** Dear Reader – This is a long post that stems from a significant awareness I received the day I returned from Italy adventure.  It’s a longer post than usual (and I already write long posts) and it doesn’t have engaging photos, but the content is a powerful.  Please set aside an extra few minutes and experience my lifelong journey and revelations.  My hope is that you, too, can discover an authentic life on purpose.  There’s no greater joy.  Thanks for sharing the journey with me.

August 2, 2011 – One Day Post Italy

I am home from my Italian adventure.  It’s my first morning waking up in my own bed and setting my feet on the carpeted floor beneath my bed as I get up.  It feels good.  Very good.  When I awoke this morning, I was flooded with peace and the realization that I was starting my life from a new place, a new awareness, a new perspective, but really so much more than all of that.  I was starting my life, today, from a place of  a newly discovered sense of self. I know who I am.  It was natural and new all at the same time.  Like the old pair of sneakers that you slide your feet into with complete comfort and know they will lead you comfortably and securely to new discoveries.

I awoke shortly before 5 a.m.  This is in itself amazing to me.  Yesterday was about a 28 hour day from the time I got up until the time I arrived in Napa and finally crawled into bed about midnight.  Combined with barely sleeping on the eve of my departure from Florence, in 48 hours, I had very little sleep.  I was exhausted.  Once I finally made it home to Napa and after loving up the cats, I crawled into bed and let my weary bones settle into my luxurious bed.  Quieting my mind, slumber met me like the arms of a mother to a tired child.  I didn’t know how long I would sleep, but thought I might be competing with Mr. Van Winkle.

When I awoke this morning so early, I anticipated I would return to sleep.  My being had other thoughts for me.  It decided to reveal more discoveries to me – about me and my trip.  I lay in bed, received and prayed.  Here is what God shared with me.

My trip was both my reward and the start of my new life.  I looked back on life and at moments it appeared as though I was peering through a kaleidoscope.  I realized how much love I felt as a small child, then the searching for it as I grew.  I’m not sure what changed after age 5 or 6, but life changed.  I started the journey of searching – searching for the love and acceptance that seemed so natural as a small child – where had it gone?  My searching took many forms and was the start of an arduous journey down a path divided by many trails.  As I sought acceptance, validation and love, I stumbled down many paths, all of which provided an illusion of what I sought, but were ultimately mere mirages.

As I lay there, I softly, yet powerfully, realized my journey was uniquely my own and all judgment of it, judgment I’ve carried for years, melted away in a moment.  It was a perfect path that provided me with instruction through getting lost and giving me the opportunity to learn to find my own way to self discovery.

All of my life, I relied on external validation for who I was as a person.  I excelled in school, college, and law school – but it wasn’t enough.  I entered relationships, searching, yearning to find a sense of completion, of being enough, of …  Still not there.  I created successful careers and designed my own business.  I helped people reach their dreams, create their businesses and encouraged them to grow.  I was active in my community and made a difference in my various roles.  Nope, still not complete.  I volunteered and took care of people and animals in need.  Yet still there was an emptiness in me.  How is it with a life so full and having accomplished so much, I still don’t know who I am?  And I knew that was the question – Who am I.  And equally as important, what is my purpose?

I understood that my success was created by my drive to find acceptance and validation from others and to be the person I thought I “should be.”  A search externally for what I did not have internally.  And I realized that with every external validation, I added another layer to my façade.  I created a person that I believed would ultimately find the answers.  I conformed.  I added layer after layer to cover my soul – like the trunk of the tree, I covered it with another ring, more and more solid, yet leading away from truth.  Driven Student. Dean’s List. Co-Salutatorian of graduating class.  Voted Most Likely to Succeed. Volleyball. Cheerleading. Saxophone. Marching Band. Rifle and Flag twirler. Snow Days Queen. Frontier Days Princess. Full Ride Scholarship. Summa Cum Laude college graduate. Law School.  Client Counseling competition winner.  National Moot Court – regional first place – 16th in the nation. Lawyer. Entrepreneur.  Business Woman of the Year. Served & Chaired Boards and Committees. Civic Leader. An impressive list of accomplishments that left me no closer to finding the answers I ultimately sought.  Disguised successes that did not lead to fulfillment and I ultimately confused my identity with my roles.  How did I get to this place?  How did that which looked so successful to the outsider look and feel so empty and hollow to me?

