I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, September 29, 2013

So many different lives

Wet leaves on a sidewalk
Maybe it's because it's the time of year when I always get introspective, but I've been thinking for the past few days of the myriad lives I've lived in my seven decades. Many of my blogging friends track a nice clean line from the life they live today to their earliest days. It seems to me, when I think about it, that I'm not that way at all. Having been married and divorced three times by the time I turned thirty certainly contributed to it. And to have lost my infant son at 22, which altered the trajectory of my life completely. Until then, I was sure I would have the same life as my mother, giving birth to and raising children, being a housewife and not working outside the home.

Grief sometimes brings a shaky marriage together, and sometimes it breaks it apart. My then-husband Derald and my two children were the center of my existence, and when Stephen died at the age of thirteen months, Derald and I could not comfort each other but went separate directions in our grief. My poor son Chris was four at the time, and he was just as broken but had no functioning parents to care for him, so he was scarred from those days, too. As an adult, he once forgave me for those awful years in a heart-to-heart conversation. Now he himself is gone over to the Other Side.

From the time I was 22 until I turned thirty, I divorced my husband, married a much older man who I thought would rescue me from my misery, and then left him for a younger man who turned out to be an abusive alcoholic. The fortunate thing for me is that I had marketable skills and was always able to find work as a secretary. It didn't hurt that I was also pretty, and bosses in those days also liked to decorate their office with an attractive secretary. When I couldn't find a job immediately, I worked for temporary agencies, and thinking about those days brought back some buried memories.

Not long ago I heard someone talk about having been a Kelly Girl, and I remembered that I was one, too. I was a fast typist and knew shorthand. To be a Kelly Girl, you had to be able to take shorthand at a fairly fast rate. I remember sitting at home with a record player (remember those?), putting the needle on a record with typical office letters being read at varying speeds. I studied hard so that I could make top dollar with Kelly Girls. I knew Gregg Simplified Shorthand, and after awhile I was really good. I found the following piece of shorthand online and wondered if I could still read it, after all these years.
The amazing thing is, I could read it just fine. Plus, if you know shorthand at all,  you might puzzle at this piece, since most of these markings are not for actual words at all, but are for "Jabberwocky," a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll. ("Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimbel in the wabe") It's funny that somewhere in my brain cells that information still exists. With a little practice, I could probably even use that old skill, but it's gone the way of the record player and the typewriter. Now that I am retired, I think about all the different lives I've lived as if they happened to another person.

When I applied for Social Security, I remember looking at the amounts I earned year by year, and I could see the trajectory of my life written in those numbers. From the earliest days, when I earned $5/hour, which was good money back then, to the final entry, when I was no longer paid hourly but earned a salary of $63,000/year, showed that I worked at least a little bit every single year, starting in the early 1960s. I was in my mid-thirties when I went to work at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and I stayed there for thirty years before retiring in 2008. I began my career there as a temporary employee, although being a Kelly Girl was long in my past. It was Western Temporary Services that gave me my assignment. So, in a sense, I used the skills I learned during my Kelly Girl days to find my real career. I started as a secretary and ended up as a writer/editor, which is another story.

Yesterday I went to see Blue Jasmine at the movies with my friend Judy. It's a Woody Allen movie, one of the best he's made in years, although I did love Midnight in Paris. This is a much stronger movie, but it wasn't sweet and nostalgic like that one. It's well worth seeing, however, for the performance of Cate Blanchett, who I'm sure will be at least nominated for an Academy Award. She is stunningly good. But what I keep thinking of is how incredibly unsuited her character is for any actual work in the world. She plays a privileged New York socialite whose Bernie Madoff-like husband ends up in jail for his crimes, and she goes to San Francisco to live with her sister, who is as different from her as night and day. I won't go into more detail, but the salient point is that Cate portrays a woman in total denial about who she really is as she goes into freefall.

What if her character had learned some marketable skills? How different would her life have been? I know that the first thing anyone must learn is how to be open to new experiences in order to change. Jasmine (the character in the movie) attempts to drag her previous existence, a life of privilege, into a life of much smaller means, failing spectacularly. Maybe I've been more fortunate than I realized, having had to find a way to make a living from my earliest days.

As long as the government doesn't dismantle Social Security, I will be able to pay my bills and even have enough money to travel and skydive now and then. Although I have to pick and choose my entertainment, I have enough money to get by, and I give thanks for the years I spent being a secretary, which somehow or other led me right to this point in my life, a happy septuagenarian. I've been given the ability to communicate, the tools to help me (such as this blog), and even an audience (that would be you). Although I don't have much in the way of material goods, if that were the place I looked for meaning, I have what seems to be just enough.


Anonymous said...

