Joining the Peace Corps in Midlife: Janet’s Story

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

Tell us a little about your background.

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

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

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

Seven years old

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

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

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

With my young boys

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

 

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

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

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

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

My wedding to Woody

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

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

 

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

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

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

With my grandbabies

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

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

The mountains around Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan

How supportive were your family and friends?

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

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

My family

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

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

Woody and I at the home of one of our students

 

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

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

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

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

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

Our yard in Vermont

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating my 56th Birthday with locals in Kazakhstan

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

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

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

Our yurt

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

 

Contact Janet Givens at givensj48@gmail.com

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

Website and blog

Facebook personal page

Facebook author page

Twitter @GivensJanet




Becoming a Story Coach: Katherine’s Story

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

  

Tell us a little about your background.

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did you start to think about making a change?

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

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

With Linda

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

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

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

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

Levar and Jabali, Summer Search alums I worked with

What is your next act?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lucy’s speech

 

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

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

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

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

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

So that’s what I am doing!

I helped Ana tell her story

How hard was it to take the plunge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being honored at the 25th gala

How supportive were your family and friends?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What challenges did you encounter?

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

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

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

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

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

With a former student I coached for a keynote

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

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

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

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

Luke and Laura — I helped Laura craft her wedding vows

What have you learned about yourself through this process?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As well as all of these:

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

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

And schedule your workouts like a doctor’s appointment!

Watch your tendency to be a martyr.

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

Some of my favorite books

What resources do you recommend?

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

B-School online marketing course with Marie Forleo

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

Jac McNeil, Business Coach for Women

Katie Monkhouse, Creative Services (website help!)

Kathleen Duich, Writer

The Copy Cure, Online copy course

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

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

The office I share with my husband

What’s next for you?

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

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

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

 

Contact Katherine Kennedy at Katherine@katherinekennedysf.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Contact Wendy Sachs here 

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

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




Writing a Humorous Book About Midlife: Mary Fran’s Story

screen-shot-2016-12-17-at-10-09-18-amWhen she turned 50, amid personal and professional challenges, Mary Fran turned to writing a blog as her outlet. Her musings about midlife hit a chord and have spawned her series of books, Not Ready for Granny Panties.

Tell us a little about your background.
I think I can safely describe myself as a middle-class American, if that’s still a thing. I grew up, oldest of four, in Northeast Philadelphia, in what fancy people call a town house, but what to us was a row house. Early on, my mom was a homemaker, eventually going out and getting herself a part-time job as a medical receptionist when I was in eighth grade. I remember being particularly proud of her; she just went out and pounded the pavement until she found the job, and she did it because she wanted to fuel her brain. Of course, the little extra money didn’t hurt, either.

With my siblings

With my siblings

My dad was a paper salesman—not a newspaper salesman, but the guy who sold the actual paper that stuff was printed on. He worked that job until he passed at age 60, way too early, from a stroke. We were by no means well off, but we never wanted for anything and we all learned the honor of work. My early jobs included babysitting, coat checking at a local restaurant, working at a fast food restaurant, and summer jobs for the Naval Depot in our area while I was in college.

My husband, Dave, and I (we just celebrated 35 years, so he’s probably eligible for sainthood now), have tried to instill our work ethic into our children: David, 31, Laura, 29, and Megan, 26. David, who is in recovery from alcoholism and heroin addiction, is happily married, the proud father of two children, making us delighted grandparents, and working in the recovery field, helping others. Laura has a Master’s Degree in Special Education and is a wonderful teacher to children with multiple disabilities, and Megan, also happily married, is an ER nurse at a local hospital.

At our daugther Megan's wedding

At our daugther Megan’s wedding

A good Catholic girl—in Northeast Philly in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you identified yourself by your parish church—I attended Catholic school right through college, earning a B.A. on a scholarship from LaSalle University, in Education with concentrations in English and communications. Married right out of college (literally by days!), my husband and I started a recruiting company, The Bontempo Group, and have been in business for 35 years.

 

When did you start to think about making a change?
I’ve always been a writer, even winning contests while in elementary school. It’s been a form of therapy for me—public venting is much cheaper than therapy—and I’ve always enjoyed it. That said, it was a back-burner kind of thing while we raised our family. I worked in our business, was a substitute teacher, ran the youth group at our church, and sang at weddings and funerals to make extra money. I wrote whenever I could, but it wasn’t until my early 40s, when the kids were older, that I got the opportunity to have my own newspaper column, a lifestyle piece on the order of Erma Bombeck.

It was wonderful! Finally, an opportunity to write, and people were reading my words and enjoying them! And then, BUM, BUM, BUM…the Internet exploded. My newspapers and magazines were dying like the dinosaurs they’d become and soon I was out of pretty much every job I’d cultivated. Time for a reinvention.

The Internet was only part of the perfect storm of events that coalesced in my life at that time. In addition, I was turning 50, the economy was tanking, threatening our family business, and worst of all, my son was in the throes of his addictions.

I found myself circling the drain, knowing full well that if I didn’t do something, make some kind of move in some direction, that I would go down. In lamenting aging with a girlfriend one day, I said, “I’m so not ready for granny panties.” I meant the mental kind that I found myself wearing in my head—the ones that were aging me and keeping me stuck and close to despairing. The writer in me perked up at the phrase and I thought, I have to do something with this.

 

note-ready-for-granny-panties-header

What is your next act?
I am a blogger, author, and speaker. My blog, started in 2010, led to my book series of the same name, Not Ready for Granny Panties. I published my first book, which was actually a compilation of my newspaper columns, when I was 48, in 2007. But the first book in the series, Not Ready for Granny Panties–The 11 Commandments for Avoiding Granny Panties, came out in 2012. As I got farther along in writing the blog, and in communicating with readers, I felt a book in there somewhere. The idea of writing “commandments” to help women deal with aging in a humorous came from my daughter. It was a great idea, and it worked! The second book, The Woman’s Book of Dirty Words, was a natural outgrowth of the first. I realized that most of our challenges as women come from inside of our own heads, via our self-talk. The “dirty words” idea was another humorous way of presenting a legitimate topic. I’m also working on a third book in the series—more to come!

I have always been a believer in healing through humor. Even in our darkest times with our son, my husband and I tried to find some laughter. Often, it was gallows humor, but it helped us. Once I came up with the name, Not Ready for Granny Panties, I knew it would be a way for me to reach other women who were going through similar life changes, and provide some light at the end, or middle, of their particular tunnels. It’s been a wonderful way to forge connections with other women.

books-from-sisters-u

An outgrowth of the books that’s come out of the process has been the opportunity to speak to women and share an empowering, entertaining message. When you can get in front of an audience, it allows people to connect to you, and you to them, in a more intimate way.

One of the things that is most important to me is having the opportunity to speak to, for lack of a better word, “everyday” women—those of us who may not be in high powered careers, but just living “normal” lives, trying to figure out our next steps and how to remain relevant, vital, and vibrant as we age. So many women are doing great things, something we should celebrate. But those of us “in the middle” can end up feeling less-than. It’s important to me to show all women that we can continue to grow and live fulfilling, exciting lives while remaining relevant. It’s not necessarily about climbing a mountain or starting a million-dollar corporation in your 60s (if you are, you go, girl!), but finding adventure right where you are and claiming it. To borrow a phrase from Oprah, “living your best life.”

I really believe that as women, we share the same story—only the details differ. We all want the same things: love, security, happiness, and health for us and our families. Our paths may diverge, but underneath, the sentiments driving us are the same. Speaking to women directly, making them laugh and acknowledge the challenges in our lives with some lightness is one of the great joys of my life.

 

How hard was it to take the plunge?
The plunge was forced upon me—see perfect storm of events, above! Sometimes, even though a change is unwelcome and traumatic, it can provide opportunities, as all of the changes in my life have. I knew I wasn’t the only woman in mid-life looking for some joy while trying to find my way and remain powerful and relevant. Since writing was a natural source of communication for me, it was an obvious choice. Writers are moved to write—if not, our heads feel like they’re going to explode. Regardless of the monetary outcome, I needed to write, and I also felt it was time for me to give my real passion some time after devoting decades to my family.

As for actually taking the plunge, I had to learn to blog, become semi computer literate, and immerse myself in social media, of which I am still not a fan, though I recognize the value—unless I’m watching a cat video or looking at a picture of someone’s dinner. Enough already! But I did have to teach myself how to do everything, even designing websites, to get things going. I had no money to pay anyone to set anything up, so it was all home grown. It was a huge learning curve. Eventually, though, I taught a class in blogging, so again, I tried to make lemonade out of some of the lemons I’d been handed. I also learned about publishing and self-published two books in the series, now working on a third, and I’ve worked hard to create a brand around the Not Ready for Granny Panties mission of helping women to live joyful, vibrant lives. Whew! I’m kind of exhausted just remembering all of this….

 

With my daughters

With my daughters

 

How supportive were your family and friends?
I’m a fairly introverted and private person (no one actually believes this, but it’s true!), so I never made any pronouncements about what I was doing. I just did it and let people know after the fact. My kids and husband have always been hugely supportive, regularly talking me off a ledge or kicking me in the pants when I need it.

As for other family and friends, I still keep things somewhat close to the vest, if you will. They are all most supportive, but I tend not to talk about my work too much with them. My husband says, “You can’t be a prophet in your own land,” which I take to mean that since you have very distinct roles with close family and friends, they don’t always see you the way you want to show yourself professionally. (Read—they know all of my crazy and I’d rather keep that part of my life separate.) That said, I have an amazing group of incredibly supportive women with whom I share my struggles and thoughts. They are like-minded women whom I’ve met along my journey since I began writing I earnest. I value them tremendously.

With my husband, Dave

With my husband, Dave

What challenges did you encounter?
The learning curve was exhausting and frustrating. As someone who wrote strictly on a yellow legal pad for years, it was enough in my mind that I’d actually converted to using a computer. But once the Internet blasted the publishing world and I realized I had to get on that bandwagon, I also knew that I’d have to educate myself about everything in the world of blogging, writing and marketing on the internet platform or the only person who would see my work would be me. I knew nothing, and I still feel that I know only a tiny percentage of what I should, but I’m pretty proud of what I’ve managed to create from a place of total ignorance.

Other challenges included the marketing of my work as well as becoming adept and comfortable at public speaking. Generally, writers, including me, are most comfortable tapping away at their computer keys, hitting send, and calling it a day. But writing anything is only a part of what it takes to declare yourself a writer. In this environment, you also have become an avid practitioner of jumping up and down and literally or figuratively shouting, “Look at me! Look at me!” via social media and other marketing platforms. It’s shameless self-promotion, but it has to be done, and unless you’re independently wealthy and can hire an entire marketing team, you’ll end up doing most of it.

The public speaking was also a challenge. I did some acting when I was younger, so I approached it like that, but given that the words and content are my own, the stakes are somewhat higher. I always go through a Sally Field moment if people respond positively—“You like me! You really like me!”

Most difficult, though, was trying to keep moving forward given the personal life challenges I was facing at the time.

mfnnconference

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  
Every. Single. Day.

As if trying to basically reinvent a writing life wasn’t hard enough, the challenges we were dealing with financially and most important, with our son’s addiction issues, kept me on a constant roller coaster. Living with an addict is like living in an asylum, with the crazy person calling all the shots. It’s tremendously hard to hang onto your sanity, as well as to think that anything you’re doing matters, as many days, you’re in a situation which could result in life or death, depending on the choices your loved one makes.

Interestingly enough, though, hanging onto the Not Ready for Granny Panties blog, and then working on the books, became a lifeline to sanity for me, although it was often frustrating. But it was frustrating in a way that gave me some purpose, which was sometimes to make other women feel good even when I was under crushing stress. Eventually, when my son made the decision to get well (he is five years sober, and again, has a wonderful wife and two gorgeous kids!), I realize that I couldn’t have gotten through all of that pain without my work to mentally take me out of that dark place.

With my son

With my son

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I’m a helluva lot stronger and smarter than I thought I was. With aging comes tremendous self-doubt—Am I too old to learn anything new? Will anyone care what I have to say? Am I even relevant anymore?—but I now know unequivocally that not only am I not too old, yes, people care, and I am relevant, and mid-life is rich ground for reinvention for all of us, especially if we’re willing to delve into new territory. I once looked at the Internet with resentment and fear, and now I see nothing but opportunity. Learning something new is always invigorating.

Also, as our kids grow into their own lives, it becomes more and more obvious that they are the makers of their own destinies through their choices. I’ve learned to be there for them, but to let go of any feeling that I have to “fix” stuff. I made my mistakes, and they will make theirs. It’s not my job to police their lives. And whew! Is that a relief! It’s allowed me to embrace my own dreams and give them the time they deserve.

 

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I’d have told the negative voices in my head to “Shut up!” a lot sooner. The greatest roadblock to my doing this was always me. Or rather, the voices inside of me that spewed the “You’re not good enough” venom in my ear. I’ve always been my own worst enemy. I would have jumped into this career sooner and with more conviction.

