Letting go of the past

This wasn’t the first time I’d moved to a town where I knew next to no one.  There was a certain thrill of being in a brand new in a place.  The idea of starting over, of letting go of the past and moving full force into an unknown future.  I’m aware that not everyone feels this way.  Some people cling to their past as if to a life raft; if they just let go they’d find they won’t drown at all – the water’s shallow enough to stand up, and they can walk into their future unencumbered.

Anyway, that’s what I did.  My life as a physical therapist was getting pushed further into my past.  In July 2000, I moved to Boston to start my year of service as an Americorps VISTA with Massachusetts Campus Compact.

I was given a furnished four room apartment in one of the dorms on the campus where I would be based.  It wasn’t as lavish as it sounds: one of the rooms was a bathroom with no shower, another was a kitchen with no stove that you could walk the length of in two steps (or one really long step).  But I loved that little place.  I took showers in a community bathroom next door to my room – me and the other 20 or so girls who lived on my floor.  I brought two hot plates into the kitchen and, though highly illegal in a college dorm room, I cooked some spectacular meals with just two burners and no oven.

Perhaps it was this experience that really got me thinking about how little we really need to be happy.  I did miss baking brownies, but an oven wasn’t imperative for a happy life.  Yes, I would have loved not to have to wear flip-flops to take a shower, but I’d been on a two week sailing trip with no showers at all, so this wasn’t really that bad.  Here I was living in a place with everything I could want within walking distance, in an apartment I didn’t have to pay for, about to start a job I was sure I would love.  Do you really  need much more than that?

I Think I’ll Go to Boston…

It took a long time to learn, but what they say is true:  Mom is usually right.  This lesson is often earned only after going completely against her advice numerous times.  On rare occasions though, a child triumphs and gets to say, “Ha!  I was right!”  It doesn’t happen that often, so when it does it’s a memorable occasion.  My move to Boston was just that.

During my senior year in college, I bowed out of the senior formal in favor of a trip to Boston with two non-senior friends.  I was an RA at the time, and my traveling partners were my Resident Director and another RA in my building.  We drove out to the Irish Embassy Youth Hostel.  At the front desk, an adorable guy with a melt-your-heart Irish accent explained that parking in Boston was a nightmare and directed me to his grandmother’s neighborhood across the river where I could park my car free of charge.  To grandmother’s neighborhood we went, taking the T back to the hostel.  Tim was woken up each morning by his Irish roommates getting up at 5Am for their construction jobs.  Christina and I tried to fall asleep each night to the beat of the music from the bar below.  During the day, we followed the Freedom Trail and eventually dubbed our walk “The Church and Bookstore Tour of Boston” because – you guessed it – we stopped in every church and bookstore we saw.  Once inside, we went in three separate directions, never deciding on a time to meet back.  Instead, when enough time had passed we’d eventually find each other and move on.

I loved that Boston was such a walkable city.  Though we were doing a touristy activity (walking the Freedom Trail) I felt like it wasn’t just tourists that we were seeing.  It felt like the people that worked in this city actually lived in it too.  I had long ago decided I’d never live in a city because my only reference point was NYC, and that city was entirely too big and messy for my tastes.  But here was a city that you could walk in a day, with plenty of green space, and friendly people.  Hmm….

My next trip to Boston was when a friend invited me to join him for his company Christmas party – a very formal occasion in a ballroom in one of the big hotels downtown.  By day I took us a National Historic Site I wanted to see (that of Frederick Law Olmsted).  By night, we were schmoozing it up and swing dancing the night away, falling into bed in our hotel room overlooking the Charles River.

It was sometime after that trip that I started to think about moving to Boston (and no, it wasn’t because of aforementioned guy).  My mother predicted that there was no way I could afford to live in a city like Boston unless I took a job as a physical therapist.  “But I don’t want to be a physical therapist!” I protested.  “Well, you’ll need someway to earn money.  What are you going to do?”  I didn’t have an answer.

