Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Who I Am And Who I Am Not ...

I don't write drafts.

Not intentionally.

Not here.

I write. Whatever my brain conjures and my fingers type is what you read. I do not write then ponder. I do not mull. I write. You read. Done.

But back in late July, the last day of July to be exact, I wrote a post that I did not publish. Something didn't feel right. The writing was fine – and by "fine" I mean "acceptable" – but I had a sense that it wasn't the right time to share.

And I was right (as we always are, in the end).

Because now is the right time to share.

As precis though, this is part of what I had to say:

This is a moment.

I have been talking to myself a lot this morning, talking through recent events, talking about how I've responded to those events – or, more accurately, about how I've
not responded to those events – and I just said, out loud, "This is not the life I want."

Which may sound ungrateful, and I assure you it is not. I am enormously grateful for the richness in my life. I am blessed beyond measure.

But I have allowed myself, for reasons I am trying to understand, to shrink away from life.

The other day, in a moment of being cheeky, I wrote to Angela, "I'm too talented to be destitute."

But it is in those moments of being off the cuff that we often reveal our truths.

That was a turning point. One of many turning points that have come to me in recent days.

I don't know this person I've become. I am not her. Where did I go?

Part of the talking this morning has been laying out a timeline. And I took it back to when I lost my last job, but it extends back much further.

How much further? I'm not sure. Was I me when I worked at my previous job? No, not really.

Was I me when I worked at the job before that? No.

Was I me when I worked at the
Tribune? The Sun-Times? No. No.

What about when I interned at
Chicago magazine? Was I myself then? No.


High school?

Grade school?

Have I ever been myself?

Of course, I've always been myself insofar as my belief that I'm always where I'm supposed to be, so wherever I've been has been instructive in some way.

But this morning, I arrived at another turning point.

Some background: Yesterday, my friend Bruce and I were trading notes back and forth about movies, about ones we've seen and ones we own, and he ticked off a couple of classics that I haven't seen, and I replied to him, "Oh, geez, I'm such a film failure."

And this morning, I awoke to, in part, this (I don't think he'll mind if I share):

"I found your recent comment worthy of closer examination:

'Oh, geez, I'm such a film failure.'

I know you're intending to sound funny and breezy and flippant here, but listen to yourself for a minute. ... I wonder if you listen to your inner monologue sometimes and detect a pattern of putting yourself down? I hope not, Beth. You've got FAR more going on in that interesting brain of yours than most women I know."

To which I replied:

"No, I don't mean to put myself down. What I meant was some of the ones you were mentioning were some of the classics that anyone who calls themselves a film fan should have seen at least once, if not many times, by this stage in his or her life. ... Thanks for your thoughts. My inner monologue could use some sprucing up, regardless. I was just thinking, in the past 24 hours, that this first year of my being 40 isn't what I wanted my first year in my 40s to be. Must do something about that."

To which he kindly replied, in part:

"What did you want your first year of your 40s to be (if you can share)?"

To which I replied, in part:

"The first part of 40 has just seen me being very much not myself. I've been out of work, I haven't been exercising, I've put on some weight, I'm just 'blah.'

There are glimpses of 'me.' I was thinking the other day of the last time I got my hair cut and colored, and then I went and met my friend Steve, who was in town on business, for dinner. And we had a lovely time, good conversation, lots of laughs. There's something about being with him that makes me feel, oh, hell, what's the word? I'm still sleepy, so vocabulary isn't springing to mind. So let's settle on 'with it.'

And I know that I'm always that person, that it's not like she only comes out when Steve comes to town, but, well, I need to get out more. Seriously."

I know that we can't live our lives always "on." There are rhythms to the days. Some days we're outgoing, some days we want to be alone. Some days we're ambitious, some days we're lazy. I do not demand peak performance from myself at all times.

The problem is, I've demanded next to nothing from myself for too long.

Friends see my life as so interesting, the experiences I've had, the people I know. And they're not wrong. I have had lots of opportunities, been fortunate to meet some really interesting people, and strike up friendships with a few of them.

At a retirement party a couple of weeks ago, my friend Rob's wife, Mary, popped up with a friend of hers and said, "She needs to hear the Vonnegut story!"

And so I told her friend the story of how I interviewed Vonnegut for a college paper (part of that story is here).

