Right Place, Right Time, Right Words

My husband had driven with my best friend and her two kids to Disneyland where they both awaited our arrival. Kai, my best friend’s new beau, and I didn’t have the vacation days to spend on a road trip, so it was arranged that we would fly down together a couple of days later. Although a practical decision, Kai and I hadn’t yet met and the idea of making awkward small talk for hours in the terminal and on the flight was somewhat anxiety-generating for this introvert.

“So, tell me your life story.”

Although I have a more-than-casual interest in the inner workings of other humans, I said this more out of a strategic move to pass the time with a minimum of awkward silences. A life story would hopefully take up a fair amount of time where I could be in the audience and not on stage, a more comfortable proposition for me. Besides, listening to others is a default mode for me and I like to get right to the good stuff.

He obliged me. Parents, siblings, and growing up in Philly passed the time until our flight was ready to board, the tide of our conversation carrying us onto the plane and into our seats. When the conversation turned to me I gave a few “I was born, I grew up” facts, but eventually turned to the topic I talked most about these days: work. Not my boring, sensible day job, but what I felt was my true vocation: astrology.

As if that wasn’t weird enough, I had been contemplating taking some kind of serious move toward becoming a professional astrologer for years and to me that meant letting go of a day job crutch. I didn’t want to tell people I was an astrologer when really what I meant was that I was a Procurement Program Assistant masquerading as one. At the time, I was too inexperienced with myself and life to realize how little that mattered.

As we buckled and waited for take off, I told Kai about my hopes but, trying to minimize how “new agey” and naive I thought I might sound, I expressed my reservations in the same breath. Nevermind how much money I probably wouldn’t make or how ridiculous most people would think I am, but I wasn’t really sure there was even a place in the world for me. There were already plenty of astrologers out there in the world hanging their shingle out. I doubted I could make any kind of meaningful impact.

“Who knows if it’d even work out?” I said. “I’m sure I’m kidding myself. Besides, the world doesn’t need another astrologer.”

“Who cares what the world needs; what do you need?”

The words stunned me. What an idea: to measure your success not by your place in line, but by your own fulfillment. I was no stranger to doing what I wanted no matter what others wanted of me; I’d done a good job in my post-teen years of standing up for myself. But I’ve always fantasized about being The Best, The Chosen One, The Right Hand Woman. Although I’m not maliciously competitive, I thought being Great needed proof: getting the go-ahead from the Powers That Be, a declaration of my worthiness from a mentor, being the object of throngs of screaming fans, something. But there’s a lot of frantic scrabbling and maneuvering involved when you put the go button under another person’s finger. It never occurred to me that I could, and even should, push it myself.

Epiphanies rippled through my consciousness like aftershocks after an earthquake over the next few days. Insightful dreams and meaningful conversations with my husband over dinner kept the soil of this thought-seed fresh and fertile. But one experience sealed the deal. Having arrived at Disneyland during a volcanic heat wave, we sought out a lot of shows and exhibits purely for the enchantment of their air-conditioning. We cooled off in a small theater that was showing a 10-minute film of highlights in Disney’s life and career. In his mid-20s, he suffered a major and unexpected defeat when the contract he’d had to produce the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons, his biggest success to date, was suddenly sold out from under him. Ever the optimist, he started creating a new character on the train home from that disappointing meeting: Mickey Mouse. A star was born.

As I watched success after success parade by on screen, it occurred to me that Walt never knew what his accomplishments were going to amount to when all was said and done. Although he certainly had confidence and big dreams, what drove him wasn’t becoming the “Man Behind the Myth” but his dedication to being himself: an innovator, an optimist, a creator. He simply started doing his thing and never stopped.

This epiphany was the downpour the seed needed to sprout. I decided I would make the move to phase out my day job when I got home. A few years later, day-job free and holding my first published book, Astrology of the Moon, in my hands, I opened it and reread the acknowledgements I had written:

“Thanks to Kai for uttering the sentence that shook my brain half away and, surprisingly, to Walt Disney for shaking it the rest of the way awake.”

Yeah. Thanks again, guys. That week, Disneyland really was my “happiest place on earth.”

 This article was originally featured at Sweatpants and Coffee.


