We went to see “Hidden Figures” last week. If you haven’t already heard of it, “Hidden Figures” tells the story of three African-American women— Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson— who worked as mathematicians at NASA during the heady days of the race for space. The film is based on the true stories of these three women, all of whom were remarkable, and one of whom was instrumental in the successful effort to launch Colonel John Glenn into space aboard the Friendship 7. It’s a fantastic film: entertaining, educational, and empowering.
Or at least meant to be empowering. For me, however, the film held up a mirror I have taken pains to avoid, insisting that I observe the reflection of my spectacular failure to earn a living; I found myself wishing, fervently, that I could be more like any of the three main characters. The Monday following the movie, after I had put away the clean dishes but before I had loaded the breakfast dishes into the machine, I sat down at my laptop and googled “music teacher positions.” The first link took me to a popular employment website; of the music teacher jobs listed, about a third were based abroad, mostly in the Middle East, and another third were for private schools.
“We’re not moving to the Middle East,” I muttered to my dog, who had no comment. I continued the conversation internally, leaving my dog in peace. “And I would never be good enough to teach at a private school. In fact, I’m not qualified to teach music at any school, so I don’t know why I’m even looking.”
“You could become qualified. You’ve seen the adverts. They need teachers in the U.K.,” my inner opposition pointed out.
“Even if I earned my qualifications, I still wouldn’t make a good music teacher. I’m too serious, I have no dramatic flair, and there’s too much about music I don’t know. I can’t really play the piano— I certainly can’t play and sing at the same time. The only instrument I excelled at was the flute, and it’s been so long since I played that regularly that I wouldn’t even call myself a competent flutist anymore.”
“You should have just become a music teacher back when you had the chance, at eighteen.”
“But I didn’t want to become a music teacher. It seemed too narrow.”
“So now you have very occasional work as an exam invigilator— how is that not narrow?”
“Fine. That’s even more narrow. But you know what I really want to do.”
My inner critic rolled her eyes at my inner idealist. “Yeah, yeah, you want to write. But that’s not going very well, is it?”
The opposition had me in a corner, so I did the only sensible thing; I closed the computer, walked to the kitchen, and began rinsing cereal bowls and placing them in the top rack of the dishwasher. The answer, of course, was no. No, the writing wasn’t going very well. I began posting essays online over eight years ago; in the intervening years, my output and readership has varied, but my publication rate— outside of my own sites— has remained constant, at zero. Last year, when an online literary journal called for submissions of political poems, I quelled the naysayer in my head for long enough to prepare and send the poem I considered my best work in that category. A month or so later I received the journal’s response: “Thank you for sending us your work. We have selected our winners and your entry was unsuccessful, but please don’t hesitate to respond to our next call for submissions.” This blow, compounded by the knowledge that not one of my blog posts had ever been read by more than forty people (and most posts garnered less than ten views), left me questioning the wisdom of continuing to spend hours each week filling blank pages.
When our children were babies and toddlers, it was easy to justify staying home with them. Someone needed to look after them, and logic decreed that the person best equipped to do that would be one of the two adults that loved them best— a parent. Out of the two possible parents, my husband, Markus, was able to earn several times more than me, so his selection as the breadwinner was a no-brainer (for anyone but Markus himself, who would have much preferred, given the choice, to be the house husband). My role as a stay-at-home parent became less and less of a foregone conclusion as our children grew; when both children had started primary school, and I had gained enough distance from the all-consuming nature of parenting babies and toddlers to notice that our bank account was writhing in agonising death throes, spectres of possible money-making ventures began to appear to me. Because of my particular susceptibility to persuasion, the first apparitions of myself gainfully employed in some hazy future were culled from advertising campaigns.
“Perhaps I could learn to drive a bus,” I mused, imagining myself in the driver’s seat of a London bus with “Driver Under Instruction” as the destination. How many times had I read the invitation— “Learn to Drive This Bus!”— while stuck behind a towering red double-decker on my bicycle waiting for the lights to change? Buses provided a valuable service, I wouldn’t need to worry about what to wear as uniform would be compulsory, and work was guaranteed.
