How to (not) Explain the Afterlife to Your Toddler

Last night was my turn to put Maya to bed. We still haven’t quite gotten to the point where we can read her a story, tuck her in, give her a kiss and leave the room. That night I reminded her that soon she would be a big girl and mommy would be able to leave the room and she would go to sleep all by herself. She replied “But I don’t want to be a big girl mommy!” We went through a few rounds of her trying to get my attention, with me responding either with silence, or with a robotic “I love you Maya. Go to sleep.” The last time we had this battle of wills she started crying saying “Mommy I have a stinky finger! Mommy I have a stinky finger!! I need to wash it! Mommy? Mommy!!? MOMMY!!!! My curiosity beat out my resolve. “Maya why do you have a stinky finger?” “Because I put it in my bum.” Faaaabulous.

After several minutes of silence, I started to plan my escape. All of a sudden I heard her little voice, sounding like she was on the verge of tears. “Mommy I don’t want to grow up because when you and Daddy grow up I will still be a kid and then I won’t have a mommy and daddy anymore.” Part of me was impressed by her ever more cunning strategies to procrastinate going to bed. My curiosity, as it often does, won again. I responded. “Maya that’s a long way off. Mommy and Daddy will be here for a long time.” “But when I die I won’t be able to play with Pinky Bear anymore. And I won’t have my bed anymore. And I won’t live in this house anymore!” she wailed. I thought, “Where on earth did this come from?” quickly followed by “How the heck do I respond to that?” I had not yet prepared for this level of awareness about death. I was sure I would have at least a few years to prepare satisfactory for these types of questions. I was on the spot.

“Maya I’m sure Pinky Bear will be with you. He’s your best friend. He’ll always be with you.” That did not appease her. “But I won’t live in this house anymore and I want to live in this house forever! And I won’t have my mommy and daddy anymore.” she whimpered. I tried to think of a suitable response. It didn’t help that I do not have the standard answer that religion often supplies. I didn’t believe in heaven or hell. The concept of reincarnation felt a little too esoteric for a three-year old.  

I thought about my own beliefs about what happens when we die. My beliefs were not taught to me explicitly, but rather were revealed to me.  It was during a wilderness program called Guiding Spirit (which I’ve written about before in previous posts). We were camping in a place called Ghost River in Alberta. When the First Nations lived there it was known for giving people powerful dreams or visions. One night I had a terrible nightmare. In it one of the program’s teachers was behaving in a childish and cruel way. I woke up terrified. The dream stayed with me the entire day, leaving me with a terrible feeling. I decided that I needed to dig a bit deeper to understand why it was clinging to me. I went into my tent, closed my eyes and started to meditate. As I re-created the dream I felt the same panic and helplessness. Instead of running from it though, I kept my eyes closed and let the vision guide me where it wanted to go.

All of a sudden, it was like a window had opened in my mind. I could see the entire universe, bathed in brilliant darkness. In the middle was a sphere of moving light and energy, glowing as if it were on fire. And there was a little speck of light that was making its way to the massive orb. I knew that I was that speck of light. It reached the sphere and was absorbed. At that moment I felt the most incredible and complex emotion I have ever experienced. I was overcome with a feeling of homecoming, reunion, joy, relief and love. It filled my body. It overflowed. Tears of joy streamed down my face. As the feeling ebbed, it left me with a sense of deep peace. I have since wondered if there is a word for that mix of complex emotions, and the only English word I can think of is ecstasy. But I don’t really like that word. Maybe there is a better one in Italian. Or French.

That experience resolved the intense longing for something I could never quite define, a longing I had felt for most of my adult life.  It also provided me with an answer to what happens when we die. We go home.

Several years later I was talking to a good friend that I met in law school. I called him my spiritual advisor. He is an Orthodox Jew and one of the most amazing (and hilarious) men I have ever met. At one point in the conversation he asked me about my beliefs. I took a moment to think about it. “Oh! I remember!” I said, and then proceeded to tell him what was revealed to me at Ghost River. I had not told anyone about that vision. He found it quite funny that it took me a moment to remember my beliefs. His beliefs are as familiar as his own skin. What struck me was what he said next, that what was revealed to me was very similar to the teachings of his faith. I wondered if that coincidence was meaningful.

