Let’s Hear From an Expert: Linda Lowen, Writing Coach

As a writing coach, how do you work with clients? What is your process?

We learn to write in school, but don’t necessarily learn the elements of compelling storytelling. And we frequently write from “headspace,” the voice that centers on I, me, my. Journaling is rooted in headspace—intensely personal, driven by emotion, focused on feelings. Journaling rarely replicates life the way films and TV do–through scene and dialogue–because for the journal writer, there’s no need to describe what just happened. She already knows—she lived it.

Passionately pouring out your thoughts, reactions, and ideas is fine if your goal is personal problem-solving. Journaling is a private endeavor that’s all about connecting to self. Writing is communication—it’s public-facing. Good writing connects to the reader.

When you’re writing for yourself, you don’t need to entertain, delight or surprise. When you’re writing for an audience, it’s about them, not you. If you don’t engage your reader or offer something of interest or value, you’ll lose her. This is true of a blog post, short story, novel, even what you’re reading now—all 175 words thus far.

Many people who say they write do so in isolation. They haven’t taken a class since college, and they don’t share their words in a setting in which they’ll get honest, professional, knowledgeable feedback. They have no idea that as good as they are, they could be so much better—and have a bigger audience.

Sometimes in our writing, we don’t see our ego interfering. Some inexperienced writers inadvertently create obstacles that make it hard for a reader to enter the story, find their own meaning and feel comfortable staying. One of my favorite quotes illustrating this idea comes from Robin Sloan’s bestselling novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: “I realize that the books I love most are like open cities, with all sorts of ways to wander in.”

So, I just took five paragraphs to say that I work with clients who are ready to enter into this process of discovery, who are open to learning and are not secretly hiring me because they expect me to say, “Great job! You’re a great writer and you don’t need anything from me!”

Every writer I know, from first-timers to published authors, can use an attentive editor or writing coach. My best editors—the ones who taught me the discipline of the craft—expected great things because they knew ‘good enough’ wouldn’t do. Everyone writes excessively, and every draft is a chance to cut back. Stephen King’s rule—as he explains in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft—is to remove 10% of the first draft. I’d go further and say you can lose much more. I was once in a workshop with Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex, and The Marriage Plot; I’d heard he wrote extensively and was unafraid to cut much of his work, so I asked him how much. For a novel exceeding 100,000 words, he said he’d discarded up to 70,000 words going through various drafts.

What I do for my clients is simple: I help them see the stories of their lives and identify universal themes that will connect with readers—no matter their age, background, or situation. Good writers provide opportunities for others to enter the story and experience it as their own. Even if you’re writing fiction, truth is based on the realities of human experience.

Tell a story well and you don’t have to say, “I was shocked and hurt by what happened.” That’s headspace, and it doesn’t allow the reader to feel shocked and hurt on your behalf. But if you describe the situation, the events, the sights and sounds, the behavior of others, as a camera—simply recording, not passing judgment about anything, not stating whether you think someone’s bad or good, kind or cruel, just depicting key moments through scene and dialogue—the reader will step into your shoes and experience the moments as you do, because they won’t be told how to feel. The less your opinion is present, the more they can form their own. If you don’t get in your own way, you leave room for your reader to enter and she will be on your side from that moment forward.

The process I teach is simple: together we break down storytelling to examine its components. I help women unlearn habits that get in the way of their best efforts.

There’s a lot of talk about clean eating. Well, writing’s the same way. Clean writing, writing that isn’t artificial or clichéd, writing that’s straightforward and simple, is compelling and engaging. I recommend my students read two books (you’ll get their titles later on): one describes these principles, and the other puts them into practice. When they see what a good simple narrative can do, they understand the process and believe that they too can achieve this kind of storytelling.

I also work with bloggers; I’ve been a successful blogger in the past with a #1 ranked site on Google for the niche I specialized in. And I do business writing, working with clients from established companies like Verizon and Nielsen to small internet startups.

If you blog or write for business, you may feel your ideas are solid yet you’re not getting the response you expected or the social media engagement you’d like. Chances are you’re doing something that’s putting readers off, even though you have expert knowledge and content.

I personally know a handful of women who believe they’re good writers, but they don’t get shares or comments, and I itch to tell them what they’re doing wrong. But just like a client who’s writing her memoir or novel, they have to be in the right place to hear that critique, so I don’t offer it openly—I wait until they come to me. In most cases, it’s nothing major, just a couple of small tweaks and changes in writing style and approach, but it has enormous impact.

If you do this type of writing, be conversational. Couch things in common, everyday terms that people can understand. Here’s an example of something that reflects my approach to blogging and writing online content: Unpack the Basket: 7 Tips to Increase Productivity, Enhance Creativity. 

Class Space at my studio for Always Wanted to Write

When it comes to women in midlife and beyond, what types of writing do you find they are yearning to do? What are the challenges and opportunities they face in telling their stories?

For the past five years, I’ve taught at the Downtown Writer’s Center in Syracuse, NY, which is affiliated with the local Y. In 1990, YMCA launched a national initiative, The Writer’s Voice, with dozens of programs across the country. Today the Downtown Writer’s Center is among the top three most successful YMCA community-based writing centers in the U.S.

Typically 80% of my students are women midlife and beyond. They tell me they’ve been talking about writing for many years and finally have the time to do it, so that’s why they’re here. But over the course of an 8-week class, a deeper truth comes out: Writing is their way of coming to terms with both the good and the bad of who they are.

Most want to tell a specific story that has shaped their choices and directed or redirected their paths. Sometimes it’s about their own mother. Sometimes it’s a traumatic experience they want to acknowledge and let go of. Sometimes it’s a health crisis they want to share so their stories can help others.

The number one challenge they face in trying to tell their stories is going it alone. When you write in isolation, you don’t get feedback. You don’t have someone else’s input to say what works and what doesn’t, what moves the story forward and what causes it to bog down and become unreadable. You don’t have a nurturing environment to discover your voice, you don’t have peers on the same path as you with whom you can compare notes, and you may expend a lot of effort on work that ultimately won’t serve your story, your intent, or your goals.

Writing is not easy. It’s not fun. It requires discipline, focus, and commitment. The good news is that it’s a skill anyone can develop and improve over time. Anyone. Write a million words and you will be that much better. That’s no joke. You can’t help but be. In my freelance career as a non-fiction writer, I’ve counted my output and can safely say I’ve written three million words. That’s what it takes.

Unfortunately, the fantasy persists that a new writer can do it absolutely right the first time without training. Think about how crazy that is. You wouldn’t hire an attorney who hasn’t attended law school. You wouldn’t let a surgeon operate who hasn’t gone through medical school. There are specific tools and skills and techniques that writers apply to their work to get the results they seek, and yet most wannabe writers who work alone are writing by the seat of their pants. That’s fine if all you want is a record of your thoughts. But if you want to publish, if you want to sell a story or a book, if you want to connect with readers who become passionate fans, you need these tools and the guidance of others to improve your craft.

For me, one of the hardest things is to encounter someone who says, “I wrote a book!” They’re so proud of their efforts, but when they show you the first chapter, it’s clear what’s wrong. You realize there’s a story there but it’s buried under verbal clutter. You’re sidetracked so often it’s a tough read.

For the person who’s willing to listen, to learn the elements of plot and story arc, character motivation and inciting incidents, the rise and fall of action, the necessity of structure, that’s half the battle. They have to be prepared to go back and revise, edit, and cut. When I see a student or client do this without prodding from me, that’s a golden moment. They’ve acquired the tools to reshape their work, and my editing and revising will be that much easier, because they can see what’s wrong themselves and they can fix it.

But for the person who is hurt by well-intentioned critique, who is too tender about her words and just wants approval, it’s not going to happen—their writing is not going to improve.

This is why I started my writing coaching business, Always Wanted to Write (AWTW), because it’s hard to have these critiques happen in a group of 8-12 people—the typical size class in most writing centers and workshops. Often individualized one-on-one instruction and guidance is easier for a vulnerable new writer to accept. I also find that having that familiarity with someone’s work, and the time and space to focus on a single writer and her needs, makes for a better back-and-forth over the long run. We come up with a better product, whether it’s a short essay, a 6,000-word story, or the first draft of a memoir.

AWTW also allows me to work remotely with someone, and I’ve done so with women across the country. Usually, they want me to shape and edit their work to the point at which it’s ready to submit for publication. And I can do this for both fiction and non-fiction/memoir writers.

Although AWTW was created to address clients interested in fiction and memoir, my career has been built on non-fiction work. I specialize in the online environment and publications that feature “service” writing such as self-help, health and wellness, how-to, educational, travel, and vacation, plus I can help with any sort of commercially-focused writing such as copywriting, digital marketing and ad copy, and catalog descriptions as I’ve done that professionally as well. And as a freelance radio producer and host, I write radio scripts every week and have written TV scripts as well. And I’ve ghostwritten book proposals for clients who have found agents and publishers with the material I’ve produced for them. I can teach clients how to write for any of these markets.

 

Can you give us a few examples of women you’ve helped?

I’ve worked with Ann Voorhees Baker on a book she’s writing about a problem that many of us deal with on a daily basis, one that’s not represented in the current batch of self-help books out there. She’s already an excellent writer, but I helped her shape the storytelling aspects of her book specifically using scene and dialogue.

Nancy is a retired teacher and an avid reader whom I met at a writer’s retreat. She’s been working on three short stories and I just finished editing the first one. It took about four drafts/revisions sent back and forth, and I loved immersing myself in her world and her characters. She takes a traditional approach to storytelling, and hers is part ghost story, part small town narrative similar to Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, and part fairy tale. She had a gorgeous description buried in her first long paragraph, and though I enjoyed it, I saw that it slowed the action down and I suggested she remove it but hold onto it. She eventually revised her ending to include it, and the new version gave me goosebumps. My situation with Nancy is reflective of how I work. I examine the elements of the story and move things around to maintain a strong narrative flow and forward momentum. I’m optimistic that Nancy will publish this in a literary journal in the year ahead. Now we’re moving on to her other two stories.

Maria is a therapist and a college professor who has taken classes with me. She was working on an essay for a public performance when she asked for my input. She had 1200 words and needed it cut. I was able to remove 250 words, suggest modifications that made her storytelling more effective, and she’ll be performing it publicly this spring.

Jo Lynn is a dog breeder and a painter who’s been writing short pieces about the dogs she raises and trains. Her writing is a blend of poetry and prose and is very unique; a couple of previous editors didn’t know how to approach her work because it is so distinct and lyrical. Having once worked as a graphic designer, I understood her intent and was able to preserve her visual storytelling strengths and restructure a few portions to help her achieve greater clarity. I’m doing a final review of her short story collection which she expects to publish later in the year.

In each one of the situations above, the work was done primarily by email. The good thing about working with a writing coach/editor is that you don’t have to be face-to-face to work effectively.

If I have a focus I’m proudest of, it’s helping women tell their cancer survivor stories because I’m one of them. In my hometown of Syracuse, NY, I collaborated with first-time writers to publish a book of these stories. The women were all part of a LiveStrong program at the local YMCA. I led a series of workshops that gave participants basic skills on how to write memoir. I edited the pieces they submitted, and the result is the anthology “Hopeful Grateful Strong: Survivor Stories.”

What is your best advice to women seeking to begin writing?

Enroll in a writing class, or take a one-day workshop—that’s how I got back into fiction writing years ago. Or sign up for a weekend retreat or a week-long conference. Don’t say you’re not good enough—you need to acquire the basic tools so that when you begin to write, you do it with guidance and knowledge of the process.

Whatever you do, don’t go it alone. But be careful of just joining any group at your local library, bookstore, or through Meetup.com. Make sure at least one person in the group has had formal training as a writing instructor or is a working writer or a professional, whether they’re a freelancer or they write for a publication or outlet. I’ve sat in on groups where someone totally untrained but with strong opinions completely discouraged another participant whose writing demonstrated real ability.

We are all tender about our work, and we need a caring, protective environment to share and to learn. Friends and family, well-meaning though they may be, are not the ones to critique your work. Either look for a class locally or regionally or investigate smaller workshops or retreats. In fact, Ann Voorhees Baker offers one through her Women At Woodstock Writer’s Retreat, and I’ll be one of two writers-in-residence for that weekend event in October 2017.

Entryway at my Always Wanted to Write studio

What resources do you recommend for would-be writers? 

Here are the titles of the two books I referenced earlier. For a page-turner of a memoir, read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Many people who say they don’t like memoir rave about this book. It’s exceptional storytelling with a straightforward narrative, and it’s totally accessible to any reader. Walls makes no judgments about her family—the outrage the reader feels comes purely from the situations described. That’s the book I recommend for early-stage writers. I actually steer newbie writers away from Mary Karr’s classic, The Liars’ Club, because what she does is close to impossible. She’s an accomplished poet and a skilled literary non-fiction writer, but nobody can do Mary Karr, so holding her up as a model isn’t fruitful. It’s better to start simply, master the basic techniques, and build from there. The Glass Castle will make you believe you’re fully capable of telling your own story—which you are.

Another essential book is William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. This book has been in print for decades, and there’s a reason why. It’s excellent.

If you’re truly committed to writing a memoir, novel, etc., don’t rely on MS Word. It puts a lot of hidden garbage characters into your document that can cause problems when you start submitting—and most places now want you to submit online through an interface called Submittable (though there are others). The best writing program out there is Scrivener, although the learning curve is very steep. It’s not cheap, but once you start playing around with it, you’ll understand why it’s so popular among serious writers.

 

Contact Linda Lowen at linda.lowen@gmail.com

www.lindalowen.com

www.alwayswantedtowrite.com

www.writewayofthinking.com

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Book: Hopeful Grateful Strong 

Video of my writing studio Always Wanted To Write in Syracuse, NY

YouTube video of me performing my essay “Being Japanese” in the local production of Listen To Your Mother – Rochester, NY in May 2016

The weekly NPR radio show I co-host and co-produce

My theater reviews for the daily newspaper the Post-Standard at syracuse.com

 

LINDA LOWEN’S BIOGRAPHY

Writer & Editor: A freelance writer for over two decades, Linda Lowen’s work has appeared in print and online. She is the editor of Hopeful, Grateful, Strong, an anthology of cancer survivor stories published in June 2015.  Her essay “Hillary Clinton, Everymother,” is featured in the book Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox, edited by Joanne Bamberger, an Amazon Hot New Release published in November 2015. In April 2016, Love Her, Love Her Not won a Next Generation Indie Book Award in the Women’s Issues category.

Linda is a theater reviewer for the Syracuse Post-Standard / syracuse.com and also writes the award-winning “Storytime” column for Family Times, the Parenting Guide of Central New York. Her non-fiction story “Christmas Eve Service” is included in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back: 101 Inspiring Stories of Purpose and Passion.

Radio: Linda is co-host/producer of Take Care, an award-winning health and wellness show on  WRVO Public Media, an NPR affiliate serving Central and Northern New York. The weekly radio show features the country’s leading experts on medicine, health, psychology and human behavior. The show airs Saturdays at 6:30 am and Sunday at 6:30 pm, can be heard as a podcast through iTunes and is syndicated nationwide through PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Writing Instructor: She teaches creative non-fiction writing at the Downtown Writer’s Center in Syracuse, NY where her classes run the gamut from memoir to blogging. She also presents workshops on writing and blogging at writing festivals and women’s conferences from the Hobart Book Village Festival of Women Writers to Women at Woodstock.

Internet & New Media: Linda has covered style & beauty, home decor, DIY, tech, internet and social media trends for MSN Living. From 2007-2013 she was editor/writer/content producer for Women’s Issues at About.com, owned by the New York Times Company. Under her guidance, About.com Women’s Issues rose to become the internet’s top ranked site under the search term “women’s issues” on Google, Bing, Yahoo, and every other major search engine. For About she produced over 2400 pieces of original content ranging from politics to pop culture. Her articles and blog posts address a variety of topical and evergreen issues that impact women’s lives.

Broadcast: Her broadcast career includes producing/co-hosting the award-winning women’s issues talk show Women’s Voices, first at Syracuse NPR affiliate WAER-FM (1998-2002), then on Time Warner Cable Channel 13 (2002-2003), and finally at Syracuse PBS affiliate WCNY-TV (2004-2006). She was also co-host of WCNY-TV’s midday talk show Hour CNY (2004-2005) and Director of Communications for the combined PBS television/NPR radio stations serving a 19-county region in upstate New York with a market of over 1.8 million.

Public Speaking: Linda is a member of the Women’s Media Center Progressive Women’s Voices program and the National Cancer Survivor’s Day Speaker’s Bureau; she’s been a keynote speaker at cancer survivor conferences from Hartford, CT to Cooperstown, NY.  She was featured in the 2016 Rochester, NY “Listen to Your Mother” cast, a national event giving voice to motherhood with regional performances across the U.S., and her performance of “Being Japanese” is on the Listen To Your Mother YouTube channel.

Media Coaching: Linda’s experience includes a range of print/broadcast/internet platforms as well as media training with top experts at the Women’s Media Center in New York City. She’s worked with individuals who were subsequently featured on the Fox News program “Fox and Friends,” the Huffington Post, the Associated Press, and the UK daily newspaper The Guardian.

