Creating a Life Worth Living, Part 2

Copyright 2006 Melissa Galt

The Real World

This vision was short lived. I moved home and after two weeks of working a retail, full-time job, I came home and declared I wanted to go to college. I found I wasn’t quite ready for the realities of a real job! Of course, I was paying rent, as the deal Mother made was that, if we moved home after college, it was no free ride. And college was a partial gift of my grandparents; the rest was banquet waitressing. I finished out the year and a half working but did apply to colleges. My heart was set on returning to the West Coast, where I was born and raised.

While I was in boarding school, Mother had remarried and moved to Connecticut. I applied and got into a string of schools from UC Santa Barbara to UC Denver. She suggested Cornell University but I knew I wouldn’t get in. I had only a 3.3 average and didn’t figure that was Ivy League material. She urged and I acquiesced. Then, lo and behold, I got in. Guess I didn’t know it all after all! They thought I was “well adjusted” (I guess a year in the real world had some benefits). That presented a problem; I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t want to let Mother down.

I knew it was a great educational opportunity, so I followed her dream (she had not been to college) and back-burnered my own. Sometimes it is necessary to examine the big picture and what the benefits will be when the choice doesn’t seem ideal.

The Lesson: Life is about choices, and each of us is the reflection of the choices we have made to date. We can remain as we have chosen or make new choices and change our direction and our reality.

Not the Good Old Days

I can safely say that it was a fairly miserable four years. I wanted to transfer so many times, I lost count. But I stuck it out since neither of my sisters was particularly scholastically inclined, and I didn’t want to disappoint. I wanted to live up to expectation, even if it wasn’t my own expectation. I did get a great education and always get a kick when someone looks at me wide-eyed with genuine surprise to think that I went to an Ivy League school.

I guess I am supposed to be arrogant or grand or some other something that I am clearly not. More often, I am described as down-to-earth and accessible, and willing to tell all.

The Lesson: Where we are from does not determine who we are, or where we are going. That is up to us.

As Expected

Having made it through the four years, I embarked, predictably, into a career in hospitality purchasing. Essentially, if you ate it, drank it, wrote with it, or slept on it, I bought it. For six years, I moved every eight months to a new company, a new property, a new city, and a new state. With little time for socializing, I made few friends, and fewer connections. But in each place I designed my home as if I’d be there forever.

It was my roots and my foundation. It ensured that I had a haven at the end of the day and a place to escape the daily grind. The most creative I was able to get at work was designing the storerooms and freezers. My staff would all groan when I would don a puffy thermal freezer suit and announce it was time to organize! I loved the first three months of every position, cleaning up the place, establishing systems and controls, and then I got bored. Yeah, probably attention deficit disorder. I was a big-picture thinker and found the day-to-day details tedious and boring.

The Lesson: Pay attention to the parts you enjoy and those you don’t. Consider how you can make the parts you enjoy the greater share of what you do. Reinvent yourself as needed.

Finding the Passion

I finally hit a wall, about five years after my mother passed away. She had left a huge hole in my life, dying suddenly when I was 24. I realized at age 30 that while I was making good money and one of the few women in my career path, I was miserable every day. I dreaded going in to work and couldn’t leave fast enough.

It was time for a change. I knew that my mother and great-grandfather and even my godmother had all lived their passions, and that life was too short not to go in the direction of my dreams. So I quit. I’d never quit a job before, and it was an amazing relief. I took three months off to think about my next step, and I decided to return to school for interior design in Birmingham, Alabama where I had worked previously. I already had a four-year degree and wanted the shortest, most direct route to my new career. I knew Birmingham had a low cost of living that would enable me to focus on school for six months before needing to combine that with a full-time job. I did it, and it worked!

The Lesson: Life is about risk, both known (calculated) and unknown. If we knew it all, we would have no opportunities for growth and surprise. Change your definition of risk to opportunity.

Finding the Place

So after cramming a three-year program into two years, I discovered that with all the travel Mother had shared with us and the museums we had been dragged to (kicking and screaming), I was light-years ahead of most of my peers and even a few instructors.

Being different was finally paying off. And I was ahead in that I had managed to secure a plum position with a local architecture and design firm that launched me in design. I followed that with a stint managing a local textile warehouse and then was ready for a change in scenery. I wanted to pursue life in the Windy City; I wanted to get out of the South and experience architectural history and mastery, the Art Institute, and much more.

While I landed two opportunities on a commission basis, I lacked the essential confidence to take either, and the position I most desired never materialized. So I reset my sights closer to home and explored Atlanta.

The Lesson: Be flexible in the details; the big picture is never set in stone.

The Wild Blue Yonder, Without a Net

Atlanta proved to be a fortuitous decision in 1992. I started off working with a major furniture retailer in its design department. Eighteen months later I found myself going head-to-head with my manager over vacation pay. She said I didn’t have it coming, and I claimed I did. I walked. The check showed up two weeks later. I was right, but I was also unemployed without a client in the world. I had managed to rack up some $70K in credit card debt since my mother had passed, foolishly trying to fill the gaping hole I felt with her absence. I had rent and a car payment to boot.

Panic seemed a good option, but there was just no time. I immediately started work with a catering company, supervising their kitchen event operations on weekends. Often it meant running the hot and steamy dish machine, but it was money. I also pitched Evening at Emory and Oglethorpe University about creating and teaching classes on interior decorating for their adult education program. They both picked me up and I taught as many as five different classes during a decade. Easy it wasn’t, but it was worth it.

The Lesson: Do what you have to do, to get to doing what you want to do.

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