Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Acts of Surrender 10: The Valley of the Shadow of Death

An excerpt from Acts of Surrender, my memoir-in-progress.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil...
~ 23rd Psalm

"Like Abraham in Genesis, I willingly take the knife to what I hold most dear. God will either pull my hand back at the last minute or not."

On Saturday, I toured The Century, a deluxe, 42-story condominium tower just being completed in Century City, the former 20th Century Fox backlot redeveloped in the 1960s. Given what I wrote recently about my near-zero-point back account, you might think it odd that I was seriously checking out five- and six-million dollar luxury suites.

Yes, seriously.

Since my aha! a few weeks back, that urban Beverly Hills was calling me far more insistently than the suburban beach communities of Orange County, I had been on a quest: If L.A. expressed my heart’s desire, what might life there look like? To help answer the question, I made the 50-mile trek from Costa Mesa to the Beverly Hills area every couple of days. I drove around and walked around, trying to connect with what felt right.

There was no point restricting my search to what I could afford. Given the seizing up of my income flow that had occurred since before leaving Albuquerque, there was no place I could afford — in Los Angeles...or anywhere. How liberating! Truly, money was no object. The only criterion could be whether a particular street, house, apartment or condominium made my heart sing. It was an easy exercise in elimination: Most places didn’t feel good enough.

It was also an exercise in that wasn’t always quite so easy. As rents, sales prices, amenities and luxuries ballooned beyond my mind’s ability to grasp, I had to keep raising the barre on how I viewed myself.

Can I see myself living here?
Can I see myself belonging here?
Can I see myself deserving this?

Each experience stretched and pushed me. Each experience forced me to look deep within at who I was in that instant, who I had been in years past and who I thought Iwas choosing to be from that moment forward.

Then, one day last week, while browsing for condos online, I found The Century, a building I noticed when I’d happened through Century City the day before. Elliptical in shape, designed by renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern and soaring up gracefully from four acres of gardens, it was a stunning masterpiece of opulent living and pampered service. Anyone living there would have every need not only taken care of but anticipated, would be steeped in the kind of luxury that crooned, “You are worthy.”

Within 20 minutes of submitting the online form, I had a personal reply from a Beverly Hills realtor. It opened with the usual boilerplate, then concluded with this sentence: “As an aside, if you are the writer of the same name, I have a friend who is a lover of fantasy and adores your books!”

I was stunned. What were the odds of that!?

Three days later, I pulled up to the front door. The valet whisked my car away as the doorman greeted me with a warm smile. “Welcome to The Century, Mr. Gerson.” He opened the door and ushered me in.

Finally, I’d found a place I where I felt I belonged, a place that was good enough for me.

But was I good enough for it?

Both the realtor and the onsite sales rep certainly thought so, as they spent the next two hours touring me through more than a half-dozen three- and four-bedroom dwellings, none smaller than 3,500 square feet. For those two hours, to my surprise, I thought so, too. I was fully aware of what I liked and didn’t like, asked serious questions, and unhesitatingly acted from a place of potential ownership where cost was not an issue.

And it wasn’t...not because I didn’t have access to the necessary cash or credit but because in those hours I knew myself to be an infinite being in a universe of infinite possibility. From that place, why couldn’t I live there...if that was my desire?

My every-other-day drives up to L.A. were not only house-hunting expeditions. They were conscious exercises in planting my energy and creativity in the city I felt called to. Not only did I explore neighborhoods, I explored places to write. In the end, I generally finished my day at the Starbucks on North Beverly Drive, working either on this book or on my third draft of The StarQuest, the sequel to my fantasy novel, The MoonQuest.

When I left The Century on Saturday, I drove a block up to the Century Century mall for lunch. My wallet screamed, “Subway!” My consciousness insisted that such an act of scarcity-thinking would erase much of the activating benefit of my time at The Century. We compromised on Ummba Grill, an inexpensive Brazilian eatery that felt infinitely more abundant than the cheap sandwich chain.

I sat for a long time at my patio table at Ummba — absorbing the brazen ballsiness of my actions and uncertain what to do next. After the oasis of The Century, the Saturday shopping crush at the outdoor mall felt stifling. Nor was I ready to brave the high-octane buzz of Starbucks.

