Let’s Hear from an Expert: Adela Mizrachi, Founder of Podcast Brunch Club

You are the Founder of the Podcast Brunch Club. What’s it all about?

The best way to describe Podcast Brunch Club (PBC) is “like a book club, but for podcasts.” Conversation and dialogue are at the heart of PBC. So, every month a theme is chosen and one member of PBC will curate a list of 3-5 podcast episodes into a listening list. The listening list is sent out via the newsletter to members worldwide. Then, people meet in smaller groups (called chapters) around the world to discuss what they heard.

We also encourage online conversations through the Facebook GroupTwitter, and by commenting on the listening list posts.

Finally, I just launched a Podcast Brunch Club podcast. Very meta, I know! The idea is to bring a variation of the PBC conversations happening around the globe directly to your earbuds. Each month, I invite a guest and we discuss that month’s listening list. Because my favorite part of PBC is the community, I’m also working on figuring out how to give PBC friends worldwide a voice on the podcast. That’s coming soon. In the meantime, you can find the PBC podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, and wherever you get your podcasts.

How did this venture come about?

I am a huge podcast fan, but one day while I was listening to one of my favorites, it occurred to me how solitary podcast listening is. Much like reading a great book, you sometimes find yourself laughing out loud, crying with true empathy, or stunned by people’s (fill in the blank here: kindness, ingenuity, audacity, etc.). You’re left looking around to share it with someone only to realize that you are listening alone. For a true podcast enthusiast, you ultimately try to weave these pieces into the conversation, just for the sake of trying to connect the people you care about with the interesting content you spend so much time listening to. That is until a friend points out that the last three sentences you said started with “that’s like this one podcast I listened to….”

I was having one of those days when it hit me that a podcast club would be a great idea. I talked to a friend who agreed to be my co-founder and the very first chapter was born in Chicago. About a year later, I was talking to another friend of mine who lives in Geneva, Switzerland. She loved the idea and we decided to start another group there. I then decided to put the concept out in the world and it took off! We now have chapters in 25 cities on 4 continents and it’s growing every month.

I should also mention why “brunch” is included. The original Chicago group decided to meet once a month for brunch. Our other chapters meet when it’s convenient for them, whether that’s brunch, happy hour, coffee, etc. 

PBC Houston

How is the club organized?

We have chapters worldwide and they are open for anyone to join. Each chapter has a chapter leader who volunteers to do the on-the-ground coordination.

If a city isn’t listed and someone is willing to coordinate a chapter where they live, they can simply fill out this form and I can give them more information about what being a chapter leader means (it’s pretty easy) and I can help them launch their chapter.  We have two types of chapters: private and public. Private chapters are limited to the chapter leader’s network. Public chapters are open to anyone and are listed on the website. It’s up to the chapter leader to decide whether they’d like their chapter to be public or private. I try to make it as easy on chapter leaders as possible and I would consider quite a few of them friends even though I’ve never met them in person.

PBC Shanghai

Tell us about some of the interesting themes you’ve had in the past, and others coming up.

We’ve had such a huge range of themes over the past few years.

One of my favorites was our “Starting a Family” theme. It included episodes that talked about the wide range of ways people feel about whether or not to start a family and the lengths some will go to have one when society has made it incredibly difficult for them.

Another theme that prompted interesting discussion was “The World We’re Inheriting.” This was a very special theme because it was curated by our first-ever high school chapter. A teacher in Colorado decided to start a PBC chapter with her junior- and senior-level sociology class. They had a few lively conversations around various PBC themes over the course of the semester. Their final project was to curate the PBC listening list for January of 2017. They did an amazing job and it was so fun to partner with the students. I am hoping to start more classroom PBC chapters in the future.

In terms of upcoming PBC themes, I’m excited for all of them! Our June theme is “Creativity.” Also coming down the pike are “Climate Change,” “The Human Body,” and “Travel.”

PBC Boston

Who participates in these groups?

All sorts of people participate in the PBC groups. These days especially, I think it’s important to get people with diverse viewpoints and backgrounds to sit around a table, look each other in the eye, and talk. More than ever, we are so connected to each other, but it’s usually through the computer or our mobile devices. PBC gives people the opportunity to un-tether for a few hours once a month, sit down with people they may not have met otherwise, and discuss topics they may not have otherwise discussed.

Women in midlife and beyond are a perfect addition to any PBC conversation. The experience that they bring to the table can be very enlightening. It also provides a vibrant social network. As an adult, whether you are right out of college or in midlife, it is often very challenging to meet new people. PBC provides an opportunity for meaningful discussion with thoughtful people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

One thing I am constantly amazed by are how many wonderful people are out there. It’s so easy to hear all of the bad news coming out of the mainstream media. PBC has shown me that there are so many more wonderful people in the world than terrible people. Our NYC group is now doing potluck dinners and inviting strangers over to share in a meal and conversation. The chapter leader in Pittsburgh has started putting together music playlists to go along with our podcast listening list theme every month. A teacher in Colorado is bringing PBC to her classroom. These are just a few examples of the fabulous people I have encountered through PBC.

