Destiny, boys, and men

How I failed to meet my Destiny

As I was washing dishes in my teens one day, I looked out the window and “saw” a joyful little girl on a swing, her pigtails flying behind her. Perhaps, I thought, this was a visitation from a child I will have someday. I named her Destiny and thought of her often through the years.

I always wanted children, but married a man who didn’t, and it took us years to come to a compromise. He finally agreed that we could have one (and only one) child if I could conceive it without the aid of fertility drugs or in-vitro fertilization. In spite of the fact that I was in my late 30s, I conceived easily. But I knew in that intuitive way mothers often do that this baby was a boy. Since I had only one chance at motherhood, that meant I would never meet my Destiny.

Over time, however, the baby I carried managed to communicate with me in various ways, and I warmed to him. In fact, by the time I miscarried two-and-a-half months later, I would have been disappointed if he had been a girl. His purpose was clear. Like John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus, the first baby I carried prepared the way for the son I bore about a year later.

How having a son turned out to for the best

The fact that my child was male turned out to be a brilliant cosmic move that ensured that my family history didn’t repeat itself. My mother and I were completely enmeshed. I didn’t know where she ended and I began, I just knew that my purpose in life was to meet her expectations. I worked constantly to stay within the target area of her love—because falling outside it was life-threatening. Would she care for me if she didn’t love me?

My son and I will never become enmeshed because we are so different from each other—that Y chromosome is our continental divide. In this otherness, my boy has given me a new understanding of and respect for men. He has unwittingly taught me this:

Girls are born women. They begin nurturing soon after they can walk, and there is nothing remarkable about the fact that they eventually become mothers. Boys, on the other hand, are born boys, and thanks to my son, I know what an enormous metamorphosis it takes to turn armpit-farting, BB-gun toting megaburpers into daddies.

Today, witnessing daddies who deeply, compassionately, and meaningfully engage with their children sometimes moves me to tears. These men bear a message from the future that helps put my troubled mama-mind at ease.

“Don’t worry,” they seem to say while wiping their child’s nose with their shirttail. “Your son’s going to turn out just fine.”

Life, and how we move through it

As I walked through the forest on my son’s birthday yesterday, I reflected on how challenging life has been since the moment, 12 years ago, when he was born. At the same time, I’ve grown weary of thinking about how hard it’s been. Weary of feeling sorry for myself. Weary of My Story.

I realized that the past twelve years have felt like walking through chest-high water, which is something I used to do on purpose for exercise. There’s a much more efficient way to get through water. It’s called swimming.

Walking through the water of my life hasn’t exactly been a conscious choice. I do it because it’s all I’ve ever known. But I’m ready to find a more efficient and joyful way to move through life.

I’m going to sign up for swimming lessons.

Damsels, distress, and ethics

Like any young damsel in distress, I always dreamed that a knight on a white horse would rescue me someday. Didn’t matter what the distress was. Maybe it was my night to do dishes. Maybe I forgot to do my homework. Maybe my siblings were especially annoying that day.

Fast-forward to today, and I am actually experiencing real, grown-up distress. As always, I dream of being rescued and relieved of my burdens. But for the first time, I realize that it’s completely unethical to allow anyone to do it.

When you’re a damsel in distress, you’re in it for the rescue, not the knight. And that’s not fair to any man.

So I sent the knight away.

Truth, and where to find it

I was raised a fundamentalist Christian, and the Bible was our sole source of truth. It was considered inerrant, which means, in essence, that God dictated every word of it, and that it was perfect in every way.

It doesn’t take much scrutiny to discover contradictions and ethical quandaries in the Bible, and that’s not a problem if you consider it a book that was written over a period of hundreds of years by countless authors. But if you believe that the Bible is literally the word of God, these contradictions are a big problem that leads pastors everywhere to cherry-pick the bits that serve them and sweep the rest under the carpet.