When I asked myself who I was and what my purpose was, I did not know the answer.  I knew what I could do and what I was capable of doing, but my search seemed to lead me farther from the answers I sought.  I had created so many layers of defining who I was externally, that now I had to learn how to peel back the layers to find what lay at the source.  I realized my journey had been taken through the societal looking glass and my measuring stick was external validation.  I erroneously believed that these paths on my journey would certainly provide the internal meaning that gave rise to my initial quest.  My paths were fruitless, the mirage always disappeared and the emptiness remained.  I judged my journey.  I judged myself.  I judged others.

Then, I turned down a new path.  A path that began when my life fell apart.  The lifelong charade finally ended with no answers.  The tree had no true roots to take hold and was easily toppled by the winds of life purpose blowing powerfully down my path.   There lies the tree – 4 decades in the making; beautiful, solid, yet uprooted and lying barren on the path, no roots to be seen in the freshly exposed earth.  Nothing can grow without a foundation.  Foundation provides the roots and support to create and allow all things to grow purposefully.  It will support during challenges and allow for recovery and redirection.  Without the foundation, life’s winds can destroy, damage, plunder and expose all weaknesses.  I was exposed.

I saw the devastation through frantic, terrified and sad eyes.  How could this happen? I had no idea who I was or want I wanted to do.  I lived my roles and thought they were my identity and it felt so hollow.  My marriage to a man I thought completed me was ending.  I felt as if I did not even exist.  I was defeated, crushed and on my knees begging to understand.  I needed to know who I was in this world – not the person I had expertly created to meet my expectations.

My journey now led me down the path to find the answers.  And with an openness to true honesty and vulnerability that I’ve never known in my life, I set out to find the answers.   This year was my odyssey into self discovery.  And Italy was my reward for finding myself.  And far greater than any reward that is momentary, fleeting and ends, this reward was the ultimate gift of my life on purpose.  While  my trip to Florence, Italy, was a fulfilled dream of visiting a place that made my soul sing – to see the magnificent art, to be inspired by the masters, to walk the cobble stone streets that ushered in the Renaissance, to be immersed in a culture that celebrated mastery, intellect, friendship, family and community – the real dream realized was I showed up on purpose.  I didn’t know when I started the trip that Italy was a finishing line and a new starting gate for me, but it was both.

The Italy trip was divine.  Nothing could go wrong.  It flowed from perfection and the mirage no longer disappeared – it was real.  I could touch it. Smell it.  Feel it. Taste it. And finally, truly know it.  A silent, powerful knowing had crept up on me and then, suddenly, it was as if it had always been there.  I didn’t wonder who I was.  I knew who I was.  The layers of the façade were stripped away, yet I wasn’t exposed.  I was brilliantly shining – a beacon.  I was summoning, encouraging and guiding.

I met people naturally and we connected.  Authentically, naturally and beautifully.  We explored, learned and grew together. I was genuinely happy and embraced the magic of each unfolding moment.  I savored life.  I trusted what would follow and knew, really knew, it would be perfect.  I had a grounded belief that I could handle anything that happened, thus I could live in the moment.  I didn’t have to get anywhere, do anything, be anyone – I just showed up and let life greet me.  And she greeted me!

I met 13 wonderful women at the retreat and we connected instantly.  It was a consensus that none of us had ever experienced such a powerful, natural and deeply rooted connection from the moment we met.  Strangely, I noticed a complete lack of any nervousness.  This was a very new sensation for me – I was always nervous about something, though I didn’t show it.  I now believe the nervousness stemmed from a lack of authenticity – of keeping up the façade.  Facades are a lot of work.  While being present, natural and simply showing up is easy.

