Monday, September 3, 2007

On a Clear Day...

My weekend was pretty nice, all things considering. As I wrote before, my plans to go to NYC to visit a friend were cancelled, but have been rescheduled for this coming weekend. I primarily spent this weekend doing little things; cleaning out my refrigerator, reading, writing a little, and thinking a lot about what to do next.

On Saturday afternoon I drove into the southern suburbs of KC to return some library books and go shopping at the sprawling, faux-bricked outdoor mall that boasts a large number of stores I can't afford, and a smattering of ones I can. This particular suburb is one of the toniest in Kansas City, and the entire two-block area is a monument to providing merchandise for citizens who have NASCAR-type tastes, but Maserati-type pocketbooks. Driving by the Dean and Deluca store that sits catty-corner to the tastefully remodeled McDonald's always makes me snicker.

I stopped at a Barnes and Noble to pick up a couple books and came back out to my car to watch the mall entrances belch out gaggles of shoppers onto the parking lot. It was early in the afternoon, and the sun warmed the back of my neck through my rearview mirror. I glanced at the clock; it was too early to go home, because home meant another grey afternoon inside 1,200 square feet of beige carpeting and unadorned walls. Home meant inevitable sadness, tears, loneliness.

I ended up driving to a park a friend of mine had pointed out near his condo as we were driving to lunch one day, and it was the absolute perfect place to end up....large, clean, and nearly empty except for a B-school type dad and his three screaming, squawking children fishing by a creek's edge. I found a tree near the creekbank that afforded me privacy and a view of my car in the parking lot, and I laid down to read. Since I started suffering from regular bouts of really serious depression, it seems like my concentration has disintegrated with each passing month. When I was in high school, I decided that since I was probably never going to be a pretty girl or a popular girl, I'd at least make a stab at being The Smartest Girl in the Universe, so I read voraciously and memorized any factoid I could get my hands on. At some point during my sophomore year of college, as the crying jags and the lethargy increased, my cognitive abilities started plateauing and then declining, and I never have really regained what I think is a working sharpness of wit and mind. It's gotten bad enough in recent months that I haven't been able to muster up the concentration to make it through an entire adult book without having to reread the first five pages over and over until the words stop swimming and reconstitute themselves into something I can understand. I'm pretty ashamed of it, especially when friends ask me what I think about politics or current affairs or Greek philosophy and I either have to furiously Google what to think or say, or I have to own up and admit I have no idea, because depression has made me stupid.

So until I can start reading big girl books again, I'm on a Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret kick, with a goal of hitting all the Newbury Award winners in the hopes that making it through eighty or so years of baby fiction will get my brain in shape to tackle real writing soon enough. I'm in the middle of Despereaux now, and it's cute, even if I really wish I were reading The World is Flat or something else smart sounding.

Anyway, as I laid there with Despereaux propped up on my chest and my hippie tote bag cradling my head, I felt my eyes drawn toward the latticed canopy of leaves above my head, and the startlingly blue sky peeking through it. I took a picture of it with my cellphone, but the photo doesn't do justice at all to the way the branches intersected with one another, like a latticed cathedral ceiling just out of reach of my fingertips. The photo couldn't capture the way the wind cut the perfect warmth of the seventy-something degree day, so that no matter whether you laid in the sun or the shade, there was no possible other reaction than to close your eyes and breathe one word: autumn. I couldn't show you how the whole outside smelled of that particularly delicious warm scent that gets in my cats' fur after they go outside and I hold them to my face and breathe in deep until the perfume of the grass and the trees and an earth finally put on the cooling rack after three months of baking fades from their skin. But the two hours I spent outside was nearly perfect, save the tiny ants nibbling away at my calves and my arms, and right after I took that picture I leaned my head back, closed my eyes, and actually smiled a genuine, in only momentary, smile of contentment.

