originally posted Tuesday, February 12, 2002
This is the entry that's been keeping me from writing anything else.
This entry is in parts.
Sometime around New Year's Day, Geoff and I watched It's a Wonderful Life. I've watched it every year around Christmas time for the past several years now. Geoff watched it with me for the first time last year, I think. You know the movie? (And if you don't? I guess I should tell you that there are "spoilers" ahead. And then I should tell you to go watch the movie.)
I love that movie. It makes me incredibly happy. It also makes me cry. Any movie that does those two things for me is almost guaranteed to be among my favorite movies of all time.
I had always thought of it as a happy story. George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is this great guy. (You may know all of this by heart, but bear with me.) He's honest, kind, funny, and loyal. He loves his family. He sticks up for the little guy. He risks his own neck to save others. He marries Mary, the girl next door, and they have a whole passel of cute kids together. They move into a fixer-upper. They're not rich, but they're happy.
Most of this we find out about in flashback, when a wingless angel named Clarence gets sent down to earth to help George through a crisis. We learn about George's life while Clarence does.
It's a terrible crisis. There is money missing, misplaced by George's bumbling uncle, and if George can't find or come up with the money, he may have to go to jail. The crisis is so bad that George considers throwing himself into the river to kill himself. Even while he's contemplating suicide, though, George remains his wonderful self - Clarence jumps into the river, and George forgets about himself so that he can save somebody else who's in trouble.
George thinks that the world (or at least his hometown) would be better off if he'd never been born, and this (as you probably know) is how Clarence resolves George's crisis. Clarence shows George what his town would have been like without him, and it's obvious that the town would be a pretty terrible place without George Bailey's presence. Finally, George realizes that his life has been worthwhile. He goes back to the present day to face his crisis head on, even if it means jail and disgrace.
And that's where George's good deeds really pay off (literally). The whole town (except for the evil Mr. Potter) turns up at George's house to chip in toward the missing money, no questions asked. George is in trouble, that's all they need to know.
What a great movie. What a wonderful life.
That's how I usually watched the movie. This year it seemed different. This year, I noticed different things. I noticed the way George's dreams don't come true.
Ever since George was a little boy, he wanted to travel the world. He wanted to go off to college. He wanted to become an architect and build fantastic buildings. He wanted to have adventures. He didn't want to run his father's business. He didn't want to live in Bedford Falls.
But the day he graduates from high school, George's father suffers some sort of attack and dies. George's father runs the Building & Loan in town, the only business that competes with the bank owned by the evil Mr. Potter, and so when George's father dies, the board of the Building & Loan plans to shut down the business. They believe that there is no one left to run it, until George gives them an impassioned speech about his father's life's work, and how the town will be ruled by Mr. Potter if the Building & Loan gets shut down. The board decides that they will keep the Building & Loan open, but only if George will agree to stay on to manage it.
So George stays home from college, but only temporarily. He will go to college later. Then George's younger brother Harry graduates from high school, and George stays at home again. They can't both go to college at once. He will wait for Harry to finish school.
But when Harry comes home from college, he brings a brand new wife with him, and it turns out that the brand new wife has a father who has offered Harry a great job. It's a great opportunity for Harry. Harry tells George that he will turn down the job so that George can go to college, but George tells him no. Harry takes his dream job. George stays in Bedford Falls.
George gets married, and he and Mary plan to go to Europe for their honeymoon. They are going to see the world. They're in a taxi on the way to the airport when they see a huge line of people in front of the Building & Loan. George insists on stopping to see what's wrong. The stock market has crashed, and people are panicking. George and Mary avert the crisis, but only by using all of their honeymoon money to give people as withdrawals. They don't travel.
George gives up his dreams. In the end, he is gloriously happy, and why? Because his friends and family love him.
So this year, I'm sitting there watching the movie with Geoff, and sometime way before the end of the movie (the part that usually makes me break down in tears), I start crying. Sometime early on, when George's dreams aren't coming true.
Oh, my God, I think, I am George.