Then again, this is all about hindsight, which we all know is 20/20. I genuinely believe that I am right here, right now, because this is where I’m meant to be. The sum total of all of my experiences has led me to this place. If I could go back and pick and choose, I might have tamped down some of the drama, and perhaps chosen a different path for my son, but even that has allowed me to reach women in ways that wouldn’t have been possible had things been different.

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What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Scare yourself. On purpose. One of the commandments in Not Ready for Granny Panties–The 11 Commandments for Avoiding Granny Panties is “Thou Shalt Scare Thyself.” Reinvention is scary. We’re talking about recreating ourselves after defining ourselves in a certain way for decades. And as women, we avoid anything that scares us. Yet, fear can be liberating and fun. Think about roller coasters and haunted houses—the things you loved as a kid. Scaring ourselves, just a little, can be exciting and make us feel alive. Jumping into our fears leads us to new opportunities.

Take a step. Any step, in a direction to do something different. When I first started the blog, I had no vision of writing books in a series or of becoming a public speaker. Those things grew organically out of what I’d started with the blog. I was afraid each step of the way, until I became exhilarated. I’ve learned to use fear as an emotion to propel me forward instead of one that keeps me rooted in place.

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What advice do you have for those interested in writing?
First, everyone has a story to tell, and the Internet makes it easy for anyone to tell their story. But we need to respect the medium and make certain that, if you want to call yourself a writer, you’re writing well. Read a lot, research the kinds of books you want to write and the authors you enjoy. But, and this is important, don’t try to be someone else. Find your voice; it’s the only one that can authentically tell your story. And take a writing class. Share your work. Get an editor—extra eyes are essential in making sure your story is well told.

Be aware of your goals in writing and speaking. We write and speak every day as humans, but just because we do it all of the time, doesn’t mean we can wing it. You need to respect your audience and recognize that their time is a gift to you, whether they are reading your work or sitting in front of you listening. Prepare, be thoughtful, and respect your audience.

You can also jump start your credibility by guest writing or posting for established writers who have blogs on the topics you’re interested in. Well-written content is always welcome on the content-hungry Internet. It’s a way to begin to establish yourself as a voice on a topic. Create a blog of your own and establish social media sites for yourself on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. I can’t over-estimate the importance of social media in marketing your work, which is almost as important as writing it in the first place. That visibility will be essential in establishing you as a speaker and expert on your topic.

All of this comes round to the reality that you are creating a brand by your writing and any presence you put out there for the world to see. Make certain it’s the one you want out there.

Finally, get out from behind that computer and network! You must make people aware of who you are. Also, you can get a little squirrelly sitting behind a computer all day. You need to actually see people.

screen-shot-2016-12-17-at-10-07-03-am

 

What resources do you recommend?
My absolute favorite books on writing:
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Ann LaMotte and On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I re-read both regularly.

For those interested in self-publishing a book:
The Fine Print of Self-Publishing: A Primer on Contracts, Printing Costs, Royalties, Distribution, Ebooks, and Marketing by Mark Levine is a must read.

To start your own blog:
Get step by step instructions on a video like this one: Build Your Own Blog
Or try this book: WordPress To Go: How To Build A WordPress Website On Your Own Domain, From Scratch, Even If You Are A Complete Beginner.

For inspiration:
Any book to move you towards your dream, like The Desire Map: A Guide to Creating Goals with Soul by Danielle LaPorte

For public speaking tips:
Book: Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds by Carmine Gallo
Podcast: The Big Talk with Tricia Brouk. This is an innovative approach to speaking through short, impactful podcasts. Definitely worth a listen!

To build your brand through social media:
http://sproutsocial.com/insights/social-media-branding/

 

With my granddaugther, Emma

With my granddaugther, Emma

What’s next for you?
Part of the beauty of all of this is that it’s grown organically into something I hadn’t expected. I’m eager to see where all of this takes me. I hope to grow as a speaker, eventually do a TED talk, complete the third book in the Not Ready For Granny Panties series, and possibly even get into merchandising with some NRFGP items. Who knows—maybe I’ll start an underwear company for women! Great undies are so hard to find.

I think I’d like to leave you with this: Our next act is nothing short of a miraculous gift for we as women to explore our hearts and passions, after decades of putting others first. If you’ve done your job as a mother, it’s time to let your kids live their lives so you can live yours. You’ve earned it, but the only person who can give you this gift is you. Take it, with both hands, and don’t let it go!

 

Contact Mary Fran Bontempo at maryfran@maryfranbontempo.com
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Sharing her Travel and Diving Adventures: Tam’s Story

060a5e9351a079b9b76885db07615141After the kids were out of the house, and her husband had successfully survived a double lung transplant, Tam decided to travel the world, indulging in her love of the ocean, diving, photography, and conservation. She continues to go strong!

 

Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in Dayton, Ohio with my parents and brother, Michael. My brother and I were adopted by our parents, two years apart. I had the quintessential Midwest childhood: a big house, large yard, plenty of space to roam in a brand new suburb still being built when we moved in. Our family vacationed every year for two weeks in Ft Lauderdale, and that is where my love for the ocean and its animals began. I loved to travel as a child, and that love has only strengthened throughout my life.

I married shortly after moving to Dallas at age 20, and Randy and I are still together today. I always felt sad that my children wouldn’t know the same type of childhood I had: They couldn’t go out on their own and ride bikes and explore, they had “play dates” and parents watched their children closely.

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While my children were little, I went back to college and graduate school, where I earned a Master’s degree in Sociology. My main “act” in life has always been my husband and children. I have loved being a mother to my daughter, Alexandra, and my son, Wes. They are both adults now, and married. Next come grandchildren?

My career has always changed… I worked in a brokerage firm, a bank, became a travel agent. I went back to school then lectured at the University of Texas Dallas; I loved teaching. I went into private practice as a college consultant, working with families and students to help facilitate the college search and application process. I love teens and young adults. Life ran into a wall in 2013, when my husband suddenly had respiratory failure and had a double lung transplant! Obviously, at that point, life took another direction. (Here is that story – start on page 9).

My husband had a long recovery, and we did do some traveling within the USA, but being on anti-rejection medications means a suppressed immune system, and traveling usually ended up with Randy becoming ill. We had had big plans to travel and dive the world before his transplant, but it was clear that Randy could not travel to remote destinations without access to stellar transplant health care. My desire to travel and dive was strong, and Randy encouraged me to go on those trips and have those experiences. I am glad he is supportive, otherwise it would be difficult emotionally to travel as much as I do.

 

Our family, 3 months after Randy's surgery

Our family, 3 months after Randy’s surgery

 

When did you start to think about making a change?

After my children were in college, and the empty nest arrived, I began to want a solo experience, doing volunteer work abroad, doing something completely on my own. My interest in the ocean has always been a part of my life, and I chose a program that took me to Tofo, Mozambique, to help study Whale Sharks, Manta Rays, and do fish surveys on the reefs. I can say that going to Africa in 2012 made a huge impact on my life, and created change. The trip was challenging: At 50+, I was the oldest volunteer, and physically struggled to adapt to tough conditions on land and in the ocean.

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I emerged from that trip with confidence in myself, pride in my accomplishments and inner strength, and a hunger to continue. I had seen a documentary, Queen of Mantas, about a woman who studied Manta Rays in Tofo; I met Dr Andrea Marshall on my trip, and I have traveled with her several times since then. She has become a friend as well as an inspiration. (You can read about my incredible trip HERE.) This was before Randy became very ill, so he joined me at the end of my trip, and we continued on to Tanzania and safari!

 

With Dr. Andrea Marshall

With Dr. Andrea Marshall

 

What is your next act?

mintonI am a travel blogger at Travels with Tam, a midlife, empty nest adventure blog. Most are travel adventures (I have traveled all over the world) but, as we all know, there are plenty of interesting journeys in midlife and I write about those as well, especially the journey of our family to our family to my husband’s double lung transplant!

I have traveled all over the world, and I love it. I began traveling before I was old enough to know that’s what I was doing. My parents loved the beach and we went to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, every single year until I was 20 years old and moved to Dallas. We were beach lovers, and the ocean quickly spoke to me, and it never left.

I write about travel, life events, aging… and scuba diving! I began diving when I was 26, 30 years ago. I was on vacation in Cozumel, Mexico, with girlfriends, and I have little patience for “laying out.” A dive instructor came by asking if we were interested, and since I had always dreamed of being a diver with Jacques Cousteau, I jumped up right away. I was hooked immediately.

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I do a lot of photography. I am always encouraging other midlife women to get out there and leave their comfort zone.

Here are some of my most popular posts:

Extinction Is Looming

“15 Photos to Make You Want to Go to Cozumel”

“Close Encounter With a Great White Shark”

“Am I Invisible?”

“Lung Transplant Approval, an Unexpected Journey.”

“Diving the Revillagigedo Archipelago in Mexico.”

I love what I do. I love taking photos and helping with fish surveys and fish identifications. I am committed to ocean conservation, and my greatest contribution is participating in citizen science trips. If that interests you, check out REEF.org and MarineMegafauna.org. Ray of Hope Expeditions are absolutely wonderful.

Close up with great white shark

Close up with great white shark

 

How did you decide to start blogging?

It is strange how this act came about… When Randy became so ill, I was still working as a college consultant. He became ill in August of 2013, and the fall is the busiest time for college applications. I worked with my students from the waiting room at the hospital, and made sure that I was on top of every detail. I was an excellent counselor and advisor, and I did not want “my kids” to suffer, so I made sure they had every consideration from me.

After Randy’s homecoming, I had several consultations with new families, but upon finding out that Randy had had a double lung transplant, not one of them signed on with me. Their concern was that I would drop the ball if something happened to Randy. I understood the concern, and I knew that I would work as hard for new students as I had my former students, but only one family took the chance. I am working with her right now, as she is a senior applying for college, but she is my last student.

During my African adventure I kept a journal online for my friends and family. I have always loved writing, and this journal morphed into my travel blog. When Randy became ill, I began to blog about that journey, as it happened, for family and friends. Randy’s illness has been, without a doubt, a long journey.  When Randy was recovering, I began adding my photography to the blog, and I met several other 50+ bloggers who were shaking up their lives, and a new career began to take form.

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How supportive were your family and friends?

They were very supportive. I think there were some doubts among them, because traveling meant I left Randy behind, most of the time, although we still took trips together. I was fortunate through this entire ordeal to have friends and family who have absolutely been there for me and for my children.

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My daughter’s wedding

 

What challenges did you encounter?

One challenge is my physical limitations I have to consider before every trip. I am 56 years old, and have chronic back pain, (my spine is held erect with 4 rods and 8 pedicle screws), psoriatic arthritis, and other various nuisances. I know each trip will bring pain and challenges, but scuba diving is actually very good for my spine, as I am almost weightless in the water, supported, and almost free of pain. It is really the only big physical activity left to me, diving and snorkeling.

Another is more of an emotional challenge. It isn’t easy to leave Randy for long periods of time, even though he is stable and living a mostly normal life. He has had to give up some of his hobbies and activities, and that has not been easy for him. We keep in touch by text, email, and even phone calls; it just depends on how remote my location is. Sometimes, as in Komodo National Park this year, we were unable to communicate for a week.

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Were there times when you thought about giving up? 

Oh yes. Every single trip! On every expedition I have a moment at the beginning when I think, I bit off more than I can chew this time, I’m not going to be able to do this. All I can do is try. So I try…and I do it. I remember my trip to Mozambique to volunteer for All Out Africa, doing fish surveys and whale shark identifications; I thought I would never make it. Our volunteer house was on a hill, and it was physically very difficult to get up and down the “stairs of death” to get to the beach. There are no marinas in Tofo, so we had to push the zodiac out over the surf. The diving was unlike any diving I had done before, with more surge and more current. I truly thought I would have to quit. But every day, I just put one foot in front of the other, and before you know it, I was up and down those stairs without a problem. Every trip has its physical challenges, all you can do it do it. And if you cannot, you can do something else.

I know someday I may not be able to go full speed like I do now (full speed for me), but right now, I can do it, and all we really have is right now. Tomorrow is promised to no one.

Taking out the boat

Taking out the boat

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I learned that I am strong. I am capable. I am talented, and tenacious. Yes, I am starting to age, but who isn’t? I’m going to go as fast as I can as long as I can. As Hillary Clinton said, when there isn’t a roof, the sky is the limit. Though, in my case, probably 120 feet under the ocean is my limit. While I am diving, I have moments of pure bliss. It is another world, another dimension. I love it.

 

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

My advice is do it. If you are afraid, do it. Look deep within yourself and find out, what is it you want? What do you want to do? Maybe you want to help others, or be a caretaker, or travel, or learn to ski, or sky dive or scuba dive, or start a business or write a book… Whatever it is, grit your teeth and take a leap of faith. For some, truly living means getting outside of your comfort zone (that’s me). Perhaps others seek peace and quiet, and others enjoy a simple life. Whatever it is, do it. And take a few risks along the way. What is life without a little risk or adventure?

