When I walked away from a six-figure job in 1998 to finish my first novel, it appeared all hope of my ever growing up was lost. It was bad enough I paid $1400 for a one-bedroom apartment in Gramercy Park while friends bought houses, got married and had children. Now, at the age of 35, I was ditching a successful career to chase my dream of being a writer.

I moved down the shore in New Jersey and worked a variety of part-time jobs while I finished the manuscript – teaching for the Princeton Review, mucking stalls, evaluating products as a scent profiler. Although my agent had the best intentions, there were no results, and my perception of what I’d sacrificed to live my dream drove me to publish it myself. I had no idea what I was doing, but knew I could figure it out.

After emptying my 401k to pay for the editing, design and printing, I poured my heart into marketing and selling – sometimes playing solitaire at book signings and even crashing the set of Riding In Cars With Boys to give copies to Drew Barrymore and Penny Marshall.

A year later, it was on the shelves at Tower Books in the East Village, The Coliseum (once NYC’s largest independent bookstore), many Barnes & Nobles, and myriad Internet sites – all huge accomplishments for self-published fiction in 2001. I sold over 2000 copies, but all I could see were the zeros in my retirement account and a mountain of debt. I was barely making $4 a book, and no matter how much I downsized, it wasn’t enough to live on.

The decision to declare bankruptcy was one of the hardest I ever made and I felt like a failure, a child being punished for refusing to give in to the way “things were done.” The voices in my head were loud and I struggled against the disappointment and shame. My mind and body ached from exhaustion and I wanted to run away. So I did.

I landed in Tampa where good friends embraced my wounded spirit and fed it chocolate cake for breakfast. I lived with them for over a year, helping to care for their children, three and eighteen months, and enjoying a second childhood – watching Mulan and Aladdin, spending lazy afternoons at the beach, dancing naked in the rain. Gradually, the numbness thawed and I found a part-time job selling bi-weekly mortgage programs to supplement my work as a writer.

I moved into an apartment and began to stand on my own two feet again. Three months later, my father drew his last breath while pumping gas on a cold December morning. His death exploded inside of me, and my world shattered all over again. I flew to Pittsburgh for the funeral, an experience so surreal it still unfolds in slow motion when I think of it six years later. Surrounded by family, friends, and people I hadn’t seen in twenty years, I’d never felt so alone.

When I got back to Tampa, I went through the motions and returned to my part-time job. One afternoon, wrapped in fleece despite the warm December sun, I took my lunchtime walk in the office park across the street. The manicured shrubs and bubbling water fountain offered a welcome respite from the endless chatter of potential customers and curious co-workers.

As I passed the smokers outside on a break, I longed to feel some kind of connection, but there was none. I was un-tethered. I might as well have been floating above them. In that moment, I didn’t know how I would survive, but I knew I couldn’t stay at that job.

I was selling people something they didn’t really need. My father was dead. I had to ask permission to leave my computer to go to the bathroom. None of it made sense. It might not have been the grown-up thing to do, but I resigned, trusting I’d find enough clients to pay the bills.

Christmas arrived and again, I went through the motions. The squeals of delight from my friend’s children were hollow echoes in the space between truth and perception. I’d heard people say they realized they were adults when they lost a parent. I didn’t feel grown up at all. I felt like a little girl who darted off to chase a butterfly and turned around to find her father gone when it flew off. I was 40 and now I wondered if I’d ever grow up.

A pile of letters from insurance and investment companies accumulated as the details of my father’s estate unfolded. It had been over two months since his death, but I couldn’t bring myself to open them. Conversations with my brothers provided a rough idea of how much money was involved, but it wasn’t until I finally opened the envelopes and saw the numbers in black and white that it became real. My father’s pragmatic planning had left each of us a bittersweet nugget on which to build.

Not long after I’d signed and returned all the documents, I was house hunting with a friend who wanted to purchase a second home in Florida. He spotted an adorable bungalow for sale in a city neighborhood and contacted the agent listed on the sign. She showed up within an hour. As we walked in the front door, I heard clearly in my head, “I’m really sorry. This isn’t your house. It’s my house.”
I closed in less than a month and became the proud owner of a 1923 bungalow with a mother-in-law cottage, an in-ground pool, and a fishpond. It even had a porch swing. Having only rented for over two decades, no amount of advice or counsel could have prepared me.

I believed the learning curve required to maintain a property like this catapulted me into the land of “Grown Up,” and despite back pain from a car accident, I eagerly embarked on the journey. I learned how to balance the chemicals in the pool and eradicate algae, replace a kitchen faucet, change locks, assemble a pond pump, and caulk a bathtub. I discovered Kilz, Great Stuff and Fibre Tech.
There were the typical calamities that befall the owner of a home this age, like discovering the hot water heater was dry walled in – after it died. Or hiring someone to complete what I believed to be minor tasks only to discover they weren’t so minor and he wasn’t so experienced.

I dragged a bamboo tree out of the pool after Hurricane Jeanne, discovered the ancient sycamore tree in the front yard dropped over three dozen bags of leaves every winter, became enamored of the complex eco system in my back yard, and learned how to prune a bird of paradise.

I also became a landlord, deciding to rent the mother-in-law cottage to supplement my income. This forced me to learn about Florida rental law and background checks, and taught me that there is no rhyme or reason to who is trustworthy. All of this made me feel grown up, but it was an illusion. Because the moment I truly felt grown up was when I decided to sell the house.

The truth had been bubbling beneath the chaos of cracked walls and badly built steps: I never wanted to be a homeowner. I purchased the house with my father’s money as a way to prove to him that I was grown up. It was his voice I heard the loudest when my agent didn’t sell my manuscript. When I filed bankruptcy. When I ran away. “When are you going to grow up?” And I spent five years trying to prove to my dead father that I had. “See, Dad? I finally am a grown up.”

Only I never was one to capitulate just for the sake of conforming, so I vacillated between chasing my dream of supporting myself doing what I loved and the roots that anchored me to believing that being grown up meant “working” for a living, owning a house, and being responsible – even if it bled my soul. I even lasted eighteen months at a full-time job that drained me in the hopes it was the answer to my financial struggles.

What makes me a grown up is listening to my soul. To commit to doing what brings me joy, even if it feels risky and scary. Even if those around me don’t approve. Even if it requires a lifetime to undo the lies I’ve told myself about who I need to be. And especially, because it frees me to be who I really am.

Author's Bio: 

Staci loves living her life and sharing the experiences and insights. Read more at www.tlol.org.