Tuesday, March 8, 2011

I've Been Waiting

Have you been half asleep, and have you heard voices?
I've heard them calling my name
Is this the sweet sound that called the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same
I've heard it too many times to ignore it
It's something that I'm supposed to be
—from "The Rainbow Connection"

I'm 16 years old, waiting for my turn with the guidance counselor. The agenda for our appointed meeting seems simple enough. I tell her my goals for college, and she tells me what classes I should take to prepare.

What are my goals for college?

Everybody assumes that I'm going to major in music. Why shouldn't they? I have a reputation as a really good pianist. I can play by ear and improvise. I have perfect pitch. On the flip side, I'm a mediocre student with no other special interests. What else would I do?

Here's the problem, though. I'm not as good as everyone thinks I am. I'm better than most kids my age. Most kids my age begged their parents to let them quit after two years of lessons. That doesn't make me Vladimir Horowitz.

My assessment isn't based on insecurity. I'm just good enough to have some idea of what good really is.

An internal debate ensues.

What if I worked harder?

I don't want to spend seven hours a day in a practice room. I would be miserable.

OK, but what if I developed some self-discipline and did it?

Well, I'd get to be a lot better than I am now. Still not Vladimir Horowitz good, but maybe enough to play professionally in a lesser-known orchestra somewhere.

And what would happen if, after all that, I decided I didn't want to do it anymore?

I'd quit ... and thousands upon thousands of pianists would line up to take my place. Any one of them could play Brahms and Beethoven as well as I did.

The world doesn't need me to play Brahms and Beethoven.

When my turn comes, I take a seat in Mrs. Cannon's office and tell her I'll probably be majoring in liberal arts.

* * *

I'm hanging out in my dorm room, weighing my options. Graduation is a few months away. My plan is to go to graduate school, which will put me on track for a career in sociology.

I have reservations.

For one thing, I kind of feel like I'm done with school. My time at Indiana University has been good. Great, even. But I'm ready to move on.

A much bigger problem: I'm not at all sure I want to do sociology for the rest of my life. I love studying it. I love the way it helps me make sense of the world. I just don't know if I want to be a researcher.

My other option is to take a year off and get a job. I think I'd like that.

There's a catch, though. My bachelor's won't qualify me for anything in particular, and I have no idea what kinds of positions I would apply for. People tell me that the average college grad waits six months before finding anything. The most likely scenario is that I'll move back home, live with my parents, and take the same clerical job I worked over the summers.

That isn't exactly the growth experience I'm looking for.

If I choose grad school, I'll at least get funding as a research or teaching assistant, earning my own way.

* * *

Party at my house! Everyone seems to be having a good time. I stand apart from the scene for a moment, contemplating the guest list. The people I've invited are from my circle of computer geek friends. Woefully underrepresented are fellow University of Arizona grad students. I like them, and I don't think they dislike me. I simply don't know most of them very well.

Back during my first year, I'd felt the walls closing in. My entire life consisted of sociology classes, studying for sociology classes, doing research for a sociology professor, hanging out with people from the sociology department, and having conversations about sociology. If I didn't talk to somebody else about something else, I was going to suffocate. I went online, found some new friends, and gradually migrated my social life.

I didn't mean to detach so thoroughly. It just happened.

As much as I enjoy maintaining an identity outside of the department, I suddenly realize I'm courting danger. Graduate school isn't exclusively about learning a profession. It's about networking, making connections. Any one of my classmates could be in a position to help me get a job someday. But they won't, because they'll barely remember who I am.

Maybe I should try harder to talk to people in between classes. Forge some friendships, or at least acquaintanceships.

I find myself strangely unmotivated to do this. The truth is, after all this time, I still don't know if I want a career in this field.

So maybe I should admit that to myself and quit.

No, I'm not ready to do that either. Quit and do what?

At that moment I make a conscious decision: I'm not going to decide. For now, I'll continue to float with the currents and see where they take me.

* * *

The clock radio wakes me up at some ungodly hour of the morning. I lie on my back, trying to find any motivation at all to drag myself out of bed.

The temp job I've taken doesn't provide it. I'll be spending my day filing things, utilizing my extensive knowledge of the alphabet and the order in which it goes. If I'm lucky there might be typing.

