It’s not like I woke up one day and decided I was the next Dr. Andrew Weil. Or worse, Dr. Phil, God help us. No, it happened like this. My ex-mother in law, (Dr.) Marcia Jones, whom I love fiercely, sent me a book as my marriage to her son, David (ne Jones) was ending. The book was Expecting Adam and it was by a woman named Martha Beck whose son was diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome within the first trimester of her pregnancy. A triple Harvard Ph.D. living in Cambridge, Martha was advised by colleagues to abort. Instead, from the firestorm that was this experience, she kept the baby and allowed it to transform her worldview. She moved quickly from a neck-up existence to a full bodied one. I could relate. I had a firestorm of my own, and before it, I’d focused on just two dimensions of myself and others: mind and body. After, I found a third: mind, body and awareness. Through the firestorm and an accompanying series of ordinary miracles, Martha discovered this third dimension, and her life changed from top to bottom.
I ate this book up and thought about its applications to my own life for years, noting only peripherally that she had become–post Harvard–a life coach. It was the first time I’d heard that term.
A couple of years later, when I was still living in the farmhouse in Hatfield, I got an email from an old high school friend named Julie Serritella. “Hi,” she wrote. “I’m in Taiwan with my husband, and I heard a song by you on the radio! By the way, I’m a life coach.”
That’s nice, I thought vaguely and took Mia out for a romp down by the river and didn’t think of Julie again or life coaching, until last October when she showed up at our show in Ithaca.
“What exactly is life coaching?” I asked. “Is it like therapy?”
“Sort of, but not,” she said. “You get to use what you know to be true, but life coaching is to therapy what personal training is to orthopedics.”
“Do you tell people what to do?” I asked, packing up my CDs and counting the twenty dollar bills.
“No,” she said. “They already know what to do. I listen, and if I’m doing my job right, I ask the right questions. They tell me what they want to do, and in telling me, they tell themselves.”
I looked up. A job where you get to listen to other people’s stories? A job where you get to witness the birth of little epiphanies all day long? My rabid curiosity took over. “I want to do that,” I thought but did not say.
Two weeks later, on tour with Lisa Loeb and Carrie Newcomer, Jill Stratton, my old friend who runs the Acoustic City Concert Series in St. Louis, started telling me about her amazing life coach and her own thoughts on the matter.
“Nerissa,’ she said slyly looking at me while driving us alone I-70. “You should be a life coach.”
That did it. I came home from the tour, dumped my suitcase at the bottom of the stairs, ran up and googled Martha Beck’s website. It turns out she trains people to be life coaches. I sent an email to her associate, Stacey Shively. Stacey called me back. “What’s your last name?” she said after we’d been talking for a few minutes. “Hey! I know you! I have Gotta Get Over Greta!”
From that moment on, training began. I read countless books, I wrote copiously about…myself, based on assignments Martha gave trainees. I talked to Stacey and to other life coaches and harassed them with questions. I packed for Arizona, where the training would take place.
The night before I left, I got a call from an old, familiar number.
“Hi, Nerissa. It’s David. Mia got hit by a car.”
For anyone who’s lost a beloved pet, I don’t need to tell you what happened next. Tom said afterwards he’s never seen me cry so hard. I lay on the carpet and wailed and held my head in my hands. It was as though I were mourning every single loss I’ve ever had.
I sat in the meditation room with my guitar, and I lit a candle for Mia and sang her “Eulogy for Emma,” a song for the dog I’d had before Mia. I thought about Mia’s soft fur, little tail wagging like a flag above the squash fields of Hatfield. I thought about her brave fearless soul: she died chasing a squirrel into the road. No matter how hard we tried to scare her out of her road complacency, she refused to see it as a deathly river. She just ran joyfully across it, the way she ran joyfully anywhere.
“Mia,” I whispered. “Could you stick around to remind me to run joyfully?”
And of course, I thought about my marriage to David, those years in the van, the good man my ex-husband is. And how after a year of separation in which Mia lived with me, though we shared “custody,” I came to realize that I was traveling too much to treat her the way she needed to be treated. Treated to a forty-five minute-a-day romp in the squash fields. So I gave her to David and knew he would love her at least as much as I had. He did. I cried for his loss, went to bed, cried all day on the flight to Phoenix.
A group of eleven of us, hand picked by Stacey, met the next morning and commenced training. We did a number of exercises in which we examined fears and useless, unhelpful beliefs. I kept thinking of the work I’ve been doing in meditation for the past seven years, the focus on living in the present moment and how rich life is when I can do that. I also thought “Who knew all those books on Feng Shui I bought in the ‘90’s would come in handy someday? Who knew all those books on the Eneagram and astrology I read in airports and in the van driving around the country would be more than a guilty pleasure?”
I was blown away by my colleagues, learning as much from them as I did from Martha and her team. We couldn’t have been more different from each other. We were men and women, ranging in age from mid twenties to fifties, liberals and conservatives, therapists and a jewelry maker, a yoga instructor, a couple of PhDs, and one (choke, gasp) Republican who was a marketer and press person for the Bush campaign whom I, liberal apologist and passionate peacenik, adored. One woman had spent years in the bush in British Columbia with indigenous tribes (she spoke of Mom Jack and Auntie Mrs. Nyman which I thought would make a great title for a novel or memoir.) All of us were there because we want to help people get through the transitions of their lives and emerge stronger, not depleted and discouraged.
I believe from my own experience that everyone goes through a firestorm or two at some point, and when that happens, a person has three choices. She can be destroyed; she can chose never to risk again; or she can become steeled, strong, joyful and show others how to do the same. Flying back home over this country I love, I looked down and saw the green fields of Texas. Spring is coming. I couldn’t help but think of Mia, and her fearless spirit.
You can lend a hand,
You can make a call
You can say a kind word or not speak at all
You don’t have to speak
Just sit by my side
And help me grieve….
Here’s to running joyfully.