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AMBITION

Ambition is a tattered chapter in the story of my life. So many long forgotten earmarked pages, so many roads never taken.

Regrettably, many pages were violently torn out and tossed away, forgotten like a dream upon waking.

They were the stories that pointed toward possibilities, ambitions that never came to fruition, at times of my own volition and other times out of my control. Ultimately it didn’t matter if a particular choice was mine to make or made for me, the result always felt like a failure.

When I was seventeen years old, I chose to drop out of college after attending for only two weeks. I was always an ambitious student, with aspirations to accomplish something great with my life. But after meeting my soon to be future husband during the summer before my senior year at the ripe old age of sixteen, I happily let him derail me.

I was deeply and madly in love with this young man whom both my parents happened to hate at the time but knowing this only made me love him more. So instead of pursuing my dream of going to school on the west coast, I chose a local college ten minutes away while they allowed me to continue living at home.

That lasted exactly two weeks. I had been kicked out of the house for minor infractions several times during that last year of high school (like refusing to walk to the store to buy a gallon of milk), so it didn’t exactly come as a surprise to anyone. The writing was on the wall.

I immediately began working full time and found an apartment. We were engaged on my eighteenth birthday and married two years later when I was just twenty.

But my ambition to accomplish something great with my life soon felt thwarted, and I struggled to find my purpose. Without a degree, I would hover at or below the minimum wage for years until I happened upon a job offer from then-president Ronald Reagan and my ambition in life shifted. I no longer cared as much about making a difference; I cared about making money.

Starting pay for an air traffic controller was almost fifty-five thousand dollars a year no degree required. The application and hiring process was strenuous lasting almost a year before I was finally accepted. I left for the academy in Oklahoma City, all the while asking myself, was I sure this was what I wanted?

My answer was always the same. I didn’t want the job I needed the job. As a young woman without a lot of choices, I felt like the choice had already been made for me. I needed a way to contribute, and this was it. It had to be.

Two weeks after arriving there I dropped out and returned home.

I was doing exceptionally well in the program but one afternoon I happened to overhear a woman in line in the cafeteria talking about how much she missed her babies and how difficult this type of career would inevitably be on her, and at that moment something inside me clicked.

The very next day I booked a flight, packed my bags, then handed back the keys to my apartment and flew home.

Another story that had taken me so long to write was torn to pieces and discarded.

A couple of months later I was pregnant. But since it didn’t require hard work and determination to achieve my pregnancy, it never really felt like an accomplishment.  Yes, I would now be someone’s mom, but still, what was I going to DO with my life?

As it turns out I’d have to wait longer than I’d planned to find out.

I miscarried on Christmas morning. I was fourteen weeks along when, without warning, the sweet story full of promise and potential that I’d been telling myself, suddenly and without warning morphed into a nightmare as I labored to give birth to what was already dead.

Eventually, I would have my happy ending, but I would never trust that it was a given ever again.

I gave birth to my beautiful daughter three days before Christmas the following year, and for the first time in my life, I felt fulfilled. I’d never felt happier. I had found my real purpose through pain.

Another year later and pregnant again, as the heat from the candle on our daughter’s first birthday cake warmed my face as we sang happy birthday to her, I felt an eerily familiar warmth spreading between my legs.

Another spontaneous abortion. Another story ending before it began.

Defiant, we tried again and a little more than a year later I gave birth to our beautiful son. We had our two precious babies, and I was their mother. It was and is a job that I never exactly felt qualified for, but no other single thing has enriched my life more.

Still, I always felt the tug that it was not enough, that I was not enough. It felt like something was missing. I still had to prove myself to the rest of the world, didn’t I?

Looking back on this now is so painful. I’ve been so hard on myself for so long how could I not see this and stop this sooner?

I would start working full-time from home to be with my kids and would continue to do so for the next sixteen years, but it wasn’t enough.

I would design and help build our new house, but it wasn’t enough.

