Let's say there's a well-lit, limited-access, four-lane highway stretching straight and clear ahead of you, but the slow, funky back road with the doughnut shop and the cheap motels is calling your name. You call it curiosity and adventure, your parents call it stupidity and rebellion, but something in you can't resist taking the next exit.
On the other hand, let's say you have your destination firmly in mind and every intention of taking the interstate to get there -- but the sawhorses are out, the orange Detour sign is up, and there's nothing you can do about it. You've taken a different road and maybe even ended up in a different place. Sometimes life rear-ends you, freezes your transmission, sticks a nail in your tire, or roars up behind you with sirens blaring and blue lights whirling -- and you ain't goin' nowhere, honey, at least not for a while. Unwanted deviations from the plan are also a fact of life, and they are not always as disastrous as they first seem.
When you're young, it can seem like the routes are laid out, the itineraries assigned, and the outcome of the whole stupid rat race already decided. Everybody already knows who is pretty, who is rich, who is smart, who is a nerd with no luck at all. Well, wait twenty years and go to your high school reunion, as I did, and see how very wrong this is.
In the end, there's no rat race at all because there are neither rats nor a race: just people, becoming who they are.
I had planned to start my talk that night in New Jersey by telling my audience that the path is not straight, and that this is the thing I know now that I most wish I knew then. But then I realized that while knowing it is a comfort, one I'm damn glad to have when I need it, it doesn't really change anything. No matter how many times life surprises you, it never seems to lose its capacity to do so. Even you don't lose your capacity to surprise you. Just wait till you think you're all done and settled to see what I mean. Then wait till the time after that. And the one after that, too.
Because the path is not straight, nor does it end every time it seems to, life is an adventure. And as dark as the passages and confusing as the cul-de-sacs you find yourself in, it's generally safe to assume that progress is being made. Something is unfolding. You are becoming. But the circuitousness of the journey is one of those things that keep coming as a big shock.
You probably think -- in fact, you can hardly be blamed for thinking -- that after A and B and C comes D. That after high school comes college. That after love comes marriage, after pregnancy comes children, after hard work comes reward.
It does, but only often enough to confuse you.
The rest of the time, after A and B and C come a car accident, a job offer, a chance to run a marathon in Finland, or even just a total loss of interest in D, not to mention E and F. After high school comes the drug bust, or the pregnancy, which was supposed to come after the marriage, which instead was followed by the heartbreak or the tedium or the decision to go back to D and work in his coffee shop. Then, out of turn and when you least expect it, K and L appear on the horizon, and a couple years later you have an MBA. Or an STD.
The many derailments of life fall into two categories: the chosen and the unchosen. In chosen departures, you willfully alter your direction -- often making everyone you know furious at you. They can't for the life of them understand why you chose not to take the job at the newspaper, not to start school this fall, not to marry Eric (or Erica). Instead, you are going to move to San Francisco, work on your screenplay, take a job at a ski resort, tend bar in a nightclub. Your parents are first among this group of doubters. Why? they ask. Why would you do something like this? Why do you want to mess up your whole life?
Most likely you have no good answer for them, unless you consider "Shut up and leave me alone" a good answer.
The problem is that sometimes you have no logical information that what you are doing is right except the feeling in your gut. It may even be true that all the logical information you have tells you to do something different. Everyone thinks you are a pigheaded fool for what you have decided, and even you start to wonder if you are, as they say, a pigheaded fool. But what you're feeling is called intuition, and you can trust it. In fact, if you don't, it spins you around and bites you really hard in the butt.
Making unpopular decisions is very difficult the first few times you try it. It's hard to stick to your guns when people you respect, or at least people you're used to letting control you, don't give you their endorsement. You feel guilty, confused, and full of doubt. Your intuition is a small voice compared to the booming unison of the pigheaded fool contingent, who by now have gotten on the horn to one another and created quite a buzz about your stupidity. And if everything doesn't go 100 percent perfectly from the moment you set out on your new path, oh, the fussing and the clucking! The warning and the wheezing! Just working themselves up to that big glorious I-told-you-so!
At first it is hard to ignore all this, but with practice it gets easier. Because in most cases you will have done the right thing and eventually they will come around to seeing that -- at which point they usually start claiming they knew it all along.
