I sat in the passenger seat on the Indiana Toll Road headed for Chicago with my fingers anxiously twirling a strand of my curls, when my friend who was driving gently pushed my hands to my lap and encouraged me to not be nervous.
I didn’t have to say a thing. It was obvious to her that I was a mess even though I was trying as hard as I could to keep that to myself. It was unclear to me whether I wanted to cry, dance, shriek with excitement, or be still. I just knew I was a ball of emotions.
My friend Donna and I were on our way to the first stop of Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’ book tour, where Oprah was moderating. It was as if the universe opened up and said, “Here, Erin. We are going to give you your idea of the most perfect evening ever. Enjoy!”
This had been the night, the moment, I had been building up to my whole life. I was a little girl when I first fell in love with Oprah and her magic. There was something about the way I watched her give, empower, and connect with others that pushed me far into her forever fan corner. I grew up wanting to share the love and maybe one day, if all went well, own a fleet of cars like Oprah did.
As for my love for our former First Lady, I grew into my own when she graced our country with her leadership, integrity, and strength. I, along with the world, watched as she led the example that women did not need to and should not merely be an accessory or an echo. She has been a shining light from the moment she stepped in front of us all, and I have found her to be an unwavering source of inspiration.
That night, Donna and I would be sitting in a room with them. Granted they would be tiny blips as our seats were high up in the United Center, and both would have no idea who we were or that we were there, but nonetheless, we were in the same room. Their stories and conversation would fall upon our ears and fill our hearts. The twirling of my hair was the only way I could keep from losing it, because of unbridled joy and nerves.
A night that had seemed like a lifetime in the making was over in two and a half hours. I could detail the shuttle rides where we were packed in like sardines, the music we danced and sang to, the electric crowd, and many other aspects, but it all was a blur at the moment. I had waited in anticipation for months for this event, and it was over in a blink of an eye.
Donna and I, along with thousands of others, made our way out of the United Center and back home. My head hit the pillow just before 1 a.m., only to hear my 5 a.m. alarm ring shortly after. That night and the next few days, all I could muster up when people asked me how I enjoyed the event was, “It was magic.” I knew they were expecting more, but there was no way for me to describe it.
Here I sit now-- weeks later--and I am still trying to wrap my mind around the effect the event had on me. I am finally able to pull out more than three words, and I so badly want to share what I felt and took away from that night because it truly was magic.
The conversation between Oprah and Michelle Obama felt almost sacred as if we all were privy to a chat between world-changers and friends with a deep mutual respect for each other. It was as if they were creating a blueprint for us on how to become who we were meant to be. I think the title of the book--Becoming--and how that alone was one of the biggest lessons I took away from the evening because we are constantly evolving and growing.
I think for many of us, I included, there is this idea of “I will be good enough once I achieve….” This thought pattern is dangerous for a multitude of reasons, but inevitably it is a vicious cycle of self-judgment because we constantly move the measuring stick further away as we reach different goals without ever giving ourselves credit for those gains.
With this idea of “becoming,” I walked away truly realizing I needed to change my focus from becoming something to becoming someone. No title, award, job, etc. is ever going to truly matter in the grand scheme of life. What I need to pay attention to is who I am. Am I giving all I can give? Am I a person others can trust? Am I using my talents or gifts for good? Am I making a positive impact in the world? The answers to those questions carry far more weight for me than the letters or job title the follows my name.
I saw this on display with Mrs. Obama and Oprah. These two women have every credential and accolade one could dream of, as they stay concentrated on who they are and who they are becoming, not just focusing on what they’ve done. It gave me a sense of peace knowing that I’ll always be a work in progress but that I am just as worthy and important at this very moment.
Another monumental takeaway that builds off the idea of becoming, was how both Oprah and Michelle urged the crowd, especially the women, to use their voices. It’s difficult to become who we are if we don’t say how we feel, what we think, or what we know. Hearing two of the arguably most powerful and most influential women in the world talk about how they have spent their lives hearing how they’d never achieve their dreams, how they should remain small and quiet, and how deafening their critics were at times made my skin crawl, but these trailblazers never shrunk down and became an echo. They stood firm and spoke loudly and clearly for what they knew to be true, right, and just.
It’s easy, comfortable even, to stay small and quiet because it keeps criticism from attacking our sometimes (read: often) shaky self-confidence, but the idea of never truly showing up feels far more scary to me. There are so many times I can think back on when I did not speak up with an idea or concern. There were too many times I didn’t step up to lead. Even more, I am frustrated at all the times I let myself get cut off or shushed because I was “too” something for the group--too young, too inexperienced, too underqualified, too nice, too much.
It’s been a self-inflicted barrier that I have vowed I’d work on eliminating because my voice needs to be heard. I deserve to be at the table, and if I am sitting there, I cannot waste my seat merely smiling and nodding.
The list of lessons could go on and on, which is why for weeks, I was at a loss for words on how to describe it. Two of my most favorite people in the world sat in front of me for two hours and told stories about their lives...lives that have inspired millions of people to become who they are. This all made me think about my journey of becoming, which brought me my final major lesson of the night.
We were on the Toll Road, but this time headed back into Indiana where my hair twirling hands were again pushed back down to my lap. I smiled because I was still a ball of nerves after the indescribable evening, and Donna knew it. I also smiled because I was reminded of how Michelle spoke about her “people” who loved her and backed her all along. Oprah told stories of Gayle and others. And maybe that was it: it’s hard to “become” alone. There are people in our lives who see us not only for what we are but what we can be. They are our soft and safe place to fall, our cheerleaders, our shoulders to cry on, our constants in a world full of unknowns. I knew I was going to be ok because I have my unshakable team around me, and one was right there patting my hands, quietly assuring me of it.
So, yes. If you ask me, I’ll still say, “It was magic,” and I just might be twirling my curls.