And just like that, belonging seems possible.
First night of the writing degree; step one on the journey to my M.A. in Creative Nonfiction. Workshop class. “We are fourteen, are we not?” is how the professor put it as she counted us, and introduced herself as expecting, engaged, and somehow actually currently of Leesburg, VA – 2,000+ miles from here and a mere 40 miles from my newly-former hometown…yet I was mistaken in the pronoun I used to inquire about her betrothed; her story about wearing a “Lesbian Avenger” t-shirt in an airport threw me off. Except not. When she corrected me to indicate that her fiancée was in fact a fiancé, she offered up that he is the only man she’s been in a relationship with, and that he resembles both her first girlfriend and her last cat. Her five-month pregnancy is nearly undetectable, and her voice is low and kind of smokey, and so far I like her very much.
We are fourteen, I suppose, gathered around the long, narrow conference table in the long, narrow conference room that will serve for our workshop space. The three men in our number barely register on my radar; in fact, right now, they do not interest me in the slightest. They seem somehow impotent, powerless in their silence, interlopers in an otherwise fellowship of Amazons…they seemed timid tonight, and as such, entirely unworthy of notice.
Or perhaps I only noticed the Amazons. Measuring myself against the others in stature and force of charisma and personality, seeking the strongest ones and ranking myself against them, favorably or not. The men were a blip, as were one or two of the women. Even I myself do not entirely belong; my eyeglasses are too subtle and my attire too conservative and commonplace. Most of the others seem at ease in company. They know each other from previous classes or from GTA membership or what have you. They are seasoned, they know this place and this program and move through it effortlessly. They were somewhat intimidating in their outspokenness…I at first withdrew into myself, and then opened up a crack, little by little, tendriling out in offhanded, glib comments when I felt confident they’d be both striking and amusing – not a skill that comes naturally to me, and which I can only pull off when I channel my dad. Presented an illusion of confidence, of reserve, of introspectiveness…perhaps it’s not entirely illusory. Maybe it’s not illusory at all. Maybe I simply succeeded, for once, in not geeking out in front of people whose respect I covet…people who, I must admit, are unlikely to covet mine.
In particular, one classmate, “W” was dazzling, larger-than-life…impossible not to stare at. She came in blonde and tan, in bike shorts and an orange tank top, with broad, almost masculine shoulders and lean, muscular arms entirely swathed in freckles. The half-skull grinned over its crossbones on her right shoulder; the comedy and tragedy masks were themselves nearly masked by the swirls that surrounded them on her left shoulder, forming a capsleeve. She was outspoken, laughed loudly, looked me straight in the eye and sized me up. She was absolutely fearless. Crossfit, she said, to explain her powerful musculature, and later astonished me by applying coral lipstick and peering at the professor over the tops of her glasses – the only other delicate frames in the room amidst the horn rims, the black rims, the heavy armpieces that are clearly the order of the day. As we played “two truths and a lie,” she guessed my lie incorrectly several times, which pleased me, though I had to explain somewhat hastily that the three polydactyls my partner offered up in her introduction of me were in fact consecutive cats, lest my fellows get the mistaken impression that they were serving concurrently. And I answered the professor that I was in my first class of my degree, and confirmed that I was indeed focusing in creative nonfiction, and that appeared to please W. Which pleased me again.
There are others, but she’s the standout. She terrifies me. But that reflexive, knee-jerk reaction is suborned by a calmer, steadier knowing…that time spent with her, with these other women, with writers, will be intensely good for me.
Because something inside me got to its feet tonight. Stood up. Recognized pieces of myself in what I saw in these women. The knee-jerk me cowered somewhat, shrank away a bit, unworthy…but the standing-up me simply took her rightful place silently, naturally, without hesitation.
The standing-up me is the soul me.
This is the part of me that told me she’d wake up if I had the courage to leave Virginia and move us to Colorado. She’s the one who told me this was the place where I would come to belong.
I know her. She’s the one who bought me a rucksack and flew us to Spain. She’s the one who knew something powerful would happen in Assisi, if only I could get there. She signed me up for the marathon. She wrote the sermon I delivered at MCoB. Jeff C. knew her, saw her talents, and valued her; others here have caught glimpses of her and are already drawing her out. She knew that the piece we submitted to the MA review board for acceptance into the program would be well received, and she was unsurprised when the acceptance letter came. She knows we belong here. She knows we belong amongst these other writers, these strong-willed women, these brave Amazonian artists.
But she’s also the one who chafes so violently in the miserable existence we’re eking out in the office. She’s the source of the outrage and indignation over the infantilizing, servile treatment we endure there. That is not why we came here.
This is where I’ll flourish. This first night, this first step of a new journey, is going to change everything. My hopes are that I’ll be moulded by this journey, that I’ll be tempered in fire here.
I’m entirely ready for a crucible.
Because after all, I’m tired of who I’ve been recently. I’m really not all that impressive these days. I’m reactionary and panicky, defensive and nit-picking. I sow discontent among the coworkers I see as my equals or lowers, and think far too much of pecking order as it is. I’m negative, needy, plaintive. I seek – and find – offense in the actions of others. I’m indignant and huffy and my pride is in a constant state of outrage. In short, I’ve been succumbing to the absolute worst version of my self as it’s been emerging in this caustic environment where I’m forced to spend most of my waking hours.
But tonight, amongst creatures like myself, that all fell away. Like scales from my eyes. Like skin shed from a snake. Like chains shrugged off and left to clanker to the floor.
That’s not who I am.
I’m hoping this venture will provide me a community. I hope for outings after class; I hope for wine nights at one another’s homes; I hope for fellowship outside the workshop. I hope the qualities in the other women to which I’m responding, those qualities I myself have in my best moments, will evolve to the forefront of my personality, and displace all the self-doubt and its accompanying neuroses, perhaps drive them out of me entirely. That they will become my tare.
As I drove away from class, the mountains were flickering in yet another powerful display of lightning that was evidently too far to share its thunder. I took the long way home, out by my old rented townhouse, near the edge of town, writing this in my head and promising myself that I’d get it actually written before I slept tonight. I want to document this journey, and if I do, it’s got to start from the beginning.
A space opened up for me today. My life – suddenly, and for the first time in years, it seems – contains a little biosphere in which I can thrive. I feel like a fish suddenly dropped into a cool mountain lake after months of gasping on the hot, splintered boards of a dock.
And it feels so natural, that to take the simile one step further, I feel like the fish in the comic strip who, asked by a passing boater, “How’s the water?” stares uncomprehendingly back, then turns to a fellow fish and asks, “What the hell is water?”