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What advice do you have for those interested in travel and travel blogging? What resources do you recommend?

If you are looking to get monetarily rich, find something else! If you are looking to make your life bigger, richer in experience, and to serve something larger than yourself, travel and consider Voluntourism or Citizen Science. I have personally traveled with All Out Africa; Ray of Hope Expeditions at Marine Megafauna Foundation; and Reef. There are so many others! Check out The Giving Lens, service through photography. GVI has many different types of voluntourism, and Red Travel Mexico, with whom I may be doing a trip next year. You don’t even have to go very far, but get out there in the world and experience something different. And share it with others.

I do work with companies, writing reviews or trying products. I’ve worked with IHG Hotel Group, Hyatt Regency Hotels, Coca Cola, Nestle, Mrs. Fields, Bandaid, Pro Dive Mexico, Occidental Allegra Hotel and Resort, AT&T, Dove, OneSole Shoes, Four Seasons Resorts, Chico’s Clothing Line, Ray of Hope Expeditions, Backscatter Photography, Expedia, Hotels.com, Avis, Allianz Travel Insurance, City Pass, Skyscanner.com, Travelocity and Vayama. I am a Level 5 Reviewer on Trip Advisor. You don’t even have to go very far, but get out there in the world and experience something different. And share it with others.

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What about advice re. midlife and solo travel for women?

Helene in Between is a great resource—she teaches people how to blog and how to do it for a living. Other great examples of women who are in midlife and enjoying travel in the empty nest are Suzanne Stavert of Adventures of Empty Nesters, Sara Broers of Travel with Sara, and Melody Pittman of Wherever I May Roam Blog. Also check out Lois Alter Mark of Midlife at the Oasis. There are so many others!

Women Traveling Together is for women who want to do small group travel with other women; G AdventuresWomen’s Travel Group.

Or you can do what I do and just go by yourself. Check out these wonderful resources for women who wish to travel solo. Check out Journey Woman, Adventurous Kate, Solo Traveler Blog.

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

I’m sure I do! Last year I became a mother-in-law twice—both my daughter and my son got married in 2015! That was busy! I’m sure grandchildren will come along in due course. Grandma… It sounds unreal to me! I’ll be Tammaw, I think.

 

Where else would you love to travel?

I am headed to Antarctica in January and that will be all seven continents for me! In February, I am off to Raja Ampat in Indonesia to dive. I want to go to the Galapagos, Cocos Island, Palau, and back to Thailand and Africa and Australia… Basically the globe is on my list!

In December, 2017, I am co-hosting an adventure trip with Red Travel Mexico. Check out the details here and please join me!

 

Contact Tam Warner Minton at travelswithtam@gmail.com

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Becoming a Poet in Her 60s: Molly’s Story

molly-lynn-wattWhen the Twin Towers came down, Molly decided to make a change. She quit her job, started writing, and eventually found her way to poetry. She is now a published poet with several books and anthologies in print.

 

Tell us a little about your background…

As long as I can remember I was a curious, busy learner, an educator, a leader of activities, a community organizer and an activist.

I grew up in Hartford, Connecticut in a home fronting woods and located on the grounds of the Hartford Theological Seminary, where my father was a professor. It was during World War II, therefore missionaries were recalled home from their assignments in Africa, India, the Philippines, China, Hawaii, really from throughout the world. It was considered too dangerous for U.S. citizens to live abroad.

The seminary was teeming with families crammed into tiny apartments, rich in fun and songs and games and strong in service and community connection, but lacking in money. I grew up with the missionaries, playing with kids of all ages. Whoever showed up was welcome to join in. Hour after hour, we were on our own, using our collective imaginations and found materials. Everyone was taught to be good to each other and we were mostly kind and cooperative and inclusive; I never remember bullying or meanness. The seminary bubble seemed a perfect life to me. At eight, I organized a lending library of my personal books, an after-school school, and an annual circus. I was the leader. I do not know why, but kids turned to me, so I led. Throughout, I carried a black and white composition book and took notes, recorded memories, and listed questions.

With missionary kids (center, hooded coat)

With missionary kids (center, hooded coat)

No one was surprised when I became an educator, teaching and directing all kinds of schools. My kids explain it this way: I started teaching preschool when they were in preschool, and by the time they were in graduate school I was teaching for Antioch/New England Graduate School. Following that, I was founding institutes and working nationally and internationally on inquiry-based learning projects with experienced teachers as I supported them in joining the computer age—using technology as a tool for thinking and creative expression with their students. All these projects were funded by soft money: foundations and government agencies, often the National Science Foundation.

I worked nationally and internationally with leadership teams in schools to support changing practices around teaching and learning. I also worked with leadership teams in hospitals around changing practices regarding decisions near the end of life and changing practices in pain management.

Age 27, teaching my first year of Headstart at the Homestead School in Roxbury, Mass

Age 27, teaching my first year of Headstart at the Homestead School in Roxbury, Mass

I met my husband of more than 40 years, Daniel Lynn Watt, at a hands-on workshop for educators, where he and I were both on the staff. He had just finished making an Appalachian dulcimer. I owned a dulcimer that was made for me by Jethro Ambergey in Hindman, Kentucky. Dan and I enjoyed immediate bonds: educational leadership, recreational folk music of Appalachia and conversation in a corner over a mug of coffee.

Through the years, I continued carrying little notebooks to jot down ideas and memories and yearned for time to make sense of this precious life through writing. I wanted to share some of the amazing times I’d lived through. Yes, in the mayhem of living my life, I was crushing my introvert self who wanted to express herself. I wanted to write, I’d always wanted to write, and I couldn’t figure out how to fit it in.

My wedding to Dan

My wedding to Dan

 

When did you decide to make a change?

The day after the twin towers fell, I quit my job. I was working as a facilitator for educational leadership teams for The Best Schools Project in New Hampshire. My daughters were college graduates with their own children and jobs by then, and I had managed to have a bit of savings. But I wasn’t thinking about anything practical at the time. The fall of the towers reminded me life can flip in a second. If I wanted to be a writer, I had to put writing at the top of my to-do list. I had to do it.

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What is your next act?

I am a poet. In 2007, when I was turning 69, my first book of poems, Shadow People was published by Ibbetson Street Press.

My book was blurbed by Fred Marchant, Director of the Suffolk University Poetry Center and author of four books of poetry. He said, “Shadow People begins far away and takes us on a journey home. We move from the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska to the Redline in Boston. We begin among the Yup’ik craftspeople, and travel toward the heart of family life, sometimes in painful memory, sometimes in loving recognition. We begin as observers but by the end of the book we have joined Molly Watt in the dance of her life and our own.”

Shortly afterwards, my extended persona poem, “Consider This,” on the theme of incest, was published as a chapbook (a small booklet, often hand-made) and performed by three dancers to choreography by Joan Green. It was danced to two sold-out performances as part of the Dance Across the Ages Concert. The dance did not illustrate scenes in the many faceted poem but rather flowed with the moods and transitions as the poem was read by two voices, the “she” voice by my husband, Dan, and the “I” voice by myself, the voices serving as the music for the dancers.

Dance Concert for Dance Across the Ages—Consider This (Poem by Molly Lynn Watt, Choreography by Joan Green)

Dance Concert for Dance Across the Ages—Consider This (Poem by Molly Lynn Watt, Choreography by Joan Green)

In 2014, the story that had been gnawing inside me—the catalyst for my transformed lifestyle—was published as a memoir in poems, On Wings of Song, by Ibbetson Street Press.

Afaa M. Weaver, receiver of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and author of nine books of poetry, blurbed the book, “On Wings of Song is a journey into the heart, the place of deep caring for the state of being human. Watt has written with the sincere and sympathetic hand to mark a path for the reader to return to the Civil Rights Era of the 50’s and 60’s, a history that never leaves us. As she writes, ‘…there is no time for fear…’ In the inscape of her journey we see the time for caring is now. These are gentle but sure lines of conviction, lines worthy of a standing applause.”

Here is an excerpt from a poem I wrote about my intention:

JAZZ RIFF

I want to write a poem

the way a jazz man

composes on his feet

sways in rhythm

taps a syncopated beat

 

I want to bend   contort   riff

twist and pound like thunder

crack and shatter like glass

drip blood in the gutter

scat sorrow to the moon

 

I want to howl and growl

to a bottle neck slide

pulse with rage and heat

rap a wild wind run

and blast away injustice

A short version of JAZZ RIFF won a place in a competition and will soon become part of a Cambridge sidewalk. I consider this a way to publish in the same way my poems regularly displayed in the CVS window and the O’Neill Library are published.

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I work in poetry because I love how condensed it is: 50 words instead of 5,000, getting to the essence with a few well-chosen images instead of every incident. I find it exciting to choose the images that move the work forward. I can carry the feather weight of a poem in my pocket and work on it over a period of time. I cannot carry a manuscript for a memoir around; it takes longer to dig into it, there is more weight to carry in my knapsack and my head.

I am part of a large community of poets. We love each other, encourage each other’s work, invite each other to publish and give readings. I write poems partially because there are readings and open mics. As a poet primarily giving witness with written and spoken words, I move with immediacy from the page to the hearts of others by reading my poems in public. I can comment on tough subjects, such as the Occupy Movement, the Marathon Bombing and Black Lives Matter, and the poems do not sit on a publisher’s table marinating for years!

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How did you become a writer and poet?

After I quit my job, I started writing. I learned to write by writing. I joined a local writing group meeting weekly and did free writing for hours a day, filling numerous notebooks. Often I would type up and condense the work later, or even shape it and sometimes publish it.

Jane Eklund was in that first writing group and was an editor of the weekly newspaper in my part of New Hampshire, The Monadnock Ledger. Later, she started the monthly journal The Occasional Moose, where I continued to write features. We enjoyed each other’s writing, and she knew I had an appetite for adventure.

Jane invited me to write Day Trip columns for the Ledger, and then the Moose. I did, many. I loved doing the exploration and even more the romance of writing them up. While those publications have merged with the Peterborough Transcript and the stories are no longer archived on line. I am including a link to a travel piece I wrote about the same time for the Boston Globe: “Birds, Beer and Baseball in the States’ Golden Heart,” dateline Fairbanks, Alaska.

Friends who participated in the William Joiner Institute Writer’s Workshop at the University of Massachusetts Boston every June, encouraged me to apply. I was accepted and able to study with extraordinary writers and teachers in an intensive immersion. Over the many years I’ve been attending, I’ve studied with a cast of stars: Naomi Ayala, Martha Collins, Marilyn Nelson, Fred Marchant, Danielle Legros Georges, Lady Borton, Bruce Weigl, Naomi Shihib Nye, Demetria Martinez, Brian Turner, Macdara Woods, Tim O’Brien, Regie O’Hare Gibson, Doug Anderson, Charles Dumas, Amir Al-Azraki, Eva Bourke, Yusef Komunyakaa, Martin Espada, Nguyen Ba Chung, Grace Paley, Kevin Bowen, Larry Heinemann, Afaa Michael Weaver and many more.

I listened to these extraordinary human beings and writers read from works-in-progress and give commentary on mine. And I bought and read their books, and read them over and over. I enjoy their mentorship and friendship and generosity. They embrace writing as a form of witness. (Witness poetry leaves a trace of an event so that it cannot be forgotten, it must be considered.)

I began writing poetry when the poet and teacher Fred Marchant took me under his wing and helped me get a toehold transferring my little memories and observations into poems. It’s as if I fell asleep and awakened into a whole new life.

I hung out with other poets and writers. The Bagel Bards meet every Saturday morning at Au Bon Pain in Davis Square in Somerville to schmooze and network. The Joiner community permeates Boston and the world and we gather and re-gather. At Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement, we hold a Poets Round Table, where we share our poems and study others. I was honored to facilitate this for 12 years and be elected poet laureate for a year.

It was a surprise to me how much community plays a role in the so-called, lonely life of a writer – writing has not been one bit lonely!

With the bards

With the bards

 

How did you first publish your poetry?

Before I had a manuscript, I prepared and sent out poems to hundreds of journals and literary magazines. I received rejections of a hundred times ten, but also about 70 acceptances. I achieved recognition as a poet by publishing poems as well as being invited to read. I built an audience where people sometimes were as curious about what I might write next as I was.

When I actually had a manuscript shaped, I researched all the many publishers reading manuscripts, and in the end, I went with one I’d known all along. Doug Holder, co-founder of the Bagel Bards, has a small, respected press and I was honored when Ibbetson Street Press accepted my first full-length poetry manuscript, Shadow People.

2-bagel-bards-3-coverDid it help that I was a good member of the community, hosting many Bards and Ibbetson Street Writers at the Fireside Readings I curated? Or that I supported the publishing of the work of others by becoming the founding editor of the anthology Bagels with the Bards? I think my book stood on its own merits, but honestly, the press had hundreds of manuscripts to choose from, so maybe my participation gave me a tiny advantage. Whether my personal connections helped or not, I do not know, but they helped me grow as a writer. I never thought I’d have a poetry book published when I first started writing.