In moments like these, in this life I'm living right now, I wonder where that girl has gone.

If I had the courage, nauseous and nervous though I was, as a 19-year-old to call Kurt Vonnegut and arrange to fly to New York to meet him, what's stopping me now?

Now I'm an adult. Now I can do whatever I want. There are no limits.

So why am I so stuck?

Part of it, maybe most of it, is a lack of direction.

I can see my friend Elida rolling her eyes as she reads this, but even as I wend my way toward 41, I don't know what I want to do with my life.

I've been reading a book called "The Renaissance Soul," and it's been helpful, comforting. It's nice to know that there are others like me, that there is an entire segment of the population who doesn't want to be a singular thing or who can find some measure of satisfaction in their job while they pursue an avocation on the side.

When I engage with an idea, there's no stopping me. I will spend hours immersed in it, doing and doing and doing until it's done. Tweaking endlessly, making it just so, manifesting the vision in my mind.

When the idea came to me for the invitation for my 40th birthday party, I got to work, writing, editing, designing, printing, proofing, tweaking, printing, proofing, tweaking, making it just right.

When Angelo made an off-hand comment about a shortbread necklace, I set to conceptualizing, rendering, mixing, forming, rolling, cutting, baking, styling, getting a final shot to share.

I love those moments. But they do not last. Nor are they lucrative. I do not expect to support myself making shortbread necklaces. But there is a bigger issue beyond that: I do not want to make more shortbread necklaces. I've done that. I was happy with the result. Next!

So many people have talked to me about opening a bakery, suggesting I open a bakery, asking why I haven't opened a bakery, and the simple answer is this: I have to be in the mood to bake.

I love to bake for others. I love that people get so excited when Christmas rolls around and they know cookies are coming their way. Or when I just whip up a batch of brownies or muffins or scones and deliver them next door or share them with my mom and dad. It's something so simple, but it's done with love and they're so pleased for the little surprise.

But if that were my job? If I woke up every day and I
had to bake, if my livelihood depended on it? I don't like the thought of that.

Which is where
The Renaissance Soul comes into play, this notion that we can pick several things to do, that each day doesn't have to look exactly like the day before.

But that's not how the world works. Well, not most of the world. In most of the world, you get a job, a singular job. You are an accountant or a doctor or a lawyer or a sales clerk or what have you.

Yes, there are those who make a life for themselves, but they are often self-promoters. I am
not a self-promoter. Little makes me more uncomfortable than having to sell myself.

It's the catch-22 of being both talented and humble. Yes, I have gifts, but I'm not supposed to talk about them.

But my challenge (I made myself change the word from "issue" and "problem") becomes a lack of interest in doing anything long-term. I get into a book then leave it half-read.

I work on the screenplay in very short bursts.

I can't seem to finish anything substantial.

I didn't even want to keep writing this post.

I feel scattered. And lost. And hopeless. And frustrated that I can't figure this out.

What good is being this smart if I feel so pathetic?

Now, let me make something clear before we continue: I do not worship at the altar of Oprah. I record her show every day, but I do not watch most of the episodes. I scan through the folder on my DVR, looking for topics of interest, and delete more than I save.

But a couple of years ago, Doreen shared an article in an issue she had lying around, and as I read, I thought I might like to subscribe. The magazine seemed to be a good fit for where I was in my life (not that I ever really seem to know), and I found a subscription deal on Amazon, so I subscribed.

For two years.

Right off the bat.

Yes, I could cancel, but do you know anyone who ever does that?

Most people – me, anyway – just let the subscription clock run out. Which is what I'm doing.

And we're ending things in a spectacular fashion.

Last month's cover?

"Own Your Power!"

In Big. Italic. Type!

Exclamation point! In case the 72-point "Power" was striking you as a bit too subtle.

This month's cover?

"What's Your True Calling?"

Good question, Oprah. Good question.

I've been trying to figure that one out for years.

Hell, decades.

You'd think I would have stopped what I was doing the moment that issue arrived in the mail and sat myself down and flipped feverishly through the pages until my eyes fell on the single word that would change everything, that would define me, that would make it all – finally, blissfully, relievedly – known.

Yeah, no.

I put it in the bathroom with all the other magazines.

But I'd see it, you know, from time to time.

