“The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them – words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out.
But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it.
That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller, but for want of an understanding ear.”
—The Body, by Stephen King
This excerpt is from the story that was eventually made into the movie “Stand By Me,” one of my all-time favorites. It’s from a collection of stories called Different Seasons, which also includes the story on which “The Shawshank Redemption” is based. King doesn’t get much respect from the literary critics, but he has a gift for getting the most important things across in unassuming, surprising ways.
This project — turning point stories — is about saying the most important things. It’s an audacious thing to do: to ask people to tell me those stories that run right through the territory where their secret heart is buried. To be not only the chronicler and curator of these stories, but also the understanding ear…It’s a tall task, to be sure. It’s an honor, too, to be entrusted with such stories. I am humbled by it.
The idea for the turning point stories project came out of a major turning point in my own life, when I did something that to most people in my life seemed completely insane. I had been working for fifteen years in a federal agency. I had a solid, predictable income, and a comprehensive benefit program. I was one of the lucky ones who never feared for her job during the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and the recession that followed.
For reasons that were clear to no one but me, I gave it all up to chase a dream.
Rather than tell the whole story here, I’ll end with another excerpt from the personal essay I wrote for admission to graduate school. If I’m asking people to tell their stories, and share their “most important things,” I’d better walk the talk. So here goes:
As a teenager, I fell in love with languages, thanks to a Spanish teacher whose captivating stories of travelling the world inspired me to imagine a similar future for myself. I dreamed I would become a translator, and go to work wherever in the world my heart would lead me. As a college student, I enrolled in the sciences, driven by an interest in the dynamic systems of the natural world. But I was always more inclined toward studying the connections between people, not things. I didn’t know then how to marry together my scientific training with my interest in languages and cultures. I assumed I had to choose between them, and so with regret, I set aside my adolescent dream, thinking that was the end of it.
In one of my favorite poems, Langston Hughes asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” It festers; it sags like a heavy load; and yes, sometimes it explodes. But equally true, though less poetic, is this: it seeps in through the cracks, creeps in where you least expect it, and finds a hundred ways to make itself known.
In the middle of my life’s journey, I made a surprising discovery: I had become a translator after all. As a relationships person in a technical field, I’ve carved out a niche for myself as an interpreter and liaison between people who speak different languages: biologists and accountants, engineers and archaeologists, indigenous people and non-natives. Throughout my career, I’ve helped people navigate between worlds.
My professional experience has given me broad exposure to issues that are at the heart of many of today’s global challenges: environmental degradation, sustainable energy use, infrastructure development, cultural preservation, economic growth, and the interdependency of all of us who share finite resources.
There is still so much I want to learn. It’s time to leave my comfort zone and reach toward the future – not just to seek a different job, but an altogether different horizon.