My reinspirement | a midlife discovery mission

re-in-spire-ment | Where inspiration meets reinvention. A purposeful retirement from one’s professional career in order to pursue self-discovery and explore all the beautiful possibilities life has to offer. Usually undertaken by women in midlife.

This blog is my story of how I got here, to this point of midlife inspiration and desire to reinvent my working life, pursue my passions, and live my dream. But first I need to figure out what comes next.

“What do you want to do?” It wasn’t the first time I had been asked – or asked myself – this question, but it was the first time I understood that it was entirely up to me to find the answer.  

We were sitting on a Caribbean beach, talking about how grateful we were for the break from the cold winter and the brutal pace of our jobs. “We moved to Vermont a year ago, but we haven’t changed anything,” Peter remarked out of nowhere. The words echoed and ricocheted inside my head – haven’t changed anything, haven’t changed, haven’t changed, anything, anything, anything……

When I bought the Vermont house in 2012, we were still living in southern New Hampshire. My stated goal was to move north in 2016, quit my Boston-based job and start over. We made the physical move on schedule, but instead of quitting my job, I had doubled down. I had taken on more responsibility just to be sure I wouldn’t regret at least having tried to take my marketing career to the next level before giving up on it.

I’m glad to have given it my all, but it had become increasingly clear that my “all” wasn’t going to be enough for the job or for me. I would have to change something, and that would have to start with figuring out what I wanted to do.

I started with what came naturally – market research and strategic planning. While I gathered data and began to make spreadsheets and selection matrices, I put off starting the count-down clock. There was no way I could set a target date for changing my job until I knew for sure what that change would entail.

But here’s the thing, I was never going to be sure. I was never going to change anything – anything…thing…thing – unless I first changed my way of thinking and operating.

I did not come to this realization on my own. It took several weeks with a life coach to help me see that I was, in her words, “steamrolling my life.”

The stories we weave about ourselves can be difficult to unravel.

I had woven a story of myself around what I should do — plan, work, achieve. Even as I sought to find my purpose and make a career change, that story was difficult to unravel. What I thought I needed was to line up what I wanted to do next, the logical goals being a new job or more schooling. What I really needed, though, was time for self-discovery, to answer the question ‘what do I want to be,’ not do.

I am fortunate that both of my long-term employers were financially successful and shared the rewards with their employees. I leaned into that luck as best I could and have tucked away enough savings to afford a bridge between corporate working life and full-on retirement.

Reinspirement is a grown-up version of a gap year.

I jumped off the corporate merry-go-round just before Christmas 2018, and am using this time for much-needed midlife self-discovery. My propensity is still to plan, work, and achieve, but I’m directing that energy to a variety of exploratory activities that are helping me loosen the ties to my corporate story and to clarify what I want to be.

My goal for reinspirement is to set a goal – to find my purpose.

I started out just trying to detox from 24×7 emails and the culture of busy and important. This involved an enviable amount of time for long walks with the dog, reading, checking-off my farmhouse renovation to-do list, and playtime with my partner and my family.

I increased my investment in self-care – a regular yoga practice, a better diet (less stress eating and drinking, more time for fresh vegetables), Marie Kondo-ing my wardrobe, and beauty treatments I previously pooh-poohed – eyelash tint, Botox, even a tattoo – all a part of my self-discovery and the growing freedom that comes in midlife (thank God!).

Now it is time for rehabilitation – the restoring of someone or something to a useful purpose – and mine is still a work in progress. A colorful new whiteboard, the launch of this blog, taking classes on creative writing and entrepreneurship, building a new local network of smart and connected women, and even some glitter, are all part of the process.

As part of it, I am working my way through The Artist’s Way, a workbook of “discovering and recovering your creative self.” Through author Julia Cameron’s assignments, I am tapping into my creativity in a way that serves my goal, not the goals of a corporate marketing campaign. I am feeling less blocked and lighter as a result of the daily “morning pages” commitment to writing and encouragement to express creativity without inhibition (hence the glitter).

I’ve also used the time to learn and become more active on issues that are important to me. Attending demonstrations, legislative sessions, and committee hearings as Vermont becomes a leader in protecting women’s health and reproductive rights was a privilege. Contacting legislators, submitting written testimony, and publicly stating my support for abortion rights in a letter to the editor were all valuable learning experiences.

Through this process of self-discovery, I continue to unravel my old story and am beginning to write a new one. I can now answer, with greater certainty and self-confidence, that relentless question – ‘what do you want to do?’  

Pivotal Points

1. Take time to practice self-care and create space for new ideas

2. Explore and discover all the possibilities.

3. Commit to nothing (not yet).

Creative Nonfiction Student Commencement Speech

Stonecoast MFA | Class of Winter 2022

Catherine Palmer, Stonecoast Class of Winter 2022 (that’s me!) giving the Creative Nonfiction graduating student speech for our Zoom graduation.

Good evening Stonecoast administration, faculty, students, and guests; and congratulations to my fellow graduates!

Two years ago, we arrived at the venerable Haraseeket Inn for our first residency, determined to rediscover the writing world and redefine our places in it.

One year ago, we attended our second online residency—reduced to tiny digital boxes.

One month ago, just as we were packing our bags with renewed optimism, we understood the need to re-evaluate and redesign.

Now here we are, reoriented to this virtual reality and to, really, the only thing that is constant for a writer—revision.

We knew how to write before we arrived at Stonecoast. But here, we learned to revise. We re-examined—our poetry and prose, our expectations, and perhaps—or especially—ourselves.

The faculty and our fellow students inspired us, and they held us accountable to create the best possible versions of our work. We learned to recognize when our writing fell flat and when it vibrated with meaning. We learned to be intentional with every syntactical choice. Our mentors dared us to cast our words into the world and to recast them when they came back, rejected. We learned never to give up on the stories we are meant to tell.