As I sat in the dark, listening to Maya’s whimpers, I recalled that vision.  I tried to explain that when she dies she goes home and sees all the people she loves, but was interrupted by her wails that Great Grandpa won’t get to play with her anymore. Trying to explain to a three-year old that death is like being welcomed home might be a bit too abstract. Her sadness about her Great Grandpa not getting to play with her brought tears to my eyes. He had died of cancer the year before at 91 years of age, just after celebrating his 70th wedding anniversary. We had been able to spend a week with him a few months before he died. It was the first and last time Maya would meet him.

I picked Maya up out of her crib. She snuggled next to me in the big overstuffed chair in her room. Tears fell from my eyes as I reminded her that her dreams were magical. If she wanted Great Grandpa to play with her again, all she had to do was ask him to come and play with her in her dreams before she went to sleep. Then, when she was fast asleep, Great Grandpa would come and play with her in her dreams. “But what if he doesn’t come in my dream?” she cried. “If you ask him to come play with you in your dreams, he will come Maya. Your dreams are magic. Anything can happen in your dreams. You can fly in your dreams, you can breathe underwater, you can swim with whales and dolphins. Just ask Great Grandpa to come and he will.”

She was quiet for a moment and then tearfully said “Great Grandpa will you please play with me in my dream tonight?” We sat together in that chair, with her nestled under my arm, leaning against my chest. Within minutes she was fast asleep. I let her sleep there beside me, soaking in the weight of her body. I marveled at the conversation we had just had, wondering what had all brought it on.

It was the next day that it came to me. She had seen Cinderella several weeks before and wanted me to tell her the story over and over. Each time I told it a bit differently, but that day I had started from the beginning. In the beginning, Cinderella lived with her father because her mother had died, and soon after her father died as well, leaving her alone with her mean stepmother and stepsisters. I hadn’t realized how dark the older Disney movies were until I started watching them through a 3 year-old child’s eyes. Many of them feature a parent dying or a child being kidnapped. The newer ones seem positively sanitized in comparison. Was it a bad thing, I wondered, to expose her to death this young?

The next day I waited to see if she would raise the subject again. Instead she told me proudly “Mommy I heard you leave my room last night and I went to sleep all by myself and I didn’t even cry!” Ah toddlers.

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Confessions of a Wannabe Writer

I have been meandering through my life reminiscing about dreams I had realized in my recent posts, which had started out as a public acknowledgment of my most sacred of dreams, to be a writer. Being a writer is by far the scariest of all of my dreams, as it is the most dear to my heart. I had felt, for the longest time, that I had the most to lose if that particular dream did not materialize. So precious was it, that I hid it deep down in my soul. I refused to acknowledge it, let alone take steps towards it. I actively resisted, like a toddler who refuses to put her shoes on so that you can actually get out the door and get to work on time. She senses your desperation to leave and squirms and wriggles and pushes until you are on the verge of a tantrum yourself.

There was no desperation in this dream of writing, however. It was not pinning me down, forcing me to put my damn shoes on. It was simply out there, in the universe, waiting patiently for my acknowledgment. Every now and then there would be a gentle nudge, a word of encouragement, like a hand reaching out, waiting for me to take hold. But, like a stubborn child, I would not.

The first gentle nudge of encouragement came in my first year of university. I hadn’t wanted to go. I was, to put it bluntly, a mess. Unbeknownst to my parents, who meant well when they pressured me to attend, I was in a very dark and terrible place. My unsophisticated attempts to get out of the deep pit I found myself in, by choosing the most self-destructive means possible, merely served to push me down further. I was too oppressed by this darkness to protest my parents’ wishes, and so I signed up for classes. In the bizarreness that was my mind at that time, I reasoned that my parents could force me to go to university, but could not force me to actually attend classes or learn anything. In high school I had managed to keep up my grades while writing out Pink Floyd lyrics in my classes, but this strategy proved to be not at all effective in university. I was flailing. I went to one exam having been to only one class. I wrote the exam in 15 minutes and left. I heard later that people had determined that I was either a genius, or had no clue what was going on. It was the latter; my first failing grade.

In one of my English exams I wrote a poem. This would not have been a problem had the exam not required me to compare and contrast two plays, only one of which I had actually read. Defeated and not even able to bullshit, I decided to perfect a poem I had been working on. My goal for this particular poem, and every poem I had written since I was 14 years old, was to make it as depressing as possible. I wanted the reader to feel every ounce of pain and hopelessness I felt.

