This was the late, great Maya Angelou's last tweet. I found this a few days ago when I was preparing my speech for the Victoria Sparkfly women's event on the topic of "Following Your Instincts". Boy, did it ever resonate.
For me, the terms "God", "instinct" and "gut" are interchangeable. Personally, I think of these things as my "little voice" - that spark of the divine that is both inside and outside myself and which speaks to me, if I only listen.
My little voice can guide me about any variety of things; a relationship, a work situation, a conflict, health, life, the act of creation…
The theme of My Grape Escape is about a turning point in my life when my little voice was sick of being ignored and, as a result, started to yell. Here is the excerpt that I read at my speech last night:
“They will want to interview you,” he added. “You must return to Oxford immediately.”
I twisted the black phone cord around my wrist. Back to Oxford? Now?
“Are you still on the line Laura?”
Stone walls flashed through my mind beside polished flagstones and a centuries old wooden statue of the Virgin Mary.
“Non,” I whispered.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Non.” It came out in French again, louder this time, and sounded like the response of an impetuous five-year-old who had just been ordered to give back the bonbon she had stolen from her brother.
“But I can hear you. You must still be on the line.”
“I meant the Master’s program.”
A pause of disbelief. “You mustn’t worry about it not being fair tactics, you know. That is simply the way - ”
“No!” It came out in clear English this time and louder still. We were both stunned into silence for a few seconds.
He spoke first.“I simply don’t understand,” he admitted, peevish.
“I…I appreciate your offer,” I stumbled over my words. “I really do. It’s just that…maybe that Criminal paper is a sign that I’m not meant to do the Master’s program after all.”
“Nonsense! You mustn’t undersell yourself. You must know by now that one thing we value above all at Oxford is self-confidence. It is imperative that you believe in yourself Laura. You will never get ahead otherwise.”
Did I still want to get ahead, Oxford style? That was the question. What I really wanted was to watch the clouds float by and make toilet paper roll dolls and wake up in my own little house in France.
“I’m not certain I want to get ahead anymore,” I said.
I knew that in his Oxford office Mr. Partridge was shaking his head in disbelief.
“Laura,” he began, his voice soothing now. “I believe that perhaps the pressure has affected your judgment. I suggest that you take a day or two to think things over. Not any longer than that, mind. If we are to be successful we must start campaigning as soon as possible.”
Telling an Oxford student that the pressure had got to them was just about the worst form of insult. A month ago I would have done almost anything to prove Mr. Partridge wrong, but now…
“Thank you for the offer,” I said. “I appreciate your efforts. Truly. But I believe I’m coming to the conclusion that perhaps law isn’t for me after all.”
“Did you get accepted to a Master’s program somewhere else?” he demanded.
“I didn’t even apply anywhere else.”
“Then what on earth are you going to do?”
I turned this question over in my mind for a good while. “I have no idea,” I said, at last. Part of me vibrated in panic while the other half soared with relief.”
Where did that "non!" come from? When I was waiting to receive that phone call from Mr. Partridge I had every intention of doing anything in my power to gain admission into the Master's program at Oxford and continue working towards a prestigious career in law.
That "non" had actually been there the whole way through my law degree, but because I was constantly pushing my truth aside, it manifested itself in anxiety and panic attacks.
Why is letting ourselves hear and be guided by our little voice so scary?
Do not underestimate the forces that would label our instincts wrong, stupid, illogical, unreasonable, or - maybe the most damning for us women - selfish.
Here is another quote from Maya Angelou: "If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be."
Many of us are brought up in a society that teaches us to care very deeply about other people's opinions of us. We are taught that our identity is not forged inside ourselves by becoming the most authentic, honest version of our souls, but rather by what other people think of us.
This image-centered approach to life teaches us that certain things are important; prestige, money, whether other people find us attractive, and - the most insidious of all in my humble opinion - appearing to have everything "under control".
This was the mindset that led me to my law degree after four blissful undergraduate years studying English and French Literature, and continued to exert pressure on me to continue with my legal career. On the flip side were my anxiety and panic attacks telling me that continuing to study law was killing off my soul by tiny increments, until it finally yelled at me with that decisive "non!"
As Maya Angelou wisely (of course) said, "You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody." Think about the wisdom contained in those two short sentences.
When I get lost in the maze of other people's expectations, I always remind myself of one thing. From the minute I found out I was pregnant, each time, I loved my unborn daughters totally and unconditionally. I loved them when they were no bigger than a grain of rice. I didn’t love them because they had been selected to be on the gold soccer team, or won any awards, or astounded me with their beauty. I loved them without even knowing who they were exactly or what they would do in life. What I fell in love with mere seconds after seeing the double lines on the pregnancy pee stick was them - their essential selves.