In the end, I wandered Avenue of the Stars, grateful that Century City’s main thoroughfare retreated into dormancy on weekends. There, I found 2000 Avenue of the Stars, a three-building architectural wonder surrounding a fine-art-like green space, again, mercifully deserted on a weekend.

For the next hour or so, I explored the building and grounds in an exhausting blend of overwhelm and integration.

Had I found the seat of my desire, residentially speaking? And if so, what was I do to next?

No idea.

At the same time, I was viscerally aware of the throbbing bustle beyond Avenue of the Stars’ unnatural stillness. The busyness felt claustrophobic and draining, even from a distance. Up close, when I finally made it to the North Beverly Starbucks, it felt suffocating. Instead of relaxing in one of my usual leather armchairs near the front door, I retreated to the very back of the café. Instead of hanging around for three or more hours, I was gone before a single hour had elapsed.

Monday morning would normally have been an L.A. day. But when I woke, it didn’t feel right to go. Exhaustion, I figured, and thought nothing more of it. I spent the day at the Newport Starbucks, writing about my upcoming birthday.

By Monday evening, however, something else seemed to be going on. It was as though all the energy that had built up over the years around me living in L.A. had evaporated. The idea of driving up to spend the day — any day — felt more than unpleasant. It felt wrong. The idea of living there felt more than wrong. It felt repellent.

“I think I’m done with L.A.,” I told Adam. “It’s as though all the reasons I thought I was being called to the city are either complete or they’re still playing out here, in the house with you. It’s as though once I toured The Century, with all it represented, L.A. was over.”

In that moment, I had no idea where I wanted to live or what I wanted to do with my life once I was there...or even until I got there.

“I guess I keep writing,” I said to Adam. “That’s the only thing that continues to make sense.”

At other times in my life, I’ve felt called to rigorously reevaluate every aspect of my life in order to determine whether it could continue with me on my journey. That evening, as Adam and I continued to talk, reevaluation no longer seemed appropriate. Instead, it was as though nothing could continue with me. This re-birthday I had just written about was showing up as an even more radical shedding than I could have imagined.

“It’s as though I’m grieving a life I’m leaving behind,” I wrote a few hours later in a moment of overpowering sadness. “It’s though I’m mourning the death of everything I’ve ever known and been. It’s though I’m stepping through a portal that leads beyond the end of the known world.”

Suddenly, I heard the 23rd Psalm playing in my head. “It’s as though I’m walking into the valley of the shadow of death,” I added.

It felt like a death — not of my ego, which can’t die if I’m still to function in the world, but of all the ways of doing and being that had preceded that moment. Some version of total detachment.

I barely slept that night. I wasn’t anxious or stressed. Sleep simply eluded me for much of the night.

On my way to Starbucks the next morning, I stopped at Los Trancos Canyon View Park on Newport Coast Drive. It sits high on a ridge, overlooking both the desert-y San Joaquin Hills and an endless Pacific vista. It’s a favorite quiet place and I rarely see anyone else there, despite the apparent hopefulness of its two dozen parking spaces.

As I stepped from the asphalt onto the park’s walking path, I saw four tomb-like steel panels set into the ground. I’d never noticed them before, especially the one that jumped out at me: It bore the letters RIP etched prominently into the metal. I didn’t at first notice the D that preceded them.

It was as though I was seeing my own grave, as though some higher power with a wicked sense of humor was confirming the death that had to occur before this weekend’s 56th birthday could trigger a rebirth I couldn’t yet imagine.

A few months back, I likened the stripping-away process one of my coaching clients was experiencing to a demolition that removes everything of a building but its skeletal structure. She was finding the process unnerving, and I reassured her that new walls, floors, ceilings, fittings and furnishings could only be installed once all the old ones had been shed. This is where I find myself today, in the most radical living death I’ve ever experienced — and I’ve experienced a fair number over the years.

Not surprisingly, this one has also been the least comfortable.

