Mapping Out the Human Experience

I started in the fitness industry. No. Not accurate. I started in a field of corn in the middle of Indiana around 1980. My first career path—detasseling—involved yanking stalks from the centers of female corn (yes, there’s male and female). I was 14. I needed the money. I wanted the tan. At the same time, I trained for cross-country, running three miles a day. I also selected styles for a tiny fashion boutique in Wheatfield, Indiana. The owner paid me in clothing. I loved fashion. I still do. If offered today, I’d accept pay in shoes and totes. I ran track, specifically the 400. I cheered on a squad. I took to dance and gymnastics. I read ferociously, mainly Agatha Christie and Stephen King, my main escape from a violent home. Funny the way murder makes abuse look better.

My Agatha Christie Collection (Note The Hardy Boys above)

Around this age, I left it all—home, fashion, fields—and moved into a makeshift one-room “apartment” above a health club, paying rent through teaching aerobic classes and cleaning gym equipment. At night, I developed film for professional photographers at Burrell Color Lab. In the morning, I walked to school. I tried. I really tried to stay in track, in cheer, in school. I rarely slept.

I dropped out. I should’ve become a statistic. I’d attempted suicide. Twice. But I held this fire, okay, rage, that burned me back to life. I read. I wrote. I called it writing. It started in fourth grade when I crafted Hallmark cards for pretend-relatives. I continued this habit, expanding cards into poetry and short fiction. In my stories the main character always, and I mean always, slayed the monster. I wrote letters, mainly to my mother. All of which I burned. I still slept very little. (image: Me, high school cheerleader, 1982)

I joined the Air Force.

Me, USAF Days, 1986-ish, RAF Upper Heyford, UK

Here, I could travel the world, reinvent myself, divorce my family, and afford college. Unable to enlist without a high school diploma, I finished my one government credit in night school and earned my GED. Yes, I’m a high school dropout. I’m also a Gulf War Veteran.

In the military, my career path shifted into Airfield Management and flightplanning. I spent most of my eight years stationed at RAF Upper Heyford with deployments throughout Europe and Southwest Asia. I taught myself how to fly in my dreams when I slept, if I slept.  I spent my off-duty time traveling around the UK and Europe, visiting every castle and tiny island. London, less than an hour from base, proved many of my firsts: sushi, musicals, punk bands. Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera enchanted me. Hooked, I saw them all. Cats. Starlight Express. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita. I saw them more than once. By this time, 1987, I wrote my high opinion to The Stars and Stripes, Europe edition. For some reason, they published my thoughts.

(image: My early publications, 1987)

On a dare, my workmate, Tony Maycock, challenged me to read something more than American junk. He handed me The Song of Roland and my 100-book-a-year reading habit stalled. I struggled through the first 70 pages and then, something clicked. I lingered in the language, falling in love with words in an entirely new way.

After leaving the military in 1993, I joined ranks with the fitness industry. Here, I competed on the world circuit in SportAerobics. Think dance infused with acrobatics in a routine that is just under three minutes and you’ve only taken one breath from start to end. I became a personal trainer, a choreographer, a coach. I taught group exercise; yoga, Pilates, spin, slide, aquatics, and more. I tortured semi-pro teams—the Idaho Steelheads and the Idaho Stallions—in their off-season training.

I also tortured myself.

Despite my outward fitness appearance, I struggled with Anorexia and Bulimia. Despite my outward appearance of emotional strength, I struggled with PTSD. I lived in duplicity and shame. Yet still, I kept writing. Poems. Stories. Cards. Letters in bouts of fire, though I never sent them. I journaled, which became my therapy. I still do. It still is.

After the birth of my first son in 2001, I became a certified empowerment coach through IPEC and combined fitness with empowerment, which led to workshops and speaking engagements. My focus turned to high school girls in need. To this day, I still teach my P.E.R.F.E.C.T. workshop for HS girls in the Juvenile system, combing fitness, journaling, empowerment, and poetry. I still offer workshops on healing, well-being, writing, and more.

My first son, Zachary, born disabled, became my guide, my coach. My two sons to follow, gave me heartsong and the strength to finally leave my domestic violent marriage. Here, 2010, we fled, my three sons and me, carrying one duffle full of medical supplies and a change of clothes for each of us. We lived on little. We lived on Welfare and Food Stamps and hope.

By 2014, my cervical spine collapsed, an old injury from my time in service. In 2015, it collapsed again, the bone graft from my sternum didn’t take. And for two years, I re-learned to hold a pencil, feed myself, zip my jeans. I voice-overed English Lit narratives, pushing through undergrad at BSU while I rehabbed out of fitness and fully into writing. I minored in Psychology, telling myself that this could serve my work with the Juvenile system. I told myself, Psychology would help diagnose character sketches in my writing. Until those sketches narrowed into one protagonist: Me. While rehabbing my neck and hands, I managed to finish my BA and launched into an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. In 2019, the day after my MFA graduation, I started my second MFA in Poetry, which I completed in 2021.

(image: Me, donning my neck brace, 2015)

From 2000 to 2014, I hosted and produced television lifestyle shows, was crowned Mrs. Idaho International, and won a few awards. I still rarely slept.

Receiving a NAWBO Women in Business Award, 2008

And you might, at this point, wonder why any of this matters. See, every one of these events led to today. I’m a writer, a poet, an essayist, a memoirist. I’m a warrior and a Jew. I’m a single mother. I’m disabled.

I am all of my experiences.

My body has carried these stories.

These stories inform my writing.

My writing informs my life.

(image: Me, 2021)

Sometimes, I’m asked how long it takes me to polish an essay or poem or book-length project. Since my work is narrative and nonfiction, I respond, “My whole life, which is 56 years.”

I had to live through that which I write—war and domestic violence and childhood sexual assault and medical challenges.

My resume, the full version, packs layers of me and looks like there may be three or more people involved. Yet, across five decades, there exists these constants: My pen. My journal. My books. These are my through threads– guiding me so I might witness all that I am. The page never abandoned me, abused me, or brought me harm, though it has often brought me to my knees. The page always opened itself as my sacred and safe space, allowing me to lean into the mystical and magical, the fractured and disassembled, the stories we aren’t talking enough about, and the way silence spills into self-destruction.

Here, on the page, I’m as whole as I will ever be.

And I still sleep very little.

My three sons and I, Boise, Idaho, 2020

Find a quiet place, use a humble pen.

Paul Simon