Are You Paying Attention?
Our circumstances change and so do we. The trick, I’m finding, is to pay attention to when a door closes…for perhaps it is only when we truly accept that, can a new one open.
In November 2009, I gave a presentation called Wake Up to Your Dreams to a group of writers about my experience of writing my first book, A Widow’s Awakening. After I had finished speaking, a man asked me to explain in more detail about the ‘awakening’ process…“Because so many people,” he said, “seem to be sound asleep.”
I paused a moment before answering, thinking how best to articulate my perspective on the concept of awakening.
“The day after my husband died,” I said, “I remember noticing how slowly my parents seemed to be speaking to me. In fact, right from the moment I was told of my husband’s fall, it felt like I was functioning on a different level than everyone else…almost as if the shock of his imminent death had launched me into a heightened state of awareness.”
The man who’d posed the question nodded, so I continued. “I remember being really irritated with people in those first few days. It was as if my soul inherently understood the significance of my husband’s death – but everyone else around me just seemed stunned. I felt like screaming, ‘Pay attention to this!’ And it became clear to me very quickly that I had to write a book about the experience.”
“So do you think people need a tragedy, or something really significant, to wake them up,” he asked, “particularly in regards to the importance of pursuing their dreams?”
“No,” I said. “I think there are plenty of people living their dreams simply because they chose to do so and then took the necessary steps to achieve their goals – rather than being forced to do so after experiencing some tremendous loss, tragedy or life-altering event.”
The man shook his head. “I don’t agree. I think most people need a pretty loud wake-up call. It seems to me the vast majority of people are so asleep that they aren’t paying attention to what’s going on around them…or in them.”
In hindsight, I can hear the angels laughing.
For the very next day I got another powerful wake-up call that hurt like the dickens…but it wasn’t in the form of a tragedy. At least, not a real one.
It was a play.
I’m really starting to suspect the universe communicates to us through the mediums that will have the best chance of catching our attention. As a playwright and lover of the theatre, it makes sense that it would be a play that instigated a major life decision.
Maybe it’s a little like listening to the radio…we tend to listen to certain stations, so although we may flip between two or three different ones, the universe likely won’t send us an important news bulletin on a station we never listen to.
At any rate, the play was about a twelve year old girl hiding out in the boiler room of her junior high school. It was a one-act, one-woman play where the actress played four different characters: the twelve year old girl whose parents were recently divorced, the school janitor, the girl’s grandpa and the new wife of the girl’s dad.
The actress playing the four characters put on different masks and outfits and changed her voice and behaviour to convey which character she was, at any given moment. And isn’t THAT a metaphor for how we often live our lives?!
Anyway, about two thirds of the way through the play, the girl was so distraught that she was screaming at us – the audience – about her dreadful experience over the weekend of having to go to her dad’s wedding. She had a ruler in her hand and was waving it at us, as she got angrier and angrier explaining the humiliation of having to wear this horrible dress with a huge bow on her bum.
I howled with laughter at this image. But something didn’t feel quite right. I mean, although I was laughing out loud, it felt as if a whole bunch of emotion was…stuck behind my eyes, in the best way I can explain it.
Then the girl went on to say, through tears, how livid she was at her dad for leaving their family and how lonely her mother would be now and how she wouldn’t get to see her dad very much anymore and how he obviously didn’t care about her feelings…
I wasn’t laughing anymore. I was bawling – and scarcely stopped for two days.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
– Franz Kafka
In my case, the axe was a play.
When the performance ended, you could’ve heard a pin drop in that theatre. I wasn’t the only one impacted. I turned to my mom in the seat beside me. She took one look at the tears streaming down my face.
“What have I done?!” she cried. “Look how hurt you still are over the divorce! What could I have done better? That damn father of yours!”
“Mom,” I said, “let’s go get something to eat.”
My parents divorced when I was six. My dad remarried a couple of years later. The catch was how he told me the news: he picked me up one day and casually announced, over his shoulder to me in the back seat of the car, that he’d got married over the weekend.
Thanks for the invite.
“You cried for days,” my mom told me over dinner after the play. “You were so upset that my boss sent me home from work to care for you.”
I didn’t remember that.
I do know my dad didn’t intend to hurt me. He just made the best decision he could at the time. But looking back on the incident now, I think the best word to describe his behaviour is: indifference.
And I guess I’d buried the pain resulting from that indifference – until an annoyingly effective play brought it to the surface.
After dinner, I went home and cried some more. Although my dad lived with me at the time, he happened to be away that week – which was probably a good thing.
The next morning, I woke up feeling significantly better about that matter, having cried it out of my system. But then I proceeded to start crying again.
“Oh for Heaven’s sakes,” I snapped at the fireplace, “now what’s the problem?”
And in my imagination, I heard a tiny voice whisper, “You can move on now.”
“WHAT?” I yelled.
