Butterflies & Bridges

A friendship survives transformation
& discovers unconditional acceptance

two butterflies

 

When she transformed into a butterfly, the caterpillars spoke not of her beauty, but of her weirdness. They wanted her to change back into what she always had been. But she had wings.

—Dean Jackson

Transformation can be as small or as big as you are prepared to undergo. If you want it to, any manner can have a positive effect. A new hair color. Cutting back on meat. Five minutes of meditation every day. Smiling at your child and telling them you love them the next time they do that thing that drives you up a wall for the seventeenth time. If you sit differently, your dodgy hip will feel better after eight hours in front of the computer. No one else may notice a thing, except that you seem less cranky at happy hour.

When the changes become more obvious, when you begin to see and hear and function differently in the world, the first people to notice are those nearest and dearest to you. When you shift, you shift everything and everyone around you, so they’re bound to notice, even if unconsciously. These are the people who have invested time and energy into understanding this person they’ve known for years, even decades, and into building a relationship with them. The new you, the more authentic you, the you that speaks your truth, as happy and comfortable as you may be, can appear to be a stranger.

Those around you are suddenly faced with an unanticipated grief, an opportunity to mourn their loss, and a choice. Do I embrace the transformed person before me, or do I let them go?

Often they let you go.

I’ve lost more than a few friends over the years, even though I’ve never considered myself a controversial character. I was never the most popular or influential in any clique that would have me. I never stole anyone’s boyfriend or snitched on them to the boss. I’ve spent entire social occasions talking to only one person and sneaking out before anyone else noticed I was there. The only controversial thing about me is my Truth Teller. She is spirited and wily and sings like a bird when she sees that scar, that bright red button flashing at her ripe for pushing. She knows it’s waiting to be pushed. It needs to be pushed. It can be my own or someone else’s. It doesn’t matter. The Truth Teller arises, puts on her cape and boots and third eye tiara and has to push it. Well, I don’t have to, but I usually do.

When The Truth Teller speaks, sometimes people go away.

Even after the losses, I have a small but treasured, time-tested and forgiveness-ready group of confidantes scattered near and far. They are a diverse lot, and I don’t speak to some of them more frequently than once a year. But they are my extended tribe. I have walked through the fire with all of them. They have heard my true voice and been on the other end of the truth sword more than once. I brought one to tears over breakfast a few years ago. She eventually asked me not to blurt out stories from her tragic past lives any more. Despite many incidents like this, my tribe accepts and loves me, and I am grateful for their loyal friendship.

All of them know we are meant to witness each other’s transformations and see that our souls are happier, glowing, more comfortable in our skin. We recognize the natural blossoming of someone who’s been masked for years. When you’re meant to share this, you feel each other’s delight and reach out a relaxed but strong hand when the tectonic plates start to shift beneath our feet.

Those who were meant to be part of our past, but not part of our continuing evolution, painfully peel off and out of our lives. My hope always is that our paths will at some point meet again, but we all know this is usually not the case. If we are awake in our lives, and sometimes when we’re not, we are able to recognize when our relationships no longer nurture one or both participants. If we listen, the universe, our higher selves, our heart and anyone or anything else with a valued voice on the subject tells us when it’s time to let them go, or when it’s worth hanging on.

One dear friend—let’s call her Zoe—and I have known each other for thirty-five years. At the ages of seven and eight years old, we chased each other around the church parking lot during vacation bible school. Around the same time, we discovered we took piano lessons from the same little old lady in our neighborhood. Zoe was the musical savant of the group who never practiced, and I was an average pianist who thought I could get away with never practicing but was reminded every week about hard work being my path if I ever wanted to be great.

We drifted in and out of each others’ lives for years, but we didn’t become good friends until junior high school when, both knee-deep in adolescent hormones, we dated brothers. Her boyfriend was the older, blond, handsome high school senior who played trumpet and the lead in the school musical. She was beautiful but also funny, eccentric and intentionally individual before it was popular to be such things. She loved the offbeat icons of the time like John Waters and Prince and wore hot pink pants rolled up to her knees. The best singer in our performing arts school with the charisma to match, she was clearly ahead of her time and distinguishable from miles away.

