Teaching a Memoir Workshop at Garden Spot Village, 2011

Teaching Womanhood in America, ca. 1986

Did you know that, according to a Gallup Poll, only 32 percent of all employees can say “yes” to this statement:

“At work I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.”

Are you one of the 32 percent or one of the 68 percent?


Perhaps you have been excited about your work in the past, but can no longer honestly subscribe to that statement? Read on!

Without doing so consciously, I used the criterion above to guide my whole career:

  • to do work I love

  • within a set of values I deeply believe in/aspire to

  • get paid to learn and grow

I moved from high school teacher to college professor to college president to foundation executive. In each of these jobs, I could do all of the above. My heart sang when they all aligned, which happened more often than any one human being has a right to expect.

And then, after a lifetime of heart-singing over-achievement, I got fired.

Well, that’s not what anyone called it. “Restructuring.” “Moving in a new direction.” “We no longer require your excellent services.”

Until these words refer to you instead of someone in a newspaper article, you will never know the dizzy unreality and fear they can drive you into.

Three  Shock Waves

Choice: The first wave that hits is that you are not in control of this situation. Someone else has made a decision for you. Depending on how much you need to be in control, you may or may not survive the first wave. I hated this feeling.

Money: The second wave goes right to the amygdala, the place in the brain where our survival fears reside. No matter how much one has saved or invested, one can begin to catastrophize. Will I lose every material thing I’ve ever worked for? Losing a job is always scary. Losing a job in the midst of a housing crisis even more so. The thought of selling our new house in the midst of the worst recession in my lifetime caused my blood to run cold.

Identity: “Who am I now?” The third wave can be huge. The more fused one has been with work as identity, the deeper and stronger this wave becomes. It hits hardest after the first two waves recede. One begins to dread the question, “What do you do?” knowing this is how Americans sort the status structure.

And internally, also, one can wonder “what is my new calling? How will I find it?” I had to wallow for a while in what William Bridges, expert in transitions, calls the “neutral zone,” trying on possible new identities. It’s taken me two years to name clearly, bluntly, and publicly what happened to me. I have written and spoken about dancing with change, and I’ve implied what kind of change occurred. But naming it is important.

Three Waves of Transformation

I found the key to thriving in the midst of shock began when I chose to forgive, forget the bad, and forge ahead. Then the energy of all three shock waves became energy I could re-incorporate into my life.

Choice. “You can always choose your attitude,” Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor, has famously said. There’s power in taking a situation back into your own hands and taking action based on the “new normal.” You can see benefits where first losses were only visible.

Money. Today our income is less than half of what it was before. We sold our house at a terrible loss. I have to pay for my own health insurance which covers a fraction of my former employer’s wonderful plan.

Yet we are lucky. My husband, who had been a consultant, found a new part-time job he loves. And I was asked to take on some free-lance consulting and signed a book contract. Our lifestyle, which thankfully was modest in the best of times, has continued relatively unchanged. In fact, our lifestyle now is more open to travel and adventure than ever before.

Identity. When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m writing a book. This identity feels vulnerable and new. At age 63 I am starting over again! I have so much to learn. The real lesson, however, is that I am not my job.

I am “being” as much as “doing” now, even though all my jobs have contributed to who I am today. Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” a poem we at Goshen College always paired with the reading of The Odyssey, speaks forcefully to me and for me:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move

From Fired to Fired Up

I got fired on a Tuesday. Ten days later, knowing we would likely leave our home in Michigan, we took a wonderful July vacation to the northern regions of the state. We dreamed together like we used to do as newlyweds and as newly-minted PhDs. We asked what was most important to us at this stage of life. The answer was simple: family.

A month later, when I was the speaker at the fall faculty/staff retreat at our alma mater Eastern Mennonite University, we happened upon a house that overlooked the Allegheny Mountains. So we pulled up stakes, left a beautiful home we had built, and moved to Virginia. Then we decided to become granny nannies and live in Brooklyn for the academic year 2011-2012.

Recently one of my facebook friends posted this link about twelve ways to live a better life.

These bits of wisdom, gathered from 1,200 Americans over 65 by researcher Karl. E. Pillemer, resonated with me and explain why, despite having been fired, I am feeling energized, light on my feet, “fired up.” I already had a compatible spouse (#1). Now I was able to spend more time with my children (#8), travel more (#6), say yes to opportunity (#5) and find freedom (#11).

