Tornadic weather? Ruby red slippers? Twisters of change?
Yeah, that about covers it for why this simple picture of a pair of well-worn designer shoes represent the same kind of change Dorothy experienced in traveling to a foreign land only to realize she already had everything she ever wanted in her own backyard.
Okay, maybe that’s an oversimplification.
But my big life moments have always been easiest to articulate through pop culture and analogies. Sometimes it’s a Looney Tunes character, and at other times, Monty Python. And of course, my favorite: Mary Poppins.
But today? With this irresistible fashion statement? I’m Dorothy Gale from Kansas down to every part of my being.
Michael Kors was my entitlement and reward for promotions and moving ahead, with a relentless pursuit of more—never really knowing what that meant or what it would cost me. I lost sight of the person I was and, most importantly, was on the wrong path to ever become the person I wanted to be. The person I now believe I was born to be.
I hesitate to share the part of my story that seems tired and unremarkable. Simply put, it was a marriage that didn’t fit. There was a misplaced (and misguided) sense of responsibility in preventing my children from experiencing a broken home.
And let’s face it: admitting failure sucks. So does having to admit our judgement of character is not as accurate as we’d like to believe.
Mid-way through the marriage, I became the bread winner tasked to support our family and a lifestyle that no one could sustain. I pursued my career in survival mode, spending nearly every waking moment feeling anxious by trying to be the best working mom, best manager, best person.
Instead of taking any of it in stride or with humor, I let a victim mentality settle over me. Whispered late at night, I could hear it as I drifted off to sleep. Words that formed from doubts I had about myself and my ability to succeed at anything. I was my own tormentor and enjoyed the sacrifices and martyrdom a little too much.
I f*cking hate the view from my rear-view mirror. I wasn’t anything special. But I can laugh now and remember something my grandfather used to say. For anything I’d criticize or not want to settle on, he’d say, “Well you aren’t no prize…and you’re not getting any younger.”
It’s hysterical to me now, and still an inside joke with a few family members. He didn’t mince words, but he was not wrong. Not in the sense that I don’t possess good qualities or that I lack the ability to accomplish anything I set my mind to. It was his brevity I appreciate most. None of us are so special that we get a gold star for survival and for making it from one day to the next. That’s life and it’s made up of a series of choices that, oh by the way, we make for ourselves.
So what if I stayed too long? Or did it all in the best interest of my kids? That’s kind of the point of having children. You take these choices on as a parent, and they are not above and beyond. It’s called parenting.
But the person I was is not who I am today—and to be honest, I hate the person I used to be. I can’t tell you why I wore self-pity like a comfortable blanket of apathy I nearly drowned under. All I know is there were moments along the way and people who challenged me in a way that did not crush my reality, but were just enough to question the validity of my existence. Enough to serve as a little twister or catalyst that made it uncomfortable enough to not forget that something wasn’t right.
It didn’t happen overnight. There was no thunderous applause. But I can tell you the moment I looked back from the other side—it was the shoes.
I used to love Michael Kors. I enjoyed the status symbol that showed everyone I was moving ahead in my social circles and with my career. I bought numerous handbags and shoes and always rationalized that I deserved it. Poor, long-suffering Mary—she worked so hard. Surely, she should reward herself. That’s what I used to think.
I still believe in working hard, but not to maintain a victim status or artificial entitlement. You work hard to live—not the other way around. I worked so many hours that when I had a day off, I spent it laying around on the couch or involved in some other activity that required no brain function, ambition, or future planning. These days, I feel entitled to a ripe heirloom tomato and bacon, the fruits of my labor in working a living garden and working on an entirely different level.
I’m getting sidetracked. The shoes…it really was all about the shoes. My red MK slippers were a favorite, and I wore them everywhere. In Brazil, leading communications for innovation events. In Mexico, where, after hours, we drank shots of tequila for breakfast. In Vietnam, where I could comfortably walk dirt-paved roads and through markets and vendors selling fresh-caught fish displayed in the middle of the street.
And throughout all the trips that were business focused, I was served up with a side of existential ponderings about the life that was waiting for me back at home. The people I met changed me. The cultures I saw were so foreign to the one I was living in.
While I was dropping plastic to cover the costs of $300 designer bags, Vietnamese families I interviewed told me about their hopes and dreams. Poverty stricken people held a sense of pride in finding a way to save at least a small part of their meager salaries. And they humbled me to my core in offering a bottled water when I was a guest in their home. The least I could do as a sign of respect was to leave my red slippers at the door as I entered.
I expected the two weeks I spent between Brazil and Mexico to afford me the time I needed to contemplate my marriage and life’s path and reach a conclusion. I was wrong—the first of many mistakes. I’ve learned to be open about being wrong, and no longer take it kicking and screaming in denial. I make lots of mistakes. I have held world views and beliefs for more than half my life that changed. I accept ignorance as a gift, and laugh knowing it’s one that keeps giving over an entire lifetime. My own yellow brick road was incomplete and I’d yet to learn the lessons needed for a course correction.
Those damned shoes really said it all when it came to what was wrong with my life. But ultimately, they also served as my own Dorothy moment in finally realizing what was right for me.
The shoes grew more comfortable over time. The path did not. Married, three kids, and drowning in debt while treading water in a loveless marriage. (No need for particulars here; grace happens in all kinds of ways and kindness should not be mistaken for being too soft. But I’m taking the high road out of respect for my now grown sons.)
And so I left my husband and my job, and moved my children to a small rural community with our own little homestead and a little under an acre of land.
Over time, I discarded an old way of life. It was such a natural progression, I barely noticed. It started with a garden in my front yard. A shift in how I spent my free time, and a freaking paradigm shift in my world view. An openness that can only occur once you’ve spent some time in crisis mode with more than a few “dark nights of the soul.”
I ditched the work suits, took a work-from-home job, and was too busy finding purpose and living to realize just how big of a transformation was taking place on the inside.
I’d always romanticized the idea of farm life and raising chickens. I had clung to childhood memories where I enjoyed the experiences without the responsibility. And yet my course correction was a fairly natural occurrence. I adapted well—hell, I have flat-out thrived with a more basic standard of living that includes a more conscious and deliberate approach to life.
Purpose can be found in everything I do, as can joy. Something as simple as enjoying watching the sunset from my window above my farmhouse sink can bring a smile to my face.
Life really is full of unlimited possibilities. You just need to know where to look.
Which brings me back to where I started. Dorothy and I both traveled to destinations unknown. And in ways that could not be reversed—hers through a tornado and myself through a series of changes and catalysts that propelled me forward. Sometimes free falling and uncertain of where I would land, but always with a forward momentum. That kind of change is powerful. It decimates everything in its wake. And for me, it leveled everything to the ground. For a brief moment, I remember again that time when I pulled the pin from a grenade and wondered where to stand.
A friend snapped the picture of my shoes a few years back and sent it to me. I think he captioned the text simply as “WTF.” It was shorthand for knowing who I used to be and how important my designer things had once been. Yet there they were, covered in mud and grass clippings, hastily discarded on the garage floor.
Dorothy needed the red shoes to get back home. That is where our similarities end. Because for me, it was the complete opposite. I needed to lose them in order to find my way home.