My mother has had Alzheimer’s Disease for eight years. At least. She is 83 and living in a nursing home, fed through a stomach tube.
A few weeks ago, she was sleeping when I arrived for a visit. I nudged her awake, then climbed into bed to cuddle with her as I have done on every visit since she moved there. It is the closest human contact she has, since my father’s bad back won’t let him get in bed with her. I have cherished those moments because of the way it makes her smile and how her eyes twinkle, and because I feel her love radiate life from my sweet, lost mother.
On this occasion, I didn’t see the usual joy. I saw fear.
My mother didn’t know who I was. She was afraid — there was a stranger in her bed and she was powerless to protect herself. She tried to say something, but her words came out as jibberish. I showed her pictures of us when I was a child, but she didn’t make the connection like she’d done on the other occasions when she couldn’t quite get who I was. So, I climbed out of the bed.
Then, I dropped my shorts and mooned her. I have always been the joker in the family, and this made Mom laugh harder than I have heard her laugh in years. That bare bottom could only belong to her daughter. “You are beautiful,” she said. A full sentence. She finally knew it was me.
I think she recognized me the other day. I am dogsitting for a tiny little Chihuahua mix, and since Coco is so darned portable compared to my two big dogs, I brought her to visit my mom. Mom’s left side has been paralyzed since a major stroke 17 years ago. The Alzheimer’s has frozen most of the rest of her body, so she does not move much. So, I put the little dog on the bed. She didn’t say anything and she didn’t smile. Coco wagged her tail and kissed my mother, but there was still no real reaction.
A Florida afternoon thunderstorm started brewing, and with the first rumblings from the sky, tiny Coco started quivering in fear — trembling, all over. I tried to calm her, but she kept shaking. Mom watched this, transfixed. “It’s okay,” I told Coco.
After a long moment, Mom moved her right hand. Slow and unsteady, she moved it closer and closer to Coco and finally rested it on the little dog’s side. She kept it there, holding her, trying to comfort her.
Coco didn’t stop shaking until the thunder stopped. But, she didn’t move away from my mother to be closer to me. I will never forget the innocence of that tiny dog, or the slow awakening of my fading mother.
When there are no words, there is touch, which says more anyhow.
The past year has really done a number on people. Truly good human beings are writing me and telling me that they feel like failures. They are worried about their finances and their futures. They are starting to define themselves by what has happened to them.
Several years ago, I quit my job to chase my dream of writing a book, but that book was rejected repeatedly. I was demoralized. If I wasn’t going to be “Fawn Germer, Author,” who would I be? Everybody was asking, “How’s the book coming?” “When’s the book coming out?” I felt like such a failure. I was so embarrassed.
My friends got together one day and I blurted out, “I don’t know my purpose in life.” The outburst was met with silence and stares. Finally, Pam said, “I don’t know, either.” She was in a job she hated. Teresa said, “Me either.” One by one, we went around the room and every single one of us confessed that we didn’t know our purpose in life. I was sure that, by the time we got to Bette, we would get an answer. Bette was in the throes of chemo for ovarian cancer and, surely she had figured things out since she was facing a likely terminal outcome. But, she shook her head “no.”
Not one of us knew our purpose in life.
Time passed. I sold my book. Pam switched jobs, Teresa went back to school and Bette kept on living as best she could.
For two years, Bette lived the best life possible. Once, we went kayaking to Caladesi Island. The Gulf of Mexico was cold, yet she dove right in because she said she “thought the water was pretty.” She got a grant from the city to build a butterfly garden in her neighborhood. She spent time with family and went hiking and laughed and lived.
My book was finally published and Bette and the gang made it to my first big signing. It was a big deal for her, and she’d forced herself to rally so she could be there to support me. A day or two later, she was in the hospital again. I left on tour for several weeks, and when I got back, she began her walk into death. One day, she told me she’d seen Jesus and she wasn’t afraid.
The day came when her brother called to let me know Bette had passed away. He asked if I would write her obituary. As a journalist, I have always thought that obituaries are the most important things we will ever write because they are the last word on an individual’s life. I spent a lot of time writing Bette’s. I thought about how she’d lived her life as she faced her death. She filled every moment with as much joy as she could find. She was from a huge family and every one of her brothers and sisters took turns of coming down for a week and caring for her. I know that, when she died, there was peace. She’d defined her purpose in life by simply living her life. That obituary was not a list of accomplishments. It was the story of a woman who lived. Regardless of what life threw at her, she lived.
