Celebrating Life’s Journeys
by Nancy Bloom, © 2001
Transcript of an interview by Nancy Bloom of Ara Johnson from the TV show Life Passages, The Soul’s Journey about following your dreams, war, motherhood, marriage, breast cancer, finding magic and healing during difficult times and passionately embracing and living each moment.
NANCY: Ara Johnson is going to share many of her life passages that have been extremely challenging, transformative and very heartwarming.
NANCY: We’ve talked before about the importance of young people having some kind of rite of passage to take them into adulthood and I know when you and I were growing up, there wasn’t really anything very official like that. Yet, my belief is that each of us probably did something to get ourselves there. You did quite a special something.
ARA: It was 1971 and I was just 18. I had a huge passion and curiosity about the world. Part of that came from our political system and what was going on in Vietnam. I just wanted to see the world. So naively I bought a round trip ticket to Bangkok, thinking I’d spend maybe 6 months exploring Southeast Asia and I came back about 7 years later. It was a very magical time in my life.
NANCY: What happened?
ARA: The most incredible thing that I remember feeling when I first went there is how my mind was just completely blown and how important that was to have your mind blown.
NANCY: So that nothing you thought was reality was.
ARA: It just cleaned it all right out, all my preconceptions about living in the cultural isolation of the United States. It is so revealing to me to live in such a different culture. I was such a gypsy. I was curious. I was passionately curious. And I was excited. I loved the warmth and the heat and the mangoes and the people. People would say, “You are so far away from home, you must miss that. So you must want a home cooked meal.” They would invite me into their homes, not even dreaming that I had not been brought up on rice, and give me a home cooked meal. Wonderful people. I was also very curious about the war. I lived in Cambodia, I lived in Laos and Vietnam.
THE REALITY OF WAR
NANCY: So you were there when all of that was going on.
ARA: While the worst was going on. I saw so much suffering and yet I saw that the people had such a strong spiritual system that it allowed them to maintain their hearts in the midst of all this pain. I had no understanding of it at all. You’d see an old grandma who had lost a limb in the marketplace and she’d be laughing. As she sold you your vegetables, you’d think, “How can you go on? Your children, your family, your husband, these people are dying around you.” And yet the people there kept this joy in their hearts, they kept going somehow and I didn’t know what that was about. It was a very profound teaching. I became very curious what that was, how that was. Because to me a spiritual belief system was a belief system, and I didn’t know what it meant to have it be a way of life.
NANCY: Or to have it go deep into your heart and soul and really help you…
ARA: To live it. I have to say that Cambodia really broke my heart. I had really hoped that somehow when that was ended, there would be peace. When that didn’t happen, I fled, with a broken heart, down to Southern Thailand. I spent many months there in the temples-it was either that or a mental hospital.
NANCY: Because of the heartbreak?
ARA: Because of the heartbreak, and the huge disappointment that there could be any political harmony. I thought this is the 70’s. There could be good political outcomes. We were going to live in peace and harmony and I really believed that.
NANCY: So to trust the political process didn’t work.
ARA: Right, it didn’t work for me, so I had to go to another place. That’s where I learned Vipassana meditation. Even at the level that I learned it there, I’ve come to see what a beginner’s level that was and yet how important it was to me. Over the years as my practice had deepened, just that first step…
LIVING IN THE PRESENT MOMENT
NANCY: And it’s become an ally, a help to you throughout your life?
ARA: Many times. I think it keeps coming around to that, to the present moment. Where no matter what else I get intrigued by, it just comes back to that’s what there is at the present moment. It used to be a practice that was hard. Walking meditation was just pulling my mind back to the present moment.
I had a wonderful experience a few years ago, where I was at Hapuna Beach [in Hawaii] and I was catching perfect wave after perfect wave, so many perfect waves, that I didn’t even want to leave the water to eat all day. It was so perfect. And I actually got it that this was Vipassana. that this was present moment. When you’re out there on the water, that’s the only place you are. Your mind is empty. I just got it. It was so exciting to me to know that it was something that I could live and not just practice, practice, practice. It was like it became alive to me at that time.
NANCY: So it shifted you into knowing that present moment, present moment, present moment. It could be so there…surfing…eating…
ARA: I could call on that. I could use it. It was very beautiful.
