Marie Hopps was the first person I ever met who thought I was lovely, just because I existed. I called her my soft place to fall.
I met her when she came to The Second City to see a show I was performing in. She should have been the one on stage that night: with her white hair tied up in a big bun, she looked like a beaming ray of hope.
Marie was my acting teacher, but she was also a practicing Buddhist who quickly became my spiritual chiropractor.
We met weekly for acting lessons at her Toronto apartment. One-on-one, in her humble, plant-filled abode, she listened attentively while I butchered the greats: Shakespeare and Beckett. Eventually, the formal lessons fell away and what emerged was what today would be called life coaching, except life coaches usually get paid and I was always shy on moolah.
Every few days, I would stumble into Marie's apartment from one of my escapades, looking like a tomcat with a missing eye or a torn ear. She would patiently make a pot of tea and offer me chocolate digestive cookies, seemingly unfazed by the sight of my bloodshot eyes. During those days, I was keeping a very strict party schedule with a drummer who, like me, was working himself down the ladder of excess. We were drinking... a lot. (In 1981, I was cast in a Fox movie as a nurse, but showed up so hung over, they took one look and made me a cancer patient instead.)
All of my problems and complaints-du-jour would be met by Marie with these simple words: "There, there darling. You stepped off the path, but you can step back on." I would worry a problem into the ground, and she'd say, "Why don't you just take your hand off the bouncing ball?"
I had no idea what she meant and, being a typical 20-something who thought she knew it all, I didn't bother to ask. But it didn't matter to Marie. She adjusted what was out of alignment, and I was able to go back out and make trouble.
Despite my confusion and suffering during those years, I was a spiritual seeker, and Marie saw that in me. Even though I was so far astray, I began calling myself a Buddhist. Simply because she was one. I started meditating at the Dharma Centre and then, feeling good, I'd get drunk on Indian wine in the restaurant below. I guess I was a pseudo-Buddhist.
When I told Marie I was too nervous to meditate, she would kindly guide me back to my breath. Her gentle acceptance kept me alive until I finally admitted I had a real problem with alcohol and quit drinking. (I say "I quit drinking" but in all honesty, it quit me.)
A few months later I resumed my visits with Marie. When she found out I was sober, she was delighted. And in her unflappable way, she said, "See? I told you to take your hand off the bouncing ball."
So that's what she meant! The bouncing ball was my lifestyle. I took my hand off the booze, and the craziness started to let up.
But quitting drinking forced me to face a new set of problems: dredged-up insecurities and a busy, unfocused mind. Marie's advice was, not surprisingly, yet more simplicity: "Sit with the girl and love her." The depth of this statement is still having its way with me.
For the dear, clear heart she was, she sowed the seeds for me to cultivate what Pema Chodron considers "an unconditional friendliness" toward myself. No matter how many flaws I find or detours I take, I always come back to the path.
Marie mothered me until I was able to mother myself.
Whenever I asked her how old she was, she said, "I am not telling you because you will start referring to me as your old friend." But she was old, very old indeed. I still remember the day I found out she had died. I was standing on Jarvis Street and I had just finished teaching an improv class for The Second City. One of my dear friends walked by and asked me if I had heard that she had passed. I hunched down on the street in the middle of 5 p.m. traffic and cried, "I am now alone."
The monk at Marie's funeral gave the shortest eulogy I had ever heard: "Marie had the rare combination of compassion and wisdom. And if you love her, emulate her."
I have tried.
The soloist sang "I'll be Seeing You in All the Familiar Places" in a capella.
I do see Marie.
She has been dead for over 30 years and other mother figures have come and gone. I have been a Marie to many young women when they have been lost. And when I am lost and confused, not knowing what to say to my kids or friends, I see Marie sipping a cup of tea, prompting me:
"There, there darling. You are on the path. Just sit with the girl and love her."