Living the Dream: Leaping off the Cliff

stanley-baldwin-quotes-1798There are so many memes, motivational posters, and quotes of the day that encourage you to “live your dream.” “Life is short to waste,” they say. I’m sure Google can supply more than one top-10 list relevant to the topic. These canned platitudes sometimes work when you’re looking for the courage to quit your day job and leap off that cliff, but an inspirational poster makes a terrible parachute. How great does it feel to be living your dream when you face plant into reality?

My dream was to quit my day job as an office lackey and become an astrologer full time. While other deep insecurities (if I build it, will they come? How do I stay inspired and motivated every day?) and nameless concerns were lurking, my biggest and most obvious hangup was money. Would I earn enough money? How do I set my rates? How much would I need to earn every month and could/would I earn that much? And the biggest question: how would I survive on a variable income? I didn’t think I would be able to put up with peanuts one month and a feast the next. I’ve also never been very good at being firm with myself when it comes to living on a budget, which would become more, not less, important if I went through with this.

caution-fiscal-cliff-aheadPrompted by an epiphany I had while on a lovely vacation that I paid for with my day job income, I asked to go part-time and my wish was granted. It seemed like the best of both worlds: I could keep a smaller, steady income to rely on but have more time to work toward my dream. After five years though, I hadn’t seemed to get very far on my yellow brick road. Looking back, I probably got further than I thought, but with the lack of a fire under me (part-time was a lukewarm motivation) and a new baby taking up a lot of my “spare” time, I continued to examine the possibilities of being completely free from my day job.

Endless conversations with my best friend, my husband, and sometimes anyone would listen, happened over years as I went over the same terrain, trying to reach the tipping point. In the end, it was somewhere amidst the half-delusional frenzy I’d worked myself up into, some version of the platitude “it’ll all work out in the end,” and my own weariness in waiting for the future to start. In a turn of events that I decided to view as fate, an agent of an acquaintance of a friend of a colleague expressed interest in having me write a book and with contract on the way, I gave notice to my day job and leapt off the cliff.

I was elated. Co-workers and others wished me well, inspired by my courage, envious of my action, smug in the certainty of my naiveté.

Here’s a short list of what the first six months of living the dream looked like:

  • Within a month my elation subsided and was replaced with alternating aimlessness and frequent paralysis (the surprising pressure of freedom)
  • Our credit card debt ballooned, increasing by over $1000 monthly (financial realities of an unchanged lifestyle)
  • My guilt at going from an equal financial contributor to a financial drain began to overwhelm me as did my insecurity (hidden emotional costs)
  • My mother’s sudden health issues made it necessary for her to move in with us (unexpected shit happens)
  • Made some videos, saw some clients, taught some classes (the new daily task list)
  • Began and finished my first book (accomplished a major goal)

The truth is, it kind of worked. I leapt into the water, but I sputtered and choked and had to be dragged by a strong swimmer sometimes. That shift made a mess. Some of the mess lasted for years, some of it I still sit with, and some of it I’m slowly paying off. And all of it was made possible with support: I have a partner who is willing to work his day job for us. I have a best friend with a seemingly endless supply of encouragement and time to offer said encouragement in detail and with surprisingly few platitudes. I shared in the common idea of the American dream being all about perseverance and the self-made wo/man who fights all the odds, but honestly, I stood and continue to stand on the shoulders of others. Sometimes I fight the odds and I don’t win.

It’s not the destination it’s the journey.

Insert platitude here.


Creativity, art, and astrology readings

When I was early in my astrological studies, I looked forward to the day when this work would be easier, when I wouldn’t feel the need to write fifteen pages to get at even half of the length of a reading I sensed was possible, when I would be one of those so-called masters and wouldn’t feel so overwhelmed, conflicted, uncertain or unequal to the task of interpreting a natal chart. I’m still waiting for that day. I’ve not solved the problem, I’ve only gotten used to its company. My job continues to be hard, and I’m starting to think the problem is less about skill level and more about art.

I forget that no matter my level of skill, reading a chart is a creative process. I am reinventing the wheel every time. One has skill because one knows how to manipulate the materials–to hold a paintbrush, organize paragraphs, or read music, but these are the tools used to facilitate the birth–not the star stuff, the essence itself. In a creative act, we are all challenged to free the sculpture from the marble, to make real what we only sense or see with our mind’s eye. It is subjective, changeable, and daunting.

