Melinda Stiles

In my twentieth year of teaching, I spied a quote in my insurance company's newsletter by my favorite columnist, Ellen Goodman of the BOSTON GLOBE. "Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it." Ahhhhhhh!!!!!!

When I was growing up, normal meant you went to college, fell in love, got married, and had children. You didn't worry your pretty little head about not using your degree. After all, you had your M.R.S. I went to college, fell in love, came perilously close to marriage, discovered Mr. Right's infidelity in time, and used my to support myself for twenty-one years.

During that time I found two Mr. Wrongs, married them, divorced them, thankfully had no children. I left the marriages with what I'd brought to them. Seemed normal to me in spite of the lawyer coaxing me to go for the jugular. My teaching degree continued to support me.

The normal marriages I knew were not tied together with a knot of love but encased in a crucible of tolerance, religion, or fear. My girlfriend had proof of her husband's infidelity and never confronted him. She couldn't fathom upsetting their rocky marriage and forging into the unknown. I heard lots of complaints about spouses ending with, "But I wouldn't want to be out there dating in this day and age." Someone was apparently better than no one. Catholicism kept a lot of people together. A strong belief led to an airtight marriage. Suffocation was optional, I supposed. All normal.

But I reveled in my solitude, finding myself, my books, and my writing to be excellent company. I wasn't accorded many points on the normal scale in my family. Dad's calls always concluded with, "You know I worry about you." Read between the lines: "You need a man to take care of you." Mom would add, "I know you don't want me to, but I say a little prayer every night that you'll meet somebody wonderful."

After my second divorce I spent a Sunday afternoon with my grandmother. I adored her. That afternoon I lamented my childless, twice-divorced forty years. "What's wrong with me?" Placing her sewing on the footstool, she got up, walked to my chair, and gave me a big old hug. "There's not a thing wrong with you. You just have different mountains to climb than most people." Her wisdom illuminated that dark stretch and glowed for years.

So you can imagine how shocked I was driving to work one morning when I realized I was living Ellen's definition of normal. I didn't have the husband or children but I had the car payment, the mortgage, and worse, I was not feeling joy in my job every day. Each morning I found myself looking ahead to 3:00 so I could get on with my real life. A mentor had advised me, "If you don't feel joy some time every day in the classroom, it's time to leave the profession." I'd known joy for twenty years but it was hard to find in my twenty-first.

I remember the spring morning, lilacs and forsythia in bloom, the sun rising on my drive to work, when the voice began. "There must be more," it said. I tried to silence it but it wouldn't be muffled. Each day as I tried to revel in the natural beauty before getting to school, the voice grew louder.

When I announced my plan to resign and finally write as I'd always wanted, most of my colleagues looked at me like I'd lost my marbles. "What about your retirement? You need thirty years for a full pension," etc. It was so not normal for me to resign before my time. A fellow teacher called me a maverick. I took it as a compliment.

When I told my 6th hour freshmen of my plan, a student shouted from the back row, "I think people are going to look at you when you come to town and say, "There's that crazy lady writer."

"I hope so," I said. "I hope so."

I saved every possible penny that last year. I simplified my life, reducing my closets until they were nearly bare by examining my clothes and asking, is it comfortable and do I feel good wearing it? If the answer to either question was no, I tossed the item into the box headed for the woman's domestic shelter. I examined all my possessions. They included some ugly things I'd felt compelled to keep for life because the donor had since died. I gave them the "Is it beautiful, useful, or sentimental?" test. Three no's found the object in the Goodwill bag. I was ready to move.

Two years earlier I had visited friends in Idaho where I fell in love with mountains. Mountains speak louder to me than a steady paycheck and a good pension. I packed my pared down life into my RAV4 and pointed it west. I arrived in Idaho three days later. Within a week I settled into a mobile home with a view of the Continental Divide.

My writing brings me joy. I don't leave home to work. My time is my own. My work clothes are jeans, overalls, tee shirts, and denim shirts. All paid for. Car? Paid for before I left. I'm surrounded by beautiful, useful, or sentimental objects. Still not normal. Loving it.

© Melinda Stiles

Melinda Stiles has been writing in Idaho for three years and is still loving her "new" life.

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