After telling the world I was fired, I can also look everyone in the eye (#4).

And you know what? The job I have now is the best job of my entire career. I am granny nanny and work-in-progress, writing a book about my own childhood as I care for my grandson by day and explore New York City by night.

Once again, I am:

  • doing work I love

  • within a set of values I deeply believe in/aspire to

  • getting paid (a little) to learn and grow (a lot)

While I was in the “neutral zone,” of transition and transformation, I wrote out a mission statement for my life: “To prepare for the hour of my death one good day at a time. And to help others do the same.” I’m not as heroic as Tennyson’s Ulysses, but yet these words stir me:

Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

What words stir you? Are you doing work you love? Have you lost work you love? Do you know someone else who has?

Please pass along this post if you think it might offer encouragement and hope to someone. And please add a comment below, sharing your own story of transformation, even if you’ve never had the honor of being fired. We still have an 8.3 percent unemployment rate in this country. What can you offer?

Shirley Showalter


  1. jzr on March 12, 2012 at 9:23 am

    You go Shirley!! I believe we are on a similar path. I’m in my 70th year, loving life and what I do. A cancer scare is what got me truly living one day at a time and loving every minute. I’m free to be me and feel encouraged to bring who I am into the world.

  2. shirleyhs on March 12, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    Yes, Joan. The longer we live, the clearer it becomes that we are all on a similar path. I think of the old song, “We’re going down the valley one by one.” It’s so wonderful, however, to travel together as long as we can.

    Transformations happen whenever something disruptive shakes up our lives. So glad you are a thriver! Thanks for starting the comment chain.

  3. Susan Allstetter Neufeldt on March 12, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    Your ability to transform while transitioning is admirable! I think making a transition one had not planned is challenging. When I retired, my choice, I found new things to capture me and make me feel useful: working for the Red Cross in disasters, writing a book, helping to raise our grandson from age 1 1/2 to 3 1/2, serving on the board of a mental health non-profit, becoming president of the board at my church, and others. Eventually I had to prune some, and others fell away–my daughter and her family moved into our home of 40 years and we found a condominium that enables us to walk everywhere–a boon as my eyes rapidly deteriorate.

    But when I turned 70, I began to wonder who I would be without those roles. Specifically as I give up being board president at church in June, I wonder nor only who I will be but how I will matter when I’m not an “important” leader. I know I will not likely do that job again. And what happens if I go completely blind and can’t read as extensively as I am used to. This adjustment I did not seek. And it’s much more at the core of who I am than my looks, which have been fading for a number of years, or the inability to run races. I work to remember that this is an opportunity for discovery, but some days it’s more challenging than others, though for the most part I feel whole and open to the new. I recognize that one has to be mature to get old.

    What lies ahead for us, Shirley? We will discover.

    • shirleyhs on March 12, 2012 at 1:20 pm

      Susan, thank you so much for this poignant description of what it means to gradually lose previous identities — and,even more poignantly, to fear losing more. I am sorry to hear that your eyesight has become weak. And I can imagine how hard that is for an intellectual who has devoured books all her life.

      Old age is the ultimate “no choice” (except, of course, for those who die young) existence.

      We will discover what lies ahead. In the meantime, let’s have one good day at a time.

  4. Richard Gilbert on March 12, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    Shirley, this is inspiring. I can imagine how hard that “restructuring” was, yet your response was healing and creative. I cannot imagine you bitter, but that WAS a choice too. So, way to go. I am looking forward to reading your book.

  5. shirleyhs on March 12, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    Thanks, Richard. Yes, there are more choices in most situations than most of us realized. I am grateful that my life has finally opened up some space for the writer in me. And that I have new friends like you to spur me on.

  6. ShirleyK on March 12, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    I love it, love it–your grit and your candid, open heart.

    (My husband was fired once, spectacularly.)

    • shirleyhs on March 13, 2012 at 9:45 am

      Thank you, ShirleyK. You wrote about that story with your usual verve and insight. Writing is a wonderful way to sort out the feelings and try to understand reality as we keep changing and growing.

  7. Laurie Gray on March 13, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Thank you so much for sharing this. And I especially love the photos! I took Womanhood in America with you in the fall of 1984 and appreciate hearing about your journey from there to here.

