Lucy Dillon: "We Are Never Finished"
Lucy Dillon has a saying: “Life is long.”
Puzzling thought, I mused, as most people say just the opposite, followed immediately by something like, “So make it count.” I wanted to know more about what this gentle sage meant, and what kind of life experiences might contribute to such a philosophy.
I met Lucy through yoga, shortly after I turned 50 and my body felt like I was pushing 75. I was aching all the time and complaining constantly, and felt like I had suddenly lost my waist when five pounds of extra fat settled comfortably onto my midsection. My friend Heather dragged me to yoga. “It will help,” she promised. I was skeptical but decided it was worth a try.
Lucy is not your typical yoga instructor. Don’t get me wrong. She is a yogi through and through. She can talk the yoga talk and definitely walks the yoga walk. But there is something different about her, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out just exactly what that is.
As I interviewed Lucy and learned more about her life, I understood immediately that this story isn’t about Lucy’s yoga. It is about finding the courage to reinvent yourself. Lucy’s story is about a remarkable woman who did just that and who, like most of us, has a back story that includes many different chapters, unexpected twists and turns, happiness and heartbreak, burnout, resiliency and resolve.
Lucy was born in Bakersfield, California, an area she describes as “rich in history,” and her childhood as a “rich upbringing.” Her parents divorced when she was young, and she and her younger brother lived with her mother, who was a journalism instructor at a community college. Her exposure to the journalism world was also influenced by her mother's significant other (who eventually became her stepfather 20 years later) and who was a sports editor for the local newspaper. I asked her what it was like growing up with so much focus on journalism and news.
“I was around journalism and the news business from the time I was little, and always wanted to do it, too,” she told me. Her own father was a high school teacher, and Lucy is proud of her family’s commitment to public service.
“Because my mother was a single parent, we were always scraping by. She was also very politically active, and her significant other also did a lot of stuff in the community. He wrote a column for 42 years and covered all the Los Angeles sports. We went to everything from the Rose Bowl Parade to boxing matches to Lakers games. But we never went on vacations or took many trips. We never had that kind of upbringing.”
After high school, Lucy planned to attend the University of Southern California (USC) to study journalism, but one day her mother came back from a journalism conference in Eugene, Oregon and talked her into checking it out. “She thought I would like the area,” said Lucy.
“The next weekend, we went there and visited the campus. That, in and of itself, was meaningful to me because we weren’t the type of people who hopped on a plane the next weekend and went anywhere.” Lucy fell in love with Eugene, where she was exposed to new ideas and culture.
“That town formed a lot of what I am--who I was as a young woman and who I am now,” she said.
“California is generally a liberal state, but Bakersfield was a conservative place…Grapes of Wrath territory. The richest agricultural area in the county. A huge fertile valley, all cotton, oil… rich.”
When Lucy got to Oregon she experienced a cultural shift from the conservative community she had known in Bakersfield. “I had this freedom to get involved in things and go to parades and marches,” she explained, “I heard Eldridge Cleaver and Jesse Jackson speak, and attended lectures by Angela Davis and Phillis Schafly. I soaked up everything--not just the liberal causes. I had the freedom to do it there.”
Lucy stayed in Eugene for a time after graduation and worked in her first “real” journalism job for the local newspaper. She had also always been involved in fitness and sports her entire life, and she taught aerobics classes to women on their college soccer team for cross training. It was also in Eugene where she was first introduced to yoga.
“I practiced Kundalini yoga and meditation in people’s attics, chanting in Eugene basements,” she said. “I was personally not a drinker or a smoker or using drugs, but I knew a lot of people who were doing a lot of experimenting in the late 80’s. I learned about co-ops, collectives, and people devoting their lives to certain things like service in Nepal, or homelessness. It was a completely different eye-opening experience of how people really dive into all sorts of things.”
And, Lucy loved diving into different things herself. “Journalism became what I knew by heart and I was really good at it,” she said. But she also loved being in the community with people who included exercise and motivational activities into their lives.
