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A dose of courage for the cowardly lion

MerryNell has her fingers deep into my soft, yet rigid, abdomen, coaxing my constricted psoas to release. My face contorts and I wince. I would really like for this to end. I can handle pain, a lot of pain actually, especially if I know it will lead to greater relief in the long run. Physical pain, anyway. The emotional kind makes me run face-first into a pantry. I wouldn’t call this experience painful. It’s more a deep, deep discomfort. 

“The word that keeps coming to me is ‘courage’,” she says as she pushes in a little deeper and I see stars. I can’t help but laugh and the action of that pops her fingers up and my psoas cries in relief. Crossing the threshold into true pain wasn’t funny. Courage was. 

MaryNell is not just my Hellerworker; she seems to be my spiritual therapist. Each of my struggles manifests somewhere in the soft tissue of my body. “Your body never lies to you,” she tells me, and I am grateful to know that there are ways in which I cannot deceive myself, even when I most want to. Prior to attacking my psoas, we had been discussing my next step and my profound desire to not follow my inner guidance.

My safe, stable government job ends in November. I have not found other work, despite a couple of interviews. My husband proposed that I liquidate my retirement account and write for a few months. Just take some time off. Sounds heavenly, doesn’t it? It took me months to accept the offer. We have two small children, a house, and it felt so, so selfish. Our lives would change dramatically without my income. And it wouldn’t be a permanent break. Just for a while, until the money runs out, I guess. 

The week I accepted, at least in my own heart, I saw Sue Monk Kidd on Super Soul Sunday. She said that in college, her choice to major in nursing was a failure of courage. My heart both sang and sank. I knew that choice. I was living that failure. I wanted to get a Masters of Fine Arts. I wanted to write. And to say “want” here does it a disservice. Writing for me is the same as breathing and eating. It is a necessary, vital function to sustain my life. As Sue Monk Kidd said, writing is prayer for me. 

When I was reminded of my failure of courage, I told myself I was going to accept this opportunity to make good on my past mistake. I was going to take whatever time I was given to write, to give myself over to this calling. 

Only it’s not as simple as that. There was a time, too, when as a kid I wanted to be a lawyer. My grandfather was a lawyer and I loved hearing stories about how law could help people. As much as I have always wanted to write, I have also always wanted to be of service. I was the child who collected all of the stray animals to take care of them. I later collected and cared for human strays. I held masses for the birds in Hawaii. I worked for Greenpeace after high school and volunteered for Amnesty International after college. Had I not met my husband, I was bound for the Peace Corps and wherever it would take me. (Instead, I took a chance on a boy, who turned out to be the one I was supposed to take a chance on.) It was my volunteer work with Chicago Legal Aid for Incarcerated Mothers that made me realize I could be an activist and be paid for it. So, on a whim, in the middle of a cloudy evening as we sat in front of a campfire in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I declared to my husband my intent to go to law school.

In law school and after, I worked with prisoners, the seriously mental ill, people with disabilities, and documented human rights abuses. I was so hell-bent on saving the world that a few of my classmates joked that within five years I’d have sold out and started working for Chevron. That didn’t happen. But five years out, the fire had certainly dimmed and I moved over to the courts, seeking a respite from the ego and drain of the work I’d been doing. Law is a sharp tool, but a highly dysfunctional field.

That deep need to help, that motivating force to serve others, the one that keeps me up at night and keeps me awake after the kids have gone off in the morning is still there. I firmly believe writers serve and help the world. But it’s a different kind of calling for me. The two haven’t intertwined, except to the extent that the pain I see in my work informs my stories, not the specifics of it, but the general universal truths that underlie it.

I am no John Grisham, so I don’t weave the two together by writing legal thrillers. Grisham does a fine job of making our profession sound much more riveting than it actually is. Perhaps some distance would do me good.