“You can’t drive a bus, you complete idiot,” my critic scoffed. “You can’t even drive a car without fearing for your life. Don’t you remember how, two years ago, Louise asked you to please give up swearing in the car for Lent? Transport for London wouldn’t be too impressed if passengers complained that you were cursing every time you felt threatened by imminent death or destruction, which for you, in a normal car, is about eighty percent of the time. In a bus, that percentage would only increase, sweetheart; bus driving ain’t gonna happen for you.”
“You’re of course right,” I admitted, hanging my head while I hung the laundry. “What about MI6? They’ve had ads on the radio. Maybe I could be a spy.”
I allowed myself to think back fondly on my history of espionage. As the oldest of three, it fell to me to organise my younger brother and sister into a crack team of agents: highly-skilled operatives, resistant to interrogation, capable of obtaining and transmitting sensitive material about the conversations and movements of any overnight guests to our home, but with special expertise in grandparents. Many were the times my siblings and I had huddled in a dark closet, exchanging notes written in code, while our grandparents held court in the kitchen. I was sure this experience would serve me well in my career as an intelligence officer for the United Kingdom. Never mind that despite many years on English soil I had yet to obtain British citizenship; I could be the Brits’ American source, or even their Swedish source, thanks to my fluency in that language and my intimate familiarity with Swedish culture thanks to my Swedish husband.
“I think you know what I’m going to say about that idea,” said my naysayer.
“I’ll save you the trouble. I’d make a terrible spy. My codebreaking skills are those of a ten-year old, I’m fantastically poor at keeping secrets, and I find it hard enough to lead a single life, let alone a double life. If espionage is too complicated, how about plain old military service? They have top-notch ads.”
The Armed Forces suggestion was not novel; since high school, when full tuition at university had been dangled as a reward for a stint in the military, I had toyed with the prospect of donning camouflage for money. That I could even float this notion to myself, as someone whose school books were crowded with multi-coloured peace signs doodled in lieu of taking notes, must reveal either the extent of my moral hypocrisy or the profundity of my terror when faced with the task of earning a living. When I dredged the military up from the graveyard of career paths as an over-forty parent of two young children, the forensic specialist in my mind didn’t even blink. “That option is deader than a doornail, peacenik,” she informed me.
Now, at nearly fifty, I resisted the temptation to propose any of those well-advertised occupations to myself. If I wasn’t currently, and couldn’t conceive of ever becoming, adequately qualified to call myself a “music teacher,” perhaps I could be a busker. After yearning to jump in behind countless buskers as a backing vocalist during necessary, though unwanted, trips to the nearby market town, Kingston, I’d done my research: buskers were permitted to play, for free, for up to one hour in any given spot in Kingston’s town centre. When that hour was up, the busker could legally continue her session simply be relocating. I had thrown coins the way of especially talented Kingston buskers; their baskets were never empty.
“I bet buskers earn at least ten pounds an hour,” I thought, as I lugged the clean laundry upstairs and emptied it onto our double bed for sorting.
“And what, exactly, would you be playing? Flute? Don’t you think you’d need to practice a bit more before you could do that? Can’t really see the guitar thing happening for you at your current skill level, not to mention that you suck at memorising lyrics.”
“Ouch. Come on, I have managed to get some lyrics down,” I objected.
“Lyrics for— what— three songs? Are you going to play those three songs over and over and hope people won’t notice?” “True, and I don’t know why I’m often drawn to jobs that barely qualify as respectable. How about conducting? I’ve been an assistant conductor for the primary school choir for maybe three years now, that should at least qualify me for some sort of conducting degree programme…”
“Let’s think about what happens every time you hit a passage you can’t play on the piano, or a barre chord on the guitar…”
“I slow down. But that’s because I’m the one playing. When I’m conducting the choir, I keep the rhythm steady… at least I think I do…”
“Maybe you do, but for what, three minutes? Four? Do you really think you could keep that up for the length of a classical piece? You’re not the percussionist in the family.”
