Season 1: Episode #4
What makes a hero?
According to Philosopher and Scholar Joseph Campbell, a hero is an archetypal figure who takes a journey from his or her ordinary world, goes out on an adventure, through a decisive crisis wins a victory, then returns home transformed with gained wisdom to offer others. This podcast explores real people, real stories and the pivotal moments that changed the course of their lives forever.
Love can look different and life can be rich and even if it's not what we had initially thought it was going to be or hoped it would be. In fact when even when it becomes everything we hoped it would never ever be ever, it can still show us its beauty and it can still really be worth living.
There are some people who run away from difficulties. Dani Davis is not one of them. When there are challenges, she is a first responder. When there is injustice, she will do whatever it takes to set things right. I’ve had the privilege of coaching Dani off and on over the years and know first-hand that she is a true Hero on the Journey. I’m Belinda Lams and this is The Moment When…
Dani Davis is an Emmy award-winning writer and director, television producer, Tony-nominated Broadway producer, Helen Hayes Award recipient, and media entrepreneur. A graduate of Duke University, Dani serves on the Executive Board of the Duke Women’s Forum and is on the Board of Advisors for Democracy Lab. She is currently developing an incubator for Broadway and the live entertainment industry. She lives in New York City and is the proud mother of Noah and Nina.
So, how do we know each other?
Oh,we met via our husbands work. Jeff and Jason were working together on the Civil War which was a musical on Broadway and I feel like that was back like in 1999. We became friends when your daughter Aria was going through her own heroic journey. And she was battling leukemia. It was because of Aria actually that I wrote my very first song. It was because of the news that Aria was once again battling leukemia and the bone marrow transplant was a shot at healing and it was denied by insurance.
Within I would say a couple of hours of getting that news, this song flew into my head that I had to run to the dining room table and write it down. I remember when Jason got home from work that evening, I said okay after the show tonight we have to meet at the studio because I've written this song and here's what we're going to do. We're going to have everybody record it and we're going to raise money for this bone marrow transplant this week on Broadway. By the Sunday, we had 300 people from our community on Broadway in a studio.
We raised a really good chunk of change on that thing.
It was as if the heavens opened and just all this light came down and it was like we're not alone. Thank you again. It's really hard to believe that even happened. So, let's get into your story arc. What was your ordinary world before your pivotal moment?
My ordinary world was very sweet and beautiful, full of people. I was married to someone I loved very much who was an amazing stepfather to my son, Noah and had been in his life since he was an infant. So, we had a kind of lovely seamlessness. I had Noah and then Jason and I had a daughter Nina who was just delicious and we were really living this pretty wonderful life of great creativity. We had a production company. We had done our first musical on Broadway. Jason had written it, I had produced it. We had developed it over a several years period. The door to our apartment, it was notoriously open and unlocked and at any point, we could come home during the day and see people in our home and the fact that there were just people that felt great about being around and wanting to be around, it was really pretty spectacular. So, it was a very full life of beautiful creativity, beautiful people, wonderful children. We were always in motion, I would say in some capacity or another, which I loved. I felt like I was juggling a lot of things; being a mom, being a creative person, being a business person, being a friend, being a wife. But I really felt good about it.
Dani’s call to adventure began with an initial crisis. While that seemed like her call at the time, it turned out to be a prelude of what was to come.
So Jason had experienced some things as a young person that were coming back up in midlife and really rocking his world and they were traumatic events that he had pushed aside understandably. You know, and the brain has capacity to push aside traumatic events so that one can carry on and that's precisely what his childhood brain had done. But they were starting to resurface for him and they were causing him a lot of distress and he was really in crisis. That was the moment at which Jason embarked on his journey.
Though she wasn’t quite sure what to do, Dani helped her husband through his crisis as best she could. Then 9 months later, she happened upon a shocking discovery.
