The Navajos tell a story of the "pollen path." This does not refer to some allergy nightmare, as my sister helpfully pointed out, but as defined by Joseph Campbell, this is a path through life that is true to the individual and his/her unique passions. Psychologists would call this an ego-syntonic existence -- here, the outer world matches the inner one, so that each leaf, each branch along the path, and even on the ground below and in the infinite sky above, looks as if it is covered with pollen: golden, filled with possibility. As the saying goes:
Oh beauty before me,
Beauty behind me,
Beauty to the right of me,
Beauty to the left of me,
Beauty above me
Beauty below me,
I am on the pollen path.
Five years ago, the world around me was glittering like gold, but more from the copious amount of dust and pollution in the air, affording fire-red sunsets, than from any pollen, proverbial or otherwise. I was a 25-year-old film director living in Los Angeles. A certified workaholic, I had my own IKEA-outfitted studio tucked away in the tree-lined Silver Lake hills. Silver Lake, the hipster haven of Hollywood, provided my fill of fish tacos, Ray Ban-wearing musicians and grandma sweater-clad vintage shops. I loved my neighborhood. And it was only a short drive from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where I worked as a storyteller and consultant for NASA.
What did that mean? I helped NASA's knowledge management departments find innovative ways of capturing and sharing stories and the knowledge they transmit. It was a dream job. By day, I walked the same halls as my heroes, Feynman and Sagan, and met the men and women who were expanding our known horizons. By night, I ran my own film company. Like a closed universe, all my life, every minute of it, was myopically concentrated on my ambition.
Each morning, I had "studio time" -- unstructured time to write, play and dream, often sparking ideas for new screenplays. But for about a year now, the same image had been resurfacing: a young girl in a thick sweater, tucked behind the long wooden counter of a massive used bookshop right by the sea in Scotland. As if trapped in some infinite echo, the vision never went anywhere before disappearing back into the deep waters of my subconscious. Until one morning the bookshop girl looked up from her reading and I saw that she was not a character at all. She was me.
Perhaps I was burned out from work or perhaps I'd become prone to hallucinations as the heat in my apartment baked to desert-like temperatures. Dreaming up films was the norm, but never one with me in it. The image haunted me. What if this wasn't a film, I began to wonder, but a premonition? Had my studies in mythology and voracious reading of all things Joseph Campbell finally cracked my sanity? What kind of rational thinking person had visions like these?
Typing "used bookshop Scotland" into Google, Wigtown appeared. Scotland's national book town, with 16 bookshops right by the sea. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. Could I really do this? What about my work? Could I afford the time to wander off to Scotland? The choice made no sense. In fact, it terrified me, in a delicious, is-this-really-possible kind of way. It made me stop and wonder: When do we ever really listen to our instincts, to that little voice inside saying "what if"? What if this was meaningful? What if I was meant to follow a vision? What if I stopped letting my film characters have all the fun and made my own life as rich as my imagination would have it?
The first bookshop on the Wigtown homepage was aptly named "The Bookshop," and was the largest one in Scotland. After a quick email exchange, where I described myself as an American interested in a mere work holiday, I had booked my ticket. Five years later -- with many adventures in between -- I am still there.
I am also still writing and directing films. I am still a workaholic, but have found the time to add love and adventure into the balance. And I am still dreaming.
Now this is not an article advising everyone to cast aside their cares or responsibilities. Nor is this an article espousing a didactic diatribe about the pursuit of one's dreams. Just the expression "follow your dreams" has grown to sound trite and vapid in a time when people are busier than ever. But dreams are living and evolving, just as we are. They do not come true by some Disney godmother or a genie in a lamp. As such, this is an article about reclaiming the importance of tapping into our dreams and following our instincts. If the pollen path leads us to a cubical in Manhattan one day and to a sub-arctic stone bookshop in Scotland the next, then so be it. The pollen path is a path, after all.
And most importantly, no matter how pollen-coated or how glittering, we will all have the same ending. "All roads lead to the end of the world," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. "No one gets out of here alive, Jess," says my engineer father. (Essential parenting to bring up a neurotic child.) But no matter how you say it -- in haunting poetic prose or with blunt, pragmatic precision -- the tenor of the meaning remains the same. So, in asking yourself, "what if?" a great power and magic lie. What if you spent the precious time you have doing what you love? What if you adventure down not just the path less travelled, but down a path of your own making? What if you took the time to follow your own pollen path.