My drive to work winds up a narrow, two-lane road lined with iron-colored soil and the odd evergreen here and there. The summit (whose name I can never remember) affords a view of sky on my way to and from the community college where I now spend the 8-5. The drive is significant to me; a symbol, in some ways, of this past year which was among the more difficult I’ve known. Loss, yes; change, yes. But it is not necessarily those things which made it what it was. Instead, I think it was the first year when my reflection of myself looked to me like a stranger, and I wonder about the sort of person I have become.
The drive I now take represents a choice, not unlike Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken; only in my case, it should be called The Road I’ve Taken or better yet The Road I Take Every Day. College, and later graduate school, was where I found myself. Perhaps it’s fitting in this time in my life when I’ve lost my bearings that I’m once again in a place with classrooms and libraries and overpriced bookstores. It’s different as an administrator though; different when you’re not in the classrooms or the libraries or buying books in the overpriced bookstore. Different when you are not—or are not with—a student.
So, I thought on the last day of 2018, I would tell you all a story. It’s not the most interesting one, but it is fitting, I think, for a year that ends ambiguously (is this a good or bad year? Am I happy or sad? Was this the year I made a mistake, or did I once again save myself from a professional form of drowning?)
It was the year 2000, and I was a freshman in college at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). I’d been accepted elsewhere; most remarkably, on scholarship to Lewis and Clark College and an Art Institute in Seattle, but I was not allowed to go either of those; punishment for my eating disorder and all those damn doctor’s appointments. My parents wanted me close, to make sure I didn’t get skinny again (something I continue to excel at.)
So there I was in old Manzanita Hall: roomed up with a young lady my age from China who hated her Computer Science degree almost as much as I hated myself. (We made a lively couple that year.) And, throwing aside things like pre-requisite classes, I signed up for a painting class even though (technically) every Art Major was supposed to take Art 100. But, I skipped the Foundations class, the beginning drawing class (I’d take that four years later) and went straight to Painting where the messy studio and graduate projects wowed me.
The smell of oil paints hit you the second you walked into the (oddly) white walled space, with the chaos of easels, paint cans, splatters across the floor and other art paraphernalia was strewn about, well, artfully—messy, but with attitude. The professor—the man mostly responsible for my love of higher education—delivered a brief lecture on the nature of art, creativity and the final exam before leaving for a cup of coffee. We saw him (maybe?) three times that semester—and yet, he ignited this odd spark in me: how do you “make it new”—break the rules—while adhering to the excellence of techniques that have stood the test of time?
It was more than a question—it was a quest. One I took into French and English courses; how I can dissect a grammar, retrace it, make it new? How can I take the books we read in English and tap into them, understand them, mold them to whatever argument I was tasked to make? I’m not saying I was any good at this: in fact, I think I was actually really bad at everything I tried. But, for the first time in my life, I wanted to try, to learn—even to fail—if only I’d have a chance at getting better.
It wasn’t something I could bring home with me. I remember several occasions when whatever I was studying or writing turned into a political discussion at home, when I was more interested in the artistic and expressive side of it, and would return to campus in tears, feeling like the biggest failure. Yet, the life of someone in the constant search of ideas and creative ways of expressing them kept me at it.
For the Final Painting class we could create whatever we wanted, but it had to be something new. I’d painted Buddha dolls, my hands, my face a la Chuck Close—I had really run out of ideas. I’d always loved aspen trees, so I started a tryptic of an aspen grove painted on pieces of pine that slowly zoomed in on a particular tree with the word “Love?” carved in its bark. I painted the trees as if it were late autumn, with dark orange leaves, mostly scattered across the forest floor.
The Professor asked us, three weeks from the final, to bring our projects in for a quick critique. He told me mine was “flat”—something that deflated the enthusiasm for this project that was meant to launch me into my college career. I think I went back to my white, silent dorm room and cried for a few days before I asked my dad for help.
I showed him my paintings, and what the professor had said. We went to Home Depot together the following weekend, and after looking through several power tools, he offered to get me a Dremel that would enable me to manipulate (read: dig in) the wood, instead of just paint on its surface.
It was bitter cold that year, and I lost feeling in my hands as I dug into the pine between the aspen trees I painted. The vibration of the Dremel, too, made working for long stretches (outside, because it was such a messy process) difficult. I was inspired, though—I was going to use the texture of the wood as a part of the work itself, something I’d never considered.
When it was time for the final, the Professor told me that he thought he’d never see me again: “After the last critique, I thought you were walking out.” (Which was really funny: I was determined to find a solution, not to quit.) I not only passed the class, but I learned something else about myself—or, more precisely, about my love of creativity and expression—that day: sometimes it takes more than looking at surfaces. Sometimes it is structure, even molecular structure, to understand what something is truly “about.”
In adulthood—and as a professional writer—finding solutions to creative, expressive (and sometimes workplace) problems isn’t as easy. I’d like to “dig in” and solve the problem of the day (or year) but it’s never that simple.
In taking The Road I Take Every Day I left behind people who weren’t at all “problems” and watching former colleagues (friends) fade from my life has been one of this year’s hardest sacrifices. I hope, moving forward, that I still have that drive to improve, to question, to make better. I hope I can write something that matters.
Yet, as I get older, I also want that drive to be tempered with kindness and compassion: to give back, to love, to communicate, to reach out. Maybe all roads, no matter often or seldom traveled by, can lead to something meaningful in 2019.
Love to you all in this time of change, growth and becoming.