perfectionisn’t

When I look back at photos of myself as a child, one image comes to mind – an “American Girl” doll. Ironically, I was never much of a doll enthusiast. I preferred my unruly collection of stuffed animals; yet, I epitomized a life-sized, hybrid model of the popular characters. To put it into perspective, I had a drawer full of custom-made bows on rotation that I wore on top of my head like a crown, which exquisitely matched my collection of dresses for every formal and informal occasion. My outfits were further decorated by ruffled socks and ballet flats in a variety of colors, and Sunday nights were usually spent sitting cross-legged on the floor while my mother ceremoniously rolled my thick brunette locks into pink, spongy rollers. On Monday mornings, liberated from its constraints and doused with extra-hold spray, my hair became a voluminous mane of curls that endured for the remainder of the week’s activities. Superficial appearance aside, I was a busy girl. Notwithstanding a rigorous academic curriculum, my resume of extracurriculars ran the performing arts gamut: nightly dance class, orchestra, choir, and all their respective rehearsals and recitals. 

I acknowledge my privilege as I share this image of my past self, which has evolved into a modern-day version that is very much alive and well in me today. The depiction is not boastful, nor is it sarcastic. While I get a good laugh and feel occasional mortification looking back at old photos, I am not ungrateful for my mother’s principal hand in designing that life. I know without a doubt she was nurturing me with the best of intentions. I am merely observing the probable source of my conditioned perfectionist mindset from a more developed consciousness and the smidge of wisdom I’ve gained in my 37 years. I’ve realized that attempting or even fooling myself that perfection is achievable is my kryptonite: irresistible yet repeatedly interfering with the possibility of any true emotional freedom. And who am I – who are any of us – if we aren’t free?  While I can hold appreciation and sentience in the same emotional space, “perfect” has a steep price that I have paid for as long as I can remember. I used to roll my eyes at my grandmother who would predictably plump the pillows behind me and my cousins on our visits to her home the minute we stood up from her sofa. Now, that is me. I caught myself in the act just last weekend.  Admittedly, I crave flawlessness in my surroundings, my appearance, my resume…every domain of my life. It deceivingly gives me a sense of peace, control, and worthiness. Yet, regardless of the girth of my pillows, the suppleness of my hair, or the amplitude of my wardrobe, I am still a human being that experiences the entire emotional spectrum including but not limited to grief, anxiety and insecurity.  

Nobody actually has the ability to do what most of us mere mortals are constantly attempting both consciously and subconsciously, which is to bypass those existential challenges and difficult feelings. If that were even achievable, arguably, we would be denying the human experience altogether. That said, we are adaptive beings and society provides multitudes of avenues and rewards for hiding our flaws behind masks of beauty and order. My own pattern of succumbing to the perfection trap was illuminated for me recently through a new, romantic relationship. After multiple years of singledom, a man unexpectedly walked into my life and made me believe in the possibility of love again. My empowered self recognizes that I generated that belief…but I digress. It was a sweet reminder that I am indeed capable of feeling those feelings, after all. I had a fleeting sense that my inner work over the last few years had finally tuned me to the right frequency. Nevertheless, after a few months of dating, he suddenly ceased all communication with me. I was “ghosted,” which seems like something you hear about after a one-night rendezvous, or with 20-something’s as they taste the flavors of the dating rainbow. Oh, how naïve of me. I asked myself, how could this happen? I am the total package! Deep down, I admit that I may not entirely believe that about myself, nor was I necessarily convinced that this man was the one. Nonetheless, I yearned for the relationship’s unfolding to be…well, perfect.

Perhaps, that’s where I had it all wrong. While unlikely I will ever know what led to this abrupt disappearing act, it aroused discomfort and insecurity in me which, after some distance from the event, I now choose to see as a teacher. At some level, throughout our time together I felt myself endeavoring to demonstrate that I could be the perfect partner to this man. I didn’t even flinch when his beloved dog created a crime scene out of one of my favorite pairs of heels. How could someone walk away from this cool, composed chick? While I don’t purport to believe in perfection at an intellectual level, my programming has undeniably laid the foundation for me to pretend that state is attainable. But at what cost? Conceivably, this guy was keen enough to detect the façade. We relate to messy, we empathize with chaos, and we crave reminders that we aren’t alone in our turbulent journeys. We all want to feel accompanied and held in that humanity. While I can only conjecture as to the reasons for his behavior, and although there were definitely kinder and more mature ways to end the relationship (cough…have a conversation), I appreciate that the experience has helped me know myself a little better, or rather, know my heart better. Not coincidently, as I’ve been reading the latest book entitled Living Untethered by one of my favorite authors, Michael Singer, the following quote stood out: “Very few people understand their heart. Many intellectuals just want to keep it suppressed because it is much too sensitive and reactive. They would rather live in the mind because they have more control there…You’re simply directing your awareness to your mind, so you don’t have to feel the difficult emotions emanating from your heart. The mind becomes a place the soul goes to hide from the heart.”

This humbling experience as I perceive it served as a beautiful illustration that perfection is the mind suppressing the heart. And it is also lonely, boring, and fundamentally inhuman. It’s not approachable or relatable; it is like being a child in a museum of lovely things that you can’t touch. I contend that perfection is often just a ruse for our intrinsic and very normal beliefs of inadequacy. While looking attractive, having all the academic and/or professional accolades, and curating an orderly environment may lead to a short-term reward, if I learned anything from my mother’s awful disease and unfairly premature departure from this human plane (not to mention all the other atrocities we see on a daily basis) it’s this: life is flawed and rarely seems fair. No amount of contrived magnificence allows us to bypass the ugliness. Sure, maybe things feel easier at the outset because of how people treat you if you look the part. But ultimately, we are all in the same club projecting our fears and yearning to feel whole, worthy and included. Instead, I propose that we start a new club where the price of entry is unabashed authenticity, and the hot chicks that skip the line are replaced by those who are a bit more of a hot mess – hairspray optional.   

arranged

Last month, I found myself in the middle of a conversation between two colleagues of Indian descent. After a few drinks and some friendly banter, our discussion effortlessly turned from professional to personal whereby the subject of dating was broached. More specifically, my coworkers began comparing stories of their experiences with the traditional Indian dating resume knows as “biodata.” This novel concept piqued my curiosity and naturally, I inquired further into the convention. I learned that biodata is a document with in-depth information about a single, age-appropriate family member that is circulated by parents, uncles, grandparents or all of the above to help match the eligible bachelor or bachelorette with the best marriage prospects. The custom has existed for generations and forms the basis for an arranged, or semi-arranged, union. My instinctual reaction was one of disbelief; with all of our social advancements, how could such a tradition endure, even among my contemporaries in this country? Yet upon further consideration, I realized that I was making a hasty judgement. The only material differences between biodata and Tinder, I reasoned, is the subject’s perceived autonomy in the selection process and a digital user interface.

