Entering Nonprofit in Midlife: Nancy’s Story

After 35 years in Corporate America, a layoff and big birthday were the catalysts for Nancy to reinvent her work life. She now enjoys her “slash” career working in nonprofit while doing some consulting and writing on the side.

Tell us a little about your background.
I’ve lived in NYC for 37 years. My partner, Peter Conrad, is a labor and employment lawyer and was born and raised in Manhattan. Peter’s adult daughter is also NYC based. My two nieces and a nephew add to the New York family contingent. A sister and brother live nearby in New Jersey. Other family members are in Northern and Southern California, New Orleans and Atlanta.

At age 5, with my younger brother Gerry in our Easter Sunday outfits

I’m one of six (middle child); my parents were first generation Italian-Americans. My mother prized education and held firmly to her Roman Catholic beliefs. I spent nine formative years in parochial school taught by nuns in the ‘60s, then attended a public high school and received a B.S. from Penn State in Fashion Merchandising. My five siblings and I had library cards in first grade and from my love of reading, I learned there was a big world beyond Hazleton. By age eight, I decided I would be leaving. Less than six months after college graduation, I won a spot in Lord & Taylor’s executive training program in New York. Later I became a buyer at Bloomingdale’s and held merchandising roles with other retailers in children’s and women’s apparel.

By the late ‘80s, department stores were consolidating and losing market share to emerging discounters like Target. I made a switch to brand licensing/marketing, initially working for a well-known fashion designer. In the early ‘90s, I found my dream job licensing the merchandise rights for comic strip characters, Dilbert and Peanuts (I revered the Peanuts characters and creator Charles Schulz as a kid). This allowed me to expand beyond my apparel expertise to market other products, such as toys, gifts, and books. I was exposed to international business in Japan, Europe, and Latin America and eventually took a role with the BBC to create consumer products for select TV programs. But the TV market was competitive and after a few years struggling to build a business, in the early 2000’s I returned to my apparel roots. I built and led a brand licensing department for Hanesbrands, a Fortune 1000 apparel company, for the next 11 years.

BBC Worldwide Weakest Link Tournament on the Today Show

 

When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
During my 35+ years in corporate settings, I’d developed a strong set of skills in merchandising, licensing, and marketing within the retail, media, and apparel industries. Having executive roles at global companies gave me a broader perspective, thanks to my wide travel overseas and the opportunity to meet many interesting people. These roles provided good compensation/benefit packages, and I saved accordingly, providing a cushion I’d need later. I knew the time would come when I would leave the corporate fold for something different.

At various points in my forties and fifties, I yearned for a personal creative outlet. After I left the department store world in the late ‘80s, I started taking writing classes at The New School and NYU. When I was a girl, I’d fantasized about becoming a journalist and news anchor. However, as I was considering career plans and college majors, I was not confident about my abilities to get into a communication/journalism program. I had no interest in becoming a starving freelance writer. Instead I pursued retailing, because I loved clothes and at the time, the possibility of becoming a buyer-in-training at a department store in Philadelphia or New York was within my grasp. This was key in my desire to rise above my lower middle-class background.

In the early ‘90’s, I volunteered at a non-profit that placed business executives into projects at local arts organizations. Later, I joined the board of an affiliate Penn State alumni chapter for professional women. Graduate school was a consideration while I was in retailing (at the time, many senior execs had MBA’s). Given my experience building and running $10+M sized departments, pursuing an MBA seemed redundant. Around 9/11, I was accepted into NYU for an Independent Study Master’s program (I’d planned to do creative writing and media studies), but I decided to pass, given the jittery times and economic uncertainty as a result of the attacks in NYC.

MFA Graduation

After I joined the apparel company in 2002, I kept writing. My mother passed away in 2009 (my father died 16 years earlier). As I reflected on her life and all she had sacrificed to help her children achieve success as adults, I decided I should not wait to pursue an MFA degree. I learned of an MFA program at Stony Brook University I could do part-time in Manhattan and Southampton. I tested the waters as a non-matriculated student for the first two semesters and was accepted in 2010. By then, the recession and subsequent recovery had made for a difficult business environment. There were frequent restructurings at my company. I’d survived several rounds of re-organizations and layoffs, but eventually my downsizing day came in mid 2013 along with a big birthday (60!). It was then I had no choice but to change course.

With Susan Collins, Executive Director of TTN

 

What is your next act?
I am a non-profit staffer/business consultant/writer—what Marci Alboher, Encore.org VP and author of the The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life calls a “slasher.” “Slashers”, Marci writes, are “people who, like me had trouble describing their working lives without the use of a slash or two.”

I handle marketing and operations on a part-time basis for The Transition Network (TTN), a non-profit organization supporting women 50+ in transition, professionally and personally. I was tapped to become an Encore Fellow at TTN in late 2016 and, after completing my fellowship, was asked to stay on at TTN. Encore Fellowships are awarded to corporate executives age 50 and over interested in parlaying their business skills into social mission work.

I also am the Founder Elan Brand Licensing LLC, a consulting business I launched three years ago. This includes business development for brands and manufacturers, plus advising professional service firms and financial institutions about licensing and select apparel/retail segments.

In 2015, I received my degree in Creative Writing/Literature after five years of part-time study. My thesis, a memoir entitled Finding My Footing, centered on coming of age from small town to big city, with stories about family, work, love, and travel. Since starting my consulting business, I have also written business articles for various trade magazines, and blogs on apparel, retail and brand licensing trends.

I am currently working on a collection of personal essays, utilizing material from my MFA thesis. I had my first two essays (Check them out here and here) published this summer, received good feedback, and excited to keep writing and submitting my pieces this fall.

My writing desk

How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
I did not wake up the next day after my corporate job disappeared and know what to do next. Fortunately, I was in graduate school, so I had my classes as an anchor. I was able to take a two-week writing workshop without the distraction of work issues while on vacation.

I was bound by a non-compete, and could not begin another role in my field until the following year, so I put my resume together and started networking. I had many lessons to learn on both fronts! I had been in career transition before, but much had changed by 2013, given technology and social media permeating job search. This meant using digital skills to network and job hunt. I sensed my age was also a potential barrier.

The next year was a confusing time as I didn’t know what to call myself (no longer an Executive, now a Writer, but without published pieces). I wasn’t clear I wanted another full-time job doing what I had done for 25+ years in brand licensing, although I started interviewing for these types of roles. I was reluctant to return to a 50- or 60-hour-per-week high-stress job. Plus, the changing landscape for the apparel and retail industries meant higher level positions in NYC were scarce and I was not interested in relocating for a new job.

I had learned about Encore.org a few months before I was downsized and filled out the fellowship application the week after I left Hanesbrands. Encore sent me out on interviews a couple months later but the assignments were not the right fit. Fellowships are competitive, given the strong pool of talented professionals over age 50 in the New York area. In early 2016, I decided to re-apply for an Encore Fellowship and by summer 2016 the opportunity at The Transition Network emerged.

To get more exposure within the non-profit segment, I decided to volunteer at Girls Write Now (GWN), a non-profit that supports under-served teen NYC girls by providing writing workshops. I learned about fund-raising at this small but growing organization focused on developing young women’s confidence and educational opportunities. It was gratifying to help solicit auction/gift bag items for the annual gala and to serve on the host committees in 2016 and 2017. This volunteer project also inspired me to write a blog post about GWN honoring Gloria Steinem and the teens’ reaction to her. I was glad to have the article posted on the Women in Communications website, another organization where I had volunteered.

 

How supportive were your family and friends?
My significant other, Peter was very supportive during my transition, but he gave occasional hints he’d expected me to take another full-time job. We’ve worked through that and I am now busier than ever! Friends were good sounding boards, as some were also in transition. One career coach, Bonnie Diamond, in particular, provided excellent advice and shared her thoughts about the realities of today’s job market for boomers.

 

What challenges did you or are you encountering?
When I first left corporate, it was difficult to figure out where I belonged and to no longer be considered an industry insider.

The next challenge was how to deal with “NO.” Rejection came in many forms, whether pitching for a consulting opportunity that did not materialize or editors passing over my writing submissions or pitches.  As a writer, one has to develop a thick skin. This is also true for job seekers and career changers, entrepreneurs seeking investors, and so on. The rejection may not be about you, but about timing or the circumstances at a particular company. I have two ways of looking at rejection: “No” may mean “not yet”. Or, as Nora Ephron, the writer and filmmaker, has said, “I spend 2 minutes on no.”

Some of my favorites

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?
Patience. It takes time to make big life changes and let these new areas take root. I am inspired by artists who hit their stride later in life, like Alice Neel and Carmen Herrera (she is 100+ and had a recent exhibit at The Whitney). Frank McCourt, a Stony Brook professor, had his book Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir published when he was 66 and it won the Pulitzer Prize. People taking on new careers later in life should keep in mind that although it seems we are starting over, we bring a wealth of life experience, business acumen, and wisdom to whatever we want to do next.

 

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I would have allowed myself a mourning period after I was down-sized. Although I was busy with school and networking, I realized looking back, I needed time to heal before plunging into the planning of my next phase.

I would have kept up with my network more consistently and made more time to meet with friends, colleagues, and business associates outside the office, especially during my last corporate role. Cultivating relationships (personal and professional) is key to creating a support system and a strong network. I am grateful for friends and mentors I’ve met throughout my career and the efforts we’ve made to stay in touch. Speaking of mentors, I would have been more proactive about finding the right people to advise me during different stages of my career and a superlative Executive Coach throughout my peak earning years.

2016 Reunion with United Media co-workers

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Get comfortable with your financial situation so you can develop plans and make choices fitting your situation. Married women should be well-informed about a couple’s holdings, real estate, wills, etc. Find a competent financial planner, lawyer, and accountant—professionals you can trust. Many people have to continue to work out of financial necessity and may need to take a bridge job while moving into their next act.

Accept that changes will take time, your plans don’t have to be crystal clear, and you may try paths that aren’t a good fit.

Join organizations where you can be with like-minded people (The Transition Network, for example!) and make new connections. Volunteering at an organization with a mission that resonates can fill time and add new skills. Mentoring others is another way to give back. I’ve served as an ad hoc coach for younger family members and colleagues and in turn, there’s always something to learn from them, be it their digital savvy or popular culture trends.

Learn how to use your laptop and smart phone effectively. There are YouTube tutorials, Lynda.com is available at many public libraries, and hands-on classes at libraries are free. If you live in NYC, Senior Planet is an amazing tech resource and also free. For more specialized info on social media, check out classes at your local college and high school. You don’t need to be coding, but you may want to keep up with family and friends on Facebook or various message services. For those starting their own businesses/entrepreneurial projects or pursuing another job, your presence on LinkedIn is a must. Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest use depends on your field.

Mingling with TTN members and guests in Chicago

 

What advice do you have and resources do you recommend in your fields of interest?
For those specifically interested in the non-profit world, take continuing education courses to learn about it. Many colleges focus on this area, whether single courses or certificate/degree programs. Classes are a great way to network with classmates and faculty. Consider a board of director’s role if your schedule and budget permit. Volunteer at non-profit organizations that appeal to you and list those assignments on your LinkedIn profile and resume to show new skills acquired.

Non-profit/social mission:
Foundation Center: classes and webinars on fund-raising, grant writing, non-profits operations, and a trove of information on U.S. foundations and the non-profits supported by them.
Encore.org Fellowships
Be the Social Change: NYC group with events and classes on social mission endeavors
The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life
The B Corp Handbook: How to Use Business as a Force for Good

Entrepreneurship:
Kauffman Foundation: FastTrac boot camp for entrepreneurs (offered in select cities)
Government organizations supporting small businesses such as Small Business Administration, Chamber of Commerce

Creative Writing:
Local colleges/universities continuing education classes/workshops
Pen & Brush NYC arts organization (Writing circle is good for beginners)
Poets and Writers Magazine
Public libraries as a place to write, attend author readings and classes, do research, and borrow books, DVDs and other media

 

With my significant other, Peter Conrad

 

What’s next for you?
I would like to continue supporting underserved girls and women. There is so much need around the globe! As I get more immersed in the non-profit sector, I’m excited to learn about organizations where I can contribute and apply a combination of marketing, business development and operational skills. I recently took an advisory board role at Indego Africa, a non-profit with a mission to empower African women artisans by showcasing their beautiful crafts and investing in their education.

