2014: Let’s Make it the Year of “It Isn’t All About Me” (In memory of Anita Mac, Travel Destinations Bucket List)

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On the morning of New Year’s Eve, I opened my email to find notification of a new blog post at “Travel Destinations Bucket List”. When I entered the blogosphere, TDBL was one of the first blogs I followed. Back then, I eagerly read of Anita’s solo transCanadian bike ride, reveling in the idea that here was a woman who had the courage to take on a truly daunting adventure – and speak honestly about the fearful as well as serendipitous moments. I was also newly in love with biking, and remember telling my friends, breathlessly, about TDBL and how much I admired Anita. Anyway, the last time she had posted was months ago, and it had been a sad post wondering how to heal from a broken heart. So I was thrilled that there was finally something new from TDBL and I clicked on the email link immediately to find out about Anita’s latest exploits.

Sadly, what I learned was that Anita took her own life in 2013. The post was a tribute in which other bloggers were sharing “bucket list” items they intend to complete in 2014 in honor of Anita. Their tribute ends: “We encourage you to join us in this quest and take on at least one bucket list item in 2014, but more importantly, we also hope you take the opportunity to (re)connect with friends and loved ones during this holiday season…Our friend and fellow traveler, Anita took her life because she didn’t see any other options. We don’t want anyone else to feel that way. Please share the momentum.” (You can read the entire post, here.)

I don’t mind saying that reading the TDBL post rocked me. I didn’t know Anita, except through her blog, so I have given a lot of thought to the reasons learning about her death affected me so deeply. My immediate thought was that her blog presented a woman who loved life – through travel (to far away lands and to destinations closer to home) Anita explored cultures, foods, experiences that she wrote of as joyful, difficult, instructive, and fun. The cognitive dissonance between what I knew through her blog and the reality of this particular woman losing hope and happiness so completely is difficult to reconcile – and so sad to contemplate.

There’s more, though. Anita wrote, excitedly, about transitioning in her life from her full-time corporate job to creating a life more in keeping with her passions. She travelled to Croatia, then walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain, writing of this journey as an opportunity for discernment about her future. She was hopeful and excited about creating a new vision for her life. As a reader, I followed every step. As a fellow journeyer seeking a way to change my own life, I took courage from her bold choice to move forward – even without a completely clear picture of what came next.

And so I arrived at the crux of my emotional response. Selfishly, perhaps, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Anita’s life and mine. We both set out to make significant changes in our personal lives, to take leaps of faith. The jump into the unknown is joyful and adventurous, and we have faith – in ourselves, in the world, in the “rightness” of this step. But what we don’t have is control. Over circumstances, others, the future. In Anita’s case, her beloved father’s terminal illness and the desertion of her significant other (which she wrote of in her final post) were among the things she could not have controlled for when making her decision to leap forward. I’m still learning – but I do know that the reality of major transitions is that they are harder than we anticipate, but in ways we didn’t (perhaps couldn’t) necessarily account for. Maintaining a positive outlook and/or a centered vision of your life in these times is very hard.

Suddenly the chasm between the woman who wrote with joy and the woman who took her own life seems shallower and easier to cross. What was unthinkable becomes understandable.

Isn’t this what often lies at the heart of our response to tragedy? The sense that it could have been us – that we are not as inviolable as we seem? Once our compassion is activated, we see our own humanity more clearly, are forced to take a more realistic look at our own lives.

To my friends and family, to those of you reading this post: these musings are not cause for concern about me. Taking stock these past few days has been a very good thing for me. I have ample evidence of the love and support of incredible people in my life (and a holiday season mostly separated from you only served to remind me of your generosity and love). Even when I struggle with fear, uncertainty, homesickness – I am concurrently in love with my precarious new life in this frozen city of the north. Even when I catastrophize in my thinking, I know my personal “rock bottom” will suck if I hit it – but I have alternative places to land if necessary. I am lucky.

In the end, though, I think about Anita Mac and the many others whose “taking stock” results in taking their own lives and I feel a deep sadness. We are all so occupied with our own issues and days and choices, so engrossed in our culture of self-fulfillment, that often we don’t think about others. We don’t notice that people we love are engrossed in a deep struggle to hold on to life and hope (granted, they often work hard at hiding that from us). So I echo the writers who paid tribute to Anita on TDBL – I don’t want anyone else to feel that way. It isn’t a bucket-list item, but it is a resolution: to take my eyes off myself often enough to pay attention to others. 2014 isn’t all about me – its about us, and how we all move forward into the future with adventure and joy.