This exchange illuminated a stark awareness of my own singledom and refusal to engage in any such engineered techniques for meeting my “other half.” It left me contemplating a question: is there a right approach to finding love? Presumably, any panacea would have been bottled up and patented years ago, but certainly, there has to be some measure we can use to evaluate the success of these various channels designed to help us date and mate. Regardless of culture, society as a whole has seemingly failed to evolve far beyond the tradition of arranged marriages as evidenced by a collective, conspicuous approval for securing a person who meets a particular set of criteria on paper. This is acutely real for women, who have only recently gained a level of independence that generally allow us the luxury of selecting the who, how, and when we marry. But in today’s environment of choice, whether we meet the person via a pseudo-resume, an app, or entirely organically, how do we discern which decisions are really our own? Arguably, many (if not most) love matches are profoundly influenced by our psychological programming, with its gnawing pressure to conform to what is expected. Unless we stop to not only recognize but challenge the distinction between our own genuine desires versus those of our social circles – namely our families’ impulse to prove that they fulfilled their patriarchal duties and our friends’ need to reinforce their respective acquiescence to “good enough”—history may be destined to repeat itself indefinitely with blissful oblivion. 

While I am in a position to analyze this sociopsychological dynamic with some level of objectivity today, I acknowledge that is only possible as a result of living through my own past relationships and matrimony. Once upon a time, I was 32 and surprised at how eager I suddenly felt to marry when the opportunity arose. I was, in my estimation, of a mature age that theoretically meant I’d maximized my gloriously independent single years, and my then boyfriend fulfilled most of the conditions to effectuate my exotic love story. Undeniably, I was in a fortunate position. My ex was a good man, and his family was nothing but loving and welcoming to me, especially as I attempted to endear myself to them in the context of a different country and language. As a couple, we had a beautiful, bicultural future full of possibilities ahead. And while I refuse to look back with any regret, I can see more clearly now that I allowed my belief of where I should be at that stage of life and fear of starting anew to eclipse my instincts. Marrying someone who met select standards that were both consciously and subconsciously wired into my being from girlhood meant that I was one step closer to achieving the image of perfection to which I nonsensically aspired. The result was years of self-reproach because that marriage was not only the “wrong” one (if by definition “right” means enduring), but I orchestrated a performative wedding that exhibited to family, friends, and acquaintances alike that it was indeed flawless. I was not only a failure, but a hypocrite. 

For the record, I am done condemning myself and I am definitely not judging anyone else’s choices in how and whom they select as a life partner. Rather, I am offering an observation from the seat of my own life experience and perception of shared challenges. The lens I wear today frames my view that the fundamental issue with our quest for love is that we evaluate relationships as black or white, right or wrong, success or failure. We all have our own version of biodata. My partners to date have ultimately taught me that I was with exactly the right person at the right time to forward my journey towards a greater knowing and trusting of myself. Perhaps the real crusade is not about finding the perfect love match at all, but upending the assumption that the other person should fill all of our needs, forever after. Most of us accept the inevitability that feelings of love evolve just like we do as individuals. I contend, however, that in order to be truly free, it’s imperative that we obliterate and redefine the meaning of a successful union altogether, which has traditionally been characterized by a perceived security and eternality that we expect in return for commitment. As stated so eloquently in my oft quoted favorite book series, Conversations with God, “we’ve lowered love to a level of a promise or a guarantee – what I feel and want now, will always be so. But not so. In what other area of life is that true? The security and eternality are inside of us. We are here to express our freedom of choice. Yes, we make commitments and that means something, but to what end? More damage has been done to others by persons leading lives of quiet desperation (doing what they feel they “had” to do) than was ever done by persons freely doing what they wanted to do.”

So back to the original question: how do we find love, which is arguably life’s sweetest and most elusive virtue? Sure, biodata and dating apps offer us the means to entertain an endless, but narrow peek into the population of suitors that will presumably fulfill our families’ and our own tenuous ideas of what we think we need to be happy. The reality is that we painstakingly seek out a partner through any available avenue because we believe he or she will provide us with that sense of safety that fundamentally we can only give to ourselves. Not only are we capable of being our own source of eternal love, but love is our true essence. Sure, we all have different personal circumstances, realities, and degrees of privilege that influence how this truth ultimately manifests in our lives. But if we can believe and embrace that knowing, the result is undeniably the greatest sanctuary of all.  We only suffer to the degree that we hold ourselves hostage to the social conventions that tell us we are in danger, or worse, that we are not enough if we are alone. The fear that we are intrinsically flawed and need another person to complete us is engrained from birth by the people that gave us life, who modeled the path, and provided for us before we could do so on our own. But now we are entirely capable of independence, yet we continue to depend on someone else, real or imagined, instead of defining and enacting our true desire as a means to explore and enjoy all of life’s dichotomies. This doesn’t mean a resignation to being single forever if “the one” never enters the picture. To the contrary; it’s a receptiveness to the potential of exploring the depths of one fulfilling relationship that grows and evolves for many years, or traversing the landscape of various partnerships over the course of a lifetime. There’s no right way. The real arrangement is the one we make with ourselves, where we commit to live in our own fullest expression, even if that means changing course and admitting that happily ever after was sold to us (as well as to our parents, grandparents and the generations before them…) as the dream, but it’s not the reality. I’ve certainly crossed that bridge and can attest to the fact that on the other side of the abyss is an immense confidence and love for myself that will endure for this lifetime and beyond.

