In autumn, the leaves change color in much the same way that my hair grays – in large, startling swatches that bloom overnight. Last week, I came across a tree that was vibrant summer green, all except one large bough that popped bright yellow, as if caught with one arm stuck through the sleeve of a bright sweater.
Autumn means industriousness. The trees are the first to get to work. They’ve been taking it easy all summer, soaking up the sun, and now the show-offs demonstrate their abilities in a final, brilliant performance. Many years on the academic calendar – as a student and, later, as a teacher – have thoroughly conditioned my mind to equate the autumn with a different sort of colorful spectacle – new pens, folders, and binders (remember Trapper Keepers?) of every hue. As the trees turn and the weather cools, my fingers itch for school supplies, my mind thinks, “Well, time to get back to work.” Then, in the uncomfortable silence that follows, quietly wonders, “Doing what…?”
Since the birth of my daughter a year and a half ago, I have not returned to my work in the classroom. I miss the new pens, and that feeling of getting organized. (Perhaps that’s why I’ve spent the last weeks shopping for bins from IKEA, the thirty-something’s version of the Trapper Keeper.) I miss feeling both excited and anxious about welcoming meeting a new group of students, knowing that each school year holds in wait countless wonderful moments of learning and friendship, countless challenges to be met. I miss the change, too, the sense that one part of the year is coming to an end, and a new one is beginning. The school year gave a comforting and predictable rhythm to my life.
Mostly, though, I miss having a neat answer to the ubiquitous question, “What do you do?” These days, when someone asks me what I do, my mouth opens, but none of the words that come out seem to fit. “I am a mother,” is the obvious answer. But that doesn’t describe me, not even close. The world of parenting – playdates, music classes, and playgrounds – is too small for me, too local. I long for a way to affect people outside my immediate circle, as I did when I was in the classroom, or when I led workshops for teachers.
I could answer the question with an attempt to describe the evolving truth, which is that in too-short bites of time while the baby sleeps or plays with a babysitter, I am editing books for teachers, I am preparing to teach workshops for GLI, I am reading books and writing about them, while also putting my own stories – both imagined and real – to paper. But, I usually don’t get that far. That answer is longer and more complex than most people care to hear. Plus, it seems too nebulous to be real – aren’t most mothers in Brooklyn also “writers?” It feels pretentious and unrealistic to describe myself as such before I’ve been published. Well, Shannon, I ask, what’s so wrong with being “pretentious and unrealistic?” Isn’t that just another way of saying “ambitious?” I’m in uncharted territory here, and the truth is that I’m scared of looking foolish. Scared that people might – God forbid – laugh. At me.
It seems that I, too, am caught with one arm through a sleeve. What is this new identity that I am pulling over my head? What do I want it to be? Being undefined doesn’t feel entirely comfortable, but it feels very true. I am beginning to see the positive aspects of my situation; I have the power to set the terms and the goals, and the power to change them. It’s no easy task, stripping down to the essential parts of my life so I can figure out how to present myself anew. Just ask any tree. I hope and trust, however, in the potential to be brilliant.
This post will also appear on Girls Leadership Institute’s new blog Woosh!
Photo credit goes to: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aunto/