Real-life expert: I quit the rat race

Everett Collection/20th Century FoxEverett Collection/20th Century FoxEven though New York is the subject of glamorized tales in which women run around town in stilettos, drinking $15 pink cocktails and carrying puppies in purses, the reality is more like this: We commute long distances on a subway that often smells of trash and urine, abject poverty shares the sidewalks with glamazons, and the standard work week is usually a good deal longer than 40 hours. It's the most exciting city in the world, "they" say, yet even the most high-achieving among us talk in hushed tones at parties about what would happen if we escaped the glittering skyline and teeny apartments to embrace a better quality of life. And that's just what Cathy Halley did.

What led you to sell your apartment, quit your corporate job in New York, and move half-way across the country?

I'm a very lucky girl because I moved for love and money--well for a perfect-for-me job. Everything just fell into place the way it does two, maybe three times in your life. I'd been dating someone who lives in Chicago, traveling back and forth to see her once a month. I really didn't want to leave Brookyn, where I'd lived for 12 years, but if my girlfriend and I were going to make it work, we had to live in the same city. I'd been managing the website for the erstwhile Domino Magazine for several years, and writing a blog called Scrappy Girl Decorates about renovating my apartment. Then one day I opened up a Mediabistro newsletter and the featured job listing was for an Online Editor at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. I applied for the job and got it, and that's where I am now, working to create a wider audience for poetry--in fact, we're about to launch a terrific iPhone application that lets you discover poetry based on your mood.

Was this a gut-based decision -- was it based on intuition and passion for writing -- or something more practical?

I like to tell people that Chicago and poetry found me--well, got its clutches on me--again. I was born in Gary, Indiana and there's an empty grave there next to my father's. The joke is that he's dragging me back to Gary. But the truth is that I'd been craving the literary life I used to lead as an English graduate student in the 90s. In fact, I moved to New York to get my MFA in poetry writing at Brooklyn College, but I flaked out and never showed up to my program. Suddenly there was poetry again, refusing to leave me alone. So the decision was serendipitous and gut-based, I'd say, but also practical. More on that in a second.

Has your own creative life as a writer changed since the move? Has your current job affected your creative output (in good ways or bad)?

Well, I'm a closet poet--I did a reading the other day for the Un-Called for series and was terrified that someone I work with would find out and show up! I've published a few poems in the terrific Pocket Myths zine series, but that's it. I actually don't try to publish because I'm too afraid of rejection. Though that's changing slowly. I certainly have more time to write now that I'm working more reasonable, Midwestern hours. And I'm reading new, inspiring poetry all the time. Just yesterday I was editing a podcast for Poetry Magazine, listening to some poems by Randall Mann, whom I'd never heard before. He's simply amazing--and inspiring. On the way home, I wrote a poem based on something he'd written.

What was the hardest part of making the change and deciding to pull the trigger? Would you do anything differently? And what have been the most rewarding/surprising/magnificent outcomes of this major life change?

The hardest part is that I desperately miss my flesh and blood friends. I have 510 "friends" on Facebook, but no one to meet me for a drink on a Tuesday night. It's lonely moving to a new city when you're in your forties. No doubt. I've started writing a memoir about the isolation. And it's terrifying to leave New York, which I compare to a game of Double Dutch--if you're in there jumping, you've got your rhythm and you're fine. Heaven help you, however, if you jump out and try to get back in later on. But you know what? I ride my bike to work along the Lake Michigan bike path for seven months of the year. I have a three-bedroom apartment with a deck bigger than most New York kitchens. I take a harmonica class at the Old Town School of Folk Music for peanuts. And I'm growing again. I was a little flower, caught in the shadows cast all over Times Square. As my friend Nick said to me nearly twenty years ago, "Cathy, if you don't get out of your normal routine, nothing's going to happen to you." I went out, and I'm just fine.

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