Who Am I?
by Katherine Fellows
Who am I? How shall I live?
These two questions are at the heart of any exploration of identity. For some individuals, these questions are not given much thought. For me, they have driven much of my life. From teenage gender crises to mid-life spiritual crises, my understanding of who I am and how I live has been a constant metamorphosis. I reflect upon my path with a great deal of lightness and humor.
How does a kid from a blue collar suburb in southwestern Ontario, Canada, wind up on a meditation cushion in California chanting “Om?” How does she begin communing with disembodied spirits around a fire in the Utah desert, or start performing shamanic soul retrievals? Why does she chase her father down in the bardo after his death? Various communities have provided me with opportunities for exploration. Likewise, many individuals have become a mirror in which I can see and experience aspects of my identity that I would not have otherwise seen. I undertake my journey and my exploration so that I may provide my own children with opportunities to discover, create, and fulfill their own lives and selves.
While it was not obvious to me at the time, my first identity crisis struck at the age of fifteen. I had played ice hockey since I was seven and continued playing in high school. Many of my games were on weekend nights and I developed a crush on one of my brother’s friends. As I began dating, I got the sense that his idea of a good time was not driving me to my hockey game on a Friday night! I was plunged into crisis. What is it that boys find attractive? While playing hockey was obviously not very feminine, what is authentic femininity? These questions plagued me.
I chose not to play hockey the following year, but I further created my self identity when I returned to playing hockey in my seventeenth year. While I don’t recall any particular community or individual helping me to arrive at my decision, I distinctly remember my stance. I decided that I LIKED playing hockey and that if boys didn’t find me attractive because of it, that was too bad!
A second crisis of identity occurred in my second year of university. I had a very social roommate who was boy crazy. I marveled at the amount of time and energy she would expend in making the right connections and creating a certain appearance. She even went so far as to change her name, as she felt Carol was not very glamorous. While she cycled her way through various boys and dragged me from one party or bar to another, I witnessed her chameleon-like behavior. Not finding anyone to date, or anyone who wanted to date me, I found myself in another crisis.
But through all this I further established my self identity. Sitting alone in our apartment on a Friday night with my fists clenched, I stated very clearly to myself: “I am going to go my own way, and if I happen to meet someone along the way fine. If not, tough shit.” Upon reflection, the mirror that my roommate held up in front of me – bless her heart – showed me who I knew I didn’t want to be, helping me better identify who it was that I did want to be.
While school, friends, sports teams, part-time jobs, teachers and the university community all provided me with opportunities for shaping my identity, my family was particularly instrumental. The family stories that were shared at gatherings were all incredibly important for me. Understanding the lineage from which I came gave me grounding at very difficult times in my life. Knowing the competence, kindness, and generous hearts of my mother, aunts, great aunts and grandmother provided the soil into which I could sink the roots of my identity. There were also two stories of my grandfather that touched me deeply.
The first occurred before I was born. My grandfather owned a mill in a very small town in rural Ontario. One year, near his retirement, there was a bumper crop, and my grandfather ran out of room in his mill. He could not store the grain for the farmers who wanted to do business with him. So he leased some space in the mill from someone in another town and stored the excess there. Subsequently, the mill owner sold my grandfather’s grain and did not give him any money. The farmers who had entrusted their grain with my grandfather were owed money and my grandfather took responsibility for the theft. He paid the farmers out of his pocket, draining most of his retirement savings and compromising his future financial security. While my mother’s inheritance was far smaller than it would have been without this incident, my grandfather’s lesson and legacy of honesty, integrity, and decency was priceless.
The next story starts with my mother refusing to attend church when I was seven, even though my father was the parish priest. My brothers and sister and I were given a choice of whether or not to continue. I began to go with my father to the early service on Sunday, but not for any spiritual reasons, only because they served donuts afterward. Church and Sunday school did not have much of a spiritual impact on me. My earliest and most profound memory of a spiritual nature came when my grandfather died. He was diagnosed with cancer when I was 8 or 9, and died within a year. I remember my grandmother who was a very practical, no nonsense woman telling a story of the night my grandfather died. She was in her room and crying and she said that my grandfather came to her and comforted her. I can’t even type this without still crying at this memory, because it touches me so deeply. To me, it was obvious that my grandmother would never make up such a story, and the thought that spirits could appear and you could communicate with them was very shocking, and created an interesting opening in my psyche. And even more touching, was the feeling that the love that we share with another in this life, and the heart connections that we make, will even transcend death.
