Growing up is losing some illusions, in order to acquire others. ~ Virginia Woolf
You have to grow from the inside out. None can teach you, none can make you spiritual. There is no other teacher but your own soul. ~ Swami Vivekananda
On June 12, I turned fifty years old. I didn’t think it seemed particularly old or young, and I was even a little surprised to see myself heading into the existential questioning that we think of as the “mid-life crisis.”
I knew I wanted to do something special to commemorate this milestone, but I wasn’t sure what. Go on personal retreat in the woods for a week? Invite all my best friends down to my home in Mexico to celebrate with me? Visit Ram Dass? I was having a hard time deciding so I landed finally on something completely different. I decided to honor myself by honoring the people who made me the person I am today.
I made the commitment to post one person a day for the fifty days leading up to my birthday, one person who made a real impact on my life, made my life turn in some unexpected direction – one person without whom I’m not sure my life would be the way it is now.
I started my list while I was on teacher training, and immediately got up to 27. Then the list stalled. I called my best friend, Gina, and asked her for help, who would she name? She named a couple of the folks that had already made my short list, but then went on to talk about obscure film directors and George Harrison. While I didn’t end up including any of her new suggestions, they definitely opened my mind up to things I may not have thought about, bands, musicians or even pets.
My very first entry for the project, with 50 days to go until my birthday, was Stephanie Sisson, who many of you know from our many years of teaching and growing at and through Samarya. Here’s what I wrote about Stephanie:
- Stephanie Sisson. When I first met Stephanie in 2000, I had no idea the impact she would have on my life. She was there from the very, very beginning of Samarya, even before Samarya! We met at the Ashtanga Yoga School and both taught at Studio Ganesh, although Stephanie was already an experienced teacher and I was just a beginner. We spent the next decade and a half creating the Samarya Center culture and values, growing and expanding together and individually and teaching side by side for over a decade. I can’t even imagine who I would be right now if not for the influence, loyalty and encouragement of Stephanie.
This is what I had intended the posts to look like. Short, sweet, simple. In fact, as I set out on my project, I just began by writing about people in the order they came into my mind, as I began my first list of 27, not in any hierarchy of importance, or in any particular chronology. I didn’t even know who the next 23 would be.
As the project went on, however, I saw myself being shaped by the project itself and by the responses from people reading. I began to see what an enormous gift I was giving myself by taking time to think through specific memories with people and to reflect on the particular ways in which they influenced me. I also saw how people reacted to my stories, but also how they reacted to tributes to themselves, or to people they love. I saw my posts shared by parents and friends of the people I wrote about, and delighted in seeing my love for them reflecting and refracting far and wide.
The posts got longer and more involved, with more memories and events and an accounting of all of the people that have been in and around my life in so many ways. I did end up naming musicians – Chrissie Hynde and the Grateful Dead, and even an old dog, Lulu. I named people who I am not close with at all anymore, and people who caused me great pain. As the project went on, I began to feel like I was no longer in charge of it, that given the space, these realizations were streaming from me as if to be told was a chance to come alive again in some new way.
And so, through this process, I learned some powerful lessons. Perhaps the first and most important thing I learned was that every person is made up of millions of stories, both profound and mundane, and it is the sum of these stories that make the whole of the person. When I think of people in this way, as a collection of all of the stories of their lives, so intricate, so complex, so multi-dimensional, I am brought back, again and again, to more compassion, more patience, more forgiveness. We can always give someone a second chance, the benefit of the doubt. I remember one time supervising an intern in IMT and she was talking about the qualities of a good friend. She said to the young client something like, “The people who I know love me the most are the people who understand me.” I remember amending that statement – I don’t need them to understand me at all, I need for them just to accept me.
