Thank you to the editors of Undomesticated Magazine for publishing my article, “A Reinvention Reading List.”
In 2012, my husband and I quit our jobs in Los Angeles and booked a one-way flight to Bali, Indonesia where we had spent many months in 2008-9. We anticipated spending the indefinite future traveling throughout Asia, supporting ourselves with We Said Go Travel, the growing travel blog we’d started a few years earlier. This shared adventure felt like the answer to all my dreams: I have always loved travel, but because of a congenital eye condition, I had never felt safe traveling abroad on my own. With my husband’s support, I thought anything was possible.
I fell in love with Asia all over again for the intensity of the colors, the variety of temples, the historic cultures and friendly smiles—so when I returned to Los Angeles 18 months later, leaving my husband behind, I felt like my new life, and my chosen home, had been ripped from me. I’d made a hard decision, but it didn’t feel like a choice, as it seemed there was only one thing to do. Choices have two sides, and when my husband’s anger issues got out of control, I could see no safe option to stay. I felt forced to come back to my family in order to protect myself from him, and I still didn’t have faith that I could travel alone.
I called myself a derailed train. I had no car, no job, no plan. The past seemed scorched by fire and destroyed, and now I had to invent a new path, plant seeds, and wait for roots to take hold.
Hadn’t the move to Asia been how I’d reinvented myself? How could I possibly do it again?
I moved back into my childhood bedroom at my parent’s house just before Valentine’s Day, 2014. I was 47 years old and in hiding. I fell into books and wished for them to come alive. I learned first from the characters, and later, from many of the authors themselves.
These books felt like a flashlight in the darkness of winter, and helped me find my way and myself again:
I picked up Desperado’s Wife shortly after moving home and beginning work on my résumé. I was desperate to understand how I had gotten into my mess, and whether I had any hope for a future. Reading about Amy Friedman, who was a nice Jewish girl (like me), who went to an Ivy league School (like me), who walked into a prison for a story and ended up married to a convicted murderer made me ponder. She knew about his sentence when she met him. I always imagined if you married someone and something happened, you might work through it, but if you met them and could see the bad things from the beginning, it might make sense to walk away before you got involved. And yet, I didn’t judge her harshly, the way I had been judging myself.
I met Friedman soon after I returned to America, and I told her about the breakdown of my marriage and the life I thought we were creating. I told her, “I don’t want this story.” I told her that I wanted a different story. I wanted this awfulness to never have happened to me. She told me, “You don’t know what the story is yet.” She suggested that I keep a journal, keep writing, keep going. Could my story not be over already?
By the spring 2014, I had hired a lawyer, bought a car with blue sparkly paint, and taken on two jobs. I was working for Nickelodeon on set as a co-lead teacher, which was something I had never done before and was not an easy job to land. And I was writing about Los Angeles for USA Today’s 10best series. I did not want two jobs but I was offered both on the same day and had no idea which way my life would turn — should I go back toward teaching, or find out if writing was an actual career for me?
At that point, I discovered Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success. In it, authors David B. Feldman and Lee Daniel Kravitz explain that after trauma, some people experience huge growth. I found this shocking. Maybe I did not have to keep sinking down into an abyss. Maybe my life could get better than ever. I was particularly struck by this quote: “Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could be any different.” I had been so focused on watching the rear view mirror, I could not see any way forward. Once I decided to look toward the future, I started to see glimmers of hope and the possibility that I could travel again, in a new way. Sure enough, I was soon invited to be part of an Orbitz web series and went to film in Puerto Rico as the co-host—and a few months later, I was invited to Bermuda as the host. I was still grieving and questioning, but maybe coming home could be a good thing.
By September 2014, I was about to sign the legal papers for my divorce, which felt like a new start for Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). I sold my wedding ring back to the jeweler who had made it so he could melt it down. I knew that my marriage was over, but I worried that I might not ever get back to Asia. At this point, I found Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrongby Susan Blumberg-Kason [Undomesticated’s Books Editor]. She shares her fairy-tale love for both China and Cai, the man of her dreams who turns out to be anything but. His need for control shatters any hope that they can stay together. Blumberg-Kason chooses herself and her son.
Like Blumberg-Kason, I had also tried to be good. A good wife. A good student. A good friend. A good family member. I wanted a reward for following all the rules. My marriage was not what I read about in stories and saw in the movies. When I read Susan’s book, I realized that, although her marriage wasn’t the stuff of storybooks, she had moved forward. She was telling a tale I did not read often. I had been lost in the darkness, and her book helped me realize I was not alone on my path.