It must have worked. My English professor called me into his office and requested that I see a counsellor. He was concerned about me. I’m not sure why this surprised me. Of course he would have thought the poem was a call for help. The last line, if I recall, said something like “she landed in death’s sweet arms”. Consciously, it was not; the poem was simply me not knowing how else to fill up the empty pages of my exam booklet. But I agreed to go to a counsellor nonetheless. As I left he told me that the writing was very good. He said that I should consider taking creative writing. I thanked him. I was secretly quite pleased, but of course, nothing more came of it. I didn’t sign up for creative writing. I could have. I had two years of general studies to complete before I was required to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, but writing was not even considered.

The counsellor was decidedly unhelpful, likely because I was a very unhelpful patient. She asked me all kinds of questions like “How can I help you?” which was met by my bewildered silence. Aren’t you supposed to know that? Isn’t that why I am here? I went once and didn’t return. I dropped out of university the following year.

To ensure that I was never in a situation again where someone would actually encourage my dream to be a writer, I decided never to show anyone my writing again. My writing was reserved for my private journals. In my recovery I felt compelled to write. It was as necessary as breathing. But when my first husband read my journal, I stopped writing all together.

There had been a few times where I had tried to write something, a story, the start of a novel. After one page I would tear it up and that would be that. Reading the words on the page was humiliating. They were absolutely terrible. Who did I think I was? It was pathetic. It was so devastating that I would it would be years before the next attempt.  It was “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron that invited me to start writing for myself again. But even though the entire book is devoted to people taming their creative demons, it wasn’t enough to coach my dream of being a writer to the surface. It stayed well hidden in the crevices of my heart, waiting.

I have come to believe that things happen when they should. If I did not feel compelled to honour this dream, then there was a reason. I have decided to trust that there is a wisdom that is guiding me. My job, simply, is to do my best to listen, to see and to feel the universe communicating its purpose for me. It is not always easy. There have been many a time I have requested a big booming voice telling me what I should do, what path I should take. Alas, I have never had the booming voice. My messages have been much more subtle, which can be crazy making at times.

But, at long last, the dream to write has come out of hiding and has risen to the surface to take her first breath. There are several people who were instrumental in coaxing her out of hiding: my mother, Dave (my partner in life) and Jeremy (my old soul).  With their encouragement, I have decided to write this blog; my tentative first steps. I know that there are likely thousands upon thousands of people who have written blogs that think nothing of it. Their decision was likely not momentous, nor profound. But for me, it was. Writing this blog is honouring my most precious of dreams for myself.

Once surfaced, what has allowed this dream to truly take hold was the most sacred gift of my life, the gift of my daughter. She was the only thing I had ever truly prayed for. When I was told that she would never come, that my body would not allow it, I fell into despair. Why? Why? I asked the universe this over and over. And then, at the most unlikeliest of times, a shaman whispered to me in a vision that she was there, a little bean in my womb. Her birth reminded me, with such force it left me breathless, that life is both sacred and temporary. In the first weeks after her birth, the thought that something might happen to her left me with a dread that sent a slow wave of dark sludge through my body. This terrible dread was a constant companion. A car would drive towards us as I walked on the sidewalk and I would imagine that it veered off the road and hit us. I heard a noise at might and imagined that someone was breaking in and wondered how I would protect her. I was convinced that if she died, I would not survive it.

The waves of dread have faded, but the awareness of our mortality has not. I had her when I was almost 41. There is a very real possibility that when she is my age, I may no longer walk this earth. My blog started out as a way to keep our family who live far away from us connected to us. I would write about the cute things our daughter does and says. But it has turned into something else. It is a chronicle of my life, my hero’s (heroine’s) journey. It is the most sacred gift that I can give to my daughter. No matter what, she will have these stories to help guide her in her life.

So I would like to thank all of you who read these words and are sharing this journey with me. I am deeply grateful for your support, your encouragement, your letters, and your comments. It has had a profound impact on me.

Dream a little dream … Mid Life Crisis Part II

Life without dreams, I discovered at a young age, is a particular kind of hell. It is the kind of hell where all meaning is lost. Whether it is day or night has no significance, because they are both intolerable. There is nothing to look forward to, no point to existence. I had lived in that kind of hell in my early adulthood. I had dropped out of university after two tortuous years to work in the “real world” as a restaurant manager.  It didn’t take too many long nights of washing dishes to realize that my life pretty much sucked. I had no idea who I was. No clue what I wanted from life, or significantly, that you could want something out of life. More importantly, however, I didn’t know what life wanted from me. If this was all that life was, working at a moderately crappy job, going from terrible relationship to terrible relationship, than what was the point exactly? Before I would go to sleep I would quietly ask God to please take me back and let me start all over again. Hopefully the next time I wouldn’t be a massive disappointment.

