Striving for More in 2024

Tapping into who we are and what we want from life is no easy undertaking. There are myriad of obstacles that can stop us in our tracks at various points—significant events that can change the course of our life in entirely unpredictable ways, as well as everyday life events that simply pile upon one another until we feel we are completely burdened and immobilized by their weight. I know that all too well in my own life.

Finding our authentic selves is a journey that often requires years of work and reflection that not everyone is keen to embrace. It’s easier sometimes to sit in what is, to not question, to not wonder, to not rock the proverbial boat, to accept what comes our way without regard to our well-being or desires. I have always fought this resignation, though not as successfully and valiantly as I may have always hoped, ultimately falling back on old habits and acceptances that left me feeling empty.

And yet, regardless of how low my lows may have been at various times in my life, I am a seeker. Self-discovery has always been my North Star. I thrive on deciphering my feelings, addressing my reactions, and assessing my awareness of the world. It’s my way of finding my way.

In 2023, this need for self-discovery became more profound than ever. After twenty-five years of attempting to hold my marriage together, which left me feeling alone on an island, not to mention emotionally exhausted from carrying my husband and his “generational gook.” I had arrived at an impasse. I was tired of trying to course correct for myself while at the same time trying to right the family dynamic that has hung over us like a black cloud for decades. I was no longer okay with this dynamic being at my expense. I had finally realized that the energy I offered was given too freely.

Things came to a head mid-year, which led to several events that genuinely didn’t settle within me until the turn of the new year. It’s somewhat ironic that it landed at such a traditional time. Each January marks the beginning of a new year, an opportunity to lay the past to rest and look to the future. And, if willing to do so, a time to reflect. The name “January” is derived from the Roman God, Janus, who was said to have two heads—one looking to the past and one looking to the future. He was the god of doors, gates, and transitions. And, wow, did Janus ever live up to his name in 2023?!

I am still collecting my thoughts and takeaways from all that transpired this past year. My need to assemble them in a fluid fashion has been challenging, yet never before have I known how important it was for me to do so. It was crystal clear to me that while I had undergone a year of dodging punches, it was also a year of formidable endurance—a year in which I stuck to my moral framework and, as a result, discovered profound lessons in relearning and unlearning who I am and what I want to continue to put out in the world. As a lover of wordsmithing, resilience became my word for 2023.

While I am ready to close last year’s chapter—the final year of my forties—I want to take note of a few of the significant events that gave me a deeper understanding of my past, an experience that I have been searching for years to uncover; an understanding that has illuminated the opportunities I now feel I have for a new beginning. Three were particularly significant in reminding me who I am and want to be in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead.

The first of these was actually a second—the publication of my second S.H.E. book, a compilation of stories from twenty-three women of all ages and cultures who courageously share their heartfelt journeys of discovery, resilience, and perseverance. At first, I resisted the pull to write a second book but relented when I realized I had more stories that needed sharing, voices that deserved to be heard. In taking this leap, I recognized that these women, like the twenty-two featured in my first book, are beacons of light that have helped illuminate my path of discovery—the power I possess. This year, working with a new editor—one proven to be my girl guru in many ways beyond this book—brought greater understanding to this storytelling journey of mine: we find bits and pieces of ourselves in others, like pieces of a magical mosaic that can help us better define ourselves and strengthen our journeys.

So, this first event (realization, really) was impactful. It proved that my long-held belief in the power and healing nature of storytelling is something I know I need to honor.

The second event in 2023 came on the heels of the publication of volume two of my book. This year-long effort culminated in an art gallery event showcasing the works of art that twenty-four artists explicitly created for the featured stories. It was a beautiful celebration of an accomplishment I felt very proud to have completed. Yet, as full as this made me feel, I also felt depleted of energy.

How does that make sense? Feeling full and depleted at the same time?

Well, in the story of my life, I often feel like a paradox or walking contradiction. I am learning it’s fairly universal; many of the women I interviewed for my books reminded me that I am not alone in this feeling. We are not alone. It’s okay to, at times, feel like a dichotomy of contradiction, to feel a push and pull that can seem out of step with the attempts of this push and pull to co-exist. It reminds you that you have dimension, depth, and resources for growth. What I realized, however, was that my feelings of being spent extended far beyond the publication of my book and a simple sense of unrest. It developed deep into my relationships. Being busy simply masked the extent of those borders. When the dust of activity finally settled, experiences I’d had and pushed aside came back to the forefront, forcing me to dig deep into my core for answers and the roots of my unrest.

