Maia Toll
When was the last time you exhaled?

I started holding my breath in late February.

Breathing, this thing I’d done daily and mostly unconsciously since I came screaming into the world, was suddenly dangerous. Not only was it dangerous to myself, but I learned it could be perilous for others. So, as I passed people in the newly widened aisles of the grocery store, I found myself, quite literally, holding my breath.

My metaphoric breath followed suit, and soon I was holding everything close: my emotions, my money, even my dreams. By spring I was in a state of almost spasmodic contraction. This wasn’t the 2020 I had imagined when I sat down in January to write my intentions for this trip around the sun.

Sometime in May, after months of being painfully clamped down and drawn in, the exhale came in a convulsive torrent. My burning lungs just couldn’t keep holding, and anything resembling flow or balance had been missing from my life for far too long. In this moment of exhaling, Andrew and I decided to move ahead with the solar install we had been planning pre-Covid, I began re-envisioning what our retail shops would look like in this strange new world, and my literary agent and I decided to shop a book deal for my fifth manuscript.

But while I began once again acting like a living, breathing human, I wasn’t feeling it. During the summer months as I got a (spectacular!) new book deal, created a private label line for Herbiary, and watched The Illustrated Crystallary release to tremendous Instagram fanfare, I disguised the tepid beating of my heart with big smiles and excessive use of touchdown emojis.

And then RBG died.

We all know that cultural icons are only immortal in comic books. Making it to eighty-seven with pancreatic cancer and a full time job is a feat in and of itself. Her passing wasn’t a shock. But my reaction was: I cried.

I’ve never been an RBG groupie (generally speaking, I don’t have much groupie-ism in my DNA, that kind of devotion simply isn’t how I’m hard-wired), but I have watched and admired Ruth’s bravery for years. Knowing she had chemo one day and delivered a logical, well-considered dissent the next day was both mind-boggling and inspiring. As cultural icon RBG, we all watched her stepping up over and over and over again. And we were only witness to the end of her life’s journey, a journey which began long before we knew her name.

As a young woman, the challenges Ruth faced were both personal and systemic. In 1956, instead of enrolling herself in Harvard, she could have taken an easier road, putting on an apron, baking brownies, and kissing the kids when they came home from school. Ruth could have chosen this path, but it probably would have broken her heart.

What does your heart want from you?

I’m well aware that it feels like a fragile time for dreams and its hard to hear the murmurings of your heart over the cacophony of the pandemic, the protests, and the politics. But I would argue that now, more than ever, we need our dreams. Passionately following a true heart’s calling allows you to step into the most powerful and vibrant version of yourself, helping you to grow the kind of personal power that’s going to propel you to the other side of the pandemic, the cultural shiftings, and the political divide. This is not something someone else can do for you, this is a gift only you can give to yourself.

The evening RGB died, there was a telling divide on Instagram: some people where eulogizing, not only RBG, but democracy itself, as though one woman held all of our futures in her hands. Others, meanwhile, were finding inner-fortitude, writing things like “today we mourn, tomorrow we rise” or “Ruth has passed the baton. Let’s not drop it!”

What would it take for all of us to rise and reach for the baton?

At a moment like this, feeling the void left with the passing of a cultural icon, it’s easy to think grabbing the baton means following in her exact footsteps and becoming a lawyer or a judge and fighting tirelessly to shift cultural norms (it’s also easy to think you’re taking a step in the right direction by wading into the Instagram culture wars or turning to Facebook to find someone to browbeat).

But pause for a moment.

What if grabbing the baton means following your heart’s passion like Ruth did?

Remember Ruth Bader Ginsberg was not always the inimitable (and notorious) RBG. There was a time that she was Ruth. Maybe there was even a moment when she was Ruthie.

The lesson here is not to jump to the end of her story and try to become RBG, the lesson instead is to learn from her journey.

Ruthie had a dream. And Ruth didn’t let hard things— like being one of the few women in her class at Harvard or raising kids while going to law school— stop her from pursuing it. Step by step she charted a course that led her from the imagined Ruthie, to Ruth, to RBG. She couldn’t have known the entirety of her journey, but she still walked her dream to life, step by difficult step.

It is not your job to walk Ruthie’s dream to life: she already did that. Picking up the baton does not mean becoming RBG; it instead means hearing the beat of your own heart and dancing to its rhythm. Opening yourself up to your own dreams builds trust in yourself, courage, and resiliency. It helps hone your “follow through” muscles. What if grabbing the baton means following your heart’s passion like Ruth did? Click To Tweet

Ultimately, if you stick with it and work through the hard parts, the journey to fulfill your dream will help you to know yourself, deeply and truly. This knowledge will become solid ground on which you can stand through pandemics, cultural shifts, and political divides… and it becomes how you can support others in standing strong as well.

Maybe you think someone else is better suited, that you aren’t smart enough/ rich enough/ magical enough to pull it off. Maybe you gave up dreaming a long time ago and think you have forgotten how. Maybe you think your dream isn’t worthy of the dreaming because it can’t change anything in this crazy, confusing world.

That last story is mine. This story made me put off writing my first book, The Illustrated Herbiary, for years. Somehow a whimsical picture book didn’t suit the needs of my ego to be a serious intellectual, to do something that mattered. I couldn’t begin to see how writing this book could possibly help create a better world. But, somehow, I started writing… and I finished… and then the emails began: the emails that explained how the book I wrote got someone through the death of a parent or losing a job, or how a ritual or reflection guided someone to the other side of a particularly bleak situation.

As we prepped to launch my latest book proposal into the world, these emails helped me understand that it’s impossible to know how your dream will alchemize and what impact you living your calling will have on other people’s lives. A heart’s calling is a catalyst. You will become someone new, just like Ruthie who, by living her dream, slowly and steadily became RBG.

So… what are you waiting for?

Take a deep breath and let yourself exhale. Dig deep. Question logic. Look twice, or even three times. It’s easy to fool yourself and to sound oh-so-reasonable as you tell yourself not now or I’m too busy or this is a bad time.

And then imagine where we would all be if Ruth had told herself those same stories.

Big hugs—

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