I’d written last week to some of my fellow cohorts to ask if they
wanted to mark our graduation with some kind of a “ritual” or ceremony. That
very afternoon, I was invited to read a poem at the “Spiritual Send-off”
graduation ceremony at school. Apparently, I really do and am meant to have a
ritual around this. To mark and honor and acknowledge what a privilege this is, and to mark and honor and acknowledge what we’ve done and how we have shown up and completed something sort of major.
When I got into school two years ago, a friend of mine suggested we have
some sort of ceremony of our own to celebrate and honor and give thanks for
having gotten there, to wherever there was – an answer to a stated and unstated
prayer or longing or wish. For years, when I’d ask folks what they did for a
living – trying to vicariously divine what I ought to be doing for a living – when folks responded that they went to school full-time, invariably, I said that
I envied people who could do that. Who did that. Underneath envy, is longing.
I knew for some time, and said it occasionally or often,
that I wanted to “go back to school.” That I wanted to go for some advanced
degree, but I had no idea what. I toyed with many ideas. Rabbinic School.
Cantorial School (the singers in synagogues). Masters in Education. Masters in
Jewish Education. Clown School (just kidding). Master’s in Literature… that
always seemed to make the most sense, what with my undergrad in English Literature, but I had no inspiration for what I’d study in that or why.
Through a series of “coincidences,” I’d heard of Mills
College. Although well-known here in our little Bay Area enclave, I hadn’t
heard of it prior. What happened was, in about 2008, my friend in Brooklyn,
whom I’d met here in SF, started a magazine. An arts and culture journal. She
called me and asked if I’d interview a writer for the magazine who lived out here in the Bay,
and despite my lack of experience, I said sure.
Yiyun Li was working as a visiting professor at Mills
College, I found out in my research about her before our phone call. This was the first I’d heard of it. I toodled around the
website, and something somewhere in me sighed, Yessss….
Every six months or so, I’d revisit the website. I’d never
been to the college campus (The first time I even saw the campus was orientation day!). I’d hardly ever been to Oakland. But, I’d read the
description of the English Department’s Masters’ program, and I felt …well,
like I knew. Like I knew, but dismissed, closing the browser for another six
months. That’s for other people. People who can afford to go back to school, or
who really know what they want to do.
I found a notebook recently that has scribbled notes from a
phone call with my Aunt. She’s an English professor at a university in
Virginia, and has been doing all this for a very long time. My notes are probably
from 2008 or 2009. They’re asking me to check out programs, and seek out
writers I like and see where they’re teaching. They’re asking me to take action
to help “figure out” what I want to study.
See, my above list of my options for Masters’ degrees remained.
What did I want to study? Desire and
action are two different things. Vague desire and clarity are as well.
But, at some point, all of those peekings at the Mills
website came to a head. And in the Spring of 2010, I called the English
department admissions coordinator to talk it out.
Huddled in a side office at my job, I sat on the phone with
her, and she told me about the requirements for the Masters in Literature
Program. The problem became, that I didn’t really do so hot in the last days of
my undergrad (read: Pulling a Britney), and I didn’t have any connections with
my professors from then, and I certainly didn’t have any academic papers on
I called my brother, and asked him to go through my room in
New Jersey, to see if he could find a paper of mine. He said he didn’t see
anything like that as he sifted through a few years’ of my papers and creative
writings, but that “It is obvious that you are, and have always been a writer.”
This phrase helped more than he knew. I called Stephanie at
the English Department, and as the deadline for application drew voraciously
nearer, I asked her what I should do. I asked her, then,… what were the
requirements for the MFA in Poetry Program….? (insert full body chills)
Those requirements, I had. 15-20 pages of recent poems. I
had 16. No lie. Letters of recommendation – my gorgeous and supportive women
Karen and Kristin who’d seen my evolution over a number of years and were aware
of my poetry (go Facebook). And an essay. My essay. An essay which wove
together the disparate streams of chance and circumstance and fate which
brought me to the cave of longing for a Mills’ degree – about Yiyun Li, and the
thread of creative writing through my life (thanks to Heather for that phrase),
and about a mission statement I’d heard from a friend of mine – “To use my gifts
and talents to be of maximum service to [G-d and] my fellows.” That although I
didn’t have my own mission statement yet, mine would be something like that.
It continues to be something like that.
The threads of fate conspired, faint as gossamer, lost as a
cobweb in the dark at moments. At other times, bright and obvious as the red criss-crossed string of a movie manhunt over a map. Termed as I’ve put it, “an answer to a
prayer I’d never have let myself utter,” instead of the MA in Literature, I
applied to the MFA program in Poetry, and I got in.
In my friend’s living room a few weeks after I was accepted
and in process of heading down a path I’d no idea to where, cross-legged on the floor, we wrote down all the things that we
wanted to let go of – things that had brought us to the point where we were
now, but which we believed weren’t serving us any more. To honor those
characteristics and beliefs which had been necessary ‘til then, and then to
burn them as a symbol of surrender and release of them.
So many of my “let go of” qualities were about doing it “on my own,” feeling like I needed to or had to do it alone, or that I had to figure it out.
I wrote down, “I can’t” and I burned it.
When the ceremony was at its end (“ceremony” being us
burning several strips of paper over a bowl!), we wrote down what we wanted to
take with us, as we headed out from there. On one square of blue lined paper, I wrote what I wanted to
take with me from there, to Mills, to my future, to the world as I engage it