I, Wanderer

The commencement address at university is supposed to inspire the graduates to go out and conquer the world with great deeds and a vision of peace for mankind. Or at least to get a decent job and pay your own bills. I panicked when I graduated from college. It was the moment when I realized I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t attend my college commencement; the keynote address never reached my ears. If college was a five year delay before starting my adult life, then the day after graduation was an immediate decline into crap-what-do-I-do-now. Nearly everyone I knew was ready to start grad school in a few months or had a terrific entry level position in a company that would lead to a productive and independent future. So I thought. So they thought.

I’d been lazy about my life till then, getting homework and assignments completed but without the proof of solid accomplishments that look great on a resume. I’d worked too, at a bunch of dead end jobs that kept me fed on fried rice and bologna sandwiches, and housed in roach infested apartments in the run down sections of a graceless city. The idea of being a writer had been sustained by only marginal success in college. I’d earned a degree in creative writing validated by a few essays and short stories noteworthy for nudging by professors toward possible journal submission. But there were no jobs in the classified section of the paper advertising for entry level writers. (If you’re 30 or under, you don’t know about the classifieds – no worries.)

Over the next decade I wandered into a roll call of aimless jobs. Employment in lackluster positions paid bills until marriage. Then children sidelined me even further from any serious expeditions toward a writing career. Not wanting to risk my sons’ safety at daycare, I stayed home with them, dodging regular work until they were in elementary school. For a person full of remorse over many squandered opportunities, that’s not one of them. I’m not attempting to persuade you that my decision was the only one you should consider, but for me, it was right. I nurtured my children with celebrations, play, music, trips to beaches and nature parks, sports, museums visits, scouts, theater outings, picnics, friendships, fun, and challenges.

I loved those years and I harbor no regret.

The next derailments happened because I pursued a different creative path, first as occasional work while the kids were small, and then as a full bore career because it became the path I traveled. At-home work as a free lance artist eventually led to paid art teacher positions through a city rec program, then as a volunteer artist at my son’s school. (I don’t know which of those words paints a funnier picture: “Free” because of how little I got paid by people who thought they were doing me a favor by letting me do something constructive with my time by designing logos and signs for their businesses, or handmade invitations for their weddings. “Lance” because I felt pierced by every person who paid me less than promised after demanding more work than we’d agreed upon. Or “artist” because I never got to sign my name to a single piece of artwork. Still, inks and paints were used, and I was never lashed to a mast to do the work. And yes, I do know that “freelance” is a legitimate word without the separations.)

Those experiences segued into a stint as a commercial artist in a studio where I learned to paint under pressure and with peculiar requirements. Like board short designs with no orange as the owner of the company simply didn’t like orange, damn that the buying public at the time, teenage and college boys, loved it. I also found that office politics is the norm, stealing credit is standard, and jealousy of anyone else’s artistic skills the motive for lies (art director, “She didn’t paint that,” pointing to what was clearly my design – everyone had seen me paint it and it was my identifiable style) and theft (“I did,” as she held aloft a barely altered piece of my work and claimed it as her own.) More than one artist has stated that commercial studios raze your soul, but maybe you have to be there to understand such truth. Too many episodes down that miserable path and I gave it up, joyously.

At any rate, I took what I’d learned – to paint fast and accurately – and marched off to the first of several positions as an art teacher in private schools. I’ll leave out the administrative/business dealings and report only that I loved working with kids, kindergarten to twelfth grade, and exposing them to the creative energy that every child owns. You just have to help them unlock what’s percolating there, show them how to hold a brush, how color suggests mood or seasons, how to move a pencil to craft the line they envision in their head, and that less glue is better than more. Children can learn to capture what they dream and record it as painting, drawing, original print, sculpture, or ceramic art. It’s a remarkable experience when a child hangs a work of art on the wall and says, “I made that!” Yes, with my guidance, but a few thousand kids did in fact make thousands of pieces of art. Many went on to become fine artists, designers, sculptors, art teachers, architects, art historians, commercial artists, docents, and all manner of professionals and lay people whose lives are touched and enriched by exposure to art.

I taught children to paint, I loved those years, and I harbor no regret.

Eventually a roadblock stopped me. A horrendously unjust situation developed and I couldn’t control or reverse it. Truth to power is a noble cause but sometimes you just can’t win and I didn’t. Knowing that it was up to me to heal, I sought a creative outlet. Unable to continue to teach art, I returned to my first love, the one I’d identified as a child. I began again to write. Three completed novels, another well on its way, short stories and poetry as proof: I am a writer.

Finally I knew what I needed to know after college graduation – it was up to me to write my own commencement address, so here it is:

Do whatever you do as well as possible. Make deep and wholesome imprints on earth and in the hearts of others. When you go, it will be all that’s left behind. Listen to your adversary and be vulnerable to change, because you may have made the first mistake. Compromise is often the most fair solution but sometimes justice is not. Work at granting forgiveness and be grateful to those who have afforded you theirs. Stake high standards for yourself, slightly less for acquaintances, and none for those who are unable to bear the weight. Be authentic in voice and action, and do something instead of nothing at all. You were not born when your parents were: stop blaming them for the miseries of their lives. Be angry and then make something wonderful from your anger. Forge friendships as if you are forging new stars. Hold your loved ones as if their lives and yours depended upon it. Fix what you broke and then help someone else fix what they broke. Build something new and keep what’s old in good repair. Bless those around you for their presence in your life. Thank God in whatever way you find meaningful. Do this every day.

