Extraordinary People - Cherie Norton
Today I'd like to introduce you to my friend Cherie Norton, who leads one of the most fascinating lives of anyone I know, following her heart where it leads, which is often to some rather unconventional places. She has also learned some great lessons along the way, which she shares with us here.
In her own words, "Over my lifetime, my identity has gone through various iterations, from dirt-poor college student working three jobs, to legal secretary, stressed-out coffee-shop owner, home-schooler of three children, reluctant country club socialite (a short-lived diversion), horseman, political campaigner, rural farm wife, prepper, Harley road-tripper, firearms instructor and private pilot. Throughout all, my values have remained the same, but I am not unchanged. Each of these has had a lasting effect on who I am and what goals I choose to focus on in my daily life. Today, I am a little of all of these things, and I am the better for it."
1. Tell me a little bit about your childhood and where you grew up. How would you describe your family and your town?
I grew up in Montara, a tiny, rural coastal town in California, in an era unfettered by helicopter parenting and the endless string of frenetic and expensive after-school activities; activities designed to keep kids out of trouble and teach lessons in “team playing”, “sportsmanship” and “discipline”. I learned these lessons, but naturally. They became intrinsic to who I am because I experienced them, not because someone told me they were the right thing to do (at least while the coach was looking). The lessons I learned were the result of the exploration of my environment and suffering natural consequences for my actions, and sometimes for the actions of those that I hung around. Some of today's lessons, like sacrificing your family’s financial security to keep up with the Joneses’ kids’ activities, I escaped, and gladly.
My parents were extremely strict and both worked. As such, I enjoyed a daily list of household chores, but when I finished, my time was my own. My friends and I were left to explore. We ran the hills, adventuring each afternoon and every weekend. With no adults hovering to caution us not to touch electric horse fencing, stay away from pot farms, tipping bulls or high tide on the treacherous ocean rocks, we learned quickly how to avoid danger, solve problems and absorbed basic life lessons, like: there’s safety in numbers, it’s lonely without friends, and you’ll go hungry if you don’t pack food (or know where to find fruit trees along your route). We learned how to build things like improvised "horse- drawn" sleds with 2 dogs, a few ropes and a piece of wood with casters. We learned the importance of home insurance (due to the ensuing “horse-drawn sled” mishap) which protected my parents’ hard-earned savings. Don't be afraid to adventure, but take steps to safeguard your security along the way.
As a child I learned to stand up for the weak. Standing up to our abusive neighbor slapping around his 2 year old had consequences, but was well worth the look of shock when my 12-year-old self let her dog bite him on the ass. My parents were strict, but fair. They taught respect for elders, but not at the expense of a child. They helped me understand why my dog had to go into quarantine. And they defended my actions when the neighbor came knocking, red-faced and arms flailing in anger. I learned to be brave and stand up for what I believe, but that there are also times to retreat.
2. When you first got married, what kinds of struggles did you face, and how did you deal with them?
Early in our marriage, my husband and I decided to open a coffee shop with two partners. And when I say “open”, I mean build, literally from the ground up. Each of us had different skills to contribute. What we lacked, we had to learn. None of us knew how to make coffee, so I quit my job and went “undercover” at a competitor’s, earning minimum wage. I mopped floors, cleaned toilets and windows, stocked shelves, took inventory, and worked every shift so I could learn the business top to bottom. I listened closely to the managers during their meetings, and volunteered for every detail. I immersed myself. Six months later, we opened our first store, a drive-through. Our dream was to open a chain of stores, and retire in comfort at the ripe age of 30. Haha, didn't happen. We each worked 16 hours per day, every day for seven months, without a single day off to get the store up and running. The next year I had a child and continued to work. Waking up at 3:30 am after a night with a colicky baby is painfully exhausting, but I did what I needed to do, working 16 hours a day, then collapsed into bed to do it again. A lot of people give up on their dreams when they face difficulty or struggle. Don’t give up. The struggle is real; the struggle is painful; but the struggle is where the gains are made. The reality is, only you can pursue your dreams. If you don’t do it, they won’t come true, but if you are struggling and don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel, it’s time to move on. Dreams require commitment, but sadly, sometimes even that isn’t enough.