And a little voice in my head would say, "What are you afraid of, Beth? Why aren't you reading it? Don't you want to know?"

Oh, I want to know. I've always wanted to know. The engine of my life has been revving for 40 damn years. Put it in Drive already, Kujawski!

So, this morning, I read the first piece. And then I started the second. And then I set the issue down, even as I chided myself for it.

"Really?" I asked. "That's as far as you're going to go?"

"No," I answered myself. "I want to call mom and make sure she's OK. And then I want to get these dishes done. I need things to be clean."

I need things to be clean? Who the hell am I?

Whatever. I called my mom. She was fine, just tired and a bit sore from working too hard yesterday. And I did up the few dishes.

And then I plopped myself down at my desk to read the relevant pages. Not the whole issue, just the pages that would help me, once and for all, put me on the road to discovering my true calling.

Patti Smith and Joy Behar, separately, advised following that thing you loved to do as a child, before you let others become factors or influence.

Martha Beck penned a great piece about discovering our hot tracks. "Grab a pen and make a list of every time you remember being utterly, happily absorbed in an activity, no matter how odd," she wrote.

I obeyed.

First thing on the list? Shortbread necklace.

(Angelo inspired the shortbread necklace. Angelo is crazy talented and creative. And, of course, he's my muse. He's Greek. It's kind of his job.)

I took the "What's Holding You Back?" quiz and got bupkis. I read all of the possible answers and none of them apply to me, specifically. Figures.

I read "The Best of Her Abilities," Paige Williams' piece about the battery of aptitude tests at the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation. I went through the process two years ago. So I was pleased to read another testee's take. A woman's, a writer's, no less. She wrote, "I obsess over some mistakes longer than many people stay married." I highlighted those words in florescent yellow, then made an exclamation mark next to them in blue pen.

I read about her testing, recalling my own highs and lows, and highlighted, "The wiggly blocks, for instance—the test that Tim says 'brings people to their knees.' "

"Ha!" I wrote in the gutter, an utterance of victory, not mirth.

I scored in the 95th percentile on Wiggly Blocks.

Take that, knee-bringer!

Of course, that test result threw everything out of whack. My aptitudes say one thing, my interests say another.

One of my recommended careers? Electrical engineer. Which seemed obscure until the day I connected that dot with the fact that Nikola Tesla and I are first cousins, thrice removed. (I don't have the proof on paper. But so goes the story in the family. And there's a definite resemblance. Among the men, that is. Not me. In case that wasn't clear.)

And then I read Elizabeth Gilbert's entry on what to do when your passion goes AWOL. She dabbled in gardening until her writer's block lifted. Which is a viable option when you're a multi-millionaire. For others, not so much.

And lastly, I happened upon Robin Black's appropriately placed "Never Too Late." Of course that one should come last.

Yup, we're late to our callings.

But as she posits, "Maybe it's a case of better late than early."

At least we're more sure.

So, do I now know my calling?


But lately, my brain has been making associations between what I like to do now and what I liked to do as a child, and I'm discovering that I really have always had clues, instincts. But I grew up and I let my rational mind take over.

I am equally right- and left-brained. And for most of my adult life, the two hemispheres have been playing tug of war. My rational brain was sure the answer existed, if only I could think enough thoughts, take enough tests, analyze enough data, I would eventually find the key, the answer, the word. My "Rosebud."

Meanwhile, my creative brain, as a child, wanted to pin a red bath towel around my neck like a cape and spin around the kitchen to the theme from "Batman" in the afternoon. So I did.

Creative! Rational. Creative! Rational. My brain made little progress. The rope would move every so slightly in one direction, then ever so slightly in the other.

And today, I realized that I have to drop the rope.

It's so simple. Just drop the rope. Get out of my own way. Go with the flow. As Angelo would say, embrace my inner Kardashian. (Translation: Find success in being who you are. And don't overthink things. After all, clearly, they don't.)

Years ago, I asked my editor at Chicago magazine why he was a writer. (He was working on a book at the time.) He said, "I'm a writer because it's the only thing I can do really well. You can do a lot of things really well. It's going to be really hard for you."

I took that to heart, held it close all these years. And I have made it true.

A few months ago, as I mentioned, I was out with my friend Steve. We were sitting at the bar at Bandera, having some a couple of glasses of wine before dinner, and I told him about my editor, Joe: "And then he said, 'You can do a lot of things really well. It's going to be really hard for you.' "

And without skipping a beat, Steve said, "Or really easy."