That was when I realized what I’d learned through her passing. Our purpose in life is to live our lives. In the end, the only thing that matters is that we breathed in our moment here and filled it with life.
I was flying off to St. Louis for an event the next morning and everything was so rushed because I’d taken time to write the obituary. I had to get my hair cut before my trip and was going to a new hair salon. I passed right by it as I sped through the darkness, then turned around on the busy six-lane road and kept searching for the salon. I moved into the two-way turn lane so I could see the numbers better on the left side of the street, but that was a terrible, terrible miscalculation. Another car was coming straight toward me, blaring his horn. We had no time to stop and nowhere to go because there was so much traffic whizzing in the other lanes.
Miraculously, a space opened up on his side and he moved into it, flipping me off as he sped past me.
Seconds later, I turned into the salon parking lot. My heart was pounding harder than it ever had. I’d come within a split second of being killed. How tragic it was, because my friend had just died after spending two years fighting so hard to live, and I had almost died because I hadn’t been paying attention.
What a profound lesson. We lose so much time by not paying attention and don’t realize what we are wasting until we face losing it. It doesn’t matter what you do for your job or where you are living or where you think you rank in society. What matters is what you do today to live and enjoy your life.
It’s so simple. Your purpose in life is to live your life.
David Bailey hated it when people would tell him the day would come when he’d see his adversity as the best thing that ever happened to him.
“What an asinine, terrible thing to say,” he says.
Months later, he tells this story without realizing that he keeps recounting all of the things he’s learned and done since the day he was laid off at age 61.
Not long after he left his job as executive editor of Sky magazine for Delta Airlines, he sent me an e-mail that ended with this bombshell: “Did I tell you that I’m going to start work as a dishwasher in a fancy French restaurant here on April Fool’s Day?” I was dumbstruck. He was one of the most talented journalists I’d ever worked with and a larger-than-life character. I could not believe this gifted man was going to wash dishes for $9.50 an hour.
His story has a happy ending. He was promoted to cook. And then, to something much better. But, it’s the lessons learned in the middle that are worth sharing.
When we talked last night, he’d just come back from a fine dinner at the French restaurant where he’d been the dishwasher. He’d just dined on beef bourguignon on the terrace by candlelight, but before leaving, he stopped back by the dish room to visit two men from Niger, with whom he’d washed dishes.
“I hugged them both. They said, ‘When are you coming back?’ I had a stab in my heart. That’s the thing about a kitchen. You have this relationship with these people and it’s just like being in the newsroom. You are working extremely hard. You are producing something excellent. It feels good.”
That was more important to him than taking time off, collecting unemployment and coming up with a new career strategy. “I just had to get back to work,” he said.
“The real irony of unemployment is it robs you of your ability to do the thing that makes you feel good about yourself,” he said. “Taking a job that may not be, in many peoples’ view, worthy of my skills, gave me a place to go and a thing to do to validate myself and feel good about myself. That was a good thing. It gave me a community of people I could be around. Those people are still good friends. They are still very important to me.”
When he started this odyssey, he feared he would lose his house. Now, he says, “If I’d lost the house, I would have gotten over that.”
He didn’t find the comedown from the white-collar world to the kitchen sink demeaning in the slightest.
“What’s demeaning about washing people’s dishes and cooking people’s food? What’s demeaning about cleaning a toilet? I don’t find it demeaning. We were put on the planet to serve others.” He’s not defensive when he says this. It comes from his heart.
The French restaurant where David worked is owned by Dennis Quaintance, a man who was fascinated by his willingness to start out at the bottom. Most of the people who wanted to work for Quaintance in a transition capacity wanted to walk in and be maître d’ or sous chef. David just wanted to work and learn the business – even if it meant pushing a broom. In time, Quaintance promoted him to be marketing director for his company, which also includes two Greensboro, N.C. hotels. One of the hotels houses the restaurant where David started.
“I’ve had people tell me that, ‘We knew you’d come out on top.’ Well, damn. I didn’t. I was worried. I’m still not comfortable. But, maybe that’s good. Maybe we’re not meant to be comfortable.”
