Lately, as my mind has been overgrown by certain thoughts, pressures, worries, goals, dreams, and ideas, I’ve been grabbing young adult novels here and there and devouring them like I used to when I was a kid. They give my brain a break, and they remind me of what it was like to be small again.
This new ritual has made me grateful that I never got rid of so many of those old paperbacks that I’ve had for twenty years (some a little bit less, some a little bit more), especially since so many of them are still so good. The Westing Game. Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself. The Giver. All of them remind me of the universal truth that good young adult novels are just good novels, period. You never outgrow them. No matter what age you are, you still feel your life blur into clarity as you read them, like a photographer focusing a lens.
When I was in middle school, one of my absolute favorite books was The Mozart Season, by Virginia Euwer Wolff. I just finished re-reading it a few minutes ago, and it’s still as good as I remember. It’s one of those young adult novels that are just good novels. And when I closed it, I felt closer to middle school me than I had in a long time.
I first read that book in sixth grade; I think I checked it out of the school library about five times before I finally bought my own copy at the school book fair a couple years later. It’s about a twelve-year-old girl named Allegra. She’s a musician, a violinist. The entire book is about her summer spent preparing to play a Mozart concerto in a prestigious competition. And one way that finishing it now was very different from when I finished it as a kid was that as soon as I was done, I got on YouTube and searched for “Mozart fourth concerto” so I could finally see what this thing Allegra did really looked and sounded like.
I remember that when I finished the book the first time, even having no clue what the concerto sounded like, I went in the hall closet at my house and pulled out the very old violin that used to belong to my aunt, my dad’s sister. It was a wreck; it had no strings, and the bow was reduced to just a few hairs. But I asked my parents take the violin to get fixed, and I started violin lessons.
I was never very good at music. I had taken piano lessons for about five years (starting when I was five years old), and even though I always enjoyed my lessons, I didn’t enjoy practicing. Violin was the same way. I wanted to be good at it. But I didn’t like doing what it took to get better at it.
It took me a long time to realize that what made me want to be like Allegra was not that she was a violinist, but that she had such a singular focus in her life. She was twelve years old, and she could already answer the question, “What are you?” Easy; she would say, “I’m a violinist.” Or, “I’m a musician.” Even while not grasping the exact magnitude of Allegra’s accomplishment, you couldn’t read The Mozart Season and not understand that Allegra was meant to be a violinist, in some capacity, for the rest of her life. I suppose that’s also why I’ve always liked documentaries like First Position; they’re all about kids who have that sort of intense focus on cultivating a skill. I always wanted to have that kind of focus for something. I wanted to be someone who knew what I was destined to be as both the kid version and adult version of myself, because not being that was completely unthinkable. Even though in retrospect my junior high and high school years were okay (I stayed sane thanks to a few wonderful friends, a lot of good music, and tons of books), I was weird, and I’m still weird, and it took me a long time to embrace being weird. I would have loved to be in the company of kids who were also weird, who took things (whatever they may have been) as seriously as I did.
There are two things that I loved to do as a kid and still want to spend basically all my time doing as an adult: taking pictures and writing stuff. I like to bake. I adore working with children. And of course, I read a lot (as people who write a lot tend to do). But basically, I just want to take pictures and write stuff.
Those are interesting skills to have, but in general, they’re not exactly the stuff that overachievers are made of. When I called my dad in my first semester of college and told him I was seriously considering changing my major from political science to photojournalism, he told me gently, “Honey, that’s a hobby.” He wasn’t entirely wrong, and especially considering the state of the photojournalism field these days, I’m grateful that he steered me toward choosing a more reliable Career (that’s career-with-a-capital-C). When I decided that I didn’t want to go to law school after I finished undergrad, I stumbled into education as something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life as a Career. It was a field I found myself surprisingly passionate about once I jumped into it, especially since as a high schooler, I sincerely thought that one of the worst possible outcomes in life was to become a teacher. Especially a teacher of little kids. How boring.
