A collection of non-fiction essays by Ellen Chen. (Part 2 of 4: Fall)
It’s hard to know that you love something (like, really love it) and reconcile the fact that your day job isn’t directly or even indirectly related to that very special something. There’s a lot of pressure to abandon a more predictable professional trajectory in pursuit of a career that reflects your individuality. (If you’re a millennial, go ahead and multiply that pressure 25 fold).
Despite popular opinion, monetizing your gifts is not a requisite for honoring them. Your job doesn’t have to be the main source of your personal fulfillment — it’s really not for a lot of people.
A great career empowers you to create opportunities to truly enjoy the people, interests, travels and creative pursuits that make you happy. Sometimes that looks like a more conventional job where you’re not necessarily ‘inspired’ every second.
Each Saturday, I’ll invite people to share how they exercise their creativity in a way that works with their lifestyle. I’m so excited to introduce the very first contributor, Ellen Chen, as this week’s Saturday Creative.
In no particular order, Ellen is a new mom, a Vice President at Goldman Sachs, and a loving wifey. She also happens to be an immensely talented writer.
I ask every contributor for The Saturday Creative how they find time to be creative. Not surprisingly, Ellen had a perfect answer:
At the moment, I don’t have the time anymore to set aside structured time for creative endeavors like writing or visual art. What I can do each day are acts of love. It’s my belief that anything that is done from a place of love is tapping into the same lifeline as what fuels creativity. And so my plan is to continue to act in love as much as possible until I have a more structured platform upon which to unleash my creativity in a way that makes me feel more actualized professionally… I hope to get there one day. I’m working on it.
Thank you so much to Ellen for sharing this special work.
There are few things I love more than seeing the way people channel their own unique creativity — do you have a creative way of cooking something, styling something, writing, painting, getting your kids to brush their teeth…there are endless ways to be creative, and the world is unequivocally a better place when those gifts are shared. If you’d like to contribute to The Saturday Creative, I would be so so happy! AND you’d be making the world a better place (no pressure).
It’s Hard Not to Fall Back
My co-worker Kate got it, but she and I were always on the same wavelength. It was just something, all the little things. The wan sunlight slanting through the office windows in the afternoon, and the cotton pieces pulled apart into spiderwebs in storefronts, and especially and the cupcakes in the cafeteria decorated with mini iced pumpkins that the bankers in their blue button-down shirts, thumbing through their Blackberrys, pretended not to notice. All these intangible elements of the Fall that came together to clutch a person’s heart with nostalgia.
Maybe it was this heady autumn brew that made me think of him. Or maybe it was the dinner with the girls from work, where we went around the table, each spilling our ex-files. Or maybe it was the fact that I knew that I would soon be engaged, and yet there, always, buried under years of growing apart, still remained the presence of My First Love, and the question of what place he would have in my life if I married someone else.
Whatever the reason, I sent him a text and we agreed to meet for lunch on Saturday.
As I walked toward the East Village, I thought how although I had made the conscious decision not to think too hard about what I was going to wear, my subconscious had done the thinking for me anyway. When we had been boyfriend and girlfriend, his favorite item in my wardrobe had been a pink cashmere sweater. He was slightly colorblind, but he liked pastels because they were girly, and loved soft textures.
I don’t think I’m colorblind, I’m just not good at the name game, you know? Like Blue versus Purple.
Sweetie, that’s exactly what a colorblind person would say.
That sweater from 1999 was now out of style, but I had a new one, and the sun was warming it on my back as I approached Avenue A… like him. A for All-American. A for Apple Pie. A for … And he bounded out the front door of his walk-up.
It had been over two years since I’d seen him, but almost without looking I recognized him. His gait. The air he breathed. He used to say that when we were married one day we’d have golden retrievers. Which made perfect sense, because he looked just like one with his burnt gold hair and blue-green eyes.
He had arrived junior year at our high school in California fresh off the boat from Salt Lake City. By that stage in the game, the cliques had been long since set, and no one in my all-female circle of friends had a prayer of promising interaction with any of the hot guys.
But then he appeared, sitting alone at a workbench in 1st period AP Physics with his angel face and clueless haircut. It didn’t take long to figure out the new kid. Top in his class in every subject, the only white guy on the varsity basketball team, and most amazingly, somehow able to move between the rigid social groups at school – the Preppies, the Blacks, the Asians, the Others – with the same kindness and ease.
Everybody loved him, and so it was quite a shock when he told me at Prom that he loved me. Needless to say, he was my first kiss, my first boyfriend, my first everything. But most importantly to me, he was the first man who I felt could see me, and seeing me, he loved me.
