Get some gratitude in your attitude! — I try to think of 5 things I am grateful for every day. I like to do this with my friend, Lea Ann, over the phone. I also keep a small book on my bed stand and write out my list. It definitely changes your mindset when you have gratitude in your life. There have been studies that say it changes your brain chemistry and promotes resilience. I believe it!
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Peggy Sweeney-McDonald.
Peggy Sweeney-McDonald is an actress, author, producer, speaker, and writer. She is the host of Life in the A-Zone, a storytelling podcast series where she chronicles her bittersweet journey of moving home to Louisiana after her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Peggy is the author of Meanwhile, Back at Cafe Du Monde… Life Stories About Food by Pelican Publishing.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I am the oldest of four daughters. Our parents were both outgoing, fabulous storytellers, and loved life. My parents were my greatest fans and supported me at an early age when I wanted to be an actress. They encouraged me to follow my dreams. From acting, writing, producing, they were there cheering me on. I left Baton Rouge after graduating from Louisiana State University and lived in Houston, New York City, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. My mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis finally brought me home where I needed to be. Reconnecting with my amazing family and being here during the three tough years before we lost our mother has been the greatest gift of my life. Truly, there is no place like home
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.” — Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
Our attitudes lead the way. We can cry over the tough times in our life or we can surrender and accept we are learning life lessons. Our hearts will expand and we will experience the gifts of life in a new beautiful way.
Growing up, The Secret Garden was my favorite book, but the themes of loss, grief, and finding healing and hope in the garden resonate deeper for me now. While trudging the Alzheimer’s battle with my beloved mother, life looked bleak and barren. I had to dig deep and find the courage to keep moving forward. Spring has sprung again. I am healing and helping others by sharing my stories of love, laughter, life, and loss of living in my podcast series, Life in the A-Zone. My garden of life is full of passion, surprises, hope, joy, and happiness.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Brene Brown’s Unlocking You was my go-to podcast throughout the lockdown. She is just so damn honest and open while doing it with grace and humor. She is uplifting and inspiring! Her new season’s episode — Day 2 floored me. Brene says Day 2 is “The messy middle — the point of no return and why it’s always best to stumble through the darkness together.” It is brilliant and everyone around the world needs to listen to this right now. We have no playbook for what’s next right now. She lays it all out and helps make sense of looking out at the abyss. I have told so many people to listen to her podcast and they all come back and thank me for turning them on to Day 2! When I’m feeling fear about the future, I just stop, breathe and think, I’m on Day 2 with everyone else in this world. I think about just doing the next best thing. I don’t need to figure everything out today. I just need to be present for what’s in front of me. I look for the silver lining during this time. I was able to create my podcast and share my experience, strength, and hope across the world.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
My husband and I left Los Angeles in August 2016, when my Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. We sold our condo and returned to my hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana to be there for my mother and father while battling her disease. We moved in temporarily with my parents and never left as we saw how difficult it was for my father to deal with her slipping memory and erratic behavior on a daily basis.
I was an event producer for years and had my own company Superstar Events-LA. Back in 2010, I had created my own event/show called Meanwhile, Back at Cafe Du Monde… a live food monologue show produced at restaurants and for non-profit events where foodies share a life story about food. In 2012, Pelican Publishing published my book, Meanwhile, Back at Cafe Du Monde… Life Stories About Food with 67 stories from the live shows. When we moved to Baton Rouge, I was able to find contract event work for non-profits, hosted weekend cultural tours, plus produced the Meanwhile, Back at Cafe Du Monde… show for special events. However, the main focus of being back in Baton Rouge was to be here for my mother.