“That was my true love,” she said. “That’s where I learned it.”
While in Eugene, Lucy met and married a man who was also a journalist. He was from Salt Lake City, Utah and asked her to move with him back to his home state, where he planned on writing a book. She was conflicted because she had grown to love Eugene, and felt connected to the community.
“I’m in this beautiful state,” she recalled, “and I have this guild newspaper job, a union newspaper job, which is the greatest. I have a great reputation. I have this outwardly blessed life. I’m the youngest person on staff and I’m getting all these honors and I’m looking around and thinking, ‘I’m 25 years old. What else is there?’”
She convinced herself that she had more to learn, and Utah would be a new experience. So, in 1991 she moved to Utah, and never looked back. “I’ve had opportunities to go back to California and Oregon for newspaper jobs, but I love it here,” she said. “I would not trade the seasons, the mountains, the people, or the desert.”
Lucy settled into her new life in Salt Lake City. She soon began working for the Deseret News, one of two major newspapers in Utah. She gave birth to her first son, Dillon, a few years later. Dillon was born with some serious medical problems that caused him to be sick often as an infant. It also caused a lot of stress between Lucy and her husband. “When Dillon was sick, every life difference that we had between us came rushing to the surface.” Fortunately, Dillon recovered, but the marriage didn’t.
After her divorce, Lucy continued to work at the newspaper while exploring yoga, and teaching aerobics and fitness classes. She also developed an impressive reputation in the news world and her reporting brought her numerous local and national awards. She was put in charge of “special projects”, which she summarized as “the best job I ever could have had anywhere in the country.” Special projects included weeks-long investigative news stories that usually focused on a social issue.
“They don’t do this kind of journalism anymore, because there isn’t a budget for it,” she said. “We won national awards. I won local and Mountain West awards more times than I can count.”
Lucy worked mostly with one other journalist, Dennis Romboy, who is still writing at the Deseret News, and KSL, a local television station. Together, they developed relationships in the community and covered many difficult and complex social issues, such as a series on refugees from Somalia.
“We wrote that series by tracking when the refugees were first coming straight off the plane.” They wrote other stories about women and methamphetamine abuse because Utah was—surprisingly--third in the nation for methamphetamine consumption by women. (http://www.deseretnews.com/article/595104726/Meth-emergency-Use-soaring-among-Utah-females.html) They wrote another series about undocumented immigrants who travelled back and forth between Mexico and Northern Utah where they worked in agriculture. They themselves traveled to Mexico to ensure a comprehensive portrayal of the hardships these immigrants endured just to feed their families.
“One series would lead to another. I had unbelievable access to the power players in town. I could easily call anybody—Mike Leavitt (governor) and John Huntsman (later governor) took my calls. I wrote on all kinds of different things: teen suicide, business issues, the power players in town.” Lucy worked diligently for years in the newspaper business. She loved it, she knew she was good at it, and it paid the bills. Lucy had also remarried a second time and welcomed her second child, a daughter, to the family. Unfortunately, however, she found herself in another unhealthy relationship and soon divorced her husband, once again becoming a single parent. She continued writing for the newspaper and teaching exercise classes, all while raising her children as a single mom.
But, covering social issues was stressful, and at times Lucy found it extremely hard to separate herself from other people’s struggles she encountered in her work. She was working on a series on child sexual abuse in Utah when she began to feel burned out and over-exposed to the traumas of social issues. “It about killed me,” she said. While investigating and reporting on child sexual abuse, including child abuse homicide, Lucy and her colleagues interviewed about 80 sexual offenders in different phases of their legal process. She described being given “unprecedented” access to the prison, adult probation and parole, halfway houses, treatment centers and people on the other side – teachers, victims, parents, and counselors. The research took four months. “I nearly died from that series,” she said quietly, remembering the emotional stress and personal trauma she experienced during that time. (http://www.deseretnews.com/article/595097082/Skating-past-pain.html)
Finally, after 20 years as a journalist, Lucy began to consider leaving her stable job and journalism career and pursuing a career that focused on her passion for wellness coaching and teaching exercise classes that now included yoga. After she finished the sexual abuse series, she knew she was done. She quit her job with a circumspect plan to somehow make her love of yoga and fitness her new full-time career.
