Only three days into my time in Otavalo, I began to understand that traditional Ecuadorians revere one thing above all else: Pachamama, or Mother Earth. They believe she holds all answers within the branches of her hands, her mountainous breasts, and her river veins. They touch her skin by walking with bare feet on her rounded back, and they show their gratitude to her constantly—tipping a water bottle toward the soil, mid-hike, mid-conversation, to offer her a sip of water before taking a drink themselves, or laying a crushed cocoa leaf on the ground for her before chewing their own.
The emotional connection many Ecuadorians have with the earth was brought to life for me when I met Mama Concha, a revered shaman who lives just outside Otavalo. A stout woman with a kind smile and a face the color of honey, she struck me immediately as the personification of Mother Earth—wise, nurturing and powerful. She moved with a slow shuffle, her white lace shirt tucked into a long gray skirt, her waistband lost under the hang of her bosom. Her eyes were wise and girlish at the same time, her embrace loving and fiercely strong. I trusted her immediately and wondered what I might learn in her presence.
I had come to the Andes hoping to gain some insight into my future. Having recently left my job, I was struggling to figure out my next move in life. I wasn’t the only woman I knew feeling somehow unsettled, unsure of the future. A dear friend suggested to a group of us who were all facing transitions of some kind that a week in Ecuador might do us all some good. Whether it was curiosity about visiting the shamans she had told us about, or simply the chance to separate ourselves from the unrelenting chaos of our American lives for one week, we all jumped at the chance.
And I had high hopes that the trip might offer me some clarity. Should I start another company? Were the knots that tightened in my stomach when I thought about it normal, or were they a warning sign of some kind? Was my need to nap every day for six months after I had quit to be expected, or was this level of extreme exhaustion a marker of something else that I shouldn’t ignore?
I had spent a lot of time as a kid trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life, what kind of job I could have that would make my mark on the world. “Writer” had perennially occupied the top spot on my wish list, but at twelve-years old I was already suspicious that I didn’t have enough story in me to be worthy of that profession. Having been taught to “write what you know,” I suffered from, as I recently heard Colum McCann put it, “the curse of the happy childhood.” Nothing dramatic or horrifying had ever happened to me. I had nothing to write about, and I was pretty sure wishing for good material to come my way wasn’t such a good idea.
Then I saw Ordinary People. You may remember the book, by Judith Guest, or the movie starring Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore. There was so much to wrench the heart in that story—the teen-aged boy, Conrad, who tries to commit suicide after the death of his brother, the stoic mother unable to accept the blemished remains of her family, the loving father desperate to fix his broken home—but it was the psychiatrist that grabbed me most. Played in the movie by Judd Hirsch, he is the one that helps the teenager come to grips with the crushing guilt of having survived the boating accident that killed his brother.
The story affected me so deeply that I added “psychiatrist” to the list of things I wanted to be. Even if I hadn’t lived a novel-worthy life, I was thrilled by the idea that I could help other people who had experienced trauma and needed help sorting through the rubble of their lives. Why I thought that same person, inexperienced in life and loss, could expertly guide someone through unthinkable hardship or heartbreak I’m not sure, except that the idea that psychiatrists undergo extensive schooling and training gave me some measure of confidence (I had always been good at school), and the psychiatrist of Ordinary People was presented almost as a non-person, that is to say, his background and personal story seemed not to matter in the slightest to Conrad’s plight. So I added the job to my list.
As happens with many young people, my career path was neither well planned nor a logical outcome of my childhood musings. I wound up co-founding a business. But my quest to build a great company had a lot to do with the Judd Hirsch in my heart. I was determined to build a company in which every employee mattered, where no one had to leave his emotions at the door—the excitement over a pregnancy or heartache over a sick parent— in favor of corporate efficiency. My co-founder and I knew our company would be more successful if we made it a part of our culture to recognize the challenges and triumphs in each person’s life and help them rise to those occasions in whatever ways we could—things a simple as allowing for a flexible schedule, providing sabbaticals, or even just encouraging real conversation with Kleenex at the ready.