I spent the rest of the weekend in a slightly less blissful state; I made the mistake of buying some jasmine rice in bulk a few weeks ago and this morning I woke up to a grain weevil infestation of every single bag of flour, rice, pasta, and cereal I had. After I silently fuh-reaked out, threw away every grain product in my house, and spent two hours watching Anthony Bourdain and scratching away imaginary bugs, whom, I was convinced were reenacting Sherman's March to the sea (if Sherman were these lovely mo-effers, and the sea was my ladyparts), I had a really long talk with some friends of mine about we were going to move forward in our respective lives, and for me specifically how I'm going to get happy in the next year or so. I've been realizing during the last few months that I'm really not happy with my current career, and I'm definitely unhappy with where I live. There are only so many weekends of deciding between tractor pulls or beer league softball games for entertainment before the hoity-toity part of my personality rears its well-coiffed head and demands culture. And while I'm always aware that I have landed a completely cushy teaching job in a great district with wonderful people and I should be going to early church with the 80-year old women and working that kneeler and thanking Christ I have the salary I do for what I do, I really dread going to my job. I don't think I'm a great teacher (at least not a disciplined one), I don't use my voice correctly so I'm going to ruin it in five years anyway and I won't be able to sing or teach, and I'm really shy, so picking a profession that involves eight straight hours of standing up in front of kids and doing my dog and pony show is kind of torture for me, even if they are a captive audience. At least I can bribe them with stickers. And heroin.

And then there's the problem of having no other passion for anything else in the world, unless it's writing, so I don't know of any other career that I'd just jump out of bed ready to tackle each day. I keep thinking that maybe I'd like to be a real writer, maybe a freelance pop culture or critic-type writer for magazines or websites or something, but I don't exactly know how to break in with a completely wrong set of degrees and no experience and honestly I don't really know if writing about your issues on a tiny blog can translate into actual journalism. I have a couple of friends who are freelance writers, and one or two in publishing, so I thought about asking for their opinions.

There is, of course, the "Erin's mom" voice inside my head that makes me feel guilty for wanting more out of my life. Both of my parents are extremely intelligent people...brilliant in some areas, but neither finished college and they both have worked in low paying, kind of menial careers their entire lives. When I got my current teaching job, my mother made a big point of telling me that I make twice as much as she does and of course seem to do half the work since I get summers and holidays off. My father isn't as vocal, nor as indignant as my mom when I say that I might like to do something different, but I can see him wince when I discuss more school or a career change, or maybe a move to a big city. And sometimes I can convince myself they're right; that giving up a decent salary and a low-rent house and a 401K and retirement for a shot at a completely risky career and a lifestyle I can't afford is ridiculous, and I shouldn't be thinking about it.

I think, though, of my friend from high school who got married and decided with her husband to bike to all 50 states for two years, and my friends who've gone on to play in symphonies, or the ones who've spent a semester in Europe or joined the Peace Corp or lived on a polyamorous ecovillage, or even the ones who are slaving away in PhD programs so they can say something significant to the world when they get out, and I want to say that I finally figured out what I wanted and went after it, too. Even if it is about five years later than they did.

Do you ever get afraid that if you figured yourself out enough to actually go for the things that would make you happy, that you wouldn't recognize yourself anymore? I felt that briefly while I was lying underneath the tree...during those four seconds that I closed my eyes and smiled, I stopped being She Who Ruminates and Frets and just became some chick in a park instead. It was a disconcerting feeling, because I didn't know what to do with myself without the depression and the self-loathing and the ubiquitous sense of detachment from a normal life and the people who live it. I cannot imagine myself as healthy AND happy AND satisfied with my career and my friends and where I lived at all. I have no idea who I'd be or what I'd feel like because I never, ever have felt satisfied. Maybe we're not supposed to have everything we want, though. I don't know, but I can always hope that's not the case.


Lauren said...

Yes, I think that exactly. I know that I want to sing in a professional choir, but to do that I need to learn to sight read and sing music. Which I didn't practice at all in college. It would also help if I could play the piano a little. But am I doing the basic things that need to be done to get where I want to go....NO

Lori said...

