This interview series was inspired by my growing awareness that comparing myself to others is–surprise!–not useful. Often, our admiration of others is mixed with envy, the slightly irritating feeling that if only WE had their chances, we could be successful / more creative / happier, etc. My experiences in graduate school and, to some degree, academia, reinforced the even more insidious notion that only certain qualities, certain kinds of personalities are useful or valid. Obviously, certain qualities are suited to certain jobs (you don’t want an irritable yoga teacher, a clumsy dancer), but I was finding myself dismissing my own perfectly useful, perfectly individual ways of being and wondering why I couldn’t be a whole range of things I actually had no real desire to be: more of a perfectionist, more of a workaholic. Ah, but then you run the risk of sour grapes: I would never “want” to be like that person, have their success at that cost. This interview series intends to listen well, to honor those I admire and to figure out how they found their paths in their own ways, while accepting and interrogating my own difference so that, through conversation, I can learn again to listen well to myself.
Interview #1: Carrie Simpson
Who She Is: Carrie is a playwright and poet, new to Seattle via Turkey, where she spent four years teaching English at international schools in Turkey and one year in Barcelona, Spain. It was in Ankara, Turkey, she met Stacy, my friend from our high school days at musical theatre camp; Stacy suggested Carrie look me up. As of yesterday, Carrie had a fourth interview with Alps Language School on Broadway in Capitol Hill. She was offered a high school teaching job elsewhere but hopes to get the ESL job since it would be a new kind of school and teaching for her, and it would give her more time to do that for which she came: to write.
Why She Seems Hard to Imitate / Why I Chose Her: Carrie seems particularly bold, self-possessed, and free, without that taint of escapism that sometimes marks those who’ve spent their lives teaching abroad or moving about. Originally from the East Coast, Carrie spent eight years in Whitefish and Missoula, Montana, in addition to her time abroad. What makes Carrie seem unique—and not like me—is that she doesn’t seem to see travel or moving around as “taking a break” from her real life. I know many people who want to travel, even many who don’t care if anything comes of their journeys particularly; they see travel as a sabbatical from “real life.” I’ve done that. Or I’ve traveled to achieve a very specific outcome: a job possibility, language acquisition, or freedom from another situation. But Carrie seems to combine that carefree curiosity with career-building, to mix devil-may-care with I-care-deeply as she simultaneously works on a play about her father’s death and volunteers to write high school curriculum for the World Affairs Council on the current unrest in Syria. Carrie has no one home base but in no way does she seem at a loss, lost, searching for a path. She’s on one—it just seems to evolve as she moves. To move forward as if it’s ALL real, all part of the plan, without resorting to the cliché of “everything happens for a reason”—that seems to be what Carrie’s about. But I don’t believe in that cliché, either—so, why can’t I be her?
Bryn: How do most people get to your current life position (note: this may refer to your cool job or state of being), and how did your path differ from that? What might some consider unusual about how you got where you did?
Carrie: I follow whims felt in the heart, rushes of feeling that shout, “I want to do that!” Is that called following your bliss? As I move along a certain path, I will have an experience or meet someone who introduces me to a new adventure I never thought of, and if the idea of it rings or shines, then that will become the next step in my journey. You can say I am future oriented, but because I always have just one step ahead of me planned, I am also very much in the present and open to changing that path, looking out for signs pointing to the next step.
Bryn: Ok, part of that sounds like me: I have the clarity of vision, moments that “ring or shine”—that’s a nice one, Carrie. And I can be at peace with the “one step planned ahead”; my job as an adjunct professor has required that I come to peace with that. But I don’t think I embrace that in the way you do—it’s not so much that only having one step ahead makes me anxious, but I think I see that as more of a necessary compromise, instead of a life choice. And maybe that’s why I don’t always feel like I have time or room to notice what “signs [point] to my next step.” Walk me through an example of how one sign pointed to another for you.
