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    Stephanie Barlow, 58: Opening Up to Life

    In her mid-50s, after surviving cancer, the death of both parents, divorce, and an empty nest, Stephanie Barlow leapt into a new life chapter. She traded cold New England winters for sunny California, found a new community, a canine companion, and a new career as a commercial model. She tells us about her journey and how taking responsibility for her thoughts has given her “agency over my life and my experience.”

    At 52 she loses her mom to cancer, her dad also passes from cancer, then she herself is diagnosed with cancer. Her 2 kids are in the process of leaving the house, and she leaves her husband of 25 years. Having been a stay-at-home mom for decades, she asks herself, now what? “What the fuck am I doing?” There is no going back, as there is not much to go back to; the only way was forward. All around us today there is tremendous stress and uncertainty. We just don’t know what the future is going to look like. Living in the unknown is something Stephanie knows a thing or two about. It requires faith, self-knowledge, and a desire for life.

    “My life as I knew it had come to an end”

    What is it like to start over in a new city, single, no more ties, in your mid-50s?

    My life as I knew it had come to an end. The caretaking of older parents ended with their deaths, my children had left the nest, my husband of 25 years and I were separating. I wanted something new. I had visited California for over 20 years, having both family and dear friends, so it seemed like a plausible next step. I also wanted a more temperate climate.  I was tired of being indoors for months in the New England winters. Given those parameters and the deep-down belief that I will be okay and make it work, I took the leap.  

    I settled in an area I wasn’t as familiar with and I found the home I rent that was architecturally interesting, new, and had an outside private yard. It was another full-time room for me in my new life in California. “Home” was created and that was the first step to making my transition comfortable.

    I was also close to Ojai which was another draw to come to California. I have been studying The Work of Byron Katie for many years, attending schools and taking classes, and having that community of like-minded people so close was wonderful.

    Photo by Aaron Jay Young

    “In many ways, I haven’t lost my old life; I am still connected deeply and I am enjoying an exciting new chapter that continues to nourish me.”

    There were certainly times when I would be driving and say to myself, “Wow, I live in California. Is it true?” In the first few months, when I was staying with a friend, I definitely felt lost. Even though I had many friends here, I started to see that the 27 years that I had lived in Boston I had given up a solid community of friends and families; a big network of people doing the same thing as you at that moment in your life, raising a family. This new life of only “me” — and as a 54-year-old woman without a career in a spread-out city — was a tall order.

    Now, 4 years later, I have a new career as a print/commercial model (doing it for one year now), lots of new and interesting friendships, the ability to hike the beautiful trails in Southern CA, continued inner journey work with The Work of Byron Katie and so many friends (pre-Covid) from back East coming for visits.  I have an open house that many of my friends can attest to.  In many ways, I haven’t lost my old life; I am still connected deeply and I am enjoying an exciting new chapter that continues to nourish me. 

    “2011-2013 was the year of cancer in my family”

    What were the years like when you were dealing with the cancers in your family?

    2011-2013 was the year of cancer in my family. Both my parents were stricken again and it was the beginning of the end of their lives. I had grown up in Long Island, NY in an area where there was uranium dumping in the soil and many people got cancer from it. A class action suit was filed and both of my parents and my sister (who had breast cancer at 36) received money as Sylvania was found guilty.   

    I had just started a masters degree program in social work when my dad’s cancer had gotten significantly worse. I dropped out of school and spent half the week at home in Boston with my family and 1/2 the week in Connecticut assisting my mom with my dad as well as being an emotional support for her. My dad died in January of 2011 at home surrounded by loved ones and simultaneously my mother’s breast cancer had spread to her lungs. I was a volunteer at Dana-Farber Cancer Center in Boston and wanted her to have her treatment there. She came and lived with my family for over a year and I took her to all her chemo and then subsequent radiation appointments. I felt like I had a 125 [pound] baby living at my house and, as much as it might have felt like a burden to many, there was no choice for me. I wanted to care for her and it was a gift for me. My son was in high school so she got to spend time with her grandson, my dog at the time was her faithful loving companion and I knew how grateful she was for taking care of her.  My heart is actually exploding now as I think of the joy it brought to our lives.

    Photo by Aaron Jay Young

    “So, not only was I healing from my operation, I was dealing with my mom who was going through a rough time with her chemo.”

