Just One Question
It’s fair to say, 2009 was my least favorite year. In 2009, I was living alone in a tiny apartment, barely making ends meet. Work was scarce. I was considering taking a part-time job in retail, or maybe even a full time job. My education seemed like a lot of wasted time and money. On top of it all, my love life was a mess. I had discovered the man with whom I was romantically involved, had lied to me about his marital status. He was not “separated,” he was married and sleeping in the spare bedroom. He had a thousand rationalizations for that, none of them mattered. I learned, through this experience that divorce is a funny word; you can “be divorced,” you might be discussing “a divorce” and you might refer to your “divorce” but there really is no such thing as “divorcing.” A person who is “divorcing” is married.
Deciding what to do about that was eating up a lot of my mental energy. I was staying in a lot, spending days at a time in my studio apartment brooding about what to do with my life and ignoring the phone. The former object of my affection was married and lived 3000 miles away. Another ex was stalking me online and harassing me in person. Although I didn’t know it, my health was very bad. I was tired and out of breath most of the time, and visits to doctors didn’t help. No one seemed to pin down a cause for my malaise so I assumed it was psychological. (it was not, it was serious heart disease but that’s another story) By any measure, life was not a whole lot of fun.
I decided to pack everything up and start over, from scratch. To that end, I flew to my hometown in the Pacific Northwest and arrived, to stay for a while, at my mother’s. Like so many people at a low ebb, I went home.
The Pacific Northwest can be a gloomy and discouraging place. I hoped I’d return and settle in immediately since it was where I grew up, but that didn’t happen. Looking for work wasn’t going well, I found the climate depressing, and I was finding it difficult to adjust to the idea of living there again. After thinking things over, I had come to the conclusion that I had to leave the “relationship” as it was and simply disappear without the satisfaction of blowing up the life of the cheater. Out of respect to his family, I realized, the right exit was a silent exit, no drama, no vindication. No consequences for the cheater involved. His wife probably knew how awful he was and chances were good another affair would eventually choose the high drama route to an ending. I resigned myself to being alone. Things felt bleak and hopeless.
Across the street from my mother’s house was a trail leading to the top of one of the smaller mountains in the area, a hill really, but a hill with a view of the sunrise and the city below. Since my internal clock was set to east coast time, I usually woke up before 6:00 a.m. before the sunrise, when the trails were empty.
A few days into my stay, I woke up in the dark, as usual, and looked at the clock; 6:15. too early to get up. My mother’s apartment was small. I was on a cot in the living room. She needed her sleep. If I got up and started rambling around, I would wake her for sure and then, since she refused to allow me to work in her kitchen, she would be off to the races, making me breakfast and getting on with her day. I wanted to avoid that. So it seemed like the thing to do would be to roll over and try to go back to sleep.
It was at that moment that the question popped into my head; “What kind of person do you want to be?” I thought about it for a second. There was the trail across the street with only the deer for company. I was pretty sure I could dress and leave in the dark without disturbing my mother. So I whispered it out loud, to myself; “What kind of person do you want to be? Do you want to be the kind of person who stays in bed? Or the kind of person who goes up the mountain?”
Hearing it was different from thinking it. When I heard the question out loud there wasn’t much of a choice. The bed was warm and comfortable. It would be understandable if I stayed in bed. But when I imagined myself telling the story of my time in my hometown, I knew I wanted to be able to say; “so I decided to go up the mountain.” I didn’t think it would change anything but I wanted to have, at the very least, one interesting thing to say about my trip, one interesting thing I did during that visit.
I got up, dressed in silence, slipped out the patio door into the stillness of the predawn suburbs, and, hiked up the mountain in time to watch the sunrise.
The clouds closed in soon after, as they usually do.
When I came back to my mother’s house, I signed up for a course on how to find a job in my hometown. I redoubled my efforts, and within a week I had an interview with a PR firm and was shortlisted for a position that looked as though it could be a dream job. I redoubled my efforts toward making a home for myself on the coast. I took the ferry to Vancouver, reconnected with old friends, walked on the beach and, every morning, went up the mountain to see the sunrise. I came close to finding a professional home on the west coast but although there were several time I managed to get shortlisted, in the end employers chose the other candidate. I came as close as I could to returning to the coast. I made the effort.
Nothing settled, nothing felt completely right. Gradually, I realized my hometown was not my home anymore. My mother was living, in her own house, as a full-time housekeeper and nanny for my estranged sister who was secretive, cold, and, as far as I could tell, usually unemployed. The situation was unhappy for everyone, but, as unhappy as she was, my mother was determined to endure, and I was having no success changing her mind about it. It would be as easy to listen to her complain on the phone as it was in person, maybe easier, and less invasive.
I didn’t find a job, I couldn’t liberate my mother. The Pacific Northwest had rejected me and soon enough I realized I didn’t care. The fact that people find the PNW beautiful and splendid in so many ways was no longer persuasive. It was paradise for many but purgatory for me. So, on the morning of my birthday. Having given it all I had, I flew back to Ontario.
In the airport, saying goodbye to my mother, something told me I was seeing her in person for the last time. I hugged her, very tight and asked her companion to take the very best care her. I asked them to promise me they would watch out for each other. They were living apart but I had always believed they belonged together. (once again, that’s another story) I told my mother I loved her, boarded the plane and cried most of the way across the country. As it turned out, my instinct was right, that time in the airport was was the last time I saw my mother.
Since that visit, I’ve had many occasions to ask myself the question; “what kind of person do you want to be?” Answering that question honestly, has changed everything about my life. I was never able to take a job I knew I would hate just for the money. I was not able to continue an affair with a married man. Instead, I’m able to be generous and a little reckless in my generosity, I’m able to take chances. I’m able to step into places where a person concerned with being safe or predictable would not be able to go. I was able, one May morning, to pack a suitcase, turn the key in the lock of my studio apartment, and get on a train to New England where a whole new adventure began, and never look back.
The answer to that question tells you everything you need to know about yourself. The answer to that question helps you make yourself into someone who is more like you in your very heart of hearts, more like the version of you that more closely matches the person you really want to be. It gives you the chance to step outside yourself and measure what you value against who you actually are and hopefully, bring the two closer together.
Do you want to be the kind of person who applies to your dream school, even if you don’t get in?
Do you want to be the kind of person who helps animals even if the neighbors think you’re crazy?
Do you want to be the kind of person who picks up garbage on a hike?
Do you want to be the kind of person who makes Thanksgiving Dinner for a crowd of strangers?
Do you want to be the kind of person who sleeps the whole day away?
Do you want to be the kind of person who keeps secrets? Or the kind who gives all the secrets away?
Do you want to be the kind of person who pursues a lot of money? or the kind of person who lives a modest life?
The actual subject of the question is neutral. When you ask yourself, out loud, “what kind of person do I want to be? You hear your own question and you hear your own answer. Both are well worth a listen. Asking that question allows you to see if your answers match your values. That matters, and when you’re just ruminating on something, those questions and their answers are not always clear.
I’ve been told the reason talk therapy works is because you hear yourself saying things instead of just thinking about them. I’m sure there are plenty of explanations about how and why that process works, I’m no genius so I can’t explain the mechanism. But I can tell you it worked for me at my life’s lowest ebb, and it still works. Twelve years later, I’m a pretty happy person leading a life that suits me well. And one of the things that makes me happy is that I know, for sure, I am the kind of person who goes up the mountain.