Posted in Big Questions

What is Renaissance Life?

This is the transcript of the introductory speech I gave for my Communications class at Motlow State Community College, March 19, 2019, on being a polymath or multipotentialite.

I’m 48 years old and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. When I graduated high school in 1989, I was at that time a Jehovah’s Witness and I thought I knew what I wanted to be. JWs don’t encourage their young people to go to college, so despite being a very good student with a 3.65 GPA, after high school I became what they call a pioneer, spending 90 unpaid hours a month preaching, and for a while I even went to help with less-served congregations in rural areas.

As it turned out, a pioneer was not what I wanted to be, and in fact a Jehovah’s Witness was not what I wanted to be. Since then I have had many different jobs — I’ve done cleaning jobs, worked in retail, I’ve been a veterinary technician, a medical transcriptionist, a mom, a homeschool teacher, a vacuum cleaner salesperson, and I now make my living creating artisan wire jewelry and some other kinds of art. I don’t want to give you the impression that I can’t stick with a job; some of those things I did for 10 or 20 years. And, of course, here I am in college after 28 gap years, embarking on a new journey entirely.

I struggled with not being able to focus on one area of expertise, for years. Partly, life got in the way. I got divorced at age 27 and found myself the single mom of a 3yo. In those situations, you do what you have to, to pay the bills. But also, I struggled with anxiety when I thought about anything big. I considered going to vet school for a while, and for a while I thought it might be fun to be a history teacher and teach history in a way that students would actually enjoy. But those things involved college, and money, and that spelled COMMITMENT. If I spent thousands of dollars learning how to do something, I really ought to make it my LIFE’S WORK. I wondered what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I settle down and pick something? I’d been convinced in high school that I should be a writer, because I’m pretty good at it. It felt like a calling. I wrote a lot of poetry. I got some of it published. And then I realized that poetry pays in copies of the magazines it gets printed in, and I got depressed. In our society we tell young people that they have to pick something, starting at around age five. What do you want to be when you grow up? Not only do you have to pick something, but once you get to a certain age you’re judged on the respectability of whatever you’ve picked. This felt like a life crisis to me, and a terrible weight.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who gets fascinated with one thing after another. Some names for this have been around a long time: Renaissance man. During the Renaissance it was expected that you’d have a wide range of interests. More recently we’ve been called Jack of all trades, master of none, which is not very flattering and reflects the Protestant work ethic we have now that says, pick something, show up every day, suck it up. Today Renaissance people are speaking up, and you can find self-help books and TED talks and the endless information the Internet provides. The names for people with a wide variety of interests include scanner, polymath, multipotenntialite.

Polymaths continually get distracted by learning or trying a new thing, getting bored as soon as a new thing is mastered, struggling to choose a major or a profession because you hate the idea of being stuck doing the same thing for the rest of your life. But, I’m really good at picking up new things because I do it constantly. When my husband and I were taking a pottery class he said I was good at everything — not true, I’m just good at faking it at the beginning — and he also tells me if I could just pick one thing, I’d be amazing at it. Maybe. I’m sure I’ll never find out.

Twenty years ago, I met a man at a craft fair who made furniture for American Girl dolls. He excitedly told me about all the things he’d done and shared his list of things he still wanted to try, at age 70. Something resonated in me. I wanted a list, too. And when I heard the voices of other people who feel the same way I do, I settled down, and I started looking at the positive aspects of being the way I am. Trying to fit yourself into someone else’s mold for you never works. I decided I had to find my own strengths and capitalize on them.

Not only is there nothing wrong with being a polymath, but it’s a unique way to be wired that really is a gift if you embrace it. I have learned a wide variety of skills from my various occupations and interests. According to polymath Emilie Wapnick, who gave a TED Talk a few years ago titled Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling, polymaths have 3 superpowers.

  1. Idea synthesis. When you have skills in a variety of fields, you make connections that people who specialize deeply in one field may not see.
  1. Rapid learning. We are used to being beginners, and we get really good at it.
  1. Adaptability. We have the ability to take on different roles in different situations because of our broad list of skill sets.

Last year I stopped working for someone else, took a chance, and moved to doing my own business full time. I make Chainmaille and wire-wrapped jewelry, and I often incorporate other skills into my work. I love watercolor painting, so I painted tiny original watercolors on bisque porcelain and wire wrapped them. I wanted to learn glass working, so I took a couple of workshops on that and made my creations into jewelry. My years as a pioneer have been very helpful in being able to talk to people at craft shows. My work as a transcriptionist has given me computer skills that I regularly use in marketing. My passion for writing means I can write convincing item descriptions when I sell online.

