On the Opportunity of Losing a Job, Maurice Sendak, and the Book That Told Me What I Want to Be When I Grow Up

November 14, 2011 § 4 Comments

My post-grad existence here in Poughkeepsie has been chugging along at a pace that some might describe as slow–at times, infuriatingly, depressingly slow. But through all the form email responses, the inevitable let-down follow up calls, the blind wandering through Craig’s List in the search of something that might give me a tad more satisfaction than asking how you like your steak cooked, I at least had the comfort of knowing that I was lucky to have a restaurant job, that I was good at it, and that that, at least, meant that I was doing my part to contribute to my little household, and to the economy at large.

Alas, no longer.

The restaurant and I have parted ways, and though I could go into the specifics and describe the unfair shock of being fired by the owner, in a blind rage, for advising another server to check into the legality of an issue that she was having with said owner, I won’t (at least, not anymore than I just did). Because in the end, getting fired from certain places can be a very good thing, and I won’t downplay the opportunity at hand by ranting.

Yes, I like making the monies. Yes, I need to make the monies. I have my part of the rent to pay, and both Sallie Mae and Direct Loans are poised to huff, puff, and blow down my door.

Don’t get me wrong, I am pretty stressed out about it in general.

But here’s the thing about working two jobs and an internship while still trying to keep sending out story submissions and applications for publishing and writing jobs, and stay on top of your own writing: you can’t.

You can’t do it all. I don’t know what Wonder Woman version of myself got through grad school for me, but she doesn’t live here anymore, and regular old Cate needs a break. She needs to re-group, to see her boyfriend before 9 o’clock of an evening (which never happened while she was employed at the restaurant), and she needs to think seriously about what she really wants to be when she grows up.

On most days, considering that question–what I want to be when I grow up–induces a panic, and the sense of having several metaphorical itches that I can’t scratch, either because I’m not equipped to scratch them, or because I can’t quite place where they are. I’ve already answered this question a hundred times for myself over the years, and each time I think I’ve found the answer, and can move forward with purpose, here it comes again, that old hive-causer, What I Want to Be. Here, in an abridged version, is how it’s gone.

ME: I want to be a Writer.

WIWTB: Great! You should take some writing classes. Done? Awesome. Now what do you want to be?

ME: Wait, what? I have to chose again? I can’t just be a Writer?

WIWTB: Nope. Let’s go for some nuance.

ME: Ok, I guess I want to be more of a writer? I want to be a Grad Student in a writing program.

WIWTB: Hey, great job. Nicely done. Now what do you want to be?

ME: Urgh, again? Ok, I want to be a Published Writer.

WIWTB: HA, yeah. Good luck. No, don’t stop–seriously, keep going with that, but even if you get to call yourself that at some point, it requires a hyphen. Nobody likes a plain old writer, and neither does your landlord.

ME: Um, a Published Writer-Teacher?

WIWTB: Sure, that makes more sense. OH BUT WAIT TEACHERS ARE THE LEECHES OF OUR NATIONAL ECONOMY SO WE MADE SURE THEY DIE SLOW PAINFUL BUREAUCRATIC DEATHS. And we don’t want any new ones sprouting up, for sure. Especially not if they don’t have the first part of the hyphenated title attached to them. Why aren’t you published, leech? Pick again.

ME: …Writer-Blogger?

WIWTB: What good are you to anyone?

ME: Writer-Office worker?

WIWTB: BO-ring.

ME: Writer-Critic-Stephen King’s Assistant? Fairy Tale Expert? Guru?

WIWTB: Sheesh.

ME: What do you want from me?

WIWTB: (suddenly soft:) What do you mean? I’m what you want.

ME: I don’t even know what the fuck you are!

WIWTB: Language, young lady. I’m just trying to help, by living here in the back of your mind and making you dissatisfied with everything around you. Surely you didn’t plan on living a blissful life as a restaurant worker?

ME: (sullen:) No.

WIWTB: So…

ME: What?

WIWTB: What do you want to be?

And so on and so forth.

That’s just most days–when I go in circles around the things I love to do and wonder how they fit into a job description, and then find out that that job is unavailable, unpaid, or nonexistent. But there are some days, like today, just two days after being fired, when I remember that there’s a book on my shelf that has some, if not all, of the answers.

To explain how I came by this book, I have to go back a few years, and another unfortunate parting of ways.

Five years ago this very month, I had my heart significantly broken for the first time, and I was alone in another country. I was on study abroad in London, and before my then-boyfriend of two years placed a guilty long-distance call to inform me that he had fallen in love with another girl, I was living a pretty blissful life. It was fall, I was in England, I was taking writing classes and studying the deliciously sordid world of English Renaissance Drama, and I had lucked into the most fascinating French conversation partner a nerd like myself could ever want.

She was an instructor at the university, and was sitting in on French II so that she’d be able to speak more to the locals when she went on vacation to France every summer. We ended up sitting next to each other on the first day, and so when the teacher went around the room and assigned study partners for weekly out-of-class conversation, V__ and I were paired. I showed up the next day to her office, and felt like I had stumbled into the stuff of fantasy. V___ had her own office in what used to be the carriage house and stables of the estate on which my particular campus was housed, and it was lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves. On all of those shelves were children’s books. Rare, out-of-print, contemporary, the newest Sendak, the oldest Sendak, every Gorey book ever printed, etc. And she must have had every volume of criticism and commentary ever published on the subject as well. I felt like I had just won something, and the prize was a tailor-made, beautiful friend. She had art on the wall, she had lovely plants in window, and she had a bastion of tea and dark chocolate Le Petit Ecolier cookies.

I have, both before and since, seen many academic offices, and most of them, those cramped, flourescent-bright, window-hungry closets, have led me to believe that V___ may not have existed at all, that I created her and her carriage house nook out of the fantasies of my imagination. But then, how do I know how to say je voudrais avoir une belle journee a la plage avec mes amis? Answer me that.

V___ and I met once a week in her perfect office for tea and studying, and between vocabulary quizzes, we would talk about the books she had on her shelves that we had both read, recommended books to each other that the other hadn’t come across, and we talked about fairy tales and the authors we loved who worked with them. Before meeting V___, I had never known that, out there in the world, there was a collection of Grimms’ tales  illustrated by Maurice Sendak, and that they had used my favorite Grimm story of all time, “The Juniper Tree,” as the title story for the book. But there it was, first edition–two volumes in a lovely slipcover–on V___’s shelf. I had seen Sendak’s gorgeous Dear Mili, a story written by Wilhelm Grimm for a little girl in 1816, but I had not known about The Juniper Tree, with 27 tales translated by Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell. It was one of those moments that you have when you’re discovering that the things you love have a life outside of your enthusiasm, that there are other like you who cherish what you cherish, and instead of making you feel small, it makes you feel even gladder to love the things that you love.

When my then-boyfriend of two years called and told me he’d fallen in love, I didn’t get out of bed for two days, but I didn’t sleep either. I didn’t go to class for two days, and I barely ate. The only time I left my dorm room in those couple of days was to go to V___’s office.

We didn’t study French. It wasn’t as important, she said, as what I was going through. Instead, while we sipped tea (or rather, while she sipped and I blubbered into tea), we talked about what a writer can do when heartbreak attacks. She had gone through a horrible parting of ways as well, she said, years before, and she didn’t sleep for a month. Not real sleep, she said. So instead, she kept a diary of all the things in her home that were different late at night than they were during the day. You notice things in a different way after someone breaks your heart, she said. I had already booked a weekend trip to Paris when this happened, and V__ encouraged me to think of it as symbolic. It’s a very romantic place, we agreed. Best of all if you have decided that you are in love with yourself, and who you are on your own.

I probably wouldn’t have come out the other end of my London semester half as sane without V____. I introduced her to the graphic work of Audrey Niffenegger*, which she thought was empowering and ghostly and a lesson in heartache. In Niffenegger’s The Adventuress, which we both read for the first time after my breakup, a woman falls in love with Napoleon, and bears him a cat-child, Maurice. Napoleon leaves her and she falls into a fever, and is anguished when she learns, from Maurice, that Napoleon still loves her. As a spirit, she mourns for her body, and then finds Napoleon to forgive him, and then flies into the sky. Reading Niffenegger’s images was like looking at a blueprint of what I was feeling at the time, and having a friend like V___ sitting by, nodding, telling me that to read myself in these images was a fine and powerful way of working through my breakup was a comfort that I was lucky to have, thousands of miles from home.

When I left England, knowing that I had to go back to New York and face the music, I didn’t expect that V___ and I would keep in touch, and with the exception of one email exchange, we haven’t. But I think of her often, because of her good advice, and because of the last day I saw her. She handed me a book–a newer edition of Segal, Jarrell, and Sendak’s The Juniper Tree, which, despite her casual insistence that she had it lying around, looked brand new. In it she’d written:

Winter term, 2006, London.

Dear American Cate

a book of grim tales

for inspiration & delight

il était délicieux d’être ton ami français

partager le chocolat et l’étude. Merci!

from V____, Reader in Arts and Children’s Literature

Her French wasn’t perfect, but neither was/is/ever will be mine.We’d never talked about what she taught at the university, or what her official title was, just about books and relationships and la langue française. So on the day before I left to come home and negotiate for the safe return of my DVDs and my pet iguana, when I saw that she called herself a “Reader of Arts and Children’s Literature,” I had no idea what that meant, but I knew that it had something to do with what I wanted to be.

WIWTB: You know she’s a teacher, too, right? And you heard me say earlier that there’s less of a snowball’s chance in hell that you’ll get an academic job, right?

ME: A “Reader.” With a capital “R.”

WIWTB: What are you saying?

ME: It means so many things.

WIWTB: But if you want to be one, you have to be a bit more specific…

ME: Quiet, you.

At first, “Reader” was some vague thing–as a senior in college, I hadn’t heard of being a freelance reader, or a manuscript reviewer. I was charmed by the fact that she hadn’t called herself a professor or a lecturer, but a Reader. At the time, it seemed like calling yourself an enthusiast or a “lover of.” It was an active title.

So now here I am, dumped again. Less traumatic, of course, except when I consider my bank account. I’m back in the position of spending my days conversing with What I Want To Be, and trying to love where I am, despite the fact that I am so, so the 99% it isn’t even funny right now. On the bad days, I remember that vague goals aren’t going to help me do anything useful right now. On good days, though, I think about being in London, so traumatized that I couldn’t sleep at night, and how I met a person I’d like to emulate. I try to be excited about the possibilities of time opening up in unexpected ways, and grateful that I’m not completely without resources. Grateful, also that there is such a thing to be as a Reader.

When I take a book like The Juniper Tree off of my shelf, I can think of nothing I would rather be than a Reader, with a capital R. This could mean that I find a way to become a freelance manuscript reader or a paid book reviewer or the like, or it could also mean something more internal: that I treat every loss or transition as an opportunity to notice things differently, to record in the middle of the night the things that differ from the day; to be the kind of person who is always interested in new ideas and has something to say about old books, and who never has to look far to find inspiration and delight.

*Audrey Niffenegger’s longer graphic works The Adventuress and The Three Incestuous Sisters and her graphic story series The Night Bookmobile aren’t as well known as her best-selling novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, but Lord, if they aren’t just as cool (or way cooler, depending on your tastes). The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress are both visual novels composed of zinc plate engravings, accompanied by a line or two of text, and because of the nature of the medium, the illustrations look like very monochromatic and grainy–like old film stills, in cartoon form. They’re haunting and strange and lovely. Check out The Three Incestuous Sisters first–it’s her masterpiece, which she claims she should have been working on when she was “procrastinating” by writing The Time Traveler’s Wife. The Adventuress is also gorgeous, but was an earlier project, and you can see where Niffenegger improved her craft in Sisters. If you were one of those who was disappointed by Her Fearful Symmetry, give Audrey the chance for redemption by picking up one of the books that shows what she started out doing, before she began writing bestsellers.

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