Photography by Jennifer Denton, and courtesy of Brenda Coffee
was never one of those kids who knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. Even now I’m not sure how to answer the question, “and what do you do?” If resumes were based on how we spend our time, mine would probably read, “Doggie Doorman.” Part of me wants to add “versatile, resilient and I plan for worse case” and be done with it. You fill in the blanks.
One thing I’ve learned is that life isn’t always about what we do for a living, or how we’ll get there. While those things are important, one of our key strengths is how well we react and cope with change, especially when it’s unexpected.
Like the evening I found myself in the backseat of a Mercedes, driven by a psychiatrist with a goatee and a heavy German accent, while my “can’t hurt steel” husband rocked back and forth in the front seat. I watched as he was admitted to a teenage psycho ward—the only available bed—and led away in a white, canvas straightjacket, his arms buckled behind his back. They gave him an injection of Valium, and the next day he was fine and demanding to be released. But he wasn’t fine.
We’d moved to another state, and he’d run out of the Valium he used to sleep. Cold turkey on Valium can kill. At best it rewires how the synapses fire in the brain. For the next three months he sat in the dark, communicating rarely with me and no one else. At 22, I made excuses to employees in two cities about why he was out of pocket. I soothed anxious investors, made fiscal decisions and hosted a Christmas party for employees and their families. I learned on the fly. Trial by fire. No time to be scared or doubt myself.
When we first met I was a long way from being a woman who knew where she was going. He, on the other hand, was successful and accomplished, mind-numbingly handsome and 13 years my senior. I’d like to say everything was smooth sailing after the straightjacket hiccup, but it wasn’t. Life was exciting and glamorous, like something out of a movie. With sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, we traveled the world in search of places where no one spoke English; you couldn’t get a cheeseburger, and a room for the night might be a hammock with a skinned squirrel that dripped blood on our foreheads.
Several times during our marriage he told me, “This is my train, and you’re welcome to ride it. If at any time you don’t like the destination, you’re free to get off, but you won’t find a better ride anywhere.”
Had I been the tour guide, much of his route I wouldn’t have chosen, but the decision to stay onboard—or get off—was always mine. I road his train for 17 years, until he died of lung cancer. I learned life is shaped by the bullets we receive and how we heal, not how picture perfect is the ride. I learned to say, “Yes” more than I said, “No,” and that normal is someone else’s definition of what you should be doing.
Lots of women leave comments on my blog or email and tell me they envy my ability to take life as it comes. They’re afraid of embracing life, and so they stand in the shadows for fear of being noticed. They lack self-confidence so they don’t make friends, and they’re afraid to make decisions.
Regardless of their age I want to scoop them up and tell them the woman they are now isn’t the woman they’ll always be. I want to take their hand and turn up the volume and dance with them in the middle of the room. And just when I see a faint glint in their eyes of the woman they can become, I’ll step away and let them dance in their own light. And in that moment when they want to retreat, once again, to the shadows, I’ll lead them back into the light and tell them to trust themselves… When you get to the edge between the darkness and the light, trust that you’re meant to stand in the light.
For the most part life lives outside our comfort zone. If we’re not comfortable living in the dark, then why not be uncomfortable in the light? Nothing but loneliness and unfulfilled dreams grow in the dark. To live in the shadows is to sentence ourselves to a life of Cliff Notes. A life that’s missing content; the highs and lows, the very experiences that make life rich and rewarding.
Inhale the light. Let its brilliance empower you. Be committed to the woman you’re becoming and make it intentional.
Brenda Coffee has been a journalist, a filmmaker, widowed twice, done a hostile takeover of a public company she sold to Big Pharma, dug for Mayan artifacts, kidnapped in Guatemala and is a breast cancer survivor. A graduate of Trinity University, Brenda is a frequent speaker at women’s conferences and Internet Week in NYC. She’s known for her transparent, straight-talk about everything from finances to men. Her former website was repeatedly voted the Top Breast Cancer Blog, and her current site 1010ParkPlace.com has been awarded the Top 10 Women Over 50 Blog. Connect with Brenda on LinkedIn or on Instagram @1010ParkPlace.