the dive

A few years after college while I still lived in Atlanta, my mom declared that during her forthcoming visit, she wanted to go skydiving…with me. She had always fervently avoided heights, so I was shocked by the announcement. When I told her so, she clarified that it was important for her to face one of her greatest fears. As someone who is apprehensive about flying and sees it as nothing more than a painful but necessary means to travel the world, I had never considered the idea of willingly jumping out of an airplane. Nonetheless, whether it was a desire to support my mother’s noble wish or my competitive nature compelling me to match her valor (likely a little of both), I began my research of the most credible skydiving establishments in the area. In my naivete, I did not realize that unlike many other pastimes, one cannot just decide to skydive whenever it’s convenient; the conditions are crucial. Overcast and rainy days meant the stars did not align for us on either the first or the second attempt. During one of mom’s subsequent trips to Atlanta, we finally took the big leap, or push rather. I recall that despite being a nervous wreck for days in advance, an invigorating sensation overcame me after landing safely on the ground: I was alive. Skydiving roused a dormant energy that I never knew I was craving. 

Webster’s dictionary defines courage as the ability to do something that frightens one, or strength in the face of pain or grief. Unlike bravery, which is most often a state of mind absent fear, people often define courage as a heart-centered virtue; taking action in spite of fear. It’s knowing something will be hard but doing it anyway. Regardless of which definition I apply to my own life, courage has been at the forefront of my experience recently. The challenges of the last year have tested me and proved that I could not only survive the impossibly difficult parts, but thrive in the face of them. Just last week, I channeled this energy into a new, albeit less serious, endeavor. After months of crossing paths without ever exchanging a word, I approached a man that I knew nothing about and gave him my phone number. Or to put it more accurately, I thrust it upon him and bailed. I’ve done some scary things in my life including but not limited to: moving solo to multiple foreign countries, getting married and then promptly admitting to my then-husband and family that I wanted a divorce, and confronting my unbridled, subconscious fears in an ayahuasca retreat. Not insignificantly, I continue to bear my soul year over year, post after post, in this blog for the world to judge – which happens to be one of the few things that truly stokes my inner flame. Despite my considerable training, I can say without any hesitation that this latest act was terrifying. I felt completely vulnerable and exposed. What would it mean to be rejected? And if that were the case, how would I face the inevitability of running into this man again? 

Now that I have you on the edge of your seats, I am sure you’re eager to know the end of the story. Let’s just say that after weeks of deliberation, I was daring enough to approach this guy, but I was not willing to stick around for his response in real-time. I handed him my number on a sticky note, mumbled a few words, and promptly walked away. I couldn’t bear the weight of so many concurrent emotions errupting inside of me – the nervous adrenaline would either transmute into giddy elation or absolute disappointment. After almost a day and a half (not that I was counting), I received a gracious but deflating text response: he’s in a relationship. My first, overly-dramatic instinct was to protect my fragile ego. “Of course, all the good men are taken,” said my inner cynic. And then came the reaction of lost possibility, followed by regret for my boldness. Once I traversed that natural and necessary emotional process over the next few hours, I came full circle and recognized a similar feeling I had upon landing safely after diving out of that plane over a decade ago.   

Regardless of whether we are facing our fears or our grief (same monster, slightly different mask in my opinion), the choice comes down to being alive or utterly numb. I can understand how and why people become adrenaline junkies, on an insatiable quest for thrilling and dangerous activities. The self-imposed test of survival reminds us of the unique opportunity these emotional lives in human bodies offer us every single day we draw another breath. Tapping into that power requires vulnerability and sometimes even poses a real, existential threat.  The prominent professor, author, and emotions researcher Brené Brown focuses extensively on vulnerability, affirming that it is our most accurate measurement of courage. In her words, “courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” This recent experience offered clear evidence of that idea. I believe that the decision to expose ourselves is what makes courage so beautiful. While there is undoubtedly an instinctual nature to gallantry, our modern comforts and social conditioning to “fit in” provide ample excuse to stay safe and maintain the status quo. Ultimately, it’s an individual choice to take massive action, and often one that unpleasantly goes against the grain. But as the French author Anaïs Nin states so impeccably, “life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” The question is simple: do you want to stay right where you are and spend your precious life wondering “what if?”, or are you willing to risk your ego, your pride, or even the foundation of your security in the name of expansion?

The gamble I took this week highlighted what I assert to be the most critical ingredient of courage and a peace-full life in general: the willingness to walk away and accept reality without forcing the expected or desired outcome. Just like I learned when mom and I tried to skydive on three different occasions, I am not in control of the external weather conditions, nor can I manipulate the Universal plan that at my core, I know is constantly conspiring in my favor. As often as I want to force a particular result, especially when I’ve invested so much emotional energy and I feel practically entitled to get my way, the most daring act of all is setting the intention and then allowing life to unfold. Perhaps mustering the will to do something scary leads to that big break or the fairy tale ending. But, more often than not, it involves adversity and/or disappointment, and that is precisely what ratifies our strength and resolve. When we risk taking the dive inward, we see that we are going to be okay no matter what. The parachute will undoubtedly deploy. With that lens, I appreciate that agreeing to jump out of the plane with my mom was not the real act of courage, but instead it was coming back over again and continuing to try when the original plans didn’t manifest according to our agenda. The Universe always provides the perfect timing and conditions if we let go, dive in, and watch the magic unfold from every altitude. 