Carrie: For instance, while getting my Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing, a friend of mine I admired told me of her summer experience as a naturalist for the Student Conservation Association. That sounded fun, reminiscent of my family’s summer vacations visiting national parks out west, so I applied to SCA and was placed as an interpretive ranger at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota during a college summer. From that experience, I decided that after graduation, I would do seasonal work all over the U.S., seeing the country through its national parks. When I graduated college, I landed a seasonal job teaching outdoor education outside Glacier National Park, Montana. However, I connected to the place and the people so much, I worked there as a teacher-naturalist for four years and ended up staying in Montana for eight.
Bryn: Totally get that connection to place creating the next steps. Once you find a place you love, it’s often just about figuring out what you can do to stay there. I did that when I realized I needed to quit my tenure-track job in Missouri and move back to Seattle. What I did was still important, but it became secondary to staying in Seattle. What I also see in your story at this moment, though, Carrie, is an alternative possibility: that deep attachment to what you want to do can lead to a security no matter where you’re at. Sometimes I feel that way about teaching, but clearly, in the case of Missouri, the love of teaching wasn’t enough to counter the love of a good fit for me, regarding place. You’re starting to remind me of Dishwasher Pete—a man who decided his goal was to wash dishes in every state in the union:
Carrie: During [my Montana] time, I began to long for a more creative life again. My writing self was pulling on me. So I went to graduate school to become a high school English teacher. While there, I focused my thesis on working with an at-risk population, which led me to student teach at a therapeutic boarding school in The-middle-of-nowhere, Montana, and it was there that I learned about the world of international teaching. My mentor had taught abroad in Pakistan and Japan and brought his rich experiences into the classroom through stories and slideshows. I decided immediately and with certainty that that was exactly what I wanted to do, so after learning that I needed two years of teaching experience in my own country before applying to international schools, I did just that at a high school in Montana.
Bryn: Ok, THAT’S probably where most of us would get stuck. “I need two years of teaching experience? Sigh.” Or we’d start the teaching and then become afraid to leave the U. S. job . . . although I haven’t taught high school. Maybe two years is all anyone can bear.
Carrie: After two years, I attended an international job fair in Seattle, very open to where I’d end up, and landed my first job in Ankara, Turkey. I thought perhaps I’d enjoy a two-year contract there then return home to Montana, but loved my experience living abroad so much that I stayed three years in Ankara, one year in Barcelona, and one year back in Izmir, Turkey.
At the moment, I’ve just returned to the U.S. to focus on my writing for a concentrated spell, as again my writing self began to pull on me (a theme in my life). I am here to see theatre in English, meet other English-speaking writers, go to writing conferences, all the things I have not been able to do while living abroad. I have a feeling I will return abroad again after a year or two, but I am also open to the possibilities waiting for me in the people and experiences I have yet to enjoy in Seattle.
Bryn: See, this is where the “traveling isn’t a break from real life—it IS my real life” thing comes in. In order to lend solidity and peace to this life style, it seems like you have to accept that you may not be in the “final” place. To some degree, your choice to give up teaching for a “concentrated spell” reminds me of poet and memoirist Nicole Hardy, who quit her high school teaching job to work as a waitress so that she had more time per day for writing. However, Nicole knew that was a life change she could and wanted to make permanent—at least for quite awhile. And she stays in one place. I wonder how much differently I would live if I knew for sure I would be changing careers and locations at least seven times.
Carrie: I am certainly not following a predetermined course; my path unrolls before me as I go. I would never have imagined at 20-years-old, while studying creative writing at Emerson College, that I would one day be in a writing group with other ex-pats in a bar in Spain, celebrating getting my first poem published in a Barcelona literary magazine. However, when I look back from my current position, I can connect the dots and see a solid path.
Bryn: Even though the point of these interviews is to identify and celebrate your unique individuality, do you have a personal maxim, or another’s words to live by?
Carrie: I discovered the poetry and teachings of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi while living in Turkey. Rumi was a poet and the founder of the Whirling Dervish sect of Sufi Islam who lived in
Turkey in the 13th century. Many of his maxims, such as the one below, entail the kind of surrender and faith that I try to embrace in my own journey:
“Are you searching for the river of your soul?
Then come out of your prison.
Leave the stream
and join the river
that flows into the ocean.”
Bryn: What is most important for you to have done or to feel at the end of each day?