But at the same time I was thinking back to an idea I had in college – that of doing a year of volunteer work.  I wanted to go international, but found that most international programs required you to commit for two years.  Having spent the last 3.5 years in a major I didn’t like made me think that a two year commitment to anything was more than I could handle.

But now I thought perhaps I’d look at doing a year of service in the US. And so I started to center my search for a year-long volunteer stint on Boston.   I followed all sorts of links and one day ended up on the web site for Massachusetts Campus Compact.  I read the job description and loved everything about it.  I would be placed on a college campus and charged with coordinating community service projects involving students in the communities around their campuses.

The funny thing about this was that a few months before I was in a Barnes and Noble paging through one of those find-work-you-love books and came across an exercise that piqued my interest.  It asked you to write down what your ideal day would look like.  I took out the notebook I had with me (I was on a research mission, so had the necessary tools at hand) and wrote away.  From the moment I woke up until the moment I sat down to dinner, I had every detail.  What was I doing for work?  I was working on a college campus meeting with students who wanted to do volunteer work.  I was helping them find places to volunteer, holding meetings with them on upcoming group projects, planning Spring Break Service trips.  In short, the job I described was the exact one I found on the Massachusetts Campus Compact web site.

By the way, I have done this exercise a couple times since then and it works spectacularly well….

So I applied and was accepted into the program as an Americorps VISTA (Volunteer In Service To America).  Here’s the catch: they could place me on any one of thirty campuses in the state of Massachusetts, so I might not be in Boston but in a small town in the middle of nowhere.  I could request where I wanted to be, but they made no promises.  I requested Boston telling them my car was on the fritz and I’d prefer a placement where I didn’t need one.  I also asked that I be placed at a religiously affiliated school.  I graduated from a Jesuit institution and couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but knew I wanted to be on a campus with some sort of religious slant.

Turns out, they had a placement at a religiously-affiliated all women’s school in Boston.  It could have been a tricky place to put someone as my boss was to be the Director of Campus Ministry and we, as volunteers with a federally funded program, had limits on what we could do that was religiously affiliated.  But everyone’s prayers were answered.  I got to work on a campus in Boston and Sr. Pat got a VISTA who had a background in doing service work at religious institutions.

The best part?  Mom said there was no way I could afford to live in Boston unless I was a physical therapist.  But in July of 2000 I found myself living happily in Boston without a paying job. How did I afford to do that?  Well, I also happened to get placed on a campus that gave me an apartment and partial board.  No rent, no utilities, no phone bill, and barely any money needed for food.  I was given a stipend each month at the poverty level which was able to cover any other expenses I had.

Some might argue this was luck.  Some might say coincidence.  I say it was me figuring out what I wanted and asking for it.  Sometimes what you want is what you get.  Sometimes you don’t get what you want, but instead get what you didn’t know you needed.  But that’s another story.

Mom now tells this story to mothers who also have children with grand ideas and seemingly no idea how they’ll accomplish them.  She says that she learned never to tell me I couldn’t do something.  Now she simply asks all sorts of questions to make sure I’ve thought of every angle.  In fact, mom no longer really gives her opinion when I propose a new idea.  And she surely never tells me it can’t be done.  She asks questions, and then tells us that we’re adults now and can make our own decisions.  Sometimes I just want her to take the pressure off and say, “Here’s what you should do.”  But she’s smarter than that.  She knows how important it is for a child to make her own decisions and live with the consequences.  It’s much better than going through life blaming it all on someone else’s advice.

The Census

A gentleman commented on my car the other day.  This happens all the time.  When you own a newer version of a car that everyone over a certain age seemed to have had at one point in their lives, they want to tell you their story.  I’ve heard a lot of VW Bug stories.

I noticed he was carrying a Census bag.  I asked about it and then mentioned that I worked on the 2000 Census.  He knitted his eyebrows together and stared at me.  “You were old enough to work during the last census?”