Writing essays and creative non-fiction, with the aim of publishing a collection. I have some ideas for short stories and maybe even a novel down the road. I would love to travel to India and South America and return to countries I visited long ago, including Japan, Italy, and Portugal.

  

Connect with Nancy Gendimenico
Email: ngendimenico@gmail.com
Website: Elan Brand Licensing
LinkedIn
Twitter 
Instagram
Facebook




Let’s Hear from an Expert: Jeanne Safer, Author of Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life Without Children

In your speaking and writing, you often tackle taboo topics. What drew you to write about women who choose not to have children?
Personal experience. It took me 5 years to make the decision not to have children myself, and I wanted to use the insights I gained to help others through this essential decision process. My most important insight: I realized I didn’t WANT to have a child; I WANTED to want to have a child.

It was also wonderful to be asked to contribute an essay to the anthology Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum. This gave me the opportunity to revisit the issue 25 years after I wrote Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life Without Children. I realized how important the decision, and the decision-making process, had been in my life. Now at age 70, I can honestly say it was absolutely right for me.

What are some of the challenges these women face in our American society?
I’m sorry to say that, although the stigma has lessened somewhat over the years since I struggled with this issue, women making this choice—or even thinking about not being mothers—worry that they are selfish, unfeminine, or missing out on fulfillment. And society reinforces these fears. The women I interviewed worked this through, and, to a woman, felt their decision was right for them.

What misconceptions would these women like to clarify with mothers?
That there are many ways to nurture; that motherhood should be a choice, not a foregone conclusion; that selfishness is equally distributed among mothers and non-mothers. And that there is NO life without regrets, losses, and gains.

What advice do you have for women who choose not to have children?
Think about it fearlessly! Make a conscious decision. You will never regret doing so. Realize that you can be creative and loving and fulfilled without a child. There are lots of women of all ages who can attest to the profound satisfactions of life (and marriage) without children if that’s the right choice for you.

What resources do you recommend for women who chose not to have children?
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, Meghan Daum’s marvelous book, which includes MEN (of all things!) for the first time, is a wonderful resource. It provides a spectrum of wise, funny and thoughtful voices.

My website has many articles and interviews on this topic that I’ve done over the years.

 

Connect with Jeanne Safer
Email: Jeanne@JeanneSaferPhd.com
Website
Twitter: @JeanneSafer

 

Jeanne Safer, PhD, has been a practicing psychoanalyst/psychotherapist in New York City for over 40 years. She is the author of 6 books on “Taboo Topics”—the things everybody thinks about but nobody talks about. Her most recent book is The Golden Condom: And Other Essays on Love Lost and Found, which explores the many faces of passion. Dr. Safer is currently working on a book about the challenges of mixed political marriage.




Becoming a Novelist in Midlife: Orly’s Story

A health scare, long hours at work, and the birth of her son would be the catalysts that propelled Orly into a new creative outlet: Writing fiction. Her first novel, The Distance Home, has recently been released and her second novel is on its way.

  

Tell us a little about your background…

If I had to describe my background in one word, it would be “ordinary.” I come from a loving family with parents who are about to celebrate 52 years together. I had every opportunity growing up, from ballet and music lessons to a pony and horse shows. We had pets and family vacations and a lovely house. I had and still have a great relationship with my parents (okay, a few rocky periods during my teens but that’s pretty normal, right?). Ordinary, normal, no traumas, no drama.

Now for the longer version.

I was born in Israel and, except for my parents, most of my family still lives there. When I was four, we moved to England for three years, then back to Israel before moving again to the United States. That last move wasn’t a whole bucket of fun, though. We moved to the Midwest and fitting in wasn’t the easiest for me. I had a very British accent and kids made fun of me. For a few years I schemed how to get back to Israel and, when it became clear that wasn’t an option, I did whatever I could to become like everyone else. There were a handful of years when I refused to speak Hebrew, didn’t want to celebrate the Jewish holidays, and made sure my British accent was buried deep.

As a young girl, at a horse show

My first couple of years in college were rather unsettled. I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around what I wanted to study. I went in as an art history major and switched several times before finally graduating with a major in English and no idea what I wanted to do with it. Well, not exactly. I had a fascination with the publishing industry and applied for jobs in New York publishing houses (I was living on Long Island at the time) but quickly realized that my entry-level salary wouldn’t come close to covering a Manhattan apartment that would allow my mother to sleep quietly at night.

That meant graduate school. While applying for publishing jobs, I’d also submitted applications to law school. Not that I had a burning interest in the law but it seemed the right path at the time. When the time to commit came about, I aborted the idea of law school and applied to journalism programs instead. That brought me to the University of Maryland and, after graduating, a job as an editor at a monthly trade publication for the satellite industry.

With my husband pre-wedding at the Maryland Renaissance Festival in 1994

I’d always been a space junkie – I watched every shuttle launch and read everything I could about the space industry – so it was pretty exciting to get to be part of that world, even if my slice of that world was on the other side of the industry. After a couple of years, I joined the corporate communications department of an up and coming satellite communications company. Several years and a couple of job hops into different industries, I went to work for my dream company – a satellite launch company. Rockets, baby. I worked crazy hours and loved it—most of the time.

While I was working as an editor at Via Satellite magazine in 1994, I had the opportunity to go to Kourou, French Guiana to visit the Space Centre with a side trip to Devil’s Island

At some point, I started loving it a bit less. My husband and I had been married 10 years by then and, at 37, I was at the ticking end of my biological clock. I loved being in the corporate world and never had strong maternal instincts (except for animals—show me a puppy or kitty and I melt). But at some point, I started noticing the kids as much as the family pets.

Then life took a slight detour. I had a health scare that, coupled with some pretty unhappy times at work, made me realize that crazy long hours just weren’t what life was meant to be about. Somehow, out of that mess of doctor visits and hours crying on the bathroom floor and more visits, I came out with a clean bill of health and a positive pregnancy test.

As cliché as this sounds, from the moment my son was born, I was a different person. Priorities changed. Wants changed.

With my son in 2008

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

After my son was born, I quickly realized that I no longer fit into the skin of the “me” I’d cultivated all those years in the corporate world. Part of it was struggling with postpartum depression, even though I never acknowledged that at the time. Part of it was an unpleasant shift in family dynamics.

And part of it had to do with my new role working from home. I’d started freelancing while on maternity leave and when my son was a bit over a year old, I made the switch to full time freelancing. It wasn’t that I missed the work environment. I actually found that I was perfectly happy in my cave, working at my own pace. I had great clients, mostly in the space industry. But at some point, the work itself stopped tugging at my creativity.

A friend recommended writing essays for various parenting magazines but the idea of putting my thoughts and feelings down for strangers to read made me queasy. When I mentioned to my husband that I needed a new creative outlet and was considering going back for my Ph.D., he suggested that I give writing a shot. If I wasn’t up for essays, then maybe fiction. I had nothing to lose; that same day, I signed up for a fiction workshop. By the time I finished that first workshop, I had a completed draft and a new passion.

What is your next act

I am the author of The Distance Home, which I published with Forge Books in May 2017, at the age of 50. Here’s the official blurb:

Sixteen years ago, a tragic accident cost Emma Metz her two best friends—one human and one equine. Now her father’s dead too, and she’s forced to return to the hometown she’d fled. She uncovers a history of lies tying her broken family to the one place she thought she could never face again—the stable that held her secrets and her grief. But to exorcise the ghosts of her past, she’ll have to release the guilt, embrace the uncertainty of a future she’d buried, and trust again in the healing power of horses.

The Distance Home is a story about fitting in and the lengths we’ll go to in order to be accepted and feel loved.

My sophomore book, Carousel Beach, will be released from Forge on May 8, 2018. Here’s a bit about the book: A mysterious inscription carved on the belly of a historic carousel horse and a cryptic letter left on her grandmother’s grave lead an art restorer on a quest for the truth buried within family secrets. I have a couple more manuscripts in the works and a notebook full of other ideas.

I joke that writing is cheaper than therapy. There’s more truth than joke in that. I’m not a talker. I think better through my fingers. But while I’ve always loved reading, I never had the pull for writing fiction. What I found, though, is that fiction gave me the outlet for the emotions and feelings and thoughts that I’d trapped inside. My characters are able to sort through emotional upheaval. They can confront the people who hurt them. They can change their lives in 300 pages.

My characters can do all the things I can’t always do. Through them, I can release the pressure building inside me. The characters I write about don’t speak for me and they don’t deal with the issues I’m going through at that period in my life. But through their emotional journeys, I can release my own fears and heartaches and dreams.

My stories are the family and friends I can’t always open up to. Through them, I can spread my wings. The stories don’t reflect who I am or what I do. But through them, I can explore new ways of becoming whole again.

My writing desk

How hard was it to take the plunge?

It was terrifying. I worked hard to get to where I was in my professional life and that was the only professional life I imagined. When I got pregnant, the idea of not working wasn’t something I remotely entertained.

Granted, I eased into it to some extent—first switching to full-time freelancing then slowly cutting back on clients. But the day I sat with my husband and said, “I want to see if I can make a go of getting published,” was palm-sweaty, heart-banging scary.

We worked out a budget. Sacrifices were made. The hardest for me, though, was reminding myself that I was still “working.” I may not be clocking in at an office and I wasn’t responsible to clients anymore, but I chose to make writing my new career and I was now accountable to myself.

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

My husband was very supportive. Even with the financial concerns, he assured me we’d make it work if that’s what I really wanted to do. He doesn’t read my work or pat me on the back or even commiserate with the frustrations of the publishing process, but he’s the first to remind me to say no when I overextend myself with other commitments and give me the weekend to work when I have a deadline. And he gave me the very best advice I’ve gotten… If I don’t take myself and my writing seriously, why should others? That was the kick in the pants I needed to become more protective of my time and when I stopped tip-toeing around the question, “So, Orly, what do you do?”

My parents have been very encouraging, even if slightly hesitant at the beginning. My mother, especially, was concerned about me giving up the corporate job. But they’ve since gotten fully on board and are interested in every step of the process.

My biggest supporter, however, is my son. He tells everyone that I’m a writer. I went to pick him up early from school one day and the lady at the front office, who I’d never met, said, “Oh, you’re the author. I’ve heard all about your book. I can’t wait to read it.” I actually looked behind me to see if there was someone else there. He’s dubbed himself my “manager.”

What challenges did you encounter?

One of the biggest challenges I came across was finding a writing support group. In that early workshop, the instructor had recommended several writers’ associations. I joined one but it was for a genre I didn’t write, although they did have a few specialty chapters including one for women’s fiction. And while that chapter was great and I met many wonderful writers in my genre, the majority of the resources out of that parent group weren’t helpful to me personally.

Then at the end of 2012, that parent association made the executive decision to tighten their mission. It made complete sense for them but left our genre homeless. A handful of us came together and founded the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA). We made a wish list of the things we wanted from a professional association and set out to make it happen.

The connections and support from WFWA were a major part of my road to success. In the three years I was the founding president, I learned that I could step beyond my comfort zone and not only survive, but thrive.

With Women’s Fiction Writers Association co-founders, Linda Zohman Avellar, Laura Drake, Kerry Hall Lonsdale at the first WFWA retreat September 2015

With respect to finding a publisher, like most aspiring writers, I worked my way through the trenches. I queried and gathered a box-full of rejections. Scrapped one manuscript, wrote another, and queried again. More rejections. With each manuscript, I pushed myself harder to strengthen my craft. I followed agents on Twitter, read every relevant blog, took more workshops, and kept my eyes on the end goal—an agent and a publishing deal.

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

Giving up was never an option. I didn’t always believe that it would happen, but it never crossed my mind to stop. I had – still have – a core group of writing buddies who keep me grounded and focused. They’re my daily sanity savers in what can be a lonely and rather neurotic business.

And there’s really nothing else I’d like to do. I love writing. I get twitchy when I’m between projects or have to be away from a project for a length of time because of other commitments.

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I learned that I have way more patience than I ever gave myself credit for. My lack of patience is a great source of amusement in our house. Even my son, when he was younger, used to tease me. You know you have a problem when your 8-year old tells you to relax. The path from aspiring author to published author is bumpy with lots of turns and detours and hurry-up-and-waits. There were queries that I sent to agents that didn’t receive responses for months. One actually came over a year after the original query.