Playing the Death Card

Dia de los Muertos figure, photo taken by Mike Beck in Santa Fe, June 2012

Back in the early ’90s, I was living in a college town full of odd characters and interesting happenings: I discovered a love for beads and beadwork; Sunday evenings were spent at “reading night” (we gathered to read aloud, things we’d written or excerpts, poems, etc. that we loved); if you discovered the location of Secret Pizza your pie was free. It was during this time, one very hot July evening, that I met The Purple Lady.

She was a well-known fixture in town – a profusion of wild gray hair, hippie style, and always purple clothing. My brother, Matt, the soup cook at Great Midwestern (the coffee place in town) had met her and somehow gotten into a conversation which led to him arranging Tarot card lessons for himself, his girlfriend Syndy, and me. On the night of our first lesson, we arrived at The Purple Lady’s place and were invited inside. We sat quietly, while she urged us to send a silent message of peace out from our bodies, encouraging mosquitoes and flies to stay away from us so that we didn’t inadvertently crush them.

We went over the basic information about the cards: the structure of the deck (major and minor acana), and the suits. Then, we began learning the symbolism of the major arcana cards. The lesson ended with homework: over the next week, do a reading for yourself every day using only the major arcana. Also, pick one card a day to study in detail. In this way, we would (The Purple Lady assured us) begin to grow a personal understanding of each card’s meaning and how it fit within the context of a particular reading.

Armed with very little knowledge and a brand-spanking-new deck, I dutifully set about my daily readings. And in every single reading (which I recorded for my teacher) I turned up the thirteenth card: Death. On the night of our second lesson, the following week, I shared my notes with The Purple Lady, who made no comment about the frequency of the Death card’s appearance, and I was hesitant to ask. Instead, we spent most of the lesson talking about the suits of the minor arcana and their meanings within a reading. Again, our homework was a daily reading. However, instead of another class, the third meeting was to be an individual reading and consultation with The Purple Lady. I scheduled mine for her first available time slot.

Once again, I dutifully performed my daily readings. By day twelve, I had turned up the Death card twelve times. I was starting, as any novice might, to grow a bit concerned. Was there something seriously wrong with me?!

Day thirteen was my scheduled reading and consultation. We sat cross-legged on a blanket in The Purple Lady’s backyard as she drew and laid the cards in a traditional Celtic Cross spread. And there, in plain view, was the Death card. “How many times has this card shown up in your daily readings?”, she asked. “Twelve,” I replied (because it sounded less scary than saying “all of them”). After a moment, she said, “And this is the thirteenth time the thirteenth card has been turned up.” I nodded, wordlessly.

“Well,” said The Purple Lady. “You’re probably freaking out about that. People often misunderstand what this card is all about. But the truth is, the Death card is simply a powerful symbol of change.” She went on to say that the major arcana cards represent major life transitions, processes, forces (while the minor arcana represent daily life events). The Death card reminds us that change is both the passing of what has been AND the arrival of what will be. At that point in my life, I was in a time of tremendous personal change, needing to let go of who I had been in order to make room for the person I was becoming.

You may be wondering why I chose to share this story today? I started thinking about it in relation to Halloween and the occult. Which led me to the celebration, today, of both All Saint’s Day and Dia de los Muertos. All of this focus on death – not as the final event in life, but as a symbol of transition to a new way of being. These early November holidays are not about the cessation of life, but about the next life of our souls.

And as I thought about this, I was reminded of a passage from Gregg Levoy’s Callings:

“Eventually, our feelings of inauthenticity and restlessness, our envy of others’ successes, our panic at the passage of time and our own reflections in the mirror, all become like tombstones – they remind us of where someone is buried –and we will measure our fear of death by the distance between our desires and our actions, between the life we want and the life we have.”
 

They become like tombstones, remind us of where someone is buried, because they are the markers of our failure to heed our callings in this life. If we live lives that are wrong for our spirits, says Levoy, we are “lost souls”. Of late, I have especially felt that panic at the passage of time – the fear that I may have squandered too many years and will never get where I hope to be. And then I remember that I have to be willing to let go of the past, of who I was and who I am today, in order to transition into who I will be. And this includes letting go of the idea of “squandered time” – the past simply is. Accept that and move on.

So, whether we’re officially celebrating All Souls/All Saints Day, Dia de los Muertos, or just experiencing a sugar crash from Halloween, this seems like a good moment to focus on our callings and let go of what was. To remember that we have important things to do here before we join the ranks of those celebrated in early November holidays. Let’s not spend too much time, in this life, being lost souls.