Taking risks category archive
It’s afternoon and the sky has turned gray. Gusty winds bend the redwood trees and whistle through the window cracks of this old house. Since we got back two weeks ago, it’s been gray almost every day and I’m struggling to see beyond the clouds and the moodiness they bring. Daily writing is a collage of fog and doubts about what to do next. Today I look out the window and imagine the fog bank rolling inland all night long, unspooling like an endless misty ribbon. I imagine the edges, how the cold, damp gray hits the heat of the dry golden hills inland and finally evaporates into the wide open sky when the sun comes up. The radio announcer tells us to expect little change in the weather this week, “low clouds and fog, temperatures from the mid-sixties near the coast to the mid-nineties inland”. It feels endlessly cold and gray, like winter in New England. And like long, snowy winters in other places, the summer here turns me inward toward questions about who I am and where my life is going.
This summer, having finally finished my degree in May, I’m thinking about what to do next. Like most women with young children, I want interesting, stimulating work that’s flexible while my children are young. I stepped off the path of tenure-track jobs two years ago, feeling, as many women do, that its demands were incompatible with family life. Now I have these Ph.D. skills that could take me in a lot of different directions, from research consultant or policy advocate, to adjunct teacher or writer, to something yet to be discovered. I’m excited to have options. And I’m excited to inject more creativity into whatever work I do, to shape my own career path. But I also feel like I’m going into an unknown world; I’ve never in my life not had a job or school directing my time, and most often through the years I have had some combination of the two.
A crucial turning point for many women’s careers is this period when children are young. Caring for babies and toddlers is a full-time job, and as one of the women in The Mommy Wars says, ‘we can either do that work ourselves or we can outsource it’. Thus, for many us, whether and how much to work becomes a choice we make in the years when we’ve first become mothers. As I talk with people, it seems like everyone has a story about a woman they know who did the math and found they earned just enough to pay for childcare, and so they decided to stop working while their children were young. Family finances are of course the most important factor in choosing whether and how much to work. But if the finances allow one parent not to work, then a host of other issues factor into the decision, including what our children need, childcare options, our qualifications, the jobs available, and our passions and ambitions.
In my family, we can live on one salary, at least for now. But I cannot imagine not working. And I want to be the main person caring for my children while they’re young. So on the foggy, introverted afternoons of this post-dissertation summer, I’m trying to craft a meaningful career direction I can work on part-time for the next few years, and full-time once my kids are in school. No pressure, right?
A Poem by David Whyte
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
way of starting
Start with your own
give up on other
don’t let them
your own voice,
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
heroics, be humble
start close in,
for your own.
Start close in,
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to claim the identity of writer. To come out of the closet, so to say. To stop thinking my obsession with stories and words has to be private. I’ve written and written and squirreled away hundreds of pages over the years, everything from conversations to descriptions of the cities I’ve called home. I’ve read about other writers’ process, and listened to radio interviews, and read books with an eye to metaphors. But I’ve always been afraid to call myself a writer.
What does it take, to claim what we’ve always wanted, or known ourselves to be?
For years I ached to have a child. In 2012, I had my Basil at last, a squirming, sunshiny boy who’s now 10 months. I claimed the identity of mother instantly and completely when I pushed him out, worried over him in the NICU for 48 hours, brought him home to our snug apartment. But then I claimed it little by little as I got used to how others saw me, what it was like to go everywhere with him. I continue to claim it as I learn about naps, and cooking for a family, and what it means to parent with JJ, and how to be myself while caring for my child.
Claiming the identity of writer has never been instantaneous or complete. I heard Barbara Kingsolver once say in an interview that she didn’t imagine she could be a writer as a kid, because only dead, white men were writers. And look at her now. In Animal Dreams, her fourth book, she writes as part of a letter from one sister to another:
“[T]he very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance, but live right in it, under its roof (p.299)”.
I figured out a long time ago that I hope to write. It’s time now, at the dawn of 2013, to live inside these writing hopes, occupy them as a place where sunshine can pour through windows, where flowers can bloom, where writing can become something that belongs to me.
A new year. A new beginning, on this blog. An essay|story|post here, every Tuesday.
Want to join me? What do you hope to begin, this year?
Leaps and risks are linked for me like clouds and rain: you can’t have one without the other. To make a leap is to face your fears, imagine your possibilities, and go into the unknown. To leap is to take a risk.
Christina recently wrote about finishing her first book, and finished the post by asking us to think about the leaps in our lives. “When was a time you took an enormous leap? What did it feel like? What happened next?”. Like Caren in the comments to the post, I too made leaps that feel huge to me now “when I was younger and less aware of the insanity of my decisions”. Leaving everything I knew to go to college 3000 miles away, the first in my family, armed only with a scholarship, $400 for books, and a heart full of ambition. Moving to Spain for two years and becoming an English teacher. Moving back to go to grad school, and find my way out of heartbreak. Trusting love and commitment again, when I met JJ.
