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Looking Both Ways

by Elizabeth Stewart

Life's crossroads can be tricky. After all, we never know what waits on the other side, where the road will lead once we get there, or even when one of Life's big trucks might come hurtling out of nowhere to strike us down in the crossing. Still, in search of the promise we hope to find, most of us summon our courage and cross in a timely fashion. Not everyone crosses at the same pace, of course. There are those people who invariably rush, head long, through traffic. With an enviable surety and an unfailing ability to find the most direct route, they usually seem to end up safely on the other side and further ahead than most of us. I, on the other hand, am typically one of Life's more timid crossers. I push the button, wait until the little green hand waves its permission, and then, just to be on the safe side, I look both ways. Somehow though, Life's intersections always seem a bit easier to navigate in summer. Perhaps the intensity of the sun at this time of year makes for increased visibility, or maybe it's just increased impulsiveness. Summer is, after all, the season in which I'm most likely to find my head turned by some sleek, sexy thing as it whizzes by. Then, before I even know what's hit me, I'm usually looking up to find myself feeling dead flat.

Eighteen years ago, I moved from a small island off the coast of our state to its capital city. It was June, always a good time for crossing roads. I ensconced myself in the artist's garret of my dreams, on a hilltop overlooking the city. I was going to be a writer, and it was going to be like Paris. On the first night in my apartment I looked out of the kitchen window and down onto the state's Capitol Building. It stood with its domed rotunda lit against a starry sky while the city below twinkled like a million electric stars. My own little City of Lights. Just when I felt as close to celestial bliss as I could ever hope to get, I heard a long, slow whistling sound and watched as the night sky erupted into the most beautiful fireworks I had ever seen. I never did find out why there were fireworks in June that year. I didn't really try. I chose to believe they were for me. It was going to be better than Paris!

I had been working as a theater director, and when my last job came to a close I took stock and realized that I had been working a hundred hours a week, earning less than a living wage, and I had no medical insurance. Something had to give. Besides, what I really wanted was to be a writer. I had achieved the mark of success as a director. I had worked enough to be able to collect unemployment benefits. They, however, wouldn't last long, and the rent would still be due on the first of every month. So, it seemed prudent to get a job. Just a bread-and-butter kind of thing, of course. I took a job as a waitress and made the standard joke about only working in theater until a really good waitressing job came along.

I tried to write but couldn't find the story. When months passed without progress, fearing writer's block, I sought counseling from a wonderful woman with a seemingly endless wealth of human understanding. She was the first person who ever referred to me as an artist, a word far too big for me. When I protested and said, "But, I'm not an artist. I'm not doing anything creative," she very matter-of-factly said, "An artist is not a human doing. An artist is a human being. A special kind of human being. You were probably born an artist, and if you live to be one hundred and never again do anything creative, you will still die an artist." Well, that helped me to identify myself, but it didn't get me to pick up a pen. It seemed my Muse was dead.

The following June, my employer offered me the job of managing the restaurant. Yes, that sleek, sexy thing whizzed by and I hopped in. Suddenly I was running a six hundred-seat facility. I worked hard, the world rolled by, presidents were elected, the price of gas rose, twelve years passed, and I didn't write. At that point, feeling run dry, I decided it was finally time to get out and cross the road again. I quit my job.

It was June. In need of rest, I headed off to spend the summer with a friend who lived at the beach. While she worked, I sometimes busied myself by cleaning her house. When the difference became noticeable enough that people asked if she had painted, I began to get requests to do the same for others. Forgetting to look both ways, I walked straight into a cleaning business of my own. Five years later I looked up to find myself aging, exhausted from perpetual physical activity and constant financial insecurity, and wondering how I could possibly fit myself back into a youthful job market. The thought of office humdrum was chilling. I was going to have to find some less active form of self-employment that would provide an adequate living, but what? I was stuck at the crosswalk again.

Eventually, I considered organizing a statewide database of much-needed volunteers to benefit nursing homes. I had plenty of experience managing a large staff and, while playing traffic cop might be a bit more hectic occupation than I longed for, at least I would be helpful and self-employed. I logged on to the Internet in search of grant information.

It was then that an inadvertent but serendipitous mouse click heralded in a new Muse. The cover page of an e-zine dedicated to aspiring writers opened. It changed my life. Reading its forum made me realize that it was really the fear of not being profound that had kept me from writing.

As so often has been the case when I've been stuck in my life, I saw that the problem had not been that I couldn't find the right answer, but instead, that I couldn't find the right question. For years I had asked myself, "Where is the story?" when, without realizing it, what I really meant was, "Where is the profound story?" Unburdened of the responsibility to be deep, I suddenly found myself writing so much that now the problem became how to fit things like laundry, sleep and work into my schedule. Under another forum topic, I read that if I really wanted to make a fortune, I should learn how to write grants. A fortune wasn't the goal, but I began to wonder if I could find enough work to make just half a fortune and have more time for writing.

Today I went to the first session of my new grant writing class and the teacher assured me that there is so much work available that she turns it down almost daily. I don't know what lies on the other side of this new road or what might happen in the crossing. Right now all I'm really sure of is how relieved I am to know that a writer doesn't have to be profound. A darned good thing too, because, at this late date, I'm only just beginning to understand what every six-year-old knows - why that old chicken crossed the road.

Tonight, through my open window, I heard music carried faintly on the warm night air. As I leaned against the windowsill, I could detect the strains of a well-aged voice belting out a gravelly blues version of a song about crossroads. While looking both ways, I couldn't help but notice that there's not much traffic in the city at this time of year. Yes, June is a good month for crossing roads.

Elizabeth Stewart studied theater at the University of Rhode Island, and in addition to having worked as a theater director has done professional storytelling. She is the mother of three children and the grandmother of six. In addition to her desire to continue to develop as a writer, her other interests, while wide and varied, include beadwork. She feels that there is a correlation between writing and making beaded jewelry in that words, like beads, must be strung on a common thread in an interesting, varied and rhythmic pattern. She is currently studying grant writing and hopes that one day soon she will be writing winning grants that will enable many women to do great things for their communities. She has a poem in the Rising Stars of this issue.

Author e-mail: lizziebits@earthlink.net


[ I Say Tomato! ] [ In the Still of the Night ]
[ Spies in Disguise: The Feminine Side of Patriotism and Liberty ]
[ Comma Living ] [ Spring Branches Lead to Summer ]
[ Fallow Time ] [ Looking Both Ways ]


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