If You Aren’t in Over Your Head, How do You know How Tall You Are? Attributed to T.S. Eliot, source unknown

At the end of her long letter on her own handmade rice paper, my friend Linda wrote, “I sure give you credit. You are really brave: not only are you on your own but in a foreign country. When I mention you’re in Paris to people…everyone’s mouth drops open and they say you’re so lucky. I feel it goes way beyond that. You’re really together much more than you realize.” The letter fell to my desk, onto a stack of drawings and notes that had piled up over the weeks I’d been on an adventure, far from home. With a glass of red wine in hand, I paced the two rooms of my apartment and puzzled over her remarks. Brave and together? Me?

I was in my mid-forties, living in a tiny fifth-floor walk-up in the 15th arrondissment of Paris and working as an intern or ‘stagiare’ at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, the Centre Pompidou nicknamed the Beaubourg. Before then, I’d been an instructor in a Chicago children’s museum and an art teacher. One of my museum colleagues raved about the children’s department of the Beaubourg, the Atelier des enfants, and its novel programming in the arts for children.  She suggested  I apply for an internship there; the experience surely would boost my credibility and further my career in museum education, she said.  At her insistent urging and my husband and son’s encouragement, I did just that. I sent a letter in French to the person my colleague said was in charge of internships and thought, well, that was that. They’ll never answer and I can just carry on here.

“Surprise” does not describe my reaction when I read the museum’s response to my inquiry. It was a rapid, detailed, enthusiastic, and wholly unexpected invitation to come in January—at my expense—and work/study alongside the atelier’s  staff—without pay, but with benefits like the employee discount entitling me to a four-course lunch in the employee cafeteria for about $1.90 including hard cider or wine. And Madeline, my contact, assured me I’d have a place to live. One of the museum animateurs  (teachers) wanted to sublet her apartment to me for a small sum.

I did not want to pursue this. How could I leave my husband and teenage son, my daughter in a local college, for three months? Who would cook and clean? How could I leave my job at the children’s museum? Regardless of the raft of worries and anxieties on which reluctance floated, I began to imagine myself back in the city I’d visited briefly a few times as a girl, then as a younger woman. I would be on my own, free to sit in a café over endless cups of express, free to wander the parks and palaces, bookstores, and museums. Free to meet real French people. And, most importantly, I would be observing not only the Beaubourg’s workshops for children, designed as Madeline said, to give them ownership of their city’s art legacy, but also with Madeline’s introductions, I would have opportunities to visit similar programs in museums all over Paris.

I had saved enough money, which could sustain me for three months. My spoken French skills needed honing, but I could hire a tutor for the time remaining before departure. My husband assured me he could cook a few things and would keep our home clean and in good repair. My self-doubt and objections melted away. Madeline and I corresponded many times over the next few months and soon I was packing my huge, black roller bag for the flight to Paris.

I felt I was pushing my limits, but if I had refused this  opportunity, I would never have experienced innovative methods and techniques, which at that time were considered on the cutting edge of museum education. I never would have known how well I would respond to immersion in French culture nor the insights I would gain from meeting many diverse people in my field and in my neighborhood. On a more mundane level, I treasured every opportunity to travel on the Metro and become a regular at the boulanger, the nettoyer-a-sec, the épicerie—all the little shops in my neighborhood where I’d buy my daily baguette, have my sweaters cleaned, ask for (but, Heaven forfend. never touch) the produce, paté, or cheese I wanted for dinner. I loved pretending to be just another Parisienne going about her daily business. That was not being brave or “really together.” Quite the opposite. I was living a long-held fantasy and learning so much more about myself because other people who cared about me encouraged me to go after it.

So, with thanks to Linda for missing me, I wrote back and promised to tell her all about my experiences. Well, maybe not all of them. I had ventured far over my head yet was happy learning  how tall I could be; and this venture launched me into even more challenging and fulfilling work in museum education.





One thought on “If You Aren’t in Over Your Head, How do You know How Tall You Are? Attributed to T.S. Eliot, source unknown

  1. Bravo. A brilliant memoire of a significant moment in both of our lives. With this experience you returned to Chicago and enriched the lives of thousands upon thousands of students as a leader in the museum world. I am sure they are glad that you went to Paris, as am I.

    Liked by 1 person

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