PBC Chicago

What are some of your favorite podcast series you might recommend?

Wow. Where to start!?!

The podcast that got me hooked was Radiolab. It’s a smart podcast that takes curiosity to the next level. And, for me, curiosity is one of the most important human traits.

I also love Invisibilia (exploring human behavior), Reply All (a show about the Internet, but not really), Sleepover (3 strangers get together to help each other with their problems), Strangers (stories about beautiful humans), The Moth (true stories told on stage, live), and Reveal (investigative reporting). I can go on and on, but I think those give a good and varied place to start.

 

Contact Adela Mizrachi at adela@podcastbrunchclub.com

Website for the club

PBC Twitter: @podcastbrunch 

Adela’s Twitter: @adelamiz

PBC Facebook Group

Adela’s Facebook

Adela Mizrachi is a curious human who is always looking for new ways to explore the world. She’s traveled all over the world, filling her passport once and living in Ethiopia for a year. Her background is international education, but she now works as a communications specialist. She describes herself as “a jack of all trades, master of none, but always trying.” Her passions include podcasts, real estate (she and her boyfriend flip houses), and travel. 




Publishing her Memoir in Midlife: Becky’s Story

Suddenly paralyzed at 38, Becky found writing as a way to cope. In her new book, Rethinking Possible: A Memoir of Resilience, she shares her story of optimism and perseverance despite a series of life-changing losses.

 

Tell us a little about your background…

I’m a native North Carolinian, a PK (preacher’s kid) raised to be a winner, who enjoyed careers in sales and marketing but had to reinvent myself as a writer, something I’d never in a million years imagined I’d call myself—until I became one in a million.

Our family (I’m seated next to my mother)

On February 12, 1997, nine days after my divorce was final (yes NINE DAYS), I joined the ranks of the rare one-in-1.34 million people who go to bed with a flu-like illness and wake up with transverse myelitis (TM), an inflammation of the spinal cord that causes paralysis. I didn’t know it then, but I would never walk again.

My life was already crazy complex. As a 38-year-old mother of four—two with special needs that included autism and epilepsy—I’d coped with more than a few of life’s curveballs, including the accidental death of my seventeen-year-old brother when I was twenty. But I’d muddled through that horrific grief and had managed my kids’ issues well enough that I’d decided to end a marriage that wasn’t working. I was ready to begin again and find someone who wanted to share my nutty life with me.

With my kids, 90 days before my paralysis

But writing? Nope. Never part of this gal’s game plan. Writing was something my pastor father did. Finding meaning in life and all its unanswerable questions was his expertise. Sharing insights and a message of hope was his passion, his calling—not mine.

I was a survivor, not a writer. Until I had to write to survive.

Before my paralysis, I was a high-strung sales gal who ran on deadlines and quotas and way too much coffee. I loved to build customer relationships, close the deal, and win! I’d excelled early in my 10-year career with IBM and, after the kids were born, I was back in the trenches, doing marketing for an outplacement firm. I put my head down and l plowed through the hectic pace of working and raising a family.

Until I couldn’t. But paralysis cut through more than my mobility. It. Stole. My. Life.

Desperately, I wanted to connect with the world that had been taken from me. Soon, I found a way: Email. My timing was practically cosmic.

Working at my computer, 1997, six months after my paralysis

Remember Netscape Navigator? Erols? Those 1997 Internet dudes became my new best friends after an old high school buddy read about me in one of my father’s columns and sent me an email. His subject line was what I’d been wondering every day when I looked in the mirror, “Is That You?”

Eons before blogging became all the rage, my exchanges about my adjustments to life with paralysis soon blossomed into an email audience that spanned the globe. From Hickory, North Carolina, to Guangzhou, China, from my elementary school days through my last job with IBM, hundreds of family and friends asked me to email them about my life and wheelchair escapades.

And I did. One at a time. I treated those email addresses like they were 14K gold. My cyber-buddies told me my e-mails made them laugh—and cry—and inspired them in their own lives. One persistent fellow suggested I submit my story about playing soccer with my son to the Baltimore Sun. To my surprise, it was published in the fall of 2000. I was 42.

Then a local Weekly asked me to write for them and my first regular column, “From Where I Sit” was born. Two years later, my father asked me to continue his Sunday Op-Ed columns, “Looking Homeward,” and a few years after that, I began, “Tuesdays with Madison,” a column about my visits with my daughter with autism as she transitioned from her school to the adult community.

What is your next act?

So now, I am a weekly columnist and share my articles through my newsletter, Thoughtful Thursdays: Lessons from a Resilient Heart. I love it! In fact, the thing is, I can’t NOT do it. It’s how I cope. How I cut through all the craziness that is still in my world and get real about what matters. It’s how I stay connected, despite all the loss.

Since my first column in 2000, I’ve published over 400 pieces through those three monthly columns I am also a regular contributor to Nanahood.com and Midlife Boulevard.com.

And my next act is the rest of the story—my book, Rethinking Possible: A Memoir of Resilience. The book spans most of my life, from one family dinner table at age six to another family dinner table at age 54 and all the ups and downs in-between.

