Sunday, October 23, 2011

My First Saturn Return: A New Path

As a disclaimer, this post is longer than usual.  Additionally, this post is much more personal than anything else I've shared with you to date.  I don't usually write this way because if you're anything like me or the people I know, you probably read blogs on the rare occasion you have spare time.  Also, I'm a fairly private person by nature, and it's rare for me to open up like this, especially to people I may not know.  But seeing so many friends and relatives in my life right now experiencing crises and facing major life decisions, I understood that the time had come for me to share more of my story.  Because knowing that other people feel the same way you do is only one part of "not feeling alone."  The other part is taking that first step and letting people know how you feel.

The title of this post refers to the astrological phenomenon that every 29 years most people will experience an often chaotic period of upheaval and major transition that coincides with Saturn completing one full orbit around the sun. This transition point, often between the ages of 28 and 30 the first time around, presents a crossroads challenging us to embrace a "new level of awareness" as we progress from one phase of life to the next.  However, this "awareness" often comes at the price of burned bridges, dashed dreams, and wounded faith.  

But what better situation to build yourself back up again and wipe the slate clean?

I just learned about the Saturn Return this past year.  And looking back on that period of my life, it's uncanny.  So many things changed and shifted, roots I had set down were ripped up, and I watched as the foundations of my former life crumbled around me.  And while it was initially overwhelming and at times unbearable, I now understand that that was the only way for me to discover the path I am now walking.  Let me explain.

As you may or may not know, what brought me to Texas in the first place was graduate school.  In 2002, I moved to Austin to pursue a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology with an emphasis on Human Development at UT.  My research focused on the differences in human experience that can be attributed to one or more minority identities, whether it be gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, SES, etc.  I was particularly interested in the interaction between multiple minority identities and how it influenced resilience.

Close friends from my cohort at a wedding in Corpus Christi in 2006.
If not for this group, I probably would have left sooner.

In the five years of coursework, internships, and research that were to follow, I learned a great deal, met a lot of interesting people,  and grew as a student and potential academic.  But on the flipside, I realized that this growth was at a major expense. My brain was full to the brim with lingo, citations, prominent authors, and statistics, but looking to my heart and soul - they felt barren and neglected.  Every day I was surrounded by people, but I still felt so isolated and disconnected.  And as passionate as I was about my area of research, those feelings of detachment made everything I did, from writing papers to giving lectures, painful and burdensome.  How could I reach the hearts of people who needed to hear my message if my own heart wasn't burning behind it?

My grandmother and I posing with my future
graduation gown in 2006. 

I thought about the expectations and hopes from family, friends, and relatives, eager to see another doctor in the Itchon family.  I also thought about how much time, work, and money had been invested in not only those five years, but in all the years of my education.  The hope was that grad school would be a catapult forward on my life journey.  But instead, I felt stagnant, bound by obligation and paralyzed by fear of failure.

So in the fall of 2007, two months after my 29th birthday and on the brink of starting my dissertation, I opted instead to finish with a terminal master's degree.  It was a monumental decision that did not lack for drama, heartbreak, and disappointment, and I'll leave it that.  Too often I would hear people close to me say, "What a waste," and sometimes I would catch myself saying it, too.  But at that moment, I knew that in the long run it would be the right decision.

So now that we've got the "burned bridges, dashed dreams, and wounded faith" part of it out of the way, let's talk about the "wipe the slate clean" "build yourself back up again" part.  Much more fun.

The potential within every seed...

That same year also marked my return to the stage.  In 2000 after graduating from the University of Michigan, I decided to stop performing and focus solely on my education.  While I loved singing, dancing, and acting, and had been doing it all my life all the way through college, I had convinced myself that the industry was too difficult and would never accept or celebrate "someone like me."  The voice in my head was like a broken record: "You're not talented enough...You're too ugly to be successful...People will laugh at you...Asians aren't taken seriously...You need a better body..." and on and on.