Well, but at least it's only a temp job. It will be over soon. Except, no it won't. This one runs longer than most.

Okay, but the weekend is coming up, right? Nope. Still early in the week.

I'm 27 years old. The U of A stopped funding me a couple of semesters ago. I have less interest in the research I've been needing to do for my PhD than the temp work I'm dreading. My savings are running out.

Ten years from now, when you're still working the same crap jobs, will you be sorry you didn't just finish your dissertation?

Suddenly I am awake.

* * *

I lean against the counter that separates the kitchen from the living room, assessing my situation with a certain amount of satisfaction. I'm 30 years old, out of school for good, with a real, grown-up job at a tiny publishing company. For the first time I can remember, I feel like my life is on track.

Does this mean I've found my calling at last?

No. There are things about publishing I like, things I'm good at. But I stumbled into it somewhat randomly. It's not what I was born to do. I might end up finding something I like better. Or a series of somethings.

And that's OK.

All these years, I wanted my life to be like that verse from "The Rainbow Connection." Have you been half asleep, and have you heard voices? / I've heard them calling my name. I thought I should receive some sign from on high. This is what will make me happy. This is what I can contribute to the world.

In the absence of a clear sign, I was afraid to break free of what wasn't working. If I went off and experimented, I could end up in the wrong place, even further from my true destination!

But life doesn't work like that. The right thing won't come to you if you stand still and wait for it. You have to go out and find it. Every misstep is still a step forward. Every path you take teaches you a little more about where you really want to be.

I finally get it.

I think about the lessons I've learned, picturing an aerial view of a series of roads. I'm driving up one of them, exploring, willing to turn around if need be.

"Iiiiiiiiii've been waaaaiting."

The hell?

I haven't been thinking about singing. I haven't been thinking the words "I've been waiting." And yet, I just sang the words "I've been waiting." Out loud.

Part of me wordlessly ponders the strangeness of this, of momentarily turning into some ventriloquist's dummy. But another part is thinking, Hmmm, that's interesting. What could go next?

I sing again. On purpose, this time. "I've been waiting ... for something good to come along."

That's pretty good. How would the rest of the melody go?

I na-na out a melody. It comes easily, as if it's always existed, just like the little improvised pieces that used to flow through my fingers onto the piano keys.

Huh. That's kind of catchy. It could be a song.

That's dumb. I don't write songs.

OK. But if you don't, nobody else will.

* * *

I'm riding my bike home from work. Because my mind likes having something to occupy it, I say to myself, Hey, let's work on the song.

It's been a year since those first three words came to me. As is my wont, I never committed to seeing the song through to completion. I had no clue as to whether such a thing lay within my capabilities. But I figured out a basic structure, and every now and again I'd think about how to write this line or that. Bit by tiny bit. In no particular order.

Come to think of it, which part of the song should I work on right now? What's left to do?

I sing the lyrics to myself, looking for the holes. And slowly, realization dawns.

There's nothing left to write. No blanks left to fill.

At some point, I finished the song and I didn't even notice. When did this happen? What were the final words?

Where was I when I gave my first answer to a question that wasn't multiple choice?

As I contemplate these matters, there's no sign from above to tell me what my next steps should be, nothing to indicate what the future holds, nothing more to do for now except keep pedaling forward.

I've Been Waiting

lyrics by Susan Wenger
music by Cinder Bridge

I've been waiting for something good to come along
Blue skies and carpet rides to carry me away
One day I'll behold
The brightly shining streets of gold
And leave behind these thin walls painted
Endless shades of gray

Written in the stars far away and long ago were
Portents and promises I could not ignore
Someone said of me
Here's a child of destiny
With deeds heroic to perform
And worlds to explore

The time is right
So who will tell me
Where does the treasure lie
Where am I s'posed to go
Siren's voice
Keeps me awake at night

The years fly by
And I am patient
And I ignore them
And I ignore them in their flight

I've been waiting to wake up to that perfect day
The fates decide it's time to give me something else to do
I read my palms and trace the lines
Looking out for any signs
That I will get another chance
To learn what I once knew

Spent my whole life clocking in and marking time
God knows it can't be long 'til something starts to give
I'll flag me down some fairy wings
And move right on to better things
'cause any fool can plainly see
This ain't no way to live

The time is right
So who will tell me
Where does the treasure lie
Where am I s'posed to go
Siren's voice
Keeps me awake at night

The years fly by
And I am patient
And I ignore them
And I ignore them in their flight

I've been waiting for someone good to come along
See me for who I'll be
A diamond from the coal
Make me feel alive
And take me from this nine-to-five
Existence that exposes me
The ordinary soul

But when I call
No one hears me
When did the summer end
Where did the music go
Siren's voice
Is lulling me to sleep

The years flew by
And I can feel them
Did I have promises
Did I have promises to keep?

