I Dwell in Possibility

Sometimes, you click around on the internet and you don’t get the dishes done, and you go to bed feeling like you wasted your evening, and sometimes you are trying to eat your fried eggs and chicken sausage for dinner and you idly click on a youtube video and you end up clutching a box of tissues and learning something about yourself. Tonight was the latter.

I have been following the Brain Scoop, a youtube channel featuring Emily Graslie, who I think is about my age, exploring, explaining, and expounding at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, for a number of months now. I’m not big on watching animal dissection, personally, so I’ve avoided those videos, but I really enjoy her attitude, her curiosity, her intelligent questions, and her adventures in gems, exhibition design, fossils, and the Amazon rainforest.

I was vaguely aware that the Brain Scoop started at the University of Montana’s natural history collection, and that Hank Green of the vlogbrothers‘ empire helped launch the show. After all, that’s how I found the Brain Scoop in the first place. But I had not watched any of the early episodes, until I stumbled on this one.

I did not expect to learn that Emily had majored in Studio Art. I did not expect the announcement of her move from Montana to the Field Museum to be so bittersweet, even though I was not there, I wasn’t watching the original episodes. I did not expect my vision to blur with tears.

What was it about this fourteen minute video that so compelled me, and why was I crying? Based on the youtube comments, I’m not the only one who cried when watching this video. It’s very well made — Michael Aronda’s questions, Emily’s really sincere and articulate answers, and the editing and the pacing of the video are well crafted.

But I think I was crying for another reason.

I am at a time in my life where I am on the edge of a transition. I have been scanning the job postings, looking for what’s next. And I have felt pulled in many different directions. Indecision might be a good descriptive word.

What moved me about Emily’s narrative–about Farewell, Montana–was that she made a choice. A series of choices, really. She did what she wanted to do, from the moment she first encountered the collection that inspired her to the hours of volunteer labor (obsession) she put into the place she had fallen in love with, to the unbridled enthusiasm and solid articulation of the original series. As I watched her standing in the basement looking at the boxes that were being damaged by moisture coming through the walls there was decision in her voice, and there erupted in me a kind of grief, not for the damaged boxes, or the neglected collection, or the state of our society, but for my own fear of decision-making.

Her choice to move her work and her show to the Field Museum in Chicago was, as she said, “a dream come true.” But dreams are not free. Sometimes they are quite expensive.

I spent many years of my life working passionately towards an imagined future. It was a future I could describe, that I could grasp, that I could achieve. I was pretty good at costume design. I had potential, as they say. But the cracks began to show. My dream was much much bigger than the reality I felt I was throttling toward. And the potential loss inherent in my increasingly narrow specialization felt unbearable.

I made a choice. I put on the brakes. I got off the train. I left the path I had mapped out at age 12. I left the theatre. Whatever you want to call it. In order to have more options. In order to chase away my terror that I would be stuck in a basement with a needle and thread for the rest of my life, taming the egos of anxious actors, reduced to someone who knows about clothing.

I didn’t want to pay the price of that “dream.” I still don’t. Ramen noodles and nomadic chasing of work are not in my crystal ball. I’m trying not to be ashamed of that.

Most of us live unremarkable lives and yearn at some point for remarkable ones. I am no exception to this rule. We want to be remembered, we want to feel like we have done something that mattered. We want to matter. And maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think it is–we often conflate “doing things that matter” with fame.

In this video, I watched Emily Graslie grapple with the loss that comes with making a decision, and I felt the loss that came with making my decision, and I felt, also, the ongoing ache of trying to understand whether I am giving up something that matters to me or something that matters to other people or both, the instability that comes with indecision, and the anxiety I’m facing daily about the onslaught of decision-making ahead.

I have no clear path laid out before me. What Emily’s unconventional path — and her success — reminds me is that I chose to step back so that I could “Dwell in possibility,” which is, as another Emily, one Miss Dickinson, once said, “a fairer house than Prose.”

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
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