As a kid, I leaped with abandon. Climbed trees so high that I swayed in the wind, nailed wood into the trunk to make steps and go even higher. Jumped from the peaked roof of my mom’s studio to our house, gasping through the danger of air and sidewalk below until my feet skidded into the sandy gray roof tiles on the other side. Then did it again, hair flying behind me as I took a running start down the sloped studio roof. And raced with my brother to the train tracks after hearing the whistle from a mile away, legs pumping furiously on our bikes, hearts racing as we slapped pennies on the tracks to be crushed by the oncoming freight train.
This year, I took another leap. Stepped off the career track I was on to become a professor, and started imagining doing something that allows more expression for my creative soul. It’s felt like the riskiest leap I’ve taken yet, admitting I was on the wrong path and making space for a new one. The stakes feel so much higher as an adult, the unnamed fears so much more consequential.
About to become a parent myself, I can’t imagine courting danger as I did when I leapt across rooftops as a kid. Yet choosing to change my career path feels like reclaiming some of the boldness I felt then, the daring of climbing further into the treetop just to see if I can.
I don’t know what my future job will be. There are surely failures and missteps as I figure it out. But there is also certainty that I’m headed in the right direction. There is possibility in committing to daily creative work as a way of exploring new paths. And there is resolve as I write daily toward the goal of finishing a draft of my thesis before the baby comes in February, so I can graduate in May and leap into what lies beyond.
This week I started an e-course in photography and self-discovery led by Susannah Conway (thank you Christina!). Susannah’s 8-week course is called “Unravelling: Ways of Seeing Myself” and it’s a journey in picking up a camera and using it as a tool to unlock how we see ourselves and the world around us. Already it has me looking at my pictures in a different way, flashing back to college when I would take rolls and rolls of black and white and then spend my Saturday nights in the darkroom developing photos into something meaningful.
It’s different – I’M different – when I’m taking my pictures more seriously. Allowing for creativity and experimentation to spill through as I snap pictures, then looking through them with an eye to what they say, what they mean, how they speak in tandem with each other.
It’s thrilling to be re-encountering this creative pulse that I carry in my blood. Photography, pottery, sewing, drawing – all were hugely important to me growing up. Yet I’m realizing with ever more clarity just how thoroughly I had sidelined it from my life since those college photography classes. Not that I never did anything creative; I just did it less and less, and saw my career as needing all of me. But when I ask why I gave up these things, I don’t have an answer except the inertia of everyday life took over.
I’m excited and terrified as I open to the possibilities of this creative pulse.
And it makes me wonder. How many of us abandon more creative pursuits as we grow into adulthood? Childhood overflows with creativity; children are wellsprings of ideas and energy for stories, art, making things. Where does it all go?
I faced the need to make change in my life this week. Faced all that’s been brewing and swirling below the surface. Faced the enormity of my unhappiness with the pressures of the academic track. Waited until late Friday afternoon to send the final, most important, freeing emails. And then I sat down at my desk, pulled my box of oil pastels out of a drawer, and drew for the first time in over 5 years. The sense of possibilities in my life washed over me as I lost myself in the colors.
My first love in photography was babies and hands. I first got a real camera in college, a hand-me-down Pentax K1000 from my boyfriend’s mother. It came with a bag of old lenses, a little grainy but still working. I would take my nieces, then toddlers, to play in the park, for walks near my parents’ house, or out to the beach and snap away. The love of photographing hands started with my parents, both of whom work with their hands and have for their whole lives.
Taking this series of pictures recently, of friends and my husband’s hands, and my beautiful friend’s baby, made me think about my college photography days, and about how important art used to be in my life. Photography and pottery were a huge part of the end of high school and most of college for me. At one point I even considered being an art major. I dreamed of opening a studio on the coast of Northern California, with a darkroom and pottery studio.
I like where my life has taken me, but I miss doing creative work. My mother is with us for three nights this week. She has made a living with her creativity, making and selling all kinds of dolls. Whenever I am around her and her work, I am struck by how much space she occupies, spreading out in an explosion of color and sewing materials. There are piles of cotton knit doll bodies on our table right now, and bags of old sweaters sit next to a suitcase full of doll clothes in front of my desk. Crocheted hair pieces are spread out on the couch, blacks, reds, blonds, and pink for mermaids, the mohair yarn leaving hairs spread across the taupe corduroy cushions. A blue quilted, velvet mermaid tail lies on our couch, and rolls of yarn roll about on the floor. I get edgy by the disarray that seems to surround her, and found myself breathing a sigh of relief when she left for the day this morning. But I am deeply respectful of the fact that the messiness accompanies an inspiring creativity. She has built an incredible business with her creativity, making all kinds of dolls and even clothes, mixing colors and materials in ways no one has done before.
It makes me think about drawing again, doing more with my photos, or taking a pottery class. Perhaps I’ll start with a series of hands. After all my parents’ hands were one of my first inspirations in photography. Let it be messy at first, take many pictures, and see where it takes me.
How were you creative in the past? How does that connect to who you are today?