I was born into a family that valued the power of having a plan. As the eldest daughter of a preacher and a stay-at-home mom, my 1960s Southern upbringing was bucolic, even enviable, I’m told. But when my brother, only seventeen, died in a waterskiing accident, the slow unraveling of our perfect family began.

Though grief overwhelmed our family, at age twenty, I forged onward with my life plans―marriage, career, and raising a family of my own―one I hoped would be as idyllic as the family I knew before my brother’s death.

But life, as it often does, did not go according to plan!

There was my son’s degenerative, undiagnosed disease and subsequent death; my daughter’s autism diagnosis; my separation; and three years later, my divorce. Nine days after my divorce was final, I woke up with flu-like symptoms that turned out to be transverse myelitis, a rare inflammation of the spinal cord that paralyzed me from the waist down.

I would never walk again.

Despite the waves of life-changing loss, I’ve maintained my belief in family, in faith, in loving unconditionally, and in learning to not only accept, but also embrace a life that had veered down a path far different from the one I’d envisioned.

I wrote the book for those for those who may have loved deeply and lost dearly. Who are going through a tough time and may need some encouragement. Who want to believe that a full and meaningful life is possible despite some of life’s deepest losses. And are curious to see how one woman lives, laughs, loves, and heals enough to finally find it.

Life can be good, no matter what. I firmly believe. My book is about the power of love over loss and the choices we all make that shape our lives ―especially when forced to confront the unimaginable.

Becky with college buddies, 15 years after paralysis

Why did you choose this next act?  

After my paralysis, writing connected me to people again, something I desperately missed. I tried going back to work for a brief time, but had medical complications and decided to stay home full time to give my body every chance possible to heal. Luckily, I could do this as my husband and I had made good investments while we were married, and he has been generous since our divorce.

For the first year, I had hopes of walking again since two-thirds of those with TM get some kind of recovery. But now that I’ve been paralyzed for 20 years, I’ve decided that any experimental offerings are not worth the risk to me. Stability means so much to me now. I have adjusted to wheelchair life and to be honest, I’m happy. I hate my wheelchair limits and would never ever pretend to be grateful for paralysis, but life is good now. I am comfortable and have people who love me and care about me.

My “stander” contraption

How hard was it to take the plunge? How supportive were your family and friends?

As I adjusted to the wheelchair life, I wrote from the heart as honestly as I could, sharing my thoughts and feelings. I had only a freshman English course, no creative writing or journalism classes so I was winging it. I knew no one in the writing community so my submissions were blind. My father was also a columnist so he reviewed my drafts and referred me to another editor who read everything I wrote and was supportive and helpful.

My family and friends LOVED my stories. They told me to keep writing and really enjoyed it when I landed on the Op-Ed page of the Baltimore Sun a few times. They encouraged me to write my book and many have worked with me in the editing process.

My kids, Brittany (29) and Peter (23), also enjoy my weekly columns, and are supportive of my memoir. They know writing keeps me busy and focused. When they were younger, I think it annoyed them because they never knew when they would be featured! I do run every article by them now if they are mentioned. No budding writers, though. Business-oriented kids.

And the Madison (age 25) columns (Tuesdays with Madison) have been some of my most popular ones. Her severe autism limits her—she does not read or write or understand the concept—but it has been a tremendous platform for educating readers about life with a child so severely affected.

Becky with Son Peter (23), Daughter Madison (24) Daughter Brittany (29), Son-in-law Brian (29), Grandbaby Blakely Faye (15 months)

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

Writing then was straight therapy. I wrote; people responded. It kept my mind active and engaged as well as gave me an outlet for my frustrations. Back in 1998, I lived for that “ding” of “you’ve got mail.” Still do now, with my weekly newsletter, Thoughtful Thursdays. I LOVE it when readers respond AND when they refer me and others sign up. Really makes my day! Wheelchair life can be lonely.

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I’ve learned that we can be very inventive when presented with challenges if we allow ourselves to respond in earnest. That in midlife, we can rethink our past, our history, the things that we have accepted as fact about ourselves that may need to be challenged. I had a ninth grade English teacher who labeled my poetry as “maudlin,” a term that haunted me as I was writing about my wheelchair life. I learned to discount her opinion and put myself in places to learn from professionals (conferences, newspaper editors, classes, and book coaches).

Dancing at a friend’s wedding

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

No, not really. I think I learned so much from the struggle of writing and its reward as I went through it. In 1999, I had an agent for one version of my book. She dropped me after she could not get one of the large houses to sign on. I was devastated at the time, but now see it as part of the process. There’s no way I could have handled publication at that stage of my life with my young kids. It was hard to accept at the time, though.

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife? What about writing advice and resources?

Slow down long enough to discover what interests you and then strengthen those interests through education and experience. Dabble before you do. And try to enjoy the process. Sometimes that is all there is for a while.

If you’re interested in writing, find the best program you can in your interest area and sample a class. Research like-minded writers and use social media to stay informed. There are tons of free webinars out there. Give yourself permission to graze a bit.