Turns out I was.  It wasn’t something I ever thought I’d actually do.  But when I was working as a Park Ranger in the Fall of 1999, a guy came to the ticket desk and asked if we could post the sign he was holding.  The sign advertised Census jobs and the number to call to take the test.  One hung in our back room where the seasonal employees would see it.  I’m figuring someone knew that most Park Rangers are seasonal employees and would be looking for work after their term was up (like me).  I stared at that poster as it hung in the back room.  When my term was up at the end of the year I knew I was going to Europe for a month, but hadn’t any clue what I was doing after that.  Though I didn’t really think I’d need it, I took down the number.

When I came back from Europe at the end of January, 2000, I started scouring want ads trying to find something that would spark my interest.  Nothing did.  I traveled up to Vermont where my uncle suggested I could use my clinical experience (minimal though it was) and my computer experience to get a job at a medical software company up there.  I never did apply for that job.

I spent most of February 2000 wondering how I was ever going to find that “one thing” that I’d want to do for the rest of my life.  I had not yet learned that it was possible to not have to pick one thing at all.

Getting desperate, I thought I’d take the census test.  At least it would be something to fill my time while job searching.  I aced the test and was called a couple weeks later to come in for the training.  I went through a week of learning how the government goes about counting the population of the entire country and why it’s so important.  Then I took an oath promising to protect the country “against all enemies foreign and domestic.”  This may sound odd for a census taker, but I had to take the same oath when I worked for the park service, so it didn’t phase me anymore.

At the end of the class, the instructor (who was to be our boss) asked if I would like to be his assistant instead of walking door-to-door.  He told me what it would entail, and I agreed.  So I never ended up knocking on doors asking people who had yet to turn in their census to fill it out with me.  Instead, I would travel around meeting up with people who were doing just that – my fellow classmates.  I would take all the paperwork they had completed that day, review it, and help them problem-solve any issues they were having.  Then, I’d go meet with my boss and the other assistant at a local diner where we would gather all our paperwork and bring to him any problems we couldn’t resolve.

This was also the first and only job where I’ve ever had to fire people.  If employees were not following procedures or seemed to be claiming more hours than their work showed, it was my job to ask them to account for their time and warn them of what we were seeing.  If they didn’t shape up, I was the one to tell they we were letting them go – and then fill out a bunch of forms explaining why.

At one point in my census term a trainer was unable to do one of his scheduled trainings.  I can’t recall how it was that I came to get that job, but one week I found myself conducting the training that I myself had been through just a couple months earlier.  I was a mere 23 and most if not all of my students were older than me, but that didn’t really bother me.  I knew I knew what I was talking about and felt confident in my ability to speak in front of groups.  I had been a tour guide on my college campus, and then as a park ranger – I knew I loved to train and teach but didn’t yet realize what a gift that truly was.

The census has a bunch of different phases.  Official “Census Day” was April 1, 2000.  Prior to that day, we were in a “mapping” phase, where we would go around looking at the maps the previous phase had come up with and working on editing them – drawing in new developments, new houses – making sure every dwelling was on our map.  After April 1, anyone who hadn’t yet turned in their census got a knock on their door.

I can’t recall how many phases of which I was part.  I left my census job at the end of June – about to do something my mother had a few months earlier tried to convince me would never happen.  I was about to prove her wrong.

How I Got Here – The Europe trip

In October of 1999, I got an e-mail about an airfare sale.  It was from a company specializing in travel for folks under 26 years of age and at the time I was 23.  My desire to study abroad in college was shot down long ago, but here I saw an opportunity.  I wanted to get back to Europe and here was a message from above telling me the time was right.  My seasonal Park Ranger job was up at the end of  December.  So I booked a flight for $318 flying into Paris in January of the year 2000  and out of Rome four weeks later.

I had decided to fly into Paris because I knew how to speak French.  Most of you are saying, “Um…isn’t English your first language?  Why not go with that?”  Well, because I’m me.  English speaking countries?  I wanted something a little more adventurous.  So France it was.  I had spent six weeks in Switzerland one summer during high school and knew I wanted to visit my host family, so I added that to my list.  And I’d always wanted to see Italy.  I figured four weeks was long enough for a trip by myself, and wanted enough time to see each place on my list thoroughly so I ended in Italy, picking Rome as my point of return.

