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This Is Not the Life I Ordered
50 ways to keep your head above water when life keeps dragging you down
By Deborah C. Stephens, Michealene Cristini Risley, Jackie Speier, Jan Yanehiro, John Grimes
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2009 Deborah C. Stephens, Michealene Cristini Risley, Jackie Speier, and Jan Yanehiro
All rights reserved.
Managing Misfortunate Events
1. Convene a gathering of kitchen table friends.
If I had to characterize one quality as the genius of female thought, culture, and action, it would be the connectivity.
—Robin Morgan, writer (1941–)
Find One Safe Place to Tell Your Story
You are the storyteller of your own life and you can create the legend or not.
—Isabel Allende, Chilean-American writer (1942–)
For over ten years, the four of us gathered round a kitchen table and told our stories. We looked forward to our gatherings because we knew that it was the one place in our lives where we would be heard. It was a place where other women would listen intently without judgment. We can state without one ounce of doubt that being able to tell our story to another woman saved our sanity and, in some cases, saved our lives.
We believe that every woman needs to create for herself a safe place where her story can be heard. A place and time convened with women friends who care about her well-being. We know from our own experience that staying connected with each other has made all the difference in our ability to cope with the challenges we've faced over the years. Our first and most important way to keep your head above water when life threatens to drag you down is to convene a gathering of kitchen table friends. Form this group so you have an ongoing source of support.
Think you don't have time for your women friends? We encourage you to think again. If you're thinking, "I don't feel up to doing this right now," that's precisely why you ought to do this. If your energy is low, it's because you're trying to do everything by yourself. You're running on empty, and you need to fill up your emotional tank with support and input from women who care about you. Kitchen table groups will feed your soul. You can get started today with seven simple steps. Following these steps can help you create a wonderful network of women friends.
Seven Steps for Forming a Kitchen Table Group
A friend walks in when the rest of the world walks out.
1. No matter how bad your life might be right now, plan a get-together with women you admire. They do not need to be famous, rich, or fabulously accomplished. You do not need to know them well; although they do need to be women you respect and who share similar values and priorities—women with integrity who will be willing to listen, encourage others, and be honest.
Many women feel as isolated as you do. Now is the perfect time to ask that mom who shares car pool duties with you. What about the woman at work with whom you have only a nodding acquaintance but have always felt a spark of connection? Perhaps there's someone on a fundraising committee you've admired in action, someone who always can be counted on to do what she says she's going to do.
2. Pick a meeting place that has comfortable surroundings and that gives you privacy. It could be the corner of a local coffee shop, the back table at a favorite restaurant, or the living room of your home. The kitchen tables in our different homes have worked well for us all these years.
3. You don't have to do anything fancy. Just pick up the phone, send an e-mail, or ask the women in person. Tell them up front that you know they're busy, that the purpose of this meeting is to create a support network that meets regularly where women can talk out what's going on in their lives in a confidential setting. Participants are welcome to talk about their jobs (or lack of a job), their families, their health, and their finances—whatever is on their minds and in their hearts. Give your group a name and commit to meetings (every other week, or at least monthly). In our own group we met monthly but often convened our kitchen table group more often when one of our members was in the midst of a crisis.
4. The first few meetings of your kitchen table group can probably benefit from some sort of structure. In our group meetings, we always begin with some illuminating questions:
So, how's your life?
How can we help?
Who do we know who can help?
What are you happy about right now in your life?
What is there to laugh about?
When we leave here today, what three things are we committing to each other that we will do for ourselves?
5. Do not allow your kitchen table groups to turn into a "pity party." Pity parties rob you of your spirit and do nothing to empower you. The purpose of this gathering is not simply to complain ... and stop there. Go ahead and get what's bothering you, worrying you, or hurting you off your chest, and then ask for advice. Brainstorm possible solutions and strategies for the issues you're facing. Have fun, cry, and laugh out loud.
6. Use the WIT Kit found at the end of each part in this book as a focus for your meetings. We purposely created the WIT Kit with exercises that you can work through as a group in your own kitchen table meetings. Discuss the topics and questions among your group.
7. Visit our website www.thisisnothelifeiordered.com for more resources on kitchen table groups. Also, let us know about your group and tell us your stories.
The Stories We've Told
If there is a secret about how to make a woman's circle it is that the women in the circle know each other's personal stories, know about each other's journeys, know what is of consequence, where the challenges and difficulties are that matter ...
—Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D., psychiatrist and writer
Our kitchen table group met for over ten years and during that time we told many stories, solved many problems, and mended many broken hearts. We begin by introducing you to our stories and the defining moments that brought us together as lifelong friends.
