My favourite book as a pre-teen girl was The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Although Anne of Green Gables touched my (and the world’s) heart, it’s The Blue Castle that touched my soul. Although I was always an avid reader, this was the first book to ever have this effect on me.
The story is about a young woman named Valancy who is, by all accounts, the wallflower/doormat/old maid of her family. Privately, she is imaginative, curious and intelligent. However, she isn’t given any credit within her clan (nor does she demand it). As a result her life is not her own, but rather subject to the whims and folly, judgments and perceptions of her family. That is, until one day when she is given a terminal diagnosis, at which point she decides to take living into her own hands. Choice by choice, she grabs the reins with all her might and steers her life into something full of colour and energy, something that is of her own making. She is a wallflower no more.
And of course, at the end of the story, we learn her terminal diagnosis was given in error and she gets to go on living her new wonderful, magical life. Yay, Valancy!
My parents are immigrants. My dad was the youngest child of a rural, post-war Italian family, and was only allowed as much as a third grade education before he had to leave school to help out on the family farm. My mom, the youngest of three, moved to Canada from Italy when she was eight years old. She was held back a few years in school on account of her lack of English, which may have helped her learn the language, but did nothing for her confidence in education. My parents grew up practically, thinking about making ends meet, putting food on the table, and not messing around with any lofty ideas. Take care of your family, take care of your home, be a good citizen in your community: these are the rules by which they abided, even and especially if sacrifice was required.
My sister always understood the rules. She has straight hair and is a teacher. Her feet are solidly on the ground.
It was much more difficult for a stubborn dreamer like me.
I was born knowing I was different. I didn’t know how to keep my feet on the ground when my head was in the clouds. I didn’t know how to stay grounded when my soul wanted to fly free.
This struggle has woven itself through the whole of my life: trying to be the child I was raised to be, wanting to follow the call of my soul. This paradox has pulled me in opposite directions, and often has left me paralyzed when action was needed.
I’ve been disappointed in myself. Saddened. Infuriated. By not choosing a side I’ve lived in limbo, but not choosing myself led to a break in confidence. I allowed myself to fall to the wayside, to become a wallflower to my own life.
There’s a scene at the end of Titanic, after Jack helps Rose onto the door but can’t find a way to get up there himself (gawd!), where the camera rolls through pictures of the life Rose went on to lead after surviving her near-death experience. She did not fall back into the claws of her parents, she did not continue to allow them to control her. She made a choice to be her own person, and, by the looks of it, led an incredible fictional life.
That takes courage. It takes guts. It takes a person making a choice to listen to the truth within themself, rather than cater to the fear raised by outside influences.
This scene, also, spoke to my soul.
About five years ago I was going through a bit of a difficult time with my health. My doctor tested me for a few different things, one of them being cancer, and there was a period of several months where I lived with this question mark over my head. It wasn’t, and eventually my symptoms went away. I had this nagging feeling that I was meant to learn something from this experience.
The concept of reincarnation or past lives is not accepted by everyone, and I’m not about to sit here and make a case for or against it, but if there were such a thing as past lives, a few thoughts have developed in my mind.
We all have random and strange thoughts that we don’t admit to out loud; snippets of scenes that pop in like memories, things we pass off as probably having happened in a dream. If, for the sake of argument, these snippets were actually bits and pieces of past lives streaming through our subconsciousness, mine would provide me with the following information: I get claustrophobic in water because I previously died by drowning; I have an irrational fear of driving over bridges for the same reason. I get a pull when I hear about shipwrecks so I don’t ever want to go on a cruise. I have a memory that is not actually a memory (because it wasn’t actually me) of being tied up with my family (who wasn’t actually my family) in a home invasion. It was gruesome and violent. It might have been a dream, I really don’t know, but when, as a teenager, my home was actually invaded, I felt deeply affected.
Cumulatively, all my unexplainable and irrational thoughts and fears make me feel (because this is how my brain works) as though I died a bunch of early deaths in past lives, deaths that affect me emotionally in this life. I like to see my name in writing, for example, it gives me a feeling of permanence. It doesn’t make sense but that’s what it is. I have a deep desire to grow into a lippy old lady, to be one of those old ladies who people look at with awe as someone who has lived her life well and not put up with any bullshit. My desire to grow old is tangible. I’ve never been afraid of death itself, but I have always been afraid of dying unfinished.
