As a non-traditional student at the school where I started (but abandoned) my college education twenty-five years ago, I have more than my share of bizarre moments of misplaced memories. It’s like a warped sense of deja vu sometimes.
Take, for instance, a sudden realization that threatened to derail my entire train of thought for a good five minutes: the exact spot in the library where I’m now taking a poetry class is the place I stumbled upon Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Mad Girl’s Love Song” twenty some years ago. Exact same place that changed my perspective on writing as a tool for finding that we’re not alone in the world. Exact place that launched an essay I wound up writing –an essay that, incidentally, returned to me yesterday, rejected by the first place I sent it. Someone once said that having a child was like having your heart walking around outside your body. Maybe it’s a shade melodramatic, but sending that piece out felt a little like the same sort of thing. All I’ve ever grown is scar tissue, not a thicker skin (resilience), so I’m finding the learning curve for this sort of thing a bit rough at times. But I digress. The room.
If I didn’t see God as ultimately Divine Author, I’d have dismissed it as irony. Instead, I see it as God writing one of those little details into my story that, had I not been paying attention, would have been missed.
And one of the things called to my attention in this gathering of full-circle epiphanic moments is that I don’t think I ever really mourned the death of my old dreams. I had moments, like the trip with friends late in my freshman year (after I realized I would never be a teacher) to Northwestern’s chapel, at that point, only a year or two old. It’s a beautiful place. I remember lying on a pew, staring up at the rafters and pillars and high ceilings and wondering where I’d wind up after I was done -architecture was one passing interest. I could use art and science practically. It was stuff-oriented, not people-oriented. I could handle that. That night, I picked up my broken image of the future and started seeing hope. A year later, I left college altogether, and started over. I became a graphic artist, a respectable profession. But I never mourned the losses.
And so, it threw me off for a bit, this deep sense of pain I felt when I asked myself, what if I hadn’t given it all up? What if I’d soldiered on, kept those dreams, become a teacher and finished school when I was scheduled to? It’s the what-ifs that are getting me down lately. Did I give up too quickly? Does the fact that I’m sitting in a class geared for students entering the workforce and the non-student world, this world I’ve navigated for two decades –with students young enough to be my children– does this all mean I’ve failed?
You’re not supposed to be unmoored, directionless, confused when you’re graduating college at nearly 44 years old. But that’s where I’m finding myself. People ask me if I’m excited to graduate and all I can honestly muster is a shrug and a grimace. Because I know that the risk lies on the other side. I lost a dream once, and I’m so very afraid of losing another one. I used to be driven, hellbent on making my own path, until the path fell apart at my feet. I confused calling for gift –I had intended to present myself as a teacher to God, to do great things with the lives of young people, teaching them to see and recreate the visual beauty around them. I had intended to sacrifice marriage, family, the dreams of the typical American for this. And instead, God sent me Ed 101, a job as a graphic artist, and a husband.
And it was good. But it took me a while to grow into it. And then, God gave me a new vision with this writing thing. A late-life entry into a new dream. Somewhere between a mid-life crisis and the face palm after a thousand clues I never caught. Of course. And now I get it. The gift was not mine to give. It was always God’s. All He ever wanted was for me to follow, to listen. Right now, the gift is a second chance.
This is where the tension between my understanding of the sovereignty of God, his authority, his authorship of my life and the path my own feet take me gets difficult to understand. The place I’ve landed in the tension is the understanding that there’s nothing I can screw up so badly that God can’t make it into something beautiful. And I see that, in the little things, like putting my poetry class in a place I sort of see as holy ground. It’s a reminder -he spares no detail in reminding me that I am His beloved.
I plan differently now as a grown woman than I did as a twenty-year-old young woman. Instead of being my own cartographer, I go out my door every morning, and I look for manna. Manna -gathered daily, never kept over for another day (excepting the day before the Sabbath), never striven for, always provided. And, like the Israelites, I ask every morning as I pull out of my driveway and head south back to class, “What is it today, Lord? What is it?”