I never intended to go onstage.
Just buying the plane tickets had been a gamble. In my early 40s, but I felt 80, and I could barely remember my former self. I’d developed a slew of chronic and progressive autoimmune diagnoses, including Rheumatoid Arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and hadn’t traveled in years.
Don’t worry, I tried not to talk about it.
If anything, I felt ashamed of all this illness and tried to hide it. I subscribed to stoic Montana culture, to cowboying up. One of my sisters also has RA, but unlike myself she has four kids to raise, and she does it beautifully, I might add. I’m certain her pain is worse, but she’d never tell.
I needed a new way to make a living and a contribution.
It seemed I could rally for short, deep conversations, especially if reclined in my pajamas, but I could barely muster the focus to write resumes, anymore. I wasn’t going to be able to keep it up much longer, so I’d invested all my money in a life coach training program.
In theory, I could coach over the phone, in bed, helping people without the tiring and technical homework of writing resumes. Plus, the program was led by a writer whose every published word felt written just for me: Harvard trained sociologist, life coach, and best-selling author, Dr. Martha Beck.
We were nearing completion of the 9-month course. Week in and week out, I had practiced transformative coaching tools over the phone with my study buddy, Kitty, and other members of our cohort. I’d been too ill to participate much in class, but Kitty and I had done our homework. While mastering the tools coaching each other around our real-life stuff, we’d developed a deep bond. And we’d never met. Our class meet ‘n’ greet would be held at San Luis Obispo.
The plan was simple. Sort of.
It would take three flights just to get there from Missoula, three more than I’d taken since I became sick. I knew the flights alone might do me in, but I couldn’t bear to miss out on one more thing. Not this thing. I wanted to meet Kitty, to experience Martha in real time and place, rather than awaiting her next book. And I wanted to revel in a room full of people who wanted to change the world. I had to go.
I’d sit in the back. If I got too sick, I’d duck out the door without disrupting the group. I planned to draw my energy inward, rest and listen and absorb. Kitty would sit near me and look out for me if I needed help back to the hotel room.
But instead, I was called to the front.
After lunch, a woman asked Martha something about past lives. We hadn’t discussed anything like this during the course. Julia spoke of her African ancestors, of being sent home from birth in a shoebox since she wasn’t expected to live. Some serious shit. People around me were crying. She was so raw. I was fascinated and, to be honest, repelled. I wasn’t sure what she was asking.
Martha put her finger on her forehead and said, “Julia, in your mind’s eye, do you know what you are called to do but you’re afraid to do it?”
And Julia touched the floor with both hands for an instant and wailed, “Yeeees!”
Past lives? Callings? Not one part of me could relate. I supposed some coaches’ clients might have secret callings and face past life stuff, but mine didn’t. My clients wanted support with career transitions and difficult choices, but they never came to me with this kind of talk.
I took notes on what Martha did next (just in case they ever did). But I burned with the more relevant question to me: What if Julia had said, “No”? What if Julia didn’t know her calling? How would Martha have coached her? How might I coach my own client looking for purpose?
Luckily a woman with long multihued locks asked that very question.
I must have blacked out.
Somehow, I missed Martha’s answer! My pen was poised, but she’d moved on to answer several other questions from the room. It seemed the moment was lost. The topic had shifted.
I couldn’t stand it. Almost without realizing, I raised my hand. Kitty raised her eyebrows. The microphone runner loped my way. I stood up.
“Rainbow Unicorn over there (I gestured toward her colorful tresses) asked what you’d have said if Julia had answered, ‘No,’ to your question about calling. I didn’t catch your answer. Would you mind repeating it?”
Rainbow Unicorn? I didn’t even know that woman, how rude I’d been! And how had I missed Martha’s answer in the first place?
Martha put her finger to her forehead, once again.
“Do you have a calling?” “No,” I answered. Obviously.
All at once, I yearned to be called. I craved Julia’s knowing, to feel chosen because I defied my shoebox birth or received images from past lives. I wanted to sense a secret calling even if it might be terrifying.
But nothing like that had happened to me. No instructions boomed from angels or gods or Gandalf. No singular focus, skill, or recurring dream indicated I was destined to be an astronaut or nun or doctor. Nope, no calling here.
I awaited Martha’s answer, a consolation prize for the uncalled. She’d know an exercise to help me craft a sense of purpose even though one hadn’t been predetermined. I clicked my pen and held it to my notepad.
“Come on up here.”
Wait, what? I blinked. Kitty smiled. And I made my way to the stage, wincing inside with each painful step. What about my plan to conserve energy, to stay in the shadows? Forget that. I needed to know my calling.