It was at this point in the interview that Lucy felt it important to fill in some of the gaps in her story for me. Up until the time shortly before she decided to make a big career change, Lucy had been harboring her own traumatic secret that she could not continue to ignore, especially as her work took her deep into investigating childhood trauma. That secret was about confronting her own sexual abuse history that she had never talked about to anyone. “I was just inviting trauma into myself,” she said insightfully. "And," she added, "I stick with things longer than I should in some ways."
There is a thing in psychotherapy we call “vicarious traumatization.” Vicarious trauma can develop in a person who is exposed in some way to another person’s trauma. For example, emergency response workers may suffer from symptoms of trauma after caring for people with serious injuries and learning or witnessing the details of how the injuries occurred.
There is also a thing called a “PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) match”, when exposure to trauma of someone else triggers emotional reactions of a similar trauma you yourself have experienced. An example of this might be if a person was physically beaten by their parents as a child, watching a movie involving physical violence may trigger an emotional or physical response from having that history. It’s quite possible that one of these, or maybe both, can partially explain Lucy’s critical decision to leave her journalism career at that point in her life to embark on a path of making her exercise and yoga passion a full-time career.
“I really believed that what I was doing in my work, combined with what was going on in my marriage, drove me to this amazing clarity about what I wanted and how I could do it with the people I already knew. So, I left the newspaper business. It’s been this profound period of…it’s not PTSD, and I don’t mean to minimize that, but it’s something like that and something that I’ve been recovering from during the last few years.”
I asked her what seemed like an obvious question: You must have been scared leaving the security of your job at the newspaper and even though you had built this other career for yourself, how did you do that? How did you find the courage to walk away from something that was stable to do something that you were more passionate about at that time in your life?
Lucy didn’t hesitate with her answer. “I always believed that if I feel like what I’m doing is good,” she reflected, “and while I didn’t grow up with any belief or religious system, I always believed that if I was doing the thing that I knew was good in community, or that felt good to do ethically, or that I could see would provide a service to something or someone else, that I would land on my feet. I had faith.”
“I have a saying that’s kind of a joke with people I know,” she continued, “and that is, ‘Life is long.’ Things don’t look exactly the way you think they’re going to look. Any circumstance, situation or relationship that seems impenetrable, immovable, rigid, or permanent probably isn't over the long haul.”
Putting that “long view” into action, Lucy also prepared for the future and the unexpected as best as she could. She knew that once she left the newspaper business she would need money coming in from multiple places, or what she calls “multiple income streams.” She wisely reduced her financial commitments. She sold her home and bought a smaller one. Her father gave her an old, beat-up Prius. And, she rebuilt her life.
“There’s no way to safety,” she said. “There’s no guarantee of safety, no matter what. My kids still had health insurance, but I didn’t. And what I learned in that time was it’s not the worst thing in the world to go and get help from the free health department van. I didn’t have a 401k. I didn’t have a year’s worth of money in the bank. In my old world, all of that would have been terminal and a deal breaker, and I should be fearful of that. But what I now know is that I could have chosen to be afraid, but it didn’t kill me. There was no critical situation.”
Lucy now has her own yoga studio, called 21st Yoga in Salt Lake City. The first time I walked into the studio, I felt its inviting warmth, something that I’d had difficulty finding when I began searching for a yoga studio. Usually, I would walk in, notice immediately all the young, sculptured yogis, and feel self-conscious and intimidated. But not at Lucy’s studio.
The first thing you see is a bright red wall with their creed written on it in gold letters making a bold statement of their values.
