I am an adult student; a life long learner. I went back to college after 25 years to attain a BA degree in Creativity in the Arts from SUNY Empire. I had dropped out of Temple University those many years ago to pursue my passion in the theatre. I went on to co-found my own theatre company at the age of 21. Anyway, Empire State College of New York has a very progressive aspect in their undergraduate program. Adult students can count 'life experience' as academic credit toward a undergraduate degree. In order to gain 'life experience' credits, students must chronicle their professional experience into a narrative essay. The essay is then sent onto a noted and accredited professional within the specified area of experience. The student must then pass a rigorous interviewing process with the 'life experience' assessor before the 'life experience' credits can be counted toward academic credit.
The process of writing about my professional experience and then arguing for the academic credit was very intense. I decided to post the series of essays here for other adult students. These days, so many folks are challenged with going back to college. I didn't know what a 'life experience' essay was before I had to write one. I figured I'd post my life experience essays here online as a reminder to myself to keep learning and to keep growing. I also hope that other adult student may find my example and approach to writing life experience essays helpful. No sense in letting them continue to gather dust on my hard drive.
“That feeling of being torn comes from hearing consciously or unconsciously, something call us, calling us back, something we cannot say no to without hurting ourselves” (Estes, 1992, p.278).
It was a beautiful day in the city. I was on the 6 train on my way to meet a friend in Soho. I got off the train at Bleecker Street and began making my way through the turn-style and up the stairs. As I walked up Bleecker, I could hear a woman calling after me. I turned around to watch a petite woman with pixie cut auburn hair running toward me. She looked like she was in her late 40s. As she got closer she panted, “I love your skirt. It’s gorgeous. I couldn’t stop staring at you on the train. Can I ask where you got it?” I was flattered and caught off guard as I told the woman that I had made the skirt myself. She then asked,”Do you sell them?” Now, this is one of those slow motion moments that I will never forget because at first I answered, “No.” I always said, “No” whenever asked about selling my Skitzo Skirtz. It was not because I coveted them. On the contrary, I’d been giving them away to friends and family for years. Perhaps, it was the quilter in me; I had yet to see tangible worth in those things I had made by hand. However, within a split second that lasted 100 years, I experienced a shift in my mind. It felt literal. It was jarring. I was caught by the energy coming out of that woman’s hazel eyes. I towered over her in my wedges, as people buzzed by us standing there. Still, that extra second was just long enough to let that woman into my personal space. Then as if someone had kicked me in the behind, I said, “Yes.”
That crystalized moment happened in 2002. At the time, I had no idea how saying, “Yes” to that woman on the sidewalk, would setoff a chain of events that would completely alter the trajectory of my life.
In the years since that day, I’ve come to recognize that experience as a “call to adventure” (Plotikn, 2003, p.17). Ecopyschologist, Bill Plotkin described the “call to adventure” as both “ a crisis and an unsurpassed opportunity” (p.48). According to Plotkin the “call to adventure” is partly the way of the soul summoning us to go deeper into our own spirits, so that we might release ourselves from those things that are keeping us from experiencing our true place in the world. Joseph Campbell described the “call to adventure as, “...the awakening of the self”(2008, p.42), that can happen at any stage or position in life. Campbell then goes on to assert that the “call to adventure” signals the beginnings of, “...a mystery of transfiguration---a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth. The familiar life has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for passing of a threshold is at hand” ( p.43).
As I look back, the sense of spirituality along with the death and rebirth aspects of Campbell’s “call to adventure”(2008, p.42) theory are especially resonating because the day that woman arrested me with her question, I was still experiencing the aftershocks in the wake of 911. Like most people who were in New York City on that day, I experienced a shattering of my perspective of life: humanity, the world and my place within it. I was forever changed. My views on the meaning of success and happiness had also begun to change. Certain career aspirations had begun to lose their sway over me, and I started thinking more about the quality of the life I was living, and what was really most meaningful to me.
“...the soul waits for---or creates---a trauma, something extreme that will loosen the ego’s grip on its old way of belonging to the world” (Plotkin, 2003, 50).
That first customer and paid commission for one of my original designs marked the beginning of the end of my acting career. Of course, I did not see it that way at the time and it’s far too complicated to go into it here. Still, the new venture of designing and selling artwear from my New York City apartment, caused what Plotkin described as, “...an earthquake in the middle of my life” (2003, p. 17). It was an exciting and unbelievably confusing time. It was also very difficult. I was experiencing what Campbell described as a diametrical tension between my life as it was, as opposed to this new force that was reshaping my self-perception and the way I was moving through the world. After all, I was going full blast with my theatre company. We were in the midst of preproduction planning for an Off-Broadway run of our adaptation of “For Colored Girls...” I had auditions for commercials and voiceovers happening. I was in the midst of commuting between New York City and Philadelphia, while working on the development of a lead character in an independent film with, director and screenplay writer, Steve Jimenez. As it stood, I had been working together with Steve and two other actors for over a year, already. I was not living the life of a fashion designer. Nonetheless, I kept saying, “Yes” to each new Skitzo Skirt commission and trunk show. I kept saying, “Yes.”
Strangely, I felt comfortable moving amongst the crafts people and artists that I was meeting at the different craft shows I attended around New York City and Upstate New York. Suddenly, I saw something material in a home life. I began to envision an organic studio that revolved around sharing a creative journey with my husband, making art and sharing beauty.
“...you long to embody your soul in a way that engenders genuine and intimate communion between people, the land, and the other-than-human beings” (Plotkin, 2008, p. 307-308).
These days, many are faced with remaking their lives. So many people are being let-go; or walking away from an unhappiness; or experiencing a career change after a lifetime of doing something else. I believe, those people would understand what it was like for me to leave my theatre company. I believe, others could relate to the feelings of unbelievable loss that I experienced as I left my business partner and my professional circle after 16 years. The process of leaving my life as I knew it, and the subsequent loneliness I felt as I walked through the doorway of a new way of being, is something that I think other people could relate to. According to Plotkin, Rilke described “the call” as an approaching storm that we can’t outrun. It’s a storm we must turn toward, facing the winds (2003, p.49). Therefore, saying, “Yes,” to the “call to adventure,” living blissfully, the soul journey, and starting over as an adult in mid-life are definitely subjects I would like to study more about in graduate school.
Skitzo Skirtz: Cherished Denim Collection, 2001
Reclaimed denim, silk chiffon, silk velvet, vintage and antique textiles and lace, machine pieced and stitched.
By Shelita Birchett Benash