If the fox knows many things, while the hedgehog knows one great thing I, my friends, am a hedgehog.
I’ve always known one thing and one thing alone – the love of reading books and the hope of writing them. To put it simply - the sublime satisfaction of written communication. So, in the beginning, I followed a path to develop this singular goal. In my twenties, I swiftly published and taught writing at Emerson College, working as Creative Writing Coordinator under James Randall, who founded the MFA program. Later I got a job at The New Yorker – and would have stayed for the rest of my life, (or at least for as long as they’d have me), if not for the role of fox that was thrust upon me.
As a diehard hedgehog, I was forced to wear fox clothing when my husband Ben joined the foreign service. I must give up my beloved job at The New Yorker and move to who knew where. As it happened, the posting they chose for us was Caracas, Venezuela.
What happens when we hedgehogs are forced to behave like foxes? In my case, and in true hedgehog spirit, I took things one at a time. First I learned Spanish. Then I got pregnant. Then we moved. While in Caracas I honed various skills, attended diplomatic functions, traveled and managed my live-in household help. Oh, and I also gave birth. Twice! These things changed my sense of identity considerably.
But I wasn’t finished with my foxes clothing yet. After having two children, I moved to Buenos Aires with Ben, where I continued to speak Spanish and then to teach – digging myself in pretty deep with new friends and the local church, doing lecture translations on the side ~ until we moved again.
Our travels took us to Moscow. I had another baby. I learned Russian. And just as I thought I had got that all down, we moved again to Brussels, Belgium where I needed to brush up my French. After that it was Rome –where I spoke Italian and taught English and tried desperately to come full circle. I hoped to return to my hedgehog roots and managed to get a literary agent in London. Yes! Now I'd get back to my writing!
But hedgehog though I was at heart, I had clearly not experienced the hedgehog privilege of burrowing in. I had not honed the skills I would have developed had I remained at The New Yorker. Instead, foxlike, I'd been forced to develop disparate talents - social and linguistic skills, learning to connect with ease to people from different cultures.
And that gets me to where I am today: teaching at a community college - communicating with students from vastly different backgrounds. Oh, how I understand these students! I can see what being out of their comfort zones has done for them as people. They are wonderfully nuanced individuals with incredible stories to tell, and although they often feel out of their element, I suspect that many of them are on paths of discovery that will develop and enrich them as people.
Probably they long to return to what they know – to burrow in, just as I long to burrow, as we hedgehogs always do. Even now, in my heart of hearts, I feel myself as a hedgehog. Others may perceive me as a fox – with a superficial gloss of international savvy and language ability. But to myself I am a hedgehog in foxes clothing.
I am like Mole, on the riverboat with Ratty, longing to return to my burrow… not nearly as confident as my foxes clothing suggests. I feel fully myself when deep in my reading and writing – and my greatest dream is not to travel the world – (I’ve already done a lot of that –) but to publish my novel – to get on with my writing career, which seems at times to have been thwarted by an incidental foxtrot.
Probably I’m wrong. Probably I have far more to say than I ever would have dreamed of saying, had I not been forced to wear fox clothing.
But how does it work in reverse, I wonder? How does a fox in hedgehog’s clothing fare? Somewhat better, I suspect. A fox in hedgehog’s clothing knows how to play the game, has several talents up his or her sleeve to forward whatever singular pursuit they find themselves engaged in. They know how to bluff and connive – can talk a good talk, work their contacts and skillfully distill and utilize their know-how, taking it all back to their faux-hedgehog burrow, and making it play to the world.
Foxes easily do the switch. I admire them for that. If things go wrong, they readily shift focus. It’s second nature to foxes. They know how to roll with the punches.
But maybe we hedgehogs, forced to wear their clothing, end up with a bit of genuine fox in us, after all.