The Comfort Zone (September 15, 2015)

48 hours ago. I’m writing the first part of my story from the middle of a 26-glacier tour in Whittier, Alaska. Although afflicted with acute motion sickness, I’m pumped full of Dramamine, roaring through Prince William Sound on a catamaran. Moments ago, with cold 65-MPH winds whipping through my hair, I was hamming it up with victorious lunges on the upper deck for my friend Beth’s camera, channeling Saturday Night Live sketch character Mary Katherine Gallagher. Did I mention I’m incredibly fearful of the ocean? Superstar indeed. As I write while breathing the sea air, I feel fucking invincible. I am a conquerer – of myself and my demons. The toughest terrain of all.

The choppy waters of rural Alaska are decidedly not my comfort zone. By nature, I’m at home in the concrete jungle, born at Northwestern Hospital in downtown Chicago, graduating from high school at an inner city institution where metal detectors greeted me in the morning and members of the Chicago Police force jostled alongside students during passing periods. I was riding the El unaccompanied in junior high and the lakefront, Lincoln Park Zoo and other Chicago landmarks comprised the biggest, most dynamic backyard for which I could have asked. The ghosts of Carl Sandburg, Frederick Olmstead, Frank Lloyd and Richard Wright, as well as the modern influence of media powerhouse Oprah Winfrey, provided a trove of inspiration.

I should have been content staying energetically still in one, huge, diverse and creative mecca. That’s what they said. What right did I have to want more? Yet want more I did, having been born with what one might call a restless spirit. And I denied it for a long time. For too many years, I accepted the projection of others without question, permitting myself to be labeled as one for whom nothing would ever be “enough.” Pick your place and occupy it – literally and figuratively. What was good for my great-grand working class German and Italian parents should have been sufficient for me. They hadn’t crossed oceans and fled poverty to produce a fly by night hippie with an acute case of wanderlust. Consistency and routine meant stability and anything else was just ungrateful and irresponsible – an unacceptable aberration.

I wanted too much. Even I believed this. My desires and curiosity outstripped my socioeconomic station, my gender and despite being labeled a gifted student, even my intellect. As a little girl, it was ok to have dreams. Fantasies were healthy, but it was better if they stopped way short of disruptive – the princess waiting for rescue, the bride-to-be with a pillow case veil, the happy mother tenderly watching over her brood of baby dolls. I could devour the popular choose your own adventure novels of the 1980s, but I could not have it all. It wasn’t possible. It was greedy – maybe even dangerous.

Lord knows I tried to make “normalcy” enough. But my ambitions were stubborn and kept defying me. During my high school years, I was a member of the Chicago Children’s Choir and was fortunate enough to travel and perform with the group across such far flung locales as Poland, Russia and South Africa. I was told by so many adults that I was enjoying a once in a lifetime experience. But there’s nothing quite as subversive as books, travel and an romantic imagination. I ate watery borscht at a dormitory in Ekaterinburg, called my younger sister from a pay phone at the summit of Table Mountain and fell in love with a boy on a balcony as the lights of Warsaw twinkled behind us. With each soul quenching expedition, a little voice in my head asked, “Once in a lifetime, huh? Says who?”

My parents indulged my underage journeys, mostly because it cost them nothing financially. The scholarship kid. I’d sew those oats then settle down into regular, whatever that meant. After graduation, I headed off to Champaign, Illinois, a sea of suburban white people, corn and fraternity/sorority convention. As the pent up tidal wave of a dysfunctional home and the smallness of my new world washed over me, I descended into drinking, drugs and other dangerous behavior. The adventures of the past were behind me, all there ever would be. I can admit now to a passive effort at killing myself from depression and boredom. Ironically I’d become too complacent to participate in my own self-destruction. I deferred to substances to finish the job. But perversely, my tolerance for numbness only grew. I earned a degree in English Literature, minoring in Psychology but all I really learned was how to fake it. I read the works of Shakespeare, the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, but I wasn’t brave enough to follow their examples and live a multi-dimensional life of my own creation. It was just too scary and heretical.