National Media Appearances: Linda has been a guest on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” and has been quoted in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle.




Writing a Book about Women and Wine: Molly’s Story

After a long career in Human Resources, Molly found the voice she’d quieted in her youth and began to write. Her book, Blush: Women & Wine, explores how so many of us turn to wine to soothe our discomfort and avoid painful feelings.

Tell us a little about your background.

I am a Pacific Northwest girl. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, I was the youngest of four by a long shot. My siblings are 8, 12, and 13 years older than me. My mom tried hard to convince me that I wasn’t an “oops” baby. But seriously? My parents were wonderful, loving people with busy lives of their own. My dad was patriarchal and protective, and my mom the consummate “homemaker” with a college degree in a major of the same name to prove it. Like many in their generation, good parenting meant keeping me fed, clean, and clothed. Understanding me and my needs as a little human being wasn’t really on their radar screen. As a result, my growing up years were an interesting blend of love and loneliness. There was no doubt that they loved me, and it was doubtful that they really knew who I was.

Youngest of four

From the get-go, I loved the learning that came along with school. The social part? Not so much. Tall, shy, and awkward, fitting in felt beyond impossible. From my first day in kindergarten to the day I walked across the stage to receive my college diploma, I never really felt like I fit. Books and studying became my refuge. A voracious reader from an early age, my favorite Christmas present was a new book, and at school, I was always on the hunt for a secluded, quiet place to study. While I might not have found my fit in the social order, one thing I did understand from an early age was that I had a brain for, and a love of, learning. Academic challenges (unless they had to do with numbers, spreadsheets, or drawing) fueled my inner fire.

The thought of pursuing an academic career began to take shape my junior year in college. A favorite professor encouraged me in that direction, and to show his confidence in me, asked me to teach a class in his absence. I was over the moon at his request and raced back to my dorm room to call my dad and share my good news. After hearing what I had to say about teaching the upcoming class, the phone stayed silent for Way. Too. Long. When he finally spoke, he said, “Molly, you need to be careful not to appear too smart, so that you don’t intimidate the boys in the class.” His words took my breath away, literally. I didn’t know what to say, and so said nothing. Hanging up the phone, I still remember thinking. “I may not be the most beautiful girl on campus or even remotely popular, but one thing I do know is that I am smart, and if I can’t be that, what can I be?”

With my Dad during my college years

The next call was to my beloved professor to tell him that I was sorry. I wouldn’t be teaching that class after all. Those two phone calls sent me on a very long detour. I graduated magna cum laude, threw my diploma in a drawer, took a series of jobs that would pay the bills, and went on to marry the first undereducated guy who asked. I was married to him for 13 years that were marked by financial instability, anger, and emotional abuse. Finally finding the courage to leave was the beginning of the journey back to that quiet, intelligent girl on the other end of the phone. When I left my marriage, my two amazing daughters came with me. They were 3 and 7 at the time, and to this day they light up my life like no one else. The three of us would say those early years in our first family both broke us and made us.

With my girls when they were young

After five years as a single mom, during which the three of us worked to find our footing in the world, I almost accidentally answered a personals ad in the local professional paper. It was Friday evening, which in our little home meant that it was Movie Night in front of the fire eating pizza. As I crumpled up some newspaper to make the fire, I noticed a bold heading on one of the personal ads. It said, “Romantic Scientist”. An oxymoron if I’d ever heard one, and yet, I was intrigued. There was an authenticity to his words that prompted me to take a risk and answer his ad. I wrote a letter (pre-email days), stuck in a family photo, and drove it down to the post office at midnight so that I wouldn’t chicken out the next morning. Today I’ve been married to my romantic scientist for 23 years. He is a vulcanologist (studies volcanoes), and with him came two more terrific daughters, who are exactly the same ages as mine. Ours was a hormonal household from day one—think puberty and menopause. I think Tom used to wish for a volcano to erupt somewhere just to escape the molten hormones racing through our home. Answering that ad is one of the best things I’ve ever done. Thank God I didn’t burn him up in that Friday night fire.

The ad!!

We’re engaged!

Today all of our daughters are thriving. Three are married (great sons-in-law all) and we have two grandsons. What fun! Tom and I live in the tiny rural town of Glenwood, Washington, home to more cows than people. Nine years ago, we pulled up our city roots and bought five beautiful acres, nestled in the shadow of Mt. Adams. We put everything we owned in storage, lived in a 32 ft. Airstream trailer while we built the rustic home that began as a drawing on a napkin, one evening years earlier, over a glass of wine. It has become the gathering place for family and friends, and we love it here. Dorothy was right. There’s no place like home.

Building our home

The home we built

When Tom and I were first married, our girls were 8 and 12. I was in the midst of an almost 15-year career with Nordstrom. It had started as a job to pay the bills until I could find the real work that I wanted, but turned into a career that I enjoyed. It wasn’t my dream job, but then I’d never really had time to figure out what that was. Life was too full of taking care of the needs of two young daughters: food on the table, a roof over our heads, homework, soccer, and swim practice, friends, and family time. Thankfully, I found a good niche in Human Resources and Training.  Fairly intuitive and insightful where people are concerned, my work utilized those strengths. It also gave me a chance to delve into the teaching I had left behind all those years ago, and I found that I loved working with adult learners. Now that Tom and I had joined forces, we bought a large home to make room for all of us, and my financial contribution was needed more than ever. As a new family we were finding our footing once again, and albeit hectic and full, life was good.

Tom and I with all our girls, shortly after our wedding

When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?

About that same time, my “next act” shit began to hit my “this act” fan. While I enjoyed my work, it was quite consuming, and I craved more flexibility and time to spend with our daughters. My dearest friend Kristine Van Raden is an artist, and our two families went on a summer vacation at a remote retreat center. She was the artist in residence and was teaching a course on creativity, using Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity as a resource book. Knowing that anything resembling an art class terrifies me, she invited me to join the class in reading the book without having to also make the art. Because I trust her with my life, I decided to trust her in this too. As it turned out, reading that book meant taking my life into my own hands in ways I could never have imagined.

With Kristine

One of the practices in the book is the writing of something called Morning Pages: three pages of stream of consciousness writing immediately upon rolling out of bed in the morning. That’s it. Just write whatever comes to mind. At first, it felt like mindless gibberish about meaningless things. Until one day it didn’t. That particular morning the words, “I want to quit my job.” showed up on the page, followed by the desire to “write a book, speak publicly, and try my hand at corporate coaching.” None of which I’d done before. At first, the words were sort of quiet and interesting. Then they became a bit loud and unsettling. Finally, they became downright thunderous and demanding. As in, “I have to fucking quit my job. Now!”

If I ever doubted my choice of life partner, Tom’s response to my morning pages message erased any lingering uncertainty. When I told him that I wanted to quit my job and pursue some new avenues, he took a deep breath, actually several as he contemplated life without my current income, and said, “Mol, if that is what your heart is telling you to do…then do it, and we’ll figure it out.” It was, and we did.

As it turned out, Kristine’s morning pages also uncovered a desire to write a book. Because we love anything that gives us time together, we set off on a publishing adventure. Within a few months we had a contract with a publisher, and Letters to Our Daughters: Mother’s Words of Love was released in the spring of 1997. Upon learning about the book, Nordstrom launched a cross-country Mother’s Day book tour, bringing us in to speak and sign books. It was a blast. It doesn’t get better than your best friend and room service! The book, a collection of letters from women in diverse circumstances to their daughters, shines a light on the common threads that connect us all. Invitations to speak continued and as a result, we formed a partnership called Matters That Matter. Our work took us to venues including annual conventions, fundraisers, and world-class health spas, including continuing visits to Rancho La Puerta in Mexico. Featured on the Oprah Show, our book was translated into Chinese, Spanish, and German.

Book tour with Kristine

Along with publishing a book and public speaking, the marching orders from those morning pages were completed when I began a lasting relationship with Learning Point Group as a facilitator and coach in organizational and corporate settings. The words of my dad on that phone call all those years ago often come back to me as I go about my work as a facilitator and coach. The training rooms and boardrooms are often filled with men, some of whom just might be intimidated. Oh well.

Two years ago I launched Trailhead Coaching & Consulting. I have the privilege of helping others connect who they are with what they do and how they do it. Over the years, my work has given me ample opportunity to witness the sadness and exhaustion in the eyes of those living out of step with themselves. It took me time and hard work to find my own way back to myself and my work. Today I feel unbelievably blessed to be able to help others do the same. Much of my work with clients is done over the phone or via FaceTime. I get to sit at my desk, a cup of French press coffee nearby and a view of pines and the occasional elk out the window, all while wearing jeans and my favorite well-worn cowboy boots. Humble and grateful pretty much sums up how I feel about my work these days.

What is your next act?

Earlier I mentioned that I seem to have a pretty good intuitive sense. What I didn’t mention is that I also hear “the voice” now and then. Maybe not audible in the literal sense of the word, but, clearly enough that I’ve had to stop, turn around and ask out loud, “What??” Over the years that voice has led me to know that a daughter was in trouble and in need of support, prompted me to make game changing phone calls, and make course-altering choices. Most recently that same voice led me to take an honest look at my lifelong love affair with wine, which in turn led me to write a book about it. Blush: Women & Wine was released on February 14th of this year. Not a book about alcoholism or never drinking wine again, it is about awareness and not intervention and asks the reader to become curious about her own relationship with wine. I knew that for me there are two reasons to drink wine. One is to celebrate. The other is to check out. I have done plenty of both. 

Why did you choose this next act?  

In many ways, I didn’t choose this next act. It chose me. The experience that led to the writing of the book was honestly one of the most profound and quietly powerful things I’ve ever experienced. It all started with an evening walk by myself down our road, a regular practice for me. On this particular evening, the mountain was out in all her glory, the sun setting and the air filled with evening birdsong. Just as I came to a bend in the road I heard the voice clearly and slowly say, “Wine, Women and Song Sorrow.” along with an image of a book cover with the familiar word ‘song’ crossed out and replaced with the word ‘sorrow’. I stopped in my tracks and bent over, put my face in my hands and stayed that way for a long time. I knew that once I stood up, life could never be the same. Looking back, I am grateful the clarity of the voice, the image, and the meaning of it all. I knew in that moment that the word ‘song’ was a reference to our life. All of it. Our song is our most genuine, authentic self, and we are each born with it inside. Our job is to bring it to the world. Somehow the wine I drank every night had the potential to silence that music, leaving sorrow in its place.

I had been thinking about my own love affair with wine for some time, knowing that I often used it as a coping mechanism and way to avoid stress, pain, and discomfort. I had, however, been keeping my thoughts to myself, which was exactly how I wanted to keep it. I’ve been a wine drinker for almost as long as I can remember. I love everything about it. The taste. The ritual. The classy feeling of a lovely wine glass. However, I recognized the voice for the invitation it was: to bring my longtime relationship with wine out of my internal cellar, uncork the bottle, and understand the message inside. This all happened in an instant and at a bend in the road, which suggested that I had a choice to make and that my choice could lead in a new direction. We’ve all heard the phrase, “We’re not ready till we’re ready.” On that evening walk I knew I was ready, and although not without fear, I accepted the invitation. Blush: Women & Wine is the result.

With David Barry

How hard was it to take the plunge?

It took me several months to tell another soul about my evening walk “encounter.” Like I said, once I gave voice to it, I would have to do something about it. Which is why the first person I told was my good friend and fellow writer David Berry, author of A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change David writes and speaks about the power of our voice and how, situated midway between our head and our heart, it is what connects the two. In the midst of a catch-up phone call, my story just spilled out. He interrupted me and said “Molly. You have to write that now. Write it real. Write it raw. This is a subject that needs addressing and yours is the voice to do it.” Writing the book began when that phone call ended.

The only thing I knew to do was to start writing, and the only story I knew intimately was my own. I believe that we are all storytellers at heart and that it is through the stories of others that we best see ourselves. It had been scary for me to think about my own wine drinking habits, and it was even scarier to talk about. Talking about wine is trendy. Talking about drinking a little too much of it is not. My job as a coach is to create a safe space for my clients to engage in their own courageous thinking. I wanted this book to do the same thing. Could I write a book that would make it safe for women to look at the ways in which they use wine (or anything else for that matter) to hide from their own lives, the parts they’d rather not deal with? I had a hunch that I could and so decided to give it a go.

There were more than a few times that I tried to get out of writing it. It was hard. It was personal. It was scary. I rationalized that it might just be me. Would other women really relate to this topic?  It was just this question that I was mulling over, again, as I drove to an appointment. Tiring of my own thoughts, I turned on NPR just in time to hear the person being interviewed say “Women purchase 70% of the 800 million gallons of wine sold each year.” (Host Robin Young: “New Thinking On Women and Alcohol” Here And Now. January 20, 2014)

I kept writing.

The thing with women and wine as opposed to other forms of alcohol is that there is an air of sophistication to it. With a lovely glass of wine in our hands, we look so together, so successful, so classy. I began to think of all the examples of that image in our culture. Olivia Pope of ABC’s Scandal is never far from her glass of fine red wine. The exact glass, the “Camille” red wine glass, is often on back order from Crate and Barrel. The ten o’clock hour of the Today Show features Kathie Lee and Hoda Kobt with wine glasses instead of the usual coffee cups. At almost every women’s gathering I’ve ever been to, from book clubs to church meetings to soccer mom gatherings, wine is standard fare. “We should get together for wine sometime” is just part of our shared vocabulary. As I slowly shared my project with others, the response was almost always the same. First a long pause. Then a knowing look. Finally, a quiet comment that went something like, “You are talking about me. But I wouldn’t have had the courage to say anything if you hadn’t brought it up first.” It felt like a take on the subject that hadn’t been done, and the more I wrote, observed, and considered, the more I knew that it was a take that was needed. End of, and beginning of, story.

With friends

How supportive were your family and friends?

Beyond supportive. Tom championed me from beginning to end. He read and edited every draft, endured hours of dialogue about my experience writing it, and the discoveries I made along the way. He got up with me as early as 4 AM so that I could get in at least one hour of writing every day. And, he never, not once, not ever, gave me advice about how I should or should not drink wine. Thankfully, for me, it isn’t an addiction issue. I spent the last nine months of writing the book without drinking any wine (or very little other alcohol for that matter), trying to learn more about my relationship with wine by not drinking any. During that time, he continued to enjoy wine when he felt like it, which was also supportive in its own way. Our daughters loved the project and have been some of my greatest cheerleaders, as have other family and friends Thankfully no one said, “It’s about time.”

 

With Tom

What challenges did you encounter?

Finding my voice for the story that needed to be told was perhaps the biggest challenge, and it took time. Lots of time. From my evening walk to getting the final manuscript off for publication was about a three-year process. And BLUSH is a small book. In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott says that we have to show up at our desk and be willing to write lots of “shitty first drafts.” I took her words to heart and just kept at it. It required a new kind of tenacity and discipline that I had to develop along the way.

First I had to figure out my own writing process, starting with figuring out the best time of day and where to write. I’ve learned that the best time for me to write is early in the day. If I am at my desk early, I often continue to write for hours. Whereas if I start later, the engine has a hard time getting started. I’m very visual, so a beautiful writing space matters, and I took the time to create a space that feels sacred.

Figuring out time and place was fairly easy. Understanding how to bring the right words to the page took longer. Daily as I settled in at the keyboard, I would get quiet and ask, “What do I have to say?” Words filled the pages, sentences were well structured, ideas were clearly articulated, and stories were well told. And yet, it didn’t feel right. One morning as I settled into my chair, a new question floated to the surface: “What wants to be heard?” With that question, the words began to flow in a new way and from a different place. It felt like a partnership with Inspiration, like I was dipping into a deeper well, and finding wisdom and insight larger than my own. Stories became richer, and words fell together more seamlessly. The thread that needed to run from beginning to end began to shimmer and weave the words forward.

At my desk

Another challenge was figuring out how to publish. The publishing world is so much different than it was twenty years ago, and I wasn’t sure which direction to go with this book. Writing it felt like the most important thing while getting it out into the world was secondary for a long time. But eventually, I had to address the issue. I knew I didn’t want to straight up self-publish, but I also didn’t want to stop writing to try and find an agent or re-kindle years old relationships in the traditional publishing world.

A friend suggested I attend The Willamette Writer’s Conference in Portland, OR where I could “pitch” my manuscript to potential agents and publishers. My first response was “Hell no!” which almost always means that the appropriate answer is “Hell yes”! After trying to get out of registering for the conference in every way I knew how, I threw caution to the wind and registered, scheduling three different pitch sessions. Think publisher speed dating. You enter a ballroom filled with small cocktail-sized tables, and sitting at each is an agent or publisher to whom you will pitch your book over a 12-minute period. A bell rings and the pitch session begins. At the next ring, you thank the person and exit to make room for the next group.

