The Death of Control: MIP (Memoir-in-progress) Excerpt

This is a portion of a chapter (or whatever) titled: The Death of Control, from a potential Memoir-in-Progress.

When my father died, I had my first real taste of what it feels like to have no control. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know it was coming: I had been helping to take care of him for weeks as he lay in bed, willingly traveling the road toward his end. The last afternoon I sat with him, I had a good idea he would be gone before I returned the next morning. We did indeed get a call just after sunrise the following day that he had passed. As my then-husband and I drove down from the family cabin where we were staying, a pair of eagles flew overhead in what felt like a fitting send-off for Dad. An early skiff of snow brightened the landscape. When we reached the house, I went back to see his lifeless body in his bed, and the sense of loss was immediate and intense.

For days and weeks after, the knowledge of his absence jolted me at odd moments. I felt as if I had been holding tightly to something precious, only to have it slip out of my grasp and fall into a bottomless abyss. I knew it wasn’t my fault he had died, yet I had a subterranean sense that somehow I had allowed it to happen. I could have, should have done more, or something different, to keep my father alive. The feeling of utter helplessness and vulnerability was not familiar.

Two decades later, a similar feeling haunted me. Again I was at the edge of a cliff gripping something I deemed valuable, and again it was slipping inexorably from my hands, despite my best efforts to wrap my fingers more tightly. Rather than the death of a person shaking me up; it was the seemingly unstoppable emptying of my bank account day by day, month by month. 

The illusion of money=life

Of all the aspects of my life to which ‘control freak’ might apply, money is one of the most intense. My fear around money and its lack intensified after my father’s death, and reached an initial crisis when my mother died a few months later. Until my brothers and I sold my parents’ house, sent the bulk of their belongings to auction, settled the estate and divided the proceeds, I had never realized an unpleasant truth. Somewhere in the back of my mind I had expected a large enough inheritance to allow me to retire from my corporate career, although I had not expected to become the family matriarch at only 38. My then-husband and I were able to speedily dispatch the funds on various items. 

Without my parents to provide my unconscious financial security blanket, I began to notice a fear of lack that seemed built in and was, in part, inherited from a mother who suffered the deprivation of Nazi-occupied Norway as a teenager; and a father who grew up during the depression in a household supported only by his schoolteacher mother. Despite my six-figure salary, corporate benefits including stock options and retirement, and the inheritance, money became a constant source of worry. The bills and debts continued to expand to stretch the income.

Then, a decade later, still feeling under water financially despite a new job with a bigger salary, even the fear wasn’t enough to keep me confined in a career that no longer fit. In part due to my restlessness, my marriage ended and shortly after, I ended my corporate career and the left behind the prevailing definition of security through salary.

For seven years, I lived off my savings, including retirement accounts. I packed a lot into those years, including two trips to India, a failed business investment, and a great deal of healing work. As well, I cast about for my true vocation and calling, which was clearly closer to teaching and healing than to corporate communication. I studied yoga in India on the first trip, and immersed myself in it’s sister health science of Ayurveda on the second. The failed investment was in a natural health clinic, where I began seeing clients in between management tasks. I moved to the place I had always wanted to call home and began the task of learning a new way of earning a living, without the security of a corporate salary.

A year or so before the move, I woke in the middle of the night with a stark and unsettling realization: I knew how to succeed in the man’s world I had spent the last several decades in. I did not know how to build a vocation in a more fluid, balanced, feminine manner. I would have to learn. And more, there are very few authentic teachers from whom to learn. The taint of overly aggressive marketing and rigidly structured business plans is all over many of those purporting to assist women entrepreneurs. I knew it when I saw it, but didn’t know another way to work, at least for a while.

The illusion of “hard work = results’”

At my last corporate position in an old-school, second generation forest products company, one of our mottoes was “make it happen”. The belief was that we could force whatever we desired if everyone would work hard enough. One year, a particularly colorful manufacturing vice president oversaw our management conference. The theme was “Git ‘er Done” after the popular red-neck comedy routine. We gleefully made banners, wrote newsletter articles, and created Powerpoint presentations playing on the them. The message was clear: if you fail in achieving your goals as a company leader, you simply didn’t try hard enough. Evidence of your commitment included arriving early and staying well past any imaginary quitting time. Saturdays were part of a normal work week, as were Sundays when necessary. I counted on my weekend visits to the office to find time with my boss and other executives.

The hard work equals results theme was certainly not new, inside my head or from my father and teachers and bosses in general. The extent to which this concept drove me was exacerbated by my own make-up: Saturn (hard work and authority) in its home sign of Capricorn in the 6th house (work and service) of my birth chart. The messages in my head were clear: didn’t do well on the physical chemistry test? I just needed to study harder and stay up later. Not making enough money/getting promoted? I need to work longer hours, do more, be more. Marriage falling apart? I need to work harder on myself; be more enlightened; try harder.

By my late forties, after more than twenty years of a career built on these assumptions and a couple of painful relationships, the exhaustion had set in, and the seeds of rebellion began to germinate.

A year or two before I left corporate-world behind, I read the Bhagavad Gita, one of the foundational texts of yoga. The “Song of the Lord” is part of a larger Indian epic called the Mahabharata, and is considered a fundamental part of the spiritual lore of India and Hinduism. The story recounts a short sequence in a larger civil war in ancient India. The protagonist is a warrior by the name of Arjuna, who has been chosen to lead his army in battle. He has God on his side in the form of Krishna, his charioteer. As Arjuna reviews the battle field in front of him, he realizes to his horror the opposing army is made of of uncles, cousins and other family members, just as are his troops. He balks, and the ensuing conversation with Krishna becomes an exchange between spiritual teacher and seeker, and a parable about the ongoing struggle between ego and divinity within each of us.

Underpinning Krishna’s exhortations to Arjuna is this sutra: You have the right to your actions in this life (on this battlefield) but not the fruits of your actions. 

In other words, effort does not equal results. I am not in control.

This comforts me. (to be continued…….)

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