It seems incredible, given the near-deafening volume of my internal critic, but for a couple of years at the end of the last century, I actually held a professional position as a fully-accredited speech therapist. Speech therapy was like a rebound boyfriend— I had applied for, and been rejected by, master’s degree courses at four of the most distinguished creative writing schools in the nation. You will not be surprised, having read this far, to hear that, in a clear-cut case of self-flagellation, I had chosen only the most prestigious courses, without a lesser-known fallback or two; you will also likely understand when I tell you that the rejection letters from those well-known and greatly-respected writing courses left me convinced that I would never write for a living.
With my tail between my legs, I did my very best to grow up. I selected speech therapy for a handful of, to my mind, very sensible reasons: I cared about language and communication but knew I didn’t want to lead an entire classroom; I had learned basic sign language as a child, remained fascinated by this physical language, and thought a speech therapy degree may allow me to work with the deaf; most importantly, I had researched the profession in a weighty hardcover book at a university library and confirmed that speech therapists were always in demand and could expect to make a comfortable living.
I chose to accept the offer of a place on the speech therapy course at Northeastern University in Boston. Markus, my husband, had accepted a position as a junior diplomat in Washington, D.C., so I took up residence in a spare bedroom in my father and stepmother’s house in Brookline and set about studying. By the end of the first term, my heart told me that I had deluded myself; speech therapy, while a perfectly respectable occupation, would not be for me.
It wasn’t my internal voice this time that spoke against my intuition; it was my dad.
“You won’t be sorry to have this degree,” my dad counselled me. “And there’s no way you can say, at this point, that you won’t like the work as a speech therapist. You should at least give the course a full year.”
“But if I give it a full year, that’s that much more debt. Isn’t it better to stop now, when I don’t even have a full year of loans out?”
“I think that if you quit now, you’ll regret it,” my dad told me.
My dad meant well— I’m sure of it— but he was wrong. I don’t know if I would have regretted dropping out, but I regard my completion of that Master’s degree as the second-most egregious mistake of my entire life, and as the absolute biggest mistake of my adult life. I graduated and became a substandard speech therapist; I was happy to spend time with my clients, who ranged in age from two to eleven, but I didn’t believe in the work I was doing, and I had no motivation or desire to approach any of the children as “cases.” I just wanted to talk to them; I didn’t truly care if they learned anything or not. Some of my young charges responded well to my poorly-planned but empathetic approach, but that was because they didn’t really require a speech therapist, they just needed love. I’m reasonably good at love, but mediocre at speech therapy, and awful at false fronts. I had held other, low-skilled jobs prior to becoming a fully-fledged speech therapist— barista, telex operator, receptionist— and had gleefully welcomed my paychecks for those positions, because there was no question in my mind that I deserved each paycheck for a job well done. I felt like such a hoax as a speech therapist, however, that it seemed unethical to accept payment for my services; when motherhood offered me a socially-acceptable excuse to stop working in the field, I seized it. I had let my membership in the national association of speech therapists slide, so I wouldn’t be able to return to the profession easily even if I wanted to, which I didn’t.
So there I stood, at nearly fifty years old, chopping onions for the evening meal as I had hundreds— maybe by now even thousands— of times before.
“You should have just gone to school for music education as an undergraduate when you had the chance. That course was dirt cheap, and you would have had a job you could at least tolerate. You could have been working for years by now, saving up for your retirement so you wouldn’t need to worry about becoming both decrepit and homeless at the same time.”
“Honestly. Do you really think the kids would let me end up homeless?”
“Anyway, our retirement plan is a mobile home in Scunthorpe or Florida, and we should be able to at least pull that off. As far as music at undergrad goes, I would have missed out on so much if I’d taken that path. I would never have studied Yeats, or Faulkner, or Flannery O’Connor; I certainly wouldn’t have read ‘Tristan and Isolde’ (in the original French), or ‘Notes from the Underground’ (thankfully translated to English from the original Russian). My understanding of plate tectonics would be dreadfully scanty, and I’d know nothing about religious art made before 1800.”
