About a year ago, when facing the fact that at 48 I had become deeply dissatisfied with my personal and professional lives and that leaving the security I had grown accustomed to was the only choice if I was going to survive, my dear friend Lulu said to me, “You know sweetie, as long as I’m alive you’ll never starve.” This is a luxury most people never think of as a luxury but for me, at 48 years old, it was a brand new concept. Now I have wonderful friends who are far more my family than any relative and I know that technically they would never let me starve. But in saying so, unprompted and sincerely, she changed my world. I'd like to tell you a little bit more about her.
Back in 2005, the first year of my high school teaching career, I was working at a school called Mount Miguel High School in Spring Valley California. I had lived in the San Diego area for about 3 years and had finally found my calling. I had been there about 4 months when I met her. She was thin, blonde, pretty and almost fragile, but I remember being puzzled by her, even in those first moments. She clearly had a Southern California look, was a football mom and wife and had even changed careers recently to be closer to her husband. But there was something more...substantial. Later I learned she was originally from Indiana and had attended Notre Dame. Of course, I thought. The pretty exterior covered, even protected, the woman beneath. I didn’t know that woman yet nor could I have imagined how we would change each other’s lives.
Though we liked each other right away, I wouldn’t say that our friendship began in earnest until the day she found out her husband had been having a rather public affair. She came to my classroom and another colleague of mine and I sat with her as she tried to tearfully process this betrayal. As awful as that afternoon was, I was so grateful and honored to be there for her. And it was from this moment of forced vulnerability that we came to each other. We were so very different and yet it felt very quickly that our bond, our shared presence in the world, was meant to be.
Lulu, my pet name for her, had a new life to discover...in nearly every way. She had been married 22 years and she, like so many other women of her age and culture, had defined herself through her marriage and motherhood. When your definition, your identity, is made to seem ridiculous, it’s easy to fall into despair, or to find someone else to make the definition real again. She did her fair share of crying early on, but I honestly don’t believe it was ever over the loss of the marriage. It was that definition and the fear of answering the all-important questions: Who am I...really? What do I want...really want? For women, these are not fair questions because so many of the answers are not acceptable in a culture that still tells women to sit down and shut up. She must’ve thought, “What if, who I really am, is a woman of substance, of action, devoid of the need for approval and companionship for the sake of companionship? What if all that I am is so different that I will be unrecognizable to my family? What if I learn to love myself enough to need only what I need and want only what I want? Who will accept me then?” Because women don’t have these luxuries and they know, if this is the path they take, the path of self-acceptance, self-worth, self-love...that there may just be a fiery stake waiting for them because truly independent women are to be feared, yes, even reviled, yes, even today.
So she started her journey and I am proud to say she allowed me to walk with her. The details of her exploration are unimportant and best friends take an oath to never tell upon pain of death anyway. I can’t tell you what she was most afraid of as she started down what was an unknown and what seemed to be a very dark path. No one would ever want her again? Perhaps.
That one was blasted out of the way pretty quickly. The fact is this: men like Lulu. ‘Nuff said.
Any fear of a new career? No that was something she had done again and again as she gets bored. She is always trying new things, almost always successfully, and then moves on to the next. In fact, it is perhaps here that Lulu began to discover one of the more remarkable things about her personality: she is, in many ways, fearless. I’m not sure she knew how fearless she could be until this new life.
So she had raised a son to be a kind and decent man, not only survived the divorce but thrived in her new independence and freedom, was fearless about dating, career, building new friendships, and yet something was still missing. At least that’s what the voices told her. She heard from those closest to her that she should be settling on a man. Otherwise, she might end up alone, the implication being that alone was the worst thing that could happen to a woman. Alone. The word hung in the air like stale cigar smoke. So she would approach happiness and contentment, or in fact be firmly planted in it, and that word would be launched at her from the most familiar and even loving places. And despite the fact that the voices were insistent and all-knowing, somehow, and flying in the tenets of her miseducation, Lulu stopped listening.
She was dating a very good man at the time and although she cared for him very much, she knew the moment the voices were silenced that what she wanted was to be...ALONE! For alone meant that her decisions were just that: hers. Travel the world, when and where she saw fit, socialize, eat, drink, play, work...on her terms. She told me once, “I have always had a great deal of faith in my ability to figure things out.” And now that the other voices have been silenced, that ability, fully realized, is her guide.
So Lulu’s tragic miseducation has now been transformed: she is independent, reflective, kind, charitable, blunt, certain, and a force to be reckoned with. She is a good woman, yes, but lives each and every day unburdened by the need to prove it to you, or anyone else!