Thursday, September 21, 2006


I have always been fascinated by the affluent who adopt a bohemian lifestyle. Of course, it was not until I went away to college that I knew any such people. The blue-collar and lower-middle class town where I grew up rarely produced any. No one could afford it. But when your doctor-lawyer-CEO-mogul parents pay your rent, or buy you your apartment, pay your tuition, your plane ticket to Europe (or these days China or Africa) it is so simple to put on a cloak of "non-materialistic-throw away old values-money means nothing to me-ness." Tired of your job? Simple: drop out and go off to Amsterdam-Berlin-Paris-Shanghai and hang out, dabbling in the arts or writing your novel. Do I sound bitter? Probably. But with ample reason. I try to find my bitterness, its tough digging roots, and flush it out of me. I don't want to be angry or resentful or sad about the past. And I think that by doing this I am truly getting to the bottom of my depression and, as a result, defeating it.

When you know that the bottom can fall out at any time it is difficult to be so free. In graduate school I won a no-strings-attached fellowship given to alumnae/i of my college who were artists; one a year. It was a lot of money, especially at the time. A week earlier I had won a BMI Prize, which involved another sturdy chunk of cash. I was advised by one of my old college teachers to take time off from grad school, go to Africa-Asia-Europe and sit in a bohemian setting and be a composer. I was excited. I made plans. I bought my plane ticket on Icelandair to fly to Luxembourg. From there I would start my adventure. I would take a year off from school, or two, or maybe never go back. Then reality set in. First, after a month in France, I called my mom to check in; there had been a spate of bombings in Paris and I knew she was worried. She told me that she was ill. She didn't know, at the time, that soon she would be diagnosed with terminal, horribly advanced lung cancer. But I sensed something bad. Then I thought some more. If I left school, I would have to pay back the college loans that my father had taken out in my name without ever telling me (long story). I would have no health insurance. My fellowship money would not last very long. I could not bum around the bohemian outposts of the world; who would take care of my mother? If I left school, I would have no more fellowship stipend so generously given to me by U.Chicago, and since I had no savings, and no family money to prop me up, my dreams of the artist life burst like a pin-stuck balloon. I had to stay in school. And when I finished school, I would have to find a teaching job, or any job, right away. I have managed to be a composer, and a reasonably successful one, anyway. But I have not had the trappings of bohemia to comfort me. And I have had no cushion, no parents with the fat checkbook, to catch me if the bottom falls out.

So these are the roots of my bitterness, at least one branch of it. I look at this matter-of-factly. Do I wish things had happened differently? Sometimes. But it is pointless to think this way. The past is the past. Coming from where I did I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to make my way the way I have. And there have been benefits, too. Unlike so many fauxbohos, I have no sense of entitlement. I don't feel that the world owes me a living. These days I don't feel resentment that I had to work, two jobs at a time at the least, through my years of school, that my summers were never spent backpacking around Europe. There was a time when I did, when I felt sorry for myself, felt shame at my background, would have been embarassed to invite school friends back to my mother's humble, shabby house, with the junked cars in the yard next to ours...

But I will never forget, one summer at the MacDowell Colony, how a certain fellow composer told the story of his family's epic tragedy, being forced to leave their homeland with only $100,000. I didn't say a word, but inside I thought that this was a lot of money. Things could have been a lot worse. As I usually do, I kept my mouth shut, but I have not forgotten it almost twenty years later.

1 comment:

John said...

Yes, it's really about what you see when you look down. How bad can it really get? Not that bad at all if there's always a room at Mummy and Daddy's mansion to come home to when India goes a bit tits up. And then, Heaven forfend, you might have to take a job for a while while you "get back on your feet". Wonder if Daddy knows anyone looking for..., etc. Hmmm, now I'm sounding bitter.