When Mom passed in July 2019, I was emotionally drained. I felt lost and had no energy to pursue anything. I had been thinking I wanted to write a memoir about moving back home and my care giving journey with my mother. I would look at my laptop every day and think “I should start writing today,” then find something else to do — cook, eat, nap, walk, watch TV, anything to avoid writing because I knew I would have to feel my feelings. I took an action and signed up for a three-hour memoir essay writing workshop at the Louisiana Book Festival. It was the kick in the butt to start writing. In the class, we were given a writing prompt by the instructor, author Michele Fugate. I wrote my first chapter. The Fashion Show, a story of how my mother who was always beautifully dressed, was now dressing in mix-matched, dirty, or inside-out clothing and it embarrassed me. When I read the story to the class, I began to cry. I looked up and everyone else had tears in their eyes. Michele told me my story was amazing and encouraged me to write the book as it would help many people. I walked out of the class feeling 20 pounds lighter with a spring in my step. I felt alive again and I had a purpose. I began writing my memoir that week which would turn into my podcast, Life in the A-Zone, only 7 months later. It was a magical day that truly changed the direction of my life.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
On July 1st, I mentioned to my husband and two girlfriends at a socially distanced lunch that I was thinking I should podcast my stories instead of shopping the book around. I felt like my stories needed to get out now. So many caregivers were struggling, especially the ones who couldn’t visit their loved ones because of Covid19. I had no idea about podcasting, but my friend, Pennie suggested I call a local studio in Baton Rouge who helped people start their podcasts.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
Pennie sent me the contact number. I thought about it for several days then picked up the phone and made an appointment to tape a couple of the chapters on my birthday, July 21st. It was a birthday present to myself and my “aha moment.” Explore your passion, Peggy! Take the leap of faith! I figured it would be an experiment. I could tape a few of my chapters and then make the decision of moving forward.
When I left the recording studio, I felt as if I was walking on air, spirit was carrying me, and I was excited. I had a brand new path. I didn’t have to start querying literary agents or publishers and wait for a book deal. I didn’t need someone else to tell me my stories were good. I knew in my heart, they were bittersweet, raw, emotionally honest, and people would listen. I picked the title, hired a graphic artist to design the cover artwork with a photo of my mother and me, had someone help me put up a website, set up FB, Instagram, and Twitter accounts.
The first episode, The Decision, which chronicles the day my mother was diagnosed and my husband was laid off from his job in Los Angeles, was launched the next week. It happened so fast that I didn’t even have a chance to think about it. I was in the creative flow and it was exhilarating! People are not only listening but laughing and crying all around the world. It was a huge pivot for me. A pivot is a dance move, a change in direction. This pivot feels like a magical waltz and my feet are barely touching the floor.
How are things going with this new initiative?
It has been an incredible journey. Next week will be four months since I launched Life in the A-Zone. It has been very rewarding and an incredible amount of work. I have to stretch and learn as I go. I am the writer, host, director, producer, editor, and marketer. I set up a recording studio in a large walk-in closet in my home. I bought a microphone and learned editing software. I have a great sound editor on the other side of the world that helps me with music and sound effects. I had no idea of the reach and how many doors would open. I’ve been asked to guest on other podcasts, write articles for magazines, and have been featured in magazines and newspapers. I’ve met so many wonderful people in the podcasting world. They are all supportive. But the best part is hearing from my listeners of how they relate and find hope in my stories. I am still planning to finish the book and hope to begin shopping it around in 2021.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Initially, when I began writing the book, I would go to a coffee shop, write all day, then come home, cook dinner and read the stories to my husband Jimmy and my 85-year old father at the kitchen table. We would laugh and cry together and they would encourage me to keep writing. Once I decided to create the podcast, they listened to the recordings before I published them. My husband helped me set up my studio and encouraged me to learn to edit. My Dad sends the links to his friends and business associates. They are my cheerleaders. We are healing the loss of my mother together. I couldn’t have come this far without their love and support.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
I found a letter my mother had written thanking us for her surprise 75th birthday, an overnight trip to New Orleans. The day I found it, I was writing an episode where I mentioned the birthday trip. It was uncanny. It was the last time, my Mom, Dad, and my sisters did something special with just us 6. It was in 2011, 8 years before she passed. I decided to incorporate her letter, her words in the podcast episode. It was perfect and I feel like it was a sign from her to keep sharing the stories.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my podcast and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1) Listen to your intuition and move forward without fear — I had fearful thoughts — “This is a stupid idea. No one will want to listen,” but I would remember how excited I was to share my stories and kept moving forward.
2) Ask for help and the right people will appear — At the beginning of the lockdown, I began reaching out to old friends with whom I had not been in touch for years. We started zooming every week. My friend Nancy is a voice-over artist. When I had the idea for a podcast, she told me I could learn how to tape it myself instead of relying on going to a studio. She helped me select a microphone on Amazon and volunteered to teach me the Audacity editing software. She walked me through it over several nightly Zoom calls on my iPad. She literally had me hold up the iPad to my laptop screen in my closet/studio. It was hilarious but it worked. The power of technology!
