I don't write drafts.
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).
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
Sun-Times? No. No.
What about when I interned at
Chicago magazine? Was I myself then? No.
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
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
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
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.
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.