The darkness and despair I felt was a signal, the discomfort meant to propel me to make drastic changes in my life. But change is, frankly, terrifying and I was having none of it. Instead I muddled around in the world, buying all of the self-help books I could find. I was searching for answers, but not too hard, because I was certain that the answers I found would be too difficult to bear. I had no doubt that if I were faced with the truth of myself, who I really was, it would suffocate me with its awfulness. It would choke me with shame.

I stayed in this uncomfortable ambivalence for many years. I was 21 years old, and miserable. Yet another boyfriend I had been madly in love was distancing himself from me. I could feel the desperation growing in me like a wild fire, needing to call him, needing to talk to him, needing him to know how I felt, needing to understand why. I knew that need would drive him away further, but it was fierce. I picked up a book instead, trying to make sense of this pattern of failed relationships. It was called “Leaving the Enchanted Forest” by Stephanie Covington. The only thing I remember is reading one line, and it almost knocking the breath out of me. I don’t remember it word for word, but the message was this: You cannot depend on others for your happiness. Your happiness is yours alone to create.

I had heard this probably millions of time before, but the words had always floated by and never really taken hold. This time, however, it shocked me with its truth. I realized that that was what I had been doing my entire life. I was only really happy if others (specifically a man) loved me. If he didn’t, I was deflated, absent, like all of who I was could escape with a simple exhale. With this appalling truth staring at me in the face, I decided that I would not be this woman any longer. I went to my room and looked at my phone. I knew that I needed help. I picked up the phone and put it down. I was crying with fear. I hung it up a second time. The third, however, was a success. The person who answered calmed me down, and I made an appointment. I was going to change my life.

I threw myself into recovery, determined to be honest above all else. I held nothing back. All of my shame came to the fore, and I realized, with relief, that it wasn’t powerful enough to kill me. With the help of others who witnessed all of it and accepted me anyway, I learned to accept myself. What I noticed, however, in this culture of recovery, is that many people who had been in recovery for years, were not really living. They were stuck in fear, always recovering. In recovery, their dreams came with a disclaimer.

“Please dream with caution as you are powerless and your dreams might be dangerous for your recovery. Don’t get too confident or sure of yourself. Remember. You are powerless over your (name addiction/weakness here).”

I noticed that recovery and survival were enough for many people. But it was not enough for me. I wanted to more. I didn’t want to just survive, I wanted to thrive. I had recovered my spirit and was eager to re-claim and discover who I was as a woman. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in recovery, attending meetings that reminded me of how powerless I was. I felt powerful. I wanted to taste life, to dive into its waters and learn its mysteries. I wanted to dream. I wanted adventure.

I decided to go on a vacation. It was my first real vacation while working as a restaurant manager. I was really excited because I had decided to go to Club Med for one simple reason, I had always wanted to learn to water ski. Growing up in land locked Calgary, Alberta had meant that things like water skiing had been out of my reach. It was a crazy dream I had had since I was little, and I was going to honour it. I picked a Club that had an abundance of water sports: scuba diving, sailing, water skiing. My mother, who has supported me throughout my life, and does still, gave me enough so that I could stay for two weeks. I was so excited.

I arrived in Mexico and threw myself into every activity. I water-skied every single day. I learned to sail. I took tennis lessons. I learned to scuba dive. I danced all night long. I met loads of people. The people who worked there were the friendliest people I had ever met and they came from all over the world. At the end of my first week it dawned on me. These people actually work in this place! This is their JOB. Every morning they wake up to go to work and this is what they see. This is what they do. This is AMAZING.

I realized something. I wanted this life. Just the thought of it felt delicious and dangerous.

When I came home I told my parents that I had made a major life decision. I am positive that they were hoping that I had learned that the “real world” wasn’t so great and I would go back to university where I belonged. When I had dropped out of university a few years before, it was with the promise that I would return. They had informed me, very seriously, that when people drop out of university they never go back. Dropping out of university, would, therefore, be the worst decision I could ever make. It would negatively impact the rest of my life. All of that potential from the brains in my head would be wasted. I dropped out anyway and promised that I would be the exception.

When I told them, instead, that I was going to be a scuba diving instructor and work for Club Med, I was prepared for my dad, especially, to lose it. I wasn’t disappointed. But strangely enough, when the shock wore off, they both supported me. Coincidentally the very first instructor’s course was just starting up in Alberta. If there hadn’t been one, I doubt I would ever have followed through. My parents paid for me to complete my training, which took about 9 months.