Betty White died on New Year’s Eve. Already, it’s a night fraught with self-reflection. But, Betty White?! Betty White was an inspiration. Betty White with her sense of humour and quick wit and lack of bullshit. Betty White was truly the best. I want to be just like Betty White.
I feel like my life’s calling is to follow the path that Valancy followed; the same path as Rose. To be like Betty White and to live a lot, love a lot, and walk to the beat of my own drum. I feel like my life’s calling is to find freedom – to be spiritually, emotionally free.
And also, I recognize that this has been the single hardest thing for me to achieve in my life. I have tethered myself, inexplicably, via self-imposed guilt to the messages that I was raised hearing. Even if I didn’t agree with them, even if I still don’t.
Because I know my family are good people with good intentions, and because I’m the only “one of these things that doesn’t belong here,” I have an incredibly difficult time separating myself from the emotional ties that bind (leaving me fighting both for and against a need to belong). And I can only blame myself, and I can only make the choice to change for myself. And yet, even though I want this and know this, I can’t seem to flip the switch. Dr. Wayne Dyer would call this a shift. I need a f’ing shift. Why can’t I shift?
As a woman in my 40s, I have come to learn, through all of my life experience, that peace and calm arise in the embracing of life’s many paradoxes. It doesn’t mean that I have succeeded in achieving this peace and calm, but just that I totally get this concept. As humans we tend to fight against the things that heal us. If we can relax and allow it all to exist in unison – the good and the bad, the joys and the hurts, the successes and the failures – then we can achieve flow.
By that logic, the formula for achieving my desired shift is simply this: Accept my free spirit as valid and accept my family for the practical beings they are. Let go of any perception that one way is better than the other, and know that one way won’t make me a better daughter than the other. Allowing all to exist without judgement or denial, fault or interference. Stop fighting to belong, and stop fighting to be independent. Belong and be independent. Embrace all to achieve flow.
When I was twenty-four, I went ziplining in Whistler. Nobody knew that I was there that day, it was my own private little adventure. At one point along the several passes our group made between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, I decided to release my grasp on the harness. That is, rather than hold tightly the reins, keeping myself in the standard upright position, I completely let go. My body turned upside down, my hair flew in all directions. I felt like I was flying. I felt wonderfully, beautifully free.
In hindsight, that was probably a little dangerous. I don’t know how well I was actually strapped to that harness… I mean, was it well enough to protect my body against gravity for real? I don’t know. But I trusted the harness, and I let go, and I became free.
If I can trust a nylon strap, can I not trust in the universe that made me, to hold me and guide me to the other side? To not drop me while I fly free?
I do personally believe that the universe communicates with each and every one of us, whether or not we choose to listen. And I do believe the universe has communicated with me, asking me to pay attention.
And when I pay attention, I understand that I’m being asked to live my life, to be myself, to be free. Nothing and no one is weighing me down. Nothing but my own fear.
Valancy let go of her fear. So did Rose. They lived like Betty White.
I know they’re fictional but, if they can live like Betty, I imagine, so can I.
As a P.S., I thought I was finished writing this piece, except for one thing that kept nagging at me: I hadn’t shifted. Unintentionally, I expected to shift once the words were down. So, I went for a walk (I often walk when I feel a need to process). As I walked, I came to recognize that my desire for freedom was so strong that I wasn’t allowing it to be free: I have inadvertently tethered my tether.
Last fall I read Beck’s book The Art of Integrity, I highly recommend. One of the things she talks about in this book is how, when you know that you want to change in a particular direction but are having trouble making the switch, to instead focus on making one degree turns in the direction that you want to go. That is, baby steps. Eventually, all the baby steps will accululate to a significant and noticeable alteration in our life’s course.
My first one degree turn toward freedom was to take a day off. My next one degree turn toward freedom was to take myself seriously. And next… and next. Between me and freedom, between me and Betty White, lie 180 one degree turns. And I can make them, one day at a time.