"You're Robin Rice?" the young, dark-haired woman asked me. We were in line, signing in for an open mike poetry reading at the local bookstore. I'm not exactly a household name, but as I am an author, some people know of my work. Given my own "off" mood, I was prepared to put on a polite smile. One look into this young woman's deeply troubled face and I knew this was not the tack to take. You don't have to be psychic to know what that kind of face means. You only have to have been there yourself. This woman-child was on the edge of her own life, and looming toward a jump.
"Yes," I answered.
"I hear you know something about depression," she said, looking at me with both need and suspicion. Her name was Julie, and, as it turned out, her mother knew someone who knew someone else who had been depressed and come to me for mentoring. I've always been willing to share my story about overcoming 25 years of recurring depression, but this night I didn't have much to give. It was tempting to hand her my card, tell her to give me a call.
Something inside said, Talk to her. Now. Tomorrow may not come.
We both had our hot drinks, and our names were well down the list for performing our poems. We agreed to move to two comfy chairs and relative solitude. An eerie feeling came over me, as if everyone else in the store had disappeared. It was just me, Julie, and a lot of books.
Visions of my little brother, Ricky, flashed in front of my eyes. He had been where Julie was when he was 18 years old. I hadn't lived close enough to see the desperation in his eyes, and it was still hard to admit I had not heard it in his voice on the phone only days before his suicide.
My body trembled. Something in this encounter was beginning to feel like a possible redemption. Even though my life was already devoted to helping others, this felt different. This was youth in its prime and beauty, yet with no vision, no sense of the value in living, no future to walk towards. I did not know how to address such a travesty. I could only hope my best would be enough.
"You must be willing to recover your soul," I said.
She looked at me blankly. I decided to start again. "If you want to live a soulful life, which is the only way I know to truly relieve depression, you must be willing to be who you really are-to look at the world through different eyes than the ones you've been trained to use your whole life. You must be willing to drop to a deeper level of existence, a level that is pleading to you through the worst of your days, asking you to listen to it. You must be willing to look for the legend that is trying to be told within your own life." I took another deep breath, surprised at the lofty nature of my own words, but unwilling to tone them down. Something was unraveling in me. It was going to have its say.
"To live a soulful life, you must be willing to not fit in. Because if you are this deeply hurt by life at this young an age, you don't fit in. You never will, at least not in the usual ways. I'm sorry if that disappoints you, but we might as well be honest. What the surface level of life is selling you will never satisfy your kind. But that's okay. It's never satisfied a lot of the most amazing people that have ever lived."
Julie pulled a small notebook out of her purse and began writing. It encouraged me to go on.
"To live a soulful life, you must be willing to stand alone, up against what everyone and everything in our society tells you is right for you, and ask what your heart wants, what your very being desires. You have to be willing to love who you really love, not who you are supposed to love."
I shifted toward her, lowering my voice to deliver the greatest of secrets. "Let me tell you something. When people come to see me, I ask them who and what really turns them on, what calls them to their depths. Most often, they say they don't know. But I don't buy it. They do know. It is just that their answers are not on the "good for you" or "easily attainable" list. Or, they don't know how to get what they truly love without losing something else they think is their life depends on. So they've shoved what they love into a closet and often forgotten it entirely.
"These loves are really callings. They are the are pearls of great price we must travel to the ends of the earth for. But very few among us talk about that heroic journey anymore, so very few actually embark on one. If you want a soulful life, you must be willing to listen for that call, and follow it whatever the cost."
I saw a light sparkle in Julie's eye. I could see her rummaging through her memories, then finding something of worth. I didn't need to know what she found. I trusted it, whatever it was.
"To live a soulful life, you must be willing to encounter obstacles. We live in an age where people think that the smooth road is a sign they are on the right road-that if God has called you to something, but barriers arise, then either you have been abandoned or you must have gotten the call wrong in the first place. It's not so. These very barriers are also the hand of God, preparing you to receive the bounty. You would not be wise enough to keep what you find otherwise. It's worked this way throughout history and in every corner of the world. Every modern invention we have will not change those rules. Just ask Joseph Campbell, one of my closest personal friends."
"I thought he was dead," Julie remarked, surprising me that she knew of him at all.
"His body is," I admitted. "But his soul lives on, here in this bookstore and countless personal and public libraries across the world. To live a soulful life, you must be willing to make friends with your kind of people in whatever way you can."
"I never meet my kind of people," she said, her eyes flashing with both profound sadness and fresh-cut anger.
