Monday, May 2, 2011

is lateral drift always lateral?

Sometimes I wonder if I'm on the right path. I seem to be deep into one of those times.

Ten years ago this spring, I graduated from college. In July 2001, I took my newly-minted B. A. to Philadelphia and Gratz College, where I enrolled in a graduate program in Education and Jewish Music. The goal had been to become a Jewish educator and Cantorial soloist (though I wasn't as interested in actual ordination, the title of Cantor, as I was in the training).

While I struggled to immerse myself in Jewish learning (an area for which my undergrad degree had not prepared me at all -- PSU wouldn't establish a Judaic Studies program until several years later) and find a foothold in Philadelphia's Jewish community, I struggled with class issues, the lack of a car (and my refusal to own one), an inability to "femme out" enough to please the East Coast Jewish establishment, and a huge case of lonely homesickness.

On top of this, I found myself enrolled in a graduate music program whose requirements on paper were apparently not taken seriously. I had arrived with a B. A. with a concentration in Music and an almost-minor in Middle East Studies, a degree which included courses in vocal and instrumental conducting, orchestration, instrumental teaching methods, music theory and sight-singing, plus studio time and area recitals in my major and minor instruments. It turned out, to my shock, that I was overqualified for the music side of my program; nearly a third of my classmates had difficulty finding Middle C on a grand staff, and over half couldn't sight-read their way through a choral score. The instructors didn't see this as a problem.

On the Judaic stidies side of things, my lack of Jewish literacy was a huge problem, one that made it almost impossible for me to succeed academically in my Jewish studies coursework. Add to this the reality that the college was unable to help me forecast coursework for more than a semester at a time because they didn't know what courses would be offered from year to year. This last issue made it clear to me that what should have been a five-year program would easily become a seven- or eight-year program, or maybe even longer -- and with me paying graduate-level tuition, to boot.

At the end of my first semester, I turned in my coursework, went home for the December break, and after talking things over with my girlfriend and a few other people, I returned to school in January trying to keep an open mind. The school told me there was a slight delay in procuring my spring term tuition scholarship, meaning that I had to take student loan money to pay tuition up front, and risk losing my Center City apartment if the money didn't come back to me soon enough. Synagogue jobs were opening up for me, but without a car -- or enough money to live in the suburbs where the Jewish community was centered -- taking those gigs would be almost impossible. My adviser had already told me that she wanted to see me get a car, move to the Jewish suburbs and "professionalize" (read: feminize) my appearance by the end of my first year so that I could better gain a foothold in the Jewish world; I struggled and chafed against that reality but didn't know how to work around it without betraying myself.

In short, remaining in grad school would be pretty much impossible for me unless I was in a position to make some radical changes in myself, and in my life. I couldn't, or wouldn't, make those changes, and so in February 2002 I shipped my stuff home, withdrew from classes, and took the train cross-country back to Portland. It had been a learning experience, for sure; just not the one I'd hoped for. I came home with my tail between my legs, feeling utterly defeated by the experience and by the impossibility of scaling the wall of the East Coast Jewish establishment.

In retrospect, returning home when I did turned out to be its own Right Thing To Do; I was able to deepen my relationship with my girlfriend, I was home to help care for my father at the end of his life, and put some roots down in the mellower, less-judgmental Jewish community of Portland. I even wrote some songs and made a CD (see sidebar at right), a process all its own which helped to ease some of the sting of having left grad school the way I did. In the end, I chalked up my journey to Philadelphia as a learning process that helped me to know myself better; and I put my dreams of serving the Jewish community professionally into a little box, shoved it to the back of the closet, and moved on, returning to Citybikes as a mechanic and later as the lead Buyer. I got married in 2003. My partner and I moved into a little house together. There have been ups and downs and although some of them have been heartbreaking, our relationship remains strong and we remain deeply devoted to each other. I serve my Jewish community on a very part-time, local, volunteer basis that allows me to live fully as myself -- blue jeans, piercings, bike commuting and all -- and to live simply in a way that being a Jewish professional back East would never have allowed.

Ten years later, I am older. But am I wiser? Maybe. Some days I'm not sure. Lately I have found myself wondering the reverse side of the "what if?" question: what if I had stayed in Philadelphia? What if I had toughed it out against seemingly impossible odds and somehow managed to finish a graduate degree? Would I now be serving a Jewish community somewhere? Would I have evolved into someone more "professional", more "feminine", more "mature" in some way that my present life doesn't require or even make room for? And would my girlfriend still be with me (as my spouse) under those other circumstances?

Who would I be today if I had stayed?

I find myself longing to make some kind of difference that is different from the difference I'm currently making. But how? And, more importantly, what kind of difference?

I feel caught in a strong tide of lateral drift, one that doesn't always feel exactly lateral, like I'm actually losing ground in order to make it up. I hate being in such a state of unknowing, on the verge of some kind of change -- or a recognition that change is not appropriate at this time -- without knowing where I might end up.

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