All three pitches got initial interest, and one stayed the course with me. I ended up collaborating with Wyatt-MacKenzie, a small indie publisher in Deadwood, Oregon. Along with offering traditional publishing, they have an imprint program that caught my attention. Basically, Nancy Cleary (founder and the genius behind Wyatt-MacKenzie) acted as my consultant, walking me through the entire publishing process, handling the nuts and bolts (ISBN, distribution channels, layout, and design, etc.), holding my hand, and providing PR and marketing guidance. Trailhead Coaching & Consulting is my imprint of Wyatt-MacKenzie. Working with Nancy has been nothing but positive, and as a result of working with her, I have a much deeper understanding of the publishing process. Thanks to Nancy’s unerring and exquisite eye for design, I have to say that I am crazy in love with the cover and overall look of BLUSH. It still takes my breath away.

Nancy Cleary

As I mentioned earlier, it is my hope that this book sparks not only self-reflection but also prompts women to begin a much-needed dialogue with one another. While our questions are our own to live, there is something powerful that happens when we choose to answer them together. Going it together helps us to know that we are not alone in our desire to make sense of things that matter. To that end, I’ve included a robust Readers Guide of questions for individual reflection and group conversation. It will make for a dynamic, thoughtful and fun read for book clubs everywhere. Most book clubs include wine. BLUSH is the perfect pairing!

As a writer friend along the way told me, writing the book is the easy part. Marketing and promoting it are the big challenges. I’ve certainly found that to be true. Whether anyone else ever read the book or not, I knew that I had to write it. Now that it is out in the world, I want to amplify its message as loudly and broadly as I can. That is where my efforts are now focused. How can I reach the audience that will connect with and be positively impacted by the message of the book? How can I get the book in front of those who have a much larger platform and louder microphone than mine? How can I amplify a message I know needs to be heard? Since every one of those questions is daunting and enough to keep me under the covers or looking for that extra glass of wine that I don’t need, I am choosing to take my own coaching advice. Small steps = Big shifts. I do at least one thing a day to amplify the message. Today it is this interview. Another day it will be entering BLUSH in an Indie Excellence Award contest. I’m currently working on a possible collaboration with a company that sells beautiful handblown wine drinkers. Once I committed to the “one thing a day” mantra, stuff started happening. New ideas are flowing and unexpected connections are popping up.

Speaking

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

Once I got over trying to get out of writing it, I don’t think I ever thought about giving up. That being said, the stuff of life often took precedence over writing. Daughters got married, grand babies were born, family heartaches and friends in pain were in need of love and support. At the heart of the book is the conviction and commitment to be present to life and for those I care about. Wine has, in the past, prevented me from being as present as I truly want to be. So, there were times that I chose to set the book aside and tend to what was before me, trusting that a force greater than me (like the Source of the voice on the road) would watch over and tend to it in my absence. Like wine aging in barrels, I have had to have faith that the book would continue to mature until I returned to it.

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I rediscovered how much I love writing. Always have, always will. Everything about it, the good, the bad, the ugly, the shitty first drafts, the days when it feels like the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the days when I can hardly keep up with the words racing to get onto the page. I intend to write until the end.

Because of the subject, I obviously learned so much about myself in relation to wine. It started as a private exploration that led to what I hope becomes a shared experience of discovery for other women who might love their wine a little too much. Terroir refers to the geology or makeup of the soil in which the grapes are grown, and the effect that soil has on the taste of the wine made from those grapes. I came to know the terroir of my own wine drinking habits and the soil in which my misuse of wine grows. Any type of emotional pain or discomfort can give root to my desire for a glass of wine, as can a particularly frustrating or stressful day. But I’ve come to know that pain, suffering, grief, hardship, and sadness are all part of what it means to be human. Each of those “dark emotions” has things to show me, to work in me, and to transform me. But only if I choose to experience them. Writing this book has helped me learn to better sit with and learn from the discomfort and pain when it shows up. Whatever it is, it is asking for my attention, and ignoring it today only guarantees running into it again tomorrow. I believe that another part of what it means to be human is the desire to avoid pain, discomfort, and those things that scare us. For some, it may not be through wine, but it is through something. It is what I avoid and hide from that keeps me bound up. I guess I’ve learned that in the long run, as painful and hard as it may be at the time, the truth really does set me free.

Sharing a meal with my girlfriends 

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

Hmm. Perhaps diving into creating a larger platform before the book came out. I’m not in love with social media and yet know that it is one important avenue, so I’m trying to make friends with it. My heart wants to be face to face with people. I love speaking and connecting with real people in a real room, whether through keynotes, retreats, or workshops. I’m putting energy into creating more of those opportunities. If I’d started sooner, I’d be further down that road.

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

The trailhead for reinvention always lies squarely beneath our feet. Always. Now is the time. Here is the place. This is what we have to work with. Finding the next right step leading deeper into our own life, the messy, imperfect, sacred life that is ours, begins with a right understanding of where we are now. Listen to yourself and trust what you hear. What do you love? What calls to you? What are you curious about? What can you let go of that would make space for something more meaningful? More joyful?

In our Matters That Matter work, Kristine and I often take people through a reflective exercise that begins with the statement “If I had the courage I would………” We ask them to write as many responses as come up for them, without paying any attention to the inner critic that inevitably shows up. The exercise is always powerful, and when we take just one step in the direction illuminated by the answers to any of those questions, the next step will eventually make itself known. I’ve spent too much time and energy trying to live up to someone else’s expectations and ideas of what my life should look like. In other words, I’ve been singing someone else’s song. Not anymore. Our lives don’t happen by accident. We actively participate in creating them every day and one thought, one word, one step at a time.

Speaking

What advice do you have for those interested writing a book? What resources do you recommend?

In her poem “Friend of Writing” (in her book Instructions for the Wishing Light), my friend the poet Ann Staley talks about the six rules of writing. “Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write.” Those rules are golden. Reading feeds writing. Two books that provided nourishment for my adventure were Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. Make time to read books that feed your soul and fuel your interests. I start every morning with my French press and what I’ve come to call my “morning book”—something that feeds me. Over the course of writing BLUSH, books by Rachel Naomi Remen, Krista Tippett, Parker Palmer, Richard Rohr, Anne Lamott, Barbara Taylor-Brown and Nadia Bolz-Weber have been my companions, and I credit them for helping me keep on keeping on.

Start writing. Show up at the desk and create a practice of putting words on the page. Just do it. I’m not in a writing group but I think they are a great idea. If you can’t find one, start one.

Attend a writer’s workshop or retreat. Amy Ferris is an editor, screenwriter, playwright, and the author of Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide, and Feeling Blue and Marrying George Clooney: Confessions from a Midlife Crisis (an absolute must read for any woman hovering in the mid-life airspace). Amy teaches a powerful workshop “Women Writing To Change The World”.  I haven’t personally attended one, but I’ve heard from those who have and know her to be an exquisite facilitator. A mensch.

Brooke Warner is another fantastic resource. Author of Green Light Your Book: How Writer’s Can Succeed In The New World of Publishing, Brooke’s experience, knowledge, and savvy about publishing are deep and wide. She is a co-founder of SheWritesPress, an independent hybrid press that offers authors the opportunity to publish professionally with a publisher that rigorously vets its projects. They allow the author creative collaboration but also adhere to strict industry standards and professionalism.

In addition, Brooke has her own coaching and consulting company, Warner Coaching, where she coaches writers to publication by helping them understand the pros and cons of the different publishing paths. By helping them understand the publishing landscape, her clients are able to choose the best coaching path available to them.

My bookshelf

Of course, I love Nancy Cleary and Wyatt-MacKenzie. Offering traditional publishing, and their comprehensive Imprint Program, a strong step up from traditional publishing. As it says on their website, Wyatt-MacKenzie is an award-winning, integrity-driven, independent press known for providing our authors with an unparalleled publishing experience. All I can say is “Amen!” to that!

Lela Davidson (author of Blacklisted from the PTA, Faking Balance: Adventures in Work and Life, and Who Peed on My Yoga Mat?) offers creative, practical support through Second Story Writer’s Workshop. As she says, it is for all writers, used-to-be writers, and wannabe writers. I love how she describes her approach: “All the writing support. None of the literary snobbery.”

Finally, essential for any reinvention is the art of self-care. Let me say that again. Reinvention requires self-care. A lot of us haven’t been too good at that. But, it’s never too late to start! What does it take for you to show up with as much of yourself available as possible? Whatever it is, do what it takes to provide it to yourself. We are all worthy of love, care, respect, and belonging. Extending it to ourselves is the place to start. 

The view from our home

 

Whats next for you?

I mentioned the word “amplify” before, and that is what I see for the days ahead as I find ways to spread the BLUSH message: Each and every one of us is here on the planet to touch the world that is within our reach for the good. None of us can do that when we are hiding from ourselves, and/or the parts of life that are uncomfortable. Full frontal living is the only way! Foundational to my work is the desire to help and support others in their own efforts to live their most authentic lives, to discover and use their gifts, strengths, and passions to make a difference in the world and to bring more joy, grace, peace, and meaning to their own lives. Speaking, leading retreats, and facilitating meaning-rich workshops rock my world, and my efforts now are going in that direction.

Being present for “my people’ will always matter, so any act will always make room for that. Over the years I have come to trust my intuition, my own voice, and that familiar “still small voice” that taps me on the shoulder (or hits me over the head with a wine bottle). If I keep my inner ears tuned, I trust that I will hear what I need, when I need it, and that the light will always shine on my next right step.

 

Contact Molly Davis at molly@trailheadcoachingandconsulting.com

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Joining the Peace Corps in Midlife: Janet’s Story

After a long career in fundraising, a move, and a divorce, Janet made her dream of joining the Peace Corps come true. She writes about leaving everything behind to move to Kazakhstan with her new husband, in her memoir: At Home on the Kazakh Steppe.

Tell us a little about your background.

I was born at the start of the baby boomer generation, 1948. I’m aware that advertising has been aimed at me all my life; stories in leading magazines have been written with me and my cohorts in mind. It can be a bit heady.  And, I’m lately learning how powerful the idea of “white privilege” has been.

I grew up in New Jersey, just close enough to Manhattan that it became a backyard playground for my friends and me in high school. I attended what we called back then “an integrated” public school. Most of my friends from school were – we used to say Negro, then Black, then African-American. Now I understand we’re using “global majority.”

I’m the only child of an only child (and a single mom) so our family gatherings were quite small. But I spent a lot of time with my mother’s cousins who were more my age than hers.

Seven years old

I grew up in an evangelical, fundamentalist religion. And at 14, I was sure I was going to be a missionary nurse somewhere in Africa. But, after two years at a Bible college, I knew the missionary part was not for me; nor was the religion.  And, after one year in nursing school, that plan too dropped by the wayside. I realized those had been my grandmother’s dreams for me; I still needed to find my own dreams.

I went on to finish college at New York University (There was never a doubt that I was going to college; I was the first in my family to do so), majoring in sociology which had been the only class I’d gotten an A in prior to transferring to NYU. I married shortly after I graduated in 1971—as so many women did back before Ms. Magazine and feminism became more pronounced—and moved to the Midwest.

My sons were born in ‘73 and ‘76 and I was a suburban stay-at-home mother, trying my hand at hanging wallpaper, baking bread, and playing bridge. I was good at the first, OK at the second, and pretty terrible at the third. My sons were my joy and my life’s inspiration, as the song went.

With my young boys

I went back to school to get a Masters in sociology when my younger son was in school full time and, while I was writing my masters thesis entitled “The relationship between resources and responsibility,” I began a career in fundraising that would last nearly twenty years.

 

When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?

What makes this hard to answer is that I’ve had several 180-degree turns in my life.

One of the fundraising jobs I held was as Finance Director for my local Congressman. I worked for him for three years and vowed I’d never work another campaign year—too chaotic for my taste.  So, when I left that job, rather than go to another fundraising job, I went back to school, this time, January 1989, into the Ph.D. program in Political Science. I was in that full time for about four years. But a family crisis, which will be the focus of one of my next two memoirs, pulled me out before I could finish and I went back to fundraising for another five years. This time, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The crisis lasted from 1991 until 1994 and it pushed me into filing for divorce and moving to Philadelphia. I’ll just leave it at that for now. I’m still working out how to talk about it.

So, there was the leaving my husband of 23 years and moving back east to Philadelphia at age 45. Then, I ended my Mary Tyler Moore single life and married my new love, Woody, at age 51. That same year, I left fund-raising and fell into a new career as a psychotherapist. And, I gave that up too, to join the Peace Corps at age 55.

My wedding to Woody

Tell us about joining the Peace Corps. Why did you choose to do this?

While we were still in our “dating” phase, Woody and I had talked about joining Peace Corps. I have a scene in my memoir and have corresponded with former President Jimmy Carter about this, but Lillian Carter, the president’s mother, was an influence. She joined the Peace Corps in her 60s, you know, serving as a nurse in India. Until I had read that, I hadn’t realized that Peace Corps has no upper age limit.  So, Woody and I talked about how we’d both like to “join Peace Corps in our 60s, someday.” Of course, I failed to recognize at the time that since we are ten years apart, his 60s were going to come a good deal sooner than my 60s.  Then, we had 9/11 and as our country plunged quicker and quicker into war, a war that neither of us welcomed, we felt it was time to fulfill that earlier dream.

 

How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?

It’s funny you use “take the plunge” for I’ve used the metaphor of jumping off a high dive many times to describe some of the choices I’ve made over the years. I say that I make sure there’s water in the pool below, then I jump and figure the rest out on the way down.

Once I finally made the decision to join the Peace Corps (my husband had been pestering me for a few weeks to “read their website”), we filled out the application and medical forms and continued to live our lives while following the different hoops they set before us. Then, we learned of a completely unexpected “hoop” in the midst of all this, but a lovely one. Just as we’d emptied our house in Philadelphia and relocated to Chincoteague, Virginia where we had a small weekend cabin, we found out that my two sons were about to have their first babies.  So, everything got put on hold as we waited for my new grandbabies to arrive.

With my grandbabies

The process of applying to the Peace Corps has been dramatically streamlined since we went through it, that’s important to know. Now you can actually know where you are going and when you’ll leave before you begin your application. But in 2002 when we were applying, those were the last things we learned. There were legal hoops (background checks, fingerprints, etc.) and medical hoops (it’s a bit more difficult for those of us in our 50s and 60s to collect our medical history than it is for those in their 20s or 30s).  It just took longer. And, each time a question arose, there was a new medical test to undergo, all at our own expense of course.  We had caps put on teeth that our dentists had felt weren’t yet necessary.  But, since Peace Corps is fully responsible for your health and wellbeing, they didn’t want to suddenly be faced with having to put caps on our teeth in the middle of some third-world country.

I was 55, Woody 65, when we left for Kazakhstan and that new life so very far away – and not just geographically, culturally too. I gave up my home in Philadelphia, my new career that was just getting established after five years, lots and lots of tangible “things,” and my dog.

The mountains around Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan

How supportive were your family and friends?

For the most part, they were excited for us. My sons especially. My son David actually said, “Go now while [the grandchildren] are still young enough to not know you’re gone.”

Some colleagues of mine thought I had lost my mind.  And as we were selling my house, I recall a few of the prospective buyers, upon hearing why we were selling, responded with “better you than me.” My stepfather was the only one definitely against it. But that made joining seem an even better idea.

My family

Can you tell us a little about your experience in the Peace Corps and about the Kazakh country and people?

The Kazakhs pride themselves on their hospitality and that is what we certainly found while there. One of their many sayings, “Guests are a gift from God,” was such a dramatic departure for me, who prided myself on keeping tight boundaries on my private space.  My husband and I both taught English; I was at a teacher’s college and Woody was at the local university. I had only taught two semesters, while a teaching fellow at Kent State, and it hadn’t been a very good experience. But Woody had been a college professor for nearly 35 years. He knew going in that he was going to teach English.  But I had no idea until we were placed in Kazakhstan, just two months before we left.

Woody and I at the home of one of our students

 

What challenges did you encounter in the Peace Corps and coming home?

Challenge is what being in the Peace Corps is all about. Some you meet easily and smoothly, like when this gorgeous bathtub that I really wanted to soak in had no stopper. I just created one and used my heel to hold it down. Others are more difficult, like the expected culture shock that happens at about the two-month mark, when I just wanted all the “newness” to stop.  But language issues are fairly common; cultural differences, of course, are a constant. Like how I wound up flipping my students “the bird” for my first three months, without realizing it of course, because I didn’t realize that for them the pointer finger is considered vulgar. And then, when I learned that, it was quite difficult for me to stop doing something that I was used to doing so automatically. But I did learn and still today I tend to not use my finger to point, even at a blackboard. I use my palm or I grab a pencil if I must point.

Here are some photos of our first apartment. We moved in after living with a host family for the first nine months (Peace Corps policy).

Coming home, we faced the inevitable: what to do next. We knew we wouldn’t be living in our little vacation home that we’d kept (and rented while we were gone). And I knew I had changed. I began noticing things about American culture I’d not noticed before: how violent our TV shows were, how “entertaining” our news shows had become, how much greed has permeated our culture and become acceptable. It was quite troubling. That may indeed be why a life on an isolated 30-acre farm in Vermont was so appealing.

