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It’s Never Quite How You Plan It In Your Head

October 09, 2015 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

Throughout our lives, we each have encountered new beginnings when we went off to college, made new friends, started jobs–sometimes with difficult colleagues and editors, moved into homes or apartments in new neighborhoods, and certainly after we married and had someone else in our lives for forever—or so we thought. We had big plans. Our lives would move along a smooth trajectory. But WHAMMO! The door slammed hard in our faces. One of us lost a spouse to death after a five-year-battle with cancer; the other became single after a divorce filled with all the contention that could fuel a prime time Reality TV show titled, DIVORCES FROM HELL!

We each also subscribed to the credo, “When one door closes, another opens” (Alexander Graham Bell) as we struggled to craft new lives. Stepping out of one life into another required multiple new starts and some stops, a lot of angst and forgiveness of ourselves.

We sought help by talking, crying, and laughing with one another, with family, friends, therapists, and even religious advisers.

For Barbara, meeting Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, not at Hirsch’s Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, but in exercise classes at Canyon Ranch was beshert, or destiny. Hirsch was at the spa as its Spiritual Life Consultant and specifically that weekend as a speaker about her recently published book, We Plan, God Laughs (Doubleday, 2008), based on a Yiddish proverb. The book offers 10 steps to find a new path when life is not turning out as planned.

Hirsch learned this early on from her mother’s life. She was unhappily married the first time but stayed for financial reasons and her two children. Once they were grown and out of the house, she left and slowly rebuilt her life, including meeting a “confirmed bachelor.” The two eventually married and were together until her death from brain cancer. The storyline the second-time-around was different than her first, explains Hirsch. “…at her first wedding, she was waiting for someone to rescue her,” Hirsch writes. “But at this wedding, she had rescued herself. She had taught us all that, to live the life you want, you have to be willing to leap. You have to be willing to realize that your life is not scripted. The happy ending starts with you.” What an invaluable lesson for Sherry.

How do you proceed when suddenly the rug is pulled out from under you and life changes irrevocably? In our cases we were terrified, alone for the first time, worrying about sufficient funds, and balancing our lives with grown children, aging moms, and work. Going to that first event solo where everyone watches how you look, what you say, and how you interact was daunting. So was going out the first time on a date, (since neither of us had dated since the late ’60s), trying to learn the new dating lingo and social mores, to cram a life of more than 50 years in 500 words or less, along with some humor and no tears at what had transpired. Using the word “boyfriend” or some variation for the first time when you feel that romantic spark, but then sometimes wishing you could take it back when the relationship cratered. Equally intimidating was deciding to clean out and sell a home of many years, find a place to move into, and hope everyone would say, “great choice!” since we still weren’t totally comfortable with our decisions. And feeling fear as we kept discovering that plans don’t always work out as expected.

We each built a harder inner core as we learned how to move both clumsily and gracefully “through new doorways and from room to room,” a concept we picked up from Hirsch’s second book Thresholds: How to Thrive Through Life’s Transitions to Live Fearless and Regret-Free (Harmony Books, 2015). Moving as one door closes and another opens is difficult enough, but it goes far deeper. Hirsch advises not to make excuses for whatever transpires. We all make mistakes and must learn to manage fears. It’s scary to enter a new room and it takes guts to cross that threshold and feel safe. It can be a long road, and laying the groundwork so it can happen requires more work than expected, trying a different tack to get it right or at least better, and not expecting perfection, which is not possible, she notes. Asking ourselves along the way, what’s the worst that can happen?

Hirsch knows. She entered one threshold that didn’t feel right—a relationship that her gut told her was wrong. Instead of marrying, she gave her self a year to grieve for the loss which allowed her to later meet and marry her current husband, Jeffrey Hirsch, a physician. She now has four children and is happy. Later she tiptoed across another threshold when she decided to help care for her father from who she had long been estranged. He asked for her care near the end of his life due to his pancreatic cancer. It was healing for both.

Barbara faced three big thresholds after her divorce that helped in her healing process.

  • First, was stepping into the dating arena after she understood what had gone wrong in her marriage and what she would look for in a new relationship. She dated as if on steroids—350 guys until she found Mr. Right since she decided she liked life better with a partner–but the right one. She knew that some newly women end up preferring remaining single.
  • Second, deciding to move to a new community since the place where she was living and had raised her children was too far from her grown daughters and aging mom, who she thought needed her, or maybe she needed them. Where she ended up was totally unfamiliar; she knew nobody but it seemed right. She came to realize that if it wasn’t, she could always move again. Nothing is forever, she’s learned. “It’s only a house,” she said.
  • Third, she worked harder than ever to secure more freelance work despite her age and the changing dynamics of her profession as newspapers and magazines closed and web content became the much bigger market.

For Margaret, after losing her husband to cancer, she went down many hallways until she tiptoed gingerly into new rooms.

  • First, she had to learn how to grieve and did so for two years until she was ready to accept her new status: WIDOW.
  • Second, to date again, which she said she’d never do until she ran into an old high school friend who was unmarried. She dated him slowly until she realized that loving again was not a betrayal of her late husband’s memory.
  • Third, she organized the contents of the home where she raised her three children to sell it after 37 years and move to a condo in the same city where she is the primary caregiver for her 92-year-old mother. This very well might not be her permanent residence. There is no guarantee that anything is forever, as she found out the hard way.

As we continue to face challenges and obstacles, we tap into Hirsch’s book for advice. It’s an anchor when we face something new that can be disorienting and scary, sometimes wonderful while other times painful and even heartbreaking. We continue to be the primary caretakers of our aging moms, now in their mid-nineties and with more health issues bubbling to the surface. We both have multiple friends who face life-threatening illnesses, and we want to be there for them but not overly intrusive unless asked; some already have died. We each keep finding that even grown children still present challenges (along with great joy). We’re forever the parent.

The book has opened our eyes to see all the rooms around us every day and to trust our guts when making a decision to enter a new one. Hirsch’s caveat to live regret-free remains one of our biggest challenges, however. Two Jewish gals who often overanalyze all possibilities are still finding how to step across that threshold into some of the newest rooms before us.

Stay tuned.




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