A Little Bit of Wonder is where I journal about the somewhat roundabout way that I have been working to establish a career and a strong sense of self--I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about "direction" and "identity." I have a Master's Degree in Literature, but I'm no longer working as an English Professor; I'm starting the next step in my life as I work to establish a career as a writer in the non-profit sector.

At my companion blog, Little Wonder's Recommended Reading, you will find reviews for both books and other blogs that I enjoy. The two blogs are inter-linked, so you can access my reviews and reading challenges from the sidebar on the left.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Full Speed Ahead

“You’re like a steamer with excellent speed,” my husband told me the other day, “Except your steering mechanism is faulty.”


“It’s hard to get you to change direction, but once you do, it’s full speed ahead,” he observed.

I thought about it for a minute, and then laughed. “Couldn’t you have compared me to a flirty little sports car with bad steering?” I asked. Then I considered how the crash-and-burn consequences of a car with bad steering are much quicker to descend than the slowly-painful fate of a sluggish steam ship. Remember how long it took the Titanic to sink? Maybe I do want to be the boat, at least as opposed to the car.

This strange metaphor came up in a discussion about my ability to adapt to new circumstances and how I tend to cope with change. I am extremely resistant to change – I dig in my heels, clench my fists, spit on the enemy and kick at their shins. I may not be a particularly skilled warrior, but I am a feisty one. But I had a funny realization about myself as I was talking to my husband – once I decide to make a change or that change is inevitable, I have learned to distance myself from people and even demonize the place that I am leaving. Otherwise, goodbyes become too painful.

Exhibit A: my attitude toward our apartment in College Park/Hyattsville. When we first got married, we lived in graduate student housing, which had the advantage of being directly across the street from the University of Maryland. My husband could catch the bus for a ten-minute ride or easily walk to class, quickly make it on foot to gym on campus, and the grounds were monitored by on-campus security.

The downside: that place was the size of a postage stamp. We didn’t even have room to pace in the 570-foot apartment. The breaking point: when we discovered a full-sized garden of mold growing in first our kitchen, then in the corner of our bedroom. This was a surprise because the apartments were updated, well-maintained and actually quite attractive – but there was some problem with the roofing that allowed water to continually drip down through the walls. Given that I am severely allergic to mold, this explained why I had been getting sick so often while we had been living there.

We found a new place within three days and moved a week and a half later – over Valentine’s Day weekend. This was also unfortunately while my husband was trying to finish up his Master’s Thesis. But despite the absolute hell this put him through, Jeremy says that he has fond memories of our first apartment. I, on the other hand, see it as the place that made me constantly sick – and so I would give it a good raspberry every time I would drive past the apartment complex after we moved out. I was convinced that our second apartment was so much better – Even though it was in the middle of very sketchy neighborhood.

Exhibit B: my attitude toward our apartment in Greenbelt. I was so glad to be out of our very own mold garden that almost anywhere would have seemed like five steps up – but we gained a lot by moving out of the graduate student housing. Our bedroom was much, much bigger (we were able to go out and buy an exercise machine), as was our living room (we bought a bookcase that is about seven feet long) and we gained a whole extra room (“the office”), a dishwasher, and a balcony. While it was true that the neighborhood wasn’t so great, I didn’t have to go on a walk to get some fresh air – I could just sit out on the balcony. I started gardening in pots and was able to do a lot of reading outdoors from April to October.

No wonder I was willing to ignore all the warnings about living in our new apartment complex. Everyone who asked about where we had moved would give us a worried look, pointing out that there were cases of arson and other shenanigans going on around there. But even when the cop pulled me over for a burned-out turn-signal, then refrained from giving me a ticket and instead gave me a warning that I should (as one of two white women living in the whole complex) move out ASAP, even then I disregarded the advice to change addresses. I had decided that I liked all the extra space and there was no way we would be able to afford it anywhere else in the suburbs of Washington D.C. And once we had made a few friends in the D.C.-area, I certainly wasn’t happy about moving to New York. There were a few conversations about Jeremy’s job options that brought me to tears and included a few over-dramatic threats that I would move back home to Michigan to live with my parents before I moved to another new place.

Yet once we moved to Nyack, I began to think a lot about how much I had really disliked living in an unsafe neighborhood. No one ever bothered me personally, yet our car was stolen right from our own parking lot – twice. I was often on edge when anyone approached me in the parking lot, and we had to call the cops on our neighbors a couple of times. So, the apartment that I once extolled as my salvation from the mold garden became another object of my derision. It seems I can’t just leave something behind – I apparently have to develop a deep-seated dislike for the place that I am leaving behind in order to detach.