“And you have benefitted how from that liberal arts education?”
“It made me a better writer.”
“Yawn. We’re back to that, are we? ‘Oh, I want to be a writer.’ What did you tell your friend just the other day at coffee? When she asked what your writing endgame was?”
I moved on to peeling carrots. “I said I could be like Emily Dickinson. I could write and write, never even try to get published, and hopefully be recognised for my inferior, but still worthwhile, oeuvre posthumously.”
“Posthumously. That’s not going to buy your daughter a new cello, now, is it? You could have sleepwalked your way to a Bachelors of Music. You could have made a decent living as a respectable director of music in some school somewhere. Anywhere. That degree would have crossed borders, unlike your Bachelor’s of Arts in English and your Masters of Science in Speech Therapy. But instead here you are, peeling carrots, stealing an hour here and there to compose blog posts that nobody reads, all because a music education degree in upstate New York wasn’t good enough for you.”
“Unfair,” I countered. I had advanced from peeling to chopping the carrots, and the thunk of the knife against the heavy wooden cutting board provided a gratifying drum line. “It’s not that it ‘wasn’t good enough for me.’ Part of me felt that becoming a music teacher would have been taking the easy way out. It was the obvious choice for someone like me: skilled in music, but not quite skilled enough for a music performance degree. I thought following that path would be settling for second-best. Not only that, but I thought music was not necessarily healthy for me. I wasn’t sure if I owned music, or if music owned me. I had relied on music to pull myself through, but I wasn’t sure then, and I’m still not completely sure, if it was use or abuse. Music let me lose myself. Remember the All New England festival chorus? All of those voices singing all the right notes at exactly the same time? We all ceased to exist as individuals, all two hundred of us— children from cities, from villages, from farms, children with imported cars, children with beat-up second-hand Fords, children with pick-up trucks full of sawdust from carrying loads of firewood— we became one being, with one voice, and our sole purpose was to serve as a vessel for the song. We poured out that music like precious oil, anointing the audience and ourselves. For less than a minute, Earth became Heaven.”
“You escaped your life.”
I picked up the cutting board, swept the carrots into the pot, and turned to peeling potatoes. “Yes. I was ashamed of how much I fed on those fleeting moments, the moments when I ended and the music— the true music— began. Not only ashamed, but also terrified, like those shepherds on the hillside. Would submitting to the music mean I disappeared forever? If I turned my entire self over, would I be able to resume my usual life when the music ended? I thought devoting my life to a quest for musical ecstasy, for myself or for my students, would be both selfish and perilous. I wish I had known then what I know now.”
“Which is that music, like all art, is a paradox. The truer the artist is to her art— the more selfishly she seeks, through skill and talent, to rend the mundane and uncover the rapturous— the greater the gift to her audience, even if that audience is an audience composed of none save the artist herself. And while the danger that the artist will irretrievably lose her self should be acknowledged, that outcome is exceedingly rare. Even Yayoi Kusama, the Japanese visual artist who has voluntarily been living in a psychiatric hospital since 1977, is still able to create.”
“So let’s postulate that others will benefit from your artistic efforts. You’re better at music than you are at writing, so using your own argument, wouldn’t it still be more beneficial for the world if you’d put your pen down and take up your flute?”
“I had years of flute lessons, but I’ve only taken, what, two semesters’ worth of writing courses? Over twenty years ago? It’s a moot point regardless, because what drives me even more than the longing to combust into art is the desire to tell someone about the fire, even if the only person listening is me.” I folded the top half-inch of the box of crushed tomatoes over along the perforations, tore, and poured the contents into the soup. “Even if I became a songwriter or a composer, music wouldn’t satisfy me; a three-minute song barely scratches the surface, and although music without words undoubtedly conveys emotion and often leads the listener to imagine a setting or an event, the chasm between the composer’s intended message and the message received by the listener will always be wider than the gulf between the writer and her reader. Plus I’m too selfish for music. I don’t want to interpret someone else’s work— I want to create my own, stringing the words of my rosary together until it can be offered up in earnest, in humour, in anger, in pain. In truth, or at least in my truth, even if that sometimes clothes itself in fiction.”