Some of the many ups and downs I have experienced will be chronicled in a book. For now, I will simply say that I felt overwhelmed, too much so at times, with many situations pulling at me from many angles, asking for more and more and more… of which I had nothing more to give. I can honestly say I was at a breaking point—contemplating my purpose in matrimony and life and why my actions matter. I could no longer continue putting everyone else’s needs and wants before my own, carrying other’s feelings for them, allowing them to skirt their responsibilities, struggling to hold my family together, and parenting a partner who chose to avoid the demons that plagued him.

After several disastrous moments in the last four months of the year, my remarkable therapist and friend, Tristen, listened intently to my turmoil and said, “Trust yourself.” Those simple words have haunted me my whole life, yet they have also driven me and been the bedrock of many sound decisions. Trusting myself has caused me to push harder, to be more verbal, and to fight against injustice.

What I trusted was that I needed to be alone. I needed to travel. Travel has been something that has been a part of my life and love since as far back as I can remember and something that I feel privileged to be able to do. As a seeker, travel provides answers and insights that might otherwise go undiscovered… gems, forever lost. I have always turned to my love of travel in both times of joy and need, and this past year presented more of the latter.

In the past, my sanctuaries were Bali, Thailand, and other places where calm can reside within me. But this time, the idea of a road trip felt right: an opportunity to detach from the chaos I was swirling in, to give me the time and space I needed to think. I started with fourteen days in the south, traversing through six states in a rental car I coined Chrissy the Chrysler. Throughout my travels, I came to randomly meet charming folks who reminded me of my core without even knowing me. These magical moments of crossing paths are something I relish. It is what led me to embark on writing my S.H.E. books. My editor, girl guru, said it was my superpower. She noted that I had a “magnetic field” that draws people to me to share their stories openly and honestly. I do feel that people cross my path for a reason, and I’m always open to the experience.

This trip proved no different.

I met many people during those two weeks of travel. Whether sitting alone for a morning coffee or in a hotel bar for dinner, my solitude rarely remained. Short pleasantries shared with other travelers coming and going often evolved into conversation, often serving as a mirror to myself, presenting different perspectives on life that challenged my assumptions and prompted further self-reflection. While navigating unfamiliar environments and encountering new challenges, I was again reminded of my resilience and adaptability. When I have these walkabouts—my personal travels—they often lead to greater introspection, self-reflection, and engagement in activities that bring me joy and fulfillment. They always contribute to a better understanding of myself. I relish meeting new people and hearing their stories; I learn much about myself through them. Taking time away taught me that I needed to step away from social convention and what I believed the world and my loved ones needed from me. It made me realize that I needed to be a better boundary-setter in my personal life.

A few encounters I had over these two weeks were incredibly impactful.

The first took place in Charlotte, North Carolina, at a hotel bar in a far less provocative manner than that line may imply. I settled in at the bar with a glass of Caymus and a light meal, perusing a script I promised a friend I’d review when an elderly gentleman, a retired lawyer, took the stool beside me. Making idle chitchat, he asked what I was reading. After briefly explaining, we extended our conversation to travel and vineyards, both apropos of the moment. Our discourse was easy and fluid, delving deeper into why we relish travel and time to reflect. I found our conversation touching and bizarrely awesome, neither of which I ever questioned. Ultimately, this wise octogenarian reminded me to be unapologetically myself and never settle for a tolerable level of unhappiness. What a gift! It’s not that we somehow don’t know this is how we should be; we sometimes need it reflected to see it. I do not question some encounters; I only glean the wisdom gained.

The second encounter that moved me was like those that inspired me to write my books—a chance encounter with a woman of resilience. This meeting took place in Beaufort, South Carolina. Again, settling into a spot at a bar for a glass of wine and dinner, I happened to sit next to a stylish woman who I quickly learned owned her interior design firm. Though successful, she shared that her life was anything but, as she was going through a divorce. She offered that the constant search for salvation in her partner of twenty years left her depleted. We spent three hours conversing, exchanging numbers, and discussing possibly including her SHERO story in a potential volume three.

The grand finale of my trek—one that moved me to the brink of nearly falling off my stool—was my chance meeting with a prominent literary figure while visiting Charleston, South Carolina. As a nonfiction writer myself, dabbling in biographies, obituaries, and personal narratives for years, fiction has been calling me, yet I keep ignoring it. After thirty minutes of platitudes—talking about family and fun—while he sipped his smoky old-fashioned and I my glass of Chablis—he very eloquently offered, “Shannon, go to the edge, then go further. There are no boundaries when it comes to writing or life.” Again, we know these things to be true. Applying them to ourselves is another thing. Hearing these words somehow resonated with me in a way I don’t think I might have been ready for previously.

