Sometimes when you have it all, the only thing left to discover is what you need. After a dotcom IPO windfall, marriage and two children, I embodied the American dream. When I filed for divorce seven years ago, many whispered that I was crazy. For a girl from Duncanville, Texas, whose father gave her up for adoption and mother dropped off at a bible college with one suitcase and a note saying “you can’t come home and we can’t pay,” I had defied my Dickensian story beyond society’s expectations. We bought exotic sports cars, yet we weren’t happy beyond the purchase. We threw lavish parties celebrating our rising stock, yet I felt my personal stock falling. What no one knew, including myself, was that no amount of commercial success, nor lavish lifestyle could fill the bottomless hole of a child that feels unwanted.
Becoming a mother changed everything for me. I wanted to give my children the home I never had, yet I had no experience. Self-made financial success should have been the ultimate quantifier, but all it did was enable me to temporarily outdistance my past, placating and escaping. Knowing I couldn’t blame my husband, nor change our dynamic, I departed, telling myself that I would not squander something that I had never had before: choices. My divorce was an exodus from my marriage as much as my contrived self. To this day, I sense others’ frustrations when they can’t assign my departure to a specific malice or maligned party. Perhaps I was crazy; or maybe, rather than assign blame, I chose to look deep within. Either way, I had come too far to not be at home in my life.
Without two homes and a villa in the South of France, but with divorce in hand, I dove into my new life totally disconnected, firmly focused on rewriting my story both metaphorically and functionally. I chose to live in Manhattan when not with my children; I ran halfway across the country to find redemption and save my soul. I wanted to live authentically. I wanted to live the life I had been chasing but never found. One summer vacation, I spent a few weeks in East Hampton while my children were with their father in France. I walked past famous restaurants and boutique designer shops, yet nothing held my gaze or enticed my appetite. Refusing to let my children’s absence swallow me whole, I explored off the beaten path areas by bicycle. I started a daily ritual of visiting Egypt beach hidden behind an exclusive residential enclave, often wondering about the stories behind the hedges. Digging my toes into the sand on the edge of the mainland, it was the sunset that often reminded me that hours had passed without a single thought, where the ocean’s movement made stillness possible. Soon, the time that my children were away grew longer than the time remaining until their return.
One hot July afternoon I drove to Shelter Island. Arriving off a three-minute ferry ride, I saw hundreds of red, white and blue flags plastered across a bucolic landscape. There’s something magical that happens when you drive on the ferry and realize that you are leaving the mainland to connect to a community sheltered on all sides that can only be reached by water. As I drove off, I passed under an enormous flag dangled above the ferry, hung from the fire department’s aerial ladder. I parked and set off to jog, passing a tiny cottage selling honey, a Victorian home selling fresh-cut flowers, a farm selling local produce and a seaside mansion offering eggs, each with its own honor jar. Unlike the Duane Reade and Starbucks anchoring each street corner in Manhattan, the individually owned hardware store and soda fountain pharmacy marked a town center. Jogging past a hodge-podge of architecture, I heard other joggers greeting residents by name.
Shelter Island parallels my life in many ways. Contracting and expanding with its annual summer residents, it showed signs of loss and growth. I wondered if the island wore its self-sufficient independence masked as pride, like I wore designer clothes to put layers between my inside story and the outside world. Its beach front estates owned by primarily wealthy Manhattanites lined the perimeter of an island sheltering generations of residents on the interior who managed multiple jobs to maintain their autonomy on an island that felt more like a lone country than another hamlet.
Over the years, I’ve learned that when the first few chapters of your life are incomplete, you keep trying to write them into your relationships, each time hoping for a better fit. Whether we are missing a childhood, recovering from destructive addictions, unhealthy relationships, or sickness and death—we all come to know loss. Without an anchor, some of us accumulate relationships, experiences, or things, only to realize that we can never fill a bottomless hole or find a peaceful plateau. The wealthiest can’t save themselves from sickness and the kindest meet adversity. People once deeply in love leave each other. Life’s non-discriminating leveling wand challenges our ability to believe in goodness and depletes our energy to start over as we settle into our life stories.
I was reminded that we often make false assumptions based on the picture we perceive, when I learned that the thousands of flags flying were honoring a young local soldier killed in combat who had been returned home. Having lived on multiple continents, metabolizing experiences and people at crack speed, my trajectory was rooted in motion. That sunny afternoon, I felt an emotion that I couldn’t intellectualize, let alone understand when I walked on a beach at the end of an unknown residential street.
I wanted to breathe in slow motion to savor something that I had not imagined until that moment: a sense of home. It wasn’t just that the town had renamed one of their ferries after the fallen soldier, or that the restaurant I ate in honored his memory with a poster size photo. It was the larger-than-life rock on the beach with an American flag and “We Love You, Joe” hand painted by his friends that made me think about where my story would end, something most people take for granted. When I saw so many flags and learned that 2,000 people lined the streets for Joey’s funeral it hit me so hard. He was a part of something. He had a community that claimed him. Stopping to walk on a beach covered with rocks and weathered shells I surveyed a single yacht sandwiched between dinghies and modest sailboats tethered to moorings. Like this island with no bridge or landmass to connect it to the mainland, I imagined myself as a ship without a country. Exhausted, I sat down feeling every rock and shell marking my skin. I found myself in tears thinking about one mother’s loss juxtaposed with my desire to step into a stranger’s story and make it my own.
I think the notion of divorce is the point of departure. My divorce prompted a divorce from not only from my husband but from my contrived self and set in motion a journey that took me east to a Trump condo in Manhattan where I found solace in my anonymity amongst 8 million strangers. I often think of writing Joey’s mother and telling her that her son’s journey home was the catalyst to my journey even further east. His return inspired my journey within, where I traded the outside appearance of success to pursue an inner success of self-knowledge and self-possession. It wasn’t luck. It wasn’t magic. It was chance and fate mixing. In wanting to become a part of something, it became a part of me.
Three years later, I like to think that I’ve paid my dues, having sold my condo in New York to commute to my tiny island from Texas. I’ve weathered hurricanes and harsh winters to enjoy the desolation and the romance in the desolation as much as being a part of a community that feels like family. My children have made memories over holidays and summers in a place I call home that they will someday call home. I no longer question how many second chances can be had, or how many manual resets can lead to change. I struggle on how to make myself relatable after living so many lives. I’ve found my passion in helping children in foster care whose resilience inspires me to share hope. When I can’t control the moving pieces of my outside world, I help another child and feel connected to a world I don’t always understand. Sometimes I think this isn’t the life I imagined; I should be settled in a relationship or feel more secure. Then I remember; I found Shelter. I am on my way home.