We came to Stonecoast expecting a challenge—in our writing, yes, but also in the ambitious agenda and all those new people! I made two trips to carry in my belongings for the stay. Like a hermit crab (the crustacean, not the essay), I carried my home on my back. If it all got too much, I could retreat to my shell—Room 224. I wasn’t the only one with such a plan. I don’t think any of us expected to connect so quickly and so closely to one another—we reveled in the company of other writers, and we still do. Reinvigorated by each other, we share and laugh and cry without fear because we’ve finally found our people. The Stonecoast Community is real.

Joan Didion once said, “I write to find out what I think.” I’d argue, we write to find out who we are. While certain people may try, you can never really revise your way out of the truth—only closer to it. With every review, we see what our narrator can’t get away with, we hear when our voice is off-key, we ache when we’ve reached the bone of our truth.

We will always be revising, which is to say, always moving forward, never retreating. We revise to master our craft, to embrace surprise, and to reimagine and reshape ourselves and the world in which we live. This is the lesson of Stonecoast.

One month from now, my fellow graduates and I will be a lot more relaxed.

One year from now (hopefully sooner), we will all be reacquainted together in Maine.

Two years from now, we will still be revising—so let’s embrace it. Reflect, reword, and rework– and never retreat.

Two Years Without Purpose

Two years ago, on the morning before a new year and a new chapter, I sat in front of the woodstove without plan or purpose. I watched the light come up over the White Mountains, painting the sky with strokes of lavender, orange, and pink, before muddling the canvas grey. A snowstorm was on the way.

With my corporate marketing career behind me and the dog at my feet sharing the warmth of the fire, I had no motive to rush into the day—or days—ahead. In fact, on the advice of my life coach, I had resolved to “stop steamrolling my life.” Easier said than done.

My way of taking advantage of an empty calendar is to fill it up. Having no expectations from any higher-ups, I set my own bar—and I set it high. I filled my morning journal with ‘must do,’ ‘should be,’ and ‘need to’ objectives on the daily. Chief among them was the ever-elusive quest for my purpose. What am I meant to be doing? WHO AM I?

For the first six months or so, I auditioned personas—ski bum, gardener, volunteer. I networked and took classes—consultant, community organizer, blogger. “Follow me!” I shouted while I thumbed the Gazetteer for directions. I walked the dog and listened to Brené Brown, studying her ideas on the intersection of shame and bravery until I graduated at the top of the self-help class— a valedictorian in vulnerability.

The calendar pages fell away. I had planned, mentally and financially, for two-years of fallowness while I weeded out my business background and planted seeds for a more creative and fulfilling life. A quarter of the way through this journey, the path ahead was still not clear to me. But then …

If you’ve been following, you know how this goes.

An ‘aha moment’ collided with serendipity that first summer at a writing workshop in Maine. I’ve called the workshop life-changing, but that’s not quite right. It was more of a course correction. As if (were it possible), I took myself firmly by the shoulders and said, “Stop. Haven’t you always wanted to do this? Dabbled and dreamed about it your entire life? What are you waiting for?”

I started an MFA in creative writing program that January. Two months later, the world turned upside down, but I felt right side up for the first time in a long time. I am a writer. I am learning, drafting, editing, pitching, submitting, reading, workshopping, carving up my heart, and reshaping it into story—putting my words into the universe and counting rejections as progress.

My self-imposed two-year deadline ends at midnight tonight. As the new year approached, I wondered how to sum up my reinspirement—a period of reimagining my life made possible as much by good fortune and lucky breaks as by planning and hard work. Surely, especially in these stormy times, nothing could be less important than my pithy, privileged reflection.

But here it is anyway, in a nutshell.

Searching for one’s purpose is a fool’s errand. There are a massive amount of marketing campaigns—a purpose-industrial-complex, if you will—designed to sell us on the idea that nothing less than a purposeful life will do. Bullshit.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that we have one risky life to live. Erase “should be,” or worse, “should have been,” from your vocabulary. Give yourself a break, metaphorically speaking. If you can, hit pause for real. Remember what it is you love to do and do that.

Purpose, shmurpose.

Under the Influence

I staggered into “Sober October” this year. No, not in a drunken stupor, but my commitment was shaky. October 1st fell on a Thursday, a full but pleasant day. I logged into the evening family Zoom with a cup of tea in hand instead of the usual glass of wine. I’ve got this. Then the denier-in-chief got Covid.

As if the world wasn’t topsy-turvy enough. Heading into the weekend, the news and opinions and what-if propositions crackled like the burning red and orange maple leaves outside my window. To soothe my nerves, I quaffed a crisp Vermont IPA from a sidewalk table on what could have been one of the last warm evenings to dine outside. One beer at dinner, to relax and enjoy a simple and waning pleasure, doesn’t count. Sunday is a good day to start, four full weeks until the end of the month.

On Sunday, I saw the Bota box in the cabinet and gave it a shake. Football was on, but I’d forgotten I’d opened the cupboard to find the salsa dish. From the sound of the swish, there was only a glass or two left in the Bota’s plastic bladder. Say, isn’t red wine good for your heart? My blood had been simmering with every new tweet and press conference circus. I needed to calm down.

And so it went for a few days—my estimate of the remaining liquid off by half—until the Bota box ran dry on the night of the Vice-Presidential debates. Did you know a single female fly in your wine can ruin it? It’s true.

I banked two days of sobriety and then, “I guess I’ll try a sip.” It was Saturday again. Who could resist “just a taste, okay a full pour” of a new craft brewed called Floating Helicopters? I sipped it while a storm approached—lightning swathed the sky to neon purple, and propeller-shaped maple seeds whirled and twirled on the wind—Indian summer crashing in a piney glass of ale.