We came home in June of 2006, but our home was rented out through August. So, we wound up spending the summer traveling the east coast of the U.S. visiting Woody’s family, who lived in Canada and Florida, and my family, who lived in Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Along the way, my son Jon, who was living in Cincinnati at the time, asked us to “swing over” into Vermont to gather some real estate information for him as he and his family were thinking of moving to Vermont. So, coming south out of Canada, we just hung a left along the way and spent two glorious weeks in Vermont in early August. And, while we gathering lots of information for my son, we also discovered this tiny stone house situated in the Green Mountains of northeastern Vermont.  And, Jon and his family, by the way, moved instead to Cleveland.

Our yard in Vermont

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

My big moment was about two or three months in. I was mostly exhausted (being enmeshed in a foreign culture is, actually, exhausting), and wound up sobbing on the post office wall.  But that turned out to be just what I needed. Here’s an excerpt from my book:

At least my explosion at the bus stop was among strangers and I could blend quickly back into anonymity. But later that week, another low point hit me while I was sitting in the teachers’ lounge. My witnesses were my colleagues.

The day was cold outside and the chill seeped through the walls. The teachers had been talking about the upcoming election.

“Things here will never change,” one of them said.

As though on cue, something deep within me burst. “With an attitude like that, it’s no wonder!” I snapped.

I knew immediately I shouldn’t have said it. At best, I’d said something rude, and, at worst, something intentionally insulting. But none of the teachers in the small room reacted. There was not even an uncomfortable silence. It wasn’t a language barrier issue. There simply wasn’t an aggressive bone in any of them. I wanted to scream; I wanted them to be angry, angry with me, just like I was.

Deep in my genetic code, there was a belief that any problem could be at least addressed if not fixed. No mountain too high, no ocean too deep, yadda, yadda, yadda. But in Kazakhstan, I found no ethic that said if the system is broken, it should get fixed. And what was even harder for me, I rarely heard anyone acknowledge that anything in the system was broken.

From where I stood that particular gloomy day, everything I saw was broken. From the women rifling through my grandchildren’s birthday presents, to teachers pushing a Ping-Pong ball up some stranger’s pant leg, to the scene at the bus stop. I was tired of dealing with behaviors I didn’t like, never mind understand.

I was worn out by the terrible bleakness all around me. I was irritated by eating when not hungry only because whoever offered the food might be offended if I didn’t. I was sick of drinking tea so full of the caffeine that wreaked havoc with my sleep. I was tired of trying to believe none of it mattered. In short, I was tired of being culturally sensitive.

I badly needed someone who would just listen to me, help me see things in perspective, laugh with me. Bakhit, the woman at my college whom I’d thought might become my first friend, had never again showed any interest in me. And Tatiana, a woman for whom I held out much hope for friendship during my first month in Zhezkazgan, had moved to Moscow the week after we’d met.

I’d lost Woody, too, as far as I was concerned. I was disappointed that he couldn’t cheer me up, that he never brought me broth when I was sick unless I asked him, that I had to ask him. I was annoyed at constantly tripping over his stuff in our tiny room and angry that when I tried to share my struggles with him, he didn’t understand.

I worried whether I even knew my husband at all. We’d once been so close. Perhaps we’d been too close—like standing before a tree or a mirror, so close you can’t see either the forest or the face. Now that I’d stepped back a bit, I wasn’t seeing what I expected to see. And the distance between us felt immense.

How much easier my adjustment would have been, I decided, if the Peace Corps had placed me in Africa or the South Pacific. With different clothing, an occasional loincloth at least, the visual reminders that I was in a different culture would surely have made my adjustment easier.

In Kazakhstan, the cultural differences were enormous, yet they were subtle, often out of sight. People looked like Americans, wore American clothing, had American hairstyles. The differences that were knocking me over were hidden from view. And things I normally did on automatic pilot, I now had to think about.

I couldn’t walk through a doorway without a conscious, “I must pick up my feet.” I couldn’t enter a home without going through the very conscious ritual of removing my shoes, a literal “rite of passage.” I didn’t mind removing my shoes. I liked the custom in many ways. What I minded was the thinking about it. I was on hyper-alert all day long, every day, and I was exhausted.

I pictured myself sitting by a pool, with a gorgeously tanned and well-muscled man with a flirtatious smile serving me an ice-cold margarita, a curious image, given that I don’t tend to enjoy pools. Pure luxury, that’s what I longed for, and a little relaxation. A respite.

I hit my metaphorical bottom a few days after I blew up at my colleague. After picking up a package with photos of my grandchildren, I sat on the cement wall outside the pochta, that clear no-no in this land of superstitions, to open it. But on this particular day, as I sat on the wall, no old woman ran over to me, insisting I stand up. Probably my loud sobbing kept them all at bay.

Tired of pushing my sadness away, tired of fighting it, I finally accepted that the only way around this difficult time was to go through it. “The only way around is through” was a mantra that had helped me through the painful years leading up to my divorce.

I’d spouted the adage over the previous ten years in workshops and various keynote addresses, in the textbook Woody and I wrote together, and with my clients in my psychotherapy practice.

“The only way around is through,” I repeated to myself now, and knew it was time to sit still and feel my feelings.

“Courage,” another adage I’d often quoted, is “feeling the fear and doing it anyway.” Now was the time for me to face up to my own fear du jour and push forward, confronting what I’d been afraid of, embracing my inner demons, if you will. I wanted my Peace Corps years to be good ones, my time worth all I’d left behind. I wanted to be happy again. That much I knew.

I thought of the yoga teacher I’d had throughout the early 1980s. Larry Terkel had taught me to find my “point of resistance” and “play with it.” His advice had been vital a decade later as I came out of my stuttering closet, finding that moment when I was stuttering and just staying with it, not being in such a hurry to get away. No more numbing out, no more excuses.

Sitting on the cement wall outside the Zhezkazgan post office, I’d do it again. I’d honor my “point of resistance,” feel my sadness, and stretch and pull it all I could.

My sobs helped. I sobbed through my embarrassment that I, the certified Gestalt psychotherapist, had been stuffing my feelings and numbing out to the many disappointments I’d found. And I sobbed through my dismay that I, the Master of Arts sociologist, had been seeing this culture through my own ethnocentric filter, wearing a sun visor of “my way” that colored everything I saw, judging the new by what I knew.

I sobbed for the discriminating eye that had served me well in so many arenas back home in my own culture, but that was wreaking havoc on me in Kazakhstan. And I sobbed through the denial that had convinced me I’d feel fine if only I gritted my teeth, stepped up, and plowed on. I sobbed through the frustrations and the anger of the past months: the institutionalized chaos that stopped me short on a daily basis, the neglect that surrounded me wherever I looked, and the dust that covered me with every step. And I sobbed away my disappointment in Woody, and my fear, believing that if we weren’t destined for the “happy ever after” I’d expected, I’d still be okay.

Mostly, I sobbed into my acknowledgment that I couldn’t control any of it. I leaned into my crying eagerly, hungrily, knowing as sure as I knew my name, that crying “clears away the sadness and creates a space for joy.”

When my sobbing had run its course, I blew my nose, wiped my face, and recognized a long-lost sense of excitement. I felt the eager anticipation of the unknown as I once had the night before leaving for a new summer camp, the days before a new school year began, or the weeks before each of my sons was born.

With renewed energy, I walked home, eager to share my metamorphosis with Woody. Hoping, too, that I’d no longer be so constantly angry with him.

I’d climbed that high dive for Woody in the beginning, then jumped off it for the stories I could tell my grandchildren about “making friends for America.” The resultant fall—where I’d been—had seemed endless. But once I hit, there on that post office wall, I knew the rest of my time in Kazakhstan would be categorically different.

I was there for me now, and the fact that I had no idea exactly how the rest of my time there would be different, was OK. I just knew it would be.

Toasts are important in the Kazakh culture. Here, Woody and I give a toast at a wedding.

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I learned I can be unexpectedly tenacious in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. I have a core strength that, if I only tap into it, will carry me through. I had given up so very much, I was determined to make my time there successful. No matter what. It’s what I tried always to instill in my clients. It’s what I had believed cognitively for years; now I was actually experiencing it. It was a bit heady.

 

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

After Peace Corps, I’d have taken more time and talked more directly with my sons about our move to Vermont. We are a very long way from them in Ohio, from my grandchildren. As a direct result, I am not as involved in their lives as I’d like to be.

Woody and I with members of our first host family at Peace Corps’ Culture Day

You wrote a memoir about your experience. What prompted that?

At Home on the Kazakh Steppe: A Peace Corps Memoir developed out of my need to understand my experience. Why had I given up a life I loved to go half way around the world? What had I learned about the man I’d married? What had I learned about my own country and culture? Writing has long been a path to understanding. So, I began to write in January 2007, a few months after we returned home. Somewhere in that process, I realized I had a universal story—one of midlife change, of taking a risk, jumping into that great unknown, and not just surviving, but surfacing a stronger and more confident woman. And I hope I offered a new way of thinking about the artificial boundaries we so often place on friendship. At that point, it was a matter of learning how to write memoir, which works best if it reads like a novel. Workshops, books, mentors, and editors all helped me. But what drove me the most was my inner compulsion to tell this story.

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife? Joining the Peace Corps?

Don’t wait until you are not afraid. Courage is “feeling the fear and doing it anyway.” Listen to your heart; your body knows what it needs; learn to trust its messages to you.

The process for joining Peace Corps has changed dramatically since I did it in 2002.  So, my advice is to start at their website. I think the successful volunteer needs to be someone committed to representing their country in a part of the world where not many Americans go. That’s one of the three Peace Corps goals that have stayed the same for over 50 years now: to introduce people of other countries to Americans and our ways. Of course, the third goal is to bring the culture of the country we lived in back home and share it with others.  Hence, my various speaking engagements, my book to some extent, and some of my blog posts. The second goal, by the way, is to bring the skills or talents that the host country seeks; in other words, to do the job we were sent there to do.

When Woody and I first sent in our applications online, our next move was to go to our local bookstore and order every book they could find that was written about the Peace Corps. I believe I wound up at the time with about four or five, among them two memoirs that were outstanding: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.) by Peter Hesler, who served in China, and The Village of Waiting by George Packer, who served in one of the African countries. Packer’s story was helpful to me while I was first acclimating, for his story was one of nearly interminable boredom.  As I never experienced that, I had a beacon telling me I was doing OK.

Celebrating my 56th Birthday with locals in Kazakhstan

What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?

I’m looking for what that next act will be. Certainly, I love the writing life. At 68, I now get to call my own hours; I can take off and visit the grandkids in Ohio at most any time I want.

And I love writing and researching for my weekly blog post at And So It Goes. Yet, the memories of those years as a psychotherapist are with me daily and I’d love to see clients again. I’m good at what I do; that much I’ve learned. I bring some of that experience and training into my blog posts, encouraging a robust conversation. I know there are women out there I can still reach with a message of hope – belief in yourself, trust in the universe, and faith that no matter what, you will be OK.

Our yurt

We just had a yurt installed in our front yard but, once again that jump into the unknown, how we will use it we are still figuring out.  Turns out our insurance won’t allow us to rent it.  Perhaps it’ll become a therapy room for my new practice.

 

Contact Janet Givens at givensj48@gmail.com

Book:At Home on the Kazakh Steppe: A Peace Corps Memoir

Website and blog

Facebook personal page

Facebook author page

Twitter @GivensJanet




Becoming a Story Coach: Katherine’s Story

After 20 years helping low-income students, Katherine was feeling stuck and called to do something new. She has leveraged her talent and passion for helping others tell their stories to launch her own business as a presentation and story coach. 

  

Tell us a little about your background.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the youngest of four. My parents met on a blind date in high school in upstate New York and were ambitious to create a different life for themselves and their children. My father ran a small secretarial school business that flourished under his leadership. With success, my parents also drilled the notion that with privilege comes responsibility. I thought I wanted to be the head of the United Way or a teacher growing up. I knew I wanted to make an impact in people’s lives.

In high school, I met a woman through my parents who would change the course of my life. Her name was Linda Mornell and she was starting a nonprofit in San Francisco, Summer Search, to help low-income students break out of their limitations and change their lives.

While I attended the University of Pennsylvania, the real learning for me during those years happened on a summer internship to Kenya, where I lived with a Kenyan family and taught math at the local village school. A Summer Search student was on that program. I understood immediately that it didn’t matter where you came from, but who you are on the inside that matters most. I was determined to work with Linda and for Summer Search someday.

I graduated college with a degree in African American Studies then did Teach For America, which at the time was a new program placing recent college grads in inner-city schools for two years. I stayed in touch with Linda and, after visiting her twice, we made a commitment to work together. I moved to San Francisco in 1995.

I met my husband at a party here. He heard me laughing and sought me out. We laughed, danced, and sparks flew. When he didn’t ask for my number, I thought, “Well Katherine, it wasn’t meant to be. You’ve thrown yourself on enough men in your life, it’s time to let them lead the way. Let it go.” That Monday, he called me at work. Our first date was on my 27th birthday. I had to stand on a phone book in front of my apartment building to kiss him—he’s 6’7”.  We never really let each other go after that. It took some the courage to let someone in that much, but I have never looked back. We got engaged a few months later and married that year.

We have three children, Charlie (14), Joey (12), and Kate (10) and a very cute but fearful dog named Augie (3).

When did you start to think about making a change?

As I said, I was the founder’s first hire at Summer Search and was on staff for 20 years. Because I joined so early in the lifespan of the organization, I was part of the formative years of growing a small nonprofit. I loved Summer Search with all my heart and never thought I would work anywhere else.

It was impossible to push students to look at where they let their fears and self-sabotage hold them back, without looking at how I did that to myself too. I felt this enormous debt of gratitude to Linda and the students for all the ways they pushed me to grow. (Read more about how much Linda influenced my life in my post here.)

With Linda

I held several roles within the nonprofit, including Executive Director and managing a $20 Million Growth Campaign. My mantra in the middle years when my kids were essentially still babies was to be helpful and useful, which I was.

Yet over time, I no longer wanted to fundraise, and despite the fact that I was a leader who yielded some influence in the organization, I was feeling deeply stuck and torn by my years of devotion and desire to grow in new ways.

It was very confusing time for me because I had committed so much of my professional and personal life to this organization. I had personally mentored close to 1000 alumni. I felt like I was leaving behind a family. But in my heart, I knew I was no longer growing and I knew it was time to move on.  So yes it was brewing for a while, but it took me a long time to admit to myself, let alone others.

At the same time, I recognized that my kids will be off to college before I know it. Maybe dramatic since my youngest is currently nine years old. But my oldest just started high school and I see the end of an era coming down the pike.

Levar and Jabali, Summer Search alums I worked with

What is your next act?

I am now a Presentation + Story Coach. I launched my company, Katherine Kennedy, with the tagline Speaking to What Matters in January of 2016 at the age of 44.

I work 1:1 to help people craft their message and speeches. I believe everything you need to tell your story and connect with an audience is inside you. So my job is to help you access, organize and deliver.

I am also coaching people of all ages (executives to teenagers) on speaking with authenticity and confidence in business and informal settings.

I love the variety of people and am having so much fun in the most soul-affirming way. My clients have ranged from a 5-hour project for a speech the following week, to preparing for an on-camera interview, to crafting wedding vows, to a 4-month partnership to develop a TEDMED talk.

I recently helped the wife of the doctor who wrote When Breath Becomes Air. She was asked to speak for a Stanford Medicine X as well as the lauded TEDMED. We dug deep to lift her story and her message (not just her late husband’s) about love and loss. Lucy referred to me as having an “emotional divining rod” that can sift out what is essential to the person giving the speech as well as what will land emotionally with the audience.

 

Lucy’s speech

 

Why did you choose this next act?  What other options did you consider?  

The one thing that kept me going at Summer Search for so long was the work with the student and alumni speakers for their signature events. I loved this work so completely. It was creative, courageous, and deeply connecting. Each speech would take an overwhelming amount of craft and care, but it was exhilarating to play a part in helping someone tell their story with vulnerability, triumph, and confidence.

And thanks to some soul searching, I was moving in the direction of wanting to start my own consulting business. Could I transfer my ability to get close to people, understand what it is like to be in their shoes, decipher their hopes and dreams, their past and their future, and help them tell their story?

What do I call myself? A speaking coach? A story coach? And was there a market for this?

I wanted to work for myself, and I wanted more flexibility to be with my family. And I wanted to devote my professional time to helping people develop their message, and ultimately their confidence. Like my calling to Summer Search 20 years ago, this presentation and story work was calling me, too.

So that’s what I am doing!

I helped Ana tell her story

How hard was it to take the plunge?

Well as you have heard, the transition to decide to leave was painful and I didn’t even know how much I needed to move on, or how ready I really was.

I took a course called Playing Big with Tara Mohr. I looked at all the ways I was holding myself back and the fears and self-doubt that were keeping me there. I especially saw how the anxiety I was feeling about leaving had a direct relationship to old behaviors of people pleasing and not listening to the sound of my own voice. That voice inside that’s trying to be listened to but gets shut out by the more critical anxious voice of fear.

I drew upon the strength of my prior students and did my own research, too. I read the book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges. He kept illustrating how every new beginning must start with an ending.

