I’ve learned to be wary of women who walk up to me with a frown that is not mean, necessarily, but it’s not generous either. And while the downward curve of her mouth would seem perfectly normal had I just addressed, say, terrorism, my talk was about how we can better accept and support each other. Here she comes, I think, arms locked, question loaded. I’ve triggered something. She wants to take me down a notch, there is contempt in her eyes.
“That was cute,” she said.
I just stared at her. And if my mind could have abandoned my feelings, it would have. I could feel a slow hiss seeping out of my pride, like when my bicycle tire rolls over a thorn. I’d just given a talk at the State Capitol for a group of visiting writers. Cute was not what I was going for. I thank God my skin has grown thick.
“So, where do you see yourself going with all this?” she said.
“All this?” I said.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?”
I have a limited tolerance for this generic question. I never know if it’s a need to instruct or to compete, but the two always seem joined in people like this. They can’t seem to fathom that life can be less conventional and more entrepreneurial than they know it to be.
I wanted to say, this is my soul you are talking about, not an investment portfolio. What you are asking is beside the point.
What I did say was, “It hardly matters,” and, after a pause, “because if I’ve learned anything, it’s that there is no brass ring five years from now, because there is no brass ring. ” It was one of the rare times when the words came to me without my having to wait until three in the morning. Mostly because of good advice I received from a colleague: “If you think everyone in the audience is going to be kind, you really need to consider doing something else. But if you stick with it, it’s good to have a few good comebacks up your sleeve. There is nothing more difficult than being clear and honest when you are taken aback.”
Now, I wish I’d also said: “You know what? When I’m putting myself out there, I’m not the least bit concerned with five years from now, or even tomorrow. I have to be wholly in the present to be effective.”
Today, I’m lucky to know people who’ve been at this business of writing and speaking much longer than I have, who get paid far more than I ever will. (I can still hope!) And I’m always surprised when, in the green room, they seem just as worried as I am that they will, to quote one, “flounder like a fish and sink like a stone.”
I once had so much to prove — to others, to myself — but not anymore. Now, I just want to be around people who find meaningful work reward enough, who have carved out careers with everything they have, raked their insides raw with the effort, who know what it takes to create a creative life, who understand that having work we love is “all this.” And much more.
Because the moment is all we have. And it’s everything, all at once.
But there will always be the naysayer who wants to snatch it from us because, I suspect, they haven’t had one of their own to celebrate in far too long.
MARY LOU SANELLI is a poet, speaker and author of nonfiction. Her collection of essays, “A Woman Writing,” is available from Aequitas Books. She can be reached at www.marylousanelli.com.