The Wandering Years

by Annie O'Shaughnessy


My wandering years were full of wrong roads and dark alleys. It takes great love and compassion to revisit my younger clumsy, lost and naive selves in my mind. But one night five years ago I did this. I went back along the sharp, dark edge of my wanderings and embraced all the Anns I found there who had acted foolishly, selfishly and with little integrity.

I coaxed my darkest selves out from their secret hiding places. I loved them anyway. I met them one by one, said hello and held them. Some were very hard to hold — I’d rather deny their existence: “I didn’t do that. That’s not me.” But who I really am is all of those selves — the whole ragged group of me lined up waiting for forgiveness and acceptance, waiting to be fully woven into this colorful tapestry of me.

I believe one must do this before the wandering years of our lives can be of any use, before they can become rich humus for the seeds of one’s purpose to grow roots and bloom. When we are denied the experiences of wandering without clear direction we miss gathering the richness of our being. We miss the compassion gained from falling face down in the mud that is necessary to love others who have fallen. We miss the gifts of humility and surrender. We miss the discovery of something real, mistaking the well-thought out life for our true life. We end up at midlife with a sadness we cannot name. As Saran Ban Breathnach writes, “It is you, missing your authentic self.” We are left surrounded by things and people that support the life we thought we wanted. Luckily, soul is persistent, inviting us repeatedly to discover the life that is waiting for us.

My wandering was not conscious. Along the way I could not have told you where I was going or what I was doing besides welcoming the next new experience into my life. I was riveted by rock cliffs, and mountain streams, snow-covered peaks, mossy dark woods and the endlessly amazing sensations discovered in the close naked company of other humans along the way. I fell headlong in love then abruptly became disenchanted — shedding relationships like old worn coats and grabbing the new colorful one before the last one hit the floor. I knew no other way except to dive deep into the hot belly of young life and swim in its thickness. I felt certain that it was not time to “know” for sure. It was time to taste life – the sweetness and the bitterness – and swallow it whole every gifted day!

But this lack of purpose often embarrassed me. Everyone around me seemed clear and purposeful while I began to feel cloudy and unsteady. I began to yearn for something solid and something to make me feel like I belonged to this world. I was tired of wandering. I know now that my soul was yearning for the calm waters of solitude and quiet so bits of my truth could rise to the surface. Instead, I swallowed whole the prescription offered up by my mind and the clamoring culture: Settle down for goodness sakes! Don’t you know it is time to grow up? Marry a good man who won’t leave you. Buy a house you can call your own. Do what you know, have children. And this I dutifully did, not knowing that this was yet another form of wandering.

The job to give me purpose did not. The marriage to give me peace did not. The children born to save the marriage did not. Bronchitis arrived and strange chronic fatigue illnesses, then chronic sinusitis and pneumonia. Wet thick lungs struggled under the weight of disappointment and grief. I felt formless, shiftless – a person defined by her relationships to others who had no honest relationship with herself. Shame arrived for the years of selfish wandering and for not being able to pull off this measured rational life – for not just accepting my life like a grown-up should. I felt ungrateful – who was I to ask for more?

A miracle arrived in the form of an old, wise and gently powerful Chinese doctor. I didn’t believe in energy healing then, but faced with either taking a 10th course of antibiotics or trying this, I laid down on her table gratefully. Her touch moved me inside. I felt warm and full. After an hour it felt as if she had taken the anvil off my chest. After 5 visits I noticed something amazing — shame had left town. I began to read about energy work. I knew that our body’s illnesses could be tied to emotional and spiritual imbalances. But I didn’t know the opposite was true. I did not know that opening the energy channels in my body could relax the grip of emotional struggles. Dr. Mei got things moving in me. She helped removed the suffocating clutter that had gagged my soul. I started to hear its quiet voice.

Five years of exploring, reading and looking around with open eyes led me from one guide to the next. I grabbed greedily onto answers offered by others around me – ancient texts, modern inspirational books, spiritual leaders. I moved into a stage of imitation, trying on many different soul coats. I picked up what Anne Hillman calls, transitional objects – words and ways that would bring me through the tough transition into soulful aliveness. This stage is important. We should not judge it in others or in ourselves. I often felt like a poser, self conscious around other, apparently more enlightened seekers. But the painful yearning for my truth kept me searching. I needed to hang onto these transitional objects in order to manage the uncertainty of leaving behind the person I was for 10 years. Mysterious crying jags and bouts of bottomless sadness often arrive after setting off on a soulful life. All that we were before, even if it was not true to our soul still makes up who we are. Cleaving off the self that existed for many years is painful and disorienting. We must be gentle with ourselves in this stage.

Slowly though, I grew closer to being able to create my own way – a savory soup of all of me, the wanderings through light and dark, the gleanings from books, the questions and uncertainties. A day came when the life I lived on the outside no longer could contain the soul-life brimming over inside. The marriage, the security, the carefully constructed life blew apart with one loud crack. I did not know the call would come so sharply and suddenly, leading led me from a gray stuffy closet to an oxygen-soaked green world. Even if I had tried to return, there was no way back through this door.

Like a great river released from a dam, my Soul surged and swelled, carrying my life forward. It was a mighty force, but I needed to know it, understand its language and its rhythms before my life could settle into a smooth current steadied by truth. This is a life-time process: quieting the waters within me so my Soul can speak clearly. I have moments of clarity when it feels like a cloak has been removed from my eyes, layers shed. Other moments when I feel tight and rigid in the murky dull sameness of me – same old reactions, same old issues. I wander still. There was the point when I could no longer cling to aphorisms and self-help books on their own, I had to occupy my own unique truth, live inside it and honor it throughout all parts of my lives: work, play, relationship. There was the moment I had to stop telling lies – small ones, big ones, to myself to others. I had to begin again with humility and wonder. Not knowing if what I was searching for would ever be found, but knowing that I had to lay my feet once more on that dirt path – to feel it under me. The horizon is calling me with its stark rim of contrast.

I have joyfully called back the Anns of my wandering years who wallowed in the lushness of nature, love and life – called back the Anns who thought more of truth then convention, who risked everything for love and who danced even when the floor was empty. With them now is my strong Soul Self – the dense steady core of me, where clarity and purpose live. Her life-guiding voice hums inside me – steadily informing my life – making friends with the uncertainty and contradictions of this day. When I am an open and smooth channel, she guides me through the darkness and celebrates the light.

This group of Anns from my wandering years grows with time. So many Anns that want a place at the table wait for their turn in the wings of my consciousness. Once revealed, I beckon them in to join us. It is a full and lively group, toasting life, love, beauty and truth. The feast continues.

Right about sunset, during the time I am building a fire on top of the small hill behind our house, I am closer to the whole of me than any other time. Rod will join me soon and Nemo, our dog, lies nearby. On these nights that we decide to “eat up on the hill” I like to come up early and build the fire carefully by myself as the evening light filters through the trees. With each stick gently placed I feel like I am kissing life on its tender cheek. I feel that all my selves have gathered for the fire as one, quiet and peaceful.

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