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SAFETY IN NUMBERS

When I was a teenager, Mom used to yell “Safety in numbers!” as I flew out the door with my date. I guess I knew what she was talking about, but I didn’t dare verify. Leaving room for interpretation gave me license.

At 58, I realize the wisdom of her words.

Talking Umbrellas is dedicated to the premise that truth-telling women have potent medicine to share with each other as they progress through change.  And its potency remains, whether that change is driven by choice or by chance; whether we can no longer ignore the voice inside that demands we live our life’s true purpose—or we are brought to our knees by loss. Truth is the serum that protects, validates and inspires. Women witnessing truth to other women is powerful.  It is safety in numbers.

All transformation has a beginning and a middle (I’m not sure there is an “end” for evolving souls—so let’s just say when we emerge from the darkness of in-between, our path is lit with beams of light). I feel like I have lived most of my life in the middle: the middle child, the Midwest, middle management, mid-life, midriff bulge.  I know middle intimately. But I’ve never been comfortable there.

Change is hard for most of us. Some of us—myself included—are slow learners. I hate that. But as I keep making change I realize it will always be my way.

My father, an accomplished trial attorney, was a relentless perfectionist. In my childhood imagination he was Perry Mason, a model for me and what I was to search for later in a man, as a way of completing myself.  I thought if only I could find that perfect man I might become perfect by extension. Two divorces under my belt and a trail of broken hearts, including my own, I realize “completion” is up to me. Case closed.

Raised in the 60’s and 70’s, I believed in fairy tales, perfection, and never-ending love. I believe the latter is out there, but it has evaded me.  Like “career success”–once thought of as a tangible destination–rather than what is: a series of wins and losses edged out by wins, with reputation still in tact.

I worked in the Housewares Industry for 28 years.  As a product development executive helping inventors get new products to market, I saw first hand how invention is a painfully slow, imperfect process. After I spun off with my own business, I saw it again: entrepreneurship took so much longer than I ever imagined when it was a newborn, gauzy, backlit day dream.

I saw first hand how invention is a painfully slow, imperfect process. After I spun off with my own business, I saw it again: entrepreneurship took so much longer than I ever imagined when it was a newborn, gauzy, backlit day dream.

In our quick-change culture, transformation is a rarely-publicized jagged line.  In reality, it is always back to the drawing board—personally and professionally. Like an inventor, I have made many prototypes of me. But the bugaboo to making change has always been fear:  fear that I’m not quite ready, fear that my own reinvention won’t be good  enough…or not what people want. What if I fail? What if I offend someone? What if I upend the people who count on me for security?

I have grown by pushing  through my resistance, second guessing and flat-out terror.

I have two grown daughters and I see them embarking on careers in an uncertain age where sexism is more subtle and insidious than it used to be, which makes it all the more dangerous. The constant pelting force of commercialized media, hero worship, and celebrity aggrandizement pushing the idea of instant success and magical transformation (easy as 1,2,3!) is crazy-making. All generations of women are asking themselves: Why can’t we get this done? What’s wrong with me? Am I fooling myself? Am I nuts?

Those questions wracked me when, 18 months ago, I attended a writing retreat. I found myself among women who had published, most of them devoted writers. I had always had a writer’s voice inside me that wouldn’t quit. It said writing was my life purpose. But I had spent time in the shadows, distracted, going down rabbit holes because I thought my corporate pursuits were more practical.  At the retreat I felt like a phony, my career identity irrelevant. I looked fear and doubt in the face. It was a pivot point.

The aftermath?  Some of my friends looked at me with knitted brows, worried that, between the marital separation and talk of becoming a writer at this late stage, I had lost my mind.  Others supported me unconditionally and wondered what took me so damn long to leave a troubled marriage and use my gifts.

“I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse…” –Charlotte Bronte, from “Jane Eyre”

I began to feel alive as I unearthed what might be, could be, a way to live with meaning and purpose.

After I began writing again, so did my 87-year old mother. She had always wanted to be a writer; she said I inspired her. Change is viral. I honestly think I derived inspiration from my own daughter, a film student at Northwestern University. Maybe I’m competitive. Or maybe I am literally scared to death, watching my perfectionist father slowly decline with Alzheimer’s disease—a library burning down—that I might die before I have a chance to use my gifts. Inspiration scales up and down the sticky, sap-soaked trunk of the family tree.

My family includes the women out there who are feeling alone, confused and fearful as they slog through change. I love you already for your courageous, yearning hearts.  I dare anyone to rain on our parade.  I invite you to march with me—there’s safety in numbers.

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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  • Ninita
    Reply

    You really are a writer. You are the writer I thought you were when you started writing. Just keep going and doors will open.

    • Holly Smith-Berry
      Holly Smith-Berry
      Reply

      Thanks, Mom, for being my #1 fan. XOXOXO

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