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Posts tagged ‘writing’

The Choices We Make and the Choices That Make Us

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the consequences of decisions, no doubt a result of listening to the rantings of a psychic who spoke in sweeping tones about “destiny” and “energy” and willing the universe to work in your favor. I’m not saying that I believe in psychics or that I think anyone on the planet can accurately predict the future, but I went out of boredom as something to do on a Saturday afternoon, and also because part of me hoped that maybe, just maybe, she might shed some insight on an altogether confusing phase in my life.

In short, she told me that the two years since graduation from the University of Rochester are wide open, and that they will become solely what I make of them. After that, she said, I will go through a three-year period where my life is etched directly into the stars that shine above us, meaning that the universe will have a bigger influence on my life than I will.

What. A. Scary. Thought.

I have always held that my life is what I make of it and that my choices lead to my destiny, not vice versa. It is a great comfort to believe that I hold the future in my own hands and that I, alone, can make my life into something great; but it also creates a persistent sense of pressure and stress. If my choices mold my life, then the wrong choices must hinder my life in unfathomable ways. Believing that I, alone, control my destiny often leads to me overanalyzing each and every decision I make or have made. So, the more I thought about what the psychic said, the more reassured I felt. Maybe, just maybe, I should give the universe a little more credit. Maybe my wrong decisions will eventually lead me exactly where I’m supposed to be. Maybe, just maybe, my wrong decisions aren’t so wrong after all.

Among those decisions I’ve contemplated, two stand out: firstly, my decision to end a three-year relationship with someone whom I love very deeply. He was a key part of my life and someone I shared thousands of precious memories with, from vacations to late-night talks to watching his team win the Super Bowl to sharing my travel stories to slow dancing at our family members’ weddings to having bonfires in his backyard. We also shared not-so-pleasant memories like the loss of loved ones and fights that weighed heavily on both of our hearts. We were together three years, and he knew me better than anyone. In the end, I grew unhappy because of physical distance and because of how much we both had to sacrifice to bridge that distance—it wasn’t fair to either of us. Bouncing back and forth between towns drained us, and though we discussed it, the likelihood of us ending up in the same town seemed a distant possibility at best. Nine months have passed since the breakup, and not a day goes by where he doesn’t cross my mind or I don’t wonder if I made the right choice.

Secondly, I often contemplate my decision to turn down a dream job with Syracuse Woman Magazine. Just months before I completed my degree at the University of Rochester, I received a call from my former internship advisor who informed me that she was moving on to a new position with Time Warner Cable. She invited me for an interview, and, days later, I was offered the position of managing editor of the magazine. At the time, I was on the cusp of finishing a rigorous graduate program, entering my student loan repayment period, and was only a couple months into my new position at Bryant & Stratton College. To say the least: I was burnt out and had no clue which direction I wanted to go in life. Two factors played into my final decision to turn down the opportunity: my loans and my desire to travel. Had I taken the job, I would have just enough money to pay my loan, rent, and utility bills with little left to spend on food and no money or time left to travel the world.

I spent, and still spend, a great deal of time contemplating these two decisions and trying to chart them on the overall course of my life. My meeting with the psychic has made me realize, however, that very few decisions can be categorized as correct or incorrect, right or wrong. With every decision, you lose something, but you also gain something in exchange, and maybe, just maybe, the important things in life really are written in the stars.

I can tell you with certainty that while I miss my ex, if I had stayed with him, I would not have had time to work on improving myself as a person. I spent so long with him that I was unaccustomed to being alone, and, more importantly, unaccustomed to what it was like to be lonely. I say this without wallowing or pitying myself; as a matter of fact, I say this to mean quite the opposite. I think that loneliness is one of the most humbling of human experiences, and one that we must all embrace. Loneliness reminds us that it is up to us, as individuals, to make ourselves happy. We, alone, must come to terms with our inherent flaws and hypocrisies and learn how to make the most out of our lives. Equally, loneliness gives us a deeper appreciation for relationships, platonic or otherwise. If we never felt alone, we would never know the value of a hug or a squeeze of the hand or a kind word. We would never be able to truly appreciate those late-night conversations or those gentle kisses.

