I just recently returned from a two and a half week road trip that was supposed to be two weeks long but thanks to a fire, it was extended. Artist Amanda Smith and I set off joyously from Houston in my funky HUBBA HUBBA art car on July 23, 2013. Our goal was to work on our separate art projects – mine was my IGNITE YOUR LIFE! photo/video essay on how people ignite their lives and Amanda’s was a documentary in which she asked people provocative questions. But the project became bigger and more exciting for me than I originally anticipated because as I questioned people along the road – at gas stations, hotels, our friends and family, filmmakers, celebrities, and intellectuals – I discovered that asking that simple question “How do you ignite your life?” woke up people and caused them to look within quicker than years of therapy might have. It turned parties into playgrounds and it helped my family connect hearts in a special way. The first lesson I learned was that talking about igniting your life created connections far beyond what I had imagined.
And fire was front and center on this trip – not only the fire of the spark within a soul but also physical fire. During our first day on the road, we passed a fiery, scary 18 wheeler truck on the opposite side of the highway. We were avid documentarians of our experiences along the way because we were updating a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/igniteyourownlife) that folks back home were following. But even we were too terrified to stop and get a full frontal photo because of the blast of heat we experienced! It set the tone for our adventure and made us really think about this whole “ignite your life” thing. And, as if that weren’t enough to get our attention, on the way back, my wonderful art car caught on fire! Again, people wanted to know if we captured those moments on film – and the answer was a resounding “no” because frankly, we were terrified. Once the crisis was over and the car was being towed to a mechanic for further inspection, the irony that its demise had occurred outside of Phoenix, Arizona was not lost on us. “Phoenix Rising” rang in my head as I struggled to deal with the idea that I might have to let go of HUBBA HUBBA. And I realized that the lesson of igniting your life was still not over. Sure, it’s important to ignite your life and to find your passion and what makes your heart sing. But it’s equally important to let go of what’s not working in your life. Thus my follow-up question to “How do you ignite your life?” became “Does it have to be on fire before you make a change?” or, more succinctly, “What’s not working in your life that you need to let go of?”
Ever since I was a girl, I have lived an examined life – I felt things deeper, I was in tune with a higher power, I could see what was and what was not working (my brother’s alcoholism = not working, my love for my friends = working) and I created my life like a haphazard artist, not really thinking about what I was doing but definitely taking what I liked and leaving the rest. This is how I ended up at St. John’s School, a posh private K-12 school in the best neighborhood in Houston. I met some kids in 11th grade that went there and told me there was room in the 12th grade (kids are often better advocates than guidance counselors!). I came home, told my mom that I wanted to go there, and proceeded to set up the appointment for the testing and entry interview myself. I remember writing an essay about skiing and talking to some nice man about why I wanted to go there and then…voila! I was in. When I told mom the good news, she was flabbergasted since St. John’s wasn’t really in the budget of a woman getting her EdD in psychology and a German professor but they were so excited that they scraped together the $4,000 it cost back then and off I went, in my new school uniform, eager to meet new friends. The motivating factor behind my move? I wanted to change the crowd I was hanging out with at Lamar High School, the big public school across the street. I felt my reputation as a good kid was slipping and that a makeover was due. In hindsight, I am blown away by my self-preservation and motivation. It was a hint of the future adult I would become – one that was always the “captain of my soul.”
I have often been told how intuitive I am and how assertive I am in creating the life I want, but honestly, much of those skills come from growing up in a family whose members struggled with addictions, my own alcoholism included. A strange up side to living with addiction is that it teaches you how to be more in tune with others – after all, you need to know if your brother is high before you bug him for help with homework or if your dad is drunk to make sense of why your mom wants to kick him out. My own addiction to booze kicked my butt and made me realize that drinking was no longer working in my life. It was on fire and I needed to make a change. Thankfully, the kind counselors who had worked with my brother helped to give me a kick start on my own journey to recovery. And I learned that the only way for me to kick my alcoholism was to do a thorough self-examination and to start giving back as a way of life. And it was important for me to make a daily practice of connecting to what I call “Creator” as well as to myself and finally, to others. Starting out each day with meditation and connection has since become as important to me as brushing my teeth. And it was with the help of the twelve steps that I no longer created my life in a haphazard fashion: I lived life on a conscious plane, making a choice each day to stay sober and, from that choice, creating the life I truly wanted to live.