 

Somehow I’d made a whole new life, yet I brought with me all the experiences and reflections I’d gathered up over years in those notebooks and in my soul. I used my skills and knowledge of supporting groups in this new life of playing with words and wordsmithing.

How can someone change overnight to another profession? That is what many thought I had done, but I know I put in the 10,000 hours of practice and then some that Malcolm Gladwell tells us makes for mastery. And I know I was both lucky and plucky.

Signing my book at launch party

Signing my book at launch party

 

How did you come to be an editor of other people’s poetry?

I am a member of several thriving writers’ communities. I wanted to be a contributing member, so I became a support to unlocking other poet’s voices and helping them to be heard through publishing their poems.

I edited the Transition House Kent Street Writers Anthology, the poetry in Harvard’s Institute for Learning in Retirement, HILR Review. And I was founding editor and edited the first four volumes of the Bagelbards Anthology.  

I curated the monthly Fireside Poetry Series open to the public for 12 years in my cohousing living room.

I lived, ate, and regurgitated poems, witness poems, gritty poems, tender poems, poems to create the world I dreamed could be. I enjoyed leading a few poetry workshops. I hold a wide respect for the many voices of contemporary poetry. Editing the work of others was a position colleagues, peers and students asked me to take on.

For the HILR Review, I often rejected poems on the end of life, believing despite age, older people bring the same vitality as a person of any age and I insisted on preserving a range of hopeful participation and fresh ways of seeing, even in grief.

For the Bagelbard Anthology, I wanted to ensure the urban voice was well represented. If a poem was situated in Somerville’s Davis Square during the Honk Festival, it was more viable for the anthology than one set at Lanikai Beach on Oahu.

For the Kent Street Writers Anthology, the poems could be about the view from a bedroom window after a period of homelessness, or setting up a home again in safety, or the death of a pet bird. These poets were dealing with small moments of tremendous consequence.

Of course all poets expressed universal experiences and truths rooted in moments and images.

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

My husband, Dan, was amazingly supportive. One day, I announced, “I will live anywhere, if money is the issue. But from now on, I will live my life by what I feel I need to do to complete my own dreams, rather than pay the bills.” Eventually, he took a similar plunge and joined me in the writing life.

For the past ten years, he has been working on a memoir, almost ready to publish. History Lessons: A Memoir of Growing Up in an American Communist Family. Read an excerpt here.

11-gr-cover-of-cd-for-web-sitePlus we made a radio play together, George & Ruth: Songs & Letters of the Spanish Civil War. It is based on his parents’ correspondence and we often perform it as a political Love Letters with music; it is available on CD Baby.

Now Dan and I enjoy living the writer’s life in our third floor condo in Cambridge Cohousing and sometimes our neighbors attend our readings.

I do not know how our daughters feel about my writing. They are busy with their own life adventures as they should be. One is in charge of a prestigious membership room and corresponds with leaders in the arts and sciences. The other is a professor of cognitive psychology at a state university supporting her students in thinking critically. I believe they are happy to see me continuing to engage and grow and contribute. In fact, I believe they expect nothing less!

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With our family, Christmas 2015, in our Cohousing living room

 

Why did you choose cohousing?

My husband and I talked about better ways to live in our world during our courtship. We each grew up in devoted communities sharing resources, I in the bosom of the Hartford Theological Seminary and he in a Communist family central to the activities of families in that movement.

I regret the concept of cohousing did not arrive in the U.S. from Denmark in time to raise our daughters in a community like the one I live in now.

After they had grown we heard of a group meeting in the Cambridge Friends Meeting House with the intention of forming a cohousing community from the ground up! We joined the long process of consensus decision-making and became (with about 40 others) founding members of what is now known as Cambridge Cohousing.

We moved from New Hampshire to live in this cohousing community partly because of its Quaker values; Dan and I are what many call convinced friends. We were attracted to the missions of sustainability, diversity and inclusiveness, intergenerational living, and we love living in Cambridge near the T and where bicycle riding is encouraged. We find the general meetings for consensus decision-making give everyone’s voice an opportunity to be heard and we like living close to good friends and sharing the conversation along with the workload. We believe the world is muddling toward learning to be a better place and this is one starting place, in the same way the women’s movement addressed the politics of power and voice among family members.

My granddaughter says cohousing is my response to the Vietnam War, determined to learn not to let misunderstandings escalate. It continues to be hard work. I tend to shy away from conflict and somehow can’t find the right storage place for my canoe, but I would not want to live any other way. I have no envy for the large homes some friends live in, I find the smallness of my apartment cozy and appropriate to my needs. The scale is just right. Of course we have plenty of shared spaces expanding our footprint! Our community maintains two lovely guestrooms where we can host family and friends.

Our Cambridge Cohousing Community

Our Cambridge Cohousing Community

 

What challenges do you encounter in your writing practice?

Following the discussion of cohousing, I have to say shutting my door and disengaging from the community for periods of time is a prime challenge.

Moving back in time, I wanted to write because I had some things to say, but I had done no literary writing since college. I had to study writing. Having something to say was not enough, it helped, but I had to begin a writing practice, to think creatively and critically about words I choose and how I place them on the page.

I continue to be a bit defensive, and this can get in the way of hearing useful suggestions. I try to keep my learner’s hat on and listen; this helps me let the ideas of others in, and it supports me in becoming a better writer at expressing what I want to say.

I say “I became a poet by putting in my 10,000 hours and more”, however I can hear the difference between my poems, the good ones, and the poems of those who have written for decades. I was at the top of anyone’s game in the field of education, but as a poet, I will always be “emerging” and that is ok with me, it has to be. I admire the poets who are my age and chose poetry when they were young and stayed with it. I feel it a privilege to be able to enter into this world as a poet colleague, and it is satisfying to my soul.

With The Thursday Project, poetry writing and critique group

With The Thursday Project, poetry writing and critique group

 

How do poets and literary writers make ends meet?

Before the towers fell, I frequently did professional writing about education in magazines and newspapers and I was paid modest amounts. It was an eye-opener to find how little if anything most writers are paid for literary writing. It is an economic hardship to do this work, but totally worth it for me. (My children are through college, which helps it be ok.)

Of course it is a matter of making a choice; writing for magazines pays better than poetry. I used to write the “Ask Molly” column in Teaching and Computers Magazine and I made three times as much for that column as my day trip columns paid.  Interesting work, but not as satisfying to my soul. Most writers I hang out with have a day job, a partner supporting them, teaching and writing gigs, editing gigs, speaking gigs, or, when lucky, grants. It is a fulltime job to write and to find the funding needed to support that lifestyle. I am a paid usher, leaving the daytime for writing (and cohousing tasks). Ushering provides the added value of seeing many literary works performed, priming my own thinking.

at-desk-in-office 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I learned that what I did before becoming a poet helps my writing; I never started from scratch. I’d lived poetically and now I write poems that others attend to. I was thrilled when the Dallas Public Schools chose my poem, “Civil Rights Update” to pair with Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as required reading for all ninth graders. I guess I’m saying, I make a difference without travelling because my written words speak to others.

I am more productive when I am part of an ongoing workshop or writing group. I am inspired by the words of others and cherish having others who will help me birth my preemie poems.

I learned I could have this life after I thought it too late. I just had to decide to start and do the hard, fun work.

Reading at Waring School

Reading at Waring School

 

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

This next step is a bonus step for you, a time to open up to dreams:

I encourage you —tie on your learner’s hat

I encourage you—leave your ego behind

I encourage you— follow your passion

I encourage you— be patient with uneven progress

I encourage you— surround yourself with encouragement

I encourage you— share and listen

I encourage you—be not reined in by fear

I encourage you— be exhilarated by the bumpy ride

I encourage you—enjoy your adventure

 

What about advice for pursuing the writer’s life?

I think it all starts with intention and keeps on with persistence, lots of persistence.

I have previously mentioned the William Joiner Institute Writers’ Workshop. But talk to the writers who live near you and listen to their journeys, tell them your hopes, ask their advice. Go to the local library for the books and periodicals addressed to writers. You’ll find many institutes for writers all over the world listed in these. Find a writing group of one or more to join.  Connect. You’ll find local resources and workshops and adult education courses and many, many wonderful bits of writing to remind you what you want to write about and ways you might get started.

At Joiner Institute, 2015

At Joiner Institute, 2015

 

What are some resources to help would-be poets?

The Poetry Foundation

The William Joiner Institute’s Writers Workshop 

I was inspired by William Stafford’s Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and Unlocking the Poem by Ottone M. Riccio and Ellen Beth Siegel.

 

What’s next for you?

Of course I’m working on another book of poems but one cannot see the future.  Perhaps Consider This, my poem with an incest theme, will be the title poem. My husband and I are working to get the script of George and Ruth: Songs and Letters of the Spanish Civil War published; this is the start of its 80th anniversary.

Recently, Dan and I have taken up the democratic little ukulele, anyone can pick one up and make music with others from the first time you strum. We lead a Sing and Strum Circle every week at Cambridge Co-housing and soon our fourth annual Ukulele Festival at World Fellowship Center. We lead an annual sing and strum session at the New England Folk Festival. This highlights another huge teenage dream of mine: to be a folk-singer & songwriter, so I see the ukulele as a toe-in-the-door; we are dog-paddling our way, three chords at a time and love performing at meet-ups in the Greater Boston area!

At ukulele festival in White Mountains

At ukulele festival in White Mountains

I continue schmoozing with the Bagel Bards on Saturday mornings and Tuesday mornings finds me in Suzanne Berger’s Advanced Poetry Workshop. Sometimes I dream of buying a letterpress and hand setting my own chapbooks. There are so many possibilities and reasons to get up each day and get to work. I don’t know what is around the corner to lure me!

We live in amazing times and our lives are precious. Each day is an adventure of making art and living our values as fully as we are able.

 

Contact Molly Lynn Watt at MollyWatt@comcast.net or 617-354-8242

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Writing a Spiritual Memoir in Midlife: Patricia’s Story

patricia-02-07-2016-1mb-copyAfter several failed marriages, Patricia went back to school in midlife and became a psychotherapist. It would take a lengthy correspondence with her aunt, a Franciscan nun living in Central America, to coax Patricia into writing her memoir, Motherlines

 

Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and entered the University of Wisconsin (UW) in 1958 as an 18-year-old woman with no plans for a future career. The joke going around at the time was that girls went to school to get their MRS Degree. But I had no plans for that either. I majored in English literature because the only thing I liked to do was read books. What I wanted or could imagine for myself was far beyond the horizon. I had inherited heroic ambitions from my father, but they were hardly available to me as a female coming of age in the ‘50s.  All I saw were women making the post-war baby boom a reality.  It was not unusual in our neighborhood for women to have six or seven children.

With Mom, dressed alike

With Mom, dressed alike, 1943

My father was a strange hybrid, a house builder who had graduated from UW, a hero of his own mythology who heaped his nebulous ambitions onto me, the oldest of six children. He expected me to take Latin so I would know word derivations, encouraged me to read books (preferably Thomas Hardy’s dark pastorals), valued higher education, expected me to go to the University, but lacked the financial resources to pay my tuition. That was left up to me to figure out.

My mother was a high school graduate, a good woman, a housewife with all the attendant duties and obligations of a large family.  She was a “people person” and did not read books. My family was Catholic and I was sent to Catholic schools through high school, which in those days was quite repressive, especially regarding issues of sexuality. Mortal sins! All of it! Having a heat-seeking body, I resisted this education mightily and was more than happy to enter UW, even (or especially?) when the nuns warned it was “a hotbed of free love and communism.” I was also admonished not to take philosophy classes or I would lose my faith, but this was already accomplished. I had no faith in this religion that denied the pleasures of the body. Unfortunately, this pleasure came at a price—birth control was not available to an unmarried student—and I underwent two illegal abortions, which were not only criminal acts at the time, but scary, traumatizing and, as it turns out, life altering.

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At 20, one of the first woman lifeguards in Madison, Wisconsin

My senior thesis at UW was on Virginia Woolf. Although the University was renowned for its English Department, I had been discouraged from using Woolf for my thesis: As a woman, she was considered “outside the canon,” a minor writer. I persisted and graduated from the University with a degree in English Literature. Soon after, I converted to Judaism, went into the mikvah, the ritual bath, said Hebrew prayers, and stood under the chuppa for a Jewish wedding to a history professor, not knowing that the marriage had a six-month expiration date.

After graduation, I worked in a residential treatment center for disturbed kids. I did not have a social work degree but I had worked part-time while in school in a black community in south Madison—a white girl of nineteen with the only key to their neighborhood center. This was in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the beginnings of de-segregation in the south, and a time when terrifying images of hoses and dogs and deep racial hatred were everywhere in the paper and on TV. I participated in civil-rights sit-ins at the State Capitol and developed a nascent sense of social justice.

