“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
At six, despite the pleasure I took in shaking my Dorothy Hamill haircut (sassy!), regardless of the pride I felt making it around the pond five times without falling, in perhaps my first act of pragmatism, I let go of my dreams to become a professional figure skater.
The next year, gymnastics was easier to abandon. I hated the coach’s grip manipulating me into a handspring. I’d jump and then it was all upside down mauling for a split second too long before, somehow, I landed on my feet again. I wanted to be able to tumble like the other girls but I couldn’t even stay arched long enough to drop into a simple back bend: the floor rushed towards my head too quickly; I didn’t trust my arms were strong enough; my back stiffened every time. The balance beam brought out my deepest anxiety. And the vault? I’d run and run (just like the teachers said to) and run (because I was a good girl) and run onto the spring, and jump — only high enough to ram my stomach into that stupid horse.
Michelle P. had real horses at her house and although I believed they were nice creatures, they petrified me. I was much more interested in looking at pictures of Gene Simmons’ platform boots in Michelle’s older sister’s Kiss albums. There was no one in my life at the time to point out that record producer, shoe designer and rock photographer are true jobs, just like ice skater, gymnast and horse rider.
When I started college, I checked the box marked “Undecided” under “Major” and kept it that way for years.
My parents had always told me I could be anything I wanted to be, as long as I was happy. This message was communicated along with Mom’s caveat that she highly discouraged teaching as a vocation, but only because her career in education up until that point made her so miserable.
When the deadline for declaring a major arrived, I felt acutely aware of being at a fork. I have a vivid memory of walking to class thinking, If I don’t major in film now, there’s no way I’ll ever get a job in it, but if I do study film now, I might get a job in it.
I don’t have many regrets. I’ve rationalized even my most hurtful decisions, yet, I do wish I could go back in time and replace the word “film” with “writing” in that single thought.
It wouldn’t have been a random choice; literature was my minor. Even Dr. Isaacs (god, I loved that professor) showed visible disappointment upon hearing my decision to pursue a degree in media. He pulled me aside, “I wish you’d reconsider.” Something prevented me from taking the risk. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to support myself with words alone.
Last month, I met with one of my former bosses. He’s seen me grow from a burnt out TV/Film post production scheduler with 13 years experience to a jaded post production accountant with 19 years tallied and ticking. I’ve never told him I think of him as a mentor, nor have I shared with him all the reasons I hold him in heartfelt high esteem, but I’m pretty sure he knows he has my respect.
He offered some tips as I begin limiting my work in post production to part-time freelance. I told him I thought I might have gotten a little too creative with my LinkedIn bio, but it was only because I’m committed to keeping at least half of my time devoted to writing.
His advice was to keep my artistic pursuits out of my LinkedIn identity. Paraphrasing him: be creative at Facebook, that’s fun; keep LinkedIn for business.
I didn’t ask him “Why?”. Nor did I say, “Can’t quirky writer be a part of my personal brand?” I worried he’d say, “Sure; see how that works out.”
My underlying fear hasn’t changed much over the years: if I fail to successfully sell my marketable skills, I’ll end up homeless with a painful medical condition and a sun burn.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
By nine, I made peace with the fact that I would never climb a rope, would avoid all sports involving balls of any shape and would just as soon keep my failing grade in math if improving meant I had to be nice to that b-i-t-c-h Mrs. Valintich.
Also eliminated were serious water activities. The previous summer’s fall off the high dive onto concrete had ruined my fondness for jumping. Luckily, my thick skull took the brunt of the impact and (with a brief detour to the hospital for observation) I walked away from the incident. Fancy diving had been my last hope for the Olympics.
By eleven, while it was said that I did well with the flute and piano, I could not, would not, get up the nerve to sing any portion of a solo during choir practice. The director pointed at each of us, one by one, going down the row testing parts. When she came to me I just shook my head and kept my mouth closed.
They can’t make you open your mouth. I learned that with the vegetables nearly a decade earlier. Only sadists would make a person open their mouth and, thank god, I didn’t have any of those in my life.
I had the next best thing; I had people who told me (all evidence to the contrary) I could do anything I set my mind to.
Recently, I read this quote at Jane Friedman’s website:
“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both.”
Last night I opened one of our seven large living room windows so that I could hear the neighbor’s violin. Unfamiliar, melodic phrases practiced repeatedly, with different accents each time, came from fingers on strings right across the courtyard.
In that moment, it sounded like exquisite longing. Often, it is the sound of a person at work. Always, it expresses something wordless from deep inside an intangible human place located roughly near the top of a ribcage, under a breastbone. I don’t know why I know that’s the location, but I’m pretty sure I’m right; these things never come from a toe or a knee.
That wordless something is real. It may have existed only once at the time of composition or it might exist perpetually as often as it’s played by countless musicians. I’m fairly certain, though, that every practice or performance, however similar to the original, is a new expression.
I can’t define it further, but as often as those fingers move on strings, my intangible place is the part of me that hears. And although I make no sound, I feel the thing near my ribcage, under my breastbone, answering.
All of this is immeasurable, I suspect.
It occurs to me now that I made a mistake last week when I listened for words during my mediation. Just like the part of me that hears and answers the violin, that part that Rumi and hundreds of thousands of other mystics have known, the answer transcends language.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I want to not want to be anything other than who I am. And I want who I am to be this:
A master in the art of living who makes little distinction between my work and my play, my labor and my leisure, my mind and my body, my education and my recreation, my love and my religion. I simply pursue my vision of excellence at whatever I do, leaving others to decide whether I am working or playing. I am always doing both.
This morning, while working on the first draft of this post, I received an email from a curator at one of my favorite museums:
Thank you so much for sending us your [Women for Women] letters — they are just wonderful & I’d love to include them in the exhibition. My current plan is to bind a set of correspondence into custom books for visitors to read through.
If her current plan comes to fruition, people are going to hold my words in their hands.
Granted, it’s not a long-labored-over manuscript, nor even a developing blog post. The letters were intended solely for one woman, Odette; and her words will be alongside of mine.
Still, this is the closest I’ve come to being published by someone else. And, although I hesitate to say anything more about the exhibition at this early date, its premise is beautiful and important.
Until it comes out, I will keep writing; I will keep the windows open; I will keep listening. I’ll keep my LinkedIn bio a little quirky. I’ll keep strengthening my arms in case a rope is the only means of escape; and mostly, I will keep being my whole self, all at once, as often as possible.