Winter – Light Up the Dark

ellen chen

An excerpt from "Seasons," a 4 part non-fiction essay by Ellen Chen

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 invite people to share how they exercise their creativity in a way that works with their lifestyle.  

This week’s Saturday Creative brings back the very first contributor, Ellen Chen.  Ellen is sharing part 2 of her 4 part non-fiction essay entitled, Seasons.

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.  I know you’ll love reading it (below), particularly if you’ve ever been in a long-distance relationship.

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).

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WINTER

Light up the Dark

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That weekend Francois was visiting me in London. We were on a rotation where

either I would go to Paris or he would come to London every other, every third

weekend. Unlike me, Francois usually left buying his Eurostar tickets to the very

last minute. Only when I blew up over the phone, harping about wasting time

and money and needing to make plans because reservations in London were so

hard to get, would Francois decide it was probably a good time to drive by the

SNCF and put a 48-hour option on a pair of train tickets. An option is always

better just in case, he would reason. This drove me bananas.

Of course I was wound up at the time anyway. It was 2007 and I was spending

my mornings, days, and nights on the trading floor on Fleet Street, staring at 4

flashing screens and aggressively funneling my undivided attention into a new

job that overwhelmed me in every sense. Exhausted mornings bled into rushed

nights, and it was all I could do to seize a moment from my continuous panic to

consult a calendar and plan when I would next see Francois’ full head of shiny

brown hair and smell Jean-Paul Gaultier mixing with Marlboro Lights on his black

Lacoste sweaters.

After entering the numbers of my credit card, I would stare at the translucent

orange circle chasing its tail around and around, marking time for my eyes as

invisible money bags were hauled from my HSBC account to the Eurostar’s

coffers. £159.00 later, the confirmation screen would spring to life and a six letter

code would assure me that I would again know a moment of pleasure in my life.

I could breathe.

The weekend would arrive, and I would stream from the platform at the Gare du

Nord, rolling my luggage before me. I would find Francois lighting a cigarette out

the window of his Yaris and fall into him, blotting out everything, everything in the

tobacco and cologne and virgin wool.

Saturday would be spent in a blur of Christmas crowds at Lafayette Maison, then

bundled up on the terrace of Le Tourville as Francois and his childhood friends

debated well-worn subjects, and I began to check my watch. Then, always,

the clock would strike 5pm Sunday and my throat would start constricting. We

wound wind our way up Boulevard de Magenta in the Yaris, and Francois would

put on a brave smile, petting my head with his free hand in between shifting

gears. I would hop out early, dragging my luggage behind me, bracing myself for

the grim spectacle of tearful couples clinging to one another at the entrance to

the train station.

This weekend however, Francois had come to me.

We woke up on Sunday to a gray winter day. It reminded me of the plane ride

that had brought me over to England from New York. During our descent,

against a sparkling blue sky everywhere else, the British Isles alone were neatly

covered by a thick gray cloud, as fluffy and dowdy as a little gray hat. Living

under that cloud was like living in an apartment with very low ceilings. At first you

didn’t notice so much, but over time the ceiling would start to weigh down on you,

pressing the oxygen out of your lungs.

Less prone to flights of melancholia than I, Francois suggested that we make the

most of the day despite the shitty weather –We Don’t Care!– and go for a walk

in East London, past Tower Bridge. He hadn’t been to that part of town since

he was a teenager and was curious to see how it had changed. Sure, I said,

thinking that East London reminds me of Jack the Ripper.

We had to bend our heads against the cold, dry wind that whipped around us on

Tower Bridge, so at first I didn’t notice him when we stepped off the bridge and

onto Shad Thames.

The young man was hunched down in the shadow of a massive stone pillar, and

indeed he looked like a shadow himself. When I did finally see him, I felt, like a

sonic boom, the impact of my own revulsion and pity. Never before in my life had

I seen an actual person with the raised purple lesions of Kaposi Sarcoma. All

over the man’s sallow face were engorged violet tumors. The angry red energy

of those vivid cysts stood in contrast with the fragile person who seemed to be

slowly disappearing underneath them, like the man in the Francis Bacon painting

I had admired at the Tate Modern, bludgeoned out of existence by splotches of

darkness.

The compassion in my heart was countered by the panic in my head telling me to

get away from him as soon as possible. Having been raised with an acute sense

of the danger of invisible germs, I still put down at minimum two toilet seat covers

in every public bathroom and made myself as small as possible inside the stall to

avoid touching surfaces. It wasn’t going to start taking chances now.

As I quickened my step down the wharf, I reached for Francois’ arm and found

myself grasping at air. Turning around, I saw to my horror Francois inches away

from the dying man’s face as he lit up a cigarette for him. In the man’s other

hand, peeking out from the sleeve of his ratty army surplus jacket, were another

few sticks of Marlboro lights. Francois must have given him some for later.

I slowly turned back and took a few paces towards them, mechanically pulling a

tight smile. As the man lifted his face to the light, his eyes darted toward mine

for one tentative moment, and I could see then in his eyes what the fear in mine

must have looked like.

We both looked away, and I heard Francois lean in to wish the man good luck,

and probably give him more cigarettes, and then, goodbye. We continued down

the wharf in silence. I was walking faster than Francois and could hear the rapid

click of my heels stomping out my mixed emotions. When he reached for my

hand, I swiped it away.

“Did you touch him?” I demanded.

“What?” he said, confused, and then “No!” as he looked at me with surprise and

disappointment.

“And even if I had, you can’t get anything from just touching someone who has

that. You do know that, don’t you?”

Did I? I wasn’t sure what I knew and what I didn’t in a world where I was

suffering too, even though I had so much more than that man.

“Imagine how sad it would be for him if no one could touch him.”

In the wake of this question, I ducked into a cheerful looking Italian restaurant,

more so that I could send Francois to the men’s room to wash his hands than

because I was hungry. As I sat down in an oversized straw chair at the faux

Italian farm table, I gazed out the window and saw the Thames reflecting the

fading sky of late Sunday afternoon.

This was normally the time of the weekend when I would usually become very

cross. But I didn’t feel cross. Someone was sitting out there by the darkening

river in a winter that would probably be his last season. I thought Thank God

Francois had it in him to light that man a cigarette.

When our pizzas arrived, they were starchy and overcooked. I looked at

Francois sitting upright in his black sweater with the miniature crocodile yawning

over his heart as he cut his pizza with fork and knife.

If he could do it, I could do it.

I could break out from the endless winter in which I had locked myself up, in

which I was afraid and grasping at moments of pleasure to soothe me, in which

I was too focused on self-preservation to have anything to give. I could learn to

not be afraid of my job, to trust myself, to see the light.

I looked out the window again at London, as gray and dreary as ever, and I could

see, for the first time in a long time, the beauty of the great historic city with its

noble English architecture sitting on the mighty river Thames, its companion

through so much that had happened to the both of them. It was the kind of

sparkling vision shared by tourists and those inhabitants of the city that are

confident enough in life to know that another sunny day will come. And while

winter always comes, it’s only then, in the cold and in the dark, that we have the

opportunity to glimpse our inner lights and discover our eternal summers.

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