It was a regular day just like any other, probably a Tuesday. The sun was low in the sky and my stepson was home from elementary school. We’d just finished a family dinner at a long, wooden kitchen table and I was clearing the plates while my little boy sat on the bench, legs kicking, probably doing some homework or play fighting with some plastic figures.
I can’t remember any of this part exactly. Because what I remember is what came after it.
My then husband was a former Army soldier who had just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. He’d recently enrolled at the local community college with his GI bill while I, already a college graduate, played breadwinner and mom and wife.
I remember a gnawing feeling of unhappiness that had gone on for several years by that point, but I couldn’t allow those feelings to bubble up because things were just the way they were. That was the end of the story. And anyway, I loved him. He was my husband and this was my life.
Aren’t so many women this way?
“I’m going to go meet some friends to study,” he said as I was washing the plates in warm, sudsy water. “At the Chili’s over by the Home Depot.”
“That sounds good,” I said, drying my hands and stepping away from the sink. “I’ll see you later.”
A kiss. A wave. Just like any other day.
But it wasn’t going to be like any other day.
I’d noticed that he’d been staying late in art class lately – to work on some of his pieces, he’d said. I’d never questioned it because I never had a reason to. Why mistrust a person who I’d been with for more than eight years, and who had made a promise in front of our family and God that he’d love me forever?
But as the hours ticked by an uneasy sensation sprouted in my gut. I gave my stepson a bath, we finished his homework, I read him a story, I tucked him into bed. And as it got even later my stomach churned violently, perhaps sensing what was to come.
I decided to call him in an effort to quell the anxiety. I’ll just see when he’s coming home, I’d thought, not wanting to be an overbearing wife.
Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. “Hey, this is Johnny. Leave me a message and I’ll get back to you.”
“Hey! It’s me. I was just checking in. Could you give me a call back? I was wondering where you were and what time you were coming home. I’m starting to get a little worried about you.”
I hung up. I waited. I paced. It gnawed.
An hour or so passed so I called him again. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. “Hey, this is Johnny. Leave me a message and I’ll get back to you.”
I hung up. I paced. Now I had to think. Think, think.
I dialed the number again.
“Hey, this is Johnny. Leave me a message and I’ll get back to you.” No rings this time. Just voicemail.
But what does that mean? Did he turn the phone off? Did the battery die? Did he break it? What happened and why isn’t he calling me? He’s never done this before.
When you trust somebody you don’t jump right to the worst possible place. You move through the logical steps of what might have happened and you eliminate every single one of those before you begin to allow doubt to enter your mind. Before you allow truth to enter your spirit – which we often block out in the name of love.
Around 10:00 p.m. I pulled my sleeping stepson out of bed so we could go look for his father.
“Mom? Where are we going?” he said as he rubbed his eyes and shuffled with me toward the garage.
“Shhhh, don’t worry. We just need to take a ride,” I said as I buckled him into the back seat, forcing a smile as only moms can do. “It’s okay, go back to sleep.”
Thankfully, he did.
I drove wildly down the long country road we traversed when coming and going from the house – a rarity in the DFW metroplex – with tears streaming down my face and a pounding in my chest. I examined every ditch, every turn, desperate for an answer to the panic that was exploding inside my body.
I drove all the way to the Chili’s which, of course, was closed by then. The parking lot stood still and white except for one or two lingering cars, the sounds of crickets, and a panicked wife in a black Honda Civic.
I tried to call him again.
“Hey, this is Johnny. Leave me a message and I’ll get back to you.” No ring, no answer.
I drove back down that country road in utter defeat. The tears were splayed into a matted mess of makeup on my face, my heart was empty, and I felt like a cold shell of a human. I gently put my stepson back into his bed and then sat down on the sofa with my head in my hands.
I cried my soul into those hands until, sometime after midnight, I received a call.
“Oh my God, where are you?”
“I lied to you.”
“What? Are you ok?” I stammered to a silent line. No answer.
“Look just come home and we’ll talk about it when you get here.”
I waited, wringing my hands, pacing, wondering what he meant and still not knowing what was coming my way. In fact, relief was flooding my body in a blanket of warmth – because he was okay. He was safe. He was coming home and we’d figure out whatever it was he had to share.
“I was with someone else,” he said after walking through the door. “I’ve been seeing her for a while and I don’t want to be with you anymore. I want a divorce. I’m leaving.”
Gut punch. Open mouth. Nothing coming out.
Then he went to pack his things.
“What? No….” I’d lost air.
And then I was on my knees, begging.
And then tears turned into rivers.
