Journey to Story: A Philosopher Mom Takes a Detour

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There may be many detours on the road to telling your stories.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
— Lao Tzu

Great advice...

Unless you’re a sleep deprived mom who’s started a daily hiking regiment with a grubby toddler who sticks her disgusting monkey finger in your ear, causing you to develop a double ear infection that perforates your eardrum and forces your ass on the sofa for three weeks.

That’s how my journey began.

It sucked.

Ever notice how all the greatest gurus seem to be men from long ago who never had to balance their writing and philosophical pursuits with a toddler intent on climbing up their leg and over their face? Mmmkay, Confucius.

Back to my sofa.  

I was done. Done with motherhood. Done with domesticity. Done with trying to take the next step to make everything in my life more organized. But I kept writing.  

My doctor took one look at me and asked, “can you get out of town and go to a writing retreat? You really need to get away.” I didn’t go searching for this Call to Adventure, but my life was forcing me into it. A yellow brick road paved with dirty diapers that was pointing me towards an Emerald City called Los Feliz.

On a fluke, I checked out the Philosophical Research Society’s schedule. I had fallen hard for their library in Los Angeles many moons ago. Created by Manly P. Hall back in the 1930s, PRS stands in the center of Los Feliz with a library of over 50,000 volumes on the world’s most mysterious knowledge. Open access to every book, even stuff from the 16th century, is available to the general public. (Please read the story of this fascinating place in LA Weekly) They’re now the University of Philosophical Research with degrees in Transformational Psychology and Consciousness Studies.

I happened upon Manly P. Hall’s the Secret Teachings of All Ages in the Barnes and Noble when I was pregnant. It was love at first sight.

Was I surprised to find out PRS was holding a Writing Seminar on the Wisdom of Mythic Stories in only two weeks? Of course not! That’s how this synchronicity stuff works. 

I booked the seminar and an Airbnb. And called my BFF Courtney who’d just moved to LA.

He never returned my call. (sad trombone)

Like most heroes (or heroines—read this hilarious retelling of the Hero’s Journey into the Lady Hero’s Journey), I was feeling the Refusal of the Call. Big time.

Leaving my kid felt terrifying. And I’d booked only a room in a house owned by some strange man. Sure, I’d done this lots of times with my husband. Hell, I did this kind of thing all the time when I was single. But right now, it felt foolish and risky to take off for this kind of adventure as a mom. 

I was torn. And worn thin.

I wanted to go. My doctor thought I needed to go. My husband knew I needed to go. But how could I drive from Phoenix to L.A. with a perforated eardrum and hearing loss? 

Each day, I’d wake up with no change to my condition. A week went by and nothing. I was ready to cancel. But instead I left the decision up to Supernatural Aid. Yep, my magical ENT.

“If the Ears, Nose, and Throat Doc tells me it’s a bad idea to go, then I’ll stay home,” I told my husband.

But the ENT did just the opposite. The day before my trip, she gave me nasal spray for the journey. Nasal Spray. Really?! My Magical Mom Talisman is nasal spray?

Alright, fine. I’ll take your damn nasal spray and go on this journey. But I won’t enjoy it! 

I stepped out of the house and into the garage forcing myself to ignore the dirty laundry. I felt a change within at this Crossing of the First Threshold. I was really going to make this trip. As I was swallowed up by the Belly of the Whale—my husband’s car sans baby seat in the back—I realized anything could happen. And I didn’t like that feeling at all.

How dare I try and enjoy my life now that I’m a mother? 

I had my first panic attack before I got out of Phoenix. But I was already on the Road of Trials, so despite the tug to pull off by the side of the road and insist my husband come to my rescue, I kept going. And once I got out of the city and into the mountains, I calmed down.

But by the time I hit the California border, I was filled with anxiety again.

Billboards asking for information about murder victims. Road signs that claimed, “Speed Checked by Aircraft.” Giant windmills. What strange Oz was this?

When I landed in L.A., I knew I had made a mistake. I was taking my life into my own hands when I tried to make a left-hand turn onto Los Feliz Boulevard just after dusk.

But did I die? Nope.

I located the Airbnb with its steep incline street parking that had my safety break working overtime. In front of the house, I frantically searched for the lockbox that housed the key.

“I think this was a mistake, I just want to come home,” I texted my husband.

Wait a damn minute.

Wasn’t I the woman who once drove herself from Hilton Head, SC to Phoenix, AZ alone? The same woman who drove through a tornado in the Mississippi Delta? She who became a flight attendant for the biggest airline in the world?

I took a deep breath and pulled my shit together. And the lockbox revealed itself to me. Talisman #2—a key—felt more in keeping with my kind of mythology than that damn nasal spray. Still, I clung to my Flonase as I used the key to creep inside.

Here was my Meeting with the Divinity. The mod mid-century dream house was once owned by an English Professor who helped start a local bookstore. Her library on subjects I never knew I needed to know about was spotlighted like some beacon from the gods.

I relaxed a bit as my host appeared from the kitchen.

Careful and kind, he put me at ease. But there was no Romantic Temptation, because I quickly learned he was gay. And also, a longstanding member of AA just like my husband. He was one of the most welcoming and gentle souls I’ve ever met in my travels.

