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Life After a Liberal Arts Degree

I recently saw the movie Liberal Arts. It didn’t get the best reviews when it was released, so I wasn’t expecting much, but a mere ten minutes in to the movie and I was hooked. Not only was the main character an English major with a liberal arts degree (just like me) but the movie explored the idea that liberal arts majors often struggle to find their place in the world after graduation — something I could identify with. Did I mention the movie is set in Ohio? (Really, can it get any better? Says the former Ohioan.)  

The movie’s main character, played by Josh Radnor, returns to his alma mater to speak at a professor’s retirement ceremony. Striking up a friendship/romance with a girl on campus, he revisits the places where he spent time as a student dreaming about his future. 

“I think one of the things I loved the most about being here,” he tells the girl, “was the feeling that anything was possible.”

Sheltered in an academic atmosphere, liberal art builds a fierce confidence. It instills a “follow your dreams” mentality where anything seems possible. A responsibility to your talents is fully realized. You find your voice. Dreams are built.

Then four years down the line it happens. You graduate.

Here’s where the difficulty lies. Getting a degree has taught you to use your brain. A lot! All the cramming for exams and late night writing aside, there were moments when (dare you admit it) you really enjoyed being in an academic setting. You loved learning. 

Surprisingly the real world is not as enthusiastic. You begin to realize that most people in your day to day life don’t care about analyzing books or discussing philosophy, nor do they want to hear about that novel you’ve been working on or the newest song you’ve composed. In fact, unless you join a book club, writing group, or the like, you’ll probably find the world a pretty lonesome place where kindreds are few and far between.

One of my favorite scenes in Liberal Arts is when the main character, Jesse, visits his university cafeteria for lunch. He starts a conversation with a student sitting across from him and the student asks, “Why did you love it here so much?”
Jesse pauses for a brief moment, smiles, and replies, “This is the only time you get to do this, you know? You get to sit around and read books all day, have really great conversations about ideas. People out in the world, they’re not really doing that. Think about it, you could go up to everyone here and say I’m a poet and no one will punch you in the face.”

Emerging from a university world you can’t help but see the difference in your life before and after. Dreams are re-shaped, aspirations frustrated, talents often forsaken. It’s almost as if you are training for the fight of your life, only to go down in the first round. 

I wish someone had written a book entitled The Consequences of a Liberal Arts Degree (I’m sure Jesse would agree at least a whole chapter could be devoted to poets). Maybe then we could have been better prepared for this transition.

But it’s not all bad. Consequences can be positive after all. Life after a liberal arts degree can be challenging, frustrating, and even lonesome at times, but discovering what you are passionate about makes it worth it in the end. Most importantly, we will always remember that feeling, that anything is possible. Sometimes that is all it takes in the darkest of hours to keep the spark alive.


 “Memory is a way of holding on to the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.”  Kevin Arnold

I’ve been thinking a lot about family lately. About how we communicate, how time escapes us, and how memories keep loved ones near. I’ve especially been thinking about my grandparents. I had a dream about my grandpa (Papa as we called him) the other night. It was one of those strangely real, vivid dreams that stay with you, even after you wake up. True to life, in my dream Papa had been gone for many years, but he’d left something for me. Something he wanted someone to give me. I didn’t know what the something was, but was excited about the gift, sure that it would hold some sort of special meaning or message. Boy was I disappointed. A dried sprig of herbs wasn’t exactly what I had in mind – dreams are strange creatures!

The dream left an impression on me though. It filled me with a sort of desperation to be near Papa again, to hear his voice and his life-filled laughter. And it made me think how nice it would be, if those who are gone from our lives could go on speaking to us, even after they are gone.

I was reminded of a home video my parents took of my brother and me when we were little. Papa is in the video, sitting on a bench at a park. I’m scooting closer to him, and my brother is toddling just at his side. My grandma comes into the picture and picks up my brother. Everyone is smiling. The audio is fuzzy and the picture quality isn’t that great, but you can hear my grandpa’s laugh – his big life laugh, as he takes me on his knee. We all look so happy.

The first time I saw this video, it filled me with an understanding I’d never had before. I’d always known how much my grandparents meant to me, but I’d never considered how much I meant to them. Of course I knew they loved me, but I’d never really thought about how much they loved being grandparents. Their joy was captured perfectly in the video; you can see it in their faces, hear it in their laughter. They loved my brother and me so much! It made me feel incredibly proud to have known them and to have had a part in their lives.