I also found ways to build energy for my next act. Help and clarity came in the form of a new friend who was also a writer. I whispered to her on a walk that I wanted to help people find more meaning in their lives. That a part of me believed that the gifts I had of helping Summer Search students and alumni tell their stories and craft a compelling speech could be translated to others, but how? She offered, for a price, help with creating content for a website. I bit the bullet and hired her. I still wasn’t convinced I was leaving Summer Search but I knew that I had to take leaps in other ways if I was ever going to feel the confidence and clarity to live a creative life again.

Then I quit. The day after the Summer Search 25th Anniversary. The event and the speeches were a huge hit and yet, I knew it was time to go.

So I enjoyed the holidays and then started putting one foot in front of the other: developed my website, took on a few clients and started learning about social media. That was a year ago. I have learned more in this past year, than the 10 years prior!

Being honored at the 25th gala

How supportive were your family and friends?

My husband had been let go from his safe but unfulfilling sales job with a software company the year before and had been exploring becoming a full-time personal trainer. After college (eons ago!), he was a US National Rower, and the athlete and trainer in him was aching to get out.

My husband also saw my growing discontent with my role and with the office politics that are inevitable with a growing organization. I think when I called him from New York the day after our 25th anniversary to tell him I quit, he wasn’t surprised.

Since we are in similar phases, we keep reminding each other how we are doing the right thing, for ourselves and for our children, and let’s face it, for the people we want to serve through our new businesses!

I thought my parents would be disappointed (must have been some old voice inside) and to the contrary, they were so proud of me. My mother exclaimed,
“Oh Katherine, you can finally take care of yourself!” My father knew I had been struggling and said, “You now know what being in limbo feels like. I am proud of you for making the decision. Cut the cord. It will get easier.” I think they are thrilled to hear me so energized and excited about this next act.

I was worried about how Linda would feel too. While she was no longer officially on staff at Summer Search, we were still close and weathered a lot of the storms there together. Linda understood though and, with my departure, has also been able to move on more as well.

My close friends were thrilled. They knew I loved Summer Search but were tired of seeing me feel undervalued and stifled.

The most interesting part was my children. They were old enough to share some of my thought process about why I was leaving Summer Search and how important it was for me to take the skills and passion I developed there to others. That it was time for me to grow.

I was able to share with them the letter I sent to my former students, where I talked about my care for them, and how I had to confront my fears the same way I had encouraged them all along. My kids are proud of me, and frankly grateful to have some of their mom back. Most of my time is working on moving my consulting business forward but I have more flexibility and less stress, if you can believe it. 

At Carlton’s high school graduation in 1998 (Summer Search student)

What challenges did you encounter?

The greatest challenge I have encountered is patience—patience to find clients— and humility—humility that I still have a lot to learn. Both feel good though, and I know I am on the right track. I want to honor the stage of life I am in with my children and want to build this business over time.

Practically speaking, I am breaking out of my own limitations with technology and social media. I am proud of my website but since launching, I have been hired to help with one TEDMED speech and three TEDx talks, and it hit me recently, I have nothing on my website about that! So I have thrown in some language about it but still have to figure that out.

Another challenge is putting myself out there in my blogging. I have never dreamed of being a writer. And, I panic just like the rest of us when it comes to public speaking. To the outside eye, I am confident and persuasive, but it still makes me nervous. What I love about it is the challenge though and the joy and confidence that comes from just doing it.

And I have had to do everything myself, from the Quickbooks to the networking, which is part of what I have loved.

I am learning how to keep enough time open in my calendar for clients who need me in a pinch and also plan my weeks out to accomplish what I set out to do.

With a former student I coached for a keynote

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

When I am doing this coaching work, I loooove it. My brain hurts in the best way. I am using all faculties. I am using what I learned through opening up people with care and directness. I am using my years of understanding behavior and speaking to what’s not being said. I am using my ability to interact with people to make them feel safe and able to share what’s most deep inside. And of course, I am using my creativity to make each speech, presentation unique to my client’s true wishes and message. What keeps me going is that I love this work and I know it is my deepest offering to the world.

In fact, I just got off the phone with a Temple Board President who gave a speech for Rosh Hashanah. He was thrilled with our work together and said he would never give a speech again without my help. I was on speakerphone with his brother and son and they kept asking how, how did I help? We re-wrote the whole speech and as he said, I gave him the space to learn how to be himself and craft the words like a conversation. I feel overjoyed that I can help people be their best version of themselves in moments that truly matter and that will make an impact.

Every time I listen to Tom Petty’s acoustic version of “Learning to Fly,” my heart swells with gratitude. I never thought I would have a next act. I thought it was me and Summer Search for life. I am learning to fly – and it feels great!

Luke and Laura — I helped Laura craft her wedding vows

What have you learned about yourself through this process?

I have learned that I have a lot to give—and a lot more to learn! But that I have a gift for helping people access what is inside of them, organize their message in a compelling way that is true to them, and connect with an audience, big or small. That feels good. I didn’t set out to have this passion or skill 20 years ago, but here I am.

I have also learned that letting go and moving on isn’t as hard as one thinks. It is the thinking about it, not the doing, that’s hard.

And that the only person who is accountable for your growth is YOU.

And that it’s never too late. Should I have left Summer Search earlier? Oh, who knows. I choose to feel proud of my 20-year commitment and beyond grateful for a next act!

Baker Beach, where I often walk, for inspiration and rejuvenation

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

This one-liner helped me enormously: Every new beginning must start with an ending.

As well as all of these:

We are all called to something. Yet callings need to be activated.

In order to say YES, you have to say a lot of NOs. Be super duper selective.

And schedule your workouts like a doctor’s appointment!

Watch your tendency to be a martyr.

Keep listening to the sound of your own voice. The coaching folks call it your Inner Mentor. Whatever you call it, trust yourself.

Some of my favorite books

What resources do you recommend?

Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead book and coaching course by Tara Mohr

B-School online marketing course with Marie Forleo

Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, a book by William Bridges

Jac McNeil, Business Coach for Women

Katie Monkhouse, Creative Services (website help!)

Kathleen Duich, Writer

The Copy Cure, Online copy course

Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds by Carmine Gallo

SpeechSkills in San Francisco and New York has a great one-day class called “Projecting Yourself with Confidence and Credibility”

The office I share with my husband

What’s next for you?

Change and establishing yourself take time. I am coming to the end of my first year as a Presentation and Story Coach. I have realistic goals for my earned income over the next three years.

This past fall, I invested in myself with a business coach. She helped me see my specific strengths, clarify my offerings, work through some tricky client situations, and establish goals for myself. I highly recommend her!

So with that said, this year I have bigger goals in terms of income and impact and have hit the ground running. I feel grateful!

 

Contact Katherine Kennedy at Katherine@katherinekennedysf.com

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Let’s Hear from an Expert: Dr. Caroline Apovian, Director of the Center for Nutrition and Weight Management at Boston Medical Center

What unique challenges do women face related to nutrition and weight as they enter midlife?

Most women know that the ovaries produce estrogen, but many are not aware that fat cells also produce it. During menopause, the amount of estrogen produced by your ovaries decreases. Your fat cells try to compensate for the hormonal imbalance by swelling and becoming larger. These larger fat cells typically congregate around the waist, explaining some of the weight gain that accompanies menopause.

Aside from unwanted weight gain, extra fat stored in the belly increases risks for serious health problems. These include heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome. Hot flashes, headaches, mood swings, difficulty concentrating, and sleep disruption can also be triggered by the lower amounts of estrogen (and progesterone) produced after midlife.

Another challenge people face in midlife (not unique to women) is sarocopenia. This is the natural muscle loss that begins in our 30s and accelerates in our 40s. Our basal metabolic rate is primarily determined by the amount of lean muscle mass we have, so as we lose lean muscle mass, our metabolism slows down accordingly.

I might also add that stress and sleep deprivation significantly contribute to weight gain, and the pressures and stresses that middle-aged women face are a challenge that needs to be addressed in regards to weight and health.

 

Are there opportunities unique to women in midlife that they can leverage?

I would say so, yes. Women in midlife, as a general statement, tend to be wiser, more aware of their strengths and limitations, and have many years of practice balancing competing responsibilities. They also better understand their bodies and individual needs, and how caring for those needs is essential to maintain their physical and emotional health. This is also a generality, but many women in midlife who have families have children who are older, with a greater level of autonomy. This is a definite advantage when it comes to working in time for ourselves to engage in physical activity, manage stressors, and sleep 7-9 hours per night.

 

What are your best tips for women in midlife with respect to nutrition and weight, and living the second half with energy and health?

It’s difficult to say which aspects of nutrition and health are most important, but here are a few recommendations that patients have found helpful.

Eat a diet rich in protein. Protein is necessary to preserve, protect, and build muscle. I advise my patients to build meals around lean protein sources, such as fatty fish and poultry. As protein is the most satiating of the macronutrients, you’ll feel full longer and experience fewer energy highs and lows throughout the day. Enjoy a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables with your protein sources, as well as limited amounts of whole grains.

Work out with weights a couple of times per week. In order to counteract the process of sarcopenia, work out with weights a couple of times per week. You’ll be improving your metabolic speed and your strength, lowering your stress levels, preventing bone loss, sharpening your cognitive abilities, and reducing risks for cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. If you are new to weight lifting, start with lighter weights and fewer repetitions. Build up in weight and intensity as you get stronger.

Walk whenever possible. Stay active! It helps to burn calories, manage stress, reduce pain, preserve mobility, and improve quality of life.

Sleep 7-9 hours per night, every night. Sleep is crucial for our health. Adults who sleep 5-7 hours per night (or less) are 30-80 percent more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes, or to die prematurely, as those who sleep 8 hours or more. My weight loss patients are often surprised when I ask them about their sleeping habits, but the two are closely related. A chronic lack of sleep increases cortisol (stress hormone) and ghrelin (hunger hormone) while simultaneously slowing down your metabolism and decreasing leptin (a satiety hormone). Cortisol prompts the body to replenish energy in the form of hunger pangs. This is why chronic lack of sleep is contributing to the obesity epidemic.

Try intermittent fasting. Research has revealed that intermittent fasting helps with weight loss, decreasing inflammation in the body, reducing blood pressure, improving metabolism, and decreasing risks of type 2 diabetes.  At the clinic, I combine this principle with the fact that we need to feed our muscles protein to protect them, and the fact that most people who are trying to lose weight will have difficulty sustaining a complete fast as they go about their normal schedules.

Taking a temporary break from solid foods and having high protein smoothies instead achieves many of the same health benefits while simultaneously helping people to feel full and guarding their muscles. Swap out a few meals per week for protein smoothies and try having one all-smoothie day per week. I have developed a protein powder especially for this purpose, which can be found here. It’s a mix of whey and casein protein powders, as one of them works quickly to protect muscles, and the other digests slowly, over the course of several hours, to sustain a feeling of fullness. However, any unsweetened protein powder can work for this. Combine it with water, fresh fruit, and fresh veggies for a low calorie, high protein meal replacement.

 

What resources do you recommend to women in midlife who wish to maintain or improve their nutrition and weight?

Building Strength & Stamina by Wayne L. Westcott. This is an excellent book about strength training for health and weight loss, with plenty of helpful routines, photos, and an included DVD.

Ellen Dolgen for menopause-related advice and articles.

Weight Watchers is a reputable program that has helped many women and men to lose weight successfully.

The Age-Defying Diet: Outsmart Your Metabolism to Lose Weight is my latest book, and contains more information on all of the points I mentioned above. I also have a blog that features advice, articles, and recipes.  DrApovian.com

 

Contact Dr. Caroline Apovian at Dr.Apovian@gmail.com

Website

Facebook

Book: The Age-Defying Diet: Outsmart Your Metabolism to Lose Weight

 

Caroline Apovian, MD, FACN, has worked as a leading researcher, treatment provider, and professor in the field of weight management and nutrition for over 25 years.  She is the director of the Center for Nutrition and Weight Management at Boston Medical Center, a professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine, and the vice president of The Obesity Society.  Her federal government positions include acting as a nutrition consultant to NASA and an appointed member of the federal government’s panel on the evaluation and treatment of overweight adults.  She is the author of The Age-Defying Diet: Outsmart Your Metabolism to Lose Weight, in addition to hundreds of papers, reviews, and book chapters on obesity and nutrition.  Her publications appear in the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of Women’s Health, International Journal of Obesity, Obesity Research, Digestive and Liver Disease, and Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, amongst others.  She has also co-founded the company Science-Smart, a provider of scientifically-supported products manufactured under strict laboratory conditions to facilitate healthy weight loss and sound sleep.




Launching a Furniture Business at 56: Lena’s Story

Moving back to the US from Greece in midlife forced Lena to rethink her career plans. She launched LAMOU, a unique online store featuring custom-printed furniture.

Tell us a little about your background…

My background is full of dynamic forces that have given form to my life and shaped who I am. I was born in Providence, R.I., to two Greek physicians who came to the United States for post-graduate studies in the mid-1950s. I am a post-war child, in the full sense of the word, especially considering that my parents witnessed World War II in Greece—the Nazi occupation and the ensuing civil war. I was schooled in New England, attending a Quaker school for girls from kindergarten through high school. It was a rigorous and empowered environment and a true prep school for life and learning.

I grew up in a bi-cultural environment—Greek and American, rather than Greek-American. My parents embraced Greek culture and exposed me and my two siblings to Greece from the time we were very young. Beginning in the early 1960s, we would travel to Greece in the summer and my memories of summers in Greece are strong, poignant, and part of who I am.

With Mom and my siblings in Greece, 1966

I received my Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature from Brown University in 1981, and worked at several jobs, before deciding to go back to school and get a Masters in Architecture. I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1989 with a mission: architecture and design.

As women, we have to balance our professional goals with family, and that is one of the biggest challenges we all face. I ended up living and working in Greece, and married in Athens soon after graduating from Penn. It was quite an adventure being a woman architect, educator, and designer in Athens, and a constant struggle to balance professional aspirations with marriage.

Magazine feature in Greece

I have a daughter, Artemis, who is just shy of 22 and a senior at Bard College. I divorced her father when she was quite young, but decided to stay in Athens until she finished high school so that she could have two parents influencing her life. I call myself a single parent, however, as the joys and responsibilities of parenting mainly fell on me.

Although I am sometimes nostalgic for the nuclear and close family model I experienced as a child, I nevertheless feel that parenting alone is a huge accomplishment and delivers a message of strength, especially in current times where family models are becoming more and more flexible. I did, however, have the love and support of my own family to see me through the many challenges I faced as a single mother and a professional.

In my professional life, I did many different “jobs”: I designed houses and gardens, entered plenty of competitions, taught at the graduate and undergraduate level, set up a non-profit with funding from the EU with two other women architects, started a furniture design company with production in Istanbul, and continued to pursue my love of visual arts through painting and drawing.

I must admit that I would not have been able to do all of the above without the help of several women whom I employed while in Greece to help with childcare when my daughter was young. I felt these young women were very understanding of my need to create and were excellent co-parents for my daughter’s upbringing. I could not have done everything I did without the advantage of having help with childcare.

With Artemis in Greece

When did you start to think about making a change?

This is an interesting question in my case, as sometimes historical events influence a person’s choices, versus decisions that come about as a result of deep reflection. I knew that I wanted my daughter to go to college in the United States and enrolled her in an IB (International Baccalaureate) program in a private school in Athens. I had cultivated this with her from a very young age, knowing full well that her exposure to schooling in the US would be a determining factor in her life and would broaden her horizons.

When the financial crisis hit Greece in 2010, jobs dried up and I lost my salaried position as professor of architecture in a private university in Athens that was forced to close. In addition, we lost my mother to cancer at the end of 2010, and it seemed to me like the earth was shifting. I was bereaved, far from my siblings and my father, without a steady income, and witnessing the political turmoil that was happening on a daily basis in Athens as a result of the financial crisis.

With Mom and one-week-old Artemis in Greece

 

With the help of my father, I was able to see out the last two years of Artemis’ IB program in Greece, and help her navigate the college application process. I also had lots of time on my hands, and turned to painting and the visual arts full time.

My daughter’s hard work paid off: She was offered a terrific scholarship at Bard and there was no reason for me to stay in Greece anymore. My father was still alive but heartbroken (my parents had been together since medical school in Athens). With Artemis enrolled at Bard and Greece falling apart at the seams, I moved to the US, into the house where I grew up in Providence, which my father has maintained to this day. It is odd to return to one’s childhood home at 56, but my father is alive and well at 91, and having a home to return to definitely made it easier for me to take the risk of re-invention.

Our family celebrating my father’s 90th

The first few months were excruciatingly hard. What was I to do? How could I possibly translate all those years of working in Greece into something here in the States? How could I enter the workforce in my 50s and compete with all the accomplished young? How could I give up friends, familiarity, my support group, and my routines?

Life sometimes is strange and very serendipitous. Things seem to happen for a reason and the universe conspires just when we despair. The summer before I was leaving Greece, in 2013, an old and dear classmate from Penn, Ann Clark, contacted me to say she was coming to Greece, accompanying her new life partner to a medical convention, and that she was moving to Providence. I too, was about to move, and this was a huge source of comfort for me. Maybe Ann and I could figure something out together.What is your next act?