I perform these acts of creation largely solo these days. Using the symbols of the chart and anything the intended recipient has told me about themselves, I stir the contents in a cold cauldron until I can find a spark to light a fire under it, hoping to perform some alchemical magic. I’m never sure I’m doing it right. All I can really know is whether it feels good, and that is usually influenced by my level of engagement and reverence for the chart. There is no right, no perfect, but I know I must strive for it to bring out my best work. I have to reach for the best in myself and give it the reading. The fall from a state of a perfect potential meanings and interpretation of a chart to the actuality of what I am able to end up communicating with my limited vision, experience, and beliefs is a long drop, sometimes longer than others. Interpreting a chart is just like telling a story, but it’s got to be the most special and profound story I can tell, because I’m presuming to tell the story of someone’s soul. Pressure much?

I’m great at the startup. Give me an empty page and I can write a great outline. I’m still just playing; I’m not yet invested. The stakes are still low. It can all still be changed around, reorganized and reworked. I haven’t really said anything definitive yet, nothing I can’t take back. I’m just laying down color; you know, a dash of Aries, a rub of Pluto. Rough draft astrology. But to refine, to clarify, to tighten, to polish, that’s when the demons get their loudest. That’s when I’m not entirely sure that what I’m doing is not bullshit, a waste of time, a thoughtful but pathetic attempt, and completely wrong. And what’s worse is that seeing it through to the end may only offer relief, not necessarily peace or triumph. Not every work is a masterpiece. Those last miles of the marathon seem to triple with these weights on the shoulders.

But writers gotta write the words. Painters gotta paint the lines. Astrologers gotta interpret the patterns. And hopefully the painstakingly-completed project can be a masterpiece, or at least, good enough for this double Virgo. I am trying to give up being right and simply  to strive for being true. Did I inspire? Provide insight? Help someone feel seen? Did I provide a catalyst? Validation? Challenge? I want to be helpful and practical but most of all, I want to offer a personal myth written for that soul. Not instructions or definitions, but poetry and myth to inspire and contextualize a hero’s journey, or at least a kickass theme song to accompany it.

So when I sit down to do a reading, all I want to do is run away, still, after 20 years, at least at first. Just as a writer must face the blank page or a painter an empty canvas, I try to have patience to see through to the other side of that initial panic all the while continuing to wonder if maybe I’m not cut out for this. Maybe this is the wrong career. Maybe it shouldn’t be this uncomfortable, for this long. Maybe I’m ignoring some deep down message that I’m on the wrong path. Maybe I don’t know what the f*ck I’m doing. And I suspect that I’ll continue to ride this thought merry-go-round for the next 20 years.

For years now I’ve been losing my religion, as they say, struggling to adjust to inner, unseen changes and dig out the truth of my astrological beliefs among the rubble left behind by perpetual midlife earthquakes. I’m finally starting to feel like I might have something to say again, and I’m hoping this is all part of my astrological renaissance. What a fine story it will make. Later. As long as I don’t have to write it. Well, maybe just the outline.

writer’s block

I am an uninitiated writer.

This is progress because before last week, I could never call myself a writer without feeling all squirmy. Like I’d just lied in the church of the only god I could possibly be made to believe in (who continues to remain nameless).

The beginning of a story is really not the beginning. The story is already in progress, we’re just supposed to start paying attention now. This starts us assuming there’s a meaning to be read into the events and pre-event events that lead to the story’s conclusion (the place where we stop paying attention). That stop is a relief. The situation, or character, is well in hand, and we can rest assured. I think we all stand, in the occasional but brief lulls in our life, thinking that the credits must be about to roll. While we may not be indulging a death wish, we might simply think “this would be a good place to wrap.”

But I digress. Here’s where I started paying attention in this particular episode. Cue story beginning:

Occupied by and hip deep in an existential mess with no definite edges, I realized that the article I had promised to write three months ago was due. Tomorrow. The fake due date that I I’d written down in order to scare myself into starting the article with enough time for procrastination and fussiness turned out to be accidentally the real thing. Now with only 24 hours to go, I stayed on task as much as I could, “mewling and puking about the hopelessness of trying to put words down on paper” as Anne Lamott has so aptly described it. I had a deadline, so I didn’t have much time to fuss about what I wrote (although I made time because I’m dedicated). I barreled through it, got it done and I turned it in.