When researching my trip, I got completely overwhelmed by all the internet information, so I just stopped doing research for a while.  Then, I went to the bookstore, got Michelin Guides for each country (long, thin, compact – therefore easy for traveling) and went with those.  I had a hostel booked in Paris and one in Rome, but in between those two places my plans were open.  I had hostel information with me, but didn’t want to commit to any specific days.  (Those of you that know me are not at all surprised by this lack of commitment thing!)

I arrived in Paris and promptly got lost.  I was hauling around my entirely-too-heavy backpack feeling jet-lagged and could not find my hostel.  Whether you’re speaking English or French doesn’t matter – people around the globe unanimously give you bad directions.  Finally, I arrived at the hostel only to find that though I could leave my bags there I wasn’t allowed in my room til 4pm.  It was maybe 10AM.  So I got something to eat and headed to the Musee D’Orsay.  I bought an audio guide, fell in love with sculpture, and when I nearly fell asleep sitting on a bench in the museum decided to head back to the hostel.  Thankfully, by the time I got there I could get into my room and go to bed.  I awoke a few hours later and met my roommates who tried to convince me that I should just stay up to get over the jet lag.  I wasn’t sure about this, but upon their invitation to see the Champs D’Elysees all lit up at night, I dragged myself out of bed.

Turns out my two roommates were on the “Paris-in-a-Day” plan.  The next morning, when they explained that they were going to try to do the Louvre and two other sites by dinner, I opted not to join them.  I was on the “I’m here to relax and enjoy the city” plan.

The nice thing about staying in a hostel is that you can find people to do something with every morning at breakfast.  You go down to the community room, start chatting with folks at your table, see who’s doing what, and decide who you want to join – if anyone.  I went to Versailles with a couple Australians, my two roommates (who decided to give Versailles a whole day),  and an American teaching English in Asia who was on his break.  He explained that it’s so cheap to live in Asia and he gets paid so well that it’s easy to come to Europe every year for a few weeks.  Oh the possibilities life holds! I thought. But still, it was a little lonely to be in a country where you knew no one.  So the next day I decided three weeks was going to be enough and went to a travel office to change my flights.

After Paris, I headed to a little town called Troyes where a religious order that has brought some fabulous women into my life was started.  I spent a couple hours in the museum for the order with a sweet nun who spoke not a word of English.  I wandered the streets and then headed off to Switzerland.

My host sister decided we should ski the Alps.  I can count on one hand how many times I’d been on skis prior to that day.  We got to the top of mountain and when I looked out, it looked like you skied a few hundred feet and then went off a cliff.  I tried it, but at one point told her I was just going to take off my skis and walk down the mountain.  I snowplowed instead.  And that was the last time I went skiing.

In Italy I loved Venice and so stayed a few extra days.  At the Doge’s Palace, I was on a self-guided tour behind an American father-son pair.  Their repartee back and forth was hilarious and at the end of the tour I said something about how much I enjoyed their commentary.  They looked at me like I had three heads and said, “You speak English?!”  “Um…yeah,” I responded.  They said I was dressed like a European and they thought for sure I was Italian.  I explained how I’d read that all Americans in Europe are easily identifiable by their backpacks, jeans, and baseball caps so I tried not to use any of those in my day-to-day travels.  I was in black stretch pants, black boots, and carrying a shoulder bag.  We laughed over it all and they invited me to lunch.  Then, the son and I walked up to the top of St. Mark’s Cathedral together.  They were off then to visit friends in northern Italy.  I was jealous – I wanted locals to visit!  I would get my chance – six years later on a return trip, but that’s another story.

By the time I got to Florence, I was done with churches and museums for a bit.  I found an English book shop, bought a book, and sat in a piazza for hours reading.  It was splendid.  At the end of the day, I turned around and took a picture of my spot.  I still have that picture.