Erin, I was just thinking of you today. I really, really do understand what you say and you're way, way younger than me. So go for it.

It's hard for me to imagine being healthy, happy, and satisfied with my career and friends, etc.

I'm glad you got out of the house and I hope you have fun in NYC.

Jarrett Meyer said...

Thank you for your amazing post. It was absolutely wonderful to read.

There are personality types that will never be pleased. I have Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (different from OCD), and one of the key characteristics is that no matter how good of a job I do, I could have done more. I could have sacrificed more sleep and gotten to work earlier. I could have spent more time with my wife. I should have gotten out an run more. I should lose 5 more pounds. I should be able to do 50 pushups. I should have studied more. I should read more. I should contribute more to open source programs. I should volunteer at my church. I should practice piano more. I should make more money. I should have a better job given my level of education and experience. I should get a larger raise next year. And a promotion. I should stop writing this reply and get back to work. (OK, that last one might be true!)

Letting go can be extremely difficult. I always have to make a very conscious effort to keep my mind right here, right now. A little bit ahead is a good idea. Never backwards. My hindsight is far too painful.

Your pain is understood and respected. I hope you have someone to talk to. Someone who really understands you. Personally, I'm not a fan of therapists. I find that their professional dissociation also serves to keep them from finding the true solutions to my problems.

PastaQueen said...

Shit girl, I certainly think you could become a professional writer. And you even have friends in the industry! Hello, networking.

And I really relate to that feeling of wanting to figure out what to do in life and go after it. It took me forever to pick a major in college and I even took a year off because of it.

Life can get better. Truly, I promise. You can make it happen.

Abba said...

A writer indeed. I reviewed the post and couldn't believe how long it was. It didn't seem like it took that long to read. You definitely have a way of holding the attention of your audience. I am going to be in NYC in two weeks. We are leaving on the 16th. Plan on being there for a whole entire week. Can't wait. Hope your trip is great.

Lauren said...

I hope you are doing well. Miss you around here.

Alicia said...

I can't describe how totally I understand this. Being overweight, having depression, wanting something bigger than the people who are around you (particularly your parents)... all these things make a person feel abnormal, different. But, feeling abnormal is something we all crave, in a sense: the idea of standing out, being an individual.
I can only speak from my life journey but... I always wanted to write, and I always wanted to lose weight. And I was only able to start to lose weight after my first novel was published, won some acclaim, etc. My theory about myself is that "being different" is important to me (which is entirely fine, it is important to some people) and that I was only able to start to let go of my unhealthy way of being different (obesity) when I'd proved to myself that I could pursue healthy ways (writing and public speaking). That's not all there is to it, but that's some of it.
Re: parents. Yes, it is really really hard to do something that you know your parents will be "jealous" of (even if they don't know that's what they're feeling and think they're, eg, "just taking you down a peg or two" or "reminding you where you come from"). But you know, all that stuff is true: it's your life not their life and actually, in their heart of hearts, they don't want you to not pursue your dreams just to keep them happy (where happy = allowing their ideas about life to remain intact). It's just possible that if you pursue your dreams you'll inspire them to get theirs out of the cupboard again, dust them off and take another try. Don't hold your breath, though, and don't do it for them, do it for you.
Finally, I too have difficulty seeing "myself" in the person with the "perfect life" I still imagine in my future. I think (after large quantities of therapy) that perhaps that's because the "perfect life" image just isn't real. We might get "there", if "there" means eating right and exercising most of the time, writing every day, being in a satisfying relationship, learning and growing and developing... BUT actually we will still be us when we get there, and maybe that realisation will make it less of a bump when we do? We'll still have off days, still have days when we feel sad, some of the same things will still scare or bewilder us, our lives won't be entirely new just a little improved. It's been quite revelatory for me to realise that however much I do I'm never going to get a Brand New Body (as promised in magazines) but the same old one, just working better. Maybe that's depressing (my stretchmarks will never go away) but it's also comforting (I'll still be able to recognise myself, because I'll always be me).