Gwen in Detail

I am very open about my life story and my life experiences on this site, in my articles and books. Knowing what I have experienced in my life feels like a necessary first step for many people to begin to feel comfortable that someone else can grasp the issues and challenges they are dealing with.

So if it is important to you that you feel like you know the person you are hiring as a coach, read on!

What follows are a series of questions and answers about me based on what I’ve been asked by clients and folks seeking a coach. Explore as much or as little as you feel called to.

Here’s a quick summary of the questions you’ll find detailed responses to as I review ‘Gwen’s Odyssey’

When you look back on your early life, what, for you, are the defining experiences of your childhood?

Was there nothing good about your growing up years?

How did these early experiences impact your later life?

What experiences have you had as an adult that you think are important for the work you do?

When did you begin to think about people’s lives as being a journey or odyssey?

What does the future hold for you personally?

 

 

Gwen’s Odyssey

From where I stand as a vibrant woman well into her 7th decade of life, I keep being reminded that the life I have lived is a unique one, just like yours is unique to you.

I’m also reminded that there is one thing that separates me from most people – and that is that I know that the life I’ve lived is not only important to me, but is important to many other people. I know my life is an invitation to hope and insight in those moments that their lives don’t feel like they are working for them. I know this because of the number of people who have approached me over the years to tell me what a difference I’ve made in their lives: not from anything specific I’ve said or done, but because they see in me someone they aspire to be like in terms of vitality, zest for life, capacity to rise again after apparent defeat and ability to love. It isn’t that I live my life a certain way because I see myself as a model for others. It is that I live my life as it works best for me and with an openness that turns out to be infectious!

There have been many periods in my earlier life when I didn’t feel good about myself,  or when life just seemed to be playing me one lousy card after the other. But I know that living life like that is a thing of the past for me. These days I live every moment knowing that my life is my creation and that anything that is happening to me is mine to respond to in any way I choose.

Working with thousands of clients in coaching sessions and workshops, it is clear to me that for many, the challenges that I’ve overcome are an inspiration. My experience helps them face their own tragedies and miseries differently. They discover they too can move on and begin living from a place where they feel like they are in charge of their lives. They notice that they are the active agent in deciding how they’ll deal with life as it unfolds, as the great mystery that it is.

What follows is an exploration of the odyssey that my life has been as told through a series of questions that are typical of what I’ve been asked in various workshops and coaching sessions. It is not a linear retelling of my life’s story, largely because it focuses on the times, events and insights that have held profound meaning to me rather than the long, twisting series of events that constitute the historical ‘truth’ of my life. That is not to say that anything that follows is in any way untrue. But rather that it reflects the truth of how I’ve experienced my life.

One of these days I’d like to write a book where each of my 9 siblings gets to recount their truth of their lives; I sometimes wonder if there’d be any similarity at all in our experiences of growing up with the same two people as parents!

When you look back on your early life what, for you, are the defining experiences of your childhood?

For decades I would have talked about growing up poor in an authoritarian household as being important aspects of my young years.

I recall a dinner party I attended when I was in my mid-20’s where the rather prim mother of a friend was present. The conversation had turned to how our upbringing had shaped who we were as adults. When it came to my turn I mentioned that by the standards of the day my family would have been considered “the working poor” and so much of what the others at the table had experienced as children simply hadn’t been available to me. The prim mother took a deep breath, lifted her chin and announced “My dear, certain conversations aren’t acceptable at the dinner table. Perhaps you should learn when it is best to say nothing!” It was my first realization that some perspectives, no matter how true, were offensive to some people. And it was the first time that I realized that I could be ashamed of my roots or I could talk about them in a way that held meaning for me, regardless of whether others thought they were offensive or not.

I’m sure that the prim mother would be horrified to hear me now describe my early life. I realize now that in addition to being poor, we lived a life of abuse, both physical and sexual with an alcoholic father and a raging, self-mutilating mother. It’s hard to pick out specific defining experiences. I remember the relentless hard work involved in growing up in an isolated, rural home with so many children, no hot running water, a coal furnace and a wood stove for cooking winter and summer. I recall how humiliating it felt when the phone and electricity were turned off because the bills hadn’t been paid and I have memories of being taken to town very occasionally when my mother went grocery shopping and hearing her wheedle with the butcher about how she needed just one more week of credit in order to feed her family. It took a long time for me to realize that a couple of us were likely taken with her specifically to rouse his sympathy when he was threatening to cut her off from any more meat on credit.

I also recall the on-going violence that seemed like such a normal occurrence. It seemed like somebody was always being spanked for something. The yelling, screaming and swearing associated with the beatings was actually harder to bear than the ‘spankings’ themselves. My mother could have taught sailors a few new colorful expressions so rich was her vocabulary of expletives, although she was inordinately proud that she never stooped so low as to use the “f” word! But how many times a day were we kids yelled at “If I get my hands on you little sons of bitches” or “What are you little christers up to now”.