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When my six-month marriage came to an end, I was unmoored. On an invitation from my maternal aunt, a Franciscan nun who was directing a Catholic girls’ school in Costa Rica, I quit my job, got my first passport, and took my first flight outside the United States. My aunt Ruth, my mother’s sister, was twenty-five years older than me. She was very radical in her thinking, very open-minded and non-judgmental. Her religious order was on the brink of a revolution. Those nuns were on fire with ideas of social justice, and within a few years they were living in apartments, dressed in civilian clothes, and studying Noam Chomsky and Liberation Theology.

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I stayed for two months in the convent with nuns dressed in full habits, which awakened a longing to be a part of something larger and more important than the sorry dramas I had been involved in. I turned 25 in San Jose, Costa Rica. Given that I disavowed Catholicism, and was now disaffected from Judaism, I was not a good candidate for the convent, although the desire to live with a group of committed women stayed with me for the next 20 years.

When I returned to the States, I still had no map for my life. I married a sociology PhD candidate and we packed our possessions into our 1956 Chevrolet, and drove from Wisconsin to California in the summer of 1968. We passed through Haight Ashbury and I noticed that I was a little too old and a little too responsible to become a full-fledged hippy. I got a job as a social worker at a residential school for boys. This second husband pursued his degree and his depression while I drudged as the breadwinner. This marriage lasted five years—only to be followed a few years later by marriage number three.

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Heading to Palo Alto, 1982

This marriage seemed hopeful; a master woodworker with a trust fund. We designed and built studios and a house in central California. This was in the ‘70s during the renaissance of craft fairs, and I left social work and became a fiber and fabric artist. This pastoral blew up after six years with an unwanted divorce. Three strikes in the marriage game and I was out.

With the divorce came the loss of a lifestyle which had seemed even at the time beyond my wildest dreams: a hand-built house on ten acres on the Central Coast of California, my own art studio where I made handmade paper and did large batik works on silk, a community of artist friends. What was left in the rubble was an acceptance letter from the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Program at UCLA, an offer of a short-term storefront studio sublet in Venice Beach—and a good divorce settlement.

Handmade paper

Handmade paper

Presented with a third divorce within the space of 15 years, my parents were not sympathetic. They were embarrassed. How to explain this wayward daughter? And they were disappointed. They had pinned their hopes on this third husband, as had I. They assumed the divorce was my fault. How to explain that he drank too much and slept with someone else in our marriage bed? They were glad that I was back in school, even if they didn’t understand why I would pursue an exotic and useless degree in art which everyone knew was not going to be a money-maker.

 

When did you begin to think about making a change?

Awakenings are most often violent. Being shoved onto the trembling threshold at midlife was terrifying for me—a time of stripping, unmaking, unraveling—a time of wrenching misery, hunger, desire, magic, and danger, potent with possibilities but no insurance policy for the future. A state of spiritual emergency. The handmade house was sold, the two elderly dogs euthanized, the material possessions dispersed. It would take four years of reinvention to achieve the MFA degree and a budding sense of myself as an artist and a woman. I was 42 when I graduated. But being an artist was only a step toward my next act.

With each marriage my surname changed, and with each divorce I promptly shed those borrowed names as if I had been living under an alias.

With Jim, my life partner of 31 years

With Jim, my life partner of 31 years

 

What is your next act?

I am a psychotherapist and an author.

My degree in Counseling Psychology gave me a profession in which I could offer all I had learned about the creative process, dreams, psychology, the soul’s journey. I work with women, primarily with creative women, artists, and writers. My practice has supported me for the past 30 years.

A critical aspect to my next act was finding a life partner who shared my desire for creative work. When I met him, I discovered we had almost matching overstuffed bookshelves, and we shared a deep interest in dreams, mythology, psychology, and a simple way of life. Neither of us had children. I was living in California and he lived in Maine when we met. The connection between us was immediate. Your coast or mine? Maine seemed to be the best place for us to set up a home. He had never married and I had been evicted from the marriage plot years ago, so we decided to forgo that ritual and had a commitment ceremony, presided over by my aunt Ruth, the nun. That was over thirty some years ago.

Living in Maine with a beloved companion and establishing a psychotherapy practice were the conditions I needed to publish my first book, at age fifty. Twenty-five years later, I have published five books and numerous articles and essays. My four books have been non-fiction and are focused on women, creativity, dreams, mythology and psychology. My fifth book, Motherlines: Love, Longing, and Liberation, is a memoir about my midlife and in many ways it tells how my next act evolved. Watch the trailer for my book here.

My creative life remains vibrant and sustaining. Writing is a solitary pursuit for the most part. It requires time and energy and focus. I find that the psychotherapy practice engages my deeply relational side, so I am fortunate to have both the practice and my writing.

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How did you become a therapist?

After graduating from UCLA with an MFA, I was still uncertain as to my direction. I had used most of my divorce settlement for the MFA. I was 42 and needed an income. When an announcement came for a program that offered a degree in Counseling Psychology with an emphasis in Archetypal Psychology, the study of myth and dreams, I immediately applied. I had just enough money left for the tuition. This would give me a degree so I could work with people, and more importantly, I intuited, it would give me a way to begin writing. I would have a language and a lens, psychology, dreams, myth.

 

How did you become a writer?

When my third marriage ended, I immediately salvaged my family name and began a journal and a voluminous correspondence with my aunt Ruth. I never kept journals during the marriages. Like silence and speech, marriage and private thought could not coexist—not because I feared someone would read my words without permission, but because I feared hearing my own voice.

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My correspondence with my aunt Ruth was another outlet for my writing. By their very nature, letters are written alone and read in solitude. Many writers have relied on letters to help them find their voice, to experiment with ideas, to communicate their feelings. Terry Tempest Williams says, “What needs to be counted on to have a voice: courage, anger, love. Something to say, someone to listen.” In the correspondence with my aunt Ruth, I had found someone to listen and I was gaining a voice. But letters not only reveal, they can also conceal, and it took me a few years to trust the bridge of words that Ruth and I were constructing to hold my full weight.

When I was getting an MFA in art, I never considered writing as a possibility for my future. The MFA was challenging enough. But in my journal during the four years at UCLA, there was a voice that kept asking, “What about writing? Shouldn’t you be writing instead?” The art was mute. I wanted words! I began writing poetry that I shared only with my aunt Ruth, who encouraged my writing no matter its form. As it turned out, the MFA was only a prologue to my next act—images before words.

Writing was one thing, much desired, but finding my voice was another. It never would have happened without the great fluorescence of feminist writers in the late ‘70s and ’80s. Mary Daly, Susan Griffin, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich were just a few who blew my mind open with their words, their language, their critiques of patriarchy. Through their writing, I finally had a way to understand myself as a woman in a culture that constrained my voice, if not repressed my being, not to mention my female body. With their words, I underwent what can only be called a spiritual conversion. Feminist bookstores abounded with their works and others and as a new convert I felt as if I had found my ticket to heaven. I cannot adequately express how truly revolutionizing it was to read these women writers who were giving voice to what I had always felt or intuited.

My UCLA thesis exhibit, 1982

My UCLA thesis exhibit, 1982

 

How did you come to write your memoir?

I never intended to write a memoir, much less a spiritual memoir. I didn’t want to write about myself, I wanted to write about my aunt Ruth, the nun. All the women in my motherline were good suburban housewives. My aunt’s life, or as much as I knew of it, was anything but conventional, and it fueled my imagination.

Ruth had gone to China in her early twenties as a missionary just as the Japanese were invading the country in 1938. Along with other missionaries, she was interned in a Japanese concentration camp during the Second World War. While in the camp, she met a Canadian Jesuit priest, and they fell in love and stayed in love although they remained in their respective religious communities. After the war, Ruth spent most of her life in Central America. She spoke fluent Spanish and was often in countries that were fighting dangerous “dirty wars”—Guatemala, Honduras. Her theology was liberationist, her politics were radical, her mind and heart were open. Ruth was the perfect subject for an aspiring writer.

Sister Ruth in Guatemala

Sister Ruth in Guatemala

We had been conducting a voluminous and increasingly intimate correspondence for six years, and in 1984 I wrote her saying I felt inspired to write a book about her life. My request was full of hubris. At the time, I had not written anything except school papers and letters, much less had anything published. As a newly minted feminist, I was driven by a desire to lift the women in my family out of the ditch of obscurity. More hubris. I assumed these women needed lifting. No one had ever asked me for such a favor. Ruth never agreed or disagreed with my project, but on a 2-week visit with her in San Cristobal, Mexico, she unpacked all her stories, which I scribbled into my journal.

With Ruth in San Cristobal

With Ruth in San Cristobal

In 2005, a few years after she died, and after I had written three books, I finally got around to writing Ruth’s story. The biography idea never took hold, so I began writing her story as fiction. I was a writer, even a published writer. The fact that I had never written a piece of fiction did not appear to me to be an obstacle. I was seduced by the idea of fiction; I thought it would give me artistic freedom. Several years and a lot of work later, my editor said, no dice.  “I don’t know what makes this woman tick.”  Whoops! Then my agent said, “Patricia, this is your story—and it is a spiritual memoir.” Yikes! Sometimes writing fiction is a way to avoid writing a memoir.

When I made the switch from fiction to memoir, my aunt Ruth had been dead for ten years. But I had the access code to the blood bank: 200 pages of her handwritten letters, which could transfuse her back to life. Since the book had now turned into a memoir of our relationship, I also had to exhume the woman I was during our letter-writing years (1978–1990). My copious journals from that time were the raw footage of my midlife, my Gray’s Anatomy. Underline raw.

With Ruth and Francis, at a retreat run by Francis in California, 1990

With Ruth and Francis, at a retreat run by Francis in California, 1990

I felt like my memoir was an assignment from the soul factory. Otherwise, why would I have committed so much time and energy to it? Personal will and ambition has its limitations. The memoir was in service to something larger. I hope my original intention of lifting my female lineage out of the ditch of obscurity has been met. I hope I have done the women, including myself, justice. I add the memoir to the greater narrative being told of women’s lives. But there is more to it than altruism. I quote William Blake: “If a fool persists in her folly, she will become wise.” I have taken liberties with Blake’s gender but not with his message. In my persistence, I hope I have gained a grain of wisdom.

Speaking about Motherlines

Speaking about Motherlines

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

When I was visiting my parents one summer, I heard my father say to my mother, “She’s 44, you think she would have found herself by now.” Right!

I think my parents were relieved when I moved to Maine in 1986 to be with my partner and begin my psychotherapy practice at Women to Women, a women-owned health clinic. When I published my first book in 1990, my father had been dead for three years.  My mother was proud and showed my book around, but I don’t believe she ever read it.  Just having my name on the book was enough for her.

Earlier, my five younger siblings were all involved with their own lives and probably the subject matter of my books—women’s psychology, mythology, dreams—was not something of interest, although they, too, were proud of my accomplishments.  Over time, their understanding and interest has grown and I can count on them always.

I am an introvert, so a few good people go a long way with me. I have always maintained a small group of women friends who are supportive of my work and I am part of  a larger network of colleagues, both in the writing world and the therapy world, that provides all sorts of support when I need it.

My parents

My parents

 

What have you learned along the way?

When it came to my next act, there was never one moment of choice, there were many, many, sometimes seemingly unrelated choices made along the way. Ultimately, I believe that decisions are not made per se. They reveal themselves, unfold through time, and take shape from steps already taken. All one needs is the next footfall. Rarely do we get the whole map. Even more rarely is there a final destination. Confidence is important, in the root meaning of the word, “with faith.” So faithfulness to one’s calling is a necessity.  A next act is a love child, conceived in desire, born without guarantees into an unknown future.

 

What advice and resources can you share with other would-be writers?

There were many steps leading to becoming the writer I am now. One of them was not an MFA in writing! I have attended several workshops, gone to a number of writer’s conferences, and worked with good editors. Writing does entail studying the craft. But finding one’s voice, and one’s subject is something that can’t be taught; it must come from the internal workings of one’s psyche and soul. Many writers pursue degrees, have writer’s groups, attend many writing workshops. There is much to learn, always. I am a woman of the book. Books have been my best teachers, friends, life-savers, lighthouses in a storm. I hope my own books have been that for others. When I hear someone out of the blue tell me how much my books have meant to them, I feel like I have fulfilled my lot in life.

My bookcase

My bookcase

Sometimes when people ask how I find the time to write, I say, it’s like having a lover who wants you all the time. It is often more a case of finding the time for everything else! There is a great deal of joy in the process but also there are hours, days, weeks, years of solitary labor. Luckily I have never had a dry spell or lacked for the next piece of writing to appear. There is always something in the pipeline.

Seeing my work published, whether as an article or a book, gives a great deal of fulfillment; it brings the creative process full circle to share my words with my readers. I am not immune to doubt or the occasional wobble. I have had to give up a big project that I thought was fiction and recast it as nonfiction. It wasn’t a big laugh to take all those hard won pages and turn it into nonfiction—unthinkable at first. It was an editor’s suggestion. It turned out to be the exact thing that needed to happen. Sometimes a writer is the last to know what she is doing!

