by Judy Chicurel
Around the middle of 2013, I became tired of other people’s stories. A strange thing for a writer to be saying, but it was true—and baffling at the same time. As a journalist, I had been listening to and writing other peoples’ stories for years; essays and features on social issues such as domestic violence, homelessness, health care; education. And, in more recent years, as a grant writer and Development Director for non-profit organizations, I’d chronicled dozens of case histories for grant proposals to secure funding from foundations and government entities for low-wage healthcare workers, immigrants, the elderly, the criminal justice population, HIV/AIDS patients and underserved youth. Research confirms that when making a case for funding, it’s important to combine data on the demonstrated impact of programs and services with the more human face of the participants being served, through the stories they live. Endlessly fascinated by the experiences of others, I’d always enjoyed facilitating the interviews, sometimes more than the actual writing that came after.
But then came this period where I began feeling a new weariness to the process, an impatience with even reading stories in the media that had always held interest for me in the past. Hadn’t I read this before? Hadn’t I written this before? Hadn’t I heard it all before, in one form or another? And with all the continued media focus, why did these conditions still persist? Why, with an avalanche of these stories behind us, did it feel as though we were mired in the muck of stagnant social change? Of course we all know that lasting change takes years to effect, but should it really be taking this long? Granted, over the past few years there have been significant victories: at least partial healthcare reform, same-sex marriage. Still though, after reviewing my daily newsfeed, the old seventies song, “Tell Me Something Good” would be rolling through my brain. Something, anything. Even now, I sometimes feel as though the same editorials and blog postings that appeared after the Trayvon Martin verdict are being trotted out and recycled for Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, conjuring a kind of deformed déjà vu. And yes, the current unity being demonstrated by thousands of people taking to the streets in protest across the country is heartening and hopeful indeed, but this was back in 2013, and there was no doubt about it: I was becoming jaded in my outlook, listless about my work, and disgusted with the way thing were going politically, economically, even creatively.
It didn’t help that at the time I worked for a small non-profit organization where I was at least twenty years older than everyone else who worked there, including the Executive Director. To me, the problem was that despite the repetitive nature of these seemingly timeless social problems, I remembered a better world than the one in which we now lived, ruled by human beings instead of corporate technocrats, where face-to-face communication seemed more effective than the endless digital discussions that ensued in the workplace with people sitting less than thirty feet away. My co-workers didn’t want to hear it. For the work I was doing, keeping abreast of current trends was essential; I daily perused a media mix for my research file to use in proposals and presentations to funders. The younger women I worked with seemed to rely on Facebook and blogs that reflected their own views for news; they thought I was old school and negative when I cited articles and editorials reflecting the very problems we were trying to combat. It drove them crazy when I said I thought we were moving backwards, particularly with regard to reproductive rights; I, by turn, was envious of and irritated by their resolute idealism and their belief in their collective power to change the world for the better, even as nefarious forces continually encroached on our human rights a bit more each day. Hadn’t we already tried this, again and again? I was also somewhat isolated from the rest of the staff in that they shared two common rooms while I had my own space at the front of the office; more and more I retreated to my little cave after our staff meetings feeling frustrated, angry, and alone, grateful for my solitary splendor where I could mutter to myself instead of saying the wrong thing out loud.
It’s funny, but looking back, what restored my passion for my work was as simple as a game of improvised hide-and-seek. No, really. Melissa, sixteen, was a member of our leadership program that served young women of color in high school. Aside from interviews and attending occasional events, I didn’t interact as much with our young participants as the program personnel; I worked more closely with staff members to gather information and updates with which to impress our funders. Melissa (all names have been changed) would come through my office on her way to visit the Executive Director; at first she’d just sail through, but then somehow we started a game where she’d come to the door and when I turned she’d try and hide from me, usually in obvious places like behind the door. Thus our relationship began. Melissa was fun to speak with and had a beautiful smile; I came to enjoy the times she was in the office and stopped by for a chat before her program activities began. When I asked what her summer plans were, she told me about another program she belonged to where each summer since her freshman year in high school, she went to a different college campus in a city other than New York to take courses. “That’s impressive,” I said, wishing I had been together enough in high school to find a similar program. “It sounds like a great program.” As she described it, I looked at Melissa’s face, her smile, and started feeling a tinge of my old excitement. Of why I’d gotten into this line of work in the first place.
Then Vanessa stopped by, home on vacation from the college where she was enrolled in a prestigious dramatic arts program. Vanessa was doing everything from crowdfunding to loan applications to supplement her part-time job to stay in school; she’d been experiencing financial hurdles from day one. In her usual exuberant manner, she told us about how well the semester was going; she seemed lit up from within, her hands waving through the air, her facial expressions reflecting her enthusiasm. I had interviewed Vanessa the previous year on the resilience of our alumni when it came to pursuing post-secondary opportunities. The passion with which she spoke about her courses, about the opportunities being presented to her, ignited an array of feelings, among them admiration for someone so young who retained a core of idealism while being an utter realist. I remembered her telling me in matter-of-fact tones that her mother had always encouraged her and her sister to pursue their dreams, adding that her mother didn’t have the financial means to help make that happen; she did what she could to provide strength and support for her daughters. And they were doing just what she’d hoped they would: following their chosen paths and succeeding, despite tremendous obstacles.
And finally, there was Tara. Tara had been a former program participant now enrolled in a master’s program at an Ivy League university. As an undergraduate, she had petitioned the college president’s office for funds to implement a women’s support and empowerment group on campus and was successful in her mission. Now she worked part-time at the non-profit while attending school full-time. Tara had hurdled over many barriers that would have defeated people three times her age and now she was on fire—one of the most brilliant young people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. Smart, knowledgeable, passionate, creative, I could go on and on with superlatives but you’d have to meet her to get the full impact of her personality and character. She wanted to one day start her own non-profit and would come back to my cavey little office to talk about funding and the pros and cons of other non-profit models she’d observed; inevitably discussion would lead to current social problems plaguing the country, the world, and the force of Tara’s optimism and determinism just blew me away. These young women weren’t wistfully gazing backwards through a metaphorical glass the way I was; they were looking ahead at the changes they could effect to forge a better place than the one in which we lived. And I was thankful to Tara and Vanessa and Melissa for reminding me that people’s individual and collective trajectories had the power to paint a very clear picture, the capacity to make you see life through an altered lens and persuade you to at least listen to a different point of view that charts and numbers and graphics failed to do on their own.
I knew I was back to the old me the night I was telling my husband about a conversation Tara and I had had that afternoon, about the youth agency where she’d been interning and the innovative ideas she’d come up with for more effective management. “I’m telling you, she’ll be running the world one day,” I said, remembering Tara’s words, the expression on her face while she was speaking.
“Don’t talk to me about being jaded,” my husband scoffed, interrupting me. “Listen to yourself. You’re more excited than she is.”
And in a strange way I was.
Click here to read an excerpt from Judy Chicurel’s If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go
Judy Chicurel has worked as a grant writer, teacher, waitress, PR consultant, journalist and fortune teller before becoming a playwright and novelist. Her book, If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) was published in October 2014. Her work has appeared in national and regional publications including The New York Times, Newsday, Granta, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She lives by the water in Brooklyn.