I also learned that I have more staying power than I thought. Rejection stings, no way around that. But I very quickly accepted that the rejections were not personal. Writing may be deeply personal, but publishing is a business. The agents weren’t rejecting me; they didn’t think the work I was presenting to them was ready. I used each rejection to fuel forward momentum. And despite a dizzying amount of rejections, I kept at it.

2017 Gaithersburg Book Festival with Adriana Arrington and Jenni L. Walsh

 

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

Yes and no.

I would have been more patient. And yes, I get the irony of saying that after my response to the previous question. I was quick with the trigger finger several times and sent manuscripts out before they were really ready. Then again, I didn’t know they weren’t ready until the rejections came in. The personalized rejections were the most valuable critiques I could have gotten and each one helped shape my writing in a positive way. So yes, because I wish I’d taken more time with those early manuscripts but no, because those early manuscripts taught me so much.

With my grandmother when I was in college; she’s a major inspiration for a character in my second book

 

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

Trust yourself. It’s incredibly easy to fall into a spiral of doubt. Those nagging questions of “why did I think I could do this” and “what if I fail” can paralyze your creativity and motivation. We expect to go through rejection early in our careers but going back to square one is harder after you’ve already pushed that box aside and thought you were past that phase in your life.

While I’m incredibly proud of my accomplishments in my early career, this time around feels so much more rewarding. This time, I went into it with the knowledge of what failure could mean. When you’re in your 20s, the future is forever away. There’s time to explore and time to detour. When you’re closing in on 50, it feels a little closer. Failure now doesn’t guarantee a second chance.

 

What advice do you have for those interested in writing fiction?

Find your tribe. Writing can be incredibly lonely and frustrating at times. You spend hours upon hours alone with people you’ve created in worlds that exist only in your head. Sounds a bit crazy, doesn’t it? As supportive as family and friends are, they rarely understand the depths of what goes into writing and publishing.

When I’m in a story, those characters are real to me. They’re part of my world and at times, I find myself expecting them to sit down for dinner with us or I fret about something a character has done or needs to do just as I would any other member of my family. I’ve been known to get lost in the middle of washing dishes and blurt out, “that’s what I was missing,” then continue to talk out the missing piece of the story while my family gawks behind me. Other writers get this. We can talk to each other about people who don’t exist without feeling self-conscious.

Other writers get the pain of rejection or a negative review. They understand the agony over first person or third person point-of-view. They share experiences and knowledge. And they get the exhausted excitement over typing “the end,” even if it’s only the end of the first draft and there are at least five more to come.

With a few of my writing buddies

What writing resources do you recommend?

There are a lot of amazing resources for writers, both “live” and online.

My work time was limited to when my son was at school so the online resources were a godsend. Facebook communities are a great place for connecting with other writers. I belong to way more than I have time for, but there are a few that I “visit” every day. The Motivated Writer is a must for me. We do regular check-ins, announcing our weekly goals on Monday then following up on Friday with progress. It’s a wonderful, supportive group and everyone is ready with advice or a pat on the back or a woo hoo.

Writer Unboxed is another fabulous online community and it’s connected to a great blog for writers. Another amazing blog with articles for every stage of the writing career is Writers in the Storm. I also love Thinking Through Our Fingers for the variety and helpfulness of their articles.

Another favorite online hangout is BLOOM. It’s a great group of book lovers—both writers and readers. The group is hosted by the Tall Poppy Writers and it’s become my go-to to connect with readers and my daily happy stop.

Writer’s Digest is one of the best overall resources for writers of any genre. I devour the magazine the moment it arrives in my mailbox. There are online articles and a whole host of reference tools through the website. There’s a bookstore with a brilliant selection of books to help writers at every stage of their writing process and career growth. I’ve also found their online workshops incredibly helpful.

There are numerous writing associations out there. I suggest every author find the one that fits their genre or, if they’re straddling genres or not yet sure what genre best fits for what they write, then test join a few until you find the right fit. For me, it’s obviously the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. But pretty much every genre has its own group.

One resource I found particularly helpful when I was querying agents, and to be honest, still find helpful when I’m developing new projects, is the twitter hashtag #MSWL. MSWL stands for Manuscript Wish List. Periodically, agents and editors will post the types of projects they’re most interested in seeing to twitter. But there’s also a handy website that makes finding the information easier for those of us with Twitter issues.

Some of my favorite books

What’s next for you?

Next up? More edits on the novel I recently turned into my editor, finish another manuscript that I’ve been working on, and get another underway. I’ve also been tinkering with a middle-grade manuscript that I’m hoping to finally finish. And dig my house out of the mess that’s resulted from months on deadline.

 

Contact Orly Konig
Email: orly@oklopez.com
Website
Book: The Distance Home: A Novel
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Let’s Hear From an Expert: Cathi Hanauer, Novelist and Editor of The Bitch Is Back

Photo Credit: Phoebe Jones

You’ve released a new compilation of essays called The Bitch Is Back, featuring many of the writers from your first anthology, the New York Times bestseller The Bitch in the House. What was your motivation behind your new book?

The first anthology, The Bitch in the House, had come out at a time in my life when I was angry and overwhelmed. Since then, I’d gone from a young, harried, struggling working mother with too much to manage and do, to a happy, middle-aged working mother with a ton of gratitude for my very nice life. And while a lot of that outcome was due to luck and privilege, a significant other part resulted, I felt, from having been true to what I wanted all along, to have really done the work of digging deep and trying to figure out things and ask for things and get things, even if they bucked the norm. And I knew the same was true of my friends—some of whom were contributors to Bitch 1 (as I now call The Bitch in the House).

For example, one contributor had gotten out of her problematic marriage and then married a much more suitable guy who happened to be 20 years younger; another contributor, who had been single and searching in Bitch 1, had since gotten married and had a child. Other women had taken other steps, some large, some small—changing partners or careers, having a child on their own, transitioning from male to female, going on anti-depressants, taking up new things in life…or just accepting the limitations of the lives they had chosen and developing a new perspective on it.

I wanted to be able to tell some of those stories—what happens AFTER those hard, Bitch 1 years? Do things get better, easier, less stressful? If so, why and how? What have we learned? And I wanted to do a book that wasn’t about anger, but about wisdom and enlightenment and gratitude. That makes the book sound very new-agey, which it’s not at ALL—it has the same edge as Bitch 1—but it’s a book about getting through those hard years and into the next phase, with the specifics of how a number of women—nine from Bitch 1, the rest new ones—did that. And with the advantage that many of these contributors are top writers or editors—so, people who are paid to think about and articulate these things in an interesting way. In other words, the book has an element of literature, too, of real, and impressive, writing.

 

How will this book speak to women in midlife and beyond?
I probably answered that in my long-winded answer above! But the book offers both wisdom and specific stories about middle-age, in topics ranging from breast cancer and sexuality to sex after 60 (by the amazing Sarah Crichton, whose husband dumping her was the best thing to ever happen to her), to no longer caring about your weight, to whether or not to do artificial things to your face, to how a marriage changes from the time of a baby being born into it to that baby leaving for college….lots of topics.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities facing us as we age, as heard through the voices of your writers?
Where to start? First, just the physical challenge of aging—how our health, looks, sexuality, perspective change. Then there’s marriage: how to figure out what we want from it and how to get it; how to move on if it’s wrong; how to move on if we thought it was okay but our partners didn’t agree and moved on (see Sarah Crichton, above!). How to deal with aging kids, from teenagers who are moving away from us to our kids physically leaving home. How to hold onto ourselves with the pressures of work and family. How to age into a better place, to make middle age the best years of your life rather than the beginning of the end.

 

What advice do you and your writers have for women as we age?
THINK. Read, question, dig deep. Go to therapy if you need to, challenge yourself…most of all, don’t become complacent (unless, of course, that works for you!). Figure out what you want, and then get it. Easier said than done, right? Be true to yourself. If you do, you are headed toward happiness and possibly the best years of your life. If you don’t… Never mind. We won’t go there.

 

What resources do you recommend on the topic of women and aging?
I love the new website NextTribe—smart and relevant. I love Michelle Rage’s website Rubber Shoes in Hell—hilarious and smart, and tacky in the best ways.

Books, where to start, there are so many great ones. Abigail Thomas’s What Comes Next and How to Like It—god, what a beautiful book. Almost anything by Elizabeth Strout, ditto Kate Christensen. Dani Shapiro’s sparse and lovely recent memoir Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage. If it’s not too obnoxious, my own novel, Gone, about midlife marriage and motherhood, art and depression. I recently reread A Brief History of Anxiety…Yours and Mine by Patricia Pearson—not about aging per se as about anxiety, but still about midlife, and so smart and great. There is great stuff out there.

 

Connect with Cathi Hanauer
Email: cathi.hanauer@gmail.com
Website: www.cathihanauer.com
Facebook Page
Twitter: @cathihanauer

Books:
Gone: A Novel
Sweet Ruin: A Novel
My Sister’s Bones
The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage
The Bitch Is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier

Cathi Hanauer is the New York Times bestselling author of three novels—Gone, Sweet Ruin, My Sister’s Bones—and editor of two anthologies, The Bitch in the House and The Bitch is Back. A co-founder (along with her husband, Daniel Jones) of the New York Times “Modern Love” column, she has contributed articles, essays, and reviews to The New York Times, Elle (where she’s a contributing writer), O—the Oprah MagazineReal Simple, and many other publications. She lives in Northampton, MA and New York, NY.




Supporting Parents of Adult Children: Barbara’s Story

After retiring three times, Barbara has reinvented yet again, this time seeking to bridge the divide between parents and adult children with her website and blog, Parents of Grown Offspring.

Tell us a little about your background…
I was born into a conventional middle-class, suburban American family: working father, stay-at-home mother, two children. I am now the mother of two and the grandmother of four. The only unusual features of my early years were being sent to 8-week sleep-away camp at the age of 3–and for the 13 years thereafter–and skipping my senior year of high school to start college. Looking back I seem to have been born driven, writing, and focused on the future. As proof of the third-mentioned, look no further than my last will and testament, which I wrote at the age of 8!

A portrait of me as a young girl

Although I’ve done many things in my long career, communication was the thread that connected them all. Researching, organizing, and writing an undergraduate thesis at my alma mater, Vassar College, was the very best preparation for my life as a writer. Right out of college, I joined the staff of The Book of Knowledge and then The New York Times.

After those stints, I wrote 4 non-fiction books: America Fever : The Story of American Immigration, which was inspired by my Russian-born grandfather (and put on display at the New York Public Library); Children Through the Ages, Forward March to Freedom., the civil rights leader; and Help: A Handbook for Working Mothers. More recently, I wrote two young adult novels, Animal Kingdom and Good-To-Go Café which were designed to encourage low-achieving students to aim high in the real world. These grew out of my volunteer work with would-be entrepreneurs at our local high school.

My books

Shortly after college I met my husband on a blind date and married him four months later. Making the wedding while working at a high-stress job became the subject of my first published article, “How to Get Married, Work, and Survive.” (We writers never waste an important life experience.)

My wedding day

When our younger daughter was in second grade, I joined the corporate world as a public relations practitioner, first for an energy company and then for a satellite communications firm. Upon moving from New York to California, I got in touch with my inner entrepreneur and founded my first company, Greenleaf Video, to take advantage of the how-to video craze. I ran it for several years and then was happily acquired by a public company. Upon this first retirement at the age of 47, I took classes in every craft known to woman: among them basket and fabric weaving, quilting, calligraphy, knitting, bookbinding, and paper folding. I also studied the piano, the ukulele, specialty hors-d’oeuvres, organic cooking, Pilates, and yoga. I was pretty bad at almost all of it, except for quilting, which I still do.

Eventually, my happy housewife phase petered out and I found myself putting on a suit and high heels to do the dishes. That’s when I knew it was time to go back to work. While volunteering for a political campaign, I met the head of a major accounting firm, who then hired me as a PR consultant. Strategic Communications/LA was born. I was fortunate in attracting such wonderful clients as Price Waterhouse, the RAND Corporation, the Santa Monica Pier, and the Southern California SPCA. It was during this phase that I wrote speeches, which turned out to be my favorite genre and earned me spots in Vital Speeches of the Day and a “Best Speech in Los Angeles” award. After 10 years, I split the company into two parts, found buyers, and retired again at 57.