Exhibit C: Michigan. I wouldn’t say that I’ve quite demonized Michigan, my home for the first twenty-one years of my life, to the same extent as I’ve cultivated my dislike for Hyattsville and Greenbelt. But my husband and I consistently have conversations about how, even though we miss our families and college friends a great deal, we are so glad that we escaped the freezing weather and dying economy in our home state. Many of our friends there are stuck with part-time, low-paying jobs and have to deal with frigid temperatures for six months out of the year. We already knew that we hated the climate when we moved down to the D.C. area for graduate school, so in a sense, I was detaching even before we left home that first time.

And when Jeremy started talking about moving again at some point in the future, I dug in my heels. I cried, I made threats, I turned and stared at the wall in moody silence. I’m so sick of wrapping up dishes and pottery, packing boxes of clothes and books, hauling art supplies, my doll collection and jewelry-making tools, and an entire library of design magazines… I’m so sick of trying to make new friends and then leaving them again. NO. THANK. YOU.

And yet, once I accepted that I’d rather go through all of that one more time than have my husband be miserable and horribly cranky every winter for the rest of our lives, I started fantasizing about owning a boat that we could dock in Florida or North Carolina. A boat is a significant part of my retirement fantasy, so this is definitely a selling point for me.

I also started planning how I would have to invest in an extremely efficient climate-control system (re: state-of-the-art air conditioning) in order to protect my several thousand books from warping in the humidity of the southern states. I started thinking about what other belongings I might be able to donate (anything but books, obviously) in order to thin out our possessions a bit more, which would make the packing process a bit easier and moving costs a bit cheaper. My husband may have to part with our five-hundred pound exercise machine before the next change of address. I am now, as Jeremy said, full-speed ahead. And we don’t even want to move any time soon.

So I guess my steering mechanism is a bit faulty – it gets stuck sometimes, and the wheel is hard to turn. Throw your weight against the wheel, though, and although I may groan, I’ll eventually change course. And then look out – I’ll end up in some completely different (hopefully warm and exotic) location.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Unhappy in Happily Ever After

When they tell you all the “Once upon a time” and “Happily ever after” stories, narrators traditionally describe how the hearts of the prince and princess soar just as care-freely as birds when they are united at the end of the tale.

Nearer to the beginning of the story, audiences are given some information how the princess is miserable while the prince is dating her best friend. Romance includes misery – check. We got the memo. We should all be prepared for the heartache, right? But we focus on the "happily" in the ever after.

There is an awful lot that follows the “Happily ever after,” but most of that gets left out of pretty much every fairy tale, whether it is the Brothers Grimm version or the Hollywood version. No one really wants to read or see a movie about married people because they’re all old and boring, say The People In Charge of The Story Formula. (This is actually one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to novels and films.)

So we say “I do,” shove cake in each others’ faces, and ride off into the sunset (possibly still wiping off the cake). But because everything we know in life, we learn from Hollywood (right?), then there are a whole bunch of potentially dramatic emotional upheavals for which we’re completely unprepared. It wasn’t on the screen, so we lack a script to guide us, and we wonder, what do we do now?

Obviously I’m exaggerating a bit. A bit.

But sometimes things still catch me by surprise, like the way that my emotions are so entangled with my husband’s emotions. I should expect this, though, because despite Hollywood’s general tendency to be silent on the subject of certain types of emotional drama, Joss Whedon has always been straight with me on the subject of pain in relationships:

Buffy: “It’s too late. I’m already at the ‘I hurt when he hurts, I smile when he smiles’ stage.”
Anya: “I hate that part.” (“Goodbye Iowa,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer 04.14)

But even when you know that your mood is susceptible to his mood and vice-versa, you don’t think about it too much until one day, his frustration or grief swings around and full-on punches you in the gut. Your own mood plummets and you might not even be able to figure out why. At the sight of bare tree branches outside of the window, you suddenly feel like crying (or is that just me?). If you’re lucky, you realize: this is the ‘I hurt when he hurts’ stage.

It turns out that even when you’re still happily in love, you can be unhappy – even when you’re not fighting with your partner.

But isn’t that a bit annoying? It’s like your own emotions have been hijacked. You were perfectly fine (or at least managing alright) before he started talking about his own unhappiness. And then all the sudden, you’re dissatisfied and grumpy. Perhaps even unable to look at the world in the same way. It’s like all the air has been sucked out of the room.

