Updated: Mar 23
October 2020 Soul Notes
My daughter has just returned to sixth form where she has chosen her subjects for the next two years. It's been an agonising process. What is this choice? What am I choosing? How can I choose? How important is the choice? What path does it lead me down?
She hasn't yet found her “thread” of William Stafford's poem - or maybe she has but it's not evident or distinct just yet. As I understand it, the “thread” is something core to each of us. We may each describe and experience it in our own way. The poet Rumi counsels to “Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you truly love.” We maybe call it “purpose” or a “gift”. In the film The Legend of Bagger Vance, Will Smith's Bagger Vance explains to a young boy:
“inside each and every one of us is one true authentic swing…Somethin' he was born with…Somethin' that's ours and ours alone…”
He goes on to explain that the world might try and persuade us to bury it, to follow a more conventional path and that the challenge is to remember and recover that “authentic swing”.
I thought that I didn't know what my thread was at sixteen years old. With hindsight, I think I did know, but the world wanted to point me in other, more worthy directions. The direction of a career and financial security, which led to me prizing my head over my heart for a good portion of my life, and a good deal of internal conflict.
As I look back, I can see the various turning points. I loved languages. Be a teacher, said my careers adviser. Apparently this was the only legitimate path at the time for a girl who enjoyed languages (and yes, gender was significant - a boy in my year was advised to incorporate the language into a career as a banker or lawyer). Instead, I decided to use my language as a stepping stone to discover more of the world and make the next choice from there, so off I went to study Russian at university.
But really, language was just a gateway to discover more about people…the beginnings of one of my personal threads. In every language, there are clues to the inner landscape of the people who speak it and each language has the power to unlock different parts of the speaker. French released a romantic fluidity in my teenage self. Russian unlocked my assertive, passionate self. Through this learning I became more of myself and felt my world expand inside and out.
After completing my degree, I remember wandering along a street in St Petersburg and feeling a pull to study psychiatry or psychotherapy. I knew nothing about it but something unseen was tugging me in that direction. I shared it with a friend and recall her telling me it was too late to do that as I hadn't studied the sciences, and also that there was little money in it. The world telling me to play safe and stick with what I know and what would be lucrative. I knew so little about it, that I listened and let that dream fall for a while. Instead, I signed up to study law, assuring myself that this was a way to build on what I had studied so far, and become financially secure. Everyone around me was delighted. Meanwhile, I felt flat but I couldn't really explain why. I can see now, I'd let go of my thread…it had got lost for a while.
However, what's fascinating is that it doesn't stay lost, even when you take a turn away. My legal years were full of learning and not a lot of sleep. I worked with some inspiring people and learned about the impact you can have in the world when you have power and money behind you. I found ways to follow another of my threads, directing resources towards people and organisations that had little or nothing through our pro bono practice, and teaching brilliant young Russian lawyers to work relationally.
But whilst my mind was fully engaged, my heart was leading me elsewhere. I began to work with my first coach and the thread became visible again, even as I tried to bury it in the excuses of the inconvenience of making more changes to life.
The conflicting pulls will always be there. The rational persuasion of status and security. The deep ache of longing for something more; something different. The challenge is not to dispel one or the other but to live with the conflict and recognise whose wishes you are fulfilling. Your parents. Your teachers. Your peers. Other? Or your own.
Finally, almost 30 years after the first pull on that St Petersburg street, I am following my heart path as fully as I can. Two years into my therapy practice, via coaching and consulting, I feel like I've got hold of the thread like never before. And as always, it is leading me somewhere else, somewhere new (or maybe old, and as yet unremembered), whilst weaving a beautiful pattern.
I was reminded of this last weekend when I took myself off for a couple of days. I squirrelled away in a hayloft on a farm to do some writing. As I arrived at the stairway to the loft, I was met by a pear tree, draping itself over the handrail and stairs, offering me ripe pears for the taking. In the fairy story, The Handless Maiden, which you can find in Women Who Run with the Wolves, the pear trees are found in the underworld and bend to feed the lost and handless maiden. In the story's symbolism, the pears are a fruit invested with soul. Those fed in the underground forests are psychologically and spiritually nourished. The fruit gives her a taste of her Self. Or in the metaphor of today, it leads her back to her Self. As I ascended to my writing nest, I felt totally affirmed that I was in the right place, doing the right thing. I had hold of the thread.
So, with all of that in mind, what do I say to my daughter? How do we counsel our children to follow their own thread? How do we help them find it in the first place? Or to recognise it when other people wonder what they're pursuing, as the poem points to? How do we do that for ourselves? The mind path is ever changing, and will bow to the prevalent culture that prizes money and status and achievement. The heart path points us to what's important. So we must stay close to our heart experience - to that felt experience that tugs us towards that which may not “make sense” according to the world order, but which cannot be ignored, if we are to weave the life that is our own.
I shall tell her to listen to and follow her heart. And if the answers aren’t on the “A” level syllabus, that doesn’t mean she’s wrong. Rather that our system of education doesn’t always know how to respond to heart desires. That this is a lesson in being in a world that doesn’t always meet us as humans and that we are a constant experiment in tension with that. She’ll roll her eyes, for that’s what teens do, but I hope a part of her can relax and see if that thread reveals itself.
Mark Nepo offers a beautiful practice in The Book of Awakening to help us to empty our minds and connect with what is important. He says, “if at times you feel numb or distanced from the essence of what you know, perhaps your mind…is too full." He asks, “if your mind were a suitcase and could only hold five things, what would they be?” and suggests that for today, you bring only one thing home with you today from your suitcase.
I have a beautiful woven rug in my suitcase and I'm bringing it home to appreciate the intricate weaving of the threads, and following the one that runs right to the heart.
What's in yours? Enjoy the light packing.