During this second attempt at retirement, I played golf, became an environmental activist, and founded and ran the Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival. After some time and some soul-searching on a milestone birthday, I realized I missed working for money. That led me to resuscitate Strategic Communications. I drew on my network of social contacts to reboot, and among my initial clients was Antioch University Santa Barbara.

When the school had an opening for a fundraiser and event planner, I was invited to apply and, lo and behold, I was hired! I got a big kick out of my lovely office, being part of a team, dressing for work again, having business lunches, being accepted by the younger staff (and they were all younger), and learning a lot about higher ed. It was truly a shot in the arm for me at this stage of my life. Alas, after a few years, circumstances at the university changed, so I retired for the third time at 73.

 

When did you start to think about making yet another fresh start?
I had been thinking of creating a blog/website for some time, but my third retirement was undoubtedly the catalyst for finally pulling it together. Over the years friends had shared their heartaches, happiness, and their own growing pains during that confusing time of life when their children left home, returned home, or started their own families.

As a historian interested in the evolution of human feeling and a mother myself, I began to ponder if there was any purpose to the nuclear family today once the children had grown up and gone their separate ways. In the past there was a definite connection: The generations often lived under the same roof, tilled the soil communally, or ran the family business together. Today, matters are much less clear-cut. In fact, parents and children often have very different expectations of their roles vis-à-vis one another, which leads to a lot of misunderstanding and hurt feelings.

 

What is your next act?
I feel my mission in life is now to help parents have a more fulfilling relationship with their adult children. My blog/website Parents of Grown Offspring (to remember, think “POGO”), which I recently launched at 73, celebrates intergenerational success stories, suggests ways to heal rifts, and lets parents know they are not alone or the only ones encountering problems with their grown “kids.”

Basically, there are three parts to our content. The first, “Think About It,” contains sticky situations à la Dear Abby, only the readers propose the solutions themselves. The second consists of interviews with experts and research on such sore-spot subjects as intergenerational communication (or lack thereof), how to give advice and when to zip it, and how to set limits when your child comes home to live. In the third, we offer cartoons, poems, movie reviews, songs, and jokes about parents and their adult children.

Designed to be interactive, POGO encourages readers to help each other by sharing their own experiences and tips for an improved relationship. As I am not looking to make money from the blog, signups are free and come with The Ten Best Things You Can Say to Your Adult Child.

At work on my blog

How hard was it to take the plunge?
As a serial entrepreneur, it was not difficult for me to start a new project. But, before I did any writing for the blog, I thoroughly searched the Internet to see if there were already websites devoted solely to my topic. I can’t stress strongly enough how important (and yet how often not undertaken) it is to do “due diligence,” i.e., your homework. If you have a copycat product, your chances of success are slim. In my case, I couldn’t find anything devoted specifically to my topic, which is when I knew I had a unique niche to fill.

 

How supportive were your family and friends?
When I told the family about POGO, my husband was immediately supportive. A real trooper, he’s always there for me, no matter how off-the-wall my ideas! Our older daughter was also enthusiastic, offering to do a podcast about the benefits of having a mother with whom to commiserate about bringing up “unusual” children like her. Our younger daughter, however, was cool to the idea. She felt the subject matter and tone of the blog were negative. After hearing her reaction, I looked at my initial material with fresh eyes and agreed that, indeed, the site reeked of exasperation. I went back to the drawing board to make it more solution-oriented and to highlight successes as well as frustrations.

As to friends, by now they expect me to always have some new project brewing. Although when I took my last full-time job, well past the age when most people have retired, one woman did exclaim, “Barbara, what’s wrong with you?!”

Recent family reunion at a Santa Barbara beach, celebrating my birthday

What challenges have you encountered?
In the months preceding the launch, it was a hard slog to put together so many original articles because my web designer felt POGO should look like a going concern from Day 1. Since then I’ve been finding that researching and writing while spreading the word and keeping up with social media is a lot more work than I had anticipated. But by far my biggest bugaboo is the technology. I have no aptitude for, nor interest in, things electronic, yet here I am operating in a digital world. I’ve committed to becoming more computer literate, but I’ll probably always need a lot of propping up. I also find it a little creepy doing business in the silent world of computers without any aural interaction. I’m afraid I’m going to become one of those crazy ladies who strike up conversations with strangers on the checkout line just to hear the sound of another human voice!

 

What did you learn about yourself in this process?
I thought I was empathic before, but I’ve become much more compassionate toward parents, who have been given an impossible set of standards to live up to. I see my mission as giving them a big group hug accompanied by the assurance, “I appreciate all you’ve done and are doing. I celebrate you not just on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day but all year round. You showed up for your families.”

With my grandson

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
I should have left my last full-time position as soon as it became apparent that I could never fix what needed fixing. It’s not wrong to say, “It’s not my job,” but somehow we women often feel an enormous—and misguided—sense of responsibility to try to make things right. I should have listened to my gut feelings.

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Make “What the hell!” your motto. At this stage of life, there’s little at stake; no one cares if you try and fail or try and lose interest. Give it a go, get what you can out it, and when it’s time to stop, stop. If you can afford it, undertake only what interests you and what feels right. I like participating in the world because I conceptualize life as a piggy bank: You have to put in to take out. My mother started to suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease when she was younger than I am and slowly deteriorated for 15 years. Given that family history, I’m grateful (and amazed) every day that I still have the brainpower to do what I love—work.

 

What advice do I have for those interested in pursuing your reinvention path?
Altruism does not come free. There are many start-up costs and ongoing fees associated with creating and maintaining a blog/website, not to mention Facebook ads and other social media boosts to build your list of followers. Unless you are remarkably adept at website design, know the ins and outs of the Internet, and live and breathe social media, you are going to need help and that help is going to cost. Even if you are doing this as a labor of love as I am, you have to face the fact that at some point you may have to monetize your site. You will also have to pay to get out the word because, as one blogger warned me, “If you build it, they may not come.”

What resources do you recommend?
Books:

I Only Say This Because I Love You: How the Way We Talk Can Make or Break Family Relationships Throughout Our Lives by Deborah Tannen. The classic on intergenerational communications.

You’re Wearing That?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation by Deborah Tannen. Drilling down to particularly fraught interactions.

Setting Boundaries® with Your Adult Children: Six Steps to Hope and Healing for Struggling Parents by Allison Bottke. A tough love approach with a Christian perspective.

When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up?: Loving and Understanding Your Emerging Adult by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Fishel. For parents whose children are 18-29.

When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along by Joshua Coleman, Ph.D. You’ll find a lot of fresh, sensible, and actionable advice here.

Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents by Jane Isay. Heartfelt wisdom shared parent-to-parent.

Websites:

Grown and Flown. Insights for parents whose kids are just entering or just leaving college.

Next Avenue. PBS site with some articles on parents and their adult children.

Ga Ga Sisterhood: Grandmothers’ site with some articles on interacting with daughters-in-law and other aspects of intergenerational relationships.

Empowering Parents. Some articles on dealing with young adults.

 

What’s next for you? Do you have another next act in your future?
I sincerely hope not. I have ambitious goals for Parents of Grown Offspring that should keep me busy until the end of my days. I want to create an awareness that parenting grown children is a separate stage of life—with its own pitfalls, protocols, and opportunities—and initiate a national dialogue on responsibilities and reasonable expectations on both sides of the parent/adult child divide.

I’ve also acquired a new passion, assemblage, so perhaps I’ll be the Grandma Moses of art from found objects. I scour thrift shops and tag sales for odd items that will add interest to my pieces. Tellingly, no matter how disparate my pieces, they always seem to include at least some writing. As I just told a young audience at Girls Inc., if you cut open my veins, words will come tumbling out . . .

 

Connect with Barbara Greenleaf
Email: info@parentsofgrownoffspring.com
Website
Facebook
Linkedin
Twitter: @bkgreenleaf
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Publishing a Collection of Short Stories in Midlife: Jodi’s Story

Two decades into a teaching career, saddled with health problems, Jodi chose to embrace her love of writing. She has since published a book, They Could Live with Themselves and is working on more short stories, novels, and poems.

 

Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in the rolling hills of southeast Pennsylvania, in Wyeth country, playing in fields and streams with my sisters and the children who lived near us. I read a lot and drew pictures. I was passionate about school. It was no surprise that I went to college in Pennsylvania and studied to become an elementary school teacher, but after doing my internships in a traditional, rather cloying, public school setting, I came away with a deep knowing that public school teaching wasn’t for me, at least not in a school like the one where I had studied.

After some travel and a few years trying on a number of alternative jobs–––living and teaching in a collaborative outdoor learning community, assisting a teacher in an urban Montessori school, and teaching nature programs at a center–––I went to graduate school in New England to get a degree in environmental studies. I loved being outdoors and New England felt more like home than home. The irony there was that just as I was ready to embark on a completely different professional trajectory, I got a teaching job in an alternative public school in a small town in Vermont, the kind of school I dreamed of, the kind of school I had hoped to one day start. So that’s where I landed. Eventually, my two daughters came along and I juggled being a devoted mother and career teacher.

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

I felt lucky to live in a beautiful place with a wonderful school where I could both work and send my kids, and I relished that life for many years. My job allowed me full freedom of creative self-expression on multiple levels and the ability to serve others in some way, my two goals in life. But things began to change. Demands on teachers and mandates from the state first trickled, then rushed in, while at the same time, basic needs in a number of children were less and less met at home. Social economic and academic gaps seemed to widen, or perhaps I just became more aware of the gaps. Tolerance in the more resourced families gave lip service to liberal views that did not always play out in action. I was heartbroken. An ideal I held about children and schools, our little school, began to erode.

A few years earlier, I had become a single mother. I experienced a great loss of innocence in both family and career. I zigzagged from feeling stressed, exhausted, and at times, completely deflated, to getting charged up over a new idea, a new kind of yoga, a new design idea for the house I was having built; I was completely overdoing it. Health practitioners came up with a host of diagnoses–––thyroid malfunction, liver and adrenal compromise, hormonal shifts, autoimmune, Lyme disease–––and I don’t discount the truth in any of those assessments. But no matter what conventional or alternative medical tracts I was on—seeing specialists, adding supplements, subtracting certain kinds of food from my diet—no matter how much therapy I experienced, stress was the constant factor that did not change.

I’d been in a winter writing group for many years and began to see metaphors in my poetry about life paths and choices. I was writing a lot about exhaustion, empty vessels, and barren landscapes. Sometimes the poetry seemed sad, but mostly I sensed it was expressive of a need for change and the exploration of new opportunities. One night, I wrote a poem titled, “The Suitcase.” It was epiphanic. The next day, in the spring of 2008, at the age of 46, I resigned from an 18-year teaching position.

What is your next act?

I’m the author of They Could Live with Themselves, a collection of linked short stories set in the fictional town of Stark Run, which was published in 2015 by Press 53, a small literary press out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. These stories delve into the inner lives of ordinary people with trouble in their hearts. Often a strange alliance arrives on the scene to shake something up or help move the protagonist forward in his/her emotional evolution in some way. There are eleven stories that take place over the course of one year, from May to May. A main character in one story might show up as a supporting character in another, so as you read along, the overall sense of a place is developed. Place becomes an exterior landscape that mirrors the inner lives of the individuals. One reviewer said that when read together, the stories become a whole that is greater than the sum of their parts.

My next act involves writing full-time, teaching writing, and working with clients as an editor and writing coach. I spend anywhere from ten to sixty hours a week working on ideas, drafts, and edits for my next books, another story collection, this time set on the coast of Maine, a novel, and a Young Adult novel. The hours I spend in the worlds I create are my happiest. I also work with private clients, individuals, and small groups, as an editor and writing teacher. I run these sessions from my home, usually over the phone or on a video chat, but also in person in my studio space. I love the flexibility I control in my schedule. And I need the personal interaction, as writing is often a lonely task. Deciding how much time I want to allot to “this kind of work” or “that kind of work” meets a need I have for variety.

