The following is excerpted from Star Sister: How I Changed My Name, Grew Wings, and Learned to Trust Intuition, now available from EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books.
Every summer weekend, Providence folk descended upon Narragansett Beach, the southern Rhode Island beach I grew up on. They rocked a look we called "guido," characterized by gelled-up bangs, layers of blue eyeliner, and lots of gold jewelry. Their bodies were hard, tanned to within an inch of leather, and they lay on towels, chewed brightly colored gum, and fussed with their leopard-print or shiny metallic bikinis, but never went in the surf. To me, they seemed like otherworldly beings, curious, fascinating, carrying the answers to unimaginable questions.
At the other end of that beloved beach was a cove carved out by the tides of an inlet known as Narrow River. There, then-healthy beds of seaweed supported a different but equally marvelous population of creatures. Eels darted between strands of kelp, and clustered on the shore were horseshoe crabs, prehistoric visitors who did their best to ignore us. To get to that idyllic spot, you had to wade against the Narrow River current, sinking into the soft wet sand and feeling the wavelets curl away from your ankles and shins.
Beyond its obvious pleasures, the beach was a place where I could read or be with my own thoughts. At home, I was a reader and a daydreamer, forever trying to find a quiet corner in which to do one or the other. Being internally focused from a young age taught me to identify what intuition was.
It happened on a day I was supposed to meet my neighbor to ride bikes together. Before heading out, I had developed a strange, unidentifiable feeling that I shouldn't go, but reasoning that this premonition didn't make any sense, I went anyway. The results were disastrous. When my friend's brother found out that she had been planning to use his bike, he reacted by punching her in the face with a closed fist. I was horrified to witness what amounted to a beating. Once safely back home and with time to reflect, I realized how valuable the information I'd received earlier had been. I vowed to pay attention when that knowing came again.
When I was about sixteen and packing for a solo trip to Colombia to visit my father's family, intuition returned. About nine o'clock at night, I got the heebie-jeebies and knew that something awful would happen if I got on that flight the next day. I explained my concerns to my family, and it was finally decided that I would go the next day, but that my stay would be cut shorter than planned. When I got home from the trip, we learned that a bomb had gone off in a building that one of my uncles, knowing that I was interested in architecture, would have taken me to visit if I'd stayed.
A slightly different type of intuition came some years later, when I was living with the man whom I would soon marry. Aaron had been away on business in London and he was late getting home to New York (where we were then living). I started to get more and more anxious, especially as the evening turned into night with no sign of him. Finally I went to the window, hoping to see him drive up in a cab. As soon as I looked outside, I heard a voice in my head that was distinct from my normal thoughts. For one thing, it was a different pitch than my own voice. For another, it seemed to shoot into my head from the outside rather than originating internally. The voice said, "It's not Aaron."
I knew immediately that Aaron was safe, though I couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. Aaron got home about an hour later. The flight had been late and, as nobody had cell phones back then, there was no easy way to call upon landing. I went to bed not knowing what the voice's message had been about, but early the following morning, Aaron's mother called with the terrible news that his brother Jeff had died. He'd had a heart attack at just about the time that I was freaking out and wondering where Aaron was.
My dreams were nearly as rich as my intuition. At college I went through a period where I was "waking up" in my dream and able to look back at my body. I could even walk around the school and discover things that I would then be able to corroborate in my waking life. I later learned that this was similar to "lucid dreaming," which is practiced in order to empower the dreamer. At the time, it just scared the bejeezus out of me and I forced myself to stop doing it.
The point is that, by the time I became an adult, my relationship with my intuition was strong and I paid attention to what my dreams told me. This is the only way I can explain why I listened when a combination of dream and intuition told me to leave the best job I could imagine having.
Growing up, I had journeyed alone to visit family in Colombia and Switzerland, and every time I returned, I was somehow changed. Whether I'd seen slums, tasted guinea pig, or gone topless on a beach, my boundaries had shifted. My personal mutability fascinated me, and self-exploration became a calling. I loved travel. There seemed to be something inherently valuable in asking, "Who am I here? And here? And here?" So when I landed a gig as an editorial assistant at Condé Nast Traveler magazine, my first job out of college, I was ecstatic.
While the subject captivated me, I also loved working in magazines, especially under the tutelage of editor-in-chief Tom Wallace, who would later become the Editorial Director of all the Condé Nast titles. A natural teacher with an inborn generosity, Tom made a point of schooling his assistants in the editorial arts. In between arranging his calendar and calling his cars, I learned from him how to pick cover lines, balance the features well, even understand Traveler's business strategies.
Despite what most people presumed, the Traveler staff didn't usually travel all that often. The feature stories were generally reserved for name writers, and the rest of the assignments went to reporters on location or with an established beat. At the time, I didn't mind this so much because I was learning tons and happy to be moving up as an editor.
The other great advantage of being at Traveler was that it allowed me to meet Aaron, who was then the Special Projects Editor. I remember poking my head into his office for the first time and being hit by an intuitive one-liner that said, "Oh, he's my kind of people." That said, I was definitely not interested in Aaron romantically, and this was for the best, since we soon began working together on Condé Nast's first Internet venture, Traveler Online. The intuitions of others were perhaps working better than mine on this point, however, because rumors started flying that we were having an affair about a year before Aaron and I proved them honest.
