The Familiar Stranger

Sara Etgen-Baker

© Copyright 2018 by Sara Etgen-Baker

Photo of winter trees.

This story is a true account of winter moment that awakened my unfamiliar stranger.  This awakening was transformative forever altering the course of my life. 

I was all too familiar with the dark, soupy cocktail of my predawn commute with its endless sea of headlights that seemed like lighthouses—tiny beacons guiding me safely on my way. I was discontent and browbeaten, however, hopelessly lost at sea questioning neither the distance nor the destination. But one January morning, traffic congestion forced me off the well-lit freeway onto a poorly-lit, meandering country road. At each turn I marveled as my headlights reached out in the darkness making the snowflakes look like stars moving faster than the speed of light. I slowed my car, embracing the subtle privacy of driving through the countryside with its longer, quieter stretches of road where I savored belonging to myself.

At one turn I glanced east just as a subdued sun cast its gentle light upon the snowflakes swirling around my car. Impulsively, I pulled over; stopped my car; and rolled down the window. Something subtle and quiet swept in like a touch upon my face. I looked around me; winter’s tranquility and purity surrounded me—naked trees, crystal glints on snow, and an icy pond cloaked by frost-covered pines. The wintry stillness enveloped me like a soft blanket, and I realized that things are reduced to essentials—the bones of the land, the bones of the trees, the bones of truth, and the stark elegance of the underlying structure of life.

I closed my eyes and breathed in, filling my lungs with the crisp, cold air. There in the ice-kissed world I connected with an unfamiliar facet of my being that had been deeply buried in my day-to-day busyness. Then I heard what I thought were the faint rumblings of my frail inner voice.

Where have you been? I pensively asked, choking back the tears. I’ve searched for you in the cold winter rains shivering from my chilly shallowness. I’ve desperately sought you in spring blossoms and newness. I’ve anxiously chased you on hot, sultry summer days—your presence hovering over me like a winged angel with a message from the Divine. I’ve noticed you change me during the reflective, transitional days of fall with the promise of abundant colors and joy. Sometimes I’ve paused; taken a deep breath; and sensed the edges of your essence cutting through the silence. Occasionally I’ve even felt your peaceful presence in the spaces between my body and mind.

I stepped out of my car, drinking in the solitude and silence; grabbed a tissue from my pocket; and wiped away the tears that clung to my frozen cheeks. I returned to my car; and before leaving the country road, I looked in my rearview mirror. The daylight had transformed the countryside into a soft Monet-like landscape painting. Daylight washed over me as well; and something shifted inside me like a kaleidoscope falling into a new pattern.

I’d awakened my inner voice, but she was a familiar stranger. Inviting her into my life seemed risky, like opening a door into uncertainty. I didn’t know how to listen to her either, often ignoring her as I had been or abandoning her altogether. So, she remained a familiar stranger on the other side of the door while I continued feeling discontent and lost, often giving intro frustration and anger.

What’s the matter?” asked my husband as he dodged the pillow I threw across the room.


Everything? I don’t understand,” he replied in a consoling voice.

I don’t understand either!” I said, my eyes burning with tears. “Something’s wrong with me, seriously wrong with me! I’m so restless and confused. I don’t know why!”

Well, you ARE a bit edgy these days,” he diplomatically remarked. “Maybe it’s time to retire. It’ll be good for you.”

Are you crazy? That’s foolish and reckless!” I snarled, color flaming my cheeks a fiery red. “I can’t do that. No practical 60-year old woman in her right mind should quit teaching four years shy of retirement.”

That’s my point, sweetheart. You’re not in your right mind, and I’m worried about you,” he said with compassion in his voice. “Now’s not the time to be practical. Do something you’ve always wanted to do.”

But I don’t know what that is.”

You’ll figure it out,” he said, tiptoeing out of the room.

I desperately wanted to end my misery. So I began running in the early morning solitude, reflecting and tapping into an interior quietness hoping to figure out what I really enjoyed doing. Then one morning a memory popped into my head. I was in high school English class writing my first short story. I relived that almost miraculous feeling of loosening my grip on my pen and letting it wander about the page until a story found an entrance. Each word tugged another along until I wrote one sentence, then more sentences, and then pages. I lost myself in the story that yearned to be told.

I want to be a writer, perhaps a journalist or a novelist like Pearl Buck,” I announced just before graduation.

Don’t be foolish!” Mother insisted. “Find a practical way to use your love for words and writing.” I heeded her advice; squelched my creative voice; enrolled in college; majored in English education; and taught English for 30+ years. The memory of that event had faded; but as I reflected upon it, I felt it come and throb inside me. It ached like a wound. It was my disabled inner voice—the familiar stranger I’d abandoned—the one that yearned to write and create stories.

So, I enrolled in an online writing course and wrote part time. Words became my artistic tools, and I squeezed out words from the depths of my soul in much the same way a painter squeezes paint from tubes of color onto a palette.

And there was something wondrous and beautiful about standing before a blank canvas—the nothingness of the beginning of a story that was so simple and breathtakingly pure. Every story began in much the same way; my pen became my brush, and I dipped it into all the multi-colored paints creating splatter patterns, whirlpools of color, unique designs, and wonderful streaks and strains. I loved painting pictures with words and quickly fell into the joy of storytelling. A few months later, I retired and became a full-time writer.

Thankfully, I found a place in the writing world and treasure being part of such a noble tradition. Although I enjoy being a writer, I didn’t know writing was hard work demanding self-discipline, trust, and courage. Nor did I know what risky business writing was, for I routinely risk being rejected or, at the very least, being disliked. Writing is risky for other reasons as well. It necessitates placing emotion at the center of my life and my work; becoming conscious; and writing from a place of insight, simplicity, and truth. It means being vulnerable, and anyone who’s consistently vulnerable faces uncertainty every day. Despite the uncertainty, I haven’t changed my mind about being a writer. The risks are well worth the price, for I leave behind little pieces of myself in the words I commit to paper and in the stories I tell.

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