Way, way too many days ago, I received a letter from a reader, begging for advice.
It’s ironic, because in her story is a lot of heartache, a ton of perseverance, a long journey of pursuing her craft despite loss, setbacks and disappointments and one simple request: Would I give her one word of advice about her next big step? (Which, by the way, she’d already thought out and which also sounds pretty darn marvelous.)
I promised her a response and here it is:
I am not the wise woman you’re looking for.
And of course, because I am me, and why use one sentence when a couple hundred will do, there are many threads behind that response.
The first thread: I truly am not a wise woman. I have some life experience, but nothing that gives me the moral right to say anything about yours. I love to tell people what to do. But I’m also terrified that someone will do what I say, and suffer for it. (So I’m a bossy coward, I guess.)
Second thread: You already know what to do. I will share what someone told me years ago. Actually, what several people–okay, many people–have told me over and over throughout my life:
“Everything you need to know is already in your heart.”
They didn’t mean my heart can tell me how to perform brain surgery, or fix a sump pump, of course. But when it comes to making decisions, making good choices, taking even sought-after advice, it either feels right or it doesn’t. It feels good, or it doesn’t. And even if you do what you think is right, and it doesn’t work out, well, sometimes the wrong decisions get you to the right place to make a better decision.
Example: I went to University of Michigan not because it was good for my art career (it wasn’t) or because they offered me a good financial package (they didn’t) or because it was my first college choice (it wasn’t.) I went there because my boyfriend went there. The self-absorbed, emotionally abusive boyfriend who broke up with me half a dozen times, in cruel ways, before I finally wised up. (See? I’m actually a slow learner!)
But years later, that’s where I met my husband, who is wonderful and loyal and supportive, and we’ve now been together 35 years. A bad decision got me to a better place.
The third thread is, we are the story we tell about ourselves. Take that story about college. I could tell you about the sorry-ass people I dated, the dreary jobs I held (and the crazy bosses), the depressing living situations I put up with, how I couldn’t get into art school, how sad and needy and frightened I was, etc. (A beloved neighbor, an elderly woman, was murdered by a serial killer. That haunted me for years.)
Or I can choose to tell you the story of how the wonderful art history classes on prehistoric art became the foundation for my art later in life. Or the story told by an inspirational English lit teacher, whose retelling of the Battle of Hastings in the Norman Invasion forever etched the power of stories in my heart. Or the story of the friendships I formed there that have lasted a lifetime, the dogs I met that captured my heart forever, my first experience with volunteerism, and my first big, empowering, grownup decision to go to graduate school. And how that neighbor’s death inspired me to create a powerful grief writing exercise years later.
You, too, have choices on how to tell your life story. You can drown in the sadness and despair that life entails, or you can recognize what Jane Mcgonigal calls the gifts of post-traumatic growth.
Which this reader has done. And is doing.
The fourth thread is about the five regrets found at the end of life. (Were you surprised that the five regrets are the antithesis of the five gifts of post-traumatic growth? I was! And you thought I was wise…!!)
The fifth thread is what faith means to me: We never truly know the impact our decisions, our choices, our very presence in the world. When I receive a letter, like the one I got from Lorri, it is always out of the blue. It’s usually on a day where I’m feeling pretty frumpy, or useless, or negligible. It always says that something I said, made a difference–for a moment, for an hour, whatever.
And I know when I tell others who have made that difference, for ME, they say the same thing–that they don’t even remember saying that, or telling me that, or writing that.
Such is the nature of our presence in the world. Sharing our gifts with the world is an act of extreme faith in….something beyond what we can see or measure.
So Lorri, give it your best shot. If it means something to you, don’t give up. Until you feel it’s really time to give up and do something else. Maybe you’re thinking of something you’ve never heard of before. Maybe that’s because it really is new, and fresh, and creative.
Don’t wait for me to tell you it’s all right. I don’t know! But I cheer you on anytime you tell me you’re thinking about something wonderful, something you care about, something that makes you perk up and feel truly alive. Something that’s calling to you.
I’ve never regretted following that call. The few times I haven’t followed, that’s what I regret.
My one word of advice? Believe.
Because real faith comes from believing in yourself. Believing that you bring something to the world. That you are worth believing in.
Even if you fall flat on your face.
I remember Anne Lamott, I think in Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, saying when she prays, all she asks is for a light to shine at her feet, to show the way for one step. Just one little step forward. Because that’s all we need to make our way in the world. One little step at a time. (She also says her favorite prayer is, “Help me, help me, help me…”)
A truly wise woman told me recently, “You are a wise woman who creates your own wisdom. That’s a wonderful thing.” Everything I write about is just that–finding the wisdom, the blessings, in the ordinary things–good, and bad–that cross my path.
And so, Lorri, 900 words of advice. Or one. Whatever helps you get on your way, today. And I am truly humbled by the fact that you asked me. Which is precisely why it took me so long to get back to you.