I was going out to walk our dog and I grabbed a jacket out of the mudroom and I had never in my life worn an article of Jason's clothing. Not a t-shirt, not a jacket, not anything. And for some reason that day I grabbed his jacket out of the mudroom and I put it on and I went outside to the park and to walk the dog. And it was, I'll never forget it, it was January 4th. And I was outside, and I was like huh gosh I'm so glad I got Jason a new jacket for Christmas because this jacket just feels really heavy and very uncomfortable. I'm so glad I got him a new jacket. Of course he hadn't started to wear his new jacket that I'd gotten him for Christmas which I thought was curious but to each his own. I was just grateful that I've gotten him a new one but then I realized that the jacket also felt really, really stiff.
And so I started to deal with the jacket and notice that the lining had been opened and I noticed that there were things shoved into the jacket and there were things in the pockets of the jacket and there were things just built into the jacket. It was all papers and I thought that was really weird. So, I got inside and Jason was working with someone in the living room at the piano. So, I went into the study and I started pulling the things out of the jacket. I saw tax liens and re-collection notices and papers all articulating a very dangerous financial picture. All demonstrating people on the precipice of disaster basically. And my name was all over these papers alongside Jason's name.
In a matter of minutes, life went from sweet and beautiful to frightening and uncertain.
I couldn't quite grab it. I just wasn't getting it but I knew that there was some real danger here in front of me and I knew we were really in peril and I knew that I needed to do something about it immediately. I laid everything out in the study and when Jason was finished, I asked him to come into the study and I stood there in the middle of the study and I looked at him and I said, “what is this?” And he looked at me blankly. He had nothing to give.
He looked at the papers. He looked at me. It was as if he really didn't know what I was talking about. We were just weeks away from you know really just falling off the grid entirely. We would have been homeless, weeks away from that moment. And I was just so grateful that whatever message that said put the jacket on. Right? Happened. Whatever that was… (laughing)
I’m Belinda Lams and this is The Moment When…Today we’re talking with Dani Davis about the moment when she found out that her creative and fulfilling life was actually sitting atop a pile of painful secrets. Once she made that discovery, she went into high alert in order to pull out of a financial nosedive. Her story continues.
Though she was completely unaware of the tax evasion, Dani’s signature was on the documents, which made her liable. So she be:gan the long process of cleaning up the mess.
But I'm a year in and I’m chugging along and we're doing this and Jason's in therapy and Jason's getting better and I'm holding down the fort and I've made arrangements with the kids school and with our landlord and with everybody and I've sold off a lot of our intellectual property to keep the wolves from the door and we’ve made deals and arrangements with all these people and cleaning it up. And I've got accountants helping me that have come to me through work colleagues. And I’ve got an army of people trying to help me.
So, nine months after that, I am off on pre-production for a piece that we've written called Handel’s Messiah Rocks and I'm on Cape Cod. I’m with my team of people working on the show that we're about to go into rehearsal for. And Jason and I have written this show together and Jason calls me. It's late at night and he says, I'm leaving you. He does it over the phone and he says all kinds of annihilating things that are shattering to me and it's at that point that I can no longer refuse the journey.
Her truth continued to unravel, though she tried desperately to keep her world together.
And I've been trying for two years to hold on and we were not going to be those people to whom this happens. We're not going to be those people for whom our entire family gets tossed asunder and life as our family knows it ends. I was really resisting all along where we were inevitably going.
Anybody in those two years would have looked at me and from the outside and said Wow, yes, like go. Right? You know. I would have done the same thing, I would have looked at someone doing that and would have said, ‘absolutely, wow what a strong person, you know, keeping it together. Right? Trying to keep it together. Doing everything she can to keep it together when all the while it's just eroding underneath you. Like it's just like quicksand but you're just resisting. So it was at that point when Jason called me, that night, and I knew that my life had been changed. That was the moment when it was no longer ever going to be what it was before.
She couldn’t go back to her old world. It no longer existed. Now she needed to face the disorientation of this new version of reality head on.
There was so much information that flew at me in that moment when he called me that I wasn't prepared for, that I wouldn't have ever imagined would have been something I would have to carry and journey with. Just annihilating our, our relationship, our bond, our connection, our past, who I was to him. Just telling me that from the very start, it was never what I thought it was. I think the one thing that was very powerful for me, that took years for me to settle in my mind was a statement that said, ‘I hated you from the fifth day of our relationship.’
