Over the Rainbow

As is often the case with the stories of my childhood, I’m still learning from the movie The Wizard of Oz. The older I get, the more deeply I seem to feel Dorothy’s struggles. Maybe I can blame it all on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” one of the simplest, most beautiful songs I know, and performed flawlessly by the young, young Judy Garland. I was a kid who was arguably too impressionable for the message. “Birds fly over the rainbow. Why, then, oh, why can’t I?” It’s that “oh, why” that really gets you.

So. An ordinary girl wants more and sets out to get it, but despite meeting some wonderful characters, gets sort of broken by the experience and ends up going back to the familiar and secure. Huh.

Interestingly, but maybe only to English majors, Dorothy’s path — away from the farm to the big city and back again — is, in literary terms, typically the boy’s rite of passage. If I remember right, the girl’s story more often ends in marriage. In my story, I did get married. We set out on the road together, but he died seven years ago, after almost four years of illness and struggle. I’ve never worked harder in my life, but the reward (if you can call it that when your only patient dies anyway), was just that: The knowledge that I’d done a difficult thing. Similarly, I’ve always been really well-behaved, and to my surprise I’ve learned that all you get for that is a shining record of good behavior. Not quite what you expect, but there it is. Sometimes the thing itself is the only prize.

I was laid off from my job two weeks after my husband died, and just like that, I had nothing to do. There was no one but me to take care of, and a little pile of life insurance money to help finance my journey. And I thought, well, here you go. Time to figure things out, and maybe carve out a living doing that thing you said you would do. I’d dreamed of being an actor for as long as I could remember, and while I spent many years training, then dabbling, and then fitting it in where I could, I was finally free to concentrate my efforts, all of them, on making a living doing this thing. It didn’t work out. I’m not as intrepid as Dorothy, it turns out, and the path is not nearly as clearly marked. The money started dwindling, and I began to panic, and before long I was looking for paying work. As an underemployed freelance copywriter, I spent the better part of a year cursing my economically ill-timed lapse in employment and beating myself up over my seeming inability to chase my own dream. I had to borrow money from friends for the first time in my life, and back into debt I went.

I finally got a job, a real one, but it took a while. I’m not good at finding work. The same thing that prevents me from auditioning gets in my way in an interview. Look at me, I’m the one! I’m guessing at what I think you might want and hoping to convince you I can be your everything even though I’m not sure you even know what you need. I suck at that.

I may be one of those people who can’t be happy anywhere, but I know enough to be grateful for a lot about this job. A sense of purpose, a number of decent people, artistic endeavor everywhere you look, but….a career? A life’s work? Well…it doesn’t make my heart sing. But I’m trying not to think of it as a day job, because those are all I’ve ever had, or at least I told myself that’s what they were.

It’s the performer’s life, you know. Day jobs. Just for a bit, only until. I once read an advice book about making an artist’s life. It said that should you need to work to pay your bills, you can and should strive to do as little as possible at your job. Only enough to keep it, and use the extra time to see to your real goals. I could never do that. I threw myself in. I am not just eager to please, but fearful of displeasure. I would work for anyone to the exclusion of everything else. And over time it was easy to think that those jobs were what were in my creative way. I was so worried that a job would become my life, and then my dreams, or whatever they were, would be left by the wayside. To compensate, I made sure to never take the promotion — always stay low, because you’re not going to be there for long, right? And also so you can go on auditions. The fact that I never went on auditions didn’t occur to me.

It’s possible to stay focused on your dreams while handling the practicalities of life. I know this because I’ve seen other people do it. But once on my own, it became very clear I’m one of those people who needs structure and security, a steady paycheck and health insurance. It’s not cool, which is probably why it’s taken me so long to come around to it. Not that I’m generally cool, I’m not. It’s just that the artist’s life looks like so much fun.

But this shouldn’t sound so terrible. A regular life, like a grown up, where you buy things with cash and pay your bills on time. And when that niggling little doubt surfaces, “what about what makes you happy?” Well, what about it? I haven’t exactly been happy yet, so at least it’s familiar ground. Which sounds pathetic. But I’ve never been successful. So my point of view is warped by years of observation and yearning for something I had no idea how to get. The witch’s broomstick. I wish it were so simple. Surrender, Jenny. Take the job.

I can’t complain. I mean, well, obviously I can. But I was unemployed for a long time. I know to be thankful for this. I just barely make ends meet, but I have insurance and whatever security any of us has anymore. I guess I have that. But I miss that other thing. It was false, my dream, but it was always there. It took up room. I’m not quite sure what to do about the yawning space it’s left behind, and I catch myself feeling like a total waste of space and food. What was any of it for?

The Emerald City. Hollywood. Where the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true (ahem, for a statistically insignificant number of people). I have to wonder if I even knew what I wanted. I realize now was never specific enough. There was no plan. I thought I was special, that I’d just need to show up. But I was ill-equipped for the journey. You need to be able to convince people of your worth, and that is not only not a strength of mine, it turns out I’m viscerally opposed. I do my best work all the time, so I think you should just love me, and if you don’t, then I think you should just go fuck yourself. And that, good people, will get you kicked out of Oz.

My friends were so encouraging about the job. I mean, it had been a long haul for them, too. They’d been on Widow Watch for a while there. They’d say, “you deserve it,” but I don’t know what to do with that. On one hand, I think, “Do I?” I mean, for this particular job, I waited and relied on a friend who worked there to sell me for me. That’s the only reason I got it. But on the other hand, I think, is this all I get, seriously? I have been so well-behaved! This can’t be everything. It just can’t. Why, oh why, can’t I?

Dorothy Gale should’ve known from the start of that yellow brick road how things are going to be, and so should I have. It’s the dumbest road construction ever. And Dorothy, what are you thinking, starting in the middle of that stupid spiral? Just start over there! You can see you’re wasting your time. But no, apparently I have to go in circles for a while. And then through jungles while avoiding flying evil to this magical city where a wizard might grant me a wish, but only after I do the impossible, and by the way, he’s lying.

You know how in the end of everything, they ask Glinda why she just didn’t tell Dorothy the way to get home in the beginning, and she says, “She wouldn’t have believed me.” Well, I always thought that was such a cop out. We were there, Glinda, and you didn’t even try. For the longest time I thought they were just covering a hole in the plot — the fact that the person who couldn’t help her in the beginning could suddenly do it now.

But I get it now. She wouldn’t have believed it, that there’s no place like home. The magic wouldn’t have worked because she didn’t yet know that statement to be true. She had to live a little. And in the end, she had to say goodbye to some things, and if you’re like me, you can hardly stand it when she does. “I think I’ll miss you most of all,” she says to Scarecrow. And the reason that’s so sad is because even though it’s true, it has no bearing on her leaving. I get that now too, on a couple of levels. There’s so much I loved about life as it was, but I still had to move on. And the same was true for my husband. It’s probably about time I stopped taking his departure so personally.

I’m still working on this happiness thing, trying to find some kind of balance, and if I’m lucky, it’ll be the right now type of happy and not the “what if” and “if only” kind I’ve been living with for so long. When it gets me down, I try think about the end of the film, when Dorothy wakes up in her familiar albeit less-colorful world, and all the things she thought she’d left behind are still there after all. They look different, rooted as they are in regular old reality, but they are a comfort to her and part of who she is. And that will always be so.

What a world, what a world.

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