The writing conference that I like best is AWP’s (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) annual conference and book fair. It is overwhelming, exhaustive and exhausting, thousands of people, diverse in all ways, featuring famous presenters alongside interesting panels with lesser known ones. And there is an enormous book fair featuring hundreds of publishers selling their books. Something for everyone. It’s like learning a language through immersion. I also enjoyed the Faulkner Fest in New Orleans.  High-end presenters, agents, and entertainment. A great gumbo of an experience, not to mention its location. I met my agent there.

My room at Ragdale Retreat

My room at Ragdale Retreat

Finally, I have benefitted greatly from two writing residencies at Ragdale in Lake Forest, Illinois. There is nothing like being given a month to write, a room of your own, a small community of other writers and artists, and delicious food, to make tracks on a project.  There are other residencies available in the US, Europe, and Mexico, but Ragdale is the one for me. Tried and True.

There are many writers’ magazines now. AWP sponsors The Writers Chronicle with good interviews, essays on craft, and a back section with listings for contests, conferences, and other information. And of course there are books that encourage writers. I could make a booklist of my favorites. Every writer’s process is different, and I like to read about the writer’s life. Certainly in the early days, there was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and Julia Cameron’s, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. They all pointed out how a creative practice is just that – a practice. There is a need for commitment, self-awareness, rituals such as morning pages, mantras, and meditations, to keep a person on track.

Lately, I have been impressed with Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. She offers a wise and irreverent approach to the writing life. When writing my memoir, I looked to Brené Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection and Courage for courage. Nothing is more vulnerable than writing a memoir! Sort of undressing in public.

There were and are so many things I have learned by committing to a creative work.  Building an ego and making money are not two of them! As in all relationships based on love, humility and perseverance are the primary virtues that get cultivated, as do dedication, willingness to engage, allowing for periods of unformed ideas, being able to reverse course when necessary, believing in the project, small or large, and being open to a certain amount of pure magic. Like building a good set of muscles, some things get easier over time, but coasting along is not an option. The Muse will take care of that in a hurry. Which is to say that my next act will be the one where I make my exit.

The only general advice possible for someone considering her next act can be found in this poem by William Stafford. 

The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

vision-quest

I did Vision Quest in midlife, and later co-led these ritual journeys into the wilderness

 

Looking back, do you wish you’d done anything differently?

There is nothing I regret, no steps I wish I hadn’t taken, or things that I wished hadn’t happened. Being a writer (and a psychotherapist for that matter) allows me to use all the experiences of life as grist for the mill. I see the necessity, even in what could be seen as missteps. This is a great consolation, as there is nothing unhappier than feeling like one’s life has been riddled by mistakes. As long as there is life, there is the possibility of redemption, and even revelation.

 

Contact Patricia Reis at preis@midmaine.com

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Motherlines: Love, Longing, and Liberation

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Becoming a Freelance Writer at 46: Linda’s Story

lindawolff_hsWith the empty nest looming large, Linda channeled her love of writing into a professional career. She writes about parenting, kids in college, women in midlife, and the empty nest on her own blog and other big name publications like Huffington Post and The Washington Post.

Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in Los Angeles with my parents and older brother and sister. Our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all lived less than ten minutes from us. Our busy, noisy home was filled with an endless stream of friends, dogs, and tropical fish. Sunday afternoons were busy with visiting cousins and grandparents, going to the park, pony rides, board games, and drawing on huge sheets of paper that covered our entire dinette table. (I never really progressed past stick-figure art. Oh, well.)

little-linda

Summers were spent almost entirely outside: swimming, dance-a-thons with our neighbor, and running through the sprinklers. Sundays were family and friend filled barbeques when my mom made her famous potato salad while my dad flipped burgers. All the kids stayed in the pool until their fingertips looked like raisins.

As the baby of three, I tested my parents’ patience and never failed to entertain them. By the time they had me, they were exhausted from having three kids in a little over four years. I still marvel at how my mom juggled so much.

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I was an average teenager and an average student, spending more time socializing and passing notes in class than studying and thinking of my future. When I was a junior in high school, my father passed away six weeks after discovering he had pancreatic cancer. As you can imagine, his death had a profound effect on my life. He was a real estate broker by trade, but his love was writing. We shared a fondness for Erma Bombeck, Johnny Carson, root beer floats, and anything chocolate. And if he were alive today, he would be my biggest fan and would probably have his own blog, too.

My parents when they were young

My parents when they were young

When I began college, I studied business, though desperately craved working in the real world. So at the end of my sophomore year, I took what I thought would be a year off—it lasted 15. During that time I met my husband-to-be on a blind date, at the age of 22, and we married a year and half later. When our kids (a son, 25, in law school in L.A. and a daughter, 22, a recent college graduate working in NYC) were little, I went back to college to finish my undergraduate degree in psychology and creative writing.

In college

In college

 

When did you start to think about making a change?

I’ve been writing my entire life. I have boxes filled with diaries and journals going back to when I was a little girl. I used to pretend I had my own magazine (think of a Tiger Beat meets Cosmopolitan) and force friends and family to take my surveys, like “Do blondes really have more fun?”

When my kids were in elementary school I volunteered to work on their school’s annual fundraising gala. Rather than help on the coveted decorating committee, I volunteered to join the more low-key auction catalog blurb writers’ committee. The gala was quite an extravaganza and the auction catalog was filled with hundreds of items. My blurbs were bold and witty, which came as a surprise to those who thought I was reserved. (I even surprised myself!) The committee liked my work and let me run wild. I loved every minute of it.

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Pregnant!

I wrote a silly (aka awful) children’s book and tried unsuccessfully to get it published, which was probably a blessing for the publishing industry and the parents and children who might have had to read it.

There was always a plan to do something meaningful when my nest emptied. Although it seems as if I fell into blogging by accident, while searching for empty nest advice online, it truly was a natural progression. My youngest was finishing her sophomore year in high school. The empty nest was looming. The time was ripe to make a change.

 

What is your next act?

I am a writer.

Almost six years ago I created my blog, Carpool Goddess. I chose that name because I was mostly writing parenting humor pieces and was looking for something funny. Some of my most popular posts are “10 Universal truths about parenting a teenager”, “How to drop your child off at college without losing your mind” http://www.carpoolgoddess.com/dropping-your-child-off-at-college/, and “Aging gracefully? Oh, hell no!” 

Expanding my freelance writing has been beyond exciting. When I began blogging, paid writing opportunities were few and far between. Many websites and brands offered “exposure” instead. Getting paid made me feel legitimate. I could call myself a writer without inwardly cringing.

One of my greatest accomplishments was having my first piece published on the Washington Post’s On Parenting site (which was a bucket list publication for me). I’ve also had pieces run on Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan, which are publications I grew up reading. I still pinch myself when I see my byline. It’s been such a thrill. Please click through to read “Preparing kids for college is not for the weak” (Washington Post), “My dad was an old-fashioned husband-but he wanted more for me” (Good Housekeeping), and “I cry over pretty much everything” (Cosmopolitan).

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Why did you choose this next act?  

I always wanted to write professionally. Maybe have my own column or write a saucy beach read. Another reoccurring goal was to go back to school to get a masters degree in journalism. For decades these were the dreams that never wavered. Nothing else came close.

 

How did you start writing professionally?

I fell into writing accidentally (though I’m now a firm believer that there are no accidents). While searching the Internet for empty nest survival tips, I stumbled across an article about the secret of people who are lucky. Basically, they “make their own luck.” How’s that you say? Well, “they see things others don’t see, because opportunity is everywhere.” So, I thought I’d give this a shot and scanned the entire page I was reading to see if an opportunity was waiting for me.

As luck would have it, there was a small ad at the bottom of the page for parenting bloggers for Yahoo’s parenting site that was soon to expire. I submitted a writing sample figuring I would never hear back and three weeks later received my acceptance. That was the beginning of a professional writing career and a new life. I was now a “Parenting Guru,” which my kids thought was hilarious because, truly, I have no clue what I’m doing.

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

For almost a year I wrote anonymously as Carpool Goddess. Finally I showed my blog to a close friend who loved it and encouraged me to share my writing. My family was also excited and supportive of my new adventure. They were extremely happy I had something that I loved doing so much. It surprised me at first when people in town took the time to come up to me and tell me that they liked my writing. It is still such a thrill and incredibly gratifying. And when I start doubting myself I think of them and it keeps me writing.

At my desk

At my desk

 

What challenges did you encounter?

As a private person the hardest thing for me, and something I sometimes struggle with, was putting my words out there for all to see, which is why I blogged anonymously my first year. It was difficult for me to start sharing my writing under my own name, which I had to do when I began writing on Huffington Post. I literally broke out in hives when my first writing gig required that I create a Facebook page. I had always been an under-the-radar kind of gal and Facebook was not me at all. Also, as a new writer, I had to get used to having my work rejected and learning to bounce back and keep plugging away even when I’m not feeling inspired.

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

I’ve had fleeting moments when I thought of giving up because a rejection, or string of them, hit hard. Or because keeping up with writing and social media can seem exhausting and overwhelming at times. But I’ve always aimed high and with that comes the risk of having someone say “No.” Then after soothing myself with some chocolate or a vanilla soy latte, and reading about others growth and success from sheer grit and perseverance, I remind myself how far I’ve come and how much further I want to go.

I love what I do and getting kicked to the curb only makes me want to work harder. And I have found that right when I feel like I want to give up most, if I just hang in there a little while longer a new opportunity comes my way. Many bloggers that started their blogs when I did aren’t around anymore. And I’m so glad I hung in there. Great things can happen if you stick around long enough. Never give up.

At Erma Bombeck Writers' Conference

At Erma Bombeck Writers’ Conference

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I learned that I had to thicken my skin and not take rejections or nasty comments by trolls to heart. And I found that right when I feel like I’m ready to give up, an opportunity comes my way. So basically, keep moving forward, never give up, and don’t read the comments.

 

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

Yes. I wish I had pursued writing when I was younger as I had always dreamed and not been so afraid to put my words and heart out for all to see. In high school I was much too shy and insecure to join the newspaper, even though my English teacher encouraged my writing. With age I’ve become more fearless, which seems to be a common sentiment amongst us, as we get older. I’m trying to care less what others think. Easier said than done.

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

Think of the things that make you happy. What did you want to always do but never had time for? Maybe it’s taking a class or starting a business. Ask yourself if you’re missing a creative or entrepreneurial outlet. I always loved writing, and as an extroverted-introvert love social media, so creating this career has been a dream come true.

 

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

Read everything. Write as much as you can. Lovingly stalk the work of those you admire: what they write, how they write, how they promote themselves. I have so many mentors who inspire me every day, many of whom have become friends. Don’t be discouraged when someone says you can’t do something or it sounds silly. My first year of blogging was a mixed bag of people who were excited about my writing adventure and those who would corner me in the supermarket and ask me what I’m hoping to achieve from this and had the nerve to ask if I’m making any money.

A group of us who contributed to the anthology Not Your Mother's Book on Being a Mom

A group of us who contributed to the anthology Not Your Mother’s Book…On Being a Mom

 

What resources do you recommend?

For the newbie blogger, I recommend visiting TheSitsGirls. They were my go-to website to learn everything I needed to know from blogging to social media.

Lovingly stalk your mentors and more experienced writers in your niche. See what they’re doing and learn how they do it, from writing techniques to how they use social media. Reading other writers work has always been a huge inspiration to me.

My favorite book on writing is Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It’s chock full of brilliant ideas and funny to boot.

Go to blogger or writers conferences to learn and make connections. Becoming part of a community of like-minded people has been incredibly enriching and rewarding.

Also, Midlife Boulevard is a great source of midlife inspiration and a wonderfully supportive community of midlife women.

 

 

At USC where I'm getting my Master's

At USC where I’m getting my Master’s

 

What’s next for you? 

I’m a big fan of Bucket Lists and New Year’s Resolutions. And the top of my list every year, for years, was going to graduate school. What kept me from moving forward was worrying that I might be too old or not disciplined enough to take on this commitment. And, let’s be honest, having to study for the GRE (graduate school entrance exam) when I haven’t been in a math class in over thirty years was also a major deterrent. But when something keeps nagging at your soul you have to go for it. And finally, the time seemed right and the task of applying not as daunting, and I was ready to fully commit myself to the program.

In the two months between dropping my daughter off for her senior year in college and when she flew home for Thanksgiving, I completely immersed myself in studying, applying, and essay writing. The agony of waiting until March to hear back from USC was agonizing. I felt what every kid in America must feel as they sweat bullets waiting for college decisions.

I’ll never forget turning on my cell phone and finding an email notification that USC had made a decision. Fearing rejection, I waited an hour open it. Which didn’t seem like much time since I waited almost twenty years to apply. I didn’t really believe the words at first. In fact, I made my husband read it to me just to be sure I wasn’t dreaming. Receiving an acceptance from USC for the Master of Journalism was one of the greatest moments of my life.