In Genesis, 10 chapters past the lech l’cha story I wrote about the other day, God tells Abraham he must offer up his only son, Isaac, as a live sacrifice. Abraham unquestioningly travels three days to Moriah, builds an altar there and binds Isaac to it. Only in the moment when Abraham is holding the knife to his son’s throat does God, through an angel, stay the execution, commend Abraham’s obedience and promise abundant blessings.

The way I see it, it’s not so much Abraham’s obedience that’s being praised. It’s his unconditional authenticity. By acting in a way that’s true to his deepest heart, regardless of what he thinks or of what the consequences might be, he’s expressing God’s will, which, ultimately, is the only will there is.

That hasn’t stopped me, in the past, from trying to throw my won’ts at God’s will. Fear of consequences has played a big role in my life. And if I’ve always surrendered in the end, I’ve often moved through much molasses-like resistance to get there. As well, my surrender hasn’t always been unconditional. It’s nearly always been predicated on the expectation of reward: If I do such-and-such, I’ll manifest money, love or success. Or I’ll be safe. Or I’ll “ascend,” whatever that means.

Or, like with Abraham and Isaac, the knife will be pulled away at the last minute and I’ll be spared the dreaded sacrifice.

Thing is, when that higher power we sometimes call God demands what feels like a “supreme sacrifice,” we never know whether his divine roulette wheel will stop at gotta do it or ha-ha just kidding. Moving toward obedience while hoping for a reprieve is neither authentic nor unconditional.

Nor do we know whether that “abundant blessing” will look blessed to our human mind. In God’s mind, all outcomes are blessed.

I haven’t been offered a shopping list of what goes and what stays. Rather, like Abraham, I’ve been told to stand by in readiness to sacrifice everything, including what I think I hold most dear. If that includes my perceived passions, so be it. If that includes friends and family, so be it. If that includes my own child, so be it.

I’ve already shed most of my material possessions. I’ve already let go my known means of financial support. Many of the ways I’ve viewed my world have hit the chopping block, with more falling away every day. Through today's writing, I’ve turned my back on my old definitions of reward.

There isn’t much left, other than what I believe to be at my core, which, in truth, is itself nothing but a facade covering my deepest essence, that place where I do more than know God and I to be one. I experience God and I as one.

And so I must allow the death process to continue, whatever the cost or consequences. My knife will either be pulled back at the last minute or not.

Is my L.A. story really done? Will I stay in the area but find a calmer landing strip outside Los Angeles County? Will I leave the crowded madness of Southern California for some version of the wide open spaces I recently left behind? Or will L.A. call me back once I have moved through this death and have found my way through the birth canal and back into life?

Suddenly, none of that matters anymore. Where I I live...with whom I live... These are meaningless mental calisthenics. All that matters is the journey of the moment...the journey of the heart...the journey that carries me through this death to the next rebirth, whatever that look likes, whatever the consequences.

There is no other choice. In fact, how can there be any choice at all when the only will is God’s?

Like Abraham, I willingly take the knife.

One postscript: As I wandered through the Newport park Tuesday morning, my eyes kept being drawn to the weather vane perched atop its tile-roofed gazebo. A cooling breeze was blowing in from the north on that unusually hot day. The arrow pointed south.

In the Taoist tradition, the southerly direction moves us from chaos to clarity. In Native American traditions, the south often represents fire, passion and heart. Wherever I’m going next — geographically, personally, professionally and it into a big-city condo, a rural cabin or some other destination I can’t yet imagine — south is clearly the way to go.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
~ 23rd Psalm

Adapted from Acts of Surrender: A Writer's Journey Beyond Faith, my memoir-in-progress. Please share as you feel called to. But please, also, include a link back to this post.

Previous excerpts:
April 28
July 30
August 25
September 1
September 9
September 10
September 12
September 24
September 27

If you're in the San Diego area, please join me at the Mind Body Spirit Expo at the Doubletree Mission Valley this Saturday, October 2. I'll be speaking at 2pm on Answering the Call to Write and will spend most of the rest of the day at the Lighted Bridge booth.

