In February 2012, I loaded up my Honda CRV with my dog Duke and the few material possessions I cared about and headed west to Colorado. In doing so, I left behind my second marriage, my two adult children, my 6-month-old grandson, countless friends, my Unity community, and Iowa—the state that had been my home for all but one of my then 48 years.
The decision to drive a thousand miles away from most everyone and everything I knew and loved had landed on me during a walk on a labyrinth the previous August.
I’d stood at the labyrinth’s entrance, pushing my toes into its sandy path, crying and in despair. In my hands I held a notepad and a pen, ready to take dictation from the wisest part of me.
What came to me during that walk was the impossible realization that my seven-year marriage was over. On its heels was another improbable notion: that I no longer fit in my hometown. Before long it became crystal clear that I was to move to Colorado, specifically to the small town where I had recently attended a writing workshop. And I was to move there alone.
When you make major life decisions on a labyrinth, it separates you from the majority of the population—at least where I’m from in the Midwest.
It takes “normal” off the list of adjectives most people will use to describe you. For my decisions, I was called both “courageous” and “selfish.” I owned both.
Despite what others were saying, I couldn’t turn my back on the calm that washed over me that day on the labyrinth. Remembering that peace trumped everything— every negative comment that came my way, every suggestion that I was acting hastily, every worrisome thought I had. My soul had given me marching orders. I felt as if I had no choice but to obey, no matter the consequences, no matter who was hurt by my decisions.
And so I left—and gratefully, I left with the full support of the two people whose opinions did matter to me: my children. My son told me it was time to live my life for myself, not for him or his sister or their stepdad. My daughter, who had just turned 20 and was a new mom, wrote me a beautiful letter, telling me she was proud of my choices. “You’ve always been one to do more for others than yourself, and as much as I love your kind heart, I’m so glad you are putting everyone aside and taking time for yourself,” she wrote.
I didn’t need their support to go—but having their support made it easier. Having my daughter’s words on paper, to read again and again, helped drown out the voices—my own and others—that told me I was leaving her when she needed me the most. I took solace, too, that on the night I said good-bye to my infant grandson; he laughed while I cried. It felt as if he were telling me, “Nana, I’ll be just fine.”
Answering the Call
When I first moved to Colorado, I lived in a remote log cabin in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (Spanish for “Blood of Christ”). When a friend from the writing workshop offered to rent it to me for just $500, I took it as a sign that I was on the right path. The cabin and its timbered setting were postcard perfect. Her husband had built every square inch, right down to the door hinges and handles. It was adorned with her art, as well as that of others, and it was even fully furnished—including any and every kitchen utensil I could possibly need.
I spent most of my time working on my freelance writing while sitting at the small kitchen table, or curling up in the chair in the living room, drinking hot tea or a glass of wine, while reading, writing, and watching the “big-screen TV” that was the wall of picture windows. My favorite shows: the snowfalls and the birds flitting on the pine trees. I watched, hoping and not, that I would see the bear that had left marks on the screen door it tried to unhinge before my arrival. A blow horn sat right by the front door, just in case it showed up again.
At night under the moon and the tapestry of stars, I would walk my dog and gather firewood.
Building my own fire, something I had always left to my husband, made me feel strong and confident.
But beyond those peaceful moments, I remember being very cold—and very sad. I frequently did what I had always done—I phoned a friend.
But eventually, like that day on the labyrinth, I would stop talking and start listening. I would answer the call from my inner wisdom to “come inside.” Bundled up in a wool blanket next to the woodstove, I would sit, pen and paper in hand, and be both student and teacher in my classroom of one. My assignment: getting at the truth of me.
My schoolhouse would change. For various reasons, I moved from the cabin to an efficiency apartment on a horse farm and finally to a one-bedroom apartment in a mansion on 44 acres that sat empty most of the time. The latter is where I lived for seven months— the Sangres stretched out on one side of me, the Wet Mountains on the other.
Throughout the 10 months I lived alone in Colorado, I would often skip class, even for weeks at a time. At Easter, I drove to my sister’s house in eastern Nebraska and then was grateful that, when my dear friend’s mother died, I could continue on “home” to attend the funeral. A second bittersweet opportunity presented itself when another friend’s dad died. But eventually, I would have to go back to Colorado and take a seat—alone.