This is what happened to me when we went to Washington D.C. for a visit over the long Easter weekend.

Everyone wants to know how you are doing and what you are up to, of course: “I haven’t seen you in months! What’s new with you?” Usually this is an invitation for me to begin a twenty minute soliloquy, since I’m typically the talkative one. But because my husband has been so stir-crazy this winter, this time he took center stage whenever this question was raised. And what followed was not only excessive praise of the warm weather and blooming trees in D.C., but a corresponding rant about the cold and lack of sunlight in New York during December, January, February and March.

After a while, I guess it just wore me down.

It’s not that I don’t agree – I hate the cold, too. I think I’ve even come to terms with the idea that we will end up moving again eventually, in order to settle and retire in a warmer climate. A small part of me has even begun fantasizing about owning a cottage or a Spanish-style condo and boat.

But the larger part of me was still ready to enjoy spring and summer in New York – until I listened to my husband reiterate over and over again that the winter weather had depressed him. Never mind that he kept repeating, “For eight months of the year, we love it in Nyack.” All I heard after a while was, “Dark. Cold. Dark. Still no green on the trees.”

And oh, what a contrast it was in D.C., with the sunlight beaming down and a hint of humidity already hanging in the air.

Everything was green, and we even worked up a bit of a sweat when we went on a walk by the Potomac River on Saturday afternoon. “I know it sounds strange,” said my husband. “But it feels good to be sweaty.”

So by the time we drove back up I-95 and through the smoggy pit that is industrialized New Jersey, watching the clouds roll in overhead and cover the warm sunshine, I was feeling more and more down. I was hoping that once we got through Jersey, New York would seem more welcoming – but all I could see through the pouring rain was the bare tree branches, and my heart ached a little bit, missing all the green leaves that were already so abundant and shady in D.C. What’s wrong with me? I thought. It was just a few weeks ago that I was fighting with Jeremy to stay here in New York for the rest of our lives. Now I feel almost as dissatisfied as he does, knowing that he’s unhappy.

It’s the ‘I hurt when he hurts’ thing.

And when I realized what was going on, I was annoyed. So then I was depressed AND grumpy, snippy with my husband and trying to figure out how I was going to muster the excitement to go in and tackle my to-do list at work the next day. I felt as though his dissatisfaction had robbed me of the ability to enjoy the coming summer months in New York, even though he’s actually looking forward quite a bit to exploring the state parks and NYC this summer. I may have been in a worse mood than he was at the prospect of returning to New York after our weekend in D.C. Ironic, right?

He and I talked about my grumpy mood, discussing how your emotions can be so inter-connected with those of your best friend, and after that I felt a bit better. But it still somewhat amazes me – how in this situation, my emotions seem to have been hijacked. “And they lived happily ever after, sharing everything they had – even their unhappiness…”

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Little Motor City Exhilaration

I am originally from Detroit – the Motor City.

Technically, I was raised in the sprawling middle-class suburbs of Detroit, so I can hardly claim to be from the ghetto. (I leave that kind of poser behavior to Eminem, who is also from a suburb of the city.)

Most of the time, I don’t try to claim Detroit. It’s not that I’m ashamed of the city, but rather that I’m as middle class and white as they come, and it really doesn’t give an accurate picture of my upbringing if I say that I’m from the neighborhoods downtown.

But when the subject turns to cars and driving, I feel like I can own Motor City, at least a little bit. Especially after having lived in Washington D.C., where you don’t drive so much as park on the Beltway. After a while of living amidst the terrible urban congestion in D.C., I almost forgot that those of us from Motor City like to drive – because when you live in Michigan, driving means your car is moving.

My first car was a ’92 Saturn SL1 that my brother and I inherited from our grandparents. Her name was Ella, and I loved the feeling of flying down the highway in that tiny little vehicle.

You could feel every jolt and bump, every gentle tug on the wheel – at eighty miles an hour, it felt a lot like a roller coaster ride. (Eighty miles an hour feels a lot different in a compact car than it does in a sedan or a Cadillac.) Now I drive a newer Saturn, a 2001 LS1 model that has a slightly bigger body, but it still gives me a few kicks when we hit eighty on the open road.

I’m not a thrill-seeker by any means – I avoid actual roller coasters with all the fervent motivation of any self-respecting gutless wuss – and so trundling down the highway in my little Saturn is about as exciting as I get. I love the feeling of driving along a curvy road or freeway ramp at fifty miles an hour, the gentle pull of the G-force tilting my body. You can see the curve of the road just ahead of you and anticipate the way that the next turn will lean your body to the left or to the right. But you can’t always see beyond that curve to predict the direction in which the ribbon of the road might curl next.