During the exploration phase, my first year at home, I took a coaching certification course that taught me to trust all of the transitions in my life. I recognized that we are often in transition. This can be viewed as a challenge or an exciting opportunity for growth. As well as writing, editing, and coaching writers, I work with clients seeking change in their lives through the exploration of their unmet need for creativity. The work is fun for me, and helps my clients bust through barriers in ways they couldn’t imagine.

At one point, I had considered becoming a certified therapist and perhaps some day I will. I chose writing, the less practical of the two careers, at least for me so far. Coaching and leading workshops meet my need to work with people, so I feel as if I have the best of both worlds, being a writer, a workshop leader, and a coach.

 

How did your book come about?

In addition to writing poetry, I decided I wanted to learn how to write fiction. After exploring many avenues, I chose to go back to school and earn an MFA in Writing. Out of that program and a few more years of toil, drafting and editing and re-drafting, I compiled a series of linked short stories and published them in a debut collection, They Could Live with Themselves. The book opens with a story about a middle-aged woman, Molly, who is questioning her next steps when her youngest son begins his process of fledging.

I never considered self-publishing. I entered my manuscript in a contest and was a finalist. In the end, the editor of the press running the contest agreed to publish the book. So in a sense, this was not the path of finding an agent who would then shop the book to a big publishing house. There are more and more ways to approach publication. I was honored to have a small press take the time to treat my book with care.

 

Why did you choose this next act?  

2008 would be the first September that I did not “go to school” in one form or another since I was five years old. Besides school and loving my work with children, I also loved reading. I spent much of my spare time over the years reading books, mostly novels, but as I approached a middle of life transition, I also read books about the spirit and the soul. I read poetry, lots of poetry, and I listened to stories in the car with my kids and read to them every night. More than anything, I had a dream of one day making a book that others could read and enjoy as much as I have.

 

How hard was it to take the plunge?

I am fortunate to have a supportive second husband who encourages my work. The two of us, though nervous about giving up a second income with benefits, decided that I needed to heal or my illness would become debilitating. As I felt more and more well, I took some workshops and went to seminars and read books about things that interested me. I’m aware that not everyone has the luxury to take such steps, but I encourage as many people as I can who feel stuck in their lives to try and do a little every day, to do more of what they love, and to do it a little bit more as they can. Nowadays, there are many inexpensive options to study new areas for free or for little money, online, to watch You Tube videos to learn how to start painting or turn a bowl, to take a on-line Daily OM class for $10.

Another big step was to create a space of my own. Together, the September I did not go to school for the first time in 40 years, my husband and I built a tiny house in the woods. We called it The Poetry House. It’s quite magical! As we built the house, I wrote the lines of my favorite writers and books into the support beams of the tiny house. I spent many mornings that fall doing nothing but sitting in that space in the woods with my trusted dog, listening to the birds. Sometimes the best preparation is silence. We were sad to say goodbye to such a space. In 2014, after 25 years living in Vermont, we moved to the coast of Maine. That’s a different story for another day.

How supportive were your family and friends?

My friends were very supportive, as was my husband as I have said. My daughters were curious. My little one didn’t think it was fair that I didn’t have to go to school anymore and she did. She wondered why I wore pajamas all day.

 

What challenges did you encounter?

Two challenges. One: How do you train a career teacher to create a schedule for her time, her curriculum, as it were, now that she has all the time in the world to do as she decides? Well, mostly. Time management is still a challenge, but I get more and more used to letting go of a certain definition of structure. I’m learning to trust both the creative process and the practical work to develop as a flow.

Two: I no longer have a job with regular pay and benefits. That’s a challenge in terms of counting on a certain income every year and relying on health insurance that may no longer be affordable in future.

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

I think about giving up every day, but I haven’t yet. I trust my role in telling certain kinds of stories, stories about small towns with great heart and an underbelly, stories about families and relationships, the expected and the unexpected. I believe in the power of fiction to paint multi-dimensional portraits of flawed characters, to teach empathy, and teach us more about ourselves as we view the realistic lives of made-up people. What I have known all along through experience has now been proven by studies in neuroscience. It’s so exciting to me when science proves the ineffable.

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

Every day I learn something new about myself, as I get closer and closer to living the way I want to live. The biggest lesson has been that I have choice in directing my life. Nothing and no one holds me back except for me. That may sound like a privileged stance, because it is one. Growing up, we weren’t rich, but we worked hard and I am grateful for my parents who supported my curiosity through education. In school, I developed an imagination.

I’m grateful for everyone who encouraged me to develop a work ethic, from family to teachers to friends. I see in my work ethic a balance of creative process and product. I get to control that balance. If I can do it, so can anyone. I’ve also had to learn to accept the gift of support. The challenge of becoming dependent on another, to trust that person with my life, and to soak in the generosity, the deserving of it, has been a roadblock I could have never imagined.

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

In the past 10 years, I would have spent less and less time on social media. I look back on this dilemma everyday. I will tell you the same thing tomorrow. If I were to go all the way back to 1980 when I became a freshman in college, I think I would have studied English Literature. There is a part of me that wonders what it would have been like to teach high school English or English Literature in College, to have been an editor in a big house in NYC. Perhaps someday I will.

 

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

As I mentioned earlier, try to do a little more of what you love every day. Start small, use what you have, take a step in the direction where you see yourself when you envision a different existence. Get outside. Get quiet. Do both of those things a lot!

Find at least one good friend who supports your dream; better yet, start a small group where you meet to share your dreams and encourage each other. Be creative if you’re not normally a creative person; and if you’re often creative, try something more left brain, like learning to do your own taxes. If you have the time and resources, hire a transition coach whose mission and personal aesthetic lines up with yours. The main thing is to be aware, pay attention to what your higher awareness and your body are trying to tell you, and to be brave. For that, you need to pause and breathe, to do and be, to act and rest.

With friends from my writing group

What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing writing?

My best advice is to read what you love and read lots of it. Books are wonderful teachers. Also, read interviews given by writers. Listen to podcasts of writers talking about their processes. But mostly, sit down with the blank page and get started. Turn off all editors and write. It can get messy. Try and flow through that.

If you’re interested in freelance writing, find five people in real life who do what you see yourself doing and take them out for tea ands scones. Interview them. Pay them for their time if that’s required. Think about what they are really saying and not what you want to believe they are saying about pay, time, and clients. For some people, freelancing is a snap. For others, it’s a slog. For me, it’s a little bit of both.

What writing resources do you recommend?

Writing and Editing

Here’s a list of my favorite magazine and media sites that have everything a writer needs to get started and keep going in all aspects of the work, from the spark of an idea to a book contract:

Books I couldn’t have done without along the way:

These are a few places I recommend solidly, where I studied the art and craft of writing:

At the Vermont College of Fine Arts

 

Transition and Creativity Coaching

The following centers, all located in New England, were places I visited to take courses in personal exploration and growth as I sought inspiration for a next act career:

 These three books sit among other giants on my shelf that are written on the topic of creativity and following a passionate life path:

 

Teaching an art class

Facebook Groups and Pages

There are a number of Facebook Groups in support of writers of all kinds. These two are the ones I used the most often. Once you get going in Binders (for women and gender-nonconforming writers), you will be led to more and more specific private groups on topics ranging from writing poetry to book promotion. I curate Short Stories, Every Now and Then. If you read or write short fiction, you will find on-going resources to good reading materials.

 

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

Three things…

One: I failed to mention that during the first year of my transition, what I call my discovery phase, I took a painting class at the local art school and found that the process of making without a need to produce something acceptable and consumable made me feel euphoric and sharpened my creative aesthetic. The act of creating in an area that is not my main practice, writing fiction, has proven to be very beneficial to my work. Lately, I am leaning towards more and more art-making. I took a course on Soul Collage and have fun with that at one of my stations. I have found collage and mixed media art to be freeing. But now, I am painting and my canvases keep getting bigger and bigger. In my third act, I hope to produce art that can give other people enjoyment when they hang it on their wall.

Two: I love to design houses. My husband and I have designed, built, and renovated a total of 7 houses between us, not counting the sheds and shacks and tiny houses. We have a dream of creating at least one more house together.

Three: More books. I am currently working on a second collection of short stories, a novel, a YA novel, and collection of poetry. I like to have this many projects going at once. It’s not recommended. I trust the process.

 

Connect with Jodi Paloni
Email: jodipaloni@gmail.com
Book: They Could Live with Themselves
Website
Facebook
Twitter: @JodiPaloni




Let’s Hear from an Expert: Margaret Morganroth Gullette, Age Activist

You write and teach about ageism. What has made you so passionate about the subject?

I wasn’t originally passionate about ageism. Quite the contrary. I was looking for progress stories. “Midlife Exhilaration,” the first mainstream article I wrote, for the New York Times Magazine in 1989, reported some giddy new surprises about feeling good about growing older. Midlifers were being seen by writers and pundits as more competent, more assertive (and sexier) than anyone anticipated. The book I published, also in 1989, was called Safe at Last in the Middle Years. Many thought the so-called Baby Boomers would change old age as well as midlife decline ideology.

But I soon found that the Boomers couldn’t make it happen. People in their middle years were being dropped out of the workforce. Many long-unemployed midlife men in their fifties were committing suicide. “Anti-aging”—those cosmetic responses to ageism—turns out not to be a protective strategy. Today, ageism is hitting people younger than ever. The book I recently published, Ending Ageism, is subtitled How Not to Shoot Old People.

 

So as a cultural critic, writer, and scholar, over 25 years, you observed grave changes in the United States. What factors are responsible for these observations?

Not my own aging past midlife. I do identify with old people now that I am old enough to be a victim of ageism (and I have been a victim), but I’m fine in terms of health, work, and love. What has changed in painful ways is our society. It has made aging-past-youth darker and more painful through its concerted ageism. This ranges from micro-aggressions like calling me “young lady” to true violence. Some of it shocks me, some of it is appalling to anyone, but worst of all much gets ignored. We don’t know what ageism is.

Many enemies of later life are never reproached for ageism, even though their effects on old people are nasty or lethal. Congressional neoliberals, for instance. I watch the constant attacks on the safety nets translated into scapegoating old people for budget deficits that come from Congress having lowered taxes on the corporations and the rich. Republicans recently attempted to end Meals on Wheels, famously little more expensive for millions of recipients annually than Trump’s visits to Mar-a-Lago would be over the same period. I feel the nation needs to wake up to this most accepted of biases.

 

What are the most pervasive issues you’ve uncovered around aging in the US?

Familiar though I was with an array of ageisms that include unrelenting Congressional attempts to unravel the safety nets of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, people started relaying personal stories that shocked and upset me. They reported everything from casual insults, threats of bodily harm, to real violence. And sometimes, but parsimoniously, their feelings. I started listening harder.

Here is a friend who is a respected lawyer, a gorgeous woman in her mid-seventies with beautifully coiffed white hair.

I had my first ageist assault yesterday. I was in a convenience store paying with a credit card on a machine. I hesitated, thinking about whether I wanted to get cash and this young punk thrust his arm across my face, aiming his finger at the no button. “Just say no,” he said. I had to physically push his arm away to keep him from taking over the machine. “Leave me alone,” I said. He said, “That’s what I do for my grandmother.” His arm within millimeters of my face was a physical assault and his assumption that he knew what was best for me was even more enraging. All I wanted to say was “F*** you,” so I said nothing. The anger was intense.

I call know-it-alls like him “Young Judges.” They have internalized ageism. They have absorbed too much of the magnificent imaginary power conferred on them by the Western world’s cult of youth.

Behind this young man’s arrogance and invasiveness lie much worse for people aging past youth: nasty fantasies, hostile regulations and laws, practices, disdain, avoidance, invisibility and hypervisibility, intolerance of our appearance, lack of audiences for our grievances, underestimation of our trials, dislike of our alleged characteristics or disgust at our apparent weak­nesses, and unwillingness to look us in the eye or spend time in our company.

The Internet empowers hysterical young men to publish hate speech against elders, as in, “God forbid these miserable once-were-people not [sic] survive as long as possible to burden the rest of us.” This fantasy wish—that a large and easily identifiable group, “miserable once-were-people” should die prematurely for the convenience of youngers—can be matched by many other Web slurs.