And telling your parents that maybe you might want to go to school for creative writing, especially if you’re the first person in your family to go to college, is basically the same way. It’s kind of like approaching them and telling them you want to go to clown school–possibly a fun thing to do, and probably personally fulfilling, too, but not at all conducive to a normal, successful, materially comfortable life. (Actually, having friends who did major in creative writing, I now know that parents of first-generation college students are not the only ones to see the major this way. Basically everyone in academia does, except creative writing professors.)
So I didn’t major in photojournalism or creative writing. But I still spent nearly all of my free time in college writing in my Blurty journal (is Blurty still down? It’s been down for months now, and I’m going to be a bit heartbroken if I can never access my collegiate introspections ever again. This was before the term “blog” was a widely known thing, kids) and taking photography classes, processing film, and making prints in the darkroom, and spending a lot of my time smelling like developing chemicals. (Combine all that with my social awkwardness and my innate aversion to drinking, and it’s no wonder I didn’t have boyfriends. My parents were quite concerned about this, although I had no clue until one day, when I was a junior, my mom came to visit me at school and as we were driving home from a trip to Walmart, she took a deep breath and said, “You know, Nikki…if you don’t like men, it’s okay. You can tell me.” I was truly touched by her willingness to accept me no matter what, but I assured her that I liked men just fine.)
And don’t get me wrong; like I said, there are other things I love to do. I love to bake (I’m pretty good at making pies, although the last time I made one, the crust was stubborn as hell for some reason, and my mother-in-law mused that maybe someone here in Riyadh had given my pie-making skills the ayn. I haven’t tried to make a pie since then, mostly because after Lavender arrived, there was no longer space in our apartment for me to be rolling out pie crusts. But I intend to get back to it once we move into our own place). I like to run when I can (although I’m agonizingly slow, and I haven’t really gotten back into the training routine I had before moving to Riyadh and having Lavender, partly because there’s just hardly anywhere to run in Riyadh, especially as a woman. But Mr. Mostafa has been made well aware that a treadmill is one of the things we will have in our own place when we move. It’s non-negotiable). And I love working with children. Seeing their faces light up in the middle of a lesson is one of the greatest joys I have ever experienced in my life.
Still, if I were never able to do any of these things again, I think I would be okay. Tremendously sad, but okay. As long as I could still take pictures and write stuff.
And even though I’m grateful to have an education and a skill set on which to further build a Career, I’m also grateful that since moving to Riyadh, I’ve been able to spend a lot more time taking pictures and writing stuff. It feels awesome, even if I do feel a bit like a twelve-year-old learning to tap dance in the beginners’ class, surrounded by six-year-olds. Why didn’t I seek out writing classes in high school and college? Why didn’t seek out opportunities to really learn photography before I went to college, so that once I got to college, I could focus on building more advanced skills, instead of learning basics? I took one photojournalism class, as an undergrad elective, and to this day, out of the many, many classes I’ve taken in my academic career, it was my favorite; I didn’t skip it even once. Since I double majored anyway, why didn’t I at least attempt to make photojournalism one of my majors? I could have had one sensible major that I enjoyed and one long-shot major that made me truly happy. These are regrets I have about my life thus far (although as far as regrets go, they are pretty good ones to have. I know there are many people out there who wish they could have had the chance to pick a major at all, even if it turned out to be the wrong one). If I could give one piece of advice to teenagers getting ready to go off to college, it’s that: double major, and pick one that’s practical and one that you love so much that you forget that it’s supposed to be work.
I realize that this is going to make parenting tricky for me. On some level, I’m always going to want Lavender (and any other children I may have, probably) to find that activity that makes her heart full and satisfied, that thing that she wants to be doing even when no one is making her do it. That’s not necessarily bad. It means that I’m going to be intent on introducing her to new activities, new experiences. And that’s awesome. But it also means that I’m going to be constantly stifling my instinct to push, push, push, practice more, get better, be amazing at something! Want what I wanted. But my child is not me. And I’m pretty sure that’s always difficult for parents to remember.
I think the best way to counteract this potentially destructive instinct is to just focus on what has always made my heart full and satisfied: taking pictures and writing stuff. It’s a win-win.