Of Second and Third Acts

This year, I finally crossed a threshold I set out to find 18 years ago. In 1992, while I was studying abroad at the University of East Anglia, I saw Toni Morrison give a reading from her novel Jazz. To be sure, I had been building up a vocational purpose before the reading--my music major and French minor, and pre-law emphasis gave me a mix of experience in both the beautiful and the practical. This mixture of serendipity and confident exploration put me at the doorstep of a vibrant art and literary culture that thrived in an English university. Even before Toni Morrison came to UEA, I had experience the joys of cultural exploration and critique. There were opportunities for me to see local Shakespearian productions, other artists (Arthur Miller and Graham Swift, to mention just two) came to UEA to collaborate and share with students, Additionally, I was immersed in literature courses, and, of course, I was in England. Still, nothing before that reading crystallized why I would choose to not finish my Music Performance and French majors (I graduated with a minor in music and just had a lot of French courses on my transcript).

It was only the palpable excitement of an American author presenting her newest work, Jazz, to an audience who understood the value of her work that I clearly saw that I wanted to be in involved in this most difficult, hard-to-define profession of teaching and researching literature and language. In that rural English university hall I saw the purpose of my first act solidify and start to take shape. After that, I would have many moments that re-inforced a sense that I my path was good. Writing my undergraduate honors thesis on Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon the year that she got her Nobel Prize deepened my confidence, as did tutoring a fellow student during our senior trip to Laughlin, Nevada (sometimes in our swimwear between river visits) so that she could finish her degree. I continued to deepen the grooves of my vocation working in the writing lab, taking intense theory courses, taking Navajo to re-aquaint myself with a language I often heard but seldom understood during my childhood, getting published, and finally landing my first academic job at Bowling Green State University. All of these steps validated the feelings of a 20-year old boy in England.

Of course, I sometimes think back on the turns that my life might have taken if I hadn't chase this particular path. What if I had finished my music degree and tried to make a go of it in the music business? What if I had tried to go to Rome with an earlier long-term long-distance partner? What if I had taken the job with IBM near the end of my PhD instead of completing the degree? These are life-truncations I'll never get to explore, and it does make me a little wistful from time-to-time. But these wistful imaginings do not usually sway me from the notion that I have picked a good life path. One of the pillars of Navajo philosophy is a concept called "hózhó," which, when translated, means "walking in beauty." To apply this concept into my day-to-day life, I try to incorporate my a bit of mathematical calculation and lessons learned in athletic competition. Pick a goal, then survive and advance. Of course, this merely covers the "walk" part of the philosophy, and not the "in beauty" part. Beauty, at least to me, involves a bit of serendipity and appreciation of what comes to you. My sometimes overpowering analytical side demands reconciliation between the multiple trajectories that my life could take. Figuring out the answer can be tricky. Instead of trying to find the right answer, sometimes I rely on the quiet and intuitive option. Toni Morrison's talk presented me with such a beautiful and intuitive option. Ms. Morrison had seen gaps in the culture, and created new voices to speak to those gaps. I could spend the next period of my life--the first period of my productive and professional life--to do the same.

One of my friends jokes that I'm having a mid-life crisis. Although that's always a possibility for someone rapidly approaching his 40s, I'm not sure that I can agree with that accusation. After all, I pretty much never stopped spending time with college students. Hell, over the past two years, I have lived in a residence hall. I travel many times a year, meet amazing people, and have yet to seriously try for something that I don't achieve. My internal sense of a life clock, while ticking, is not any louder than it was as a child.

I could spend much more time detailing what happened over that period of 18 years, but as I sit on this point nearer to the end of what many describe as the "1st Act" in my life, I can more clearly see that those choices not taken are still with me. I still want to make music. I used to wonder about the woman who wrote all those letters, spent all that time on the phone with me, and who inspired me to smuggle her favorite burrito cross-country on dry ice, only to leave with only a quick "I'm sorry." I wonder about kids. What I don't wonder about is the bond I have formed with my partner and lover. I don't wonder about my choice to teach and share the most complex and maddeningly complex subject I know--language and art made from that language. In the end, the wistful informs the strength of my choices. I don't regret my path, and I don't regret the lessons I have learned, even if they present mysteries.

As I look forward to my next act, I can say that I'm excited about the possibilities, a little sad about some of my mistakes, and in awe of all of the mystery that comes with having to make choices. Fortunately for me, choices made do not mean a diminishment of the choices I did not make. Living hózhó means that I maintain a mindfulness of all of the relations that make my life beautiful. Mindful of the people that I have chosen to share this life with, mindful of the people who are now distant, mindful of the path I have chosen and the ones I have ventured farther away from. All of these things, near and far, are still with me. I still am learning languages. My lawyer friends still keep me on my toes. Hell, all of my friends keep me on my toes. And yes, I am going to start singing in an ensemble again. It may be tricky to weave all of these things together, but hózhó means being true to the center of your path--not forgetting where you came from--in order to get to the next place.

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