I've been waiting for something good to come along
I've been waiting forever it seems
Lately I think I've been wasting too much time
Floating on the currents of
These vague dreams

Dawn is breaking
I see my birthright clearly now
Highways and hiking shoes
Before me is the day
Go where the crossroads join
Cross my fingers, toss a coin
And pocket all the loose change
I find along the way


I've been waiting
I've been waiting

Copyright 2005 Cinder Bridge. All rights reserved.

* * *

Disclaimer #1: All of this stuff happened a long time ago. While I've tried to recount the events as accurately as possible, I'm sure I've misremembered a few details. You probably took that as a given, but I'm neurotic about such things.

Disclaimer #2: As it turned out, what I'd actually finished by that last scene was a first draft of "I've Been Waiting," not the final version posted here. About six months later I realized it needed something more and wrote verse 2. But that's a story for another time.


offcenterlarry said...

Wow. Sure beats
Boy is she ugly!
Boy is she ugly!
You ain't never seen nothin' like it
in all your life...

Of course, I was 14.
Our histories have a LOT in common. I look forward to meeting you someday. I'm sure we were friends before this lifetime.

Jeff Shattuck said...

Great post. I'll have to listen to the song when I get home, but...

Like you, I was waiting for something perfect. It never came and realizing it never will has been very freeing.

Creek said...

Thanks for your true story of how the search really works. My 14-year-old kid got a whole lot of stress from the guidance office at her high school. It starts too young, it doesn't help most of us find our paths, it only makes a lot of people feel lost or useless. Our lives are things we grow into gradually and your story illustrates this beautifully.

cinderkeys said...

@offcenterlarry: I doubt I would have come up with anything much better at 14. I attempted to write a song with lyrics maybe a couple of times in junior high and high school, but never got past a line or two. One of the reasons I was initially so sure trying to write this song was a dumb idea. :)

Jeff: It does feel less constricting when you know it's all experimentation.

Creek: Sorry to hear that somebody is actively giving your 14-year-old this kind of stress. The guidance staff should read this:

What You'll Wish You'd Known

"If I were back in high school and someone asked about my plans, I'd say that my first priority was to learn what the options were. You don't need to be in a rush to choose your life's work. What you need to do is discover what you like. You have to work on stuff you like if you want to be good at what you do."

Another one by the same guy: How to Do What You Love.

"A friend of mine who is a quite successful doctor complains constantly about her job. When people applying to medical school ask her for advice, she wants to shake them and yell 'Don't do it!' (But she never does.) How did she get into this fix? In high school she already wanted to be a doctor. And she is so ambitious and determined that she overcame every obstacle along the way—including, unfortunately, not liking it.

"Now she has a life chosen for her by a high-school kid."

Square-Peg Karen said...

Love this story - and the fact that it has no end...life is ongoing!

Beautiful that you paired the song with the story - this is something it'd be wonderful to have as required reading for teens (well, not required reading, I'm a rebel, don't like anything forced like that -- but at least out there offered to kids who think you need to (or even CAN) figure your life plan before living some of it...

Your ability (is that an ability? I'm not sure I'm using the correct word there) to keep moving - keep looking - keep an open mind - is awesome!

cinderkeys said...

Thanks! The funny thing is, I remember thinking how anticlimactic it felt, realizing I'd finished the song only after it had been finished for who knows how long. Only when I wrote the story down did it occur to me that maybe this "end" was fitting.

My ability to keep moving is no better than anyone else's -- I still stay in my comfort zone too long sometimes. But at least I'm not sitting around and waiting for my destiny fall out of the sky, into my lap, in one nicely wrapped package. :)