When she started dating the older brother, survival of the fittest demanded that me and my beau get shoved into the seatbelt-less back seat of his pea green Chevy Nova on the way to the movies or peeling away from church on the Sunday nights we all played hooky from church youth group. Technically, Zoe was the outsider in the car. The brothers’ family and mine had been good friends for years, but seniority had been established, and Zoe did not want to be an outsider in her boyfriend’s car. Luckily, she was good enough to never throw it in my face that I clearly wasn’t any competition for the honor, and we became fast friends.

I was her Angela Chase and she was my Rayanne Graff.

Long after the brothers tapped out, our friendship remained. Our lives diverged but our evolutions always were something at least vaguely familiar to each other. We sent crazy postcards and wrote hysterical letters to each other throughout college as she pursued her singing career and I dreamily contemplated what kind of journalist I’d most like to be. We almost always ended our winter breaks by sharing a crockpot full of processed cheese dip on New Year’s Eve and kissing each other at midnight after we kissed whichever boy was in our lives that year.

During an impromptu post-college visit, I found her red-faced and waiting for a mental health hotline callback from a psychological counselor. He later diagnosed her with the chemical imbalance we’d suspected for years. Not long after, she gave up singing professionally for good. As she was trying to figure out what her new life would look like, mine also was suddenly stalled by chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Still our friendship remained.

One Christmas, she showed up on my parents’ doorstep with a large, smiling man in tow.

“This is my fiancé,” she said. “Will you be my maid of honor?”

“Of course!” I said.

Four years later, I called her from New York. “Will you be my maid of honor?”

“Of course!” she said.

She was thrilled when Larry and I “finally” moved back to Ohio and, for the first time since high school, we lived in the same city.

“I’m having a baby,” she said.

“How exciting!” I said. Her beautiful, quirky daughter was born, and we both cried happy tears filled with joy and fear. Considering her history, we braced for the likelihood of postpartum and tried to laugh as she walked bravely through it and began to recognize all wasn’t well in her world.

“I’m moving away,” I said a year later.

“I know you’re unhappy here,” she said. “I’ll miss you. I understand.”

“We can stay in touch over email and the phone!” I said enthusiastically in response to her grimace.

“Sure,” she said.

At first, we sent detailed emails, and even caught each other online for an occasional live chat. She congratulated me on our adoption decisions and eagerly helped in a myriad of ways. She always asked lots of questions about our life in California, so foreign in many ways from what she knows as a life-long Ohioan.

Soon the questions came less frequently and it became clear that our often deviating but somehow recognizable paths were becoming too…divergent.

I could feel her energy leave me as I described some strange or beautiful aspect of our life–a day spent writing on the beach, a celebrity encounter at one of Larry’s work functions, weeks of nearby wildfires, eighty-degree weather in February, my massage therapy clients. I could tell she was trying to listen as a supportive friend, but often she didn’t respond to significant parts of my emails or found a quick reason to end our instant message chats when my opinion on something veered off her reservation, especially when it came to religion or spirituality.

A life-long devoted Lutheran, she and I have differed in our spiritual perspectives most of our lives. Both our childhoods were largely shaped by time spent within a strong church community and in families who valued religious connection. She happily remained a church-goer in adulthood while I began to drift toward less definable views. In my twenties, I described myself as an agnostic. Zoe called me an atheist, and I always corrected her.

“In the constant pursuit of truth and understanding,” I said as I told her about this new Unitarian church I’d visited and smiled as she rolled her eyes. “I believe in God, or something like God, just not in a way that’s ever been described to me before.” My searching made her uncomfortable.

“I just know what I believe. Doubt is for those who just can’t figure it out,” she said, looking at me through her eyebrows and hoping for a reaction. Unlike Tolkien, she believed all who wander are lost.

She admitted to me over time that as the years passed and the freedom of youth gave way to utility bills and relationship challenges, she found solace in the perceived clarity of “right and wrong,” “good and evil,” “fact and fiction.” She couldn’t understand why it was taking me so long to stake a claim and stick a label on it. She wanted to know what to call me, what box to put me in and how to filter what she heard. Like her, I’ve never fit perfectly into any one box in my life. Her life was so different from what she’d imagined. She began to rely upon the stark blacks and whites she knew and could control more vigorously. She couldn’t see the beauty in her multitude of gray areas any more.

