Whether you know me personally or know me not at all, you should know that I am not like other people. There’s just something about me (insert quotation marks and eyebrow raises), and right now I’m stifling all taboos and etiquettes that state I should be less crass and more humble because right now, I simply wish to revel in the thrill of life’s awe. In this moment, life for me feels like a connect-the-dots puzzle, or even a Trivia night where I get all the answers right—all on my own. Further metaphors could depict my life being like a scavenger hunt, except I’m actually the one who left all the clues for myself. Let me explain.
About a week ago, while sitting around a table in a local bar, I described for my group of friends how Elizabeth Gilbert changed my life. I explained that after reading her bestselling book, Eat, Pray, Love, I was inspired to do something drastic with my life once I graduated from Tech—I was inspired to volunteer abroad. Ironically, four days after this bar chatter, I found myself hugging a woman I had not seen in three years, who had also played a major role in that decision. I was at work when she walked through the store, appearing like she had walked out of a memory. We talked for a few minutes and when she left, I turned to my work friend and told him, “That woman changed my life.” The woman—Jane Vance, my former professor—was the founding reason I chose to volunteer in India.
In December of 2008—one month before I left for India—Miss Vance left me a comment on my blog site that read:
“To Whitney, and to all of Whitney’s friends and family, I am the lucky professor who got to watch the brilliant embers start to heat up this semester in my dedicated student during our Creative Process class. I am devoted to Whitney, and so proud of how she is beginning her new path. Whitney, I am here for you.
Having read as one of our books Ama Adhe Tapontsang’s remarkable memoir of a Tibetan woman surviving nearly thirty years of incarceration in Chinese labor camps–and coming out of those sad decades far from ruined, but instead alive with an urgent yet calm need to teach and to give–our final class project, excluding the final exam, was to build a Tibetan-style shrine, and to enshrine as its core relic a promise.
Each student had to imagine some specific difference that she or he wanted to make, and had to tell me the story of what inspired this wish. This shrine was a way of focusing on a decision, a commitment, and a devotion. The project was also a way of having each of us remember that our motivations are not our personal genius, but the results of other motivations gifted to us.
Whitney’s A+ shrine is one of the smartest, strongest pieces of work I have ever seen from a student. Get her to tell you about it some time. She knows where gifts come from: sometimes from nurturing, sensitive people, and sometimes, importantly, from heartbreak and barrenness. When you come to a place where even difficulties are opportunities, you can not fail in your work.
Last year, I walked 155 miles through the most remote and difficult terrain on the planet, near the Tibetan border. At the tops of treacherous Himalayan passes, at the top of EACH such trail, there was always a cairn of rocks, from which would rise a tall juniper trunk, from which would fly Tibetan prayer flags, their wishes carried out into the world by Lung-ta, the Wind-horse.
These heap-shrines were placed at the tops of mountain passes as encouragements, to tell the next weary traveler, See? You have accomplished another impossibility. Keep going! But before you go, leave another rock on the pile, to tell the next traveler that you were here, and that you have left your wish for a safe, productive journey. And so you add one more rock to the shrine, singing out, as you contribute your stone, “So so so so la!,” meaning, “Victory to the gods! Victory to wisdom and compassion! Wisdom and compassion will climb such mountains and move beyond obstacles and get to where they need to be!”
So, so, so, so, la!, Whitney. You are going where you need to go. You take with you the right intentions. Your power to do good is therefore limitless. Trust the process, and the pace of the process, and that what might look like an obstacle is really, as you know, only a way to a more remarkable position. With love, Ms. Vance”
For years and for whatever reason, the memory of that shrine project disappeared. I have reread this comment at times when I missed Ms. Vance or just needed a confidence fix and I would curse myself for losing something so seemingly important (for “the art of losing something isn’t hard to master”). What decision did I devote myself to? What commitment did my shrine embody? Somewhere in my head was a breadcrumb trail, but I had not been inspired to follow it yet.
So two nights ago, after seeing Ms. Vance and having a curiosity digging into my belly all day that I couldn’t place, I went searching through my old laptop for that shrine project. I hunted down those old memories, and once found, I felt very much as though I was about to meet my former self. As I read through my old paper, I felt like I was stepping into a time machine.