I did some soul searching last summer. (You may remember.) I was unemployed. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I felt like a failure. I felt like I'd given up on my childhood dreams. I wanted to be a writer, an actress, a director. Later, I wanted to be a trial lawyer, a photographer, a teacher.
After a few months of looking, I found a new job. I started at my new job on August 1st. It is an okay job. I like the people fine. The pay is not great, but it's ok. It's not exciting, but the hours are fairly short. I'm not very motivated by it or interested in it, but I'm pretty good at it.
I used to dream of other things, I thought to myself, but this is what my life has become.
And I stared at the movie and I blinked back tears, and I thought, I am not unique. What happened to me is an old story, at least as old as this movie. (1946, in case you were wondering.) This is what happens in real life, I thought. Childish dreams don't often come true, but if you're a good person, maybe you can be happy anyway. Last summer's soul searching, that caused me so much pain? That soul searching, that made me feel like I was the first person to have to give up her dreams? That is not a tragedy. That is life. That's what happens when you grow up. What am I complaining about? I am getting married, and I have family and friends who love me, and I believe that I'm a good person. This is the wonderful life, right? Right?
Oh, God, is this what it means to grow up?
A few weeks ago, on a Friday night, Geoff and I were planning to go bowling with some friends. It was 7:40, and we were supposed to meet them at the bowling alley at 8:00. We needed to stop on the way to get gas (the empty light was on) and cash (I had ten dollars in my purse). Before we left, I called to check my bank balance so I would have an idea how much cash I should take out.
I had forgotten about an automatic withdrawal (for investment, of all things). I was overdrawn.
We had no money, and payday wasn't until the next Thursday. Geoff had deposited thousands of dollars into his account the day before, but it wasn't available yet. He had $40 Canadian in one account. I went through suit jackets (that I haven't worn in months) looking for forgotten money. I checked credit card balances. We were broke.
Geoff withdrew $20 (American) from his Canadian account, and we put $5 worth of gas in the car. We didn't go bowling. We stayed at home, and I had a breakdown, and suddenly it was not just the money, it was everything, everything, everything, and I told Geoff something like this:
I am not a success. I might not be a complete failure, but I am a success at nothing.
"Your journal," Geoff said. "There is your journal. You are a success at that."
And I laughed at him. I practically sneered. That journal doesn't matter, I told him. Nobody cares about that journal. That journal is practically nothing. And whatever it is worth, I can't even update it regularly! Even at that, I am failing.
I am a success at nothing that matters, I amended. I am probably a good person, I tell him, but am I a success? No. I was fired from my last job. I don't like the job I have now, and I'm not motivated to do it. I can't manage my money, a situation that is only made worse by the fact that I'm making half the money I made at my old job. The apartment is a mess. I have been trying to lose weight for years, but I haven't lost much, and I am unhappy with my body. My face is breaking out, but I haven't gotten off of my procrastinating ass to see a dermatologist. I am always running into things. I don't eat right. I haven't been working out. We didn't even take the dog for a walk today.
I don't like my job.
I don't like my job.
And suddenly it was crystal clear. My job is the problem. My job is why I am upset. My job is what all of this freaking out is about. Forget the money, the money is manageable. Forget the other things, I can deal with them. Forget what I said, I love you, and I love the people in my life, and I love my journal.
We got through the weekend, of course. Looking back, it was even a good lesson, that's spilled over to the present, about how cheaply we can live. I take my own lunch every day now. I eat instant oatmeal at my desk. We don't order take out except for on special occasions (Valentine's Day? We're getting takeout. Yes, we are), and we don't go out to eat, except every once in awhile. I don't ever drive to work. I haven't developed the many rolls of film that are waiting to be developed. I'm saving up.
So we got through the weekend, and we did ok, and later we laughed with our friends about why we'd missed bowling. Payday came, and we paid bills and got a little bit of cash, and I went wedding dress shopping, and I consolidated my credit cards. Things are better, and things will be ok. I was left with one important unresolved problem.
I don't like my job.
I wanted to be an actress for a long time. I don't know if you know that.