Great programs at Stanford Continuing Studies, all online.

Great blog from Jennie Nash on the book publishing industry.

Great newsletter from Dan Blank for creative professionals and finding your audience for whatever it is you write.

Great writing support services for writers looking to publish from Brooke Warner at Warner Coaching.

Book signing

What advice do you have for others who might become wheelchair bound in midlife?

  1. Move to your strengths: Remember to look hard at what is left in your life and keep trying new things.
  2. Examine your resources: Who and what is in your life that can be helpful to you. Find a website, blog, and Facebook groups who are specific to your disability, are reputable—and sign up!
  3. Get people in the boat with you: Create a team of folks whose expertise can help you.
  4. Let others help you: People like to help so if they offer, consider it a gift to them to let them help you.
  5. Keep positive people around you: Stay away from those who bring you down.
  6. Keep looking forward: Put something on the calendar to look forward to.
  7. Give yourself credit: When you accomplish something, celebrate it. I kept a diary and celebrated all the wheelchair firsts, even my first hot fudge sundae!
  8. Take time to be sad, but not for long: It’s ok to feel sorry for yourself on occasion. Get in a “pity pool” periodically, but don’t stay down there long. Make sure and let someone know when those times occur so you can celebrate getting back out!
  9. Help someone else: There is no finer joy than to feel like your struggle has helped someone else. For me, helping to found Pathfinders for Autism soon after my paralysis brought me tremendous satisfaction since I was able to help other parents who were struggling with the autism diagnosis. It kept me focused on something besides my paralysis, too, giving me a key element for healthy living–perspective.
  10. Find something to be grateful for: Even if it’s just the weather, find something to appreciate. We build positive outlooks with every grateful thought. Cultivate it purposefully. Daily.

Celebrating my Birthday with my family

What’s next for you?

I hope another book or two. I’d love to move my Thoughtful Thursday snippets into a “quiet time” book of inspirational thoughts and put together a matching daybook that combines calendar planning with journaling.

 

Contact Becky Galli at rfsgalli@gmail.com

Website

Newsletter Sign-up

Twitter: @chairwriter

Instagram: @chairwriter

Facebook: From Where I Sit

Rebecca Faye Smith Galli (Becky) is a weekly columnist and author who lives in Baltimore, Maryland and writes about love, loss, and healing. Surviving significant losses—her seventeen-year-old brother’s death; her son’s degenerative disease and subsequent death; her daughter’s autism; her divorce; and nine days later, her paralysis from transverse myelitis, a rare spinal cord inflammation that began as the flu—has fostered an unexpected but prolific writing career. In 2000, The Baltimore Sun published her first column about playing soccer with her son—from the wheelchair. With over 400 published columns, she writes, “Thoughtful Thursdays―Lessons from a Resilient Heart” – a weekly column for her subscriber family that shares what’s inspired her to stay positive. She also periodically contributes to The Baltimore Sun’s Op-Ed page, Midlife Boulevard, Nanahood, and The Mighty. Join her Thoughtful Thursdays family at www.beckygalli.com/signup. Her book, Rethinking Possible: A Memoir of Resilience, was published in June 2017.




Let’s Hear From an Expert: Claire Diaz-Ortiz, co-author of One-Minute Mentoring

You’re the co-author of One Minute Mentoring: How to Find and Work With a Mentor–And Why You’ll Benefit from Being One. How would you summarize the benefits of mentoring, for both the mentor and the mentee?

Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” It’s true. We simply can’t reach our biggest goals and greatest dreams without the support of others. Mentoring is a specific, targeted way to give and receive in order to help you get where you’re going.

We believe that behind every successful person, you’ll find a mentor—usually several—who guided their journey. There are many famous mentor/mentee examples out there—Socrates and Plato, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey—the list goes on and on.  With the pace of change today, we believe that mentoring can ground you and guide you in a way that few other activities can. The amazing thing about mentoring is that in many ways it benefits the mentor as much as the mentee.

My life was changed by mentoring when I arrived in Kenya after an around-the-world journey. I was planning to climb Mount Kenya and found an orphanage where I could spend a free night before my trek. There I met a child named Sammy Ikua Gachagua, who had lost his father to illness, his mother to abandonment, and his home to poverty. I never did climb Mount Kenya. My overnight stay turned into a year and led to a mentoring relationship that changed the course of my life forever.

People need to know that mentoring can literally change their lives. Yes, it’s true that mentoring will take some time and intention. It also takes time and intention to learn to drive—but once you know how, you can really go places! The same is true with mentoring.  We all have 168 hours each week. Investing a few of those hours in mentoring will energize you in a way that web surfing and TV watching never will.

 

For women in midlife, who are looking for a way to contribute, why is this a good time for them to consider becoming mentors?

Mentoring partnerships aren’t just about what you gain — but about what you give as well. The reason they are so effective is a successful mentoring partnership can reenergize any of us. That said, don’t be so sure you won’t be learning from your mentee at the same rate you are teaching him or her!