Carrie: That I’ve planted seeds. That is, that I’ve put myself out there in good ways so that by the laws of the universe, good things will return one day. For instance, lately I’ve been reaching out to acquaintances, hoping they will return the initiative and friendships will grow.
Bryn: Like me! Good job, Carrie!
Carrie: Because I’m job searching, I also reach out to prospective employers and volunteering opportunities. These particular examples are very indicative of the stage I am in within my current journey: the beginning. A seed that I plant every day regardless of where I am in a particular journey, is that I write every day. Some days it’s not much. Maybe I’ll only have time for a half an hour of writing, and maybe what I write will be so bad that I will spend the next day erasing it. But even a half hour a day adds up to something, and before I know it, the first draft of a play will grow from these daily seeds I plant.
Bryn: Flannery O’Connor used to sit at her typewriter every day for two hours, “just in case anything happened.” It’s universal—as a writer, you have to accept that production is not always about quality but rather the sheer exercise of the desire to care, every day, that something might happen. Another poet friend of mine, Emily Beyer, said that she doesn’t write every day but that when she is on a more regular writing schedule, she feels like she’s “better—a better person.” You become more aware of your own possibilities, the ideas you didn’t know you wanted to care about. That’s what starting this blog has been doing for me: I tend to get bogged down in the generalities: “I’m not like that person. I don’t do that much.” But when I start writing about a long-lost friend or someone cool like you, I find I have more interesting reasons, deeper perspectives on why I am the way I am. In short, I find my own story wasn’t that obvious.
But onto question #3: What’s one compromise you’ve had to make in order to achieve that sensation of a day well lived?
Carrie: It’s not a big compromise. Since I write first thing in the morning, the compromise is that I sleep a little less or go to bed a little earlier.
Bryn: Discuss a particular event you consider a triumph, a failure, or an obstacle that might surprise others.
Carrie: I find transitions really difficult. This may surprise others because of how much I move. I do love change, but every initial landing is always very shocking and full of doubt and loneliness. However, I’ve learned to just acknowledge those thoughts and feelings and have faith that they will lessen each day and finally pass.
Bryn: Why can’t I be you? (You can answer this in one of two ways: a) Based on what you know of me, how are we most different? or b) What’s a defining quality of yours to which you’re more strongly attached than most people?)
Carrie: I’d say the qualities to which I am most strongly attached are a hunger and excitement for the present opportunities around me, [the ability to develop] coping mechanisms for the hard times, and faith that if I live my life well in the present, the future will unfold just fine.
I rarely fear the future or that I’ve made the wrong decision in the past, which helps me enjoy the present. I can throw myself in 100% to the life(style) I’ve chosen for the moment. I have a knack for finding the new or the different or the hidden adventure in most places and situations. I have lots of interests, and can always find plenty of reasons to get out and explore.
In difficult times, I can remember that this, too, shall pass. I have the initiative and courage to make choices that will get me out of hard times, and the coping mechanisms to help me get through them. When looking back on difficult times, I can always find the positive aspects, whether in friendships made or lessons learned, which helps put me back in the present.
Bryn: Ah, the George Harrison answer: all things must pass. That is such an important one. I’m curious and adventurous, too, but it seems like I’m always slightly saddened by the past as it’s passing, always slightly more worried about whether there is a “through line” in my life, if I’m staying true to a kind of personal integrity or if I’m getting sidetracked. I guess one way to find peace is to accept that all lines are “through lines.”
Bonus questions, Carrie:
What movie character do your friends think you’re like?
Carrie: Christopher Robin—the accepting one who’s in charge of all the others. That was, at least, how my friends saw me when I was younger.
Bryn: What movie character do YOU think you’re like?
Carrie: Max from Rushmore—the kid who starts all the clubs. Or Jim Carey from Yes Man.
Next month, I interview Rebecca Brinson, author of the column “Hustle and Prose” on the website The Toast, co-founder of the online editing service NW Essay, and former development director for the Hugo House. She’s responsible–so how did she live abroad for six months? And why does no one seem to irritate her? These mysteries and more–in October.