In the spring of this year, we realized we needed to enclose our vegetable and flower garden because Mo-Licious, the wonder dog, loves nothing more than to roll around, dig, chew, and in any other way possible, lay claim to the garden. When we put up the gate, there was all kinds of hope for that space. I painted the gate thinking about all the abundance we’d enjoy, what I would try canning for the first time this year, and all kinds of other farmer-ly thoughts. It’s been a rough year for gardening for us and there is no real harvest to speak of—hasn’t been for most of the past 2 months. Now, the summer is over, even if fall has not fully made itself known, and I am thinking a lot about open and closed gates, what I keep out and what I try to hem up.
At the end of the workshop in Collegeville, after my piece had been “work-shopped”, I met with Lauren, the retreat leader. She is rather fierce and intimidating and I had prepared extensively for our meeting. I had some specific questions about my piece, and even more, about developing this craft of writing with a new level of seriousness. I wanted some good things to read, some challenging exercises to consider, anything to sharpen the saw. When someone intimidates me, I get hung up on being clear, logical, succinct but not superficial; I bet I radiated anxiety as I carefully laid out my questions. Lauren waited patiently.
When I was done, she asked me if I had ever considered getting an MFA in writing because she thought it was the ideal next step for me. More specifically, she is part of the faculty of a ‘low residency’ MFA program offered by Seattle-Pacific University. The name is pretty self-explanatory. Most of the work towards the MFA is done in conversation with a single faculty member at a time—me an apprentice, he or she a mentor. Participants write and read, and then write a bit about the assigned books. Over a two year period, there are 60 to 70 books assigned and in that time, you submit a minimum of 30 pages of writing every 6 week. Twice a year, a cohort gathers for about a week to do more intensive work together. It’s a way of paying intense attention to writing, an opportunity to have a writing community and a mentor to work with, while staying connected to the life you already live.
My heart stopped when Lauren made the suggestion. And then it galloped off in all kinds of excitement. The possibility has tumbled around and around in my mind for weeks now—almost 8 weeks, to be exact. There are enormous obstacles. I have a husband, a daughter, a father, who matter deeply to me and who need me. My work as a priest has the capacity to run me ragged and run me dry, even as I still marvel that I am back in a parish. At my church, we are absorbing a lot of change at the same time our pastoral needs are high. Between my family and work, there is very little time left over and this program requires significant time commitments. Last, but certainly not least, there’s the cost. Like $37,000 worth of cost this middle-aged woman is not about to manage with student loans.
Today, Sherod and I had a great day together and continued discussing the possibility of a 10-day trip to Normandy in late May/early June of next years—a dream of many years. This evening, we were in the pool, noticed again some trees we need to cut down, and talked about some other plans for the farm. There are all kinds of ‘logical extensions and consequences’ to decisions made previously so I struggle to hold the tension, try to see clearly, to be honest, above all realistic. The possibility that I will be able to actually pursue that MFA is very, very small.
I realized something else though. There’s another aspect of this decision that I have to pay attention to. I have long regretted giving up too easily on my PhD studies after I graduated from Sewanee and the following year, got ready to marry Sherod. I know now that my decision to withdraw from Vanderbilt was driven as much by terrible self-confidence as by practical challenges.
One of the application requirements for the MFA program is 3 letters of reference, including one from a person who has worked with me in an academic context. I got my MDiv in 1987—that’s almost 30 years ago. I have one professor I reconnected with via Facebook so I reached out to him a while back to see if he’d be willing to write that letter for me; he most graciously agreed to do so. He asked me to write a statement of what I thought was important for him to say and get it back to him so he could work on the letter. There’s some urgency with this because Philip has early stage Alzheimer’s which he’s open and courageous about, and requires me not to waste time.
I’ve tried five or six times to get the statement written, revisited my time in seminary, found myself wrestling, like Jacob wrestled with God, just to say a few things about those years. Each time, all I see is what a mess I was, how much more I could have gotten out of my studies, how much I wish I had known then that I know now. This exercise makes me see that as much I’ve found my way, my voice—my self—over the past thirty years, my capacity to doubt my abilities and my worth turns out to be endless.
I am going to apply for the program knowing full well how small the odds are of actually making it. But if I don’t at least apply, if I don’t at least take another step towards putting out on the line a part of myself that is both incredibly important to me, and incredibly easy to hush up and ignore, I will carry a regret I don’t deserve or need to carry.
I don’t have to be the gatekeeper that keeps my dreams at bay.