As I waved goodbye, I was filled with worry for this lanky man-child in my rearview mirror. That was natural. Envy, however, caught me by surprise. As I turned the corner and lost sight of him, I saw an image of myself in my 20s leaving home to drive cross-country from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles to start a new life. I had dreams of becoming a writer. But unlike my son, I merely switched ZIP codes. I filled my life with marriage, children and work, thinking one day I would write. I never got around to it. I couldn’t help wondering what kind of life I might have had if only I had taken another direction. Now what? Would I become just another empty-nester, a prosaic tear-wiper?
I took the long way home — a nine-hour drive down the jagged California coastline — to consider this question. As I began reviewing my mental checklist, the backdrop was the sun shining on Big Sur and the soundtrack was ABBA. OK — the American Dream? I gave myself a check mark. A corporate marketing career, two beautiful, grown children and a lovely home in a Los Angeles suburb amounted to success by most standards. But the job sucked me dry with 60-hour weeks, frequent shifts in management, and Dilbert-like scenarios. So, I had to give myself an X for quality of life. Marriage went in the X column, too. And that brought me to the biggest X of all: There was marketing copy on my computer screen instead of the great American novel.
Could I hold out 10 more years to retire and finally live the life I wanted? When I arrived home, I was greeted by dark skies, cold walls and a 56-year-old, tired stranger in the mirror whispering, “You’ve blown it, girl. You’ve missed your chance.”
Still, I hunkered down and attempted to slip back into my routine. Security, health insurance and lovely surroundings could be enough. A veil had been pulled back, however, and I could no longer deny the emptiness of my choices. I missed my son, but in his absence something new was hatching. At first it was just a daydream. But slowly, during late-night chats over wine with friends, it took form. Why did I have to wait to begin my life? What if I took the proverbial leap?
I began to devise an exit plan. It took nine months to disassemble my life and unscrew the nuts and bolts that held me down. But I did it. I sold my home, quit my job and prepared to hit the road.
My plan was to have no plan. One year on the road without destination, schedule or obligation. I would seek adventure, work on my novel and find a place where I could survive as a fledgling writer. Los Angeles would not smile kindly on me for committing the artist’s cardinal sin of quitting my day job. My goal was to find a city that would welcome the new, more creative but less affluent version of me.
To begin, I drove cross-country to Pittsburgh to see my 89-year-old mother. My 36-year-old daughter drove with me, helping me navigate this journey in more ways than one. Although giddy with anticipation, I had no easy answers for my mother’s repeated questions: “You sold your home? You quit your job? You’re doing what?” I kissed my daughter goodbye, put her on a plane and encountered my hometown.
It felt weird being back after 30 years. Unpleasant memories surfaced. Childhood ghosts appeared. I couldn’t separate those images from the city that formed me, and I wanted to run away, again. I informed friends and family, “Wherever I land, it won’t be Pittsburgh!”
Before my journey, though, I needed a little grounding. I turned to yoga and met Joanne VandenHengel in her studio at Third Street Yoga in Carnegie. Though 55, she looked about 35 until I noticed streaks of gray and tell-tale lines around her big, dark eyes. Sitting on mats on the hardwood floor after class, she told me about leaving a 30-year teaching career to create the yoga studio. She, too, walked away from security. I realized I needed role models for my life. Joanne offered to help me find others.
She told me about Peg Stewart, 65, a technical writer who began publishing the Greentree Times when she was 50. She shared her story and introduced me to other women. I bought a digital recorder and interviewed them. Each offered a puzzle piece to my question of how to make dramatic change later in life.
These women talked online to friends, surprised that anyone wanted to know about their lives. Within two weeks I started receiving e-mails from across the United States: “Talk to my sister in Idaho.” “Come visit me in Wyoming.” “My friend in New Mexico… my aunt in Seattle… my mother in Florida.” My itinerary evolved simply and organically. I had the time, nowhere I needed to be and now a project from the universe, as we say in LA.
There was doubt. This wasn’t the novel I thought I’d be writing. Was I being pulled off course? I decided to trust my instincts and follow the call. This was the story — midlife women all across the United States reinventing themselves to live more authentic, fulfilling lives.
I delighted in the serendipity of it all. Over the years, I had created a personal safety net. Now I was watching it unravel. I didn’t recognize the woman I was becoming. But I liked her.
With each woman I met, I learned a bit more about myself. In Jackson, Miss., Jill Conner Browne, author and originator of the Sweet Potato Queens, was one of my first encounters after I left Pittsburgh. She enjoyed a higher profile than most women I interviewed. However, she hadn’t always been successful and well-known. I was amazed she invited me into her home for an interview. Why would she be so gracious to an unpublished writer with no track record? She told me, “I’m where I am today because people gave me a chance. I’m just passing it on.”
I learned from Jill that you can’t always see where your efforts might be taking you. You have to do what you love and trust. She wrote a humor column for years. It didn’t pay much, and she never dreamed it would go anywhere. She loved to write. She was working as a personal trainer then to make ends meet. She had no idea that Roy Blount Jr., a well-known Southern humorist, lecturer and poet, was reading her column. One day, he called and said, “You ought to write a book.” “And so, I did,” she said. And what did she write about? Becoming the Sweet Potato Queen in Jackson’s campy St. Paddy’s Day Parade. Five best-selling books later, she talked with me about how she changed her life.
“No one was ever going to crown me queen of anything,” she said. “So I crowned myself Sweet Potato Queen. Every woman can do that. Just be queen of something.” I headed off to my next stop deciding to be queen of the road.
I tried on many hats on my journey. Writer. Adventurer. Photographer. Philosopher. Wandering vagabond. None fit snugly. I questioned my identity every time I checked into a hotel as my pen hesitated over the registration card. Without an address or a home state in which to register my car or vote — who am I?
I traveled 50,000 miles that year, visited 30 states, and met more than 70 women. I sat in living rooms, on porches and in offices, inspired by stories of reinvention. I rarely said goodbye without being handed a scrap of paper, the name and phone number of another woman “you just have to meet.” My journey took me to a buffalo reserve in Wyoming, an ashram in Santa Cruz, a quilting bee in Winston-Salem, a desert in New Mexico and a coffee house in Oregon.
I learned how to shed old skin and become raw. How to trust. How to be patient. How to heed the small voice inside coaxing me to dance. How to find the sunrise on a road I’d never been on before. How to laugh with the woman in the mirror. All of it led to one big question: Where could I be myself and be happy? My friends in Santa Fe lobbied for the expansive Southwest skies. The buffalo and elk whispered Wyoming. Creative spirits in Colorado lured me to the mountains. But in the end, Pittsburgh won my heart. Pittsburgh?
I could tell you Pittsburgh is affordable, less demanding of my energy and a quiet place to write. And, of course, my mother, now 90, is here. That could suffice. But I don’t think I have totally mined my decision. Maybe there’s unfinished business. Maybe that year on the road taught me that home is something you create from moment to moment no matter where you find yourself on the map. So, why not Pittsburgh? Maybe it is one of the puzzle pieces I’ve collected and now I need to sit by the fire and see how they all fit together.
After nearly two years, my hometown surprises and delights me like the women I met on my travels. I decided to come home to write about them, help my mother, walk on the ground of my youth and get to know this new me. I gave up everything and discovered Pittsburgh — a place where my ghosts and dreams could finally meet.