One woman’s journey exploring the miraculous power of music and community to connect to her purpose and free her soul
In 2009, I was living the dream.
Girl from Wisconsin makes big move to NYC, finds love and along with it an amazing apartment in an impressive, and historically notorious, East Village building. She hosts delightful culinary dinners and all-night dance parties, jet-sets to South America for epic adventures, and weekends in her cabin in the Catskills. I’d also given up my mundane and acrimonious job as a lawyer and was living the fast-paced and highly lucrative life of a sales director for an international software company.
Cherry on top: my fiancé and I were set to marry in July and shortly thereafter, I expected us to begin creating our family. I was 35 and my clock was ticking. In May, however, as if by divine intervention, my fiancé had a dream, which led to a conversation about postponing things, which led to confusion, lots of tears, and the immediate end of our cohabitation and relationship. Needless to say, the wedding never happened.
My carefully orchestrated dream had imploded. Amidst the shock and the tears, a light bulb went off inside my clouded mind: I was living a dream, but it wasn’t my dream.
I’d somehow been duped, kidnapped, hijacked by parental and societal ideals which told me that money was king; that if I had a lot of it, I could have the American dream of a husband and a family and that I would be happy and life would be full of adventure.
The real story was that while my fiancé was a good person and a good friend, the romance had long since faded. My longing to have a baby was pushing me into something that wasn’t right. My outright fear of not being wealthy was keeping me in a painfully unfulfilling job. To make matters worse, the entire time I’d been living this ‘dream’ of a lifestyle, I’d been consuming large quantities of alcohol on a very regular basis and slowly, despite running two marathons, putting on more and more weight.
I found myself numb and in tremendous pain — a suffocating pain that felt oppressive and overwhelming and seemed to gnaw at my soul. I was beginning to suspect that this pain had always been there. The alcohol had prevented me from feeling it. The sudden disruption to my perfectly plotted plans woke me from my slumber. None of this was supposed to be in my dream.
Divine intervention, if you believe in that sort of stuff, can take many forms.
I am one who believes there is something bigger than us, something that we are all a part of, and that it is through this interconnectedness that we experience the divine. Something out there in the vastness intervened to throw things off my course, something that would end up being a miracle. It wasn’t clear at first, as this miracle was not accompanied by the sights and sounds of angels. I wasn’t immediately lifted out of a place of darkness and into the light. No, my miracle took on a much different appearance, but in the end it was still divine.
I’d come into this world a very different person than the one I’d become. The words that make up songs like, “All You Need is Love,” “Let Love Rule,” and “Love is the Seventh Wave” had been my mantras growing up. I was voted most likely to join the Peace Corps; I went to law school to “make the world a better place” despite my father’s suggestion that business school would be a more lucrative option.
The person I’d become, who’d been lured into someone else’s dream, had been revealed to me as soon as that dream imploded.
Turns out I’d been suffocating my soul and needed this person to die if my soul were to survive. This was not going to be an easy task.
Instinctively I threw myself back into a world filled with music. It had always been my beacon, the thing that got me through every rough patch I’d ever faced. Music inspires and heals. I gravitated to musicians who were singing about the things that I was feeling, to songs that fueled me with hope for my future.
I am coming backHold Your Head High by Heartless Bastards.
I’m coming back again.
I had lost everything and then I got it back again.
I dug myself so deep, deep into a hole
That getting out was so far beyond my control.
In the year following my miracle, I traveled around the country and attended a truly ridiculous number of shows and festivals soaking up lyrics, rhythms, all the while searching for something that was still out of sight. What did my soul desire?
My spiritual journey had begun, and I yearned to dig deeper into ‘the meaning of it all’. I began to pore through Buddhist and other spiritual texts. I struggled daily, minute by minute, to stay present in a meaningless job that felt pushed upon me. The pain of an empty profession was starting to take its toll, on my soul.
I kept searching; I began practicing yoga regularly, reading self-improvement books, listening to podcasts, and attending retreats. I wanted to know the answer to what was next, afraid that it wouldn’t reveal itself.
It wasn’t until I began to communicate with my soul through my own creativity that the light finally began to shine through. I began work on a novel and had become friendly enough with my guitar and my voice to write some simple songs.
By creating, I was able to open up a dialogue with my soul and reconnect with myself.