Likewise, the path that stemmed from turning down a dream job has led to treasured memories and moments. If I had taken the job, I would be submerged in the very profession that I find most rewarding: writing. I would be interviewing fascinating and inspiring woman who are leaving their marks on this world, and I would be sharing their stories with the world in a magazine that I coordinate and transform from abstraction to print. But—I would never have been able to afford to travel overseas to visit one of my dearest friends, Crystal. I would never have been able to pay for our adventures around Manchester and to Scotland and Bath and the Lake District. I would never have felt the healing waters of the Roman hot spring or hiked to the top of a mountain where I could see all the way to the North Sea. I would never have been able to knock my student loans down $14,000 or pay off the balance on my car loan. I would never have the money or time to take weekend trips to places like Chicago and New York City, and I would never have been able to share in so many of the beautiful memories I’ve made with my family over this past year.

I can’t say with any degree of certainty that I made the right choices, or that any of my future choices will be “correct.” What I can do is trust the universe enough to know that for every loss, we gain a hidden blessing. I can also say some things in life have the perfect timing, and maybe that is a sign that the universe really does play a bigger role in our lives than we think. It seems to be that no matter what I am struggling with, the right book finds its way into my lap. After my breakup, I happened to come across a copy of Eat, Pray, Love on the free table at work. Given the title, I previously dismissed it as romantic garbage and had no interest in reading it, but when I came across it that day, I thought: Eh, why not? It’s free! A short week later, I finished the book and felt a profound connection with the author, Elizabeth Gilbert. Suddenly, my life was given perspective, and that was exactly what I needed. Like Holden Caulfield, I wished Elizabeth Gilbert was a terrific friend of mine whom I could call up on the phone just so that I could thank her for understanding and for showing me that women are capable of transcending incredible obstacles.

Another example of this occurred during the midst of my post-graduation crisis. I started reading Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her Dear Sugar advice columns. In the very last column, a twenty-two-year-old reader had written in and asked Strayed what advice she had for her own twenty-something self. Her honest and poignant response seemed to answer my questions:

Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching. Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet (Strayed 351).

Looking back on these experiences, perhaps they were life’s way of comforting me, saying to me, “Listen, Jenna, if you quit your bitching long enough, you’ll realize that it’s all going to work out.” Turning down that job didn’t mean I closed the door on one potential career path; it simply meant that I need to find other ways to practice my craft.

So maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to admit that you don’t know which decision is right for you; and maybe it’s okay that I don’t know either. Maybe, no matter which decision we make, life will help us arrive safely at our destinations in the end. So, in the meanwhile, maybe, just maybe, we should listen to the words of Elizabeth Gilbert and “embrace the glorious mess[es] that [we] are.” Let’s celebrate all the decisions that make us who we are, instead of worrying that we’ve made the wrong ones.

¡Hasta la próxima!

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Reassessing the Dream

Four years ago, I firmly planted my feet on the starting line with hundreds of other competitors. Adrenaline surged through my veins and my body leaned forward slightly in the hope that it would give me a slight edge. When the gun rang out, I took off and never looked back. For years, I didn’t stop. I didn’t question where I was going, just kept at it. Then I reached the finish line and was greeted in a whirlwind of confetti and graduation gowns. I stood back and watched my peers rush past the finish line, just as I did. When I looked around, I realized that I hadn’t reached the final finish. There weren’t stacks of money lying on the floor to greet me. There wasn’t an executive in a fancy suit waiting to hand me the keys to my own company. My education came with no post-graduation luxuries, just a piece of paper with my name on it. The path I had just emerged from seemed tumultuous at the time that I traveled it, but from the vantage point at the finish line, it seemed to be nothing compared to facing the next step. Staring the opposite way, toward the future, the path was endless, the horizon hazy and undefined.

One of the shortcomings of our society is that it encourages people to rush through everything without ever stopping to look around and take it all in or figure out where they want to end up. Life’s a sprint to get through the next milestone: get through high school, tackle college, find a job. Run, rush, sprint. When I came back from college, a sense of dread filled me when I realized I didn’t have the summer job I had always had when I returned from college. I was unemployed and no longer a student. In a panic-driven craze, I sent out cover letter after cover letter, praying that someone would take pity on a recent college graduate looking for work, at least temporarily while she figured out what she wanted to do with her life. After all, that is the next step after college: to find a job. Finally, a temp. agency landed me a position at Bryant & Stratton College as a receptionist who also does data entry. It’s definitely not a position that I went to college for, and at first that fact gave me anxiety. Was my education a waste? Will I ever find a job in my field?

