Connecting with the Mystery

My theory of the mystery of life has developed from a myriad of sources, which I have pieced together like a mosaic; my version of spirituality I suppose. I read recently that people who define themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious” are more prone to depression and anxiety. That makes sense to me. Religion, from what I have observed, provides many people with comfort. If nothing else, religion gives people answers to tough questions. For the really tough questions, the answer is simple; don’t question, have faith.

But for people who have abandoned organized religion, they must answer those questions themselves, create their own meaning of life and death. The really tough questions may remain unanswered, which can be quite disconcerting. The search for those answers can lead to a deep sense of isolation and despair. I remember one moment of despair as I realized how truly alone I was in the world. No one except me would ever really know me; it was impossible.

For those who have the courage to persist through that darkness, however, and discover their own answers, are rewarded with a deep and unshakable sense of connectedness and unity with the world that is beyond description. As I contemplated my loneliness and wept with despair, a simple truth came to me. I am both alone and not alone. It is true that no other human will ever really know me, but I chose to believe that the mystery of this world did, knew everything and accepted me anyway, and this belief was comforting.

I suppose I could have simply accepted religion into my life, as I seem to have come to similar conclusions. There are those who don’t need to take that difficult path to discover their own answers, who are content to simply receive the teachings that that have been passed down for thousands of years. I, unfortunately, am not one of those people. I have to do things the hard way. I must find my own answers.

My conclusions about the mystery and magic of life are not well defined, but they all come from trying to understand and make sense of my own life, and my own experiences with that mystery. I have concluded that there are questions that cannot be answered. They are too complex to understand (for my little brain anyway). They require faith.

I decided to take that leap of faith when I was 21 when I determined that my life was intolerable. I allowed myself to believe that this mystery was wiser and more powerful than me, but also, that whatever it was, it was also loving. I felt its compassion and its love for lowly little me, and I surrendered to it. I allowed it to direct my life. I am convinced that it was that experience that was crucial to the transformation I experienced. Through that surrender, the person that I am now was created. I remember telling my friend Pat that when I was a teen I was certain that I would die when I was 21. I had had a dream about it and it was so vivid that I was convinced that my death was imminent. I was positive of it. Knowing my history he looked at me and said “But Julie you did experience a kind of death at 21. You completely transformed.” He was right.

Although I surrendered my life to whatever this mystery is, it doesn’t mean that I don’t, on a regular basis, try to re-assert my will. I think of it as allowing someone else to drive. I have been driving since I was 14 years old, which means that I am a terrible passenger. When I look down the road that we are driving towards I have a tendency to panic and try to take the wheel. “What are you thinking going down THAT path??? We are certainly NOT going down that one!”

This is the panic I feel whenever I get close to my dreams. It is a peculiar type of fear that makes me feel like a small child. When I was young I was quite shy (no one believes this but it is true!). There was a period of time where I hated trying anything new. The thought of walking into a strange room, full of strange people and not knowing what was going on filled me with dread. My parents, being good parents, signed me up for all kinds of classes. At one point it was too much. They had signed me up for a diving class. I refused to go. I couldn’t bear the thought of it. Then my Dad did something I will never forget. He offered to take the diving class with me. All my fear drained away. I was in awe of him. My dad would be there. It would be okay.

I had that same feeling when I decided that I was really going to pursue my crazy dream of being a singer. There was a tiny part of me that desperately wanted to do it, but the greater part was completely terrified. I was sure that I had a terrible voice, that I would humiliate myself if I tried. My Dad wasn’t there anymore to hold my hand. It was up to me to face these fears, all by myself.

The pivotal moment was when I went to visit my friend Jeremy, one of my favourite people in the whole world. He is a musician and I often went to his house and listened to him play guitar. I could listen to him play for hours. I had felt for a long time that he and I shared a unique connection, one I had never felt with anyone else. It was like our souls were connected. I decided that I would sing in front of him. I swallowed my terror, grabbed the microphone, and allowed my voice to be heard. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the sound, trying to stay in key and infuse the words with emotion. When I was done Jeremy said, “That was great Julie. You have a great voice.” It was the moment of truth. I could believe him or not. I was the type of person that had a difficult time accepting a compliment, distrusting people’s assessment of my skill or their motives. I decided to trust him; trust that he would not lie to me, would not say this simply to be polite. I believed him.

