The male gender has a reputation for getting lost while traveling, because men don’t like to ask for directions. But on the superhighway of life, especially the journey toward your life purpose, no one can give clear directions. Maps (i.e., assessments and books on the subject) provide only rough sketches, and traffic will seldom slow down enough for you to think or examine the maps, let alone change lanes in time to take the next, perhaps-correct, exit. It’s easy to make wrong turns and wind up lost. And you may have started your trip in an old beater with a half tank of gas.
In my last blog post, I wrote about how you can find your calling, and about the lengthy “wrong” path I took in finding mine. In response to friend Pat Walsh‘s Google+ comment about my post, I replied that:
“I decided when I graduated from high school that I couldn’t be a writer because I didn’t have enough self-discipline, so would be the proverbial artist starving in a garret… I would say that the decision was one of my great regrets, except that perhaps I needed the other experiences in my life to become who I’ve become, find my raw material to write from, and grow into being a writer.”
I’ve come to realize that there have been no totally wrong turns in my life. Even the difficult experiences and those that were thrust upon me have provided, at the very least, important lessons.
Nine years ago my job was doing community outreach, volunteer coordination and development work for a homeless shelter, a position that required speaking to various groups. I realized that I could speak easily (or as easily as this introvert can speak to any group) in an academic setting because I had been a student and almost became a professor; to sororities and fraternities because I had been a sorority girl and “little sister” to a fraternity during college; to the Moose Lodge because I grew up blue-collar. I could relate easily to people in all of these diverse groups because at various points in my life, I’d been one of them.
Growing up blue-collar was not a choice, of course – we are born into families by luck of the cosmic draw. And being born with a silver spoon in my mouth might have had tremendous advantages. I would have had more knowledge about how to make college choices, instead of just deciding to attend a school near my favorite vacation spot. Coming up with tuition money would have been a piece of cake, instead of requiring constant struggle and sacrifice from myself and my family. An old boyfriend once told me that he studied for ten hours a day; I was working midnights and falling asleep during class.
But my family was large and loving, supportive of all the career choices I made. I never had a sense that if I chose to make a life in the arts, or to wash dishes for a living, my parents and extended family would be any less proud of me. Mom had grown up in extreme poverty, and Dad turned down a full scholarship to a prestigious university because he wanted to work with his hands (he was a machinist). There was little my siblings or I could have done to earn a living, beyond criminal activity, that our parents would not have supported. Many people born into more privileged families don’t have that freedom, because such families often have “expectations” of their children.
And all of those stories I heard my Mom’s extended family tell over coffee and dessert every Saturday night, the stories about growing up in the coal camps of West Virginia during the depression, the largest and poorest family in one of the poorest areas of the country, insinuated themselves into my psyche. As a social worker, I could relate empathetically to the struggles of the people living in poverty with whom I was working. As an academic, I researched and wrote about poverty, and about subjects related to conflict in the coal mining region. And now that I’ve embarked upon this writing path, I have myriad stories to tell that draw upon those family stories, that academic research, and my experiences in the social services. My family background was at the root of it all.
I didn’t have the sophisticated guidance in college selection that more educated parents might have provided me, but I will never regret my choice. With the input of mentors and friends at that small Kentucky university – people I will cherish for the rest of my life – I learned to appreciate the many arts, to shape the social realities my friends and I had experienced into political insights and commitments, and to arrive at spiritual insights that have colored my life with joy, reverence, transcendence and guidance. And whenever Murray State University has such a successful basketball season that it makes the national news, I get to say, “I went to school there!”
Being part of the collegiate “Greek” system had its drawbacks – my grades certainly suffered. It cost me financially, to the point where, for that and other reasons related to my increasing alienation from the exclusionary practices of that system, I left my sorority, and then the fraternity. But many years later, I knew how to talk to those Greek organizations about volunteering – I knew where they were coming from.
I was an introvert, but sorority rush parties taught me the art of introducing myself and making conversation with newcomers, helping them feel comfortable, and this has paid off during all the networking events I’ve attended throughout my career – and will no doubt need to participate in as a writer (book-signings, here I come…in a couple of years!)
I traveled back and forth between Murray and my hometown south of Chicago in an old ’67 Mustang, which often broke down during the trip. But I learned that I could handle these situations, and began developing a lexicon of car parts and what various alarming symptoms meant. Drive beaters, you learn. I learned how to find trustworthy mechanics (admittedly, my Dad often talked to them over the phone and gave his approval) and gems of friends who would do repairs in a pinch.
Exhausted finances finally forced me to leave Murray State before graduating – but that led me to taking a job in Chicago, meeting my husband, giving birth to my daughters, and finishing my degree at Northeastern Illinois University, where I found more mentors and friends. I volunteered for the Sanctuary movement and In These Times, interned with the Peoples Law Office. Some of that, and advice from my old Murray State friend Rosemary, led my family to Bloomington, Indiana, and graduate work here – and still more mentors and friends, as well as a career trajectory that introduced me to the many everyday heroes among my low-income clients. And oh, the stories that are colliding in my brainpan!
In herbook, Steering By Starlight, Beck provides an exercise called “Telling Your Life Story Backwards.” You begin the exercise by writing down three of the best things that have happened in your life, and choosing one of them. Then you think of a positive turn of events that led to that “best thing,” and record that. This is your “proximate cause.” Then you go back ANOTHER step, recalling an event that led to the proximate cause – this is the “antecedent to the proximate cause.”