As I write this response I realize that it is relentlessness more than anything else that has marked me as an adult. I will pursue an interest through thick or thin until it is resolved or has given up its secrets. I am relentless!

Sadly too, to this day I am able to tolerate quite unacceptable behaviors in others for quite a long period of time.  When they become chronic and not intense enough to break through some tolerance threshold I’ve developed, I simply ignore them. On the downside, this means that I have lots of experiences that feel like pounding my head into a brick wall and not understanding why I don’t get anywhere! On the upside, it has become a skill that actually works in my favor when dealing with clients; there is little that they can do or say that makes me feel threatened or otherwise unsafe!

Was there nothing good about your growing up years?

Actually, I have many fond memories of my childhood. And most of them occur outside the home and with my mother either being in the deep background or otherwise not present.

My memories of my father are more of a mixed blessing because he was almost always centrally involved in things that happened outside the house. He had a way of being really friendly and making you feel very special, only to end up humiliating you.  Worse still he would then re-tell the story for years when he and his buddies were getting drunk. So my fond memories of childhood often have a tinge of tension around the edge. I realize now that as a child, even when things went well, part of me was always holding my breath, waiting for things to go wrong. It doesn’t happen often nowadays, but every now and then I notice that I still do that! Yikes.

I recall what a big adventure it was in our family every August when we’d go blueberry picking over in Quebec. I remember all the preparations for the picnic, everyone piling into the car (this was pre-seatbelt days when the big kids would sit on the seats and we’d each have a little kid on our lap!) and then a long walk uphill onto the burned over mountaintop where we had to watch out for bears while we picked away.

Other fond memories include building forts in the bush on our 12-acre hobby farm, climbing the maple tree down by the ditch, having family come for a visit because they distracted our parents and we got to stay up late and eat all kinds of things we weren’t supposed to. I recall being sent out for the day with my younger siblings in tow, each of us with a bowl or jar to be filled with berries before we were allowed to come home. There was such freedom in wandering roads and trails at will, arguing with my siblings about where we’d find more berries. Then as I got older I remember my father buying an old cottage, lock, stock and barrel.  The fun of swimming in a beaver flooded lake that had no beaches; of taking the big old oak rowboat out into the middle of the lake all by myself and pretending that I couldn’t hear my mother calling me when it was time to head in and help make dinner.

School was almost always a good experience for me. I was liked by my teachers and did well academically. If you did what you were asked to, nobody yelled at you and you didn’t have to look after pesky younger kids like at home. Even at recess it was acknowledged that the teacher on yard duty was responsible for what the kids got up to so I could actually do what I felt like and not always be on the look-out for what mischief the others were getting into. Such freedom!

How did these early experiences impact your later life?

Perhaps one of the most obvious ways my childhood experiences have impacted me is that I chose not to have children.  I never wanted to do to my children what my mother had done to me. As a young adult I didn’t engage any personal growth and development work (I didn’t even know that was available until I was nearly 50!).  As such, I feared that I was doomed to mother like I was mothered.  In retrospect, that wasn’t the case, but such is life. I don’t for a second regret my decision, by the way. I am very well aware that in choosing to not have children I was able to take on many things that may not have been possible had I been busy raising kids.

I also believe that my relationship with work has been profoundly affected by my early childhood. Despite his quirks and mean streak, my father seemed to me to live a much richer life than my mother did. So I learned early that doing well at work was a pathway out of a nasty life. My early life also taught me how to work hard. As a substitute mom from an extremely young age, I was adept at juggling many balls at one time (and keeping them all in the air for very long periods of time), keeping people happy, taking on one more job and not having very many expectations of the people giving me the work. Once I became employed I discovered that people actually valued those traits and paid you for those attributes!

What was much more elusive for me was to discover that some people actually enjoyed the work they did! But that’s another story.

My ability to count on myself through thick and thin is also a direct result of my childhood experiences. It has been a lifelong struggle to let others help me! The past few years have seen a lot of growth for me in this arena as my ex-husband and friends can attest. I’ve also come to realize that one of the reasons I like to work with people is that I know that I am always learning from them. As my clients make discoveries and grow as humans, I am always growing and evolving as well.

Another biggie is that I feel like I am living a ‘reverse engineered’ life. I started out life feeling very old and serious, with the weight of the world on my shoulders. I find that as I age, I discover more and more how to have fun and to enjoy myself. I know that learning to experience joy has fueled my interest in working with people.  As I’ve learned to relax and enjoy my life, I can see how serious and uptight so many others are.

