Thursday, March 18, 2010

Commitment to a dream sometimes hurts. I hope it's worth it.

So. I was accepted to the MFA program at St. Mary’s College-- a fine art’s program in creative nonfiction that I’ve wanted to attend since 2005. Of course, with the call from the program director came shouts of joy and a 15 mile run through the drab streets of Reno. And then thoughts like: “my new life begins now” and “no more crappy snow” and “now I can finally BE a writer. Like, a real one.”

In such spirit, Steve and I made the four-hourish round trip trek to Moraga, California where the school is located. We left the mountains and snow behind for a landscape I didn’t know existed so close-- and yet so far away: green, green, green with trees and trails everywhere. Trails for running. Sigh.

Then, the campus: manicured to perfection (or beyond perfection) with inhumanly white spanish-style mission buildings with flowers in bloom and long arcades; perhaps the most telling feature that evidenced that I’d left earth for a while were the restrooms. Of all I visited (and due to my nerves about meeting various faculty members from the department, I saw quite a few) not one had what I’d once thought were the requisite graffiti etched into the bathroom stall doors. There was not a scratch, not a “I love Jesus” or “Fiona loves Bob 4-ever” and not even “call 534-5689 for a good time” in permanent marker. NOTHING. Add to that, they all smelled like my grandmother’s bathroom: musty, but like they'd been cleaned that morning. And every morning before that.

I wondered: where were the seedy bars that line the periphery of campus? The casinos? The stalker-rapist lurking in the dark alleys you have to walk through because parking's too expensive on campus? The homeless covered in canvas-sacks and smelling of fermented-sweet-sick Jack Daniels? The railway and the train that came every 4 am rumbling my apartment windows? The chickens my neighbors kept in the house they shared with three other families (none spoke English that I could tell)? The elderly woman who pushed a stroller filled with blankets, who lamented, "got a light? God, tell me you have a light." And the tall black man who'd light a metal garbage can on fire in the park I traversed each day who asked me, each day, "Say girl, you a gymnast?"

None of that at St. Mary's.

The offices for the Creative Writing Staff are in a building called “Dante’s Hall.” The name brought to mind my second semester as a TA of Core Humanities at UNR, when my students had to read the first installment of Dante’s work. Near the end of the spring semester, the students were restless (to say the least!) and when they refused to respond to the questions I’d laid out for our session on the final day of Dante, in exasperation, I’d asked: “So what do you all think? What level of Hell would Core Humanities correspond to?”

Across Dante Hall’s walls were quotes taken from the purgatory and heaven sections of Dante’s work-- sections I’ve never read. I found it curious the building had three floors-- the bottom containing mostly classrooms , the second’s a mystery to me, but the third housed the faculty offices. Was it academia’s model of the world? Hell is where the undergrads assembled, the second floor--perhaps the graduate students, and the third and farthest from the “baseness” of “undergrad hell” were the heavenly professors. I don’t know-- but I did sort of think that as I mounted the stairs to speak to Marilyn, director of the program in nonfiction.

And Marilyn-- she was, if I were to follow this poorly constructed allegory, my Beatrice. All optimism and oh-so-happy-to-finally-meet-me. Happy to answer all my questions with responses that answered my original question and perhaps five others I hadn’t even thought of asking. Marilyn who said I had a future as a writer. Marilyn who’d love to work with me. It was a bit like falling in love: I blushed, I laughed and I’m sure I said the wrong thing more than once.

But heaven did turn out to have its faults, sadly. Perhaps “they” usually do. Though I’d be welcomed with open arms, I would have to have to sell my left kidney and promise my first born children to go there. Or, worse: I’d have to pay full tuition which is no small fee. And this is what makes me wonder: who in the hell am I? Wasn’t I ready to make some crazy commitment to the writing life?
What about loans? What’s $40,000 compared to a life without writing? When I asked Marilyn her opinion of my dilemma, she nearly quoted the movie, Moulin Rouge, perfectly: “What? A life without writing-- that’s TERRIBLE.”

And then I was cast as Nicole Kidman: “No, a life without food or shelter-- THAT’S terrible.”

Of course I didn’t say this, but I thought it. Marilyn followed this exchange with a story about a former MFA student of St. Mary’s, a man who did quite well in the program and showed incredible progress while there. He’d funded the entire thing on loans, like I would have to do.

She recounted: “Well, after he graduated, he got a job selling insurance. But after only a year of that, he quit because he said it was heartless work and it made him depressed. So now, he’s living hand-to-mouth, working various part-time jobs, barely making it.” I hate to sound pessimistic, but that’s not exactly the future I’d like if I plan on spending $40,000 for it. Yes, writing is important to me-- EXTREMELY IMPORTANT-- but isn’t an education supposed to give me something in return for not only my financial investment, but also the dedication and work and LOVE I’d put into it?

I mean, isn’t that usually the deal for any venture in life? Do it, get compensation. Pay the grocer, you get food. Work for the grocer, get money. I mean-- have I totally gone off my rocker to say this is how the world works and to be bewildered that it doesn’t work that way, at least, not for an education in the humanities? What on earth has happened?

And so I left Heaven-on-Earth St. Mary’s with a troubled mind. It was a place of beauty and a place of art. But would I have to leave my soul there, if I went. It was like the old Theological plays in which a man sells his soul to the devil and in return gets [insert desire here] but in the end, regrets the decision. If I sell everything I have and may have, will the writing sustain whatever's left over? And then-- where’s the writing life?

I hate to admit this, but I know if I went to St. Mary’s my running career would be over. There would be no feasible way for me to work part time, have a full academic schedule AND repay my loan-- AND run 70 miles each week. What level of hell does my life correspond to? This decision makes me think it's down there, way down there with the betrayers. But then again, perhaps I'm in vanilla purgatory. Who can say? Its hard to know, in the midst of it.

My life is about writing AND running. I take those two pieces of myself wherever I go, and so however difficult it is to turn down an amazing opportunity, it isn’t the opportunity for me. I know it’s out there, still, waiting. And as promised, I’m going to keep writing. I’m not giving up.

1 comment:

Nicholas said...

Rebecca, I love your writing so much! Of course, I think you should do whatever you can to pursue your dream, and attend St. Mary's. Certainly, there's somebody in their "Financial Aid" department who can give you better advice than any of us can. They want you to attend their beautiful school, too.

I absolutely could not imagine attending a PhD program-- I would love that more than anything, but don't think I'd ever be able to because of my family situation (i.e., married with young children). So few people have access to this type of graduate education, and I know it is (and has been) a dream of yours. You should definitely go for it-- you'll find a way!

I know you said you wouldn't be able to run any longer... how were you able to run while taking courses at UNR while working? You weren't able to run after your injury, but picked it up again. Even if you had to stop running for a while (even a "long" while), would that necessarily mean that your running career would be completely over?

I think you're an inspiration to many, and whatever decision you make will make all of us proud. Good luck, Rebecca!