You continue to trace this story backwards until you arrive at a negative event that, through this chain of events, led to your favorite thing. Martha says that she gets to write books for money because her son was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, which gave her the material for a memoir that became a bestseller. Throughout the book, Martha relates the lessons she has learned by way of her son’s wisdom.
Perhaps you met the love of your life at the local bluegrass festival, bluegrass being a recent passion. Perhaps you discovered that passion because you moved to this particular town. Perhaps you fled your former city and came here to escape your abusive ex-spouse. The wrong turn of marrying an abusive spouse led to the need to flee, which led to bluegrass music, and then to the love of your life. Yes, a different beginning would have been far preferable. But wrong turns happen, and it’s the lessons we learn and opportunities we are watching for on our road to transcendence that make all the difference.
I would not suggest, for instance, that being “downsized” from your job is a good thing, especially in these shuddering economic times. In fact, I believe that any corporation that downsizes in order to maximize profits for its upper echelons is morally bankrupt, and there seems to have been a lot of that going around in the last 20 years or so.
But I also believe that by examining what happened and thinking about the true purpose of our personal lives and our economy, by seizing opportunities to develop our personal passions, by creating new forms of economic initiatives and rules for ourselves and our communities, we can end up thumbing our noses at that old, morally dubious system of corporate decision-making. Wrong turns may be providing us with the need – and leading us to the opportunity, a crossroads of sort – to create a very different kind of economy.
And as for a very literal wrong turn…
After finishing my master’s degree, I took a temporary job conducting research interviews for a former professor. I had to journey a couple of hours away to Louisville, KY to do the interviews. Traveling late in the day was a big mistake. I’m pretty terrified of urban driving, and Louisville did not have good signage – each exit would come up immediately after the sole sign announcing it. I couldn’t cut across traffic to take the exit I needed – not that I was sure about which exit I should take – because all of those experienced urban drivers wouldn’t let me in. I kept driving around the city, and still missing my exit (terrified = timid = bad urban driver).
In trying to backtrack, I got myself lost – way lost, and it was getting dark at that point. I wound up wandering through some ritzy areas of suburban Louisville as well as through some desolate, and perhaps dangerous, areas.
I somehow made my way back into the city, only to have trouble finding a hotel that was not, to my grad student sensibilities, extravagantly priced. In exhaustion, I finally checked into a Holiday Inn in some random part of the city, reviewed my research questionnaire, pulled out my map and CAREFULLY traced routes to interviews I had scheduled for the next day. Then I turned in for the night.
Or so I thought. My head hit the pillow at about the time the party on my hallway began, people started visiting the ice machine located right next to my room, and my door latch popped open. I still have no idea what was wrong, but the door kept popping open all night long, which was approximately how long the party and loud trips to the ice machine lasted. I slept for all of about 2 minutes.
Inadequate signage, scary traffic and the experience of being lost, no sleep in a crappy hotel room – this was not an auspicious beginning for anything. But I was resolved to not stay in that hotel for another night. My interviews were actually west of the city, and I hoped that I could find a hotel in closer proximity.
This didn’t appear likely once I’d traveled through the rural region of very small towns. But at one point, I saw a sign for a bed and breakfast – probably too expensive, I figured. I decided to check it out anyway, after the day’s interviews were done.
And that’s one of the best “minor” decisions I’ve made in my life. It was my introduction to Brandenburg, Kentucky’s Doe Run Inn, which was/is quiet, friendly, furnished with antiques (no TVs in the rooms, which was/is fine by me) and very reasonably priced – in fact, my little room cost the research project budget slightly over half of the Holiday Inn price. The Inn was originally a mill, and Abe Lincoln’s father worked as a stonemason on its construction. It offers a fairly large restaurant serving great country food, and part of the restaurant is a screened porch overlooking a lovely creek, or “run.” There are some beautiful hiking opportunities along the water.
The evening I discovered the Inn was a very rainy one, and I exalted in watching the roaring creek as I ate dinner. My family has returned to this sanctuary again and again.
I learned to conduct interviews during that research trip. I learned that I could survive urban driving. I found a great retreat. And my novel-in-progress is partially set in that area, in the fictional “Bard’s Junction,” a town slightly west of Louisville “that just won’t shut up,” says my protagonist. If I hadn’t taken a wrong turn and become lost, and hadn’t spent an exhausted, sleepless night in a lousy room in an inconvenient part of the city, I would not have been looking for a new place to stay. My family and I would have missed some memorable adventures, and my novel’s characters would never have been born.
Just moments ago, I got wrapped up in what I was writing and let my scrambled eggs burn, an annoyance because I had to cook my meal over again. But it led to “people food” in the dogs’ dishes, which led to happy, grateful dogs, who are now blissfully napping and letting me write in peace. And I’ve learned that I absolutely CANNOT cook and write at the same time.
My friend Lara Britt, the Yodeling Waitress, took some unusual turns that led her from Illinois to…Hawaii?!! But she can tell you the rest of THAT story.
Which less-than-perfect beginnings and wrong turns have led you to really great places – and lessons? If you’ve been reading my blog, you know by now that I am a crazy hound for stories, so please share!