Wow, it's just like going back and rewriting the entire story that you were living in.
Yes, and you’re like ‘Oh my God, that was 15 years ago. How do I make sense of that, you know, how do I make sense of everything we created and who I believe we were to each other and how do I make sense of these children and how do I make sense of this work and how do I make sense of anything I thought was true?’ Because apparently none of it was true. Was this like sort of like whattttt!!!
Talk about vertigo.
Yeah, it was vertigo and so that is where my real hero's journey began because it was a free fall from right there. It was like there was nothing underneath me anymore. I couldn't pretend there was anything there. I was completely cut loose and I was in another place and I had to accept it.
In order to protect herself and her children, Dani needed to prove her innocence to the IRS. They walked closely beside her for the next 3 years.
They had access to my bank account. They could call me up if they didn't like the fact that I bought four coffees in a day for instance and say, we're watching you, we're paying attention. And in order to achieve innocent spouse relief, I had to prove that I truly didn't know anything about what Jason had been doing all those years and the good news is I was ultimately able to prove it. So, it was about eight years there where I was really dealing with this mess that had been created.
The primary work of the journey was finding my own truth, finding my own authenticity, coming back from having my life just declared null and void by the very person that I believed in and I loved so much. With whom I built that lie. But the big journey I think was the loss for me and the annihilation piece for me were really big. In that moment I lost my husband, I lost my creative partner, I lost my business partner, I lost my parenting partner, I lost myself because I had been told that I was loathed and I was a horrible person and that I was a monster and I thought I better go figure this out, maybe I'm that person.
After losing her roles and identity, Dani wasn’t quite sure what was true anymore. Was she really just a monster? And what led her to believe that anyway?
Back to the January 4th discovery moment when I saw this crazy decade or more mess in front of me that I couldn't imagine. I couldn’t imagine how it had been created. I remember about a month later just standing in my kitchen and yelling at Jason and screaming at him. Screaming, how could you, how could you have never told me about this, how could I have lived in such oblivion for years, how could I have lived in danger? I mean our health insurance had been cancelled over a year before so we would go away on business trips and I would put the kid’s health insurance cards down on the counter and unbeknownst to me, I was just putting pieces of plastic down on the counter for the babysitters. And I remember losing my mind, screaming at him. Right? So, when he told me when he was leaving me you're a monster, I was like ah yes, I am because I screamed at him that night, I am a monster. How could I scream at him? He had this childhood trauma that was coming up, he couldn't control it. So, I started to talk to myself in that way. You are a monster because you couldn't put your feelings aside as he was going through his own Odyssey.
In the Hero’s Journey, there are often allies who show up to help. Dani was gifted with a vast amount of supportive friends and family who rallied around her in remarkable ways.
A beautiful babysitter that I’d hired in the summer because we were going to be very, very busy with work in the fall showed up at my doorstep two days after this happened. I called Maggie Mary Poppins because she literally just swept in and when I was dealing with all of the IRS stuff and working three jobs and all of those things, Maggie was just right there for my children in that first year. She just showed up. Never met her before and she became an intrinsic part of the journey first year who remains you know, very close in our family.
And then, there were all of these, I called it the good men thing because I when I was married to Jason, I would have people just stop me, people at the kids’ school or people in our community and they'd say, oh my gosh she is such a good man. He's constantly jumping in and volunteering and doing this and picking up Noah and doing that and I would say, I know. I know it's amazing, he's such a good man. And women would always say to me, oh you're so lucky, he's such a good man. He’s always helping. I was like I know, such a good man. And then all of this stuff went down and he had been keeping this peril, this financial peril that we were in from me and hiding all of these things for years and then left me and called me a monster and I was like, ‘Hey wait a minute where did my good man go?’
