Friday, June 21, 2013

White-Knuckle Widow and the Open Road Serenade

Linda Crill, Blind Curves: One Woman's Unusual Journey to Reinvent Herself and Answer: What Now?

For the first two years of widowhood, Linda Crill followed all the standard advice: eat well, sleep plenty, keep up with friends and work. Blah blah blah. When nothing worked, and the grief still kept her sidelined, everybody gave her the same suggestions. Then, in a moment of anger, she declared her intent to learn to ride a motorcycle. That impulsive decision proved the turning point in reclaiming her identity.

Everybody who lives long enough experiences the moment of looking in the morning mirror and realizing: I don’t like the person I’ve become. Workaday compromises, social pressure, and the tendency to repeat past successes, conspire to turn us into ghosts of our former vibrant potential. We used to call this “growing up.” But Linda Crill, like an increasing number of Baby Boomers, no longer accepts decrepitude as inevitable with maturity.

As a suburban DC-area management consultant, Crill spent years coaching corporations out of indecision, stagnation, and walking death. But when it closed upon her, she admits, she enacted the same behaviors that doom corporations. She rationalized, she temporized, she clung to the familiar. And she maintained these behaviors right up to the moment she couldn’t anymore. Then, she did something dramatic to upset the fatiguing status quo.

John Lennon sang: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Crill admits that describes her perfectly. She thought she’d never work for big corporations, until she did. She thought she’d never marry a square-suited establishmentarian and become a mommy, until she did. And when widowhood caught her unprepared, this former greenie bicyclist learned to ride a chopper and joined a team descending the entire West Coast.

Crill’s spirited, surprisingly funny memoir unpacks the process by which most of us inescapably settle into vestigial lives. She never sought a beige corporate life, yet she found herself trapped by the fa├žade she created. Suddenly single at an age when many women gear down for retirement, she could no longer sustain the person she’d become; but change is always painful, even when it’s necessary.

Then, in moments when she’s persuaded to quit the entire enterprise, Crill surprises herself with how much she has going on inside. She believes she’ll fail the road test, right until the moment she receives a perfect score. She assumes a fifty-something businesswoman will get hooted out of the bikers’ store, until she emerges from the fitting room in her new leathers and catches dozens of staring at her.

Perhaps her most daunting challenge was the “imposter syndrome.” I remember this from my teaching days: the feeling that you don’t really belong here, that everybody else has credentials you don’t share, that something will happen in the next moment to expose you as a fraud. This syndrome can be paralyzing. It’s impossible to realize, until you face it, that everybody has this same fear, sometimes, too.

At every turn, Crill’s head warns: “I can’t.” But her heart exults: “I just did.” She’s accepted the smallness of her life for so long that, when she repeatedly discovers the stronger, craftier, more adventurous woman waiting inside, her brain deflects the evidence. Time after time, she prepares herself to accept “good enough.” Then every time, the real Linda rears up and demands the world take notice.

As a business consultant, Crill has observed and described several common behaviors that stymie corporate movement. She talks, for instance, about “The Decision Pendulum,” by which leaders accept a good idea, but talk themselves out of it, then back in, then back out. Or the principle that “Failures Facilitate Change,” the reality that leaders won’t accept needed process revisions during good times. Only disaster overwhelms executive inertia.

She knew all this, yes, the way you know something you read in a book. But stepping outside her box, learning something new and dangerous, then flying cross-country to attempt a journey unprecedented in her life... That’s when she became the Linda she always dreamed about. She learned to apply her principles. And she learned that a widow pushing sixty isn’t preparing for death. Life happens because you take it.

Everybody, every day, accepts compromises that leave us living small lives. Too often, only personal catastrophe interrupts the “good enough” life we’ve come to accept. Linda Crill reminds us that we don’t have to just accept life. Like her, we have the power to choose. We never know how the journey will end, but we have the power to commence, if only, like Crill, we take it.

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