Many of us struggle to find our calling. What are we meant to do with our lives? The Elemental Journey Series is a set of four literary novels, Earth, Air, Fire, Water. Each follows protagonist Pearl Swinton as she goes on a heroine’s journey in search of self in a world rocked by climate change and global violence. Pearl’s journey parallels my own experience of finding my path as artist and novelist. In this blog, I’ll explore my process in hopes that both my novels and this blog inspire others on their journey.
It’s the year 1993. I am living in London and working as a journalist, freelancing for publications like The Observer and healthcare magazines. I have just finished a story with a journalist friend, Nick, that took six months of unpaid investigative work. It’s about the abuse of severely handicapped kids in care in government-run facilities across the UK. When the abusers are caught in the act, they’re simply shuffled to another facility. Nick and I have driven around the country. We’ve interviewed mothers who have sobbed at our feet. We’ve met government workers in sunglasses, whispering on sidewalks. We’ve done our research. For a while, a BBC documentary-maker is interested. In the end, though, our six months of work appears simply as a small article in The Observer. But this one article opens the door. Many other journalists pick up the story and run with it. It becomes a thing. The thing becomes a movement. Finally, government policy is changed.
Nick and I split the $250 paycheck.
Afterwards, I started having panic attacks. I’d be on the Northern Line on the way back home to Clapham and all the noise and smells would overwhelm me. I couldn’t breathe. I thought my head would explode. I’d have to get off at the next stop and sit on a bench on the platform and wait. I’d watch train after train go by, still unable to get back on. I’d put my head between my knees, and look up every once in a while to watch the clock so I wouldn’t miss the last train.
I waited to be able to breathe.
At the same time, my husband and I were planning to move to San Francisco. We’d met while living in Tokyo, where he worked as a teacher and I as a journalist. We’d traveled for nearly a year through Southeast Asia. We’d been living in London for a few years. He wasn’t a fan of the UK. The class system weighed on him. The way he was viewed because of his class brought him to depression. I told him about the panic attacks in a hushed voice. I pretended to look for a therapist, but I wasn’t into therapy then. I didn’t want it to steal my passion.
Two weeks before our flight to San Fran, my husband and I put all of our possessions on a boat to America, and moved in with Nick, sleeping on the living room floor of his council flat. I remember lying on the couch one day, looking at my husband. He was going off to do a gig somewhere — he played saxophone. He said to me as I was lying there: “You look so sad.”
I knew at that moment looking at him that I could not go to San Fran with him. We’d end up at first living with my sister, the severe alcoholic, and I just knew I would be sucked hard back into my brutally dysfunctional family dynamics.
I knew I had to get off the train here. I knew it was horrible timing, but I knew if I got on that plane to America in a few days time, I would lose myself; I would lose what little of myself I still had ownership of.
And so we broke up. And it was just horrible. Just the most awful time of my life. And I’d like to say I’m sorry, to him, to me, to the whole mess.
So, this was my Call to a new life. But lest you think a Call to change your life is only negative, let me explain that the actual Call came a few years earlier, as I sat on a rock by a river at the base of Annapurna in the Himalayas. My husband and I were trekking the mountains for 3 weeks on our trip through Southeast Asia. He’d brought his flute because the sax was too heavy to carry. It was a crisp, clear, heady day — we were both on a mountain high. In front of us stood the stark outline of the mountain, whose name means nourishment. He played the flute toward the white peak. I sat cross-legged on the flat rock jutting into the river.
How many of us deep in our souls know we are destined for great things? I felt this sitting on that rock, this destiny that had yet to be fulfilled. I knew since I was little that my soul was meant for something of great importance.
I heard the mountain or the air or the water or the music, I wasn’t sure which, call to me. “It’s time,” the voice said. “It’s time.”
“I’m ready,” I whispered, eyes closed, putting my face back and feeling the cold spray of the river. “I am ready.” (I write about this moment in fictionalized form in FIRE, the third novel in the series.)
“I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.”
I knew in London with the panic attacks, with the heart-wrenching divorce, that all my actions had to do with that one moment in the Himalayas. I knew I was clearing the decks. I knew something big awaited me. I could feel it. I did not know what that Calling was, and I did not, know, how utterly shattering following it would turn out to be.
For the next few blogs, I will continue this story of the Call. This story will include my Refusal of the Call. In fact, the titles of the blogs will swing between the Call, and again my Refusal to the Call, the Call again, and again my Refusal. For many of us this back and forth goes on for years until we finally acquiesce to our purpose.