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
Instagram




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
Email: starla@starlarich.com
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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

Website

Newsletter Sign-up

Twitter: @chairwriter

Instagram: @chairwriter

Facebook: From Where I Sit

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class Space at my studio for Always Wanted to Write

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entryway at my Always Wanted to Write studio

What resources do you recommend for would-be writers? 

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

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

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

 

Contact Linda Lowen at linda.lowen@gmail.com

www.lindalowen.com

www.alwayswantedtowrite.com

www.writewayofthinking.com

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Book: Hopeful Grateful Strong 

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

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

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

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

 

LINDA LOWEN’S BIOGRAPHY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

Tell us a little about your background.

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

Youngest of four

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

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

With my Dad during my college years

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

With my girls when they were young

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

The ad!!

We’re engaged!

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

Building our home

The home we built

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

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

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

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

With Kristine

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

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

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

Book tour with Kristine

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

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

What is your next act?

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

Why did you choose this next act?  

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

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

With David Barry

How hard was it to take the plunge?

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

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

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

I kept writing.

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

With friends

How supportive were your family and friends?

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

 

With Tom

What challenges did you encounter?

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

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

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

At my desk

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

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

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

Nancy Cleary

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

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

Speaking

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

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

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

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

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

Sharing a meal with my girlfriends 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Speaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

My bookshelf

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

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

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

The view from our home

 

Whats next for you?

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

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

 

Contact Molly Davis at molly@trailheadcoachingandconsulting.com

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Joining the Peace Corps in Midlife: Janet’s Story

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

Tell us a little about your background.

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

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

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

Seven years old

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

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

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

With my young boys

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

 

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

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

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

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

My wedding to Woody

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

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

 

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

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

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

With my grandbabies

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

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

The mountains around Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan

How supportive were your family and friends?

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

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

My family

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

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

Woody and I at the home of one of our students

 

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

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

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

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

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

Our yard in Vermont

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating my 56th Birthday with locals in Kazakhstan

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

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

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

Our yurt

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

 

Contact Janet Givens at givensj48@gmail.com

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

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