Taking Inventory: Pushing through the Storm
July 5, 2013
“If you look at the way your shoes are worn, you can tell you aren’t walking correctly,” my personal trainer noted after I had run a few miles on the treadmill. “You need to buy a new pair and retrain your body to walk a different way.”
I had spent the year before both walking and riding miles across the University of Colorado campus, meandering along Boulder Creek, strolling through Pearl Street Mall.
I set aside my high heels I had worn for the past nine years as instructor at the small community college where I had taught courses ranging from Art History and Appreciation to English Literature and Composition to Humanities and Anthropology. Citing budget cutbacks, my position as Liberal Arts Instructor with administrative duties including curriculum development, textbook selection and Adjunct Instructor supervision had been eliminated.
At the time, though frightened, I was relieved. Members of the local churches and law enforcement community had been less than friendly since my divorce from their small-town boy who had grown into my husband. He had spent his adult life establishing himself in both communities, serving as the former Assistant D.A., city attorney and local praise and worship leader.
I knew it was time to move on, though I immediately acknowledged how deeply I would miss my former students and colleagues.
I landed back in Boulder, returning to the same university where I had earned my Bachelor’s, picking up a few more courses in French and Latin, delighting in the opportunity to pick up graduate level courses, delving into the art of Manet and the writings of modern theorists Benjamin and Derrida, attending lectures and sharing tea with Bernard College art historian Anne Higgonet.
But time was running short, as were the funds from my retirement I had accumulated while teaching middle school, high school and then college for twelve straight years.
After a year of biding my time at CU, and submitting application after application, I received a long-awaited phone call inviting me to join SAIC. In the interim, the stress had taken its toll: pain in my right foot, which had begun as persistent numbness, had rendered me nearly immobile. Again.
In addition to flipping bundles of brightly colored flashcards with Latin conjugates and French nouns as I trudged across town and through the campus, I had begun the painful reassessment of my life: career choices based upon family commitments, academic choices based upon exciting career opportunities, personal choices based upon unforeseen, unexpected circumstances.
When my position had been eliminated, in spite of the Christmas Eve fire eight years earlier that had taken nearly everything my family owned except a few books and keepsakes that had been stored in my basement, I had amassed eight rooms of furniture and decorative doodads we Americans collect to fill our empty lives.
Following the fire, a few days after Mother’s Day, I was immobilized by a knee injury from installing ceramic tiling while remodeling my home. The injury, a hyperextension that had resulted in a knee swollen to twice its normal size, had been compounded by phlebitis, rapid weight gain and the stress of rebuilding and moving what was left of our household four times in six months.
In addition to losing most of our possessions, discovering love letters between my husband and the church pianist, and doing a majority of the repairs to our gutted home in a massive do-it-yourself project, I found myself in the humbling position of being pushed in a wheelchair as we began the tedious process of replacing lost items—from furniture, dishes and appliances, to spices, toiletries and toilet paper.
In the process of rehabilitation in which I retaught myself first how to walk and then run, I inadvertently developed a slight limp that would manifest itself in the incorrect gait that I would later have to address with my physical trainer.
Learning new steps: it became a pattern too frequently repeated. After my nine-year-old position had been eliminated and I prepared to leave what had served as my home for twenty years, I did an inventory not just of my family’s possessions, but of what had constituted a lifetime of memories and experiences: photos in albums and shoe boxes, sets of dishes that had served holiday meals, students’ portfolios that they had failed to reclaim at the end of the semester, letters from deceased friends and family members, shelved books—accumulated both as student and instructor—with copious notes and abstract designs scrawled in the margins.
“You should stop marginalizing yourself,” he laughed, as we leaned against a rock watching the setting sun brilliantly paint the red desert rocks with splashes of light and dark shadow.
He was right, so I have spent the last few years drawing, painting, writing, shooting: creating a new image of myself, one step at a time.
As I packed for my first year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, after my last visit to my personal trainer, I took my last run around a small pond abutting my grown children's apartment near Boulder and dropped my shoes into their dumpster, walking the few blocks back to their place barefoot across the burning pavement.
The following day, I moved everything that was left of the great purge following my first faltering steps of my new life in Boulder to Chicago, hoping to successfully rewrite a new version of my career. After nine months, I knew it wasn’t a good fit. When nothing else came my way the following summer, I trudged back to Chicago, this time taking only a suitcase and a carry-on, knowing I wanted to set off on another adventure: a bike ride taking me back home. I am always willing to take risks, push another pedal or take the next step, whether physically, artistically, creatively, or academically.
“Don’t tell me you are one of those women who go hiking, are you?” the butcher asked after handing me a package of meat over the counter.
“Yes,” I smiled, turning away while tossing the remainder of my response over my shoulder, “Actually, I am, and I often do it alone.”
“Please let me give you a ride home,” she insisted, adding, “The trains aren’t a safe place to be after a certain hour.
“I enjoy taking the train,” I added, knowing that her habit of drinking and driving was potentially far more dangerous than anything I would ever encounter on Chicago’s Red Line.
“Are you sure you don’t want a ride home?” my instructor asked as we left the darkened museum during a downpour.
“No thanks,” I returned, adding, “I love watching the dark green waves during a storm, and I live only a few miles away.”
Weathering the storm, taking the next step, riding (or writing) the next wave: isn’t that what life is all about?