An inspiring collection of personal stories and wise words that celebrate the power of a fresh start.
Some of us start over willingly, and others are forced by circumstancebut everyone who finds herself back at square one could use a dose of courage and comfort. Readers will discover both in O's Little Guide to Starting Over, a collection of stirring pieces on the topic of beginning again. Just a few of the compelling writers and astute thinkers in the mix: Martha Beck, who advises us that embracing failure may lead to our greatest successes; Kelly Corrigan, who writes that accepting our lack of control can be both freeing and healing; and Junot Diaz, who offers reassurance that pushing ahead, even when it feels impossible, is the way to become the person we were meant to be. With moving stories, practical insight, and unforgettable voices, O’s Little Guide to Starting Over is an essential road map for those who are breaking free, rising above, and making their way forward.
About the Author
Since its record-breaking launch in 2000, O, The Oprah Magazine has been a trusted and beloved source of compelling stories and empowering ideas. Reaching twelve million readers each month, the content of O Magazine, stamped with Oprah Winfrey's unique vision, encourages confident, intelligent women to reach for their dreams and make the choices necessary to lead happier, more fulfilling lives.
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O's Little Guide to Starting Over
By O The Oprah Magazine
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2015 Hearst Communications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
A Good Spring Cleaning
My mother was not the traditional spring cleaning sort; she hated housework of every kind, and if I had ever seen her beat a rug or clean a window, I would have known the end of the world was upon us. But every spring she'd look at her wardrobe and mine, and eventually my children's, and declare it was time to "start fresh!" Everything that was a mistake (puce, velour, edged with rickrack) went to charity. Everything that was too large or too small went to a bigger or smaller cousin. She was smart enough to keep things that were merely, and only temporarily, out of style, and her Ferragamo pumps have now served three generations. She also made allowances for the once-in-a-lifetime (which is why I have a perfect Lilly Daché hatbox from the fifties).
I have taken her approach to heart in the matter of my closets. And I have taken her approach to heart in matters of the heart, and even of the mind.
There are things, as she used to say, up with which one should not put, and spring cleaning is a good way to deal with them. Rude children, indifferent spouses, bad bosses, lousy friends, social injustice — all have no more place in our lives than painful shoes and shirts with huge yellow stains. I'm not suggesting you throw out your children or your spouse or that you turn your entire life over to righting wrongs, but there is something to be said for addressing your burdens.
The key to addressing them is to learn to love what you have, change what you can't love, and get the hell away from what does you harm. From my point of view — that of a person with a poochy tummy — that means live with your poochy tummy (Spanx, people; it's there for a reason) but not with your toxic mother or energy-sucking job.
A good psychic spring cleaning calls for a walk through every room in the psychic house. Mark some things "Fix now," some "Try again next spring"; on some just scrawl "Oh, well" and move on. In my real house, last spring, I threw out every spice that was more than three years old and every cosmetic that was more than two. However, the suitcases with broken zippers (and Cabbage Patch dolls and crib mobiles) remain. In my psychic house, I got rid of all obligatory social engagements that don't include family. I'm adding physical therapy on my postsurgery knee to the daily routine; I've called the nice lady who took care of my parents in their last days, as I have been meaning to do since October. And floating through the psychic rooms, I see my mother blithely ignoring dusty windowsills in favor of fresh flowers, championing repose with a good book rather than baking from scratch, and celebrating spring with a bag of things for Goodwill and a glass of Champagne.CHAPTER 2
The garbage bag bulges with sweaters, dresses, tunics, shoes, and belts that have languished in my closets for years, waiting for a comeback that's just never gonna come. Shirts that no longer button. Bras built for my nineties-era bust. A rain hat that has lived a life of captivity inside a drawer, never having felt a single drop.
Two Hefties sit with their mouths open, waiting to be fed. My possessions avert their gaze, as if afraid to attract attention. You there! You ugly, itchy, horizontally striped alpaca poncho bought at that street fair — to the Hefty! Random candlestick: Hefty! Mystery cell phone charger, stop trying to hide behind the Flip camera!