Photos by Mark David Gerson: #1 Oasis at 2000 Avenue of the Stars, Century City; #2 The Century, Century City; #3 2000 Avenue of the Stars, Century City; #4 Los Trancos Canyon View Park, Newport Beach, CA. Image of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac: Marc Chagall - Musée national Marc Chagall, Nice, France

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Acts of Surrender 7: The Heart of Desire

This excerpt from Acts of Surrender, my memoir-in-progress, is a present-day story, centered around 9/11 and the days leading up to it.

“What do you want?” Adam asked as we walked along Laguna’s West Beach. The surf was gentle that afternoon, pushing toward us with no urgency and with just enough roll for the lone surfer to find some easy action.

I didn’t answer. I’d been in Southern California for four weeks and this was only my second time on the beach. But I’d been spending regular writing time near the water, either here in Laguna or at what had become a favorite Starbucks, a few minutes up the coast in Newport Beach. I loved being down here and, since arriving at Adam’s, had made the hour-long drive up to the city only once. If Los Angeles had pulled me here, Laguna Beach was seducing me.

“I don’t know,” I said after a time. “When I’m in L.A. and feel the buzz of the city, that’s where I want to be. When I’m down here in Laguna, I don’t want to be anywhere else. It’s as though there are two parts of me competing for my future.”

We walked in silence. I had taken my shoes off, and the sand squished between my toes. At the asphalt path to the street, I brushed off my feet, put my flip-flops back on and started up the hill toward the tiny Camel Point subdivision at the top. I stopped halfway up and looked back. In the silence of that no-man’s land between sea and city, I heard my voice echo back at me from a few days’ earlier, when I’d come to this same place with Adam and his realtor, to look at a Camel Point home. It was an amazing property, modern in design, with ocean views from every room but one.

If I lived here, I heard myself repeat from that earlier visit, I’d never leave.

“Shit,” I said out loud.

“What?” Adam asked.

“It’s L.A. It has to be L.A.” I started to cry.

When the call to leave Albuquerque for Los Angeles began to crystallize earlier this year, I realized it was about leaving my years of retreat and stepping back into the world. My most recent Albuquerque home had eloquently symbolized aspects of that retreat. Although I saw clients and facilitated workshops there, it was perched at the very edge of the city, high in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, with nothing behind me but open space and mountain wilderness. I was living apart, as I had so often in the past. L.A., I sensed, would be about reinserting myself in the world — not as the world would have me, but as who I’d grown into.

My tears weren’t for Laguna Beach. They were for those parts of me that I was leaving behind, parts of me that wanted to stay in retreat but couldn’t, parts of me that I had outgrown. I was saying goodbye to what remained of the me-in-hiding, a me I could never be again.

If I chose Laguna, I’d be choosing the past. If I chose L.A., I would be stepping into my future...into fearlessness.

The next afternoon I drove into the city, with no set agenda other than to feel what it felt like to be there. As I raced up the 405, I kept glancing into the rearview mirror — not at traffic but at my new haircut. The old, fearful me would have put off dealing with my hair until some money had shown up. Had my hair grown too straggly to ignore, he would have settled for a SuperCuts-style walk-in. He never would have made a salon appointment.

I made a salon appointment.

It was the most expensive haircut I’d ever had...and the best. I felt great. I’d had an instant’s panic at the register, but it passed in a heartbeat. Now, the new-look me was driving to my new city, knowing only that I could no more settle for less than I knew I deserved in L.A. than I could for a second-rate haircut.

I didn’t know how it would all come together. I only knew that it would...that it would have to, not because I was afraid, but because I wasn’t.

I didn’t know how it would all come together. I only knew that it would...that it would have to, not because I was afraid, but because I wasn’t.

It was a new feeling — at the same time liberating and disorienting — and it carried me all the way through my apartment viewing at the resort-like Palazzo complex across from a favorite L.A. hangout, the outdoor Grove mall. I’d decided during the drive up that I would take a look at the Palazzo, without knowing precisely what lay behind its gates.

What will I say to the leasing agents? I wondered. After all, in that moment, both my finances and credit made it conventionally unlikely that I would be living there any time soon.

Convention be damned! I said out loud. I’ll tell them the truth, that it’s not about the size or type of unit. And it’s not about the cost. It’s about the feel of it. That’s all that matters.