So seven years later, when I was asked if I would audition for a play at ZACH, the local regional theatre, my initial response was to laugh.  Who would want to see me onstage?  Also, for the entire 5 years that I had been in Austin, I had not once gone to see a show.  I was completely oblivious to the local theatre scene.  But with my disillusionment surrounding school steadily growing, I was eager for distraction.  So I agreed.

It was for Richard Greenberg's Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play, "Take Me Out," a story about what happens when the biracial star player of the country's top baseball team decides to come out of the closet.  The role I auditioned for was Takeshi Kawabata, the phenom pitcher recruited from Japan, who starts off as a force to be reckoned with but who soon begins losing his edge as he succumbs to the guilt of failure and his detachment from the world around him.  Sound familiar?

Surprisingly, and partially to my chagrin, I got the role.  Did I also mention that I would have to be completely naked for 8-10 minutes while showering onstage?  Gulp.

Take Me Out @ ZACH (2007).  Photo by Kirk Tuck

The whole process, from the quick rehearsal period to the sold out run, while intimidating, was inspiring and extremely liberating.  I was still in grad school at the time, and splitting time between the two worlds really brought into focus how little I had in common with my colleagues at school and how much I truly missed being onstage.  And being a part of such a moving portrayal of racial discrimination and homophobia, it reminded me that theatre can also be an effective vehicle for social, political, and historical change.  I could still change minds, erase doubts, and inspire the leaders of tomorrow, even without those three letters following my name.

Secret Lives of the InBetweeners @ the Vortex (2008).
Photo by Kimberley Mead

Miss Saigon @ TUTS (2010).  Photo by Billy Bustamante

Metamorphoses @ ZACH (2010).  Photo by Kirk Tuck

Portraying "Joshua" (aka Jesus) in Corpus Christi @ the San Pedro (2011).
Photo by Sara Maspero

29 also marked the year I began transitioning to a gluten-free diet.  At first, I didn't think it would be a big deal - I just wanted to give it a try.  Everything else was changing, why not that?  But the way my body responded almost immediately, as if stirring from a long slumber, was miraculous.  Like watering a plant, wilted from the heat, and watching it find the strength  and courage to reach for the sun again: that's almost exactly what it felt like.  I remember how I suddenly felt so much more connected to my senses - seeing, hearing, tasting, and feeling everything more intensely.  I started remembering my dreams again and I no longer needed a nap in the middle of the day.  The routine of chronic fatigue, swollen joints, pounding headaches, and violent mood swings began to wane and fade into the background.  And I began to smile, genuinely and without pretense, like I did when I was a child.

Beauty where you least expect it

For almost my entire life, I had felt at odds with my body, walking on eggshells because I never knew what was going to set it off.  Would excruciating cramps ambush me while I was out with friends?  Would I have a fainting spell while driving?  Would I start hallucinating in public?  Would I wake up covered in hives?  And ever since I was in high school, I had been on a laundry list of prescriptions to help "control" all my symptoms and keep me "stable."

So at this crossroads, just after I made the decision to leave grad school and stop holding on to other people's dreams, I took another leap of faith and began to wean myself off all my medications.  For almost two decades, I was convinced that I needed those pills to be "normal."  And I gave them full responsibility for my physical and mental health.  If I felt better, it was because of the medications.  If I felt worse, it was because of the medications.  But taking out gluten and starting to become mindful of what I ate, I finally found the stability I had been searching for.  And it had nothing to do with adding something to my body or trying to make up for something that wasn't there.

So I let go of that crutch and dedicated myself to healing from within.  And regardless of the ups and downs I would face, I wanted to meet them head on, both the disappointments and the victories.  I no longer wanted to be a victim of circumstance.  I no longer wanted to be numb to the world around me.  I wanted to take responsibility for my health. I wanted to start living my life on my terms.

And for the past 4 years and counting, that's exactly what I've done.

Surprise 29th birthday party

Back to my roots: Teaching a master class in dance in Houston in 2010

In Michigan with Lyla, my niece and goddaughter, and her sister, Fayte.
This was during Lyla's 1st birthday this past January.