These days, I can make a life-changing decision with clear conviction and hardly a peep from anyone. But I have been called a pigheaded fool many, many times. One of the most egregious was in my mid-twenties, when I decided to move to Austin, Texas, with my gay ice-skater boyfriend, later to become my first husband, rather than accept Harvard Law School's offers of admission. Boy, were my parents thrilled about that. I think they came pretty close to disowning me altogether.
And you know, I wasn't absolutely sure I was right, either. Everyone, including me for a while, had assumed I'd end up a lawyer, and be good at it. Part of me was drawn to the intense competitiveness and the intellectual challenges law school entailed. When I was next offered admission, by Boalt Hall, the law school at U.C.-Berkeley, I almost caved in. But even in Berkeley, California, the point of law school is to become a lawyer, and that was it: I didn't want to be a lawyer. I didn't want to read big books full of rules and regulations. I didn't want to file motions and study precedents. I didn't want to be deferential to judges, I didn't want to swim through red tape, I didn't even want to dress up for work and carry a briefcase. Law school seemed exciting; practicing law did not. Even interesting, important cases with ramifications for social justice, like those I'd read about in books by F. Lee Bailey and Alan Dershowitz, seemed to involve much more caviling over details than I could ever bear.
In all the years that have passed, I have not regretted my decision. I knew I wanted something else -- two things really -- and I was determined to get them.
I wanted to have an unconventional life -- or at the very least, I wanted to get out of the suburbs and off the fast track and see what other possibilities the world and its denizens had to offer -- and I wanted even more than that to be a writer. And while it may have looked to my parents and other outsiders that I was taking every possible detour on the way to maturity, those were the two distant cities on my itinerary the whole time. They were my compasses, though many times along the journey I had to stop, regroup, and reevaluate what really was important.
What seems most unlikely to people familiar with my erratic life story is that I got to a place even my parents would recognize as success. It surprised me a little, too. Except that by that time I had started to accept the ways in which I was like my parents, so the fact that our ideas of success overlapped wasn't quite as unbelievable as it once might have been. For the path is not straight, the destination is not fixed, and the person who is taking the journey is not immutable, either.
But more on that later.
Last year my friend Justine, a bright, funny, and very beautiful girl, dropped out of college after her first semester. After all the agonizing over college admissions and choices, all the trying and waiting and hoping, not to mention paying, it had taken her less than a month to decide that she would rather be just about anywhere on earth than this place she had been dreaming of. It was a good place; it just wasn't her place, at least not then. At first her mother cried when she heard her daughter was heading off to Egypt on her own, with plans to meet friends to float down the Nile. But then she realized it wasn't the end of the world: just the Nile. She dried her tears and made Justine promise to e-mail.
One of the only reasons this didn't happen to me my first semester of college was that I barely attended it. Over Christmas of my senior year of high school, I had become obsessed with Eastern religion. I went to the library in search of books listed in the bibliography of Ram Dass's Be Here Now; I read Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley, Swami Yogananda and Lao-tzu, taking copious notes in a loose-leaf binder. Samadhi = enlightenment! We are all one! The idea of enlightenment, of being free of mind and ego, of entering a pure state of cosmic consciousness, was very appealing to me. My mind and ego had given me nothing but problems as long as I could remember. Maybe this would be the end of the separateness that caused me so much pain.
I quit drugs and started trying to meditate. I became an official exponent of brahmacharya, the Sanskrit word for celibacy. I wrote away to the Lama Foundation in Taos, New Mexico, publishers of Be Here Now, and soon received a brochure describing summer programs at their retreat in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. One was a two-week intensive with Ram Dass, the former Harvard professor- turned-acid guru-turned-spiritual seeker who had authored my personal bible. I begged my parents to let me go.
At seventeen, I was the youngest yogi on the mountain. Everything amazed me. The hand-built adobe buildings with mandalas carved in their wooden doors. The organic vegetarian food prepared by hippie women in long skirts. The chanting teacher Krishna Das's vats of spicy Indian tea with milk, the secret of whose deliciousness, he explained with a straight face, was that he spit in it. We meditated, we did hatha yoga, we hyperventilated in unison, we chanted to Govinda and Kali and Durga.