In my instructor’s class I found others, like me, who had become disillusioned with life. A few were lawyers.  What we all shared was the desire for something more from life than what we woke up to, day after day. We were all searching for what that something more might be. We all dreamed of waking up to beautiful sunshine and sandy beaches every morning. In the meantime, however, the actual training was brutal. My first open water dive was in a glacier lake outside of Banff, Alberta. The water was so cold we had to keep surfacing to warm up the regulators so they would work properly.

I dove in water that was in the process of freezing while I was in it. It was one of our last dives in Alberta, before we did our exam dives in British Columbia. It was about minus 30 degrees Celsius outside, even colder with the wind chill. We were all moving quite slowly, not really believing that our instructor, Don, would actually make us dive in water this freezing. After watching us dawdle for a period of time, Don called us together. Instead of a pep talk, he let us have it. “You people are the biggest whiny children I have ever seen! This is the easiest fucking dive you are ever going to do! Now get off your fucking ass and get in the fucking water!” We all stood frozen in shocked silence. We had never seen him lose control before. He had always been so happy and cheerful, in a used-car dealer kind of way.

I got dressed more quickly, but his reproach did not change the fact that I dreaded getting into that water. The air was so cold that steam was coming off of the water, even though it was at the point of freezing. As grumpy as I was, there was a sliver of hope. I had noticed that Don was almost a bigger wimp than me when it came to the cold.

As soon as I got to the bottom I started inhaling as deeply as I could, practically hyperventilating, so that I could use all of my air quickly and be forced to return to the surface. I didn’t need to. My hunch about Don’s ability to adapt to the cold was correct. He signaled to us to go up to the surface within ten minutes. We crammed into the back of someone’s van, trying to remove frozen solid gloves from fingers that could barely move. I would have glared at Don had I not been so grateful to be out of that water. 

After I passed my exams, and was certified as an instructor, I applied to work at Club Med. They called me within a few weeks. I flew to New York for an interview. A few weeks after that I was on a plane, leaving my life behind and flying to Sonora, Mexico, to work as a scuba diving instructor in Club Med.

I had dreamed a dream that was totally and completely mine. It was not my parent’s dream, not the women’s programmed “get married and have children” dream. This dream was utterly and entirely mine. And I had made it come true, with help of course. For the first time, I was excited by what life held in store for me. I had crawled out of the darkness that was my life for 21 years and emerged transformed by that experience. It was surrendering and connecting to something greater than me that allowed it to happen. I hadn’t defined what that was, hadn’t named it, and had no desire to. I simply felt a loving and compassionate presence in my life. That presence helped me to heal and encouraged me to have the courage to stand up for my life, for my dreams. It helped me believe that anything really was possible. I felt certain that whatever that presence was, it was partly responsible for me being there, on that plane, flying into the unknown possibilities of my life. I was incredibly grateful and excited.

Almost a decade later, at 30, I faced another existential crisis as I faced my own mortality. What helped me through it was recovering my dreams, dreams that were precious to me. One was acting, and the other, singing. I knew, from experience, that the key to recovering meaning in my life was to reach out for my dreams, to start a new adventure. I reached out to the universe to ask for help. Help this crazy rock star dream come true. And just like Julia Cameron warned in her book “The Artist’s Way”, there is a reason that people say “Be careful what you wish/pray for, it might come true.”

Stay tuned for the next installment

My Quest – Part II of Taking a Leap of Faith

Julian looked me in the eyes but we did not speak. I knew he had no doubts that I would be able to do this. Another member of our group, a young man, had been talking for days about how he didn’t think he could handle three days in the wilderness. He was certain that he would panic and have to return to camp. I was shocked by his fear. He had always seemed overly confident in his abilities and slightly disdainful when people couldn’t keep up. I had never considered that I might give up and return back to camp. But I, unlike him, had learned how to appreciate my own company. It wasn’t the loneliness that worried me.

I met Julian’s stare and smiled. I didn’t say good-bye and I didn’t look back. I walked up the mountain feeling a mixture of calm and nerves. In my backpack was a small fleece blanket, a pair of rain pants and jacket, a small piece of rope, a carabiner, a journal, some incense and a lighter. That was it. No food, no water, no tent, no sleeping bag. My first task was to find a suitable location to spend three days in the mountains with no shelter.

