I lived in Venice Beach for four years, and during that time my openness to, and interest in, um, spirituality, increased. I went from being a hard-core East Coast skeptic to someone who thought it was totally possible that the reason I kept making bad decisions and had poor self-esteem was that there were holes in my aura. Thank god you could pay someone—usually the person who pointed the holes out to you—to sew those things up.
Part of the reason I was interested in this stuff was I was hoping for a quick fix. I thought maybe all I really needed was some aura sewing or chakra balancing to get my life on track. I definitely needed something.
I didn’t leave New York, I fled it. I used to tell people—once I gained some perspective on my early 20’s —that when I left the city, crushed by an awful co-dependent relationship and broke, it was my “Goodbye to All That” moment, name checking Joan Didion’s essay. I don’t like to say that anymore because Elisa Albert used that reference to describe Dahlia’s move from New York to Venice Beach (!) in her novel The Book of Dahlia. Books about fictional messed-up young women will naturally (purposely) overlap with the lives of non-fictional messed-up young women, and smart young women are bound to refer to the same things, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to see that in print. And, in the many years since I’ve said those words—dismissively, confidently, dramatically—I’ve moved back to New York and lived here for as long as I did the first time. What Joan Didion needs to do is write “Hello to all That” (maybe she did-she moved back to New York, too, after all) so I can refer to that essay as well. Returning to New York felt like a strained greeting—“Hello to all of that, all of you. It’s great to be back. Please don’t be mean to me!” When I returned for graduate school I was so scared of becoming the same person I used to be and picking up right where I left off. I guess aura sewing wasn’t very effective.
Anyway, the spiritual stuff was everywhere in California, and that was great because I was looking for answers. I loved Venice, though I was never a hippie and never fully acclimated to the culture—people always said they knew I was from the East Coast because I walked so damn fast. But beyond looking for a quick fix, I was looking for an alternative to therapy, which I’d been in and out of since fourth grade. I’m a great talker, and after years of therapy I could articulate my feelings and past experiences very well, but I couldn’t feel anything. Many therapists had pointed out that I could talk and talk about difficult things without ever crying about them. In addition to not being great with the feeling part, I was also pretty bad with the changing part.
Trying “alternative” approaches also made sense for that reason, and though I’m taking digs at the aura stuff, I did have some great experiences. I became friends with a massage therapist who also did energy work, and we had a weekly meditation session in her little craftsman cottage that was really successful. She got me in my body for at least a few minutes, and she helped me realize that God didn’t put me on this planet to fail. I’m not sure if I believe in God, but I do believe in something bigger than me, and because I felt unloved by my father I felt unloved, even loathed, by God. I wish I remember the conversation better (I’m sure I wrote about it somewhere—hopefully I can find it) but she coached me through the ideas that God or whatever loves everyone and wants all people to be successful and happy. God was my father, but he wasn’t my dad, and he wasn’t a dick. In that moment I totally felt whatever divine love there was in the room and in my body. I’m sure this sounds hokey, but that was big for me. Neither of my parents were ever on my side. I was always at fault, I always deserved whatever I got and they never, ever defended me. But the universe, or whatever? It had my back. Once I started thinking about it, I realized I’d actually been protected all along. I could have easily been dead (walking between subway stations in Brooklyn, swimming on the edge of Victoria Falls) or in jail (counterfeiting money—yup—being the constant accomplice to a mildly criminal boyfriend and flirting with stripping, which is generally innocent but seems like a good way to get into trouble if that’s what you’re looking for). Yet I wasn’t dead or in jail. I was safe, possibly because something out there loved me.
The idea of a benevolent God and supportive universe was a revelation to me, and it made me happy. But there was another idea I kept coming across that I didn’t like quite as much.
My mother was still alive during the time I was living in Venice, when I talked about my problems I inevitably mentioned her and my father. One thing spiritually-oriented people told me (without fail) was that I shouldn’t complain or be mad at my parents because I’d chosen my parents before I was born. What I needed to do was to figure out why I had chosen them and what my life’s purpose was. Man, did that piss me off.
I heard this idea again and again—that we (our soul?) choose our parents before we are born so we can learn what we need to in this lifetime. I even heard it back in December when I spoke to an astrologer (old habits die hard). I asked her if my family was cursed. Was there a reason so many bad things happened to us, including all the stuff I’ve covered here but also our history with fires (two houses burnt down, and I had a big fire in my first apartment out of college) and floods (the places we live always flood)? She said no; I chose my parents and needed to figure out why I chose them instead of being frustrated with the family I received.
Why indeed. This idea has always bothered me. I never asked any of the people who said it to me where it came from, or why suddenly everyone seemed to believe it was a fact. All I wanted to say was, Stop blaming me!
I was discussing this idea with an old friend last week, and she told me the idea is based in Hinduism. Her (white, American) parents spent a lot of time in ashrams in India in the 70’s and 80’s, so she was very familiar with the concept and resented it as much as I did. (The internet taught me that lots of cultures and religions share the idea that, prior to birth, “We choose our parents based on the circumstances and guidance we wish to experience in our lives”). In fact, her abusive father, who her mother later divorced, eventually threw this concept in my friend’s face, telling her she chose him as her parent, so she couldn’t be mad at him for being a shit. This is exactly what bothers me about the idea.
Part of the reason I can’t get on board with the idea of choosing my parents is that I don’t know if I believe in reincarnation or karma. I like the idea of them, but that’s not the same thing.
But let’s say I did believe in all of these things. Why did I choose my parents? Maybe I did bad things in another life and had some karmic debt I needed to repay. Maybe I needed hardship so I would become independent and resourceful. I guess that happened, but I didn’t become so resourceful that I became incredibly confident, directed or successful. It’s not that I didn’t learn things from my parents, or that they didn’t do some great things for me—things definitely could have been much worse. But what was gained from the bad things I went through with them? I could have picked them because I knew they’d die when I was relatively young. That’s a twisted idea, but although I wish I’d had more nurturing parents, maybe it seemed like an okay tradeoff: get less than ideal parents, but get rid of them sooner!
As for figuring out my life’s purpose based on the parents I chose…I guess I might have chosen my mean, undermining father so I could rebel and find a stronger sense of self. I chose my mother so I could learn to be independent from a young age, and to witness the kind of wife or partner that I did not want to be, and the kind of partner that I did not want to have.
That doesn’t really seem like “work” though. Maybe my life’s work, regardless of my parents, is to be nicer (I’m very nice, swear, but I could be nicer) and calmer, to master my confidence issues, let go of my ego and really be present. The astrologer I talked to last year said I needed to love myself more. What’s interesting is this came up as a part of a conversation about whether or not I wanted children. I said I didn’t and she said that’s what she thought. She also said I shouldn’t have children. I didn’t yet know how to love myself, so how could I love them? I would be too resentful. I think she’s right. Maybe that’s how my mother was feeling when my sister chose her.
I should do all of those things. I’m not sure if loving myself more is my life’s work (I do really like writing, after all, and have the grad school debt to prove it). What I’m wondering is, do I need to do those things because of who I was in a previous life? If I don’t do these things, will I have to deal with the same stuff in my next life? Can I adopt a belief that’s a part of a larger system that I don’t believe in? I’m not sure it works like that.