“So where should we go to lunch?” —- “I probably shouldn’t eat.”
“Oh okay, we don’t have to go.” —– “Let’s go then, I’ll have a salad.”
We continued talking over each other for a few minutes before we decided to go to The Smith. Walking fast along the sidewalks, we both made jokes while failing to hear what the other person was saying and so laughing at the wrong moments. Finally we were inside the restaurant.
The Maître d’ looked up from her podium at the young couple standing before her. How many times had the two of us stood exactly like that at a restaurant?
“Follow me please.”
He put his hand at the small of my back to push me forward in front of him. I felt the warmth of his palm as he paused a moment on the soft wool, and turning, caught him scrutinizing the sweater.
He took the chair. I sat in the booth. He pulled off his fleece sweatshirt and flung it next to me on the booth. I folded it, placed it on top of my purse, just like I used to do. I looked up at his face. It was like looking in a mirror. I began.
“So how’s work?”
I anticipated that work was good, since work was always good for him, a model of constancy, a machine. Up at 5:30, at the gym by 6, egg white omelette at 7, and then another day of solid work for the U S A. I meanwhile had fled every job I’d had since college for fear of failure, or boredom, or both.
When we were first dating, we were driving up the 405, and he told me that he didn’t like to go on vacation because he was always worried about when it would be over. Staring at him with flabbergasted incomprehension that such a person could exist, “Meet Virginia” came on the radio. He said the song reminded him of me.
She only drinks coffee at midnight, when the moment is not right. Her timing is quite unusual.
Things at work were actually not great. He worked for the CEO of a big retail company, and the CEO, frustrated by the owners’ lack of vision, was thinking of jumping ship to run an even bigger retail company in Hong Kong and wanted to take him along.
“Are you going to go??” I croaked, stunned and involuntarily imagining small-boned ladies who looked vaguely like me throwing themselves at him.
“I guess so… I mean, it scares the shit out of me, but I think it’ll be good for me.”
How could he move to Hong Kong? The guy who doesn’t like to go on vacation? The shy guy from Utah who sat alone at his workbench for weeks in AP Physics before I asked him to sit with us? The former fat kid who felt that his only friend was his dog, a black Newfoundland named Pepper? And wasn’t he dating some girl over here?
“Is your girlfriend OK with this?”
“Oh we broke up awhile ago, which is another reason why this might be a good time. I’m not with anyone right now.”
In the pause that preceded what I knew would be the next question, the air immediately got 10x times denser, and I stopped breathing.
“What about you? Are you still with that French guy?”
I opened my mouth but at first no sound came out. It was like I had to unhinge the safety before speaking.
“Yeah, I am. It’s, uh, actually pretty serious. He’s, uh, moving here.”
I finished the sentence with an inadvertent nervous chuckle that transformed itself into a strangled cough in my throat.
“Moving here from Paris?”
“Are you going to getting married?”
We were not yet engaged, but the length of my pause and red in my cheeks probably confirmed what I thought would be the outcome.
As the information registered in his blue-green eyes, our food arrived to save us. That’s right, we’re just here to eat! I had ordered a burger. He’d ordered a salad.
“Why are you not eating again?”
“Jeremy’s parents are catering this massive feast at their apartment on the Upper West Side for the breaking of the fast,” he said absently.
“Oh yeah, I forgot! Did you fast?” I asked stupidly, watching him pick at the salad he ordered ten minutes ago.
“Pfft. Are you kidding? Eating for the breaking of the fast is the extent of my Judaism. Which is why the least I can do is come hungry.”
He might have been the first kid to be barmitzvahed in Salt Lake City. He had been so excited that during the after-party he ran into a pole and gave himself a concussion.
My burger was delicious. I offered him a bite, and he took it, eyeing the burger with a mix of greed and guilt.
“Wow, that is a good burger.”
“Want another bite?”
He smiled sheepishly and reached for the burger again. I knew he would. The fat kid was still in there somewhere.
Pepper, you’re my only friend.
After splitting the check, we started walking towards Union Square so that he could get on a train uptown.
I felt my heart beating faster as we got closer. How many more seconds did I have to walk alongside this six foot, golden retriever-like person who was still such a big part of my soul? I wanted to hold onto him, to keep him with me always, but what would I do with him? He was taking on adventure and moving for a great opportunity. I was staying put and building something for once. We were both breaking our karmas. We were both growing up. Everything was as it should be. But now the trajectory of our lives had left us without anywhere in the world we could be together other than lunch.
He got in the subway. I watched his hairline get smaller and smaller, and then disappear from view. It was Fall, and so I had turned back time for an hour. But I had to spring forward anyway – without him.