Julian had told us how he had done his quest, years ago. The purpose was to rid one’s self of all distractions. No food, no water, little movement, little clothing, and no sleep. I wasn’t at all confident in my ability to purge myself of all of these comforts. The two I was certain I would need help with was staying awake and staying warm. As I walked up the hill I whispered “Please help me stay warm. Please help me stay awake.”

About halfway up the slope of the mountain I found a spot. It was fairly flat and sunny, but with some shade from the trees. I found some rocks and made my circle. One rock facing east, one south, one west, and one north. The circle was large enough to lie down in if I curled up in the fetal position. Once I stepped into the circle, I would not leave until Julian called for us all three days later. I would spend two nights on that mountain, sitting in that circle. I stepped in, sat down, and looked out over the prairies, my view for the next three days. I tried to prepare for the battles that lay ahead: the battle with my stomach who would want food; the battle with my throat that would want water; the battle with my body that would want sleep; and the battle with my mind that would want to give up.

I watched the sun move across the sky. It started in the east. I lit incense when it moved to the south and when it set in the west. When I tired of sitting, I stood up and sang the songs that Julian had taught us. My favourite was the warrior woman song. I sang it over and over. One of the elders had told us that this solo was a sacred rite of passage. When we returned from the mountain a part of us would be left behind to allow a new part to emerge. Traditionally it had been a child that would go alone into the wilderness, and return to the community as an adult. We had talked about what rites of passage we celebrate, officially or not, in our culture. Many of them were not terribly sacred; getting drunk, losing one’s virginity, getting a driver’s license, graduating from high school. For me this rite of passage was sacred. It was time for the part of me who was childlike and lived in fear to be replaced by the wise warrior woman. It was time for me to grow up.

When I stopped singing I sat down. I remembered what Julian had told us about how he handled the boredom; he sent a message of gratitude to every person he had ever met in his life. I started by thanking the mystery that is this universe, what they called Great Spirit or Creator. I thanked the people that were closest to me for all that they had done for me. As I did, tears streamed down my face. I felt so much love and appreciation. I sent messages of love to my grandmother who had died when I was a young woman and completely messed up. She had never seen me come out the other side, but I felt her presence at that moment. I thanked people who I had not seen in years. I thanked the people that had hurt me, for the truth was that I wouldn’t be the person I was without that suffering, and I was proud of who I was, who I was becoming.

Right before night fell I started to hear rustling in the trees and bushes around me. Julian had told me about pack rats in the mountains but I had never seen one until that night. They peered at me from behind the trees. They had a rat’s face, but a squirrel’s tail. They did not fear me at all. One of them ate the rope that was holding my backpack to a tree and stole my carabiner. I took a step outside of my circle to rescue my pack.

I had been wondering how the mystery of this world would help me to stay awake. Now I knew. Pack rats. As it got darker, they started to come towards me. I couldn’t believe it. They were trying to climb right up on me! I thought animals were supposed to be afraid of humans! I spent the next several hours on guard, waiting for them to come into my circle and then shooing them away. Bernard, a member of our group, had found a spot within hearing distance. Just as the pack rats started invading him space he heard me yelling frantically, “Shoo!!! Get away from me! Shoo!!!” He thought that was quite hilarious.

As the pack rats finally left me alone I looked up at the sky. There were millions of stars. They covered the sky with their brilliance. I was completely in awe and watched the moon and the stars slowly move across the sky for hours. I had never spent a night awake under the sky. It was magnificent.  As I watched I marveled at the fact that the moon, what the elders called “Grandmother”, had a direct influence on the rhythm of my body; my moon cycle. I had never really thought about that before, the impact something so far away had on the part of my body responsible for conception, for creating new life. I had never felt so connected to something in my life as I did to the moon that night. She was my grandmother. She was watching over me, protecting me. Even though it was the middle of the night, and I had only my small fleece blanket wrapped around my shoulders, I felt cozy under her gaze. I had heard later that they had been cold in the camp below, but I felt warm.

I lit my incense as the sun rose in the east. My body was taking notice of the lack of food and water. Their absence impacted me in subtle ways. At times I felt a strange kind of peace that I imagined one might feel when death was very near. I lay down with my knees bent. I smelt the leaves from the wild strawberry plants. It gave me comfort. What I felt most profoundly, though, was how the earth supported the weight of my body. Julian had talked to us about the Gaia principle, that the earth is an actual organism; mother earth. I felt that, the earth was cradling me. She was there fore me, nurturing me, there was nothing to fear. I realized that even though people may have let me down, abandoned me, hurt me, the earth would always be there. If I felt alone I could always seek connection and comfort the soil, the trees, the moon and the stars, the living world around me I had always taken for granted.

