Tuesday, June 22, 2010


How I Got There

I suspect that everyone's life contains magic, if only one takes the time to step back and look for it. Mine certainly has. Every significant move I have made in my life, and there have been quite a few, was preceded by unexplainable events that moved me in a direction I had no idea I was going. Gainesville was no exception.

My twenty-year marriage had just undergone a slow, painful death. I had managed to derail my career as a freelance documentary writer with a "bad" decision to become a partner in a new production company. My partners were talented men. The work they produce was top quality; their ability to make sound business decisions was not. While we enjoyed considerable success with our first two projects, the company went "belly up" when we attempted to launch an under-financed television series.

The producers I had worked for in the past, miffed that I had the audacity to compete with them by becoming a partner in a production company, were not even willing to talk to me, let alone hire me. Unable to find work in my field, I tried to get a job teaching my craft. There were jobs available on the community college level, but a master's degree was required, and I didn't have one. Without the degree, my experience was considered irrelevant

And that's how, in 1974, I found myself stranded in Winter Haven, Florida, with a 12 year old daughter and no money, and no prospect of work.

I was at my wits end and feeling desperate. Then something unexplainable happened.

A few years earlier, while working for a Miami-based film company, I was sent to Daytona Beach to bid on a promotional film for the city's Chamber of Commerce. During the three day visit a young public relations man working with the Chamber showed the gathered group of film company representatives around the area so we could write our proposals. I didn't land the contract, but the young man, David, and I seemed to connect. After his formal presentations, we would sit and talk. We shared a similar perspective on life. He was younger than I was, but I learned a lot from him over those three days. David introduced me to the "Seth" books, a series of metaphysical books channeled through the writer, Jane Roberts, which have had a profound effect on the way I view life. http://www.sethlearningcenter.org/ He shared a story with me about his friend, a former ballet dancer-turned-architect, who had a massive stroke, but was so influenced by the Seth books that he defied his doctor's negative prognosis and willed himself back to a fully functioning life. Most important, David introduced me to Cassadaga.

Cassadaga, situated midway between Daytona Beach and Orlando, is a picturesque little town with narrow, oak-lined streets and quaint houses circa early 1900's. Founded 115 years ago, it is the South's oldest spiritualist community. The inhabitants are all spiritualists. For more information  http://www.cassadaga.org/

I had several hours to kill between the end of my meetings in Daytona Beach on the last day of that sales trip and my flight out of Orlando. David suggested I stop by Cassadaga. He gave me directions and the name of a spiritualist he believed to be one of the most gifted in the community. I didn't intend to follow up on his suggestion; I was uncomfortable with the idea of visiting a spiritualist. But as I reached the cut-off to Cassadaga it was as if the car turned by itself. I had no trouble locating the woman David had recommended. She told me she didn't do readings in the afternoon, but when I mentioned that David had sent me, she invited me inside. My first session with a spiritualist was...well... surreal, but I came away from the meeting with a strange sense of peace, and a new understanding of a situation that had me mired down and was sucking the life out of me. What she told me rang painfully true; she spoke of things that were going on in my life that I had shared with no one. It took me a while to act on my new awareness, but I understood for the first time that day—without anger or blame—that I was in a marriage that had run its course and could not be saved.

But, back to my story.

There I was, sitting in my apartment in Winter Haven, depressed and frightened, not knowing where to turn, when my phone rang. It was David. I had not heard from him, or even though about him, since our initial encounter in Daytona Beach. It didn't occur to me to ask how he knew where to find me because the first words out of his mouth were, "I heard you are looking for work." He proceeded to tell me about a job he had been offered at the University of Florida, but was unable to take. It was with the journalism department. I started to argue that I didn't have a master's degree, but he interrupted.

"Neither do I," he said. "That didn't stop them from offering the job to me. What do you have to lose? I'll contact the head of the department and let him know you are going to call."

Now, I need to interrupt my story one last time... to relate something that had happened only a couple weeks earlier.

A friend, trying to cheer me up, talked me into making a quick trip to Cassadaga. Reluctantly, I agreed... or maybe desperately. I needed a straw to hold on to...some hope that this dark tunnel I felt l was in had a light at the other end. Unfortunately, the spiritualist I had seen last time had died. Someone suggested we try Eloise Page. We made our appointments and hoped for the best. During my reading, Eloise insisted that I was going to work at an institution of higher learning. (Remember, this was after I had just been turned down by two community colleges for a lack of credentials.) She also said this institution was north of Orlando because she could smell the pine trees, and the pine trees south of Orlando have no fragrance. Then she said that someone would help me move—a stranger I would never see again.

I came away from the session disheartened. Eloise Page's credentials had been highly touted, but nothing the woman said made any sense to me. I marked the visit off as a waste of time and money (which at the time I couldn't afford to waste).

Fast forward three weeks: I hung up the phone. David was right. What did I have to lose? I set up an appointment with the head of the journalism department at the University of Florida, and drove to Gainesville. As I walked across the campus toward the journalism building, I recalled another time, maybe ten years earlier, when, also motivated by financial problems, I accepted a job from an advertising agency for which I was not qualified. The agency needed someone to write and edit monthly employee and customer publications for two of its clients—Burger King and a construction company that built stores for Burger King and other restaurant chains. I wasn't worried about the writing part, but I had never edited a publication. I knew nothing about layout, or writing to space, or dealing with printers. (This, remember, was in the days before computers.) I needed to learn fast, so I took a week-end workshop at the University of Florida. And I remembered thinking at the time what a beautiful campus it was, and how nice it would be to teach there.
As it turned out, the job in the journalism department was for a guest lecturer a couple times a month, someone who could talk to students about real-life journalism experiences Certainly not a position with which I could support myself and my daughter. But the man who interviewed me was impressed with my documentary film experience, and told me that he had heard there was a fulltime opening in the Broadcast Journalism Department. He sent me over to the football stadium (which is where the Broadcast Journalism Department was housed in those days) to see Ken Christiansen.

My meeting with Dr. Christiansen lasted over an hour. He listened attentively as I explained my experience and credentials, which he said—in his opinion—outweighed the need for a master's degree, something he thought I could pursue while I was teaching. There was a completed job application on his desk. He was about to approve it, he said, when he was interrupted by the call from the head of the journalism department... the call about me. Dr. Christiansen picked up the application, put it in his out basket, unsigned, and offered me the position of adjunct professor. There was, however, a caveat to his offer.

The university was an equal opportunity employer, and his department had no faculty of color. If, between then and the time the new semester started, a qualified person of color applied for the job, that person would get the position.

I considered the risk. There was a good possibility that I could move to Gainesville (which I needed to do soon in order to get my daughter registered for school) only to discover that I had no job. But considering the improbability of all that had happened to get me this far—the call from a man I hardly knew that got me to the university on that particular day; arriving at Dr. Christiansen's office just as he was about to hire someone else for the position; not to mention the prediction during my visit to Cassadaga that I would be teaching at an institute of higher learning north of Orlando —I decided to take the risk. Besides, at the moment I had no other options.

NEXT TIME... the stranger who helped me move.

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