In late June, I took a Friday off from work and drove 90 miles north from Seattle to the Chuckanut Writers Conference, a two-day event led by some of the Pacific Northwest’s most gifted and influential writers. The days were divided into class sessions, with keynote lectures by faculty in the morning, at noon, and to end each day. Since the conference, I’ve been typing and cataloging my handwritten notes and reflections. My penciled words are so full of wonder and hope, awe, excitement, and passion, that I wonder how in the world I can always feel the way I did at Chuckanut. Is there a way to live my life so it feels less like an accident, less like fulfilling some cloudy expectations? How do I inject the appropriately “grown-up,” career I work so doggedly at with the pure sense of freedom and, well, giddiness, I felt for those two days in June?
Even before Chuckanut, I’ve felt the approach of a major crossroad, lumbering toward it solidly like a train across an open prairie. What I read — when my eyes will stay open long enough at the end of a day — has been centered on finding balance, in health, mind, body, career. Dr. Lissa Rankin’s book “Mind Over Medicine” and her blog have pushed me to better understand my body and the way stress and negative mental states manifest in physical conditions from migraines to cancer. Dr. Brene Brown’s book “Daring Greatly” and her TED talks inspire me to dig out the voice I’ve buried since I was a teen and to say out loud what scares me or hurts me, instead of being stoic or feeling ashamed. Brainpickings.org puts the words of great writers and thinkers right into my pocket, where I can wonder at how I could ever be as brilliant.
Something has been telling me for quite some time that I’m doing the wrong thing. I’m really good at this wrong thing — I can email, manage, absorb concepts and generally work like a robot all day long. I will take thorough notes at every meeting, learn every piece of software, conjure some quality improvement projects, process contracts, coordinate witnesses, whip up a batch of accounts payable, write grant applications with noble outcomes, and absorb the anger of frustrated staff and the rampant egos of some leaders. And I’ll do it all in a way that appears highly capable. I have done these tasks with a killer commute — more than 3 hours a day, to an island, by car, ferry, and sometimes, bus.
In spite of all this, I feel like a failure most days. My stomach started to fail a year ago. My attitude and treatment of loved ones failed around the same time. There are no birthday reminders on my calendar. I don’t buy gifts on time, if at all. I’ve become cynical despite the smile plastered on my face all day long. I flake out on friends because I’m tired and I just can’t keep up. I’m out of their loop and can’t expect them to work within my hectic schedule. I’ve become more “Type A” than I ever realized, always working in a protective, battle-ready mode. None of this used to exist. I think back to days when I laughed so easily, head thrown back with pure delight. I didn’t care so much about what clothes to wear or how to schedule scant spare time. I hiked hard hills alone, met friends for martinis, let the smell of summer or the sound of gravel on the running path fill my soul. There was a time when I really, truly listened to others, without watching the clock, without barraging them with my woes.
Everyday, a tiny voice, like a guru, whispers to me: “Stop doing what you’re doing.” But this guru just doesn’t understand: it’s not that easy. I come from a family that values staying the course — even if that course makes you miserable. There is respect in sticking something out, in being steadfast and taking the bad with the good. Keep your bootstraps pulled up tight and always remember that things could be worse. This built-in expectation keeps me on the path.
At Chuckanut, sitting through classes and keynote speeches allowed me an escape I haven’t had in some time. It allowed me to think and feel and be excited in a way I rarely share, not even with my significant other. My mind crafted characters, ideas for poems, plots for my novel. I began pondering plans in which an artist friend and I would start a creative business together. I dreamt of teaching again–something I left nearly six years ago–and of doing it better this time. Or at least trying it once more, now that I’m older and less fragile. I imagined days where I would write pages of prose, meet with like minds, do some yoga, start cooking again. Mostly, Chuckanut allowed me to wrap my whole self around the incredible feeling of lightness and possibility, of a clear mind — things I hadn’t felt in so long.
When I returned home, the hard truths about who I am and where my life stands where waiting for me. Bullies or guideposts, these truths have been fully uncovered and there isn’t a way I can ignore them any longer. Everywhere we look now, from magazines to blogs to the NY Times bestseller list, we are encouraged to live our best lives, to be courageous in our acts and bold in our perspectives of the world. Yet an ingrained piece of me feels this is selfish. Settle down, accept, says the voice I was raised with. Dreaming is for those who can’t do anything else.
How do we begin to take the steps toward fulfilling our true calling, at finding the paths of pure joy, when we are bound by finances, sense of duty, fear of disappointing our families and spouses, or, most of all, taking a leap that ends up being more wrong than what was left behind? How do we discern a gut instinct to make a change from emotions such as fear, shame, or anger and their physical attributes of fatigue, fuzziness, and tension? These are questions that so many of us are trying to solve. For me, it begins with one blog post at a time. With an email to an old teaching mentor for her advice. With sharing what I’m feeling with people who have glimpsed this same sense of giddiness and want to understand the art of being whole.