Five years ago I dropped out of university. It was a combination of things, but mostly this: I didn’t want to be an anthropologist. I didn’t want to be a journalist. I wanted to be a novelist, and I didn’t have the time to pursue two goals. It was a hard decision, but it was also incredibly easy. By then I was used to making these kinds of sacrifices. I wanted to be a writer and I was willing to give up anything to make that happen.
Five years is a long time, but in many ways not long at all. Good things have happened in pursuit of my dream; bad things, also. But I’m privileged to be chasing after a dream that rewards the years, that values insight and maturity over youth and enthusiasm. I’m getting better at this, and I’m also getting better at the life that comes with it. More and more, my goal has been to write rather that to be read. And so, in many ways I’ve already achieved it. I’m living the life I dreamed of when I was 21. I’m happy.
Perhaps as a consequence of this, I’ve found myself in pursuit of a new dream. An additional dream. Another grand awakening of the soul. It started years ago, but it also feels incredibly new. I’ve always had it but I’m only now taking the first steps to make it real.
Always, besides be a writer I’ve been clutching help people. For a few years there I lived a sweet delusion that I could use one to achieve the other, but, dear past-Beth, writing with an agenda is no way to make great art. In fact, it’s a great way to make terrible art. That’s not to say that art can’t help people — it often does — but readers can tell when you’re proselytizing and it never feels good.
I’ve known this for awhile, but it’s taken some time to find the way. The way my skills and strengths and life experiences, limited though they seemed, could become something important. How could I help people? What did I have to offer? Nothing felt like enough. I was still searching when I went overseas last year. And that’s when things really got rough.
New York for Christmas with the family seemed like a magical idea. Christmas trees and cold and holiday windows and maybe even snow. I guess I never thought about the other side of New York until I got there. Poverty. Homelessness. Loneliness and greed. I remember walking the Brooklyn Bridge with my family and thinking: I shouldn’t be here. What right did I have to holiday in a place where people were starved for food, warmth, shelter? How could I enjoy Christmas knowing so many people were out there in the cold, hungry and alone?
New York broke my heart. But that’s necessary sometimes. Only after breaking can something begin to mend.
On Christmas eve we went to a church service near Times Square. It was a church started by Australians and it felt like a little piece of home. The sermon was on waiting for a plane, waiting for a dream to be realized, waiting for direction, and at the end of the service we were given bundles of blankets and food to give to the homeless people we passed on our way home. I remember the first homeless woman we encountered on our walk to the subway station. She cried when a man handed her the gift. Are you sure? she asked him, as if she couldn’t believe this humble bundle was for her.
That was the start of things. I still wanted for a method, but I’d found my cause. I was going to help the homeless. And with that realization came a sense of urgency. It wasn’t enough to know what I was meant to do, I needed a how. I needed a big idea, and these things don’t always come quickly.
While I waited (oh, how good I’ve become at waiting), I volunteered. When I got home I signed up with a local community group providing emergency relief to families in need. It was heartbreaking and healing, frustrating and energizing. I’d been there three months when the government cut our funding. Suddenly we had all these volunteers and nothing to give. Time wasn’t enough; we needed money. We needed resources. We needed income that didn’t rely on the whims of the political machine.
And that’s when I found my how. Halfway through this year I enrolled in a new degree: Business, with a focus on managing not-for-profits. Last week I finished my first semester. Three weeks ago I had my Big Idea. I know how I’m going to change the world, or at least my little corner of it. And even when it means struggling through subjects like economics, I’m going to make it happen. Funny how, when you care about something strongly enough, I can’t so quickly becomes I must.
I have so much more to tell you, dear friends, so many plans and dreams and Big Ideas, but this post is long enough for now. And I have time. My next semester is still months away.
Here’s to big ideas, for dual-wielding dreams, to heartbreak and I musts. Here’s to now. Cheers.