As for cross-generational mentoring, that’s when a young person is paired with an older person, so they can both learn and grow. Because Ken is a leadership expert in his mid-seventies and I’m a former Twitter executive in my mid-thirties, we are a living example of the lessons we’re teaching.

We’d like to see a lot more cross-generational mentoring happening. Baby Boomers are retiring at a rate of about 10,000 a day, which is causing a brain drain in our industries. At the same time, older people who are staying in the workforce could really use the skills and insights younger people have to offer. For example, I’ve taught Ken a lot about technology and social media—and he has taught me a thing or two about leadership. It’s a win-win, for sure!

 

What are the best ways for mentor wannabes to find prospective mentees?

There’s an old saying that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. We’ve found in our own lives that mentors are all around you once you start looking for them.  You might find a mentor in a boss, teacher, neighbor, friend, or colleague. Or you might find one through a professional association, volunteer organization, or online mentoring organization.

That old saying works both ways—when you’re ready to become a teacher/mentor, the student/mentee appears. We encourage people to step up and become mentors because you won’t fully discover, appreciate, or leverage what you have until you start giving it away.

As for identifying a potential mentor/mentee, it’s important to think about compatibility. In the book, we show that there are two aspects of working with someone: essence and form. Essence is all about sharing heart-to-heart and finding common values. Form is about structure—how you might work together. For a mentoring relationship to thrive, you need to establish that heart-to-heart connection.

There are many different types of mentors out there, and the type you seek will change the way you seek one. Whether you’re seeking New-Hire Mentoring, Peer-to-Peer Mentoring in a Company Context, Cross-Generational Mentoring, Adult-to-Adolescent Mentoring, or another type of partnership, be confident when approaching a mentor directly, or learn the specifics of the organization if it’s within an organizational context. As one example, if you’re an employee seeking to find a mentor within your organization, start with Human Resources. Many companies these days have programs already thriving within your organization. I also recommend the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

 

What are your best tips for a great mentoring relationship?

In One Minute Mentoring, we teach the MENTOR model, a 6-step formula for success in mentoring.

M = Mission: The first step is a clear mission statement, creating a vision and purpose for the mentorship. By creating a Mission, you’ll put the relationship on solid footing.

E = Engagement: When we talk to people about mentoring, one of the biggest barriers they worry about is time. It’s true that a mentoring relationship will take a little time, but a few hours a month is not going to do people in, especially when they realize how energizing and inspiring those few hours will be. The reason we call the book One Minute Mentoring is that we have found that the best advice we ever gave or received was communicated in less than a minute. In other words, the guidance that really makes a difference does not come in the form of long, complex theories—it comes in short, meaningful insights. But first, you have to create that mentoring relationship so the insights can come through. Make a commitment to regular meetings. By deciding how to Engage, you’ll have clarity about how to work together.

N = Networking: Cultivating productive relationships is critical. By Networking, you’ll expand your horizons.

T = Trust: Building trust takes time. By building Trust, you’ll deepen the bond.

O = Opportunity: Mentoring relationships bring with them great opportunities. By creating Opportunities, each of you will grow.

R = Review and Renewal: Regularly reviewing your mission is essential. Keeping a journal as you engage with your mentor/mentee will reveal the ways you’re fulfilling—or not fulfilling—that mission. For example, if your goal in a mentoring relationship is to create a career you love, you can record in your journal each step you take toward accomplishing that mission. And by Reviewing and renewing your partnership, you’ll know if and when your season of mentorship has ended.

While each mentoring relationship is different, all can benefit by aligning with the MENTOR process.

 

Contact Claire Diaz-Ortiz

Email: Claire@clairediazortiz.com

Website: Clairediazortiz.com

Twitter: Twitter.com/claire

 

Claire Diaz-Ortiz is an author, speaker, and technology innovator who has been named one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company. Claire was an early employee at Twitter, where she spent five and a half years leading social innovation.

In Claire’s time at Twitter, she was called everything from “The Woman Who Got the Pope on Twitter” (Wired) and “Twitter’s Pontiff Recruitment Chief” (The Washington Post) to a “Force for Good“ (Forbes) and “One of the Most Generous People in Social Media” (Fast Company).

Claire is the award-winning author of eight books, including One Minute Mentoring: How to Find and Work With a Mentor–And Why You’ll Benefit from Being OneTwitter for Good: Change the World One Tweet at a Time, Design Your Day: Be More Productive, Set Better Goals, and Live Life On Purpose, Greater Expectations, Paperback (Frames Series): Succeed (and Stay Sane) in an On-Demand, All-Access, Always-On Age, and Hope Runs: An American Tourist, a Kenyan Boy, a Journey of Redemption.

She is a frequent international speaker on social media, business, and innovation and has been invited to deliver keynotes and trainings at organizations like the Vatican, the US State Department, Verizon, South by Southwest, TEDX, and many others.

She writes a popular business blog at ClaireDiazOrtiz.com and serves as a LinkedIn Influencer, one of a select group of several hundred global leaders chosen to provide original content on the LinkedIn platform.

Claire holds an MBA from Oxford University, where she was a Skoll Foundation Scholar for Social Entrepreneurship, and has a B.A. and an M.A. in Anthropology from Stanford University.