I’ll never forget the marvel once that parachute opened: time suspended…peace…bliss… transcendence…and a whole lot of love for the strange man strapped to my back.

the girl with the dragonfly tattoo

I’ve never identified myself as a girl that gets a tattoo…at least not without analyzing the decision from every angle until I rationalize myself out of the idea. Frankly, I don’t even remember getting my ears pierced. Despite my mother making that particular choice for me at the ripe age of three days old, the flavor of that cultural tradition from my grandmother’s Brazilian lineage did not translate beyond some delicate ruby studs as a baby, which grew to an eclectic earring collection by my teenage years. For the dear readers who don’t know me, an indication of my typically reserved nature is exemplified by the following: at some point in the recent three-hour exchange with my tattoo artist-turned friend George, he asked me if I’d ever been a debutante, to which I sheepishly answered yes. To my credit, he clarified that because I said I had lived in Georgia, he associated that notion with a Southern rite of passage for girls like me. However, despite hailing from Denver, Colorado, it was not a farfetched impression. I recalled a well-rehearsed curtsey followed by a regal ball, donning a Cinderella-like dress that was subsequently preserved in an obtrusive, airtight box and stored in a closet until my mother finally mailed it to me a few years ago. To clarify, I do not regret or feel ashamed of that part of my history and how it translates to my current self-identity. And although I know that having been announced to society in formalwear has had no adverse bearing on the person I’ve become, much less a relation to my decision to get a tattoo, I cannot deny that as I was being newly inked this week, I felt a palpable rebellion against the prevailing persona that I’ve held for the better part of my conscious existence. The whimsical decision was a betrayal of sorts to my semi-conservative upbringing, and yet it not only felt liberating, but true. It’s not as though permanent body art is life-defining or exceptional. Nonetheless, for me, it was a totem on my evolutionary journey, or perhaps just a remembering of my genuine, intuitive essence.

Let me back up. As I write this, I am concluding a magical trip to Sedona, Arizona, where I spent nine days on a solo vacation. Although I’ve lived abroad and travelled extensively, there was something that felt uniquely daring, connective and necessary about an extended escape in nature, anonymously exploring a novel geography and topography.  Prior to my visit, I envisioned Sedona and all its renowned magic as a portal of sorts: a place where the majesty of the red rocks has the power to shift reality. Admittedly, I came on a mission to extricate myself from my current state: one in which my life regularly feels habitual and lacking real significance. Moreover, I no longer have my mother—my best friend and confidant—to reassure me that everything is going to work out. I craved the famous vortex energy that I wished would nurture me in healing and illumination, or at minimum, lead me to a legit psychic.

It is no coincidence that I landed at a quaint, independent hotel appropriately named El Portal. In any fictional story, portals are doors or passageways that exist to instantaneously deliver their protagonists to an alternate reality, transporting them from the mundane to the fantastical, where there is a greater purpose to be realized. While I didn’t board the Flux Capacitor back to the future where life is suddenly perfect, I did learn one of the secrets to that transcendence I was seeking: be open and curious. I’ve had more stimulating, uplifting interactions in the past week than I can recall in the last year. And I believe this is not just a result of stepping outside of my traditional social contracts and constructs, but also because of the emotional aperture that I am exploring. This place has been a gateway as much as it’s been a mirror reflecting back more of who I really am: the one who engages in a profound conversation with a stranger at a bar; the one who prays with spirits of the rocks at an ancient Native American ceremonial site; the one who frolics barefoot in an icy creek; the one who capriciously tattoos her virgin skin. And yes, I am still the former debutante that appreciates a good manicure and balayage.

Dragonflies are often regarded as symbols of change, transformation, adaptability, and self-realization. From some Native American’s viewpoint, dragonflies represent rebirth and renewal. They are born underwater and spend most of their lives there, and when they first surface, they are almost entirely transparent. Yet when sunlight bathes their delicate bodies, they become the vibrant and enchanting creatures that are depicted across a multitude of artforms. I chose to tattoo a dragonfly on my wrist as an apt reminder that my mother is perpetually with me. Her wild beauty, her shapeshifting nature and her continuous reinvention are perfectly epitomized by this spirit animal. And as she always did in human form, mom’s soul continues to reinforce my own capacity to find the inner portal –to gently inspire my heart to shine with any color or persona of my choosing.

On my first evening in Sedona, I sat at a restaurant bar next to a woman named Irene, who was having dinner with her husband and one of her daughters. She passionately described her home here and how she lovingly toiled to cultivate the garden of her dreams in the backyard. In the next breath she told me that she and her husband would soon move to Florida because their developing health problems compelled them to be closer to family there. Irene’s early-onset dementia revealed itself within a few minutes of our exchange, and it seemed as if she was preparing for her final chapter. Before she left the restaurant, I communicated my wish for her: that she allow herself the freedom to be guided by what truly illuminates her heart. Later I realized that I was speaking to her as much as I was speaking to myself. How much of my life today is the result of my story of what is conforming and safe, or dare I say it, because of how I was presented to society before I even left the comfort of my childhood home? While Sedona may not have been the portal that Hollywood movies are made of, it did awaken me to a renewed perspective, and I am departing with a permanent souvenir on my wrist to remind me when I inevitably forget.

In case you are wondering, the debutante dress was surrendered to Goodwill after a failed attempt to sell it almost 20 years after the ball. I’m betting the tattoo is going to be a longer-term investment.

Dedicated to my luminary guide on this journey, Clint Frakes, founder of Sedona Sacred Earth

a taste of happiness

Boragó is a restaurant in Santiago, Chile inspired by the region’s indigenous hunter-gatherers, whose chef is famous for integrating endemic plants of the diverse country into their ever-changing menu. The ingredients are carefully curated from far and wide – coastlines, mountain tops, and orchards – which are crafted into inimitable dishes such as duck aged in beeswax or “cheese” made from vegetables inoculated with mold spores. The restaurant’s own website unassumingly states, “one day we can cut a wild fruit that grows three weeks a year at 3,500 meters and the next, unique mushrooms from a forest.” Although I consider myself a foodie, the idea of taking such painstaking measures in the name of gastronomy seems superfluous, if not ludicrous. And yet, the creation of a once-in-a-lifetime meal for a relatively small population of diners to devour in a few short hours or even minutes is nothing less than artistic, notwithstanding the significant cost. After all, isn’t that the quintessential exemplification of our humanness? Even as we continue to evolve and enjoy the luxuries of our species’ innovations, there is still a sacredness in the animalistic desire to shed blood, sweat, and tears for that fleeting moment of sensorial pleasure. Dare I even call that the recipe for true happiness? 