“IT’S TIME TO MOVE ON!” the voice in my head yelled back, tired of the gentle approach. “YOU ARE DONE HERE. YOU HAVE DEALT WITH ALL YOU NEEDED TO AND NOW YOU CAN LEAVE.”
I looked around my familiar living room with new eyes. Why am I still living in the same neighbourhood I grew up in? In the same house my husband and I bought? I am a 41 year old widow living with my father in a big city in the prairies. Is this what I signed up for?
For the short term, yes…but now that chapter was coming to a close.
My dad had moved in three years ago and had been a tremendous help to me with my home, yard and dogs during a period when I had a lot of other demands on my time.
So, as I continued to cry my way through that Sunday morning, I realized that even though it had taken my dad thirty-five years to come back to me, in his own way he had…when I needed him most.
I guess dislodging all this childhood stuff must have made room for a long-buried dream to bubble to the surface because my next thought wasn’t about the past. It was about my future. And, for the first time since Saturday afternoon, I smiled.
A couple of hours later, I called my mom. “I’m moving to the coast,” I said. “At long last, I’m gonna be a writer by the sea.”
I told her the details I’d worked out so far, including selling my home in the spring.
“Why don’t you just rent it out,” she suggested. “In case you change your mind.”
“Because I’m a widow and my husband’s not coming back,” I heard myself say. “I live in a house for a family and I’m obviously not having one. So why would I want to keep the door open to a life that was slammed shut nearly a decade ago?”
Silence. Then, my mom said softly, “You’re right.”
“I know I am.”
“What about your dad?” she asked. “Where will he go?”
“He’ll be fine,” I assured her. “We’ll find him a new place to live.”
Three months later, my dad moved into his own digs, happy as a clam to be on his own again. Three months after that, I sold my home and moved to a cute little bungalow by the sea.
All because of a play…sure glad I was paying attention.
Maryanne Pope is a playwright, screenwriter and the author of A Widow’s Awakening. Maryanne’s next book, Barrier Removed; A Tough Love Guide to Achieving Your Dreams will be released in Sept 2012. She is the CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions Inc and the Board Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund.
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The Bellagio Butterfly Keeper
(updated May 15th, 2012)
I was in Las Vegas with a friend last year and saw a magnificent sight.
In the atrium of a hotel was a greenhouse filled with beautiful butterflies. Also inside the greenhouse was a butterfly keeper, working diligently at what was obviously a very precious task.
From a small white box, the keeper would gently remove a little transparent envelope. Then, with a pair of scissors, he’d carefully snip off one end of the envelope and softly shake the contents out into a small shrub on the counter. And out fell a butterfly! Sure enough, within moments, the creature would flutter back to life — out of its dormant state — ever so slowly flapping its wings until it had gathered enough strength to fly.
My friend and I watched in fascination as the butterfly keeper did this over and over again. There had to be hundreds of dormant butterflies in a single box!
At the time, I didn’t understand how this worked – but I figured if any place on earth could bring butterflies back to life in front of our very eyes, Vegas was it
Upon further reflection, the writer in me got to thinking. I likened what I’d seen to us, as people — or, rather, the beautiful and unique parts of us.
“It’s not true that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’: There has never been, and never will be, anyone who sees, thinks, or responds exactly the way you do. Whether you’re revolutionizing physics or making a quilt, you must display your differences to make a difference.”
— Martha Beck
And yet it seems that we often work so hard inside our little chrysalis to grow up — or heal from a loss, or overcome a tragedy, or achieve a dream — to become a butterfly and then someone comes along (or, as is more often the case, we do it to ourselves), squishes us into an envelope and puts that inside a box. Then back we go into a state of dormancy, waiting for someone — a butterfly keeper — to come along and free us again.
If so, then we need to be aware of who we’re spending the bulk of our time with. Are they are encouraging us to free the best part of ourselves?
“A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.”
— John O’Donohue, Anam Cara; A Book of Celtic Wisdom
Or are they keeping us exactly as we are, where we are, doing what we’ve been doing for an awfully long time?
When I got back home from Vegas last year, I checked with a local butterfly expert and told him about the envelope butterflies. He said that regardless of when the butterflies were put into their envelopes – either before emerging from their chrysalis or immediately after – they would’ve only had about twenty-four hours max before they had to be set free. Otherwise, they’d die in that dormant state.
Here’s a powerful description of the danger of us remaining too long in a state of dormancy:
“Do you experience little real joy or excitement, merely maintaining the status quo? Commonly known as apathy, this condition is subtle, insidious and soul-destroying. Ironically, the problem with apathy is that we are not emotionally invested enough to really care about being apathetic.”
— Claire Scott, Butterfly Wisdom; Gifts from the Dying
And, whether we like it or not, time is passing.
Maryanne Pope is the author of A Widow’s Awakening, the founder and CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions Inc and the Board Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund. To subscribe to Weekly Words of Wisdom, please click here.