After the Helicopter, I dashed into Rite Aid for mouthwash. Don’t think the errand was some Kitty Dukakis desperation; it had been several months since I’d been able to go to the dentist. You have to take care of your teeth. Past the magazines, makeup, toys, gifts, and batteries, I found the mouthwash, then the ice cream Peter likes, and a bar of salted dark chocolate to satisfy my sweet tooth, and maybe, just one bottle of red. An impulse buy in a store selling health and wellness. “We’ll split it,” I said to myself.  

It’s day ten as I write this. On Sunday, October 11th, I began “Sober October” anew. No more excuses.

I don’t intend to make an alcoholic confession or offer a take-it-from-me lesson. But before I offer commentary, I thought I should provide some personal context.

That’s too much by any measure, and it isn’t just me. Alcohol sales in the U.S. have surged 24% during the pandemic. “Airport Rules Apply” declared social media in mid-March when we canceled our Caribbean vacation and quarantined at home.

Ina Garten making a giant cosmopolitan

Let the day drinking begin with a giant Ina Garten Cosmopolitan.
How easy is that?

I wasn’t always a big drinker— okay, excluding the “Riunite” nights in college and the Tequila incident in Palm Springs. I don’t consider myself a big drinker now, but truthfully—and I’ll try not to make excuses—it’s been getting out of hand. A beer (or two) to unwind after a day hunched over my keyboard, a glass of wine (or two) with dinner while watching the news, and maybe one (and a half) more to pass the time before bed. Every day of the week.

But even before we locked down, middle-aged women like me were knockin ‘em back with gusto. A 2019 study from the North American Menopause Society revealed that our high-risk drinking (four or more drinks per day for women) increased 84% between 2002 and 2012. Women aged 45-54 gave reasons like, “alcohol causes relaxation” and “alcohol is the remedy for a stressful week.” Gee, that sounds familiar.

Well before Covid, incorrigible husbands were replaced by “wine time” as the running joke among women of a certain age. Take the Instagram account WomenWhoLoveWine. Nearly half a million followers check-in for “funny” quotes like this one, “Sometimes you have to have a glass of wine or four because it’s Wednesday.” Drinking buddies aren’t hard to find anymore, even when you are in quarantine.

Encouragement to drink, or rationalization if you’d prefer, is ubiquitous. Maybe it always has been. I remember a plastic clock hanging on the wall of my Grandfather’s house. The hands read 5:05, on a dial where the number five marked all twelve positions. A half-moon caption at the top excused the four-p.m. whiskey, reading, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.”

The T.V. series, Mad Men hardly glamorized the 1960s three-martini lunch, the male characters throwing up and generally behaving badly. As Peggy Olsen said, “Am I the only one who can work and drink at the same time?” In the twenty-first century office, we spritz our instant message threads with wine and cocktail glass emojis, and drink free beer on tap in the employee lounge.

As if we needed more incentives, a 2017 post on the Entrepreneur website offered eleven reasons why moderate drinking will make us “smarter, healthier, and more creative.” Among the dubious motivations for a daily drink: “helps you think more clearly” and “boosts happiness.” My favorite benefit, weight loss. Said the article, “women who drank one or two alcoholic drinks a day were less likely to gain weight than those who didn’t indulge altogether.” Say no more. Waiter, another round!

We hear what we want to hear. Not so coincidentally, when I read the piece online last night, the ads surrounding the article were for credit cards featuring blingy merchandise in shades of pink. Because what’s better than a little boozy shopping, ammiright?  

There are signs, however, that attitudes are shifting. The sober and sober-curious movement is latching with young people. Bars serving only non-alcoholic beverages had opened in New York and L.A. (and let’s hope they re-open someday soon). Mixologists are bragging on social media about their unique specialty mock-tails. And, most importantly (to me), alcohol-free beer finally tastes like beer! I like the hoppy snap of an IPA like the ones from Athletic Brewing Company. More into spirits? Seedslip’s herbal beverages claim to have no sugar or calories, and there are a host of non-alcoholic wines. (note: these are not endorsements, paid or otherwise)

These are good trends given the alarming rise of depression, anxiety, and addiction affecting everyone, young and old, poor and rich—serious diseases exacerbated by pandemic and politics. Forums like One Year No Beer have tens of thousands of followers, and you can find a wide variety of sober influencers on Instagram.

I know better than to drive under the influence but have just begun to think about how often and how much alcohol I consume is under the influence of a popular drinking culture. There is nothing like the juicy snap of a New England IPA on a summery day. The bitter effervescence speaks to the nature of life here in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont—straight forward, not too sweet, balanced. That same beer, gulped mindlessly while scrolling through my phone, falls short. Why bother? “Because, beer,” any number of bad influences, including mine, might answer.

Vermont Beer

Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy, said Ben Franklin.

or maybe he was just a bad influence?

I’m sipping on a cup of Peppermint tea while I try to draw a conclusion to this essay and consider my drinking future. It’s dark outside and raining. The daylight is shrinking, but after only ten days, I feel brighter and lighter in every sense of those words. I’ve got this—for the next twenty days, until they tally the election results, or when we pop the champagne and wish 2020 Auld Lang Syne?

Maybe forever? I don’t know. I have to think about it.

Growing and Gardening

Gardening makes a lovely metaphor. Growth and hope manifest in a garden. Of course, death and despair happen there, too.

I have five or six books on the topic of gardens. There is one on container gardens I’ve glanced at once or twice, and two books on gardening in the Northeast, where, according to its color-coded maps, I live in Zone 4. On my coffee-table, sits a book of artfully photographed Maine gardens, with their granite ledges, wild blueberries, and abundant hydrangea. I also purchased a book of cut flower gardens and flower arranging on a whim, though I have yet to open it.

