I normally seize the opportunity of a My Turn piece to focus attention on national issues that affect local residents. But as I write this week, Washington is imploding on itself at such an algebraic rate that I can scarcely keep up, and in my almost two years of writing My Turns, I think readers probably know where I stand, on pretty much everything. So instead I want to talk about a subject near and dear to me — something personal that can be political — following one’s heart.
Three years ago, I was 10 years in to a dead end job. One night on the job, I witnessed violence about three feet from where I stood. The experience left me shaken and wondering about my life’s journey.
What path had I taken that ended in a job without retirement or mobility, but threats of violence? What wrong turn had led me to a job that fostered low self esteem and late unpaid hours of prep time that left me with little time for my family? I walked around with a lump in my throat and more and more weight on my hips and belly.
I thought about the career and life advice I gave students who asked me about what to be when they grew up — and then I realized that I couldn’t give advice with a straight face anymore — because I hadn’t lived up to my own potential. I’d cut corners. I’d given up. I was playing it safe. I wasn’t living for me anymore. It’s a trap that our culture often sets for us and I’d willingly stepped in the middle of the trap and was hanging upside down from a tree.
My kids are at the age where they start to think about what they will be when they grow up. How was I supposed to tell them to follow their dreams when clearly I was no longer following mine?
We women nurturers, we mother sacrificers often sell ourselves short and expend ourselves on behalf of our families. Feminist or no, I was/am no different. I’d just published a short story collection, but I didn’t have time to adequately promote it. I’d worked on a couple of film projects on the side, but I didn’t have time to go to auditions or work on other projects. I didn’t want to be one of those teachers who the whole class is thinking “Dude, you should have retired decades ago.” Smart-alecky comments from my tween, who in no way wanted her future to look like mine, put me over the edge.
I got on social media and announced to my friends that I was going to make a big midlife crisis change — I was going to start living for me and start doing the things I always wanted to do and meant to do, but was afraid to do because of the need of the safety net of a steady paycheck.
Local Plumas County life coach and resident angel on Earth and friend Katie Bagby reached out to me and we had a good long chat in her office. I told her no matter what, nag me and don’t let me go back.
I looked immediately to other creative women for guidance. A good friend of mine was publishing her first book. My office mate, Jane Braxton Little, provided mentorship for this new territory of freelancing. I got a gig working on another movie from a friend and single mom who scraped by to do her art and was just able to do it.
I resigned from my department and told myself that other than the odd creative writing class now and then, teaching and I would part ways. It was two years ago that I quit teaching.
Since then I’ve had odd jobs that paid well and some that didn’t pay at all. I’ve done all sorts of bucket list type things I always wanted to do or go back to. I’ve worked on three films and am scheduled for a fourth this summer. I’ve dropped nearly 30 pounds. My second short story collection came out on audio book last year. I’ve done stand up comedy and put on a second play and recently started Pachuca Productions with Plumas County’s finest actress, Tina Terrazas. I started modeling at a library and met hundreds of new and interesting people.
I got a job as a reporter for my local paper. I’ve had my work in national publications. And because local director Terry Gallagher is downright insane, I was cast and got to dance in “Cabaret” this spring. This week, I wrapped up a yearlong research project for a non-fiction book I’ve been working on. A proposal is nearly ready to fly out into the ether of agent computers and editorial desks.
Of course, none of this is possible without being married to a man with a steady job and sexy health insurance — and not to mention a very supportive mother, a great sounding board of a father and good friends in the same boat. Now, if I can only get the children on board.
In short, I finally just let my freak flag fly. I stopped worrying about not being good enough. And I stopped eating cheese and wine at midnight. Will I ever make money or own a house again? Meh, probably not. But I’m 100 percent happier than I was three years ago and I hope that counts for something in the end.
There’s a joke some of my teacher friends and I used to say. Question: “Wanna know what you won’t say on your death bed?”
Answer: “Gee, I should have graded more papers.”
I won’t be able to tell former students about the wonders of being a tenure track professor. But I will be able to tell them that following your heart leads to some fantastic and interesting places and people. I’ll be able to tell my kids that doing what it takes to achieve your goal is possible. And sometimes to be the you that you want to be? Means you have to quit and walk away.