Recently, I was listening to podcast produced by The Atlantic entitled How to Build a Happy Life, and the host posed a question: when is the last time you remember being really happy? I was surprised by my own dis-ease, both literal and emotional, when I attempted to answer genuinely. Shouldn’t it be automatic? Can’t we all recollect at least one blissful, connected experience from recent memory? I sense that I am not alone in grasping for an honest response – one that is not just about a superficial indulgence, but rather genuine contentment. Maybe the better inquiry is: when was the emotion of happiness cleverly disguised by the more dominant flavor of struggle, garnished with a sprig of suffering? There is so much to be disheartened and downright angry about in this world. Whether we feel loss or disconnection in the wake of the pandemic, sadness of watching a war unfold on another continent, or simply the daily struggle of life’s circumstances, we are reminded at both the macro and the micro level just how transitory and difficult it is to experience authentic happiness.

But what is this notion of happiness, really? Often we delude ourselves into thinking we will realize it upon the achievement of certain socially-defined measures of success: a professional title, the balance in a bank account, an image of the perfect relationship…yet we still feel empty and even depleted upon attaining those accomplishments, particularly in the realization that they do not empower us to control life’s harshest conditions. The Atlantic’s podcast fittingly reinforced my food metaphor in its explanation of happiness as a compilation of three key macronutrients: enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. Paradoxically, these experiences frequently manifest through our most painful moments. Despite the cognitive dissonance that arises in this confession, after much deliberation, I recalled that the last time I remember feeling really happy was the evening following the service in celebration of my mother’s sacred life; I was snowed-in, dancing and singing karaoke with my family and two of my dearest friends. I will never forget my aunt and uncle donning sunglasses, passionately belting out Prince’s Purple Rain. Mom’s crossing to The Other Side, as I choose to interpret death, was and continues to be the most tragic event of my life and one that I have not yet fully integrated. Nevertheless, that night I felt blissfully at home (which I believe she orchestrated magnificently). While I cannot compare foraging for rare ingredients in search of gastronomic accolades to the loss of the most significant person in my life, that experience does allow me to relate on some level to Boragó’s suffering in the name of something extraordinary. Undoubtably, the act of overcoming challenges, whether self-imposed or not, generates a feeling of great satisfaction, if not an even greater sense of priorities and purpose. 

Could it be that that the quest for happiness inherently requires that we traverse the mucky terrain of discomfort for that scarce fruit or fungi? Is everything that we expend so much energy bypassing, denying, and resisting the secret ingredient of life’s most fulfilling entree – the sustenance for our souls? I once heard it explained that every decision we make, whether conscious or subconscious, is driven by a motivation to feel a certain way: namely, happy. Ironically, in the process of seeking happiness, we expend so much effort avoiding feeling bad that all we do is numb ourselves to feeling altogether, which is the ultimate state of separation and isolation. American novelist David Foster Wallace famously delivered a speech entitled “This is Water” to Kenyon College graduates in 2005, and the most impactful of his quotes for me was the following: “How [will you] keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone – day in and day out?” Prior to hearing that message, I was weary of the notion of opening my heart, dare I risk the intensity of emotion that might swallow me whole. And when I did take a small bite of happiness, my guilt stepped in to remind me of my reservation for grief, party of one. How can my despair coexist with my joy as I walk down the street on a beautiful day, loving every plant, animal, and stranger that passes by? And then it dawned on me that without the challenge, life is flavorless. Just like health is not the absence of disease, joy is not the absence of pain; that is actually the true definition of death. In order to taste happiness, we must incorporate one essential ingredient – the collective struggle.

Mom – I know you hated mushrooms, but I’ll take one more order for the table. 

window pains

Throughout the last week, I watched the progress on my neighbor’s new window installation from my subterranean storage space-turned home office, which has a conveniently inconspicuous view up into my townhouse community’s shared courtyard. Not only was the process a loud one, but it was surprisingly involved: from sawing out the original windows and sealing the open spaces with plastic, to the meticulous measurement and placement of each customized, double-paned Ferrari of home finishings. And I only saw the outside activity. Suddenly, I felt an urgency to install these high-impact windows of my own. How could I be so exposed – a first-time homeowner living alone in a hurricane hub just blocks from the open ocean? In conversation with that same neighbor just a few days later, I was struck by the subtle irony of it all: the protection we feel by reinforcing the very outlet that is meant to connect us to the outside world is curious indeed.

While I am not diminishing the practical utility of storm-resistant windows in South Florida, I am nonetheless compelled to follow this allegorical train of thought. Without researching their architectural evolution, it doesn’t take a genius to intuit that our homes have windows because fundamentally, we are animals that desire to co-exist with nature. Or more essentially, we’ve figured out that our basic chemistry depends on a minimum daily exposure to vitamin D, and frankly, seeing outdoors just makes us happier. Yet in the course of our own species’ technological and social progression, we logically became more capable and comfortable creating spaces protected from harsh elements, predators, and pests (unless of course you live in the tropics, and personal experience tells me that cockroaches and carpenter ants are still remarkably adept at finding their way inside!). By design, windows connect us to the wild, external environment that we appreciate even more from the security of our controlled backdrops; however, they also serve as a barrier or a type of armor that defend us from the uncomfortable conditions of the outside world. 

Returning to that reflexive moment when I compared my neighbor’s chance of survival in a category 5 hurricane versus my own, it inspired me to consider that maybe our homes are just an extension of our egos. Isn’t part of the human experience to traverse through life in these bodies on an arduous quest to control our inner state, only to realize that is the actual source of all our suffering? We do this by some combination of guarding ourselves from perceived threats beyond the scope of our relatively small personal domains, and actively trying to change everyone and everything else to meet our personal standards of existence. We shield ourselves in a proverbial home and how often do we—do I—really let anyone inside the walls? Our eyes and ears serve as our sensorial windows, yet our default is one of triple-paned resistance to filter out the noise and the unbridled chaos that is our world. While I have not yet installed any elaborate hurricane-proof windows, part of me wonders if all this glass armor is really serving to protect me. As I’ve learned through the most difficult of recent personal circumstances, when the storm comes, it comes with a vengeance. No amount of superficial protection will allow me to escape the inherent and inexorable challenges of being human. While I am enjoying the process of creating a new home that is my sanctuary and brings me a sense of peace, I am keenly aware that I must not believe any false pretenses that I am truly safe. 

