Trying Something New

Tucsonan Barbara Stahura tells her inspiring story in a series of personal essays

In 1993, Barbara Stahura was making $30,000 a year working as a public-information writer for a utility company in Evansville, Ind. A lover of books since childhood, she had felt, for most of her life, an urge to write.

However, this position--her first writing job, begun seven years earlier--had turned into a nightmare. Harassed by a bad-tempered boss and besieged by depression and constant headaches, Stahura felt caged in the dull, enervating corporate world. Yet she couldn't bring herself to quit, because that meant giving up the security of a steady paycheck.

After attending a writing workshop and talking over her situation with some of the women there, she began developing plans to cut the corporate umbilical cord. A few months later, at the age of 42, Stahura quit, leaping "off the cliff ... praying to grow wings before the splat!"

In What I Thought I Knew, a wise and inspiring collection of personal essays, we learn that while growing wings was, at times, a scary endeavor, Stahura--who now lives in Tucson--has yet to experience the Big Splat. In fact, she's flourished, fully supporting herself while carving out a successful freelance-writing career.

Stahura's depiction of workplace woes and happy escape is representative of all of the essays in this book: witty, observant and well-crafted, with an insightful take on basic human challenges to which most people will relate.

Stahura notes that her liberation from a job gone bad might never have happened had she not listened to an inner calling. She writes that a calling, "the faint voice struggling to be heard through the chaos with which we've surrounded ourselves," is key to making life-enhancing changes. However, she says, we're often reluctant to follow our callings, because they frequently bring with them the intimidating prospect of having to completely restructure our lives.

"In following a call," she asserts, "we must often leave precious treasures behind--loved ones or a home, cherished beliefs, a source of income, or habits and things that comfort us--as we strike out in search of new and different ones. This is the barrier as well as the lure."

In addition to the actual stresses of going it alone--unexpected tax bills, checks that arrive unpredictably or not at all, the unrelenting pressure to secure new assignments--Stahura's fear of financial calamity flushed out all kinds of imaginary bugaboos.

"I envisioned myself," she says, "slurping soup at the homeless shelter ... (and) that soup was clear broth because all my teeth had fallen out after not being able to afford dental visits for years and years."

However, she recalls one watershed night when she awoke drowning in anxiety and saw her frazzled face staring back at her in the bedroom mirror. It suddenly occurred to her that despite her incessant fears about the future, she had never actually gone without. Stahura writes that it was then that she began to believe that "tomorrow will take care of itself."

Indeed, the theme of this book is that we can often transform our lives by simply changing our minds. Stahura supplies a number of illustrations from her experiences, including her tremulous but ultimately successful attempts to master bike-riding in middle age, using an imaginary "sky hook" to keep her upright; a profound vision she had while meditating that led to an emotional reconnection with her long-deceased father; her journey from the devout Catholicism of her childhood to a broader spiritual outlook; and an encounter with a rattlesnake that expanded her self-awareness.

Stahura also gives us a guided tour of her love life, long a wasteland of bad dates, loneliness and desperate yearnings. One day, however, she was bewailing her situation with a group of friends when one of them suggested she consider giving up "what you think you know." This advice, Stahura tells us, hit her like "a little earthquake," and she soon began pruning away many of her preconceptions about relationships, deciding to be happy whether she was alone or not. Shortly thereafter, she met the love of her life--by answering a Tucson Weekly personals ad--and is now happily married.

Stahura contends that whether the catalyst comes from within or without, our ability to alter our approach to life is indispensable when trying to work through difficulties.

"When we're mired in the muck," she declares, "it's because we've exhausted all our usual options. The feeling of stuckness comes from applying traditional thinking and behavior to new situations and having them not work, repeatedly. The only way to free ourselves is to try something new."