We weren't supposed to speak except in our private interviews with Ram Dass and the other teachers; rules against talking and unnecessary eye contact were supposed to keep the level of sexual tension under control. This didn't stop me from falling in love with Krishna Das and Sruti Ram and the rest. These guys were in their twenties; they had traveled in India; they had the pure faces and shining eyes and wavy hair of saints. My spiritual seeking was tinged with the same helpless yearning that informed the sex and drugs it had replaced, and I'm sure they sensed it. Nevertheless, they were very kind to me.
I started college that fall at my classy Ivy League school but my heart wasn't in it. To the bemusement of my computer-selected African-American roommate from Detroit, I papered my side of the dorm room with pictures of Indian gods and goddesses and their various human representatives. Every week, I'd skip out of school on Wednesday and hitchhike or take the bus down to New York City, where Ram Dass and his disciples were based. There were classes every day of the week, some open to the public, others by invitation only. I was determined to crack the hierarchy, to get into the elite sessions held on Friday and Saturday. Once I did, I was at college only two days a week.
Some of the most exclusive meetings were held at the Brooklyn home of a woman code-named Joya Santanya, a voluptuous and foulmouthed Italian housewife with snapping black eyes and thick waist-length black hair. She had been visited by the now-dead Swami Yogananda in her bathtub, had left her body for weeks, and had returned to assist Ram Dass in his teaching. She ruled the scene with an iron hand, one minute cursing and joking, the next reciting verses from the Bhagavad Gita.
It was Joya who dealt the blow that resulted in my departure from this rarefied realm. It happened over Christmas break, which I was spending in New York City to attend as many classes as possible, bunking in the Upper West Side apartment of Parvati, Saraswati, and Sita Om. Most of the initiates had received their Hindu names in India from their gurus, but Joya had apparently also been deputized for this purpose. You weren't supposed to ask for a name; it would be given when the time was right. Still, I hinted around when I got the chance. I thought maybe something with "Kali" in it, since I was especially fascinated by this dark, devouring incarnation of the Divine Mother with her many arms and her necklace of human skulls.
Though I had never been personally addressed by her before, something about me got Joya's attention that Christmas. She gave me my name and kicked me out in one fell swoop. "Get outta here, Tits," she said. "Go back to college and study and sleep with boys! That's what you wanna do, and that's what you should be doing."
My eyes immediately filled with tears of embarrassment and anger. "But Joya," I stammered. "I want to be with you. I want to go to God."
"Oh, come on, Tits, you can't bullshit me. I know what you want."
What could I do? Joya had spoken. In retrospect, the insight displayed by her remarks was the most convincing proof of her powers I ever saw. At the time, I was very confused and pained by what had happened. I tearfully packed up my portable puja table, said good-bye to Parvati and the rest, and headed back to college. I vowed to pursue my sadhana, my spiritual quest, on my own, and made friends around campus who shared my interests.
And then I broke my leg, and got bulimia, and became interested in Russian history, and started to hang out at the Women's Center and submit poems to the literary magazine. My life as a college student had finally gotten under way. But though some parts of the story of Marion the yogini are silly, the Eastern principles I absorbed and the spiritual awakening I experienced have resonated in my life to this day. They remain at the core of my understanding. Nothing else I learned that year was more important.
Justine, who floated down the Nile, went back to school too, and so did Jeff Joslin, a college friend whom I thought the coolest person on campus when I met him, our sophomore year. Shortly after we both moved into one of the cooperative group houses on campus, aka hippie central, he zoomed off into the sunset on his motorcycle. I remember waving good-bye, wishing I was going along. Instead, I inherited his copy of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.
Having just read that, as well as Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, Albert Camus's The Rebel, and Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Jeff had decided to drop out of the Ivy League "forever." He reduced his material presence on the planet to the appropriate ascetic minimum, replacing his Stratocaster and amp with an acoustic guitar and trading his mountain parka and down sleeping bag (covered with evil, petrochemical-based nylon) for layers of wool and cotton. He and everything he carried were 100 percent biodegradable, and several times came close to proving it.