There are many, many more but I think those are some of the biggies.

What experiences have you had as an adult that you think are important for the work you do?

One of my biggest life learnings happened when I was quite young. My first husband was killed in a plane crash when I was the ripe old age of 26. I discovered at that time just how strong and resourceful I am. I also discovered just how fragile and ephemeral life can be. This experience taught me to enjoy each moment as it passes because you never know what tomorrow brings. That insight gave me a 25-year head start on many people in coming to grips with what’s important in life!

Being married 3 times feels like another important series of experiences. I know the grief of losing someone you love, the despair of living in a marriage that is a mistake, the joy of picking up your life (again and again!). And I know the deep satisfaction that comes from creating a long-term relationship that remains vital, supportive and meaningful even though it has its periods where those are called into question. Having recently left that long-term relationship, I believe this statement still holds true. I doubt that I’ll ever marry again, but stay tuned! One thing I know is that surprises are around every twist in the road of life.

Getting fired a couple of times also feels important. Not like they were fun, but they were moments when I had to come face-to-face with myself and figure out where I was going wrong. Those were moments when I started to realize that I had to take charge, I had to discover what was important to me about work and what I  enjoyed. Out of those discoveries I realized that life could be planned rather ‘just happening’!

Deciding to leave a well paying executive position to start my own company was another extremely important experience for me. I had had the belief for some time that I had what it took to run a successful independent business, but I knew that if I never stepped outside the safety of a regular paycheque and the infrastructure of a corporation that I’d never discover just how much I was capable of. One day I imagined myself as a 70 year old looking back and regretting that I’d played it safe. And so off I went into the wonderful world of entrepreneurialism. And here I am 15 years later, still not in jail and with a wonderful track record of success, people I’ve positively impacted and much growth behind me.

I could go on, but these feel like the experience peaks for me when I take the long view back over my adult life.

When did you begin to think about people’s lives as being a journey or odyssey?

I’m not really certain when that began. Probably when I was in my 40’s. By that time I’d had enough experience in life to begin to notice that I had left tracks behind me as I lived my life. Just like you have left tracks from the living of your life. I began to notice too that as I got older I was more aware that I could create a path for myself into the future. I guess I was a bit of a late bloomer in this way. For years and years, life just felt to me like it was something I lived. It never dawned on me that you could create a plan for your life, then engage that plan and make it happen.

I think that 1993 was a watershed year in many ways. I took a course called “Women, Leadership and the Future” and over a short 3 days began to realize that I was so much more in control of my life than I’d ever dreamed possible. Truly those 3 days revolutionized my life. I connected with who I was in a big way and began to realize that there was no shame in having ambition or being willing to go for the brass ring.

What does the future hold for you personally?

I feel that I am standing on the threshold of a life that I can barely imagine. Here are a few things that I’ve been spending my time reflecting on –

…ageing successfully has become an important exploration for me. I’m eating better than I ever have; I exercise more (although still not enough, I gather); I keep mentally and socially active. I created a statement a few weeks ago that is designed to draw me into the future in a positive way. It reflects what I’d like to see written about me at some point in the distant future. It goes “Still strong, vital, engaged and curious at 95, Gwen …” This statement is my call to action, my vision of what’s possible, my statement of purpose about who I can become. Stay tuned!

…work with people; play with people. It is clear to me that if I want to have meaningful friendships to sustain me in my ‘old age’, I need to invest in developing friendships with people significantly younger than me. And as my business expands into the international realm, I know that a larger number of people I work with will come from other regions and countries. Whoopee!

…staying abreast of scientific discoveries. The world of science is so exciting these days. Almost every week we know more about how our bodies function, who we are as humans, what the cosmos has to teach us and how all life is linked in magical and apparently mysterious ways.  What joy it is to follow these discoveries and then to integrate them into how I live my life and what I have to offer to my clients. As the manifestation spiral that I am continues to unfold, what discoveries await?

…deepen my experience as ‘writer’.  I’ve been writing all my adult life. But only last year, after publishing a couple of books and nearly 3 years of writing a monthly magazine column did it dawn on me that “I AM A WRITER!”.  I have established a business as a business writer (www.wordsunlimited.ca) and find immeasurable joy in writing the many blogs I’ve created. I have no idea where it is all going to lead, but writing is bringing zest to my life these days.

…’going bigger’ is another theme catches my attention.  I have few clues as to what it really means, despite it being a focus for several years.  In the past while ‘going bigger’ has been an influence in my decision to move to a different part of the country and to begin to play in the international sphere via my retreats in Portugal, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and writing my dining guide. For the future I know that it also involves stepping into my ‘golden years’ in a way that challenges the standard understanding the life trajectory of older people.

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