The most recent addition to my collection of gardening books is titled The Kitchen Garden. For the first time, this spring, it seemed growing food might be prudent, as well as … fun? At first, I protested; I have too much on my plate already. A long list of to-do’s and a weekly CSA Share from Joe’s Brook Farm is already more than enough.

In Vermont, sowing a vegetable garden in spring is part of the curriculum, like stacking wood in the summer, raking fall leaves, and or shoveling snow. And yet, I’d felt only ambivalence about the soil where so many others found solace, joy, and purpose.

Gardening is one of the rewards of middle age, when one is ready for an impersonal passion, a passion that demand patience, acute awareness of a world outside oneself, and the power to keep on growing through all the times of drought, through the cold snows, toward those moments of pure joy when all failures are forgotten and the plum tree flowers.

May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep

In early June, I planted a small garden bed with tomatoes, basil, and thyme. Though it took not more than an hour to turn the soil and move the fragile sprouts from their seed trays to their new four-foot by four-foot bed, I was sweaty, bug-eaten, and unfulfilled by the task. I tossed a few extra tomato starts into a blue plastic tub I found in the garage and had sloppily filled with peat and potting soil.

It was a tiny practice garden. Every day, I emptied the basement dehumidifier bucket into it, dumping water sucked from the damp air. What I labeled resourceful and sustainably-minded, others might call lazy or careless. Whatever. Let them have their planning, weeding, dividing, and subscribing to seed catalog dreams. I added stakes for the tomatoes to climb and surrounded the lot with netting to keep wild critters at bay, then got on with my life.

By the end of July, thanks to my daily watering and poor drainage, the tomatoes in the blue tub developed “blossom end rot.” At first, my ambivalence shifted toward apathy. I expected to toss the lot into the compost. The cause of the fruit’s malformed flat yellow bottoms was easy enough to Google. What I didn’t expect was my determination to save the crop.

Suddenly failure was not an option, even though our local farmers, Mary and Eric, had beautiful organic tomatoes waiting for me each week. I stripped dead and yellowing leaves, secured the stalks higher on their plastic stakes, and improved the drainage by stabbing the plastic pot multiple times with gardening shears.

I’m proud to say the remaining tomatoes, and the ones that came next, were free of any end-rot—imperfectly round, blushing, juiciness. In August, we savored handfuls from my little harvest, and there are still more ripening on the windowsill.

My tiny garden victory planted new seeds.

After harvesting the last of the tomatoes, ahead of an early frost, I demolished the little practice garden bed—its size too constraining, its location less than ideal. Next year, I will build two, each four by eight, closer to our compost bin and water source and blessed, but not burned by the sun.

My gardening ambivalence has turned to anticipation just as the summer has given way to fall foliage and the foliage will give way to bare branches and the dormancy of winter. Why am I drawn toward gardening now? Surely, not because it is fun, or prudent for that matter.

On the surface, the metaphor is obvious. In a year marked by death and despair, where better to look for growth and hope than in a garden? If I dig deeper, I find the roots of my enthusiasm had been planted long ago and have only begun to bloom lately.

As I shop for bulbs online, I picture a young girl, digging in the dirt, and imagining her Vermont farm. She will spend the last weekends of autumn on her knees in the yard, planting all kinds of Tulips, Crocus, and Daffodil. This winter, she’ll buy vegetable seeds and wonder how to make the scrubby lower field bloom wildflowers filled with bees.

Challenge Accepted

“You never swim in a quarry.” My mother’s voice was in my head as I stood twelve or fifteen feet above the water of Booth’s Quarry on the island of Vinalhaven, Maine.

A quarry is a tantalizing, exciting, seductive place, a shadowy, bottomless, perilous place. Growing up in the 1970s, it seemed like they were pulling a body out of one of the quarries down in Quincy, Mass every other week in the summertime. Teenagers would head up there after dark to drink and smoke pot, get wasted probably, and then someone would stand at the edge of an eighty-foot ledge and say, “let’s jump in.” The old granite quarries were up to 300 feet deep and filled by spring-fed, but murky, water. At one point, before they finally closed them for good, the city dumped telephone poles and trees in the water to discourage swimming, but that only made things worse. The quarries were already full of hazards—old cars and shopping carts, and more than a few dead bodies.

With that image in mind, and only a brief hesitation to consider my age and creaky spine, I pushed off the warm flat edge of the machine-cut rock.  

“If all the kids jumped off a cliff, would you?” mom asked.


Do you take time to assess the hazards, or do you just jump?

“But all the kids are doing it!” We punctuated our carefully crafted requests to stay out late, wear a short skirt, see an R-rated movie, go swimming without adult supervision. Whatever the fad was, whatever the popular kids were doing, that’s what we wanted. Whatever we saw at the mall or in Seventeen magazine, we had to have—we’d rather die than wear the wrong thing. Adulation from your peers, and maybe a thumbs-up from the popular kids, followed if you were among the first to pair embroidered whales on a navy grosgrain belt from L.L. Bean with your lime Dickies and a pink Izod polo shirt, its green and blue alligator emblem tying the whole outfit together. Trends were set in high-school hallways, and preppy was the style in mine.

That was before social media, before the Internet decided what—and who—is popular. Now hashtags measure what’s trending. The latest Instagram trend is making headlines as nearly six and a half million posts feature the hashtag #challengeaccepted. Black and white photos of women flood Instagram feeds. The intent is to support women by posting a selfie of a moment when you felt fearless or powerful, but this empowerment party is only for the popular girls.

To participate, you first have to be nominated. Once someone chooses you, you can invite fifty more women to accept the challenge. Let’s love each other, the invitation might say—#womensupportingwomen. When my daughter nominated me— “I chose you because you are beautiful, strong and incredible” —and I presume forty-nine other women in a group DM, I balked.