The requirement for the project was to build a Tibetan-style shrine and, as Ms. Vance said, “enshrine a certain specific promise or aspiration that you can walk around and follow. So you are deciding on a hope, some kind of specific change you can make, for some one in particular, or some place in particular.” She then required us to compose a letter to her, describing our shrine and what inspired it.” In the very beginning of my piece, I relayed a story to Ms. Vance that I know and remember well—a story I would later incorporate into my book, depicting my parents’ divorce and the ensuing heartbreak and unhappiness that followed. It was also the story of a boy who broke my heart at a time when I didn’t think it possible to be any more broken. The following is the conclusion to this story, followed by the remainder of my shrine project:
So this is my heart, laid out here for you on these sheets of paper, suspended in time by black ink. It is cracked. I don’t know that there is ever a time in one’s life when the heart is not cracked, when it is completely whole. Such a time does not exist. But cracks make for mosaics, for beauty.
It hurts, every day it hurts. Sometimes it still hurts so much I can’t breathe. But other times, I’m alive. I am in touch with my pain, I am not running from it. I am owning it. Heartbreak is a funny thing, it brings out the best and the worst in us all at once. I don’t know when it was, where I was, what time of day it was. But somewhere in the midst of it all, I realized I was going to be okay.
Sometimes epiphanies don’t happen all at once. Sometimes they’re a process, a slow realization. I had another moment of shining hope one day when it dawned on me how much I had needed the pain, the hurt. The heartache was a jolt, bringing me out of a coma, giving me a chance at life again. I had been standing too close to the painting, seeing everything as blobs. I realized I could utilize my pain for good, for hope.
So now I am falling in love with myself, with my brokenness, my mosaic. I am not a narcissist. I am discovering my strength, the strength that has been tucked away, building up. It was waiting for this to happen, waiting to emerge. Jordan was right when he told me I am tough as nails, I just needed a chance to be freed, freed from my fear of the future, from my comfort zone. I needed to be reminded of my potential, the endless possibilities. Which is the great thing about a mosaic: you can never truly be finished with one. There will always be room for more pieces, more additions. I know this is not the end of my brokenness, it is the beginning of art. A masterpiece.
When I originally planned to share this story with you, I only envisioned myself inserting a portion of it. But as I read through the piece, I knew you wouldn’t fully understand the core of my shrine unless you knew every gory detail of its background.
During my devastating heartbreak with Jordan (and by the way, I have now realized, Ms. Vance, that the reason it hurt so bad was because I was repudiating!), I discovered a book that—as I always tell people—changed my life. The book is called Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (and if you haven’t read it, you should). It literally changed me. It is a true account of a woman who, after an extremely difficult divorce, falls madly in love with a man who is all wrong for her. She gets her heart broken again and falls into a deep depression. It is then that she decides to quit her job and spend a year abroad writing and taking time to heal. She travels first to Italy in pursuit of pleasure, then to India in pursuit of devotion, and finally to Indonesia to find balance.
When I first began reading this book, I found on just the sixteenth page a particular passage that made me realize how badly I needed to know Elizabeth’s story:
“And the crying went on forever.
Until—quite abruptly—it stopped.
Quite abruptly, I found that I was not crying anymore. I’d stopped crying, in fact, mid-sob. My misery had been completely vacuumed out of me. I lifted my forehead off the floor and sat up in surprise, wondering if I would now see some Great Being who had taken my weeping away. But nobody was there. I was just alone. But not really alone, either. I was surrounded by something I can only describe as a little pocket of silence—a silence so rare that I didn’t want to exhale, for fear of scaring it off. I was seamlessly still. I don’t know when I’d ever felt such stillness.
Then I heard a voice. Please don’t be alarmed—it was not an Old Testament Hollywood Charlton Heston voice, nor was it a voice telling me I must build a baseball field in my backyard. It was merely my own voice, speaking from within my own self. But this was my voice as I had never heard it before. This was my voice, but perfectly wise, calm and compassionate. This is what my voice would sound like if I’d only ever experienced love and certainty in my life. How can I describe the warmth of my affection in that voice, as it gave me the answer that would forever seal my faith in the divine?
