Having It All
When I was in my teens and twenties, it was very fashionable to go in search of oneself, as though it were a question of buying a ticket to a cruise around the world. Some dropped acid or dropped out. Some joined a commune or a convent. Some climbed ivy-covered corporate ladders and others lived to foment a revolution. Some joined the military or the Peace Corps so they might give something back or leave their mark. “Grow where you are planted” was the motto of the age. As for me, I was too busy surviving to take that trip. I tended to be like a small boat in a gale going where life took me. Besides, I had four small children and had more to think about than just me.
Years have passed and I don’t feel any older and quite often, not much wiser. My heart continues to yearn and question. My soul still searches and my feet itch to walk over the next hill to see what there is to see. I am always keen for the next book to feed my need for the stories of others. I’ve never really understood the concept of “finding myself” until just recently.
The first week in July was memorable. That week, feeling sort of sad and somewhat lonely for no discernable reason, I went in search of a story. I wanted something different than what I have been reading in recent months. I didn’t want another sappy romance or memoir. Even authors I can count on for good writing and an interesting story—like Clive Cussler, Dean Koontz or Gregg Bear—were leaving me flat and rather bored. I wanted a story to soothe my soul the way a lullaby once soothed my babies before bed. I searched my bookshelves, certain I would find the cure for the persistent book hunger gnawing at me. But every title seemed somehow the same. I wanted something that felt new and fresh, the way opening the windows wide in the spring makes a room feel fresh and new and clean. I finally found what I was looking for in a box of books sent by a friend: The Last Time I Was Me by Cathy Lamb. Between the pages of this book I met Jeanne Stewart. I liked her. I loved the book.
The Last Time I Was Me is the story of a woman’s escape from a life in which she feels imprisoned by emotions she doesn’t dare express or examine; emotions that find their way out through the cracks in her veneer. Jeanne was once a high-powered advertising executive who had it all—the swanky condo, the sleek car, the hefty bank account, the skills to dress correctly with a wardrobe to prove it. But it wasn’t enough to make her happy. So Jeanne goes on a journey to find herself once more.
When I first realized what was going on, I felt my patience begin to fray. I have no tolerance with these junkets people take to find themselves; it seems somehow like frippery and delusional thinking. When it comes to a book, though, I feel compelled to keep reading for the mere fact someone went to a lot of work to get it published. That kind of hard work deserves a chance. Like the people I meet on a daily basis, I like to give them a chance, learn a little more in case my first perception is not correct. I approach a book the same way. Jeanne was angry. She was by her own admission in the throes of a nervous breakdown. All the feelings and truths she had repressed for years came to the surface with the suddenness of a meltdown in a nuclear power plant. It was not her intent to find her way back to who she really was, what she really wanted out of life, and what she needed. Like the rest of us, Jeanne felt safe behind the walls she built. She intended to stay behind them. But sometimes life has other plans and as the saying goes, “time and tide wait for no man” (or woman).
As I read I laughed, sometimes with amazement, sometimes with delight and sometimes with the “I wish I had done something like that” wonder. It took me away from my “out of nowhere” blues. I respected Jeanne’s moxie, her grit, and her honesty. I loved the way she told off 800 people during an important presentation. I also admired her dishonesty, the dishonesty (or perhaps willful blindness) to which we all fall prey, like choosing to believe in other people and still expecting something good, long after they’ve proven themselves false. I liked her confusion. I was touched by her history, and alternated between sympathy and empathy over her pain. I found myself impatient with her fears yet enchanted by her willingness to state her case plainly. I felt as though I met a friend. It was that kind of read.
Even though I could see the ending coming, I was not unhappy because Jeanne was sympathetic and likeable. I wanted to see the happy ending she ultimately got. I adored the hard and scary adventures she had from the moment when, discovering her longtime boyfriend was cheating on her with not just one woman but many, her nerves shattered and her life changed with the swiftness of a lightning bolt. Her life could be compared to a car tire with a loose lug nut. Everything seems fine for a while, the loose lug escaping notice, but once it comes off, it’s a disaster.
It was with a kind of surprised pleasure I observed her pulling her life together, one loose thread at a time, with the help of friends she could trust. I was overjoyed when she arrived at a place in her life where she really understood that she didn’t need all the anger she carried like a lead weight and could let good people into her life. It was at that point she started to understand who she truly was and realized it is a good and acceptable thing to want something in life and get it. No longer willing to hide behind old hurts, she understands that now she truly has it all.
After I closed the book, I found myself considering who I am, where I have been in my life and where I am now. I’ve been in a place similar to Jeanne’s. I found myself surprised by a divorce at the age of twenty-five, with four children under five years old to support. I understood Jeanne’s angst. My story does not have the drama of The Last Time I was Me, but it was, in its own way, just as horrifically painful. The retreat from life and what it takes to make a reentry was real enough, indeed.
I am a mother of children now grown. I am a wife to a man who wishes to grow old with me. I am a grandmother watching a new generation grow. I am a woman technically past my prime yet with much to offer the world. I am a friend, stalwart, steadfast and true. I am a trainer to people needing new skills. I am a writer learning to unlock the doors to expression. I am complex, as most women can be. I am simple in my needs. I am rich in love, laughter and joy. It has taken me a lifetime to understand who I am. It has taken what feels to be an eternity to be unafraid of what I think and feel. It has taken me decades to understand that I, too, am deserving of kindness, gentle touches, warm kisses and some space for myself.
I never had a nervous breakdown. I could have and more than once, too. Life has sometimes been that hard. But like Jeanne, I learned not to hide behind all the old hurts. Now I am not so much the small boat in the gale as a seaworthy craft riding the currents. Sometimes the way to remember who we are is simply to look in the mirror and face that view unafraid.
At age 10, Anne realized she was never going to get to be Miss America since reading a book was not an acceptable talent. So she went on to get a job and raise a family. Along the way, she fixed meals, picked up toys, helped with homework, and collected a drawer full of rejection slips for her “great American novel.” It was not all bad, however, since she ended up wallpapering a closet with them. She currently designs and creates greeting cards for her tiny company, The Frog Prints, LLC, and also works full-time as a Training Specialist. Anne is currently tethered to reality by a loving spouse, two dogs and the occasional hurricane that blows through Florida, although falling headlong and happily into a book is still her favorite “talent.” Contact Anne.