When I drove away an hour later, I had one certainty: The Palazzo apartments weren’t good enough for me.

Again, it was a new feeling — acting as though money was not an issue and knowing with a certainty that surprised me with its ferocity that when the right place showed up, I’d know it. I’d know it and I’d be living there.

The “how” wasn’t part of my job description. My job was to declare my desire and act on it. The rest was up to God or Spirit or the Universe, all of which are only higher expressions of me, higher expressions eager to step fully into my soon as I step fully into theirs. Fearlessly.

“Act as though and make it so,” I’d written a few years earlier in the The Wisdom Keepers Training, a multimedia personal-growth manual I’d created. It was time to live that statement more baldly than I’d ever dared.

The haircut was a beginning. After all, as Adam had said to me the previous week when he’d sprung for a haircut at the same salon, “If I’m too scared to spend $40 on a haircut, why would the Universe give me a multimillion-dollar home?”


The next day was September 11. I would be back in L.A. for my daughter’s 11th birthday, and I planned some neighborhood reconnoitering on my own before joining Guinevere and her mother for the day’s festivities.

September 11 is about many things for many people. That’s the day, of course, when Al Qaeda terrorists forced a passenger plane to slam into New York’s World Trade Center. Many say that those emblematic towers should never have crumpled at the impact. That they did carries for me a significance even more earth-shattering than the tragic loss of life and property: An unexpected force took down established structures of order and convention, destroyed the indestructible and offered us an opportunity to look fearlessly at our own outmoded structures — inner and outer.

If, like the rest of the world in 2001, I was too shocked to see anything but the immediate horror, in the years since I’ve noticed that old constructs have often fallen away dramatically for me on September 11. In fact, in writing this book, I now see that 9/11 carried paradigm-altering significance for me even before the events of 2001. It was in 1997, as I’ve already written, that events triggered a move to Sedona that would knock down the bulwark of my identity. Two years later, in perhaps the ultimate life-changing event, my daughter was born.

On Saturday, that symbolic airplane smashed into both my professional and home life. In a flash as fiery and unexpected as that of any terrorist attack, my life as a writing coach and workshop facilitator collapsed in a smoldering heap. I knew that if I was to continue coaching and teaching, that the work would have to look different. My old structure, I now saw, carried traces of the fear-based codependency I was ejecting from my life. It had to come down. Any new structure would have to follow the same road beyond courage and surrender I was paving for myself.

Once again I felt liberated...and disoriented.

A personal 9/11 experience of radical evolution not suitable for the faint of heart...

(Although this is still evolving, I’m now looking to replace my current model of ongoing coaching sessions with one-time two-hour, half-day or full-day intensives: one-on-one consultations that would focus on life at least as much as they would on creativity: a personal 9/11 experience of radical evolution not suitable for the faint of heart.)

The other aha came as I drove through neighborhood after westside L.A. neighborhood that day, scouting for a place I’d like to live. Once again, money was not to be a deciding factor.

I was on a quest beyond the sensible and conventional. I was on a quest to discover the heart of my desire.

Sometimes, the heart of desire is transparently clear. Sometimes, it’s buried under years of convention, decades of disappointment and lifetimes of fear. Writing, for me, was such a hidden treasure, long invisible to a conscious mind paralyzed by fear. It’s been many years since that treasure was unearthed. But it took single moment in the run-up to my Albuquerque exodus for me to finally feel its significance.

I was on the phone with my friend Sander, at the tail end of a harrowing conversation during which I had finally agreed to give notice on my Albuquerque rental, despite not knowing how I could financially manage my L.A. move. (Sound familiar?)

“Take the rest of the day off,” Sander urged.

“No,” I said, “without thinking. “I think I’ll go to Starbucks to write.”

Sander argued with me, tried to convince me not to work.

“You don’t understand,” I countered. “Writing is the only thing that makes sense.” Then, to my surprise, I started to cry. I’d always known that writing lay at the heart of my desire. But it was an intellectual “knowing.” Until that moment, I’d never felt it. That same visceral response was waiting for me in Beverly Hills.