The voice said: Go back to bed, Liz.”
After reading this passage in just the very first section of the book, I realized that this stranger’s story I held in my hands was going to save me. I realized that the book was going to pull me out of my heartache. And it did.
That is why I have chosen to enshrine the Strength of Self (I capitalized it for emphasis). It is an aspect of myself that I have—quite frankly—forgotten to pay attention to this past semester. My stresses and anxieties have reached their peak at certain times, and so I want this shrine to represent my focus and dedication to find comfort and strength in myself.
As I pondered over what my shrine would encompass visually, I decided immediately that I wanted my shrine to be simple; I therefore chose the Pile style (like the rhyme?). I wanted the rocks in my shrine to fall together in an uneven, but beautiful pattern. I included prayer flags so that my personal prayers would be carried with the wind. Though they are not shown in detail in my drawing, my prayer flags consist of passages from Eat, Pray, Love. I also included the Snow Lion to represent a sense of fearlessness, which is very vital to my Strength of Self. I also strive for unconditional cheerfulness, which made the inclusion of this deity all the more relevant.
Now I realize that this letter to you is not necessarily dazzle writing, and I apologize. I thought it best, though, to keep this in the form of a conversation. I wanted this to be very real because I want you to understand the meaning behind my shrine.
I hope you enjoy it and I want to thank you again for all the support you’ve given me about my decision to travel to India.
Once I finished reading my paper, I realized that these memories were not entirely lost after all—they were hiding. They hid from me when I returned from India in March of 2009, feeling like a lost soul and wondering what the hell to do with my future. They were hiding amidst my anxiety while I lived in D.C. for two years after that, attempting to create a life for myself. They even hid while I traipsed through Europe lat year and then returned home to get my bearings and make plans. These memories hid until now– encapsulated on a forgotten Word document– because maybe I wasn’t ready until now to confront them.
After reminiscing for the last few days about Elizabeth Gilbert, Jane Vance, my trip to India, and my pending future, I’ve come to really see myself from a slightly different perspective. I have come to understand what the underlying reason was for me traveling to India at all (because at the time it really just felt like something unique to try): it destroyed my sense of ‘normal.’ Taking that trip instilled a restlessness in me that I wouldn’t quite see until years later. India was just the beginning though—the fleck of snow that has now catapulted an avalanche.
India ultimately ruined me. India broke me and left me feeling utterly misplaced when I came home. It complicated my heart and pumped uncertainty into me, as well as complete confusion as to what I wanted for my future. I knew I wasn’t meant to take bucket showers forever and live my life surrounded by poverty, but I did discover just how big my heart was. It has since become increasingly apparent that I need to make use of this discovery. India created a monster—the ambition and passion that ignites me today.
So what is my point with all of these pieces of the puzzle? What am I trying to say?
It is not an easy thing to really learn yourself. You’re certainly not taught in schools or by parents that you have the ability to fill the role of best friend or family member or counselor or cheerleader to yourself—much less all of the above. We learn as we grow up to take from the world what we are told that we need, which tend to be the things that we are capable of finding in ourselves. No one ever mentions that we can—and should—rescue ourselves when there’s danger (danger, Will Robinson!) or pain present. But in reality, we shouldn’t expect help and healing from anywhere else.
There is no rule anywhere that says you are required to pay attention. Nobody will force you to make the connections and follow the clues and really open yourself up to possibility. But maybe we should. I use myself as an example because it’s easy to, but maybe everyone’s life is like this—a connect-the-dots state of affairs that has us learning and growing from our most powerful teacher: ourselves. Because when you truly learn yourself—when you have the tough conversations and ask yourself the hard questions and truly force out the answers and realize you can love yourself in spite of those answers—you come to find what makes you happy. When you learn this and understand what fuels you, it becomes infinitely easier to turn yourself inside out and to give to others without the fear of loss. You just plain trust more. You believe.
Like I said, it took me a long time to understand the impact of my trip to India—it’s still a relatively recent epiphany, in fact. Seeing Ms. Vance and rediscovering my old writings though has only confirmed the notion that life can truly be limitless when you believe in yourself. So maybe I’m crazy to tell people that I want to change the world, but the way I see it, I’d be crazy not to try.