Today, I’m struggling through my first cold in over a year. It’s actually somewhat of a relief. I questioned whether my immune system was in overdrive this past year, never letting me get the colds that passed through the other family members in my household. I am the only one with this cold today; I am the beginning (and hopefully the end) point.
Instead of working on my book or tinkering away at essays today, I spent most of the day holed up in bed, with a box of tissue and a glass of water, trying to keep my nasty germs confined. I read and slept; read and slept; read and slept. Then I went to do the school pickup route and after-school activity runs. Now, I’m back in bed.
I’ve been seeing lots of blue jays lately. The other day, I read this phenomenal essay by Kerry Neville. This essay is about blue jays and divorce and the need for hope in our lives. Sometimes, divorce is necessary; sometimes it is the kindest thing we can do for our children and other family members. Don’t stay in the box if the box is killing you.
Just over 15 years ago, I got divorced. At the time, I was a perfectionist (and still in recovery today). Divorce didn’t fit into my story about perfection. To complicate matters, in high school, I’d been voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” I’d taken that silly vote as a directive: You must succeed. Plus, I held a very narrow definition of success back then (case in point: I went to law school when I wanted to get my Masters in English, focusing on creative writing). A divorce certainly didn’t sound anything like “success;” instead it reeked of failure. After the divorce, this straight-A student (although law school cured me of my straight A streak), felt like I was walking around with a huge red “F” on my shirt.
But life goes on. You eventually move on. You become kinder with yourself (and hopefully with others) and you give yourself more grace. You develop new goals, like becoming a certified yoga instructor and going back to school and getting your MFA. You begin making lists of venues where you’d like to see your work. One of those lists (written in your journal, where you are known to create many different kinds of lists) included getting published on Jennifer Pastiloff’s The Manifest-Station. (Jen happens to be both a writer hero of mine and a yogi hero!)
Normally, by this point in the school week, I would have long since written the requisite blog post for my Immersion in Publishing class. This week, however, I’ve been dragging my heels. When I paused to assess the reason for this uncharacteristic procrastination, I realized it was because I was putting off an ending.
With this post, I am completing my last assignment for this class, which is the last class of my MFA program. The moment I post this on my blog (and in Canvas, the online platform utilized by Bay Path), I will essentially be done with my MFA (aside from a few final responses to classmates and one last class this coming Thursday). As much as I’ve looked forward to (even counted down the weeks) to the ending of my MFA program, now that it is upon me, I feel myself hitting the brakes. Why is that?
It’s been a good week to contemplate the nature of endings. My son, Ethan, just completed his last college class on Friday; he’ll be graduating with a BFA in painting and drawing next weekend. For me, that is an ending to celebrate. Back in 2007, when my ex-husband lost everything (thankfully we were already divorced five years at the time and so my finances were no longer tied to his—with the exception of losing child support payments for a time), I had no idea how I’d manage to pay for our two kids’ college educations (although still four and six years ahead). It had always been my goal (was once my ex’s goal too) to do this for Han and E.
In the end, everything worked out. We lived frugally and (thanks to a promotion at work) I saved lots of money in CDs when interest rates were still high. Remarrying helped free up my savings towards Han and E’s college. Plus, my ex was finally able to help out with E’s college. Now, I’ve (*we’ve) done it. I’ve put Han and E. through college. Ethan—bless his heart—knew this distinct goal of mine and he congratulated me (Yes, he congratulated me!) on the day he completed college. So, I’ve done what I set out to do, a commitment made when my ex and I divorced. I’ve completed the raising of those two kids (which is not to say that Han doesn’t still call me every weekend, seeking advice). The rest is up to them.
It’s interesting how easily I celebrate the end of my children’s college years, but my own grad school completion, not so much. I think this is because my own ending creates a void. It’s the void of “what’s next?” especially when you’re a creative and the path is not obvious (as it might be to someone graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering). I see Ethan entering the void as well; he spent yesterday updating his artist web site. Anticipating the void, Kate Whouley, the instructor of my two publishing classes, asked us to draft and submit a signed writer’s contract. My professors have done their part. The rest is up to me.
The void created in the absence of the MFA program is mine to fill. To fill the void, I will keep writing.
The truest thing I’ve learned over the past three years of this MFA work is that I am a writer. Submitting pieces and receiving rejections is a part of the game. Having an essay or poem rejected is an ending (of the hope you had). It creates a void. To fill that void, I’ve learned to do one of three things: revise the piece (again), put it aside to mature (and then revise), or submit it immediately to another publication. This game is always half terror, half hope. But the act of writing (into the void) is what I love and that is why I’ll keep writing.
In honor of this ending, I compiled a list of my top ten hardest endings (in no particular order):
1999: A soulful friendship lost
1979: My black tuxedo kitten—Uncle Beethoven—run over by a car
1986: End of gymnastics career with back injury sustained during a vault
2016: A soulful friendship lost
2009: Putting my daughter Hannah on a plane, heading alone to Japan, effectively ending her childhood
2005: A soulful friendship lost
1988: The summer before college, when I was too entrenched in a binge eating disorder to feel (or understand) my high school losses
2014: My mom selling “our share” in the family cabin that my grandfather built and my last visit as an “owner”
2002: The end of my parent’s marriage, because it came the same year as my own divorce and their ability to parent me (as an adult child) came to an end exactly when I was in need of extra support
1984: The year my brother Scott headed to California on his red Kawasaki motorcycle, my brother Rob moved to the Twin Cities, and my brother Chris returned to college, leaving me home alone to referee my parents’ chaotic marriage
Not all endings are necessarily negative. And even with the “bad” ones above, I can now see what eventually came in to fill the void (except when Uncle Beethoven died). To end on a positive note, here are my top five endings (in no particular order):
2002: End of my marriage
2009: Remarriage ends my years of being single
2017: Second child of my first marriage completes college and I achieve one of my top five lifetime goals by seeing my oldest two kids through college
2010: Han home from Japan (end of Rotary year)
1998: End of short career practicing law
And now, I enter the void; I enter a time of waiting for new structures and experiences to add shape to my writing life.