I didn’t much care for Florence.  The hostel there was run by some mean folks, so I saw the David and took off.  On the other hand, my hostel in Rome was the best ever.  The Beehive was owned by an American couple from California.  She was pregnant and talked about some of the nervousness of having a baby in a foreign country.  She also set me up on a phenomenal walking tour.  But what made Italy my all time favorite country?  Gelato.  Every day.  Sometimes twice a day.  Because honestly – what’s the way you really know you’re an adult?  You can eat ice cream whenever you want.  You think that’s cool?  Try replacing the ice cream with gelato.  Heaven on earth.

Upon my return, I was in quite a state of culture shock.  I just came back from my most amazing trip to date, and here I sat: living with my parents, no job, college life over and no gelato.  I felt quite depressed.  But something I did prior to leaving for Europe – something I did just as an aside, never thinking it’d be needed – would lead me to my next adventure.

Post-college life

A while back (November actually), I started a series of posts on how I got here.  By “here” I mean how I got to the point where I’m generally accepting of the fact that not everyone is meant to have just one job that they go to 9-5 for twenty years.  How I got to the point where I actually accept and usually embrace that who I am is someone who will never have just one full-time job, but will have many different income streams that will come and go with the tides.

So last we left off, I was one of just three people in my class o f thirty-six to have a physical therapist job upon graduation.  And every single one of my thirty-five classmates knew the last thing I wanted to do in life was work as a physical therapist.  Why?  Well, that’s a bit of a complicated question.  At the time, I genuinely thought I didn’t want to actually be a physical therapist.  In hindsight, I now know that it wasn’t that I didn’t like PT, it’s that I liked so many other things too and didn’t want to pick just one.  But no one had told me yet that it was possible to live a fabulous life without having a 9-5 job.

So I did as was expected and started my part-time physical therapy job.  I came home every day and cried.  Well, sometimes I didn’t make it home.  I went to the county park at lunch and cried on a park bench.  Secretly hoping to see my ex-boyfriend who worked there, which I did.  But that’s another story.

It wasn’t that the job was so bad.  It wasn’t at all by most accounts.  My co-workers were happy people willing to help me at any time.  My patients liked me and got better.  The setting had all the latest equipment.  The problem?  It was my first post-college job and I felt lost.  Up until that point I’d worked in PT settings with a supervisor to talk to.  Here, the place was so busy I barely had time to think.  I took to talking into a tape recorder between patients so I could remember at the end of the day who I did what with when it came time to write notes – if there was time to write notes.  And though everyone said they’ d be happy to help me, I felt that they were entirely too busy to help.  In hindsight, I should have asked to sit down with a senior PT once a week to review my caseload and make sure I was on track with my treatment plans.  But it was my first job out of college and I thought I was supposed to know it all.  Oh what a relief to have since learned you never know it all and it’s okay to ask questions.

Funny, even, that ten years later I have done more things that I had zero experience in without a problem!  No degree, no background, just a desire – I’ve lost track of the number of times that’s been my work situation by choice.

But I was young and inexperienced with the working world.  To her credit, my mom told me to do just what I mentioned above – ask to meet with someone once a week.  I never did.  Instead, two months after starting the job, I resigned.  It was the first of many jobs from which I’d resign over the next ten years.  I can’t recall what I said or any of the feelings I felt.  You know how you do something so much you don’t remember anymore what it felt like the first time?  That’s me and resignations.

My boss took it all in stride.  To this day, whenever he sees me about town, he will always introduce me as “the girl with the shortest PT career ever.”  I can laugh now, but it was nothing but tears back then.

What prompted me to leave?  Well, I had worked as a Park Ranger a few summers before and was still in touch with my old boss there.  He always wanted me back, but PT internships took up my summers.  I was at the park chatting with him one day and he told me how one of his seasonals was leaving and, once again, asked if I wanted a job.  I don’t think he thought I’d take him up on it – now that I had a degree and license to practice something completely different.  But he was wrong.  I did the math.  Because if I was going to quit my first PT job, I’d need to make it okay with dad, and dad’s language is money.  I figured out that working full-time at the park would earn me the same as working part-time as a PT.  So I resigned and went back to work as a Park Ranger.