Of course, as a Sunday school teacher, youth group leader, Christian camp counselor, and resident assistant in a dorm at a Christian university, I cherry-picked, too. Only I swept much bigger things under the carpet—things I never understood. Like why Jesus had to die for my sins (the core tenet of fundamentalist Christianity) and communion (the idea of symbolically eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood grossed me out). Large cracks began to form in my faith, but on the whole, it still held together.

Then two of my former youth group kids died at the age of 17 and 18 in the same car accident and my faith crumbled. It took two decades to rebuild my cosmology, and I slowly found new sources of Truth. I no longer wanted to BELIEVE something was true. I wanted to KNOW it was true.

When I believe something, it calls on me to have faith. Like, say, that the Bible is literally the word of God. When I know something, every pore in my body opens to receive it and incorporate it into my being. Believing is an intellectual experience. Knowing is a physical one.

Long after Mike and Jill died, a woman in her seventies handed me a cassette tape and suggested that I listen to it. I did and knew there was Truth on that tape. Then I learned that the Truth was channeled. This posed a problem. If I accepted this new source of Truth, I would have to keep it secret. My fundamentalist loved ones would consider it satanic and fear for my mortal soul.

In the end, I decided to accept this new source of Truth and concluded that:

Truth is Truth, no matter where you find it.

This mindset has made it possible for me to find Truth in unexpected places. Like a quote by musician Marilyn Manson in the movie Bowling for Columbine, while dreaming, and while packing for a move.

Recently, I discovered my most cherished source of Truth yet: Shamanic journeying. Journeying provides a means of obtaining direct revelation, which is something I’ve yearned for all my life. Until now, the quality of my connection with the Universe was about as good as you can achieve with two soup cans and a string. I always longed for a hard-wired, broadband connection that provides me with a sense of direction and spiritual companionship. Journeying is it.

Again, I have found a source of Truth that I have to hide from people who love me. But Truth is Truth, no matter where you find it. And I couldn’t be more grateful for this one.

Being afraid–and liking it

Night before last, I had a dream in which I was speaking to a local author. “I just had a thought,” I said. “Maybe you can help me think it through. You know how some people love to be scared? They go to scary movies and pick out the scariest rides at amusement parks? I wonder if some people are like that in real life and just like to be scared.”

I’ve never sought out scary things on purpose, having found real life scary enough. I can only guess that people who deliberately expose themselves to frightening situations must feel safe in all other areas of their lives. No one experiencing the real-life horror of a concentration camp, for example, would queue up to see Friday the 13th.

Now, let’s say that we are eternal, and knowing that makes us feel completely safe as disincarnate beings. We can dip our toe into the sea of mortality whenever we want. Let’s further say that our sense of safety leads some of us to seek out the contrast of deliberately bringing scary situations into our lives when we’re incarnate.

“Am I one of those people?” I wondered. “Am I saying ‘yes’ to scary things just for the experience of it? If so, I’m ready to knock that off right now.”

This morning, while walking through the forest, my thoughts veered toward something frightening, and I stopped myself. “You’re making a choice, Petra,” I said. “You’re choosing to walk into the horror show. Why do you do that?”

I’m beginning to realize that most of the fear I’ve experienced  in life has been anticipatory. My scary pie chart would look something like this:

Enough of that. Here’s to staying off roller coasters and out of horror shows.

Changing lanes

The way I figure it, I spent about 200 24-hour days in traffic on State Route 520 from Seattle to Redmond and back over the course of 10 years. This commute bore the distinction of taking me across the longest floating bridge on Earth twice a day.

You see a lot when you spend that kind of time in the car. Little things, like the fact that someone glued a bottle of aspirin to the jersey wall between the east- and west-bound lanes. The way a road-striping crew painted a fresh yellow line all the way up to—and then beyond—a dead raccoon on the side of the highway. And a guy dressed as the grim reaper, standing silently at an intersection.

These things were entertaining, but one of my experiences became a metaphor that has helped me ever since.

During my commute, I was often frustrated to find myself in a lane that had come to a dead stop, while traffic moved briskly and efficiently in the next lane over. Eventually, I learned that I couldn’t switch to the lane I wanted to be in unless the traffic in my own lane began to move as well.