The second thing you notice are several couches surrounding a coffee table with flowers and pillows. It looks like your living room. The clincher though--at least for me--was going into the women’s restroom and finding a rattan box on the counter loaded with tampons, cotton swabs and HAIR BANDS! I knew I’d found my place, and I mentioned this to Lucy. She seemed surprised, as if all yoga studios have hair bands available for their students. (Let me tell you: I’ve been in quite a few yoga studios and never before had this as a perk.)
Of course, the most important element in the studio are their people. This is where Lucy’s influence comes in. Again, she’s a yogi, through and through. She’s just not your typical yogi. For one thing, she’s NOT the yogi with the perfect body, and she talked to me about that. Having always been athletic and active, she was always very fit and people regularly complimented her. Lucy is now much heavier and finding freedom and self-acceptance with a different body type.
In her studio, Lucy is determined to create an inclusive and safe place for people to practice yoga, and to be authentic in the representation of who they are now. We talked about vulnerability, judgment and acceptance.
“We are starved for touch…starved for eye contact…starved for love…starved for intimacy,” she said. “Even the feeling that we’re worth something, as if it’s some kind of divine blessing. And that’s something I can give people.”
She is also an activist and committed to give voice to those who need it. Together with her staff, they gathered protective winter clothing and drove to Standing Rock, North Dakota, last winter, to give support and supplies to the people who were taking a stand for something they believed in--protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. They also offer free yoga for a nonprofit recovery group, and the next cause they plan on tackling is how to support the Dream Act kids threatened by travel bans and deportation.
“How do we support that community,” she said, “so that every kid, no matter their background, feels safe in their schools and can have less worry in these political times? I don’t know how we are going to wrap our arms around that exactly, but we’ll figure something out. It’s our commitment. It’s our manifesto to be continually engaged in some kind of social justice.
"We can’t solve all the world’s problems, but we can support people in small ways.”
I looked at my watch, surprised that we’d been talking for 90 minutes, and I could have talked for another two hours because I was so engrossed in Lucy’s story. But our time was up, so I asked her for some parting words, which for me were the most precious gems of our time together:
“I just invite and encourage all people--and particularly women--to notice what makes them the most uncomfortable about their own progress, and walk toward that. Walk toward that because it truly is in the areas where we think we can’t make progress, or that we can never have that job, or that that we can never have that kind of happiness, or we can never go back for that degree, or learn that, or contribute there. You can. You absolutely can, and those roadblocks that come up--‘I don’t have enough money’, ‘I’m too old’, ‘I don’t have enough time’--anything that is bumping up against your psyche is something that we must have the courage to step toward. Even if it’s hard.”
“Because there’s always the perfect person to help you waiting somewhere. The step that we take through the hardest door, where we tell our kids, ‘You know, I’m not helping you with your homework tonight because I’m going to this nonprofit meeting’, or ‘I’m going to go make phone calls for this’, or ‘I’m going to help read to this Somalian kid’. The perfect doors open, so even though it’s a sacrifice for something, the perfect thing happens. I’ve seen that over and over and over again. That’s how connections get made. That’s how the richness of life happens and we can’t know what we don’t know, right?”
“So, those of us like me--and a lot of my old friends--would say that I’m bossy and controlling, because I love to know what’s happening the next day, or month, or year. I love having my schedule outlined and I feel safest that way. But that has to be part of who we are and we have to be willing to trust that moving up against the hard stuff is really where the growth happens. And if something’s gnawing on you, or you keep seeing pictures about it, or having dreams about it, or hear yourself talking about it, just give it a try. Give it a chance.” Lucy’s life journey undoubtedly will echo that of philosopher Fredrich Nietzche who once wrote in his ‘how to find yourself treatise: “No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life.”
For Lucy, reinvention and authentic personal discovery is a daily practice, just like yoga. For those of us who are fortunate to live long enough to discover new places, new parts of ourselves, new ideas, and new insights, maybe life truly is long. Lucy’s inspirational story and wisdom gained from a life of sometimes unexpected but ultimately soul-enriching experiences, both painful and joyful, can point us in the direction of our own ongoing, life-long quest of self-discovery and reinvention.
Because, as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert once said: “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”
We are never finished.