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CRACK OPEN. BREAK OUT. RISE UP.

Two years ago I was in the middle of a private storm, trying as hard as I could to heal from a horrible heart break. But it wasn’t as simple as one crisis; it was layered, like a stationary squall:  gusts, hail, rain, lightning, thunder, blinding fog.  No longer centered on a romantic relationship, I lost my moorings. Gone was the sense of purpose that was doubling as my identity and safety blanket–hiding me from the monsters under my bed.

I was losing the youthful beauty I never fully recognized but always relied upon.  My entrepreneurial business was in the tank. I was ending a marriage. I was inventing coping mechanisms on the fly to deal with the ongoing loss of my father to Alzheimer’s disease and witnessing, sadly, my 85-year old mother’s struggle to let go of her role as caregiver.

My children were grown but not out of the woods. I remained, at a minimum, responsible for expensive tuition loans. The middle child of a large family, then a wife, then a mother, I had never really lived alone. The life I knew, the one I expected, was breaking apart.

I panicked, throwing everything I could think of at the healing process. I didn’t have time for this. I was a fixer so I went about fixing; a perfectionist accustomed to managing everything.

On the healthy side of the ledger:

  • spending quality time with my parents
  • wailing with reckless abandon
  • yoga (emphasis on hip and heart opening postures)
  • Showing up to exercise with my best buds
  • acupuncture
  • meditation
  • long walks
  • conversations with friends who didn’t judge
  • good therapy
  • keeping a break-up journal
  • going on a writing retreat I’d put off for three years

Less important, but nonetheless helpful: a fresh cut and color, removal of long-maintained artificial nails (a symbolic gesture of my resolve to pursue a postponed writer’s life) and fresh paint and art on the walls of my new apartment.

Replenishment.

On the destructive side:

  • spending money I didn’t have
  • binging on wine and comfort food
  • internet dating
  • seeking out advice from the wrong people who projected their own wounds and agendas
  • throwing my desperate self into work that reinforced my sense of failure

Depletion.

In hindsight, perhaps it took a storm of that magnitude to level me for reconstruction.  But at the time–in my vulnerable state–I just turned my rage inward, heaping on the self-loathing, guilt and shame that was omnipresent in my crushed-yet-perfectionist mindset.  The cold rain stinging my heart, I clawed on all fours against a mudslide. Aside from an occasional glimpse,  I was unaware that I was climbing the face of a beautiful mountain.

I was taught that good writers benefit from perspective; that you can’t write well if you are still “in it.” And so it was a huge relief when I resolved that I will always be in it and that I may never have perspective, but will write anyway.

Perfection-bashing turned out to be my greatest takeaway after I got all muddy and imperfect; that mud closed my pores and cracked open my heart.

Media messaging that spoke in a language of quick-fixes, and people at large, including my former lover, told me to “get over it and move on”—the cruelest advice for the grieving. Those words rip open the scabs just as they begin to form, tearing away at our  uniquely human capacity for feeling deeply. Getting-over-it speak says more about the teller than the griever, revealing fear of glimpsing their own reflection in the mirror of your eyes; their own monsters lurking.

I witnessed it all like breaking glass.  Shattered but searching, it unfolded like a living nightmare and also as a visionary dream, simultaneously crashing and unfolding. I crawled inside and then emerged, an egg cracking first from an external hammer, then from the inside out, forcing me to give birth to myself at 56.

The most healing act of all was getting quiet and learning to sit in sobriety with my loneliness, turning off the television and the torch songs; writing, physically stretching and finding gentle support from the friendships I was blessed to have before the storm was upon me. I sought out wisdom from all corners of the Earth and from places past and present. I read volumes. I wrote crap. I wrote better stuff that gave me a tiny inkling I might be able to live a lifelong dream of being a writer, and help others to boot.

In my solitude I talked out loud to myself, slowly learning to distinguish the false notes of guilt and shame from the true voice that sings to me with protection and higher purpose. I looked fear in the face and recognized it as alien and enemy.

I also began reckoning with the powerful, dark, sexy, shadow side that I had refused to give voice to.

I brought that bitch into the light. She is an audacious teacher.

Nothing sums up that journey in a tidy quote, but Cynthia Occelli comes close:

For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone.  The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes.  To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.

I was coerced through circumstance to search the deep cavities of body and soul, discovering layers of “emotional plaque.” Accumulating since I was an adolescent, I began to scrape it away.  My insides bled, but I was healing. I found out that my own stubborn attachment to perfection had led me to quite the opposite—to near self-destruction. And that I was far from alone.  As I gravitated to true stories of other women, I grew closer to my own truth.

I began to see how stories were my salvation, comfort, wisdom. And that my story was that of a heroine, not a victim. It was time to stop apologizing and begin to tell the truth of me.

In the words of Virginia Woolf: A feminist is any woman who tells the truth about her life.

So here it is, an unapologetic feminist’s metaphor for life:

We are born in a shell. We break out, spread our wings and try to fly, get broken and crawl back in. But our shells can’t contain us. They become the storytellers of our lives. We emerge again, rise up and finally learn the art of flying.  We’ve simply got to.

Don’t Rain on My Parade

Funny Girl, Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., 1968

Funny Girl, Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., 1968

Don’t tell me not to live,
Just sit and putter,
Life’s candy and the sun’s
A ball of butter.
Don’t bring around a cloud
To rain on my parade.

Don’t tell me not to fly–
I’ve simply got to.
If someone takes a spill,
It’s me and not you.
Who told you you’re allowed
To rain on my parade!

— From Funny Girl, music and lyrics by Bob Merrill and Jule Styne

Holly Smith-Berry
Holly Smith-Berry
Like you, I’m a shape shifter, living as many roles as an umbrella has spokes: marketing exec, entrepreneur, parent, daughter, friend, sister, yogi, writer. Most of my career I’ve worked in the Housewares Industry developing new products. Sometimes I’ve taken them all the way from the gleam in an inventor’s eye to America’s kitchens.
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Showing 9 comments
  • Holly Moxley
    Reply

    This is fantastic! Thank you!

  • Julie Peatt
    Reply

    I enjoy the incredible privilege of watching the dream begin, form, morph and now, exist. God Bless you Holls! You did it! It’s fantastic. You will free many. XO

  • Lorraine McFarland
    Reply

    Absolutely, positively wonderful. I am speechless.

  • Angela Gotch
    Reply

    really great article- very wise.

    • Holly Smith-Berry
      Holly Smith-Berry
      Reply

      Angela, thanks for that kind feedback. I’m so glad you’re here.

  • Laurie Grand
    Reply

    Beautiful, Holly. Keep writing!

    • Holly Smith-Berry
      Holly Smith-Berry
      Reply

      Laurie, I have to say this all started in France back in 2011. What a pivot point. Thanks for being a part of it, then and now. XOXO

  • Suzi Banks Baum
    Reply

    Coerced through circumstance onto a the mat right next to you here. Admiring your down dog and that extraordinary goddess pose you have going. Just arrived via Tracking Wonder and soooo glad to meet you online. I look forward to reading more of you. xo S

    • Holly Smith-Berry
      Holly Smith-Berry
      Reply

      Hi Suzy, I’m so glad you are on the mat next to me (happy baby). I hope you will consider sharing your story if you are so moved. This is a conversation yearning for voices like yours. Namaste.

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