For over 20 years, I’ve been writing about identity. In my 20s and 30s, that meant exploring my Serbian heritage. Now that I’m in my 40s, that’s shifted to marriage, parenting, grief and loss.
And yet, the underlying topic remains the same: identity. Who and what made us who we are? What familial and cultural patterns shaped us? Now hold that picture next to the people we are today. This is where I like to live—in that sacred, liminal space of becoming.
It’s also where life’s magic happens—in the space in between. It’s where we get to reckon with the muck and the magic. Oftentimes, as Brene Brown writes in Rising Strong, this place of reckoning shows up after a hurt, loss, fall or failure.
Other times, it shows up as a big life transition: a move, job change, marriage, divorce, end of a friendship, death. These are often some of the hardest, most vulnerable moments we’ll ever face. They’re also often filled with grace.
Despite that, most of us don’t embrace these moments. Because they hurt like hell.
And who really wants to face that fork in the road, anyway? Who really wants to rumble with their feelings. Feel that pain.
And yet, this is such a powerful place. It’s where we learn how to take our power back. Where we choose what we want to keep from our past, and what, ultimately, we choose to leave behind.
It’s also where we get to decide who we’re going to become.
For almost 10 years, I lived in the academic community—teaching at the University of Colorado at Denver, the Community College of Denver and Indiana University, and publishing my fiction and poetry in literary journals. (Before that, I tended bar in Madison, WI, for most of my 20s.) But something was missing.
I wasn’t reaching the people I most wanted to reach. I wanted to empower others, share the life-changing magic of writing, help them reclaim their deepest selves. Besides, I was tired of seeing budding writers shut down by the academic workshop model, which valued hierarchy, criticism, and an often-mean-spirited shredding of each other’s work.
On top of all this, I had a busy teaching schedule, with little time to write. And I was newly married, with Ken and I about to start our own family. Meaning I was grappling with change and identity issues on all fronts. Cue drum roll. It was time for a change.
So, shortly before Nico was born, I left academia and started my own business, teaching and consulting in the larger community. My first workshop—Writes of Passage: Moving Through Life’s Big Transitions—placed me squarely on my new path, as did my second, Reclaiming Yourself After Children.
During this time, I dipped my toe into blogging. My first blog, Peasant Woman, was a small, informal affair whose main goal was to keep me sane while raising two young children. Now that I had two boys under the age of three, life was messier and more complicated than I’d ever imagined. It was also filled with way more love than I’d ever have thought.
Still, the logistics of my new life left little time and space for me. A sensitive, introverted person by nature, I’d long required downtime to recharge. But as I soon learned, downtime no longer exists with a 2.5-yr-old and a newborn. I’m still not even sure if quiet exists in a houseful of boys–although I now have moments where I think we’re starting to get there.
Trying to find time and space for myself was just the tip of the iceberg. I was also working part-time, consulting and completing a memoir about my Serbian heritage while growing increasingly frustrated with the pressures of my new life. Yes, I may have looked like I had it all on the outside, but on the inside, I was drowning.
That’s when I started a new blog, Reboot This Marriage: Two adults. Two kids. One year to reboot this marriage. I was determined to put an end to the conspiracy of silence that accompanied my new, married-with-young-children boot camp life. I’d write a blog, I decided, ousting myself in the process. With any luck, my honesty would encourage others to share their own challenges. And maybe, just maybe, we could even support each other along the way.
And then my life really fell apart. In the span of two years, my younger son was diagnosed with a life-threatening food allergy, my mother fell and broke her hip, and my father-in-law passed away. The year after that, my mother—a strong, passionate woman who walked miles each day—was diagnosed with stage IV cancer during emergency surgery. She died two months later.
I’ve spent these past couple of years reeling from the aftermath.
Reassessing my life. Carefully considering the person I used to be, and weighing the parts I was ready to leave behind. I was ready, finally effin’ ready, to become me–the person who’d been buried beneath all those old layers and expectations all along.
With both parents dead and buried, I was no longer anyone’s daughter–a giant identity shift that was both a blessing and a curse. At the age of 42, I’d become the matriarch of my family. The fork in the road gaped wide.
I’d be lying if I said these past couple of years have been easy. They haven’t been. But they’ve also been full of grace. Full of new friends and old who’ve reached out and supported me in ways I never could have imagined. Full of joy and laughter and plenty of arguments with a partner and children who’ve helped me heal wounds I didn’t know I had. Full of new inspiration for my writing and teaching. Full of a more fully-felt presence, and a resilience I didn’t know I possessed.
Yes, I still struggle with grief and loss—particularly around anniversaries and holidays. Despite that, I’m incredibly grateful for the strength and self-knowledge I now possess. We can use these transitions to create lives that are more authentic and loving and joyful, or we can refuse them, essentially shutting ourselves down.
I chose to fight.
And to learn.
Won’t you join me?
Tanja Pajevic received her M.F.A. from Indiana University and has taught at the University of Colorado Denver, the Community College of Denver and Indiana University, as well as in the larger community.
She is the author of The Secret Life of Grief: A Memoir and 9 Steps to Heal Your Resentment and Reboot Your Marriage, a self-help book based on her blog Reboot This Marriage: Two adults. Two kids. One year to Reboot This Marriage.
Tanja is the recipient of a Fulbright grant, Hemingway Fellowship, Kraft Fellowship and a faculty award from the University of Colorado Denver for her project “Writing as Healing.” Inspired by the challenges we all face but rarely discuss, Tanja leads writing workshops around life’s big transitions. She lives in Boulder, CO, with her husband Ken and their two boys, Nico and Gabriel, and is currently completing a book of poetry.
Tanja also works with groups, businesses and individuals as a Writing Coach and Consultant. She motivates and inspires clients in all stages of the writing process, from inspiration to publication, and specializes in writer’s block and helping clients overcome negative associations with writing.
Topics have ranged from the following workplace seminars
- Three Simple Steps to an Effective Document,
- How to Write an Effective Proposal, and
- Identifying and Targeting Your Audience
to workshops in the larger community:
- Fantastic Fiction: Using Positive Critique to Strengthen Your Writing,
- Writes of Passage: Moving Confidently Through Life’s Big Changes,
- Reclaiming Yourself After Children: A Writing Workshop, and
- Reclaiming Yourself After Loss.
If you’d like to talk to Tanja about consulting for your business, planning a workshop in your community or getting your writing project off the ground, please contact her for rates and availability.