When I was little, my mother used to ask me if I would jump out the window just because my friends were doing it. The question made me mad. Her approach might have lacked finesse, but she was trying to teach me an important lesson about life. Learn to think for yourself and listen to your heart, or you're likely to get into trouble.
Sometimes listening to yourself is hard, particularly when your circle of friends has cherished opinions. In our group, the belief that when something is supposed to happen it will flow along smoothly is a strong one. Conversely, if something is not meant to happen, obstructions will arise to prevent it. When my husband, Kurt, and I got married, things went anything but smoothly. We had to jump over several roadblocks on the way to the altar. The first one concerned the wedding invitations. We put them in a used manila envelope to keep them safe on the way to the post office. Instead of mailing them personally, I handed the big unsealed envelope to a postal worker and explained that individual letters were inside. That was the last glimpse we had of them. The helpful but confused man must have sealed the envelope. The whole batch was mysteriously delivered to the return address, where it laid unopened for months.
The postal service played a second major role in the apparent anti-nuptial conspiracy. A friend sent flowers to decorate our home where the wedding was to be held. They arrived on a Saturday afternoon, but since the long package was too large to fit in our rural mailbox, the letter carrier dropped off a notice to pick it up at the post office on Monday. Unfortunately, the wedding was on Sunday.
What's a woman to do? I called a friend to commiserate. "Don't get married," she yelped in evident distress. "Can't you see that this is a strong sign? Two signs, in fact! It's not meant to be. Please just call the whole thing off."
My husband-to-be was less than thrilled with her response. He opined, in the words of the great master of metaphor, Sigmund Freud, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." And he was right. We had a wonderful wedding ceremony. Each of our friends performed a meaningful ritual to help celebrate and consecrate our marriage. One couple had actually called the chief of the Nanticoke Indians, the tribe from which some of my husband's ancestors hailed, and got a description of their traditional wedding customs. The prescribed ritual involved holding hands, wrist to wrist, so that we could feel each other's heart beating. It was a powerful metaphor for the intimacy that a good marriage creates. Like most marriages, our five-year union has had its challenges, but I'm grateful that I followed my heart and married a man who has helped bring out my love of life and sense of humor.
A few months after the wedding, Kurt and I left for a vacation to an island in British Columbia, off the west coast of Canada. Kurt, who's part Native American, wanted to visit a village of Klahoos Indians that had been repatriated to their tribal lands on the island. Unlike the United States government, which continues to oppress Indians and violate treaties, the Canadian government is more benevolent toward her First Nations people. They had given a grant to the Klahoos to carve a large ocean-going canoe as part of a program to restore pride in their cultural heritage.
Thousand-year-old cedar trees nearly wide enough to drive a car through created a woodland cathedral of deep silence and dappled light. As we approached, the rhythmic sound of hammer and chisel led us to a clearing where two men were at work. The head carver was a well-known native artist, a gentle and humble man with strong hands and a peaceful heart. He showed us the giant stump of the 600-year-old tree that had been felled to make the canoe. It was easily eight feet in diameter. Unfortunately, the middle had rotted out and the tree was hollow. The canoe would have to be very narrow, carved from less than half the diameter of the tree. He explained that this was the first of many problems they had encountered.
The canoe was a work of art in any case, elegant and sleek. But there was a large crack at one end, where it was broken almost in half and would have to be mended with wooden pegs. The inexperienced tree cutters had not only chosen a hollow tree, they had also neglected to make a soft bed of needles to cushion its fall, or to clear the area where the behemoth would land. The ancient cedar had fallen across a log and had practically snapped in two.
Only a few weeks remained to finish the canoe in time for a festive launch, long in the planning. A lot of work remained, and the carver had only one apprentice. We asked whether more people were coming to help. He calmly shook his head no. Carving is very difficult, painstaking work. Several men had given it a try, but only one stayed, he told us.
Things are not going so well here in the forest primeval, I thought glumly. If my friend who had counseled me to call off the wedding were here, she would probably pronounce the canoe a lost cause as well. I could almost hear her voice in my head: "When things don't flow, they aren't meant to be."
I turned to the wiry carver with his open smile and easygoing manner, thinking carefully about how to choose the right words. I hesitated, and then finally said, "You've had more than your share of problems with this canoe project, but you seem so positive and hopeful. I'm wondering if there's a cultural difference. When these kinds of problems crop up in my world, there are people who take the obstructions as a sign that the project isn't meant to be. What do you think?"
His wise eyes locked onto mine, and he smiled warmly, revealing a set of perfect white teeth. "Oh, obstructions are good signs, my friend. Good signs, indeed. This project is very blessed. The bigger the spirit that is trying to be born, the greater the troubles that it must overcome. This makes it stronger. And this canoe has a very big spirit. It is the rebirth of our clan's pride and our identity."
As the carver spoke of the canoe, I thought about my marriage. For a moment, I was overjoyed. The carver's interpretation of obstacles was much more positive than my friend's had been. Then I saw the truth. Whether I picked his explanation or hers, I still wasn't thinking for myself and listening to my own heart. I was giving my power away to someone else.
We live in a world of instant experts. They preach on talk shows and write for magazines. They tell us what to think and how to manage our lives. Eat this and you'll be thin and happy. Think that and you'll manifest the life of your dreams.
Be good and you'll never get sick. Follow the signs, and the angels will guide you.
In a busy world, it's tempting to believe that someone else has the answers. Sometimes they do, but even then, their answers may not be yours. This week, remember that you are the authority on your own life. You'll be more peaceful if you listen for the wisdom in other people's advice, then take what serves you and leave the rest. In the end, peace comes from knowing yourself ... and trusting yourself to make decisions that serve life and love.