Thursday, May 7, 2009

Sea Change

I sit in my 1850's farmhouse in Buckfield and I feel a little sea sick.

The tide is inexorable, and its tug is felt in my chest. Or better, my ego. I tend to cling to the firm shore along my rocky coastline, for fear of the rip tide of life that I know is waiting to suck me under. It's the mysterious underthing that has kept me from casting out these past 25 years.

I love the shore, the warm, white sands of solid earth, where I can watch the sailboats from a safe distance.

But now, for the first time, I've grown desirous to be out there among them, to see what life is like on the waves.

I'm 41 years old and in a few months I will be a freshman at the University of Maine, Farmington. The place my own father, now 70, earned a teaching degree some 50 years ago.

I therefore enter the ranks of adults across the nation who have decided to go for that college degree after all, and beside whose names are printed “non-traditional,” the moniker given to those of us who (in my narrow, movie-fed, Animal House-distorted view of college) will not be going to keggers on Friday nights or living in co-ed dorms sharing bathrooms with mysteriously tantalizing members of the opposite sex. We are part of a legion of folks who are old enough to be most freshman's mother or father.

I am nothing if not non-traditional.

Married twice. Six children, three of whom are in high school, one a year away from middle school, and two not yet out of diapers. I have worked in two factories, I've been a journalist, and I've slaved within the boxy confines of a nondescript cubicle, within a desert of cubicles so broad and long one could barely see the bank of windows at the distant horizon. My employee number was larger than my picture, the one on my badge, my most important form of identification.

I've seen my four children birthed and have reveled in the accomplishments of two step children.

I've been to the funerals of three of my grandparents, an aunt and two uncles.

I have made colossal errors in judgment; weathered a divorce; spent more money than I earned; maxed out my first and only credit card; flirted with bankruptcy; forestalled foreclosure and been laid off from three different jobs.

I was a teenager when hip-hop was invented, back when they called it “rap” when we all wore parachute pants and the girls had Mall Bangs they aerosoled into frozen tsunamis.

The arc of my character development, you could say, is quite expansive. I would like to think it has yet to hit its zenith. I would like to think – probably naively – that I won't hit my peak for sometime. My life expectancy quotient says otherwise. If you believe life expectancy quotients that is.

I don't. Most of us non-traditionals don't put stock in a lot of things fed to us. That's why my aspiration to be the next great American novelist has stayed with me since Hank Burn's sophomore English class, back in 1985, when I was 17 and Hank was just about everyone's favorite teacher at Oxford Hills High School. I held on to that dream when so many of the kids who did go onto college after graduating saw theirs vaporize into a mist of post-collegiate job interviews and dispiriting 9-to-5's.

Since high school, I've witnessed my sea ebb and flow continuously, coming in and going out, bringing with it – and taking away – the flotsam and jetsam of a life lived. Of debris resulting from wreckage (from failed voyages) or deliberately tossed out there from where I stood. Debris of experiences, of failures and successes. It all becomes debris after all.

I bring this with me to college classrooms where kids my daughter's age will be studying next to me, and I wonder who has the advantage? Me with my lifetime of bumps and bruises, or them with their wide-eyed naiveté? Cynicism versus optimism? They wanting to be me, me wanting to be them?

It doesn't matter. They will have to learn for themselves after all. And they do have one thing going for them: they have, at 18 or 19, taken ship when I am, until now, still ashore. Heels dug into the cooling sands against my fears when they, it would appear, are facing theirs with sails full set.

In the fall, with this new tide, I take up new oars. Perhaps they will propel me further out, away from the shore this time. Someplace where I can see the horizon better. Away from the rip, away from all the detritus of my life, out and out, so that this time when I look back, I will no longer miss the sea for sake of the shore.


  1. As I have always told you...the best things in life are worth taking the risk for.

    You will return from this voyage with more confidence in your abilities, and even more determination than before.

    You SHOULD take the helm. Captain this ship of YOUR LIFE. Steer it where they have said should not be explored.

    For, you ARE BRAVE.
    And, I am your first mate. Together we will see the horizon....

  2. As I grow, I am amazed at what others tell me they've observed of my life. They see courage where I see cowardice. They see creativity where I see conformity. We look at the same events, and they see success where I know how far I've fallen short. And I thank them for seeing me from where I started, instead of from where I want to be. And for seeing things as "what I did" and not "what I did instead".

    Know that your friends see you the same way. Treasure the value they place in you for who you are. Accept the strength they offer in support of you on this new voyage.

    Calm seas. Steady winds. Clear skies. And great success.