The Break

I didn’t know what my dream looked like. I’d read about visualization…. “You have to see your dream if you really want it to come to fruition.” I saw flashes of it – images of the Eiffel Tower and my feet on a beach, but I couldn’t picture what my perfect daily life would look like. I guess the only thing I knew for sure was that the dream didn’t involve 2 hours of commuting time, sitting at a desk for 9 hours, dragging myself home to make dinner for myself and my very-unhappy daughter, scooping the cat litter, or crawling into bed alone.

I had been working at the same job for 4 and a half years – selling headsets. It wasn’t a bad job, as jobs go… I worked with nice people and was paid a fair wage. They had a 401K match and tuition reimbursement. If a person wanted to work in an office, they would have been entirely satisfied.

I didn’t want to do it anymore, though. I found myself unable to get out of bed in the morning, dreading the day that lay ahead. It wasn’t normal depression. I was stuck.

I started thinking about why I felt so stuck, so tied to a job that I felt like I was the caged tiger, my zookeeper-boss watching my every move, her cattle-prod at the ready. I’m sure other people felt trapped in the job, too, but no one ever discussed it. I never once heard a coworker complain that they needed to get out – to be free.

The reason was so clear. FEAR. I was petrified of leaving, because I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to support my kids, my cats, or myself. If I didn’t have a steady paycheck coming in, I was going to let the WHOLE WORLD down. The conflict between my secret yearnings and my expectations was a full-blown, life-long, Ultimate Fight Night. I didn’t have any problem when the world put these responsibilities on my shoulders. I accepted the expectations and responsibilities as the next step in life’s process. I even  added to those burdens myself. I thought, “only someone who was completely immature, selfish, and irresponsible would live outside these tidy boundaries.”

I have gossiped about people who’ve walked away from their jobs as if they were shooting heroin in the alley.  I’ve judged them and condemned them to serve a life sentence in the little box in my mind labeled “disgraceful.” I have talked to other people about them and said the words: “how could they?” I have pitied their partners and their children. Not once have I ever wished them success.

If they were successful having moved outside the envelope, then the only thing holding me back from doing the same thing was me.

I can’t tell you how long I might have stayed in status-quo-land. I probably could have made it through another 15 years and then retired with some piddly little retirement fund and moved to a condo in Boca, but my daughter unwittingly became the catalyst for the biggest life-change I would experience.

Jillian is a magnificent girl. She is everything – truly everything – that a mom could want in a daughter. She’s loving, smart, evolved, beautiful, hilarious, and just plain good. She stands up for the things that mean something to her. She supports her friends. She challenges herself every day to become a better person. She challenges me to become a better person.

It wasn’t all-at-once, but I saw her start to fall apart about a year ago. She hated being the last one left at home, the only one left to navigate the chasm between ex-spouses she called “mom and dad.” Her sisters had both moved away, one to Boston and one to college in Vermont. I knew it was wearing on her. She would grudgingly pack her bags to get ready for “Dad’s nights,” not because he was a problem (he was a problem, but that’s another story), but because she had to pack her worldly belongings twice a week – every week – and move to another home.

She had a great job at a farm stand with a bunch of other people who, like her, came from broken homes and slightly fucked-up lives. They worked together, played together, and made their own family. I realized she was spending extra hours at the farm. She would be there after closing and never seemed in a hurry to get home. Her grades started to suffer which led to further depression and anxiety. In her entire life, she’d never gotten any grade lower than an A minus. The classes were hard, though. She was taking a bunch of AP and Honors classes, and she couldn’t slide through them like she’d been able to do in the past.

A lot of things happened and a lot of things changed over the course of the last year, but her inability to reach the level of academic perfection she’d set for herself never subsided. When they announced the Class of 2019’s top-ten students, and her name wasn’t on the list, she was devastated. This time she wasn’t bouncing back. I was afraid that her lightbulb had finally burned out. How can you continue to make that big an effort if you’re not going to end up being the best?

Before you start judging me, please know that I told her the same thing that I’ve said throughout her whole life. “Your grades are fantastic and I couldn’t be more proud. The only thing that matters to me is your physical, mental, and emotional health.”

The thought hit me like rubber hitting the road. I needed to put my life where my mouth was. I needed to stop saying this stuff to her and start showing her that I meant what I said.

Making a huge change at the beginning of her senior year wasn’t easy. She was bound and determined to get into a great liberal arts college. What would they say if she withdrew from her high school in October of her senior year? What about the AP classes she wouldn’t be able to finish? AP Psych, AP Gov, AP Spanish, AP Anatomy…? How would a college look at that? How badly would she be penalized?