After Jeff survived some spectacularly yet predictably bad hitchhiking experiences, some near-fatal freezing nights, and a guy in a loincloth in the desert with a huge burlap sack of peyote, his departure from school turned out to be a year in length. Still, he managed to intersperse his undergraduate career and then his graduate one with VISTA volunteering, guitar playing, solar building, and garbage reclamation projects, not to mention tequila-soaked road trips to Mexico, and today he is an architect and one of the head planners for the city of Portland, Oregon.
He, too, has become something his parents could be proud of, if they were alive and/or in their right minds, which they sadly aren't. So my point is not that we persisted in our rejection of our parents' middle-class values and lifestyle. In fact, we were ultimately protected by them even while we turned our backs on them and played Derelict for a Day. Actually, the class issue is a defining one, since the whole drama of growing up is different for kids from families without money. When everything's being handed to you on a family heirloom silver platter, you can run screaming from the table and become a street person or a Hare Krishna or a drug dealer, and they'll undoubtedly save your place in case you change your mind. If there's no platter, or even no table, attaining those things rather than rejecting them is usually the issue; living on the street, selling drugs, or passing out pamphlets in the airport is far less likely to seem like an interesting lifestyle choice. (On the other hand, if you have no stake in the system, you might become much, much more serious about bringing it down.)
I'm not saying we ultimately rejected our privileges, nor is my point that we held on to every ideal we had, though we held on to a few -- even after Jeff became part of the system, he remained a powerful proponent for his youthful ideals. My point is that it's okay to grow up in your way, on your own terms, on your own schedule. It's okay to take the back roads, it's okay to break the rules, and it's okay to change your mind. So if you find that the slightest divergence or resistance on your part is met with tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth and insistence that "you're throwing your life away," let me reassure you, you're not. You're just going out looking for it.
And if everyone insists that you're being "immature," remember this -- it's best to get your immaturity out of the way while you're young. What's really scary is an immature forty-five-year-old.
So much for willful departures.
Sometimes it's not that you didn't have every intention of taking the main road, but it is closed. Plan B is dropped in your lap, unchosen. An accident, often literally. Someone gets hurt. Someone goes bankrupt. Someone dies. Suddenly in one second you live in a different world, one where your mother has cancer or your father is under indictment or your town has been hit by a flood. This must be how Michelle Graci, Miss New Jersey-USA 2000, felt when she was in a car accident in high school that messed up her back and scarred her face and ended her career as a gymnast, and wasn't too helpful for winning beauty contests, either. As she struggled back from this misfortune, becoming a gymnastics coach instead of a participant, she was taken into yet another stark new world when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
One good thing about these kinds of life-changing events is that at least no one calls you a pigheaded fool. Also, you don't have to agonize so much about what to do. Usually it is completely obvious, at least in your heart. You have to get well. You have to leave school and go home to be with your sister. You have to get a job and make some money to help your family. You have to go to rehab. You have to tell X the truth about Y. And then you have to suck up all the inspirational stories about people who managed to shine even after their lives got completely screwed up. Dedicating her reign as Miss New Jersey to breast and ovarian cancer awareness, Michelle Graci became much more than the winner of a beauty contest -- she is a bona fide heroine.
If you look around, you start realizing these extraordinary people who come back from major setbacks and really lousy breaks are all over the place -- from Monica Lewinsky to Lance Armstrong, from people who are responsible for their bad choices to those who have unbelievably challenging situations thrust on them through no fault of their own, to the seemingly perfect and untroubled people in the family next door. Terrifying as it is, natural and unnatural disasters are a part of life. As Harold Kushner wrote so powerfully in When Bad Things Happen to Good People (which I read after I got married and our first attempt to have a baby ended in a full-term stillbirth -- talk about life in hell), the only power we have is to decide what kind of person we become as a result of them.
