I once read a short story where a woman describes her visit to a museum restroom at lunch hour in New York. She portrays the women, who elbow and sneer their way for counter space, as thoroughbreds. Periodically, I am struck with this comparison of chic, svelte, suited women with race horses. I have come upon them often. Like the narrator in the story, I do not consider myself among them.
This past weekend, I socialized with a group of parents from my son’s private preschool. The women I met had definite, real, measureable careers. Careers that come with steady paychecks, benefits, and 401Ks. They were confident with the labels they were able to paste upon themselves as to who they were and what they did. One in particular struck me as the lead thoroughbred in the group. An established lawyer for a reputable firm, she had a business helping the community on the side. It put her in the six-days-a-week worker bee category, which made me wonder who was raising her children, but I was a little green as she spoke about her accomplishments.
When people ask me what I do, I am always in transition, always starting over with a career that comes second to family. I am always trying to get somewhere. Just when my nose is moments away from the finish line, so to speak, I find myself pressed to the rail with a tragedy, a massive set back, a life change. Things that take more than a few months from which to recover. As a result, my resume, which reinvents itself constantly, has a massive amount of unusual work experience in spurts. It is this creativity to adapt that I have started to cite in cover letters over the last couple of years, but I still, in a room full of polished professionals who don’t flinch at the sight of their child’s tuition bill, feel like the shaggy pony that could never qualify.
I don’t think I really want to be a racehorse in the way these women are. I wonder if deep down, they cringe at the time spent away from their children. But, I have always had aspirations of being something, achieving things, and have in fact, done some pretty nice things that occasionally startle a prancing racehorse into asking just how did that happen.
People who work in the arts don’t fit with the Kentucky Derby lifestyle of the world around them. Most of us do not wish to anyhow. It is our uniqueness, our un-fitness, that makes us notable in our arena, but we don’t get rewarded in measureable, tangible terms most of the time. I have never stopped painting or writing—not really—not for more than months at a time as I addressed a family need (a new baby, hurricane aftermath, an illness), but my work has resulted in being published without pay, in exhibitions where the cost of framing and travel has outweighed profits, or where someone has been too broke to pay, so they have traded a service or merchandise.
I could use a Derby Day just once in a while. Merchandise doesn’t pay the medical bills. And it would not hurt to be put in direct competition with one of the slinky, well-dressed women in the community again. In the meantime, I’ll just keep working, doing my thing. This time, I am hell-bent to create my niche as a person that thrives in a constantly changing environment and who enjoys as much time with my children as possible. I want them to see that it can be done, and not at their expense. I want them to see that the limitations that I have put on myself due to my choice can also be something that fuels a different kind of career. I guess you could say that I am racing with extreme caution.
And speaking of thoroughbreds, Seabiscuit, for all his glory, scratched a lot of races that would have jeopardized his health or that would not allow him to perform under ideal circumstances. His trainer's careful selection of when and how he performed caused sheer scandal and gossip, but he eventually raced Man O'War and won. And he was, for all intents and purposes, a creature that resembled a cow pony with crooked legs. Who knows. Maybe, in a way, that's me-- racing selectively, in it for the long haul, and an unlikely champion.