I feared she wouldn’t be able to see any in mine, either. Descriptions of my explorations certainly would help her ascribe more labels, but not any I was comfortable with. Never one to judge folks quietly, I’d born witness to her sharp wit and even laughed heartily at it over the years. Those she didn’t understand were first to feel its point and, to her, folks with a metaphysical sensibility might as well have been sitting around a cauldron on brooms wearing pointy hats. News of my evolution—a new energy healing practice, formal exploration of my own and everyone’s inherent clairvoyance—went untold.

Our regular phone calls became about work stories, family dramas and news about friends from high school we’d reconnected with over social media. One such friend was her high school love. He was a charming, popular, boyishly handsome chap whose notoriety combined with unexpected life choices made him a hot topic on the high school rumor mill for more than a decade. At one point during college there was a rumor he was gay, which eventually was discredited, ultimately because everyone realized we didn’t give a flying fig if he was or wasn’t. Then unsubstantiated stories circulated about weeks spent in the wilderness, meditating with gurus, joining a commune. He eventually decided to study Chinese medicine and start a healing practice in Colorado, all using the middle name we’d teased him about throughout high school.

The years had transformed the goofiness of his youth into optimism and the openness of his spirit into a healer’s life. When we reconnected over social media, the confusion about his changed appearance and name quickly became recognition of a kindred purpose and familiar voice. Years before, he experienced the cracking open that results in a more authentic life that I was still in the midst of, and for that I admired him. In a strange way, and only in the non-patronizing way you can feel toward those you knew well when they were young, I was proud of him.

I cringed as Zoe spoke of this mutual friend, her adoring beau and silly Snoopy of old, wondering if he’d somehow lost his way. She didn’t see the opening up and settling into himself that I did. Instead she was concerned that his whimsical nature had transformed into a hippy-ish, ungrounded lifestyle she didn’t recognize. What on earth is she going to think when I start to tell her about me? Would she be able to hear me? It became like a bandage I just had to rip off.

The perfect opportunity arrived. After years as a preschool teacher, and after riding the bumpy rollercoaster herself, she understands young kids and parents on a freakishly intuitive level. When an early adoption referral fell through, she was ready with emotional support and unqualified empathy for our heartbreak. She braced for months of grieving, a general disillusionment about the process and turmoil over whether to go through with it at all. When we decided so quickly to move forward, she was confused and skeptical.

“How?” she asked.

“Do you really want to know?” I responded, then I spat out the whole story before waiting for the okay. I told her my spiritual opening played a key role in moving through this strange time. My developing skills as a clairvoyant reader helped me see the long game—this situation’s place in the larger arc of our parenting story. It provided immeasurable relief and hope.

Silence.

“You’re a clairvoyant now?” she said. “What exactly does that mean?”

I told her about chakras and how we’re all just balls of energy masquerading as bodies and healing is as easy as releasing a lightning bug and clairvoyance is as easy as being ready to see and how important it was to heal my heart so I could be my authentic self. I finished my soliloquy and gasped for air.

Silence.

I could feel her confusion, and it went at least seven layers deep. There was no outright judgment expressed, but the lack of questions, the lack of curiosity, the quick dismissal. I believed they revealed her discomfort and a doubt of my sincerity.

Determined to fully be my authentic self now that I could, I forged ahead with the friendship with a fresh attitude. If this life is about manifesting the divine here on earth, about speaking your truth no matter what, I want to do this in every part of my life, I told myself. My language became more the words I used around the house and less the ones she was used to hearing. I stopped omitting the stories about Henry laughing with his dead grandpa after we leave the room at night and how Larry and I can communicate our grocery list telepathically. Most of all, I happily told her how I thought everything in our lives happened because we chose it somehow.

There it was. It took a few phone calls, but The Truth Teller finally found the line and crossed it. Zoe reminded me she cared for too many people she believed to be victims of all sorts of terrible things.

“God would not choose such pain for us,” she said with absolute certainty.

“God doesn’t,” I said. “We have free will. That’s why I’m saying suffering, to some extent, is our own choice. Our world, our lives. They are our own making. It could be an intuitive choice made out of sacrifice, protection or love. It could be a deeply spiritual one to ensure that the greater good is served. But it’s still usually a choice.”