Remembering this video, I thought about how my life has been so deeply shaped by those who loved me and are now gone from my life. There is a comfort in knowing not only that you’ve loved, but been loved. Maybe this is the gift after all, the message I was searching for. Memories often remind us of what we are missing, but they should also remind us of the love that made that person memorable. How that love remains and grows in us, through our expressions, our passions, our beliefs, even sometimes our physical traits. How the ones we miss continue to speak, because they are a part of us – something that will always be. And we are a part of them, continuing their story, shaping it into our own.

The Journey

“There's much more in any given moment than we usually perceive, and that we ourselves are much more than we usually perceive. When you know that, part of you can stand outside the drama of your life.” Ram Dass

It’s a 30 minute train ride. On New Year’s Eve, the platform is busier than usual, but when the train arrives I find a compartment that’s almost completely empty.  As the journey carries me out of the city, past the busy airport, and into rolling Scottish countryside, I lay my head back against the seat and let my mind clear. We flash past towns. Sometimes we stop. The train rests as if it is merely catching its breath before rushing on. At one stop I count to 30 before we are moving again. Despite the pace, the ride feels relaxed and somehow sheltered from the rest of the worlds speed, like a reprieve from everyday. The compartments are quiet with only a few passengers and there is nothing to do but sit back and take in the view. Outside grey clouds break. Dramatic tails of sunshine dip down across the countryside in vibrant long stretches of light. Distant slate grey clouds tease of rain.

When we come to the Forth Bridge a few minutes later the view opens up, stretching across the impressive length of the railway bridge mirrored by the road bridge directly adjacent. Extending on both sides, the wide Forth River flows past colorful houses perched on the stony rivers edge where freighters and sail boats head for open sea. With this expansive view my pulse quickens in recognition of a secret crush for this land, a crush I’ve always had for this land, even before I knew it as I do now. Sometimes it’s hard to admit to this affection (and that it might be more than fleeting). Living in a foreign country does strange things to your emotions and sense of belonging. It can become easy to hate a place simply because it’s different than what you’re used to or it isn’t where you ultimately want to be.  But, after all these years, I’ve come to accept the struggle and see ways that it has made me grow. Coming to terms with these transitions has brought about this odd recognition—although I don’t consider this place home, something of its essence has seeped into me. And there are moments, like crossing the railway bridge, where I can’t help but acknowledge the connection.

There is something akin to home on these train rides, although I can’t quite decide what it is that makes these journeys feel comfortably familiar. Maybe it’s the families with their attentive parents and young children who exclaim over views of the sea, an excitement I share quietly with a smile. Or maybe it’s the young couples, heads resting on each others shoulders, their quiet conversations and hands entwined reminding me of my husband who will be waiting for me at home.

Today, a young Spanish couple sits in front of me. They move from one side of the train to the next with a vibrant energy that is infectious. The young man keeps taking pictures of the young woman, the sea as a backdrop. It’s obvious they’ve never made this journey before. They look quickly forward, then back, but never focus on what is coming or what is left behind for too long because they are too caught up in what is directly outside their window.  I feel their enthusiasm, as if I too am seeing it all for the first time. It’s the water that impresses them most and I agree. The power of the sudden opening view to sea is like a constant revealing secret, surprising and unexpected.

As the tracks leave the seaside and turn inland back to rolling countryside of stone stacked fences and sheep, I can’t help but see this journey as a kind of contradiction to resolutions. It’s New Years Eve after all—a time when we are suppose to be making promises while looking back and planning forward. But what about the here and now? The excited young couple reminds me that it isn’t always about where we have been or where we are going. Sometimes it’s the journeys that are in process. It’s the immediate emotions and experiences and moments of realization that tell us we are alive that are important. Sometimes it is where we are that is the most extraordinary journey of all.

The Stories that Make Us

“We listen to the truth, the memories, the bits made up. We gaze at each other. We eat warm buttered toast. We know that the sun will fall, that the children and the birds will be silent. We know that we will return to separate lives and separate deaths. We listen to the stories that for an impossible afternoon hold back the coming dark.”
David Almond,
Counting Stars

Stories are extraordinary things. They rally our emotions, entertain and transport us, even teach us. But more significantly, stories offer an understanding of ourselves and others in a way that nothing else can.