NANCY: I think that’s the secret of surfers and snowboarders. They’re really very present on the spiritual path.
ARA: You have to be. Or you’re crunched. Well, so do we in our lives have to be. Or we’re crunched.
NANCY: But we forget sometimes
ARA: Or get distracted.
NANCY: So you had a magical journey as a gypsy, and that completed itself.
ARA: It was time to come back. It was hard for me. I didn’t want to. I felt myself an expatriate. Eventually it would have come down to an immigration nightmare. It was really time for me to come back. And I came back and found the beautiful, gypsy rainbow family people.
NANCY: So you could continue being a gypsy on this side.
ARA: It was good to be home. It was a culture shock. I wept when I first came to San Francisco. What have they done? They put concrete all over the Mother. I went out to a supermarket and came out sobbing. My friend told me, “No you have to shop the edges. Because I’m saying to him, “There’s no food in there. He showed me, you go to the vegetables and then you go to the dairy and then you get a fish…on the edges.
NANCY: And then your life took quite a turn when you became a mother.
ARA: It was something I was really ready for though. I was 31 years old when Jeremy was born. I thought, I’ve done my gypsy thing and I’ve lived with the tribes; I’ve lived all my fantasies and the fantasy I have next is to be a mother.
NANCY: So it was a calling.
ARA: It was definitely a calling. So Jeremy came.
NANCY: How was that, having a baby?
ARA: It was awesome.
NANCY: Is it more awesome than these other things?
ARA: It was more, it was different, but it was more. Giving birth, being pregnant, I just loved it so much, but giving birth was such an empowering experience and it was so transformative. And then to surrender your life over to this small person. I had been very irresponsible in my gypsy days, and this was really satisfying. It was everything I wanted. And then Miles came five years later and really completed our family.
NANCY: So that was very heartwarming to have…
ARA: It was powerful and special. I don’t know, just the growth was exponential compared to anything else I did.
NANCY: And you also had a wonderful relationship with your husband.
ARA: My husband. We were like sweethearts. Everyone wanted to have our marriage. We had very deep love with each other. And we always expressed that. Some people thought that was too much. We were always like, “Oh sweetie.”
NANCY: But that’s good, maybe that helped build and keep the love. And keep it meaningful. And then unforeseeably, a huge shift happened in your lives. You had a very magical life, a very beautiful life, fulfilling life, full of love. And you can share about that.
DEALING WITH BREAST CANCER
ARA: Three years ago, I found a lump in my breast and I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That was so devastating especially because at that time I had a belief system that wanted to hold me responsible, that said it couldn’t happen to me. I did a lot of delving and soul searching and met you. I did soul retrieval work and all kinds of incredible work. I really made some hard decisions about complementary treatments and alternative treatments and did my visualizations and my meditations every day. I thought, “OK, this is the wake-up call. I’m going to really get it. And then, I found that it had spread, metastasized to my lungs.
NANCY: Despite your hard work, both inner work and medical work.
ARA: It was very devastating to me. I went into what I call a spiritual free fall. I just felt like I don’t believe in anything anymore. I believe nothing. I don’t believe in Essiac. I don’t believe in CoQ10. I no longer believed in all my beautiful spiritual belief systems that I had traveled the whole world collecting. I just went into a really black, dark place-which after a couple of weeks I realized was the absolute liberation. I liberated myself. Because there’s nothing to believe in, there’s only what you live and only what you love and everything else is just illusion anyway.
NANCY: So you just kind of whoosh, fell out of it all.
ARA: And I realized that I could still have the things that I loved. I don’t have to believe in it, I only have to love it and live it. So it was a very, very expansive time and it was spiritual free fall, just being caught by that, by that net, the safety net, it’s love. That’s what it is.
NANCY: So it’s love.
ARA: And that’s also at a time when I was almost psychedelically living in the present moment. I have fallen away from that now as I’m distracted by life, because I have such a full life. I have two kids, I have a lot of things to do. But I was very, very aware. It was autumn and I was aware of the leaves falling off the trees and the changes and I would sit in this room a lot. At the same time to verify and help be a reminder to me, Iris Lambert, a local performer, songwriter and singing teacher, did her Journey to Now Concert. All her songs were about present awareness, and I was one of the singers in that concert.