This simple act had unexpected consequences and led to moments of synchronicity that Julia Cameron described in “The Artist’s Way”. I was working as a social worker for the government at that time. My office was a bizarre mix of personalities. On my first day of work no one knew I was arriving. My new supervisor was away. One of the women helped me find a desk and took me out for coffee, where she explained that the office was full of crazy people, so I was either with her and the sane ones, or with the crazy ones and I had better choose. Pronto. Later that afternoon I was told the same thing by one of the crazy ones. I became friends with one of the few sane people I found, Wendy. She was my refuge and I adored her. That office was the last place I would ever expect an opportunity to sing. But one day Wendy, out of the blue, asked me if I would be interested in singing backup vocals in her band. I am sure my mouth dropped open in shock. But I accepted immediately.

I went to audition not long after, and was completely nervous. Here I would discover if Jeremy really had lied to me. I started to sing and quickly looked for any signs of a wince or a cringe on any of their faces. I saw none and started to relax. After the audition they welcomed me to the band. I was ecstatic. We practiced every week and played three shows together. It was the most fun I had ever had. I felt like a little puppy dog who had just been let off the leash; I wanted to sing more and more and more. I was in love with the experience.

But, as has happened before in my life, other things called to me. I had worked as a social worker for two years. It was stressful and often heartbreaking.  A career in child protection social work had an average shelf life of two years. I had just barely passed that mark. My dream career was to be a therapist. I saw myself having my own office,  with beautiful art on the walls, and helping people like I was at 21, helping them as my counsellor had helped me. The problems I would deal with would be manageable. That was the idea anyway.

There was only one program in Canada that offered the kind of graduate degree I was interested in. It was very competitive and only allowed 6 people per year. I applied and was accepted for a series of interviews. I flew to Guelph, Ontario for the interview. They offered me a spot a few months later. I accepted.

Although I was happy about the opportunity to further my career, I was not excited about the move. I had dreamed my whole life of living in Vancouver. After 8 years I still pinched myself, not quite believing I was really living there. I had never even wanted to visit Ontario. As I drove across the country to start a new life in Guelph, I was acutely aware of what I was leaving behind in Vancouver; friends, family, opportunities to sing and to act, and a city I was in love with. All I could do was have faith that I was on the path I was supposed to be on, and if I wasn’t, that I would be able to receive that message. It was a familiar anxiety, wondering if I was on the right path, whether I was listening to the mystery of the world or the sound of my own anxieties. Whatever it was, I was driving towards a new part of my life, having no idea where it would lead, but knowing that it would likely change everything.

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

Mid life crisis Part I

It was when I turned 30 that it hit me: I actually had dreams. If I didn’t get off my ass and do something about them they would die with me, unrealized. It’s not like my dreams had any semblance of reality; rock star and famous actress were the two most prominent, but to my surprise, I discovered that they were very important to me. The time for protecting them was over. It was time to do something.  With my impending old age came a sense of urgency. I had to do something about them NOW. But what exactly?

I knew that the likelihood of becoming a rock star or famous actress was slight. Okay impossible. But the impossibility of the fantasy didn’t mean that I couldn’t honour the spirit of those dreams: I dreamt of performing. When I had been in high school I hadn’t taken drama, hadn’t joined the choir. Instead I took a full load of academic subjects and learned to play the flute. By the time I had enough spares to actually take drama my interest in school was replaced with an all-consuming awareness of boys, parties and music. I quit taking piano and flute lessons. I spent hours in my room listening to music with my mother occasionally entering my domain to tell me to turn it down.

I dyed my hair black, wore black makeup and black clothes. School bored me to tears. My grades started to slip. I spent most of my classes writing out Pink Floyd lyrics and writing poetry filled with angst. My teachers became concerned that I had mental health problems. They were probably right.

Now that I was turning 30, those dreams from my youth came rushing back, demanding to be heard. “How does one go about doing these things as an adult?” I wondered. I looked through the adult education pamphlets for the local college but there was nary a class entitled “How to be a Rock Star”. It was at that time that I first picked up Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way.” The book has twelve chapters; each with a weekly theme and exercises designed to help unleash one’s creativity and deal with the demons that can get in the way.

A repeated message in the book is the proverb “Leap, and the net will appear.” The readings, daily writing and weekly exercises taught me to trust that if I took a step towards my dreams the “how” would work itself out like magic. Jung called it synchronicity – the magic that happens when you reach out to the universe with your dreams and the universe responds with a series of coincidences that help you on your path. I decided to take the risk and reach out to the universe with my dreams of acting and singing. This is how the universe responded.