He’s not making half of what he once made, but you can hear excitement when he talks about the company’s efforts to make the Proximity Hotel profitable and sustainable.
“Sustainability is a metaphor for my entire life,” he says. I wanted to live a sustainable life. I never wanted to be rich, but I wanted to be sustainable. When this whole thing came down, I was unsustainable. I was a person who could not sustain my family.”
But, he did. And he sustained himself. Not such an asinine lesson, after all.
She’s a year older than I am. When we were teen-agers, I looked up to her. I wanted to be her.
I was an awkward and nerdy teen, and Mackenzie Phillips was not. She was rich and famous and cool beyond words. What I wouldn’t have done to trade places with her.
Ten minutes ago, I read the report that Phillips said she had a long-time, incestuous relationship with her famous father, John Phillips, which began with rape and then turned consensual. He injected her with heroin. He violated every boundary.
Several years ago, I was supposed to interview Phillips about her highly publicized rehab efforts for my second book, Mustang Sallies. She was in town appearing in the Vagina Monolouges and I called her hotel room at the scheduled time. She was so incoherent that I couldn’t decipher her mumblings before she hung up. I called back again, barely making out that she wanted me to call back in an hour — which I did, wondering if she was just a Hollywood type that slept until mid-afternoon and had trouble waking up. But, an hour later, she didn’t sound much better when she gave me her home number and asked me to call in a week. When I called again, she was just as unintelligible. I kept saying, “Mackenzie, you asked me to call. I am doing a book on bold women and …” It was useless.
A year ago, she pled guilty to a felony charge of cocaine posession.
I know people will speculate on whether her stories are true, made-up or the product of years lost to a drug haze. I believe her. If she were going to make something up to get attention, she could have stopped with incest allegation without taking that leap into the admission that the sexual relationship became “consensual.”
What a sad, tortured life. It’s amazing she’s made it to 49.
I keep thinking how I looked up to her when I was a kid. That whole time that I was wishing I could have traded places with her, she probably would have done anything to trade places with me. Sure, I was a bit of a goober back then, but I grew up surrounded by love and trust and faith. I had good parents. I had a good home.
I was safe. I feel so sad that she wasn’t.
Two days ago, I wrote how cynicism and negativity were defeating a former co-worker’s spirit in the midst of sudden unemployment. Leave it to Rosemary Goudreau to add another dimension to it.
“Maybe more than cyncism, what your friend faced was depression,” wrote Goudreau, who I worked with a million years ago when we were both reporters for The Miami Herald. “There’s a lot of it going around these days as journalists, even optimistic journalists, face the loss of their occupation…Few of us find the perfect opportunity out of the box. But as we explore this and that, we will find our way…Defining small steps might help your depressed cynic find a sense of direction again.”
Goudreau was laid off last November from The Tampa Tribune as its editorial page editor, but quickly regrouped and positioned herself as a communications consultant specializing in public policy and advocacy. She got her first contract two weeks after she lost her job.
And, she’s right. Instead of pointing out how destructive cynicism is, I should break down the re-invention process into manageable steps.
So, that’s what I’ll do here. If you want help figuring out what you need to do with your life, check out the column I wrote earlier this week. I really believe the answers are really “out there.” But, so much of the re-invention process comes down to making the decision to play to win — then positioning yourself to actually do it.
10 Steps from Depression into Career Transition
1. Get dressed in the morning. Look good. Feel good so you can deliver.
2. Exercise. Do you stop exercising because you get depressed or do you get depressed because you stopped exercising? Do whatever you need to do in order to keep your depression at bay. Take your meds. Pray. Take care of yourself so you are able to deliver at your greatest level of performance.
3. Take charge of your brain. If you put negative in, you get negative out. Put positive in, get positive out. You have tremendous power to control what you are thinking and, when you start hearing the negative tapes, just give yourself a verbal “Stop” cue. Deliberately replace your negative thoughts with something positive. It’s easier if you have a list of five positive things to go to for those low moments. For example, “I’ve been so successful in the past. I’m smart enough to get through this.”
4. Know that these tough times will not last forever. As much as it feels like you are sinking into a bottomless pit of quicksand, you aren’t. Don’t let yourself slide into the mentality that says you may never get another job, that you may never make as much as you once made, that you will have to work until the day you die. All that does is make you struggle more.
