Till now, my heightened state of excitement – nay, bliss – around Project Maybe Baby kept me from focusing too intensely on the metaphorical gray cloud looming overhead: the cloud that, when it burst, as many a gray cloud is apt to do, rained heavy with upset. (Think: Still awaiting bar exam results and losing confidence by the second that I could ever be among the slightly better than unpitiful half who pass on the first try, still gainfully unemployed, still confronting professional rejection at every turn…anxious that I’ll be repaying student loan debt till I’m closing in on retirement and then only if I ever land a job in the first place, without which, I’ll be paying for law school, renting apartments, and coveting other people’s Jimmy Choo’s for the rest of my life. A life which, at this rate, promises to be untimely short owing to the high likelihood that all this stress is going to make me sick.
I’m that girl. Preferred books to boys. Never missed a homework assignment. Collected blue ribbons at science fairs. Skipped junior prom to study for a history test (and because, if we’re being honest, nobody asked me to be their date and, if they had, I might have said no). I wasn’t a kiss-ass, but teachers liked me. I got into every college to which I applied including a number of highly-competitive establishments I couldn’t afford to attend. No biggie, because I really wanted to go where I went: a tiny, east coast, women’s college where I was president of a half-dozen student organizations and editor-in-chief of my campus newspaper. Spent a year abroad as an undergrad. Lived a block north of the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam proper and, in case you’re curious (and I know you’re curious), waited a full six months to puff my first joint. Ever. (It was eh. I wasn’t sold.) I delivered the student commencement address at graduation. Took a couple of years off to get married and save the world, then enrolled in law school. Added a couple of distinguished-looking letters after my name…
I was going to be great. I was.
I was going to be great right up until that morning, in September 2001, when, alone in a dorm room an hour outside the nation’s capital, I flipped on the TV as I got dressed for class and witnessed the whole world – my whole world – become as if a strange new place right before my eyes. And, perhaps if I’d paused for just a second before rushing off to give blood and volunteer my time to support the relief effort, I’d have seen the wheels a-spinnin’: My future was as uncertain as our nation’s safety. I just didn’t know it yet.
In fact, I was going to be great right up until I saw my friends off to war. (See you soon. Maybe. Be safe over there. Doubtful.) Compared to theirs, my future was looking quite bright. For, excluding freak accidents and progressive fatal illness, I’d probably be alive in a couple month’s time. Indeed, from where I sat – a boxed window overlooking a picturesque canal, reading the International Herald Tribune and sipping some chocomel – life was good. Very. So I shook my head the night I switched on the tele in time to catch my home country’s military letting loose some rapid dominance, some good ol’ fashion “shock and awe,” over in Afghanistan. And I thought to myself – since, after all, these very young men and women, my friends, were fighting for my freedom, my future! – I was lucky, lucky, lucky and everything was going to be alright. Thanks in no small part to those kids risking their necks in some desert I only knew from TV, I was going to be great.
Hell. I was still going to be, if not exactly great, at least ok when Bush, Jr. assumed his second term in office. I came of age with the so-called “self esteem generation!” I. Could. Overcome. I. Would. Overcome. Like all nine justices on the United States Supreme Court and so many a Congress(wo)man or American president (not Junior so much, but who’s keeping tabs?), I’d go to law school! I’d become a professional policy wonk, a businesswoman! I’d stop kvetching – strike that, I’d kvetch slightly less! – and do more.
Then, just as I was gearing up to do, really do – in fact, just in time for graduation – the economy was still like so many sour lemons. And the “jobs crisis” got personal. So that five months, 61 carefully-edited resumes, and lots of networking later, I wasn’t sure anymore that I’d ever be “great” so much as I was sure our family could benefit from my income as we embarked on Project Maybe Baby.
So, today, with a (literal) gray cloud hanging overhead, I made my way downtown wearing the wears I had tailored for when I scored the cushy job I always sort of expected I’d have – though, of course, I didn’t. I had an appointment to chat with a placement specialist at one of a number of “premier” temp agencies in the city about the possibility of making a whopping 12 bucks an hour answering executive telephones.
“Oh,” said the gal who processed my application for temporary employment. “Says here you were born in ’82! I was born in ’87! Nice! Mostly the people who come in here are, like, so old! Like forty! Like almost retired! But, like, you’re fresh! You’re going to make an amazing receptionist!” And that, my friends, is when the cloud burst.
If I had aspired to be a receptionist, see, I’d have been thrilled. But I didn’t, so I wasn’t, and not because I wouldn’t be particularly stoked, and grateful, for the extra moola! The prospects of answering executive telephones made me, personally, a little sad.
Because while I know it could be much, much worse (enter one of a handful of out-of-work horror stories we’ve all heard or, G-d forbid, lived), this is the story of so many other people for whom the recession and the “jobs crisis” is no less personal. This is the story of somebody trying to see past the storm to that place where clouds dissipate and there’s sunshine and everybody who aspires to be “great,” is great.
Great: a subjective term meaning whatever the hell you want it to mean.
Because gray clouds – literally and figuratively – do dissipate eventually. Like a not-so-subtle reminder from Some Force Bigger Than Myself (what some people call G-d, but I’ll call Hope), that’s what they did this afternoon. Those clouds lifted and the sky turned blue.
Low, defeated, I might not have noticed except in that he made me.
You know him. He’s that guy. Always standing there. Right there in that same spot. With the same plastic keepsake cup out of which emanates the sound of metal on metal. The sound of almost empty. Empty noise. It was the noise that attracted me. This time. He’s easy to overlook, see, because he’s not easy to look at. His face has aged badly. It shows of many years worth of substance abuse and winter nights spent dressed in mismatched layers hovering over subway vents. He’s too old to work now. His hands shake uncontrollably. Who’d hire him anyway? Probably doesn’t have a nest-egg. Or a family. Or a stable place to call home. Because once upon a time, perhaps, he screwed up. Or he got screwed up. Either way. I wonder if he ever thought he’d be great. I wonder if he thinks so now. I wonder – because it isn’t the money – what it is that keeps him coming back to that spot, day after day, week after week, month after month, in all kinds of weather.
And I know, though I don’t know him, that it’s Survival – and it’s Hope. It’s that thing that compels me to believe I’m not yet an unsuccess story, that maybe I’ll be my version of “great” yet, that where at first I don’t succeed, persist. It’s that thing that keeps us aspiring to parenthood. It’s what inspires my Fellow Projected Progenitors who’ve confronted upsets and loss – infertility, miscarriages, SIDS – to relaunch their own renditions of Project Maybe Baby. Did I ever tell you you’re my heroes?
That which doesn’t kill us: Wisdom (and blogs) are made of this.