Wednesday, June 30, 2010

written in transit

My first entry from Spain is not actually about Spain. . . it was written while packing up and in transit (Chicago --> London --> Madrid.)

So, here you go: The requisite overly intense, neurotic beginning-of-an-adventure email.

And now, a word from our sponsor, fantasy author Robin McKinley.*

"Five years ago I moved to England to marry the writer Peter Dickinson. I was happy in Maine, where I had been living, with my typewriter, one whippet, and several thousand books, in my little lilac-covered cottage on the coast. And then I found myself three thousand miles away, in an another country, living in an enormous, ramshackle house surrounded by flower-beds and covered in wisteria and clematis and ancient climbing roses whose names no one remembered.

"Gardening in Maine is an epic struggle, where you can have frosts as late as June and as early as August, where a spade thrust anywhere in the so-called soil will hit granite bedrock a few inches down and rattle your teeth in your skull, and where roses are called annuals only half-jokingly. In England garden-visiting is the top item on the list of tourist attractions -- before any of the cathedrals or any of the museums, before Stonehenge or the Tower of London. I didn't plan to become a gardener, but I don't think I could help it. Peter says that the disease had obviously been lying dormant in my blood, and southern England and a gardening husband have been a most effective catalyst.

"It occurred to me, now and then, as I planted more rose-bushes -- because while I am a passionate gardener, I am a rose fanatic -- that it's almost a pity I'd said all I had to say about Beauty and the Beast. There was so much about roses I'd left out, because I didn't know any better.

"Last winter I sold my house in Maine. I still loved it, even though I knew I would never live there again, and I knew it would be a tremendous wrench to cut myself lose from that last major attachment of owning property in the country where I was born. I was not expecting, when Peter and I returned to Maine to close up, sign papers, and say good-bye, that everything I have missed about life in America as an American -- which I had ordered myself to ignore while I put down roots over here -- would rush out of hiding and start hammering me flat, like some of Tolkien's dwarves having a go at a recalcitrant bit of gold leaf. It wasn't just a wrench; it felt like being drawn and quartered.

"We came home to England in a late, bleak, cold spring, and I sat at my desk and stared into space, feeling as if I were barely convalescent after a long illness.

. . .

"I've long said my books "happen" to me. They tend to blast in from nowhere, seize me by the throat, and howl, Write me! Write me now! But they rarely stand still long enough for me to see what and who they are, before they hurtle away again, and so I spend a lot of my time running after them, like a thrown rider after an escaped horse, saying, Wait for me! Wait for me!, and waving my notebook in the air. Rose Daughter happened, but it bolted with me. Writing it was quite like riding a not-quite-runaway horse, who is willing to listen to you, so long as you let it run.

"If you're a storyteller, your own life streams through onto the page, mixed up with the life the story itself brings; you cannot, in any useful or genuine way, separate the two. The thing that tells me when one of the pictures in my head or phrases in my ear is a story, and not a mere afternoon's distraction, is its life, its strength, its vitality. If you were picking up stones in the dark, you would know when you picked up a puppy instead. It's warm; it wriggles; it's alive. But the association between my inner (storytelling) life and my outer (everything else) life is unusually close in this book. I don't know why the story came to me in the first place, but I know that what fueled the whirlwind of getting it down on my paper was my grief for my little lilac-covered cottage and for a way of life I had loved, even if I love my new life better."

Hampshire, England
October 1996
From the afterword of Rose Daughter, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast

* Not actually connected to this blog in any way, shape, or form, unless you consider giving a kid wild ideas by means of the written word "sponsoring."

So now I am en route to Madrid, Spain. Currently I am hanging out in the Chicago O'Hare airport, and I will be until about 8:00 this evening, when I will board a plane for London.

I haven't done a real good job (or any job at all) updating in the last three weeks (five weeks?) The two weeks before graduation, I was in Boston, soaking up every bit I could garner, not really believing I would be gone soon (and I still don't really believe it); the three after, I was at home in Iowa, first recuperating from a foul cold for about a week, then transmorgifying in my usual fashion into a semi-comatose vegetable.

I have dreamed about Boston since coming home, in that disjointed, extra-rooms-in-the-house-you-knew kind of way. I love that city, and I am not sure whether leaving it was the correct choice. Staying -- finding a job in the area, where I was comfortable and happy -- maybe that would have been better. My parents like Boston; they probably would have been okay with continuing to visit me there. I could have gotten my own job, independent of grant funding, my own apartment, had my own kitchen and and bathroom for the first time. Maybe I could have even adopted a dog. On the list of things I look forward to, my own kitchen and the wherewithal to have my own pet are pretty high up there.

I feel calmer than I did going to Japan -- well, calm is a word, but I don't know a single word that will convey what I feel. I am still hungry to go to a thousand places, as fast as possible -- maybe when I am old I will be able to savor -- maybe -- but I feel less panicked. Going to Japan alone, by myself, with even rudimentary language skills, was in some ways nothing less than a miracle -- however did I get so far? My family does not travel. Two generations ago, paying for college was an overwhelming task. I want more -- I always want more -- but I already made it to the other side of the world. Trying to find my way when I don't have a clear idea of what I want seems difficult and frightening -- and it is -- but it seems, at least to me, that if I continue to pick the difficult-but-exciting things and do them, even if I do them awkwardly and learn painfully, that there will come a point when I am equipped to do most anything. (Also I kind of hope that once I have traveled to a couple more places, I will be able to make out like it isn't a super huge spectacular deal to me to travel, even though it probably still will be. I think peeps got tired of hearing about my Japan trip after I got back.)

People keep asking me if there will be other interns from MIT in Madrid. The answer is yes, but I don't really know any of them. And I am happy with that. I would like to try being Sharon-from-Iowa for a while, Sharon-from-the-U.S., or even just Sharon, instead of Sharon-from-MIT. MIT is a remarkable institution, filled with remarkable people, but for now, I am sick of MIT and its attitudes, subcultures, preoccupations, pressures, and stigmas.

I worry about two things in Madrid: Getting my wallet stolen, and mucking up the present with worrying about the future. I want to breathe, to enjoy, as I was able to in Boston. I am pretty worried about getting a (good) (resume-enhancing) job and continuing to travel after I get back, as well as graduate school applications. I fear that if I lose momentum, if I don't keep looking for chances to keep climbing and going and doing, I will putter to a halt without the ability to pull up again.

It isn't enough to just survive. I have a hundred projects to mess around with, and it's somewhat intimidating that soon I could potentially dedicate all of my time to what I, personally, want to do. Do I have that kind of dedication? I feel like I could schlep away lazily and comfortably under someone else for years and make a pretty good living, but for myself, to write the things I really want and study the things I really want and create the things I really want -- that would take mad dedication, insane work ethic. Not to start on MIT, but I learned there to prioritize myself and my happiness far above any work I might be doing, because in the end, the work I did there didn't matter a whole heck of a lot to either my teachers or me. No one else was going to look out for my well-being, but there were sure plenty of instructors who would be happy to wring every last drop of free time and effort out of me if I let them. But when my work is intimately bound up in my self and my happiness, as with my own writing and my own design -- what happens to this strategy? It's utter crap.

I have to re-learn how to work. Or maybe just learn anew how to work with passion and excitement.

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