Saturday, August 21, 2010
Paths Not Taken
Many paths can lead us through this life, but we can travel only one at any given time. Each path presents us with differing opportunities, "scenery," and "sputniki" (fellow travelers). We must choose our paths with very limited foreknowledge of any of these. Sometimes when I am in the mood of reverie, I enjoy pondering what might have happened had I chosen a different route through life, and then I have to wonder how much of a choice we really have, anyway. Here are my thoughts on a few of the paths I passed by.
(1) Physics. I loved physics in high school. In fact, I won the science fair with a physics project, and I had the highest grade in my physics class (99%), which had all of six girls (and 34 boys). There was a reason for that imbalance: girls did not study physics when I was in high school, and my physics teacher bemoaned the fact that I was a girl: "If only you weren't a girl; you would make a great physicist." I suppose if I had studied physics, or like my youngest sister (born late enough to see a change in attitude toward women scientists), nuclear physics, I might have ended up working at a place like NASA. Instead, I ended up majoring in foreign languages, through my books and my work success earned a national reputation for being able to develop highly successful foreign language programs that brought students rapidly to high levels of proficiency, and, would you believe it, ended up working at NASA for a while in order to establish the language training program for American, Russian, Canadian, and European astronauts/cosmonauts assigned to the then-planned International Space Station. Because I had nativelike proficiency in Russian, I spent time shuttling back and forth between Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia.
(2) Study abroad. As a linguistics undergraduate major, I had an opportunity for study abroad in France. When I tried to budget out the opportunity, however, I realistically decided to spend my junior year in my own university, Penn State. The cost, while likely within the means of any middle-class student, was out of reach for an impoverished farm girl who was attending college only thanks to a full scholarship, supplemented by working in the university dining facility, waitressing, tutoring, and, upon occasion, go-go dancing. Having turned down what I thought was my one and only opportunity for an international experience, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that after my kids were grown, I would spend a decade as an international consultant to ministries of education, institutions, and organizations in 24 countries, let alone earn my PhD in Russia and run a university in Jordan.
(3) Going home. At one point in my marriage, when Lizzie was still an infant and Donnie had just lost his job in Montana, where we were living, I was offered a job as an admin assistant in Maine, near my relatives. It was not a teaching position as I had hoped for, but all I had been able to land in Montana was a position as a substitute teacher in the area junior high schools and high schools, not enough to feed a family of three with Donnie out of work. I accepted, thinking and hoping that I might be able to get into teaching over time. Donnie refused to move and found himself a summer job in Idaho. Tearfully and fearfully, I bundled up Lizzie and returned from my visit home, a productive visit home with the promise of full-time work, to very part-time employment as a substitute in Montana. We could not afford rent; we lived in an A-frame, unfinished cabin in a field behind a farmhouse for free in exchange for finishing the work on the outhouse and the roof of the A-frame (for a while we had to line pots and pans wall to wall when it rained). Over time, we pieced together a living. Donnie earned some extra income from selling photographs to the local paper, and I wrote some articles. We teamed up on some photojournalistic efforts for that paper and for magazines. He also worked as a bar tender at the Elks Club. I gave up teaching for organizing and running a day care center with the help of some of the community leaders. It became well known, and even Mike Mansfield helped us with obtaining funding. When we left Montana, we were no longer the outsiders. We were the people who had established the one and only day care facility there and an award-winning one to boot. The City Council took it over when we left and ran it successfully for another ten years, at which time the concept of day care became commonplace and several other centers sprang up. I learned a lot about child care in that way, including the care of a multiple-handicapped child who attended the center. I would need that knowledge not only with my own children in general but with my handicapped children in specific -- Noelle, Doah, and ultimately, Shura.
(4) Children. As for those children, Donnie and I early one decided that we would remain childless. We tried every form of birth control available -- and each form brought a new child, for a total of four. Then people started handing us their children -- Shura, Ksenya, and Blaine -- for a total of seven. An addition four "children" have attached themselves to me as adults, not entirely symbolically for they come to me for advice, visit and expect me to visit, and need maternal support from time to time. Now I cannot imagine life without those children. They have informed my work as a manager and as a teacher; more important, they have been my greatest reward and joy.
