I felt like such an imposter. Exposed. Naked. And in the very place I thought would be the answer to all my dreams.
Part One: Life Ideal
For years I had wanted to begin the Life of a Writer, one of the holy grails I believed would finally render Life Ideal. But wanting wasn’t getting the job done. As my mother used to say, “Wish in one hand and pee in the other and see which hand fills up faster.”
Of course, I hadn’t merely wished away twenty years. I was a single mom raising two children while teaching high school and college English. But writing seemed to be my true north…even if I had taken a few roads south. Then again, I began in the south– born and bred to keep my performance high and my expectations low.
Despite my teachers praising my work so that I sometimes secretly tried on the title of Freelance Writer, I chose the road more traveled–a safer route to feed the children. I reasoned that becoming a writer was just a phase—like when I dreamed of being a dancer after watching West Side Story or of being an actor after seeing Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind. Dancing required moving to New York and acting meant relocating to LA; and as the first in my family to attend college, I had no idea how one would get from Hopkinsville, Kentucky to the other side of the world. I didn’t know where writers lived, but I knew that it might as well have been somewhere over the rainbow. So I went with education– a sure thing, and much easier to explain as a career choice at my grandmother’s on Sundays over the fried chicken and mashed potatoes.
My love for literature convinced me I needed to teach secondary English—that and an elementary ed music course which culminated in our playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a plastic recorder. Teaching small children wasn’t my thing– not to mention discussing Kafka with them wasn’t much fun either.
I enjoyed my high school students and challenged them to be Renaissance Men and Women. I called them to “Seize the Day,” even stand on their desks (though they didn’t have to call me “Captain, My Captain.”) I exhorted them not to settle—to find their passions and pursue them. But it wasn’t until my forties that I decided to practice what I preached.
I didn’t need Vanna White to solve the puzzle that starts with “mid-life.” Everyone knows what follows: crisis. Facing the gap between what our life is and what we imagined it would be can be soulful and sobering. Some people accept defeat, paralyzed with regret over what should have been. Others grab a quick fix, such as buying a Harley, Botoxing their brows, or browsing match.com for a younger lover. But I wanted more than temporary relief. I wanted a cure. I wanted to write a New York Times best seller.
I wanted to talk about it on The Today Show. And once it was made into a movie, like Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Nia Vardalos, I’d play the starring role. When James Lipton of The Actors Studio asked me to reveal my least favorite sound, I’d be ready to answer...
I never let go of my dream, but no amount of magical thinking had changed the reality that teaching all day and grading/ parenting all night barely left me time for a haiku, much less a novel. I suspect many an artist-turned-teacher besides Mr. Holland has experienced the frustration of Opus Interruptus. But before my heart for writing flat-lined and my dreams of publication were suffocated under the Bell Jar, I decided to get serious and go-all-Thoreau. I would live a deliberate life rather than a random one. I would live deeply, sucking out the marrow of life, rather than live bitterly, whining that life sucks. I refused to go to the grave with my song still stuck in my throat. I refused to allow mid-life to escort me to the cheap seats of Lifetime Original Movies. I would believe that mid-life– with or without Viagra– is far from impotent. It’s The Impetus.
From the mid-life point I could see not just time lost, but time left. I recognized that nothing had been wasted, but rather banked, yielding a high return from life experiences—the very stuff that made me who I am. Maybe I had the talent to write all along, but I lacked the courage and the material. I had been conditioned by the hardest blows and was now tougher for it. And my experiences were currency—the life savings an expatriate exchanges into rupees, euros, or yen– to buy a ticket to a new life.
For years I had been packing my bags with stories from the trenches—from over two decades in the classroom, over a dozen years as a mom, and over a decade of dating again. Bridget Jones’s diary and Carrie Bradshaw’s columns had nothing on me. I had traveled abroad where, like Elizabeth Gilbert, I had eaten, prayed, and loved. And long before anyone had heard of The Secret, my mid-life mantra had become: “Live the Life You Have Imagined.” I knew what I needed to do. There were signs everywhere.
I first saw Thoreau’s challenge reprinted prophetically on a greeting card, affirming my desire for reinvention. I read pep talks in More magazine spurring me toward a career/life change. Then I heard the same six words serendipitously spoken by a friend, catapulting me into action. By the time Brooke told me that she credited her new life to something she read while still in college, “Live the Life You Have Imagined,” my philosophical stance became a full speed gallop toward my own renaissance.