"That's my point. I don't meet them very often either. But they can be found here," I said, pointing toward the vast array of books along the shelves. "David Whyte is one of my greatest soul supports, though I've never met him. Annie Dillard, too. And Arnie Mindell and Thomas Moore and Rilke and Kipling and Krishnamurti. I tell you, Lao-Tzu and all his translators often keep me company late at night, when the 3 AM witching hour strikes me dead awake in an empty house. I don't have to have tea with them to feel their presence, to not feel so alone. They are my people. Time and space matter little to the soul."
Julie sighed. I knew she wanted better than that. I often do, too. But life is what it is. Real hands to hold are not always available.
"And speaking of that 3 AM witching hour," I continued, "to live a soulful life, you must be willing to make it your friend. I always say, nobody soul searches on a good day. And the night terrors that come and magnify your every fear visit for a reason. Don't push them away. Listen to them. They can tell you things about your deepest self you won't hear in the daytime." Julie kept writing, her hand moving as fast as I've seen a hand move over the page. If anyone else was listening, I didn't know and didn't care. Something was speaking from my depths, and I was not about to stop it from coming through. Whether it was helping my young friend or not, I needed to hear what I was saying.
"To live a soulful life, you must be willing to look at your choices carefully. To notice when you choose too much or not enough. When you want to go left but you go right. When you want to act but don't, or don't want to act but do. You must see when you sabotage your own soul's longings, and when you indulge to the point it harms you. You must look squarely at your addictions and notice what happens when they are denied. If you can do this, just look clearly and honestly-what the Masters would call Becoming The Witness-you won't have to do much more. Like turning your car in the direction of a skid, the looking itself initiates the balance that is being sought.
"To live a soulful life, you must be willing to pull yourself away from the herd that is our mass culture, to turn off the messages thrown at you both in television shows and in the commercials between them. Their mandate is to tell you who you are, and who you want to be, and how to get there...which of course is to buy something that can never bring you to a soulful existence. They want you to be a consumer, and consumers don't have souls."
Julie shifted in her seat. I could see the idea of turning of the TV was a little too much for my young companion.
"Remember, I'm suggesting you must be willing to follow these suggestions. When you are depressed, actually following them may be beyond your capacity. But being willing, it can happen of its own accord, in time. With willingness, the gods have a road on which to move you. You might have to wait a while, but by simply being willing, or even by being willing to become willing, the journey is begun."
For what seemed an endless time, I mused aloud with Julie taking notes. I spoke of strength and virtue, alienation and death, beauty and longing. I spoke of offering the imperfect offering, how nature models the way for us, and how the wars of the world speak to the wars within. Whenever I needed a quote from one of my close personal friends, I found the very book waiting on a shelf and a uncannily keen memory of what words were where. A great stack of books grew. I secretly hoped Julie would take home one or two-something to hold her through the night.
Finally, and all of a sudden, I was spent. I had said all I knew to say. As if on cue, my name was called from a distance. The bookstore slammed back into reality. I moved to the mike to read the only poem of my own that my spent brain could remember:
You cannot keep to plans that are big.
You can only keep to plans that are small
staying very focused, very certain
very sure you are being honorable
to your word.
To live a big life you can only go
where the way opens like a weaver
not knowing what she weaves
tying knots when the thread runs out wherever that may be,
and starting again
with whatever new thread is at hand.
From this side of a future
with no plans
it seems impossible
you are weaving anything of value at all.
Yet all of the big weavers
the true artists, will tell you this:
On the other side of your days you will see
the other side of your tapestry.
all that was random will reveal itself
as supremely inspired, orchestrated
from a greater place, a stronger hand
than your smaller, planning self
could have imagined
let alone dared.
From this vantage point your heart
will swell and your eyes
will tear and your center
will grow strong so that you feel yourself
planted as solid as a many-seasoned tree.
In this other-side gaze you will finally know
with utter certainty that Divinity was as big
as you allowed It to be.
When I looked up, I saw Julie at the door, offering a small smile and an abbreviated wave. Beyond her, where we were sitting, I saw she'd left every book I suggested, and even her own notebook. The host of the open mike called her name next, speaking it again and again. With each "Julie? Julie?" I felt a crushing sense of failure, as if Ricky had come to give me another chance, and I'd blown it. That is, until I leafed through Julie's notebook. Inside, she'd written virtually everything I'd said. The only words she offered of her own were these: "Robin, share with others."
To this day, I don't know what happened to Julie. I don't know if she lived or died or something in between. But I myself was lifted that night, and pointed again in the direction of my own soul's recovery. So much so, I've at times wondered if Julie was a desperate young girl at all, or Something More appearing-as Something More so often does-in disguise.
NOTE: This article first appeared in Natural Beauty and Health Magazine.