On June 14 of this year, I hit the road with my daughter and our cats and a 5’x8′ trailer full of our stuff. No lease in hand, no job, just an email confirmation and a temporary address in Boulder, Colorado.
Our journey wasn’t without its share of excitement. When I arrived I had only a vague idea of the layout of the town. Without GoogleMaps I’d never have found my way around. But we settled in, drove around, found the best spots for ice cream, hardware, people watching, etc. In the spirit of outdoor adventures, we went along on a Father’s Day hike with friends at a nearby mountain lake, where I took a spill on a muddy hill and sprained my ankle; fully initiated into the Colorado way of life. Later that week I hobbled into State and County offices to get my new driver’s license and plates, drove up to North Boulder for a job interview, celebrated a rainy birthday in Estes Park with my daughter, and stubbornly attempted to climb 2 different mountain trails in town. My ankle pain came and went, and it became more difficult to conduct normal activities. Four weeks after the injury I was diagnosed with a fractured fibula, and told to refrain from weight-bearing activities altogether. Two weeks after that, I had recovered enough that I was able to pack up the same 5’x8′ trailer and with the help of local movers, I settled in a new home 3 miles to the north.
I’m now on the eighth week of this adventure. The hummingbirds have given us a warm welcome, serenading us daily with their trills and delighting us with their fly-by’s. The hills in the distance instill hope and energy every morning as I look out on this place that I now have the distinct pleasure of calling “home.”
As I sipped a long-pour of vodka and soda, I listed some things on my neighborhood’s Facebook garage sale site. I didn’t expect it to get so much attention! I woke up to a dozen messages, people wanting appliances, tables, shelves, bikes. One by one I scheduled pick ups, and now I’m about $150 richer while I mourn the loss of my precious stuff. Trying now to take a few moments to think of how my stuff will give others pleasure as it did for me.
The bike, though. That was my form of transportation when I was carless in the late 90’s. I spent every evening on the lakefront riding further and further from my home base, till I was able to do the 30-mile Bike the Drive. One summer I logged 1000 miles riding to and from my job in the south Loop. Then, after handing the car over to my ex in the divorce and before selling our home, I rode 15 miles from Rogers Park to my parents’ home in Mount Prospect, in a symbolic act of strength in the face of sadness. I listened to Bon Iver and Of Monsters and Men as I made my way west, reversing the trip I had made so many years earlier to settle in the big bad city. It was a pattern I would repeat for the next 3 years, visiting my old haunts for a sense of closure. I took up running and made destinations out of schools I had attended, parks and pools where I’d spent my younger years, the filthy bar where I’d shared my misery with grown-up childhood friends, and homes where I had had my first sleepovers, babysitting gigs, piano lessons. I had a rich and rewarding childhood. I loved being able to relive some of my greatest memories when I was so deeply saddened about the course my life had taken in my 30’s.
About 7 months ago I decided to wrap up the old days. As my daughter’s godfather reminded me today, the times, they are a changin’. It’s time to make some new memories and let the old ones stay in the past, to patina and gather dust. Soon I’ll feel a pull to explore new words, and to give my daughter all the joys I never knew as a child.
This week I celebrated the reunion of my old company, Leap Partnership. It had been fifteen years since I’d seen most of them in person. I only set aside an hour, but I managed to sneak in some great conversations. These people, especially the women, were so influential to me at a critical time in my life, and still inspire me today. Each of the ladies in this photo now contributes to the community in a totally different way. One is a clinical therapist, another is the president of a university. Another learned the hard way how to start her own business, and she now helps others achieve the same thing. I talked to one of the original partners, who now manages his own original brand, inspired by (of all things) the actual summer camp in Wisconsin that he attended as a kid, and now owns with his wife. Another long-time management leader had moved over to a similar company which has been going strong all this time. At least four couples paired up during our stint together, with at least 9 kids resulting from those unions.
Before joining Leap, I had been pigeonholed into submissive roles doing clerical work, trying to fulfill my dream of being an active part of the art world in Chicago. By spring of 1999, I was growing tired of having to act a certain way to project the right image to the people I was “serving.” Exasperated, I resigned from my job in a Michigan Avenue art gallery. I don’t recall ever worrying about how I’d pay the rent, I was so confident then that I’d find a replacement job. Soon I landed a temporary position at Leap, which was then Quantum Leap, a small ad agency which was just beginning to engage in web site design. Even on day one I knew this was a big break for me. I sat near the HR office, and was quickly absorbed into a team of smart, dedicated professionals, whose attitude was inclusive and without judgment. Once initiated, I was given the chance to use my design skills, and I was offered a full time position. For the first time ever, I got my own desk.
