This post is part of a virtual book tour organized by Goddess Fish Promotions. Andra will be awarding a copy of her book in the winner's choice of either print (US only) or digital to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour. Click on the tour banner to see the other stops on the tour.
2004. Turning the corner of E. 42nd and Second Avenue, I walk past innovation Luggage. Suitcases in every size and color wait to be wheeled out the front door, packed up and checked in at the baggage counter at TWA or lifted and slid into overhead.
One of the first items I bought when I moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan was a forest green Samsonite from TJMaxx for sixty dollars. What joy! The bargain, the suitcase on wheels. I had so wanted to be one of those women at airports, trim and confident maneuvering my neat baggage as if it weighed two pounds.
In June, I packed my 23” regulation-size carry-on and went to a writers’ conference in Iowa City. I was 52, single, and still searching for my place in life. My friend Julia, who lived in Iowa City, said the University of Iowa was a Mecca for writers. The college town had bookstores, cafés and trendy restaurants. It wasn’t only farm and corn as New Yorkers pictured. She thought I might like living there. And so, my trip was two-fold. A possible place to live, a community to get my writing life in order.
My plane landed in Cedar Rapids. Julia met me at the gate looking so pretty with her golden blond hair in a new pixie cut. Just the year before she had wanted to move to Manhattan. Then she fell in love with a dyed-in-the wool Iowan.
Her face lit up when she saw me.
“You’re here!” she said.
“Yes,” I agreed. “I’m here!,” trying to match her excitement. In her red Honda, we drove the nineteen miles to Iowa City. The land was grassy and rolling with occasional hedges and thickets of trees. We crossed a river and cornfields. These foreign lands—Cedar Rapids, Iowa City—were foreign as my parents’ Europe, more exotic too.
We chatted about my move to Manhattan, how different my perspective was being in the heart of the city all the time, as opposed to going there by subway and then returning home to Brooklyn.
“Do you really think you could move here?” Julia asked.
My head turned east, west, trying to take in the entire Midwest. “I don’t know…it would be different.”
Julia laughed. “You might like it. You won’t know until you try.”
That evening at the welcome dinner, my table of eight filled quickly. I felt safe, alive, as if a family had formed about me. Amid the animated conversation, I asked everyone, “Where do you live?” Instead of learning people’s names, I knew them by city: Minneapolis and Des Moines to my right, taking poetry. Green Bay across the table, working on a novel and in three weeks going to another conference in Taos (as was I). Boston to my left, poetry, too, and reddish curly hair like mine.
The most intriguing workshop activity was that participants were told we could say anything we wanted about ourselves, except what we do for a living. On the last day the teacher told us write down the answers to three questions: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” “What do you have to do to get there?” “Who are you?”
We read our answers out loud. People wrote, I just graduated from journalism school, in five years I’ll be writing a column for a local newspaper. I’m a father of two boys, in five years I’ll be visiting them in college. I could have been concrete too. I could have written, I’m a freelance writer and in five years I’ll work for a magazine. But dreams, or perhaps they were visions, of something deeper that I wanted emerged.
And so I read: in five years I’ll be teaching at a small college. I’ll have gone back to school, written a book. I’m searching for the life I want to be living.
I felt self-conscious at first, then relieved. The words once spoken had form and texture and meaning.
My last day there I talked to a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. He had since written two novels and taught creative writing at Penn State. I liked the sound of his life. I thought getting an MFA might be a first step for me to have that life, too. After our talk I walked uphill from the university, to Prairie Lights; browsing the bookstore had gotten to be a ritual. There, I noted the small cafe, wondered if I'd sit there with my laptop if I were a student at the University of Iowa.
I rummaged through the two floors of books and found an essay collection, The Merry Recluse by Carolyn Knapp. The title felt significant. I bought two copies and gave one to Julia.
I took a circuitous route back to the rambling campus, wandering up and down residential blocks. All the while acknowledging, I am searching for a life.
When I returned home, I tacked to my bulletin board the words I wrote in my class in Iowa. My five-year plan. My search. My mind whirled with ways to leave Manhattan, wondering what college campus I would be walking across on my way to class. This was less about leaving than beginning.
How could I create a life of meaning? And if I figured out the “how”, received a pass to proceed to Go, would I take it? I was finally in Manhattan, falling in love with the parks above 42nd Street in Tudor City. I often stood on the small bridge known as Tudor City Place, drinking a cup of coffee while looking across the East River toward Long Island City. Then I turned, gazed out over 42nd Street all the way to Times Square. I live here, I’d say to myself. It’s unbelievable.
Why, then, was I restless, unable to stop the infernal searching?
This question is at the center of my book, The Ambivalent Memoirist. Finding the answers takes me a journey as I flirt with leaving Manhattan and also look into my past to understand why moving forward is fraught with conflict.
Enjoy an excerpt:
Some people call moving through life without a plan “acting on faith.” I moved without a plan because of bona fide fear—fear that I would live out my whole life within the landscape of that twenty-seven-year apartment. It held memories of all I had and hadn’t achieved, along with my deepest grief for my mother. I must have been really scared, because I don’t move easily about the world. In fact, when the [graduate school] acceptance letters came in (and everyone but Missoula said yes), I chose the graduate program built on Manhattan concrete.
About the Author:
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