Three cafes and six and 1/2 years later, we sold our last shop, with the grim realization that we made zero profit. Zero. In fact, we lost our entire investment. We worked six and 1/2 exhausting, sleep-deprived years, for nothing, or so I thought. It wasn’t until much later that I realized those 6 1/2 years taught me more than I learned in college, more about myself, what I was capable of, and what I wanted (and didn’t want) out of life. That knowledge was worth more than any money I could have earned, and guided me throughout the rest of my life in every decision I made. Sometimes failure has an uncanny way of guiding you to success later on. Don't beat yourself up. Learn what you can from failures, then move on. Better things await.
3. When you and I met, we had both worked our way up to living in a nice country club neighborhood. Then I moved to LA, and you moved to 11 acres and essentially bought a zoo. What prompted this, what animals do you have, what were the challenges, and how has that all worked out?
One of my loves is animals. As a child I played with Breyer horses and a stable while others played dress up with dolls. Today I have a farm on 90 acres. I started small, with chickens, which led to goats and sheep, then pigs, cattle and horses. Each of these new additions brought its own new set of experiences … collecting eggs, milking goats, sheep and cattle, making farm-fresh butter and cheese, snuggling bottle-fed babies, raising a shelter over a downed cow under a freezing rain at midnight, dispatching an animal in pain, burying beloved pets, and eventually, raising our own meat, humanely and responsibly. My family and I bear a profound respect for life and the sacrifice an animal makes so that we may eat, something we feel even more deeply when food goes to waste. One of my three children is now a devout vegan, another a pescatarian. Though I could never give up meat myself, I understand thoroughly the choice others have made to do so and respect it. I see how little farmers earn for their risk and hard work, understand their pride and independence, and value the part they play in sustaining us all. Opening yourself to new experiences can change your life and views in ways you’d never expect and give you new understanding and appreciation of others.
4. You recently started your own business as a firearms instructor. How did that happen, what exactly do you do, and how is it working out for you?
When I was a kid, the neighborhood bullies ran in a pack. After a particularly bad encounter with the gang, I brought in the big guns … dad. He set them straight - after all, it takes a village. I learned pretty quickly that avoidance was a lot less painful than getting caught unawares, and there’s safety in numbers. When you can’t handle a situation, it’s ok to get help. Today I am a firearms instructor. Not surprisingly, much of my teaching centers around knowing and recognizing an attacker, seeing trouble and avoiding it, sticking up for and enlisting the help of others, and arming yourself to defend against a threat; lessons taught by the NRA, but learned in my childhood. Today I teach others. Share your knowledge gained along the way. It’s amazingly rewarding.
Cherie teaching the safe usage of firearms
5. I see that you are now working on a pilot’s license and riding Harleys with your husband. Wow! Tell me about how all that came about.
As children, our freedom to explore took us where our curiosity led, unveiled our passions, revealed pitfalls, and instilled a love of discovery that enriches my life, driving me to try new activities and explore new interests. One of these interests is flying. I am currently studying for my pilot’s license. Truthfully, I am genuinely afraid of falling out of the sky, but I dream of flying off to distant destinations, to lovely, scenic locales that promise new adventure and discovery. Is it hard to learn a new subject at this age? Yes. Does it take discipline? Definitely. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Never be afraid to take on daunting tasks, just keep your eye firmly fixed on the horizon … and this applies to life in general, too. Whether young, poor or struggling, look to the horizon. It’s always there, even when obscured by clouds. Define your goals and keep moving forward, no matter how small the steps. Face your fears and they will recede; take steps toward your goals, and they will advance.
