I was a smart girl–a good student–when I was young, so many people told me I should grow up to be a doctor.
Healing is a noble and essential vocation, but it was not mine. I always loved words, and possibly more than words I loved ideas and feelings that seemed to elude words, to dance just outside the margins of what paper and pen could hold. Inside that little gap–just wide enough that you can almost reach across–there lies a sensation of stretching, yearning, glimpsing the unseeable that never fails to thrill me, even now.
Love, yearning, and thrills are the stuff of romance, but they aren’t the stuff of paying the bills. Chasing the trails of a fleeting insight across a notebook page or a computer screen is not a practical ambition. If anything, it’s the opposite of an ambition–an unbition, maybe.
This is likely why, while growing up, while pursuing my various degrees, I heard the phrase “Real World” an awful lot. Typically in a formulation like “There’s no call for ___________ in the Real World.” Or, “In the Real World, you won’t be able to ____________.”
I was playing the world’s most depressing game of Mad Libs, where it seemed everything I loved, everything I had any talent or passion for, was just a “verb ending in –ing” whose very proximity to the phrase “Real World” cued the sad trombone. WAH wah.
I mounted many ardent defenses of the relevance of “the humanities,” “the liberal arts,” and “the arts” as an indignant young musician, writer, and English major. I learned that music makes you better at math, that specialized vocational skills are a poor substitute for critical thinking skills, that classics is the best major to prepare you for a successful career in law, and I shared those facts widely and vehemently. I was too a part of the Real World.
Fifteen years ago, however, I caught a glimpse of something that changed my way of thinking entirely. And although it still runs away from my capacity to set it down on this virtual paper, today seemed like a good time to give it a go.
Fifteen years ago this week, I had a baby. Yes, yes, it was amazing and life changing and the heavens opened and the angels sang––but that’s not what I want to talk about now.
I worked as the mother of a newborn, starting back on a light schedule when she was just three weeks old. (What was I thinking?) I had cool academic work, but I also had a job summarizing employee feedback surveys for a very very large multinational corporation, from the janitors and cashiers all the way to the highest level executives.
Day after day, I sat on the floor next to my sweet and smiling infant, playing some Parents magazine compilation of classical music, reading about the Real World. I would nurse her and take tedious videos of her batting at a mobile and encourage her to say hi to the camera (I so regret having those moments of my parental idiocy recorded for the ages), and then take notes about what was happening in the Real World. I took her for long walks by the lake, I endured lengthy crying jags from post-partum depression, and I taught myself a hell of a lot about running a household, and then I wrote up summaries of what was happening in the Real World.
Let me tell you, the Real World was a dispiriting place where people followed a lot of pointless procedures and resented their superiors and almost as much as their underlings. The Real World also required a level of business jargon that nearly rendered the whole exercise meaningless.
Slowly, I started to get it. This baby, that lake, the pureed carrots, the horrible healthy first-birthday cake, the (once invisible to me) phalanx of helpers who carry women from pregnancy tests to lactation woes to sleep deprivation and beyond—so far beyond. This world is the real world. My world is real. Even more, the fear, the joy, the grief, the love–all of them so magnified in that first year of parenting–grappling with them, living with them, seemed like work more real than any I had done before. The intensity of that time fades, but the knowledge that the real world is happening right here and now persists.
While I still believe that things like writing, beauty, and imagination belong at the adult table of the alleged Real World, right there next to the hard sciences, business, and math (although, um, have you ever looked at what advanced mathematicians actually talk about?), proving it is no longer so urgent to me. We all have to spend time in that world, but we don’t have to acknowledge its claims to absolute authority.
Fifteen years ago, someone kindly pointed me down the path to the real real world. As she grows up and ponders her own impractical dreams, it is sometimes a struggle not to give some of that same bad advice, to remind her of the Real World waiting out there, so very close by now. But how ungrateful would that be?