Taking a Timeout in a Tennessee Version of Walden Woods

Yesterday at Dickens of a Christmas in Franklin  with my sister and brother-in-law, I ran into Edy, our wonderful Airbnb hostess last summer. She asked why I haven’t been posting on the blog.  To her and other readers, I apologize. Reentry into the US over the last six months after three years abroad has been an adventure in itself.   So much has happened which I’m still processing and will be part of the memoir I’m writing.  And, yes, I’ve been away from the blog and all of you too long. Thank you, Edy, for sharing my Nashville Guide with guests and encouraging me to post this…

In the morning I watched the geese from the door through the mist, sailing in the middle of the pond, fifty rods off, so large and tumultuous that Walden appeared like an artificial pond for their amusement. But when I stood on the shore they at once rose up with a great flapping of wings at the signal of their commander, and when they had got into rank circled about over my head.—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Mom and I watched the geese from the patio as they picked through grass by the pond. The week after Thanksgiving had been quiet.   As much as we loved having my grown kids with us, we hated seeing them go. Determined to have everything done before they arrived so I could savor time with them and too excited to sleep, I was in the kitchen till 1 AM the night before, cooking and binging on Outlander.  We blinked and only leftovers in the freezer were proof that the holiday really happened.  Now Christmas calls.  But as I walk Ella over crunchy leaves beside still waters at Edwin Warner Park, I remember not only being there with Cole and Brittany Thanksgiving Day, but how nature reminded me all fall I’m never alone. I’m grateful for last autumn—my first in three years.  And I thank God that I spent much of it in my own Walden Woods.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden or Life in the Woods  after living in a 10’ X 15’ cabin beside a pond for two years, two months and two days.  Though I’ve never been to Walden Woods outside Concord, Massachusetts, I’ve been inspired by Walden and so have my students. Thoreau was the original American minimalist. I’m learning to follow his advice to “Simplify! Simplify!” and after living in apartments three years while abroad I have grown accustomed to  small spaces.   I’ve culled and curated my material possessions which were packed into 1800 square feet for over twenty years, then a storage unit until I moved back.

I moved home and had no house.  Virginia Woolf was so right when she said women need a room of their own—or at least room, space— to write, create, think, breathe.  I am grateful for three months spent with my mom in my hometown as I job searched, then began teaching university and college English. At the end of September, I finally settled  in Nashville, where I call home.  I was able to focus on writing my memoir of the three years abroad–why I went and why I returned. Surrounded by peace, quiet, nature, I could hear God, my Muse, again. 

My “tiny home” is 785 square feet beside three quiet lakes where geese greet me each morning. Minutes away is Percy Warner, Cheekwood, and the Harpeth River.   I craved green space while in Santo Domingo where my apartment had no outdoor area and was surrounded by loud, relentless traffic and high-rise condos.  When I returned to Nashville, I ironically found much of the same.  

Friends and family warned that Nashville had grown and changed. Drastically.   But last September I managed to find a place where I now see deer on daily walks.  A couple of weeks ago, after all the leaves had fallen, I realized I could finally see into the woods.  At the moment I looked up, peering past the pine trees, I saw on a shag carpet of burnt orange and brown leaves two of them staring back at me.  On Thanksgiving Day we saw a buck snorting through the woods not far for where we walked Ella. The next day, Cole spied three deer while sitting on my living room couch.

Here I watch cardinals, bluejays, and finches take turns at my bird feeder and chipmunks enjoying seeds that they drop to the ground.  A covey of doves feed there, too, reminding me again that although I have no idea what 2018 holds, I have peace. I still miss my home of 21 years which I sold in 2016.  I always will and still can’t bear to drive by.  But I believe I made the right choice and am where I need to be.  In stillness I’m moving in the direction of my dreams.

Since moving home last June it has been a journey, and on it goes—a new season in a new life which a former coworker in Morocco called “the new new.”  With all the change over the last 3+ years—4 schools and 4 addresses in 3 countries—I’ve not posted on the blog as much since I lived in Morocco.    I’m writing a memoir that will explain, as I continue to understand, all that happened there and in the Dominican Republic, and what is happening now as I repatriate and try to create a new life in Nashville. 

For me, moving to foreign countries was easier in many ways than making a new life in what used to feel so familiar. Career transition can be one of the scariest moves of all.  Trading the  security of what we’ve always done for what we now want to do is risky.   I’d been in a classroom Monday through Friday since I was five.  It was time. Teaching as an adjunct gave me a season to prioritize writing  though  I still put in eleven-hour days commuting to two schools twice a week.  I missed full time pay and travel, but  taking a timeout meant more time with Taylor who lives nearby and Mom who needs me now.  And more time to create the life I imagine.  

At Belmont University I designed and taught a course called “Long Way Home: Essential Journeys.”  Truly life is like a web of adventures radiating to and from a center—home.  I believe our Creator is home.   That He lives within and guides us on journeys uniquely designed for each of us to become the person he or she is meant to be.  My students chose journeys out of their comfort zones they felt would positively impact their lives.  They researched the benefits and risks, the how-tos and whys, and for a month carried out their quests.  We had focused on narratives and memoirs, particularly Cheryl Strayed’s, Wild.  Check out the book and the movie it inspired produced by Reese Witherspoon, a Nashville girl, who played the lead.  Cheryl’s journey — hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail alone—was a physical and spiritual task.   What she learned wasn’t so much about the finish line as what it took to cross it. It always is. 

They shared the challenges and takeaways of playing instruments, learning sign language, serving in the community and beyond.  They practiced yoga, veganism, and ran, boxed, rock-climbed, and hiked their way across Nashville.  One student after learning to play the guitar changed her major from Music Business to Music Therapy; others sought counseling to heal old wounds so they could move forward.  They challenged each other to use less social media to make friends in real time and get more sleep.

Like my high school students who had completed The Deliberate Life project from Music City  to Morocco, students at Belmont taught me a lot.  So did my night classes at Vol State where I enjoyed working with adults who gave their all despite full time jobs and responsibilities to their own families.  Students who believed an education would help them follow Thoreau, too, who said:  “Go confidently in the direction of your dream. Live the life you’ve imagined.”  

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Cheekwood
Cheekwood is minutes away–part of my Tennessee Walden Woods

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Edwin Warner Park
Ella loves our daily walks, especially at Edwin Warner Park.
Reading to ride at Bellevue Red Caboose Park
Ella is ready to ride at Bellevue’s Red Caboose Park.

Imposter

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)

Earlier dreams of dancing
Earlier dreams of dancing