NANCY: It underscored everything. That became your mantra for your living… and I think it was very hard on your family, the fact that you were so ill.
ARA: Hard on everyone, particularly my youngest child. I’ve seen his change from such a happy child to such a troubled child. As a mother, I really grieve that. I have faith in my children, because they’re really good people. I think they’re going to be who they are and it’s going to be good. They’re going to survive this and transform. It is transforming them into being deeper. But it’s hard for me as a mother to see them go through this. My relationship also went through major trauma.
IMPACT OF ILLNESS ON MARRIAGE AND FAMILY
NANCY: This relationship that was everybody’s favorite marriage, the love that was so present. What happened to that relationship when you were diagnosed, with all the challenges of treatment?
ARA: What first happened was that Craig was my caregiver. I had some pretty wearing out times. There’s a lot of burn out in that job. I was very ill. I’m much more present now than I was at that time. And I think how he kept his heart safe-and I don’t want to speak for anybody else, this I just my experience–it was just that he went into a place where it couldn’t happen. Into a really deep denial place. That left me really feeling left out. And I became very angry. We both became angry. Denial is a big wall. It takes tremendous effort to keep that wall up. We knew we still loved each other, but we were not getting along.
NANCY: So your love was there underneath and there are all these dynamics…
ARA: And not much support or understanding within our peer group or our friends. This is a unique situation. It’s hard for people to know how to deal with it. And many people dealt with it by pulling back. Just when you need people to be there. So I think I was very hard to live with. I have so much compassion for my husband. But we went through hell. We really did. And you were a part of that. You were trying to help, but we were just very stuck.
NANCY: And that was hard on the kids, I bet, too.
ARA: It was devastating.
NANCY: So how did that shift? I know you just went through a big shift together.
A MAGICAL HEALING JOURNEY
ARA: We went through several shifts. Being able to come back to our hearts. But we had this underlying hurt that we just kept swinging at each other. And then we’d make another breakthrough where we’d be in our love place, but that place seemed so fragile. It was so hard to stay there. I went over to the Hawaiian islands, to Maui, for a healing. And he didn’t come with me, because we felt like we just couldn’t deal with it. We didn’t want to bring our little thing over there with us. Our little crabbing with each other. And this is what’s magical. Before we went, you came over with a little gift. A small aloha gift. It was so magical. You brought me these Medicine Cards, the little tiny ones. The first card I pulled was dolphin. And you said to me, “Ara, when you’re on the beach, call to the dolphins.” And I said, “I don’t know if I’m going to really see any dolphins, Nancy, and you said, “They’re there. Whether you see them or not, they’re there. So just call to them.” So I would. Every time I went to the beach to do my meditation, I would call to the spirit of the dolphins. And I would see a whale sometimes and I knew that the dolphins were out there. I could feel it and that mediation was really profound. It was very healing.
Then, when I got halfway through our trip I realized that I really needed Craig to be there. It was more than I could really do by myself at this time. We were doing so well, I didn’t want it to turn into a crabby mom thing. So I called Craig and I asked him to come and join us. I said, “No past and no future, let’s just be in the moment.
NANCY: So drop the old resentment.
ARA: And it was really beautiful. I figured that it was just for a short amount of time. But the amazing thing was that we dropped it forever.
NANCY: And how did you do that? How did you succeed in that?
ARA: It was so magical. It was such the gift of the dolphins. It was dawn, I asked my pendulum which was the best day to go to find dolphins, and it went wild, wild, wild to go on New Year’s Eve. So we woke up at dawn and went down to La Perouse bay. We saw the sunrise over Haleakala, and it was really beautiful. It’s a big volcano. It was very gray morning, but there was a sprinkling of rain, which the Hawaiians consider a blessing. And there was a Heiau wall, which is very ancient, so we took some goddesses and Buddhas and angels, and we brought some flowers and made an offering.
NANCY: I just have to say to everyone that the Heiau is the sacred place in Hawaii where the ancient hula was practiced. It is a sacred place for their spiritual practice.