The following night, in Savannah, Georgia, after dinner with a couple from the Hamptons I had met six months prior, I sat at the hotel rooftop bar sipping a glass of champagne, ready to retire for the evening when I met another dynamic individual: a therapist for a women’s center in Naples, Florida. She shared that she is a married mother of a six-year-old boy trying to hold it all together. As our conversation unfolded, she disclosed that she deeply desired to be more adventurous and travel more. “I need more time alone and want to do uncomfortable things, but traveling solo feels scary,” she whispered. As I write this, I am pinching myself, reminded of the kismet I felt swirling around me at that moment and how mind-boggling it was.

Shortly after she left, I was still spiraling, thinking it may be the bubbly. I turned to my phone to check my email and found a note from the media department of Dollywood, a theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, confirming that they would be happy to host me on a private tour. I had contacted them earlier in the week, indicating my interest in writing a story on women and philanthropy. Dolly Parton is a musical icon and trailblazer for women. Her challenge of societal gender norms and efforts to break through various constructs have always inspired me. I intended to write a story on her influence as a woman philanthropist and inspiration. She is a woman who has trusted her heart and connected with the greater world community through her musical storytelling genius.

As 2023 came to a close, I felt grateful for the silence and solitude I gave myself—a space that awarded me my greatest confidant, myself. Using a Dolly expression, I “put wings on my dreams.” Following my visit to Dollywood, as a means of honoring the rewarding spirit of storytelling that I believe I share with Dolly, I had the S.H.E. Foundation donate one hundred S.H.E. Share Heal Empower, Collected Journeys, Volume Two books to The Dollywood Foundation and Dolly’s Imagination Library. I’m thrilled to be a small part of these organizations’ inspiring efforts to promote the power of words and stories as change agents for good.  

Throughout my travels in 2023, I felt overwhelmingly grateful for all my encounters, conversations, and shared stories. It took a handful of strangers to remind me who I am and how I was built. I have always been interested in what I don’t know and the expansion of knowledge—trying to capture wisdom and reproduce it beneficially. Human behavior fascinates me, especially my own. I believe the signs that directed my path in life were always there, but I often doubted the direction. I had stopped listening to my inner Rosie, my inner guide that always had my back. I named this source after my paternal grandmother. I realized that ignoring her when I needed her most created a massive roadblock. This road trip and the insights I gained spurred me to make a deal with both of us not to allow this oversight to continue. I know this internal compass is essential to my growth since I am the best person to comprehend myself, my disconnects, and my desires.

This second awakening of 2023, coming to me via this road trip, made it clear that trusting my heart and acknowledging my desire for shared humanity through storytelling is as essential to my being as the air I breathe.

The third critical event that bubbled up in 2023 is more personal—my marriage. This past year, all the chaos of an extended family that had been left unchecked for years—issues and transgressions that I always felt I was left to manage—finally came to a point where it was detrimental to my well-being. I finally realized that it was not my responsibility to carry the burdens of others. I wanted freedom from this toxicity. As a result, my husband and I had some very uncomfortable, long-overdue talks. Thankfully, he was ready to engage, to discuss the awkward truths that floated between us—both his and mine. While not easy, these conversations have brought more profound understanding and closeness, both of which had been missing due to a fragmented first family system he experienced and is still working to understand. 

We have begun to create a safe space to question and share. My favorite inquiry lately has been, how close are these versions we portray of ourselves to our absolute truth? Together with my own intergenerational identity, I want to explore and be as close to my truth as possible, expressing the person I truly am without melding to whatever audience or drama is present. I no longer want to hide my multitude of layers. I no longer wish to engage in a dance of turmoil, manipulated by pain I didn’t quite understand.

This final event of addressing my marital relationship was what I knew I needed to do upon my return from travel. It solidified the overarching message that 2023 made clear and that I must honor: to step fully into my authenticity and find spaces and relationships where it’s safe to be me. 

2023 helped me see, feel, and understand where I need to be. I have always been in flux and restructuring, but here’s to a more peaceful and purposeful 2024, focusing more on me and my study of self-writing in my babe cave, deconstructing myself and my discontent, and living with resilience.

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