She is the co-founder of Hope Runs, a non-profit organization operating in AIDS orphanages in Kenya.

She has appeared widely in major television and print news sources such as CNN, BBC, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, Good Morning America, The Today Show, The Washington Post, Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, and many others.




Launching a Jewelry Company to Honor Her Son’s Memory: Elizabeth’s Story

When her son died tragically at 17, Elizabeth channeled her grief into ELLA Designs, making and selling beautiful jewelry pieces, with 50% of the profits going to bipolar research.

Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in Oak Park, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. I have a twin sister, Eve, who lives in Highland Park, IL and a younger sister, Joanne, who lives in Vancouver, Canada. I am married to Brian Guz, a urologist, and we live in Franklin, Michigan.

I attended the University of Michigan, where I received a BA in psychology in 1983, then continued on to graduate with an MBA in 1985 from the Ross Business school, also at the University of Michigan. I met my husband, Brian, in high school, but we didn’t start dating until we were both in college together. We married after graduate school (he went to medical school) and moved to Cleveland, where he did his Urology residency at the Cleveland Clinic for five years.

At University of Michigan

I got a job as a Product Manager at American Greetings, working on many product lines including calendars, candles, and seasonal products. It was a great job. After Brian finished his residency, we moved back home to Detroit. We had just had our first child, David, and I opted not to work; I wanted to stay at home and raise my kids. I had Michael and Lauren a few years later and was a full-time mom. We lived in an apartment in Southfield for the first year after we returned, then bought a house in Huntington Woods, where we lived for six years, and then moved to Franklin where we still live today.

I was very busy for many years with my kids. When they were all in school, I took some classes in interior design and did some private work for a while. When my middle son, Michael, was entering adolescence, he became very anxious and depressed. He had always had those tendencies, but they became worse over time. It was an extremely difficult and heartbreaking time for us; the next few years were spent trying to do what we could to help Michael. At the end of his junior year in high school, in June 2009, Michael died of a drug overdose. He was 17. We were devastated.

How did you cope with this tragedy?

Dealing with Michael’s death was extremely difficult. We are extremely close and the thing we had feared most had happened. We went to grief therapy individually and a few times as a family. We talked about Michael a lot and I made sure that my kids knew that we have to continue living and thrive because that’s what Michael would have wanted for us.

After Michael died, I found out about the Prechter Bipolar Research Fund at the University of Michigan Depression Center.  They were doing groundbreaking research in the field of bipolar disorder, which we believe Michael had. I started the Michael Guz Memorial Fund, which was a part of the Prechter Bipolar Research Fund. I also met with Wally Prechter, who started the fund in memory of her husband Heinz, an automotive executive (he invented the sunroof) who took his own life about 15 years ago after suffering from bipolar disorder. I became friends with Wally and helped out with some fundraising events. I also joined the Advisory Board of the Prechter Fund and started to help raise awareness about the disease.

With Wally Prechter

Around that time, Judith Burdick, my daughter’s grief therapist after Michael died, was making a documentary called Transforming Loss and she asked if I would be in her film. The film focuses on seven people from Michigan who dealt with the untimely deaths of family members, how they coped and were “transformed” through their loss. It is a very inspirational movie. It was also the first time I spoke candidly and openly about Michael and his suffering. It was a very difficult time for me, but also helped my grieving process. I found that many people opened up to me to share their own stories and the stories of loved ones who suffered or are suffering from similar problems.

I still wanted to do more to raise awareness and money for bipolar research. My youngest child, Lauren, was going to college soon and I needed to decide what I wanted to do with my time. I play tennis and other racket sports, work out, and play bridge and canasta, but I knew that wouldn’t be enough.

What is your next act?

I started ELLA Designs Jewelry in 2013 when I was 53. My daughter Lauren, who was a senior in high school, helped me initially before she went to college (University of Michigan) the following year. ELLA Designs donates 50% of all profits to the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund. Our motto is “Help Find a Cure for Bipolar Disorder, One Link at a Time.”

I find interesting pendants or chains and put them together in my own design.  Sometimes I take chains and other pieces to make earrings, or mix different chains and beads, adding a pendant to make a necklace. Other times I try to have different ways that a piece can be worn: Some of the necklaces can be worn at different lengths, wrapped and doubled, and even worn as a bracelet. Some of the pieces have magnetic connectors, which are easy to put on. Many of the magnetic bracelets can also be attached together to make chokers or longer necklaces.

Many of the pendants have meanings—scarab beetle, Buddha, crystal, etc.—so I made small written cards that explain the meaning behind the piece; I include them in the gift bag. For example, the scarab beetle means rebirth. People like to buy things that have a meaning behind them and it helps to have a little card that explains it. I have had a lot of success with my crystal necklaces and Buddhas, and I am making new things all the time and finding new items that people like. Last year, I started making leather bracelets with magnetic clasps that have sold very well and appeal to many people.

I get ideas from everywhere. Sometimes I see something in a magazine or just play with the chains and pendants in my work area and try different looks. I work upstairs in our house, where the kids’ bedrooms are, and we have a loft area where there is a TV. No one is home anymore, so I have a lot of room to myself to make a mess and experiment.