No, dad wasn’t happy.  In situations like this, we tell mom first.  She then preps dad for the news, sometimes delivering it herself.  Having had more experience with him, she handles his incredulous looks and angry stammering so that by the time we get to him he’s not necessarily adjusted, but has calmed just a tiny little bit.

I dug out my old gray and green uniform, found  my signature Park Ranger hat, and went back to work at a job I loved.  But most park jobs are seasonal.  My season ended in December, 1999.  But by that time, I had my next adventure all planned out….

The Open Mike

So I’ve been trying my best to do an “Artist Date” once per week.  I’ve written about them in earlier posts – basically it’s a date with yourself.  Yes, by yourself.  I know it’s a scary concept for plenty of people, but oh how I enjoy it when I get up the nerve and do it.

Tonight I went to an Open Mike at the library a couple towns over.  How did I hear about this?  Well, on another artist date actually.  A couple months ago I went to here the Trapps at the Rhinecliff Hotel. On a Friday night.  By myself.  That took a little more push than other artist dates.  I’ve been to gallery openings,museums,  arts and crafts classes, antique stores – things people go to alone.  A band at a bar by yourself, well, I had to work up to that one.  Anyway, I find one way to get yourself out of the house is to get all dolled up, then you feel like you can’t waste a great outfit and a good hair day.  So I made it to the Rhinecliff, took a seat at the bar, and ordered a glass of wine.  Thankfully, most everyone was actually watching and listening to the band, so there was none of that, “I’m here with no one to talk to,” feeling.  The bartender was cute; the music was wonderful.  Not bad for a night out by yourself.

After a glass of wine, I started chatting up some of my fellow bar sitters:   a couple of “older” gentlemen who were former neighbors catching up with each other.  They had no problem talking to a single thirty-something instead of each other.  A little later others started dribbling in, and there I was, the band gone, and me still there!  A kindly gentleman asked if I was local and when I let him know I live just a few miles away he informed me that the crowd that just walked in was coming from an Open Mike that happens every third Friday at the local library.  He explained that the musicians are always amazing, and that they come by invitation.  He introduced me to the founder of the event, and I made a mental note.  Later, I pulled out my Palm Treo and marked “Open Mike at Morton Library” for every third Friday.

Well, tonight I made it over to the library.  Which actually looks like an old mansion.  Well, because it is old.  And was built by a wealthy couple as a gift to the community.  And what a gift!  It’s the first library I’ve seen that has a front porch with rocking chairs.  On one side is the library and on the other is the community room: hardwood floors, vaulted ceiling, a stage and a donated baby grand.  There were nearly fifty people in attendance by night’s end.  And the music?  Each song had a message for me.  Like I was destined to be there because these five groups had something to tell me.  It was a little of everything – we had some blues, folk, doo-wop, barbershop quartet, covers, originals.  The Rhinecliff donates sandwiches, there’s wine for sale in the back.  Everyone volunteers their time and donations for the library are accepted.  I read in the local “About Town” that the librarian knows everyone by name.  And now she knows mine:)  I joined the mailing list, and look forward to the next event.


When talking to a parent of one of my tutoring students last week, he asked what I do for work other than tutoring.  People assume I must be a high school math teacher since I’m tutoring their high school child in that very subject.  I told him I teach Anatomy & Physiology at a local college.  He paused and a confused look came over his face.  He made a comment that that seemed so different from this.  I said I liked the variety and already had a sense that this man would think my lifestyle completely absurd if I went on to tell him about the other things I do.

But I hope to one day live in a world where, when people hear the multitude of things I do, they unanimously think it’s fabulous.  Don’t get me wrong – many people do think this.  But I felt sorry for this student who had a father who had done the same thing all his life and probably expected the same of her.  Yet I’m sure she has a multitude of gifts, like all of us, and if she wants to pursue them all I hope she has the courage to go against the grain and do just that.

So next time you hear of someone that does something completely different from what you’d expect (the insurance agent who just got certified in flower arranging, for example), let them know how wonderful that is.  It’s simple, really.  Instead of a confused look across your face, smile and say, “That’s fascinating – how did you get into that?”  It will make our day:)