I passionately believe that no learning is wasted. My bucket list isn’t a list of places to go, but things to learn. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know that I haven’t definitely picked a major yet, but I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to fix the biggest regret I had, not going to college. If you are young and don’t know what you want to do yet, I say, do a little of everything, look for the connections between the things you love and use them to create something new. And don’t let them tell you that you can only be or do one thing.

Posted in Daily Writing

Restless

This is a screech owlet I rescued. My neighbor cut his tree down and asked me to save him.

The following did not happen. Since 2019 is the year I write, I need to write, and this is where I’m starting… fiction that is more truth than fiction, and the person in the story is very much me, doing things I do, but this particular sequence of events is out of sequence, and fictional. But I guess I’m hoping there are struggling Polymaths out there who, like me, struggle with rotating obsessions and wondering at midlife or later what they want to be when they grow up.

I was sitting in a coffee shop, sipping a double latte, extra cream, and nothing much was going on. I felt like I was sitting in a bubble of voices, carried on them, but not really understanding them, not part of them, not even looking at their owners. I was looking out the window at a glorious blue day, but I wasn’t really part of that either.

Being a polymath is a long string of triumph and frustration with yourself. You get really, really good at learning new things, and at failing and being cool with that. The next thing will get better. If you do a next thing; you might just as well decide that you’re done with that activity and obsessed with something else today, and sometimes it’s like a switch flipped and you’re just not in love anymore. Thanks for the good times, Photography, but I’ve met Poetry and we’re… well… in love. It’s not you, it’s me. It’s always me.

Anyway the blank page sits before me again, and I feel like this is where I live my life, on the edge of the greatest idea I’ve ever had. This is it, I think, my life’s mission. Only when I’m not on the edge of that eureka, I’m worried that I don’t have a life’s mission.

I sighed and put my too-hot latte down. How do you know, you know? How do you know what you’re supposed to do when one day you’re so fired up you can’t sit still and the next day you’re bored out of your mind with the same thing? In my mind I am having this conversation with a meet-me-at-the-coffee-house friend that I don’t have today.

I clapped my poetry book closed without so much as a new mark on it and trudged back to the counter. “On second thought,” I said, “I’ll take this to go.”

“Sure thing,” the barista said cheerfully, and dumped the cup into a styrofoam (ugh) mug with a cardboard cuff and a plastic lid. I’m part of the problem, I thought glumly as I accepted today’s contribution to the local landfill enveloping that sweet, milky, caffeinated addiction, and walked out into the street, which seemed quiet after the buzz of coffee house conversation. The poem about conversation buzz and caffeine buzz lands in my head not ten steps out of the door, naturally. Should I find a park bench and write it anyway? Nah. It’s not that good.

I wonder sometimes how many of these ideas I let go might have been The Epiphany if I gave them time and nursed them. I just know for sure that I’ll see a bald eagle sitting ten feet from me in a tree, or a perfect rose, or some other thing I’ll curse myself for not having my camera for. Any one of them could have sent me running back to my photography obsession, if I caught the shot, if I was focused on one thing.

Sometimes I’m here, in flux, in between obsessions and worried I’ll never amount to much because I’m all over the place. On the other hand, I know something about a lot of things, and we need people in the world like that, too, right? Right?

It turned out, after all, not to be an eagle or a rose, but a baby bird, in the middle of the sidewalk, its paper thin, translucent throat stretched out in supplication, its peeping faint but audible half a block away. I stopped close to him, peering up into the just-budding branches of the tree above me. The nest was a mess and there was no putting him back in it.

Luckily, feeding baby birds is on my long list of things I know how to do, because I once worked for an avian veterinarian, fostering baby birds and syringe feeding them. I am not a certified wildlife rehabilitator, because that would have taken focusing on a thing for a long time and it’s not that high on my list of obsessions, but I know some things, and I know some people. I dumped the remains of my latte, carefully wiped out the inside of the cup with a pocketed napkin, lined the cup with more napkins, and scooped the little fellow into the cup while his head bobbed, hoping mom would find it and regurgitate him some food. “Sorry, my dude,” I told him, wrapping my hands around the cup to warm him against the spring chill. “I haven’t eaten any worms today.” I’d take him home, get him some food to syringe-feed him, and then find someone who could legally raise him. I get questions like this all the time, from my friends. I rescued this baby bird, what do I do with him? I just got a new crock pot, you have some good recipes I can make in it? I need photos taken for my son’s first birthday, would you do it? I rescued this kitten, I’m planning a protest, I’m painting my bedroom, what’s a good app to meditate…

“You know, Harold,” I say to a baby bird newly christened Harold, “maybe being a Jill of All Trades isn’t the worst thing in the world.”

If I’m willing to find a way without a crop, gizzard, or worm breakfast to regurgitate for him, he could not agree more.