I hail from the greater Twin Cities area (what we natives call the Minneapolis/St. Paul corridor, built up along the Mississippi River). My state, Minnesota, is said to have more food co-ops per capita than any other place in the country. One can hardly walk, bike, or drive a mile (a few blocks in dense urban areas) without coming across a food co-op. I’m not sure, but it seems the same could be said for locally owned, independent bookstores. While the Twin Cities wouldn’t win a “per capita” contest with respect to indie bookstores, it would likely be in or near the top ten. There is no dearth of independent bookstores here. But it has also lost some important ones.
Garrison Keillor, likely Minnesota’s most well known bookstore owner, is an author and former host of the public radio show, a Prairie Home Companion—recorded at the Fitzgerald Theater (named after F. Scott—a local writing hero) in St. Paul. Keillor owns Common Good Books. Common Good books recently (to me “a couple of years” counts as recent) moved from its original St. Paul location in an old—but cozy—limestone basement, painted white, to a spacious above-ground location near the campus of Macalester College. I enjoy visiting Common Good’s Macalester location because it’s so close to the former site of my favorite indie bookstore of all time: Hungry Mind.
Dave Unowsky opened Hungry Mind bookstore in 1970, the year I was born. Hungry Mind was located on St. Paul’s historic Grand Avenue on the Macalester campus. Hungry Mind initially serviced the needs of Macalester but, with its well-stocked selection of local and national literary titles, it soon played host to a wide range of Minnesota readers and writers.
When I moved to the Twin Cities in 1998, Hungry Mind became a second home to me. My older two kids were small at the time and, although I hadn’t admitted it yet, my marriage was crumbling. My then husband and I (rather unconsciously—I think) began trading shifts out of the house during our nonworking hours. My “out” shifts were spent sitting on the wood-planked floor at Hungry Minds, in the middle of its vast poetry selection. Hungry Mind, in fact, figures prominently into my memoir-in-progress about my divorce.
During those years spent at Hungry Mind, I was only four-years out from law school, seven years from my undergraduate work. I remember enjoying the feeling of blending in with the students utilizing the bookstore. Perhaps I liked imagining I was still a student—that my life was yet one with limitless options.
Hungry Mind began to experience financial trouble at the same time many indie bookstores were going under due to pressure from “big box” booksellers. I hate to admit it, but a shiny new Barnes and Noble became another place of escape for me. I liked to read (without purchasing) its vast and varied inventory of periodicals in its big, comfy chairs.
Maybe it was the beginning of the end when, to help pay the bills, Hungry Mind sold its name to an online university in 2000, changing its name to Ruminator Books. Ruminator then tried expanding, opening a satellite store at Open Book in Minneapolis, a location that houses The Loft Literary Center, Milkweed Press, and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Unfortunately, Unowsky’s decision to expand only increased Ruminator’s financial woes. Unable to make rent, Ruminator Books closed its doors in 2004.
Twelve years later, I still miss Hungry Minds/Ruminator Books. I jealously covet the free paper bookmarks I’ve held onto from both Hungry Minds and Ruminator. After Ruminator closed, the outdoor clothing manufacture, Patagonia, opened in Ruminator’s Grand Avenue location. Last time I checked, it had the same worn wooden floors, but sitting on the floor in the women’s jacket section isn’t the same as sitting in the poetry section at Hungry Mind. In one, I’d look like a crazy lady, in the other; I was just one of many in a community of writers and readers.
I don’t know if Unowsky is still around, but Indie bookstores are back on the rise. In fact, the small publishing house, Milkweed Editions, just opened its own bookstore last month in the same space in Open Book that once housed Ruminator. I visited Milkweed’s bookstore last week and all I can say (for now) is that one never knows who she’ll run into in an indie bookstore. Stay tuned for Part Two of this post.
Because there has been so much controversy (Yes, controversy!) over Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent decision to divorce post Eat Pray Love (I haven’t really read about the controversy–it would annoy me too much), I feel compelled to say a bit about the decision to divorce. Here goes:
We all have a different level of discomfort when it comes to what we will or won’t tolerate in a living situation; everyone has a different breaking point.
Your decision to stay in a marriage or partnership is yours alone; no one else gets to live your life (no one else has to walk in your shoes each day).
Even if you have kids, the default assumption should not be that the kids would—in every situation—be better served by you staying in a bad marriage and, for this purpose, I’ll loosely define “bad” as anywhere on the spectrum between dissatisfying to abusive.
When you hear of a family member or friend’s decision to divorce, please know, it has undoubtedly been a long, hard process just to get to the point of decision. These individuals do not need your criticism or your heartfelt pleas to try longer (or, perhaps, try some great new counseling method or recommend a book like The Five Love Languages), what they need is your support and encouragement during the difficult days ahead. Maybe even, when they’re ready, congratulate them on their ability to take steps to make their life better, even if things have to get much harder first; let them know you think they are courageous warriors.