I would homeschool both my children – my daughter until she started college and my son until he started high school – but it wasn’t enough.

I would help both my daughter and my son start businesses, but it wasn’t enough.

I still felt like I was required to do more.

Until now.

“What is worthy of a life’s dedication does not want to be known by us in ways that diminish its actual sense of presence.” – David Whyte Consolations

I understand now that there is more to the story, to my story. Much, much more.

For all of my adult life I have wrestled with my ambitions or more to the point – lack thereof, but now, when I allow these words to wash over me and sink in, I see what’s been unseen for so long.

What I’ve been doing behind the scenes all these years has taken dedication and determination and yes, ambition, and all the while I couldn’t see it and appreciate it for what it was.

My purpose then and now has always been to be the best human being that I can be.

To be who I am.

To be the best possible version of myself.

And that is enough.

And I am enough.

“Everything true to itself has its own secret language and an internal intentionality with a secret surprising flow, even to the person who supposedly puts it all in motion.” – David Whyte Consolations

I even have a tattoo at the center of my back that says “be who you are” drawn in my handwriting at the center of which reads “Love.”

And the name of my daughter’s equine massage business that she began at the age of sixteen happened to be called Go With The Flow.

Both signposts that I ignored before now.

Now, when I reframe my story to reflect this, I feel validated and supported in ways I am unable to describe. I feel ready and willing to go with the flow and allow the rest of my life to unfold instead of always questioning it or fighting it.

“We find that all along, we had what we needed from the beginning and that in the end we have returned to its essence, an essence we could not understand when we had undertaken the journey.” – David Whyte Consolations

I’m beginning to understand this now, and I like the new direction this story is headed.

 

NEXT WEEK: ANGER

ALONE

My immediate reaction to the word alone is visceral. It is a deep ache that comes from feeling invisible. Unseen. Unimportant. Not mattering.

The story it conjures is one of abandonment. Not of being physically abandoned mind you, just feeling abandoned by my parents.

I am the sixth of ten children, seven girls, and three boys in that order.

I know what you’re thinking. How could I possibly feel alone living with eleven other people? I didn’t have my own bedroom until I was sixteen, and even then I was kicked out of the house only months later, so I had very little time to enjoy it. Unless you count all the times I would crack my window open and smoke a cigarette from my bed. I loved that it made me feel as grown up as my older sisters.

I started smoking in fourth grade. My apologies to my children who might be shocked and saddened to learn about me. I’ve always told them I didn’t start until around eighth grade because it felt too awful for me to admit the truth.

I was eight years old, but my parents never acknowledged this disgusting habit of mine until I was sixteen and smoking cigarettes from my bedroom window and only then because by that point I didn’t care enough to hide the evidence.

I would grind out the butts on the window casing and leave them there for anyone to see until the sill was full and I was nauseous from the stench. I’d already been smoking for many years by that point and often drinking by then too, but neither of these facts warranted a blip on their radar. I was a ghost ship, and unless I torpedoed someone or something else, I remained invisible.

To be fair they were dealing with not one but two teenage pregnancies by that time and a host of other challenges having ten kids will bring, so looking back on it now I can’t say that I was ever surprised.

Most times to capture the attention of my mother I had to capture her. I would feign being sick in the bathroom and then quickly shut the door behind her, locking us both in until she heard me out. But even that tactic turned into a competition for attention when other siblings inevitably began banging on the door.

When Helen Reddy sang, “I am invincible! I am Woman!” I substituted “invisible” and made it my anthem.

I could pretty much do anything without fear of having my parents find out, still the steadfast Catholic soldier in me, for the most part, kept me on the straight and narrow.

For feeling alone as I did on the inside, on the outside, my physical body felt like a depraved animal seeking shelter from a storm. I longed so desperately to be left alone.

Whatever bedroom I happened to be sharing with however many other sisters, I always claimed the closet as my territory.