Making the jewelry is very relaxing for me. I tend to work on the jewelry in the late afternoon. It’s that time of the day that there is not a lot to do and I love going upstairs, putting on the TV, and making jewelry. If my husband has a meeting and doesn’t come home for dinner, it can be hours before I realize what time it is. I love it!

I also make many of my own jewelry displays. I buy lumber, have it cut, get steel rods, and build stands that work well with my jewelry.

We sell through holiday boutiques, luncheon events, and private home or office parties, as well as online. The website shows many of the pieces and also gives information about the Prechter Fund. Since the inception of ELLA Designs 4½ years ago, we have donated $148,000 to the fund from ELLA Designs. I believe that people have also made their own donations after hearing about the fund. I am honored to be a part of that and to bring much-needed awareness about this devastating illness. I just set up an endowment fund to help fund the stem cell research in honor of Michael’s would-be 25th birthday on March 27, 2017, and we went to see the lab and the amazing stem cell research they are doing to help find treatments and cures for bipolar disorder.

With Michael in Vancouver

In September 2015, I received the 2015 Woman of Vision award from the National Council of Jewish Women. This award honors “a woman who contributes her knowledge, resources, and skills for the betterment of the community.” I was the first recipient of the award. This year, I presented the award to the second award winner.  Jenna Bush was the guest speaker at the event; I met her and gave her some jewelry, which she wore that day and took home with her.

With Jenna Bush

My business keeps me busy and provides a great way for me to support a cause which I am passionate about. I feel a special connection to my son, Michael, by doing this and feel that it has also been an amazing way to connect with people on a personal level whom I would never have before. Strangers feel comfortable talking to me about their own struggles, and those of their loved ones, who are suffering from mental illness; I listen and try to give them hope and resources.

I am often contacted by people who have passed my name on to others who need help or somewhere to turn when they are dealing with bipolar illness. I also have handouts available about the Prechter Bipolar Research Fund when I sell the jewelry and give it to people who want information. My business cards also include information about the fund and have contact information for people who want to donate or find more about it.

I am also on the Board of Directors of Kadima, a non-profit mental health agency that provides residential and support services for children and adults with mental illness in Oakland County (Michigan).

Why jewelry? How did you get started?

I wasn’t very artistic growing up, but I loved art and my favorite courses in college were Art History. Over the years, I would make little necklaces or necklace holders for my sunglasses. When my kids had school projects, I LOVED it. I would really work hard on them and sometimes I even let them help me.  Haha…

One day, I went to a store where a jewelry designer was promoting her jewelry. It was beautiful. I went home and thought about what she was doing and thought I could do that too. I thought it would be fun if I made my own pieces to sell and donated a large portion of the profits to bipolar research. I started taking apart some of my own jewelry that I no longer wore and recreated them by putting them with different chains and making unique combinations. It was relaxing and therapeutic.

My daughter Lauren helped me at the beginning since she was still a senior in high school.  We named the company ELLA Designs using the first two letters of our first names: ELizabeth and LAuren.

With Lauren

I began buying chains and attending jewelry shows. I would even find interesting pieces when I traveled. After spending some time making my first ”collection,” we had an open house at our home, where we invited a lot of friends. It was very successful. I started making more pieces, mainly necklaces and bracelets, and selling them at local holiday boutiques, events, and private open houses in people’s homes or offices. The jewelry was very well received and people loved that 50% of all the profits go toward funding vital research for bipolar disorder.

I have tried to have a wide range of price points so everyone can afford something.  Most of the earrings are $35 and the necklaces and bracelet range from $40 to around $400, with an average price range of $100-$200. Most of the jewelry is made from base metals, but I do have some diamond pieces as well. I like to have a range of things that will appeal to all ages and budgets.

While people really like the jewelry, there is a lot of competition in the field. A big part of my success is because I donate so much of the profits to a cause that affects so many people. It is amazing to me how many people who are looking at the jewelry at an event or open house stop to tell me about their own struggles, or those of a loved one who suffers from mental illness. They want to support the cause and when they find a piece they love, it has more meaning to them because they know it is supporting something great and I think they feel my passion for what I am doing.

This has been a very life changing and interesting journey for me. I am a private person and never thought I would end up being in the public eye. When Michael died, I knew I had to be strong for my family, but I also knew I wanted to make a difference for other people who struggle with bipolar disorder. I guess things happen for a reason. I plan to continue growing ELLA Designs and raising awareness about bipolar disorder and the research, which is being done to help people live productive lives.

With my kids and Dr. Sue O’Shea, who is in charge of Prechter Bipolar Research Stem Cell Labs at University of Michigan’s Depression Center

How supportive were your family and friends?

