Friday, September 29, 2006

What do you want to be when you grow up?

If I were to ask my kids that question today, I’d get variations on the same theme: Duncan would choose something along the lines of a motorcycle driver or a guitar-playing monster-truck driver; Laurel would choose veterinarian; and Jesse would choose software/game designer. When I was Laurel’s age, I also wished to be a vet. I’m not sure why, other than that I loved stuffed animals. By age 9, I’d been mauled by a German Shepherd, thrown off the back of a pig, and traumatized by our possessed cat. But I don’t remember ever wanting to be anything else.

I think that choosing to be a veterinarian was an easy answer, because my real vision of my life was too undefined to explain. I knew what I had inside of me: a love of words. I knew that I would have to write, and I would have to read. And then combined with this was the overwhelming desire just to have a family—to be a mom. Give me paper and pen, a book, and a family, and I’ll be happy. How does a child verbalize this when asked that perennial question, “What do you want to be when you grown up?”

I’m not sure I ever dreamed of being a writer, exactly. I just knew that somehow I had to write. My first novel (illustrated) was called An Illinois Family and consisted of three chapters, in which a family endures a devastating tornado. From the age of nine I wrote faithfully in a diary, a habit that continued through my twenties and even sporadically (very) into my thirties. Blogging now has become my journal, and I’m much more faithful to this medium than I was to pen and paper in the past several years.

Naturally I was an English major in college, although my small college was woefully short on creative writing classes. Most all of my friends in college were bibliophiles; we spent many weekends scouring the dusty racks in Johnson City’s finest thrift stores for whatever we deemed purchase-worthy. My dream, then became to own a used book store/coffee shop, and I began my collection more earnestly. Randy and I collected bookshelves before pots and pans. (Only one of those shelving units still survive 17 years later: the sturdy shelf my grandmother bought to house her new set of encyclopedias.)

Although I certified to teach high-school English, I never loved teaching. It just seemed like a good, practical thing to do with one’s life. I found one of my true vocations soon after graduation, working for The Business Journal of Upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. I discovered that I loved editing and desktop publishing. A few months later Randy and I packed up our ever-growing stack of used books (for our future used bookstore) and moved to Oxford, Ohio for his graduate school at Miami University. For the next three years I worked as the assistant editor and desktop publisher for an international business association headquarters, a job I absolutely loved. Meanwhile, I collected books, wrote in my journal, and headed into a new vocation that I had known all my life was my true calling: motherhood.

After Randy finished his master’s, we moved to Ames, Iowa, where we spent the next five years. Randy was working on his PhD at Iowa State University by now, and I realized that this was the time I needed to pursue my writing. I applied for graduate school at the university and started the third year we were there. Although I only took 3-6 hours each semester and thus was not immersed in the program as full-time students were, those three years mark the time when I truly found my writer’s voice. I applied for a fellowship, which was awarded to me. I began sending poetry to little magazines for publication, and suffered only one rejection letter among several acceptances. I was now, officially, a writer.

In the near decade since then, I’ve been stretched beyond anything I could have given words to as a child, or a college student, or a young mother. We long ago sold off or gave away our used book collection (well, those that were duplicates, anyway) and our thrift-store bookshelves. Easily half our shelves are inhabited by kids’ books of all sorts and levels (thus “teacher” as vocation re-renters the picture). Submitting my writing is, at this point, occasional. I’ve got an upcoming magazine article and have been published in a couple of local anthologies in the past few years. I also use my editing background to earn a little extra money each month by proofreading. But perhaps more importantly at this time of our life is that I am using my background in writing to teach writing courses at our support group’s enrichment classes. Homeschooling parents are, in general, notoriously fearful of teaching their children to write, so I like to think I am helping families to feel more successful.

And of course I’m still reading. I can’t plow through a weekly seven like I once did, but I still manage a book every week or so in my nightly half-hour of before-bed reading. Every now and then I’ll have a vision of this awesome homeschool bookstore/coffee shop/hang-out, complete with laptops and a Lego station.

Why do we ask our kids what they want to be when they grow up? Why are we trained to expect answers like doctor, firefighter, or ballet dancer? We know, truly, what we all want to be when we grow up: happy. Most often it’s not one career or calling but a mixture of these that rounds us out, gives our lives definition, shapes our identities. Happy. That’s what I meant to say all those years ago.

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