The Fine Print

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My spouse, our kids, and I recently returned from a fantastic 3,000-mile road trip from New England to southern Florida and back up through the Appalachian Mountains. We spent an incredible four days in Asheville, North Carolina, which has been my spouse’s and my “happy place” since we first visited the city together for our honeymoon in 1999, although I’d been in love with the Blue Ridge Mountains for many years before that.

This was our first trip back in more than a decade, and I spent the entire visit either beaming incredulously at the thought that we were actually there or welling up at the knowledge that we would be leaving; sometimes I did both at the same time.

Since our departure from Asheville to return to New England, I’ve been plagued by the realization that, when I chose to forgo gainful employment and devote nearly 100% of my time to raising and homeschooling my children, I also seem to have forfeited much of my agency.

I am the queen of the small decisions—what to have for dinner, when to trade out the children’s fleece trousers for shorts, which kind of waterproof pillow covers to buy—but because only my spouse brings in the income that sustains our family financially, the larger choices are tied to his career and are by and large outside of my control.

It’s as though I’ve gone to buy a car and have no say over the make or model, but I get to choose the color.

This isn’t really what I thought I was signing on for when I picked this gig. There is this illusion of partnership behind which I couldn’t see while I was engaged in the all-consuming work of parenting tiny humans. My spouse asks for my input when deciding where to move next, but really, we just go where the first reasonable job offer takes us. It’s his career that drives us, not my opinions.

Now that the kids are becoming a little more independent and I can almost see the days of greater autonomy on the horizon before me, I’ve begun engaging in an exercise I call, “What do I want to be when my kids grow up?” I think about grad school and writing fellowships. I dust off the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and skills assessments from back in my pre-kids corporate days and try to get some idea of what might bring my skills and interests together. I try to imagine different careers and locations and ways of living.

But this nascent dreaming stops short when I realize that we’re always going to go with the sure thing. I will always, unless I want to have a long-distance marriage, have to do the thing that I can do wherever my spouse’s career is.

While this makes very good sense—as my spouse reminds me, the kids have to eat—these geographical and financial restrictions aren’t conducive to dreaming.

This all hit home when I was in Asheville thinking how well small-city living suited me and how strongly the Blue Ridge Mountains draw my heart, and thinking, “Why can’t we move to Asheville?”

There are plenty of reasons why Asheville might not be a good move, but those are all moot because the biggest reason of all—the money reason—halts all other speculation. The dream dies before it ever draws breath. And that’s remarkably discouraging.

I do wonder, though, what level of agency do I assume I should have? I think I should be able to decide for myself what my career will be and where I will live, but is that a realistic expectation? How many people in the world have that kind of freedom? Aren’t most people stuck with whatever they get because of location or history or discrimination or poverty or old-fashioned bad luck? And if so, then I’m just a whiney middle-class white woman with a home and a family and a spouse and a car whose biggest complaint on a daily basis is that flute lesson is a 45-minute drive away. If I have less freedom than I’d like, it’s because I chose this way of living.

I also have to wonder how real these obstacles really are. Am I just making them up or making them bigger than they need to be because I’m too afraid to take responsibility for a big change? I’ve not worked full-time since 2003, and I’ve not worked for pay since 2008. If I make a decision that causes my spouse to give up his career or to have a reduced income, do I really want the responsibility of making up the difference in order to support our family?

And what if I make a bold choice and then change my mind? I did that with being a yoga instructor and being a doula; where’s the guarantee I’d stick with whatever it is I come up with to do this time around? Or is a guarantee too much to ask for?

I guess the best I can do is sit with all of this and wait. For what? A sense of certainty? A sign from the heavens? A job opening for a PhD-level biologist in Asheville, North Carolina?

Or maybe it’s not waiting that’s required, but just sitting, just being here and feeling this fear and discouragement and letting it run its course while I try to make the most of right now.

It’s much easier to say it than to do it.

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A Writer By Any Other Name

When people ask me, “What do you do?” I get all squirmy inside. I should really come up with a technically true but nevertheless evasive answer, like, “I develop and implement curricula for children learning outside the traditional classroom setting.” Or I could go with, “I read and write reviews about the classics of western literature,” or, “I spend my days repeating tasks only for them to be undone so they can be repeated again.”

Back in my college days and in my early 20’s, I would say with confidence, “I’m a writer.” In our writing classes, we were encouraged to say this as a kind of affirmation. “I am a writer!” And if I didn’t completely believe it, the evidence supported the claim. I wrote every day and then I workshopped my writing with other self-proclaimed writers. I did public readings and published my poetry and prose, if only in the campus literary magazine. The future was ahead of me. Surely I was destined to be published widely and appreciated in my own time.

These days—post-corporate career, post-self employment, post-birth and breastfeeding—I answer with only feigned confidence. “I’m a writer.” The response I used to get was, “Oh? What do you write?” to which I would answer, “Creative nonfiction, mostly personal essays, but I also write short stories and I’m working on a novel.” I could still use this answer because it’s all still true, but now the question is different. It’s changed from, “What do you write?” to “What have you written?”

I’m not sure when or why this shift happened, but I suspect it’s because the wrinkles around my eyes and the silver highlights in my hair mark me as someone who has had ample time to achieve at least some of her youthful ambitions.

It seems a particularly cruel question, but I doubt it’s intended that way. I should, I guess, take it as a compliment. I seem so capable and well-spoken, the questioner just assumes that if they’ve not seen my name on a book cover or in the byline of an article in The New Yorker, it’s the result of their own oversight.

I could just tell them, “I blog,” but I hate to disappoint them. Or perhaps it’s less about disappointing them than admitting that blogging isn’t really what I intended back when I first called myself a writer. It exposes the doubt I feel when I claim that I’m a writer.

But just like in college, the evidence supports my claim. I write every day. I give occasional public readings, primarily in front of my UU congregation. I even publish my writing, albeit in a venue that doesn’t involve getting past editorial gatekeepers.

In her book Writing the Sacred Journey, Elizabeth Andrew refers to writers who write because “writing brings them nearer to the ineffable essence of life.” I write for this reason, and I think this is why I’ve always written. I write for connection. To paraphrase Andrew, I write because it helps me birth myself. I write because I just do. If life tossed me a Robinson Crusoe and I was alone with little hope of ever seeing another human much less signing a book for them, I would still write.

I suppose if I wanted to stifle any follow-up questions about what I do, I could go with, “I write to birth myself.” It’s true, but it’s just not what people think of when someone says, “I’m a writer.” But for me, at least, I think it’s the part that has to come first. If I write from my heart and write the truth—even if it’s fictional—and that leads me to a life that looks more like what people think of as the life of a writer, with book signings and publicity tours and a Wikipedia entry with my name on it, then that’s fantastic.

But if not, I’m still a writer.

Evidence: A pile of completed notebooks. (Not pictured: everything on my hard-drive, nearly 1,000 blog posts (and 100's more on my other blogs, past and present), and dozens of other notebooks.)
Evidence: A pile of completed notebooks. (Not pictured: everything on my hard-drive, nearly 1,000 blog posts (and 100’s more on my other blogs, past and present), and dozens of other notebooks.)