THE DOLPHINS’ BLESSING
ARA: Right then, before our kayaks even hit the water, we saw the dolphins leaping out. So we were excited and we brought our kayaks out. I couldn’t paddle for myself, so Craig paddled with me, and my two sons were in another kayak. We went out and were surrounded by dolphins, hundreds of them. These are the spinner dolphins. They spin in the air and they have these little pink bellies that they show off. They’re so cute and they’re just swimming all around us. Jeremy jumped right in and swam with them, he’s such a good swimmer. Craig and I saw a pod, I don’t know what they are, so we paddled over there and I sang to them from the front of the boat. At first it was just this ancient song that didn’t have any words. I was just singing to them. But then I started singing all my spirit songs to them and they just kind of circled the boat. They went under the boat. They flipped in front of our boat. It was like they were dancing with us. It was so amazing. It was so healing. It was so incredibly a blessing. I couldn’t believe that I was so gifted. To not only live on this planet that has such beautiful animals, but to have them be with me, to have them join me. It just filled up my heart. I still feel that fullness. So we were out there for a couple of hours.
And the sun came up. At that point, everything was dropped. All of it. I knew that this man brought me out to the dolphins. I knew that I couldn’t have gotten there without him. I knew that our wedding ring is dolphins entwined. I felt like we came full circle to that. Right back to that beginning and to the love that we shared at the beginning. And the dolphins brought us back to that. We shared so many years in between that I wouldn’t trade them for anything. We just realized that, yes, we were really angry and really a lot of horrible stuff is happening, but we love each other. Let’s get back in there. And that’s where we are. So it’s lasted.
NANCY: And how do you see it living in your lives now? How is that different from before you went away and had that experience?
ARA: My husband is my partner and friend again. We’re on the same team. His moving out of denial has empowered him too.
NANCY: Just facing the possibilities.
ARA: Right. The amazing thing is that I’m still here. I feel that blessing every day. I do practice gratitude.
NANCY: How do you do that?
ARA: I’m grateful for every day that I’m here. I just am. I’m grateful to have my children, my family. We tell each other we love each other every single day. Jeremy just had a coming of age ceremony and when we had a prayer circle, one of the things that I said that I was very grateful for was the kind of family that we are and that we do love each other.
NANCY: And you say it every day.
ARA: We say it every day.
NANCY: You brought back some things to remind you of the dolphins.
ARA: Yes, we did.
NANCY: So you have a bed spread with dolphins on it.
ARA: It’s so nice to be enveloped in that dolphin energy. When I first came back, I dreamt like a dolphin. All the time. I dreamt I was a dolphin, I dreamt I was swimming with the dolphins. I just had this dolphin dream thing.
NANCY: It’s almost as if they continued to support you through your dreams.
ARA: I think so and I pull the dolphin card really frequently.
NANCY: It’s interesting because when you first pulled the card. I remember I gave you that little set of cards and you pulled one off the top and you said, “Oh, that’s not really a reading.” So I said, “Ok, shuffle them and pull another one.” And you pulled it again. I remember saying, “You’ll see dolphins. And you said, no we’re not going to where the dolphins are.”
ARA: I said just keep tuning into them. Call them.
NANCY: So how wonderful. And you were telling me that now, when you’ve redecorated your bedroom that you share with your husband with a dolphin bedspread and a dolphin wall hanging. Now your kids come every morning and jump into bed with you…
ARA: Well, that’s something we’ve always done. Jeremy less and less, unless its like a special snowy day or something. But we like to cuddle everybody together. He’s 13 now. Miles wakes me up every morning. He’s a very early riser. But he comes and we cuddle in bed. He gives me the weather report and he tells me if there are any deer out there. It’s great.
NANCY: So all these passages have taken you to now. We talked about now. So how’s now going?
ARA: It’s great. Now is great. I feel really content and happy.
NANCY: I’m so glad. What a marvelous thing. Despite all the health challenges that could get so overwhelming to look at.
ARA: It is overwhelming. But I’m living with it and that’s my perspective.
LIVING FULLY WITH ADVERSITY
NANCY: Beautiful. So you’re both holding the reality, the dangers of it, and the challenges and living fully and with joy for now.
ARA: It’s my attempt.
NANCY: And this is the room where you’ve done so much healing.
ARA: A lot of healing in this room.
NANCY: And what kinds of things have you done in here that have empowered you?
ARA: I do my meditations here. I play music in here. Often at night, what I really like to do, because it’s got so many windows, is light some candles and they all reflect off each other, so it feels like a thousand candles in here. It’s a really good place for my husband and me to drum. We made our drums, and they are like brother and sister to each other. So we’ll drum and we’ll sing.
