For decades, surrender meant defeat to me. I was raised by a kick-butt mother who did not let ANYTHING stop her from doing what she had to do. I grew up in New York City, where the culture of power, self-reliance and ambition, sometimes ruthless, encouraged getting the job done, no matter what.
When I was working in New York during my early twenties, I can still remember walking to Grand Central station to catch the train back to Bronxville and passing tall, grey office buildings where some entrepreneur rented an entire floor and installed treadmills in a gym-like atmosphere so that employees could get their work out in before days’ end. Even at seven or eight o’clock at night, there were still people huffing and puffing on the machines. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but that visual summed up for me everything about the futility of thinking we’re in control. Running to get nowhere.
But I tried, as so many of us, probably most of us, do. If we can just get the amazing job, the hip, desirable car, the attractive spouse, and awesome furniture in our great house, we’ve “arrived.” By the time I was 34, I had ended up with a six-figure job, a Vice-President title, a ridiculous monthly expense account, first-class air travel, a cell phone (back in the day when they were rare and very expensive) and a free Jeep Cherokee Laredo. Oh yes, and the gas and repairs for the Jeep were paid for, too.
I purchased with cash my first of two large Louis Vuitton bags so that when I flew first class, I would look cool. I was working as a publicist in the field of media, film, books and I worked with and met famous people every week. I was living in Santa Monica, California, a mile from the ocean. I thought I had it all. Some memories:
- Sitting in the Beverly Hills Hotel having drinks with newsman David Brinkley
- Arriving at Roseann Barr’s house with paparazzi swarming her front gate
- Freshening up in the bathroom at KABC radio with Lauren Bacall
- My first trip to the Green Room at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; The Terminator was there, too. Very big guy. Very friendly.
- Meeting Yoko Ono in MTV’s green room. Gracious, quiet, humble.
- Riding in an elevator up to a suite where Good Morning America’s LA-based correspondent was waiting to do an interview with Magic Johnson. He’d just announced he was HIV-positive. A lovely man. He was very tall.
- Having Stevie Wonder hold my hand at Denzel Washington’s restaurant on Melrose in Los Angeles while attending a book publication party for OJ Simpson’s lead attorney, Johnnie Cochran. Stevie was one of the sexiest people I have ever met.
- Running into (literally) OJ himself at above party. He was fairly short. He looked guilty.
- Being on the set of Jurassic Park as they were shooting the movie. We had to have special name badges and swear to not reveal what it looked like, it was all so secretive. I was Michael Crichton’s publicist, and therefore got to do a lot of cool things like attend premieres and go on tv and movie sets (Twister, ER, Disclosure).
- Having Oprah grab my hand at the premiere of the TV-movie Before Women Had Wings (Oprah had produced it) and drag me into the theater to go calm down the actress Ellen Barkin who didn’t like where she was seated in the theater. True.
I could go on. But you get the point. This was normal, everyday work. It was fast and fun, and I was living the dream.
Then one day, my boss in New York called and told me that in a week I was to fly east and attend very hush-hush, exclusive meeting. Our CEO had hand-picked 10 employees from around the corporation, and was going to make us sit in a hotel suite for three days straight to contemplate our industry, where it was going, and how should we prepare for the future. One might now call it a strategic planning session.
So off I went to LAX to catch my flight. Standing there, with the Louis Vuitton carry-on, the Ray-Ban sunglasses, my cell phone and feeling extremely hip, I suddenly had what could only be called a spiritual experience. In the middle of the United Airlines terminal, everything around me grew fuzzy, turned a brilliant, glowing, pulsing white, and I became very disoriented. I was convinced I was losing my mind. And then I heard a voice; very clear, very distinct and very directive. And it said, “You can’t do this anymore.”
There is no way to describe my feelings at that time. My first thought was, “But I don’t know how to DO anything other than publicity!” How would I make money?
It took me five years to figure it out. I went on retreats and went into therapy, I read books about mid-career changes, mid-life crises, and more. At that time, the “new age” was in full swing, and several people were the key players in publishing, promoting and selling this new genre through magazines, books, audio tapes, book clubs and video. These key players and I went on retreat to Colorado to talk about this huge shift in the culture’s consciousness, and what we all were going to do professionally to help it grow. I went walking with one of the attendees the second day, and he told me confidentially that I was going to receive a phone call from a major, major player in our industry, asking me to move back to New York and head up a publishing house.
My response was to burst into tears. I said, in an echo from 5 years past at LAX, “I can’t do this anymore.” Incredulous (who turns this stuff down??) he looked at me like I had lost my mind. In fact, I had FOUND my mind.
It took me another 12 years to surrender totally to the call of my soul, rather than keep pushing through to manage the call of society. I eventually left corporate America and moved to Montana where I started my work as an spiritual teacher. Every day for another four years I would wake up, doubting that I should do this, I used to be a VP, I had been “somebody” and I should drop all this woo-woo and get back the the REAL work . Bad self-talk day in and day out. It took a long time for me to disconnect from the self-image I thought I should have, that I had enjoyed for many years, and turn inward to find and develop the inner world that had been calling for me since I was a little girl.
