the beginning or the middle or the end

I have a few confessions to make. (Don't I always?)

Every day, I meet with high school seniors who are trying to get into college. We look over numerous essay prompts, and together we make lists of what they're proud of, how they would describe themselves, what they've accomplished, what hardships they've experienced, what they "want to do." Every week, I have under my care about fifty essays--fifty essays about childhood dreams, stories of triumph, family hardships, success through failure, little packages attempting to carry the whole of a person, or at least a part, within 650 words or less.

Students tell me they don't know where to start; I tell them to start anywhere, that it doesn't matter if it's the beginning or the middle or the end, it only matters that they start. They tell me they don't think their first sentence sounds good; I tell them not to worry, that they won't know what the first sentence should be until they've written the last one. Write as if you're explaining something to me, I say. Write without thinking about word counts. Write without trying to convince someone you're good enough for their school. Just write without stopping. Tell me a story. Everything else comes later.

You can see it already, right? The thought that smirks back at me behind every well-intentioned word of counsel, as clear as my lines of red over each redundant sentence and misused preposition:

I am a fraud. I don't know what my dreams are, or at least, what they are now. I shy away from writing myself, afraid I'll find that I've lost the only other marketable skill I might still somewhat have, and the more I run from it the more I wonder how I wrote anything, ever. The only difference between me and my seventeen high school seniors, who don't know any better than to trust me, is that I don't have to turn in a striking, succinct, articulate summary of those dreams by November 1.

Here's the secret I don't have the heart to tell them just yet: that I made it to a college I was proud to attend.  I made lifelong friends. I graduated in four years. I was even completely sure of what it was I wanted to do, and I studied it, and I loved it, and I felt the potential to be good at it. And I can't tell them that it is possible, after all these things are said and done, to be a little lost.

I was listening to the radio the other day, and a commercial came on the air. The script went something like this:
"A pencil is not just a pencil. A pencil can help you write an essay. An essay can help you get a good grade. A good grade can help you raise your GPA. A GPA can help you get into a university. A university can help you get a degree. That degree can help you land a dream job. A pencil is not just a pencil." 
It ended there, as if no further proof were needed, as if the "dream job" were so universally understood to be the end of all ends, the grand finale of a sound argument, the last tick on a timeline after which anything else was irrelevant, or impossible.

I laughed out loud. What a lie.

No one tells you that on your way to achieving your dreams, when you can taste just enough of it to keep working sixteen-hour days, there is no guarantee you won't get injured, quietly. You won't know your last day was your last day, until it suddenly dawns on you three months later that you're not going back. You won't get to sufficiently explain to your coworkers (for your sake, not theirs) that even if you're not in a cast, you really can't knead pasta and flip pans and unload boxes of carrots into clear bins (I can't for the life of me remember the kitchen jargon for this, which breaks my heart a little). People will ask when you plan on getting back in the game, but every month your body might feel just as broken, or more, and you'll start to believe your own chirpy, practiced responses a little less. You won't be able to do what you love, or even what you need to do, without painful repercussions, and soon, you'll have to find a way to be happy far away from what you thought was, well, not just Plan A, but the Only Plan. No one tells you that it could be taken away just as quickly as it's given.

(To be fair, they could, but who would listen?)

I promise I'm not mopey or bitter all the time (my mom can vouch for me, and she knows the most). I know so many worse things can happen to a person, and have. It's not like I don't have ample reminders of some good in all this: at home, I have been able to rekindle relationships with old friends, take part in much-needed rest and recuperation, and mourn and rejoice at the physical sides of those dearest to my heart. I bask in the novel, undivided attention of my always sacrificial parents (middle children, you feel me?). I have somehow found a job under loving and understanding people, which allows me to use other gifts without much physical exertion and even caters to my physical therapy appointments. All these things make my heart full and often, make me forget any part of my life has ever felt incomplete.

Here's the deal, though: I love--I love--cooking. The way butter slides and foams around a warm pan, creamy and nutty and promising; the scream of dry chicken skin against hot cast iron; drizzling oil into vinegar and mustard, watching them change colors and become something else entirely; rubbing a warm beet with a towel, feeling the skin break underneath to unveil tender, ruby-red flesh that stains your hands no matter how you try to prevent it; allowing butter and sugar to cream just enough for eggs to disappear into their microscopic air pockets, one by one, turning everything golden and silky and voluptuous. It really, truly, gives me joy. It's a magic I can understand, and at the same time, be continually captivated by. No step feel likes drudgery because each has its purpose, one that always reveals itself in the end. The world makes a little more sense in the kitchen.

So, having to turn down cake projects for very beloved friends, or step aside when my mom makes dinner, or sneakily make tomato soup because I really want to and then realize it was probably a bad idea (sorrrry Umma), can sometimes threaten to undo me--usually slowly, then all at once. A sort of embarrassed ignorance has become my first line of defense. Chef's Table sits patiently in my Netflix queue, holding its place halfway through the third episode. My inbox is mostly a pile of unread Tasting Table and Eater newsletters. I've had to unfollow certain industry folks, because what used to make me excited now makes me, sometimes, a little jealous. "Food writing" has lost its appeal because it feels like looking at something behind a glass box, but maybe that is in part an excuse to not even try.

On days when I'm not so caught up hosting a pity party and crying in bed, there is a light that peeks through: the whisper that this is not it; that my best interests, whatever they may be (because I probably have no idea) are still at Heart; that I'm not living out an alternate ending but that everything is really going as planned, heading toward a full and meaningful End. I have no real idea of what that looks like, only wishlists. And that sucks sometimes. But in a very few, more lucid moments, there is a strange comfort in being powerless. There is a hope that this will pass one day, and make me better for it. Stranger things have happened.

So here it is, what I'm feeling, in all its volatility and murkiness and ambiguity. Nothing is resolved; I am not always happy but I'm not always angry, either; I am often hopeful and hopeless in the same day; I feel like the world has been closed off to me forever and also that I can start all over again and it's the most liberating feeling in the world. It doesn't really make sense and it's not neat. But maybe the most important stories are those born out of messiness. Maybe it doesn't matter where I start, just that I do.

No comments:

Post a Comment