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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.

Cherie Norton

Cherie Norton

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.

Cherie on a tractor

Cherie with her animal friend