Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Upon a Closing Door


During the fall of 2008, I was stuck with a pathetically low paying teaching job at a South Jersey community college where I taught students who couldn't spell their own names. I was also stuck in an even more pathetic marriage that I knew I shouldn't have agreed to be a part of.

No, I didn't want to 'work my way up' at a job where most of the full-time faculty were made up of those who've been teaching there for forty years with very little credibility to hold their tenure track positions. I no longer wanted to be part of a marriage that lacked of love and trust. It all felt like I was swimming in murky waters, lost, without a sense of direction. I wanted to make permanent changes that would forever separate me from everything and everyone that stood before me like endless hurdles. I wanted to shove my fears aside and make life changing decisions with so much ambition that giving up or settling for anything less was no longer an option.

That winter, after I passed my comprehensive exams to earn my Master's Degree in English Literature at Rutgers University, I began preparing a manuscript of stories that I wanted to use to apply to MFA programs. I loved writing stories. Being part of an immigrant family from Turkey, I had a lot of stories to tell. I wanted to write stories about the political, social, religious, and gender issues in Turkey with proper settings and strong characters. I had hoped that these stories would get me out of my incredibly unsatisfying professional and personal life and put me in a place where I'd be inspired to create the life I wanted to live.

I know that most people apply to five, ten, or even fifteen MFA programs. I only applied to Columbia University's School of the Arts in New York City, because in my opinion, it is the best school to attend for writing. If I was going to work on a terminal degree, it was going to be at an institution located in the center of all major publishing where the best writers visit and boasts a faculty of world renowned authors. I didn't want to settle for anything less. A few months after submitting my application, on a cold March morning, while I was sleeping, I missed a phone call from a number with a New York City area code. I was alone. I pushed the sheets away, and started to pace in my bedroom as I listened to the voice mail that went something like:

"Hi, this is Gary Shteyngart from The Columbia University School of the Arts. I'm trying to reach Nagehan. I'm sure I mangled that name so I'm sorry about that. Please give me a call at ***...."

I didn't care if he called me Nancy, Nina, or Nona. I immediately dialed the number but I couldn't reach him. I left a voice mail, sat on my living room floor, put my phone on the coffee table, and waited for what seemed like an eternity until my phone rang again with the same New York City phone number. With shaky hands, I answered the phone. To this day, I still can't remember what was said over that phone conversation other than Shteyngart telling me that I've been accepted into Columbia University's School of the Arts to study fiction writing and me thanking him over and over again as I tried very hard not bawl my eyes out. Once I hung up the phone, I cried. I called my parents. I cried some more. I called my brother. I called a handful of my good friends. I called my ex-husband. 

For the rest of the spring, I made the arrangements to move into an apartment located a mile away from Columbia University's campus. I packed, bought whatever I needed for the move, and attended accepted student events and orientations. During the last week of August, I moved to New York City. From the moment my ex-husband drove away in his car, I wanted to feel guilty for moving to New York as a married woman. I wanted to cry. I wanted to think of myself as selfish. I wanted to feel lonely and scared. I wanted to call my ex-husband and say please turn around and take me home, take me home, because I can't do this without you. I wanted to call and tell him how much I missed our house and two cats. I wanted to feel sad. But for the first time in years, I felt happy. I felt free. I felt inspired. I felt it with my whole being that I had made the right decision to move to New York alone. I went out onto the balcony of my apartment and watched the sun setting across the Hudson River. I lit a cigarette, finished that cigarette, lit another cigarette, started to laugh then cry, poured myself a glass of red wine, put on a nice summer dress, grabbed my purse, and met up with a friend for dinner.

After a successful first semester of writing, meeting incredibly famous and talented writers, attending exclusive literary events, I asked my ex-husband for a divorce. I was relieved and he was dumbfounded. I didn't have any plans to change my decision and I had my family and friends' full support. I wanted a mature and simple divorce. He wanted nothing of the kind. He wanted to work on our marriage. And by 'work on our marriage' he wanted me to move back to South Jersey and quit school. Needless to say, the following months were filled with an endless filing of paperwork which lead to our final court date. Finally, after a journey that could only have been thought up by Dante himself, we were divorced in early summer.

Once my divorce was finalized and before I started my second year at Columbia University, I became financially independent and moved into my own apartment. I fell in love once again when I least expected it. During my second year at Columbia University, I continued to make new friends, became even more inspired by other writers, and learned to write fearlessly about many topics. I got engaged and got married again. After Jeremy was accepted into a Ph.D program to study Neuroscience at Temple University's Medical School, I spent many hours in making plans to move to Philadelphia. I got a job teaching creative writing at Columbia University, concluded my coursework, and decided to take an extra year to put together my thesis.

Life isn't slowing down for me. I'm not complaining. After three years of starting at Columbia University, I'm still writing. I'm still teaching. I'm married to a man who restored my faith in marriage, love, and life. In less than a week, we will have been living in Philadelphia for a year. In two weeks, we will welcome our first child into this world.  My parents and friends continue to be a constant source of unconditional love and support.

Just a week ago, I finally submitted my thesis. I titled it 'Upon a Closing Door.' It's made up of three stories, and they're not happy stories. They don't end with happily ever afters. They don't have characters who are saved by a miracle. What these stories have in common are characters who don't have it all. They're stories about loss. There are characters who are on the verge of giving up but are redeemed by the strength they didn't know they had. These stories are filled with characters making choices and decisions that will lead them toward a fulfilling life. They're stories about characters letting go of their regrets and accepting each day as an opportunity to find life's many gifts. These stories are filled with hope.

I think the title of my thesis is aligned perfectly with the happenings of my life in the past three years. What I've learned is that life isn't like the movies where the characters have perfectly rehearsed things to say or do. It isn't always easy to find the right things to say or do the things that will make everyone happy. I've made decisions that made me happy and hurt others. Sometimes, I got hurt. I'm thankful for realizing that choosing to live my life in denial and regret would have been no different than volunteering to wear blinders preventing me from seeing the opportunities to create the life I always wanted to live.

It's cliche to say when one door closes, another opens. What's important to ask yourself is what to do when you come upon a closed door. Do you look so long and regretfully upon the closed door with the fear of failure? Or do you choose to make bold decisions that will lead you toward happiness? Only you can make the decision to change your life. I decided to change my life three years ago. I made a choice. I chose happiness. I've no regrets. From now on, I will always choose happiness.

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