3) Act as if — During August and September, I had to tape late at night as my makeshift studio has no air conditioning and is next to our hot attic. I sat in front of the microphone pretending I was on stage and the listeners were in the audience waiting for me to share my journey. It helped me to stay animated and gave me energy even when I was tired.
4) Say yes when the doors open even if you are scared — When Jean Trebek asked me to write an article about the inspiration behind the podcast for her platform, InsideWink, she asked me if I would include tips for the caregiver. At first, I thought, I’m not an expert, I can’t give tips. Then I remembered the things I did for self-care or the things I tried to do. I wrote the list and realized I did have something to share. It also reminded me to continue to work on my self-care. It is so important especially during these tough times.
5) I have a voice and be authentic — Many times I cry while taping my stories. I want to go back and edit my tears out but I don’t. To take my tears out would be cheating the audience of my true experience. I promised myself from the beginning that if I was going to share my journey, I had to be 100% honest and vulnerable. I think that is what makes it special and why listeners are connecting.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
1) I walk daily with my 85-year-old father around the lake in our neighborhood. The fresh air, being surrounded by nature and the wildlife centers me. It also inspires me in my stories. “Lessons of the Lake” one of my podcast episodes is about the spiritual lessons from my walks. These walks help me to pause, breathe, connect with nature, and listen to the still small voice within which always leads me to the next right action.
2) Prayer and Meditation — My relationship with God is stronger now than ever before. I believe connecting by prayer and/or meditation keeps me balanced. If I can’t meditate in silence, there are many guided meditations on YouTube. You can also find amazing prayers. The Miracle Prayer on YouTube has been my go-to for years!
3) Yin Yoga videos on YouTube — These days I am not up to power yoga. I discovered Yin Yoga videos and the poses are all sitting or lying on the floor. You hold the stretches for at least 3 minutes and concentrate on your breathing. It’s deep healing for your body, mind, and soul.
4) Get some gratitude in your attitude! — I try to think of 5 things I am grateful for every day. I like to do this with my friend, Lea Ann, over the phone. I also keep a small book on my bed stand and write out my list. It definitely changes your mindset when you have gratitude in your life. There have been studies that say it changes your brain chemistry and promotes resilience. I believe it!
5) Zooming with Friends and family — Connection with others is so important. Working on the podcast can be isolating while writing and taping in my studio. Seeing my friends and family on Zoom always puts a smile on my face and my heart expands. Love is all you need!
6) Cooking — I pull out my family cookbook and prepare some of my mother’s recipes. It doesn’t fill the void of her being gone, but the memories fill my mind and heart. Some of her cookbooks have gravy and grease stains plus her notes in her beautiful handwriting on the side. I feel her spirit fill the kitchen as I chop and sauté.
7) Long hugs from my husband — I read somewhere that a 22-second hug changes your brain as the serotonin levels are increased. I need 22-second hugs every day! Whenever we sense the other is struggling, we say, “22-second hug?” then stop whatever we are doing, embrace, and count! It helps even more if we kiss before separating.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would like to shine a light on the caregivers. The physical, emotional, and mental toll on caregivers is beyond what anyone can imagine. There needs to be more support for caregivers struggling with their loved ones. I would love to start a 12-step zoom program for caregivers. When you are in the “A-Zone” as I call living with someone with Alzheimer’s, you are powerless over their disease and your life has become unmanageable. The 12-steps of recovery would be perfect for living with someone with Alzheimer’s.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I would love to have coffee with Maria Shriver. She is my shero. After losing her father to Alzheimer’s she took on the mission of raising awareness for Alzheimer’s especially in women who are at the epicenter of the disease. The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement raises money for critical women-based research and instigates the creation of women-based initiatives. A friend gave me her book, I’ve Been Thinking right after my mother passed away. I read the book every morning drinking my coffee. The reflections, prayers, and meditations brought hope to me in the darkest of days and still bring me solace every time I read it. I subscribe to her newsletter The Sunday Paper. I love her weekly essays and prayers. They always speak to my heart.
How can our readers follow you online?
Facebook: Life in the A-Zone
Life in the A-Zone Podcast can be found at Apple Podcast, Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, Podbean and more.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!