Some things have changed, some never will…I wrote this two years ago and am posting it today.
“Sharon is very conscientious, and is capable of more than she thinks.” Thus, Mrs. Werner assessed me in 1961, writing the comments on the back page of my folded manila report card, a strange coda to my record of straight A’s. JFK was in office, and I was in the third grade. The word “conscientious” was not a part of my vocabulary, regardless of my high marks in English Grammar. The second part of her comment sounded like I was disappointing someone. Them, I presumed then. Me, I realize now.
Mrs. Werner’s neatly precise, small handwritten comment had forged into a branding iron on my memory, and while the ink from her fountain pen has faded, the message grows more indelible as each day passes. And I have no work. The artistic talents and conscientious professionalism I’ve honed over my lifetime have jelled into a stagnant career, kicked to the curb and running down the storm drain. Along with it runs much of my sense of self. I am that third grader again, wondering what more I am capable of. More than I think?
I was a shy child. Never a team captain, class president, or cheerleader. Yet I blossomed in my own way, behind the closed door of my pink bedroom. I drew princesses with sweetheart necklines adorned with ruffles and rosettes, and designer clothing for paper dolls, and finally, entire wardrobes for Twiggy and Cher, the fashion icons of my era. I planned my career: to be a fashion illustrator in The New York Times. And I plotted my escape.
A movie poster from “Easy Rider” was taped above my bed, somehow perfectly at home with the dotted swiss dust ruffler beneath it. Maybe not “born to be wild,” exactly. I was voted “most likely to succeed” in the 9th grade. As well as “most bashful.” The dichotomy was accurate–when in the public glare, I squinted and shifted until I found the cool shadow on the edge of the spotlight, and that’s where I have always been most comfortable.
When I was four, my father died suddenly, on the job. One minute he was dealing with 6,900 volts of electrical current, and the next they had dealt with him. He hung limp in his harness, against the utility pole, captured in a photo that ran on the front page of The Evening News. A big black arrow was added by the production department to indicate the obvious.
He had been my biggest champion, extolling my toddler talents with the zeal of a carny barker. “Can’t you see that? Sheri drew an iron with a striped cord. And look!” he pointed to a detail that thrilled the electrician in him. “Here’s the wall outlet!”
And so, the plug was pulled. Still, I drew, encouraged by quiet nudges and proud smiles that never quite bridged the gap left in my father’s absence, large enough for wavering and self-doubt. And for hovering at the edge of the the spotlight.
After September 11, 2001, I was trying to assimilate yet more personal loss, and to make meaning of and simplify my life. My interior landscape was so altered that I didn’t at first notice the seismic shifting of American culture that was happening after our brief bonding moment of re-prioritizing our lives. The new “bonding” was happening more superficially and with the speed of kudzu growth: social networking with MySpace, Twitter, Facebook, blogging. To me, they all seemed to blur into one big merry-go-round, insisting that I jump on or be left in the dust. This world was turning quickly into “No Country for Shy Middle-Aged Women.”
The irony of this crazy ride is that once on board, everyone is straining toward the same brass ring. Everyone wants to be noticed. And in this mighty din (fueled by desperation of jobs lost, exultation of the possibility of lives reinvented, and angst from straddling this huge chasm of change) every single person is clamoring to be heard. “Hey! Look at me!”
And so I wonder about people like me. The shy ones. The conscientious ones. The ones who really did everything right, or thought they did. The ones that would sooner stick a finger in a light socket than join the multitudes on the merry-go-round screaming, “Hey, look at me!” Am I going to be trampled under this thundering herd? Or can I embrace this age of Brand Licensing on my own terms, without becoming as extinct as a dinosaur in the Ice Age? Maybe we are all capable of more than we think, and will finally be forced to discover this truth.
I just signed up for a workshop so I can learn to blog. And I think I can. No…I know.
I know your dad was right.
You do have the stuff.
It brings you in from the edge when you work for you, not the market.
A thoughtful, poignant, pertinent piece. Around the world there seems to be a swelling club of us who thought we made the right choices and decisions only to be kicked to the curb in a depressing time. Maybe there will eventually be so many of us that we’ll simply take over.
I’m inspired by your insistence on writing on your own terms.