Yesterday, I dove into a swimming pool for the first time in my 51 years.
I’ve never been able to do it before. Not being able to swim—really swim—has held me back and kept me on the sidelines of fun nearly my entire life. But no more. I shoved aside my fear of dorky-ness, donned a suit, a retro swim cap with crazy flowers, some vision-correcting goggles—and signed up for swimming lessons. I dove right in.
Suddenly, I’m 8 years old again.
That’s the way the entire past year has been for me: putting aside old ideas about what I’m capable of, other people’s expectations, and what I should be. After spending nearly 30 years doing what I had to do, now I’m doing what I wantto do: I’m going back to graduate school. I’m going to study, I’m going to teach, and I’m going to love every minute of it. I’m diving right in. And I don’t care how old I am or how dorky I look. I’m too young to give up and too old to waste any time.
I am grateful for the many years I spent in corporate America. I enjoyed the honor and privilege of working with some extraordinary leaders on a daily basis, including the CEOs of a major global corporation. Because of my job, and how hard I worked at it, I was able to raise my son independently as a single mother. But every day, the fear of not being able to provide for my boy was what got me out of bed in the morning. Fear was my primary motivation for scraping through and achieving some bare modicum of success in a place I knew I shouldn’t be. I did it for him. I worked for love.
But all too soon, that boy became a grown man, heading off on his own, pursuing his dreams and settling for nothing in his own life. How could I encourage him to do that, if I wasn’t doing it myself?
One day last year, the opportunity came. The Great Recession had long since hit my employer, and I survived the first couple of years. But eventually it found its way to me. Let’s just say they “made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.” Suddenly, clinging to the cubicle out of fear was no longer necessary.
As I signed the legal forms and papers that last day, I suddenly stopped and looked up at my teary-eyed boss and the HR people and said, “This feels like a divorce.” The air went out of the room. Anyone who’s gotten a divorce knows you go through most of your anguish before you finally sign the papers. Even though you know it’s time, it doesn’t come without pain. You’ve already lived through the grief, and loss, and sadness, and fear, and overwhelming sense of failure. It should be a relief when it’s over. But when you sign, there’s a moment, a finality, that punches you in the gut and you have to remember how to breathe. But you do. You pick up, and move on.
And so began the real journey. Facing fears. Applying for jobs. Attempting a business. Working part-time. Pinching pennies. Battling depression. Embracing humility. Learning math.
Yes, math. Math, required for the Graduate Record Exam, and something to be conquered if I had any hope of returning to graduate school. Math, that wretched, loathsome, malevolent specter that haunted me since my youth, taunting and torturing my confidence, holding me back from pursuing other ambitions, and manifesting itself as an un-killable nemesis in recurring stress nightmares.
Time for an exorcism.
I spent months under the patient tutelage of my engineering-professor husband, learning equations and calculations that frightened me far more than diving into a swimming pool ever could. But I did it. I dove in. I took the dreaded GRE, did well, and got into a prestigious graduate program. In August, I begin my new career: as a teaching assistant and graduate student in Communication at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I will be older than all of my peers and most of the faculty. But I don’t care. I’m shoving aside my fear of dorky-ness and am so excited that I feel 8 years old again, just as I did in the swimming pool last night.
Now I can practice what I preach: find what you love and figure out how to make a living at it. For many years, I workedfor love. Now, my intent is, as Kahlil Gibran’s Prophet said, “to work with love.”
And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart,
even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection,
even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead
are standing about you and watching.
I hope that for each and every one of you, too. It is possible. If I can do it, anyone can.
Dive right in. The water is fine!
Kate Ditewig-Morris is a corporate cubicle escapee and perpetual misfit. At 51, she’s reinventing her definitions of everything: career, marriage, courage. Kate worked for many years a business writer and communications manager for a big global corporation. She was also a single mom. Now she’s pursuing her dream: to finish her advanced degree as a graduate student and teaching assistant in Communication at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Tickled that she’ll be a full generation older than her peers and even a few of her professors, Kate will blog about her experience at www.DitewigMorris.com. Or you can follow her on Twitter: @DitewigMorris.