I learned that you can’t change lanes unless you’re moving.

The economy brought me to a halt, and I saw nothing but brake lights. This was especially frustrating because people were sailing by unscathed in the next lane over.

It took a while, but the lane I’m in has begun to move. It’s less than ideal. It’s nowhere near where I’ve been or where I want to be. But as I pick up speed, I also pick up the ability to make choices.

At some point, I’ll be able to change lanes. Or I’ll realize that the one I’m in now turned out to be the right one after all.

What’s a nice girl like you doing at a land trust?

We lived on a 50- by 100-foot lot in Seattle’s Crown Hill neighborhood when my son Adrian was born. He was only weeks old when I noticed that he stopped crying if I took him outside, and I soon realized that I couldn’t raise him in the city that I’d called home for 20 years. We had to move. This child needed to be in nature.

My husband did not feel called to parenthood as I did, nor did he feel called to move to the country. The day came when I had to choose between my husband and my child, and our divorce was final when Adrian was 18 months old–three days after my father died.

I was doubled over with loss, but Adrian’s needs kept me putting one foot in front of the other. He inched me through the valley of the shadow one diaper-change, one feeding, and one nap at a time.

I set my sights on Whidbey Island and began the search for a new home. It was difficult for the people who loved us to understand this, and some took it personally. How could a single mom leave her support network behind and move with her toddler to a strange place where she knew only one family?

Architect Ross Chapin once told me, “Whidbey Island is a calling.” For us, it was more than that. I felt as if we got caught in a sci-fi tractor beam–there was no way for us not to come.

There are times here on Whidbey Island, particularly in Langley, when life feels so idyllic that I’m afraid a Klieg light will drop out of the sky, as it did in the movie The Truman Show, and I’ll discover that I’m just living on a really big movie set. It feels that idyllic. And it’s my deepest privilege to raise my child in a place where he can fish, dig for clams, and whack nettles with a stick; where he’s had goats, chickens, and bees to care for; potatoes to harvest; and trails to blaze through the forest. But beyond being a beautiful place, Whidbey Island has redefined what the word “family” means. Our family has grown to include others who heeded the same call and moved here to provide the best imaginable childhood they could for their children.

I stayed home with Adrian until he was 10, which is when we finally overcame the vision problems that had made it so challenging for him to succeed in school. The businesses that I had been running from home did not generate enough income to support us, so I began looking for a job elsewhere. Having been employed as a technical writer before Adrian was born, I searched for writing and editing jobs on the mainland, completely heartsick about the 12 hours a day that I’d have to spend away from my son, and struck by the irony that I had to work off the island so we could live on the island. Moving was out of the question.

Then, one day, clicking the wrong link on Craig’s List led me to an expired listing for a communication and marketing position at the Whidbey Camano Land Trust. I read the description, and said, “That’s me!” But when I went to and saw this slide show below, I knew it was my job in the same way that I knew I had to move to Whidbey Island. The slide show represented everything we loved about our home.

Could it GET any better than working on the island, protecting what makes it so special in the first place? In spite of my late application and a total of 165 applicants, I was the one they hired, and I feel lucky to spend my days preserving a place I love so dearly.

Stuff, and how it defines us

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” William Morris

My mother grew up in Germany during World War II and experienced genuine need. During that time, for example, ration cards limited each citizen to only one egg per month. And if somebody in your family had a birthday that month, your egg was likely to wind up in his or her cake.

Surviving the war caused Mom to hoard Stuff, which insulates her from need.  At 80, she is surrounded by a sea of her own Stuff, as well as all the Stuff that my father left behind when he died.

Dad’s father was a chaplain in the Army, which had him moving hither and yon all of his childhood. Unfortunately, Dad later joined the Air Force and forced the same fate on us. When we were moving every year or two, we didn’t acquire much Stuff. But when Dad retired, Stuff came in waves.

For dad, Stuff was grounding. It was an anchor. It kept him in place. It also raised his self esteem. Being able to say “I’ve got one of those” made him feel important. When he died, he left behind an inordinate amount of Stuff.