She reared back and lobbed what she believed would be the nuance I hadn’t considered yet. “So, you chose to get cancer?”

Without hesitation, I replied. “Yes.”

Back in the day, even years after I wrote my first memoir, I’d refused to look at how or why I’d gotten sick. Blame is pointless, I told myself. Indeed it is, but an unexamined cause is a repeated effect. If I didn’t learn all that I was to learn from that particular challenge, I was certain to repeat it until I did. Uninterested in more chemo, I chose to use my newly acknowledged clairvoyance to find the roots.

I found them. Many of them. But Zoe was gone before I could explain.

There was nothing for months this time, and her silence became my anger. Why should I have to change who I am so she’s more comfortable?

“You shouldn’t,” I heard. “Just be prepared for whatever comes.”

Out of desperation and a lot of frustration, I ignored this wise advice from my higher self. The Truth Teller, fully unprepared for what may come, picked up her pen and wrote an email explaining in detail every source of my anger. I am still a reasonable person. I’m still her old friend, I said. I was confused why she couldn’t see I’m not a nutcase. I’d like to be able to talk about my life honestly and openly. If she can’t handle it, if she can’t respect my beliefs, then maybe we shouldn’t be friends.

The minute I sent it I regretted it.

The gist of Zoe’s response: “Maybe we shouldn’t.”

The chasm between our basic philosophies about the world, life and the source of all things couldn’t be enough to keep us apart, could it? The fact that our transformations didn’t match threatened to crumble the bridge of understanding we’d built. For a short time we both feared our long friendship forged on the slippery seats of a green Chevy Nova was over.

I’d fallen down a dark and lonely cave of pride and issued an ultimatum I had no intention of substantiating. Meanwhile, my ego—an awkward cousin of The Truth Teller with a penchant for cruelty—laughed and laughed. I was so sanctimonious, so angry at her for not listening to me, so eager to jolt her into some measure of acceptance of my truth, I’d stopped listening to hers. And I stopped listening to my higher self, who now was yelling at me over the din.

“Why does it matter so much what she thinks?” I heard. “You be you. In case you’ve forgotten, that’s why you’re here.”

There’s a deep satisfaction when witnessing the natural cycle of life and death, the shedding of snakeskin, the fall of autumn leaves, a discarded cocoon, the moment a wound’s scab is no longer needed for protection. It’s all just change. It hurts when friends depart your life, but when you no longer serve each other the falling away happens naturally.

Everything about this felt unnatural.

When I sensed I’d lost Zoe, when I looked with clear eyes and listened with an open heart, I knew our lives were meant to intersect a while longer. My own insecurities and doubts about the ethereal energy I now put my faith in had come rumbling to the surface. Instead of trusting what I knew, I risked a life-long friendship to prove a point.

My heart screamed with regret and visions of shared tears and joyful celebrations to come, and it just kept screaming. Luckily, hers was screaming too.

It took less than a week of our individual panic attacks before we realized our bridge was worth repairing. I reached out, we both apologized, and over time we both discovered what we were meant to…

If we fill the chasm with love and a desire to meet each other in the echoes bouncing between its cliffs, we can weather any perceived differences. If we are comfortable in our own skins and brands of spirituality, it doesn’t matter what even our most trusted confidantes believe about them. If we tame our egos and open our hearts, whatever the butterfly’s wings look like once the transformation is underway will be gorgeous in our eyes. If we recognize it’s not the beliefs and the labels we respect but the soul with whom we share a beautifully complicated connection, we will always be okay.

I started self-editing just enough I didn’t feel I was hiding, but I wasn’t knowingly making her uncomfortable either, and she started asking questions again and often saved her jokes about crystals and wizard hats until after she hung up the phone. We allowed the other’s individual evolutions to continue at their own pace, in their own way, and we learned to admire each other’s singular colors and light.

It wasn’t (and isn’t) perfect. We continued (and continue) to work on our friendship, but knew (and know) we are true and dear friends. Perhaps we needed to walk through this particular fire together and learn where our conditions lurked before we knew that.

Two years later, Zoe called. “I’m getting a divorce.”

“I’m here,” I said. “What do you need?”

“Can you give me a reading?”

