“Surrender to your mediocrity…” Cheryl Strayed said.
Her and Elizabeth Gilbert looked out at us.
I sat a few rows back, with my memoir writing wolf pack around me. This was the first time I was meeting my wolf pack in person. We had been sharing the most intimate details of our lives for the past year and a half but had never met in the flesh.
“What do you do for work?” one of the girls asked me while we had waited for Cheryl and Liz to take the stage. I smiled to myself thinking; we know so little about each other, yet we know everything that matters.
“I’m a voiceover actor.” When I turned to answer her I could still feel the bruise looming under my skin. I had just taken the bandage off my neck the night before. Three days prior a long thin needle had pierced through my skin over and over, removing cells to biopsy. I was being tested for thyroid cancer. I had a suspicious lump. And with every test, it had become more and more “suspicious”.
“You cannot wait, the biopsy must be done right away” The doctor said to me as he looked over the ultrasound results. He was so kind, but extremely intense. He personally called the specialist and I had an appointment the next afternoon.
On the ride home from the doctors my husband kept his eyes on the road, “Do you have any cravings? What do you feel like for dinner tonight? I’ll go pick up anything you want”
Is this what it feels like when people think you’re going to die, I thought.
“No, I’m good, thanks. This isn’t my last meal you know” I half-smiled trying to make a joke.
I hadn’t been sleeping well for a few weeks now, since I found the lump. I spent my nights sitting at a dining room table brainstorming about all the things I needed to do for my 6-month old daughter before I died. I would have to write post-dated birthday cards, and make videos of advice on dating and school and traveling. I would have to make a scrapbook, and talk to the lawyer about my will. It was overwhelming; there was so much to do if I was going to die soon.
But here I was, as we waited for the results of my biopsy, we drove up to Scott’s Valley, California into the redwood forest so I could attend the Brave Magic retreat hosted by Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed.
I was feeling frustrated, and tired, and angry at this body for betraying me. But I’ve been to retreats before, and I know the big magic that can happen there. I know how giving yourself the time and space sometimes miraculously brings everything together. I needed that right now, more than ever.
On the first day, Cheryl told us the story of how it took her 7 years to write her book. How she wept on the floor when it was finally done. Not because she had written the greatest American novel ever, like she had set out to do when she began 7 years prior, but because she had completed it. She said it was the greatest success of her entire life- finishing that first book. “There is success in just completing what you set out to do.”
Her and Elizabeth Gilbert talked about the pressure of finding your purpose- what you’re most passionate about, your true calling, what you’re here to do, being the best at it, then figuring out how to make it your career, dedicating your life to it, being successful at it, and earning your living from it- and how exhausting all that can be.
“Life isn’t about balance; it is just about doing your best…”
Hearing Cheryl say that, I suddenly felt a heavy darkness lift from my shoulders. One that I hadn’t even realized was there.
Ah, that feels better. I sat up a little taller in my chair with the weight gone.
The questions about my life’s purpose have always lingered in the back of my head.
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why”. I have Mark Twain’s quote prominently framed on my living room wall.
And now with the ‘Big C’ looming over me, I had been spending my nights laying in bed wondering, what was the point of my life?
On Day Two Liz recited this poem for us-
Breaking Surface By Mark Nepo Let no one keep you from your journey, no rabbi or priest, no mother who wants you to dig for treasures she misplaced, no father who won't let one life be enough, no lover who measures their worth by what you might give up, no voice that tells you in the night it can't be done. Let nothing dissuade you from seeing what you see or feeling the winds that make you want to dance alone or go where no one has yet to go. You are the only explorer. Your heart, the unreadable compass. Your soul, the shore of a promise too great to be ignored.
I took a deep breath. Maybe the whole point of this is just being. Could it really be that simple?
Maybe you don’t have to plant the best garden of all time or make the best movie of all time, or write the best book of all time. You don’t have to have the best life of all time. You just have to live it. You have to LIVE IT. Not be a passenger on the sidelines. But a driver, in the driver seat, operating the car, and driving on a road. It can be a rocky winding road, or a 6-lane highway, or it can even be a little dirt road that no one knows about. But you have to be on the road. And you have to have your hands on the wheel.
Four days in the redwood forest with my family, my memoir-writing wolf pack, and Cheryl and Liz was such a gift. I was already back at home reflecting on the visceral experience when I missed the called from the doctor.
He left a message to call him right away.
My hands trembled as I dialed the number. My 6-month old started to fuss. I could feel the flutters in my chest, “Hang on baby, mommy needs a minute” I bounced her on my hip. The secretary put me on hold. I didn’t breathe as I waited for him to pick up, I didn’t want the sound of my breath to interfere with me hearing his first words.
“Hi.” I went to open my mouth and my jaw cracked.
“I have the results here” I could hear the papers shuffling around.
“Well, it’s not cancer! …
Breath spilled out of my mouth like I had just been pulled from a vat of water in a magic trick gone wrong.
…thank god!” he continued.
He was surprised and elated and took a deep exhale that I could hear through the phone. “But you have to go back in 3-months to have it tested again, just to be sure.”
The day went on, like any other day.
When my husband asked me ‘what’s for dinner’, I smiled to myself.
On the left side you’ve got- trauma, fear, failure, betrayal and abuse.
On the right side you’ve got love, success, money and fun.
Everyone wants to live on the right side.
But which side did your growth come from?
You never hear someone say, when I was partying in Miami with my girlfriends- that’s when I really found the strength inside me…
Cheryl was right.