    During her treatment, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I remember going for a sonogram at the same place I had gone to when I was pregnant and finding out 20 years later that now I have a tumor growing in me. It was a surreal experience. I sat with the oncological surgeon and we created a road map of what I wanted removed if the tumor was cancerous. I had no use for my uterus, fallopian tubes or cervix anymore, as they had done what they needed to do for me in the support of my growing babies, and I said take it all if there is cancer. My surgery was 2 1/2 hours and I had a complete hysterectomy and there was no cancer seen anywhere else. I had 1A ovarian cancer and it was contained in the tumor. I didn’t need chemo or radiation and had an easy protocol of more frequent examinations and certain marker tests that needed to be performed. So, from 49 to date, I have lived a cancer-free life and this is not usually the case with an ovarian cancer diagnosis. It is usually a silent killer and by the time you know you have it, it is too late. I was blessed. 

    So, not only was I healing from my operation, I was dealing with my mom who was going through a rough time with her chemo. I see us both in her bathroom: I am trying to make her comfortable as she is experiencing nausea and the runs and I am barely able to stand from my surgery. These images in my mind are a sweet reminder to me of how both of my parents were model to me of grace. They handled their cancer situations with such dignity and a level of surrender. No anger, upset…just gratitude for everything they had in their lives, especially their loving daughters, my sister Alison and myself. My mom died in December of 2013 and as I reflect back I feel so very thankful that I had that time with her. I have so many beautiful memories.

    “When I take responsibility for what I believe and think, I have agency over my life and my experience.”

    What does it mean to you that we are responsible for our thoughts and beliefs?

    What I notice is when I take responsibility for what I believe and think, I have agency over my life and my experience. To look outside of myself for my understanding puts me in a situation that I can never truly know. Have you ever believed you know what someone else is thinking or why they are behaving in a way that you don’t like?  Well, that is you thinking it and it is not them. It’s only your projection of what you believe is going on.  So look to the source. When I investigate and inquire about what I believe (through the process that works for me, The Work of Byron Katie), I can find where what I am believing on someone else exists in me. That’s where I will uncover and make known to myself and have a way to look for a more true understanding.  It always leaves me with more clarity and kindness and that is where I love to live.

    Photo by Aaron Jay Young

    “We uncoupled with as much love as we coupled”

    What is it like to be unmarried after being with someone for 30 years? 

    My ex and I reached a point in our relationship where our differences didn’t work anymore.  I can only speak for myself, so I can say that I was growing in a way that wasn’t similar in the way he was growing. We were looking for different things in a partnership. We knew earlier than we had officially separated that we were not going to stay together. Our desire was to get our son off to college and then start the process. I remember the day that he moved out of the house. I came downstairs to the kitchen and saw a note on the table. It  was basically a thank you note — it read something like,  “The time has come for us to go our separate ways. I care about you and I love you and I am looking forward to seeing what the next chapter brings.”  The last line gets me every time…tears… “Thank you for everything.” We uncoupled with as much love as we coupled. We honor what we were to each other and remain dear friends. I couldn’t ask for a better ex!!! And, who knows what the future holds for me. I am learning and enjoying myself at the moment and if there is to be another significant man in my life, I will just have to wait and see.

    “The unknown is always present”

    How do you approach the fear of the unknown?

    What I have come to realize is that the unknown is always present. I can stress about the unknown and create all kinds of stories in my head about it, and what does that give me but suffering (and I have lived that). So, what I do know is that I don’t and in this I can be present with what is in the moment.  In the moment I will do something that I am moved to do and that is all I ever do. So… I have learnt to just BE with what is and I know I will find my way. That is the journey and that is exciting.  

    “When we open our minds to questioning, we are given the tools to see things from a different, more loving and kind perspective.”

    You have struggled with depression your whole life. What did you do that you found worked for you?

    Work of Byron Katie has been a saving grace for me. Years of trying medication and never really believing in it, I always felt a knowingness internally that I have the ability to heal myself. This process of The Work is called a Meditation on Paper. You fill in what is called a Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet and then ask 4 questions and turn around your original statement. In the sitting, the quieting of the mind, the answers come from another source. It is a practice like anything and after doing this for many years, I have reached parts of myself that were covered by fearful thoughts. And what I noticed is that I didn’t realize this. I now can sit back and watch the mind in motion. When I do feel bothered or I am suffering, I sit and do my work. It loosens the hold of the thought and I can see what I now see reality is. I continue to explore and learn and let go. When we open our minds to questioning, we are given the tools to see things from a different, more loving and kind perspective. It’s a way to have the unconscious become conscious and from that place we have a chance to understand. It is the most freeing experience I have had in my life and it makes me 100% accountable for my life.  

    “I feel more relevant to myself today”

    How does it feel to be 58 and doing workout videos for Mirror?

