Maybe this is too personal. Maybe it is a post that will get me in trouble. But it’s a story I want to tell. It’s about a woman I love and a moment in my life I will never forget. It is about two women who have never met, who have two very different histories, but in some ways are indeed alike. I haven’t written this down in my journal yet, so perhaps it will survive somewhere on the internet for my kids or grandkids to read. Normally on International Women’s Day I am found at official events for work, or penning some articles about policy and global issues (which, indeed, I will do again this year). But this year, I felt the impression that I should write this story. So here we go.
This story is about International Women’s Day, many years ago, in Armenia.
Emily and I were living in Armenia working for the State Department. And while living in a land that means so much for our family heritage and an important part of our legacy, we had the opportunity to also serve our church community. It was a perfect combination. We love our nation – the United States of America. And I love my homeland, Armenia. And we love our faith.
But one day, the snow brought all of this will to serve to a screeching halt. The snow forced me into a decision. And Emily and Aretha Franklin taught me a valuable lesson in the process.
A major snowstorm came through Armenia. And by “major,” I mean probably “average” by any one else’s standards. But for a California boy still getting used to snow in this region of the world, it quickly brought my heart, and my travel plans, to a standstill. On this particular weekend, I had been assigned to travel to Gyumri, a city far away from the capital, where I was to meet with some of the missionaries serving in that city for a special meeting on Sunday. I was to offer the speech Sunday night. And while there, I was going to spend the evening and meet with some colleagues working with USAID and some U.S. Government development programs. I would be back Monday evening, and, on paper (before the snowstorm) at least, it looked like a normal trip.
But the snow. Oh, that snow.
So as all my weaknesses (and pride) immediately came out to play. I found myself saying things to Emily like, “I cannot do it. I’ll be late and will arrive flustered and won’t do a good job. My Armenian won’t be correct and they won’t understand the message. You know how hard it is for me to drive that highway to Gyumri. I should just cancel the meeting on Monday, too. I mean, we can do this by phone. I know it’s better to meet in-person but phone will do just fine. I am tired. Let’s stay in.” and a series of blah blah blah.
It’s not that Emily didn’t want me around that day. At least I don’t think so. Sundays without the car were always more difficult for her and I know it would have been easier if I had been there to help with the baby, etc.
But Emily encouraged me to do the right thing. She encouraged me to go. I had made a commitment. My service included this assignment to speak in Gyumri. I would be safe if I was careful. And it was more important to come through with our obligations than to come up with creative excuses.
And, just like that, Emily did what she so often does. She taught me a lesson by being confident in what she knows. This is one of her gifts. She proves her belief by encouraging better actions…in herself and in others.
(Aretha Franklin is part of this post, don’t you worry. She appears in a moment.)
And so I hopped into our trusty Ford Explorer, and got on my way to Gyumri. Emily had packed something healthy for me to snack on during the trip, and I had probably sneaked in something less healthy, like the local versions of Oreos or some local candies which I ate by the kilo.
The trip was not easy. The roads were icy. What should have been a short trip of a few hours was taking many. And I was so worried about it I didn’t even think to turn on the radio. About an hour into the journey I started to fret even more. I said a prayer, thought about where things stood (it would have almost been more dangerous to turn around than to not continue), and I was encouraged by Emily’s advice. So I turned up my confidence and turned on our CD player for some inspiring music.
Now I loved that car. It was a black Ford Explorer that got us all the way up and down the country, into tiny towns and monasteries and back-and-forth from the Embassy and Church and our favorite sites. It chauffeured many visitors and even some VIPs. We loved it. And I would buy one again. But this particular Explorer had one problem we neglected to fix when we bought it from the used car place back in the States. At times the CD player would only play one CD…and would not give it back! It would refuse to eject CDs at times when the car had been running for a long time. And sometimes it would just repeat the same song over and over again. It was as if the CD player had a mind of its own. This would not be a major problem during a short trip…but during an hours-long voyage across the country, it meant I was sentenced to just one song…for a long time.
