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Four Decades of Defining Moments: Carolyn's 40th Birthday Retrospective

by Carolyn A. Romano, Bliss Healing Arts
May/June 2009

As I planned this evening over the last four months, I spent a lot of time thinking about the last four decades.  The ups and downs.  The joys and sorrows.  And while I meandered through the years, I sought to identify what for me are my Defining Moments, points at which my essential nature was revealed or identified or determined.  There are many, for sure, but I will share just a few of them with you now.
Novelist Anna Quindlen once wrote: "I walked for miles at night along the beach, writing bad blank verse and searching endlessly for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that that person could be me." This quote leads me to the first defining moment I share with you tonight, and that is, the realization in my early 30s that I had spent the better part of my 20s waiting for my life to show up.  And that it hadn't and since nobody seemed to be coming to rescue me, maybe I should figure out how to rescue myself.  And so Defining Moment #1 hit me, and I set about creating a life.
Defining moment #2 for me was about learning to go within, that I didn't need any more degrees or certificates or external forms of approval to show my worth and get me ready for whatever it was I was trying to get ready for.  That I already had everything I needed.  Joseph Campbell, expert in comparative mythology and religion, had a great expression to describe people who were constantly looking outside of themselves for the answers rather than going within.  He said it was like "standing on a whale fishing for minnows."  So, to borrow a phrase from artist Georgia O'Keefe, Defining Moment #2 came when "I decided to accept as true, my own thinking."
I have my therapist to thank for Defining Moment #3.  You see, I was, am and always will be a person who cries.  When I was a kid and even into my young adulthood, I was pretty embarrassed about this aspect of my personality.  In fact, I avoided many situations - speaking up for myself, confrontations, especially - because I was always afraid I was going to start crying.  The defining moment for me came when I was sitting on the sofa in Joe's office.  There I was crying about the fact that I was always afraid I was going to start crying at the most inopportune times.  And what does Joe say to me?  He says this,  "Kiddo, you cry.  That's your thing. It's what you do.  So if you need to cry, cry!"   And for one small moment time stood still as I absorbed the full weight of what he said.  Giving myself permission to cry when I needed to dramatically reduced the number of tears I shed from that point on as well as helped me redefine how I viewed my sensitive side.  "Kiddo, you cry.  It's what you do."  Thank you, Joe.
Defining Moment #4 came with a realization about life and the fact that nobody gets out alive.  Nobody.  So really, this defining moment is probably more about death, something no one really likes to talk about, especially at a birthday celebration.  Yes, death.  I've experienced a lot of loss in the past few years, family, friends, clients; I know many of you have, too.  And one thing I've learned from these experiences is that pain opens you in a way few other experiences can.  When my father died, my whole world changed.  I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the meaning of life.  I'm sure many of you can relate.  I spent time at both ends of the spectrum.  On the one hand, I would think that everything is meaningless.  After all I'm just going to die someday anyway, right? So, what's the point?  And, on the other hand, I would think that everything is incredibly meaningful, because I'm going to die someday anyway, right? And could that be the point?
Joseph Campbell philosophized that he didn't really believe that most people went around in search of the meaning of life.  Rather, he thought that people were actually in search of the experience of being alive!  The experience of being alive.  I had a major aha! moment about this idea a few days ago.  I realized I can only experience being alive in the very moment in front of me.  I can't experience it while replaying scenes from my past, and I can't experience it by projecting myself into a future I may never see.  I can only experience being alive in the here and now.  I am experiencing it right now, in fact, as I talk to you and hear the sound of my voice and feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins because I'm a little nervous.  And when I feel a tear or two catching in my throat and when I connect with you in this most meaningful way right now as I'm more than halfway through my birthday retrospective. 
My final defining moment, Defining Moment #5 revolves around the vision quest I did in the summer of 2007 just a few weeks after my father's death.  A vision quest is a native American rite of passage where one goes out alone into the wilderness to seek a "vision" that offers insight into one's intended direction and spiritual purpose. So there I was left for the night on an island in the middle of nowhere Maine in a different kind of birthday suit than I'm wearing tonight under a blanket, more than a little apprehensive. Yes, I was left there with the knowledge that no matter what, no one was coming for me until dawn. I could call for help, but no one would hear me; I could try to swim back to camp, but it was awfully far and I would likely drown.  I was alone.
Let me tell you, it was hard.  I had been fasting with no food or water for over a day. I had just finished a sweat lodge. I was freezing, I was tired, and I was on an island that turned out to be a favorite crossing point of every moose and deer in the state of Maine.  All night, all I could hear coming from the blackness was the sound of giant animals splashing into the water and snorting vociferously as they swam from shore to my little island.  Have I mentioned that I was scared?  Abject terror was probably a better way to describe it.  I first employed the "monsters-under-the-bed strategy," that is, I hid under my blanket, all the while thinking, if I can't see them, then they aren't there.  Needless to say, it was a long night.  So much happened and so much was gained both during and while I waited for my vision.  At the beginning, I sat and prayed for things in my life to be a certain way; by the end, I prayed for me to be a certain way instead.
Much more happened than I have time to share tonight, but what I will tell you is that I realized while sitting there for that seemingly interminable stretch of time is that sometimes, no matter how much you are denying or resisting or railing against what is happening to you, there is absolutely nothing you can do.  Nothing, that is, except surrender and trust.  And by surrendering I don't mean giving up or giving in. I mean giving over and allowing a force greater than you to guide, protect, and hold.
Why share all this with you?
Above all, I wanted you to bear witness to my life and what it has taught me.  I wanted to stand before you and say, "This is who I am.  This is some of where I've been."  Truly, I see tonight as a rite of passage for me, and I honor you for where you are on your journeys, for your rites of passage whether they be marriages, births, deaths, "startings over," graduations, new homes, divorces, illnesses.  I also stand here tonight with the hope that something I've said here will inspire you to find what is true for you, so that you can live from that most authentic part of yourself. 
So with that, I borrow somewhat from Dawna Markova, one of my favorite writers, and leave you with the following questions for your consideration:
What would you include in your birthday retrospective?  What are your Defining Moments?
What would you do if you knew you could not fail?
What's unfinished for you to give?
to heal?
to learn?
to experience?
And finally, what are you doing with this one precious thing called your life?
Thank you. I love you all. Let's be amazing.


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