By Carolyn Hutton,
Dappled Things: How To Live in the In Between
I used to play this game to entertain myself when I was a child—I would close my eyes tight shut and walk a little distance and then open my eyes and look down and whatever I found at my feet—a dandelion, a pebble, a bread wrapper fastener, a caterpillar.. I would pick it up and put it in my basket.
I don’t know why I did that. Somehow I believed that the thing I encountered when I opened my eyes was the thing I was somehow SUPPOSED to find.
It occurs to me that I still do this, have done this all my life, have never really planned anything much, but instead created something with stuff I just happen to encounter by happenstance.
I cook this way, to the consternation sometimes of my family; what happens to be in the fridge and cupboard and garden get combined into a meal, I teach this way; a book I find in a free bin becomes inspiration for a lesson; I dress this way; I shop at thrift stores because I think there might be something wonderful there that I am meant to wear; and I decorate this way; whatever is flowering on the side of the road ends up in a vase on the table.
Maybe it is a little bit about attention deficit disorder (somebody needs to write about about ADD decorating) but I think it is also about looking for signs. I have always believed, on some level, even when I am most distressed, that what I need is at hand.
I tend to trust this instinct. There is help, guidance, direction, treasure—but we have to notice it. My most vivid recent memory of sign reading happened last January in North Carolina.
It had been a topsy-turvy visit home; my father had suffered a mild heart attack on an icy Saturday morning; he was going to be all right, but at this particular moment I said goodbye to him at the hospital, said goodbye to my mother, and with the little bit of heartache that always accompanies leaving my mother and daddy and home, especially this time, I headed north, pulling into a vacant lot to answer a call from the office at work.
My supervisor was on the phone, and she told me in a matter-of-fact voice that there had been some changes in our university program, student enrollments were down and budgets had been cut and she was sorry, it had nothing to do with me, but my contract had not been renewed. I was out of a job.
I didn’t know what to do with this news. It had to be a mistake, I reasoned at first. But then came the torrent of self-doubt. Of course it had something to do with me! I had failed! I was the one with the full time job and I hadn’t managed to keep it. What was wrong with me? Had I made some horrible mistake I didn’t even know about? And what would we do? We needed insurance. We needed to pay tuition. We needed my income. I began to drive in a kind of stupor.
Gradually, though as I traveled up toward the mountains and into Virginia, the old “look for signs” me began to assert itself. This time, I began to look for literal signs. I told myself that what I read by the side of the road would be, somehow, directions for my life.
It was a game I played, but still. Sometimes the signs repeated.. “No turns.” (Ok, I thought) “No stopping on shoulder.” (:Keep going, ok that is good advice,” I said to myself.) “Go green” a sign said and I thought about what that might mean—be in nature more?
That always helped..I was cheering myself up a little, sometimes lapsing back into panic, when a little blue sports car zoomed around me. The driver was a stylish young woman wearing sunglasses, a determined look on her face, and when she sped up the road in front of me I saw that her license plate said “Badass.” “Badass…”
I was torn with awe and envy. What might that be like, to zoom up the road like you own it, to be so brazenly confident in who you are that you have a license plate that says “Badass?” I felt so unlike that, so opposite. I thought about my years of apologetic living, of feeling inferior to just about everybody alive. I thought about how probably that girl didn’t just lose her job. Probably she owned the company and fired people left and right.
I drove the rest of the way home to New Hampshire, not reading any more signs, just depressed about this one.
It wasn’t until several months later that I encountered “Badass” again. I was waiting at the airport this time, returning home from my daughter’s white coat ceremony in Colorado, and while Rod napped at the gate, I took a walk to the bookstore and there on the shelves was this yellow book by a writer named Jen Sincero that said You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life.
So, I bought it. I felt a little guilty about shelling out 16 dollars for a book, but it was, you know, a sign. I began to read it, surreptitiously, because I figured that anybody seen reading a book that said “Badass” would seem pitiable. But..the book is good. It is a little bit funny and light-hearted and a lot serious about how we have some power over the way we choose to live our lives. I needed that book; I needed that sign on the little blue sports car too, even though it depressed me, because it made me see where I was.
And I am ok. I didn’t choose to lose my job—at least I don’t think so. Maybe I did choose it. I’m happier now. Since that time I have strung together part time and temporary jobs. They are all about books and teaching and community.
I may be poor; I may have to shop at thrift stores and cook whatever I find in the cupboard (but I did this anyway), but so far, I have loved every one of these jobs and have decided, Lord willing, to do all that is in my power to be the best I can be at them—not because I am afraid of failing, but because I believe in the work I am doing.
I have much to learn, but I have not crept around apologetically. I have not feared a frown of disapproval. I guess I am becoming my own version of Badass.
What we need might really be nearer than we think.
Caroyln Hutton is an English teacher. When she was in 5th grade, she read “Harriet the Spy” and loved Harriet so much that she started keeping a notebook that got her into as much trouble as it got Harriet in because she always told the truth in her notebooks. But she never stopped writing. A native of North Carolina, Carolyn is also a musician and plays bluegrass and old time music with Drowned Valley and the duo Long Journey. She lives with her husband, Rod, in Madbury where their four grown children sometimes visit.