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Stepping Toward Happiness

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There comes a point in everyone's life when they need to choose life. As Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her new book The Signature of All Things, "she knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simple fact." What's not so simple is when that moment comes and you have to make a choice.

For me that moment came on the eve of my 48th year. I was at a fork in the road in my marriage. In one direction was the safe, familiar, and vaguely dissatisfying path that I've seen so many couples endure "for the sake of the children." In the other direction was the complete unknown. I stared at that fork in the road for at least a year. I tried to talk to my husband about it. I went back to therapy. But the longer I examined my options, the more that familiar path felt like a trap, a suffocating road that led certainly to a spiritual death, if not a physical one.

Something happens when a woman reaches midlife. The way I think of it is the switch in our bodies that makes us willing and able to endure any hardship in service to our family just kind of turns off. I remember reading the first chapter of The Wisdom Of Menopause by Christiane Northrup, MD, and "joking" to my husband, "Honey, I think we might be in trouble."

I went back and looked at the pictures of myself throughout the marriage and saw a slow decline--not of age, although I saw that too, but a seeping out of my vital life force. I had given so much of myself to everyone else that there was nothing left inside of me. No "there" there. I read all my old journals and saw the seeds of my unhappiness take root a long way back. But I had determined to endure.

I began to obsess over the idea of stepping toward happiness--even if that meant first walking through the darkness of the unknown.

Attempts at communicating felt rejected. I felt rejected. I started to imagine what it might be like to take that other road--the road of adventure, change, and freedom. It was terrifying. But exciting, too. I told my husband I was going in search of the "original me," and in the process of searching I felt myself start to come alive again. The original me was an artist, an adventuress, an explorer, and navigatrix (which is what makes me good at business, by the way). She demanded to be unleashed.

I came to the realization that we each need to do our own work and can't do it for others. And while I worried most about my children, I also saw that the more I came back to life, the happier they seemed to be. The more I came back to life, the happier I seemed! And yet, the more I came back to life, the more distant I felt from my husband, and the harder it was to see a happy ending for us together.

I began to wonder if it was possible to still love someone and care for them but disentangle and disconnect from a marriage, to co-parent with love but not seek love from the relationship? Because the more I thought about staying in the relationship, the more I felt like I would drown, and I became certain that to stay was to choose a sort of death. I suddenly realized I am one of those who will fight the unrelenting battle to live. It was not possible for me to surrender to that slow death and still be true to myself. Even if that meant publicly facing the shame of a failed marriage. Even if that meant my children were going to be from a "broken home." Even if it meant I would have to face starting down that other road scared and alone.

And so I stepped toward happiness, which led, of course, immediately into a world of dark mystery and fear. From mundane fears like how will the lawn get mowed and who will figure out how to fix the remote to big, bad fears like what if I make some horrible mistake and die a lonely death. And what if I destroy my children's happiness because of my own "selfish" choice?

We women bear so many burdens. Well, I'm sure everyone, man or woman, feels he or she does. But I also knew this was a moment for me to redefine for my daughters and myself what it means to be successful, powerful, and happy. What it means to feel loved, too.

So, I'm now heading toward my 52nd birthday and we are in the process of divorcing. I didn't share the details with you, dear reader, since some things--even for a blogger--should remain private. But I will tell you, it hasn't been easy for anyone. However, it has gotten easier. And with each step I've taken toward happiness (even those that led me through the darkness) I have become happier, stronger, healthier, and more alive.

It's amazing, actually. I've grown more in the past four years than I ever thought possible. And a lot of that journey, truth be told, has been about learning to love myself--to not desperately seek some sort of love outside of myself. I'm sure there is time for that in the future, but for now, I'm enjoying my freedom!

I just wanted you all to know. But the truth is, dear reader, you have been with me the whole way. Some of those steps toward happiness were physical--learning to run (slowly). Some of the steps were emotional--having the courage to look at the shadow parts of myself and see how I contributed to the unhappiness. Some of the steps were verbal--finding the courage to say things I've never said before. Some of the steps were spiritual--digging deep inside myself to find my true voice, my true purpose. Some of my steps were even work related. I learned how to trust my own gut, instincts, and expertise even as people criticized and doubted me. Some of those steps were about doing new things--what I love about the photo with this blog is that I'm finally in Australia (a lifelong dream) getting out of a SEA PLANE (scary but fun) for a business lunch. It's like all the parts of my life finally came together. As I said, it wasn't easy. But the important thing is that I took those steps. And the adventure has begun.

Bruce Springsteen asks in a lot of his concerts, "Is anyone ALIVE out there?" Now my answer is a resounding "YEAH!!!!!"

For more from Maria Rodale, visit www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com