And then I was crawling behind him as he packed his things, as he walked, as he left. And then the garage door closed and he was gone.
This is the worst day of my life, I thought to myself as I fell into a heap in the master bedroom closet. I didn’t know what to do just yet, but I wanted to make sure my child didn’t hear me crying my eyes out. So I went to the place with the most sound absorption and, in fact, the closet is still where I go to cry.
There are a lot of things that happened after that day. I lost my son. I lost my house. I lost my life. I lost my future.
I spent about a year floating around, void of identity, not knowing who I was outside of “Johnny’s girl.” We’d been together since I was seventeen years old and I was now twenty-six. Who the hell was I? What was I doing in this world, now that my future had been erased?
I remember calling a family member shortly after he left me, probably the next morning but it may have been in the middle of the night. I remember she said that sometimes the worst day of your life turns out to be the best thing to ever happen to you.
What rubbish, I thought. My husband has been cheating on me, I was too stupid to see it, and he just left me. Now I’m alone and I’ve lost everything. How could this possibly be the best day of my life?
But she was right, you know. I suffered a lot in my late twenties and early thirties. I was lonely, I was lost, I was unsure of myself, I was afraid. But I grew and I changed. I forged a life and a career for myself. I locked the memories of motherhood into my chest where I could treasure them for the rest of my life.
And then after a few really unsuccessful love affairs, I met a man in my early thirties who was the right match for me. I married him because I loved him and wanted to be with him – not because he loved me and I needed that in my life, like I did the first time around.
And I so often say to my husband, even now, “I’m so glad Johnny left me. You’re so much better as a husband, and he and I weren’t a match at all. I don’t even know what we had in common.”
I write my blogs and my books and my poetry to try to process life and to share the lessons I’ve learned along the way. Like that your worst day canbe your best day – in hindsight, of course. Because the worst day of my life actually unshackled me from an existence I was chained to. An existence that was not suited for me. An existence that I didn’t want, because I didn’t even really know who I truly was.
After my divorce I began writing. I began dancing again. I became certified as a yoga teacher. I made friends.
I learned what a margarita tasted like and what foods I actually preferred. I learned to sit quietly with my own thoughts and I overcame my debilitating shyness. I found some self-confidence that I’d never had and I gained some pride in my ability to overcome adversity.
I learned who the real me was for the first time in my life, and I got to embrace her with open arms.
And here I am, almost exactly 13 years later, being my best self. Sharing my wisdom with you in an effort to promote a book that was born out of the ashes of these experiences.
What a glorious day, indeed.
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife, is now available!
I’m reading a novel right now called The Winds of War and, while I haven’t figured out just yet what the “winds” part of the title means, it got me thinking about things that tend to blow into and out of life on a regular basis.
Sure, people blow into and out of your life all the time. The weather blows in and out with the seasons. The holidays come and go, as do birthdays and anniversaries. But there are other things that blow in and out, too, including one of my frequent companions: self-doubt.
We can probably all agree that self-doubt isn’t the only emotion that blows around. In fact, I’m experiencing a lot of those other emotions this morning along with my current bout of self-doubt: anxiety, fear, panic, etc. I continue to work to manage those transient feelings so that I don’t allow them to shake the essence of who I am, but some days are harder than others.
I’ve met people who seem to be endlessly confident. Have you? It seems like nothing can touch their sense of self and I sometimes wonder if it’s because they’ve worked tirelessly to nurture it, or if they were just born into an environment that shuttered the negative winds out and built their spirit up on a regular basis.
(As an aside, I don’t know if any of us is confident all the time – even those who appear unshakeable. I think we can be confident in certain areas or while doing certain things, but I also think that self-doubt or fear or anxiety will still blow in from time to time when we step into an unfamiliar space.)
Since my childhood had gaping, war-like holes in the walls and was orchestrated by a person who mostly saw – and pointed out – my faults, I don’t think I got a good start. So how well I can nurture my self-confidence as I move through life is fully up to me.
I would say that as I’ve grown older I’ve expanded my sense of confidence quite a bit. I know this is true because when I was growing up the only area I ever felt confident in was my school work. And there were a couple of reasons for this that I can see with my hindsight goggles that perhaps will resonate with you as well.
The first was that my level of intelligence was something that could be measured and shown to me on a regular basis, so I could grasp it tightly within myself as truth. The second was that these measurements took place outside of my home and were given by someone other than my mother, which resulted in a different slant or weight in my life.
And even though I’ve grown more confident in my appearance and in who I am as a person as I’ve aged, I’m still the most confident when I’m working in my day job. Not really a surprise, right? Because just like in my school days, my work in the corporate world can be measured rather objectively (ROI, KPIs) so I can hold it tightly as truth.