Another thrilling “first” for me this year was public speaking, which is something I always wanted to do, but was too terrified to do it. I literally broke out in hives the day I spoke with fellow young adult/empty nest blogger, Sharon Greenthal (Empty House Full Mind), to a group of first time college moms about the transition to college and freshman year. I had the best time! I LOVED it and could have talked all night, or at least until they threw me out. And now I can’t wait to speak again. So, if you’re looking for someone who has been there, done that and can speak about blogging and social media, kids going off to college or midlife reinvention, I’m your gal!

 

Contact Linda Wolff at Linda@carpoolgoddess.com

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Blogging About Believing in Yourself: Margaret’s Story

margaret-rutherfordAfter switching careers from music to psychology, Dr. Margaret was seeking a new creative outlet. She found it in her blog, where she writes about mental health (especially what she terms “Perfectly Hidden Depression”), midlife, and relationships.

 

Tell us a little about your background.

I grew up in the Delta region of southern Arkansas, in the little town of Pine Bluff. My father was a funeral director and bank director, and very loved within the community. My mother was a heels-and-hose, beautifully mannered and kind woman, who cared for me and my two older brothers. I took etiquette lessons, learned to walk with a book on my head, and read Shakespearean verse. I was supposed to come out as a debutante at around 16, but I informed my mom I was already “out.”

Me with my mom, aunt, grandmother and brother (photobombing)

Me with my mom, aunt, grandmother and brother (photobombing)

I have always rebelled against following rules – sometimes a strength, and sometimes a weakness.

I originally graduated from Southwestern At Memphis (now Rhodes College) with a degree in French. I went on to become a professional vocalist in Dallas (music had always been my first love). I sang jingles during the day and jazz at night. But I wasn’t very happy personally—the lifestyle didn’t fit me. I had grown up in a very stable environment, and it was hard to constantly look for gigs or always be selling your talent to jingle producers. Plus, the jingle business was constantly searching for fresh, new voices. It was very easy to get replaced, and get replaced quickly.

Singing in a nightclub in Dallas

Singing in a nightclub in Dallas

I changed my career to something I knew would be more stable. I wanted to use my mind more – and I wanted to help others. I learned this when I volunteered at Dallas’ Battered Women’s Shelter. That was a life-altering experience. I had never felt better as a person than when I ended my shift there at the shelter. So I used all my savings to go to Southern Methodist University and study Music Therapy, then applied to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School for a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. I did get in, but was told years later that it had been due more to curiosity than much else: They’d never had a singer want to become a psychologist. I was granted my Ph.D. at the age of 38.

I have been married 25 years to a wonderful guy, and we were lucky enough to have a son through in vitro fertilization. That son just graduated from Vanderbilt and is headed to California to work. I was in practice in Dallas for a short period of time, but have been in private practice in Fayetteville, Arkansas, since 1993, where I see mostly adults and families. I specialize in depression, trauma, and marital work.

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When did you start to think about making a change?

After 20 years in private practice, in 2012, I decided that I wanted to extend the walls of my practice to try to reach more people. I loved being a therapist. I wasn’t burned out at all, but I thought writing would give me another outlet to share some of the wisdom I had learned from the patients I had seen. I had time on my hands, since our son had left for college. And I needed a new creative venture.

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What is your next act?

I am a writer. My blog, Dr. Margaret Rutherford, which I launched at age 58, has turned into another job. Posts vary from giving advice on depression to helping build skills in relationships to how to handle grief—basically the things that I do in my practice. Popular posts have included my work on a particular presentation of depression (Perfectly Hidden Depression), articles on sexual abuse, and my musings on marriage after 24 years.

My two criteria for continuing to write are: I am getting feedback that my posts are helpful, and I am having fun. Those remain my guideposts. Sometimes, when the cart gets before the horse, or I take on too much, I stop having fun. That’s when I have to breathe and sort out what’s causing the tension.

I’m still seeing between 30 and 35 patients a week, and have been since the beginning. But I also spend at least 20 hours a week writing. I have contributed my writing to two books, Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor (A. Herzig), and The Stigma Fighters Anthology (Volume 2) (S. Fader) and have my own eBook, Seven Commandments of Good Therapy available for free download on my website.

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I’m the mental health featured writer for Midlife Boulevard, and you can find my work on The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, Better After 50, Vibrant Nation, The Mighty, and Arkansas Women Bloggers. I’ve guest-posted on Psychology Today, and my opinions on depression and relationships can be found on Readers Digest, The Cheat Sheet, and Huffington Post Divorce.

I’m now researching and writing my own book on a syndrome I call “Perfectly Hidden Depression.” PHD is depression gone underground, so to speak. There are people who may or may not realize they’re depressed, but actively hide their sadness and loneliness by erecting a perfect façade of happiness or contentment. They’ve learned that it’s weak or not acceptable to express pain.

 

Why did you choose this next act?  

I knew I wanted to do something creative. I had done a fair amount of acting and singing in the community in my 40s and even early 50s, and had really enjoyed it. So I tried to go back to theatre, but it didn’t work for me as well. Singing is something you have to work hard on every day, and I hadn’t had time to practice, or even sing, in years. When writing was suggested, I had to stop and think. “Me? A writer?” And then, I thought, “Well, if nobody reads it, I guess that will give me the information I need. And I’ll try something else.”

I love writing. I had always loved to write funny emails, or actual letters (If anyone reading remembers letters…). But other than that, after my dissertation, I had sworn I would never write another word. There was a steep learning curve in the first year, and my writing changed drastically. Now I’m trying to learn to switch from the kind of writing that fits a blog, and the kind that works in a book.

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How hard was it to take the plunge?

As far as blogging is concerned, I actually worried about the ethicality of writing more than anything else. Therapists don’t talk about themselves with their patients, or only when it might be clinically helpful. Would me writing about my own life, or my experiences and thoughts as a therapist, somehow muddle or harm my work with patients? What if they read it? How would we talk about it?

I saw, however, that many mental health professionals were on social media like Facebook or Instagram. And since I live in a smaller town, it’s not at all difficult to find out things about me. I’m a very open, direct therapist—if it became a problem for someone, we would talk about it. It did one time. I had written a post about my empty nest feelings. One person said, “I know you’ve been upset, I feel funny talking about my problems.” I asked her to quit reading the blog, and she agreed. In many ways, my posts are a good litmus test to see if you’d enjoy working with me. So the benefits outweighed the concern.

I don’t think I prepared at all. I read a few blogs, but quickly realized I didn’t want to be overly influenced by the writing style of others. I dove in, head first!

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

My husband has been tremendously supportive. I don’t think I’ve done more than two loads of laundry in the past two years. My son only reads my blog occasionally, but that’s as it should be. He’s always asking about how “the writing” is going, however, and has cheered me on.

Some friends were a bit dubious, mainly wondering why I wanted to add to an already busy schedule. But they’re now very supportive.

 

My book club

My book club

 

What challenges have you encountered?

Time. There’s not enough of it. I’ve had to practice time management, even more than normal. And I know I have, at times, pushed myself way too hard. I’ve maintained a full patient load (that’s seeing around 35 patients a week) and blogged regularly. It’s been a challenge, to say the least. I’m now taking a day off every week, but that only began in May of this year.

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

I’ve not thought about giving up blogging. But it’s difficult occasionally not to compare my life with others. Keeping my eye, and my spirit, focused on my purpose, has been vital to maintaining my joy in the process. The hours it takes to write cut into my time with family and friends. But it’s worth it.

Every time I have thought about stopping, I’ll get an email, or a comment, thanking me for touching their life. That’s all the motivation I need.

The same goes, actually, for becoming a psychologist. It can take several years to get all the training, and I remember thinking about what my other friends were doing with their life – buying homes, having children. In midlife, the equivalent might be early retirement or traveling. It takes sacrificing some things to reach your own goal. At times, it can be lonely.

With my husband and son in Puerto Rico - we love to travel!

With my husband and son in Puerto Rico – we love to travel!

 

What are you learning about yourself through this process?

My friends tell me I’ve emotionally opened myself up more, and I think they’re right. I’ve risked stating my experience, my opinion, and my ideas over social media. That changes you.

I’ve learned that 5:00 in the morning is a great time for self-reflection.

And I’ve learned (again in some ways) that risking is worth it. You’re never too old to learn something new.

 

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

This is a loaded question! Lol… I have regrets in my life, mostly about being divorced twice. But in some ways, those failures caused me to be even more driven to change in a positive direction. I had had enough of chaos. I know those painful experiences give me empathy for others.

As far as becoming a psychologist, there are programs out there that don’t include writing a dissertation. It’s called a Psy.D. I might have done that instead, since I wasn’t all that interested in clinical research.

My blogging venture? I would’ve reached out more, early on, to other bloggers. I didn’t realize how much support was available from blogging colleagues.

 

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

When I hear anyone say that they’re too old to try something, I ask this question. “Do you believe you have a reasonable chance of living for another decade or two?” The answer is usually yes. “Then why wouldn’t you want to spend that time doing something that intrigues or challenges you, rather than not?”

Yes, it’s true that the dreams we might have had in our twenties cannot practically happen now. But you can get close to the feelings and experiences you once might have treasured. If you wanted to be a ballerina, take dance classes. If you wanted to travel the world, pick somewhere you’d like to go, and go. If you wanted to teach, get back in a classroom, or volunteer to help someone learn to read. You can honor that part of you that wants expression. As long as you have your health and your mind, it’s all possible.

I still perform: Playing Cookie Cusack in "Rumors" in 2013

I still perform: Playing Cookie Cusack in “Rumors” in 2013

 

What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your reinvention path?

If you want to become a therapist, realize there are many different ways of doing that. Some take longer than others. You need to look into social work, licensed professional counseling, as well as psychology.

As far as blogging is concerned, it’s important to know what you want to create, and stay true to your own writing voice. Comparison with others will kill the joy in it. I also think it’s very helpful, if not vital, to have someone who will be honest about your writing, and make editorial suggestions. That person can also act as a cheerleader!

At the Great Wall in China

At the Great Wall in China

 

What resources do you recommend?

This is a very practical article about becoming a psychologist.

Here’s a great article about the many sorts of helping professionals.

Here are some great blogging start-up suggestions.

The best help for bloggers who want to make money blogging? Susan Maccarelli’s website Beyond Your Blog.

We love our Arkansa Razorbacks!

We love our Arkansas Razorbacks!

 

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

Currently, I’m writing a book on a topic that has gone viral on my site, Perfectly Hidden Depression. I have a literary agent, and am learning all about proposals and trying to get the attention of an acquiring editor. I’ve worked on it for a year already, and there’s a steep learning curve!

As far as the next few years…

I’ve advised others – if it doesn’t exist, create it.

I imagine that if I’m disappointed in where my life is going, or frustrated about finding purpose, I will continue looking for opportunity to create what I need. It’s probable others would enjoy or need it as well!

 

Contact Dr. Margaret Rutherford at askdrmargaret@drmargaretrutherford.com

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Writing a Lesbian Novel in Midlife: Anne’s Story

unspecified-11After she got a handle on her son’s medical issues and homeschooling, Anne finally put down on paper the story that had been percolating in her mind. She is now shopping her lesbian novel to agents and publishers.

Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in a small town in Iowa and now live in Chicago with my wife Joanne and our ten-year-old son. I’ve been a voracious reader my entire life and wrote a lot of poems and short stories in my childhood. In high school, I wrote consistently for the school paper, which led me to consider a career in journalism.

I attended the University of Missouri-Columbia, and my original plan was to get a journalism degree and become a sports reporter. I took some electives in technical theater and fell in love with the communal creative process, so I finished with degrees in journalism and tech theater.

Graduating Mizzou

Graduating Mizzou

I moved to California to work in the production office at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts, and stayed four years. I did some writing during my off hours and also explored my interest in photography, taking photos during rehearsals and dress rehearsals. I taught myself to develop and print my own black-and-white shots in an unused darkroom at the theater. It was while I was in California that I realized I was a lesbian. I was a little slow to the party, figuring this out in my mid-twenties, but I’m lucky that my family and friends were supportive and caring.

Doing project work at PCPA

Doing project work at PCPA

I met Joanne online, way back when that was still a crazy way to find someone! We supported each other as we came out in our respective worlds, and soon our friendship turned to more. She was in her medical residency in Chicago, which made it difficult for her to relocate, so I left my job to move to back to the Midwest and see what was possible for us. It’s been over fifteen years now, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made!

With Joanne, the early years

With Joanne, the early years

My hope was to find a job in theater in Chicago, but I ended up working in condo management for a few years while I did some freelance proofreading. My relationship with Joanne was everything I could have hoped for, but losing the creative spirit I’d found in theater was a challenging transition.

As Joanne finished her residency, we decided to adopt a child. We’d been warned to expect a long wait, particularly since we were a gay couple, but we were selected within a month of submitting our portfolio to the agency, and within another month, our son was born! At the age of 31, I quickly pivoted to being a stay-at-home parent, which had always been our plan.