When I was in the eighth grade, I was in a play called "Pancakes," and it was based on an O. Henry short story, and it was wonderful. I loved being in that play. I wanted to be an actress. I knew that I could do it. I knew that I had talent.
I was in more and more plays, and I was a theatre major in college. I was never "undecided." I never had any other major. I was a theatre major, from start to finish.
The University of Kentucky may not be the best place to be a theatre major, but I learned a lot there, especially from a man named David McTier who was my acting teacher during my senior year in college. None of my other acting teachers had really bonded with me, but I think David did. After ten years, I still remember with incredible pride some of the compliments he gave me. I was brave, he said. I had an expressive face, he said. One of my biggest strengths, he said, was the way I could connect with people. I looked them in the eyes and I made myself vulnerable and I connected with them, and I made them feel what I felt, he said. I needed to work on my physical presence on stage, but I already had a powerful emotional presence.
I remember that, and I am still grateful to Dave.
And after he complimented me, he tried to help me in future assignments. He tried to help me play to my strengths while working on my weaknesses. One of our final assignments in that class was sort of a performance art piece. We had to find a text, and then we had to write some of our own text, and then we had to present our piece in some non-traditional way.
The piece I created was amazing. (It is hard for me to say that about something of my own.)
I don't remember my found text. I just remember that it was about perceptions versus reality. It was about books and covers, insides and outsides, bodies and souls. It was very poetic, with big words and lofty ideals.
I stood in the room, and the rest of the class stood in the room, and I told them all to move around. They could interact if they wanted. I would be interacting with them. While they walked around or spun around or sat down, I moved among them, and I spoke the words of my Found Text out loud so that everyone could hear them, but I whispered my own text in each person's ear. They each heard something different. I spoke to them all more than once. (It was only a class of 10 people or so.)
I walked around and told them secret things. Some of them were true. Some of them were lies. I never told anybody which was which. (I won't tell you, either.) The secrets were like this:
You feel one way about me now, but how would you feel about me if you knew that I got free lunches when I was in elementary school?
You feel one way about me now, but how would you feel about me if you knew that I was raped in high school?
You feel one way about me now, but how would you feel about me if you knew that I'm gay?
You feel one way about me now, but how would you feel about me if you knew I had an abortion?
You feel one way about me now, but how would you feel about me if you knew that I hated you?
You feel one way about me now, but how would you feel about me if you knew that I almost always feel fat?
You feel one way about me now, but how would you feel about me if you knew that I am terrified right this minute?
You feel one way about me now, but how would you feel about me if you knew that I think about killing myself?
You feel one way about me now, but how would you feel about me if you knew that I was terrified of failure?
The secrets were like that, except more of them, and more of them, and they were more powerful than I had any idea they'd be. My classmates looked shocked, or sympathetic, or thoughtful, or a little bit scared, and I smiled at them, a little bit, while I whispered in their ears. I wasn't crying when I started, and I didn't cry about any one particular thing, but at some point I started to cry. I didn't stop performing. We whirled and moved in some un-choreographed dance, and I leaned in to whisper to each one of them, and I cried, and I couldn't feel ashamed about my tears, because all of a sudden the tears seemed as if they were a perfect part of the performance, real and immediate and raw. They looked like they weren't sure what to think of the fact that I was crying, but in the end, most of them cried, too.
And after that, they treated me differently. They respected me. They knew I had power inside me. I wasn't that quiet mousy girl anymore. I was a force to be reckoned with.
I felt like I'd crossed some sort of bridge.
When I finished college, I wasn't sure what my next move should be. I was, I think, too scared to move straight to New York or California to audition at night and work a clerical job during the day. I decided to go to graduate school.
I applied to Northwestern's M.A. Theatre program, and I got in. I took out loans so that I could attend. I was going to make my dreams come true; it didn't matter if I had to go in debt to do it.