It was a wonderful time. It is truly remarkable what giving employees permission to be a whole person in their work environment can do for their ability to rise into their best selves. And yet, as the company grew from fifty employees to two hundred to almost one thousand, I took the responsibility of each employee’s happiness personally, and it weighed on me deeply. Conversation alone couldn’t cure a sick child, couldn’t solve for a messy divorce. How much could I actually help anyone? How much could I fix?
After more than a decade of building the company, and then selling it, I felt an exhaustion begin to overtake me that I couldn’t ignore. I needed a break. When I announced I was leaving, everyone’s first question was whether or not I was going to start another company. My most common answer was, “I don’t know if I can. Now I know how hard it is.” But even as those words came out of my mouth, I disliked their sound. I had never been one to shy away from hard work. Anything worth being proud of takes an enormous amount of hard work. We had been successful; we had built something of value. What was it then, that was giving me such pause? I had high hopes that my trip to the Andes might help me sort through it all.
The first shaman we visited essentially told me that I was tired. He said that to live a long and healthy life, it was important that I not let my energy get so low, that being with Pachamama would help me understand this. Great, I thought. I didn’t need to come three thousand miles to know that I’m tired. So much for major revelations.
Then we went to see Mama Concha. After feeling my pulse, waving lemon branches along the edges of my body, and working her hands up and down my legs, sometimes grasping my ankles tightly, she asked me through our interpreter what I did for a living. I paused. I wasn’t sure if this woman would understand the word entrepreneur, let alone the specific business I had founded, which was complicated to explain. Before I could come up with a suitable answer for her, she asked, “Are you a psychiatrist?” I felt a wave of pride wash through me. She had sensed that I was more than an entrepreneur, that I had helped people in an emotional way. She had recognized me as some kind of healer, someone like her. Tired or not, perhaps it was my true calling after all.
I smiled at her. “No, but I know what you mean,” I said. “That’s how it felt.” Then, to my surprise, she waved her index finger in front of my eyes like a scolding, and said in a stern voice, with no need for the translator, “No more. No more.”
I felt my face grow hot with embarrassment. She sat with me then, and through the translator, gently helped me to understand that a true healer can take on the problems of others without feeling them herself, like Pachamama, who finds a way to heal herself regardless of what is thrown into her waters, who finds a way to sprout through the concrete we slather on her face. While I might have a certain amount of ability to help others, I simply don’t have the constitution for it. Mama Concha told me that for every person I had tried to help, I had unwittingly given them a small piece of my soul, and that my soul was scattered in pieces around the globe. This was the cause of my exhaustion, the source of my inner anxiety about doing it all again. She then performed what she called a soul retrieval, a ceremony to call back the lost pieces and make me whole again.
While I at first felt deeply disappointed that a role I had long valued above most others—the ability to heal— was not my true strength, it was also a relief to understand why trying to occupy that role had taken such a toll on my physical and emotional well-being. I realize now that we all have our unique gifts, some that we value more than others, some that it might take us much of our lifetime to discover. Trying to sort through which one has more “value” than another is a fool’s errand. Instead, we should simply focus on what fuels us, and gives us sustenance. Doing those things will inevitably lead to something positive, for ourselves and for others.
And then I had another revelation. The reason I had always dreamed of writing fiction was because of the power reading fiction had always had over me—to take me to a different time and place, to allow me to put on someone else’s clothes for a while and look at the world through their eyes, to understand something about myself by feeling deeply what each character feels. Brain science has actually recently proven that when we are transported deep into a story, our brain catalogs the experience in the same way as if it actually happened. Great stories build our empathy, swell our hearts. I realized it was finally time for me to give writing fiction a try.
And as luck would have it, after being in Ecuador, I realized that I just might have something interesting to write about after all.
Katherine Sherbrooke is the author of the just-published novel, Fill the Sky (SixOneSeven Books, October 2016) and a family memoir, Finding Home (2011). An alumna of Dartmouth College and Stanford Business School, she wanted to be an author from the time she opened her first book, and lived on books like food and water for a long time. Somewhere along the line, though, she caught the start-up bug and co-founded a Boston-based company called Circles. After more than 15 years with that entrepreneurial adventure, she “remembered” her original dream and finally sat down to write. She currently serves as Chair of the Board for GrubStreet, a writing center in Boston. She lives in a nearby seaside town with her family.