My Big Picture Is More Like an Etch-A-Sketch


In the musical Ordinary Days, four twenty-somethings explore, discuss, worry about, and celebrate their “life stories” and “big pictures.” Eventually, they all come to realize that life stories and big pictures can be changed irrevocably for better or worse in a few seconds by chance meetings and unforeseen events.

 A few weeks ago, one of my daughters, also a twenty-something, told me that a couple of her work colleagues had their lives all charted in tidy five-year plans. They were incredulous when she told them she has a job and apartment through June, but after that she has no idea of where she’ll be or what she’ll be doing.

Although no one wants to be homeless or suddenly unemployed, a detailed five-year life plan of exactly how you expect your life to be seems both unrealistic and simplistic to me.  I’m not saying don’t dream or have goals, but your life plan to have two kids, a dream house, and successful career by age 30 just might not happen, or not in the way you anticipate. Life happens, and sometimes it’s messy, startling, and unpredictable. Besides who wants to know everything that will happen in their future? Sometimes life also brings sudden, astonishing good things, too. Surprises, including unexpected career paths, can be wonderful.

As Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus says, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”

So put money in savings, buy insurance, and send out your résumé, but get messy, too. Color outside the lines of your big picture.

I think about my daughters—and myself—all of us planners. We make daily and weekly to-do lists and charts. We plan our days. We like to know in advance where we’re going with friends, what movie we’re seeing, who will be at this or that holiday dinner, and what food we’ll eat. Although we all have dreams, goals, and desires, I don’t know if they have envisioned a “big picture” in their own lives. I know I have never had one. In fact, I haven’t quite decided what I want to do or who I want to be when I grow up.  So girls, it just might be hereditary.


I was an elementary/early childhood major as an undergraduate, mainly because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was interested in a lot of things—literature, writing, history, art, music—but I didn’t know what to do with those interests. After graduating, my boyfriend and I got married, and he became a high school math teacher—a very good one—and he has had a teaching career he’s enjoyed (for the most part). I taught preschool, but it was not really wanted I wanted to do.

So I probably did have some kind of very vague big picture as a young twenty-something: we would get married, and perhaps some day way in the future we’d have children and perhaps own a house. We do have two daughters (I could not have predicted that they would turn out to be as wonderful as they are—smart, passionate, creative, talented. And how would I have planned for that anyway?), but I did not have our first until we’d been married for nine years and I was nearly finished with graduate school, where I earned a doctorate in American history. I wrote, I taught at local colleges and universities, and the same year my first book was published, I took a one-year position at a nearby university with delusions of grandeur, the university, not me. I had no such illusions. In fact, I discovered one day that I taught an entire class period with my nursing bra unhooked under my (fortunately baggy) sweater.  Nope, no delusions of grandeur in my life story. This college also had the most dysfunctional history department ever. I am probably not exaggerating here. The professors had been pretty much been ordered to start playing nicely together. They didn’t. My year there and a friend’s horrible tenure experience at another college cured me of wanting to pursue a life in academia.

So then there was more soul searching. A friend and I attempted to create children’s history programs and write a children’s book. Those endeavors didn’t work out, but we had certainly had fun trying–and had some great lunches, too. Finally, the same friend introduced me to test writing. I had never before considered that people were actually employed to create test questions and tests. I seem to be good at it. So now I work as a freelance test writer, and I write and edit academic books. I blog for fun.

But both my grandfathers lived to be over 90 years old, and my mom is going on 92, so I figure, I still have plenty of time to start a new career–if I want one.

We can’t anticipate illness or unexpected heartbreaks. We can plan our days, we can save for a rainy day or a polar vortex, and we can outline a blog post or essay. However, even what one plans to write turns—often mid-sentence–into something else entirely. OK. Maybe that’s just me. My sentences sometimes have lives of their own. Perhaps they see the big picture that I’m missing. I can deal with that.