We need to turn this self-love on ourselves for a change. We were once that grain of rice – we have always been that unique soul - nothing we can do or say or accomplish can add to or take away from this innate worthiness.
As those of you who read My Grape Escape or rented one of our vacation rentals in Burgundy will know, I listened to that non! and definitively turned my back on law. The process wasn’t pretty or tidy. I floundered for several months, unsure of my choices, but the universe somehow provided Franck and I with the opportunity to buy and renovate old houses in Burgundy and turn them into vacation rentals. It was the perfect gig for us.
How do you know when your little voice is talking to you?
STOP. WAIT. LISTEN. Meditation is great training for this and teaches us how to be mindful of what we are feeling and thinking. It also shows us how to stay with those emotions long enough to learn from them.
Also, if what your gut is telling you is crazy, you can be pretty certain that it is your little voice speaking. Little voices rarely say things like "clean the toilet bowl more often" or "pick a job based on the pension plan." Instinct is not logical or practical. It is never driven by fear. It does not care for appearances or money. It cares about one thing only - authenticity.
My French girlfriends are always confused by the North American obsession with reinvention. Go and scan the women's magazines at any North American store and you will be bombarded with a hundred variations of the headline "The New You!". They find this truly bizarre, as isn’t our life's work not becoming someone else, but rather becoming the truest version of ourselves?
Saying "non!" to the law was my first turning point, the second was my diagnosis with an incurable auto-immune liver disease called PSC (for all the gory details, check out this recent post) on the brink of my 40th Birthday. There it was, my midlife crisis on a platter.
Recently I heard the most brilliant definition of a mid-life crisis - "When the person you TRULY are kills off the person you THINK you are."
With my PSC diagnosis came an overwhelming knowledge of my own mortality. Suddenly everything inauthentic in my life just fell away. I sat down at my computer and for the first time in my life I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.
The reasons that had been preventing me from writing up until then were still there and just as logical as ever; I was probably no good, the majority of writers didn’t make any money, it was selfish to spend my time doing something that might never amount to anything…
Still, I wrote. I realized that even if someone told me that I would never earn a single cent from my writing, it is still what I would spend my time doing. I had to write and share what I wrote. My little voice brooked no excuses. .
I finished My Grape Escape in a year. Several agents were interested in the manuscript, but all of them wanted me to remove any mention of my struggles with anxiety and panic attacks. The prevailing opinion was that the readership of Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence" could simply not handle such emotional messiness.
I thought about removing that aspect of my book, but my instinct spoke to me loud and clear. Without my anxiety struggles, the story would no longer be my story.
So, in a few short months and with the generous help of friends I learned how to self-publish. When I published My Grape Escape in November my book shot right to the top of the Amazon bestseller charts for "France" and "Travel" and has stayed near the top ever since. Sales continue strong. None of this matters though, compared to the fact that the “rightness” of writing and sharing my writing with others gets stronger every day.
In my experience, the instructions of my instinct that always provoked the greatest resistance from me were creative endeavors.
In his brilliant little book "The War of Art" that invites all of us to become creative warriors, Steven Pressfield writes "The more important an activity is to your soul's evolution, the more resistance you will feel to it - the more fear you will feel."
Creation is generally not valued by our society unless it is financially successful. Also, creating, as Steven Pressfield argues, is just damn hard work. Creating something out of nothing is one of the most difficult things we as humans can do, yet it is also one of the most magical.
If your instinct is telling you to create or change or start something, listen. The world needs you - the real you.
I will finish this off with a free-writing prompt I created for the topic of "Following Your Instinct" and used at my speech.
Don't be scared! Just take a piece of paper and any writing utensil - ballpoint pen or better yet a freshly sharpened pencil because who doesn’t love the smell of those?
The goal with this writing exercise is simply to fill up as much paper as you can with writing in ten minutes - a measly ten minutes - and to keep your pen or pencil moving as much as humanly possible. There is no wrong way of doing this (except to leave a blank page). Even if you fill the page with "Blah, blah, blah, I have no idea what to write..." that is perfectly OK.
Before you press "go" on your timer, take a moment to muzzle your internal editor / critic (who, let's face it, is a bit of a bitch). Ignore her and just download whatever floats through your brain directly onto the paper.
Ready? OK. Set your timers. Here is your prompt:
MY LITTLE VOICE IS CRAZY BECAUSE IT IS TELLING ME TO...
Tick, tick, tick.....Done?
First, congratulations. You just created something out of nothing. You, my friend, are a little bit magic?
Second, fold up that paper, tuck it away somewhere safe, and wait until tomorrow.
Tomorrow, carve ten minutes out of your day to lock yourself somewhere quiet. If you are a parent, I recommend a LOCKED bathroom and the excuse of "stomach issues". Unfold your paper. Read it. Reflect on what may be there to teach you.
Can you hear your little voice? You may have just heard God speaking.