Crossing Kitty-Corner/a midlife crisis
Crossing Kitty-Corner/a midlife crisis
This chapter comes from a memoir I recently finished about how I navigated the midlife transition, coped with social anxiety, healed from childhood trauma and sent myself on a grand adventure to obtain a masters degree 3000 miles away from my home. Most of the story focuses on the one year masters degree and the amazing experiences and encounters with global dignitaries. However, the portion of this first chapter regarding Puebla was a separate situation, earlier. It was hard to narrow down this chapter. Would you want to read more?0
Julie Lillian (United States)
The Year 2005, Age 41
Somewhere in my journey—a metaphor I probably didn’t use in my early 40s because I might have called it something more Christian-speak, like path or calling, but nevertheless—I had lost my joy.
Perhaps the better metaphor was my office. It resided in the windowless basement of a low-rent building with a sleazy, home-mortgage hawking, telemarketing tenant on the main level, whose motto was: we sell money. In an attempt to extract some measure of contentment from my surroundings, I painted every wall in that dungeon a separate cheerful color. The paint colors had names like When Dreams Come True Blue; Make a Wish Pink and Sunshiny Day Yellow. Larry and I had moved our residential paint contracting business out of our home the prior year. He and I were equal partners—the classic mom and pop operation.
I swung my feet up onto my impressive workstation. Larry and I had purchased four office cubicles—high-end floor models, at a steep discount. With corded phone pressed to my ear, I spewed my discontent to Todd, my California-based business coach. “I don’t know. This business we have—sometimes I wonder, what’s the point? I don’t know if I care whether Mrs. Rich-Lady-Homeowner chooses cabernet red or Tuscany orange to complement her granite countertops.”
I caught him off guard. “What do you mean? What’s going on?”
I liked Todd. He had helped me turn our business into a serious enterprise. Of course, I paid a hefty subscription price for the business-building curriculum that accompanied his long-distance advice. “Do you know that song?” I asked. “‘You do the Hokey Pokey and you turn yourself around, that’s what it’s all about?’ What if . . . that is what it’s all about? Nothing else?”
Todd chuckled, “I’ve seen a refrigerator magnet that says the same thing. I’m not kidding. I saw it the other day. If I can find it, I’ll send it to you.”
He brushed off my soul searching with levity. I was kind of surprised. The following week I received the magnet in the mail. It said, What if the Hokey Pokey IS what it’s all about?
I was a walking cliché.
I squelched the feelings, the lack of fulfillment. I told myself I was helping the world by providing jobs to others. That was important—right?
It was my best attempt to placate the pestering questions that had begun rising to the surface, making me feel shitty, interrupting my thoughts and disrupting my happiness. Someone must have answers, possibly someone older than me. I decided to call Betty who had been somewhat of a spiritual mother to me. She lived in southern Colorado where the gorgeous San Juan Mountains embellished her annual artists’ and writers’ retreats. Larry was the artist, I was the writer, and together we had attended Betty’s retreats in the past.
The day I made the call she answered her phone right away and I said, “Betty, this is Julie.” I sat down at my dining room table whose sturdy, wood finished top had hosted countless meals, coloring books and crayons, and toddlers climbing out of highchairs onto its oval surface.
“Julie! How are you? What’s going on?” Betty exuded amber waves of nurture with her southern tinged accent. I immediately felt at ease.
“I’m good, Betty, but I have a question for you. Do you have a few minutes?”
“Yes I do. Al and I just finished lunch, and he’s off to fix his tractor tire. How can I help you?”
“Well, it’s kind of weird,” I laughed self-consciously at my preface. “But I’ve been feeling empty lately . . . it’s like, I go through my days, but I don’t feel there’s any purpose to what I’m doing. But at the same time, I feel so tied down to what I’m doing, you know? I mean, the painting business—I can’t really change my situation. And I guess, I’m just wondering what I should do?”
I sat forward in my chair and put my elbows on the table. Did that sound cryptic?
“It’s good you’re asking these questions,” she began. “You’re like the chick inside the egg.”
I smiled down at the table thinking this should be good.
“You can’t help a baby chick as it struggles to free itself from the shell,” she said.
“Yes, I’ve heard that.”
“I’m serious. It’s very important to understand,” she paused. “No one can help the chick open the shell. It needs to struggle to survive. Otherwise, it will end up paralyzed. Do you know what I mean?”
“I sense you’re struggling. You’ve poked a hole or two, and you can see the light. The light holds the answers to your questions.”
“That makes sense, but what am I supposed to do?”
“It’s great that you see the light and you know something more is out there. No one can give you the answers, but they will come.”
That’s it? I’m sitting inside my prison egg, doing what I hate most—waiting? I wanted the crystal ball answer, or at least the 12-step plan to finding my purpose. “Thanks Betty. It’s not what I really wanted to hear, but thanks anyway.”
“I know, but I have to be honest with you. You’ve seen some light, and you can’t go back into the darkness.”
For the next year, I slogged through each workday in a miserable state of self-doubt. I no longer sat at the reception desk cubicle because I had hired several other internal staff. The housing market was booming and the painting business was growing. Each new staff member gave me a sense of accomplishment as I worked the “business plan,” but it was always a temporary sensation.
Then I came up with an idea. I had wanted to learn Spanish since my earliest memories of realizing there was another language in the world. When I was in the second grade, a little girl who rode the bus with me taught me how to count to 10 in Spanish and I was hooked but I never had the time to take it seriously. Now, I began to spend my days researching language immersion schools in Mexico and reading reviews. I found the Spanish Institute of Puebla and made plans to send myself to Mexico for three weeks. Larry could handle the business and get our youngest child to school in the morning. My office staff was fully capable of taking over for three weeks.
I flew from Minneapolis to Houston, and Houston to Mexico City—not without a few glitches encountered in the vast Mexico City airport. When I finally arrived in Puebla by bus, I spotted a woman holding a Spanish Institute sign.
I greeted her. “Hola, me llamo Julie.”
She and her adult son didn’t think I was their new student. Standing on the sidewalk of that bus station in Puebla, my host mom and her son staged their bout of confusion for several minutes. I started to panic even though I suspected they were the right people. Granted, I carried 30 extra pounds of mommy weight, and probably had smeared mascara under my hazel eyes; eyes that people often described as “tired looking” even when I was wide awake. I’m sure my eyes were a bit more tired looking after the long journey I’d just endured. The duo could have been genuinely under the impression that I was not their student, but my social anxiety didn’t need much encouragement to send out feelings of being judged poorly. Finally, when no one was left, the pair concluded or more like relented, as it seemed to me, that I was their student.
I spoke very little Spanish, and therefore, the language barrier didn’t help the awkward ride to their home. I tried to overcompensate with smiling, laughing and overall cheerfulness, attempting to be the extrovert I was not. After we arrived, the mother, who was a widow, and her son, who was separated from his wife and living with his mother, made a nice dinner and put forward an effort to be friendly. Apparently they had decided to accept their fate—me.
Competition: June 2015 Pen Factor, Round 1
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