When I was a little girl, I would sometimes hear a song on the radio that would repeat an eerie message, “Don’t pay the ferryman until he gets you to the other side.” I was almost afraid to listen to it, but I could not help myself. It evoked a dark curiosity in me, so I went to my eldest sister and asked her to explain it. “You know,” she said. The river Styx. You have to pay the ferryman to get across, like the Grim Reaper.”
I thought about it for a bit wondering things like, “But doesn’t the Grim Reaper appear when you die? What if you are just crossing the river? What if…?” and so on.
I don’t remember if I asked my sister any of those questions or not, but if I did, I know she would’ve had a slew of answers. Eventually, time dulled my interest in the subject and many, many years passed.
Fast forward decades later to my first marriage, when I was about twenty-seven years old and already felt a deep sense of inner fulfillment. I had embarked on many soul quests through travel, religion, activism, and education. I was deliberate in my intentions and chose to walk bravely onto the stage of creation often standing at the edge of uncertainty and jumping off.
Those cycles of adventures, those rhythms of risk, happened often in my time overseas. I thought I had found my home there, never believing I’d leave those lush green lands, but the pattern of me continued, and I eventually took a chance on returning to the United States nearly a decade later.
Within a brief time, I wound up in the fate of Eros, losing my grasp of will, and falling madly in love. I had experienced crushes on boys before and mind-altering infatuations, but I hadn’t fallen in love like that before; where the possibility of marriage was the only possibility because the covenant was already in our hearts.
I made my way blissfully to California as a giddy new bride ready to take on a brand-new life on the West coast. As a couple, we achieved the careers we’d worked so hard for and that also served our deepest convictions. We made good money, grew our finances together, and gave back through our work. We got out into nature as much as possible and had the freedom to pursue our artistic interests and love of travel on nights and weekends. We enjoyed spending time with thoughtful friends, and holidays with our families.
I used to turn to my husband and tell him I had to pinch myself to make sure it wasn’t all a dream. We’d grasp each other’s hands with humility, closing our eyes to exhale. We didn’t want to take our prosperity for granted and developed a nightly gratitude practice to give thanks for it all.
It all seemed so perfect for a time, but then it all unraveled into hell.
My dream as a little girl was to be a beautiful dancer and performer one day. I’d been a baton twirler since I was five marching boldly in parades with a tall, feathered hat, sequined boots, and a whistle. I loved the feeling of marching, staying in tune with the band, and stopping to wow the crowd with rhythmic gymnastics along small-town streets.
I was obsessed with the art of twirling refusing to put my baton down, even tossing it above my head as I lay in bed at night. It drove my sisters crazy, and they would often yell at me with aggravation, “Stop dancing and put your baton down!” but I couldn’t exhaust the energy of it.
I didn’t know why I liked baton twirling so much. Maybe it was the challenge. Maybe it was the feeling of achieving sudden breakthroughs like the thrill of catching throws behind my head and under my legs like a juggler, or maybe it was the rigor of practice. I don’t know exactly but I drank the marrow out of every bit of it until my thirst was quenched and a grateful sense of completion filled my heart.
By then, I was transitioning into the self-conscious, giggly girly days of teenagerhood, spending most of my time having friend dramas and spending hours on the phone. Madonna was my bad girl role model back then, thrusting herself onto the eighty’s music scene with her in-your-face audacity and utter command of her sexuality, talent, and style. She, along with Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, and others, were bringing a new era of dance to world, and the age of the backup dancer.
I delighted in watching all those music videos and concerts and took to dance easily so I replicated the choreographies I’d see, wowing imaginary crowds in my mind. I wished with all my heart that I could be a professional dancer and performer one day but had no idea how to make that possible. Life was moving fast and the expectations of going to college and graduating into a stable career were beckoning, so I followed that path.
I rationalized, or maybe strategized, that I could save my dream of becoming a professional dancer from dying by going to nightclubs as much as possible. The club scene in my small Welsh town was perfect for my late teens and early twenties. Each club had a different themed night, like Pop or Goth, and that guaranteed I’d be dancing at least four nights a week.
Sometimes on a whim, we’d catch a train to London to indulge ourselves in the raucous-glam underground clubs there. In the deep of the night, I’d jump up onto mirrored catwalks covered in thick white fog, dancing next to people in their underwear who were waving glow sticks. I loved those runaway nights of absolute freedom, but I eventually outgrew that scene as well, and settled into a life in London working as an apprentice in documentary films.
Fast forward several years later from my time in London, back to where this story began, in the honeymoon phase of my marriage. Those blissful days among the redwoods and wine country where I’d peacefully drift into sleep beneath the moonlit tree outside my window. It was there, on one of those tranquil evenings, that something very strange happened.
One night, as I was being lulled into sleep by the tree’s rocking branches, an image appeared in my mind. It floated towards me, transparent, like a distant reflection in the murky waters of an old well and sent a jolt of fear through me. I tried to catch my breath and pushed the image away before I could see it. Then I fell asleep.
Each time, it would stop me dead in my tracks, and I would gasp righting myself back to where I was.
My life carried on as it was for a time until one night as I was riding the mercurial edge of sleep, the image came to me again. I swallowed hard with a sense of dread, hastily pushing it away. ‘You mustn’t look!’ I warned myself clutching the side of the bed with my hand, ‘If you dare to look, it will unravel everything.’ I shivered and pushed the feeling away, rolling onto my side to stroke my husband’s arm, and to recount all the reasons why I was so lucky. I’d done a good job at keeping the image at bay until curiously, it started appearing as flashbacks from time to time while I was awake. Each time, it would stop me dead in my tracks, and I would gasp righting myself back to where I was.
Then, one fateful night, the image came again with another attempt at my attention. I could see its forgottenness emerging in the murky waters and resisted the urge to turn away. I laid very still, to ground myself deeply, and mustered up the courage to meet its haunting presence. With sullen acquiescence, I asked, ‘What are you?’
The image ominously rose to the surface slowly revealing a pumping human heart. It beat purposefully in front of a clay, dimly lit background inside a human chest. I braced myself continuing to look at its texture and noticed a dark spot on it. As I looked closer, I could see that the spot was a hole, an empty hole that had never been filled. My body sunk morose into the bed, and my eyes shut with sadness. With a pit of despair in my stomach, I rolled onto my side towards the tree but didn’t look at her. I let my pillow comfort my face and swallowed the lump of pain and regret in my throat; the same thing I did every time I saw a dancer on the stage or screen. I knew what the image meant.
It was a calling from my heart, that a deep empty hole remained there in the space unfulfilled by the dancer and performer I’d always wanted to be.
‘I don’t want to die like this,’ I said to myself with brutal honesty. ‘I don’t want to be on my death bed regretting that I was never the beautiful dancer and entertainer that I knew in my heart I could be.’
And then, the unraveling began.
Within a brief time, what I feared most started to happen. My marriage gave way to the cracks that may have always been there but that I hadn’t noticed. Soon, I went from feeling butterflies in my stomach, to feeling a wobbly nervousness there. Soon, I went from dancing around the apartment, to walking on eggshells. Soon, I went from anticipating our conversations with excitement, to suiting up in energetic armor to bear the onslaught of criticisms.