2. Transcend misfortunate events.
"Surely, things shall get better," she said. I wanted to know just one thing. Who the hell was "Shirley," and why should I believe her?
—Jane Curtin, comedian (1947–)
Although there may be tragedy in your life, there's always a possibility to triumph. It doesn't matter who you are, where you come from. The ability to triumph begins with you. Always.
—Oprah Winfrey, television host (1954–)
Nightmares. They still invade my sleep twenty-seven years later. The nightmares remind me that life is a precious resource to be used up, enjoyed, lived.
I am Jackie Speier, and my nightmares take me back to a fateful day in November nearly three decades ago.
I was twenty-eight at the time, getting ready to purchase my first home. As a single professional woman, legislative counsel to a U.S. congressman, I had it all. But I had a strong premonition that the trip I was arranging to South America could be one from which I might not return. "Silly thoughts," my friend Katy assured me. "After all, you will be traveling with the press corps and a U.S. congressman. What could possibly happen?"
Holed up in a congressional office for hours at a time, I was reading State Department briefings on a religious community created by the Reverend Jim Jones. We were investigating numerous allegations from relatives and friends that their family members were being held against their will in a jungle hideaway known as the People's Temple. As we reviewed taped interviews with defectors, I had an ominous feeling—a feeling I could not put out of my mind. One former member had told us that people were being forced to act out suicides in an exercise Jim Jones called "The White Night."
Congressman Leo Ryan, my boss, had heard enough. He decided to see for himself, firsthand, the plight of these U.S. citizens in Guyana, South America. Even after the CIA and the State Department cleared the trip for safety, I still had doubts.
Conversations in a Jungle
I postpone death by living, by suffering, by error, by risking, by loving.
—Anaïs Nin, French writer (1903–1977)
Flying into Guyana's capital, Georgetown, we changed planes and continued on to Port Kaituma—a remote airstrip deep inside the South American jungle. Several convoy trucks drove us to the Jonestown encampment. We entered a clearing in the jungle, where I saw an outdoor amphitheatre surrounded by small cabins. You couldn't help but be impressed by the settlement. In less than two years, a community had been carved out. During our first and only night at the People's Temple, the members entertained us with music and singing. I remember looking into the eyes of Jim Jones. I saw madness there. He was no longer the charismatic leader who had lured more than 900 people to a remote commune in the jungle; he was a man possessed.
The congressman and I randomly selected people to interview to determine whether they were being held against their will. We hand-delivered letters to those whose families back home were worried. Many of the individuals were young—eighteen or nineteen years old—while others were senior citizens. One by one, they told us that they loved living in the People's Temple. It was almost as though they had been coached to answer my questions. As the night drew to a close, NBC news correspondent Don Harris walked off alone to smoke a cigarette. In the darkness, two people approached him and put notes into his hand. The correspondent gave the notes to Congressman Ryan and me. I held in my hands evidence of what I had sensed all along: people were indeed being held against their will in the jungles of South America.
Morning broke, and I interviewed the two people who had sent notes saying they wanted to leave. Word of the opportunity to leave had gotten out. More people started coming forward, stating they too wished to depart. Suddenly a couple of men with guns appeared. Chaos ensued as more people approached us, wanting to leave. Jim Jones started ranting and screaming. Larry Layton, one of Jones's closest assistants, said, "Don't get the wrong idea. We are all very happy here. You see the beauty of this special place." One hour later, Larry Layton had become one of the defectors, asking to escape the jungle compound.
3. When left on the tarmac, begin to walk.
Through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and fight restored.
—Helen Keller, writer (1880–1968)
Pretending to Die
The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.
—Ivy Baker Priest, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury (1905–1975)
People were screaming and crying in the jungle compound. The tiny commune had become emotionally charged. Parents were in a tug-of-war with their children, one parent wanting to go and the other wanting to stay. So many had decided to escape the People's Temple that we had to order another plane.
We left for the airstrip. Dressed in an oversized yellow poncho, Larry Layton was eager to board the cargo plane. I distrusted him and asked that he be searched before boarding. A journalist patted him down but did not find the gun Layton had hidden under his poncho. Thinking back, I now realize we were helpless. Here we were—a congressman, congressional aides, journalists, and cameramen—not one among us a police officer or military escort. We had nothing to protect us other than the imagined shield of infallibility of a U.S. congressman and members of the U.S. press corps.