Jumping on a trend can be risky. A popular hashtag might pull your post into the deep and dangerous scrutiny of social media. In the half-second before a stranger’s thumb flicks upward, scrolling on for something better, your post might grab their attention. Maybe you’ll make new friends, or maybe you’ll muddy the water. What if you try to be part of the in-crowd, and it fails? What if everyone jumps off the cliff and their heads bob up in the water, laughing and high-fiving, and when it’s your turn, you don’t do it right? You fall, and you flail. Better to look before you leap.

Oh, come on, you say. It’s just a selfie, a fun distraction, beautiful women looking confident, and sharing love for their women friends. Jump in!

First, select the right photo. Look confident but not arrogant, be pretty without trying. Then include the right hashtags, #challengeaccepted, #womensupporting women. Don’t forget to thank the one who nominated you and all the women in your life who lift you up. You could also use the caption to speak up for #votebymail, #healthcare, #childcare, #climateaction, #guncontrol, #abortionrights, #payequity, and a million other issues that affect women. But what about the #pandemic that disproportionately impacts #bipoc women? How can you forget to thank the #firstresponders and remind people to #wearamask? If you omit marginalized populations—#lbgtqrights #blacklivesmatter, #seniorcitizens, #autismspeaks, #thankaveteran—are you falling into the trap of performative activism where no real effort is required beyond your social media post?

Several opinion pieces have challenged the motives of #challengeaccepted posters, calling them “slacktivists” and questioning what value six million selfies can add to the crucial causes of feminism. Notably, another well-intentioned hashtag, #blackouttuesday, had the opposite of its intended effect. The goal was to make room for Black musicians’ and artists’ voices by quieting the Internet for a day. The result was an even greater silencing of Black voices when tens of millions of posts inundated the communication efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Some report that the #challengeaccepted hashtag originated from Tukey to highlight the country’s appalling number of femicides (women murdered for the crime of being a woman). On Instagram however, the Turkish hashtags, #istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır and #kadınaşiddetehayır, created to support the Istanbul Convention which aims to end violence against women, trend significantly lower—only about one in six of the #challengeaccepted posts include them. It’s not clear whether the movement against femicide in Turkey begat the #challengeaccepted hashtag or if the hashtag has amplified the real and important movement. 

Like the quarries I was warned about, the Internet is murky and perilous; it’s also seductive. We don’t always know what is accurate or safe to share, and frankly, the effort to investigate everything before posting is too much work. But when the popular kids are already in the water, do take time to measure the depth and check for obstacles, or just jump?

On Vinalhaven, I fell awkwardly away from the cliff, one hand holding my nose closed, the other outstretched by reflex, poised to break my fall. There was only breath enough for half a squeal, a split second to feel a childlike happy rush of fearlessness before I breached the water’s polished surface. Submerged, I kept falling, floating but pulled downward. The dark marine, cool like satin on smooth skin, swirled around me, inviting me to go deeper. Not until gravity and buoyancy, fear, and joy, reached equilibrium, did I kick to the surface and join the other bobbing happy heads.

Facing My Inner Karen

How the protests against police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement are helping me to confront my own White privilege.

  • To a grocery store clerk in New Hampshire (2006):
    • Me: “Look, I know you have a shit job. But you really should try to do your best.”
    • Clerk:
  • At an Ice Cream vendor in Chicago’s Midway Airport (2010):
    • Me: “This isn’t what I ordered.”
    • Clerk: “I’m sorry, but that is what you ordered. See, right here.” She points to the menu, and I know that she is right.  
    • Me: “Well, what am I supposed to do with it; throw it out?” I made a scene. I may have asked for the manager.

Both scenarios are horrifying. And true. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to other outbursts in varying degrees of shamefulness. A few weeks ago, I drafted an essay called “Meltdowns,” and planned to make these confessions of callousness in the context of raging hormones and perimenopause.

In June of 2020, it is impossible to see my boorish behavior through any other lens but my White privilege.

Privilege is a middle-aged White woman driving her reliable car to the grocery store on her way home from a secure job. Privilege is credit cards not maxed out that enable her to buy cat food, avocados, wine, and gossip magazines without consulting the price tags. Privilege is swinging her foul mood like a wet cat at the minimum wage worker bagging her groceries.

I knew my behavior was abominable, but I didn’t consider for a second that someone might ask me to leave, tell me to “calm down,” or call security to enforce my compliance. It was privilege that enabled me to be mortified for a minute and convince myself that I was in the right for much longer than that.

I recall that the poorly trained young man distractedly putting cans of cat food on top of my ripe avocados was White. The young woman who politely and efficiently handed me a cone of Ben and Jerry’s “Imagine Whirled Peace,” I’m fairly sure was Black. At her, I flung my frustration and fears—of flying, of failing, of missing out.

Had our roles been reversed, had she been the one cutting to the front of the line, angry about her ice cream injustice, demanding her money back, slightly hysterical, would the TSA have been alerted? See something. Say something. A well-dressed White businesswoman losing her shit is an embarrassing meme. A young Black woman losing her shit is perilous.

Karen has become a popular derisive term for a middle-aged White woman who asserts her entitlement—who might demand her right to a manicure during a pandemic, or ask to speak to the manager, or dial 911 when a Black man asks her to follow the rules, as happened in New York’s Central Park last month.

If Karen is a synonym for White privilege, it is time to look in the mirror.

In the weeks before the murder of George Floyd catalyzed global protests against unchecked police brutality, I didn’t think about Sandra Bland.

I was afraid to put a Joe Biden 2020 sticker on my car. I didn’t want to get a dirty look while driving or have to defend my choice. I wasn’t afraid of getting pulled over for failing to signal a lane change and dying in police custody.