    I have a friend whose family migrated from Lithuania to England to Canada, and he is now a US citizen. He says, “Change is opportunity.” My OMG moment came 11 years ago with an unplanned pregnancy when I was 38 and my husband was 60. During my pregnancy my best friend committed suicide, my husband’s best friend also died, my sister moved away, and three days before my daughter’s birth the world changed with 9-11. 2001 was my “caterpillar soup in a chyrsalis” year. Scary? Definitely! Perhaps I’m still battling my way out of the chrysalis, but I know that I am changed and that this new life is full of beauty.

    • shirleyhs on March 13, 2012 at 9:51 am

      Thanks so much for finding me initially and commenting on this story. As former Goshen College colleague Dan Hess said to me recently, “We taught so that our students could go beyond us.” So true. I also appreciate knowing about your own “caterpillar soup in the chrysalis” time. I love that image. My hope for this post is that people who are in the “soup” will find food and strength to battle their way out. There is little more beautiful than the trembling wings of a new butterfly.

  8. Dora Dueck on March 13, 2012 at 11:43 am

    this is very inspirational; thanks so much on this Tuesday morning when inspiration is needed — p.s. see you soon!

    • shirleyhs on March 13, 2012 at 11:48 am

      Thanks, Dora! Sending you good vibrations for whatever challenge lies ahead of you. And yes, see you soon!

  9. Sarah Baughman on March 13, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    Shirley, this is such an inspiring post. Thank you. As you know, my husband and I have also dealt with a lot of upheaval, and I really value your perspective on moving forward and finding opportunity where others might only see disappointment. I often remind myself that reasons sometimes emerge after the fact. You mentioned your guiding criterion for your career, and we too have had to come to very clear consensus on our ultimate priorities in order to guide our future choices.

    • shirleyhs on March 13, 2012 at 8:18 pm

      Sarah, you can’t go wrong when you are clear about your purpose, share that purpose, and have others to hold you up in the completing of your purpose. Please consider me one of those people. And thanks for this comment.

      And, yes, reason does emerge after the fact and opportunity can supplant disappointment. So many riches yet to be enjoyed! Blessings.

  10. Linda Gartz on March 13, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    Hi Shirley,
    I applaud you for embracing your new life without the confines of a defined “job.” Luckily, you lived wisely and even with half your income seem to be able to do just fine. That’s the trick at our age. You certainly are working, however, and that is what many don’t understand. Not having a “job” doesn’t mean the end of working. It doesn’t have to mean (though some, who can afford to just say no to the job market, whether retired or looking for the right job,choose this path–and that’s fine) having endless lunches with friends, playing bridge, reading all day (though that sounds lovely). Writing IS work; so is keeping up a blog and sharing insights with a community of like-minded people. So Here! Here! for us working folks who don’t get paid a weekly salary, but work damn hard!

    • shirleyhs on March 13, 2012 at 8:23 pm

      Linda, you are so right! I love my new “job,” but I am working as many hours as ever. You have pointed out something I didn’t overtly emphasize. But I absolutely agree. Thanks! And all the best to you in your own hard work.

  11. Sanna on March 13, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    Oh, Shirley. Mentor extraordinaire! What a powerful post. I haven’t been fired, but I have been in two situations in the last two years where if I hadn’t moved on I most certainly would “been re-orged or moved out” in a way that was not in my plan! And now I find myself doing exhilarating work for a start-up organization whose prospects look good but which could evaporate with the turn of even one sector of our economy. Whew! One can only turn to the center. With acceptance and gratitude. And the reminder that every end is a beginning!

    • shirleyhs on March 14, 2012 at 7:37 am

      Sanna, it’s wonderful to read these wise words. Thanks for your comment.

      You bring up a new topic. Should you avoid a tsunami if you see it coming? The answer to this question varies according to where one is in a career. In your case, brava for jumping ship and heading to a smaller boat with high waves around it. You are doing work you love (living by your own criteria) and you know and share the risks.

      There’s another element here, too, and that is knowing how you are built as a worker. I NEED change every 6-8 years. My whole career has been built on this pattern, even though I stayed at Goshen College 28 years.

      So, it happened that my only firing came at a time when I was already dreaming about the perfect retirement. Which allowed this awakening moment to be the “fortunate fall.”

      Each career decision or change is unique to the institutions and individuals involved. What shouldn’t change, is the only thing we can control. You said it so well: “One can only turn to the center. With acceptance and gratitude. And the reminder that every end is a beginning!”

