All It’s Cracked Up to Be

I’ve always been a person with big dreams.  I wasn’t just going to be a novelist, I was also going to be a screenwriter, and I was going to win an Academy Award.  None of those things have happened–yet.  But I feel like they could, because I’ve had the ability to Make Stuff Happen for myself.  There’s a bit of good luck involved, but there has also been a lot of work.

The first time was in high school.  I was in Beginner Band, and drudging through dreary scales and dire renditions of “Hot Cross Buns.”  I had a friend who had been playing clarinet since fourth or fifth grade, and she was proficient enough to be in concert band.  She loved music, and she made concert band sound like the height of cool: they played in a concert and people came to watch (okay it was mostly parents, but even so), they played medleys to Phantom of the Opera and Aladdin, which sounded way better than the theme to the Magnificent Seven that we were playing.  After hearing her rhapsodic descriptions, I decided that would one day be me.  I was a freshman at the time, and I would spend sophomore year in Intermediate Band, and graduate to Concert Band by the start of junior year.  Then, for fun, I decided that the concert band would also play a Les Mis melody because that was my recent obsession.

So began a year and a half of hard work.  I borrowed the school flute several times a week and most weekends and played an hour a night.  I found out that I could take instruments home over the summer and did just that, playing on my grandparents’ deck until the neighbors shouted through an acre of woods for me to stop playing.  I bought every piece of sheet music I could.  The next school year I had Intermediate Band for an elective in the fall, and still practiced tirelessly.  I picked up one of the open hole flutes and trained myself on that.  I would have killed for private lessons, but my parents couldn’t afford it, and the honor’s high school I went to didn’t permit time for after school jobs.  In the spring, when I was taking creative writing, I gave up my lunch period to play with the Intermediate Band which fortuitously met at that time.

At the end of the year, it was time to fill out elective forms.  I had to get the band teacher to sign off on concert band, and when I nervously presented him with my slip, he smiled and signed me in.  It was so easy, and my friend Lisa got in too, so I thought he was just letting everyone in.  But our friend Greg was playing saxophone in Intermediate Band, and Mr. Lustig didn’t sign him off.  I realized perhaps this was dint of my hard work.

I spent junior year as a 3rd flute, but I was happy to be there.  By senior year, I had made it up to the first row with my stand mate since the beginning, Joanne.  Mr. Lustig passed out the medley we would be playing for the winter concert, the one which would close out the show.  It was Les Mis.

This may seem like such a small thing, getting into Concert Band in high school.  Don’t band geek jokes abound?  (Although in my high school, which was full of geeks and nerds and all sorts, it was actually semi-cool.  Or at least some cooler kids were in band.)  But to me, it meant the reward for hard work, and how much I could give to something I wanted, and how that moved me towards a goal.  I didn’t know I had so much power.

So when I got to college, and I saw and fell in love with Paris over a weekend my freshman year, I decided I would do a study abroad my junior year, and to justify said study abroad I would add a French major and double major in English and French.  I only learned afterwards that this wouldn’t have been necessary if I’d covered all my English credits, but that information didn’t bother me.  It didn’t matter to me that I had taken Spanish and Latin in high school and only a semester of college French.  I was going to major in French.  Again, I worked as hard as I could.  I skipped over the required Intermediate French II to take a literature course, which was required for the major, and got the signature from the chair of the Foreign Languages Department (it helped that she was my advisor).  My school didn’t have a study abroad program, they partnered with a school in Iowa, Central College.  I had to apply, and nervous though I was, I got accepted.  I arrived in Paris nervous, but prepared to revel in the year abroad I had dreamed of.  I had Paris as a destination since college, but even in high school I wanted to study abroad.  Once in France, I decided that while I tested into Level B at the Sorbonne’s course for international students in the fall, in the spring I was going to jump over Level A to Section Universitaire, which required writing a 20 page paper on French literature.  In French.  And I did it.  I spent a year wandering round Paris with virtually no money, and hours holed up in my unglamorous room at the foyer comparing the depiction of youth in Balzac’s Peau de Chagrin with those in Hugo’s Les Miserables, and I loved every second of it, from writing letters in front of the Fontaine des Medicis in the Luxembourg–it was the turn of the millennium and the internet was nowhere near as pervasive–to frequenting the homme des crepes, as I dubbed him, on the Boulevard Saint Germain just off the Boulevard Saint Michel, to reveling in the stationary department of Galleries Lafayette and the large scale paintings in the Louvre.

My senior year in college I finally decided I wanted to be a teacher…except I hadn’t taken any teaching courses, and I was up to my neck in student loan debt.  I took some admin assistant jobs and hated them, and managed to get myself fired twice in two years (though I had three jobs, in my paltry defense).  Clearly I was going nowhere with that, but I still wanted to be a teacher. I had dreams of one day going back to teach English at the high school I attended, which I paradoxically loved.  On the subway, they had ads for the New York City Teaching Fellows program, and I applied, playing hooky from work one day to finish my application.  Looking back I think that was the final straw when they were considering whether to fire me or not, but it turned out to be a worthwhile move–I was accepted to the program.  I got my Masters in Education for free and spent five exhausting but rewarding years teaching in some of the rougher schools in Manhattan.  I would have stayed on a couple years more, but a job at Townsend Harris opened up, and I seized the day and wrote an application letter, quoting our school’s Ephebic Oath.  They made us take an oath.  It was a weird place.  They called me in for an interview, and then I didn’t hear anything. I thought it wasn’t going to happen, so I left all my teaching materials at my old school and said I tried, and that I would try again.  But in July they called me in to do a sample lesson for some kids who had volunteered to come in.  Over the summer.  And off the back of this, they hired me.  Teaching there was very work intensive, but it was hands down the best job of my entire life.  I would have worked there until I retired if it hadn’t been for love intervening.