Yet, this idea keeps calling to me. It’s an idea about starting my own legal practice. It’s like a boy in high school who keeps asking you to go out. He’s cute enough to kiss with the lights on, but you don’t feel that immediate whoosh. Or maybe you do, but there are a million and one reasons not to go out with him. Yet, every day, he’s there to walk to you to school and he walks you home. He offers to carry your books. And you’re finding that all of your reasons to say no might be contrived because you’re just so afraid of going down this path because you were so dead-set on going down that other one. 

I told MeryNell about this idea, about the emails that keep coming to me about veterans (whom the practice would serve), and venture capitalists starting to invest in legal services, about all of the people who’ve lit up when I’ve shared the idea and said, “I want to help!” And about the idea’s general persistence.

Like me, she believes in signs and guidance. “Didn’t you ask for a sign? Seems to me they’re popping up everywhere. What’s the harm in following the thread of the idea for a bit?” Oh, she makes so much sense. And then she busts out with the “courage” and she becomes one of my signs.

Three years ago, I had a coaching session with Lissa Rankin. She’s just amazing. She’s a doctor, but also a spiritual teacher and she does an amazing job combining the two. I told her I wanted to leave law then, but my job was too great, so I’d wait until it ended and then get out. She asked me if I had a deep-rooted need to serve others (most doctors and lawyers do). I said yes, of course. And then she asked me if writing alone could fulfill that. I told her I didn’t know. I still don’t.

I have been asking my inner guidance for what the next best step would be. I want the sexy, write-all-day in your pajamas and don’t worry about a single damn thing other than that to be my next best step. But every morning, there’s this boy on my doorstep asking if he can spend a little time with me. It doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition like the Peace Corps and marriage to a graduate student does it? I can take a walk with the boy and see where it goes, right?

It’s occurred to me in all of this that part of my internal struggle is one of identification. What am I? Am I writer in a lawyer’s body? Or am I die-hard lawyer committed to using those tools to help others? This is where my dichotomy stems from. How do I explain who I am to others? And what about my writer friends who bleed ink? Will they understand the choice?

Wherever this boy and I go, it takes courage for me just to step off the porch with him, a kind of courage I didn’t think I’d need. It shows me I’m still worried about external appearances, despite all of my work to move past that. It also shows me how much I need to start integrating the areas of my life that drive me. I cannot keep living separate lives in different spheres. I am not one or the other. I am both and more.

The truth is, I see lawyers as healers. Well, not all, but that’s a post for another day. We are shepherds through a very scary and difficult arena of life. We are coaches and cheerleaders. We are advocates and servants. Not surprisingly, these are the overriding characteristics of the characters in my fiction work. 

I have a multitude of gifts and talents and to not use one feels in a way like saying, “I’m just going to go ahead and amputate that. No way I’ll need it later.” My work on this earth is to heal, to bring people together, to a more complete space. Sometimes, that will be through legal efforts, sometimes through writing. And through it all, I will need courage to accept the work I feel called to do and to reject the rest, regardless of the lack of sense it appears to make to others and myself. I suppose I could make courage my other word for 2014. 

Because I love it so much, and because I’ve already quoted Sue Monk Kidd, I wanted to share this poem of hers from SOUL WEAVINGS:

To be fully human, fully myself,

To accept all that I am, all that you envision,

This is my prayer.

Walk with me out to the rim of life,

Beyond security.

Take me to the exquisite edge of courage

And release me to become.


I joke about being the Cowardly Lion because I’m not the brashest Leo out there. But this poem really hit home for me when I read it and I continue to read it. The fact is, I think my cowardice is trying to stay within lines that I think others have drawn for me. I must be this or I must be that. I must choose one label because society requires you to appropriately label yourself. And then you must act in accordance with it. I have no idea what to label myself as and I think that’s the releasing to become that Sue Monk Kidd talks about. I’m just going to step on out to that place where I don’t have to explain myself to anyone and see what’s there. That is the real courage.

May you find the courage for whatever calls you today.

One comment on “A dose of courage for the cowardly lion

  1. The courage to answer to a calling, to create space and time for it, is an act of love. Thanks for sharing this story, as its theme resonates with so many of us. Smiles!

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