My friend had married a lawyer and was headed to Chicago—a Mt. Juliet, Tennessee girl who made good. We had shopped in NYC one spring, staying in a boutique hotel with poached eggs and espresso. At home in Nashville, we had frequented Rumours on Tuesday nights, sharing the “Artisan Cheese Plate” under trendy paintings by locals. And in our Talbots hats and Ann Taylor sundresses, we had attended Steeple Chase lugging our cooler up the hill rather than driving a Lexus SUV into the infield—literally the In Place to be. We hated being on the outside looking in.
Though we had the right food and clothes, there was no place in the cheap seats where we could unfold our lounge chairs and spread our picnic blanket without some shirtless drunk stumbling across the grass threatening to land in the middle of our sangria and chicken salad. The crowd on the hill had the look of fans at a Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam while the ones in the inner circle had the appearance of patrons of Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony. The infield grass definitely seemed greener, and we longed to be under the Gatsby-esque tents eating cucumber sandwiches on tables with white linens and bouquets of hydrangeas and English roses.
But though we had been barred that day from the inner circle, Brooke had arrived. She was headed for the Windy City and a new life. She and Mark would later explore Istanbul and Turkey and would live one street from the Miracle Mile and three from Lake Michigan. They would spend Christmases in Paris–twice. Maybe a Hoptown, Kentucky girl could do the same.
I knew, however, that my ticket out wouldn’t involve marrying well based on a fetching face or figure. The doors that open for girls in their twenties usually slam shut for women in their forties. And though Brooke had worked hard at her education and career, she was also a black haired, blue eyed, flawless skinned beauty–gorgeous and twenty-five. While told I look younger than my age, I knew that in a youth obsessed culture—confirmed daily by my daughter who is disgusted each time Hope and Bo on Days of Our Lives make out– my best bet was to bank on my brain, not my looks. For ten years I had dated more guys who were younger than me than older, but when it came to settling down, they almost always wanted someone their junior. Not to mention that after recovering from a near fatal divorce over a decade ago, I wasn’t about to depend on a man for my life—much less my livelihood. I had read too many self-help books and had the support of too many friends for that. I was indeed “Co-dependent No More.“
I had realized that for years I had given some people the power to grade my life– to decide my worth. Like an amateur on American Idol cowering before Simon Cowell or a contestant on The Bachelor groveling for a rose, I often accepted harsh criticism and rejection from arrogant “judges” while ignoring the rave reviews of kinder souls. I allowed people and events from formative years and my inherently melancholy personality to determine my low self –esteem. It would take me awhile to understand that while some people would always matter, their critical report card of me…not so much. Not if I had done my best with pure motives. I finally understood what Eleanor Roosevelt meant when she said, “No one can make you feel bad about yourself without your permission.” A soundtrack started playing in my head, clicking off Aretha Franklin’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” Donna Summer’s “I Will Survive,” Smash Mouth’s “I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again” and finally, my grandmother’s anthem, “It is Well With My Soul.” Though the fatality of my marriage had already been harder to survive than two miscarriages, my parent’s divorce, and even my dad’s unexpected death, I knew with God’s help I’d live through it. Even if it meant losing a man I’d known since seventh grade and loved since our senior prom. Even if my social security number follows his consecutively.
Though we are still friends, those first years my heart was so damaged that at times it physically ached. And though I couldn’t sit through a church service without crying, I wasn’t about to give up on God, love, or men. This was quite a miracle considering my mother had always told me that most males are definitely more trouble than they are worth. No, I believed God would bring someone new into my life—and soon. So soon that I thought my counselor was well meaning but crazy when she said I needed two whole years to heal before starting another serious relationship.
Ignoring this advice, I told my aunt and uncle who took me to dinner to cheer me up that I had bought the Martha Stewart Weddings magazine. I was getting ideas for a second wedding—a small but tasteful gathering of friends and family celebrating that happy—no, happier—days were here again. They were too polite to point out that to choose flowers, food, and music before having a potential groom in mind might be putting the cart before the horse. They were too kind to say that I could clip out as many of Martha’s good things for the nuptials as I wanted, but a good man might be much harder to find. They just nodded mechanically in support of my optimistic plan, doubting I’d ever marry again. Some say I’m too picky, but in those early single-again days, friends didn’t offer a lot of hope.