This is my White privilege.

In the days before the murder of George Floyd demanded we open our collective eyes to centuries of racist policies that feed exclusion, abuse, neglect, and hatred, I didn’t think about the disproportionate risk Black people face from Covid-19.

I was afraid no one would want to read my midlife reinvention story during a pandemic. I wasn’t afraid of making rent, losing my job, feeding my family, or dying.

This is my White privilege.

On the night the murder of George Floyd started an anti-racist revolution determined to burn down broken systems, I didn’t think about Breonna Taylor.

I was afraid to speak out. I quieted my social media posts. What if I sound stupid? What if I offend someone? I had trouble sleeping, but I wasn’t afraid of police breaking down my door and firing twenty times, killing me.

This is my White privilege.

In the essay I’d planned to write—the one about perimenopausal meltdowns— I would have told my grocery store and ice cream tantrums as light-hearted and self-deprecating stories. We’ve all been there, right ladies? I would have presumed.

Except, we haven’t all been there.

The morning after they laid George Floyd to rest in Houston, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and considered my reflection.

I thought that the wrinkles, and the gray hair, overdue for a cut, mattered.

I looked at my skin, spotted with acne scars, sun damage, and tiny broken capillaries around my nose. I thought that the physical signs of aging mattered.

I looked in the mirror and saw Karen looking back at me.

The color of my skin is what matters. Black lives matter.

Author’s note: I am a work in progress, but I commit to using my privilege to support those who have none. I welcome your comments. I am listening and learning.


Dear White Women, Rachel E. Cargle

So You Think You’re Not a White Feminist, Emma Coleman

Anti-Racism Resources, a comprehensive guide for parents and people, compiled by Sarah Sophie Flicker, Alyssa Klein in May 2020

In Her Words: Say Her Name, Alisha Haridasani Gupta

The Status of Black Women in the United States, Institute for Women’s Policy Research

Guide to Allyship, a project created by Amélie Lamont

How Studying Privilege Systems Can Strengthen Compassion, Peggy McIntosh at TEDxTimberlaneSchools (18:26)

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh

A Call for Racial Justice, Vermont Works for Women

Masks, but make it fashion.

Twice a year, I turn over my closet. In the spring, I pack away wool sweaters and attempt to iron the wrinkles out of linen pants and cotton dresses and hang them ready to wear. In the winter, I reverse the process. It’s a habit born from too many clothes and not enough closet space, and one with which I’ve grown tired. My closet isn’t going to get any bigger, but my wardrobe can be smaller and, like my life now, simpler.

When I had my corporate job, I would try on everything I owned, coordinating pants and tops, checking for fit and fashion. I’d perform the closet cleaning ritual in my robe and underwear, modeling outfits in the mirror as I went. I wonder now if I still had a job, and the day came when we returned to the office or traveled for an event, would I add a mask to complete each ensemble?

Keeping up with fashion, or just feeling comfortable and somewhat fashionable, is hard enough without the mask as a must-have accessory trend. Now, Vogue features where to shop for stylish masks. Nancy Pelosi has a wardrobe of them to match her colorful summer suits and dresses. And, you can buy masks bedazzled with sequins, your favorite sports team logos, or to match your shapewear, thanks to Kim Kardashian West’s Skims brand. Yup, just add a face mask to your cart along with your waist trainer and body tape—masks of a different sort for muffin tops and other imperfections.

            Hasn’t fashion always been about wearing a mask?

My spring closet cleaning came late this year as Vermont’s winter-like weather lasted well into May, but last weekend I tackled it with my usual twisted enthusiasm—part Marie Kondo, part Hoarders. In case you haven’t experienced The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo’s book and Netflix series on The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, her method of tidying closets includes gathering your clothing in one place, thoughtfully considering each piece, and keeping only those that “spark joy.”

I cleared the bed of pillows and pulled everything on hangers from my closet. Next, I tossed polar fleece, tank tops, shorts, sweaters, and pajamas on the pile. I added winter jackets that had been hanging in the mudroom. The heap of clothing teetered; a final addition of underwear brought it to eye-level. There was more. I wiped away the dust dragons that had collected on the plastic shoe storage bag I pulled from under the bed and added a mud-encrusted pile of boots and shoes that were sitting next to the door. Taking a break to survey the mountain of copious consumerism, I felt not an ounce of joy.

I tackled the pile by category rather than by individual piece. I returned the bras, barely touched since March anyway, back to the drawer in a tidy stack. I stored the bulky wool sweaters that I can’t wear on even the coldest days (thank you hot flashes) in the cedar chest, along with other winter gear. The stack of clothes to donate remained small, despite the lack of sparks flying. Hoarding feels better than minimalism these days.

Most of my yoga pants and leggings were in the wash, but I wouldn’t have given up a single pair. There is great joy to be found in their sympathetic waistbands now that stress-eating and wine-numbing have become rapaciously routine. I refolded and rehung the rest of my wardrobe staples—zip-up hoodies, t-shirts, jeans, and A-line knit dresses for warm summer days.  

The colors turned richer, and the fabrics finer as I reached the bottom of the pile. My former work wardrobe of silky blouses, tailored and tapered trousers, slim pencil skirts, and polished pumps awaited its fate. Wearing these pieces had helped me to feel safe, confident, and stylish even when I had felt entirely out of my depth. Is that why I’d kept my former work wardrobe through two previous seasonal shifts, despite no longer having a practical need for it?

I put everything sharp and tailored and shiny into the donate pile—trying on none of it. These pieces no longer fit my body or my mindset. Letting go of them felt like another turning point in my reinvention, no business wardrobe to fall back on or hide behind.