My friend Julie was doing her master’s degree in social work. She asked for my help with one of her school projects. She needed to film a session with a client where she would showcase her skills doing a particular type of therapy. I was to be the client.  I read from the script and tried to make it look as authentic as possible. The next week she told me that her classmates had raved about my performance; that I made it seem like a real session. She then pulled out a newspaper with an advertisement circled. A community theatre company in the North Shore had put out a call for auditions for the play “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” I could feel my heart skip with excitement. I had read the book and seen the movie. It would be too amazing for words to get a part. I looked more closely at the ad. It said that the audition would be “improv”. I had no idea what that meant. Julie, worldlier than I, explained that improv would mean that I would not read from a script. I would have to improvise. She insisted that I go to the audition. Synchronicity.

Julia Cameron talked about this exact situation in her book. She warned the reader that these experiences of synchronicity could be incredibly disarming. We don’t expect the universe to respond to our tiny little dreams knocking on the door. We expect to be rejected, to be ignored. When we aren’t, when the universe opens the door and hands us exactly what we have asked, most of us will run screaming. Knowing that fear was an expected response, I remembered my own mantra: there is no courage without fear. I wasn’t just scared. I was terrified to go to this audition. Who did I think I was? I had never acted in a play in my life, never taken a drama class. I had no idea what I was doing. But I was determined that fear would not take these dreams away from me.

With Julie’s encouragement, I decided to go to the audition. It was at a college in the North Shore. I had never been there. I had always been strangely petrified of getting lost at a big school. When I went to University the first time I would drop a class if it was in a building I wasn’t familiar with, rather than risk getting lost. After twenty minutes of driving up the wrong street, I realized that I was completely lost. I started to talk to myself; a sure sign I was in full-blown panic. “This is a sign that you shouldn’t be doing this! You are going to be late. This is terrible. Oh my God you are a complete idiot. Watch where you’re going!” The part of my brain that preferred not to die in a car accident tried to calm me down. I told myself that if I just made it to the parking lot, then I could turn around and go back home. I would be proud of myself just for getting to the parking lot. I finally found the parking lot and parked the car. I wasn’t even late. I sat in the car, trying to decide whether to turn around and go home or get out of the car. I could hear my heart racing. My hands shook. Every thought that raced through my brain told me to go the fuck home already.

Instead, I took the keys out of the ignition and opened the door. I immediately saw some young men walking towards the college. I was so panicked that I was sure they could tell, just by looking at me, that I had no idea what I was doing and should not, under any circumstances, be there. I was a fraud of the biggest order. They could probably smell my fear. I tried to shrink so that they wouldn’t notice me. Of course they came right up and started talking to me. “Do you have any idea how to get to the audition?” My mother’s training, so engrained it was instinctual, took over (thank God). I politely said, “I have absolutely no idea actually. I’m lost too.” I smiled. They started walking with me. “We’ll all find it together!” They were friendly and charming. I started to relax.

We found our way inside and were given cards that told us what we would have to do in our improv. My card said that I was in labour with my first child but had not yet told my husband that the real father was not him, but a black man. My goal for the improv was to leave wherever we were and fly home. Good God. Normally, panic would have been delighted at yet another chance to make an appearance, but it was no match for the charm and friendliness of the men I was now talking and laughing with. By the time it was my turn for the audition I had never felt so at ease. I walked into the room and tried to remember everything I had ever seen about women in labour from television. When I was preparing, I had tried to picture how the scenario would unfold, with the little information I had. What I had pictured happening in my mind, however, was not at all how it unravelled with all of the characters together.  There was a point where my “husband” and the “nurse” were almost coming to blows, one trying to get me admitted and the other turning us away, saying the hospital was closed. I interrupted their argument with a contraction. Then I turned to my “husband” and begged him to take me home. I told him that I was so grateful for everything he was doing, but that all I wanted was to go home. I looked him in the eyes imploringly. I was tender. I think I even touched his cheek. Inside I was thinking, “He has no idea that he is about to be betrayed. Poor guy!” He stared at me for a minute and agreed. I will always remember his eyes in that moment. And then it was over. I never saw either of them again.

I don’t even remember the rest of the day. I was high from the adrenaline of that experience. I felt like I was floating. I found out later that one of the keys to improv is to say yes to whatever happens. Always say yes. The hospital is closed when you need to be admitted? Yes it is! Well can’t we take that helicopter right behind you? Of course we can! I thought that that was pretty good advice for real life too. Say yes to what life throws at you. At least at the end you’ll have a lot of good stories.   

The next day I got the call. They offered me a part. I was dumbfounded and thanked them profusely. It took me a few minutes to realize that the part I was going to play was Candy, the prostitute. My very first part, and I would play a lady of the night. What could be more perfect than that?

Stay tuned for the next installment!