In 2016, I went to a travel conference and found myself dreaming up a new project of doing 50 things before I turned 50. I had been working with a doctor to fix my eye issues, and he recommended I use my improved sight for new challenges. I was not sure I could do anything new or scary, but as I read both I Dare Meby Lu Ann Cahn, who did 365 challenges in one year, and the Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, I started to consider it. But I was not still sure about trying new things or traveling by myself to get to any of these challenges. Cahn said she “rebooted and recharged my life by doing something new every day.” I wanted to feel recharged. She continues to explain: “You may think you are protecting yourself by staying safely at home, but in fact the real fountain of youth is in the ‘doing,’ in the places where the unexpected happens, and in a life where you say ‘I dare me.’”
In Rhimes’ book, saying “yes” changes her entire life and being, and just as importantly, she also learns to say no. I felt like she had written the book for me as I read: “When you feel the need to apologize or explain who you are, it means the voice in your head is telling you the wrong story. Wipe the slate clean. And rewrite it. No fairy tales. Be your own narrator. And go for a happy ending. One foot in front of the other. You will make it.” Between these two books, I found enough examples and courage to try the 50 things project. Really what I said was, “I will do this one thing and then see.” I never committed to making it to 50 things. But once I started, I was amazed at the things I chose to do, from skiing with the blind to scuba diving with sharks. And then everyone said, “Write a book.” Could I?
In Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live, Martha Beck explains that “fear is the raw material from which courage is manufactured.” I was now actively working on my memoir and facing many fears. I generally wrote until I felt like I was going to throw up, and then I would lie on the floor. It was helping me process all that had happened and I hoped it might someday help someone else.
Four years later, in 2020, I read Glennon Doyle’s third memoir, Untamed. It really spoke to me. First, I was blown away that at age 44 she was on her third memoir. She has had so many lives.
Here was something that made sense: “Will we be brave enough to unlock ourselves? Will we be brave enough to set ourselves free? Will we finally step out of our cages and say to ourselves, to our people, and to the world: Here I Am!”
Doyle has written about getting sober after finding herself pregnant, bulimic and unmarried in Carry On Warrior. Her second book, Love Warrior, exposed how her “happy” marriage from her first book fell apart due to her husband’s affairs. In Untamed, she explores how to keep our internal spark strong and be true to ourselves. Doyle’s ongoing sharing has shown me it is okay to reveal the truth and tell more of the story over time.
Although it came out in 2012 while I was traveling in Asia, I finally read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild this year. No matter how far I’d traveled and how much braver I felt I was than before, I could not believe the journey Strayed took. She was in emotional pain from her mother’s death and decided to walk the California portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. Everything was hard and heavy. She called her backpack “Monster,” and her boots were the wrong size and caused her toenails to turn black and blue and fall off one by one. She got lost, ran out of money and nearly got attacked several times. She was hungry, lonely, and grieving—and she never gave up. She was the heroine of own story. I felt inspired by her while sitting in my cozy bedroom, writing. If she could go on like that and never give up, maybe I could too. I wanted to be brave like her and tell my story no matter how much I worried about being embarrassed or judged.
Now I’m in the middle of doing what scares me: writing my own memoir. I worry about how people will judge me for the choices I made. Will they say, “She was stupid, she should have left sooner, How could she not know how bad it was?” But I think about this book. Strayed stayed on the trail in the worst year with the snow, with Monster, with her terrible boots. She never gave up. She kept walking. I keep writing. Is it worth it? Her story helps me feel brave when she shares the nights on the trail. She was able to overcome her obstacles. Maybe I can too.
I also recently read Jennifer Pastiloff’s book,On Being Human. She recalls being in a yoga training class when the teacher said “close your eyes and listen to my voice.” But she couldn’t close her eyes and hear the teacher because she read lips. That was when she first admitted the extent of her hearing loss. “The shame I felt that part of me was broken, my ears, was insurmountable, and I did not want to admit that I was weak. I am strong. I am strong. I am not broken.” She finally gets the help she needs with hearing aids and also discovers that her disability does not make her weak. “In Japan, there is a custom for repairing broken pottery called kintsugi. The method emphasizes fractures and breaks instead of hiding them. I began to think of myself as that pottery.”
If Pastiloff can admit her challenges, share her fears, her darkest moments, maybe I can too. One step at a time, just like her.
The women who wrote these books were telling me that I might still rise from ashes like a phoenix. That I am not a derailed train. I got off at the station and now I can take a new train or walk. I might even get on a bus or a plane. There is not only one path, not one set of choices and not only one chance at happiness.
I will leave you with this quote by Colette Werden, which I read in Hoda Kotb’s book I Really Needed This Today!: “It’s ok if you fall down and lose your spark. Just make sure that when you get back up, you rise as the whole damn fire.”