Thinking about this now has me marveling at the way they all, for the most part, respected that about me and for the most part did leave me alone. Though I do remember sleeping in the bathtub once after being kicked out of the closet by a sister who wanted our whole room to herself, closet included.

Closets were my only means of escape when I couldn’t be alone in the woods. They were the only place I could find refuge from the chaos that was my family. I spent as much time as I could inside them, sitting Indian style and reading by the light of the bare bulb hanging overhead or else talking to myself with a rapt audience of unconscious stuffed animals to keep me company.

But being alone in the woods was my preference. It was the one place I felt seen and welcomed. It felt sacred. More sacred than any church I’d been forced to enter. There, Mother Nature became my surrogate mother. Alone in the woods, I felt like I finally belonged.

As often as I could, I would pack a pb&j into a brown bag and picnic – a party of one – inside an enormous hollow tree in the woods behind our house, temporarily filling its empty space while it returned the favor.

Alone in the woods, I shed my skin.

“To be alone for any length of time is to shed an outer skin. The body is inhabited in a different way when we are alone than when we are with others. Alone, we live in our bodies as questions rather than a statement.” – David Whyte Consolations

The pain of shedding so much of my skin as a child is still felt now. To say I am highly sensitive is putting it mildly.

In situations beyond my control, situations where I am seen, and worse yet, heard, my skin goes an embarrassing bright red, flush as if recently burned and I appear raw.

And in many ways I guess I still am.

This is my story. It’s one I’ve been telling myself for a very long time. It’s a story I accepted at face value. I judged this book by its cover, Poor Me.

Poor me. The story of an invisible girl who didn’t matter.

But when I crack open the tight spine of it and beginning reading it with fresh eyes, a very different story emerges.

Be Who You Are. A profile in courage.

I am that person precisely because I’ve spent so much time alone.

One of my first jobs was delivering mail in a rural town nearby. I look back on it fondly for the freedom it offered for I was now getting paid primarily to be left alone.

After my kids were born, I left the corporate world and worked from home – alone – instead. I painted tiny figurines that sold in specialty shops all over the country, and I was able to make a pretty good living from it.

I did this for sixteen years while simultaneously homeschooling my two children, and for all those years I relished the freedom it offered us and the solitude it offered me.

While painting alone in my office in the wee hours of the morning, I would listen to books on tape and dream about what to do with my life once the kids were grown and gone.

But with the passing years, I came to prefer my sweet confinement and was reluctant to step outside my bubble.

When I eventually did, most often, I’d still be alone. I would go away for the weekend to hike in the Quabbin Reservoir and sleep in the cheapest motel I would find. Candles helped mask the sour stench of the well-worn carpets, and it was there that I began making lists of what my life should look like in five years and then ten and so on.

When a weekend away wasn’t enough I rented the tiny cottage in Cape Cod that our family of four vacationed at, sitting solitary on the beach day after day relishing every moment of the peace and quiet it afforded me.

To be alone is “…..to live something that feels like a choice again.” -David Whyte Consolations

When I read those nine words, something deep inside me clicked.

I didn’t have many if any choices on what to do with my days back then. The kids ruled my life, rightly so. But the few times I stepped away from that life – however briefly – did feel like something of a choice. It felt like freedom. Pure, sweet freedom from that other life to one where I slowly began to recognize myself again.

Then in 2005 – the season of making your wildest dreams come true, courtesy of Oprah – I summoned the courage to do just that. I didn’t win the sweepstakes mind you, but I accepted the invitation. It turned out to be the push I needed to finally make my own lifelong wildest dream come true. I was going to Africa. Alone.

My kids were twelve and ten at the time, and I knew there’d be no better time for me to travel unless I was okay with waiting until they were adults. I was not okay with waiting. All my life I had an irrational fear of being too late to that party. I always knew I would go – someday, but I feared if I waited too long, there would be nothing left to see. The animals I so dearly loved would have all vanished, and I would be left with a gaping hole where my heart should be.