All of these newly-acquired skills served me very well and then I went even further in creating the life of my dreams as I learned about vision boards and the power of manifestation and visualization. I was able to listen to my heart most of the time and I connected to the world around me and became known as a girl who gave back. My curiosity about how to find one’s passion was never-ending, both for my own and that of others. I was very clear that the most important question you can ask yourself is how to ignite your life. But it wasn’t until our road trip that I realized in a very real way how important it is to also realize where change needs to occur.
“Does it have to be on fire before you make a change?” came to mind when my art car was ablaze. It was a car that had been a problem from the beginning: the clutch had to be replaced twice in the first two years, various mechanical problems cropped up again and again (always something different!), and for this final trip, we had spent $3,000 making sure she was road ready. And yet…things fell apart. The air conditioning petered out on us as we passed through Phoenix the first time (another irony not lost on us) and then there were funky noises, another clutch problem, a cracked underbelly, a loose motor mount, and finally, a brand new a/c compressor which froze up, most likely causing the fire. The belts caught on fire and fell out in primordial oozing, fiery messes and all the wires and much of the underbelly melted. My car had its own apocalypse underneath the hood.
Amanda had to fly home for her job, so during the 17 hour drive home alone, letting my grief out allowed me to get to the reality of the situation which was that I should have dumped my darlin’ Mazda many a moon ago. I wanted so badly to make her into an art car that I ignored the signs that she should have been put out to the proverbial car pasture. It was then that I learned the second important lesson of our trip: that it’s better to make changes before things are too awful – to make them before a situation is “on fire.”
The amazing thing about this point of my journey was that it was in Phoenix that I began anew. As I grasped the reality that I had to vehicularly move on, I began to focus on a white Toyota Corolla – white because it seemed the perfect way to manifest a new beginning and a Toyota Corolla because that was the make and model of my first car when I was 16. It seemed right to return to what had worked so well so many years ago. Amazingly, I found the perfect salesman (who didn’t even do that kind of personal sales!) and the perfect car: a 2013 Toyota Corolla that had the same price tag my messy Mazda did 6 years earlier. The miracle was complete when I bought the car using a loan based on my excellent credit report (who knew?!) and within four hours, start to finish. The salesman, Jim Testa, knew that I was having one of the worst days of my life and I will never forget his kindness to me as I let go of the baby I had created and loved over the last three years.
I was not in the market for a new car. And I wasn’t at all ready to let go of my old car. And, yet, there I was, driving home in a sweet white canvas, plotting my third art car, PHOENIX RISING, and realizing that my budget could actually handle the new cost! I marveled at how afraid I was to make changes before they are practically (and in this case, most definitely) forced upon me. The end result of this new beginning was so incredible that my new car will always stand as a physical reminder to me that yes, Virginia, making changes is good, very good indeed.
As with anything that gets stirred up in my life, I began to look around and see what else needed to change – what else I needed to let go of. I had some personal changes I wanted to make but realized the time is not right for them. And I have some business changes long overdue and will be making a final decision on those before the year is out. It’s a part of my daily mediation now – not only the question of what ignites my life but also the question of what I need to let go of. It’s a give and take: letting go of things makes more room for that which gets me going. Fire is good and bad – it destroys everything in its path if you let it and yet, it gets rid of unnessaries. And it can stoke a new flame in your heart – that eternal pilot light of your soul can light you up and give you new reasons to live. Carl Jung said that fire is a sign of connection to the Divine and I know it to be true. To connect with the Divine is to connect to yourself. And fire makes that possible.
So I encourage you to also make the flame your friend. How will you ignite your life AND how will you burn off that which doesn’t work? Ask those questions daily and see the richness of your life grow!