5. Remember who you are and who you are not. I see a lot of people who experience rejection and then process it as failure. They forget how talented and viable they are, so it becomes harder to project themselves as desirable. That poises them for more rejection. You have not lost your talent. And your setbacks have not erased your successes. They are just obstacles. You have succeeded in the past and you will succeed in the future.
6. Choose your friends carefully. If you surround yourself with hopeless people, you’ll lose hope. This can be hard if most of your friends are former co-workers who were also laid off. And, that can be even worse if you are competing for the same jobs against your friends. You’ll constantly wonder why someone got an interview or job that you didn’t. For the time being, be around people who will propel your success.
7. Network. Duh. We’ve all heard “It’s not what you know but who you know.” Well, it is also how you know them. Don’t network to make business connections. Network to make relationships. It is more important that you know that somebody likes to watch Grey’s Anatomy and loves pizza with anchovies than it is that you know their job description. Make important people fall in love with your personality and leverage those friendships so they take care of you professionally.
8. Listen. What are you supposed to do with your life? The universe will send you many prompts. Great turning points often present themselves in passing.
9. Don’t limit yourself to the classifieds. Executives are constantly asking other executives, “Do you know anyone who can…” They don’t want to advertise jobs because they don’t want 8,000 resumes. Network, network, network. Figure out where you want to work, then start writing key people to introduce yourself. There is a lot more on this in my book, Finding the UP in the Downturn.
10. Know your weekly goals and achieve them by setting daily tasks. Then, DO THEM. Do something every day to move you closer to your goal. Whether you spend time networking or writing letters or taking classes or attending job fairs, do something to keep yourself in the game.
The most important thing is to have faith. Things will work out. I am not being flip. I am not shrugging off your pain or uncertainty. Things do have a way of working out. I don’t want to minimize anybody’s suffering or delude myself into thinking that hope conquers all, but the truth is that there are very few of you who will wind up eating out of garbage cans. There’s so much you can’t control, so give it to the wind.
“Oh it’s just humiliating as hell. And no, I don’t frankly give a rat’s ass that I’m not alone and others are suffering, or that the universe is bigger and my problems are small by comparison. None of that shit helps. No offense.”
That note came in a recent e-mail from an old newspaper colleague who is now unemployed and financially desperate. I’d called a day earlier to check in, but apparently my usual hope and optimism didn’t go down well.
I don’t know why I expected it would. Almost all of my former journalism colleagues have one trait that makes us clash when we talk about what’s ahead for them. This characteristic is not reserved for journalists, but it is pretty widespread in the profession.
It’s cynicism. I used to be one of the most cynical of all. As journalists, we always saw the negative, because that’s where the news was. When I finally started seeing the world through new, open eyes, I had vast new power to control my success and enjoy life.
For the journalists who might see this, please don’t think this is being written by some marshmallow who worked a couple of years for some puny paper before getting a job writing fluffy press releases. I got my first newspaper job when I was 15 and spent 25 years in the business. Reporting was the only thing I ever wanted to do with my life until the day came when I realized I’d done it and was over it.
I wanted out, and at least I had a choice. So many of my former colleagues who are forced to transition and re-invent actually expected to report for newspapers until the final days of their careers. Change of this magnitude was so unexpected that most are shell-shocked and clueless about what to do next.
Unfortunately, most have a handicap that will hold them back at every turn. It is the skepticism that made them good journalists and the cynicism that festered in the newsroom.
I have become the kind of person that I used to roll my eyes at when I was a reporter. And yet, I am happy. I make a living talking about manifesting success and believing in positive outcomes and all those things that I used to think were a load of bull. I believe every word I say. I had to heal and overcome and open up. It was a very long process that began with my leaving newspapers to write my first book, then being forced to persevere as it was universally rejected. I was so embarrassed by my failure that I spent almost three years underground, ashamed that my old cynical colleagues might be laughing at how I’d left my career to fall flat on my face.
I didn’t quit.
Somewhere in all of that failure emerged a spirit that told me that I could do anything if I believed I could do it and did not give up. Someone suggested I read Think and Grow Rich, the 1937 classic by Napoleon Hill. Imagine a journalist buying a book with a title like “Think and Grow Rich.” I thought to myself, “What a crock.” But, it wasn’t.