Some of the best stories are not confined to paper. When I was a kid I remember listening to stories my parents and grandparents told about their experiences growing up. Their worlds, each unique in their own way, captivated me. Stories of inner city segregation, of blinding blizzards on the farm, of coal mining, poverty, and one room school houses—they weren’t my stories, but I recognized they were a part of me in some way. As I got older I came to value these stories, not just as an understanding of the past and where I came from, but as a deciphering of myself, what I value, and what I want my life to be.

We all have a need to share our world as we experience it. We all have a story to tell. You don’t have to look hard to realize stories are everywhere. From the simple retelling of the days events to a friend, to the latest movie or newspaper headline. Even in the silence of a person’s body language, a piece of sea glass washed on shore, or a graffiti stained wall there is a hidden story.

So what is this need for stories? Why are we so driven as human beings to share a part of ourselves? For writers I think the answer is simple. Stories are a craft
something we study, work at, and admire. In our own work we watch as our words, as inadequate as they might seem, grow and mature. We desire to understand and be understood. And we recognize this beautiful struggle in the stories of others. We identify, whether the story is real or imagined, the coming together of plot and character, the attempt to capture life’s likeness on the page. And if successful, we are held in magical wonder at the power of words.

Stories are living things, an ever present reminder of the extraordinary creation process. Whether they are based on truth or made up bits, they know no boundaries. Perhaps in their timelessness we recognize a part of our own brevity, and in those “impossible afternoons” when we listen, we discover not only a break from the “coming dark”, but also our own story, continuing on, being shaped, being told.

Discovering the Poetry of Truth

"The greatest mystery
is unsheathed reality itself."
Eudora Welty

For a number of reasons, people tend to avoid cemeteries. Often burial grounds are either associated with a feeling of loss and sadness or, for those with overactive imaginations, a general creepiness fueled by too many campfire stories and low budget Hollywood horror films. Cemeteries are not exactly a walk in the park, yet it’s undeniable they maintain an important role in our society by enriching our lives with an awareness of ones brevity and connecting us to those who have gone before.

Call me strange, but I love cemeteries. They remind me of a short story anthology you would find at a garage sale—a little weather beaten, a bit out of date, but full of quickly read tales waiting to be discovered. Only, these tales aren’t fiction, they really happened. These tales are full of people just like you and I, who experienced a gamut of life’s events, who knew what it was to laugh, to cry, to love, to dream... Perhaps that is what makes them even more powerful. Who doesn’t love a true story!

Just up the road from where my grandparents lived, there is an old cemetery and church that dates back to the 1840’s. My great grandparents are buried there, as well as a great aunt and uncle. When I was younger, I remember roaming the cemetery after Sunday service, fascinated by the old stones and inscriptions. Sometimes I’d pick wildflowers that grew on the fringes and secretly (so that my parent’s wouldn’t think me crazy) leave them on graves of strangers. I’d wonder who the people were and if they were among the many that once filled the small church. And looking for some sort of connection to these people who lived a century before, I’d always think about the seat I’d sat in that particular Sunday (since the seats were relics themselves) and wonder if this person or that person might have sat in the same seat during their lifetime.

Not too long ago, I had the chance to return to the Captina Cemetery and do a little exploring. I visited the graves of my relatives, then made my way down the hill to faintly remembered graves. There’s a large stone with the names of three children and their parents, all who died on the same day. Larger granite stones mark graves from the 50’s and 60’s and fractured stones that are no longer decipherable lie stacked on the edge where the woods reclaim the land. Halfway down the hill, I came across two stones dated 1834. I didn’t remember the stones from my childhood and was surprised by the well preserved inscriptions. The first stone said “In memory of Nancy, consort of Harrison Massie, who departed this life March 23rd 1834, Aged 23yrs, 2 months 19 days.” A similar stone sat beside Nancy’s stone. “In memory of Roxanne, daughter of Harrison and Nancy Massie, who departed this life Aug 23rd, 1834, Aged 5 months, 15 days.” It took me a second to do the math before I realized the mother had died after giving birth to Roxanne and the newborn, for whatever reason, died 5 months after her mother. Curious, I searched the area for the husband and father, Harrison Massie, but his stone wasn’t there.

It was starting to get dark and I reluctantly walked back up the hill to leave the cemetery. On the way home, I thought about the two stones and the one that was missing, finding it strange that sometimes all we will know about a person’s lifetime is the date of their birth and death. I was reminded of why, when I was younger, the old cemetery held such a drawing power for me. The simple stones of people like Nancy and Roxanne Massie were puzzling in that there was so much more I would like to know about them, but will never know. Likewise these strangers, with their eternal secrets, bring us closer to something beyond ourselves—a time and place we can only imagine.