Careless bullies on streets, on bikes, even on college campuses, make walking while old, as I call it, dangerous. One 65-year-old white acquaintance wrote to me about sidewalk encounters, “I feel like it’s a battle of wills as we close in on each other, and eventually one of us steps out of the way. I often feel invisible…” She feels the risks of having “less muscular flexibility to duck and weave.” One 80-year-old man I know, a retired CEO, was shoved down subway stairs and endured a knee operation, opioids, rehab, and a cascade of problems thereafter.

The shootings, when I discovered them through research, were the most appalling. Men—men over 55—are shooting their sick wives and calling it a mercy killing. Sometimes they kill themselves too, but if they don’t, the law is lenient to an old white man with a gun.

Medicine. If you get breast cancer, the odds of your surgeon not recommending chemotherapy if you are a woman over sixty-five are seven times greater than for a woman under fifty. Medical neglect, medical undertreatment—this is ageism.

Business. Through outsourcing and downsizing, corporate global capitalism is depriving midlife workers—not just in the Rust Belt factories or on farms, but across the professions, in Silicon Valley, in Hollywood—of employment and decent jobs. Letting people go, keeping people out of work, refusing aid to select groups because of age—that is all ageism.

Media oblivion. The media raise the fear of Alzheimer’s, erroneously equating it with aging into old age. Older women, who live longer, are tasked as particular “burdens.” This is ageism and sexist ageism.

Speaking at the University of Graz, Austria

 

How can we as a society change attitudes around aging?      

Recognize the harms, first of all. The law and society recognize that sexism and racism can be violent. We need to recognize the violence of ageism. Sometimes the attacks are invisible—or perhaps it would be better to say, they go unseen.  And often the victims are silent, or rather their cries go unheard. We old people are supposed to appear dignified, which means uncomplaining. We are not permitted to take offense. We are not allowed to be violent. So it behooves those who have hearts to be vigilant. One way to become more human is to listen to the pain of others. To try to hold ourselves steady to listen to the pain of being shamed, the ignominy of being a target. To report the biases and the sufferings.

Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People, my new book, ends with a short Declaration of Grievances. At an international conference in Austria, a brilliant designer named Carolyn Kerchof came up to me after I read the Declaration as part of my keynote and she offered to make a poster of it. Now the Declaration she designed is available to download and print (in English and Spanish) for free on Facebook. Memorize it and apply it to what needs to be done.

 

How can individuals combat ageism as we encounter it?

Don’t be silent, like my friend was in the convenience store.

Learn what counts as ageism—perhaps from thinking about the Declaration of Grievances, perhaps from direct observation—and be prepared with a riposte when it happens to you, or to a friend. Your response can be polite or crude. It can be brief or a short speech. It can be preventative: “Never call me ‘little lady’.” When in doubt, go to Ashton Applewhite’s Website, Yo, Is This Ageist, and ask her. It’s interactive, and she’ll answer. And watch your back, if you are aging past midlife. Your aging is the trigger for their ageism.

If you have children and grandchildren, teach them anti-ageism in whatever ways you can.

It’s a bitter irony that the Age of Longevity—when we should be proud of having so many people growing old, and glad to have them with us, enjoying life in these extra years—should be driving the terror of growing old. It’s a harsh fact that ageism has grown so much worse, while most of the public has yet to learn what the word means.

What resources do you recommend about ageism?

Set up a Google Alert for the word ageism, and read, week after week, what comes straight to your inbox. This week, age discrimination against relatively young people in Silicon Valley was covered twice. Ageism adds to the stigma faced by adults with HIV—and HIV/AIDS rates are growing fastest among older people. Jessica Lange, like many other stars, has complained about sexist ageism in Hollywood. In the admissions process at an Indian university, if two candidates have the same grades, the younger one will be chosen. (This can happen in graduate school admissions in the US also, or in choosing adjuncts.) The range of ageisms observed on these Google Alerts is not yet as wide and bad as those I reveal in Ending Ageism, but it is growing worldwide. These are global issues of behavior and rights.

Ask friends and acquaintances of all ages whether they have experienced ageism, and be patient as they try to figure out whether what bothered them was it. Get these conversations going, reassure, give support.

Books and websites can be great. I return to recent readable books like Peg Cruikshank’s Learning to Be Old, Ashton Applewhite’s This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism and Anne Karpf’s How to Age. If you are a teacher, join NANAS, the North American Network in Aging Studies, which sends you a monthly list of blogs and academic writing in age studies

But knowing your own mind, understanding your own experience, and listening to others are basic to changing our society. Then, get active. Start an ageism-consciousness group, a reading group, join or start a chapter of the Gray Panthers.

 

Connect with Margaret Morganroth Gullette

Email address: mgullett@brandeis.edu

Academia.edu

LinkedIn

Facebook

Twitter

Her Books:

Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People

The Big Move: Life Between the Turning Points

Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America

Aged by Culture

Safe at Last in the Middle Years: The Invention of the Midlife Progress Novel

Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife (Age Studies)

 

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, an internationally known age critic, essayist and activist, is the author most recently of Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People. Her prizewinning books include Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America, a 2012 winner of the Eric Hoffer Book Award and Declining to Decline(1997) which received the Emily Toth Award as the Abest feminist book on American popular culture. Aged by Culture(2004) was chosen a Noteworthy Book of the Year by the Christian Science Monitor. Her essays are often cited as notable in Best American Essays, and she writes frequently for the mainstream and feminist press and literary/ cultural quarterlies. She is a Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis.




Launching an Online Retail Business in Midlife: Starla’s Story

After working long hours for many years to support herself and her son, a health crisis would force Starla to slow down and find another way to make ends meet. She opened Southern Rich’s, honoring all things southern.

Tell us a little about your background.
I was born along the Gulf Coast in Mobile, Alabama to a typical southern family. I was a Daddy’s girl: My father was a hard-working man, a skilled machinist with a keen eye for detail and precision. He was a strong provider and protector of my mother, younger brother, and me.

Our family was traditional. My mother was a southern June Cleaver, who kept our house spotless, our meals well-prepared, and never sat as long as there was something in the home that required attention. All the women in my family were strong southern women, who perfectly balanced feminine charm, Southern belle etiquette, and quiet strength. Daddy tended to everything outside the house – the car, the yard, repairs, the garden etc.

I suppose you could say my childhood was extremely sheltered and structured. Children were raised to respect their elders. I learned southern belle etiquette before I was old enough to even know what the word meant. While I was a “girly girl,” I also had much of Dad’s personality in me—a strong will and a stubborn streak.

Age 3

When I was twelve, my mother went to work as a bookkeeper, which caused one change in our household. I had learned to cook from some of the best southern cooks around (both my grandmothers and my mother) and since Dad got home from work before Mom did, he and I would get in the kitchen together and start “supper” for the family. I still love cooking and entertaining to this day.

My family was a very religious family, and faith was at the center of everything we did. Both my parents were leaders in our church and my brother and I “cut our teeth on the pews,” as they used to say down South. Their leadership in our church and in our community instilled in me both a strong work ethic and a generous heart. Children flocked to our house as Mom was always the perfect hostess with snacks, and Daddy’s unassuming ways and dry sense of humor always made them feel safe and protected. It was those childhood experiences and examples that developed my people skills and my gift of encouragement early on.

Early family portrait

Our extended family were all very musical and involved in church music in one way or another. I began piano lessons at the age of nine and practiced for hours each day. Everything growing up pretty much revolved around church, music, family, neighbors, community, and school. We were always singing! Because I had a natural talent and a love of music, it was a given that I would be either a church musician, a performer, or perhaps a music teacher. There was never really another path made clear to me even though I had other skills that I had not tapped into.

I have lived in other areas of the South, but have been back in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama since 1999. My parents, my 25-year-old son, most of my extended family live either in town or within a day’s drive from me.

During my formative years, I was an excellent student. I entered Lee University, a religious liberal arts college in a small town outside of Chattanooga, TN, on a piano scholarship. I eventually realized that the last thing I desired was to perform on a professional level and that I had little patience for teaching children. After getting a work-study job in the Public Relations Department of the University, and tapping into my writing and interviewing skills, I changed my major to communications, with an emphasis in public relations.

My college senior portrait

After graduation, I returned home, secured office administrative work, married, had a son, and (ironically) became involved in faith-based singing, public speaking, and performing. My passion for writing fell by the wayside though my love of public speaking continued to be a part of my career choices. After ten years, I ended my marriage. Now a single parent, I made many career choices based on what served me best in caring and providing for him. There was a great deal of “living” from that time until my “after 40” life change. My last two jobs, prior to the beginning of the change of course in my life were in Executive support roles in the telecommunications industry. I served as a Facilities Coordinator and then as an Assistant to the Regional Retail Sales Manager before life began to take an unexpected turn.

During the worst days of my illness, with my sweet son Josh

When did you start to think about making a change?
Sometimes life changes because of a strong desire for change or an “aha” moment, and then sometimes it changes out of sheer necessity. In my case, it was the latter. After relationship transitions and a personal health crisis, I was forced to make a change from the fast-paced corporate world that had completely eroded my health. I was working as much as 90 hours a week to progress financially for both my nine-year-old son and myself.

I ended up flat on my back, unable to get out of bed for no more than an hour at a time. All my independence came to a screeching halt. During the many months that it took to get a proper diagnosis (fibromyalgia and peripheral neuropathy) and find a path towards managing my health, I was forced to take a long look at another way to live and provide for my son.

What is your next act?
I am the co-owner of Southern Rich’s, which promotes the southern lifestyle, history, and tradition, through a variety of products. I launched this business in April 2016, at the age of 55. Southern Rich’s is a family business co-owned with my son Joshua. My father contributes through the creation of his one-of-a-kind wood handcrafted designs of tables, bowls, lamps, plant benches, coat racks, picnic tables, rocker/gliders, etc. We also have a private line of all-natural jams and butters that have no preservatives and are gluten free. Within that line, is a selection of naturally-sweetened jams for diabetics and those who do not want sugar in their diet. Those jams are sweetened with white grape juice instead of organic sugar. This product was a huge success over the Christmas holidays. We place great value in natural products and promote a healthy lifestyle. The jams are a private label for our company, manufactured by a wholesale distributor that grows the fruits and manufactures the jams and butters on their family farm in Georgia.

My dad’s handcrafted wagon wheel rocker-glider

Southern Rich’s does not have a retail storefront; all the work done on our handcrafted creations and subsequent inventory is kept in a shop on our private property. We sell online, but our customers primarily consist of contacts in our local community through churches, beauty salons, neighbors, friends, family etc. We are in the process of working with a local retail shop owner who is interested in displaying and promoting our products in her collectibles store. We are seeking to expand the jams to a regional grocery chain that showcases local businesses and their food products. In the last couple of weeks, we have also signed on for a new exclusive label product—all-natural soy candles that are infused with essential oils. The candles offer a variety of aromas that are reminiscent of life in the South such as Magnolia Blossom, Southern Sunshine, High Cotton, Ocean Breeze, Sweet Tea & Currant, Peach Nectar, Sage & Sweetgrass, Oakmoss & Amber, etc. These candles come in both feminine, masculine, and gender-neutral designs of mason jars, tumblers, and tins. We hope to have this latest product available within a month.

A major goal of ours is to “pay forward” our success by taking a portion of our proceeds and building a foundation that we call “Blessings For Belles.” Our mission is to help women and children in shelters and safe houses, or those who are living on their own after suffering abuse and abandonment. We have helped a limited number of women who were out of work and struggling with paying rent, groceries etc. but hope to fully establish the foundation and expand its scope as our business grows.

I am also a writer. I am re-launching my first book Journey Within My Heart and am working on the launch of my second and third books. My books are all related to Southern Rich’s in that they are an extension of the life I treasure as a true “southern belle.” Journey Within My Heart is a look back into my own life and struggles, both with my health issues and a time of domestic abuse. It’s also a journey to reconcile those experiences with my childhood memories, in an effort to discuss self-esteem and worth. My second book, Southern Whispers is a lighthearted look at life in the South as told by a true “southern belle.” It is filled with humorous anecdotes and family stories and experiences. The third book in the queue is titled Halo & High Heels and explores the role of women and their struggle to be true to womanhood, motherhood and more, while being unique and authentic. It makes the claim that it is possible to be a lady and all-woman too; and that while it is true that “little girls are made of sugar and spice,” sometimes we find we are much more spice than sugar! It is written from the expectations I personally experienced being raised in the South by southern women.