When you lack the ability to feel confident on your own, hearing you’re good at something enough times will allow you to latch onto the idea and consider it as a possibility.
Now here’s the paradox for me. One would think that this confidence about my day job – which is writing – would migrate over to my personal life and that I’d find some sense of calm about my personal writing projects. But it doesn’t. And why doesn’t it?
Because I haven’t had this particular writing affirmed enough by other people, and unfortunately that’s the pattern my psyche has come to understand as truth. It’s rather sad when I think about it, but I'm working to get there by sheer force of determination.
Maybe one day soon I’ll find my unshakeable sense of self while I’m alone in my own microcosm, writing the words that seem to come almost magically through an illuminated pathway through the sky. Maybe I’ll get to the point where I don’t need to offer my writing out for critique to believe that it’s good.
I think I'm getting closer.
There are a lot of mindfulness principles out there that talk about detaching from the outcome and about finding contentment or peace or joy within one’s self. And I think when those winds of self-doubt blow in, we can use those principles to remind ourselves that we’re good enough just because we exist. That whatever we strive to create or do is the result of the amazing energy that created our own existence, and therefore it is inherently good.
Putting my work into the world more often and more publicly these past six months has been both gratifying and scary. Luckily for me, I’ve gotten enough positive feedback to put fuel into my body and help me push through discomfort and fear. That feedback has also provided me with building blocks for my self-confidence, in a way. I envision those blocks stacked as a wall that I’m quietly constructing around myself, so that when the naysayers come along their voices will bounce off the exterior instead of piercing my heart.
A wall is inherently built to withstand winds, isn't it? Winds of self-doubt, winds of fear, winds of anxiety, winds of self-loathing (that happens, too). Keep building the self-confidence wall so that you can withstand the low points in life. The low points within yourself.
A wall, once built, is hard to destroy when its construction is sound.
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife, will be published in 2020. To be notified when it is available for purchase, sign up for my mailing list.
This is an excerpt from my new book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife. I hope you enjoy this sample! My book was picked up by Warren Publishing and was released on August 18, 2020.
Life Shows You Your Calling
Finding a calling or purpose (or in some circles “dharma”) is a struggle many of us wrestle with on a daily basis. It’s certainly been something I’ve actively fretted over for a large part of my adult life.
I first knew there was a serious problem when I hit my junior year of college. I ran out of general education classes, hadn’t selected a major (and didn’t have any inclination toward one), so I took an entire semester of random courses simply to try to figure it out. I enrolled in art history, sociology, technical theatre, environmental science and a career planning class. These were all interesting, but “interesting” does not a major make.
The career planning class was the one I put a lot of energy into, because it was supposed to help me find some sense of direction. I remember slogging through test after test to try to create labels for my personality and inclinations. We took the MAPP test, which was probably one of the most insightful, as well as a number of other personality and aptitude tests. Then we spent the remainder of our class time talking through the results and about different career paths. I remember feeling like I still had no sense of direction despite all of that chatter and analysis. In fact, I’ll never forget the day one of my tests said that my number one career path was as a mortician. I was horrified that something about my answers matched me up to a career working with the dead. Clearly these tests couldn’t tell me the things I really needed to know.
I ended up becoming an English major in the eleventh hour, and I had some very logical reasons for doing so that had nothing to do with hopes and dreams. First, I liked reading stories and learning about people. Second, I would much rather read stories than textbooks if I was going to have to do so for a few years. And third, my eleventh grade English teacher told me I was a strong writer, so I figured I’d go where my talent supposedly was. The decision felt right and I never regretted it, so for that moment in time I believed I was going in the right direction.
But when I graduated with my plain ole Bachelor of Arts in English, I found myself parked on a dark road that I thought I’d be driving down in the sunshine. I hadn’t planned to be a teacher so I didn’t get the certification. In fact, I hadn’t planned anything at all and was just hoping to be shown some sort of direction when I got there. After I walked across that stage and moved back home to Texas, I found myself with no concrete career plan as I was stepping timidly into my first years of true adulthood. Things were challenging for a long while.
I honestly never thought I would become a writer of any kind—not when I was growing up, not when I was an English major, and not even in those early years of my career when I was struggling to put food on the table and keep a roof over my head as a technical writer. I used to bemoan how much I disliked it, mostly because I was writing about computer software and that was the least important thing on my radar. But I look back with my hindsight goggles and I see that the universe had me there so that I could practice the craft. I would not have had the motivation to write anything on my own at that time in my life; I just had too many obligations and too much stress. So those jobs that I felt like were all wrong for me actually were helping me hone my skills. Something knew more than I did about what was to eventually come.