Cherie in the cockpit
Cherie and her husband Paul with their Harley
6. What’s next? Hawaii?
I am blessed with a family supportive of my hobbies. They don’t all share my same interests, but I am lucky enough to have chosen a husband who is willing to explore with me, and who agrees on how to encourage exploration in our children. Three months after my husband and I met, we took a trip to Hawaii. We dreamt about moving to Maui and becoming dive instructors on a scuba boat. While not possible at the time, we held onto the dream. After 24 years of saving and living below our means, we purchased a vacation home in Maui. The house is not perfect; it's dated and distressed, and will need months of remodeling to update the 80s kitchen and baths (and stained carpeting, paint, stucco, and wood decking …), but it will be a labor of love and we will enjoy the process, and the end result. It’s a cliche, but life is a journey. Don’t waste your time living for “One Day”. Find what brings you happiness NOW.
Cherie heading out to scuba dive in Hawaii
Our children will help us with this project so they can see that goals take work and that not only is the end result worth it, but that if you arrange your life around what you enjoy (for them, surfing), even the work is ok. To reinforce this lesson, we had our daughter prepare a resume and an online interview video introducing herself to potential employers in Hawaii months prior to our arrival so that she could earn money to contribute to the costs. She followed up with the employers and has a job waiting for her upon arrival that she is absolutely thrilled about, because she didn’t just take any job; she specifically chose employers who most fit her interests, clothing, beach life and a vibrant, fun, family atmosphere. Identify your interests and pursue them in everything you do, especially work.
7. How does faith play into your life?
Growing up, we never went to church. We had an old Bible, which no one read - at least to my knowledge, but I was curious. In high school, I took a class called “The Bible as Literature” (gasp), taught by a black woman who reminded me of a gracious, Southern soul. She did not teach the Bible in terms of religion, but shared her contagious love of the beautiful wording and meaning of the Bible verses. Curious, my friends and I snuck into several local churches to peek around, but were too scared to attend during services, so I wish I could tell you where my faith comes from. I dabbled with atheism for about 8 seconds as a teen (mainly because it was “cool”), and it seemed like atheists knew something the rest of us didn’t, but it didn’t fit.
Though I have never heard the voice of God, and I have never seen Him, I just know. I have always known, even as a young child with no religious upbringing but the confusing snippets seen in popular culture. I have witnessed the unexplained, both miracles and evil. Though I don’t always understand, I find comfort in His presence and emptiness in His absence. I have always talked to God, and turned to Him in good times and bad, to thank Him, find guidance and strength, and many times, an opportunity for growth. I know that is where I find my moral compass, my inspiration to aim higher and my strength to overcome adversity, and I am grateful for His guidance in my life. Without Him, I would not be the person I am, nor the person I am to become.
8. Anything else you'd like to share?
Our children are also explorers. It is important to encourage children to pursue their own interests, rather than those you choose for them. Then take a deep breath, step back and let them go. That a is how they find their passions. I wish we had done this more with our first son. He is pursuing an interest that we don’t necessarily agree with at the moment. However, along the way he will learn much more than we could ever force on him in an activity we chose for him. After the summer, our daughter will bravely step out on her own across the country, filled with excitement (moderated by a healthy dose of apprehension) to discover what the world holds. Our youngest son is a thrill seeker who excels at motocross and arenacross racing and competes at the national level. He hopes to go “pro”, and eventually open up a chain of motorcycle shops. Each of our children is constantly trying new things: gardening, tennis, horseback riding, playing musical instruments, surfing, shooting, performing magic tricks (and setting up an online store to sell magic tricks), scuba diving, even my least favorite, cliff diving. Not all of these things stick, thankfully, but experimentation is important; that’s how you discover your passions in life and keep things “fresh”.
Though I struggled in early adulthood, today I lead a blessed life. It is a life I created, by choosing carefully who I share my time with and sticking closely to my passions. Be open to try new things and find out what you enjoy. Don’t be afraid to pursue your dreams. You still have to work and sacrifice to achieve them, but they are out there, waiting for you. Identify them, make a plan and pursue it relentlessly. Some things won’t work out. Learn what you can from the experience, let it go, and re-focus on things that move you closer to your goal. Don’t aim for perfect, aim for better, and for consistent movement in a positive direction. Above all, enjoy the journey!
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