“There is only one you for all time. Fearlessly be yourself.”
Recently, I was having lunch with my husband at Uno Pizzeria. As we exited the restaurant, a large wall poster caught my eye. A bright, stylized train in a bucolic setting, the bulbous nose of its engine speeding toward the viewer, promising at any moment to break past the frame and emerge in real life: The City of New Orleans. Illinois Central Railroad.
Decades dropped as I stood, transfixed, gazing at the embodiment of this thing that had changed my life. That moment when I understood what I could never be, would never be, and said yes to everything that I am.
Turning points. We all have them. They are the revelations that open our eyes to a truth right before us, the moments when the road forks, and trusting solely in our gut, we plunge forward and never look back.
I’ve had my share of revelations and forked roads, but I would choose two above the rest as life-defining moments—all the past on one side, all the future ahead, only awaiting which way I would leap. The first occurred at the beginning of 8th grade.
A Fool for Cool
Is there anyone alive who would wish to be back in middle school? Thirteen. It’s not just an unlucky number. It’s an abominable age, and I was no exception. Painfully shy and self-conscious (and at 5’8”, taller than all the boys), I was, to boot, a good student in an era when girls were advised to play dumb because “boys don’t date girls who are smarter than them.”
Mine was not an auspicious résumé for someone who longed to be popular. And I did yearn to be one of the chosen few. All through 7th grade, I rolled my (uncool) wavy hair on Coke cans to straighten it like The Mod Squad’s Peggy Lipton. I bought my clothes at Terri’s, the local teen shop where the cool kids bought their clothes. Finally, in desperation, I cut my long hair super short after they all bobbed theirs.
This last effort (regretted immediately) actually won me my trial spot. On a warm October afternoon, one of the golden girls, Julie, took notice of my slavish devotion to all things cool, and invited me to go to the 8th grade football game with her and three other Cools. As we trooped across autumn fields on our way to the game, they babbled on about some “cute” clothes they’d seen and the “cute” things Doug (class hottie, captain of the football team, 5’2”) said at lunch, and the “cute” shade of lipstick Donna was wearing.
Halfway there, I knew: I HAD NEVER BEEN SO BORED IN MY LIFE. Imagine the worst cocktail party you’ve ever endured, multiply it by a power of 1000, and you’ve got the picture.
I never saw the game. I left them before we even got to the football grounds, mumbling something about suddenly feeling unwell. But as I ran back across the fields, I’d never felt looser, freer, happier. A light bulb had come on: I didn’t need to win these people. There were better people for me out there. And I began to find them. I also began to say what I thought, to laugh out loud when something struck me as funny. To write my own stories. Sing my own songs. I grew my hair long again and let the curls fall where they would.
Nearly a decade later, after a heady semester abroad studying Shakespeare and contemporary British theatre in London, I returned to college with two trimesters left. I loved college. My crazy, wonderful friends. The all-night confabs about life. Discussing Borges or Faulkner in seminar on spring afternoons, a lazy breeze wafting through the open windows (yes, I was a lit geek, still am). But as the days dwindled to graduation, I wondered: What would happen next?
I couldn’t really picture a life “after.” For the better part of four years, I’d read literature and history. Studied psychology and comparative religions. Written reams of short fiction, essays, analyses. Even a few one-act plays. Once again, I found myself with a CV that wasn’t quite what the moment demanded, the moment being one where I turned my 180 college credits into a rent-paying job that would launch me on some sort of brilliant career.
I sat up late into the night, every night, and scribbled reams of poetry. I offer sample verses from two here to give you a flavor of that time:
3 ayem, the suicide hour
You can’t go back to yesterday
Can’t hang on until tomorrow
The bars are all closed
And the cupboard is bare
So that you will know my face
The next time we meet
I was the one with the epic visions
And a few loose nickels in my worn jacket pocket
WHAT was I going to do with my life? All around me, it seemed, were people who had majored in marketing or advertising or some other field where you line up for interviews with the big companies who visit campus to fill their work cubicles.
I could write mighty anything (distress-poetry excerpts aside). I had a good sense of humor. And I knew the lyrics to virtually every song written since 1964.
It seemed highly unlikely that any enterprise cutting paychecks would beat a path to my door in the immediate future.
Besides, the thought of “suiting up” made me cringe. I loathed the idea of making widgets, of becoming a widget.
So there I was, full circle back to the beginning: What was I going to do?
Moment of Truth
There are moments you don’t expect. You didn’t see them coming. Didn’t set them up. But they arrive anyway.
Days before graduation, I went to my neighborhood pizza pub with my roommate Lorna. Weekend nights, they had folk singers, and I knew most of the musicians. There was a group of us who hung out after hours, along with the bartenders, just talking and laughing.
On that Saturday, my friend Dennis was playing, Lorna and I were sharing a pizza, and I was hoping a beer or two would take the edge off my near-paralyzing fear of the future.
And then Dennis played City of New Orleans, a song made famous by Arlo Guthrie but actually written by Steve Goodman. That song, that night, changed my life.
Riding on the city of New Orleans
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
There are fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail
There all out on this southbound odyssey
And the train pulls out of Kankakee
Rolls past the houses, farms and fields
Passin’ towns that have no names
And freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of rusted automobiles
Singin’ good morning America, how are ya
Saying don’t ya know me I’m your native son
Yes I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans
And I’ll be gone 500 miles when day is done…
I can’t point to a line or a verse. There’s no one thing that explains the moment I knew, but I did know. That I would never be a suit, never climb “the ladder.” That, faced with the choice, I would always choose freedom over security. And that, one way or another, I would land on my feet.
Maybe it’s like tea leaves. We see clearly at some crossroads the blunt truth in our gut, and give ourselves permission to go with that truth. It seemed to me in that moment that if I didn’t follow my heart, I would silence it. That what I loved most in myself would be lost forever. So I followed.
The Shape of a Life
To pay the rent, I got a job waiting tables. I began writing articles for a local political/arts rag The Lansing Star. No money, just a bunch of young writers enthusiastic about reporting on what was happening in the world and eager to get their words down in print. The editor soon gave me a weekly column and I started writing theatre reviews for the arts section. I also volunteered as a counselor at the women’s shelter, helping women who’d suffered domestic violence to break free of their abusers and build a new, independent life. Everything I was doing felt like me.
There was some blowback. My parents thought I was throwing my education away: “If we’d known you wanted to be a waitress, we wouldn’t have wasted the money sending you to college.” But you can’t throw a thing like education away. You can’t make what has enriched you un-enrich you.
In the years since then, I’ve cobbled together a living, writing and editing and teaching. Not a grandiose living, but I have a roof and food and more consumer junk than I really need. I travel widely, rummage through used bookstores, and root for the Yankees, all with a husband I love dearly. I have a son and a daughter I cherish. I write novels.
John Prine called City of New Orleans “the best damn train song I ever heard.” When Arlo Guthrie recorded it in 1972, its popularity made songwriter Steve Goodman enough money to fulfill his dream—a fulltime career in music. Goodman died at age 36 after a long struggle with leukemia. He left behind something like a dozen albums.
I wish I could have thanked him for … everything.