Take my friend Judy, whom I met back when we both worked at a software company in Austin, Texas. A tall redhead with a big Texas accent who was also a genius computer programmer, she was married to a writer; they lived in a really cool house and had incredible parties. Unfortunately, her enviable life dissolved one day when her husband announced out of the blue that he was leaving. Then did so, immediately and without much further discussion. For a while, she was in shock. She cried for days. Then she got really, really mad. Eventually, she quit her job and moved out of her beautiful house and did some high-paying contract programming work and a lot of country-western dancing. Judy is an incredible dancer; this and other factors resulted in a string of more or less unsuitable boyfriends. Everyone was worried. Oh God, they said, what is Judy doing with her life? Then one day she went back to school for her Ph.D., and now she is a professor of marketing at the University of Maryland and is happier than she was in the first place. That's when you know you've found your way, when you honestly feel grateful to the car that ran you off the road.
But that takes a while. I certainly did not feel pleased or grateful when I got rejected from the first two graduate schools I applied to after college. I had high GRE scores and a 4.0 GPA, I had been writing poetry since I was nine years old, and I assumed I'd have little trouble getting admitted to either the Writing Workshop at the University of Iowa or the program at Sarah Lawrence, where my idol, Grace Paley, was a teacher. Yes, these were the most prestigious MFA programs in the country, and yes, they received a hundred applications for every one they accepted, but surely one of those ones would be me. I didn't even apply anywhere else.
Well, actually, they both said no. It was quite a shock. And because it couldn't have been my grades or my test scores that they didn't like, I knew it was the poems themselves. They didn't like my writing. Which meant they didn't like me. And if they, the grand poobahs of creative writing education, the lions at the gate of my chosen career, were chasing me off, I probably should just give the whole thing up.
It was my first big capital-f Failure, and it was hard to take. I had already come a long way since those days in elementary school when I secretly wondered if I might be the smartest person in the whole world. By the time I got to college, I had realized I wasn't even the smartest person in the building, or on any one floor. I thought I was widely read, had a gift for languages, was a bit of a math whiz. Well, in each of these areas, there were people around who made me look mentally handicapped. But though I had come to have a more humble and realistic view of my capabilities and how they compared to other people's, I still had plenty of ego left. And writing was one area where I was sure I had something special. At least before those brief letters of rejection stated so clearly otherwise.
So, what to do? First, I had to understand what had happened somehow -- make up some reasonable explanation that wasn't simply "Because you suck," so I would have somewhere to go with it in my head. This process is often dismissively described as rationalization or making excuses, but it is really part of recovering from failure and planning a next step. Here's what I came up with. As an undergraduate I had had trouble getting into the writing workshops I wanted to take. The explanation I heard was that my style was too pop, too anti-intellectual, too influenced by rock lyrics. I figured that this might be the case again. And I thought, Okay, fine. I'll go into advertising. Those flaws would be assets there.
Since I had absolutely no background in the field, I signed up for a couple of semesters of undergraduate classes in advertising at the University of Texas (I was by this time living in Austin) in preparation for applying to their master's program. And in fact I had a great time in these classes and excelled at the work. My writing was perfect for advertising, and I enjoyed the artistic and practical aspects of it as well.
But as well suited as my skills might have been, my heart wasn't in it. You can't go straight from being a Marxist-Leninist-feminist revolutionary, as I saw myself in college, to being a shill for frozen dinners and compact cars with-out some kind of major ideological overhaul, and it just wasn't happening. I kept looking longingly at the classes in the English department. The graduate poetry workshops. The seminars in women's literature. I got permission from the professors to enroll in these classes, and before I knew it, I had a year of course work toward an MFA without ever having been accepted into a program.
When I applied to schools a second time, I aimed less high, though I still looked for a place with teachers with whom I wanted to study. I ended up at Brooklyn College, in New York City, because John Ashbery, a poet I much admired, was there. We got along so poorly that I had to transfer to the fiction department. Where, wonder of wonders, the professors really liked my writing. Later on, at the software company, I used all my advertising skills, and in the end I even got to study with Grace Paley, at a summer workshop in Oregon. And that lowbrow writing style of mine has worked out pretty well after all, so I'm glad I didn't go off and learn to write like a real smart person.
Thank you, Iowa; thank you, Sarah Lawrence; thank you, John Ashbery; and while we're at it, thank you, Judy's ex-husband. It's an odd truth that the people and institutions who reject us and screw up our plans often give us a gift neither they nor we can see.
