. And that this is why there are so many of us--we must all help someone to cross, and reciprocally allow someone to help us, when we have need.

I try to do this small service whenever asked, but sometimes I forget. (Forgive me, lady on the beach--I hope you found the answer to your question!)

And I pray that, in those moments when I am confounded, I will be able to find the right person to lead me from the shore of confusion across some mind-worn and heart-warmed bridge to that other shore.

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