FRANK TALK ABOUT WHAT WE DO WITH OUR LIVES

If You Know

In Essays on March 8, 2013 at 5:31 am

By Meg Heimovics Kumin

Meg_Heimovics_KuminWhen I was two, my father told me, “If you know what you want to do by age thirty-two, you are going to be all right.” I probably threw my Cheerios at him.

I was six when my father told me, “If you know what you want to do by age thirty-two, you are going to be all right.” I thought thirty-two was oldancient old. I had all the time in the world.

I was twelve when my father told me, “If you know what you want to do by age thirty-two, you are going to be all right.” By then, all the career and personality tests had told me I was exceptional at math and spatial reasoning, and I should be an engineer. I wasn’t sure I agreed.

I was seventeen when my father told me, “If you know what you want to do by age thirty-two, you are going to be all right.” By this time, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Two years earlier I had picked up my dad’s 1970-something Nikon camera and fallen in love with the lens. I took classes and put a darkroom in my parents’ basement. I became photo editor of the newspaper and photographer for the yearbook. I spent all of high school behind the camera and under the dim, red light of the darkroom. What did I want to do when I grew up? I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer! I wanted to follow Jane Goodall around the primate world. I wanted to capture the next “Afghan Girl.” I wanted this, but I also knew it was a pipe dream, and never, ever, going to happenunless I got really good.

I was twenty-one when my father told me, “If you know what you want to do by age thirty-two, you are going to be all right.” This time I was on the cusp of graduating college with a degree in American Studies, with a focus on race, ethnicity, and culture. I stumbled into the degree following a thirst for understanding people and identities. It was a discipline that taught me to read, think, and writeand I loved it. But I was no Cornell West, and I worried that I’d spend the rest of my life waitressing.

So I spent my fourth and fifth years taking engineering electives including calculus, physics, and computer programming. It was coding that lit up my mind. It was like one, never-ending puzzle, and I loved it. I began to think maybe those career tests were right. Following graduation, I pursued a Master’s in Computer Science.

I was twenty-seven when my father told me, “If you know what you want to do by age thirty-two, you are going to be all right.” This time I smiled, and so did he. I had figured out what I wanted to be. I had just landed the best job in the world as a software developer at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute writing biological collections management software for natural history museums.

I got married and three months later, we found out we were pregnant, rather unexpectedly. Within a year of landing the best job ever, we welcomed our whoopsie-baby, and I had a crisis of identity. Did I want to be a grown up inhabiting the working world, or did I want to get lost in my child’s world? I decided I wanted it all.  Fortunately, my boss was more than accommodating. I became an anomaly in the Mommy Wars: I was a full-time employee who brought my baby to the office. With a bouncy seat next to my keyboard, I tickled his tiny toes while I wrote java code.

I was thirty-two when we welcomed our third-born to the world. We also welcomed the rotavirus, and influenza, and sick days quickly outpaced accrued leave. It became clear that being the mother I wanted to be AND having the career I thought was for me, was unsustainable. I quit my job as a software developer to stay at home and be a childware developer.

I was thirty-two when my father told me, “Your mother is in the hospital. The doctors say she has a tumor that runs from her ear, down her neck, along her spine, into her armpit and onto her lung. The prognosis is not good.”

I was thirty-two when my father had a nervous breakdownnot the metaphorical kind, but literal catatonia. The doctors said he needed an institution and a dose of shock therapy, or the prognosis would not be good.

I was thirty-two when neither parent could care for the other. For the next year and a half, it didn’t matter what I wanted to do, I did what I had to do. I got to wear my stay-at-home-mom hat and chemo-buddy hat and power-of-attorney hat. I might have looked all grown up, but I was navigating life like a six-year-old behind the wheel of a Mack truck. How I got through it without becoming an addict or clinically depressed is the topic of a story I will probably never write.

After my mom passed, I found writing and the words poured out of me. I read and wrote and wrote and read. I used the voice inside my fingers to try to make sense of where I’d been, who I’d become, and who I wanted to be.  I picked up my camera and began attending to small wonders; it filled me with a love of life again.

I was thirty-five when Kate Gace Walton butted into my life and did this thing that she does. She asked me, “What do you do? Will you write about it?” Little did she know it was a loaded question, as virulent and unsettling as this year’s flu.