San Antonio loved ones visiting me in Austin a few weeks ago

When Van Gogh turned 30 and had his first Saturn Return, he made the decision to become a painter instead of a minister.  And while I'm no Van Gogh, I made a similar decision to become an actor and work in a restaurant instead of a professor at a prestigious University.  I'm sure he received the same "tough love" that he was wasting his life and throwing away opportunities for success.  While I can't speak for him, in no way would I consider anything I've done to be a waste.  How else would I have arrived at this very moment, typing these words, and sharing my story with you?  

And in terms of success, if I measured it in terms of money saved away, material wealth, or social prestige associated with my profession, then maybe I would have some regrets.  But luckily, success to me is better measured in shared smiles, friends and family that love and support me, realized dreams, conquered fears, and physical, mental, and spiritual health and happiness.  And those, I have in spades.

It's no secret that life is full of obstacles and challenges.  Sometimes they're there to remind us to stay focused on our goals, forcing us to fight through them to maintain our course.  But sometimes they're to stop us long enough to realize that our current path may be leading us in a direction we no longer wish to pursue.  Own your path, regardless of the twists, turns, or potholes along the way.  There are endless opportunities every day for us to learn, grow, and reach for our dreams.   Love yourself enough to recognize them. :)


  1. Jonathan, this was such a beautiful post! I know you said my post inspired you...well now you've inspired me! I love that you followed your dreams, and I realize we really do have a lot in common (when I started my master's program at NYU, I was thinking about getting a PhD, focusing on social psychology and perceptions of and by biracial individuals). Anyway, I could go on, but just know that your story is so helpful. I had also never heard of the Saturn Return phenomenon, and I love that idea...

  2. I'm happy that you're able to share with so many people. Life is always about change in some part and sometimes you do get stuck on what other people want of you instead of what you may actually need for your own well being. I'm glad that you were able to rediscover and renew your passion for the arts. I know that it's what makes you happy and is the vehicle for you to touch many people lives and hearts. I have more to say about this, but I will just save it for next time we're on the phone. Mahal Kita Kuya
    Love, Jessica

  3. Hey Jonathan, this was a very humbling piece of reading. Your story is a very telling example of our current times. More often I see people these days are going through their own personal renaissance and reading this reminds me of that fact. I'm happy to know how you've sprouted and grown strong, reaching for the beautiful sun. Thank you for taking a moment and sharing with the world a deep part of you.

  4. "Renaissance." That's a wonderful word for it. At first, I was hesitant to post this. I knew that I had to, but sharing so much all at once made me feel vulnerable and scared.

    But I am so glad that I did.

    It's a risk to open your heart and soul for others to see, even just a peek. But ultimately, that's the only way to become one with others and experience compassion for humankind. And as I'm learning now, it's the only way to pay inspiration forward...

    Thank you, everyone, for all kind, encouraging words. They mean more than I can say. :)

  5. This is a very interesting and insightful writeup about your Saturn return! Thanks for sharing it. I'm going to link to it on my blog dedicated to Saturn return stories like yours. Out of curiosity, is your natal Saturn in Leo or Virgo? Would you mind sharing your birth data? If you don't mind sharing your data, would it be ok if I posted your chart on my blog when I link to your story? Thanks!

  6. Thank you so much for your comment, Chris! I was just wondering the other day if there were blogs dedicated to Saturn Returns. Now I know. Very much looking forward to reading yours.

    Re: my birth data, you should have an email from waiting for you in your inbox. And I don't mind at all if you post my chart on your blog. Haven't had my chart done in over a decade and I would enjoy having it done again.

    Thank you again, for reading and sharing. :)

  7. thanks for sharing your story. it's very inspiring and I can relate to it very much!

    1. You're most welcome! Most of the time we don't share because we're afraid that no one will understand. But as it turns out, people usually understand much more than we give them credit for. :)


Thank you so much for visiting The Canary Files. I hope you have enjoyed what you have read and seen. Your feedback is valuable to me and I read and reply to every single comment. So sincere thanks in advance for sharing not only your thoughts, but your time as well.

All the Best,

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...