Brooke Cooley – How Hurricane Charley led to Eat, Pray, Love

I grew up in Florida and hurricanes were a part of living there. As a child they gave us days off school, provided us with opportunities to get creative, and feelings of excitement – for me, even wanting them to hit where we lived just so I could see what it was like to experience one – crazy as that sounds.
When I woke up on August 13, 2004, it was a perfect day. The telephone rang around 7:30am and woke me up. My neighbor was asking if our family was evacuating. I turned on the television and said, “Nope, Category 2 headed to Tampa…we will have a day off work and be back at the grind tomorrow. Come over for chili with your kids and your dog.” I got up and said to myself, “Let our hurricane party begin.” I went to work, scribbled out a sign on a sheet of white paper that read, “Closed today due to Hurricane Charley” and hung it on the door with a single piece of scotch tape and collected the ingredients for my chili.

Shortly after, my dad called from Michigan. He wanted to know if my husband had put the shutters up on their home. He had not. My dad said, “I have a funny feeling about this one, tell him to go do it.” We all rolled our eyes and thought – he is completely overreacting…this storm is going to blow on by and this is a waste of time. But he went.

A few hours later, my neighbor is at our home with her 3 kids and dog. We are all huddled in our living room, chili on the stove, flipping between every station on the TV…the sun is shining. I remember thinking about how amazingly gorgeous it was for an August day in Florida. Clear skies, light breeze, and low humidity. That was around noon.

By mid-afternoon the winds had started to pick up and the meteorologists were noticing changes in the direction of this compact storm. Within a few hours, this storm not only intensified but was changing course. It was a Category 4 with sustained winds of 140 miles per hour and made a direct hit on life as we once knew it. In 2 hours our lives had all changed. When we emerged from the bathroom – 2 dogs, 5 kids, and 3 adults – what we saw did not seem real. I remember opening the door to that bathroom, seeing our pool cage in our living room, broken glass everywhere, walking through puddles in my kitchen, seeing the sky through my kids rooms, and having to pry our garage door open to get the car out. 13 trees were down in our yard and a third of the roof had blown off our home. The power was out and the chili was still simmering on the gas stove.

It took us an hour to drive our car to my aunt and uncles home in the same neighborhood. Trees were everywhere, power lines were down, and nothing looked even vaguely familiar. The neighborhood I grew up in and had made my home as an adult looked like WWIII and literally resembled a bomb site. The power would remain off for several weeks. Our neighbors would come together to create a community, we had no other choice.

I remember delivering food from the freezer at the golf course restaurant to neighbors by golf cart, filling gas tanks from the pumps at the maintenance facility, handing out beer and liquor and water. We hooked up a generator to the ice machine so we could all have ice without going into town, which surely would take an hour and a half. People came together. We had community meals for days. Family and friends from out of state arrived to help. I had no idea what I needed. I had lost everything normal about my life.

For weeks I walked around in a daze, wondering what pieces to pick up first. I was the general manager at my family’s golf course and I felt like I needed a manager. I just wanted someone to tell me what to do, but at the same time didn’t want anyone telling me what to do. Time off, that is what I needed. I had been going through the motions, with no map. I had returned from a 3 month separation from my husband one week before that storm hit and felt very alone, angry, and uncertain. Now this.

I would spend the next year rebuilding what was. I remember telling my husband that we should buy a boat, home school the kids, and sail the perimeter of the Gulf of Mexico. Go far, far away to reconnect our family and start over. It sounded crazy, unconventional, and impossible. Who does that? We have responsibilities and jobs and a home and a life. We bought a travel trailer, stored what we could salvage, and rebuilt bigger and better than ever. Except that didn’t make us happier.

Neither of us were ready for the challenge of starting over, nor did we have the energy. Go through the motions, that is what we did. We learned a lot – our family was safe, communities come together in times of need, and material things really were not missed. After we rebuilt our home, I remember saying, “Why did we do this?”

For the next few years we had our challenges, both at home and at work. I took time off work, stayed home with our kids, and was working at all my roles – wife, mother, and businesswoman. Starting new businesses, volunteering at the kids school, redecorating our house, taking time with my husband…there were times that it all seemed to be working. Then if any or all of those weren’t, I’d feel lost again. My roles were defining me. It was like I was experiencing “empty nest syndrome” a bit early in my life.

Fast-forward five years. It is now the Spring of 2009. I had booked a trip to San Francisco for a getaway after a long and challenging winter season. A week or two prior to my trip, I attended my monthly Literary Club Meeting. A friend of mine was discussing the book Eat, Pray, Love. I am in a room full of lovely ladies and I am crying as she speaks. I ask to borrow the book for my flight to read on the way out. She obliges.

Two weeks later I board the plane, book in hand. Page one. I didn’t put it down for the entire 6 hour flight. As the plane was landing I turn to my seatmate, a woman who appeared to be in her 70s, and asked if she had ever been married. She said yes. I asked if she had been happy. Her response was, “which time?” It was that moment that I decided to get a divorce. On a plane, en route to San Francisco, five years after our first separation.

I think I would have just stayed in San Francisco if I didn’t have all of those responsibilities to take care of at home. When I got married, I thought it would be forever. So many things went through my head. How was all of this going to work out? How would I make it on my own? What about the house? The kids? The stuff? What will people say and think? I had created this amazing life and was viewed by others as this successful woman who has it all together. But that was the furthest thing fro the truth. I had no idea who I was. Without all of these things, I was very lost. I had created a life that I couldn’t see myself in.

When I returned from California, I asked for a separation and found myself moving into that travel trailer we had bought after the hurricane. It was in my backyard. I would feel the need to road trip and find meaning in everything that I saw. Simple roadsigns and birds must mean something. I was looking for a sign, something to tell me what to do and that it would be okay. I spent weeks traveling by car to unknown destinations, reading books, writing, and talking to people. I had been searching for happiness my whole life and knew no joy.

That was my goal – to find joy. Sounds so simple…well, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I spent weeks literally looking up the definitions of the two words – happiness and joy. I’d read, write, analyze, over analyze, and rewrite. Finally, one day…and I have no idea why or where or when…one day, that light bulb went off. I had been searching for the wrong things. The adventures were certainly providing me with happiness and even in some cases joy – because it was new and exciting and I was putting myself out there to see what would and could happen. I spent days just meandering through towns, talking to people, driving hundreds and thousands of miles over the next several months.

I remember wishing I could travel to Italy, India, and Indonesia – just like in the book. Instead, I would have to find meaning closer to home. I traveled all right – 23 states, 10,000 miles. Partly with my children, partly alone. Everything from the Ritz-Carlton to a tent. I had no idea how long this would last. I had no idea where I was going. I just didn’t want to be scared anymore, worried about things I had no control over. All I could do was think about the fact that I didn’t want to be lost forever. Being “successful” had nothing to do with how many board of directors I served on, how long I was married, what kind of house I had, how many cars we drove, or what I did for a living. I needed more than that – but what?

Fast-forward to August 13, 2010…today. Six years after that hurricane turned my life upside down and the day after watching the advanced-screening of Eat, Pray, Love in San Francisco, the place I now call home. I hadn’t thought much about that book since I read it a year and a half ago on the flight out here for my weekend away. I made a comment before the movie that I wasn’t sure Julia Roberts was who I had envisioned playing the part of that woman. Someone asked me who I envisioned. Well, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s story…that book was not my story when I read it, it was hers. It was her quest and her experiences. I had to have my own.

Today is an ending to processing a hurricane, a search for my soul, a divorce, and a move across the country. These events make up who I have become and this is a never ending story. Now – Chapter 1…

Brooke Cooley
The Soup Lady
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