My Stuff story didn’t gel until after I’d realized a dream and designed and built a house. Building it was one of the most fun and creative things I’ve ever done. It was self-expression on a grand scale, and the best part was that I got to live in it after it was done. Everywhere I looked, I saw a reflection of who I am.

For me, Stuff became a mirror. Due to a perfect storm of adverse financial circumstances, I have to sell the house that I created, and with it, a business and a farm. This has sent me reeling. I’ve come to realize that, in the absence of my Stuff, I don’t know who I am.

We moved several weeks ago, and I still haven’t found my feet. Most of our remaining belongings are in storage, and only the bare essentials are with us in a cabin that a dear friend invited us to live in for a few months. As lucky as we are to be here, I do not see myself reflected in my surroundings and I’ve been experiencing an identity crisis.

Who am I?

In my attempt to make sense of my losses, I concluded that they must’ve been necessary because I’d come to derive my sense of self from the wrong things. But what were the right things?

Today, with the help of two coach friends, I realized that the right thing is people. People—and the love they hold for me—are the most accurate reflection of who I am.

I cannot describe how much relief that realization has brought.

But enough about me. What’s your Stuff story?

Oh, hell

My 80-year-old mother and I got into a big argument about hell on Sunday. She’s absolutely certain that I’m going there, and I’m just as certain that I’m not.

Here’s my reasoning:

  1. One of the most important laws of physics is that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only change forms.
  2. I believe that our essential selves–the core of who we are–are made up of energy.
  3. This was made clear to me at the funeral of my friend Jill, who died in a car accident at the age of 16. Seeing her body at the funeral was a shock. Though it looked like Jill, her essential “Jillness” was gone, and all that was left was a shell.
  4. Jill’s death caused my then-fundamentalist Christian faith to crumble. It took me 20 years to rebuild a belief system that made sense to me. But I never stopped believing that Jill’s consciousness had survived the accident.
  5. I concluded that, because a disembodied consciousness (or “soul”) does not have physical senses, you can’t hurt it by hitting, stabbing, or burning it.
  6. So, even if a physical hell did exist, how could it hurt something that is pure consciousness?

There are many other reasons why I don’t believe there’s a hell (more of my journey away from fundamentalist Christianity is described here). But as I said, Mom is just as sure that there is a hell, and that it’s my destiny. There’s a little girl inside me who has always yearned for my mother’s approval, and it hurts to know that the only way I will ever receive it is to become what I am not. I find it difficult to reconcile Mom’s professions of love for me on the one hand with her insistence that I am going to hell on the other.

A few years ago, Mom got not one, but two ulcers. She attributed them to my sister’s and my refusal to accept Jesus as our lord and savior. She was hospitalized, so I called the hospital’s gift shop and asked them to fill up two helium balloons, then write my name on one of them with a permanent marker, and my sister’s name on the other. I asked them to take the balloons up to Mom’s room, then called Mom and instructed her to go outside and let the balloons go. I wanted her to experience the release of that, but she didn’t do it. She asked my brother to go outside and do it for her, saying she’d watch from the window. I don’t know if he ever did. The whole meaning of the ritual was lost.

So here’s take two: A declaration of emancipation.

Declaration of Emancipation

Hear ye, hear ye!
Be it known to all that read this that

[my mother’s name]

is herewith absolved of any responsibility for
the eternal welfare of

Petra Elisabeth Martin

Petra joyfully takes complete responsibility for
her spiritual journey in this life
and for her life thereafter.

Declared on this 30th day of December 2009


Petra Elisabeth Martin

I don’t know if it’ll help Mom, but it helped me. When my son and I want to let things go, we find big rocks, write what we want to release on them in permanent marker, and throw them off a bridge into the water. It gives us a satisfying feeling of release.

Our New Year’s Eve tradition (in fact, we just did it today), is to conduct a burning bowl ceremony. We write on slips of tissue paper all the things that we want to release, take turns sharing them with each other, touch the paper to the flame of a candle, and then drop the burning paper into a metal bowl. One of the things I burned up today was “My mother’s expectations.”