So, what was so interesting about those first couple of years is that truly the people who leapt in to help me logistically were all men. A good man in the form of an attorney who wasn't going to charge me $40,000 which had been accrued over time and was going to help me get across the finish line on this because it mattered to him personally. The good man accountant who took everything back that we had previously done the year before and help me recreate it and stood on the front lines with the IRS for me acting as my advocate without asking me to pay him. The colleague who hired me on to his company so I would have a job and a paycheck and I would have benefits that I so needed, who made room on his company and this company had to grow because it had to add me and he did it.
So, like there were people sort of jumping in and this is what one finds on that road to discovery is that people want to participate.
The moment when can show up multiple times in the journey, as you have heard. There is often one particular point where the hero makes a difficult and defining decision. For Dani, that decision was motivated by something much larger than herself.
It wasn't until the kids started going down, Ithen felt this serious challenge of this journey. That's when I was really in it. It was fighting for the kids and fighting for their well-being that woke up in me the understanding that I had this and I did not need to worry about my ability to get us there, that I was just charged with getting us there. And while the outcome might not be what I had ever hoped for, I was going to get us there and I was going to get everyone safely across the finish line. Not un-battered because both of the kids had their own crazy experiences as well. But we were going to grow from those experiences and their strength and resilience was going to be there. Even Jason was going to have his own journey. Earlier in this experience, he just hated himself so much and he just wanted to kill himself and I would talk to him about the legacy. Is this the legacy you would leave for your children? Is this who you want to be to them, so how do we get through another day? And now, I see Jason and he's strong and he is happy in his life and while I'm not in that life, I am happy that he is strong and happy. Is it the outcome I was hoping for at the time when this all began? Absolutely not. But he's okay.
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Today we’re exploring how a seemingly firm reality can be shaken, and the beauty that emerges when the truth is revealed…with my guest Dani Davis.
Although each family member experienced their own dark night of the soul, they also experienced their own breakthroughs.
Noah has grown in so many ways that are almost unfathomable. So, that he's a 21 year old young man who has this beauty about him, I guess it's kind of the only way to describe it. He has a kind of compassion and insight and beauty that just pours out of him. He is wise in so many ways and is a great help to so many people and is such a good friend. And Nina has a kind of grounded-ness about her having overcome her own thing. There's a peacefulness in Nina and a maturity there that makes other people feel safe and good. And so, I think for me, when the kids were going down, I went down and I don't have another way to say it but I went and I got them. And for me that was the moment at which I started to realize that I had it in me and help my family live fully and beautifully and safely and happily and joyfully. And so the discovery for me along the way was going from Monster to the awareness that I had this kind of deep strength and I was called to that. I don't think anyone who goes through these moments is happy to have been called. Right? We are all really reluctant heroes but now I know what is possible.
Now I know what to be afraid of and what not to be afraid of. And I can look at my children and I can see that they know too. There's a kind of galvanization, I would say just among even me and Noah and Nina and recently, we've been able to really welcome Jason back into that. It's been really nice.
After the storm had passed, Dani finally took a breath and noted that everyone was safely through. At that point, she gave herself permission to let down after living in years of stress. Then came yet another revelation.
That was the point at which I then started to feel my own grief. And I recall actually Belinda that you helped me identify that because I didn't know what was happening. I was thinking, well everybody's okay. What's the problem here? What's wrong, you're good, you did it, everybody's fine. And then I started to feel loss for the first time. I hadn't had the luxury actually of feeling anything in that period of time where I was on the journey. I was facing challenges, I was facing my fears, I was facing my anxiety, I was battling the Dragons, I was absolutely in it. But in that time, there's not an awful lot of time to feel and to process what's going on for you as you're trying to save everybody around you.
When the grief finally hit me, it hit really hard and the great counsel was let yourself feel it. You got to let it come, whatever this is just let it come. And that was a great lesson. I imagine everybody who goes through this. There's that moment on the other side where what just happened actually starts to sink in. I would say then that's where the growth occurred. It's all that's what life is. It's about risking our hearts and it's about being brave and courageous enough to allow the gray area to be a reality. So, that was for me the learning there that love can look different and life can be rich and even if it's not what we had initially thought it was going to be or hoped it would be. In fact when even when it becomes everything we hoped it would never ever be ever, it can still show us its beauty and it can still really be worth living.
