Watershed Moment: that minute your life changed forever


By: Beverly Molander, MEd, RScM,

One comment that a client made got me to thinking.  He said that one of our counseling sessions had been a “watershed moment” for him—a critical turning point in his life.
The term intrigued me enough to look it up. Technically, watershed is the entire drainage area feeding a river or other water system. Simplistically, think of rain falling on a mountain. If the rain falls on one side of the mountain it could end up in the Atlantic Ocean; on the other side of the mountain it could be on a path to the Gulf of Mexico.
Metaphorically, the term, “watershed” can be a decision, an experience, or an event that has a pivotal and profound effect—and things will never be the same again. Everything changes.
Not all watershed moments are extreme, yet many are gut-wrenching and feel catastrophic. Our world seems to be shifting on its axis. Sometimes watershed moments are subtle shifts and changes that lead us in a different direction.
Fiora L., of Asheville, has had several watershed moments, including:
The stark fear and aloneness of my five-year-old self, getting ready to fly home  after a year in Ecuador and having to leave behind my beloved puppy;
In the delivery room when my first baby opened her eyes and began suckling my thigh before she was even out;
Our decision to go to U-Mass-Amherst to attend school full-time. We loaded up a moving van, seated our daughters, ages 3 and 7, on the sofa  behind us, and headed off into the future;
The recent birth of my first grandchild; Dancing in Barrie Barton’s Community Choreography Project, Hand Me Down: Bestowing our True Inheritance of Life, Lessons, and Legacy—a seven-month process of examining such moments. We created one giant watershed moment on stage at the Diana Wortham Theater.
Watershed moments happen all around us, all the time.
Miriam Freer returned to Sylva after graduating from WCU, traveling the nation, and owning her own graphic design company. She had been through a hard divorce and decided to move home to re-evaluate her life.
In 2009, not long after her move, she received a numbing diagnosis of breast cancer. In shock, Miriam went through the preliminaries – meetings with doctors and specialists. Reality didn’t hit until her first bout with chemotherapy that landed her in ICU for a week.
“I felt as though my life was being taken over by other people,” she recalls. “That’s when my watershed moment occurred.  I realized that, although they were sticking needles in me and taking x-rays, that part was just about physical health. I had to take control of my emotional and mental health.” Miriam had begun her career as a psychologist and knew full well the connection between mind, body, and spirit. “I sought out positive friends and quit listening to the anxiety of naysayers. Even though dark thoughts can lurk in the corners of my mind, I don’t have to let them gain ground or take over.” 
Miriam now handles every kind of stress this way. “I allow myself no negative thoughts about anything. If something has the potential to disturb me, I step back and calm down until I can handle it differently.” She used her new-felt sense of control to empower the doctors to try a different treatment plan that resulted in a less radical mastectomy than was originally anticipated. 
“Recovery is a process and we can determine how we move through it,” Miriam reminds us. “Although every woman has a unique treatment plan, there is one thing we have in common:  when we think and act positively we will have a better physical, mental, and emotional outcome.”
Maureen N. says, “I had a marriage-ending watershed moment, not dramatic, just a knowing.”  Although she and her husband tried marriage therapy to deal with the effects of his addiction on the marriage, the pivotal moment came when they went to a cabin in Highlands with their adult children for a weekend getaway. Maureen recalls, “Nothing was new or different. We cooked and walked the dogs and played games with the kids, but there was nothing there. And that’s when I knew it was over. We were not intimate in any fashion anymore, and even a beautiful weekend couldn’t make a difference. No real feeling was left. And that was it. No drama. No more crying. It was over.” 
Her story recalls an old BeeGees song, –“not even love enough to break each other’s heart.” Divorce proceedings came shortly thereafter. 
Sally Ray lives in Waynesville and Asheville.  After being told by a professor that she would “never succeed in life” she earned her Interior Design degree.  “In the seventies, I gathered up my shy, country girl courage and headed to Atlanta for a job,” Sally remembers.  Then came her first of many watershed moments. 
“I moved to Manhattan with the boss, where I got a gig modeling wedding dresses on 7th Avenue. Then I met Cindy, also a model, who was connected to the jet-set at Studio 54 – the place to go for disco and decadence.” Other opportunities spilled from that decision – like a trip with the rich and famous to Acapulco where she met the owner of an Italian modeling agency and worked the runway in Milan and Florence for a year. 
Returning to the Big Apple, she worked as an assistant to the owner of Studio 54.  “One day I overheard a conversation about setting up a hotel in St. Thomas Virgin Islands for a huge celebrity charter adventure.  The hotel needed an overhaul, and when I told the owner I had a degree in interior design I was on my way to St. Thomas 12 hours later!” she smiles widely.  Within two weeks, Sally met Armando, a handsome diver who had worked with deep sea explorer, Jacques Cousteau.  Investors hired Armando as Managing Director of a 120-foot Italian mine-sweeper, and Sally was hired to transform the interior on what became The Okeanos Explorer, the largest dive research vessel in the world. “We spent the next two years living in St. Thomas with a crew of 10 – an absolute dream come true.”