So I did it. With the help and support from my husband who took time off from work to take care of the kids while I was away, I traveled alone to South Africa to volunteer on a reserve where my job would be to monitor their lion population.

All those hours spent alone dreaming about my future were about to pay off. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t afraid.

I wrote this poem late one night while sitting around the fire with the other volunteers and gazing up at the Milky Way for the first time.

To Live Like A Lion

Eat when your belly is empty
and sleep when you feel the need.

Your family will be there to protect you
though at times you may need to lead.

Be strong, be confident, be sure.
Let your lover make you roar.

To live should be that easy.
So why do we always want more?

Years later I would deepen my already strong connection to silence by attending a ten-day silent meditation retreat, then another five-day one soon after that.

Throughout all the years of my life, every moment spent alone has made me stronger by letting me know who I am, and ironically, by letting me know that I am never really alone and never have been.

And knowing this changes my story.

The early stories I told myself of not being seen or heard or valued don’t ring true anymore. They were stories of pain and suffering, stories I identified with and let identify me. But no matter how busy my parents were and are with their own lives, their own problems, their own forgotten dreams, in the sacred space of my aloneness I always knew I was loved. Loved by the animals and the earth, the water and the wind, and yes by my parents, too.

For that, I am profoundly grateful. For that is a story I can relish.

 

NEXT WEEK: AMBITION

About this blog

The genesis of this blog came from frustration and failure.

Having just completed the second draft of my third unpublished novel, Relish, I intuitively knew it was time to call it quits. Something in the story wasn’t working, and experience told me that only time alone, away from the work would allow me to spot the problem. I needed to step back from something years in the making and focus on something entirely new for a while.

My intention in writing the novel was to illustrate that no matter what circumstances you find yourself in, no matter how terrible and painful your story, there’s always something to be grateful for, always something to be relished.

But when I thought about my own painful stories, I wasn’t so sure. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe my entire premise was bullshit. So I decided to put my theory to the test.

I began by cultivating my relationship with silence and was rewarded with a much broader less complicated perspective which allowed me to see that no story is written in stone.

I found that if I focused my attention on some small new detail regarding someone or something other than myself, then I could reframe it. I could revise it and make space for something new to emerge.

By allowing myself to love what had taken me so long to love – the pain, the grief, the anger, all of it – I began to find new meaning in it. I knew I couldn’t change how the story started, but if I could summon the courage to change the way I thought about it and let it affect me, then I’d at least have a more satisfying ending.

Even my extreme reluctance to do that very thing taught me something I already knew.

I am a human being reluctant to feel pain.

I would have to forgive others and more importantly forgive myself. But I knew that for my story to change, I must change. Life demanded this of me, demands this of all of us.

I needed a willingness to dive deep below the surface of my reflection into the well of my being to find the answers.

Life would always find a way to break my heart, but I could no longer let that define me or confine me.

Inside the silence, I was given a new understanding of myself. I was given a seat at the table with my past present and future selves as they recited the story of me. There was pain involved. But slowly, the conversation turned into an invitation, one that I was finally ready to accept.

I would start a blog. I had no idea how to go about this and no good idea about what, exactly I would write about, but it wasn’t long before I had my answer.

David Whyte’s book Consolations was waiting for me when I finally came up for air.

http://davidwhyte.stores.yahoo.net/cop.html

Almost as soon as I began reading it, I began to see each wise word as a prompt pushing me in the direction I needed to go.

With David’s kind permission, I will dive headfirst and follow where each word leads me. I will allow the words to change me and the story they tell.

Our stories may not all be happy ones, but we have the power to let the story instruct us or else stop telling it.

Like the story that begins with a caterpillar and ends with a butterfly, one small change changes everything.

When we allow ourselves to be changed, we allow for a new story to emerge. One that we might just relish.