Aside from writing as a book author, I am a blogger for Fibromyalgia Living Today and a health contributor for the New Life Outlook online health network—both owned by Perk Media out of Canada. I maintain my own blog and discussion forum through my website and on my Facebook page.

Writing about what I treasure and sharing products that evoke memories of those treasures, makes what I do anything but work. It is simply sharing what I love. Walking this next act journey with those I love in a family business just makes it doubly rewarding. And did I mention I LOVE being my own boss! The creative and artistic side of me despises routines and schedules and having someone to answer to or hover over my shoulder. I suppose I lead much better than I follow. Also, due to some of the health challenges I have dealt with, flexibility is paramount.

How supportive were your family and friends?
The one thing I know without a doubt is that I would not have made it had it not been for the encouragement, support, and care of my family and close friends. My parents literally nursed me back to health and helped with day-to-day tasks. They, and other family and friends, patiently listened to me and encouraged me with each new idea I developed along the way.

The family business came through my sweet Daddy turning his wood crafting hobby into beautiful pieces that I could couple with my marketing skills to promote and sell. He was giving of his talent and what he loved to do, using it to help me financially and to help me find a way forward. As my son Josh grew up, he jumped in with a desire to learn skills from his “Paw Paw” as well as a desire to simply spend time with him in his wood shop. His ideas on how to reach a young market and trendy tricks of the trade have been immeasurable. He is a computer geek so he helped me with technical things that would bog me down when I had computer woes. He is also the one who encouraged me with the writing of my first book telling me to “think big” in my audience outreach. He believed I had a message for everyone, and challenged me not to think too small or to write to a narrow group of readers.

Finally, I had a couple of close friends who supported me beyond expectations. Laura challenged me to find my voice and my confidence in what I had to offer. She gave me constructive criticism and “tough love” when I needed it. She pushed me to enter an international “transformation contest” hosted by the Early To Rise organization. During that contest, my journaling was a part of our daily exercises towards transformation—the words in my little “journal” were being read by 47,000 people! At one point in the contest, the President of Early To Rise, Craig Ballantyne, asked me to be one of their featured contestants on their Friday “stories.”. This is where I found my courage to begin writing my first book!

The other friend instrumental in my life during my “next act” was my friend Clint. He was my encourager and esteem-builder. I had gone through so much that I had kind of lost “me,” and he helped me to see beauty again in myself, my gifts, my heart, and my spirit. I had really dwindled in self-esteem with the setbacks I had encountered. He was my kindred spirit and my resident fan club.

What challenges did you encounter?
As I stated, I think the biggest challenge was finally getting a proper diagnosis in my health issues so that I could find my new “normal” in life to balance my energy in such a way I could begin to reach my goals. Many people with health challenges tend to live in a state of denial for a while, wanting to get their “old” life back, and it takes time to realize that some detours take you on a path completely different—never to return to where you were before.

The other challenge for me was financial. Because of setbacks and of my responsibilities as a single parent, I didn’t have a huge financial foundation, especially when it came to launching the business Southern Rich’s. Writing was easier, in that you simply put yourself out there and research writing opportunities until you find the right niche and following. But launching a new “products-based” retail business was another thing altogether. As the adage goes “you have to have money to make money” so finding a way to develop a product line and even have minimal money to market it was challenging.

Handcrafted Deluxe Captain’s Table

Were there times when you thought about giving up?
I suppose I felt like giving up in my weakest moments, but when you really have no other option, it isn’t a thought you dwell on for very long. Each person who takes that step towards their next act should really look at it as a point of “no return.” If we are too comfortable in mediocrity, then we often do not find the courage to keep going and pursuing our dreams and goals. There are no shortcuts—and “easy outs” are very self-defeating.

What/who kept you going?
That is the easiest answer for me: my son, Josh. He and I had been through “hell and back” from the time he was born three months premature. I was in an abusive marriage to his father and then faced with a preemie baby towards the end of that marriage. I didn’t know if Josh would live or die, so my life had already been motivated and conditioned by that big brown-eyed little boy, my miracle baby. I developed the motto “Never give up!” When life had finally settled in and had become good again—only to be turned upside down with health issues—it was that sweet little boy who had grown from a fragile preemie baby to an energetic nine-year-old, who kept me motivated! It was also my faith in God and my family’s faith in me that kept me going.

With Josh, my right-hand man

What did you learn about yourself through this process?
That I didn’t have to be perfect and that messing up sometimes is a part of the process! I also learned that I didn’t have to have everything all figured out to take a step forward. I just had to have courage for that one leap of faith. I realized that I didn’t fully know who I was inside until I was squeezed a bit and what was in there oozed out! I learned that the very things I had spent a lifetime being afraid of were the things that pushed me forward and that they were mere shadows holding me back with no substance. Finally, I learned what really mattered to me and how to let go of those things that didn’t matter so much.

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I would’ve listened to the “whispers of my heart” sooner! I spent way too many years trying to please others with life choices and also second guessing my own desires and choices opting for what was “expected” or “safe.”

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
It isn’t always easy but it is liberating! If you find something that you love, then no matter how hard it is to obtain, it will never seem like a chore. Also, you must fully believe in what you do or in what you have to offer before you can expect others to. You must sell yourself first! Passion combined with need, desire, determination, and joy in the process will give you much of what you need to change course.

One thing that I share with people along their journey is to be kind to yourself. Sometimes we are our own worst critic and if we feel nothing is ever just right, then we lose heart. On good days, be your own cheerleader. On bad days, your own nurse, refuge, or encouragement coach. It is so important to take care of yourself in the process of “reinventing” life. Women tend to be all things for everyone else in their lives and spend no time on themselves. But what I have learned is that if we don’t treat ourselves well, and if we give all we have to others without giving to ourselves, then we aren’t at our best and everyone suffers! It takes times of rest, solitude, reflection, and honest soul-searching sometimes. It is the “being that energizes the doing.”

I wasn’t able to move forward into the areas I desired until I was brutally honest with myself. Transparency is necessary so that we can discover our true beauty and worth. Also, if we aren’t up to par physically then we struggle to reach our goals as well. Our worth isn’t tied up in our health, but our energy level is.

Historic Southern charm: Bienville Square in downtown Mobile, AL

What advice do you have for those interested in starting a product-based business?
If you are interested in a career path that takes you into the collectible retail market, find products that have meaning. Don’t just look for things you think others will like or that might be big sellers. People shop for everyday items out of necessity, but collectible or novelty items out of emotion and sentiment. Whatever products you choose, let it be something that you would love or want or that evokes special memories for you. Don’t cut corners. Make sure that what you offer is quality above quantity always!

Also, do your homework. There are fewer excuses with the Internet, Google, and YouTube. Educate yourself as much as possible. See what others have done and how they have done it. Then tailor that to your lifestyle.

Finally, realize that “no man (or woman) is an island.” Solicit help when needed and involve those around you. No one is successful trying to do everything themselves. You’d be surprised how many around you are waiting to be asked for help!

What selling products out of your home looks like

Any advice on starting a business with family?
Going into business with family does have its own challenges as well as rewards. Sometimes the family roles do not coincide with the business roles and the lines become a bit blurred at times. For instance, my father is the creative genius of our handcrafted creations. His love of the hobby and desire to bless others with his designs have produced a greater challenge for me in sales to our network of acquaintances. He had given away so many pieces as “gifts” prior to the launch of our business, that it has made it more difficult to sell to those who have not received a gift from him. Everyone wants something for free!

Also, because his expertise is in the design while mine is in the marketing, sometimes I have to take a more dominant role to ensure that he adheres to what we have established in the way of pricing, offers, etc. We can’t relate typically as father/daughter but as designer and business owner. So far, he has not caved in by reducing the pricing that I have set! Because of limited knowledge of retail pricing versus collectible designer pricing, he tends to want to sell the collection pieces for much less than their true value.

My advice is to make certain everyone understands and respects their roles in the business. My son, as a millennial, has many creative ideas and perspectives that I value and respect. We cannot allow his youth and my experience to deter us from finding the most innovative and productive ways to market our products. As with my relationship with my father, so it goes with my son as well. We are not mother/son but co-owners.

Lastly, it is inevitable that as a family business develops, there are outsiders—extended family members—who are not a part of the business, who see the growth and suddenly want to become a part of it. It is important to hold your ground as owner. Just as you would not allow outsiders in your public business just because they want to “get in on the action,” nor should you allow relatives. A family business has its many rewards; just remember though, it is a business and should be treated with the same professionalism as any other business.

The team: with my dad and son

What about advice for those interested in writing?
My advice is what I told one of my writer friends and penned in my book Journey Within My Heart. Here is the quote: “One thing I have come to understand as a writer, is that the words that come forth must be expressed regardless of who reads them, or even if I am the only one who reads them because a writer writes.”

I shared this thought with my friend Anita, who is a fellow writer, not too long ago. Here is what I told her “…if my words fall on one ear that is ready and in need of what I have to say or a thousand, I have given birth to a thought that is meant for someone, somewhere, or maybe even just meant for me to realize from the deepest part of me.”

If your words touch you, they will touch others who are meant to hear them. It is kind of like “if you build it they will come!”

My “writing den”

What resources do you recommend?
Writing:
The best way to develop your skills and techniques is to write, write, write! Also, you need to find your “niche” by researching companies, media groups, publications, etc. that are interested in contracts with freelance writers. After my time of illness, I felt that some of what I had learned could be of benefit to others in their own health struggles. I came across a few networks that were looking for health contributors, one of which was New Life Outlook based in Canada. They have sections for most of the major illnesses and health conditions and welcome application from freelance writers.

If you aren’t certain which genre you want to pursue, you could use a network such as the Freedom With Writing Resource Network. When you subscribe, they send out weekly writing opportunities to explore.

There are a few bestselling authors who offer valuable insight into the world of writing. I highly recommend Brendon Burchard’s books and seminars.

If you are interested in exploring the world of an indie author (self-publishing/independent publishing,) Amazon’s self-publishing division CreateSpace is a viable and inexpensive option to get your early writings into print or ebook form. They offer many services and tips along the way as you learn about the process and the world of writing… Through CreateSpace, you will be listed as an author on Amazon and can format your book in electronic form for Kindle Publishing also.

My books of inspiration

Retail Business:
Concerning launching your own retail business, it is of utmost importance to research the laws and regulations of your state. Go to your state’s Department of Revenue website and research business licenses and information. You can also learn a great deal from the Small Business Administration.

If you are not creating your own product solely but looking for products to sell, research viable distributors who accept wholesale customers. Some wholesale companies also offer “private labels” or exclusivity options, where the product is manufactured by their company but distributed under your company name. Make sure you do your homework on reviews and history of the companies you are considering. Those who will provide a sample of the product before requiring an order are usually the ones with a stronger business ethic and easier to work with.

If you are offering a product for consumption such as food, drink, or something like a perfume or body lotion, it is important to research liability insurance for your company should someone become ill or have a reaction to something you sell. Liability insurance isn’t all that expensive, but necessary. Contact your insurance agent or any local agent that offers business liability insurance.

What’s next for you?
I hope to turn my story into one seen on the big screen. I am talking with an independent writer/producer to see if it would make a good video or not. I want to branch out to doing more personal videos as well as blogging and life coaching.

I also have a strong desire to pay it forward. In addition to “Blessings for Belles,” I want to help people who are dealing with chronic illness and loss of income. My idea is to tap into the talents and skills of those who have faced lifestyle changes, not so much out of a desire for a “next act” but out of necessity for a “next act.” I want to build a network for them to showcase their talent and skills so that they can find hope and a hand up from their situation.

Connect with Starla Rich
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Writing and Speaking After Her Cancer Recovery: Darryle’s Story

Hit with a cancer diagnosis in her 40s, Darryle found solace and healing in making mosaic art. A desire to sell her art online would lead her to write and speak about her recovery, and to co-found WHOA, an online platform for women in midlife.

 

Tell us a little about your background…

I make mosaics by taking a jumble of different pieces that don’t seem to fit together, and I assemble them into one beautiful whole. That’s exactly how I envision my life journey—a mosaic.

