“Does your hair fall out a lot?”
I looked up from my copy of the Dallas Business Journal. Bewildered.
“Umm…” I fumbled.
[awkwardly long pause]
[awkwardly long eye contact]
“Umm, what?” I asked.
“Does your hair fall out a lot?”
I stared at her, confused. She couldn’t have been taller than five feet or younger than 70. She held the end of her long, silvery, thinning pony tail in between her fingers and looked at me with earnest. More earnest than I’m used to from strangers.
Quick, say something. I think she said hair, I thought. Ask her something about hair.
“I’m sorry, what about hair?”
“Does your hair fall out a lot?”
Truth be told, I really didn’t understand her question until the third time she said it. First of all, I wasn’t really expecting any company in my tiny, freezing corner of the restaurant. On top of that, I could barely hear what she was saying. Her delicate, soft-spoken South African accent barely reached my ears before it was swallowed up in the din that was La Madeleine in Lewisville during lunch time.
Oh… does my hair fall out a lot, I heard. How should I answer this complete stranger who wants to know about my hair falling out? We’re in a restaurant. Is this appropriate? Can’t she see I’m working?! Ugh, Mondays. I have to remember what I was reading. Oh, crap. I’ve been thinking to myself for way too long. What do I say? What do I say? What do I…
“Ummm… yeah. Actually, it does,” I shrugged.
Yep. I answered her. In the affirmative, no less!
I was never going to get rid of her now…
“Me too,” she explained. “I saw you touching your hair and taking a piece from your coat and dropping it to the floor, so I wanted to ask you because I have the same problem. But I’m doing all my own research and I’ve figured out what to do.”
Well, crap. She saw me. Career as a spy… uncheck.
“You need to try Sole Palomino,” she suggested.
“Sole Palomino. Write it down, write it down. It’s spelled S-a-w P-a-l-m-e-t-o. Sole Palomino. It’s amazing for hair. And you’re young. You should get some of that.”
Clearly once this awkward conversation is over, I need to get my hearing checked. Or someone in management at La Madeleine needs to do something about the acoustics. This is just ridiculous.
“Wow, thank you for sharing that,” I offered.
Apparently in South Africa the words “thank you for sharing that” are roughly interpreted as “please stand there and tell me your life story,” because that’s exactly what she did. For the next ten minutes, I heard about medical bills, false anemia diagnoses, Obama’s wrath, the state of the healthcare industry, the cost of laboratory testing, how to tell if your doctor is a kook, and the sad reality of the degeneration of the human body.
My neck started getting tired from nodding in agreement, and my smile began to lose its authenticity.
I really need to get this work done, I kept thinking. Who walks up to a random person who’s obviously busy and asks her about her hair? And then doesn’t leave?! I don’t want to be mean to her, but I don’t think she’s going to get the hint. I’ve cleared my throat and switched the way my legs are crossed 4 times already… who doesn’t get that?!
She held up a copy of a book titled Collagen by Dr. Marita Schauch.
Yes, she made me write that down, too.
“This book has absolutely changed my life,” she gushed. “I’m so thankful for it. It’s amazing the things that happen to your skin. Do you know what collagen does? It literally holds you together. It holds your muscles and skin together. If you lose collagen, you start to fall apart from the inside out.”
Lady, I feel like you’re falling apart right now, I was thinking.
“Ok, ok, I can see you’re busy. I’ll let you get back to your things. I just wanted to let you know.”
Then… she backed away. She had been sitting at the table in front of mine all along. I had managed not to notice.
And just when I thought I was going to get back to work, I heard a little whisper.
”What do you do for work, dear?” she wanted to know.
I’m not one to ever miss an opportunity to practice my elevator pitch or talk about myself, but this was almost more than I could handle. All I could think was what on Earth would this woman do with that information?! What was this conversation going to do for me? How was I ever going to get back to work?
But I sighed and answered her anyway…
“I work with organizational leaders and business owners to optimize the people side of their business using the basic tenants of behavioral psychology. I teach them how to hire more amazing employees, how to retain their best talent, how to promote people properly, and how to provide a proper succession plan that ensures a company’s culture will remain intact. I help people do more of what they love in their work.”
“Oh, dear. That’s just lovely!” she exclaimed. “That’s wonderful, valuable work. Are you familiar with Deepak Chopra? He’s an amazing spiritualist who has some incredible things to say about why people aren’t happy with what they have and the work they do. He’s brilliant.”
I. Was. Hooked.
She had me at Deepak.
That woman and I sat and talked for the next 30 minutes about work, career, life, and our circumstances. She grew up in a coastal town in South Africa and moved to England to study ballet. She was a classical ballet dancer, then got married, had children, and moved to the United States. She lived in California for a while before relocating to Dallas with her family. She had stories about everything.
Not only stories, but amazingly beautiful conclusions to stories.
“I’m on a mission to help teenagers,” she said. “They’re so worried and overwhelmed and they just want some assurance and love. I tell them education is everything. Education gives you freedom. Trying to do what you love or what you want is impossible without freedom. It’s impossible without education.”
Her voice was so calming and gentle.
“I tell them, never give up hope,” she continued. “You always need to have hope. Anything is possible. If you remain hopeful, you remain in the fight. You have to fight. The world will not always give you what you want. You have to fight for what you want. Fight for what’s right. Fight to combat nervous thoughts. Fight for yourself. You have to fight.”
I was mesmerized.
For those 30 minutes, time stopped. It was like speaking to the grandparents that I had so unfortunately lost in my youth. It was like stepping into a time machine and experiencing the past in real time. It was like I was there and saw it with my own eyes.
And to think… I was trying to get rid of this woman!
Thirty minutes later, I never wanted her to leave..
I was reminded that sometimes the greatest gifts in our lives come in unexpected, unpredicted, even awkward packages. I was astounded that I had dismissed someone so quickly and was proved wrong so immediately. I was thankful that I had affirmed her question about hair and her concern about collagen, because that led to one of the most uplifting, soul-filling, authentic-smile-inducing conversations I’ve had in a long… long… time.
I was shown that sometimes the opportunities in our lives are laid out for us to seize or scorn.
I’m so grateful she forced my hand, in this case.
The next time you get annoyed by a stranger or interrupted in your work or frustrated by your environment, take a moment and ask yourself this:
What if this distraction is actually the main attraction?
You never know when a conversation can change your day.
Change your focus.
Change your life.