As a writer, I value these experiences, the kind that draw me to people and places I know nothing of. I love the guesswork and the challenge it provides. There is something significant about stretching the mind and imagination to discover things that are known and unknown. Perhaps that is why I am passionate about travel and experiencing new cultures. As a Spanish proverb says, “Experience is not always the kindest of teachers, but it is surely the best.”

For a writer, it’s not only about keeping the mind active, it’s about telling the story. But we do strange things when we find an experience or idea we want to set to paper. We boil it down until we are sure there is nothing but the richest of contents left, but at the end of the process feel that there is still some ingredient missing. We add a little of this and a little of that. Still, it isn’t quite right. After time has cooled the strangely colored brew, we remember why we began writing the story in the first place. At this point you have to ask —do I venture into the unknown or do I stick with the facts? Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing foolish about putting your imagination to work, but sometimes truth is the missing link, the element that is most inspiring.

Next time you happen across a cemetery, or a newspaper article, or an event in your day to day life that captivates you, discover the poetry in what is true. If you find you are stuck after too much imaginative additives, return to the place where you began—the truth behind the inscription. Perhaps in these mysteries, in the recognition that real life is often stranger than fiction, the greatest story lives.

Going Beyond the Ordinary

"If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."
George Eliot, Middlemarch

One of the greatest gifts a writer can have is the ability to transform the ordinary into extraordinary. Have you ever read a story where the simplest action or object is described with such insight you become mesmerized by something you would normally overlook? This experience can change our perspective on life and the world around us, proving if we dig beneath the surface, there is often more than meets the eye. But as a writer, how do we chip away the ordinary to get at the diamond core?

George Eliot’s quote, though focused on sound, has a lot to offer about the process. “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,” she says, we would hear the world around us in a way quite different from what we hear now. As writers, we are taught to observe and transcribe, but what if observation involved more? What if our senses were infused with “keen vision and feeling” that went beyond the ordinary?

We don’t posses super human abilities, but that shouldn’t hold us back. True, we can’t hear grass grow or a squirrel’s heartbeat, but we know things, lots of things. We know the word love is a weak explanation for what we really feel about someone close. We know the familiar, unique smell that tells us we are home. We know the feeling of a knot working in our throats when we are upset. And we have an imagination. Even if we have never been in love or been white water rafting or baked an apple pie, we can imagine what it would be like. No, we are not super human, but we are human. It’s not about the abilities we are lacking; it’s about how we choose to use the abilities we have.

Sometimes, this means thinking outside the box. If we were to write only what is true, we would all be liars (and we wouldn’t have hugely popular series such as The Chronicles of Narnia or Twilight). Every writer knows it is nearly impossible to replicate in words an experience or object exactly the way it exists in real life. Some writers find they are more comfortable writing about things that are anything but real. This only proves our imaginations are a powerful tool. We will always want to embellish the truth, make it poetic, and iron out the wrinkles of reality. So how do we use this tool to our advantage?

Consider Eliot’s quote once more. Before reading it, had you thought about the sound grass makes when it grows or what a squirrel’s heartbeat would sound like? I hadn’t. In fact, I’d never thought about grass making a sound because I’d never considered it being capable of such a thing. Aha! Now we are going beyond the ordinary!

Here’s another example. Let’s imagine an old barn sitting in a field. Instead of thinking about the ordinary aspects of the barn, lets pretend we have the keen sense of vision and feeling Eliot describes. Get your mining gear out. Go beneath the surface. Stop thinking about the barn in terms of color, dimension, and the materials holding it together. Consider instead the barn’s history, the events it has witnessed, and the stories it might tell. What does the barn see and hear? What would its voice sound like if it could speak? What does it feel? Think about what events might have influenced the overall mood of the place. Perhaps a tragic event took place in the barn. Say someone committed suicide. Or maybe something wonderful happened there, perhaps an engagement or a special birth (think about the Christmas story and how that changed our view of a manger).

By viewing ordinary objects in this way, it’s possible to get at the heart of what makes even the ordinary, extraordinary. Ultimately the descriptions we find often get at what we really think or feel about the things we are describing. Oddly enough, sometimes imagination can produce a truer picture than our five senses.

So next time you are struggling with description, don’t take the boring route. Use your imagination to dig beneath the surface. Think outside the box, ask questions, and go beyond the ordinary!