Or really easy.

In 20 years, I had never thought to look at that statement from the other direction. I never thought to just flip it around.

Easy, Beth. Let it be easy.

Yes, I still have bills to pay. I don't have the luxury of Gilbert's gardening spree.

But what a relief it is to drop the rope, to stop trying so fervently to figure things out. The answer isn't at the end of a test, on the last page of a book, or in the latest issue of O.

It's inside me. Where it's always been.

The answer is: Do it all.

And, as my friend Rick would say: Start where you are.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Beth. It's Elida here, rolling my eyes (not really). I don't know what you should do, though I do believe that you won't be able to do it all. Women have been trying that for years and it just doesn't work. What I do believe, however, and have for a long time while reading your blog, is that you need pick something, ANYTHING, jump in and work at it for a while. It's not anything I haven't said to you before. I seem to remember a weekend in Minneapolis with us having this similiar conversation back in 1995 or '96. You have a lot of talents and interests and you seem to move from one to another and declare victory in a very short amount of time and move on. I'd love to see you pick something, dig in and really stick with it, success or failure, to see if it's what you want to do. That doesn't mean you can't ever change your mind. God knows I've changed my "career" mind about 17 times in 30 years (every two years I'm looking for something new). But in my own case, I always felt like I wrung out the possibilities of one thing before moving to the next (even though my friends think I'm the one with a short attention span!). In the end, it's all about committing to something, anything. While I love the idea of being a Renaissance woman (and consider myself to be one in many ways), in the end there are things that I've concentrated on more than others to build my career. There has always been a solid foundation and framework. I just move the interior walls around. A lot. One other gentle suggestion (and if you decide NOT to enable this comment, I have no issues) ... get out of your head and off the internet and get out there! As long as you sit and ruminate on this stuff day after day, you're going to remain frozen in inertia. Get out there. Get a job, any job even close to something you might enjoy and try it. You'll get new experience and meet new people. Your Vonnegut story is a great one, but it happened 20 years ago. You need to start making NEW wonderful stories. Like I've always said since I took my current job ... if nothing else, it has supplied me with ANOTHER lifetime of good cocktail party stories. I already had a lot when I got here. But now I've got NEW ones. It's time for you to stop thinking about your new history and start making it! You've done it before. You can do it again. Don't waste any more time being afraid, because in the end, that's what it is, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of something. Close your eyes and jump. You'll be surprised how wonderful it feels.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

Hey, Elida, I'm happy to publish your comment and appreciate your thoughts and encouragement.

And there's movement in on the "work" front, I'm happy to report and I am indeed getting out there again.

A lot has happened over the past couple years that's knocked me down, but like those scary punching-bag clowns from our youths, I'm popping back up again.

Thanks for not really rolling your eyes. :o )

9:07 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

Oh, and insofar as doing it all, I don't mean concurrently.

And I'm not a wife and mother who's trying to fulfill duties to both her family and her career. So, as a single person, I have more "do it all" leeway.

I just mean I don't have to choose *a* career. I don't have to figure out that I'm an accountant or a doctor or a lawyer or what have you.

I can do all the things I like to do, in any and all combinations, over time.

Like, if I were to open the bakery/café/coffee house/wine bar/whatever I wanted it to be, I could use my food skills but also my design skills to create the space, to design the packaging, to design the business cards, voiceover skills if I ever got to the point of advertising, etc.

Just clarifying. Not defending.

Thanks again for all your thoughts.

9:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hah, I'm not a wife or a mother, either, and I don't have time for much of anything these days. And you're right ... you can pick something to do and incorporate all of your skills in doing it. That's really what a career is and what the right fit is ... it's not choosing one profession over the others, but seeking the marriage of skills. I work in TV, but I still write and edit every day. I'm happy to hear there is movement on the job front. That's a good first step.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

Well, yeah, but you're a big cheese in a demanding profession and have a parent for whom you help care, so sure you're busy.

Me? Not so much.

The job thing has been weird. I love all the politicians who say folks should just go get jobs, never mind the statistics of 14 million out of work and 5 million available jobs.