When I reached my late twenties and my life imploded, I expended enormous amounts of effort repeating those same career tests, thinking about what I was good at, trying to understand what kind of options I might have, and reaching for some sort of direction about where I was to go. I got divorced, I lost everything I had (including my home, twice), I had to rebuild a new life on my own with a future that no longer was written in the way I’d expected it to be. I even lost my technical writing job and couldn’t get another one. In fact, I couldn’t get a job as a copywriter either. So I assumed I was completely off course and needed to redirect myself. Clearly, I said to myself, I’d been lost all along or things would have turned out better.
Sometimes life surprises you with your calling. Sometimes you fall into it even though you’ve been trying to avoid it, and sometimes you just don’t even see it coming at all. Maybe you’re fumbling around in the dark and a light appears in the distance, so you start walking in that direction just to get away from where you are.
While I stumbled around grasping at air, I wrote in my journals and in a blog—for what ended up being about nine years. I say that I wrote, but I more vomited onto the page anything and everything that was bothering me. I considered it something anyone might do to work through their crap—not something a writer might do—so I didn’t pay much attention to it. I find that people often ignore these small clues in their lives.
The first time I even recall thinking I might like to be a writer was when I started trying to pen the story of my first marriage. It was a sad, war-torn experience that went down in flames, but I thought it might make a good story (or at the very least get it out of my system). I never finished that book, or the next book, or the one after that. And this is because right about the time I was finally building momentum and thinking I was getting somewhere, I got sick. Really sick. Like, I almost didn’t exist anymore sick. I had a couple of surgeries and was down for the count for a few years.
As you might imagine, being sick was like stomping the brakes on my life again—on my motivation, on everything. I did try to write another novel during that time in an effort to not waste my life any further, but I crashed and burned harder on that novel than on any before it. Clearly I was wasting my time. Clearly this was not meant to be. I then abandoned writing entirely for a year—a whole year—until one day, almost as if being pushed by something outside of me, I trudged back and sat down at my computer.
Maybe everything that happened needed to happen, just like maybe everything that’s happened in your life needed to happen. Maybe your “thing” will come when it’s time, like a river rushes down a mountain only when the spring comes to melt the snow. This is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from being sick and almost signing off of planet earth—you’ve got to let things flow. Stop fighting, just ride along.
From the sum of my experiences came this book. And when I look at my life I can see that it’s been there all along but was waiting for the right time to emerge. I can’t write fiction very well because perhaps that’s not what I’m supposed to do (yet). I couldn’t write nonfiction very well because I’d told myself that it wasn’t “real” writing and therefore I didn’t consider it a valid purpose. In my mind my purpose had to be something real. It had to be something that was less silly than sitting here writing about my life.
But I’ve learned that we all have a purpose that may seem trivial to us, and that actually is not trivial at all. Some people would say that what I’m doing now is ridiculous. Who cares about my life and what I've learned? But then someone else might care. And a few people might care. And that means what I did meant something to the world because it meant something to some of the people in it.
It’s the same thing if you’re a cook on a line. Or maybe you’re a lawn guy, where you trudge in every day not understanding why your lot in life is to mow lawns. But you know what? Someone is happy to see that lawn looking beautiful. An elderly woman who cannot take care of her landscaping is thrilled to be helped by you. A single mother who was abandoned by her partner has one less thing to worry about because you took care of the lawn. You see what I mean?
Life will show you what you’re meant to do, you just have to pay attention and have some patience. My life has been training me for about four decades to do what I’m doing now. It’s been filling my head with experiences, wisdom, life. It’s been making sure my skills have stayed sharp by placing me in jobs that required me to write and to practice my craft, even when I hated the jobs and felt like I was squandering the days I was given. It then moved me into a life position, eventually, where I could sit down and do this thing I’m doing without the pressures I used to have on a daily basis.
Give life credit and allow it to show you what you’re supposed to do. Flow along a little bit. See where the road takes you. When you get there, you’ll bop yourself on the head because it will all seem so stupidly obvious. But that’s okay.
I think some people know what they want to do when they are ten years old and are prepared to do that thing. Others of us have a journey to take before we can do the thing we’re supposed to do, so we don’t understand it until later. If you don’t know what your purpose is yet, take heart. You are already living it. You are already on the journey you are supposed to take. Your purpose exists, whether you can see and verbalize it yet or not.
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The Big Pause