In writing this, I recalled a short story by Robert Fisher that I read years ago entitled The Knight In Rusty Armor. The protagonist is a noble gentleman who dedicates his life to helping others and performing good deeds. The knight is also famous for his shining armor, which he loves so much that he never takes it off, even while sleeping. His astute wife is tired of never really “seeing” her husband, so she gives him an ultimatum: either he removes the armor or she leaves with their child. The knight tries to remove the metal suit in order to save his family and much to his dismay, he cannot. The story that ensues is the tale of the knight’s “Path of Truth”, reminding him that his real purpose is to shed the armor. After braving harrowing challenges in three different castles, he stumbles upon a boulder with a powerful inscription: “Though this universe I own, I possess not a thing, for I cannot know the unknown if to the known I cling.” The story concludes with the message that, because the knight had been able to release everything that he thought he knew and to trust the unknown, it set him free. Ultimately, he is able to completely shed his physical and emotional armor. 

It seems like we are all walking around with an invisible wall (or triple-paned windows – real and figurative) to defend ourselves from vulnerability, particularly in the aftermath of a global health crisis that rocked our very foundation of safety and trust in our neighbors. But I’d also assert that there is a slight opening in everyone, a crack in the window to our homes, that we are all secretly yearning to be permeated by friends and strangers alike. And on the other side of the coin, like the knight, we must also forge our own paths to truth, which entails a shedding of the armor we’ve donned over a lifetime of wounds. Personally, my aspiration is that someday I will move beyond the intellectual awareness to the real experience of knowing that there is actually no distinction between the outside and in. It is one fluid space wherein I own no land, no walls, and no windows, but rather I am the guest. Storms will continue to tear down the house, but with a solid foundation, I will rebuild stronger than ever…if only I could eliminate those darn ants. 

to the moon and back

To my wise, beautiful, soulful mother – never could I have imagined, much less accepted, that I would be writing this letter to you. As I sit here on the eve of a new year watching snow fall abundantly outside, I feel like I am dreaming; that I will wake up and call or text you like I did every day for as long as I can remember. Certainly, we would have commiserated together over the Colorado cold, but we also would have appreciated the majestic, winter wonderland that undeniably reminds us we are home here this time of year. Even when I lived halfway across the globe, you were always there for me on the other side of the line or just a flight away. You were my source of strength, confidence, and inspiration. You were my everything.

Unfortunately, I am not dreaming, and that requires accepting a new reality wherein your familiar form is gone. That also means that my definition of “everything” must evolve beyond form. No longer can I hold your hand, hear your sweet voice, or feel your butterfly kisses on my cheek. I’ve done so much work over the last few years to understand the impermanence of life – to comprehend that it is part of the deal we make with Source to experience what it is to feel fully. The duality of our existence is both the lock and the key. We do not get to love without hurt, laugh without tears, or live without loss. Still, I cannot entirely embrace this perceived tradeoff.

Not coincidentally, a book came into my life last year that transformed me to the core and naturally, I shared it with you. Immediately I knew that Conversations with God was and would continue to be my Bible. In the book God states that “All human actions are motivated at their deepest level by two emotions: fear or love. In truth there are only two emotions–only two words in the language of the soul…Fear wraps our bodies in clothing, love allows us to stand naked. Fear clings to and clutches all that we have, love gives all that we have away. Fear holds close, love holds dear. Fear grasps, love lets go.” Mom, you were my example of living from a place of love, always. You showed me what it means to step into authenticity, to dare to make the choices that honor your heart’s desire and to speak your truth with the trust that love prevails. You exemplified love as a willingness to let go – and now my true test begins.

Before you transitioned, or perhaps I should say returned to your original home, I felt an urgency for a confirmation of our sign, or how exactly I could expect you to communicate with me in this new reality. I asked you to tell me that fateful October day in the doctor’s office and I asked you once again on Christmas morning, just hours before you passed. I never heard a clear answer, and I trust that was intentional. On one level, you never gave up the fight for your sacred human experience. I am certain of that because you continued to make plans, and to dream of swinging your leg over your motorcycle, riding off into the sunset with your love. And true to form, you also gave my father clear specifications to trade in the tennis bracelet he gave you over twenty years ago for a more modern version – just one day before you departed this material world. Mommy, I am in awe of you.

I also know that you did not reveal our sign because not only would it ruin the surprise, but because choosing just one would be too limiting. Although I rarely admit it, you know how much I love surprises. And in your subtle and eternally astute way, you are reminding me to stay awake. As much as I want this all to be a dream, you are showing me that I have been living so much of my life asleep – afraid to let down my guard and be amazed; fearful to feel what it is to live in my nakedness, my essence, and my truth. I have been so attached to the signs of affirmation that I have not paid attention to those that are right there inside of me, yearning to be heard. You are teaching me, even in your physical absence, to trust. I must trust myself first and foremost, but I must also trust that you, as a force of the Universe, will always be by my side illuminating the path, reminding me that we are forever connected. Signs and wonder will abound.

One of the authors we shared, Marianne Williamson, wrote: “To trust in the force that moves the Universe is faith. Faith isn’t blind, it’s visionary. Faith is believing that the Universe is on our side, and that the Universe knows what it’s doing. Faith is a psychological awareness of an unfolding force for good, constantly at work in all dimensions. Our attempts to direct this force only interferes with it. Our willingness to relax into it allows it to work on our behalf. Without faith, we’re frantically trying to control what it is not in our business to control, and fix what it is not in our power to fix. What we’re trying to control is much better off without us, and what we’re trying to fix can’t be fixed by us anyway. Without faith, we’re wasting time.”

I cannot control the circumstances outside of myself. I cannot control the dreadful disease that took you from us far too soon. But I can commit to trusting in a force far greater than I could ever begin to know on this plane. I can also commit to opening my heart and feeling your energy move through and around me whereby no sign is off limits. You had a plan to spend Christmas with your family this year, which is exactly what you did. Now I must have faith in the grander plan: that all is exactly as it should be. Although I want to fight it, I know it’s futile and once again, duality presides. As our friend Rumi reminds us: “This being human is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor…Welcome and entertain them all. Treat each guest honorably. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

Mom, one of the many legacies of your life is serving as my guide from beyond, and your light will shine through me for eternity. I love you to the moon and back – and I will meet you there when it’s time.

