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August 16, 2022

Has Life Been Good to You So Far?

The truth of my life is that I haven’t gotten as far as I wanted. Ever since I busted through the wooden fence behind the apartment complex in which I grew up to better access the shopping center that held opportunities for jobs I needed, I’ve fought against every limitation.

That fence has become the symbolic one surrounding my life.

My French immigrant father earned a mere $250 a week. Sitting in the back seat of his Riviera at the age of twelve, I can still hear it rumbling and sputtering from the hole in the muffler underneath as he drove through my friend Christine’s neighborhood to drop me off for a sleepover. When he’d pick me up the following Sunday morning, my mother is sitting in the front, staring out the window at the mansion on the hillside we would later drive by.

Is that a CHURCH? She’d ask.

No, Josephine, my father would snap, that’s someone’s house. As I watched my mother stare out the window of our third-floor apartment later that afternoon, her sigh was her whisper of discontent for all the things she would never get to enjoy. She would turn back towards me, smile and offer me a bologna sandwich on Wonder Bread. We’d settle in for the evening watching All in the Family and The Jeffersons, and my father would relax in his Laz-y Boy recliner, sipping his Old Style and puffing on a Benson & Hedges.

Come August with its intrinsic back-to-school shopping season, I held my mother’s hand as we perused the corduroy pants and red-and-blue velour sweater that would become my new wardrobe. I’d watched her stash the $5 weekly from the grocery money until she had enough to buy me something new for the school year. I also knew that come March I’d get a new pair of coveralls for my birthday.

Growing up, I can’t ever recall dining out at a restaurant, and pleas to run through the drive-through at McDonald’s were met often with:

It’s on the wrong side of the road, as we sputtered on by. Left turns, I realized as an adult, weren’t illegal, but a convenient excuse to utter to your hungry twelve-year-old who didn’t yet understand the rules of the road.

Later came high school, and every chance to exercise and care for those polo ponies down the road at the local polo club each summer brought joy and $75 a week into my life. Come graduation day, I threw that velour sweater, my coveralls and the rest of my wardrobe into my 1976 Monte Carlo I’d bought for $275 and drove it down to my first studio apartment on Hermitage Street in Chicago. I jumped on the El come Monday morning to reach my first professional job as a receptionist at a financial firm, and never returned to my parents’ apartment, save for birthdays and holidays.

When my eighteenth August came, everyone else was off to their summer of family vacations before their day of college. I was climbing up on the hub of a carriage, reins in hand, and asking tourists if they preferred the Lake Front tour or the inner-city. When Mister T came for a ride with his date, he chose the Lake Front for about five minutes before he grew bored of the quiet.

Take me to Rush Street, he groaned, hugging on his date, I need to be seen!

Come Monday morning, I’d find myself back at the financial firm, answering telephones and typing up trade tickets to send overnight to California. Each Friday I’d walk to the carriage barn, groom my horse, clean my harness and carriage, dress and climb back up on the hub to trot downtown.

Those were very long weekends, indeed.

It would be twelve years before I would sit in a university classroom, correcting the teaching assistant that it was Colorado STATUTES, not STATUES. He would smile, turning his attention elsewhere, as the nineteen-year-old next to me would lean over and whisper:

My mom went back to school after she and my dad divorced.

I would only smile in response, and walk out of the classroom, plop myself down on that wooden bench outside the Norlin Library. It was my thirtieth June and the first one in college.

I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be, at precisely the right time.

It took seven and a half years before I could sit with a handful of esteemed classmates to receive my Summa cum laude designation at graduation. I’d danced the entire sleepless month of November. I’d kept my promise to graduate by the time I’m forty! I told myself as I walked across campus for our ceremony.

For so very long after I earned my coveted and long-awaited bachelor’s degree, falling twelve years behind my peers didn’t faze me. I just kept going.

Moments can accrue like moss on a granite rock in the mountains. My hunger to continue persisted, until it silenced patience. It was time, I told myself, to keep pushing on towards a law degree. Working for attorneys who were closing down bars in the same moments while I was trotting my horse back to that Chicago barn for the evening was feeding my feeling less-than and sense of disenfranchisement in society.

The choice crystallized: either pursue my Juris Doctor, or step out of law entirely. I signed up for an LSAT prep course around the corner from the mom-and-pop law office I was working at with my former.

142? What’s the minimum for CU? I cried to the teacher that evening.

162, she quipped. You can retake the course at no charge, since you didn’t raise your score.

Two months and two LSAT tries later, I sat across from a good friend over a cup of green tea.

Some intelligence can’t be measured by a standardized exam, she consoled.

The options clarified: Move out of state for three years to attend law school elsewhere, stay in place and relinquish the idea of earning my Juris Doctor, or take a left turn into another career path. My desire for law and its egoic trappings dwindled and I felt as rejected by the very profession I’d served for twenty years. I appealed to the three law schools to which I’d applied and been rejected, drafting appeal briefs and requesting personal meetings.

I can still remember the head of admissions grasping for a Kleenex and gently passing it my way as I sat in his office.

My left turn became my only realistic choice. I’d learned through my father that making such choice was as much about expressing an act of rebellion as it was impractical in our privileged society. Two years later, I was finishing up a draft on Raising Awareness to Decrease Roadside Wildlife Mortality at the famed Buddhist hippie institute, Naropa, in Boulder. I learned somewhere in between my sudden, traumatic divorce mid-program and applying for new career positions with a Masters in Ecopsychology looked as sexy on my resume as if I had majored in film studies.

When I graduated, my former attended and took me to lunch after, wishing me all the best in life. His family was no longer mine, my law career and all means of gainful employment had vanished, and our separate paths had begun. It was up to me to remake life and build a new foundation.

It was about as attractive an option at forty-four as sticking a needle in my eye.

Four years passed. I remember the moment when I began to feel a semblance of return to the self I once knew. In that time, I stepped in and out of offices and buildings, trying on careers in mediation and real estate, trying to convince attorneys to whom I wasn’t married that I was a crack paralegal. Each time, I felt as pushed down as I felt rejected. I began to feel I was the proverbial little girl in the orchard picking at fruit in Clarissa Pinkola-Estes’ archetypal story, never able to choose the key to professional success.

After all the efforts and tries, the failures and the frustrations, the longings and the screaming, I now spend my days pursuing my writing life. I’ve learned along the way, through workshops and seminars, online courses and conversations with other writers, that making a living writing is a domain name owned by Carol Tice and not a realistic expectation. I embrace the notion that honoring my artistic bent has to be liberated from the pressure of making it earn money. To reference a favorite writer, Elizabeth Gilbert:

Why would I put all that pressure on my art?

That’s where I’ve landed. Still seeking the perfect career, three degrees and fifty-seven summers later, living in the same remote valley in which I once lugged running water up three flights of barn stairs for ten years and frequenting my outhouse in January. I have running water and real electricity now, a new husband who loves animals alongside me and doesn’t mind that I’m twelve years behind the societal curve of success. My friends are all retired or planning to, I’m still searching for the next career that’ll allow me to express our disabled dog’s bladder four times daily and get on a Zoom call at two o’clock in the afternoon.

Or perhaps, I’ll just have to bring him with me to the next job interview. I’ll have to explain why I still long for a successful career after trying so very many, and ask if they have handicapped access – not for me, mind you – but for our Texas survivor of animal cruelty. He doesn’t seem to mind the setbacks in life and is successful in finding the joy every morning within.

Perhaps I should, too.

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