As Dani rounded the bend back toward her ordinary world, she accounted for the treasures she had collected along the way. As in the Star Wars story, she had set out on the adventure of Luke Skywalker and was now returning with the insight and skills of a Jedi Master.
That's what we carry forward is we can do what we can do. We can love, we can bear witness to other people's journey, we can see them on their journey. If we get the opportunity to be an ally to someone in their Hero's Journey, that's a gift. I would say that prior to this whole journey for me, I used to think I knew how things went and if I did it this way, it would go like this and I would make this happen, I could make that happen and I can make that happen. I was the person who made things happen, I thought. I control things, outcomes, everything. If I muscled it and mustered enough and forced it and I could make it happen, whatever it was. And I did. I made stuff happened. I made Broadway musicals happen. I had kids. I made stuff happen. But the journey that I then took was well, everything you thought you made happen, yes those things are there but underneath all of it was all this stuff that you didn't know about the whole time that was impacting everything.
So, the underbelly of everything showed itself to me and the recognition that I didn’t in fact, couldn’t in fact control outcomes. Everything was really out of my control and it's all really magical thinking. So now, I think I have real compassion you know, when people are on these journeys, I feel like the best thing I can do is bear witness to the journey, to that person on the journey and say, I see you. I'm not going to pretend to know how this is going to go. And I'm not going to pretend to know that I know what you should do because I don't. I'm not going to force myself on you and make it go a certain way. But I am going to be here and hold the space for acknowledging you and honoring you and seeing you on your journey and being there in whatever way I'm called as an ally. As your obi-wan Kenobi.
Hero’s don’t return home empty-handed. They come home with an elixir of gained wisdom to offer others.
And my sister weirdly is battling her life's biggest challenge to date. And she's faced manybut this one is the moment that changed her. And, she is paralyzed from her waist down by an insidious virus called transverse myelitis and we're a few weeks in and she's about to go into rehab and we don't know what the prognosis is. This is kind of all over the map and we didn't know what life's going to look like and we don't know anything. She is needing to let go of everything that was, there's no turning back. Life as she knew it is over. She's been called to her journey. And I am absolutely humbled by witnessing it.
I don't know weirdly that I could even be here holding this space for her had I not gone through what I went through. I don't know that I would have known to just honor the person on the journey without putting some agenda on that person. Because when we see people in danger we want to like fix it for them. ‘Well, if you do this and you do this, you'll be fine.’ And it's funny that when you're on the hero's journey, you know it's not that easy. So, somebody who's been through their own fire, knows that they don't know anything and they know how to hold space for you. And those people become very important. And as I look back on my own journey, the people who helped me in that way, who leapt in to help without adding an agenda, were people who themselves had been through their own journey.
I left Dani with a few of my own insights about the journey and about who she has always been in hers.
Your capacity gets expanded and you now have access to resources that you didn't even know you possessed. And maybe they got formed through it or maybe they were there and you just found them. But however it works, you're able to be in the journey with someone else as the witness and as the safe place, just holding that space like you said, because your vessel has been expanded. And that is such a gift to give to others as it was given to you. And then I think back, when you gave it to me and you give it to our family before you had even gone through any of this, you still have had it in you. You just have now another version of your ability to help. As long as I've known you you've been a person that would jump in and help and been very concerned about the plight that other people are in. You're that person and you will do something about it. You will do something to make a difference, you're not just a bystander. So, now with your transformed Dani, you even bring more richness and depth and holiness to what other people are going through. Awesome to witness. Thank you for sharing all this.
Thanks Belinda. Thanks for this. It’s really good.
Dani recently built Girl Starter—a media company dedicated to supporting girls and young women building on their passions. Now she is actively bringing herpassion for writing, creating, and collaborating back into her life; directing musicals, developing new theatrical works, and building space for artists to bring their own passion to life. You can connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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