That night as I was fighting off the pack rats who were determined to eat the very clothes I was wearing, I heard something crashing through the bush towards me. I froze. I was sure it was a bear. Traditionally part of the purpose of the vision quest was to meet one’s spirit guide, an animal. I had hoped that mine would not be a pack rat. Although I thought that having a bear for a spirit guide would be incredibly cool, I prayed that it was not a bear running straight for me. I looked up and out of the trees came a gigantic buck. He stopped only a few feet away. I held my breath. He lifted his head and antlers and I could see his breath. He was majestic. Right at that very moment a packrat, sensing my sudden lack of vigilance, took the opportunity to jump and landed right on top of my head. I fought a scream but it was too late. The buck leaped back into the forest and was gone. I savoured that moment when it felt like the buck and I were the only two beings in the entire world. It felt important somehow, and I wanted it to sink into my bones, my blood, become a part of me.

The next morning I lit my incense as the sun rose in the east. I was impatient for Julian’s call. The second I heard him I packed up my things and walked back to camp, where a feast awaited us. The young man who was sure that he would not make it, had returned to camp the first night and kept watch over the fire that they kept burning the whole time we were in the wild. I returned from the mountain a woman. I may not have rid myself of all of my fears, but I had a powerful ally. My warrior woman had awakened. She is the one who helps me to fight for my dreams. Over the next years of my life I needed her fierce encouragement, for reaching out for my dreams has been both the scariest and the most rewarding thing I have ever experienced.

Stay tuned for the next installment!

Aside: The solo is offered as part of the adult programming at ghostriverrediscovery.com out of Calgary, Alberta.

Taking a Leap of Faith – Part I

Maya and Dave

Maya and Dave

I am sitting in my living room on a Saturday morning in my bathrobe, with freshly dyed hair (good-bye for a month terrible grey roots!) and an empty house. A house that looks like a cyclone went through it mind you, but empty nonetheless. I dropped Dave and Maya at the airport a few short hours ago so that they could visit his family in Ontario. It’s been almost a year since we moved from Ontario to B.C., which is hard to believe.

As I’m sitting here, listening to loud music (Metric of course), their absence is sinking in. Since I had Maya I have only been away from her twice, and only for a few days. I was dreading saying good-bye. I was anticipating sobs and wailing “Mommy come with us!!” Of course she dealt with it must better than I did. “Bye-bye Mommy! I love you!” And off she went, holding Daddy’s hand. She didn’t even look back.

Ten days. Ten days without them. In that time I need to fit in all of the things I want/need to do. The thing most pressing is, depressingly, cleaning this apartment. Moving from a house to an apartment has been an adjustment. Keeping a small place clean, when a toddler is one of the three people living there, is more challenging than I had imagined. And to top it all off I detest cleaning. I become a vile creature when I clean, particularly if I must do it in silence. Music is the only companion I want around me when I clean.

The other task I want to accomplish while they are away is to write. I have had a strange relationship with writing. It has been a dream of mine since I can remember, to write. Not to be a writer, mind you; oddly that was never the goal. Over the years, however, every time I attempted to write something intended for public consumption, the words that came out on the page were so embarrassing that I would hide the dreadful things away, along with the dream, until the next time I became desperate enough to put pen to page.  And so the dream was put off. I wrote in my journals, wrote paper after paper for school, wrote reports for work, but never dared to write. It was too scary. The fantasy was ephemeral, living at the edges of my consciousness, making the odd, limping, appearance in my longing, but without enough force to get me to really pay attention.

I had heard someone say that you should never attempt to actually do what you fantasize about. Once the fantasy was realized, he argued, you have nothing left; emptiness where once lived longing and desire. On first hearing this I agreed, but what is assumed in this theory is that the soil of that emptiness would be so barren that no seed could possibly take root to create a new and possibly more wonderful fantasy.

I had many fantasies that I had kept hidden away; to be a rock star, or a famous movie actress. My dream of writing had been so daunting, however, that it never contemplated actually being a writer. That would be too audacious. To even fantasize about it would invite retribution. It would tempt fate. My belief in the world was something like this: every moment of joy would be responded to by three times that of disaster. I’m not sure where this distrust of the world came from, but it made me very protective of my dreams. I kept them locked away, as one would lock away their most precious possessions to safeguard them from invaders during a war. That is what I did with my dreams. My life was the war. I hid my dreams so well that I forgot that they existed.

