“Trina takes her paints and her threads
And she weaves a pattern all her own.
Annie bakes her cakes and her breads
And she gathers flowers for her home.
For her home she gathers flowers,
And Estrella, dear companion,
Colors up the sunshine hours
Pouring music down the canyon.
Coloring the sunshine hours
They are the ladies of the canyon.”
- Joni Mitchell, Ladies of the Canyon
When I first heard Ladies of the Canyon, I was enraptured. I’d long held a fascination of Laurel Canyon and its bohemian bourgeois inclinations, and listening to Joni sing about her friends was like escaping into a daydream.
Joni paints a portrait of her ladies, free women full of earthy talents, and it is beautiful because it is real. She is famous and they are unknown. She captures their genuine moments of beauty in song, to show us all the joy that can be found in the humble activities of ordinary life. She knows them intimately, and so she can share with us their authenticity.
The ladies of the canyon likely would have been Instagram stars today. Trina posting photos of her perfect decor, Annie running a food blog, and Estrella commanding the hashtag “freespirit”. Would they have lost some of their realness in the endless effort to promote themselves online? Was their magic created by an unconscious authenticity that is lost when it tries to describe itself?
If my personal experience is any indication, then the answer is likely “yes”. Over and over in my life, in an effort to gain popularity, I’ve manufactured a fake persona for myself. Instead of gravitating towards those who share my interests and values, I have, at times, been drawn to people who seem to have a strong sense of self. Rather than develop my own, I’ve mimicked theirs.
I did not necessarily admire these people, but rather, I believed that they knew the secret to being loved, successful, and fulfilled. I didn’t so much want to be like them as I ached to have what I thought they had.
For me, as for many, the desire to be popular started in junior high school, when I began a six year campaign to gain the good graces of a pack of mean girls who manufactured their popularity with unyielding marketing campaigns. They clearly identified the members of their group and engaged in shameless propaganda announcing their superiority. We all fell for it, repeating their claims and electing them queens, without ever even knowing them.
By the time I was a senior in high school, my exhaustive efforts had been rewarded. I’d entered the periphery of their graces just enough to be thought of as an acquaintance. But theirs was only phony friendship, and I graduated with just two real friends.
This pattern repeated throughout my early adulthood. Finding myself in a new social setting, I immediately identified the power players and determined who they wanted me to be, so that I could be one of them.
Fortunately, after settling in Austin, I developed true and genuine relationships with a group of women who embraced each other in unconditional friendship.
Later in life, after moving to a new town, I got involved in sales. Without experience, I turned to several “successful” mentors to learn how to excel at my new craft. I signed up for free webinars and workbooks, all promising overnight success. These instant trainings placed a far greater emphasis on appearing to be an expert than developing actual expertise.
It took me years to realize that I’d been caught in the old pattern of my youth, investing time and energy into becoming a manufactured type of popular. It had worked, but once again, my popularity was based on gaining acceptance rather than sharing my true nature.
I’d lost my way and was completely disconnected from my “real” self. A friendship that was very important to me crashed and burned because, being based on inauthenticity, it was unable to survive a minor conflict. I desperately drove a failing romance into total destruction by following a flurry of self-help directives. I went into debt while visualizing “abundance” on the path ahead.
I was ashamed and embarrassed by who I had become, so I disappeared. No one came looking for me.
Returning to my hometown of Austin, my connections to my old friends began to re-emerge. These loyal women coaxed me out of panic attacks, drank pints (okay, gallons) of whiskey with me, and texted into the wee hours, keeping me company in the wake of intense heartache and loneliness.
James Baldwin wrote that “love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within”. It was with my friends’ loyal support, along with my meditation practice, that I was able to remove the mask I’d been wearing and begin rebuilding myself from the inside out.
The other night, I walked over to a friend’s house to borrow a cup of sugar for my roommate, who was baking a cake. Fireflies danced as I walked past wildflowers and the smell of incense hung in the air. Our neighborhood is full of artists and makers who fill their yards with sculptures, wind chimes, vegetable gardens, and music.
As I walked back to my house under a darkening sky, carrying a measuring cup of sugar, I was filled with gratitude that I’m living a life I once dreamt of, with people like the ones who lived in that magical canyon.
Better yet, I have finally learned to share my real life with others, unafraid of what they may think of it. I am popular with the right people. The people that like me in real life, as I really am, standing witness to my most intimate, private moments and deciding that I am still worth loving.
Check out my last story, “Advice for the Broken Hearted”, on Medium.