About Me

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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Willing to Not Know

This last week I made a big decision. I decided that I am going to give myself a chance to write. This is no small feat, having been unemployed for going on nine months now. There are things I want to do: like attend friends’ weddings; travel to Iceland, Central and South America, China, and Japan; go out to delicious, colourful meals with friends and family; yoga classes. The list is endless, and it all costs money which I am not, in this precise moment, actually earning.

Talking to close friends over the last few weeks, it seems like we all come to places in life where, although at some level we know with absolute certainty that this is just a finite low period in our lives, we ask ourselves where we are headed? What are we intended to do with our lives? What purpose do our lives have? Ultimately all of these questions lead me to the question: how is my life of value to the world?

I don’t know about you, but I know when I am in a space where these questions are spinning in my head and unsettled in my heart, the silent answer that I never give voice to because I generally would rather people not know is “none.” It’s not that I actually think that I am not of value as a member of the human race. It’s just that for brief windows of time I seem to be momentarily unable to see the larger picture – how this valley fits into the mountain range of life.

I was reading a book this past week. It is called My Grandfather’s Blessings. It is written by Rachel Naomi Remen, who is a physician with a remarkable gift for looking through whatever might be momentarily obscuring a person’s innate spiritual truth and identifying and nurturing the gems that lie hidden within that individual’s soul. Fortunately, in addition to working with individuals, Rachel is also a master story-teller, and she recognizes the power of sharing the stories of the many miraculous lives that have rubbed up against her own over the years with the rest of us. You know how when you meet a truly remarkable person, and their story inspires you to push onwards on your own journey? Well her book is infused with story after story of inspiring lives lived with integrity, passion and courage.

I had lunch yesterday with one of my best friends. Like most of my friends, who want to see me happy and feeling like a valuable member of society again, she was asking if I had found work yet. I explained to her that I was trying to give myself a chance to explore my writing as a career. She suggested I get a part time job to supplement my income while I do this. She also explained that if I told someone in India or China that I was taking time to figure out what I wanted to dedicate my life’s energies to – to explore work that is a natural expression of who I am instead of pouring my energy into work that fits the mould of what others would deem acceptable or successful for a woman with my background and abilities – that they would shake their head and say I must be a spoiled brat. I was shocked. Not that someone would think this way, because I recognize that for those who are just trying to put food on the table for their families, following your heart is usually not a priority. I was shocked that she would share this with me because she had been told this by an elderly woman in China as a young woman when she was trying to figure out her own path in life. But I think that I was most shocked because her comment gave voice to a silent question that hangs over my head every day: what right do I have to follow my heart and find work that I love when so many people around me are struggling? And what makes me think that I will have anything of value to say that people will actually want to read?

I have a nagging suspicion that I am not the first writer to ask myself if I really have anything to say that has not already been said, and said better than I could ever say it. Still, part of what makes the illusion of being in an endless valley of uncertainty so hard, is that when you are in it, it feels like you are there alone, and that you are the only person ever to confront your own purpose in life in this way.

Thankfully, we all have friends who are more than happy to shatter the illusion that nobody else has ever wondered what their purpose in life is. And we have books that share the stories and dreams of other people, who just like you and I, went through periods where they were standing on a cliff trying to decide whether it would be better to remain on the cliff enjoying the view that they knew was certain or to leap off into the unknown, hoping that the act of faith they were taking by leaping would induce wings to grow in the place where none had existed before. As Ruth Naomi Remen says, “sometimes someone dreams a dream for us all.”

People ask me whether I think there is a market for what I have to say. I feel myself getting defensive, and then I realize that it is a valid question coming from a society where we are taught over and over that only certain forms of expression are valuable. When I look back through my still relatively short life, there is not one person I have come into contact with who has not had something of value to share, and more often than not those friends and acquaintances who have not inspired me in some specific way are simply those who I have not listened to. If I gave them my time and my focus, I feel quite certain they would have stories that would move me, inspire me, make me feel something that I did not feel before.

One of the stories that moved me in Rachel Naomi Remen’s book is about an epiphany she had once while walking through a labyrinth. Last fall a friend of mine did a one-day workshop on the life of the soul. She had us all drive out to a beautiful remote area on the north shore of Prince Edward Island. The beach was endless and open, the waves were crashing on the shore, white and frothy, the water itself the colour of grey pearls. The air was salty. Behind the beach were tall sand dunes and behind them a scrubland of wild rosehip bushes covered in ruby coloured rosehips. Behind the bushes was a stand of evergreen trees through which wove an intricate network of walking paths. My friend explained to everyone present that we were going to walk silently through the forest in a sort of walking meditation. Our walk would end at a labyrinth made of shells collected from the beach. We would stand silently around the labyrinth and then slowly and silently walk it, leaving a space of a few minutes between us so that while we were having a collective experience in that we were doing it together, we were also very much on an individual journey with plenty of space for personal thoughts, prayer and reflection. 

I have to admit that I had my uncertainties about it when she explained what we were going to do. I had not expected any such activity when I agreed to attend her workshop. But I decided to open myself to the moment, and found it to be a deep and profoundly moving experience. 

My own experience made Rachel Naomi Remen’s insights more profound. She explains that when you walk into a labyrinth, you seem to be headed right towards the centre, when in reality you are as far from the centre as you could possibly be. And that right before you reach the centre, you are actually walking near the outermost edge of the labyrinth. Her epiphany was that although many times in life it had seemed that she was headed in what seemed to be a random direction, perhaps every step had in fact been very purposefully headed toward the centre. Perhaps, she says, the times that seem to be meaningless or wasteful only seem random because she is still on her path, and that one day, when she is at the centre point, looking outwards, she will realize that the perspective afforded by being at the end of life might completely alter the value and meaning of every one of her life’s experiences.

I was talking to a friend on the phone today back in Canada who also feels as though she is walking through a valley right now. She was with me when I walked that labyrinth back on Prince Edward Island so I shared Rachel Naomi Remen’s story with her. She told me that it resonated with her, and reminded her of something her mother had shared with her once: “Be completely present in whatever moment you are living, and enjoy that moment.” She explained that it was easier to do this when her kids were young and at home. That she enjoyed being a mother. But presence is harder for her now that her kids are married and living on the opposite side of the world. We agreed that presence always seems easier in the past than it is in the present. She and I are in different places in life, but our dream of finding joy, purpose and acceptance in the present moment is shared.

Some of us are better at giving ourselves permission to pursue and succeed at what we love. For some of us, giving ourselves permission to follow our hearts takes practice. Rachel Naomi Remen says that “wisdom comes most easily to those who have the courage to embrace life without judgement and are willing to not know, sometimes for a long time.”

Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada. In California the leaves are still green, the cool breeze blowing through the oaks the only sign that we are finally moving into fall. I woke up this morning grasping for something to move me into this day, and am ending it feeling grateful for many friends that enrich my life. Friends that question, reflect, remind me to laugh and look to the natural world for wonder and awe and healing. And friends that believe in me when I am in a valley. I am also thankful for words and letters. For the gift of writing. And for the recognition that I am one of those who is going to have to learn how to give myself permission to pursue my dreams. And to succeed. 


  1. Love it!

    I certainly think that you have much to say and it is incredibly valuable to the world. Keep writing!!!

  2. Thank you Jeff. And thank you for reading!

  3. Please write. Even your facebook statuses fill me with peace and paint such a vivid picture that I look around and see more colour, more light, where I couldn't see any before.

  4. Thank you!! Will have to keep up the facebook status descriptions! It was easier when I lived in the country! City living is a bit more black and white. :-)