This lack of mercy isn't like me, and that's the point. No matter how redundant or useless my possessions, no matter the money they cost me each time I move, an overwhelming glut of stuff has always found sanctuary in my home. But now that my home is a Boston apartment barely big enough for one human and her little dog, I've had it. I shouldn't have to spend so much time jostling for space. My energies should go to friends and family and work, not to the continual repuzzling of junk: the never-worn suits, the nearly identical pairs of boots, the proliferation of sofa pillows, the — not even kidding — velvet and taffeta ball gown, price tags intact. Barnacles, all.
I knew I had to act when I caught myself saving that rectangle of cardboard that comes at the bottom of the Chinese-takeout delivery bag because I might need it someday. So last fall I started loading boxes and bags with orphaned earrings, burdensome purses, heavy ruby curtains I haven't used since that time I had the Peeping Tom. Getting rid of such things is easy — they mean nothing to me. Even I can admit the logic of saying good-bye to all but one of three colanders, all but one of four coffeemakers. I know I don't really need a whole forest of brooms.
Steadily, the boxes and bags have filled. The surplus stuff has gone out into the world via Freecycle and eBay and the Salvation Army. There's just one problem. When I began, I figured the more I purged, the lighter and less messy my life would feel. Surprisingly, though, nothing feels less messy except the cabinets and floors.
* * *
In the past twelve years, I've lived in Charlotte, Boston, Atlanta (twice), Manhattan, Portland (the one in Oregon), Oxford (the one in Mississippi, and my hometown), Tupelo (also in Mississippi), Europe, and on Long Island.
My Oxford move, the one that signaled the beginning of the end of my four-year marriage, occurred in the wake of my father's death: I left my husband in Charlotte to teach at Ole Miss for a year and be near my family. But when the visiting professorship ended, instead of moving to the home my husband and I had just bought in Atlanta, where he had taken a new job, I ran off to Spain. After Spain, Atlanta, just long enough for the divorce. Then New York, for graduate school. Then Atlanta again, for a magazine job. Then Portland, for another magazine job. Then Tupelo, when that job fell through. And finally to Boston.
I can trace all my moves by the artifacts that came with me. The little Moroccan jar is where I stored my wedding ring when I lived in Spain. The photo of my ex and me smiling on a downtown sidewalk was taken in Charlotte before I left. The green-and-gold tin on the bookshelf contains the ashes of my cat, Harry.
Poor Harry. When I left the marriage, he — like the furniture, the Christmas ornaments, my favorite rice cooker — stayed behind. But when my ex remarried, the new wife was allergic, and Harry had to go. I was living in a two-hundred-square-foot Manhattan studio apartment with a terrier, so Harry went to stay with my mother. By the time I moved back to Atlanta and was able to reclaim him, he was skinny, elderly, mewling. The morning he could no longer stand, I took him to the veterinarian and sobbed as they administered the final injection.
Since then, each time I've passed his ashes I've thought not of his formerly happy life (sunbeams, cuddles) but rather of his miserable exile. So I take the ashes to our once-shared bungalow in Charlotte, now the home of another nice family. With their permission, I stand beneath the Japanese maple my ex and I planted in memory of my father.
"You were a good and beautiful boy, Harry, and I'm grateful that I knew you," I say. Then I open the plastic bag and pour out his remains and, to my surprise, the act feels freeing and important. For so long I believed I'd suffer horrible guilt if I ever scattered those ashes, but what I feel is closer to redemption. I've found Harry's fitting end.
And it occurs to me: What if I could find similarly soothing finales for other troubling possessions — other relics I haven't been able to part with even though they weigh me down?
There's the painting I bought after reluctantly leaving New York, where my dream life was supposed to start, for Atlanta. I hoped the painting would cheer me up, but it had the opposite effect — it seemed to get uglier and more mocking by the day. There are the books my friends have published, which only remind me that I've yet to publish my own. There's the Japanese postcard from my ex-mother-in-law, whom I loved and admired and who recently died. And there's that tiny photo in the Victorian frame.
Because it's so tiny — a mere one inch by two — I start with the photo: a shot of my old friend Carol and me. She and her husband and brother had come to visit me in Spain, and we were on a ferry to Morocco. In the background, sea and sunset. We are tanned and smiling, our hair blowing in the wind.