And, once again, I wondered what the hell was wrong with me.

Here I was, sighing about picking a topic, shrugging my way through a first draft, meh-ing over revisions, and still left utterly dissatisfied after the birth and delivery. My workdays had been filling up with more writing than ever before, a trend that not only seemed like it would continue, but that I was leaning into. If I hated it this much, why the hell was I doing this? If you have a voluntary task where hate the process and the outcome it produces, couldn’t you just, I don’t know, not?

I decided to talk to my Doctor-Professor-Friend who is a writer. She’s the real thing – initiated, doctorated, and everything. She is Officially For Real. I wanted her to read my final draft and tell me if it was crap. I kinda hated it and I wanted to know whether my hating it was a result of my inability to see anything I produce as good and therefore I should continue to ignore my urge to barf upon reading my own work (deep breath because this is a long sentence) OR if I should trust my critique of my work and recognize it really is bad and then … and then what? I didn’t even think ahead that far. I realize now I was assuming and hoping that it was the former and completely ignoring the possibility that it wasn’t. In retrospect, I think I was looking for permission, which is quite possibly the step right before initiation.

She told me, of course, that it was “lovely.” “Complex yet seamless,” and “professional yet accessible.” Then she proceeded to give me loads of mentor-flavor feedback for the soul as well as the skill. It was so delicious that I hardly had time to taste it because I ate it too fast. And it was genuine and honest, humble and clever. Just like her. I accepted her permission.

The Universe followed with a number of courses after that meal over the week. The cheese cart in the shower: “the top two things that stand in your way are not lack of talent or opportunity but laziness and impatience, and those are both things in your power to fix.” Dessert from Facebook: “I’ve never, in forty years of doing this, knocked off one single piece. Everything takes me forever. It’s all lurch, flail. I hope that is good news to you writers.” Coffee on my friend’s couch: “Maybe your first book came so easily and you’re realizing that it’s not always that easy, so now you have a cavernous disparity to overcome that is shocking.” And the after-dinner mint on the phone: “Writing is now real. Not the ego-fortification exercise of your first book which had a three-year head start to write itself inside you.”

At some point in the past 48 hours, I was once again metaphorically trying my “Kiss Me, I’m a Writer” hat on and instead of the usual squirm, a vision appeared in my mind’s eye. I was walking in a herd of people, like any scene in any movie about the doldrums of life as a corporate cog. I did not stand out in any way, but blended in with them in a most unspecial way, as the camera of my inner eye slowly zoomed out. We were all in gray lab coats and carrying briefcases, walking across a gray bridge against a gray sky. As bleak as that sounds, the mood was thrilling. I was looking around like a kid on her first day of playing grown-up in a real grown-up job and I realized: I am on my way to my initiation.

Or else we’re all waiting on line at the imaginary DMV.

midlife (not)crisis

the serpentine path | Brian Gaynor
          the serpentine path | Brian Gaynor

I won’t say there haven’t been elements of crisis here and there. Panic about what’s happening (or more distinctly about the absence of what I think should be happening or was happening until I dropped it somewhere). But what really categorizes this period for me, at least this section of it (*fumbles for the exact dates*), is stillness. The absence of angst. That sounds nice until you realize that it translates into the absence of the motivation and ambition that you’ve had for so long in your life that you assumed it was a core personality trait, not just a function of age or circumstance. Incongruously, I’ve been plagued by a persistent restlessness which was driven only by my intention to escape this undertow of apathy, clutching at anything I think might inspire me, or might be The Answer, even searching Craigslist for jobs outside of my field that I couldn’t possibly commit to even if I was qualified. Restlessness is a familiar emotion to me, at least, which  is why it caught my attention at first, I’m sure.

Most of the time I’ve not only felt confused, but confused about what I’m confused about, and why. Since when? I can’t say. Sometimes I think it’s been years, since I left my day job. But I remember hopeful ambition even since then. I remember writing my book, so sure of the path I was on and just amazed that I was allowed to be on it. I remember that I was going to be Great and climbing the steps to the top. Did I reach the top and now I’m disillusioned? Is that what happened? Did I lose my way altogether? Where did I take that sideways step? Or am I not as astray as I seem to be? Life interrupted or life itself?

