Staring down her 52nd year, Sherry Stanfa-Stanley decided that every week she'd do something she'd never done, something garnished with both fear and fun.
The first week she took two belly-dance lessons. In Week 26, she went to a nude beach in Florida with Gloria, her 75-year-old mother. (Gloria would like it known that she remained fully clothed.) Here's what Ms. Stanfa-Stanley wrote about it:
"As I peeled off my swimsuit at the beach, I sucked in a deep breath to steady my nerves and flatten my stomach. I squeezed my eyes shut and, at the age of 52, I adopted the logic of a two-year-old: If I can't see anybody, then nobody can see me."
Last night, she finished Week 37 by hosting a party for eight strangers (she asked friends to invite friends that she didn't know).
Inspiration for the 52/52 Project came from three things that occurred when she was 51: she sold her long-home, bought a condo, and shed 30 pounds. And while she was shaking it up, she figured, why not keep pushing the boundaries? She devised a list of weekly challenges for what she calls My Year of Detours off the Cul-de-sac. It's been liberating and terrifying, and she's having a ball wading in to the Maumee River on New Year's Day, auditioning for Survivor, and being hypnotized to learn about her past lives.
Ms. Stanfa-Stanley is the director of communication and fund stewardship at the University of Toledo Foundation where she's worked for 22 years. The mother of two sons in their 20s and divorced, she is petite, lively, and willing to grab life by the horn. Even a horn attached to a rhinoceros.
Those who knew her at Bowsher High School won't be surprised: In 1979 she was voted best sense of humor and (to Gloria's astonishment), best party giver.
"But also in high school I sat in my room and wrote poetry." She still writes in her free time and has produced a couple of unpublished novels, essays, and is writing a book about her current undertaking.
Last year, when she laid out the fledgling project on her new Facebook page, friends, family, and strangers weighed in with suggestions such as the Polar Bear Plunge and dining in the dark. She couldn't wait five months for her 52nd birthday, so she started in May with belly-dance lessons. "It confirmed that I was still as uncoordinated as I was at seven, the last time I took a dance class."
Week 2 she entered a pizza-eating contest, scarfing down six slices in 10 minutes at Capers Restaurant & Bar. She came in last of six contenders. Hey, cut her some slack: she was the only woman AND the oldest.
"I waddled out of there. The good thing was I didn't have cravings for pizza for a long time."
Next up was a little shopping excursion to an adult bookstore. That was followed, of course, by visits to three houses of worship. Raised Catholic, she felt awkward at a bar mitzvah in a synagogue, at a Hindu temple, and at a Full Gospel Baptist Church. But there was revelation: “I realized what a narrow, narrow life I’ve lived in some ways.”
In subsequent weeks she had her long tresses chopped off, camped out all by her lonesome at Mary Jane Thurston Park (“I was never a camper”), ate a chocolate-covered cricket and worm, and underwent a painful (mostly psychologically) leg and Brazilian wax. She adopted a vegan diet for a week, dressed (sung, danced, and blew kisses) outfitted as the helmeted blue and gold mascot Rocksy at a UT soccer match. Walked dingoes, exfoliated a rhino, and slung dung at the Toledo Zoo. She searched, without success, for a date on match.com. “My membership has expired and I will not be renewing it.”
Writing with good humor about each experience, she has 1,000 followers on Facebook.
She’s realized that interrupting a habit for a week is particularly tough. Seven days without caffeine turned her into “a blithering mess.” And unplugging for a week from television, radio, Internet, and her iPhone, on which she reads The Blade “cover to cover,” was the pits. (She did plug in for her job.)
“I definitely learned I’m very addicted to talking on the phone. And Facebook, email, surfing for news. My kids got the iPhone for me. As soon as I get in the car, I get on the phone. [That week] I found myself singing in the car more.”
She loves to sing, but not in front of others, so taking two lessons from a professional was something like hitting the beach in the buff.
“It was like being naked in front of a stranger. I really felt I was putting myself out there for judgement. I’d give it a serious effort and if it failed, that was something personal. The first thing the teacher said was ‘You’re very loud.’ It wasn’t horrific but she didn’t recommend I try out for America’s Got Talent.”
Nevertheless, she had a good time fulfilling another item on her list: singing with a band. It happened unexpectedly at a big party where the Danger Brothers were performing. Pushed on stage, she sang the Beatles’ birthday song (“They say it’s your Birthday”). “When I got on stage I realized this project was about getting outside my comfort zone.” There was no time to practice, and after the instrumental break she came in at the wrong time. But “I started singing and what I call dancing. My fear was gone within a few seconds.”
One Friday summer night she cruised reception halls looking to crash a wedding. She had her story prepared: she was the date of a guy who had worked with the groom at a previous job. Dinner was over when she found one, so she got a drink and made small talk with guests. As she snapped a photo of the bride’s bouquet toss, she realized the flowers were flying at her. “I clutched it and smiled. And then a little girl came up and asked for it.” She might have been better behaved than some of the invited guests: she brought a nice card in which she tucked a gift card (did not sign her name) and wrote how she valued her friendship with the couple.
“The only time I came close to backing out was the zip line. When we got up there I started to hyperventilate.” She hadn’t known this zip line required the “super hero stance” (Superman flying belly down, arms out). “But once I got out there, I really enjoyed it.”
Ms. Stanfa-Stanley ate at a restaurant that served dinner in total darkness, a mini-trend in which visual stimulation is eliminated to enhance the sense of taste. “Our waitress wore night-vision goggles. What I thought was eggplant turned out to be some kind of fish.”
On a sublime note, she contacted a cousin near Chicago she’d never met, a nun. Together they helped out at a nursing home, went bowling, played dominoes, and discussed their faith. “She had a great sense of humor. It was eye-opening in a lot of ways.”
She resolved to take a homeless person for a meal. Noticing a woman holding a “Hungry and Homeless” sign, she parked, walked up, and invited her to lunch at a nearby restaurant. “I used to drive by and was much more skeptical. I’m much less judgmental. And I’m not going to hold back from giving people a few dollars.”
She painted her face white to mime at a shopping mall (“most of the children enjoyed it”), rang the Salvation Army’s bell, co-hosted a radio show, and tackled a home-improvement project (sanding and staining a wooden bar, a success).
Still to come: ice fishing, hot air ballooning, stock-car driving, an overnight ghost hunt at the Mansfield Reformatory with professional ghost hunters, a stand-up comedy schtick. “I’m still looking for someone to let me babysit triplet babies.”
Ms. Stanfa-Stanley’s steepest mountain lays ahead, and she’s apprehensive.
“I’m supposed to run in a 5K. When I started this in May I ran about a half-dozen times and I started having hamstring issues, so that was my excuse to stop. I’m not a runner. But I’ll be really disappointed if I don’t do it. So I’m going to get on the treadmill tonight.
What’s the plan for 53?
“I don’t know. I’ll definitely feel this void in my week. Any suggestions?”
To read more about Sherry Stanfa-Stanley’s year of living dangerously, check her Facebook page at 52@52 Project.
Contact Tahree Lane at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6075.