I knew that I had to give up my unhealthy relationship to alcohol and money, my fear of not having enough, and to allow myself to be guided by my desire to help and uplift others. The question was: How?
While I was busy soul-searching, a small local art, music and wellness festival was beginning to blossom in the nearby upstate city of Kingston, NY. It was called the O+ Festival (pronounced O Positive) and its mission was centered on these words: “The Art of Medicine for the Medicine of Art.” Given my belief in the healing power of music, I was intrigued.
When a friend who knew about my quest for fulfillment suggested I get involved as a volunteer, I did. I was quickly immersed in a community of creative and like-minded souls who wanted to make the world a better, healthier and happier place by taking care of artists and musicians. This was accomplished through a pop-up wellness clinic filled with volunteer doctors, nurses, acupuncturists, massage therapists, chiropractors and more. In exchange for this free care, the artists and musicians donated their talent to the three-day festival for the entire community to enjoy.
I threw my whole self into my volunteer role. I offered to help as much as was needed and when it was done, I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to return again the following year. My soul thanked me. I dove deeper into my yoga practice, wanting to reveal more and be more, and I completed my teaching certification in mid-2013.
That same year when the O+ Festival organizers were in need of a Volunteer Coordinator, I jumped at the opportunity. I knew that it would be hard to balance my full-time job with a demanding volunteer role, but my soul said yes. Now I was listening.
As the Volunteer Coordinator, I saw the best in humanity as I worked with over 100 beautiful volunteers — hands down one of the hardest, yet most fulfilling roles I’d ever taken on. I was blown away by the generosity of people. Businesses donating items when we didn’t have the means to pay for them. Volunteers working extra shifts to cover gaps in the schedule. Strangers stumbling upon the festivities and wanting to lend a hand wherever it was needed.
I realized that I wasn’t alone in wanting to feel a part of something greater, of wanting to connect with others, of wanting meaning in my life.
When the Festival was done that year, I was exhausted, we were exhausted, but we felt lifted knowing that we had accomplished something special as a community.
My soul was a flame now, and my life was starting to take on a new shape. I was in a flow. I felt supported by that thing that is bigger than us all. It felt divine. When the Executive Director asked me to take on the role of Festival Director for the following year, it was as if my dreams had really come true. Of course, the tricky issue still existed of how to balance all of this with my full-time job and the new yoga studio I had opened with a dear friend, but there was no stopping this uncontrollable drive to work together with my community (and new friends) to make sure the Festival happened another year.
By 2014, the festival had expanded to California with dozens of other communities reaching out to learn how to bring O+ to their hometown. With an ever-expanding list of responsibilities, we were in a state of perpetual volunteer recruitment to support the organization’s growing activities.
Admittedly, there were times when we thought things might fall apart or at least start to crumble, but as if through divine intervention, things always had a way of working out.
Whether it was some creative new way to solve a problem, a last-minute offer of help or money from someone in the community, or just old-fashioned teamwork, we began to call these occurrences “O+ miracles.” Not quite the same kind of miracle that appeared in my life many years ago, but an example of the divine nonetheless.
Fast forward a few years and a lot of community building later, O+ is now 8 years old. In addition to its annual Kingston Festival, O+ has taken place in San Francisco, Petaluma, Chicago, and the Bronx. This year we’ll see the launch of festivals in Haverhill, MA, and Poughkeepsie, NY. Once a 100% volunteer-run organization, O+ is now proud to have hired its first full-time Operations Director, as well as several part-time staff members. We’ve come a long way, but we still rely on the support of a community that is seeking connection — and the occasional O+ miracle.
As for me, I finally quit that software job and am still working on that novel. Now the President of the O+ Board, I am involved with building the organization in new and exciting ways. I spend my time trying to heal our community through yoga and sound healing, as well as working to empower women and survivors of domestic violence.
I often reflect upon my time as Volunteer Coordinator. The images of people’s generosity will forever be imprinted in my heart. They give me hope at a time when it feels like we’re forgetting the importance of taking care of one another. I don’t think my soul’s journey is unique. I think we all want connection and a higher purpose. I am grateful to O+ for helping me to see and feel that.
Learn more at OPositiveFestival.org
You may also enjoy reading Maggie Wheeler: The Yoga of Song, by Peter Occhiogrosso