For years, I had procured my personal protective equipment in the form of mid-priced separates from Ann Taylor and Banana Republic. Now, I search Etsy for face masks, despite having a basketful of handmade versions downstairs.

I may have outgrown my need for fashion as a mask, but masks will be essential for quite a while, so why not make it fashion?

Snap Out of It: Regaining control amid coronavirus

The reason people are hoarding toilet paper is Freudian, as some theories would have it. According to Freud’s five phases of development theory, toilet training (the anal phase, as it were) is one of our earliest experiences of control. We learn to master our bodies and earn praise for doing so, by pooping and peeing where and when we should. More toilet paper=more control. This makes perfect sense to me—control freak than I am.

One of the most challenging things (of the innumerable challenges) in this Coronavirus crisis has been the loss of control. Control over how to work, play, socialize, feed ourselves, and otherwise spend our time and money are limited by our desire to be safe and healthy and to protect the health and safety of others. Stay home, stay safe is a trade-off most sentient human beings gladly accept.

What’s harder to accept is the loss of control over our emotions. I don’t know about you, but there is a CAT-5 hurricane spinning from the outer banks of my chest cavity to behind my eyes. At any given moment, I am grateful, guilty, heartbroken, stunned, angry, frustrated, anxious, focused, distracted. The tears come in a gust and go just as quickly.

“There are no right ways to feel,” reads every other social media post, as a variety of emotions should be a revelation. We’re all feeling too much, eating too much, drinking too much, sleeping too much, watching too much Netflix, and so on. I know this because, like everyone else, I am reading and sharing my every thought and good deed on Facebook. You know, so others don’t feel so alone. It’s like the online competition has changed from winning at life, love, and happiness to who can be the most empathetic.

“Take a break from the writing and take care of yourself,” my MFA faculty reassured my fellow students and me by email when this all began. A week or two into an unprecedented global pandemic, this made sense. We needed a minute if only to inventory our supplies of hand sanitizer and toilet paper. A month later, this advice hasn’t aged well, and it keeps coming from every direction. Celebrities, withering without a spotlight, are especially annoying. They make videos of dance moves, produce Zoom talk shows, and try their hands at home-cooking from their Architectural Digest-worthy kitchens. They are spreading hope and laughter and tips on hygiene and home-schooling. Thank goodness for celebrities!

The content barrage wears on me because, while some of it is entertaining, much of it is created on the assumption that us regular folks need advice on how to pass the time without easy access to Target and wine bars. Worse, they assume that we have a lot of spare time to fill.

Enough already. STOP with the hand-washing videos, and tips to cure boredom, and all that empathy, celebrities. We are not just like you. Most Americans are juggling jobs and kids without daycare, family members who are sick or at risk, bureaucratic mazes, and going to the grocery store (if they’re lucky) or to the foodbank (if not).

There is no way around it. Coronavirus is impacting all of us in ways big and small. My minor inconvenience is that I’m having difficulty writing about what I’ve wanted to write about. How can I reflect on the hilariousness of menopause and aging and trying to reinvent myself, when the virus has attached itself to my plotlines like the infectious plague that it is? When the emotional wind picks up, and I’ve had a glass of wine or two, the question becomes (please read in an Eeyore voice), “how can anything I write about be relevant to anyone ever again now that everything has changed?” Poor me.

“The nicest thing about the rain is that it always stops. Eventually.”

– Eeyore (A.A. Milne)

I had a revelation last night. I cannot stay stuck forever. We don’t know how or when the Coronavirus crisis will pass or what our daily lives will look like when it does. Get some extra toilet paper because we have no control over that.

It’s like the Cure Your Fear of Flying audiobook I listen to as the plane rolls down the runway. “All you can control is how you react,” says the soothing voice in my earbuds. He’s right. We can’t control the turbulence (in the air or on the news); we can’t control how others feel or react or behave—any more than we can control our feelings.

But I can control my actions. What I eat and drink; when I go to bed and wake up; how much I exercise, who I follow or unfollow on social media—how much time I spend in front of my computer, at least trying to write. I don’t know about you, but every Monday morning, I vow to stick to a schedule and make better choices, and by Monday evening, I have failed. So begins a doom-loop of remorse and “if only’s” that just prolongs any meaningful productivity.

But I’ve got shit to do!

 Do you know that scene in Moonstruck? Cher slaps Nicolas Cage hard across the face and says, “Snap out of it!”

I gave myself one of those (metaphorically) the other night, and it helped. I had to stop and tell myself that the pandemic is not all there is to write about and that as much as I shouldn’t be too self-critical. Maybe, I could try not to lean so hard on Covid19 as an excuse for what I am and am not doing.

Because there are still many things over which I have all the control I need.

This Novel Mud Season

According to the calendar, spring in Vermont will arrive this Thursday. While my friends to the south post pictures of purple-green crocus shoots, the snow in our yard is melting slowly into sheets of ice and patches of brown, uncovering every stick and ball we threw to the dog over the winter. The frost is melting far beneath the ground and turning our hard dirt road into a minefield of potholes, ruts, and that legendary Vermont mud. Soon slushy ponds and vernal pools will become raucous amphitheaters playing a chorus of peepers—nature’s replacements for canceled concerts and sporting events—or we could receive a foot of snow to cover them quiet just a while longer.

Early morning walks still require micro-spikes to keep our footing firm at the end of the driveway, where the snow melted and froze again overnight. Waiting for the sun to urge warmer temperatures means switching to waterproof boots and preparing a dishpan of warm water and an old rag to wash the dog before he’s allowed back in the house. Throughout mud season, our yellow lab looks as though he’s been dipped in chocolate — topside coconut creamy, mud-masqued from chest to paw—after even some of the shortest outings. Wait too long in the day for a walk, though, and a north wind could bring an afternoon snow squall that has you wishing you’d grabbed a fleece and gloves.