Could we have an adventure that was cool enough and academically-enriching enough to allow her to qualify through the rigorous admissions process? Or would I just end up looking like another one of those hippy-freak home-schooling moms? What if they thought I’d withdrawn her because I was a religious zealot who didn’t want her to attend a school that taught about safe sex? I was worried about what other people thought, but not as worried as I was about Jillian.

I went online and looked into homeschooling. The idea seemed preposterous to me. I didn’t know how to teach Calculus – or any other subject for that matter. Who did I think I was? Except, guess what? I wasn’t the first person to home school a high-school student. There were so many options, so many programs, so much potential.

It was time to start thinking specifically about my dream. What did I want my life to look like on a daily basis? What did I want for Jillian? I could live with less, but not a lot less. I mean, I didn’t have cable, what more could I give up? I didn’t want to move to a yurt, no matter how much money it would save me. A personal bonus for me (go big or stay home) would be to go someplace warmer – a place without boots or shovels or snowplows. I wanted to start somewhere new, but I didn’t want to isolate Jillian. I wanted her to have friends and activities – a real teenage life without the stress and drama.

I started thinking about how I could create that life for her. How could she start over in a new place where she didn’t know anyone or know where to find the best coffee-house? I realized that she didn’t need to start over. We weren’t talking about a lot of time before graduation. Her real new start would be when she went to college. I was looking for an interim place. It would be temporary for her and permanent for me. She’d need some friends, though, and it’s difficult to make friends your age if you’re not enrolled in school. But it’s not too hard to make friends if you have a job doing something that you love and you’re working with people who are also doing what they love. With the flexibility of homeschooling, she’d be able to get a job during typical school hours. She’d be able to get a job at the best coffee-house in town. She’d probably also get a discount. Killing all the birds with one stone.

And what about me? What was I going to do? I really mulled this over. I was making so many changes and there was so little security. I held fast to the fact that I felt very certain that my decision was the best I’d ever made. My job, however, was one thing that didn’t need to be rushed. I needed to keep my job and work remotely. That would give me time to figure out how to homeschool and  provide me with a paycheck.

First things first. Where were we going? My friend, Lisa, has a house in Hilton Head, SC. I’ve been down to visit and loved the area. It was much warmer, but not crazy-Florida-warmer, and the beach was a stone’s throw away. I saved a search in Zillow: condo, townhouse, single-family house, garage, 2+ bedrooms, 1+ baths, under $300,000. I didn’t want to throw money away on rent anymore. I wanted to buy something, and do it quickly before I quit my job and ruined my credit.

The house popped up in the search that very day. It was just what I wanted and it was just the right price. I sent Lisa a note to make sure I wasn’t moving to the ghetto of Hilton Head, and she confirmed that it was a great area. Turns out, it’s hard to go wrong in that community.

I called my boss and told her my idea. She confirmed that, although the company couldn’t pay for relocation, they would allow me to work remotely.

I went to the high school and sat with the vice principal to discuss homeschooling. The paperwork was easier than I could have ever imagined. She was able to sign up for VLACs (online learning) classes and take most of her classes remotely.

Once I knew this could really happen, I met with my bank and got pre-approved for a mortgage. I called the realtor and made an offer. Sight-unseen.  Closing date: December first.

I called my landlord and invited him over for coffee. I didn’t have a lease, so we were operating on a month-to-month basis. I was nervous about giving him the news, but he understood, and my 60-day notice was official.

The funny thing about fear is that it isn’t real. It’s a dream you have in your head. It’s no more powerful than excitement or happiness or peace. You’re writing the story of your life and you can change it up to be fun or challenging or, yes, scary. You’re writing it. Make it turn out the way you’ve always dreamed it would be. Every morning you wake up and choose what your life will look like on that day. Most of us have become complacent. We’re too tired or overwhelmed or bored to think of anything different when we wake up. “Today’s going to be just like yesterday, with the same stressors, the same funny moments, and the same food for lunch. I’m not going to change, because this is how I’ve done it before. Even though I’m not particularly happy, I’m safe. It’s always worked in the past, and it’ll work again today.” We let the fear – that made-up feeling – dictate how we’re going to act and how we’re going to live our lives.

I’m no different, no better no worse, than anyone else. I just let the bigger fear – the fear that my daughter would drown – outweigh the fear I had of rocking our little boat. What I began to understand, is what fear-itself is afraid of. Fear fears action. Fear loves complacency. Fear loves watching people get stuck – in jobs, in relationships, in life. Fear hates it when you wake up and say, “I’m going to do my very best today. I’m going to challenge myself to move beyond my status quo. I’m going to write a different story for myself.”

I’m still not sure what my ultimate happiness looks like, but my vision is becoming clearer. It involves action and proximity to a beach and a daughter who is confident and healthy. It’s a fuzzy vision, but I’m pretty sure it looks a lot like where I am right now.


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