Recently, one of my students, Hope, notified me that she was a finalist for an internship at the Princeton Art Museum. I read her missive during a procrastinatory break from work on an exhibition checklist for the show I’m co-curating (with Patricia G. Berman at Wellesley) at the Frick Museum in Pittsburgh that opens in Fall 2024 (subject: Scandinavian fine and folk art in the long 19th century. title: “Home as History”). It’s the kind of detail-demanding work that drives me insane and that I’m not particularly good at. Like a dutiful workhorse though, I try to keep the blinders on and focus on the task at hand, but I’m not always the most disciplined of individuals. After reading her missive, however, my mind rose from the frustrating metaphorical furrow I was plowing, gazed toward the sun, and felt elated.
I thought about my sudden change of humor and how someone else’s success transformed my somber mood of detached concentration into a vibration of joy that lingered as a gentle quivering undercurrent as I returned to my irksome task. I feel invested in her success because I encouraged this shy, intelligent student who aspires to become an art historian, to pursue opportunities that facilitate future success, and I also wrote a letter of recommendation that I like to imagine was helpful. I empathized with her delight and surprise in this professional achievement because it’s an emotion I recognize.
In 2014, when I opened the envelope from the American Council of Learned Societies to discover that I’d received the award for which I applied dutifully year after year (as for several others that have yet to materialize), always hoping but never expecting, I was euphoric. And, similarly, the support of those who devoted time and energy to endorsing me for this honor, shared responsibility for my success. ‘Pay it forward’, I always advise those grateful for a letter of recommendation. I am humbled when I reflect on the cadre of illustrious scholars whose endorsements have facilitated my own modest achievements. I felt the same exhilaration when my recently minted doctoral student got a prestigious internship at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. If I help someone achieve something, I, too, feel victorious! Second-hand achievement, first-hand happiness!
After finishing the exasperating checklists, I reflected further. I’ve always liked helping people, especially when I have knowledge or expertise that will optimize their efforts: where to seek, how to organize and write, how to ferret out what is desired or expected and then figuring out how to deliver it in the most effective manner. That’s why during the decade or so when professors in my department made hour-long presentations to graduate students I discussed my failures. My colleagues presented their experiences writing, researching, publishing, or exhibition curating. Professional successes. I brought letters of invitation/acceptance but also of rejection, contracts and cancelled contracts, anecdotes of fickle publishers and editors, and of carefully researched and crafted proposals that went nowhere. One’s curriculum vitae logs achievements, not failures, and I’d be shocked to find an academic who hasn’t had a smattering of both.
When people inquire about the scholarship-granting summer program for teens I designed and ran in Greifswald, Germany for two years, and I wistfully reflect on my unrealized ambitions for it to grow, and my vision to establish sister programs in Catalonia and France, I feel sad. Sad because I’ve seen how it changed the lives of at least some of the mostly middle- and working-class participants (from more than a dozen countries, a handful of whom continue to keep in touch after graduating from Georgetown, Harvard, Oxford, Pomona, Yale, inter alia), and because I was unable to attract the sponsorship or to afford the advertising that could have propelled it forward. I am frustrated by having a great concept that I’m unable to realize because it—unlike writing—requires teamwork.
On that note, dear readers, I’m letting you know that I may publish blogposts more sporadically for a while in order to concentrate on other forms of writing. After publishing a memoir (An American in Pandemic Paris. A Coming-of-Retirement-Age Memoir) in November, I’ve had difficulty deciding which of the big projects I envision (or have begun) I should work on next. I want to experiment with various types of writing – guest blog posts, short form fiction and memoir, inter alia – and see where that leads. Certainly, some judge me inconsistent because of my apparent tendency to move restlessly from one project to the next rather than pursuing exhaustively something I’m already good at or know a lot about (Scandinavian art, for example). But I consider the situation differently, even if I’m mindful of the professional progress I’m not making by choosing a new trajectory. When I feel satisfied with what I’ve learned and accomplished, I want to explore new things.
Life is already far too short (no matter how many years one is allotted) to pursue all the imaginable paths that one might have enjoyed. Perhaps I should have continued with French horn since I’d have finished my studies at the point when orchestras were expanding. Or perhaps I should have graduated high school so I could have attended a college that required a HS diploma. Or continued with Russian Studies, a passion since my early teenage years, that Professor Michael Haltzel brought to a grinding halt when he gave me varieties of C in the two upper-level courses I took with him my freshman year. What would have happened if I’d made the other choice when my grandmother—who paid for my college education—said she’d instead give me $20K to start a restaurant/bed and breakfast? Would I have succeeded at that? Would I have become an organic-gardening Martha Stewart or perhaps a head of a hotel empire? Should I have continued as a paralegal and pioneered electronic discovery, which I learned recently was what I was helping to originate back in 1978. Who knows? There are so many what ifs. Whether or not it makes sense, I’m following my bliss, in the words of the wise Joseph Campbell. Like the poet William Ernest Henley, I like to imagine myself (if not actually be) the captain of my fate and the master of my soul.
If you’re interested in tracking me in the meantime, subscribe to my sporadic newsletter (scroll down and sign up on blog homepage), follow me on Instagram and TikTok (@michellefacos), or follow my FB author page (Michelle Facos author). And listen to your inner voice. It’s undoubtedly wiser and knows you better than anyone. It will guide you on the path for which you were intended, alluring as some of those other paths might have been!