My belief about the world was forever changed as a result of participating in a unique program called “Guiding Spirit.” I’ve described it in my birth story blog, but, in short, it changed my life. I learned profound things about myself. The most important realization was how little I actually trusted the world. I expected to be betrayed, disappointed, abandoned, hurt.

This immense distrust first hit me when we did a “high ropes” course. It was like a giant playground for adults, but suspended about 40 feet off the ground. I am scared of heights. It was my turn to do the log crossing. I put on my harness and climbed up the forty feet to the log. It was a thick and suspended in mid air. I had walked, even run, on many logs this size with no fear. But those were on the ground.

I took my first step and my whole body started to shake uncontrollably. I stopped. I couldn’t even trust my body to work properly. The people below, holding on to ropes that would hold me if I fell, were starting to get bored. One of the men started to yell encouraging words. I think it was something to the effect of “For fuck’s sake will you GO already!”

I stood there shaking. I was too scared to walk. My legs were shaking so badly I knew I would fall. I started to examine the Fear that had invaded my body. What was I really afraid of? I was harnessed in. If I fell the people below would hold on to the ropes and would stop my fall. That is when it hit me. I didn’t trust that they would hang on when I needed them. Fear whispered to me “They are bored, they’re not really paying attention, they don’t know you or care about you. They will let you fall.”

I listened, then looked Fear in the eye. “No. I do not believe you.” It was true that these people did not know or care about me, but I decided to trust them anyway. The second I made the decision to trust, Fear slithered quickly out of body. My legs stopped shaking. I felt calm. I walked across the log with the same confidence I would have had it been on the ground.

After two months of adventures designed to test our limits, dissolve our defenses and make us more aware and connected human beings, it was time for the grand finale, the solo; the right of passage to transition us to the next part of the program. Our solo would involve three days of venturing into the Canadian Rockies. Alone.

I had accepted one of our guides, Julian’s, challenge. It was like he was speaking directly to me when he told our group that the only way we would learn the profound lessons about ourselves we had said we wanted to learn would be to give up the things that make us feel secure. I knew he was right. I had not taken the solo seriously.

I started to consider what deep truths I wanted to discover from this experience. What came to me was slightly shocking. I wanted to learn that I could trust the world; that if I went out into the world alone and vulnerable, that I would be cared for. Being alone didn’t make me insecure, but being cold did. I determined that in order to truly test this theory I had to severely limit what I could bring. I decided I would bring next to nothing; no sleeping bag, no tent. Immediately after that decision, Fear crept into my body with a vengeance. I knew I was on the right path.

To assuage my fears, I went to speak to Pat, our other guide. He asked me to think of the worst possible place I could imagine being. It was in the middle of the Arctic, surrounded by snow, cold and alone. I told him my plan, to bring nothing with me except a small fleece blanket. He immediately looked concerned. “Julie you need to bring a sleeping bag.” I had expected him to support my crazy plan. Fear was positively gleeful. “I told you! Your plan is TERRIBLE. You are going to freeze to death in the mountains. I told you!!”

It was a pivotal moment. I knew that this act of faith on my part was crucial. Bringing a sleeping bag would signify that I did not truly trust the world with my life. “Sure I trust you! But just in case you let me down I have this handy sleeping bag. Just in case. But I trust you! I swear.” Perhaps that was Pat’s point; that I shouldn’t trust the world in this way. It was foolish. We were in the mountains for god’s sake, where snowstorms in the summer are not uncommon. It was the perfect moment to back down. Pat, someone whose knowledge and wisdom I counted on was telling me I was being foolish. I should listen to him. A part of me I had forgotten spoke up forcefully. “No. You need to trust yourself.” I listened and stood my ground. I explained my rationale to Pat, my need to commit to my plan, to trust that I would be cared for. I must have sounded persuasive. He told me to jump up and down if I got cold.

The morning we were to leave we went into the sweat lodge. When it came to the round where we were to pray for ourselves, I called out silently to the mystery of the universe, what they called Great Spirit and the Creator. I asked for help. Please help me stay awake. Please help me stay warm. I left the sweat lodge, said good-bye to the others, and walked towards the mountains. I did not look back.

I brought very little with me: no food, no water, and no shelter. My plan was to fast and stay awake for the full three days. I felt both terrified and confident. I walked up the mountainside and into the wilderness, not knowing that this experience would change me forever.

Stay tuned for Part II