So, wouldn’t you know it, just at this moment, when I needed some calming music (and on a Sunday it probably would have been something uplifting by members of my faith, some choir music or something classical to uplift the soul), the CD player decided to “stick.”
And on this particular day, the CD that was in the player (we didn’t have the money for a fancy multi-player CD…so it was a one-at-a-time device), was the Greatest Hits of Aretha Franklin. I love her. I admit it freely. She is an awesome artist.
But she, not by my choice but by the choice of the faulty CD player, was my “playlist.” In fact, for most of the trip, only one song was the playlist.
And so the only songs I could hear during this trip were the amazing songs of Aretha. And the one song that played for about an hour of my long, icy journey, was “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” It played, and played, and played. Over and over and over again. And as the Armenian countryside slowly passed by me, and I worried about every scenario that could keep me from getting to Gyumri or seeing my family again, this song must have repeated 50 times. As I drove, white knuckled from worry along the roads, thinking about every possible negative scenario, Aretha serenaded me. She was my Sunday music. She was my sabbath song.
This is NOT the typical scene for a Mormon man on a Sunday afternoon drive. Sweaty from worry, tie loosened, frowning, quickly stress-eating whatever was in my lunch bag, and belting out Aretha Franklin. But while it did not look like your typical Sunday drive in the car, there was love in that car. And there was love was because of the most important woman in my life who got me on this road. At first there was some resentment, I admit it. I probably said, “Why did I listen to Emily?” in a grumbled tone a few times. But as Aretha’s voice on the CD player and Emily’s voice in my head combined…I soon learned why.
I will not pretend to be an expert on Aretha’s music. And I did not know a lot about the song before this particular long, icy Sunday drive. But as I listened to it, I thought about what it meant to be true to a woman I love. And what it meant that we were true to each other. I started extrapolating messages from the song for the speech I would give later that night. I thought about how Aretha’s message might underline a true principle I could explain to the missionaries. I even started thinking about how it even related to the USAID meeting the next day. I am pretty sure a Mormon church talk has not been based on Aretha Franklin in the past, nor have there been lots of U.S. Government meetings with Aretha’s words setting the agenda (or perhaps there have!), but there would be that day. I learned a lot about relationships from that song. I have thought about many of the problems in society that could be solved if people remain true to each other. What if people believe in one another, and if they treat each other as equals and partners? What could be be accomplished if that were at the basis of every relationship?
And so, this wintry March drive came to its end. And it happened to be around International Women’s Day that year. As I arrived, I saw the evidence that International Women’s Day was in full course. In Armenia, this meant that small yellow flowers were distributed to women. There were signs of yellow flowers all around…being sold by the roadside and in windows. And, once I arrived in Gyumri, safe from the potential perils that I had worried about for hours, I arrived at what was a celebration of women. Women exchanged these flowers in solidarity as sisters. The talk that night was about fidelity. It was not originally about that topic, but Aretha and Emily changed all that. I talked about how one of the most important things we can do help women around the world is to be true to the women in our lives. I talked about one of the most important ways to honor the woman in your life was to heed her counsel.
Was it possible that Emily, in teaching me to be true to my promises to my community and family and faith, and Aretha, in her message about being true in love, were part of the same lesson plan for a man who needed to be taught a lesson in both topics? The road to Gyumri proved it to be true. Emily always encourages me to be true to who I am, and who I have promised her to be that kind of man. I fall short, but she sticks with me. Emily is true to her friends. She is true to her faith and her family. She is a teacher. And she teaches those around her to be true.
So while today, on International Women’s Day, I will also blog about girls and women’s empowerment, and health and wellness, and justice and peace, and all the important reasons that putting women at the center of the world’s political agendas will help us all progress, and the women who are heroes in this space…it is the woman in my life who most inspires me to progress.
Happy International Women’s Day to all the amazing women in my life. And thank you to two women, who have never met, who conspired one snowy Sunday on the road from Yerevan to Gyumri to remind me that the best way to honor women is to be true to the woman in your life. Thank you, Emily and Aretha. Very different women. Two sisters who indeed taught this man a valuable lesson. Let’s all “do right” by one another.