I am the co-founder of LAMOU, which I launched with Ann Clark in 2015, at age 56. It is a new concept in furniture that offers the opportunity for customers to engage in the process of design through technology. Our initial product offering is wood tables that are custom printed. Our website hosts LAMOU’s proprietary collection of designs as well as guest artist collections. In addition, we have a toolkit builder on the site: Anyone can upload a photograph, print, painting, or design and purchase their own table, flat-packed and delivered to their door.

Classic Line end tables

The name is a combination of our initials “L” for Lena, “A” for Ann and the word “mou” which in Greek means “mine.” We thought it was a fitting name for a company that is involved with personalization!

I love the idea of slowly building a community centered around participation in design. It has been wonderful to see the personalized pieces that customers are ordering and how enthusiastic they are with the process and the product. I also love the process of building LAMOU and turning it into a robust business; every day is a challenge and there are new issues to be solved and problems to address. Building a business is like solving an ever-evolving puzzle, and as such, I see it as one more design project. 

With my partner, Ann

Why did you choose this next act?  

This next act, came about after many, many, brainstorming sessions and explorations, together with Ann and on my own.

When I first returned, I was lucky enough to be offered a stint teaching as an adjunct at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), and that helped keep me balanced through a very challenging transition. I soon realized, however, that trying to enter the academic world at my age, with all the political intrigue and insecurity that accompanies an adjunct position, would not be possible. I reached out to builders and contractors and got a few jobs—an addition here, an interior there—but again was confronted with the reality that building a reputation from scratch in the already-established architecture scene here would be close to impossible.

I joined an artist’s collaborative, which I enjoyed, and I reached out to the community here in Providence, where I did manage to win recognition for my work in juried competitions.

Solo Show, Coastal Gallery, 2016

Ann and I started meeting more and more frequently and spoke often about the trials and tribulations of being uprooted in your 50s. Ann had a successful practice in Chicago and was going back and forth the first year, trying to keep the balance between her old life and a new beginning in Providence, so she was feeling similar frustrations.

We both shared an interest in furniture design: Ann had done several pieces for private clients, and I had a design company in Athens that had received considerable attention. We also both shared a love of art and painting. We were aware of new technologies in the design industry, and we each had myriad experiences with clients wanting to participate in the design process.

All of our talks and iterations of what to do next somehow naturally evolved into the idea for LAMOU: a platform that would introduce a new concept in furniture. By combining printing technology with furniture, we would open the door for people to engage with us in a community setting. We would start with one product and slowly build the company into a new platform for participating in design.

Epic Line Persian table

How hard was it to take the plunge?

It was hard. Becoming an entrepreneur in your 50s is not an easy task, especially as a woman, and in a start-up culture dominated by youth. It takes determination and a lot of hard work. You have to relinquish your role as an “expert” and become a novice all over again. It also involves a lot of patience and flexibility: You have to listen and learn, ride out the frustrations and the insecurity, believe in your idea, and persist.

I think you prepare as best you can, but it is really in doing that you learn. Starting a business is a risk; you can have an MBA and still fail. There really is no way to prepare when you do something for the first time: You just build stone by stone and nurture your wounds along the way!

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

My daughter, my father, my sister and my brother were extremely supportive and still are.

I really did not share much of what I was doing with many friends. I think you have to be careful when you start something new. People become risk averse as they age, and you can be talked out of ideas or aspirations if you are not careful. Sometimes it is better to discuss things once you are on the way and not before.

There is an advantage to starting something new in your 50s: You are wiser and more self-confident than in your 20s, and you do not need the approval that you sought in your youth. My few dearest friends were and are extremely supportive, but I still do not discuss with them in detail about LAMOU. I sometimes feel that talking replaces action, so I am a little guarded when it comes to sharing.

With Artemis in Brooklyn

What challenges did you encounter?

There are so many I do not know where to begin. Learning how to set up an e-commerce company, how to write a business plan, how to market in a digital age, the design of the website, designing the products, sourcing and manufacturing, accounting, presenting and networking constantly, choosing the right co-workers, raising money… The list goes on and on. The most important thing is having the right partner when you start something as challenging as LAMOU. That is where a true sense of teamwork comes into play.

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

Yes of course, I thought about giving up, on many occasions. There were times when I just wanted my old life back: painting from morning till night like a hermit or lecturing to students, or designing a structure. There were—and are—plenty of sleepless nights where I woke up startled and thinking about failure.

Again, I have to state here that having a strong partnership makes a huge difference when becoming an entrepreneur. Ann picks me up when I am down, and vice versa. There are times when we are both down, and those are hard, but somehow we are both equally persistent, both experienced in life’s struggles, and both stubborn. When times are rough, you have to have a fierce sense of commitment and belief to see you through.

Reviewing custom design with Ann

 What did you learn about yourself through this process?

That life is an adventure and you have to embrace it. That nothing is written in stone, and one can make changes even though change is hard. That I have stamina and have much more to learn. That the past has a way of resurfacing and influencing everything you do and who you are, and that will, perseverance, and belief can help you achieve.

 

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

I really do not believe in regrets or revisions, so no, there is not anything I would have done differently. Life is a process, and a learning one at that. So, as long as my conscience is clear, I feel I can take on many challenges.

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Be true to yourself and believe in yourself. Do not be scared of re-inventing yourself and do not let others sabotage you. Life is precious and we have no time to waste. Failure is just a perception: Turn your defeats into victories and let them inform you. There are many amazing women around us; trust them, seek their advice, and depend on them!

Keep an open mind and be a lifelong student. Learn to pivot, to compromise, to give things up for the sake of an idea, a goal or a dream. Rely on your own process which will constantly guide you in evolving.

Etched in Stone table

 What advice do you have for those interested in launching a new product-based business?

You need to define your market and delve into the statistics of that market. It is important to figure out the competition and decide what your advantage is—your value proposition. It’s a good idea to conduct focus groups and get “early adopters” on board who can champion your product from the get go. You also need to figure out your business model: will you sell to consumers, to businesses, or both, and what are your distribution channels? How are you solving a problem in a more competitive way than others? What is your main message and how can you capitalize on it and stick to it?

You really have to take the process step by step and learn as you go along. One thing that is important is to hire experts who can help and guide you. Professionals who care enough about clients to listen and to educate them. We have been very lucky with our team: our web developers, our design team, our attorney, and our production team. However, we did a great deal of research and vetting before deciding on whom to work with, and we cultivate these relationships.

Another piece of advice I can offer is to constantly research and find resources when you do not know how to do something. Ann and I participated in a business plan seminar, in a digital marketing seminar, and we entered the RI business plan competition. We also took—and continue to take—advantage of the budding startup community here and various networking organizations.

We had plenty of hiccups along the way and had to let certain collaborators go, either because they were not pulling their own weight or because it was not the right fit. One thing we were told by a wise businessman: “Be slow to hire and quick to fire.” I think it is important to remember this in any venture: Take the time to really interview your collaborators, and cut the relationship quickly if things are not moving forward or the relationship is creating conflict. 

My desk at LAMOU

 What resources do you recommend?

For those wishing to become entrepreneurs, I suggest reaching out to the Small Business Administration in your city or state to find out what programs they offer. We were very lucky in Rhode Island. The University of RI has a Small Business Development Center and, through their program, Ann and I were assigned an excellent business advisor who meets with us regularly with no fee. He has been very influential in helping us through thick and thin.

I would also suggest finding non-profits that specifically deal with women in business. In Rhode Island, the Center for Women in Enterprise is one resource. (SITES)

Seth Godin is an excellent resource for anyone considering starting a business, and his book The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick)is a great read and one that anyone taking on a new challenge can relate and refer to.

Present your ideas at every opportunity to talented and knowledgeable people. We attended a meet and greet that Golden Seeds held in Boston. Golden Seeds is an angel investment company that funds women entrepreneurs. We met the Managing Director, who has continued to follow our progress and act as an unofficial advisor.

Our wonderful, brilliant, web developers and advisors are located in Athens, Greece. They have generously given us their time, their insights and their expertise. The company is called Greymatter and I highly recommend them. The beauty of living in a connected world is that you can source partners from anywhere.

Our web designers are James and Nina Lavine, two very talented RISD graduates, who helped us formulate the “look” and essence of LAMOU from the first meeting. They are incredibly talented, professional, and a joy to work with.

The experience we have had with Ted Howell, our attorney, has been so rewarding. Ted’s expertise is working with start -ups, and he has all the knowledge, patience and flexibility to execute anything an entrepreneur needs. Ted agreed to be on our board of advisors in addition to being our attorney.

Another Ted, but equally as important has been Ted Peffer at IOLabs in Providence. Ted runs an amazing print shop that caters to a demanding clientele. He was with us from day one offering all of his knowledge and guiding us through the development process.

Lamou tables at West Elm Pop Up

What’s next for you and for LAMOU? Do you think you have another next act in your future?

LAMOU is still an early-stage company so the next steps are growing and scaling the company so that we can achieve our vision of a robust online community for those who share our vision in design participation. We are hoping to add new products and are considering the idea of including actual surface treatments for the home, which can be personalized through printing technology. We want to open the design process to customers and give people as many choices as possible in designing their environments.

I definitely have another next act, and I believe it will be in the visual arts and design, as well as in community service or volunteering. I have had an adventurous life, and it is time to give back and really become active in the “political” sense by engaging with underserved communities either as an architect, a teacher, or a volunteer.

 

Contact Lena Georas at lena@lamoudesign.com

Website

Lamou Blog

Facebook Page

Instagram: #lamoudesign

Personal Instagram: #lenamoumou

Linked In: Lena Georas




Becoming a Contemporary Sacred Artist in Midlife: Amy’s Story

Grieving the loss of her brother and mother was the catalyst for Amy to leave her lucrative career in graphic design and honor her calling as an artist and healer, and activist.

 

Tell us a little about your background…

New England

I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire, the youngest of five children. Born at the end of the boomer generation in 1959. It was an era when my mother was able to be homemaker while my father provided for us through his work as a salesman. Being the baby of the family, and highly sensitive, I idolized my siblings and worked hard to please my parents. Although I was an honor student, there seemed to be an unspoken expectation that I would become a secretary, get married, and have babies like the women of my mother’s generation. That didn’t happen. I have never married and do not have children.

When I was a young teen, I started drawing the elephants and pirates from the “Draw Me” contests in the back of magazines in hopes of winning an art scholarship. I would painstakingly recreate them and show them to my mother but, sadly, she would say it was a gimmick. It wasn’t until my junior year that I took my first drawing class at our new high school. I was home.

I wanted to go to college but when my only brother Richard, the eldest child, dropped out in his senior year, my parents, who had helped him financially, were angry and my father declared to the rest of us girls: “If any of you kids wants to go to college, you’re on your own.” I was the only one at the time who wanted to go to college and didn’t know how that was going to happen.

Family reunion, 1982

Florida

In 1976, when I was finishing my junior year in high school, my parents made the startling decision to uproot us and move to Florida. I was the only one left in school, and was forced to move with them. Thankfully, a young couple who came to our house to play bridge with my parents offered to take me in for the remaining few months of my junior year. As it turned out, she was a visual artist and he, an industrial designer. I wrote to my parents and informed them that I was going to study art in college.

It was hard to leave my New England home but Florida offered educational opportunities that I couldn’t otherwise afford. I was awarded grants and waited tables while attending the local community college, completing an Associate degree in Fine Arts. After that I floundered for a few years. I was living with and engaged to a man who was ready to get married and start a family. I didn’t know what I wanted but I knew that I didn’t want that life. I was 22. Instead, I took “the road less traveled” to quote Robert Frost. A year later, I met a man who encouraged me to go back to school which I did, though the relationship eventually ended.

Early work

In 1983, I was still waiting tables and took out student loans to finance my education. I was excited to begin my Bachelor’s program in Fine Arts but, in my senior year, discovered the world of advertising. While working an internship at a local design firm, I learned the art of graphic design. Before computers, print materials were created by hand and I fell in love with the artistry of the craft. I was fed up with the restaurant scene, so this seemed an ideal path to follow.

California

After graduation, in 1986, I relocated to Southern California, where two of my sisters had settled. I was ready to get serious about a career although it was hard to leave my parents who were always nearby when I needed them between boyfriends and roommates. Two years later, they would join us in California—Mom needing to be near at least three of her “chicks.”

I didn’t plan well for the move. I had 300 bucks in my pocket along with student loans, credit card debt, a car payment, and no job—just a dream. I was financially destitute, living in a dingy studio apartment, working secretarial temp jobs, and one step away from homelessness, when I finally landed a job as a production artist at a design firm in South Pasadena. It was a high stress, fast-paced environment but I was learning a lot, working in my field, getting paid with steady raises, and had health insurance for the first time. I was 27 and on my way to “success.” So I thought. An easel with a blank canvas sat tucked in a corner of my apartment though at the time I didn’t have time to paint. Things were about to change, again.

With Richard, 1984

 When did you start to think about making a change?

The seeds for my next act were planted just two years later when I was 29. My brother Richard left home for college when I was seven but when I was sixteen, he became a mentor to me, taking notice of my early evolution as a young woman. We had always been close as a family especially during the 1980s when we were all young adults. Our family gathered yearly for Christmas or a special event, centered around my mother. I wrote often in my journals that if I had my family, I could survive anything.

On September 11, 1989 Richard died from AIDS. My mother flew to NYC and brought him back to Los Angeles that summer to care for him. Being present to his suffering and bearing witness to his death changed me. It was hard on all of us, but especially my mother. Nine months later, she died suddenly from heart failure when I was out of the country on vacation. I returned home the following day to find her gone. It was surreal and no words can really express the shock of having lost the two most significant people in my life in less than nine months. One of my best friends also died that year. Death was all around me. By the time I turned 30, money, success, all the things that I thought were important to me no longer were. I entered a very dark period in my life and was on a self-destructive path abusing alcohol and sex.

With my mother, 1990

One drunken night, I returned to my apartment, picked up a paint brush, and started painting my heart on the canvas. Around that same time, a friend recommended a therapist who I believe helped save me from what would have been an early death, too. It’s why I believe so passionately in the power of art and listening to heal the wounded heart. I was still working at the design firm since I had to pay the rent and there was no one to support me. As I slowly emerged from the darkness, I began reading philosophy and discovered The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. I embarked on an intellectual search for the meaning of life. Reading my brother’s journals, his spirit guided me in my search to answer: Who am I? What is my purpose? Why am I here?

Oregon

Through my grieving process, I was awakening to a new way of seeing the world. I envisioned a simple life of art and service. I was sick of now meaningless deadlines and wanted to flee Southern California. My family had splintered under the weight of our grief and my father retired to San Diego. In 1993, at 33 and alone, I moved to Portland, Oregon to start my life anew. Again. I had no job. No family or friends waiting for me on the other end. It was a leap of faith but this time I had work experience and money saved so the transition wouldn’t be as traumatic as the move from Florida seven years prior. I had planned to become an art therapist and work with grieving people.

Sculpting class, 1994

These were the seeds for my midlife next act eight years later. After arriving in Portland, I began researching art therapy courses and discovered that it was too soon for me emotionally. I was still too raw with my own grief to hold space for others. Out of this early exploration, I began sculpting as a prerequisite to the art therapy program and found a new love in the clay, one that continues today. I started a freelance graphic design business and was painting on the side. To fill my call to be of service, I volunteered with the local AIDS organization offering education and outreach, followed by eight years at The Dougy Center, the National Center for Grieving Children and Families.
What is your next act?

My next act came to fruition in 2001, at 41, when I answered my soul calling to work professionally as an artist and healer. Once I stepped onto this path my life opened in new ways, most profoundly during a ten-day training with environmentalist Joanna Macy when I had a life-changing mystical experience. When I returned home, I founded Sacred Art Studio and have dedicated my life and work to the healing of the earth.

As a contemporary sacred artist and spiritual activist, I draw inspiration from all our faith traditions and the wisdom of our earth-honoring ancestors. My artwork, public installations, ceremonies, speaking, workshops, and writing are meant to inspire and awaken hearts to the sacredness of the creation, our interconnectedness in the life web, and to raise awareness of endangered species. I’ve exhibited my art around the Pacific Northwest and my work resides in many private collections. I’ve also had the joy of creating numerous paintings, mandalas, and sculptures on commission.

9/11 Painting

In 2004, I returned to school and completed my Masters Degree in Spiritual Traditions & Ethics. I’m also a certified Spiritual Director and have studied shamanism with teachers both locally and in Peru. I’ve also had the honor of being invited to speak by local communities about my art and grief journey and have presented at conferences around the interrelationship between art, religion/spirituality, and the ecological crisis.

I believe that during this evolutionary time, we are called to co-create a new collective “story” for living in reciprocity with the living earth and with each other if we are to co-create a sustainable future. My work is a contribution and a prayer toward this transformative vision. I am blessed to be doing what it is that I love and to live a life of meaning and purpose.

Speaking at Eastminster Presbyterian, 9/11, 2011

 

Why did you choose this next act?  

By the late 90s, my graphic design business had exploded and I was doing work for high-tech companies such as Intel and hp. I refer to that period as the “balls to the walls” era and was putting in 60-70 hours a week, rushing from one deadline to the next. By the time the dot.com boom crashed in 2000, I was managing several other designers and grossing over $250,000 a year. I had a big bank account but at the end of the day, I wasn’t happy. Our culture was telling me I was a “success” but I knew in my heart this wasn’t what I was meant to be doing with my life though I was still making art “on the side” and volunteering at the Dougy Center.