Once Traveler Online launched, the political situation in the office changed. Aaron was given a package to leave and, instead of floating to another magazine, he joined an Internet start-up called Agency.com. Meanwhile, I resolved to quit Traveler and go backpacking around Europe. I didn't want to leave Aaron, but neither did I want an office job for the rest of my life. When an associate editor job in the "Honeymoons" department at Brides magazine opened up, a position that required lots of travel, it seemed as if someone had heard my need to cut loose and provided me with the perfect avenue.
Working at Brides was a cushy gig, one that had me flying nearly every other weekend and becoming a connoisseur of the world's luxury hotels. Besides visiting many of the Caribbean islands, I also got to cover Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and French Polynesia. In every location I could feel myself becoming a different creature, and I couldn't help imagining what might unspool if I stayed. I could blend in with the crowd in Buenos Aires. I could open a restaurant in Todos Santos. I could dress in pareos and teach scuba diving in Tahiti. So often, it felt as though any of those choices were a whisper away from happening, making it all I could do to board the plane bound for home. I didn't always like feeling so untethered, but I did enjoy learning about all the possibilities out there. If life is our creation, then our available palette is decidedly unlimited.
I'm sure everybody is restless in their twenties, but travel writing accelerated my discontent. I was dining in expensive restaurants, sleeping in celebrity digs, testing all variety of plush terry robe, compiling a short list of piña colada favorites (the Hotel Bora Bora's arrived in a glass rimmed with toasted coconut) -- and yet, something was missing. Every TV show, magazine article, and pop song tells us that the dollar buys happiness and contentment, but that wasn't what I was finding. The more I consumed, the emptier I felt. Furthermore, recommending five-star hotels to young couples that could barely afford a single night at Disney World left me feeling dirty, like I was lying for a living. I knew I had more to contribute than that.
Up until this point, my whole life had been privileged. My family was intact and relatively happy; I'd never wanted for anything; I had tasted the world's luxuries. But something inside me hungered for more -- and, early on, experience had conspired to show me that I wouldn't find it in the prevailing mainstream American ideas about what brings happiness. After probing the source of my dissatisfaction, I realized that I was frustrated by not helping people in a more direct way. To the best of my abilities, I wanted to serve humanity.
Not that I knew how or what to do about this desire. There aren't many opportunities for travel writers, and I'd already enjoyed the best of them. If I wanted more, I'd have to come up with something completely new.
This was my situation when I had an unusual dream. One morning, in the middle of all this intense turmoil surrounding the question of what to do with myself, I shot up out of bed simply knowing that I had to be ... an acupuncturist! I didn't remember any other specifics about the dream, but the quality of my knowing what my next career path should be was distinct: I just knew.
I'd never received acupuncture or even known anyone who had. I'd once seen a 60 Minutes episode on the topic, where Chinese neurologists performed open-brain surgery using only needles for anesthesia. Beyond that, I was in perfect ignorance about the subject. My father was a doctor, as was his father, and I had toyed with being premed in college, so there was a thread that made logical sense to me, but mostly this impulse came from left field. I trusted it precisely because I knew it was coming from that intuitive place.
While I may have trusted my gut instincts, not many others did. My mother, who had chirped "Delta Dental! Delta Dental!" when she learned about Condé Nast's benefits package, told me I was making a big mistake. So did more than a few of my former colleagues. In some cases, the concerns were for my career as a writer, but others simply considered acupuncture to be quackery and hated to see me associated with something so dubious. Since my only argument for doing this was that it felt right, I had no choice but to weather their disdain with alternating bouts of bemusement and chagrin.
Despite the flak I caught for giving up a perfectly blessed travel-writing career, I never thought about changing my mind or caving in to peer pressure on the subject. Instead, something about standing up for myself, for my true self -- an important function of my intuition -- felt seriously good. Though I no longer lived by the ocean, I still felt at home wading against the current.
Within three months, I had quit my job at Brides and begun an acupuncture degree program part-time. Imagining all the spare time I would have between classes, I also started writing a novel. This was something that I'd always wanted to do, and it made the leap into an entirely different field seem more palatable.
I knew I was being ambitious, but I didn't realize just how ambitious. In traditional Chinese medicine (often called TCM, as well as Oriental medicine, never mind the political incorrectness), there are twelve primary meridians, more than three hundred and sixty acupuncture points, some four hundred herbs (to start with), and all sorts of patterns and pathogenic factors to learn. That's not even counting the theories layered upon theories, all rooted in a worldview that couldn't be more different from my own. Oh yeah, and much of the terminology in Chinese.
In the beginning, studying Chinese medicine is all memorization. You cram what seems to be pure silliness into your brain and hope that some day it'll make sense. Patterns like "Dampness affecting the spleen," "Internal wind stirring," and "Phlegm misting the mind" are considered legitimate conditions. And you're meant to keep a straight face when discussing an organ called the San Jiao, or "Triple Burner," which is an imaginary organ but nevertheless considered a force in the body. (What?)