Sharlene lives in Atlanta, as does her German Mom. Her African American Dad lives in Munich, Germany. Sharlene decided to jumpstart her physical self, and signed up for a yoga immersion intensive. She knew this 500-hour course would transform her physically, but little did she know that it would be a watershed decision that would transform her life. 
Sharlene met Leslie, a PhD candidate going to Emory University, who had lived in Munich, where Sharlene had also lived. When Leslie moved to Zurich, Switzerland, the friends skyped, and a year after they first met, the two buddies were on a trip of a lifetime, visiting Sharlene’s family in Germany and traveling through Morocco. “Leslie knows more about me than anyone else,” Sharlene explains. “The yoga intensive helped us to get to know each other fast, and now she knows my family and friends in Atlanta and Germany. She understands who I am.”
Mrs. Zada Phipps, 94, has lived in Waynesville for 30 years. After the Civil War her grandfather started a trading post with the Seminole Indians in South Florida. Her father helped with the business and grew it into the popular Burdines department store chain back in the twenties. Already a sophisticated young woman of 24, Zada married a pilot who traveled the world, imagining a life of glamour and excitement. By the time her daughter was born, Zada knew she had married the wrong man. When she asked for a divorce, he decided to spite Zada’s request.
After telling her he was taking their daughter to visit relatives in California, he disappeared with Patty, age four at the time. “They were gone for a harrowing three months,” Zada recalls. “I hired a lawyer, who found out they were in Hawaii. A detective and I flew over to Hawaii—and we found them by chance, on a side road. We stopped our cars. When Patty saw me she jumped out of his car and into mine, and that was it.”  There was no question about winning the divorce and custody when Zada got back home and went to court. 
“The watershed moment occurred when I decided that, despite the social mores of the time around World War II, I could not live with this man,” Zada explains. “His behavior confirmed I was correct.”  Divorce freed her up to eventually meet and marry the love of her life, Ernie. They had a daughter, Zada, together, and were married for 43 years before his death. “Sometimes we have to make tough decisions and simply move on, regardless of what anyone else thinks.”
Ann Basserab, of Atlanta, agreed to start a school in Talek, a Maasai village in Kenya. During her first trip in 2000, Ann met many townsfolk, including Sonkoi, a tall, shy young man who made a living slaughtering goats and selling the meat. When Ann brought some Americans to help build the school in 2001, Sonkoi was there, offering support.
Six months later, Ann was back to open an internet café near the Maasai Mara Reserve. When she went home to Atlanta, she and Sonkoi stayed in touch through letters, although he could not read or write. His father had kept him home from school to watch the cattle, the lifeblood of every Maasai family. “A villager read and wrote our letters for a small fee. Neither of us knew what literary license the scribe took, but at least we were able to keep in touch!” Ann chuckles.
When she returned to Kenya in 2002 to check on projects, Ann wanted to visit a friend who had married and moved to Lamu, a Swahili island off the coast of Kenya. Drawbacks — no phone number, address, or knowledge of how to get to the island from the bush where she was — plus the danger of traveling alone. Ann says, “I wondered who could accompany me, and Sonkoi said Yes, without hesitation.” 
They made it to Lamu after a two-day, non-stop car-bus-plane-ferry journey. “This was first time that Sonkoi and I could spend time together without the entire community,” Ann explains.
When Sonkoi escorted Ann to Nairobi to catch her midnight plane to America, they sat for hours talking about their adventures and how fortunate they were to meet each other. Then Sonkoi told Ann, “You are my first wife.” 
“I was stunned,” says Ann, “but happy, because we had grown very close over the last two-plus years.” Since Sonkoi’s dad had four wives and 36 children, Ann asked Sonkoi how many wives he was planning to have. “Just one,” he replied. “I said Yes!, scared and ecstatic at the same time,” Ann grins.
In April of 2003, Sonkoi came to Atlanta for his first visit so they could make sure they were compatible on both continents. They were married in August of that year.
“I am a 5’2” white female and my bigger-than-life love story, my watershed moment, began with the decision to travel to Kenya and live in a Maasai village.  I met, fell in love with, and married a 6’6” strong and handsome Maasai warrior. There is a 39-year difference in our ages.
“Our story is remarkable — how two people of very dissimilar lifestyles, ages, races, religions, nationalities, and cultural systems can work it out together. Nothing that is in the heart is impossible.”



Beverly Molander, MEd, RScM, is host of her radio series, Affirmative Prayer:  Activating the Power of YES, on www.unity.fm (The Voice of an Awakening World).  Her program airs live every Monday, 1:00-2:00 p.m. Eastern Time. The show is archived for listener convenience at www.unity.fm/AffirmativePrayer.   Contact her at Beverly@beverlymolander.net or 404-931-7333.


Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker