Living the Illuminated Life

by Laura Didyk

It’s 1984. I am 12 years old, and I’m in my leotard standing on the gold-medal box in the center of a gymnasium in Freemont, California. A man in a gorilla suit is holding up my medal, motioning for me to dip my head, which I do, so he can drape it around my neck. I can see my mother in the bleachers waving, a huge smile on her face, wiping tears. Next to her is my grandfather, visiting from Maryland, holding his camera to his face with one hand and waving with the other. Behind them is my gymnastics coach, Hiroshi, giving me an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

This is a memory that I often share with people, framing it as one of the more significant, glorious moments of my life. What I don’t share is that while I’m receiving the coveted all-around gold medal, I am crying—not a gentle, sniffly sad-movie cry but big and messy and chest-heaving. My two teammates, who also competed, aren’t happy about the fact that I’ve won, and each time I return to our spot on the floor, they take turns harassing me: I’m stuck-up. I’m a show-off. I am, of all things, a loser.

It will take some years to sort through the slew of beliefs I carried with me into adulthood from this experience: If you go for gold, be prepared to get clobberedis one. Success means being alone is another. Don’t shine too brightly or you might blind the people around you has been one of the most damaging.

* * * *

I recently watched a live concert clip of R&B singer John Legend. While he waits backstage, his singers—full-bodied and up on their own platform, showered with electric blue lights—begin crooning, "Heaven only knows, heaven only knows …." John Legend, in a white jacket, black shirt, and gorgeous dark skin, is behind the scrim, revved up, bopping his head to the beat, barely able to stand still. When he finally struts out, opens his mouth, and lets loose a smooth, deep, drawn-out, soulful "yeaaaah," the audience explodes. The camera pans the crowd, men and women who sway and clap and sing along, and each one of them, every single person, is beaming. This is when my tears start.

What moves me is this: John Legend comes out on a stage, opens his mouth, spreads his arms to his fans, and gives himself over to this thing that is his. "Here I am," he is saying, like the singing itself is his way of saying "thank you" to whatever beautiful and intelligent force gave him this gift. I cry because I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to batten down the hatches of my spirit, to shush all the stuff clanking around inside that is dying to get out.

Over the years, I’ve managed to build an intricate shell around my longing, around the undeniable urge to create and express. It’s kept me quieter than I really am, less funny, less animated, and more afraid. But the shell is beginning to crack. Sometimes, it’s just a fine dusting, one thin, microscopic layer closer to the core. Other times, a palm-sized shard will fall to the ground in one satisfying shatter. Even half-revealed, my spirit is brighter and more alive. Watching John Legend on stage, shining his light for all to see, makes me want the fully expressed life so much that it hurts.

* * * *

Some people can live their whole lives with a gnawing feeling in their stomach that there are things they want to do, if only they were braver; demons they should face, if only they thought they could survive it; a connection to something bigger than themselves, if only they were worth it; a much brighter, fuller, richer life they could be living if things were, well, different. I was one of those people, waiting for my life to magically take shape on its own.

One summer night, sitting on a rope swing by a lake in upstate New York, I contemplated my situation: I’d recently turned 30. I hadn’t a clue where I was headed, or what I wanted to be heading toward. I had an advanced degree but no ideas about anything. I wasn’t writing. I was on the verge of being unemployed. And I hadn’t a clue what I was put on this earth to do. The idea of not being on earth at all seemed more and more like a reasonable option. I usually spent my nights daydreaming of rescue, but on this particular night, mosquitoes buzzing around my ears, bullfrogs thrumming in the reeds nearby, my spirit couldn’t take it for another second. I closed my eyes and asked whatever was out there toplease, please help.

Clarity didn’t come right away, but when it came, over the span of the next several weeks, it came with a vengeance: No one was going to hand my happiness to me. Whatever I was waiting for so I could live the life I thought I was meant to live, wasn’t coming. No man in a gorilla suit was going to appear and hang joy around my neck like a medal. It was, as the saying goes, all me.

So I made a decision. I decided that the lives I saw other people living, other people succeeding at, could maybe one day be mine. I decided that if I didn’t take some action on my own behalf, I wasn’t going to be able to live with myself.

I started to spend time with people—friends, spiritual teachers, artists, writers—whose inner lives attracted me. I immersed myself in literature, music, film, whatever I could find that made me want to keep going, to live better and louder and with more color and verve. I ventured out to see live music, plays, dance performances. I attended poetry readings. I took walks. Instead of being jealous of other people for their talents, I allowed myself, for the first time in my life, to live in a state of admiration. I’d approach the poets, the painters, the dancers, and I’d tell them what moved me. Even if I thought they already knew it, had heard it a million times, I told them anyway—not for them, but for me.

The more I acknowledged others’ brilliance, the more I felt it in me. Eventually, my fear of not becoming who I knew I was meant to be loomed larger than my fear of failing or suffering or looking stupid. That’s when the shell started to crack. That’s when, in addition to going to poetry readings, I started to write my own poetry again. I weeded out people in my life who couldn’t celebrate my successes with me and started to search out friends who wanted me to be as big and as bright as I needed and wanted to be.

I don’t know at what moment or on what day it arrived—this presence, right below my heart, a feeling I’ve come to recognize as strength—I just know it’s there now. When it wanes, I remember myself at 12 years old, powering my body full speed into a round-off back handspring then up into the dreamy float of a lay-out flip. I remember what true, unbridled determination feels like, and find the strength again to allow the universe to carry me deeper and deeper into the center of my beautiful, sensational, fabulous, illuminated life. Heaven only knows, it’s the only thing that I’ve ever really wanted.

Laura Didyk, MFA, is an essayist, poet, and a former athlete with a lifelong passion for nutritional health and optimal living. She has had her work published in literary magazines throughout the country, and has been awarded fellowships at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts.

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