Around the same time as the crash, there was another loss in my life that triggered the grief that I had been unable to fully process a decade earlier. This initiated me in a deeper spiritual awakening that propelled me towards this next act. I believe it has been my soul’s evolution to follow this path. Everything, including the losses in my life, has led me to awaken to my purpose in this life. So, I don’t know that I chose it so much as I continued to answer the call of my soul and follow the path to discover where it would lead next. There really was no other option.

The Offering commission, life-size bronze, 2007

 

How hard was it to take the plunge?

I was fortunate to have substantial savings from the high-tech years, so I had the financial means to step back from any urgency to generate income and take the time to consider my next steps. At the start of 2001, I began working with a life coach who guided me and helped shape how I wanted to live this next chapter of my life as an artist and healer.

The launch for this next act was in the form of an art installation I created around the paintings and sculptures that I had been making over the years, ones that emerged through my grief. The event, Art with Heart: A Journey of Healing and Hope, that August was a powerful evening for me and for all those who attended. Friends, colleagues, one of my sisters, and even my father (who was in town from California) attended. A friend performed an expressive dance piece symbolic of my transformation through loss and attendees were then invited to plant seeds in container representing the seeds for my future. This vision included leading workshops for women in grief called Healing HeARTs. It was a profound healing to be witnessed by others and gave me courage to move forward into this next act.

 What challenges did you encounter?

It’s challenging when people, mostly strangers, question my decision as to how “practical” it was to make a living as an artist. This was true especially at the beginning when I didn’t have a large body of work and wasn’t quite clear on the direction of my work. This would change after the events of 9/11 and the training with Joanna Macy that opened my work to the larger ecological and spiritual crises of our time. Because I haven’t followed a traditional art career path by seeking gallery representation, another challenge has been getting my work seen but technology and social media have helped make it possible to reach a larger audience.

The Translator, 2014

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  What/who kept you going?

There have been times over the past 15 years, especially during the recession, that I questioned Spirit and considered going back to graphic design full time. So, it hasn’t always been easy but I piece together a modest living from various streams and live simply. When I am immersed in a painting, a commission, or holding space for people in grief, I feel that divine connection come through me and know that I am exactly where I meant to be. Also, my love for the earth as well as my grief over all that we are losing keeps me going on this path. We only have this one wild, beautiful planet and am committed to doing what I can to protect what remains.

Momento Mori: Oceans in Crisis installation

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

Great question. When I was young my father would said to me, “Amy, you won’t be successful in business (or otherwise) because you’re too sensitive.” The question is: How do we define success? I’ve learned that being an introvert, sensitive, and deep feeling is an asset to our world, not a hindrance. Without my art, I don’t know that I would still be here and am grateful for the courage and wisdom that has emerged out of my suffering. I am stronger than I knew.

 

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

No, although I wish I had the tools as a young woman to process my grief instead of numbing out but, otherwise, I feel that everything in my life has led me to where I am now.

Munay Pachanama, 2013

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife? Or an art career?

Don’t wait to follow your heart. We only get one twirl around the dance floor of life and it is over way too soon. Go for it!

Only follow an art career if you can’t not make art. This is an all-consuming passion and often a lonely path that one is called to without guarantees of financial success. We’re all creative and I am passionate about the healing power of art. In my workshops, I encourage participants to reclaim the artist within, but an art career is not for everyone. On the other hand, if you feel the call, I say leap and trust!

in the studio with Lovers of Creation triptych

 

What resources do you recommend?

Books:

The Mission of Art by Alex Grey

Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet by Matthew Fox

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams

The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions by Wayne Teasdale

Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World by Paul Hawken

Websites:

Rev. Matthew Fox, founder of Creation Spirituality

Spiritual Artist Alex Grey

Joanna Macy

Animas Valley Institute

Alyson Stanfield, Art Biz Coach

 

What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?

I’m currently working on a spiritual memoir of my journey and the role art plays in our healing and evolution. Who knows where that might lead?

 

Contact Amy Livingstone, MA at amy@sacredartstudio.net

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Let’s Hear From an Expert: Tami Forman, Executive Director of Path Forward

You are the Executive Director of the nonprofit, Path Forward. Can you tell us about your organization’s mission?

Path Forward is a nonprofit organization on a mission to empower women (and men) to return to the paid workforce after they’ve taken two years or more away from their career to focus on caregiving. We fulfill our mission by working with companies to launch and implement mid-career internships.

What programs do you have in place to support your mission?

Our program has two big components. First, we provide materials and training for HR and recruiting teams at our partner companies so they can launch the program and recruit participants. This component includes training for the managers who will be supervising returnees. In our work we’ve discovered that managers need support to successfully work with returning professionals. Our manager curriculum covers recruiting, interviewing, onboarding, giving feedback and how to handle the end of the program, whether the returnee is offered ongoing employment or not.

Second, we provide training and development for the returnees in the program to help them successfully navigate their career restart. This component includes creating a plan to expand their skills and build relationships during the internship, giving them tools to navigate their work/life logistics, and developing skills around getting feedback and using it to fuel success. We also cover career management topics like resumes, interviews, and negotiating offers. Our sessions with the returnees boost their confidence and give them concrete plans for successfully transitioning back to their careers.

Our program began in Colorado with partner companies Return Path, ReadyTalk, SendGrid, MWH Global and SpotX. We expanded to California, where we’ve worked with PayPal, GoDaddy, Instacart, Zendesk and others; and to New York where we are working with AppNexus and Verisk Analytics. In all we’ve partnered with more than 20 companies to expand opportunities for women restarting their careers.

What unique challenges and opportunities do you find for women in midlife who are seeking to return to work after caregiving?

One of the biggest challenges is confidence. We see women questioning whether or not their skills are still relevant. Another challenge is how the work environment has changed. There is a whole new world of technology, terminology, team dynamics, and office set-up, to name a few of these changes. Last, a transition back to work affects the whole family. Returning parents may need to change how their childcare is managed and how their home is run.

The good news is that opportunities for women to re-enter the workforce are expanding. Companies are increasingly recognizing the value of diversity at all levels of the organization. We also find that when companies stop focusing on the perceived disadvantages of a candidate who’s taken a career break, they begin to see real advantages in hiring someone with a prior professional track record and a wealth of life experience.  For example, returnees often have really strong communication and collaboration skills, both from their prior work experience and from what they’ve learned through parenting, volunteering, and community work. Professional maturity and the ability to manage multiple projects and priorities are some other key benefits.

What is your track record?

To date, 80% of our program’s graduates have been offered ongoing employment at the company where they participated in the program. Another 10% are employed elsewhere, resulting in a 90% employment rate.

We’ve had so many successful women come through our program, but I’ll highlight a few. Lisa Stephens was an electrical engineer who took a 20-year career hiatus to raise her two sons. She taught herself several coding languages but needed someone to give her the chance to prove herself. Return Path gave her that chance and two years later she is still working there as a software engineer and was recently promoted. Marina Groothius had a prior career as a direct marketer and was able to use the Path Forward program to transition into a career as a marketing analyst. Marina was featured in a story in Fortune. PayPal brought nine women into their program and all of them are now employed as engineers—seven at PayPal, one at a small start-up, and one at Google. One of the women who stayed at PayPal is Shashi Dokania, who has an incredible story of being inspired to teach herself to code because of her son.

 

Do you have plans to expand? How can my readers find out more?

We are meeting with companies in Colorado, California, and New York, and are planning to expand into cities like LA, Seattle, Chicago, Austin, and Washington, D.C., among others. Readers should go to our website to sign up to hear about opportunities as they become available.

 

Contact Tami Forman at hello@pathforward.org

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Tami M. Forman is the executive director of Path Forward, a nonprofit organization that creates midcareer internship programs to ease the transition back to work for women (and men) after taking a break for raising children or other caregiving responsibilities. Path Forward trains HR teams and hiring managers on how to support these programs successfully and provides support to participants to make the experience successful. Tami is building this organization from the ground up, working with donors, partners and participants to fulfill the organization’s mission. Tami spent a decade as a tech marketing executive with data solutions provider, Return Path. Before that she worked in book publishing at Simon & Schuster and Houghton Mifflin and held senior-level web editorial positions at iVillage and News Corporation. Tami is passionate about helping women achieve work/life integration so they can find career success and personal satisfaction. She lives in New York City with her husband and two kids, aged seven and nine.




Becoming a Pilot in Midlife: Juliette’s Story

Juliette’s life has been full of adventure and brush with fame—Cat Stevens, Hugh Hefner, Bruce Springsteen—not the least of which is getting her pilot’s license and using that skill to help rescue animals after Hurricane Katrina. What an odyssey!

 

Tell us a little about your background.

I was born Juliette Bora in London, England, in 1951. An only child, I lived in Turkey with my parents for the first four years of my life. My father was Turkish, and died when I was 10. My mother was French and a very unbalanced woman. I think we know today she was bi-polar and suffered from extreme depression, but in those days no one really talked about that kind of mental illness, especially in England—you kind of lived with it. There were no therapists or help of any kind. You very much kept your troubles to yourself.

When I was five, we went back to live in England, where I grew up and went to school. My childhood/youth was pretty harsh. Because my dad died so early, life changed dramatically for us; mother was in a panic and we pretty much financially went downhill. When I was 13, my mother bought me a horse because she thought it might ease the loss of my dad but we really couldn’t pay for a horse, so to earn the necessary money to keep him, I worked as a stunt rider for MGM Pictures, which happened to be two miles from where I boarded my horse. I spent two years riding, falling, getting knocked off by bandits and jousting in full medieval armor—just about anything you can do on a horse—to make whatever money I could. I got hurt quite a bit, so when I turned 15, Mother sold my horse (without telling me) and that was that for my equine career.

On Amber, at age 13

I left school at 15 and went to work. I got a job after a year at the London Playboy Club as a casino dealer and tried as best I could to help my mom pay the bills. It finally all caught up with us and one night in the winter of 1969, the Bailiffs arrived at the front door to take my mother to debtors’ prison—yes, that was a thing back then! It took some fine double-talking on my part to convince them to give us a few days to come up with a certain amount of money. They didn’t know we owned a crumbly car, so the next day we packed the car and drove to Istanbul, Turkey.

Working as a casino dealer at the Playboy Club

The car broke down in Bulgaria. This was 1970 and you didn’t want to be two women stranded at 2:00 am on the main (cobbled) highway in the middle of a very communist country. We did survive this (very long and hair-raising story involved) and finally arrived in Istanbul, Turkey, in the back of a cattle truck.

At 19, I became a cabaret singer at the Hilton Hotel in Istanbul. Then, a year later, in 1971, I moved to Beirut, Lebanon, where I lived for four years singing in clubs and hotels. I basically got on a plane one day, while Mother was visiting Grandma in England, and left. When she returned to Istanbul, she was furious, but I had to get away; I was choking. The war started in 1973 and I got out in the beginning of 1975 on a super scary drive, with bullets flying around, huddled on the floor of taxi cab to the airport on the last day it was open.

After a few more years working as a singer in London and Europe, I moved to the USA in 1976—Los Angeles—where I then started working for Playboy, singing across the country in all their clubs.

With Hugh Hefner and Robert Culp, 1977

Singing at the LA Playboy Club, 1979

During that time, I moved to New York City (1979) and got married to a now very well-known Broadway actor, Terrence Mann. I always wanted to become a writer so I started writing plays and movies—mainly plays—and had a few produced in small, unknown, cold and drafty theaters but nevertheless I was loving it. I also started a workout class that was a kind of ballet/Pilates intense stretch class, which I taught in the city for the next 16 years. It was very successful.

In 1989, Terry found his soulmate. I honestly can’t say I blame him as I wasn’t the best person I could have been. I realize now how much influence and power my mother had on and over me—thus creating in me a second version of her, which was very damaging. But Terry found his soulmate and had to go. It was meant to be.

Of course I was completely unprepared. Terry had been the major breadwinner so everything—credit, nice apartment on the Upper West Side with a $3000 a month mortgage, most of the money in the bank—was in his name. My friends told me to leave the apartment and get a couple of roommates, oh, and burn all his clothes outside “her” apartment where he was living.

I was not about to leave my apartment; it was my home. I was way too old for roommates (I was 38 and didn’t much care for people anyway) and I was not about to break the law and burn anything, but I had to do something fairly drastic because money was running out. I doubled up on the classes I was teaching, established my own credit, and became more focused than ever before. I was running out of time and it was catching up with me, so I called the President of Citibank (not an easy task and I don’t think it would work today) and told him my story and asked for an extra five years on the mortgage to reduce my monthly payments. I think saying my husband had just left me for a ballerina helped! They gave me the five years and I struggled along. When I kind of ran out of food, I realized I was going to have to earn a lot of money to stay in my apartment and live in NYC, so I took a play I had written to ABC Daytime TV and applied to become a Soap Opera Writer for One Life to Live (OLTL). I got the job and stayed as a soap writer for the next four years, earning an Emmy Nomination and two WGA (Writers Guild of America) awards.

Hanging out with the “One Life to Live” gang

 

When did you start to think about making a change?

Working as a writer in Daytime TV was very stressful. I had to write a 90-page script, edited and delivered in five days, 52 weeks a year, and I could absolutely NOT be late on delivery. I loved the writing but I worked for very intense, ambitious women executives and that was a challenge. It was a lot about “who likes me this week?” I did well on OLTL and we got the Emmy nod which was great, so for a few weeks everyone liked us!

Then I moved to a show called Loving (which spawned Michael Weatherly who is now on the number one show Bull); they were doing a huge turnaround and changed all the staff. There was a new Producer, Haidee Granger, who is one of the finest women I have ever known, not to mention very talented in her own right as a TV producer. Haidee turned Loving around and we were getting serious notice from the networks.  As is very typical in daytime TV land – someone high up decided that Haidee was getting too successful; in three days she was gone and replaced by another producer

The two WGA Awards we received for Outstanding Achievement in a Daytime serial were entirely due to Haidee’s work. At the WGA awards ceremony in NYC at the Waldorf Astoria, I caused a big scene by holding up the show, asking Barbara Walters to sit down (as she was coming back to the stage to host), and giving Haidee the accolade she deserved. Everyone in the room applauded except the ABC table—they all turned their backs to me. Two weeks later, I was gone from the show. But I felt amazing. It was worth getting fired for doing what I truly believed was the right thing. That was the first time I felt the power of being truthful, authentic, and giving to someone with not a care about my own safety.

I met Jason in 1992 at a small cabaret hangout in New York City. He was dating a mutual friend and I was already divorced and on OLTL and had absolutely no thoughts of getting married again. I didn’t want children and I was perfectly happy just hanging with my friends. Well… God has a great sense of humor and after a few months I realized I had met my soulmate. We dated for two years then married in 1994. While we honeymooned in Jamaica, I sat on the beach and contemplated my future. I was 43. I knew daytime TV was not for me. I remember thinking, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” and “What would you do for free?”

Wedding photo with Jason, 1994

Fly an airplane!!

My father had been an aircraft engineer and it had always been in my blood.  Also, we were very fortunate at that time as Jason was doing very well in his voiceover career and, for the first time in almost 30 years, I didn’t have to work! We could afford this. When we got home to New Jersey (we had moved there in 1993) I called the local airport and off I went, at age 43, to become an airplane pilot.

At the controls, 1995

What is your next act?

I am an Airline Transport Pilot (ATF) and Master Flight Instructor, qualified to fly 19 different airplanes.

Flying is something quite extraordinary. You take off and climb to thousands of feet above the ground and you are in another world—literally. You are talking to Air Traffic Control (ATC); they are your lifeline, responsible for making sure that over 20,000 aircraft that are airborne at any given time, fly, land, and take off safely. I love the language of pilots and ATC, the unwavering professionalism that is so prevalent in the air amongst us. I always felt surrounded by “my people.” It is peace at its finest.

Back in those days, before 9/11 and all the shit that followed, all was well with the world. And there is nothing better than bringing that plane home to the airport and feeling the wheels gently thunk to the ground. Your airplane is not a machine like the car; it’s a part of the family. I purchased my own airplane and loved it. It carried us all over the country: me, hubby, and two dogs!

With my plane

 

How hard was it to become a pilot?

It took three years for me to secure my Private Pilot’s License and my Flight Instructor license. I was very fortunate as my first instructor was a young man named Marcus McCall (now a Jet Blue Captain). He was 22 and just a few weeks graduated out of Embry Riddle Aviation University. I was his very first student. He was so talented and guided me through this very difficult process.

Many times, I really thought I’d have to quit.  Sometimes our lesson was cancelled because of wind and weather and I remember in those early days being secretly relieved—I had a day reprieve!  See, I had fear. Not the scared of night shadows fear but real, mind-numbing terror. Here I was in a small—no, tiny—little lawnmower with wings; up in the air and feeling every wind bump and strange noise that little airplanes make and thinking, “have I lost my mind completely?” Marcus was so patient!

