About ten years ago, this time of year, I braved the many solo miles in my little Dodge Neon, from PA to Vermont. It was winter in every sense of the word and I was terrified. Ever since my Dad’s Oldsmobile slid into a guardrail when school failed to delay the expected arrival time, I have been leery of driving in snow. The event proved so impactful, no pun intended, that I can vividly recall storming into the principal’s office and making my case, rather loudly, about how obvious it was that student’s lives meant nothing to him, hence risking our safety to report to school, only to be let out early. This was totally out of character for me, as I was very much a “follow the rules and let’s not rock the boat”kind of kid. This Vermont snowstorm increased my drive from hours to days, forcing pit stops at malls and random antique shops just to let my knuckles fill with color. It became a testament to how desperately I truly wanted to arrive and prove myself.
My journey to Vermont was for the purpose of attending my second, of four, week-long residencies at Goddard College. Spread over the course of two years, this program woudl result in the completion of my MFA. To me, Goddard still holds all the magic and wonder that a child sees at a playground. The possibility that I see in my children’s eyes when they are face to face with a table full of untouched art supplies, canvases waiting for their vision, glitter glue for miles. It will forver be crystallized in my mind as my happy place. The place where I have felt more like myself than anywhere else on the planet to date.
During the winter residencies it was like a refuge, hidden under snow. The journey to classes, workshops and advisor meetings took preparation. You needed the right shoes, the right attitude, the trek was not for the faint of heart. It was so cold that my toothpaste froze inside my dorm room.
As if the drive and the temps weren’t enough of a struggle, this time around we were expected to work in groups of other MFA students, along side our shared advisor. For the past six months everyone in the program had spent their time at home, reading, writing and mailing packets of their work back and forth to their advisors. The weeks of waiting for your reply, often looking bloodied and defeated upon arrival, were long and the nights spent racing against the deadlines for postmark of the next packet were much too short. But, for six months it had been just me and my advisor. I had gotten to know her just as much as I learned about my voice as a poet.
I couldn’t wait for the next book, paper, or article, the next inspiration. Despite working full-time as a social worker and having two small jobs (one as a courier for the local newspaper, which lead to a job writing obituaries and then to the much more glamour column space of music reviews and the other at Bath and Body Works) being newly married and exhausted, I loved everything about the process.
Everything, that was, until that first day of group work.
Confidence has never been my strong suit. I am more of an advocate for “fake it till you make it” than for actually believing I am going to make it. This was made painfully clear when we were asked to read our work out loud and to be open to feedback from our peers. There was one particular student in the class that made it very clear he didn’t think I belonged there. He seemed shocked I had been excepted and more than shocked it was almost as if me being in the program made it less adequate for his own goals. To say his feedback was harsh would be meek. The words felt like a razor blade taking large slices out of the flesh of my work. Months of craft suddenly looking like the art table after my children have finished. A war zone I would soon rather burn that attempt to make right again.
Many conversations were had inside myself that winter week. Was I good enough to be here or was this all a mistake? My high school and college accolades where writing was concerned were suddenly just wet ink running down the page. That week was like walking through mud and it left me feeling stuck, for months.
Sometime during the spring I found out I was pregnant with our first child. The idea of creating a life inside of me began to lift me out of the muddiness. My work became clear. I returned to Vermont that summer, 6 months round with child, and one final meeting with my peer panel from the winter, before moving on to a new advisor for the final two residencies. Many asked if I would finish the degree since I was due in November and had the final residency in January and graduation in July. I have never had a thought about quitting but so many expressed their concern for how hard it would be to finish with an infant. My number one fan smirked in the chair, his disdain about how I wasn’t serious enough of a writer to be hanging with his pack, a thick musk the color of walnuts around his head. Where there is a will, there is a way.
I did finish. I took my daughter, Addy, with me to the winter wonderland, along with my mom, when she was two months old. I trudged back and froth from class and lecture to nurse her in the tiny room where we all huddled. We were warm. I was happy. The poems were like a fire, melting the snow as I walked. I would complete this adventure, baby and all.
We all returned in July for graduation. My husband and Addy, my parents and step-parents, my siblings. It was warm and green, Addy wore a white dress with tiny blue flowers and ruffles. As part of the graduation ceremony each writer had to read a piece from their final manuscript. It was small and intimate, inside a barn on campus littered with new students hanging in the loft, taking it all in and awaiting their turn. I was so nervous I wanted to vomit. I remember the podium shaking because I was holding the sides of it, back to the white knuckles, coming full circle.
I read a poem that has since become surreal to me. My tiny girl on the hip of my husband. The sunlight slanted through the boards, like arrows on her face. The poem was about her coming of age, a time that seemed so distant I almost felt like a fraud attempting to write about it. This time arrived for her last week. And now I feel like a fraud because so much time as been lost and there is no way to stop it. She is fire, skipping away from me and melting the snow as she goes.
When I finished reading that day, something happened that I can still recall, vivid in color and sound. “Wow. I wasn’t expecting that. I didn’t know you had that in you. It was impressive. Congrats on, well, getting’ it done and being way more hardcore than we imagined.” The voice was familiar but the tone was unrecognizable.
I didn’t need his validation. My entire grad school experience was a $40,000 gift to myself. My manuscript was and has been, since the day I held the mighty weight of it in its black tortoise-shell cover, for very few eyes (mainly for my soul) and one day for Addy. I think about all of this today because I finally feel brave enough to share some of those early words. I remember it because it allows me to reminisce. This moment brings me back to a different version of myself, wise to what was coming while still knowing nothing about what was ahead.
It doesn’t matter who thinks you have it or who is waiting for you to fail. The moments you imagine with all their magnitude and glory are sitting dusty on the shelf, the pages tea-stained yet in perfect condition from lack of turning. So here I am, being brave and committing to my writing in a way I have been afraid to be committed in the past. In a way that makes me vulnerable and yet motivated for the sheer reason that I want to come through for my children. I don’t want them to ever think that it is too late to do the thing that they feel passionate about, despite what ideas the world has put in their heads. I also never want them to think they are the reason I didn’t “just go for it.” Sharing this made me realize just how quickly the moments I imaged have already come and gone. That little girl in the blue flowered dress is someone new to me with each rising sun and I want to make her proud.
After Giving Life
I didn’t know it could be this hard,
that day and night
would no longer settle
on that fine line– oil and water,
that my sleep would feel like
tip toeing on piano keys
with half open eyelids,
unsure if the staircase leads
up or down.
I didn’t know I could forget whole days
as dreams upon waking,
or remember the horrors
of the six o clock news,
a baby found floating downstream
in a garbage bage, her cry
mistaken for a drowning cat.
I didn’t know fear,
didn’t feel for breath every time
a loved one lay to sleep.
I didn’t know if there was a God,
until I look at you and wonder,
what if the worst.
I swaddle myself with your
tiny body and pray
that I live long enough
to see a braid grow down your back,
your womanhood a handful of
between your thighs.
And so I have. Thank you, God, for that.