Because this is another thing that I learned through my project: That of all these stories, there are some that will never be told. Each one of us has so many memories and histories that we might never share – they are too painful, too personal, too intimate and revealing. If we can recall that as well, that even when we think we know someone, there are always stories and experiences and thoughts and fears that we will not be privy too, that they alone are working with on their own inner landscape. When we recognize that people are also guarding and managing these memories, these stories we have yet another opportunity for greater compassion and kindness.
As I thought of each of the people I wrote about, I would often think about the times that we weren’t as close, or when they or I had done something of questionable integrity and would crack a grin thinking about how I couldn’t write that down, and sometimes even crossed my fingers that no one else would take the opportunity of my posting to write down some memory which would be painful or embarrassing for me or the person I was writing about. I’m thinking about you, Tom. : ) This made me remember that even when we know a lot of stories about someone, even when we are a part of those stories, we can choose what we bring forward. Any of us could talk about anyone else, casting shade instead of glitter. We could always find the story that makes a person uncomfortable or shamed. But why? Why not bring forward those aspects of one another that brighten our hearts?
In going through all of these memories, allowing them to flow unrestrained, I truly felt as if I was able to illuminate an entire life, from my 2nd grade teacher, to bandmates and musician friends, to my nephew Shanikai, to my experience with Drew Jensen, the young Iraq vet I worked with several years ago, to all of my family to the many teachers who influenced me with their presence and goodness, all of these memories added up to a whole that gave me the most wonderful gift of all – greater self-compassion. I too, am a collection of so many tiny parts. With each memory of a specific time or event, I would find out more and more about myself and the puzzle of a lifetime took even more shape.
I also realized something profound about love and connection. There are, it seems for all of us, some people in this world to whom we are deeply connected, with whom we have a precious kinship and to whom, in one way or another, we continue to come back around, again and again unveiling those heart connections. I realized this many times over in writing the pieces for the project. I could see people moving in and out of my life, who were the key players, who was the steady supporting cast, and who, even after all we have been through, or maybe because of it, still hold a precious place in the cave of my heart. In all the celebration and joy I was able to conjure through naming and recalling, the writing also inevitably brought up much of the pain I experienced over the past 50 years – not only the pain of things “done” to me, or the inescapable pain of life, but the pain that I caused to others through my own un-evolved actions and words.
This project, in the end, made me think of nothing if not connection and forgiveness. I have come to believe in my short 50 years here on earth that capacity for forgiveness is the most important quality we can develop, and that when we forgive, we can often find that place in each other that we have always loved, and can bring that love forth again.
This is how we influence each other, uplift each other, encourage and believe in each other. Life is amazing and great. And it’s also really hard. And we can be here for each other.
The one group that didn’t make it in the first 50, but that came to me again and again as the project wound down, was my Samarya community. The community of people that first started to form together in 2001, who taught me about leadership, organizing, inclusion, justice and love, shaped me spiritually and intellectually in ways I am just now beginning to understand.
Thank you all for influencing me in the different ways you have, to become more and more of the person I want to be, the ideal version I am growing slowly but steadily into. I will always love every one of you, and will always forgive you and always see my way back to the radiance of your heart no matter how far apart we are, no matter how much time has passed, no matter what has happened between us. Because life is short. And precious. If I am gifted with another 50 years, I want them all to be in service to growth and kinship. Thank you, every one of you, 50 plus!, for helping to shape the person I am today. If you need a hand, anytime, reach out for mine. I’m still here.
I will post all 50 entries on my blog for you to look at if you wish. I must confess, I did not finish in 50 days, and I took the day of my 50th birthday off. What did I do? I spent the weekend in Puerto Vallarta with Sasha, and the greatest gift and surprise of all was having Ram Dass call me to wish me happy birthday. He also told me that if I turned these stories into a book, he would write the blurb. Now that’s motivation! So keep your eyes and ears open for where this project might go. But in the meanwhile, try it out. You might not do 50 people – it’s a lot! – but you might find that just thinking of ten would bring up some of the same profound awakenings. I wish you love and determination!