After a year and a half - after finishing all of the coursework to get my master's degree - I changed my mind. It wasn't theatre I wanted. I was self-conscious, and that was keeping me from being all I could be. I didn't have the raw talent that Cheryl, a fellow master's student, had, and she wasn't going to be an actor because she thought she wasn't talented enough. Where did I get off thinking that I could be an actor, if Cheryl wasn't good enough to be one?
I decided that I didn't want to be one of those untalented hacks who plugs away, clueless, for years. I didn't want people to pity me and wonder why I didn't figure out that I would never make it as an actor. And I read a book that said that if you could be happy doing something other than acting, then you should do it, because the life of an actor could be unimaginably hard, full of repeated heartache and rejection.
I decided that I could be happy doing something else. So I went to law school.
Ever since I started taking the el to work, I read every day. Sometimes I miss listening to music every morning in the car, and I miss singing along and dancing in my seat, and seeing the sun come up over the lake, and taking pictures of beautiful things that I don't see when I'm on the el. But I didn't used to read, and now I do.
I read on the el, and I read while I walk to the el, and home from the el, and to work from the el. I read like I used to read when I was in junior high - holding the book out in front of me while I walk, too absorbed to put it down and watch the world. I pause while I cross streets (that's a lesson I learned back in junior high), but I put the book back up in front of me when I reach the other side.
If I don't have a book to read, I am bored on my way to and from work.
A few weeks ago, after the Pre-Bowling Overdrawn incident, I stood in front of the bookcase in the living room, looking for a new book to read, and I noticed a book that my mom had given me last summer while I was unemployed. I picked it up. I stuck it in my bag. I went to work. I started reading my new book.
It's a book by Laurence G. Boldt, and it's called How to Find the Work You Love, and my mom's inscription reads, "For Jessie, who is still looking for the right place to work - I'm very proud of you and love you very much!" And above my mom's inscription is the author's dedication: "To that unnamable something which calls us all to be what we truly are."
Would it be overly dramatic to tell you that I think this book may have changed my life?
That night I lay in bed with Geoff, and I read aloud page after page. Sometimes I got choked up and had to stop in the middle of reading a sentence.
The book is about making your dreams come true. The author believes that we all have work that we are meant to do, and quotes Aristotle: "Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation." He says we are social beings, and need to feel as if we are making a contribution to the world. He says we are individuals, and the contributions that we each make will be different. He says we convince ourselves that we will never make money doing something that we love to do; sure, there are other people who can do that, but they are special. He tells me that there is something that I am called to do, something I am called to be, and if I need to do some soul searching to figure out what that something is, then I should do that soul searching. He says that people downplay their own strengths and worry about what other people think.
And suddenly I didn't know what I'd been thinking for the last ten years. Remember when I wanted to be an actress? Remember when I didn't want to be an untalented hack, so I left acting without a backward glance?
I'll ask you now. Which sort of life is better? A life spent doing something you deeply love, about which other people may think you've made a mistake? Or a life spent doing something you care little about but are capable of doing, about which other people approve?
How could it have not been obvious?
And now it kills me to think about what a fool I have been. I can hardly believe it, the way I fooled myself for years. I sat in interviews, dear readers, and spouted that bullshit about untalented hacks. I sat up proudly and said that I had gotten wise and chosen a career that I could rely on (instead of a career that I would have loved). I smiled happily and told people that I wanted to do something that I knew I was good at (instead of something that I knew I loved).
It is horrible, what I've done to myself in the past.
But there is still the future. I can change the future.
The first thing you have to do, says Mr. Boldt, is figure out what you want to do. You don't need to figure out what job you want to do; in fact, you probably want to avoid thinking about what job you want to do, because jobs come and go every day. Instead, figure out what type of work you would like. What makes you happy? Where do your talents lie? What are you doing when you lose track of time? What gives you deep satisfaction?
And I read the book, and I thought about those questions, and I have realized something very important. I have figured out My Favorite Thing.
Do you want to know what it is?
My favorite thing is to do something that makes someone else - you - understand something that you didn't understand before. Not intellectually, but emotionally.
My favorite thing is doing something that makes you say, "that touched me," or "I feel like you know me," or "I'm glad to know I'm not the only one" or "I never felt that way before."