If you think high school is the place where your whole life gets decided, think again. This became very clear to me when I attended my twentieth high school reunion. By the time I went to this shindig, in 1995, held not in the high school itself but in the ballroom of a nearby hotel in suburban New Jersey, I thought I was really returning in triumph. Look, it's Marion Winik! I could imagine them whispering. Can you believe what a famous and beautiful celebrity she turned out to be? Have you read her books? Did you see her on the Today show? Is it true she's been in People magazine?
Well, the problem with the people I went to high school with is that they're the people I went to high school with. Everyone talked during the speeches (including mine, I'm sorry to say). Nobody ate their green beans. And in most cases, the girls had to ask the boys to dance. The old love affairs seemed to retain a little heat, the ancient cliques almost managed to re-form, and if a bell had rung, I'm sure the entire assemblage would have marched out of there and looked for the next class.
Though group behavior hadn't evolved much in two decades, physical appearance was another story; in some cases, connecting the name on the name tag to the person it was stuck to was a virtually psychedelic experience. Tommy Vignola?!? Wanda Williams! Fred Wood! After a while, I noticed that Vs and Ws, my old homeroom companions, were the names that evoked the most intense nostalgia. After all those years of roll call, you can't help but remember your part of the alphabet best.
In general, the men looked much worse at thirty-eight than they had as slender youths of eighteen with hair, while the women, ha ha, looked the same or better. (In another twenty years, I fear the tables may be turned again.) Decked out in a red Stetson and cowboy boots, I fell into the late-bloomer category, as noted by the classmate who I'm sure thought she was paying me a compliment when she charged up to me at the bar and said, "If there's a vote for the most changed person, I'm voting for you! You look excellent!"
Perhaps because of the democratizing effects of middle age on the body, people were far less threatening than they once had been. One friend noted that while the class as a whole probably had the same total weight, it certainly was distributed differently. And life has not turned out to be the ruthless popularity contest it once was, with such narrowly defined parameters of success. The football players are just big guys now and the cheerleaders drive car pools like everybody else, while many of the social outcasts and oddball geniuses have grown up into the people they were secretly plotting to be.
Except for the honors student-turned-TV weatherman, who may have finally gotten the attention of the runner-up for homecoming queen, there seemed to be no plans for an after party. Nope, the wild all-nighter, held after the prom, after graduation, even after the ten-year reunion, is a thing of the past. Maybe it's just too easy: no basements to sneak into, no parents to hide from, no fake ID, no tests to take in the morning. No matter how many doobies we smoked at how many rock concerts in the seventies, it was clear that we now own landscaping businesses and wear our seat belts. We are the parents, and the basements are our own. When I tell you how unlikely this once would have seemed...well, just as unlikely as adulthood seems to you now.
Finally, as the open bar closed, all was forgiven. Broken hearts, lost student council elections, even practical jokes played in study halls years ago. Even one erstwhile boyfriend's wife seemed to have gotten over the detailed description of my high school love affair with her husband I had recently given in an article for Cosmo, "A Nymphomaniac Grows Up." And though some of the former cheerleaders seemed to be as condescending as ever, I started to realize this might be my attitude problem, not theirs.
I was sitting outside on a planter with former archrival, valedictorian, and ballerina Dr. Robin Altman herself, hugging and crying because at last, it didn't matter which one of us was smarter. (Maybe it never mattered in the first place.) The pecking order was dissolved, the organic whole diffused. We no longer belonged to each other.
So the doctor and I sat there and watched the farewell hugs dissolve and the kisses blow away, the reunited disassemble and straggle off to their cars and back to their separate worlds.
Can you believe it? We actually did go out and get a life, after all.
Copyright © 2001 by Marion Winik
Living an Unconventional Life
Rules for the Unruly
Living an Unconventional Life
Winik's seven Rules for the Unruly are:
THE PATH IS NOT STRAIGHT · MISTAKES NEED NOT BE FATAL
PEOPLE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN ACHIEVEMENTS OR POSSESSIONS
BE GENTLE WITH YOUR PARENTS · NEVER STOP DOING WHAT YOU CARE ABOUT MOST
LEARN TO USE A SEMICOLON · YOU WILL FIND LOVE
Rules for the Unruly shows us how taking risks, living creatively, and cherishing our inner weirdness can become the secret of our happiness and success, not our downfall.