I’m bragging about these triumphs, but the thing is, I’m lazy.  Something has been holding me back from completing a novel and sending it off for publication, and I think it’s a combination of procrastination, laziness, and fear.  What if this is the one time I can’t make things happen by sheer force of will and hard work?  What if chance, which has helped me along, fails me?

I think though, this is where my propensity to worry comes in.  Yes, it might not work out, but when I look back and I really tried for something, I got it.  That’s a pretty powerful thing, so why be afraid?

 

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Rolling Stone

The phrase ‘rolling stone’ calls to mind a couple of things:

First, the adage “A rolling stone gathers no moss,” which people tend to take as a positive thing–no baggage!  Life of freedom!

But I tend to agree with Bob Dylan’s take: “How does it feel/ To be without a home/ Like a complete unknown/ Like a rolling stone?”

It’s a pretty bleak picture, leading a nomadic life.  I’ve made the move to a completely new place four times in my life, and each time there was a long settling in period where I was finding new friends, getting used to the place (for every place is different from New York City), and trying to carve out a new life that would in some way match up to home.  This is a tall order.

Each move I’ve made has been worth it for one reason or another.  I went to college in upstate New York and found that the rest of the country, and especially the rest of New York state, does not view the City with any kind of awe or reverence–more fear and distrust.  I saw what life was like in a quiet-ish college town where the only thing open past 2am was Wal-Mart.  I learned that life outside a throbbing metropolis is very different to life in one.  Along the way, I also made some decisions that would influence the trajectory of my life–making a couple of really important friends, finding my first boyfriend, choosing French as a major, discovering that after all, I did love to teach and wanted to make that my career.

My junior year abroad in Paris was the fulfillment of a dream.  I saw Paris for two days my freshman year of college and fell in love.  I have never loved a city the way I love Paris.  The grace and beauty among the grit, the centuries of beautiful architecture clashing with the odd extremely modern building, the food, the people, the vistas everywhere I looked–it was all amazing.  In a year, I went from quasi-conversation to highly proficient in French, which I consider an achievement.  I traveled around Europe for the first time. I found the fun in being a penniless student.  I made friends in a strange land.  I loved it, but I also grew fatigued from thinking and working in another language constantly.  In retrospect, I would look at the relationship I clung to as a weight holding me down, holding me back.  But I came back from that year wiser and more confident in almost every way.

I went to Durham, North Carolina on a mission for love.  There I found a love of sweet tea, barbecue, and fried chicken, but also saw that I am definitely not a Southerner, and that urban sprawl is not really my cup of tea.  I also went thinking myself a romantic heroine and came back shattered and disillusioned–I had given so much up for love, a chance to live in France again, a chance to return home to my friends and family in New York, and it all ended up in nothing.  I thought then that I was a fool, and the bitterness stayed with me until I found a man who I really loved, and who really loved me, and then I realized that year beyond the Mason-Dixon line was only a year of preparation.

Now I’m in England for almost exactly a year, and in a way all the other moves have prepared me for this one, and yet not prepared me at all.  I know what it is to be homesick, and how to deal with it.  I know that eventually, I will make friends, even if I’m a slow mover.  I know how to navigate all the cultural differences, because in their own ways, Oneonta and Durham have the same amount of culture shock as Coventry when you come from NYC.  But of course nothing in these moves could prepare me for the other shake-ups–immigration, marriage, buying a house, having a baby.  Those are what make this journey its own.

I don’t regret any of these moves, and I value the struggles I went through to settle in new places.  But they are struggles.  I need roots.  I need to belong.  I need a home.   I cannot call myself a free spirit in that regard.  Sometimes a little weight holding you down to a place is a good thing.  It’s good to have a home.

Been there, done that

Despite the fact that I have much to say about my current state of affairs, the post I’m most inspired to write is a tangential one.

I tend to run with people who love to travel.  I suppose that isn’t too hard to do, as most people enjoy the exoticism of hopping on a plane and leaving the world behind for a few days or a week.  I can’t say if my friends travel more than most, I just know that several of my close friends make it a point to take at least one big trip a year, sometimes to far flung places like Thailand and Australia.  I have an uncle who I’ve always known for traveling, and he is making his way across the globe in a lifetime of trips, thoroughly exploring Europe, then South America, now Asia.

I love traveling too.  There is something inexplicably fascinating and freeing about standing in a city you’ve only seen on a map before, or in pictures.  Exploring the hidden corners that never make it to tourist books gives me a real sense of adventure, something that I think is hard to come by in this day and age. Continue reading