It is my favorite thing, and the more I think about it, the more sure I am that it has always been my favorite thing, and the more I think that it has drawn me toward every dream of life's work that I've ever had.
It has made me want to be a writer, an actress, a photographer, a teacher, and even (I am surprised to realize) a trial lawyer.
It makes me take pictures, and it makes me keep this journal.
Laurence Boldt, in his book, talks about how hard on ourselves we are. He talks about how much courage it can take to stand up and tell people our dreams. If we make ourselves vulnerable, it is so easy for someone to shoot us down. It is so easy for you to sit there and tell me that I'm an untalented hack. And how do I disprove you?
I have had people tell me, on occasion, that I am a brave person, but I have not been brave enough to admit when I think that I'm good at something. I am modest. I am humble. If you compliment me, I say, "oh, thank you, you're too kind, but I appreciate it."
Sometimes you will tell me that I am good at something, and I will think, "aha! Yes! I am good at that!" But I won't admit it to you. I will nod and smile sheepishly, and thank you, and say that I'm not so good as all that. And now I think that maybe, if you tell yourself something like that often enough? You might start to believe it.
I don't want to believe it.
There is another movie that I sometimes think of when I think about myself. I've only seen it twice, I think (not time after time after time, like It's a Wonderful Life), but sometimes I think about Little Man Tate.
Little Man Tate is about a young boy, Fred, who is a genius. He's poor. He's never met his father. He lives with his mother (played by Jodie Foster), who loves and cherishes him. She doesn't always understand him, but she recognizes that he is special. She recognizes that he is incredibly intelligent.
And that's what the movie is about - it's about this wonderful, sensitive, startlingly intelligent little boy and the people who love him.
I never tell anyone this, I don't think, but when I was a child I liked to think of myself as a potential child prodigy. I waited for the day when the world would discover my genius. I would read about kids who got famous for doing amazing things (you know, going to medical school or publishing a novel or playing the violin at Carnegie Hall), and I would try to figure out how I would excel. I am really really smart, I would think. What will I be famous for?
Nothing, as it turns out. I was smart, sure, but I never published anything, and I never skipped a grade, and nobody wanted to take me away to study me in detail after I took an IQ test.
In 1991, when I first saw Little Man Tate, I was 20, too old to ever be a child prodigy. I would never be Little Man Tate. I knew that. And yet...
There is a place in the movie where somebody is talking about how special Fred is, and she says something like this.
It's not what he knows, she says. It's what he understands.
And when I heard that, it hit me right in my gut, and I thought to myself - I am like that. That is what I'm good at. I am not the best at math or the best at spelling. I have not discovered a new planet, and I will not win Wimbledon. But understanding people just by talking to them for a few minutes or looking at their faces or standing behind them in the line at the checkout? I am good at that.
I've never told anybody this before.
So now I'm going to talk to you about some of the things that I'm good at. Without modesty. Without humility. Without apologies.
I am good at understanding how other people feel. Sometimes, after I talk to you, I can reveal something about you to yourself that you didn't already know. Sometimes, after I am with you for awhile, you feel happier than you did before we spent that time together.
I am good at revealing myself to you. Sometimes, after I talk to you, you will discover that you know things about me that I don't even know about myself.
I am a good actor. Sometimes I can take somebody else's words, and I can make them mine, so that you forget that they ever belonged to anybody else.
I am a good photographer. Sometimes I take a picture that you can't take your eyes away from. Sometimes I take a picture that you want to hang on your living wall so that it becomes a part of your life.
I am a good writer. Sometimes my words come together just right, so that after they're written, you can't imagine expressing the same thought or feeling with any other combination of words. Sometimes I say things better than anybody else could have said them. Sometimes I write something that tugs at your heart. Sometimes I write something that makes you laugh in recognition.
Sometimes, in fact, I am an amazing writer.
There are more, I'm sure. I'm sure there are more. When I think of them, I'll tell you. At the very least, I'll make sure to tell myself.