Funny thing about having worked in newspapers is that it always seemed like a solid fall-back position. Things don't work out elsewhere? Get a job at a newspaper.

When Thomson Newspapers went away, that was seismic for me. And to watch the implosion of the Tribune has blown my mind.

The biggest generic employer for what I do has shrunk drastically. Jobs just aren't there anymore.

And while IT was admittedly a poor fit for me, it was interesting to watch companies shrink deliverables into little bites of information. One of the companies was ahead of its time in what was essentially the Twitterization of information.

Anyhoo, it's been rocky, navigating the new landscape. But I'm regaining my footing and looking at new possibilities. Things will work out well.

They always do.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

One final thought:

You are exactly right about the whole Vonnegut thing, and my including it in this post dovetails exactly with your point. I wasn't citing it as "I did this cool thing." I was citing it as "That was more than 20 years ago I had the chutzpah then. Why don't I have the chutzpah now?" Or, really, since I still have it in me, why am I not accessing it?

I have done some nifty things in the intervening years. It was fun to interview Melissa Etheridge earlier this year, for example.

Then again, nothing in my adult life will compare to being a 19-year-old college student calling up one of the preeminent authors of the 20th century and asking if she could interview him for a paper. :o )

Anything I do like that now will fall under the purview of "journalist." Much less interesting when it's your job, you know?

11:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See, I think it's much MORE interesting. Doesn't matter if it's part of your job or not (a lot of it still takes nerve, like the time I told Michael Irvin to his face that his suit made him look like a pimp -- or the first time I had to fire somebody). Nearly everything is easy in the bravado of youth. It gets less so when you're an adult, you know more and the stakes are much higher.

As for the job front, I'm with you on the implosion of newspapers. Remember when I used to move jobs at will ... because I COULD? Well those days are gone as is my own fall-back position. The one encouraging thing is that I have many, many former colleagues who have found really interesting, innovative ways to put their skills to use in new jobs and while many won't have the same level of career that the might have had at their newspapers, most of them are doing well and are very happy in many ways. Thank goodness I've never lost a job, but the risk-taker in my also wonders that doing so would push me to make some decisions and do some things I might be stalling on. Of course, I don't want to test that theory, either.

The one thing I can say throughout my very varied career, though, is that I've always had some kind of plan, some kind of fall-back and some kind of future vision. And I have that now ... it's no secret to everyone who knows me that I'd love to teach journalism in college. And I'm working on getting there!

1:55 PM  
Anonymous daphne said...

hey Beth, I love this. you're such a genius!well written. . good job!=)

9:51 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

Genius not at all.

But thank you for the compliment.

9:53 PM  
Blogger Natalie Mikolajczak said...

I love it. I love all of it.
I gotta me that book.


11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen, sister! I am right with you.

6:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Was reading all the same articles from Oprah's website this weekend and added THE REN. SOUL to my wish list at Amazon earlier today. And I'm a woman in my early 40s.

But I haven't gone for the aptitude testing. I found your blog by looking up the JOCRF on a Google blog search. And apparently, aptitude testing didn't give you the magical answer to "what do you want to be when you grow up?" Bummer.

However, maybe you gave me a key...this idea that I'm making it too hard. It IS my modus operandi. I grated fresh coconut for a pound cake last week!

Did you gain something from taking those aptitude tests? If I spend all that money, am I still going to be looking for that book/test/guru that's going to point me in the perfect direction, 2 years, 5 years, 10 years from now?

7:14 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

I just laughed out loud at the notion of your grating coconut!

What I gained from JOCRF was macro rather than micro. I didn't get an "answer," as in "You should be an electrical engineer!" and an ensuing moment of "Yes! That's it!", but instead what I gained was a better sense of why I am the way I am.

The Wiggly Blocks test is about how we perceive things in three dimensions and how the relate to each other. And I can see really minute differences between objects and I need to tweak them. Like the votives on my mantel. If they're all not equally spaced, I have to fix that.

I used to think I had OCD or some such. But nope. My brain just registers things spatially than the brains of others.

Well, and maybe I have a bit of OCD because I can't let those things go.

But really, I wonder if anyone has any of the answers we seek. I tried life coaching for the same purpose, and that didn't tell me anything, either.

I think you're right that some of us tend to make things too complicated.

What do you do when you don't have to do anything? That's always a good clue.

7:21 PM  

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