In New England every spring is unpredictable and this one especially so, bringing with it a novel gust of anxiety. Peter and I are socially distanced by circumstance, living in the country on springtime slick and deeply rutted roads. We joked when we bought this old farmhouse in a tiny town in a remote region of the state that this was the place everyone would come to in case of the “zombie apocalypse.” Now, we stock up on groceries because running to the store is to navigate a muddy maze—a two-mile, fifteen-minute expedition that can be hard on our bodies, our minds, and our cars.

“Put your foot in it,” Peter tells me from the passenger seat as we climb the steep south-facing hill to town. Below us, the melted snow runs down in deep rivulets, and frost breaks the road up from beneath the surface. The trenches of mud feel bottomless. The potholes are so large and deep that they have potholes of their own. The road pulls the car where it wants, and the wheels don’t even try to resist. I go slow, plotting a course, trying to outwit the mud. If Peter were behind the wheel, he would drive straight and fast, daring the mud to outwit him. Perhaps it’s better to stay home until the travel becomes less fraught.

We manage quite well together, working from home as a matter of course—he in his downstairs office and me upstairs in mine. But now we are distracted by the news and willingly water-board ourselves with information from official agencies and tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorists alike. We try not to offer our opinions or advice because we know we don’t know anything. And that’s part of the problem. Nothing is scarier than uncertainty. But don’t be alarmed we chide, at least not too alarmed, not more alarmed or less alarmed than we are, because to be too alarmed is just alarmist and not to be alarmed at all is alarming ill-informed.

Everyone has their own way of navigating through the mud, preparing for the uncertainty on the road ahead. Proceed with caution or put your foot in it as you will—until you meet another driver on the road, that is. One of the things I love about living here is what we call the Vermont wave. On country roads, we drive a little slower and always greet one another with a tiny flick of the wrist, fingers just extended above the steering wheel. The gesture says, “I see you.” “We’re in this together.” When the road is slicked with mud or ice and snow, the wave might be replaced with a nod so that each of us keeps our hands on the wheel, our cars a safe distance apart, mindful of one another.

Reinvention Part II: Shoulda-woulda-coulda

I love a good inspirational quote. I surround myself with affirmations pinned to my walls, written in journals, framed on my desk; I even have one tattooed on my body. When the topic is midlife reinvention, I have often cited this one, attributed to the 19th-century writer George Eliot, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” But lately, I have begun to question this assertion—in particular, its backward-looking bend.

It reminds me of the colloquialism “shoulda-woulda-coulda,” which we use casually to express dissatisfaction with our choices. Sometimes the choice is of little consequence, as in “I ‘shoulda’ had the fruit cup instead of the pie.” But frequently, especially if we are deep in the mode of self-reflection, the words reveal deeper regret. “If only I would have had more confidence in myself, fought harder, made a better choice …, then I could have …” (fill in the blank).

Recently I came across a beautifully illustrated derivative of the quote on one of my social media feeds. It said, “Become the woman you always should have been.” There’s that word again, should. At least the Eliot version uses the word “might,” which seems to suggest future possibilities. But “should?” That says obligation, responsibility, duty. In other words, “you fucked up, try again.”

The thing that bugs me most about this appeal to what I might or should have been is that it supposes I know who this is, this woman that I am supposed to become—that I have always known, but just couldn’t or wouldn’t reveal her. After all, the examples seem to be everywhere lately. Reinvention is trending and romanticized. There is the Wall Street financier turned cheesemaker, the global sales executive gone home to save the family farm, the tech entrepreneur turned yogi. We see people realizing their fantasy professions in Sunday paper feature stories and on our social media feeds like it’s so easy—like it was what always should have been.

It is never too late to be what you might have been

What we don’t see though is the planning and thought that goes into making a big change in the middle of one’s life. We don’t often read about the fear, uncertainty, and doubt—“What will I do? Who do I want to be?” We don’t learn from the reinventions that fail—when reality doesn’t jive with the fantasy. Instead, a growing reinvention industry of life-coaching, workshops, and self-help books entreat us to find and fulfill our destiny!

“It is never too late to be what you might have been,” intones George Eliot from bookmarks, magnets, and memes. Here’s the thing about her words of encouragement, though. There doesn’t appear to be any evidence that she ever said or wrote them. And why would she?

The author was no stranger to reinvention, but it’s doubtful she was inclined to regret. Born Mary Ann Evans, by all accounts an unattractive woman from the English countryside, she used a pen name to differentiate her work from the typical light romances published by women of her day. Not only did she write what is considered one of the greatest novels in the English language, Middlemarch, she also channeled her sexuality, intelligence, and charm into leading a passionate and full life of her own making.  

No doubt, we all have a long list of “shoulda-woulda-couldas.” As I look forward to a beach vacation in under a month, I think I should have stuck with my diet over the holidays because I would have fit into my bathing suit, if only I could have resisted the temptation. If I look back on my major life choices, there are many candidates for the list, but I choose not to add them to it.

Sure, I’d like to undo the cheese plates and Christmas cookies, but to wish for impossible do-overs on the milestones of my life, discarding all that I’ve learned and experienced, is nonsensical. Looking back at whatever might “have been” is to examine forces over which I now have no control. It is, in fact, too late to be what I might have been, and I’m okay with that.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I don’t make a lot of time for regret. Have I done everything right? No, there are a million things I wish I’d done differently; people I had treated with more kindness; chances I wouldn’t have wasted, but none of that means I am not exactly where I am meant to be today. It’s where I go from here that matters most.

The meaning of the word reinvent is to make, as if for the first time, something already invented. Let’s say that “something” is you. You are already invented. Reinvention doesn’t invite you to go back in time and start from scratch; reinvention asks, “what do you want to make of yourself now?”