For a long time it seemed to me that real life was about to begin, but
there was always some obstacle in the way. Something had to be got
through first, some unfinished business; time still to be served, a
debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that
these obstacles were my life.
–Bette Howland, 1937 —
Monday evening my husband Tom and I pulled up to our home in Nahant after an eight-hour journey from Quebec City. Much of the drive had been on winding roads through the Maine wilderness in whipping wind and rain, with rampaging eighteen-wheelers hauling huge loads of lumber hot on our trail. As much as I love to travel, I am always glad to get home. Our two cats are unfailingly at the front door to greet us and our own bed always feels luxuriant and welcoming.
Quebec City is a magical, enchanting place but we had not accorded it the proper amount of time needed to fully appreciate its charms. Age and maturity have slowed our pace and it had been quite a while since we had tried to pack into two days what most people would hope to see over the course of a week.
I’ve come to accept that I’m likely to be a little out-of-sorts upon returning to the roost after a jaunt. My re-entry to reality is regularly accompanied by a day or two of an emotional hangover, a sense of coming down from the excitement of a trip. I’ve determined that I’m willing to pay the price of being jet-lagged or just over-tired from the stimulation of having been out of my routine and in unfamiliar surroundings. I have learned to try to be gentle with myself and temper expectations.
So I can only chalk it up to Mercury being in retrograde that this awareness didn’t prevent me from an act of self-sabotage on Tuesday.
I called the editor of a major daily newspaper in another city, to whom I had sent a story eight weeks earlier. I was surprised and delighted when he picked up the phone. Stumbling a bit in my introduction, I managed to explain that I was following up on a submission I had sent “on spec.” He proceeded to tell me there was “one of him and 800 of me,” meaning freelance writers. From there, he told me what he wasn’t looking for in a story—he didn’t want a writer’s personal experience, he didn’t want a piece that sounded too much like a guide book, and he didn’t want anyone quoted. When I asked him if he had actually read my piece, he hemmed and hawed. I politely thanked him and rang off, feeling patronized and furious.
As I sat steaming with tears of frustration in my eyes, I suddenly realized that what he claimed he wanted was largely impossible. I contemplated the irony of a man who earned a living by parsing other people’s words and yet couldn’t articulate himself what he sought in a piece of writing. What he had really been saying to me was “I know it when I see it,” to paraphrase a bon mot uttered by a Supreme Court Justice, one best known as a description of a threshold of obscenity.
And so I laughed out loud, the tears of anger turning to ones of dark humor, realizing I was comparing this editor’s opinion to one handed down in a landmark First Amendment lawsuit on pornography. The mental imagery that accompanied these dots being connected made it hard to take personally–or too seriously—that my writing had failed to turn on this particular authority figure. I hadn’t evaded tripping on my own outstretched foot, but I had managed to pick myself up and dust myself off without having done too much damage.
The next day, I received an email from another arbitrator of taste. It was such an angry and rude communication that I actually drew my breath in reading it. Stung, I felt my heart drop into my stomach, and a blush of shame spread across my face and chest. Looking back over our earlier correspondence, I saw that I had indeed made a mistake—and so, in fact, had she–several. Shaking, I began to furiously type out a note telling her exactly that and then, hands in mid-air, I let them drop. I knew that it was a real possibility she may not have a job in the near future, which she had been on pins and needles about for some time. I have spent some time in that particular pair of shoes and, chances are, I had probably been as wretched to some poor bystander then as she had just been to me.
A couple of days earlier I had been limping in pain after an arduous walking tour of Quebec City. Over the course of a day, Tom and I had hiked across the Plains of Abraham, scaled the walled city’s ramparts, and descended steep stairs connecting the Upper and Lower Towns. We had meandered through the maze-like cobblestoned streets of Quartier Petit Champlain, and, finally, strolled along the banks of the St. Lawrence at Vieux-Port. As usual, my enthusiasm had outpaced my stamina and I was suddenly cranky and on the verge of making a smart remark to Tom that I was sure to regret.
My saving grace came in the form of a cleverly-designed fountain, its levels of pulsating water creating a fluid optical illusion, at the bottom of which was an aqua pool. Tom and I looked at each other and made a beeline down the set of stairs that ran alongside the bubbling piece of public art. We eagerly took off our shoes and, immersing our feet in the cool water, breathed audible sighs of relief and exchanged smiles. We watched a series of parents and young children come, splash, and move on, while we continued to sit and soak for a long while.
I am grateful when I can recognize opportunities to take the high road and choose dignity over short-term relief at someone else’s expense. I’m equally appreciative that I can forgive myself for all those occasions, remembered or not, when I’ve only been capable of a short-cut or an under-cut. I try to remember its often one step forward and two back. Whether I’m leading or following on any given day’s dance, the shoe can just as easily be on the other foot.
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