My life story and big picture are like the unfinished sentence that morphs into a new train of thought—random strands that create something new. But I think I much prefer the active and ever-changing Etch-A-Sketch life to that of framed and finished oil canvas, hung in a gallery and forgotten. Perhaps I want the nuances of a chiaroscuro drawing in my big picture, with contrasts between light and dark, shadow and light. That is how I see my life. I don’t know what my big picture will finally look like, or how I will appear in it. Today is just another day—ordinary and special. Just the say, I’ll keep my to-do list close by. After all, there are always errands to do and calls to make, and one of those might lead to something unexpected and wonderful, a new draft for my big picture.





Looking Back at Looking Back

A few days ago while working on a new book, I needed some information on eighteenth-century men and women who left their spouses and turned to my first book Breaking the Bonds. It’s been quite a while since I’ve really read through it. It was a strange feeling to look back at prose I wrote over twenty years ago, but I was pleased to find I still thought it was good. Sigh of relief, right?

As I read about the unhappy lives of people who died long ago, I thought back about my own life.  I was reading history, but I was thinking about my own history—who I was, how I’ve changed, and how the process of research and writing has changed. Breaking the Bonds started as my doctoral dissertation, and because of that, it is the book I spent the most time researching and writing. I wrote each chapter multiple times and presented each one to professors, other grad students, and seminar groups. I presented versions of some chapters to various professional associations.

When I began the research for this book, few documents or collections were digitized. I didn’t do any of the research online or take notes on my computer. (I had one of the first Apple computer models then—a desk top, of course.) I went to archives with pencils (no pens allowed), index cards, and legal pads.

I was the first historian to really use and write about some of the documents and collections I unearthed during my research, although since that time, other, more celebrated, historians have gone on to discuss them. I was fortunate to be at the right place and the right time as archivists were processing some collections, and several graciously shared papers with me or allowed me to go through them before they were indexed. Those who have never visited archives might not realize how papers can become “buried” in stacks of other papers or within dusty volumes. Although I love the ease of finding and searching through online documents—without having to actually get dressed or worry about driving—there is something special about seeing and holding the actual letter someone in the past wrote to a friend, relative, or official. And something exhilarating about discovering a document that proves a point you want to make or leads you down a new path.

 I was a different person when I did the research for Breaking the Bonds. If I wrote the book now, it would be a different book. Not necessarily better or worse, but different.

Being a full-time graduate student is like nothing else. You are in an artificial world where your job is to read, write, and research, and then talk about it. All the time. Not joking. All the time.  It was a fun, exciting, and scary world to me. At the beginning of my grad school days, I was a twenty-something, but I was naïve and looked younger than I was. I always got carded if I went to a bar. Nearly every Friday night, my math teacher husband and I got together with other young married couples–who were not historians or grad students. We ate dollar hoagies (can you imagine?), or occasionally splurged on pizza or Chinese food. They would ask me what interesting stories I had come across in my research. I’d regale them with the pathos and sexual exploits of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Pennsylvanians, such as the woman who warmed one of her stockings and then dangled it in front of her lover before he could “get it up.” (Interested? It’s in the book!)

I was probably attempting to look professional.

I was probably attempting to look professional.

By the time I finished the dissertation, I had a baby daughter. Right before the book went to press, I gave birth to our second daughter (finishing the index just in time). Now both the babies are grown, and I’ve written and edited many books. I’m a different person. I’m probably still naïve, but I no longer get carded.

As I re-read Breaking the Bonds, I thought about how the world has changed since the eighteenth-century. And how I have changed since I wrote the book. At the same time, much in the world remains the same—people fall in love and lust, have children, enjoy eating and drinking with friends, gossip, and do cruel and horrible things to one another.

 Today I will reenact my grad school days. I told my husband that when I was in grad school I used to read a book in a day and write a review essay about it all the time. The book review I agreed to write for a major journal isn’t due until Wednesday. No problem. I guess I should get started though. Any second now. Wish me luck.

 Thanks for reading!