At times, I tired of my subject matter. At other times I was quite fascinated. The history lessons— taking deep dives into my childhood—were particularly difficult and revealing. Looking back, I could see all the ways I had looked to others to tell me how to “do” life.
When I was younger, I turned to schoolteachers. For much of my life, including my early years as a mother, I turned to my best friend. In my mid 30s, I began reaching out to psychics,
astrologers, Reiki masters, and other intuitives, as well as looking for answers at workshops and in books. I also turned to Unity. I was always looking for someone or something to tell me how to do this thing called life “right.”
In Colorado, I came to see more clearly the people- pleaser, the peacemaker, the person whose basic assumption in life was “there’s something wrong with me.” I had one-on-one interviews with the girl who was afraid of holding a flashlight “wrong” while her dad worked on a car engine, the one who was convinced she could have said or done something to keep her mother from drinking and trying to destroy herself. I studied the overachieving senior class president, honor society student, and homecoming queen candidate who presented as a confident leader but who most days secretly felt inadequate.
I sat down with the builder of not one but two white picket fences to look at why creating the image of a “perfect” family was so important. I did research on the spendthrift who racked up credit card debt again and again, the first ex-wife who stayed four years in a marriage she knew was over, and the second ex-wife who bolted from her marriage, leaving behind a devastated husband and in-laws. Much of my studies revolved around researching the sexuality of my nearly 50-year-old subject, looking for a definitive answer to the question, “Is she a lesbian?”
When I look back at my time in “school” in Colorado, it’s a lot like looking back at my time at the University of Iowa. I loved it and I hated it.
I’m incredibly proud of my decision to go—and incredibly proud of my decision to stick it out.
I studied what I wanted to study—not what others thought I should. I learned a lot, and I recognize that I have a lot yet to learn.
I had a sense when I moved to Colorado that my “sabbatical,” as I had come to see it, would be just a year or two. About eight months in, I began to feel my time there had come to an end. Two months later, while back in Iowa for Christmas, I mad the decision to not return. I had a friend back in Colorado box up my belongings and ship them to me. My next stop: Brooklyn, New York, to be with the woman with whom I had fallen in love.
Even though I’m not alone in school anymore, I return to my classroom of one frequently. I know it’s the place where the real learning about me takes place. In times of trouble, I wish I could say I start there, but I don’t. But at least I’m now aware that my angst is rich research material indeed. And while I still hang out in the hallways, talking long after the bell has rung, I’m only tardy by minutes instead of months or years.
Although I don’t always live it, I know that in my classroom of one I’ll find my answers. I just have to be willing to show up, take a seat, be quiet, and listen.
And when we slip, Martha invites us to not deem it “bad.”
“It’s a process,” she says, adding that at age 53, she’s still learning.
“I come in and out of it,” Martha says. “Stress is my indicator that I’m back in it again. It tells me I’m off, that I’ve left myself, that I’ve assumed an impossible role, that I’m arguing with ‘what is.’”
When it happens, Martha gently and compassionately calls herself on it—either silently or aloud. She “recalibrates” herself and begins again. If there is an opening later, she might ask the person if he or she is interested in hearing about the options she is seeing. If the person tells her “No,” she continues to listen.
“The key,” she says, “is not to mistake a monologue for a dialogue. If they’re talking and not stopping and asking questions, then they are in a monologue. There’s no dialogue until they have engaged you.”
It’s ideal to start the conversation by asking the other person, “How can I support you?” We must, however, believe the response, Martha reminds us.
“If they say, ‘Listen,’ then bite your tongue—regardless of what you see for them that they don’t see, regardless of what advice you have.”
I talked to my daughter yesterday. She was not in a good place. She’s trying to balance school with raising her son without his dad—or his grandmother— in the same state. While she talked, I had Martha's advice in my ear. I listened. I waited. And then I asked, “Is it okay for me to offer advice?” She laughed. “Sure, it’s fine.” I shared, likely more than I should have, and my daughter listened. It wasn’t perfect, thank goodness. But it was better.