The only advice most of them gave on husband hunting was offering not a means to an end but that the end should be the means. “Oil that is, Texas tee.” Money. Never mind if the guy was as old as Jed Clampett or as dense as Jethro. But whether to my credit or to my stupidity, I’ve never considered marrying for prestige or wealth and I don’t anticipate doing so in the future. So yes, I wanted to remarry, but not until after, in all my financial independence, I could throw my hat into the air like Mary Tyler Moore as friends serenaded, “She’s going to make it after all.” I didn’t have to have a man to be successful. Even if Mr. Grant had been single, Mary Richards would have never married her boss just because he was a man of means. And maybe like me, she didn’t find dating someone twice her age tempting. Come to think of it, even the men I met in my age bracket who weren’t married, weren’t gay, didn’t prefer dating a fetus and were emotionally available, looked more like Mr. Grant than Hugh Grant.
Of course, there was that guy on eharmony from Washington. The one who in his first email wrote: “ I have decided to put my heart into a relationship with you. Let’s move forward, sealing the deal with matrimony. I hope to hear from you (at which point he gave me his phone number.) I await your beep like the birds await spring.”
Too much. Even for a romantic like me.
No doubt my ticket to bliss wasn’t cashing in on the right man. And while I
appreciated Tennessee voting in the lottery to help fund my children’s college, I stopped dreaming of winning the lottery years ago. Guess I’m not one of those single moms who, it was lobbied by some of my Bible Belt friends, would weekly gamble away the milk money on the Lotto. No, for me, writing was the way…the Grail…
I reasoned a best seller would lead to more time for my children and those things I love. Time to paint, study Italian, and live la dolce vita— here and abroad. Writing might even lead me to a soul mate who shared my intensity and passion—like a Heathcliff or Lord Byron (though I realize now I probably needed someone real or living, not quite so brooding, and in the case of Byron, faithful). Maybe he would meet me at a book signing–drawn there by my witty words and winsom face smiling at him from my book cover. We could be the next Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, writing and living out our later years “under the Tuscan sun.”
I was ready to do more than cheerlead as I sent my high school seniors out into the “real world.” I was ready to get out there, too. I had been eating lunch in the school cafeteria since I was five. I had been teaching since Bryan Adams, Def Lepperd, and M.C. Hammer ruled. Since my students thought IROC Z’s were “bad” and Tom Cruise was Top Gun rather than Valkyrie. Through Reganomics, Desert Storm, Monica Lewinsky, and O.J. Simpson, kids had looked at me from under Big Hair, no hair, mullets and Mohawks. I’d stayed in contact with many of them long after they graduated and a few had become close friends. But as much as I enjoyed teaching and Mr. Holland’s Opus, hoping, I, too had made a difference, I wanted to complete my masterpiece. I wanted to finish my book, and sell it–big. Rather than just teach about dead guys who wrote, I wanted to be one —a famous writer, that is, not a dead guy. I was definitely ready to live that passionate life I’d told others to live…that life I had imagined…
(to be continued in Part Two: Great Expectations)
Loved the read and could I ever relate! My daughter, Karri–a former student of yours, told me about finding you and your blog. She thought I would enjoy it. She was correct.
Thank you so much! Who is your daughter? I didn’t know since I only have your first name.
Great write. I think I see your pent up ambitions beginning to surface. I admire your decision to move on and pursue the desires of your heart without the crutch that you have always thought was necessary for fulfillment.
Sometimes it seems the stars align just so to bring people into your life when you really need them. It is amazing how much you and I have in common, from our yearning to write and somehow from that be famous, to our divorces, our searching for someone new and on and on. Thank you, all the references I could completely relate to and it made me laugh some … and had I not been in the place I am right now I might have cried some too. I can’t wait for the sequel. Can’t wait to get together with you for coffee. Maybe there will be another writers workshop soon and we can go together .. I only hope my writing will measure up to yours.
I’m Shirley’s daughter. My name is Karri Jones Provance. I graduated DCA in 1995. I am really enjoying your blog. I miss writing so much. My mother is a good writer and I thought she would enjoy reading your blog. I hope all is well with you.
You know that English is not my first language…reading this, my heart has been touched. I have to content my tears of emotion. I love the part:
From the mid-life point I could see not just time lost, but time left. I recognized that nothing had been wasted, but rather banked, yielding a high return from life experiences—the very stuff that made me who I am.
I admire you as a person and as a writer.