I think the moment I knew my life was changed forever was when we introduced ourselves to the retreat group. Whenever I introduced myself in other settings, I was always nervous – even if I knew the people in attendance.  I attributed it to working through shyness or stage fright.  I now believe it stemmed from something deeper – I felt the nerves of not knowing who I was so how can I truly introduce myself?  The nervousness was the incongruity, the lack of authenticity, the awareness that I was making up an existence, defining a role, but it wasn’t really who I was.  Not this time, when I introduced myself, it wasn’t staged or planned.  There was no worrying as it neared my turn.  It flowed and was authentic.  It wasn’t until afterwards that I even realized this had happened and I was in awe of the understanding.  I just introduced myself to the world for the first time and I introduced the real me.  And it was easy, natural and powerful.

Throughout the week, I played in the flow of life.  I knew who I was and I loved myself.  I was living in a state of gratitude.  It was so natural.  The world I knew before this moment simply didn’t exist.  I powerfully supported and encouraged others and it was completely natural.  And they responded.  They heard me.  They were moved to make a difference in their lives – how they lived it; how they viewed it; what they said to themselves; how they met their goals; and, finally, an understanding that they could realize their goals.  I realized my goal in life was not simply to inspire, but to empower.  Empower others to realize their potential and powerfully reach for dreams – accomplish their dreams.  Put their dreams into action and live a fulfilling life on purpose.  That’s what I’m here to do.

My life flowed with ease each day. I woke up on my own accord, prayed, meditated and either ran the majestic Tuscan hills or practiced yoga.  I started the retreat knowing I had a book in me, but not knowing anything more.  I was committed to living my life, showing up, staying in the flow of grace and asking for guidance.  Through my meditation and running, I received all of my answers.  The book started to take shape.  Daily, I had a new request in my intentions, prayers and meditations and all were answered that day.  I created the beginning of the book, worked on the content and understood the ending.  The content was revealed.  The inspiration and empowerment flowing.  The trust building.  I wrote daily and allowed the creativity to flow from my soul.  This is what I love.  This is a skill that I am passionate about developing.  This is my life work.  I’m finding my voice and my platform.  There’s not a question if I can do it, there’s a knowing that I must.  When there’s this level of clarity, the universe will conspire to provide the skills and tools to accomplish it.  My role is to take action, believe, have faith and trust the unfolding.  Live in gratitude and love deeply.  Love myself and love the world.  Accept myself and accept the world.  We are all doing the best we can do from the place we are at in each moment.  Remember this and find acceptance through it.

Somehow, the world needs to learn how to come from love to end the senseless tragedies created from fear and hatred – the violence in the mid east, the genocide in Africa, the reign of terror from cartels in South America, the violence from abuse and prejudice that continues, the list is too long.  My journey will find ways to help make that difference and find a place that I can help others heal and allow people to find love.

I connected deeply and richly with people while in Italy.  I heard their stories.  I felt their greatness.  Part of my role will be to share their stories with the world.  The discovery of how will be revealed on its own time.

Italy was my reward – trip of a lifetime for me personally and it was God’s reward to show me how wonderful life is when you discover your purpose.  When you do the work – honestly assess your life and be vulnerable to learn and grow – you will find the answers.  Each journey is unique and takes its own path on its own time.  I spent the year, and a lifetime, finding myself.  What an amazing place to introduce myself to the world and allow me to start my life anew.  It was my personal Renaissance in Florence.

When I finished writing the above, I went out to Facebook to accept the friendship requests from my Ebbio writing retreat comrades.  Anu is one of my new dear friends from India (and Paris).  With Anu’s request, she sent the following message:

“Hello Joan,
It was great meeting you in Tuscany. I will carry back with me, a part of your powerful voice to not minimize ourselves.
Pls stay in touch and visit me in Mumbai, Paris and cannes 🙂
Love, anu.”

It has begun.