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A Passion for Writing at Any Age
by Saralee Perel
A few years before I turned fifty, I made a major career change. I gave up a twenty-two year psychotherapy practice to become a writer. But it didn't all happen at once.
First, my mother died.
I have come to theorize that many women make their biggest changes when their mothers die, and I don't mean just career changes. Perhaps it's because we are forced into a life review of their lives upon their deaths. We, as daughters, are often the ones who go through our mother's closets and bureau drawers. There, we find layers of their lives … a gold baby locket with teething marks, a monogrammed handkerchief that was once tucked into the sleeve of a beaded pink sweater, or a faded pencil-scrawled postcard from a first love we never heard a word about.
In my mother's top bureau drawer behind her rhinestone dress clips, I found a photo of a young, sweet smiling man in his navy uniform - the man she didn't marry. I also found a photo of a wealthy, serious man smoking a cigar – the one she did. I can see regret in her face, years after her death, as I imagine her wistfully pondering what might have been.
And so, when she died, I began my own life review.
I had wanted to give up my practice and be a writer. I always figured I could do that someday, but boy oh boy, lots of those somedays are suddenly behind you when you're approaching fifty.
I did give up my practice the year my mother died.
And I began writing. But that took a slump, or rather a landslide after receiving one rejection too many. My put-down self dialogue haunted me with the constant reminder, "You're too old to … "
But I remember acutely the moment my depression turned around. I was having lunch at the Hearth & Kettle restaurant with my younger friend Deb. She was beautiful and radiant. She excitedly told me about her new writing plans, making sweeping arm motions as she spoke of her dreams. With her intense brown eyes riveted to mine, she shared with me how she was going to make these dreams happen. She was making worlds open up for herself. Vibrant, self-actualizing, magnificent worlds.
I felt very distant from the scene in our lunch booth. Pretty awful, actually. I knew that it was too late for me to ever feel her kind of enthusiasm again. I watched her, effervescent and brimming with life, knowing for sure that those kinds of feelings were behind me for good.
After we ate, we went for a walk down Main Street. We ran into her friend, Liz, who was also beginning new ventures. I had the oddest feeling. It was as if I was a hundred feet away, watching the two of them involved so excitedly in their lives and in each other. I responded when I was supposed to, politely going through the motions and answering, "How are you doing?" questions at the appropriate time. But my feeling was this – I'm too old to make their kinds of changes. They are just beginning new projects, filled with hope and new promise. I can't do this anymore.
It was simply too late. I had tried to become a writer but I had failed. I had crossed over a self-imposed bridge and was no longer part of the can-do crowd. I stood back, and watched Deb and Liz in their "prime." I was witnessing a younger generation soar. I drove home very depressed.
In my bedroom, I sat on the bed and put my head in my hands. Put it behind you, I said to myself. Being a writer is not as important as you're making it. Be happy with what you have. And just let that dream go.
Let that dream go.
I fell into distracting sleep. When I woke up, I felt just as lousy. I suppose when you use sleep as a drug, you don't feel any better when the drug or the sleep wears off.
I stayed in bed on that sunny afternoon and stared at the ceiling. And then, I had a life altering moment. Those moments don't come very often, believe me.
It was at that time that the following occurred to me: Who is making this decision to narrow my life because of my age?
Why me, of course.
Who's in charge of changing that?
Who do you think?
But in our eighties or nineties, we certainly don't want to look back and think – I wish I had written that novel. I wish I hadn't lived my life in an unhappy marriage. I wish I had moved away from my parents … or nearer to them.
Taking desired roads may not have made our life better, but not giving them a try will always make us wonder what might have been.
What is the point of living our lives with dreams un – tried? Notice I didn't say with dreams unfulfilled. What we hope for may never happen.
And so, I forced myself to try again, and I mean almost literally forcing my hands to move on the computer keys. I risked one more heart wrenching rejection. But this time, the rejection didn't happen. And I built upon this renewed hope – in my fifties, I remind you.
Now I write for newspapers and magazines and have also written books. Do rejections still matter? Oy, do they ever. But as I learned from my mother after her death, I don't want someone to go through my drawers and find an unfinished manuscript or a picture of a man with whom I wish I had spent my life.
You would think that change grows harder as we age. I want to tell you something incredibly important. In many ways it is just the opposite. And the reason? As we get older, mistakes matter less. It's more important that we give our ideals their best shot. Because if we don't, there's less time to do something about it. And most importantly, regret is far, far worse than not trying at all.
I've never thanked Deb for that moment in time when she didn't even know that she turned my life around.
Thank you, Deb. Where would I be without you?
Saralee Perel is an award-winning nationally syndicated columnist. Her new book, Cracked Nuts & Sentimental Journeys: Stories From a Life Out of Balance, is available in local bookstores.
It can also be ordered through Amazon, or directly from the publisher, as well as from Saralee for a personalized signed copy.
Her novel, Raw Nerves, is also available as a paperback and an e-book on Amazon.