I gave the now-boiling soup a good stir, lowered the heat, and replaced the lid askew, leaving some breathing space. With my hands cupped, I scooped up all the carrot and potato peelings from the kitchen sink and deposited them in the bin; I could press lightly on the contents to make room for further refuse, or I could empty the trash. I knew, from unsavoury experience, that amateur compaction substantially increased the likelihood of leakage, so I set about emptying the trash.
“This is all rubbish anyway,” said my unwelcome commentator.
“No kidding, why do you think I’m taking it out?”
“I mean all your philosophising. It doesn’t matter what your motivations are or how you justify writing. What matters is the bottom line. You’re staring down the barrel of future indigence, but you just keep banging your head against the wall, doing what you’ve always done, in the hopes that… that what? That someone, someday, will like some essay you’ve written so much that they’ll offer you a paid platform? I hate to break it to you, but you’ve been doing this now for eight years— eight years!— and you’ve earned how much for your writing during that time? Zilch. Nada. It’s time to move on. True, Emily Dickinson almost never published during her lifetime, but Emily Dickinson had no children, didn’t need to earn money, and was far more talented than you are. She’s not going to work for you as a role model.”
“I’ve been honing my skills for these eight years, so I’ll be ready, when the time is right, to write a book. A book might actually sell.”
“You’ve been wasting your time for these eight years. You’re never going to write a book. Even if you did, do you really think people would want to read it?”
“If I don’t write it, they won’t even have the option.” I poured salt into the palm of my hand, added it to the simmering soup, stirred again, and repositioned the lid. “Maybe the time is right now.”
“Good luck with that. You know I’ll be with you every step of the way.”
“Don’t I know it. But before I begin sketching out a possible plot, I think I’ll Instagram a photo of a tree.”
“Off to a roaring start.”
“Oh, sod off.”
“Say what you want, but I’m not going anywhere.”
“The women from ‘Hidden Figures?’ I can’t do math like Katherine Johnson, and I can’t learn computer programming like Dorothy Vaughan, but I can honour their accomplishments, and Mary Jackson’s too, by ignoring you. Those women had to scale mountains of institutional racism and sexism; the chorus of voices like yours from the world at large, telling them they’d never reach the top, must have been ear-splitting. And that’s just the voices from outside. You can bet that those women had interior voices just like I have you— voices of doubt, of fear, of ‘reason’— nevertheless, they persisted. I don’t have challenges anything like those women did. The biggest obstacle standing in my way is you. If I can climb to the top of my own mountain— high enough to plonk my future book down on the summit in lieu of a flag— Katherine, should I ever have the honour of meeting her, would pat me on the back, and Dorothy and Mary would both look down from heaven and smile.”
“That would make the hike worthwhile.”
“Yes. It would.”
Author’s note: As a tween, while on annual holidays at a seaside cottage, I was taught by my father to play the card game “Hearts.” My two siblings, two step-siblings, and I would spend hours sitting around the rickety card table in the corner of the rustic lounge, while the waves of the Atlantic rolled in on the beach just down the wooden staircase twenty yards from where we sat, aiming for “Hearts” sovereignty. At some point, when our skills had developed, my dad introduced the “Hearts” strategy of “Shooting the Moon.” Wikipedia describes “Shooting the Moon” like this:
“If one player takes all the penalty cards on one deal, that player’s score remains unchanged while 26 penalty points are added to the scores of each of the other players. […] Attempting to shoot the moon is often a risky strategy, as failure to capture every single penalty card will result in the remaining penalty points (as many as 25) being added to one’s score.”
I was the oldest of the five of us, so had a natural (and unfair) advantage, and I loved to “shoot the moon.” I remember holding my cards anxiously for what seemed like forever, wondering if this time I would triumph or crash and burn. Sometimes I won, and sometimes I lost, but each time I lived to play again.