Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Saturday, October 20, 2012
We all wrote our brains out that week--fairly literally, as the task at hand--the practice--
was "Don't think, just write." Well, just write we did, all 40 or so of us, for several days on end, and even extracurricularly. I went away from that workshop not only with a notebook chock full of timed writings, but also with a writing community, buddies I could (and did) meet and write with thereafter. Fortune of fortunes, I also went home with a writing partner, having befriended a woman who lived not far from where I was living at the time. We made a date to write together the following week, and we continued these rendezvous at least weekly throughout the subsequent year. Our sessions were the writer's equivalent of the piano student's finger exercises. We put in our time eagerly and with great enthusiasm.
We were excellent writing partners, Janet and me. What constitutes a good writing partner? It's kind of like choosing a tennis partner, from what I gather. You're at about the same level, you can genuinely support the other, you can 'keep up a volley'. We cared about writing. We liked and believed in each other's writing. We wanted to write. It was a winning combination.
At the end of that year, at Janet's urging, we were proposing to co-teach this writing practice method in various adult education programs. Two out of three of our proposals were accepted, and we were on our way. So started a 20+-year (and counting) teaching career for me. Who knew one could successfully carve out such a career without so much as a teaching certificate in hand?
As marvelous as that is as accomplishments go, there was much more than met the eye in progress. Before I even realized it was happening, I had set not just my writing but my entire life on a course of listening and following. "Don't think, just write" morphed organically into "don't think, just live." You might say I cut my teeth on this way of living even earlier--when I quit the halfway house, for instance, which wasn't, by the way, the first post I'd left without something else in place. Years prior, I had been coming home from a desk job every night in tears. Until one day I couldn't take it anymore, and I quit. Sympathetic as he could be to my situation on those teary evenings, my then-husband was none too pleased when I told him I'd done something about it. The bills, the mortgage: how would we manage?
I didn't know how we would manage, exactly. Don't think, just live. But I knew that what I did was right for me. Besides, I needed some wisdom teeth taken out, and this pause seemed a good time to take care of that. No work days to miss. A few months later, with the help of an employment agent, I landed my dream job--at least as far as desk jobs were concerned--of the time. I finished out my years workin' for The Man working for a good and brilliant Norwegian man--for four good men, actually, the president and his vice presidents, all of whom recognized and valued my intelligence and exceptional skills.
Before too long, however, I grew bored. They tried to keep me challenged, but the job just could not offer me long-term satisfaction. And meanwhile, my marriage was going downhill. We'd started counseling. The pastoral counselor's primary advice for me, given the sort of widowhood I was living (my husband was working most of the time): "take some night classes to keep yourself busy."
That I did. And so began what would ultimately result in a Bachelor of Arts degree, conferred with distinction (magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa) from an ivy-league college. How did that happen? Actually, superb guidance counseling at my Junior college was how it happened. "If I were a woman and I had your [4.0] GPA, I'd apply to Wellesley," he told me during a discussion about transferring to a 4-year school. To be honest, I'd never even heard of Wellesley at the time, but I could tell by the way he said it that I should have. It might be a good time to mention that I was raised in a blue collar, Polish-American (that is to say "old school") household, where daughters were expected to meet, marry, and mother, period.
I did give that route an earnest try, but by the time I donned my cap and gown, my marriage was finished. "You surpassed him..." my mother-in-law lamented at the time. "What do you expect?" she was saying, implying that I had proven myself smarter or more accomplished than he, so of course our union would fail. She was implying that my education, my successes, had ruined us.
Well, if they had, then they should have. But I must pause here and give terror its due. I did not leave that marriage breezily or easily. I suffered over the process and the decision. My first try failed, in fact, because I was struck with such terror, such a big, black, foreboding unknown, that I went back. I remember that night, clinging to my man in our bed, trembling. I could not face the unknown, and so I would have to accept the consequences of staying. Ultimately, I could not accept the consequences, so I left again. It was no easier, but I made it stick. I knew I had to. I didn't know why I had to, but I knew I had to.
I was being guided in right paths, but I wouldn't see that until much later.
to be continued...
Monday, October 01, 2012
Professionally, I was on the road to Psychologist: a PhD or PsyD. I thought it would be a good idea to work in the field before continuing that schooling. So I took a job in a psychiatric halfway house for women, with a one-year commitment. I had all I could do to drag my 20-something self up the stairs to my apartment after a shift--sometimes the morning after a non-paid "sleep"-over. Work, eat, sleep: that's all I did for months. I was too young to be this exhausted!
A helper since childhood, I was well loved by the residents--of course! I was giving 110%--mainly because I didn't know how to give less. Those in dire need--of care, attention, love--will take... well, as much as you let them. Can you blame them? I could not. My boundaries were pliable. So there I was. Slowly (or not so slowly) working my way around to the other side of the desk, if I didn't watch out.
Our working conditions were exploitative. This residence had been around long enough to have been grandfathered out of having to abide the then present-day requirements and restrictions for mental health workers. It was a guaranteed burn-out situation. I lobbied for change. When my motions for change went nowhere, I quit--without another job in place, even. Another step back. I had only made it to 10 months.
I wandered around like an orphan, but only briefly, because that wandering had taken me into a Wordsmith bookstore where a few books all but fell off the shelves and into my hands. One of those books led me to a writing retreat in the mountains of upstate New York. I had been writing--poems and journals, mostly--long before college, but Wellesley put some legs under that. This retreat felt right--as right as right could feel at the time. So I signed up.
I had no job, but I had this workshop on my horizon. Somehow it felt like enough. As if I knew it would prove to completely alter the course of my life.
to be continued...