This morning when I woke up there was first exhilaration, then a tinge of disappointment, and then peace. I remembered the close proximity in which I’d been with a man I’ve long found attractive, even if poorly suited for me. His smile inches from my own, our cheeks nearly grazing as we spoke about nonsense, our gazes locked briefly against the pitch of black and noise that surrounded us. And then I remembered him walking away; the second man in two days who had quietly rejected me. And then I turned to face the window. The world out there was impeccably quiet, the sky pink at its lowest point, pale blue at its highest. Not a cloud was in sight, and all of the trees were bare, brown, the early morning sun sprinkling them with shards of amber light.
When I look at this city long enough, I see its bones. Whatever flesh and appearances that usually keep them hidden fall away, and what remains for me is only the skeleton. There is no heart. It makes me wonder if I ever really did love it here, or if I was merely chasing ghosts when I decided to return. I imagine that when other people look at this city, they can feel its pulse, they can locate its heart, its major vessels, they can feel its warmth. But I can’t. I’ve tried for nearly five years, and it’s still just skin and bone. Passable, at first glance, but not enough. Nearly everything here, for me, has long been way more difficult than it ‘should’ be–friendships, relationships, dating, networking, jobs; maybe it’s a message: you don’t belong here, go!
Maybe I will.
Ten years ago, I was in graduate school here in Rochester. I wrote my thesis paper on the artwork of Maya Lin. In it, I wrote about a photograph I’d found of my mother, young and holding a cigarette, with long straight hair parted down the middle. When I’d first found that photo, I looked at it, and knew my life was all wrong. My thesis was probably a failure, but I somehow managed an ‘A’. Instead of writing about contemporary issues in Art Education, I wrote about my own issues in Art Education. I admitted, plainly, that when my life was not about making, my life was empty. I wrote that when my life became about teaching, about writing lesson plans and curricula and learning how to differentiate, I died a little inside. I wrote that I needed to figure out how to make time for both–I needed to figure out how to be a teacher and an artist.
When I graduated, I moved to the west coast. I was defeated and depressed, but unable to locate the reason. But I know now: I could not reconcile what my heart needed and what my pocketbook needed. So I floundered. I deferred my loans and spent two years working odd jobs, backpacking through the wilderness, and panicking about how to be an adult. When this was no longer sustainable (and when my curiosity about the world became unbearably present) I left the country and moved to Ecuador, where I got a full time job teaching at a university. This was manageable, even though it was a lot of work, because it didn’t require the structure and politics of teaching in an American K-12 school. In my free time, I traveled a lot, and wrote a lot, too. Even though I was working full time, I was allowed to be a writer and an explorer first.
But, eventually, I had to come home. I missed this country; so much that I even missed poorly designed shopping plazas and dirty snow. Yet I was terribly lost. I had all of this information and experience, but nowhere to go, no idea what to do with it all. I spent a year in Buffalo and Boston, and then returned to Rochester when I finally got a decent job offer. Plus, it was romantic, I’d always had a soft spot for this city, I’d loved college so much.
I am endlessly grateful for all that I’ve seen, heard, learned and experienced while working in the city schools here. But when you are a teacher, you are not allowed to be an artist or explorer first. Or maybe it’s just me; maybe I can’t juggle the two while others can. However, denigrating myself for this inability is unproductive. There is only one solution, then, if I wish to live an embodied, purposeful, and joyful life: be an artist, a writer, first. Do whatever it takes to make this happen; work whatever day job, live wherever I need to live, make the greatest and most constant of all efforts. Maybe teach again someday, but only if it allows me to be both a teacher of art and a genuine maker of it, too. Writing and art for me are not hobbies–they are who I am. Yoga is a hobby, hiking is a hobby, dancing in a hobby, horseback riding is a hobby, knitting is a hobby, rocket science is a hobby. I am not those things, they do not need to be my life. But I am an artist. I have to stop denying this. And I have to put it first, even if it means serious sacrifice, painful loss, or a difficult few years of not knowing.
Ten years ago, I knew that if I pursued this path, I’d wither, slowly but progressively. I knew that, after a while, there’d be no heart left, that I’d be nothing but skin and bones. I refuse to let it go that far. I avoided really teaching for five years, and then I really taught for five years. I don’t know what the next five years contain, but I know that this year, I will get my life back. I will get my priorities in order, I will work hard, and I’ll make writing the central axis of my existence–however possible. And despite what others may say or think about me… I respectfully do not care. I’m done choosing to be lost, and I’m done denying what I know to be true, however insane or inconvenient it may be.
To 2017, and to all of the wonderful people I met in 2016! And to the people, places, and moments over the last year that encouraged me to pursue change and live a better life. And to the desert, the plains, the oceans, and the cities–wherever–that I will call home next 🙂 ❤