Rags to Riches

When I was in fourth or fifth grade, there was a little scenario that I liked to draw on the back of my homework. It wasn't really a comic strip so much as two scenes, before and after. "Before" would show a young woman, potentially attractive, but dressed all in rags; "after" would show the same woman, now exquisitely dressed, her face clean and hair coiffed, now transformed into the beauty she actually was. The middle (sometimes implied, sometimes drawn out) involved someone--a fairy godmother, a fashion-conscious other woman--catching sight of her and wondering why she was dressed all in patches and then promising to change her for the better. I would draw this scenario over and over again; I particularly liked putting all the big stitches around the patches on the "before" dress and I liked the way the raggedy young woman seemed simpler, more natural than her metamorphosed self. And yet, the dream was of transformation: being lifted magically out of one's misery and shown as one's true self, always, of course, beautiful with or without the rags, but now visible for all to see.

I'm still waiting for that fairy godmother to come along. My coach keeps promising me that if I just do what he tells me--practice a few actions, have confidence in my attacks, do more lessons with him--eventually, soon, I will "see a difference" in my fencing as well as in my results. I think he was angry with me yesterday evening at practice, or maybe I was angry with him, I'm not sure. We were mutually not talking to each other and I did not have a lesson; for my part, because all I wanted to do was scream: "You lied to me! It isn't different! It wasn't different on Saturday; I still made stupid mistakes; I still lost." For his part, I'm guessing, because he's sick of seeing me cry.

I want to believe him that it will be different, that one day I will get on the strip and everything will have changed: I will know what to do; I will see the actions I need to make; I won't get scared and rush my attacks nor go passive and simply wait for hers; I won't get caught up in the same-old stupid mistakes over and over again; I will be transformed. But it's hard. I've been waiting for that fairy godmother all my life; what if she never comes? It's not that I don't want to be myself, at least I don't think it is. The point of the pictures I used to draw was that the young woman only needed a little bit of help to look as beautiful as she already was. And yet, here I am, psychologically, at least, still in rags.

No, that's not quite the point. The point is, I want to be different. I want certain things in my life that I do not have and I can't see how I am ever going to acquire them. But I keep imagining that one day things will dramatically change and I will be different. It just never seems to happen. First it was publishing my first book: I thought for sure after that I would feel more confident in my work, like I'd really made it, but all that happened was that I started being anxious about my next book. I remember the first year my first book was out, I would check the rankings on Amazon more or less daily, hoping against hope that maybe it would actually sell more than a few hundred copies. I think maybe it did, in the low thousands, at least; but no rise to best-sellerhood, not even after my publisher reissued in paperback (which, truth to tell, is fabulous for a first academic book, but it didn't make me J.K. Rowling).

Then (actually, at about the same time) it was getting tenure. Surely this would make me feel like a success. But as I watched my colleagues getting outside offers and promotions to full professor (without, please note, the "necessary" second book), the outside offers never came. There was no great transformation from junior to senior, just a gradual easing into the middle, where suddenly life was one long committee meeting with no more time for research than there had been before. (This was before I got the fellowships that I am on now.) What of my dream of buying a house? After I got tenure, we moved into a condo slightly smaller than the apartment we had been renting with the expectation that "one day" we might move into something larger, maybe even a house. Saving the appearance of a real fairy godmother, this, too, is never going to happen. And yet, perversely, I still somehow hope that it will.

I'm really not sure what the lesson is here. It's not that I am not conscious of all of the actually quite wonderful things that I have in my life: my family, my job, our home, our health, things we enjoy, our neighborhood and friends. I am very much am. And yet...and yet, I still dream of being changed. What if my books sold more than just a few thousand copies? What if my family could afford a house in our neighborhood? What if I were not just good looking (which I suspect, despite my anxieties, I rather am), but actually beautiful, like, I don't know, Uma Thurman or Kiera Knightley or Catherine Zeta-Jones (all swordswomen at one time or another)? What if I might actually one day earn my A? Ha. Like that's ever going to happen.

Is the problem here that my dreams are too big? Or that they are not big enough? Certainly, part of the problem--and I know it--is that I cannot see my own life from the outside so as to be able fully to appreciate how outstanding it actually is. Associate Professor at the University of Chicago? Guggenheim fellow and Quantrell Award winner for undergraduate teaching? Who am I kidding? I'm a success! I just wish that I felt like it. Part of the reason I'm so cathected, I know, is that I am uncomfortable with recognizing my own accomplishments as such. (See "Bragging Rights" for a meditation on this.) Just telling you, up front, about them makes me anxious. Remember that I used to prefer drawing the young woman in rags? Maybe I'm just more comfortable being the underdog, not quite the success that I might be. But if that were the case, I would hardly get so upset about not qualifying on Saturday for Div II.

Something, I can feel it, is holding me back, but is it myself or my circumstances? If only the door would open and I could fence as well as I'd like; if only I could write a book that would actually sell. But perhaps, of course, that's the problem: I'm too busy wishing I were someone that I'm not to be able to appreciate the someone I already am. Rags or riches: which is which?

Update (from a few minutes ago!): This post did not go quite the way I had planned for it to. Somehow I got tangled up in talking about life changes, when the real problem is expecting sudden change. Dreaming of the fairy godmother is dreaming that somehow change will come overnight such that it will be instantaneous and exponential. My life has gone through enormous changes over the years, but they've all been quite gradual. Like the frog in the slowly heated pot, I don't realize that I'm living at boiling point now; the water seems just as cool as when I got in. And yet, even that doesn't quite make the point that I want to. I've spent way too long at the keyboard today. Will try again later when my head isn't so full of miracle stories of the BVM.


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