In amongst the hills of the Motor City suburbs and the Michigan country-side, its particularly beautiful and peaceful as you roll up and down, under the low-hanging trees and past the taller pines. In the fall, a drive will yield a thousand surprises – shades of orange and red that stand out starkly against bright blue patches of sky and unexpected lakes that seem to spring up everywhere in certain suburbs and in the outlying areas of the state.

I was thinking about all of this as I drove to work today, wondering why I don’t more enjoy the way that my life seems to curl like those Michigan roads, around through the hills, under the trees and past unexpected vistas. I think I remember a time when I was excited about all the possibilities that were open to me if I moved from one thing to the next, knowing that one decision might open up a number of unanticipated opportunities. I think the uncertainty of life was once something that I loved, not dreaded.

But as my husband and I have fought about – then more calmly discussed – the possibility of eventually settling down somewhere other than New York, I have pushed pushed pushed against him. After moving twice, I’ve lost my (already stunted, wussy) sense of adventure somewhere. Maybe I even left it as far back as Michigan.

But I’ve decided that I want my sense of adventure back, however stunted it may be.

When I was a teenager, I dreamed of living in Boston, in New York City, in London and Paris. I thought maybe I would try them all. I didn’t understand then how hard it would be to leave all my friends and family – I only had my eye on what I would experience and gain, not what I would loose.

The unanticipated severity of my loss stripped me down, made me want to curl up inside of myself and hibernate. I’ve gotten really good at hibernating.

But now I want to wake up and stretch – make the most of my years in New York, and yet also be excited about the possibility of retirement in North Carolina, Georgia or Florida. I don’t want to be so fearful of change, especially since its not something that you can really avoid, anyway. At one time, I think I understood that you can’t hold on to things too tightly – but after months wading through my grief and loss, I’ve been grasping too hard (clenching, really) onto the idea of permanence.

It’s futile, really; I’ve known for a long time that the best I can try to do is capture the memories of precious people and moments. That’s why I write – diaries, date books, blogs, hopefully a memoir. But in order for my writing to be worthwhile, I need to be recording something active, not passive. I need to be moving forward, experiencing the joy and exhilaration as I curve and curl with the road. I may only be trundling along in a little compact car, but don’t knock the elation that you can feel while riding in a little Saturn. There are still plenty of hills, plenty of unexpected and breath-taking vistas to experience along the way, even if you are only going at it with four horses.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

To Sixty-Five Years (Or More)

When a couple signs up for pre-marital counseling, the priest or minister covers a wide range of topics, including emotional compatibility, life goals and strategies for fair fighting. Some pastors even get overly involved in the relationship of their clients:

My husband and I got a semi-deluxe version, which thankfully did not involve being spied upon by Robin Williams. It did, however, include advice regarding financial planning and decisions, as well as a warning that which way to mount the roll of toilet paper in the toilet paper dispenser could become a serious issue if not definitely determined at the onset of our marriage. There were a few things, though, that we didn’t discuss with our pastor – including how to make enormous life decisions regarding career changes and long-distance moving.

Since these are the things that have been serious issues for my husband and myself over the past year and a half, I’ve been feeling more than a little bit lost. It’s incredibly difficult to balance your own emotional needs with that of another person’s so completely, especially when the two of you may have very different needs that are at odds with each other to a significant degree. For example: my husband ultimately needs to settle down in a warm place where the days have more than eight hours of daylight all throughout the calendar year. He gets unbelievably stir-crazy if it’s cold and dark by the time he gets out of work, and here in the Hudson Valley, it gets dark around 4:30 in the afternoon during the winter. Because of his extreme aversion to winter, my husband feels that it is necessary to choose a warmer locale where we will retire eventually – whereas I desperately want to stop moving around so much. I need to be able to put down roots again, without the fear of being eventually uprooted – torn away from any community ties that I have established. I am hesitant to try to make friends in New York again when I think about the fact that I may have to leave them someday, just as I have had to leave behind dear friends in Michigan and in Washington D.C.

In order to find a solution that allows us to stay happily together, we need to figure out a compromise, which we’ve been working on – a long-term plan that will meet both our needs. But we haven’t really felt as though a lot of people can give us advice on this subject because our conflict is about the possibility of another geographic transplant, which is something that has really only become a necessity for people of our generation. As careers have become more specialized and particular industries have become rooted to specific geographic locations, it has become harder and harder to build a career and earn a living unless you move for your job. If you are married, this means that you will ultimately have to prioritize either the husband or the wife’s career, and the other spouse will have to search for whatever work that he or she can find once you are settled in a particular geographic location.