I’ve been collecting what I’ve called symptoms for a while now. In February through April of 2013 I experienced a brief but sharp sadness centered around the loss of a sense of meaning. Whatever it was (I didn’t exactly know) that had been not the anchor, but the furnace of my life, seemed to have gone out. Forcing thought waves into words was a struggle. For longer than that, my career has seemed to be in free fall, from the inside out. I haven’t been in less demand, but I’ve been demanding less.

One day, in doing some research on the midlife transition on the web, I came across this tidy little list:

“Midlife transition can include:

  • Discontentment or boredom with life or with the lifestyle (including people and things) that have provided fulfillment for a long time
  • Feeling restless and wanting to do something completely different
  • Questioning decisions made years earlier and the meaning of life
  • Confusion about who you are or where your life is going
  • Daydreaming
  • Irritability, unexpected anger
  • Persistent sadness
  • Acting on alcohol, drug, food, or other compulsions
  • Greatly decreased or increased sexual desire
  • Sexual affairs, especially with someone much younger
  • Greatly decreased or increased ambition.”
two faces is one
            two faces is one

Yeah, some of these could be signs that it’s just another Friday night, but a ranking of 8 out of 11 sure gave me pause. It seems like a high enough percentage that would land you in the high category of a Cosmo quiz, anyhow. Reframing the story I was telling myself about the mess I was in and fitting it to the midlife transition model was an interesting shift. It made me feel a lot less frustrated with the symptoms. I’d already been studying the works of Carl Jung and I like his take on midlife. I am at the age he was when he lost his shit and started the black books that were to become his Red Book. He saw the first half of life serving the purpose of stabilizing the ego, learning and following social rules, and then the ego being displaced at mid-life to allow for the greater element, the Self, to emerge. Jung used the metaphor of a sun rising and setting:

“In order to characterize [this change within the psyche], I must take for comparison the daily course of the sun. In the morning, it rises from the nocturnal sea of unconsciousness and looks upon the wide, bright world which lies before it in an expands that steadily widens the higher it climbs in the firmament. In this extension of its field of action caused by its own rising, the sun will discover its significant; it will see the attainment of the greatest possible height … as its goal. At the stroke of noon, the descent begins. The descent means the reversal of all the ideals and values that were cherished in the morning. The sun falls into contradiction with itself. It is as though it should draw in its rays instead of emitting them.” (italics mine)

This doesn’t seem to be depression. In a way I’ve never felt so authentic. But the real, the Self, is so much less sexy and flashy than the ego condom that held it. It doesn’t have the sharpness, the bright colors, the edge. But like the Velveteen rabbit, I feel more real.

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

― Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

insert title here, birthday girl

Titles are always the hardest part for me. And they’re always the first empty box to fill. They go at the top of the page, for goodness sake. But that’s a lot of pressure to start off with. I mean, how do you really know what it’s going to be about when something starts?

It’s my birthday today. I kinda want to like that. It makes me feel entitled, like I’m safe to ask for things and fulfill my needs, and ask others to fulfill my needs. I enjoy having that option more than I do utilizing it.

I don’t feel too old or too young. I don’t feel sad about my birthday nor do I feel really enthused. My ‘meh’ seems purposeful though, and not as apathetic as your average meh might seem. I feel in-the-between, and my insides are finally quiet about it now, for the most part.

You see, I think I’m having a mid-life crisis. Not a crisis, exactly, although it’s peppered with lots of fussing and fretting, but that comes naturally to a double Virgo like me. I’m having a mid-life … something. Like many things, I’m not sure when it started. Back when I quit my day job? Back when the bottom started to drop out of my belief system? Back when the thing that mattered the most was finding the precise way to express just how much it bothered me that nothing meant anything? I’m going to go with Yes.

I’m not sure the story I’m telling myself, or going to tell you, is accurate. I think maybe there’s no such thing when it comes to my story, or anyone’s. You tell it using the words you have in you now, from the perspective in which you happen to be operating, and you think it means something. And maybe that’s the only reason it does.

nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see

So here’s today’s story: I am 39. I am a writer trying to believe herself when she says she’s a writer. I’m an astrologer trying to do the same thing. I’ve decided that some of my biggest problems stem from laziness and impatience and I’m looking forward to getting around to doing something about that. And in this blog I shall attempt to actually be whatever it is I am instead of trying to sound like I am.