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Your Story Matters: Finding your authentic voice and a way to share it

breath of lifeExquisite voices are everywhere and within us all. Some of us sing like an angel or a rock star or the best freeway vocalist we know. Some speak with grace dripping from every word. Some rouse laughter with a whimsical tone. Some provoke change with harsh truth offered with love. Some make people smile with only a hello. Some write with an idea that a well-told story can move mountains one boulder at a time. Some tell their own secrets to illuminate the perfectly flawed beauty in us all. Some voices defy descriptions or, like Harper Lee, offer words so moving that generations jump for joy when she decides to publish her second novel decades later.

No matter what your authentic voice sounds like, it is unique and worthy. It deserves to be heard. Someone is meant to hear it. And if you share it, you are contributing to our collective story and inherent connection.

Who the heck cares?

As I begin to work more with clients who are seeking their authentic writing voice and trying to get more comfortable sharing it, it’s not surprising this question arises as a very common stumbling block. I get it. Most writers do. In fact, a well-timed hike with a friend a few years ago forced me to answer it for myself. It gave me the push I needed to get back on the writing horse I had neglected for years. It’s the energy I rediscovered that day that keeps me writing, not just for myself but with an intention of sharing it…

Your exquisite voice.

One foggy day, as we climbed a brushed and muddy mountain outside LA, I asked a dear friend a question. After she yet again shared an engaging story containing some very wise and eloquent advice, I asked if she ever had considered writing a book.

“Yes,” she replied. “But why would anyone who doesn’t know me want to hear anything I have to say? What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before?”

It’s the writer’s dilemma, the human dilemma, the same doubt anyone who has a pen or a computer or vocal cords faces. At least on those struggling days as we sit with ourselves wondering how we dare to presume our words are worthy of being heard or if anyone cares what our story is or what ideas swirl in our hearts and imaginations.

When my friend asked these questions of the mountain sky I was fifteen years and one published cancer memoir into a writing career. I had asked these questions off and on for that many years, usually in particularly vulnerable moments – while questioning the invention of the printing press, my mere existence as a result or why Madonna’s brother was a best-selling author as my little memoir struggled to sell those last five remaining copies in Amazon’s “why can’t we get rid of these” storage lockers.

Your story matters, believe it or not.

Every day as I wrote and then promoted this book, I asked why my story, shared by so many young cancer survivors, was worthy of anyone’s attention? Why was I so compelled to share it nonetheless? Until the mail started coming in. They said no one was telling this story – my story, their story – so honestly. No one else knew what they were going through. In fact, there were several young survivors telling lots of stories, many very similar and some much more fascinating than mine, including pre-scandal Lance Armstrong who had a best-selling autobiography on his shelf next to his many trophies. But these readers were convinced I was the lone voice in a sea of folks they couldn’t hear yet. And they were grateful I was willing to share it.

So, I understood my friend’s doubt. But I remembered this lesson learned years before and heard the message meant for us both. I offered it to her and the same sky she’d asked. It’s what I tell myself and my writer clients in those dark moments. It’s what we all need to remember every time we open our mouths…

Your voice will be heard by anyone who can and wants to hear it. It’s different and worthy because you are the messenger, and there is someone out there who can’t hear yet because you haven’t said it yet.

Not everyone will care what you say. Not everyone is meant to. But in this moment, with your story, with your energy and words, someone is getting the message, the information, the healing, the inspiration, the provocation, or the perspective they need and have been seeking, perhaps without even realizing it.

You deserve to be heard.

In return, you will know you are heard. You will feel the frequencies unite and your experience, shared as you will, will combine with those you shared it with to become something even greater. You will understand that you don’t need a book or a blog or a microphone to communicate something exquisite that can be exquisitely heard. But look at what you can do if you try.

Every day I thank my friend for reminding me why I write. We all have an authentic voice that offers transforming beauty, healing laughter and truth that transcends what we think we understand. The lesson is in knowing you do and rising above your fears to offer it to a world that will be better off for having heard it.

For when we are brave enough to tell our stories, we all benefit.

When you speak with your authentic voice, the world can hear it.

breath of life

If you want to find out more about Rebecca’s latest book, please go to www.laughattheskykid.com. If you’re curious about her writer coaching or other writing and editing services, feel free to email giffordrebecca@gmail.com or visit www.rebeccagifford.com. Thanks for reading!