I needed to reassure my hubby that I was in good hands. As I stood in my expansive room unpacking, I dialed the number. Overwhelmed by nostalgia, the furniture had a funny way of reminding me of both my grandparent’s home and my time with Courtney—my gay best friend. When my husband answered, I whispered as if in code, “I’m fine, he’s in the family.”

“What? You mean you’re staying with a guy in the mafia?” my language lost on my too-straight husband.

“No, he’s not in the mafia,” I tried to scream whisper at him over the phone, “The family. HE’S. IN. THE. FAMILY. The family. You know, THE family. Never mind, It’s fine, it’s all fine. I’m good here.” 

Back in the main house, I laid out my fancy salad from Gelson’s and prepared to eat my dinner alone. I was happy just to sit in the dining room that overlooked the backyard’s Passion Fruit Tree. To eat without a toddler demanding my food. But in walked my host.

As he described his colorful life as an art dealer and personal chef, I felt like a grownup again, not just some nursemaid. We talked about our unique career paths and swapped stories about our destructive fathers. Can you even have a Hero’s Journey without the Atonement with the Parent?

When I settled into bed under the intriguing figure art drawing and the simple elegance of the mod mid-century complete with the original fixtures, I felt more than safe. I felt a sense of Apotheosis. I was disintegrating into the charm of Los Feliz—a town that literally translates into “the happies”—and realizing it was my need to be in control that had been standing in my way for far too long. 

I gave Courtney a call and this time he answered.

But the Ultimate Boon wouldn’t happen until tomorrow.

When I stepped off the front porch onto the path the next morning, after the rain had supplied the flowers with just enough moisture to come to life, I realized what a short trip it was to reach the University of Philosophical Research.

My walking regimen hadn’t ended, it had only been rerouted. A detour to my next story. 

Today, I was taking a workshop from Jonathan Young, the man who once assisted the great Joseph Campbell and who was responsible for opening the Joseph Campbell Archives in Santa Barbara. 

Yes, I was knee-deep in dude-centric mythology here, but trying to find my bliss has always steered my compass. Seated around me were fascinating female artists, writers, psychotherapists, and teachers including Anne Bach who facilitated story explorations with writing therapy. 

We spent the day devouring the Wizard of Oz and Dorothy’s journey.

“I like to call it the seeker’s quest,” Young said, “rather than the hero’s journey because it sounds less war-like.” And I could feel the inclusiveness of the feminine in his statement.

I wasn’t kicking the door down on this quest, I only had to crack it open enough to peer inside. To realize the philosophical journey I was so eager to start had already begun.

 As we deconstructed Dorothy’s quest, I noted where I still needed work:

  • “100% of parents will betray their children in some way”—translation, stop trying to be the perfect mother, you will fail!

  • “The shadow must be integrated into us to make us whole”—there ain’t no Glenda the Good Witch, people. Even Glenda isn’t all good, ever see Wicked?

  • “Losing friends along the way is a testament to your success and growth, it isn’t a failure”—so many of my friendships had faltered since I had become a mother but that, too, was a gift.

One friendship remained intact, though. Courtney and I spent the evening as we always had—giggling and drinking too much wine, until we fell asleep on top of one another.

At 10am the next morning I awoke with ringing in my ear and wondered how I’d ever make it all the way back to Phoenix. Did I even want to return to daily domesticity? Sometimes the Refusal of the Return can be as strong as the Refusal of the Call. I was required to take the Magic Flight and not via LAX, but by car.

Before I left, my host helped me with a Rescue from Without. He made sure I ate brunch and gifted me three passion fruits from his tree out back. I was now Crossing the Return Threshold as I moved my luggage out to the car and handed over my key.

“There’s another seminar in September and I hope to be back for that,” I told him, “I feel like I’ve made a new friend.”

“You have,” he said and hugged me. 

I wanted to see my husband and daughter, but I also wanted to stay here and have access to the Philosophical Research Society. But to be on the seeker’s quest means you must become a Master of Two Worlds—PRS has online classes!

Driving back wasn’t easy. It was a long trip and by the time I reached Palms Springs with its mod music on the radio and the huge electric windmills, I felt like Dorothy in the poppy fields. I longed to curl up in my backseat and take a nap. Not today, though. Squirting some nasal spray in both nostrils, I kept driving.

When I got home, I bestowed my daughter with my boon. I cut off a piece of the passion fruit and let her suck out all the marrow of the juice and seeds inside. She stamped her foot until I gave her another piece and another. She ate all three passion fruits in one go.

Now there were truly two worlds colliding.

And I had a new determination to start my master’s degree at the University of Philosophical Research in the fall. This way I can bring the fruits of transformational psychology to my writing and editing.

Now it’s your turn.

What’s your Journey to Story?

If you’re feeling stuck in your writing, why not try sketching out a simple Hero’s Journey or Seeker’s Quest with the key components as I did above. It doesn’t have to be a mega quest or a battle. You don’t have to emphasize the masculine components over more feminine ones. An internal creative tension is just as valid as an external war or physical fight. And you can do it all without leaving your house. Just try to match your experiences to the basic overview of the Hero’s Journey. And if it doesn’t? No worries.

Any Call to Adventure can get you started. Check out the resources at the Center for Story and Symbol if you need some guidance or inspiration. Mythology Teacher also has a good overview of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

But remember, you’re allowed detours on the way to your story.

Go ahead and start. How does your seeker’s quest begin?

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