    I just booked this commercial and it is my first national commercial. I was cast as the “older” woman doing yoga — chair yoga (haha) with a few standing poses. I love that at 58 years old and silver haired that I can be a relatable older woman who still takes good care of herself, that looks and feels youthful and, despite the silver hair, wrinkles, softer skin, is still relevant. With the exception of birthing and having children, I feel more relevant to myself today. I have learnt how to love myself with all my lumps, bumps, and bruises.   Anyway, age is just a number it has nothing to do with who you are and how you move through the world. It’s your attitude that counts. You can’t go backwards and if you spend the time you have wanting to, you miss where you are and all the possibilities going forward.

    Photo by Aaron Jay Young

    “I started a whole new career because of my silver hair”

    When did you let your hair go gray? Why did you decide to do it?

    I started going gray and coloring my hair at 27. In the beginning, it was every 4 months or so and by the time I hit 52, it was every 2-3 weeks. My gray grew in from my part so I spent time walking around like a skunk because I oftentimes fell behind in the upkeep. The one thing I have is height, so many people couldn’t see the top of my head and I could get away with it.  I hated using the chemicals, sitting at the hairdresser, and the expense of it all. When my mom lost her hair due to her chemo treatment at 77 years of age, she liked the gorgeous silver color and let it go. My hairdresser told me I had the same color so I said, “YES. I am done with coloring.” She actually took my brunette locks and turned them to blonde so that the grow-out period would be easier. I must say, I am not a blonde but it got me to where I am today and I love my silver. I have a friend that had a really hard time with it. She would say to me, “But you would look so much younger if you were brunette.” Maybe she is right, but I wasn’t concerned about looking young. I thought I still had a youthful spirit and I loved the color. As it so happened to turn out, I went gray before the gray craze where young people wanted to dye their hair silver and I started a whole new career because of my silver hair. There are lots of silver linings in letting go.  I am living them.

    “I am comfortable doing nothing”

    We are in such a stressful time. How do you manage it daily?

    Yes, life is definitely not what it was like 7 months ago and I am okay with it. I have used this time to work on the areas of my life that need more attention. It is nice to not feel like you have to go, go, go all the time. I, at one point, wrote on my FB timeline that I am getting comfortable doing nothing. I like that. To believe you have to be doing anything other than what you are doing is stressful. In the beginning of Covid I had more difficulty with it and now I have adopted a loose routine which works for me. I also adopted a dog;  she is darling and I have gotten such incredible enjoyment from taking care of her and having her as my companion. I had a dog as a child and when I had my children, but having a dog when you are alone and have no other pressing responsibilities is different.  After 5 weeks I have an incredibly strong bond with her. She has added a lot to my life.

    The current state of the US, in my humble opinion, is disastrous. What can I do other than vote, support what I believe in financially, and/or work for a party? I limit the news as much of what is presented is sensationalized. I am hoping that people take this election seriously and make their vote count.

    New Canine Companion

    Who is your new canine friend? 

    She is an adopted 1-year-old Chiweenie from the streets of Tijuana named Mary (Chihuahua and Dachshund). I decided that because I was home a lot due to Covid it was a good time to adopt. Prior it felt more like a burden and responsibility that I wasn’t up for.  She is like a cross between a deer and a kangaroo. She is 10 pounds, a delicate little one, and she runs and hops like a kangaroo. All she wants is to be close and to snuggle. We spend lots of time taking walks, playing with the kids next door — they love her and she has her own fan club and I am meeting other people with small dogs in the neighborhood so she can learn to socialize a little better. She can be a little growly at first and I can see she is a bit frightened. She is getting more comfortable with it. Bedtime is quite something. I have never had a dog sleep with me before and it appears I have no choice with Mary and I love it. She likes to burrow under the covers and sleep on me. I give her some time and then lift her onto her bed which is on top of my bed. I like to have a little room when I sleep. I love taking care of her and because she is so small she can easily go with me when I go out. I even bought her a backpack where her head sticks out so she can accompany me on my bike rides — she loves it. And I think I might be turning into a crazy dog lady — Oh, no. That’s just a story. I am just thoroughly enjoying her.

    “When you open up to life, you have many options and things naturally come to you”

    What would you say to people who feel the need to recreate their lives?

    We are creating and recreating our lives every moment, whether we know it or not.  If we sit quietly with that for a moment, we might be able to see that. Thinking I need to recreate my life feels like a lot of pressure to me now (not earlier, when I burdened myself with that overwhelming thought). So, what I would say to people that are thinking about changing their lives is to get in touch with what moves you. What makes you happy, your spirit soar, what speaks to you, moves you. Inquire. Anything is possible. When you open up to life, you have many options and things naturally come to you. Trust yourself. There is no right or wrong way to do your life. If you don’t try, you won’t know.  Having the experience will guide you.  And of course, have fun with it all.

    Stephanie’s Instagram here.

    Main photo: Mosha Brahka

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    David Stewart
    David Stewart
    David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.
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