NANCY: And in that drumming and that singing, your hearts get closer, right?
ARA: Hearts get closer, yeah.
NANCY: And you have some wonderful statues and things.
ARA: I’m like a dragon, I like to have beautiful things.
NANCY: Is that what dragons do?
ARA: They do, they collect beauty….
NANCY: So I celebrate with you this wonderful journey that’s been your life.
ARA: I’ve had a great life. I really have. I can acknowledge that.
NANCY: You hold those hard times and the knowing of the beautiful life you’ve had.
ARA: And it’s all an opportunity to practice. There is one more thing that I learned that was a hard learning, part of my spiritual freefall, because there are many well-intentioned people with the New Age who believe we create our own reality and I was very confused about this, too. I went to my friend who practices Huna and I said, I don’t understand this creating your own reality. There’s many places where that falls apart for me and I don’t think Blacks created the Ghetto. And I don’t believe that I created cancer. I believe that I take this opportunity and learn from it because I’m that kind of person, but I don’t think I created it just so that I’d learn this.
She gave me such a beautiful explanation. She said, “Of course, we create our own reality, in that we’re captain of our own ship. As captain of our ship, we can take it anywhere we want to. We can stay in a safe harbor. We can go around the world. We are not the storms and we are not the sea. We are not the weather. We use what we learn as captain of that little boat to get us through those storms. You might have to lash yourself to the mast and just ride it out.”
NANCY: That’s right—with all that weather coming at you. Huge waves crashing over your ship wondering if you’ll make it.
ARA: That makes sense to me.
NANCY: It is a confusing thing.
ARA: It is confusing and I’m doing my life the way I do my life. I haven’t suddenly become more enlightened. I’m still messy, you know. I remember an interview with Rick Fields who also is living with metastatic cancer. He’s editor of Yoga Journal. He said, people ask him, “What happens when you become fearful?” and he answered, “Then, I’m the fearful Buddha.” I have many Buddha selves also. I have the enlightened Buddha. I also have the irate Buddha, which is great. And many wrathful Buddhas. And I honor that. We need more of a sense of humor about who we are and what we’re doing when we’re here.
NANCY: I think it’s all God’s play as some people say.
ARA: Laughter is important.
NANCY: And do you find you’re now more able to get a hold of that, now that you’ve made this shift?
ARA: I kind of made a point of it because I hear laughter’s good for the immune system.
NANCY: How do you access it now?
ARA: I have two children. There’s always laughing together. And I make fun of myself a lot.
NANCY: I know, when we’ve talked about the most heart-rending horrible things, we end up laughing, too. We both look at the dark a lot and then we also find the humor, too. It gives a relief to go back into facing the deeper issues.
ARA: It takes a lot of courage to live with your eyes wide open, and to live in the present moment. People want their lives to make sense. People want a equals b equals c.
NANCY: They want logic.
ARA: Right. We live on a beautiful planet, where random and chaotic things happen all the time and it takes a lot of courage to live.
NANCY: And you never know when some random thing might happen.
ARA: And random beautiful things happen all the time.
NANCY: And it’s just a big old potluck. I’m so glad for these perspective you’ve come to. They really enrich your life and your family’s life, enrich your friends, like me.
ARA: I have peace in my heart. Not all the time, not when I’m in my irate Buddha. That’s where the richness is. The gods and the goddesses, they were really passionate people. I am very passionate. I have a very passionate existence.
NANCY: What a thing to celebrate. So you shared at the beginning of our talk a little prayer that you make with children.
ARA: I learned it at Montessori. May there be beauty before us. May there be beauty behind us. May there be beauty above us and beauty below us and may beauty come forth from our hearts.
NANCY: And so it is that we invite you to walk a life of beauty before you, beauty behind you, beauty above and below you, to notice the beauty that surrounds you and to allow beauty to come forth from your heart.
From Life Passages: A Soul’s Journey, a television series on the extraordinary turning points of ordinary people. Copyright 2017 Nancy Bloom and Suzi Aufderheide. Excerpts from transcript reprinted by permission of Nancy Bloom and Ara Johnson. All rights reserved. For more information, contact: Life Passages, PO Box 921, Ashland, OR 97520, 541-621-2181.