I recall getting into religious debates with my friends in university about the existence of God and the role of the church, but none of it was very interesting. The most interesting debates I would have were with my father. My dad was a pretty unorthodox priest and liked to challenge the traditional institutional beliefs. I told him that I was probably the most religiously uneducated daughter of a priest that ever lived. He remarked that it was probably my salvation. I began having strange experiences in my adolescence and when I would relate them to my dad, he would tell me that I was experiencing God. I would inevitably respond to this, “Oh dad, you are so full of shit!” It wasn’t until I was in university and began studying literature in earnest, that it one day occurred to me, “Oh geez, maybe my dad is not so full of shit after all!” While I rejected anything religious and considered myself agnostic, I was definitely in a moratorium or holding pattern for many years with respect to my spiritual identity.
As someone once said, life works in mysterious ways. The experience that culminated in solidifying my spiritual identity came about through my career path in manufacturing. My career success was, in turn, due to my post-secondary education and my mother was solely responsible for my attending university. Ever since I can remember, I was going to university and I was going to Western. It occurred to me in eighth grade that I didn’t even know where Western was. Growing up in a blue-collar town, academics were not on the list of anyone’s priorities, so my choice to go to university went against the grain of any personal or community influence. My mother was determined that I was going to attend and we had many emotional crises in my adolescence as a result.
She was the first to plant the seed of possible selves in the domain of career choice. My female friends and I were never having conversations about career paths in high school, but my mother and I had one conversation that jarred some embedded cultural stereotypes that were still prevalent then. She was saying that I should consider going to business school, since that would open many opportunities for various career choices. What shocked me then and shocks me now, is the fact that I’d never thought about it. None of my girlfriends thought about it, and the underlying notion was that we would one day get married, have children and not worry about a career. What a contrast to today, as my fourteen year old daughter is already mapping out several careers!
In yet another twist of fate, I started university taking Business, Math and Economics. I hated it and switched to English and History. Graduating with a Master’s Degree in English Literature and some hefty student loans, I took a job on an assembly line making cars for a major auto company. Within seven years I was an executive, transferred to the headquarters in the U.S. and was working for the Executive Vice-President of Manufacturing.
Amazingly, it was corporate America that provided the opening for my spiritual identity to consolidate. I was working with some consultants on some organizational learning projects and they invited me to attend a one week program called Journey to Love. In order to get my company to pay for the training, I had to rename the program. Had I known what I was getting into, I probably would not have attended, but my experience that week triggered and resolved my deepest spiritual crisis. It was an incredibly intense, experiential workshop. One night midweek, I awoke in desperation crying, “God, I want to know you but I have no faith!” On the final day of the program, in the closing circle, a vision began to form in front of my eyes. Then and there, standing before me was Christ. When I opened my eyes, everything was surrounded in white light. With gratitude in my heart, I thought, “Wow, I don’t have to have blind faith.” The result of this experience was that my spiritual identity was achieved.
One of the beautiful things about Boulder is its spiritual diversity. There are many opportunities for spiritual exploration and for creating community within a variety of spiritual paths. The presence of Naropa and the Shambhala community provides people with opportunities to study and practice Buddhism. Churches of every denomination are also available for religious study. In addition, there are many more fringe organizations for spiritual exploration.
For me, the result of ten years of study with a spiritual teacher, several years of meditation study with Buddhist practitioner, and two years of study in Shamanism, is that my spiritual identity is in constant moratorium. Since the time that I experienced my body as empty space and energy and my mind as an open and boundless field, it makes it difficult to consolidate an identity. Nor do I want to. I am deeply grateful for the guidance of my teacher, and the role they have played in my spiritual development. The study of Shamanism has led me back to the deep feminine and connection with the earth.
And all of this has led to my desire to share my path with others.