Yesterday morning, I scooped up an old journal from the closet floor with the laundry and put it in the washer by mistake. Later, I found parts of it plastered to the washer wall by the spin cycle and peeled it off, still mostly intact, words faded. That journal held the decision to choose the path I took in these last 20 years: A spiritual path that led to living simply and often solitary in the forests and villages of India and the Andes, Indonesia and Italy—a little self in a vast world.
I’ve been in the States for almost eight months — the longest in twelve years. I sometimes feel like Rip van Winkle: Everything is both familiar and strange. People and places kept on living and morphing, all the while I was somewhere else. Base camp is now with my new partner in a quirky house on a peninsula that juts into the ocean. He told me this is the furthest West you can get on land before reaching Hawaii and Japan — the shoreline where the West ends and the East begins.
Since I’ve been back, I’ve gathered my scattered few belongings — the rugs and candlesticks one friend had kept for me, three boxes of old journals from another. I don’t know what to do with all those words from my past, so I’ve lately been reaching in a hand and pulling out a notebook at random to read snapshots of a former self and of people, now dead, who I loved. I don’t know yet whether these journals are artifacts, material to mine for further writing, or the hull of a seed to be shed so something new can grow. Is the past recorded inside these notebooks my richness or my burden? Maybe a tangle of both.
I used to think my journals held the story I call my life, but now I’m not so sure. Memory slithers and morphs. So much in those notebooks I didn’t remember until I read it, including records of the way I’d remembered earlier things that I later remembered differently. This correlates perfectly with new memory studies that confirm the fluid, changing nature of the story we call our past. As it turns out, memories aren’t stored solid and whole, as though in a file cabinet waiting for retrieval. Rather, they are a fragile pulse of connections that are added to and changed every time we retrieve them.
That means the story of our life changes whenever we recall it: Shards of memory mix with imagination, and we begin to remember things that never actually happened. This could be frightening — or freeing. I prefer to think of it as freeing. Fragments of an old life are not made of stone — they easily mix with the new and the possible. It’s all so malleable, like the first messy draft of a story, forever revised. We can make it into a tragic story, a healing story, a funny story, an adventure story, an awakening story—a human story, changing as it serves us.
Given all of this, it makes sense to lighten up about what happened in the past. I don’t even really know how it happened anyway. And given how life has continually surprised me around the next turn, why not drop all my beliefs about the future as well? Especially the fear stories? After all, the most important learning from my years of travel was that the unknown is always far kinder and more benevolent than my imagination about it.
Arriving back in the States where this journey began, encountering the journal that began it, I see that the life story that seemed ordinary when I laid it between those journal pages now pulses with a mystery I wouldn’t have suspected was there, had I never left it behind. “Let go of the idea that the world is ordinary,” a tantric master once said was the first order of business if you wanted to awaken to the truth and live a truly spiritual, creative life. The wonder of our lives does seem ordinary, just as the so-called exotic locales I visited turned quickly into everyday life. But that doesn’t make any of it a bit less magical.
Over these last 20+ years, I’ve used spiritual practice to recognize this magic — things learned from Buddhist monks and ancient tantra, Christian mystics and the gospels, Indigenous shamans and the natural world. In the last few years, powerful teachings came through the San Pedro cactus, a visionary plant that I first met many years ago in Ecuador. The ceremonial use of this cactus has been a profound help for integrating all I learned in these years of practice so that perhaps I can now re-enter the matrix without getting all tangled up in it — maybe even have something fresh to offer as we all take steps into the unknown, day after ordinary-miraculous day.
Because after all, there is no field guide to our lives. Each of us makes our own path as we walk it, just as we newly create our past as we fuse memory, experience and imagination into a new and richer story — for ourselves and for the world.