The Year Joseph Campbell Hollered at Me (and I Chose My Destiny)

What do we do when life hands us a promising opportunity disguised as a messy, impossible obstacle? Fate is a tiny seed that lands upon our doorstep. Destiny is choosing to plant it. We can cower, stunned into inaction by the fear of the fact that life will change, but the truth is that life will change anyway. It will grow around us as we stand still. Our inaction should last only long enough to gather our necessary belongings and then we must be on our way. We must act swiftly or we risk not acting at all. Herein lies our strength, in our power to choose what comes next. And here truly is where we become most powerful because we become creators of our destiny, deciding to let fear overtake us or to rise into our own glory, perhaps albeit in fear, but to rise anyway.

I learned a thing or two about fear and choice, and fate and destiny, when 25 years after I decided to give up on my childhood dream, life handed me an opportunity I never saw coming. As a kid, I dreamed that one day, men in shiny gray suits and dark sunglasses would knock on my door explaining that they had heard about the young girl with the beautiful voice who lived there. They would whisk me away from my awful parents and all of my dreams would come true. But my parents weren’t awful, unless you consider affording me a Bachelors degree in education awful. Granted that it wasn’t my heart’s desire, but at least I could put food on the table, right? Fast forward to twenty-some odd years later. A Bachelors degree, a Masters degree, married to a successful airline pilot, 3 healthy children, a dog and a house in the suburbs. And somewhere underneath all of that, my childhood dream was dormant. I didn’t own a piano; I hadn’t sung in years, decades even. My dream lie buried — until that summer, the summer he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You have a beautiful voice.” He was the young organist from the local church that I attended, and that one sentence muttered quietly after mass one Sunday morning seemed to send off a ripple in the universe. And after that summer, I found myself at a crossroads of epic proportions.

“But I don’t sing,” I replied out loud, but in my heart, I yelled, I screamed, “Finally!” His response, “Yes you do. I can hear you from here.” Great. I’m THAT lady. The loud crooner at church. But I had always secretly hoped that one day THIS day would come. The day where a man in a shiny gray suit would hand me my golden ticket. I had always hoped for it, yearned for it. I just never expected that it would actually happen, and as the summer wore on, that man half my age made me question everything I had known about fate, faith, dreams and destiny. Is it possible that maybe, just maybe your dream, your prayer gets sent up to the heavens, bounces around the stars and the comets, and when the time is right, it gets boomeranged right back to you — signed, sealed, and delivered?

He solicited me: would I sing one solo piece for a special upcoming church service, and naturally I agreed. At a rehearsal one night, he asked if I believed that we were created with an intended purpose and that if we got off track from it, God or the universe or whatever divine source was out there would find a way to get us back on track. Did I believe such things were possible? He clearly had more time to think of such things than I did. I was a teacher and a mother of 3 elementary school-aged children; I didn’t have time to contemplate the marvels of the world. I thought about how to teach verb tenses and disguise vegetables so my kids would eat them. Did I believe we each had a purpose? “Yes,” I raged from inside and this singing, this music was mine, etched in my soul long before I was born, but I dare not say such things. Who was I to claim myself worthy of such refinements and dreams coming true? These were reserved for the elite, and I was not elite; I was common, the daughter of a peasant immigrant. How very small my world and my mind were back then. I told him that I was honestly not sure, and then this man undressed my soul with the words that came next, “This is yours.”

An understated, yet elegant performance for the Bishop that month, and then just like that, he was gone. Off to his senior year in college, leaving me baffled. What did he mean? I searched for answers in every book I could find from religion to psychology. I searched dogma from every faith and Bible verses galore. Who could I ask? If my Italian grandmother were still alive, she would know the answer to whether such things were even plausible. Was it really possible that I had whispered this dream to the gods long ago and just now they were making good on it? Suddenly people took notice of me, requesting me to sing, and a man from the congregation offered me a slip of paper — the number to the local recording studio. He said I was given a gift that I wasn’t using and I didn’t yet know who I was. How could this be? I’m a mother, a wife, and a school teacher. What more could there be? But somewhere in the recesses of my heart, I knew what he meant; I knew that there was more, that years ago, I had hidden this one small, yet prodigiously life-threatening part of myself where no one would ever find it.

And yet here I was some 25 years later with this chance opportunity. I could go back to the less complicated, sheltered life that I was accustomed to before I dared believe such things were even possible, or I could claim my new life by stepping forward into the unknown, planting the seed that had been delivered to me, and seeing where this new deliverance would take me.

I swear Joseph Campbell himself hollered at me that summer. “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” “You must be willing to give up the life you planned, in order to have the life that is waiting for you.” Enter the cave? Give up my life? I was afraid to even name the thing that most made me come alive. “I sing.” And what if I did? What would people say? Would anyone listen? Who did I think I was even suggesting that I’d try my hand at this, and moreover, that I even deserved my dream?

Oh how I cried. For hours, for days. The agony of what to do poured over me. If I even took one step forward, everything would change. Entire galaxies would feel the after-effect of my one small step. My life as I knew it, my sweet, comfortable, typical, suburban life, that everyone approved of and everyone applauded would be over.

And as I trepidatiously inched my way through that cave, giving up all that was familiar, I realized that my life as I had known it was over. My circle of friends changed, my job changed, my marriage ended. I began writing and recording my own music. All of it was different as a result of this one seemingly minor chance encounter at the church that summer.

In the fall of that fateful year, I was driving my youngest daughter, then 8, to karate practice, and she declared that she had a story to tell me, a daydream that she had had that afternoon in reading class. “Please don’t get mad at me for daydreaming,” she belayed. How could I, the starry eyed dreamer, be angry for that? And she continued, “I think that before you are born, God whispers in your soul what your purpose is, and then you come down from heaven and you are born into your family. And your grandfather wants you to run the family business, and your mother wants you to go to college, and you forget why you were made; you forget what God whispered to you. So you spend the first part of your life trying to remember, trying to hear that small voice so that you can do what God told you to do. And then when you finally remember, you have to listen, because, well, it’s God. You have to listen to Him.”

And then I knew. I knew that all of this happened to me because it was my fate to sing, to heal, to inspire, to live from my heart — in faith, not fear. It was my fate to meet people along the way who guided me and reminded me of who I am, but it was only in choosing it that I directed my destiny.

Four years later, my life is harder than it was before, more complicated, more uncertain, but it is more authentic this way, and more magical, more beautiful, more forgiving. And I wouldn’t change any part of it. I now realize that I live in a world where though I can’t control what comes my way, I can surely choose what I will do with it.

I never knew I had a choice until that summer when I learned that fear is the great thief of dreams, planting complacency, seeping into our pores, aggravating our decision-making into complete inertia. I learned that Universe hears every prayer, every plea, and every cry for help, and that I had the power to make impossible things possible.

Fate is a tiny seed. Destiny is choosing to plant it. On the precipice of releasing my 4th original album, I can say proudly, I planted mine. Oh the first album is terrible. A compilation of whatever befuddled junk came out of me, a veritable vomitous consortium of life lessons and sadness, for the life I almost didn’t live. But I did manage to write an orchestra score on that album. Sure I left out the entire woodwind section, and the trombones have a 57 measure rest, something I shouldn’t be proud of, but I am. What I overcame to get to this point was realizing that all along it was a choice to fulfill my heart’s desire. Every breath we take is a choosing.

And what I found by “entering that cave” is that at any point in our lives, the Universe might hand us an amazing opportunity disguised as an impossible obstacle, and our destiny is tied to what we choose to do with it. At any point in our lives, we can become more authentic and more powerful. All it takes is a little bit of courage to step out of our old story and into a new one.