My family and friends were extremely supportive of the business and the charity behind it. They have bought a lot of my jewelry for themselves and given pieces as gifts. Many have had open houses at their homes or offices and I get a lot of referrals from people I know. Sari Cicurel is a publicist and has helped me get a lot of press (sari.cicurel@gmail.com). I knew Sari through mutual friends and she offered her help after I began my jewelry business. A few years ago, I never even knew what a publicist did! She has been an amazing support, helping me book shows and get press attention. I have met so many great people through this and I have made many new and great friends that I would never have met if I didn’t start this business. It has been an amazing and life-changing experience.

With Brian

I have a fantastic husband, Brian, and great kids who have been extremely supportive and they are proud of me. Now that my kids are older—David just graduated medical school this May 2017 and will be starting his residency in anesthesia; Lauren just graduated this April from University of Michigan—I have a lot more time to work on my own business. I think this was the perfect time for me. I don’t think I could have done it when they were young and in the house. I was too busy being a mom. My husband and I do eat a lot of pizza these days because I don’t cook as much as I used to. Brian’s been a great support throughout this journey and he likes pizza, so it works out.

With David and Lauren

What challenges did you encounter?

The biggest challenge is that because each piece is unique, and made by me, it can be difficult to keep the pieces displayed online up to date and in stock. I can usually recreate a piece, but sometimes there are slight variations.

Another challenge is taking photos of the jewelry for the website. I am not a good photographer and often struggle with that area. Because I would rather give more money to the charity, I take the pictures myself rather than hiring a photographer. I do the best I can.

I always need people to help me sell at events. Setting up, selling, and packing things up again is hard work and time-consuming. I have been very lucky to find a great person, Lisa Clayton, who has been helping me for almost 4 years. I didn’t know her at all but met her when she was helping someone else sell at an event. Others have also offered their help. My son Michael’s best friend helps out when she can. They were very close and I have gotten to know her in a way that I never did before. She often talks about Michael and I have learned things about him through her. It has been a gift.

 

My website can be a challenge as well. That is definitely not my strength but I am learning and have help with that. I have an MBA from Michigan so I understand the business side, but the technology part is harder for me.

I am also working on improving my social media presence to reach a wider audience.  That is becoming a new focus and challenge. I met a great graphic and web designer, Jessica Rosengard, who helps me with that side of the business. She updates and maintains my website and helps promote me on Facebook and Instagram.  She has also become someone I can call anytime with a website or computer issue. We are trying to find new ways to promote the business and make people know about ELLA Designs and the cause it is supporting.

I do have an accountant who helps me once in a while with Quickbooks, but most of that I do myself. It is very important to have people that you can rely on to help, especially in the areas where I am not as knowledgeable. It is my business, but I can’t do everything myself and I have found it is vital to have people around me that can help me when I need it.

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I feel that I have grown as a person and gained a new perspective on life. I don’t “sweat the small stuff” anymore and try to appreciate what I have. I am also a lot stronger than I thought, having dealt with one of the most heartbreaking challenges, losing a child, and coming through it the best I could. I also hope it has shown my other two children, David and Lauren, that you can survive difficult situations. Life is not easy and there are a lot of bumps in the road, but you have control of how you handle them.

 

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

Don’t be afraid to try something new. It may not work out, but you will never regret trying. You WILL regret not trying. Find something you feel passionate about and make it happen.

If you’re interested in launching a jewelry business, start slowly. I did not invest a lot of money into jewelry and supplies until I had sold some pieces. I never went into debt. I was not comfortable with that and, by starting out slow, I was never in a risky financial position. It made it much easier and less scary.

What resources do you recommend to others with a family member struggling with mental illness, including bipolar disease?

University of Michigan Depression Center
www.depressioncenter.org

National Network of Depression Centers
www.nndc.org

The Balanced Mind Foundation
http://www.thebalancedmind.org/

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
www.DBSAlliance.org

Depression Toolkit
www.depressiontoolkit.org

International Bipolar Foundation
www.internationalbipolarfoundation.org

Michigan Mental Health Commission
www.michigan.gov/mentalhealth

Mental Health America
www.nmha.org

Canadian Mental Health Association
www.cmha.ca

National Alliance on Mental Illness
www.nami.org

National Institute of Mental Health
www.nimh.nih.gov

America’s Mental Health Channel
http://www.healthyplace.com/bipolar-disorder/menu-id-67/

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
http://www.samhsa.gov/

BP Magazine – Hope and Harmony for People with Bipolar
www.bphope.com

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance online home for wellness
https://www.facingus.org/

Partnership for Workplace Mental Health – A Program of the American Psychiatric Foundation
http://www.workplacementalhealth.org/

United States Department of Veterans Affairs
http://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/

Michael’s Bar Mitzvah

What’s next for you and ELLA Designs?

Since ELLA Designs is still relatively new and growing, I am hoping to keep increasing my customer base and exposure. I am currently selling in 3 stores in Detroit and 2 in Chicago and hoping to increase that number. I’m also doing open houses in the Detroit area, and sometimes in Cleveland and Chicago. I hope to continue to grow the business and keep making a contribution toward helping increase awareness about the disease of bipolar disorder while raising much needing funding to continue research—and eventually, find a cure for this devastating disease.

 

Contact Elizabeth Guz at liz@elladesignsjewelry.com

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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

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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

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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

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