And harbor no regrets.

 

mortarboard art courtesy Clip Art

 

 

 

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The Inevitable Triumvirate

Death, taxes, change-the inevitable triumvirate. They make us shudder but we cannot escape them, nor the adages about them. They are linked uncomfortably, wedging between the people we love, the things we’re trying to do, the places we want to go. The stories I write now are different from what I wrote half a lifetime ago, but my sense of what’s worthy was impressed on me before I finished college and has changed little in the decades since.

Words and stories engaged me from a very young age. I wasn’t one of those precocious scholars who learned to read at two or three but certainly by the time I was six stories had become my other, better world. I read them, I wrote them, they enriched me, they saved me. I could recite several from memory and make up others on the spot. None was complete without a crayon sketch.  There I was, seven, nine, twelve-years-old, writer, illustrator, and occasional prize winner. As a child, I could ignore discussions of taxes and pursue my childish dreams. My parents paid the taxes to keep a middle class home, a middle class life.

Change ricocheted through my life. Born in Philly, I’ve lived in New Jersey, Hawaii (twice), Alabama, Michigan, and California. The prejudice I witnessed in New Jersey against Blacks was different from that which snared me in Hawaii against Haoles, in Alabama against Jews, in Michigan against the poor, in California against Mexicans. It shaped my perspective. Hatred, blame, and name calling were lobbed with Eastern accents, Pidgin English, a Southern drawl. Landscapes changed but prejudice was ugly everywhere. It taught me that people should be fair and kind, learn to speak another language, be sympathetic to those who are other. My ideas about justice showed up in my earliest stories, permeating my voice even if they weren’t part of the plot.

Death had already touched me. Great-grandparents and an adoring grandmother died before I finished elementary school, leaving spaces filled with memories. The beginnings of stories, even if I didn’t know it yet.

High school and college compositions and stories assured me I could write, that is, I could competently express ideas in standard written format. Other people read my work, nodded their heads and made exaggerated faces that expressed surprise I could do anything, given my general level of incompetence for nearly everything that folks found important. I wasn’t good at anything practical or negotiable for survival.  More loss, of two cousins whose genetic material made sweet but grievously ill children. I wrote about them in a college story that my professor praised. Before turning 18, I’d paid the first of my own taxes, probably not more than $20 for a year of working retail.

I graduated from college, married, moved several times. We had two sons. The changes of adulthood imposed a rigid adherence to schedules. We paid our taxes on time. A few more deaths, now of friends whose tragic exits warned me of my own fragility. I wrote my first full length book by sharing child care with a friend. She shopped while I minded her kids. I wrote long hand and then typed my story on a library typewriter while she watched mine. Immersed as I was in the world of kids, it was a children’s story. Kids’ issues I understood, though it was a story about children facing prejudice.

Deserved agent rejections shamed me into seeking other creative diversions. Raising kids and paying bills demanded I find a lucrative job. My ideas of being a great writer dissolved in the steam of running to school conferences, grocery stores, medical appointments, and playgroups between the hours when my job ended one day and began early the next. The following decades, I moved up and down the career/job spectrum, making little headway in writing.

We moved to a bigger house and bigger bills. I worked as a commercial artist and when I’d had my fill of studio humiliation, I turned those skills into an art teaching career. It was a huge change in focus, one I loved, but I wrote on the sly–articles about art history and production. The taxes went up with the income. A few more deaths but I was able to take these in stride. I’d learned that singular lives were subject to the compulsory demise of flesh but I could endure the loss of friends, bereaved though I felt.

About twelve years ago, two huge events forced the biggest changes. I lost the teaching job I’d loved the most because of school politics. My rage at such unfairness nearly destroyed me. I had to change if I was going to survive. Plunging myself into painting usually fulfilled me but I’d been doing that for years. It had to be a new pursuit. I began to write again, adult historical fiction about the Holocaust. Only a few weeks into the book, my husband was nearly killed in a terrible motorcycle accident. Worry about his health, several surgeries, and the long healing process took a toll on me. I needed an escape and the book developed along with my new life. Less income, fewer taxes, more stress. I started a second book, about the dissolution of a family, and began to think of myself as a writer.

Three years ago my beloved father died, and my mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, became my responsibility. My third book, nearly complete, is a funhouse reflection of her life in a residence for Alzheimer’s victims. Cosmic injustice stomps through the story.

We’re still paying our share of taxes, and sometimes I think we must be paying someone else’s as well. I don’t know what I’ll be writing next year or in ten years, but the changes that describe the borders of my life will also inform my stories. I hope readers find merit in my creations. I want to leave a worthy legacy. That’s why I write.

Be well, friend.