I taught myself Gregg shorthand by studying a book on the subject. I managed to find work as a legal secretary and later as a legal assistant in New York and Hawaii. Of course, now shorthand is obsolete and most work is done on the computer and one types what the boss wants via direct dictation. Oh, DJan, you did extremely well by ending up as a writer/editor. Kudos to you!

Linda Myers said...

I can type over 100 words a minute. I was a legal transcriber for over ten years when my kids were young. Keyboarding speed is still my friend.

I wouldn't have imagined the life I have now either.

Penny O'Neill said...

What a remarkable and well-written piece this is, and, oh the memories you have stirred, as well as a look at where I am now, where I came from. From teacher to mother to secretary to elected local official to granny, here I am today, hoping all will be well in the future, and grateful for all that brought me to today.

Red said...

Nice touch to compare your life to the movie. I think all of us have lived a life that goes through major changes. The world changed and so we had to change. You've had some watershed moments in your life. As you say sometimes it breaks you and some times it makes you.

The Broad said...

My first reaction to your post is 'Wow, what a remarkable woman you are!' Life certainly gave you some pitfalls to overcome and you found your way with determination and aplomb. You also stirred some memories of my own -- I, too, was a Kelly Girl a long time ago! But I never did learn shorthand so my earning powers were not at the top -- though not all that bad, either -- for temp work. In our day jobs were much easier to come by. Nowadays jobs are so scarce that you seem to need a degree before you can even think of working your way up. We were luckier than we knew ...

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

You have indeed overcome many bad situations in life, and you have reflected on all of it, accepting and acknowledging the pain, the strength, everything. I think it makes you a bigger and wiser person, and probably a more deeply satisfied one, than those who refuse to look at the dark parts of their lives. Here's wishing you a great week.

Arkansas Patti said...

You adapted and reached a place of relative peace and enjoyment with a history of accomplishment. That is what we all strive for but not all make. I don't think many of us ended up where we thought we would.
Had to smile a bit at the shorthand. I do not have an affinity for foreign languages and Gregg is one in my mind.

Gigi said...

Gregg shorthand! Haven't thought of that in years! I actually took it in high school and, in fact, went to a regional competition for it. Didn't win. Haven't used it since, but I can still read some of it if I force myself to slow down and think about it.

Those marketable skills - sometimes they will get you further than a degree ever will.

Rian said...

I remember taking typing lessons (had to be in the late 50's, early 60's) at this typing school in downtown New Orleans. Can't imagine exactly why because I had to be in high school and was off to college in '63. Guess it was something my mother thought important... like dancing lessons (which I hated).

Djan, from what you wrote, you seem to me like the heroine of a book whose life has had many turns of fate, yet you still managed to come out on top. You are a survivor (which, btw is an interesting book if you've never read it... about why certain people survive and others don't).

Olga said...

A Marketable Skill was the way to go in our day.

Lorna said...

Thank you again for an honest and detailed peek into your life, DJan. I enjoy reading your story.

Jackie said...

From one Gregg gurl to another, I wish I could give you a personal hug, Jan.
Each time I read about your Chris, I cannot help myself. As one of my dear blogging friends stated, "My eyes leak." I cry like a baby...because I know that there is a hole in your heart and that you miss him. And I know that you miss your infant son. I cannot reach you from here to physically give you a hug, but I do hope that you feel the virtual ones that I send to you from Georgia to Washington.
You write from the heart...and like I've said before, it always touches mine.
How wonderful it will be to see and hold your sons again....and being the believer that I am, I know in my heart of hearts that you will feel their embraces again, my friend. Face to face...smiles to smiles.
Warmest hugs,

Sally Wessely said...

You have lived an amazing life that you constructed by your own wit and ability. You have a balance of solid self-identy that was not easily achieved. You had to go through much loss and grief to get to where you are now. I think that is what I admire most about you. You can express you grief in a way that shows acceptance. You assess your decisions about the men you married and why without blame and accusations towards others. You took responsibility for your life. You still do. All young, divorced women should read this post. The end of your days matter. They are shaped by the wise decisions we make when we are young. I love how you contrasted your life with the life of the character in the movie. Thanks for sharing.

CiCi said...

At this stage of our lives, we understand the truth in the words we can't take it with us. Like you, I live simply, and like it this way. The last thing I want is to keep collecting material things, when the more important thing to me is relationships. How I treat others and how I respond to disappointments in life. You have lived your life as an adventure. You have nothing to apologize for, ever.

Stella Jones said...

Interesting D-Jan. I looked at the shorthand and could see some of it. I learned Pitman shorthand so I'm familiar with that, which is similar, though not the same. Our lives take some interesting twists and turns. Yours certainly has! I think your experiences have given you a very open mind and the ability to understand life from other people's perspectives, very well.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

This is a beautiful piece, DJan. I smiled about the shorthand part: my dad knew shorthand and used it until the end of his life.