Hill’s book introduced me to the concept of the Law of Attraction, which basically says that we manifest the reality we believe in. So, if I say my schedule is overwhelmed with speaking engagements, it is suddenly jam-packed. Back when I was a journalist, I would consider such a concept a total crock.
But, it isn’t.
It just isn’t. It made me a lot of money.
One of my old friends once said to me, “You don’t actually believe that crap, do you?” And the answer is, “Yes, I do.” Completely. With all my heart. I believe we have the ability to create success or wallow in defeat. That our mindset is something that we can program to be positive or negative, and whatever programming we do will deliver results in-kind. I have friends who tell me that I just don’t understand the obstacles they are up against in this job market in a dying industry and I think of the time when I had no money in the bank. None. Nothing. And I had a mortgage and an electric bill and a bill for health insurance and… It all worked out. It just did. And, it always does.
In the world of self-employment, you have good years and bad. There are times when I don’t have to hustle for anything, yet the business comes without effort. And there are times when I have to work it, work it, work it. But, as long as I keep my head in the game, certain that I will manifest success, guess what? I manifest success.
There is power in hope. There is power in positive expectation. I realize that everything I am writing can be twisted and mocked by the people I used to respect as friends and colleagues — and that’s all okay by me.
They’re just being cynical.
Today, my favorite server at my favorite beach restaurant sighed and said, “I need to do something different with my life, but I don’t know what it is.”
Yesterday, the exasperation came from an acquaintance who e-mailed, “I’m still trying to find my passion – envious that you have found yours!”
I am asked the “What should I do now?” question all the time. I always say, “Put it out there and the universe will send you a signal.”
My life’s most pivotal changes occurred because I listened when somebody made a remark that could have easily been lost in passing. For example, in 1991, my friend Betsy Cannon suggested I rehab from knee surgery by training for Ride the Rockies, the classic Colorado bike challenge sponsored by The Denver Post. I did that bike trip and have taken a cycling vacation almost every year since. I cycle almost every day. It is my sanity and my salvation.
In 1998, as I struggled with my duties as a manager, I went looking for a book that would teach me how to succeed as a strong woman in a harsh work environment. When I couldn’t find what I was looking for, a friend said, “Well, you’re a journalist. Why don’t you write it?” That led to my first best-seller, Hard Won Wisdom. As I waited for that book to finally find its publisher and make its way into print, another friend threw out a suggestion. “Hey, you ought to be a professional speaker,” she said. It had never occured to me that I could have a career standing up in front of people and talking. That was the most significant and rewarding prompt that the universe ever gave me.
Those three remarks led me to my three strongest passions today: speaking, writing books and cycling. Although my friends made the suggestions, I had to be open to them. I had to follow-through with action. The cycling in the Rocky Mountains took endless and exhausting hours of hard training. My life as an author began with constant rejection and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And my work as a speaker began by me doing things like driving six hours to Miami for an unpaid event where only 19 people showed up.
Even when I have been on my path, there have been countless opportunities for detours. Several years ago, I was courted for a job that came with a really fat weekly paycheck, great benefits, good vacation and a secure future. It didn’t feel right for me, and I continued on my more uncertain route of self-employment as — gasp! — a motivational speaker. I had no idea that my route would ultimately prove much more stable and lucrative. I kept growing my business, and two years after I turned down that job, all the senior managers at that company were booted out. Some sought advice from me.
It’s important to know what you love and be mindful of the subjects or activities that are so exciting to you that you get completely lost in them. You’ll often find the roots of passion there. But, also, listen up. Hear what others suggest and dare to take the steps to check things out. Try new things, but don’t force the universe. You won’t find great success by forcing yourself to love something that you don’t even like.
And, if you are confused about what to do next, take heart. So are millions and millions of other people. The answers are out there. You just have to hear them — then act.
I don’t especially like to watch myself getting older, but there is good news:
1. No matter how old I get, Vicki Smith will always be older than me. She turns 70 next week, one day before my 49th birthday. That is comforting.
2. If I have to age, I can be like Vicki and not get old.
Before I go on about this, I will now insert a photo of Vicki shot yesterday when she was climbing a tree and making monkey noises.
And just so you see the magic of what Vicki is all about, here are a couple of pictures of her taken in 1960 as a mermaid at Weeki Wachee.