  12. Wynn Godbold on March 14, 2012 at 8:38 am

    Wow Shirley!
    You are an amazing woman. Well, what else can be said?
    thank you for sharing:)

  13. shirleyhs on March 14, 2012 at 9:55 am

    Thanks, Wynn. So wonderful to have you visit. I encourage any teachers visiting here to click on your blog above and benefit from Wynn’s wisdom.

  14. Tina Fariss Barbour on March 16, 2012 at 12:50 am

    This is a truly inspiring and beautiful post! I am so glad I found your blog! (Linked to it from writeitsideways.com.)

    I’m nearing 50 and have reached a point in my life where I am ready to say a big “Yes” to writing. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a very young child, but I put it off with excuses.

    I was an adjunct English teacher for a couple of local colleges, then felt I needed to get a job with benefits and a retirement plan, which I did when I turned 30.

    Four and a half years ago, I quit my steady, pleasant job as a health educator to take a job with a daily newspaper. I believed that I had to take a step towards doing what I wanted to do. I edited letters to the editor and commentaries in the editorial department. I enjoyed the work, but I lived an hour away from the workplace and it took its toll. I also began having some health issues, and quit after only four months.

    This was in early 2008, NOT a good time to be looking for a job. I held a couple of “pay the bills” jobs, but finally found what I was looking for two and a half years ago. I’m a staff writer for a weekly newspaper that covers the town and county where I live. I get to ask questions and write for a living.

    That said, there are disadvantages, and my husband and I have had to make adjustments. I earn a lot less than I used to. Having a job where there’s always the next deadline, the next story to find is not always a good fit with my health issues. And I have lately become resistant to having a job that takes me away from “my” writing and from being at home with my husband, who is now retired.

    I am working on a memoir. My blog is related to the subject, though I believe it serves an additional purpose of reaching out to others, being as encouraging as possible and learning from my readers.

    I will be reading your blog. Again, so glad I found you!

  15. shirleyhs on March 16, 2012 at 9:27 am

    Tina, thanks for this open, inspiring story. I hope you will come back again often and that my e-book and weekly Magical Memoir Moments will help stimulate your own memoir writing work. It’s hard to find the perfect balance of calling and self-care. You seem to know how to listen to your own life speaking to you. Many blessings on the journey!

  16. Margaret Hahn on March 19, 2012 at 11:56 am

    Shirley – Your writing and your wisdom continue to mean a great deal to me. It has also taken me two years to name what I have been feeling – shame – as this overachiever has rarely failed and believes she did. Good things are happening around the edges, though. I am making music again – helping a small, struggling church redefine how that works – which surprises me every Sunday. It’s amazing how some things are hard-wired into us – gifts to be shared. Thank you for sharing your gifts! Blessings to you and your family.

  17. Jill Yordy Stasch on March 19, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    Dear Shirley-
    You are such a hero in my mind. The fact that you picked up and moved with your husband, who is still admirably the love of your life, to make a huge contribution to your precious grandson. It is hero’s work. I love love love this blog post, just got to it on a quick break from work where I counsel unemployed people all day long for the state at an unemployment office.

    I don’t love every minute of this job but I am passionate about helping people get through this transition of time. I know, like you the pain of getting fired. I remember the fear that wakes you up in the middle of the night and encroaches on your brain early in the waking morning reminding you, you don’t have anywhere that you have to be. I remember the fear of losing the house and asking myself will I become an Oprah Story…from Middle Class to homeless? It can be a scarey business.

    I love that you name it and claim it and have moved on to be your family’s hero. You will leave your love print on your grandson forever. You have always been that brave inspirational woman who ventures into new places and new roles so seemingly fearless. I love that about you and always have repsected that.

    I can’t wait to read your memoir…and based upon what I know of you I am sure the world has many more adventurous chapters for you waiting to write. WHo knows maybe you’ll get to pen Toni Morrisons’ Biography.


  18. shirleyhs on March 19, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    Dear Jill,
    Thanks for these kind words. And my hat’s off to you for how you have transformed your own situation while you help others do the same. I’m sure you are a terrific counselor.

    This year of delight and engagement in the life of our children and grandchild (and mother and siblings) was made possible by my change in job status.

    And so is the book, which will benefit in ways I don’t yet understand.

    It’s great to know I will have at least one reader! 🙂

  19. […] I was even fired once, quietly but spectacularly. […]

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