It seems I’ve spent the majority of my life in a stage of renovation. It began at twelve, when I morphed, ostensibly overnight, from a pudgy and picked-on child, into a slender, long-legged teenager with bedroom eyes. I wasn’t, and have never been, a conventional beauty; but as my best friend used to assure me, I was exotic; a hot house flower held up against the delicate loveliness of, say, a rose. For a while, this was pretty much all that mattered to me as I played the part of a Southern California party girl. Yet, it was truly a role. I had smarts, savvy and, thanks to my parents, a decent enough college education (if not the highest GPA in the world, because, well, the party girl thing routinely got in the way of my studies).
It took several years, the onset of maturity, and the humiliation of realizing that my Father felt the best he could hope for would be for me to land a secretarial job at a good company and marry my boss, that finally motivated me into shedding that happy-go-lucky persona and focus on evolving into someone my parents could be proud of: an independent and reasonably successful career woman. Along the way, I got slightly side-tracked by my first husband, whose job he felt it was to turn me into someone else; mainly, someone who idol worshipped him. Still, during the ten or so years of our marriage, I managed to further my career. Eventually, I and the (ex) husband went our separate ways and I entered into the subsequent revamp: DWF/mid-thirties/corporate director/living “the life” in Los Angeles.
Anyone who believes that this was glamorous has never lived it because it wasn’t. It meant routine sixty plus hours in the office and many others working from home. It meant a lot of travel with the majority of it being to nowhere in the least bit exciting. It meant countless meetings, presentations, problems to be solved, company politics to contend with, stress-filled days and nights, difficulty sleeping, and loneliness. Ah, the loneliness. I could buy all the Jimmy Choo shoes I wanted and I drove a sweet little BMW, but I was lonely. All of my family had moved back east of the Mississippi. I did have friends in California, but most of them lived several hours away. The few people from work that I’d somehow managed to bond with were just as busy as I was, so opportunities to get together were infrequent. This left me, in the rare times that I was not absorbed with projects and deadlines, floundering about; and, as the song goes, “Looking for love in all the wrong places.” So, on the outside I had it all; in reality, I didn’t have much at all, except my two aging cats.
The fall of 2001 ushered in an extremely dark period. One incident after another sent me into a tailspin of behavior which can only be described as risky at best, dangerous and life threatening in reality; eventually culminating in what was the absolute worst night of my life. Although what occurred that night and its aftermath consumed me for many months to follow, it’s not what happened that matters so much as that it defined my next renovation; the one that would completely change the trajectory of my life: I decided that I would leave my job, go to Italy, take a total immersion language course, and see what happened next. That’s it. That was my blueprint!
Despite how glorious and brave it may have seemed to those I left behind, those living vicariously through me and hoping for “Under the Tuscan Sun” or “Eat, Pray, Love” movie moments, the truth of the matter is, my six weeks in Italy were a mostly lonely and painful experience. My “newly sprung from the prison life of career” self struggled daily with who I was now going to be; and I questioned myself and my sanity. A lot. Why did I, at only age 39, abandon a prestigious job, uproot myself and go half-way around the world to learn a language that I’d probably never use again (I haven’t), and live in conditions (a rented apartment) that were reminiscent of my starving student college days? I didn’t take any trappings of my former life with me to Italy; no French tip nails, only one small suitcase of very serviceable clothes (which I promptly loathed after seeing all of the beautiful Italian fashions), and no BMW (I walked everywhere). No one there knew who I was, least of all, me. But, there were moments of fulfilment and flashes of realization that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing, even though I didn’t know exactly what that was.
That was 15 years ago now; when I did what a therapist (whom I’m convinced now was an angel in disguise, or at least channeling his inner Glinda from “The Wizard of Oz”) suggested: “Get off the hamster wheel and walk out of the cage you put yourself into. No one is stopping you but you.” I think, in hindsight, that I chose to abscond to Italy to be in neutral ground for this battle between my old and new selves. I enrolled in the immersion course because that part of me that will always be me had to be doing something productive. The challenge there was not to let learning the language get in the way of learning who I was to be. Italy, as it turned out, was the bridge from one life to the next.
Was I whisked off by a wealthy Italian man? No, I was not. I went back to California, sold my condo, and moved to Durham North Carolina simply because my brothers lived there. Within two months of arriving, however, I met my now husband of 12 years; not an Italian Adonis, but a New Yorker and a CPA. I’ve dabbled in various self-improvement and volunteer activities such as teaching English as a second language and did some consulting work (more as a favor to an old friend than any other reason). I’ve never really re-entered the rat race. I am, however, a minority partner in my husband’s tax and accounting firm and support him; I suppose you could say “work for him”, during tax season. I think of my Father’s fear from so many years ago that the best I might do would be to marry my boss, and the irony of this makes my toes curl in delight.
The truth is, we almost always have before us opportunities to renovate ourselves. We use whatever resources we have at hand to do so, and we ask for help from those nearby when we can’t do it by ourselves. Sometimes a renovation begins from a clear personal vision, other times the opening falls into our laps a la “When the student is ready the teacher appears”; and still other times it emerges from a period of darkness and confusion. Yet, it emerges.
I mentioned my experience in Italy was painful because growth is painful. However, I was not always unhappy, because one cannot be in such a beautiful country and be miserable 100% of the time. There were moments when I would stumble across something so simple yet incredibly beautiful that I’d just have to stop and take it in. These “simple things of beauty” had also existed in my life in Southern California, I was just too empty there to see them.
After Italy, I believed, wrongly, that I’d never be confused or at sea again. In reality, there would be many more renovations to come. However, a poem I wrote while wandering and wondering through Italy has served to remind me that, regardless of what chaos may be going on around me in the midst of a messy remodel, I always have the choice to embrace serenity and see the beauty in it all.
The Simple Things of Beauty
I used to go so fast
that I never stopped to see
the simple things of beauty
that were there in front of me.
I was on a frantic path,
rushing through each day
the simple things of beauty
were just annoyances in my way
Then one night fate intervened
I thought it was a curse
when my life changed direction
it seemed from bad to worse
Yet it was not misfortune that forced me to reflect
on an existence where all appeared sour
it was a well-timed dose of reality
administered by a higher power
Now I’ve found the determination
to cease the insanity
and to explore with new found courage
the person that I should be
Although each day brings challenges
so many obstacles are still there
my heart is open to the simple things of beauty
and I see them everywhere