On my way back to Albuquerque in February, I stopped in Sedona for a night, to see Guinevere in a school play. That afternoon, her mom and I went for lunch at New Frontiers, the local health food store that’s as big an energy vortex as any of the town’s well-known red-rock formations. We were standing at the deli counter when we ran into Sao, a shamanic astrologer neither of us had seen since we were married.

After running through the same set of questions with Guinevere's mom, Sao turned to me.

“How old are you?”


“When’s your birthday?”

“October 3.”

He paused, staring into me.

“You’re entering into the most powerful period of your life,” he intoned. “Whatever you truly desire will be yours.” He paused again. “Start asking yourself this question: By the time you turn 57, who do you want in your life, what do you want to be doing in your life and where do you want to be living?”

To the first two parts of Sao’s question, I heard nothing. At “where do you want to be living,” I heard, with crystal clarity from somewhere deep inside me, Beverly Hills.

I was already planning my L.A. move and I had considered some areas of town I thought might be appealing. None was Beverly Hills. Not because of the cost. It just wasn’t on my conscious radar. I gave it more credence a few weeks later, back in Albuquerque. I was walking through a Target parking lot when I passed a silver Ford Escort bearing a faux California license plate under the grill. Instead of a license number was the name Beverly Hills.

Still, I didn’t know what to do with it. And when I did my 9/11 neighborhood meander, Beverly Hills wasn’t high on the travel agenda. Instead, I covered a swath of territory east of Beverly Hills, searching out, as I had vowed to do on my way to the Palazzo apartments, the feeling. I never found it.

Suddenly, on the eastern fringes of Beverly Hills, I was done. Although I'd made no discoveries, I had launched my exploration, and that felt good. Besides, it was lunchtime and I needed to get over to see Guinevere. I called to see if we could all get together for lunch.

“We’ve only just finished breakfast,” Aalia, her mom, said. “Why don’t you just grab a light bite for now. Guinevere will be hungry again in a few hours, and then we can have lunch.”

I figured fast food, then realized I wasn’t in a fast-food part of town.

I studied the map on my iPhone for inspiration. To my surprise, I had one: the Beverly Hills Whole Foods Market. I remembered it from a previous visit and knew it was only a mile or so away. Soup and a bread roll would be perfect.

As I walked into the store, I suddenly felt as though it was my Whole Foods, as though I shopped there all the time — a feeling I’d never had about Whole Foods in either Albuquerque or Santa Fe. I filed it away as curious and got my lunch. After lunch, I walked down the block to The Crescent Beverly Hills, a luxury apartment building I’d noticed from the car. A doorman smiled and opened the door. No leasing agents were on duty over the weekend, he told me, then scribbled a name and number for me to call on Monday. As I left, I experienced that same natural feeling I’d felt in the market.

Back in the car, I took North Crescent to Santa Monica Boulevard, and then North Beverly to westbound Wilshire for the 20-minute drive to Guinevere’s. Now, everything about the area felt normal, natural, home-like. I could see myself sitting in the Starbucks on North Beverly, working on this book. I could see myself on the patio of a Wilshire café, people-watching over lunch. There was a Twilight Zone quality to the experience that left my mind in a muddle.

A few minutes later, I had crossed the city line back into Los Angeles. I gazed at all the Westwood high-rise apartment towers and tried to imagine myself living there. I couldn’t. It was like forcing Cinderella’s glass slipper onto her stepsister’s foot. There was no way it could fit without causing discomfort and pain. In a flash, I was back at the New Frontiers deli counter, hearing “Beverly Hills” in response to Sao’s question. And just as quickly, I started to cry.

The quest was over. I had found the heart of my desire.

How would I realize that desire? There was only one way: to “act as though” and leave the rest in more capable hands.

Adapted from Acts of Surrender: A Writer's Journey of Faith, my memoir-in-progress. Please share as you feel called to. But please, also, include a link back to this post.

Previous excerpts were published here on July 30, August 25, September 1, September 9 and September 10.

Photos by Mark David Gerson: Laguna Beach, Sandia Mountains, the fountain at The Grove, California license plate. Other photos: source unknown.