“May you never become lost in the bland absences.

May the day never burden.

May dawn find you awake and alert, approaching your new day with dreams, possibilities, and promises.

May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.

May you go into the night blessed, sheltered, and protected.

May your soul calm, console, and renew you.”

~Anam Cara

unconditional

In his forward to the book Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality by Jesuit priest and spiritual leader Anthony de Mello, the editor shares a story about an eagle’s egg that was (mis)placed in a nest of barnyard hens by an unassuming man. The baby eaglet hatched and grew up with a brood of chicks; as a result, he thought he was one of them his entire life. He clucked, pried insects from the earth and thrashed his wings, only flying a few feet in the air. After many years passed, the old eagle happened to see a bird soaring high in the sky above him. When he asked his fellow chicken who it was, he learned that it was an eagle, “king of the birds.” The chicken declared matter-of-factly, “he belongs in the sky while we belong to the earth.” This simple yet profound tale illustrates the omnipresent power of a conditioned mindset – an acceptance of reality as we are told to believe it, rather than one in which we challenge normative ideology and choose instead to not only question our own mental models, but more importantly recognize our unbounded potential and the innate freedom we have as the creators of our experience. 

Naturally, the conditioning in our formative years establishes a distinct framework through which we view the world. We are raised with a strong predisposition to adopt a mindset from our parents or caretakers, which is heavily influenced by their own rearing. Whether consciously or not, our thoughts, attitudes and actions for the rest of our lives are governed by those markers of reality, as if we are wearing goggles that filter out anything that does not fit our programmed standards. In our humanness, we perpetuate the adaptive conventions that seem to keep us safe within our social and cultural environments, and the cycle continues. We write manuals for our family, friends, partners, and even the stranger driving the car in the next lane as if somebody granted us with the perfect, most “objective” judgement of what should be. We believe that if life looks a certain way, meets our stipulations, then we will be okay. Not only does this lead to conflict among the almost 8 billion humans walking around wearing their own unique pair of goggles, but it predominantly generates resistance, disappointment, anger or some other negative emotion. Ironically, those conditioned views can be so rigid that they keep us trapped in a cell of our own making; we are the jailed and the jailer. If only we were more aware that we ourselves hold the key to our liberation. 

This inquiry continues to confront me through my own life circumstances: whether it be a yearning to fill a void by uncovering my life’s purpose, the desperation I feel that I can’t cure the ruthless disease that is attacking my beloved mother, or the mourning of a relationship that “failed” to endure as I imaged forever after. I am constantly reminded that I have conditioned my happiness on the satisfaction of particular qualifications of my own measure. As easy as it can be to fall prey to the identification with my own drama through the ego lens that is “me”, a glimmer of peace surfaces when I manage to step into the consciousness that is “I” the observer. As de Mello describes in his above-referenced book, “suffering exists in “me”…but the “I” is never threatened.” He goes on to say: “We never feel grief when we lose something that we have allowed to be free, that we have never attempted to possess. Grief is a sign that I made my happiness depend on this thing or person, at least to some extent.”

The author acknowledges that this may sound inhuman, and indeed it does. For all intents and purposes, the idea of accepting illness, injustice, heartbreak, and everything in between feels wrong. But maybe that wrongness is just another emotion on the spectrum of our own making. Although I want to believe that we come from a source of absolute love, I also have to consider the possibility that we produced all the conditions and our associated clinging or resistance so that we may evolve through the experience of life in its rich, full entirety. Even when I cannot understand why I would create a reality in which I or anyone I love faces adversity, I strive to compassionately accept and embrace my human condition: one that is all-encompassing. By nature of living on this relative plane, I have no choice but to receive its full spectrum. On my better days, I relax the reigns and trust that everything is exactly as it’s supposed to be. This doesn’t mean that reality is any different, I am just judging it a little less. In actuality, life rarely conforms to our preconceived expectations, especially when confronted with the difficult and downright tragic parts, yet the grace is found in unconditionally loving ourselves and each other through the process. Only then can our souls soar freely above it all, just like the eagle.

my un-doing

Set an intention but release expectations.

Accept that she will give you what you need, not necessarily what you want. 

This is just some of the sage advice I heard from experienced friends and strangers alike before my recent embarkation on the plant medicine path. More specifically, “she” refers to the sacred ayahuasca, a South American psychoactive brew used predominantly as ceremonial spiritual medicine among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. The word ayahuasca is based in the Quechua language and translates to “vine of the soul” or “vine of the spirits.” Last week, I apprehensively joined the ranks of those daring individuals, heeding the seductive allure of the “Mother,” as she is lovingly called for her feminine energy, in order to explore the depth and range of my psyche.

Someone once said to me that plant medicine finds you, and there is no question in my mind about the validity of that statement. If you had told me even a year ago that I would willingly subject myself to such an inscrutable and potentially distressing experience, I would have laughed smugly with an exaggerated eye roll to boot. For those who are not versed in the common side effects of drinking ayahuasca, some of the most infamous include nausea, vomiting, paranoia, and/or feeling trapped inside one’s own body. Vile taste and discomfort aside, plant medicine as a healthcare modality has existed for thousands of years. Ayahuasca in particular targets the emotional, energetic, and spiritual roots of dis-ease by opening channels of communication to subconscious inner landscapes. Early this year, I felt her subtle call. I yearned to not only challenge my limited perception of the world, but also to dissect my various personas in a quest to understand their nature and service to my present and future self. Once I committed to the excursion, I conducted extensive research on the important considerations of set and setting. I ultimately decided upon an intimate retreat center in Costa Rica, including four ceremonies of the indigenous Peruvian Shipibo healer tradition. * While I spent months considering my intentions for those ceremonies, I would be insincere if I said that I didn’t commence the journey with some expectations as well. Secretly, I hoped for fireworks: a peek at the mystical, a clue about my purpose, a felt sense of unicity, transcendence of time and space…the wish list goes on.