It’s been two years since Kate first asked me to write this essay. I wish I could say I blew it off, but I didn’t. I obsessed about it. Countless times, I closed my eyes and asked myself, “What do you want to do?” Again and again, I thought about where I’d been and what I’d done. I thought about what I would regret having never done. The picture became clear. I wanted to live life in Kodachrome and capture it with the lens.

So I took the plunge. I built a website and made a plan. I announced to the world, “I’m doing it!” While thirty-two was my father’s number, perhaps thirty-seven is mine. I may not be a National Geographic photographer, but I’m on a path of passion and no regrets…and it feels better than all right.

Meg Heimovics Kumin is a photographer based in Lenexa, Kansas. Her work can be viewed at Meg Kumin Photography

  1. I love this essay. We never know where life takes us, or the curve balls that it will throw us, and we go forward blindly with whatever plan we can try to make, and just hope for the best… I will share this essay with many people. It is so inspiring!

  2. i adore this. This is the river, adventure of life.

  3. I was 38 when…this was a POWERFUL essay!

  4. Inspiring and honest. I love this.

  5. Your story telling and photography are captivating. I wish you the best! Isn’t it interesting how we often veer onto what we think are different paths only to find we’re on the same path as we once started?

  6. Kate, this is fabulous.

    Sent from my iPad

  7. Like so many of these essays, this truly is wonderful.

  8. Now that I’ve managed to stop weeping, I can attest to the power of this simple-yet-unique tale by Meg Heimovics Kumin. When we’re younger and our parents share something they’ve learned the hard way – hoping to spare us their mistakes, surely – we scoff them off with a grin and a ‘yeah, right’ because you’re invincible at that age. All those pitfalls your Dad and Mom fell into, you’re going to avoid because you’re so much wiser in the ways of the world than their fuddy generation. Meg grew up to evolve toward the best use of her talents, allowing lessons learned the hard way inform her changes and bring her around to the familiar, favorite path that her feet loved all along. I have yet to realize my own simple dream of being the richest guy ever, with fat bowls of spaghetti at my beck and call 24/7 and Keith Urban on speed dial – and I’m WAY older than the lovely Meg. But I know, too, what my career path should be and keep taking steps toward it. If you ever stop leaning in, you’re in danger of falling back. Don’t give up the typewriter, Meg.

  9. I am a good friend of Elayne and she sent me your essay. I really enjoyed reading it and II was very impressed. You are very talented and obviously have a wonderful way with words. Keep writing. don’t let your talent go to waste. Helen. .

  10. [...] Meg Heimovics Kumin A software developer reboots after three babies and two family crises to emerge as a photographer.  [...]

  11. [...] Photographer Meg Heimovics Kumin and flight attendant-turned-gorilla caretaker John Safkow were featured in the radio version of the story (click the blue ‘listen’ button to hear it). [...]

  12. […] Photographer Meg Heimovics Kumin and flight attendant-turned-gorilla caretaker John Safkow were featured in the radio version of the story (click the blue ‘listen’ button to hear it). […]

  13. […] Photographer Meg Heimovics Kumin and flight attendant-turned-gorilla caretaker John Safkow were featured in the radio version of the story (click the blue ‘listen’ button to hear it). […]

  14. […] Photographer Meg Heimovics Kumin and flight attendant-turned-gorilla caretaker John Safkow were featured in the radio version of the story (click the blue ‘listen’ button to hear it). […]

  15. […] it’s been more dramatic: Terri Rowe started publishing the stories she writes for children; Meg Kumin launched a photography business. As a potential sponsor once said about Work Stew: “Oh, I get […]

  16. […] Photographer Meg Heimovics Kumin and flight attendant-turned-gorilla caretaker John Safkow were featured in the radio version of the story (click the blue ‘listen’ button to hear it). […]

  17. […] Work Stew contributors came along for the ride: photographer Meg Heimovics Kumin and flight attendant-turned-gorilla caretaker John Safkow were featured in the radio […]

  18. […] Work Stew contributors came along for the ride: photographer Meg Heimovics Kumin and flight attendant-turned-gorilla caretaker John Safkow were featured in the radio […]

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