It was all too good to be true. The sense of camaraderie was fantastic, an office full of young creatives who regularly invited all to their band performances, art shows, underground warehouse parties. Never had I been so socially fearless. Even fifteen years later I can remember conversations with nearly every one of the 60ish employees who made up that core group. Soon enough we had competition, and I was placed on the team that assembled proposals for new business. There was lots to do, but gradually the bottom started to fall out. Ultimately, most of the company was laid off. What followed was a terrible grieving period. I had attached so much of my identity to that job, that when I was cut off, I felt like I was worthless. Till I realized what a gift I’d been given. I stand by this statement: being laid off from Leap was the best thing that ever happened to me. I had to rebuild myself from the ground up. I had to wake up every morning that summer and ask myself what the heck was I put here to do. In a couple of months I would be staying up all night to put together a portfolio of my own creative work (some of which I created that night), and somehow I’d be chosen over 200 other applicants for an apprenticeship with an art conservation lab. A new chapter, just when I thought the story was over.
This is Pop, otherwise known as Jesse Jones, my great-grandfather. He came to me through my aunt, who rescued him from a termite-damaged frame in the back of my grandmother’s closet in Norco, LA. There had been collateral damage which resulted from a difficult removal from the frame. So I stabilized the cracks, filled and inpainted, and refitted the photo in its convex glass enclosure. It’s been a year since I sent the portrait back. It was my first earnest attempt at working from home, and a validating experience in that I set out to do something I normally do with watchful eyes on me. This time I was unsupervised, no training wheels.
The best part about restoring this family heirloom was the conversation that followed with my 85-year old Granny Jewell. She loved her Pop, and described him as a “rascal.” I spent many hours pondering that handsome face, wondering if he was the same tall old man I saw in my parents’ wedding photos. What had he done to make a living? What sort of traits did he pass on to his children? Why had he sat for this portrait?
I learned that this portrait was taken before my grandmother was born, prior to 1930. Pop had previously been married, and he and his first wife each had these studio portraits made. In those days, sales men walked door to door soliciting photos like this, which would have been printed on a domed surface, which was of course vulnerable if not framed in a special frame with convex glass. It would have been more costly than a traditional flat photo, but people liked the look of it. Pop’s first wife divorced him and moved out west, taking her own portrait with her. He stayed in Louisiana where he became acquainted with the town’s post-mistress, Anna. Soon they married and had 3 girls, one of whom is my Granny Jewell.
Granny said that he was often ill, and couldn’t work. They were very poor, but she made a point of saying in spite of that, they were never hungry. Pop had moved south to Louisiana from Illinois for the sole reason that one could grow crops year round. Combined with the availability of fish and game, the family never lacked fresh food. My Great Grandmother, who was affectionately referred to as Great Mom, was a Cajun woman who still spoke the Creole French of her ancestors. Her husband didn’t like when she spoke French in the home, because having been raised in Illinois, he couldn’t understand it. But according to my mother, a few French phrases hung on in their household even into the 1970’s when Great Mom passed away. Pop wasn’t a fan of Cajun cooking either. My Granny was brought up to cook “white sauces” and blander foods which would have come from Pop’s upbringing upriver in Illinois. Pop was the outlier, but he called the shots in the kitchen.
Pop was good with his hands, and he made a hobby of creating altar pieces. These table top folk-art altars were made for the home-bound Catholics in the rural Louisiana community where he lived. They would have been auctioned off at church events and used by the local people who wanted to worship, but couldn’t attend church due to illness. A few years ago, my grandmother’s sister Enid took it upon herself to attempt to collect as many altars as she could to preserve them for future generations. She was interviewed in her local newspaper for her noble efforts, which led to the preservation of at least a half dozen of these artifacts.
The preservation gene runs strong on that side of my family. My mother has long been the family historian, and I got Great Aunt Enid’s itch for restoring old stuff. We all are swayed by sentimentality, looking for answers in our past. Metaphorically turning over rocks in search of clues as to how we all got here.
Two years ago, I had the fortune of being introduced to Phil, an aspiring life coach. A mutual friend of ours arranged for us to meet so we could talk about reevaluating my career choices. He came to me armed with tools like Venn diagrams, reading recommendations, and diagnostic tests to measure my professional strengths and weaknesses. In time, our conversations revealed that he held so many more tools in his arsenal. Phil is a practicing Buddhist, and his philosophy centers on finding greater meaning in everyday life by letting go of the things that don’t serve us. It wasn’t easy to grasp some of the ideas with which he challenged me. He gave me assignments, designed to force me out of my comfort zone, in order to allow me to see my world in a new way.
I had experienced a series of events which had led me to a murky place in my life. I was wandering in a fog of shame and anger, and I’d lost my path. Little by little, we stripped away some the shameful thoughts and doubts that had enshrouded me. We talked about gratitude. We practiced confrontations. He retrained me to say the words “I WANT.” Risks that I had avoided for years suddenly presented themselves as opportunities.
One of the toughest challenges Phil presented to me, from the very beginning, was to create a web site. I had purchased the URL “susandeangelis.com” years ago, fresh out of college, as a way to keep in touch with art school friends. When I had no content to add, my friends teased me and told me to keep trying. I never stopped creating, or wanting to share that creativity, but I became paralyzed by the fear of not measuring up. So it never materialized.
I’m proud to say that almost 20 years (and one giant leap) later, I’ve discarded a lot of those fears. Making a web site now feels about as intimidating as making a pie. I have the knowledge, the materials, the drive, and when I show it to my audience, my hope is that they’ll dig right in past the flaky crust and down to the sweet, juicy center.