(5) Footloose and on the road in an RV. After the children grew up and left home, which they did almost all at the same time, we bought an RV. This was Donnie's dream more than mine. He wanted to travel the country, reviving our Montana efforts as a husband-wife photojournalism team. As it turned out, we never could afford the truck to pull the RV, which was a 40-foot fifth-wheeler. So, we parked it on the Arroyo Seco River in California, and from there I drove to the airport and flew around the world on my various consults if the river did not rise, literally. (We lived on the uninhabited, unroaded side of a normally almost-dry ("seco") riverbed and had to drive through a few inches of water to reach our home, the RV. However, there were times when the river ran high, and we had to cross over a long, swinging bridge to reach the other side. If too much rain fell while we were parked on the "wrong" side, i.e. the RV side, of the river, we would become marooned until all the water tumbled down the mountainside, allowing us to escape again into the outside world.) We loved the drama of not knowing when we might get marooned. We loved the irony of driving through a river to get home, and I loved swimming in the river every day that I was home. Had we had our way, we would probably still be tooling about America. That is not a bad thing, but I would have missed out on some opportunities that nearly no one gets: consulting in 24 countries to the point of becoming a redistributor of knowledge from one country to another, earning my PhD (probably would not have had the time, effort, interest, or need), and experiencing the Middle East up close and personal. These opportunities have been not only fun and rewarding; they were essential for functioning adequately where I have ended up working decades later.
(6) Professor. Much of my life I wanted to be a professor. Even when I was doing other things, I kept wishing I had followed the path through the woods of life that anyone becoming a professor takes. That path beckoned me, but I could never make it over there. Downed timber, forest fires, and boulders of all sorts precluded me from going in that direction. Yet, perhaps as a consolation prize I have had the opportunity to teach as a visiting professor at a number of institutions: Middlebury College, NYIT in Jordan and Bahrain, Bryn Mawr College, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Universidad Federale de Rio Grande do Sul, University of Pittsburgh, and Allegheny Community College, among others, and I have trained thousands of university professors and administrators worldwide. What I have learned from those experiences is that I don't really want to be a full-time career university professor at all. That experience can be accomplished by Lizzie, who currently is a university professor of neuroscience.
(7) Middle East. The last path I was on (before my current one) took me to the Middle East for two years. I fell in love with the culture and the people. The language, being self-taught, was a challenge but interesting. There I found a place where I could have settled forever (well, there or Siberia, the other place where I lost my heart and could settle forever). That was not to be. However hard I tried to continue down the path I had chosen, my way was diverted back to the path I had left in 1993. (I blogged about that on 100th Lamb: The Jobs God Would Not Let Me Have and the One He Insisted I Take and Keep.) I still go back to Jordan, however, because my current job requires occasional business trips there. It is one of our more important locations -- and I did not know this when I took my current job (uh, more honestly speaking, was forced into accepting my current job, which, again honestly speaking, I truly love).
Although I returned to the organization that I left in 1993, I came in at a much higher position, and I needed every experience I had gained in the Middle East, from my consultations in various countries, and as a result of the languages I had studied. I also needed that degree I had earned and even my mothering experience. All those paths connected to provide a route through life that led to my being in the ideal position for me (although I did not initially recognize that). There was just one more experience along that route that was needed to make it all work: conversion. While faith has changed my life deeply on a personal level, my conversion was necessary for the spiritual and emotional needs of those who work for me -- a highly ironic need, considering that I work in an institution that requires separation of church and state. Yet, the need is there, and I have to wonder if God occasioned my conversion for the good of others. He does things like that, you know.
As for all those paths not taken, I am grateful that I had the chance to taste of some of the fruits that grow along those paths even though I was not on them. I am, in fact, grateful for every step along each of the paths I did take, whether I chose them or was pushed onto them.
What about the path(s) you have not chosen? Have you ever wondered what your life might be like right now had you taken or been allowed to take those paths that beckoned you?