Experimental Autobiography

The original version of this entry was written in an email. Then I posted a revised version elsewhere, for editing. (This has all taken place in the last couple of days, so it's not some ancient artifact or anything.) For some reason, I've become oddly shy about posting here, but this felt like my American Graffiti voice. If I had an "About" page, it would probably go there. But I don't, so it goes here.
If by any chance you are the original recipient of the original email, I hope you don't mind that I've recycled my message to you, albeit in slightly modified form. It felt... important to keep it with my other writings about myself.



The hard part about telling stories is knowing where to start. What to leave in, what to skip. How far back is it necessary to go to set the stage? Which details are absolutely essential, and which can be safely trimmed and not be missed?

I could start at the end, with my story. I could say that one day I finally realized that I'd spent 16 years trying very hard to build a life that was missing some essential parts of myself, that I eventually capitulated to what I had always known deep down I needed to do. I needed a different world from the one I found myself in. I needed the resources and the structures and the facilitators to help me learn how to go about achieving my ends productively, but who would set me loose and let me do my thing on my own. I needed to be in a place where life paths weren't expected to follow a straight line, where people weren't resigned to things being more or less the way they always were. Where people weren't discouraged from trying, especially if they were past their twenties. Where the idea that one could have a life that included satisfying work, fulfilling relationships, commitment and belief and adventure—the very idea of striving for all of those things at once—didn't arouse patronizing half-smiles and head shakes and murmurs of, "So American!". Where possibly naïve enthusiasm was valued over possibly more pragmatic but hope-smothering cynicism.

And so, I could tell you, almost exactly six months after I finished my master's thesis (after four years of graduate seminars at 2 or 3 a.m., my time), after weeks of black sadness in which I knew what was wrong, what I had to do, but was unwilling to face the truth because of the massive upheaval it would mean in several lives, on a May 1 that is a holiday dedicated to labor in the rest of the world, I received an email. It was a happy email, announcing that the paper that I had submitted to a major national conference had not only been accepted, but had received a top paper award. It meant I would need to go to Miami and present it six months later before a room full of scholars. It meant that someone—several someones, actually—thought the work I had done was worthy and important. I was thrilled to the core, and was in the process of sharing my joy with my then-husband, when I burst into tears. Not shining tears of happiness, but wracking sobs of despair, because here was irrefutable, external proof of what I already knew inside: this was what I needed to be doing. I couldn't continue in the life I had tried so hard to construct, and to be happy in. I had to leave, and indeed I left almost exactly a year later. I was 38, and I came here.

* * * *

Or, I could start at the very beginning. I grew up in modest surroundings. My parents were not very educated (my mother dropped out of college after two years, my father had a high school diploma) but they were smart, and read a lot. In particular, they read a lot to me from the time I was born, and I took to it like a fish to water. (Actually, I also took to water like a fish, and could swim before I could walk, but that's another story.) I took to it so well, in fact, that I taught myself to read at the age of two. The (possibly apocryphal) family story goes that my father was bragging to his best friend, a neighbor, about his two-year-old who could read, but the friend was, understandably, skeptical.

"She can't really read," the friend objected. "She's just memorized her favorite books, and learned when to turn the pages."

My father insisted he was right, and decided to prove it. He brought me over, and had me read the ingredients off the side of a bag of lawn fertilizer in the neighbor's garage—which I was, of course, thrilled to do, since reading was my favorite thing in the world. Reading with an audience? Even better! I happily sounded out the mysterious chemical names, struggling with the pronunciation and stopping frequently to ask what the words meant, a little confused when none of the grownups knew the answer. Weren't they supposed to know everything? I certainly wanted to. That was part of the point of reading, after all.

I wasn't long satisfied with reading other people's words and stories, though: I wanted to write my own. For my sixth birthday I got a typewriter, and I wrote a book of poems. I was always writing stories, or playing "girl reporter" and crafting articles about the goings-on at school or in the neighborhood. I loved researching and writing papers for school. I wrote epic adventure sagas in installments that would be passed secretively around the classroom, my classmates peeking under their desks to read each new development without getting caught. Sometimes, there was gasping. People would beg me for new chapters, and it was the greatest feeling in the whole world. As great as when we studied something new in school that piqued my curiosity, and I'd go and check out as many books from the library as I could carry, to find out more about it. In the second grade, I wrote a ten-page paper about Clara Barton.

My most prized possessions as a child (aside from my books, of which I had so, so many) were my typewriter, and my filing cabinet, full of notes and clippings and partly-written stories and articles and poems and random-seeming collections of facts. My treasure trove of research.

* * * *

Sometimes, stories start in medias res. So I could begin my own tale later on, in young adulthood. I went to a fancy college on scholarship, did very well, and everyone expected Great Things of me. I, on the other hand, was paralyzed with indecision and self-doubt. I had no idea what I wanted to do, except that I vaguely wanted it to involve writing and research in some form. That applied to a lot of things, though, and I had no specific direction in mind. I had majored in Italian (such pretty words!), which qualified me for not much of anything. I had known disappointments of various kinds by that time, and was smart enough to realize that I still had a lot to learn, but had lost the confidence that I could learn it. I was floundering, and felt aimless.

However. My junior year I'd gone abroad to study in Italy, met a boy and fallen in love. After a couple of years of long-distance relationship, some back-and-forth travel and phone bills that neither of us could afford (ah, the days before the Internet…), I flew to Italy with my wedding dress in my suitcase, off to start a new life.
This was something I could do! Whether it was an adventure to kick-start my adulthood, or an escape from a life that felt impossibly oppressive, is a question of semantics, of perspective--and the difference, perhaps, lies mainly in a glass or two of wine.

We were very broke. We lived with his parents—two of the most wonderful people I've ever known, and whom I consider my closest family even now—for three and a half years, until we could manage to move into a crappy little apartment on our own. I managed, very gradually, to enter the freelance translating world, and worked from home. He works (still) for a small artisan, doing highly skilled but poorly paid labor. I was determined that we would eventually be able to buy our own home, travel, have a family, do all the things my youthfully conventional mind imagined grownups were supposed to do. I resolutely tried every avenue I could to make our life better. To some degree, it even worked, but I knew I was still searching for the right path.

When I started to shift from translating into corporate communication, I realized I needed some training and credentials. The Internet had altered the world landscape by then, so I found a way I could get a master's degree online, one that didn't require me to be present on campus, so it was doable economically. What I failed to take into consideration, however, is that what we do and what we learn are never separate from who we are. I suppose I could have pursued this degree as simply a means of obtaining information and a piece of paper at the end, but that isn't really my way. I took it as an opportunity to explore new worlds, and those worlds, of course, transformed me in unexpected ways—as all truly worthwhile and important experiences do. Writing my thesis was a life-changing process that took me to where this tale began.

No matter where I start my story, you see, I end up here. The best thing is, although it has often been hard, and scary—and there are plenty of parts that are even scarier, still ahead—never once have I felt that I made a mistake, or that I am not doing exactly what I need to be doing, right now, in this place.

It's a glorious feeling.