As the weeks dragged on, I realized that the position wasn’t so far off the beaten path. It was–and still is– a chance to break into a professional work environment and make a steady source of income. I work nights, which leaves my days free. Working at Bryant & Stratton has given me a sense of security. It has allowed me to write in my spare time and to halt my wheels and assess what I truly want from life. For the first time in years, I have had a chance to pour through novel after novel, wrapping myself up with characters who embark on great journeys and overcome impossible odds. I find myself with my head in the clouds, contemplating characters’ actions and examining story lines from an infinite number of angles. When the fire simmers on one story line, I pick up another book and repeat the process. Not one of the books I choose is assigned reading, and it feels liberating to read at will as opposed to as commanded.

This has given me time to contemplate what kind of novel I would like to one day write (though I’m hoping to make that one day happen relatively soon). I’ve been pooling my favorite novels and jotting down which aspects of each I enjoy the most. Not surprisingly, strong female characters top the list, as do novels set in an alternate universe and novels based on an epic journey of sorts. I read to escape reality, but by the same token, I write to understand it. I write to understand life, society and myself.

Much like writing, being home has stimulated this desire to understand my situation in life. I find myself wondering who I really am and where I’d like to be in ten years from now. The question that adults asked me as a toddler seems to have resurfaced and is now more pertinent than ever before: What do I want to be when I grow up?  In this phase of life, however, it seems more appropriate to say: Where do I want to be in another year? In another five? In another decade from now?  Ideally, I could see myself settled down in a city like Washington D.C., writing for National Geographic Traveler and traveling the world in my spare time, writing stories. Realistically, I will probably be living in a city in a small apartment, struggling to get by. Such is the curse of the writer, and it has been a possibility that has terrified me for years. But the more I think about it, the less it actually scares me. I’ve come to view that kind of lifestyle as more of a blessing than a curse, because, at very least, I’d be doing what I love: writing. What better blessing can a person have than to live a life filled with the sole thing they love the most?

I have stressed and fretted and questioned the future until I was blue in the face. I have consulted numerous professors, professionals and parents on which path they believe to be the best for me. That included questioning of whether or not graduate school will be worth it. Some said yes, others blatantly stated, “What are you crazy? A Master’s degree in English will get you no where!” Maybe it won’t. Maybe I’ll end up paying off student loans until I’m in my grave. But in my defense, I will never turn down the opportunity to learn more. Education will never work against me, and in this particular instance, I will have the chance to learn from renowned faculty members with incredible stories to tell.

Recently, I completed my second interview for a job as a reporter for the Springville Journal. I’m still waiting to hear back about whether or not I got the job, but I did have the honor of meeting with a very inspirational woman who happens to be the editor of the newspaper. She went for her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing, while simultaneously working in the position I applied for. A few short years later, and she is now managing editor of the paper, as well as a creative writing teacher and a published author. She teaches a class for National Geographic which has given her the opportunity to travel, and she is currently awaiting the publication of her first book. Essentially, I see a reflection of myself in her, or at very least, the self I wish to be in five or ten or even fifteen years.

So maybe I don’t have everything figured at the ripe age of twenty-two. At very least, I have a passion and motivation. Even if I do struggle, this lifestyle will provide the pleasure of meeting more inspirational people such as the editor of that paper. The economy is working against me, and there’s a very likely chance that I will never write anything that will receive the attention that F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, David Benioff or even J.K. Rowling received. But for me, it’s enough gratification when my cousin accidentally reads my essay that she found resting on a stack of papers and says, “Wow, I felt like I was reading a real book.” I don’t need to be world-renowned, as long as what I write means something to at least one person. That, to me, is the mark of a successful writer.

Here’s to hoping that my words make even a fraction of a difference to someone. Even if they don’t, at least I’m living my own version of a dream.