The Fox and the Hedgehog
The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
I admit that in this famous philosophical debate, I always wanted to be a hedgehog, but deep inside I have always known that I am a fox instead. My interests are many, ranging from Native American sovereignty issues to migratory habits of birds to theories of creativity and identity. My intellectual development reflects those varied interests; my journey to freelancing and designing my own projects and workflow have not been quick or direct for me.
Looking back at high school, I see a student conflicted between selecting a science-oriented path and choosing among the liberal arts. I did not understand why we had to select our destinies at the same age we discovered the opposite sex, encountered family distress, and started learning about various academic options. Nonetheless, I followed the traditional path and allowed the system to mandate a specialized path.
I chose English because I knew of writers like Vladimir Nabokov who maintained a lively scientific interest in butterflies, Margaret Atwood who demonstrated great emotional depth and understanding and also knowledge of Canadian flora and fauna, and Diane Ackerman whose books lyrically explained scientific processes and patterns. If these writers could exist in both the scientific and the literary worlds, then I knew it was possible for me to do so as well. I maintained my enthusiasm for and interest in science, but I found as I gained more exposure to writers and their works, I was drawn more towards the well-crafted turn of phrase rather than a particular scientific discipline.
Because of my developing interest in writing and literature, I decided to study English as a formal discipline. I found myself particularly drawn to works in which the protagonist struggles to find spiritual meaning in an otherwise broken world, often forging a separate and new identity apart from the identity created by family, friends, and society. Margaret Atwood’s novel Surfacing resonated with me as it called into question the genesis and nature of human memory and reminiscences. I explored and intensively studied Atwood’s works, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. I also discovered Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, a chronicle of mental and societal breakdown and one woman’s therapeutic journey back from the madness. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles followed a similar path through moral nihilism and traced a character’s entrance into full consciousness in a fragmented modern society. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar led me to discover Plath’s poetry and her journals, and her confessional mode of writing inspired me to openly chronicle my most personal experiences. Under the Volcano taught me how prose can mimic and convey particular states of mind such as the narrator’s nearly constant intoxication. I also made an important discovery after reading N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn which was my initiation into the entire genre of First Nations writing, and in and of itself represented a work that successfully integrated poetry and prose while providing universal insights.
In fact, it was N. Scott Momaday’s book that proved to be the beginning of my undergraduate research into First Nation cultures and writings. My interest in writing and activism sent me across the country to various reservations in search of local stories, storytellers, and direct contact with traditions and conditions that informed these native peoples’ works. I spent a considerable amount of time on both the Navajo and Pojoaque reservations, staying with host families and experiencing different family and tribal cultures first-hand.
However, the single most important decision of my life turned out to be my enrollment in a poetry workshop at The Newberry Library in Chicago, taught by poet Mark Perlberg. Mark, co-founder and then director-emeritus of The Poetry Center of Chicago and accomplished poet somehow decided my work demonstrated promise, and he invited me to join his poetry group that met every other Thursday at members’ houses. It was here that I was to become a pupil of Mark’s and learn to hone my craft and develop the discipline to be a successful poet. Because of Mark, I continue to write poetry, and I make it a priority. Although Mark is no longer alive, his gentle wisdom and insight are still with me today, and if I ever succeed in publishing my poetry book, it will be because of Mark’s tutelage.
I went back to school and earned an M.A. in education. This represented a departure from my law school and academia aspirations. I immersed myself in child development and best practice research. Once I earned the teacher certification and M.A. degree, I found a teaching job at a Chicago Public Schools high school working with freshman- and junior-year students. My worldview and outlook underwent a fundamental shift as a result of years teaching these wonderful students. While I have always been an activist, my focus narrowed to social justice, specifically economic and education issues. I was still writing and reading, but with all the responsibilities of being a teacher, I had to reduce the amount of time I devoted to those pursuits.
Finally, I decided I needed to return to graduate school to enter a literature program. While I loved my job, I felt that I was neglecting certain aspects of my intellect. I also felt that I needed to continue to grow as a reader in order to continue my development as a writer. Ultimately, I left teaching to pursue a writing career, and it seems that my “foxy” nature will continue to serve me well in my writing aspirations.
While I may wish to be Archilochus’ hedgehog and I understand the need for specialization in academia and in the economy in general, my interests are so varied that I never cease to find the world intellectually challenging and stimulating. I connect to different people in a variety of ways because of my wide-ranging interests. While I respect the hedgehog mentality and sometimes even wish that I possessed that type of mind, the fact remains that I am actually a fox, running through the forest, constantly seeking, finding, and seeking again.
Originally published at https://baileylaurajean.com on May 17, 2019.