Suddenly we heard a scream. Seconds later, I heard an unfamiliar noise. I saw people running into the bushes and realized that the noise was gunshot. I dropped to the ground and curled up around a wheel of the plane, pretending to be dead. I heard footsteps. I felt my body twitch as someone pumped bullets into me at point blank range. I was shot five times.
The gunmen continued to walk around the tarmac, shooting innocent people. Soon it was quiet. I opened my eyes and looked down at my body. It was ravaged. A bone was sticking out of my arm, and blood was everywhere. I remember thinking, "My God, I am twenty-eight years old and I am about to die." I yelled out for Congressman Ryan, calling his name several times. There was no answer.
The plane's engine was still revving, and I thought that if I could just get to the cargo hatch, I could escape this place. I crawled toward the opening, dragging my body as close as I could to the baggage compartment. A reporter from the Washington Post picked me up and put me into the cargo hold. I remember saying to him, "Could you give me something to stop my bleeding?" He gave me his shirt. I was losing so much blood that the shirt was soaked in seconds.
The plane was filled with bullet holes, and we soon realized this would not be our flight out of this hell on earth. Someone pulled me out of the plane and placed me back on the airstrip. Accidentally, they had laid my head upon an anthill, and ants started crawling all over me. Lying next to me was a reporter's tape recorder. I taped a last message to my parents and brother. I told them that I loved them.
Supposedly, the Guyanese Army was going to secure the airstrip and rescue us, so I held on tightly to the belief that the army would come. It grew dark, and we continued to wait. Although I was in excruciating pain, I clung to life.
In the middle of the night, word had gotten back to us that there had been a mass suicide at the People's Temple. At one o'clock the next day, twenty hours after the shootings, the Guyanese Air Force arrived. Their arrival coincided with a message to the world that more than 900 people, including a U.S. congressman and members of his delegation, were dead. The headlines called it the worst mass suicide in history. To this day, I still refer to the events at Jonestown as a mass murder.
Three Minutes from Death
Sometimes it takes years to really grasp what has happened to your life.
—Wilma Rudolph, Olympic gold medal winner (1940–1994)
The Guyanese Air Force transported the survivors to a waiting U.S. Air Force Medivac plane in Georgetown. Etched in my memory is how I felt that very moment—as though someone had wrapped me in the American flag. I was so grateful.
Loaded with survivors, the Air Force plane set off for the United States. As we taxied down the runway, I recall glancing down at my body. It seemed so surreal, as though the mangled lump of flesh belonged to someone other than me. Months later, I was told that the medical technician who had tended to me during the flight had said that I was three minutes from death.
We finally arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, where I was immediately taken into surgery. I had developed gangrene, and surgeons debated whether to amputate my leg. After four hours of surgery, the nurse wheeled me out of the surgical ward, and there stood my mother, who had traveled from San Francisco to meet me. They told my mother that they needed to transfer me to the Baltimore Shock/Trauma Center to attempt to stem the spread of gangrene. I begged my mother and the doctors to please take me by ambulance, fearing I would die on another plane flight.
The shock/trauma center was lit with incredibly bright lights. Numerous IVs were hooked up to me. I remember asking the nurse, "How many calories are in all that stuff flowing into my body?"
"Three thousand," she replied.
I said, "Oh, my God, I am going to get so fat!" Interesting, isn't it, how we can lose perspective in the middle of trauma?
After yet another surgery, I was returned to my hospital room. The surgeons had repaired my body, but my hair was still matted with dried blood, Guyanese dirt, and dead ants. In an act of love I will never forget, my brother tenderly washed my hair.
The doctors remained very concerned about the gangrene in my wounds. In a last-ditch effort, they began a series of hyperbaric treatments that required me to be placed into a chamber filled with antibacterial microbes and oxygen. The chamber resembled an iron lung. Each time they removed me from the chamber, I vomited violently. Unfortunately, they had to repeat this process several times over the next few days.
Confident they had gotten rid of the gangrene, they transferred me back to Arlington Hospital. I was also placed under twenty-four-hour protection, with U.S. Marshalls posted outside my door, because threats had been made against my life. Some individuals associated with the People's Temple blamed our congressional investigation for the mass deaths in Guyana and wanted to retaliate.
One Step Forward, One Day at a Time
Challenges make you discover things about yourself that you never really knew. They're what make the instrument stretch—what make you go beyond the norm.
—Cicely Tyson, actress (1933–)
Excerpted from This Is Not the Life I Ordered by Deborah C. Stephens, Michealene Cristini Risley, Jackie Speier, Jan Yanehiro, John Grimes. Copyright © 2009 Deborah C. Stephens, Michealene Cristini Risley, Jackie Speier, and Jan Yanehiro. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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