Carol was one of the first people I met when I moved to North Carolina, weeks out of college, to become a reporter. She was crazy-smart, funny, ambitious, a vocabulary ninja. An investigative reporter, she could dethrone a nefarious public official by 6:00 P.M. and shop for cute earrings on her way home. She set the standard for friendship, journalism, and womanhood. But somewhere amid all my moves and our respective marriages and my divorce and her motherhood and our exhausting careers, our signal friendship faded.
I could wrap the photo in tissue and store it away, or remove it from the frame and slip it into an album, but then it hits me — what should you do with a picture that reminds you of failure? Turn it into a portrait of resurrected friendship. If Carol meant so much to me, I should call her.
Which is exactly what I do. I leave a message; a few days later, she leaves one back. Hearing the voice triggers no pain, no guilt — just a sense of instant familiarity. It's only a couple of voice mails — we're not suddenly BFFs again — but for the first time in years, that photo doesn't feel like baggage.
In the days that follow, object after object finds its rightful resolution. The ugly painting: to eBay, and someone who will appreciate it. The books authored by friends: to their own special shelf, not as taunts but as inspiration. The Japanese postcard: properly framed, in tribute to a woman whose encouragement helped channel the course of my life.
But then I get to the rocks.
There are four of them: a mama rock the size of a flattened grade-A jumbo egg, and triplets big enough to skip across the surface of a lake. They are Italian, these rocks, dark gray with bold white stripes. They come from a secret beach in the Cinque Terre, from my last real vacation with my husband.
I wasn't able to take the lemon tree that stood outside our hotel room door, or the moon so full and bright on the water it woke us up at night. The rocks, though, I could tuck into my backpack and take home on the plane.
I have carried them with me ever since. In New York I kept them on the built-in bookshelf near the window overlooking a Dickensian roofscape of puffing stovepipes. In Portland they sat on my antique desk. In Boston, in this current apartment, so old and sloping I've shimmed every piece of furniture, they've lived in a carefully crafted pile on a bookshelf with Orwell and Melville and Auster.
I love the rocks because they remind me of Italy, and because they are beautiful and real and some force of nature made them that way. Yet every time I see them, I feel the ghost of happier times, and of my failed marriage. In fact, the marriage has haunted most of the objects weighing me down: Harry was our cat. Carol never would have visited me in Spain had I not run away from home. Though I told myself I bought the ugly painting because I was sad about leaving New York, it's no coincidence that I bought it hours after seeing my ex, his new wife, and their new baby, standing outside our formerly favorite café, in the neighborhood where they still lived in our ex-house, with our ex-furniture, and my ex-dog.
On the loneliest days I have imagined myself living there still. Us, together, and a life with all of marriage's attendant rituals and comforts.
Eight years after that breakup, people continue to ask why the marriage ended. Among the possible answers: We were the right fit at the wrong moment. We were the wrong fit. We didn't try hard enough. Fate. All I know is that at the time, leaving felt like the only thing to do. I've lived with the yoke of that decision and its collateral damage: relatives who never had the chance to say good-bye, close friends who mourned our breakup as if one of us had died; Harry, an apparently intractable sense of loss.
Meanwhile, my ex has moved on. A few years ago, he and his wife sold the last of my things at a yard sale (after kindly asking permission), and voilà, I was gone.
I had told myself that getting rid of sentimental objects amounted to a sort of denial, and that it was braver to face old sorrows than to put them out of sight. Now I wonder if it's braver to let the wounds finally close. In giving up the rocks, I would be doing more than letting go of painful memories; I would be denying them the power to stand in the way of future happiness.
Last summer my Massachusetts friends Pam and Charlie let part of their backyard grow into a wild and gorgeous meadow. Native flowers sprang up alongside butterfly bushes and tall silky grasses. Pam and Charlie and their eight-year-old son, George, love being able to see the meadow from their flagstone terrace and from the broad windows of their beautiful house.
I no longer have the marriage, the home, the life I once lived. But I have this life, in which I love my work, my family, my friends, my city — and in which, thanks to this purge, I'm starting to like my prospects for getting on with things.
