Now is Better than Before

Five years ago I was taking science classes at Ozarks Technical Community College and writing grants as a freelancer. I thought at the time that I wanted to get a master’s degree in public health and dietetics, but I hadn’t taken any of the needed prerequisites. I ended up taking a bunch of science classes at the community college: nutrition, anatomy, physiology, microbiology, chemistry 1 and 2, and organic chemistry. And then I got my current job and gave up on the idea.

I’ve never mourned my other life as a dietitian, which makes me think I didn’t really want that life after all. Still, I enjoyed taking science classes. My classmates were mostly nurses and dental assistants going back to school to get advanced credentials. It felt good to be in the midst of people who were so hardworking, and whose work was so noble, and who were relentlessly sarcastic, as if the nobility of their work gave them the luxury of taking themselves less seriously.

I’ve forgotten almost everything I learned in those classes. It’s funny now to think that I once understood something about cells, or the structure of organic compounds. It reminds me of how I used to draw every day in college, and got good at it, and now I draw very rarely and am bad at it when I try. I don’t mourn the loss of my drawing skills either. I don’t mourn these things because I believe they are still available to me; I could get good at drawing again if I ever dedicated myself to it, just like I could understand cells again as long as community colleges offer affordable microbiology classes.

Jonathan Richman came to Springfield around the time I was taking microbiology, which was the first and only time I’ve seen him live. For months afterward, the only music I wanted to listen to was his. It’s so sincere and funny and good.

Tony and I got married a few months after that Jonathan Richman show. “A Higher Power” was on the dinner playlist we carefully created, though I don’t remember if it actually played during dinner or not.

One reason I thought I wanted to become a dietitian was because I liked reading about public health. I still do. I like reading about a lot of things.

I first discovered Jonathan Richman ten years ago, the summer before I was a senior in college. I spent that summer on campus, working part time as an assistant to a ceramicist and part time writing grants. I was an art major, and my senior project was in printmaking.

The printmaking studio had an old CD player. When the spring semester ended, someone left a Jonathan Richman mix CD in it. I listened to it all summer long while making weird, text-based prints alone in the studio. My favorite song back then was “I Was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar.” I wouldn’t want to relive most of the intervening years, but I would like the opportunity to go back to that summer for a day or two, just to experience the freedom I had, which I didn’t fully appreciate (or really appreciate at all).

The Nature Center is a conservation area on the southeast edge of Springfield, Missouri. It has miles of trails and an education center that has not changed since I was a kid. There is a small room in the education center that houses a life-sized diorama of a forest at night. The room is dark. A speaker in the room plays a recorded description of the animals and plants of the forest, and a series of spotlights briefly illuminates each one as the recording describes it. At the end of the recording, dawn breaks and the room lights come up, allowing you to see the whole diorama.

My daughter doesn’t understand the future. It is a tough concept, the things that are going to happen. A few weeks ago, there was a brief but very disorienting period in which my daughter thought the forest diorama room at The Nature Center was the future.

I must have said something the last time we there about the future, like: “We’ll come back and see this again in the future.” But my daughter misunderstood, she thought I meant that the room itself was the future. When I realized what was happening—which was difficult, it was very disorienting!— I tried to correct her. But honestly, the metaphor she’d accidentally arrived at was great. The future is sort of like that forest diorama room in The Nature Center in Springfield, Missouri. It’s full of possibilities that are visible only in snatches, like a spotlight shining first on the owl, then on the bat, then on the opossum. It’s only in hindsight, when the future has become the past, that you see it all at once: the owl and the opossum and also where they are in relation to the tree, at the trunk and on the limb.

My current job is writing grants at a university. The part of my job I like best is learning about many things happening on campus—the inner ear research they’re doing in natural sciences, the idea the English professor has for the campus literary magazine, the student group in architecture that made a bug hotel. Sometimes I wonder if I ended up in the best field for me by accident. I’m lucky to have a job in which my desire to learn a little bit about a lot of things is beneficial. If there’s one through-line to my interests, it’s learning a little bit about a lot of things.

I do sometimes envy professors for their deep knowledge of very narrow subject areas. I wonder how they ever picked what was most interesting to them, out of everything in the world. Or did it feel less like picking, and more like making a series of small, reasonable choices over time, which only look like some grand selection from afar? Did they see the forest diorama by spotlight, or at dawn?

An old boss of mine at a different university once asked me to compile stories about activities happening on campus. She thought these campus stories would be helpful for fundraising. She had me watch a webinar about storytelling, during which I took dutiful notes and became increasingly confused.

I was unable to give her what she wanted, not because there weren’t stories, but because I couldn’t identify anything that wasn’t a story. I think now what she wanted was something inspirational about a scholarship recipient. That’s the story on the back of the fundraising packet at every college or university at which I’ve been employed. We should all support scholarships, but those stories are tedious. I’d much rather tell a story about bug hotels, which are manmade structures designed as sanctuaries for pollinators.

I like writing, but I wonder if I would like it as much if I really focused on it. I think I like things more when I keep them in my peripheral vision. Or maybe I don’t like them more, but I like them more sustainably. I have this idea that I could do something for my whole life, and perhaps even do it well, if only I could do it without giving it any attention at all. But that’s impossible.

I’m in a Jonathan Richman phase again. I guess I enter a Jonathan Richman phase every five years, which seems like a strange rhythm to my life but not a bad one. I recently discovered this song of his I hadn’t heard before, and I can’t stop listening to it. Now is better than before for me, too, even if I’m not totally sure why.

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