Despite all the seeming preposterousness, one day it clicks. You realize that the metaphors upon which Chinese medicine is based, constructed from resonances found in the natural world, are just ways to communicate what was being seen in the body over centuries of observation. This contrasts with Western medicine, which focuses on the gross pathology of advanced disease states, making its scope very narrow in comparison with the whole-body view of Oriental medicine. Traditional Chinese medicine teaches its practitioners to really look and listen to the patient -- the whole patient -- and, in this way, to perceive subtle deviations from health. This is what accounts for its renown in preventing disease.
I loved studying Chinese medicine, not to mention all the Western subjects we had to learn, including biology, chemistry, physics, anatomy, physiology, etc., but it left me no time to write. This shouldn't have been too much of a problem -- the degree takes four years, and there was no rule saying that I couldn't pick the novel back up after finishing my studies -- but writing was something that had become part of my identity. Continuing to study Chinese medicine at the expense of writing, even for a short while, threatened my conception of myself. It all added up to one big internal conflict.
In retrospect, I see that this period of my life was providing me with an opportunity to expand my self-definition, an opportunity that I didn't take. Previous to the intuitive prod to become an acupuncturist, I'd always envisioned myself being a writer. Following through on the Oriental medicine degree would lead who knows where. Of course, leaping into the unknown is a tried-and-true technique for spiritual development, but I didn't know that at the time. Instead, I just knew that staying in school was highly threatening to my ego. If I was, always had been, and still wanted to be a writer, then what the heck was I killing myself at acupuncture school for?
At the same time, Aaron was doing phenomenally well at Agency.com. They were gearing up to go public, with the promise of Internet millions coming our way. Though that fortune never actually materialized, we did live on its fumes for a few years, and Aaron loved being able to offer to support me while I finished my novel. I felt incredibly honored to be given such a gift. Putting aside feminist ideas about not relying on a man, not to mention my confusion about my life's path, I quit Chinese medical school and dove into my novel.
Perhaps it really doesn't matter which path you choose. If I had stayed in grad school, I might have finished my degree sooner. And if I had finished my degree in New York, then who is to say that I wouldn't have still needed to devote time to writing afterward?
One thing is certain: Any direction you take leads back to yourself. For me at that time, that meant confusion. Though a part of me had always dreamed of writing full time, I found that the reality of it totally sucked. Instead of being able to delve into my project with complete focus, I developed an insidious pattern of procrastination and self-loathing broken only occasionally by desperate and sloppy productivity. In the mornings the whole day stretched out before me. What did it matter if I first spent an hour reading the newspaper? Or two? What did it matter if I made myself a leisurely breakfast?
Then I'd sit down at my computer and ... surf the Internet for two hours. Then it would be lunchtime. You get the idea.
Of course, there were days that I did get work done, despite myself. And it was fun. Or it would make me cry, which was even more satisfying. I was writing about an awkward preteen girl who was actively trying to get her horse to throw her in order to overcome her fear of falling. When she finally did manage to get herself tossed, I had a cathartic realization that there really are doors of perception, à la Aldous Huxley and Jim Morrison. As the main character was flying through the air, she had a vision of her dead mother, and it occurred to me that she had found the doorway to the realm of spirits. I sobbed for days after making this discovery. And yet, I also had the distinct impression that there was something I was missing, something I didn't quite understand about what I had written. A voice was whispering, just beyond my hearing.
Though moments like these seemed to make up for the days of frustration, the sheer number of difficult days was overwhelming. I'd never realized how completely wild my thoughts were. I could set out in the morning with all the willpower in the world and still get sidetracked for hours by the most inane celebrity detail being presented as news on Internet sites. It led me to start questioning what this propensity of the mind toward dissolution is all about.
In particular, I wondered what it said about the creative process. Was I supposed to let my thoughts wander? Perhaps the ensuing chaos would seduce the artistic muse to my side. Or was I supposed to buckle down and force myself to put word to page? Cultivate extreme discipline and focus, with a stick if necessary? This second option seemed kind of harsh. Perhaps it was all the crying I was doing, but I had an instinct to be nicer to myself for a change. As an experiment, I decided to let my mind wander where it may. I hoped that, after a while, my mind might settle down naturally, but that never happened. Instead of wandering around until it reached some exhausted bottom, my mind just continued to spin and spin. I felt helpless and at its mercy, as if my mind itself were the wild horse I was supposed to be writing about and I a tamer with no tools.
This became a very black time. Aaron was working long hours, and I was home alone in a sun-starved apartment trying to manage my mind with a wet-noodle philosophy about discipline. Becoming multimillionaires -- which we did, at least on paper -- when Aaron's company went public didn't help. The world's distractions were simply that much more accessible. Something had to change, and since I didn't know much about meditation at the time, I looked outside for that shift.
When the opportunity came to leave New York for Los Angeles for Aaron's work, I jumped on it.
Copyright © 2012 by Stella Osorojos. Reprinted by permission of publisher.