After all this, and approaching my 60th year on the planet, this is what I know: What I know is that the inner voice of our soul is always there. James Hillman, the brilliant psychologist, wrote a book about the idea that within the soul is an acorn; and the imperative of the acorn is to grow into being a tree. There’s really no preventing it. Likewise, our true north, our true self, our true path, our destiny, our karma, will insist that we hear it and heed its call.
And it’s patient. Although some people know from the time they are very, very young what their true north is (I’m thinking of prodigies, terrifically talented athletes, brilliant children) for most of us, it’s a long trudge. And many of us won’t ever do it.
I have seen many of these people in hospital beds while tending to their end of life needs. Sitting bedside with them as a hospice volunteer, I listen to the unmet wishes and dreams. And that aphorism is true– not one of those patients ever said they wished they’d spent more time at the office.
We are afraid, as a people, to let go and trust that voice, that nudge. We are afraid to surrender. to who we really are rather than what out parents, society, culture and friends think we should be. We are afraid to trust the ineffable. I understand. I used to be there. And I’m still there a lot of the time. But not all the time anymore.
To radically surrender is to take what comes, no matter what it is and know, as Hillman’s acorn theory posits, that it’s all a part of your story. That it’s all, actually, ok. Now I can already hear you; What about the Holocaust? What about Hurricaine Irma? What about child sexual abuse? What about the genocide in Darfur?
I wonder about this all the time. Every day.
My answer is, “I don’t know.” I don’t understand God/the Power/the Force. I don’t get how this all works in the biggest picture. Because the things above simply don’t make sense.
This is where, for me, the surrender comes again. I must submit to the fact that I don’t know, that I can’t know. God is so big that he/she/it doesn’t even fit into the word big. The eclipse this year reminded me of God — just like the sun, if we were to stare at God face to face we would burn to death. We’re just not made to know. Living in not-knowing has been the hardest part of the spiritual journey for me. My mind wants to grasp, figure out, categorize, understand, sort and file each experience I have. But God is bigger than that.
I don’t understand God. My feeble experiences, though, have given me confidence that he/she/it is most definitely engaged with me and my life. I have had synchronistic experiences so weird and unfathomable that trying to sort it out made me weep in the face of such unknowable power.
One of the most intense and completely unexplainable things is this story: My father got diagnosed with Stage 4 liver cancer. Mercifully, his suffering was short, and he passed comfortably, in his home, and holding my mother’s hand. This was in February.
After the funeral and taking care of the many things that go along with managing the end of a life, I returned to Colorado and prepared to get on with my life. As I was processing his passing, one of my regrets was that my father had not sent me one last Christmas card the prior December. Not a demonstrative man, the yearly card was always anticipated as his emotions were more easily expressed in writing. It was sad now that he was gone that I didn’t get one, nor would I, ever again.
So you can imagine my SHOCK when five months after he died, I returned to my house one night, bags of groceries in my arms, and reached into the mailbox to get the mail. There, amongst bills and flyers, was an envelope addressed to me in his handwriting.
I actually dropped the groceries; I recall oranges rolling all over the snowy sidewalk. I started shaking, I thought that reality was turning upside down, and once again, I was so disoriented that I thought I was losing my mind. HOW COULD THERE BE A NOTE FROM MY FATHER? He’d been dead for almost half a year!
But his handwriting was unmistakeable. I opened up the envelope. There was a Christmas card, dated the December prior. In his scrawling handwriting, he’d written “Joy to the world — and to you.” I looked at the post mark — May, 2000. But of course, he would have had to have sent it in December of 1999, when he was still alive, right? He’d been deceased for five months in May of 2000.
What the heck is this? How did it happen?
The rational answer is that somehow the envelope got lost in the holiday post office rush, twas found months later by some wonderful post office employee, re-stamped and mailed to me anyway.
But is it rational? Or was it a gift from my father?
In my 20 years working as a hospice volunteer, I have heard scores of stories like this. After a loved one passes, there is some sort of communication. Books have been written about this phenomena. As my Twelve-Step friends say, “Is it odd, or is it God?”
One of my favorite bands is U2. And one of my favorite songs is “She Moves In Mysterious Ways.” Indeed, She does.
Things have been brought into my life JUST at the right time, JUST as I was about to give up, JUST when I thought I didn’t have it in me to surrender even further.
God’s timing is impeccable.
Many times, we can only see in hindsight that nets that were cast to keep us from falling; the car that broke down on the freeway just behind what ended up being a huge crash ahead of us, etc.
It takes a radical surrender to believe this way, to “turn it over” and just let it go. For me, this is why trying to maintain a conscious contact with God, or learning how to be mindful, or take up a serious meditation practice is so important. When we are in the present, we are surrendered, because in the present, there is nothing but the present. Nothing to fight against, nothing to pine for, nothing to grasp. It ends up feeling so simple, so quiet, so calm. When the mind relaxes, the Mystery has more room to reveal itself.
So try it. Surrender. See what happens, and let me know.