The academic side to flying is all about math—my worst ever subject—but I found that when I was learning the technical side of flying, the math fell into place. Why hadn’t that nasty math teacher I’d had in school told us that Pythagoras’s Theorem totally applied to airplane navigation?

With Marcus during training, 1995

Landing was the tricky part. Taking off is optional—landing is compulsory. It was my Achilles’ heel. For some reason my spatial awareness was all wonky. You really have to “feel” the landing as there is a time about 10 feet off the ground where you are on a kinesthetic journey of just knowing when the wheels will touch. I thumped that little plane down hundreds of times and poor Marcus was sometimes quite pale, but off we’d go again and again and again, round and round the pattern, landing—or should I say meeting the ground firmly. I was so determined to become a Master that I didn’t stop. I went to the airport every day and practiced. Sometimes I scared myself but I pressed on. Today, I can pretty much land anything, anywhere.

I remember the day I soloed. My instructor Marcus got out of the airplane—not as confident as he would have liked—and I was alone in this little tin cup.

And as I learned and gained knowledge, my confidence increased. I spent over 117 hours as a student before Marcus could sign me off to take my Private Pilot’s license. But because of that arduous, although thrilling journey of learning, I became an excellent instructor as I knew what it was to struggle in the flight training process. I found I could really help people with their fear—everyone has it.

With the help of some of the most extraordinary pilots I have ever known, I honed my craft. Every time—to this day—when I have a challenging flight, I think of all my teachers and what they used to say “Just wear the airplane and fly!”

Jason and I had moved to Red Bank, New Jersey after our wedding, in 1994, and right after we got there and I started flying. I struck up a friendship with Bruce Springsteen at our local gym. One day, I sat down beside him and he said, “What’s the topic of the day?” And off we went for the next few years having extraordinary chats about everything. This was Bruce’s local gym and he’s just that kind of guy—one of the most gracious and kind people I have ever met.  We would pretty much see each other every day at the gym and he sort of became my flying mentor in a strange kind of way. He loved that I was learning to fly and used to ask me every day how it was going. He nicknamed me Sky King (from the old series Sky King & Penny).

I remember the day before my first exam—the one that would give me my Private Pilot’s license and make me an official pilot. I was sick-to-my-stomach terrified, hoping for awful weather or that I’d come down with some lengthy illness—anything that would prevent me from going to the airport the next morning to face The Examiner! I was sitting in the gym and I told Bruce my exam was the next day. He was thrilled; I was not. I asked him, “Have you ever been scared to go on stage?” and without missing a beat he nodded and said, “Oh yes. A lot.” I was amazed. He has faced thousands of people and played for hours. Scared? Really? He patted my hand and said I was going to do fine and he’d see me in a couple days to hear the good news. Strangely, knowing that Bruce Springsteen got scared also was exceptionally comforting.

The next day, I aced the test and got my license. The following morning, I was getting out of my car at the gym and turned to walk in across the parking lot. There was Bruce standing with his arms open wide mouthing “Well?” I said I passed and he literally swept me up in a huge bear hug, congratulating me. That was a special day. He never knew it but Bruce Springsteen had an awful lot to do with my success as a pilot for the next 15 years. Whenever it got rough, I would often think of those days at the gym in Red Bank and the lovely friend I had in my corner.

With Jason at Best Friends

 

You’ve used your pilot’s license to help with animal rescue. Tell us about that.

As I improved and passed all my pilot’s exams with flying colors, I started to think, “What can I do with this?” “How can I be of service?” So in 2003, Jason and I moved to Kanab, Utah to work at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. They are the largest no-kill animal sanctuary in the world. Set on 3000 acres in Southern Utah, a half hour from the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park, Best Friends is one of the most amazing places you will ever see.  Funded solely by individual donors, they bring in over $55 million a year and most of it goes to the animals. They have been instrumental in a lot of legislation changes around the country with regard to animal shelters and rescue. Just a look at their website tells you everything.

I took my airplane and worked as a Volunteer Coordinator and their animal transport pilot for ten years. They sent me to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to aid with their animal rescue and we rescued 6,000 dogs, cats, and various other species. I stayed down there for nine months. My first stationing was in Tylertown, Mississippi, where Best Friends had set up a temporary shelter/receiving area. We put in a 19-hour days, 7 days a week. At 1:00 am every night, a huge semi-truck would arrive filled with rescued animals from the city (New Orleans). We would take them and vet them. Some were in such a bad state we had to do emergency surgery there on the spot; some were so thin and cold they couldn’t walk; some were ok but so frightened they would bite everyone who came near them. But we didn’t care. They were our kids now and we would fix them.

Dog transport for Best Friends

 

What we were not prepared for, however, was how few people ever came to claim the dogs, cats, bunnies, snakes, reptiles, and varied assortment of critters we had accumulated. So after a while, we started adopting them out and sending them to other animal rescues across the country, which is where I came in: I flew the animals to various locations for adoption. I once had to fly a “family” of Tarantula spiders to a Tarantula rescue in Alabama. They were in a large roomy dog crate on the back seat of my airplane and I spent three hours steeling my nerves with those large, black, hairy creatures over my shoulder. I think I aged a bit on that flight!

In 2006, Jason and I moved to New Orleans itself, where Best Friends had set up a holding/rescue station in the city called Celebration Station, which Jason ran. This was very different: Every day we had a steady stream of people coming through the doors to adopt. Anderson Cooper even came from CNN and did an interview with me! I was primarily an adoption coordinator and we had to be very careful as most of our dogs were pit bulls. I worked side by side with my dear friend Cathy Scott, who wrote an amazing book about this experience called Pawprints of Katrina: Pets Saved and Lessons Learned. We had to be very careful as you never knew who was running a dog fighting ring and had come just because we had pit bulls.

Taking a miniature pony in the plane to the vet

One day, Cathy and I were working through a line of very impatient people wanting to adopt, when a guy who honestly looked like he was “straight out of Compton”—all black leather, gold chains, sunglasses that would have made Elvis squirm, with a posse of Dr. Dre wannabes—leaned over my desk, laid out three $100 bills and said, “I want the black one in cage 12.” His nose was about six inches from mine. My brain did that thing where it goes super slow—you know when you run through the list of options—as I figured out how to say no, as I knew in my heart he wanted this pit bull to fight. I then contemplated the various death scenarios that could possibly transpire as a result of my channeling Braveheart and facing down a gangster, not to mention Jason having to deal with the fact his wife was dead because she was “brave.”   Oh but it was such an easy decision. I stood up; looked Mr. Rapper square in one sunglassed eye and said, “No, Sir. That dog is not available to you. None of them are.” I could feel Cathy holding her breath as I basically waited to die. An eternity of seconds went by. Mr Rapper stared at me, pushed his nose an inch closer, turned on his heels, snapped to his boys, and walked out the front door.

I have no idea why he left but I felt like a million bucks. I knew I had just saved a life: the black dog in cage 12.

In New Orleans with rescued dog

How supportive were your family and friends?

It’s always ever just been my current husband. Everyone else thinks/thought I was mad, too old; too ambitious (for my age), etc. But when I succeeded in each endeavor – yup, they all said how great I was. How amazing! How I was so fabulous! My favorite was, “You are always so lucky.” Luck is when opportunity meets preparation. Or even semi prep in my case!

Jason and me today

 

What challenges did you encounter?

Sticking with it. Overcoming real fear. Getting into that plane every day. Trusting my instincts were right and this was my mission. Learning to understand that because this was so difficult and I had so much resistance, this was what I was supposed to be doing for a much larger and more important reason. I had no idea what that was as I wasn’t really that interested in only being an airline pilot. I just knew that even though most days were hard, I still had days of pure exuberance and joy like I had not felt since I was a child. I remember my first really good landing, where the plane met the ground and you didn’t even feel the wheels touch. That was beyond words amazing! That’s when I knew this was right. It was one of the first times I solely listened to my gut and ignored the chattering committee in my brain.

With rescued puppy

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

Yes. I think about quitting and just riding my horses and not thinking about being on a mission or changing the world, but that’s not my destiny. Thankfully I do have my amazing husband who is my consummate cheerleader, but that’s not enough is it? So I always go back to, “I’ve done this before.” When I was learning to fly I couldn’t land the airplane, I mastered it because I made it critical to my life. When I was learning to deal roulette and Blackjack at the Playboy Club and I couldn’t count fast enough and was on the brink of losing my job (and if I had, my mom was going to be put in debtors prison), I had to learn so I could keep the job. I found a way.

So I remember these times (and many others, when all looked hopeless) and remember how I focused and accepted nothing less than success. When it all looks hopeless, I create a critical commitment within myself.  I just say it’s time to make magic happen!

With my dog Peetey

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Be brave beyond anything you could ever have imagined.

Ask yourself, “What would I do if I knew I couldn’t fail”?

And most important of all, scare yourself at least once a day!

Find mentors. I created my own: Maya Angelou for her wisdom in such few words; Eckhart Tolle to keep me in the Now; Bruce Springsteen for his extraordinary eyes on life; Tony Robbins when I need a kick somewhere. And always look for teachers who love teaching. They will be the best at what they do.

 

What advice do you have for those interested in becoming pilots? What resources do you recommend?

Get in your vehicle, drive to the airport and sign up with a flight school.  Find a good instructor and just do it. It’s really a hands on deal. You will get all your study textbooks from your flight school. But there are a few extra things I recommend.

AOPA is the Pilots association for private pilots. Become a member and you will also get the magazine.

King Schools: The training program I used for all the theory exams that you are tested on. Here’s an article about the founders, John and Martha King.

The cost varies depending on which kind of flight school you attend and a lot of other variables.  Here’s a good page for that info.

 

With Yusuf Cat Stevens, then and now

What’s next for you?

I am launching my new business, Act Three Productions where I hope to help women who want to change their lives and live a long-lost dream but just don’t know how or where to start. The kids are gone. Husband is doing what husbands do. Retirement looms in the distance. Now what? These women have been wives and mothers for so long, they realize they have lost themselves in who they’ve been for other people.

I am developing a Reinvention Program that will include one-on-one online mentoring and Reinvention Weekend Retreats, where we will delve into each person’s individual dreams and goals and work to achieve them by creating a new and different way of thinking about… What is my Third Act? How do I start? How am I in my way? What do I need to overcome to achieve ultimate success?

I’m also working on my speaking career and have officially signed with the Denver Speakers Bureau.

My book, Just Watch Me, will be coming out in spring, 2017. This is my autobiography told with nothing held back: my life starting as a child in England; my very first, fall-head-over heels-in-love-as-only-you-can at 17 relationship with Cat Stevens; my life as a Playboy Bunny and move into becoming a cabaret singer. Being raped at knifepoint in Liege, Belgium and taking two months to catch the guy, by myself, charge him, and put him away in prison for 15 years. Being tricked by my best friend into going on a holiday to Lausanne, Switzerland, and finding out it was just a ruse to send me into white slave traffic to an Arab Sheikh, then my subsequent hair-raising escape back to London, England. Telling Mother I was going on holiday to America in 1976 and never going back. Being told by some very nice Italian men from New York that I was going to play the lead in the movie of Judy Garland and finding out I was just their front for robbing casinos in Vegas. Walking the firewalk with Tony Robbins. And a lot more. The book will then continue on to the present day—very exciting.

I am self-publishing on Amazon and plan to make it a Best Seller! My hope is to catch the interest of a traditional publisher once that happens. And then the movie!

 

Contact Juliette Watt at Juliette.watt@gmail.com

www.ActThreeProductions.com

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Let’s Hear From an Expert: Wendy Sachs, Author of Fearless and Free: How Smart Women Pivot and Relaunch Their Careers

You are the author of the newly-released Fearless and Free: How Smart Women Pivot–and Relaunch Their Careers. Why did you feel it was important to write this book?
The book really came out of my personal experience. I think many writers write about what they know—and in my case I also wrote about what I needed to know. I had lost my job at an advertising agency, which was a bit random to begin with. I had never worked in advertising; this agency had actually been my client when I was working in PR. But now I was trying to pivot into one of these hot new positions at “content” studios that are emerging at agencies. Everyone is trying to figure out how to monetize this new breed of “content.” I had been reading about how this was the future—old school journalism, news, marketing and PR were changing, and I wanted in. I feared if I didn’t get a job soon, i would become a dinosaur. I felt like my professional currency was fading.

So when I lost my job at the ad agency (they ultimately couldn’t monetize the content) I started hustling for a new gig, and wherever I went it seemed like the person interviewing me had graduated college in 2009. That would have made them around 28 years old. It was shocking. More alarming was that the Millennials who interviewed me had a hard time figuring out how I would fit in; they couldn’t fit me neatly into a box. My experience is broad and deep. I’m really a multi-hyphenate and giving them my elevator pitch wasn’t working.

After one particularly depressing interview at a start-up, after I grabbed some kale chips and coconut water before walking out the door, I realized I needed to overhaul my pitch. I needed to rebrand myself. I needed to lean into my skills and probably pick up new ones. And that’s when I turned to some of the successful lessons that come out of Silicon Valley. After all, we have a cultural crush on Silicon Valley; it is our North Star guiding everything we do, from how we work to how we communicate. And there they embrace failure. They are masters of branding. They engineer serendipity. I started taking a closer look at what the start-up world is doing and decided to apply some of those strategies and lessons to women.

What challenges and opportunities do women face as they seek to make it big in their careers? 
There is no doubt that gender bias still exists. It’s often not overt, but it’s subtle—an unconscious bias. We are judged differently. As a culture, we still are grappling with what female leaders look like and sound like. We still admire a very manly, alpha male form of leadership; and that needs to change. The good news is that what I have found personally and through my own research is that female networks are exploding and women are really committed to raising women up with them. This isn’t just about mentors or sponsors, but active female networks that will share job leads and offer to introduce women to other people. I am lucky to be a part of one of these female networks and it’s been life changing. It’s emotionally supportive and has helped me professionally too, even with this book.

On a corporate level, we are also seeing a renaissance of commitment to diversity. Companies realize that they have bled female talent by losing women to motherhood and inflexible work schedules. And now many companies are actively trying to bring women back in through “returnship” programs or by simply reimagining work schedules. The other exciting development are platforms like Après and Landit that look to bring women who took time off or are simply at an inflection point in their careers and match them with companies. These platforms are like LinkedIn for women. They also offer services to help write your resume and practice interviewing—they even have confidence coaches to boost your mojo.

Have you found any concerns that are unique to women in midlife and beyond?
Yes! Many women who have taken time out of their careers and are looking to re-enter feel overwhelmed. They fear that they don’t have the relevant skillsets. They also worry that their networks aren’t as strong as they used to be. But most importantly, they suffer from a lack of confidence. Women tend to doubt themselves more than men. We want to be perfect—we are afraid of failure, and this fear can hold us back. The most effective way to grow confidence is to take risks, to take those chances. We need to get comfortable in the uncomfortable. That’s how we can move forward.

 

You talked to many women who successfully pivoted in their careers. Can you give us examples of women who did this in midlife or later?
At 60 years old, Jill Abramson, the Executive Editor of The New York Times—the most senior woman ever at the Times—was very publicly fired. Her firing made international headlines. But Jill don’t go into hiding. She decided she wanted to start teaching at Harvard and write a book. Interestingly, Jill believes that in her firing she has become more of a role model for women than when she was at the Times.

Deb Kogan, 50, keeps reinventing herself. Deb is now working as a Vice President at a global communications agency, writing books and writing for the TV show Younger. She always has a “side hustle.” Deb’s trajectory has taken her from war photographer to TV producer and novelist to writing for TV and now to her corporate job.

What are a few tips you discuss in your book?
We need to all think like entrepreneurs, even if we aren’t running our own businesses. We need to brand ourselves professionally, to let people know what we do and what we are looking to do. Visibility is extremely important;  that means you must network—often. Look to create opportunities for yourself by going to conferences and events and meeting people who maybe you would never think of meeting. Expand your circles. Also, remember that it takes work. Engineering serendipity means laying the groundwork so you are aware of when opportunities exist and then you are prepared to seize them. It’s all about taking some action. Small steps can lead to bigger steps. But you must get going. Inertia is a killer.

What resources do you recommend? 
Après, Landit, Ellevate are great platforms and websites. General Assembly offers some fantastic classes online and in person, in cities around the country.

Contact Wendy Sachs here 

Fearless and Free: How Smart Women Pivot–and Relaunch Their Careers

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About the Author
Wendy Sachs
 is the author of Fearless and Free: How Smart Women Pivot–and Relaunch Their Careers(AMACOM; 2017) and a master of the career pivot. An Emmy-award winning TV news producer, Wendy has worked at Dateline NBC, Fox, and CNN. She also worked as a Capitol Hill press secretary, public relations executive, CNN contributor, content strategist and editor-in-chief of Care.com. In a more random role, Wendy appeared as the on-air spokesperson for Trip Advisor. A frequent speaker, Wendy has written about work/life and women’s issues for multiple publications, including The New York TimesCNN.com, the Huffington Post and Refinery29. She has appeared on dozens of radio and TV shows, including Good Morning America, NBC’s Today, Fox and CNN’s Headline News. Wendy lives with her husband and two children in South Orange, New Jersey. For more information, please visit wendysachs.com and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter