If You Squint

The air Tuesday morning was like a hot towel, eighty and climbing at 6:30, when I took the dog and the baby on our neighborhood loop. By mid-afternoon, when I returned to our apartment with two bags full of the random and banal and occasionally poignant accumulations of office life, the bruise in the sky extended from the tower I had just left to the Navy Yards. The forecast called for imminent thunder and lightening, but I decided to run anyway. On Dekalb, the sun shone so brightly against the fast-approaching storm that people were taking pictures of it. The thunder, when it came, was loud enough to make a summer camp line of little girls scream — but the sun shone all the brighter. I kept running, away from the clouds, heading south and into Bed-Stuy. On Marcy, just past the vast, roseate old Boys High School with its Romanesque arches and Victorian towers and grand, gender-separated entrances, they caught up with me. There was a gust of wind that whipped bits of dust into the air like snow, if snow made you sneeze and hack and shut your eyes. Then the weather held its breath, while construction workers and children and older residents watched it from their stoops and the doorways of bodegas.

I was already at Franklin — less than a mile from home — when the rain started to fall. Fall is the wrong word: it heaved and hacked and pelted the sidewalk. But the lightening did not come and so I kept going, happy I’d brought my baseball cap and a ziplock bag for my phone, exceedingly happy I was wearing a dark shirt (though I could have been wearing nothing and no one would have noticed).  As usual, it felt good to run through the rain. It felt cleansing.

I’ve been dwelling, as ever, on time, and have recently begun to think it is more like a conch shell than an arrow: it moves forward, but not without a lot of doubling back.

I was letting the run and the rain wash away a longstanding identity much as, eight years earlier, I’d let them wash away a much shorter-standing one. It had been fall, then, and I remember how vividly the beech leaves shone in the woods of Prospect Park, how they had clumped to the sides of the sneakers I wore on the bus to Boston. That run had been a necessary palliative, a keeping of the wolves at bay; this one was celebratory. Yet it was not without its share of blue smiles. For four years I had worked for the company I’d dreamed of working for since childhood. The work was different from what my adolescent self had imagined — fewer fearsome heels and outlandish couture; more double monitors and databases, but it was also a realization of what my early twenties self, the self not far removed from she who trod on beech leaves and fled to Boston, had hoped I might be able to do, without believing I could do it.

Why do we work the jobs we do? I look at the career paths of my closest college friends, and some are linear and some are radial but all of them have the same predicting variable, and that’s passion. An undergraduate concentration in public health leading to a masters in the same and to increasingly weighty positions studying and working with various disadvantaged populations. A degree in journalism leading to a career as a journalist.  A concentration in women’s reproductive rights leading to work in nonprofits fighting for those rights leading to a nursing degree leading to pre- and post-natal care for first-time single parents. A concentration in food systems leading to managing a farm leading to starting a food truck serving food from said farm. Me? Even in college, my passions — linguistics and foreign languages and narrative nonfiction and creative writing — did not fit neatly into what I thought I wanted to do, which was be a magazine editor. Or rather, they fit so neatly into my specific fantasy of being an editor-at-large for Condé Nast Traveler that when, in the spring of my senior year of college, my application for an assistant editor position at that publication made it through the first two rounds of interviews only to vanish in the third, I decided, almost instantly, to abandon it wholesale. My friends all either had jobs or were biking across the country to raise money for Habitat for Humanity. A job was the thing. With a salary and benefits or at the very least a Manhattan address and a corporate email address. A job first, and write on the side. Which is what I did for the next three years.

There is something to be said for that approach — it’s at the very least pragmatic in the short term, and, if you’re lucky, as I was, will give you the mental capacity to do the thing you love at the end of the day. But, I’d gone from a singular, glorious house o’ dreams (in Anne terms) to a bare frame and a fragile foundation.

What does this have to do with conches of time? The frame of the new house filled in, by dint of luck and chance and the generosity of an employer and a bit of tea leaves-reading on my own part. I took a course that lead to a new dream job at the old dream company. I said I was a data scientist and then I acquired that skillset and started saying oh, I work in data, I track you across the internet, I try to figure out what you like. The frame became reliable. But the foundation stayed fragile for years.  I wasn’t a writer. I was! Was I? It took taking the frame’s reliability for granted — getting almost bored with it, in fact — to really apply myself to answering that question. And now I’m tinkering with the current house while allowing myself to imagine an entirely different frame.

God, this is a solipsistic post! But my point is that bare has a way of gaining flesh, and coming to resemble earlier fates of desire, only inverted or adjacent. La plus ca change. A pipe to a painting of a pipe. And the way is called time, and the point, also, is called thirty.

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