Friko said...

“I have what seems to be just enough”

No words could be more heart warming than these.

What’s the point of having lots if you don’t have contentment? Like you I have lived a few lives, and worked for many years. At this moment I am happy to be where I am, to be with who I am and to have what I have.

It hasn’t always been that way.

I also did shorthand and typing at the beginning of my career; we all have to start somewhere.

Dee said...

Dear DJan, I feel and think that one of the blessings of growing older is that I can look back over a long life and see that it has all worked out for good. I'm who I am because of all I've lived. As Walt Whitman wrote, "A am the world I've wandered through."

Your posting today illustrates his quote so well. Peace.

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

Your wisdom and contentment are powerful in this post. Your reflection into parts of your past remind me of what many of us elders tend to do now. We are the story tellers of today. We are able to tell the tales of our lives now because we have arrived at a place where we can. You tell yours exceptionally well.
I've never learned typing properly and instead of trying shorthand I had the passion for French and instrumental music and teaching.
Having had to do with little I to know how to live that way. However because I still can, I have recently put together a nice new home for us in a house. Who knows what will be next? Que sera, sera.

Rita said...

My life has most definitely not take a straight line to these last peaceful eight and a half years where I have just enough. Been a bumpy, colorful ride with unexpected sorrows and goose-bump moments of awe a person could live the rest of their life on. Without being adaptable and able to laugh at just about anything I would never have made it this far. Give me another ten years of rest, make me young once more, and I might gladly do it all over again. Wouldn't want to change any of it. Some of the worst events and times provided the best gifts in the long run and helped form who I am today. Can't make a pot from clay without fire. ;)

Glenda Beall said...

Typing and shorthand were courses in high school most of the girls signed up for because if we weren't nurses or teachers we knew we would work in an office where we would need to type. My sister was an excellent typist and awed me reading and writing shorthand. She did not have the opportunity to complete four years of college to become a teacher, but she excelled as a secretary for some important men, worked in civil service, and became depressed when she had to leave work and stay home and raise kids.
It is a nice journey, traveling back over our lives, and being able to smile at our successes, congratulating ourselves for overcoming the hardships we faced.
The last part of the 20th century saw women come into our own, become more appreciated for our abilities and brains, but as it has always been, we had to be strong and carry on. DJan, you are a wonderful example of perseverance and, as I always said to my sister, you are a resilient woman.

Anonymous said...

You have overcome all your difficulties in a very good manner. You are a wonderful women.
I was seeing and laughing at the short hand part because i have no idea on it.

amanda said...

Something you may not know about me, DJan, is that when I was 18 I was signed up for a college program to pursue a career as a dental assistant. I love healthy smiles & thought that would be the life for me. But I became a mother of twins instead. We were just 18 and 19, and had been dating three and a half years.. but becoming parents so soon was NOT in our plans.
We've rolled with what life has given us, though.. and it's through those skills you talk about that we've managed to put ourselves in a very secure & comfortable place. Over the years I picked up photography, and accidentally became in demand for my services. I don't currently have the time to commit full time to it since I have a family to tend to & books & paperwork to do for Mitch's business. But it's nice to know I have something to fall back on, that we'll be ok.
This was a great post.
I have to admit - I was completely in the dark about shorthand before reading this!

John's Island said...

Hi DJan, Your posts are just fascinating! I really enjoy the way you are able to get such an excellent perspective on life and put it all into words. Not an easy thing to do by any means. How great to be able to look back and share so candidly. Those of us who have found "Eye on the Edge" are lucky ... a special find indeed. Thank you for sharing. John

O-town Ramblings said...

I'm trying to catch up on blogs after being absent for several weeks. I'm so glad I took the time to read this one. It made me feel more accepting of my own life's trajectory and my past lives. You have me beat with 3 marriages and divorces by age 30. I had three under my belt by 36 years old. My life has been full of so much change, loss, grief and adjustment. It certainly isn't at all the life I expected to have. Thank you for sharing. This post gave me so much to think about.

Sandi said...

I'm so glad I happened upon this post, DJan! What a lot you gave me to think about. I seem to remember a saying that goes something like, "Life is what happens while you're making other plans." I can't remember for sure, but it seems like your life (and mine!) have taken us on a very crooked trail, but brought us right to where we are supposed to be.

There's so much I look back on that was sad, or scary, or embarrassing, yet, every single thing brought me to where I am now, and I'm appreciative of the lessons I've learned.

It will be so good to join you in that fabulous house in a couple weeks. The Vashonistas strike again!

Far Side of Fifty said...

You are a strong woman to have come through so much. Everyone has their own path to walk, some are easier than others.
I never took shorthand or typing, the teacher always touched the girls and looked down their blouses. So those classes were not for me, instead I took Latin and Advanced Biology...and Health:)