With our son, 10 months old

With our son, 10 months old

Before our son was a year old, we discovered he’d had a neonatal stroke, which resulted in hemiplegia (weakness on one side of the body). The next few years were a blur of therapies as we worked to get a handle on what this meant for him. I wasn’t writing during this time, but I signed up for a wheel-throwing pottery class, and it’s something I continue to pursue. Pottery was my first step back into the creative world that I’d been missing.

At the wheel

At the wheel

We originally put our son in public school, and my hope was to use some of that time to start writing again. I also began exploring ways to sell my pottery at art shows and festivals. But as many parents of special needs kids know, a lot of schools don’t have the resources, staff, or training to address the individual needs of these children. By the beginning of second grade, it was apparent that traditional schooling wasn’t a good fit for our son intellectually or emotionally.

In another quick pivot, we pulled him from school and began homeschooling. The change really helped our son, and I put all my energy into planning his curriculum and finding educational resources. My wife was always extremely supportive and involved during this time, but as the stay-at-home parent, I put a lot of pressure on myself to find the optimal way to handle our son’s schooling, sometimes to my own detriment. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve found more of a balance between meeting all of my son’s needs while allowing time and space for my own interests. I think finding that balance was necessary before I could move forward with my novel.

Homeschooling

Homeschooling

 

When did you start to think about making a change?

I’m not sure I view it as a change so much as an addition to my current life. I’m still a stay-at-home parent and still homeschool our son. But his medical issues and the struggle with the public schools took up most of the space in my head for a while and I had to learn to step away from the intensity of that experience and still leave time for myself. As I did this, I think the framework of the novel began to fill the open space in my thoughts.

The story grew out of a discussion Joanne and I had around my 40th birthday about what would happen if one of us died first. As a doctor, Joanne has witnessed death from many perspectives, and because of that, we have more honest conversations about death than many couples might. We asked each other to be open to the idea of moving on and finding happiness with another person.

As I drove my son to various appointments and classes, I pondered this idea, wondering what that experience could possibly look like. That’s really the genesis for the book. This percolated in my brain for a few years until the need to get the story down on paper became too great to ignore.

 

My finished manuscript

My finished manuscript

What is your next act?

I am a novelist. I’m searching for an agent for my novel, Beyond Any Experience, which focuses on a woman in her mid-forties who lost her wife to a tragic accident a few years ago and has been unable to move on. Complicating things for her is the fact that she’s also a single parent to their autistic son. It’s a love story, but it’s also an examination of grief, recovery, and the struggle to care for a child during a time of emotional trauma. It’s not a typical light-hearted romance, but I’ve always enjoyed stories that mix the dark and the light in a realistic way. I like books and movies that make me laugh and cry.

Given that I spent a good part of my twenties trying to write a novel, it’s ironic that the novel I finally finished could never have been written then. At 26, I didn’t have the life experience to even conceive of this character or this story, and I’d only recently discovered my sexuality. This story exists because of my age, not in spite of it.

My novel is a contemporary romance that contains elements of women’s fiction along with frank scenes of lesbian sexuality. It was a goal of mine to have the book be sex-positive, because a lot of the framework for lesbian sexuality is either it’s something to turn on heterosexual males or it’s the “we’re best friends, lesbian bed-death” trope. Also, and this is true in any new relationship, the development of the relationship hinges on many factors that all interrelate. The emotional life of my characters and the physical life of my characters are not separate. For me, I needed to examine the whole relationship, not just one half or the other.

 

Why did you choose this next act?  

The book chose me, really. I’d written a lot in my teens and twenties but never finished a project, and everything got put on hold with the sudden adoption of our son. I wrote this particular story because I couldn’t find anything like it. A common piece of advice is to write the book you want to read, and that’s certainly true for me. I devoured fantasy and science fiction as a teen and young adult, but in the last decade, I’ve been trying to find more realistic stories that portray an experience I can relate to. I’ve ended up reading a lot of non-fiction because I can’t find much thoughtful, serious fiction that speaks to my experience as a lesbian, as a parent to a special-needs child, as a middle-aged woman.

It’s been important for me to learn that my creativity can be an integrated part of my life, rather than something that will happen when my son is old enough, or when retirement age comes around. Along with writing this book, I continued to throw pottery. Working with my hands is very meditative, and I’m grateful pottery provided a bridge back to the creative world when I didn’t have the mental space or energy to write yet.

 

High fire altered piece

High fire altered piece

 

How hard was it to take the plunge?

I’d been stewing on the book for several years in my head, off and on, so the only hard part to taking the plunge was to admit to myself I wanted to take the risk of putting this on paper. I believed in the story, but I was nervous to actually start writing again because I’d set it aside for so long, and because I’d never yet finished a book I’d started.

My sister gave me a blank journal at Christmas, with no idea I was considering something, and it seemed like the last little sign. I finally took a breath and told my wife that I wanted to write this book, and she was completely supportive and enthusiastic. I knew she would be, of course, but saying the words out loud to her was really the last thing that would commit me to the process.

About mid-January of this year, just before my 42nd birthday, I started writing it longhand when my son was at classes and in the evenings, and within four weeks I had the first draft. I’m not sure I’ll ever write another book that quickly, but it worked this time!

I’m very much a planner and organizer. I excel at it, actually, but the best things in my life have come unexpectedly — meeting my wife online, moving to Chicago without a job, our son falling in our laps in such a short time. I think this particular book worked because I didn’t sit down and plan to write a novel from a short summary or outline. I just started writing down the story that already existed very clearly in my mind.

 

The first draft, longhand

The first draft, longhand

How supportive were your family and friends?

I only told my wife as I worked on the first draft. It was a promise to myself to just do the work rather than talk about it. My wife has been my biggest cheerleader from the beginning, and that has never wavered. My son, who doesn’t know the topic of the book, quickly figured out I was working on something, and he’s also been a big supporter. He loves to “out” me to random people and inform them I’ve written a novel!

After I moved into the next few drafts, I started telling family and friends and everyone has been great about it. Lots of people volunteered to be beta readers, and having their feedback has been incredibly helpful. Handing the book over to a new reader is always nerve-wracking, especially with the sex scenes being a part of the story, but all my readers have been encouraging and enthusiastic. It’s helped to have straight readers tell me they really identified with the main (lesbian) characters, and the sex scenes were just part of the story development for them. 

My family

My family

What challenges are you encountering?

I’m in the challenging part now! I have a manuscript I believe in, and I’m shopping it to agents. The first time I clicked the “send” button to email the query letter to an agent, I flinched a little, I can’t lie. The pragmatic part of you expects rejection, of course, but it does sting each time you get a polite “no thanks.”

On the positive side, there has been agent interest in reading the entire manuscript, so I’m waiting to see how that turns out. My goal is to work with a traditional publisher. I’ve researched self-publishing, and it is an option, but given the demands on my time, I’d love the collaboration and support of working with a publishing team. To that end, I’ve started participating in various Twitter contests that can provide an avenue to agents, including a large one called Pitch Wars, organized by Brenda Drake. Although I wasn’t one of the writers selected, diving into the contest provided invaluable connections with the writing community and feedback.

I still struggle with the idea that putting time and energy into this novel (or my pottery) is time not spent homeschooling or doing research about homeschooling, but I have enough perspective now to realize keeping some time for myself makes me a happier, more relaxed parent overall. And my wife is excellent about reminding me of this! Also, I like the idea that my son sees both of his parents pursuing work that fulfills them. He’s a gifted computer programmer for his age, so he works on his projects while I work on mine.

Raku enclosed form with leaves

Raku enclosed form with leaves

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

I never thought about giving up as I was writing the book, but there are times I feel insecure about the market and the fact that my book deals with issues like grief, single parenting, a special-needs child, and an intercultural relationship, all wrapped up in a passionate love story. But that same mix of elements is what keeps me going, as well.

A lot of romances revolve around perfect bodies and perfect ages and perfect incomes. I believe we need more realistic love stories involving people of all ages, shapes, colors, sexualities, and backgrounds. Having the sexual relationship be an equal part of the novel made me a little nervous, because the idea that women can have strong sexual lives is still taboo for many people, especially when those sexual lives don’t involve men. But I was heartened recently when, during the White House Summit on the United State of Women, President Obama said, “We need to change the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality, but gives men a pat on the back for theirs.” I agree completely with this sentiment.

In terms of who has kept me going, my wife is the most amazing spouse on the planet and has been a champion of the book from the moment I told her I wanted to write it. (Although I wouldn’t let her read anything until the whole first draft was finished, and the waiting nearly killed her!) Also, all of my beta readers have been so positive, and they’ve been extremely patient with all of my questions.

 

With Joanne

With Joanne

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I learned that I can write 100,000 words, which is no small feat! Given my past work as a copy editor and proofreader, I had to learn that it’s to my advantage to turn off the editor and just get the ideas on the page. There’s always time to go back and rework and tear it apart and try again, but without the words on the page, there’s nothing.

I also learned how to put more time into my own interests, and to commit to my needs without compromising the needs of my son.

 

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

Not really. Part of me wants to say I should have kept at the writing through my thirties, but honestly, I think the break and the chance to live my life without the expectation of being a writer is what allowed me to be where I am now.

I think the sudden pressure to be a homeschooling parent may have shut off some of my creative energy for a time, but that experience has made me better aware now of keeping balance in my life.

The kitchen table where I often write

The kitchen table where I often write

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

Having the support of a spouse, family member, or friend makes all the difference. You need someone to talk to when you hit a sticking point, or feel insecure, or struggle. Also, I’m 42, which I know is on the younger side for midlife transitions, but I hope other women who are still in the middle of parenting or careers read this and realize a dream doesn’t have to wait for kids to finish high school or for retirement to come around. It’s about giving yourself windows in your current life to explore the opportunity you’ve been considering.

If you know what you want to do and haven’t found the courage yet, I would say take a breath and just start. Don’t overthink or over-edit before you even get a chance to get going.

If you don’t know what you want to do, but you’re feeling a loss of direction, or a drifting sense, take some classes. Try something. My pottery, for example, was a creative interest I’d had for years and never indulged. It’s been great to find that outlet. Try a few things. Risk being bad at it for a little while. It’s the only way you’ll know what’s available to you.

 

Saggar bottle

Saggar bottle

 

What advice do you have for would-be novelists?

Start writing. Read a lot. (I feel like this is pretty natural for most folks who would like to write.) I came to this with prior experience writing and editing, and that was a help, but it’s not a requirement. Try to find the story or the idea that you’ve always wanted to read but have never been able to find. I know some people try to write to a market (Young Adult is very hot right now with agents), but if it’s not a story you would want to read, then don’t write it just because it’s a trend. It’s hard enough writing an entire book when you believe in the story. Don’t make it harder by writing to meet someone else’s perceived market.

Also, write where you can, when you can. A lot of writing advice is to write at the same time every day in a sacrosanct space. This sounds nice, but not everyone has that opportunity. I live in a two-bedroom condo! I write at the kitchen table and at Starbucks, primarily, and not always at the same time of day.

 

Writing at Starbucks

Writing at Starbucks

 

What resources do you recommend?

Twitter – It’s a good place to track the writing/agent/publishing world, including trends and which agents are seeking your kind of manuscript. But it’s been most valuable to me in discovering a supportive online writing community, both within my genre and outside of it.

Facebook – again for networking, and it’s helpful in building your author’s platform, which agents like to see.

SquareSpace – I used this to set up my website.

Park district/YMCA classes – for those women wanting a midlife change but unsure of a direction, I really recommend affordable classes in different topics. Give yourself a chance to try something new. Also, if you want to be a writer, I think a second creative hobby involving your hands is a good way to step away from the screen or page and use your mind in a different way.

Peer feedback – having multiple sets of eyes is really helpful, and if you ask enough people to read it, you’ll have a collection of unique perspectives to consider.

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Chicago Writer’s Conference

Manuscript Wish List

Query Tracker – helping authors find literary agents

Brenda Drake – good resource for tracking pitch options on Twitter

Script Alchemy – helps you sort out the hashtags and what weekly Twitter options are available for authors

Writer’s Digest

Aeorogramme Writers’ Studio

Jane Friedman’s blog

Publisher’s Weekly

 

My editing buddy

My editing buddy

 

What’s next for you?

I want to write more novels that feature lesbians who are already out and who are comfortable with their sexuality. Coming out books are important and they’re being written, especially in the YA world, but I want to tell stories beyond the coming out process. Themes like love, grief, and parenting are universal, and there’s no reason the entire lesbian experience can’t be used to reflect those themes to the wider world.

I’m also working to expand the sale of my pottery. Typically, I’ve sold face-to-face at shows, but after putting a gallery of my work on my website, I’ve received requests for individual pieces online and through email. I’ll be working to build a small shop through my website.

 

Contact Anne Terpstra at aeterpstra@gmail.com

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