And so right around the time the wild meadow begins to bloom, I'll bundle up the Italian rocks and toss them into the overgrown loveliness, beneath swirling thermals that carry red-tailed hawks, in the company of two good people raising one good boy. The rocks will return to nature, where they belong, and I'll be that much lighter, readier to reach for whatever comes next.CHAPTER 3
Once, during corpse pose at the end of a yoga class, I was lying on my back with my eyes closed, jiggling one foot, when the teacher came over and whispered, "Whatever you're thinking about, I promise it will be better if you can stop thinking about it for five minutes."
I knew that was true, but then I spent five minutes thinking about why it was true: why ceasing to think might be useful, and why I struggle with it, and whether I really wanted to be more corpselike. I do not have a quiet mind.
It's a lucky break that I'm a writer: I'm paid to turn things over and over. The artist I feel most kinship with is the French painter Pierre Bonnard, who revised his work endlessly and once had a friend distract a guard in the Musée du Luxembourg so he could fix a painting after it had been hung.
But self-editing becomes a habit. I lose sleep rerunning conversations in my mind, knowing that all the dumb things I said (the inane questions, the indiscretions, the inadvertent slights) could have been avoided if I'd been able to take some time to consider and revise.
I also think about the tiny chance occurrences that determine the course of a life. I tagged along on someone else's blind date, as the guest of a guest of a guest, and met the man I love. I took a beginning fiction class, and a fellow student became, years later, my wonderful editor. I stood in the shade against a building and then walked away, and a ton of bricks fell and buried the spot where I'd been standing. Those accidents of fate make me think that every step we take should be weighed and measured. A different party, a different class, a longer pause on the street could change everything. How do you know which is the right path when there's no moral difference and you can't see the other options or outcome? How do you not second-guess everything?
I've been told that giving your brain a break makes everything easier. The solution seems to be in the physical, in getting out of the mind and into the body. So I've tried to find activities that don't let me think.
My latest attempt is flying trapeze. In theory, it's the perfect Zen practice because it happens so fast. If you're not in the moment, you'll do everything a moment too late. But I am perfectly capable of stewing and indecision in midair. When doing a trick with a full twist, I have twisted one way and then changed my mind and twisted back the other, which doesn't work — you go tumbling crazily to the net. A coach once shouted from the ground, as I reached for the bar to begin, "I can see you thinking! Stop that!"
Sometimes, magically, I can stop, especially when I've done a trick so often that my body knows what happens next without any meddling from upstairs. I am airborne, weightless, not thinking at all. It has a sluicing effect on the mental clutter. It's not only exhilarating, it's a profound relief.
Back on the ground, everything in my deliberating brain is a little quieter. Thinking is necessary and useful again, but there's a clearer space for it. Once in a while you need to put thoughts on hold, by whatever means possible, and just leap.
Excerpted from O's Little Guide to Starting Over by O The Oprah Magazine. Copyright © 2015 Hearst Communications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A Good Spring Cleaning, Amy Bloom,
The Heavies, Paige Williams,
Think Again, Maile Meloy,
The Choice Is Yours, Martha Beck,
Lost and Found,
Coming to My Senses, Molly Birnbaum,
The Voyage Out, Sarah Broom,
Beyond My Imagination, Suzanne McMinn,
Just One Good Thing, Junot Díaz,
The Woman Who Fell to Earth, Martha Beck,
Take Two Risks and Call Me in the Morning, Bonnie Friedman,
A New Day,
The Truth Is in There, Caitlin Flanagan,
Getting Lighter, Lauren Slater,
From Shock to Awe, Kelly Corrigan,
The Teardown, Paige Williams,
Like Myself, Katie Arnold-Ratliff,
Matters of the Heart,
Cups of Men, Heather Sellers,
The Love Fast, Rachel Howard,
The Temptations, Susanna Sonnenberg,
Looking Out for No. 2, Lise Funderburg,
Dead Reckoning, Meg Giles,
Ends and Beginnings,
When the Heart Stays Open, Elizabeth Lesser,
Second Wind, Lee Montgomery,
A Rose Is a Rose Is a Miracle Cure, Helen Oyeyemi,
Dog Rest His Soul, Trish Deitch,
Out of the Darkness, Emily Rapp Black,
How We Want to Live, Kathleen Volk Miller,
Other Titles in O's Little Books Series,
About the Editors,