The first piece is Miami Beach, where I grew up in the sixties. It might seem like a very glamorous and glitzy hometown, but in reality, it was a safe, close-knit community. I was the oldest of three kids. We played outside in the street, we could walk or bike to public school, my mom gave us milk and cookies when we got home. My childhood sounds like a cliché of the American dream, and it really was, until one scene spoiled the pretty picture.

Family photo in Miami Beach

My incredible mom died in 1968 at 41, after my freshman year in college. She had been in the hospital for a couple of months; we kids were told it was just a back problem. Her death was a complete shock and it took five years for my father to finally tell me Mom had cancer. This truth reshaped my past and my future; cancer became my greatest fear.

Meanwhile, I transferred to Yale, graduating in the first class ever to include women. My degree was in History, and this extraordinary experience shifted my thinking—from assuming I would find a husband in college, to finding a career.

I fell into the perfect career almost by accident, becoming a TV writer, reporter, and anchorperson in Miami, working on documentaries and news. A romantic twist was added when I interviewed Mel Brooks, who played matchmaker, setting me up on a date with his manager. Four months later, we were married and I moved to Los Angeles, where I worked as a reporter and freelance writer and had two kids.

With Mel Brooks and my first husband

When did you start to think about making a change?

My early 40s brought big changes: divorce, remarriage, and moving with my children from Los Angeles to Carmel, California. Though Carmel is idyllic, my life was stressful, working full time and adjusting to a new community, new marriage, new everything. Making another change was the last thing I was thinking about.

Naturally, that’s when I got hit with my worst nightmare: cancer. I got my pathology report of stage III breast cancer on July 17, 1995, the day of my one-year anniversary with my new husband, V—definitely the most memorable anniversary ever. (We’re still married.)

I wouldn’t call this an “aha” moment; this was a nuclear bomb blast that shattered everything I thought was safe, good, or even possible.

Losing hair during chemo

I had a very bad prognosis, and I truly believed I was going to die, as my mother had, leaving my children motherless. At the start of my cancer journey, just living a little longer was my top priority, really my only priority. I was forced to shift my focus from taking care of my kids to taking care of myself. I had a full year of treatment: two chemos, five surgeries, and radiation. I tracked down every possible option to boost my odds of survival, and I write about that in my book. Today I’m very lucky, grateful, and proud to be a 22-year survivor.

One part of healing was trying to escape emotionally and mentally from the bombardment of stress. I tried everything from music to meditation to yoga but I could not get my cancer, or my fear, out of my head for even five minutes. Then one day I took my 7- year-old son into one of those little paint-it-yourself pottery studios.

I was never artistic or crafty. I had zero talent and even less confidence. It was a good diversion, and I really enjoyed it. So I went again by myself, and something kept me going back to paint at that little studio—really, my sanity. While I painted, I was so focused I didn’t think about anything else, including cancer. That realization was a revelation, one that turned into a reinvention.

My mosaic studio in Carmel

I was one of those people who never really had a passion for anything before. It was a shock to discover any interest or ability to create art. I went crazy for it—painting bowls, mugs, vases, a set of dishes, cookie jars to give everyone I knew. My addiction developed into obsession once I started making mosaics.

I developed my own art process. I would paint a group of different tiles, then break them up and rearrange them into mosaics. So many things about this appeal to me: the jumble of different shapes and sizes and colors, the mixture of patterns, the lack of order. Kind of like my personality.

My real epiphany was when I suddenly realized that mosaics are a metaphor for life. Life can break things that are most beautiful to us. To make mosaics, and to make my life work again, I was picking up broken pieces, rearranging them into something different that is beautiful in a new way. Just like we all do. This is resilience, being the artist of your own life.

I explain this in my TEDx talk and my book, I Never Signed Up for This…: Finding Power in Life’s Broken Pieces. That’s why my book subtitle is “Finding Power in Life’s Broken Pieces.”

My working life was always creative, but everything I had done before involved words. Art was a departure: using my eyes and my hands, not my brain. And I was healing myself. My series of whimsical women’s torsos called Boobalas came right out of my experience losing both breasts.

Mosaics were so therapeutic and rewarding; there was nothing else I wanted to do with my time and my life. I started selling them, making pieces by commission, and I opened my own studio. Maybe my most satisfying moment was being asked to create a piece for the same hospital where I had cancer treatment.

What is your next act?

In addition to mosaic art, my next act has been writing and speaking. Through humor and perspective, I focus on various aspects of my life experience—from resilience to parenting to loss to health to aging—that anyone can apply to his or her own life.

Honestly, this next act doesn’t fit neatly into a category or label. I’ve described it with the tagline and title I’ve used for my blog and my book: “I never signed up for this….” Because of all the times I’ve said those words.

Those words can apply to something bad, like cancer, or something good, like giving a TEDx talk. The common thread is that life takes you in directions you don’t expect, and we all can adapt. A book, speaking, social media, videos, workshops, websites—nothing about my reinvention was on my radar at first.

It started when someone suggested I try blogging to market my mosaics online. This was years ago, and I had no idea what blogging was. When I found out, it intrigued me, so I jumped right in and created my blog called “I never signed up for this….”

It had been years since I had written anything, years when I had experienced so much, and words started pouring out as art had poured out of me. In addition to my own blog, I started writing for the Huffington Post and other sites.

I rediscovered the joy in writing, and I’m still feeling it almost 10 years later. I loved the immediacy, the independence, the freedom to express myself, the wide range of creative aspects that could flow from a blog.

There’s another major reason writing felt so fresh and new, and so right. In my previous career, I was an observer. As a journalist, I told other people’s stories. Now, for the first time, I was telling my own.

What challenges did you encounter?

At first, I had no idea what I was doing. That’s typical of me. I don’t read instruction manuals. I can be impulsive. I often act or speak, and then think. There was no preparation or research; I felt that this was the next step for me, so I leaped, and trusted my instinct that it would work out.

Even so, I was intimidated by the technology and I really struggled with it. It took me weeks to learn how to post a photo on my blog; no one I knew was blogging yet and I didn’t know where or how to find help. I was entirely self-taught and just muddled through. Despite the aggravation and frustration, I loved learning a whole new world. There’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment to figure out how to do something that scares you. Overcoming my fear of technology was a big deal.

This is a new age, the whole world has moved online, everything is evolving and changing so fast. That feeds my creative spirit and suits my sensibilities. I felt lucky to stumble into it early on. There are so many possibilities, my brain could not keep up with everything I wanted and still want to pursue. So my path has a lot of twists and turns.

Another challenge was my age. I was in my fifties. I have never felt defined or limited by my age personally, but bloggers my age were outliers. I had to put a page on my site explaining to my peers what blogging was.

I didn’t realize I wanted or needed a community and there was no community in existence for my age range. Very gradually, I started finding people, by writing for other sites, reading other bloggers, some young enough to be my children. I felt connected since we were all moms, and what might have been considered a negative became a positive.

I was living in a small town at the time and felt isolated. That changed when I attended my first event for bloggers and then my first conference, which was BlogHer 09 in Chicago; and I got to meet online friends in person.

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

My kids were the only people around me who knew what blogging was, and I think they were amused by the whole thing. My husband was supportive; my ex-husband was skeptical—mostly about me sharing my life, and by extension, his. My friends had no idea what this was all about but they loved reading my blog, especially when they were featured in it.

Mother’s Day with my kids

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

Partly I re-learned things I already knew. I learned to appreciate my strengths and accept my weaknesses. I learned I still love to learn. I learned I still hate promoting myself. I learned that I had skills I could dust off and use. I learned that to make things happen, you need to ask, to take risks, to put yourself out there. I learned that I should take the initiative, rather than wait for someone to approach me. I’m still working on that one.

I learned to use my voice, to share experiences and perspective that could be useful to others. I’d been supporting and advising parents and women with breast cancer for years. I had lots to offer and nothing makes me happier than connecting and sharing, and hopefully changing lives for the better.

Over the years, writing brought related opportunities. As an example, a pivotal part of my next act started when I was a BlogHer Voice of the Year. I read my post on stage, about how women over 50 can feel invisible. Afterwards, a woman I didn’t know in the audience tweeted me about my talk and wanted to meet me. We met out in the hallway. Her name was Lynn Forbes; a year later, we co-founded WHOA Network. Women Honoring Our Age is an online platform for women in midlife and beyond—to support and show that we are vital, powerful, and authentic at every age.

With Lynn Forbes

In addition to the incredible, inspiring people I’ve met, and opportunities that opened up, WHOA led to me doing a TED talk when one of our advisors recommended I do it. And the success of the TEDx talk led to expanding it as a book.

In my sixties, the main limitation I feel is time. Not that I’m going anywhere! But at this point in life, I make choices based on what speaks the most to my heart and my gut, what has the most meaning, what can make the most impact. Age is an advantage in that way. You learn how to prioritize and what’s important—it’s not how many people like your Facebook page.

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

Funny you ask. This directly follows from my last answer about choices that matter: I would have spent less time on things that do NOT matter, such as devoting a year to my second blog Cluttercast. Don’t even ask. Related: I wish I had been more organized, especially with time management.

 

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

I’m not sure women need to seek reinvention. Even if you don’t, it will probably find you anyway! I would say just be open and roll with it. Life is filled with challenges and change is healthy. I would embrace change and practice resilience in all ways you can. At any age, being adaptable is probably the most useful life skill anyone can have.

Our productive working lives span so many more years than they ever did, new fields and possibilities are being created by the minute. Reinvention in careers is already the new normal. And whether you succeed or fail, there’s always another opportunity to do something else.

Reinvention requires a leap of faith for most of us, and the first step is the hardest, just putting yourself out there, taking a risk, and trying something new. But without that first step, you can’t move forward.

Not to imply anything deep about reinvention here—but what just flashed into my mind is the scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where they jump off the cliff. Taking a leap is much easier when someone is there to hold your hand.

Looking back, I wish I had sought collaborators earlier. Aside from my husbands (and that was only 50% successful), Lynn was the first partner I ever had. Finding the right person can be dicey; it can be a risk. But if it works, having a great partner really makes a difference.

Last thing, and maybe most important: DON’T BE SO HARD ON YOURSELF. Particularly for women, striving for perfection is a prison and we should all break out of it. (This is the topic of my TEDX talk and I think most women struggle with this ) There’s a line I saw recently that I love: “If only I had the confidence of a mediocre man.”

Speaking at Hope Lodge

What resources do you recommend?

For me, Suzanne Braun Levine is the guru of women later in life, and I would recommend any of her books. For careers, I would start with Marci Alboher, The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life.

WHOA Network has featured women who specialize in reinventing yourself, so I suggest checking out some of our videos and resources.

As their own second acts, my friend Ann Voorhes Baker has retreats called Women at Woodstock; and Johanna Herman Wise created Connect, Work, Thrive for women re-entering the workforce or reinventing themselves.

What inspires me most are stories of resilience. Since you contacted me, I’ve read quite a few interviews on this blog. It’s a wonderful collection of stories and a fabulous resource. I enjoyed learning more about my friend Helene Bludman and for obvious reasons I especially related to Mary Farina and her gorgeous glass art.

When it comes to cancer resources, there are so many today that it’s actually overwhelming. I think I am reading a book every week with cancer as a theme. I guess the best starting point no matter what your cancer might be is the American Cancer Society. Another resource I wish I had had is Facebook. I would suggest finding a group that fits your needs—whether you are looking for support or information.

What’s next for you? 

One reason I’m reading all these books about cancer right now is that I’m already working on my next next act. I’m deep into research on a book involving cancer.

Taking my own advice, I’m working with collaborators and loving that aspect of it. This book is very different for me, it’s intense research, an important story, and I’m incredibly excited about it. Although sometimes I can’t believe I’m taking on such a huge project at this point in life.

Plus I’m still doing speaking and freelance writing, so I’m busier than ever. I’ll always have a next next act until I stop breathing.

  

Contact Darryle Pollack at DarryleP@gmail.com

Website

WHOA Network

Twitter: @DarryleP

Facebook

WHOA Facebook page

Book: I Never Signed Up for This…: Finding Power in Life’s Broken Pieces




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

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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.