In actuality, I encountered no such obvious beauty or profound ascendance; instead, my sensations ranged from mundane to conspicuously unpleasant to a torturous emotional prison from which, for a brief time, I was unsure I would ever escape. More than once, I questioned my sanity in having chosen to voluntarily put myself through such anguish. True to form, my analytical mind wanted to make logical sense of it all. Surely there must have been a lesson, followed by a sliver of enlightenment? To add physical insult to emotional injury, Mother Ayahuasca reinforced her intent for me loud and clear by literally forcing me to remain in the depths of my miserable solitude. I tried to get up and leave the ceremony space multiple times, but I continuously collapsed to the floor, bound by my uncooperative body long after all my peers had left and retreated to their rooms for the night. Throughout the remaining days in Costa Rica and upon returning home, I contemplated what it all meant. I reacted to my challenge in interpreting a clear message and the lack of a discernible call to action by minimizing the value of drinking the ayahuasca and focusing instead on the beautiful new friendships I forged on the retreat. Not coincidentally, two days after arriving back in Miami while listening to one of my favorite podcasts, I was struck by a conversation with public speaker and author Charles Eisenstein. His words resonated in my brain as if he was speaking directly to me: “You don’t necessarily have to understand what the purpose was for the purpose to have had its effect. And sometimes trying too hard to understand what it was, is an escape from fully receiving the experience.” 

Perhaps, then, my call to action is one of inaction: to allow what has been quietly activated to express itself according to the Universal design. There is nothing to analyze and nothing to do. Intellectually, despite the anticlimax, I know that change is surreptitiously happening in dimensions beyond the perceptible time and space—a notion that is beautifully portrayed in book three of Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch. God depicts a rock as a microcosm of just such an experience; while a rock appears solid and complete, even in the fraction of the moment that we hold it in our awareness, there is incredible movement and speed of the particles that are invisible to the eye. To us, the rock is not becoming a rock, it is just a rock here and now. This message continues later in the book as God says, “That’s the greatest truth. There is nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no one you have to “be” except exactly who you are right now. The truth is that there is no journey. You are right now what you are attempting to be. You are right now where you are attempting to go. It is the master who knows this, and thus ends the struggle.” Consistent with the perfect, cyclical nature of all things, the plant medicine journey led me right back home to myself—no doing, just being

*Soltara Healing Center

un-settled

“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” ~Nelson Mandela

How many of us can relate to the subtle, nagging fear that this quote invokes? And if it doesn’t produce any fear, I would wager that at minimum, it inspires some honest introspection. The idea of settling, which in this context essentially means not pursuing our purpose on this plane, is simultaneously disturbing and overwhelming. The first word that comes to mind for me is resignation, or the notion of accepting people or circumstances in my life less ideal than what I truly desire. Yet answering the question of what it is that I really want and assessing the effort involved in journeying that path is no easy undertaking. I believe that for most, it requires an awareness and complete responsibility for the decisions that are creating one’s current circumstances, as well as a compassionate self-forgiveness, humility and the resolve to make an entirely different decision regardless of the physical and emotional cost. 

In contrast, another connotation of settling is one of calming, grounding and/or maturation. The prophetic poet Rumi beautifully wrote, “let the waters settle and you will see the moon and the stars mirrored in your own being.” In other words, it is only in the stillness that we can truly connect with our existence, and thus our true purpose. As someone who has suffered intermittently throughout her life with anxiety, the prospect of a settled soul is both inspirational and aspirational for me. After years of what has felt like constant upheaval in my life – spanning from moving and adapting to multiple countries, to marriage, to divorce, to job loss, to family and friends experiencing disease and untimely death – the prospect of internal peace seems like a dream. By no means do I consider myself exceptional; as humans we are all living our own stories comprised of magic, tragedy and everything in between. Arguably, it follows that the most important journey any of us can undertake throughout it all is one of returning home to our center – the infinite source of calm and stability that will always be our loving support and compass as long as we remember our power within.   

I wonder then, when it comes to living a purposeful life, what lies between the stifled passion that Mandela describes and the peaceful knowing that Rumi portrays? As I contemplate this question in the context of my own experiences, I observe someone who has been attempting to resist the former, while constantly seeking the latter. I’ve deliberately avoided a life of resignation even when the ensuing decisions tested my resolve, which run the gamut from imploding my marriage to endeavoring to preserve my fertility…and that is just in my personal life. In the professional domain, I yearn for new challenges as I instinctively know that I am capable of giving more and in turn, growing more. Nevertheless, the temptation to remain where I am in order to avoid navigating the turbulence of the unknown is a powerful one. In a recent conversation with a friend, I was anguishing about my professional crossroads and seeking confirmation of choosing the “right” career path. A preoccupation about making the wrong choice filled me with doubt; specifically, I worried that changing jobs would distract or even prevent me from finding and fulfilling my true purpose. My friend listened intently and then wisely reminded me that although the path will never be a straight line, it will be the right one because it is the one I am choosing right now. There are infinite possible avenues and stops along the way, but regardless of the direction, we need to pay the toll: passing through the unsettling zone of discomfort in order to transform and ultimately to realize our greatest potential. 

As my friend’s words and encouragement marinate, I also look to nature’s intelligence for reassurance. I consider the element of water a particularly wise one, modeling freedom is in its fluidity. Water innately moves into new, open spaces; it mirrors the environment’s choppiness through the storms, and when the chaos subsides, it returns to a state of stillness, reflecting the surrounding beauty with utmost clarity. Looking back at my initial question, maybe there is not a contradiction or even a duality in these two concepts of settling. In fact, they are exquisitely complimentary. I assert that the opposite of settling as Mandela referenced is truly living. This means pushing the boundaries of what is comfortable and conditioned, asking the difficult questions and then embracing the apprehension that comes with traversing unfamiliar terrain. Instead of passively allowing the status quo to remain as such, we must exercise our agency in this wild, scary, beautiful chaos that is the human condition. I interpret the settling that Rumi observed in the water, then, as a quelling of the anxiety required to make space for the lucidity and courage to truly see and chase our dreams. When I ask myself what I want to see mirrored in my own being when the waters are still, it is undoubtedly someone who seeks passion and purpose despite the discomfort, settling down only long enough hear the voice within guiding me from the calm to weather the next storm.