Let’s jump 12 years, two failed marriages, 6 administrative and/or corporate operations positions and one suicide attempt ahead. To what most of us know as rock bottom. As I surrendered myself to personal therapy, Al-Anon and other resources for the clueless, fearful co-dependent, one truth was abundantly clear: this shit? Not working at all. With nothing else to lose, it was clear there was only one option left if I was going to keep living. Different. Denying my inner anachronist was no longer tenable. If I was going to make it in this world, it was more than past time to let my freak flag fly high. If I was going to be at all, I needed to try to have it all. And I understood that in both the short and long term, fighting for my right to live as I must was going to be uncomfortable as hell.

This is me today. From 8:30am – 5pm, Monday-Friday, I indulge my competitive, scorekeeping self, the WASP-raised Becky that requires financial solvency as a jumping off point for safely underwriting fantastic departures from the norm. I’m a Sales Communication Manager at TransUnion, a global information solutions company that serves businesses and consumers in 33 countries worldwide. I help my department reach lofty revenue targets by crawling inside the customer’s head to develop strategic marketing plans. It’s storytelling meets psychology. Hello practical degree application.

I’m also a parched academic, with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, musty books and journals. In 2007, I earned an MA in English Literature from Northeastern Illinois University and retain strong campus ties as a student mentor and frequent collaborator with former professors. In 2012, I was honored with the NEIU English Department’s first-ever Alumni of the Year Award. My freelance work as a Chicago market theater critic for EDGE Media Network is an extension of my passion for literary scholarship, and also works as an affectionate nod to that dreaming, journaling little girl who longed to spend life in the library stacks.

But that’s still not enough. To be 100 percent authentically me is to acknowledge the stubborn, truth-seeking journalist, chasing stories while building a creative network for communicators of all professions. I’m the 49th President of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association, founded in 1885 and celebrating 130 years in 2015, as well as the Recording Secretary for the National Federation of Press Women. I’m a five-time national award-winning reporter, blogger, newsletter editor and critic who’s written for Contemptor, Politicus USA RootSpeak magazine, NewCity, Make It Better and StreetWise. I author a personal blog and publish my collected works at beckysarwate.com.

Finally, I’m an urban romantic and devoted family woman, still smitten with my younger sister Jenny after 35 years and quite possibly the most immature, silly aunt walking the streets. I realized along the way that parenthood is not for me, because as Toni Morrison memorably wrote for the title character of her novel Sula, I realized the thing I really need and want to make is myself – a beautiful product wholly unfinished.

I remain a born and proudly raised city slicker, residing in the Ravenswood neighborhood with my partner Bob and our menagerie of pets. But I step out of this world often as an adult who’s finally accepted stagnancy as my natural enemy. Maybe I should save for retirement, but I’ve made my peace with living for now because later is…later man. I can’t wait for the hypothetical. I want all I can have, right now. So instead of monitoring mutual fund performance, I’ve strapped on a sari and toured the temples of India, tentatively tiptoed to the Israeli/Lebanese border, cried overwhelmed tears of joy at Westminster Abbey and run the national finals of the Great Urban Race across the mountains of Vancouver.

No one ever told me I could try it all, be all the women I am at once. It’s work and I’m frequently exhausted. I am judged, second guessed and predicted to fail at every turn – by myself as well as the world at large. It’s risky, scary and expensive to indulge all myselves – in every costly sense. But I know now what the alternative is. Despair. I’d rather be tired and stimulated than rested and yearning. That’s existentially dishonest and I know it. The balancing act isn’t easy but dammit it’s necessary because my essence has no single dimensions. Corporate shark, writer, community organizer, lover. I am all of those things and I MUST scratch all of the itches. That requires a constant battle with a familiar enemy – the comfort zone.

I won’t let ANYTHING stop me from grabbing life by the balls and squeezing every last incongruous, exhilarating and frightening drop. Not even myself. I am the urban woman who writes stories while wearing stylish sunglasses and speeding through Arctic ice floes. If that’s uncomfortable for me or anyone else, fuck it. I can’t be otherwise.

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