It’s March 2012, I’m standing in line at the grocery store and I think I’m hyperventilating. In my purse sits a booklet of food stamps, which I collected this morning from the Office of Women, Infants, and Children. The booklet reveals just how much my life has changed since 2009 when my husband’s bank was taken over by the FDIC.
I step toward the register as the clerk begins to scan my groceries. My eyes are downcast, if someone taps me on the shoulder I just might crack into a million pieces. I don’t believe that asking for government support is at all shameful—but I can’t help that horrible emotion from creeping over me.
The woman at the cash register glances up and our eyes meet. She smiles.
On the list of “best smiles, I’ve ever gotten” this one ranks pretty close to the top. It seems so genuine, so comforting. It steadies me.
The interaction at the register is blurry. I hand over the food stamps, correct certain items that don’t qualify, bag up my groceries, discover (to my embarrassment) that I’m sweating profusely and, finally, push my shopping cart out of the sliding doors and into the parking lot. It’s there, sitting in my car that I allow myself to break down. I have four young kids to support and feel flooded with fear about the future. We have expenses and debt and have been living off of keepsakes sold on eBay.
I sit for a long time, rocking back and forth and crying. Slowly, I start to regain control. I know there are no miracle pills, no easy answers, and no quick fixes. But there are solutions. I start to map out a plan for how to get my family’s finances back on track. I find a pen and an envelope in the glove box and write down every possible asset—old pieces of jewelry, a crystal vase, a coat hanging in my closet—that might be worth something. Those measures are a suitable stopgap but the writing is on the wall: after years of managing my family’s philanthropic efforts, it’s time for me to build a career.
I start to brainstorm ideas—I tap into my passions and make another list. This time it’s the makings of a resume: business school graduate; founder of Dodge College of Film and Media Arts; member of the Orange County Fair Board; producer of the movie Annihilation of Fish. Below all of these I scribble another sentence: I love to write.
A light bulb goes on. I could write about my experience.
Fast-forward two years. I’m standing outside of a steel and glass building with reflective windows wrapping the bottom floor. I’m wearing a business suit and, once again, I think I might be hyperventilating.
But the circumstances of my shortness of breath are much different this time: I’m here to give a speech and I’m battling nerves.
I look at my reflection in the glass. I’m dressed sharply and my posture is proud. For the first time in two years, I feel like I’m on track: my kids are provided for, I have a book about to be submitted to publishers, and paid speaking gigs are starting to line up. I recite chunks of my speech in my head. It’s filled with plenty of anecdotes—but I have those down pat. I lived them and they all feel like just yesterday.
Instead of focusing on the stories, I run through the three main “takeaways” that I want to leave people with:
1. Resentment and anger help nothing.
2. It’s never too late to start over.
3. You are too strong to fail.
As I mouth these three maxims, I realize that they really are my “keys to success.” After the bank takeover, I had anger that I was ready to cast in all directions—but I soon realized it wasn’t productive. I had to learn to let that anger go before I could ever hope to move forward.
Later, as I began to build a career as a writer and public speaker, I had fear that I had missed my window and that I was trying to break into a young person’s game; but with hard work and absolute commitment, I’ve been able to build the foundation of an exciting career. That day in the grocery store parking lot, I broke down but eventually, I got back up. In the years that followed, I proved to myself that I’m tougher, stronger, and more resilient than I’d ever realized.
These last three qualities aren’t unique to me. They aren’t some special part of my genetic code. I believe that they are inextricable pieces of the human spirit. We are, as a species, are tough, strong and resilient. I know this because I’m constantly talking to people who faced all sorts of struggles, many far worse than mine, and are still standing.
I smile at the woman reflected in the window. I hope it is as warm and compassionate of a smile as the woman at the grocery store gave me the day I handed her my booklet of food stamps. As I begin my speech, I know that the promise I made to myself back in that parking lot has come to pass: things have changed.
A new journey has begun…and it started with just one step.