Now let me be clear – our original decision to move away from Michigan wasn’t about prioritizing either of our careers over our family ties. It was about making sure that we can pay the bills, obtain health insurance to pay for my medical bills, save enough money to support a family, and then stockpile for our retirement – because by the time we’re in our sixties, social security and Medicare will practically have run out. I may like shopping and owning pretty things, so having extra income is nice, but if I could live near my friends and family, I would try my very hardest to give up my addiction to shopping at Target and on Amazon. I would give anything to live near my college roommates, to be around as my nephew grows up; I wish I could have been in Michigan during the last few years of my grandparents’ lives. But there just aren’t that many jobs available in Michigan.

My husband and I have both had to make a lot of sacrifices, both in terms of leaving our families and in terms of giving up some of our career dreams. We have both ended up with jobs that we didn’t really plan on having – I landed in the non-profit sector instead of academia, and he applied to a vague job description that turned out to be for an analyst position in the cosmetics industry. His career shift has definitely been a bigger surprise than mine; we obviously discussed change and compromise during pre-marital counseling, but neither one of us anticipated that my beer-drinking, football-loving husband would end up working for a make-up company. It turns out that compromise and sacrifice can land you in some pretty unexpected places.

All these compromises and surprises have had a huge influence on my identity and concept of myself, of course. And I can only imagine how much it may have spun my husband’s head to become an employee of a cosmetics company, since he’s such a boy. Now we find ourselves in New York, both with different careers and different prospects for the future than we ever imagined, and perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that my husband finds himself greatly enjoying his job. All these unexpected twists, however, mean that as we continue down our career paths, we’ll be traveling farther and farther away from our originally-imagined lives as university professors. This has the potential to be a great adventure – but also to be the potential to cause conflict at every juncture and every unforeseen decision that we face as a couple.

When my husband and I fight for prolonged periods of time, I start to panic. What does this mean for our marriage? How can we resolve a conflict this huge? Will we end up getting a divorce? I never imagined myself as someone who would even entertain the thought of divorce, but I have to admit that every once in a while over the past nine months, the possibility has crossed my mind. Not that I think I would actually ever divorce Jeremy. I know that both of us are miserable when we’re apart for more than a day or two, so I doubt I’d have the strength to leave him, even if we had “irreconcilable differences.”

But just the fact that divorce has crossed my mind freaks me out and makes me question who I am. I didn’t think I was the kind of person who would ever give up on someone that I love as deeply as I love Jeremy. But sometimes it’s not simply frustration with my husband that throws me for a loop and makes me think the dirty word divorce – it’s the question of whether or not I am betraying myself or doing something that is emotionally unhealthy for myself by putting Jeremy’s needs and desires before my own. That’s why compromise is important – you have to be able to figure out how to keep your commitments without doing yourself any emotional harm.

How you deal with your commitments, not just in a marriage but in all aspects of your life, is really a big part of who you are. I’ve thought about that fact lot in the last nine months, both because Jeremy and I have had to hash through a lot of decisions about our careers and moving across state lines, but also because my grandparents’ deaths made me realize how they were such amazing examples of commitment.

My grandparents modeled deep love and steadfast dedication to their children, grandchildren and their community, making the major decisions look effortless – when in reality my grandparents must have struggled in their marriage just as much as Jeremy and I sometimes struggle now. Of course, I heard my grandparents bicker on a pretty regular basis about things like whether or not my grandpa should use certain language (having her husband use words like “fart” in public was an embarrassment to my well-mannered grandmother, but he liked his fart jokes). But I never once heard my grandparents fight about big things, even though they must have.

So now when I am afraid that Jeremy and I won’t be able to resolve something as big as a conflict over whether or not we should move again someday, I think of my grandparents – and how happy they were on their 65th wedding anniversary. We gave them a fancy party and a big cake, and because they were the cutest 80-somethings on the planet, they fed each other. It was a little awkward – but all the more adorable because of the shaking hand extending the forkful of cake to the unsteady chomp.

I want to be just like my grandparents – committed to my husband and my family’s happiness, through whatever unexpected conflicts and challenges may arise. And when I think of them, I’m pretty sure that even without too much specific guidance, if I always keep their memory in my mind, I’ll end up feeding my husband cake on our 65th anniversary too.

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