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An Update

ccI haven’t written here since March, and for good reason.  My health sort of blew up in early April, right around the time I was heading to the Associated Writers and Publishers Conference in Minneapolis, MN, which also happened to be the time my busy semester was coming to a head.  I’ve struggled in that time with anxiety, insomnia, migraines, nausea, muscle pains, and weird nightmares, to the point where my doctor sent me to a neurologist to rule out a tumor [side bar: not sure it was the smartest practice for her to use the T word with someone struggling with anxiety, but I digress].

After some preliminary tests, so far it seems there’s no real reason to worry–that what I really need to do is better figure out how to relax so that I can sleep better.  It’s amazing how much of our health depends upon sleep–and how hard it actually is for me to relax, despite trying so hard [Second side bar: I recently had the epiphany that it’s perhaps that I’m trying too hard that is in fact what is preventing it from being natural.  What is relaxing about your mind screaming, “RELAX?  Why can’t you just relax?”  Nothing, actually.  Nothing.  I recently had a horrible experience with a massage therapist who actually took that approach.  She seemed frustrated that she wasn’t strong enough to dislodge some of the knots in my back, and therefore kept exasperatedly asking me to “let go,” to which I got angry and anxious and couldn’t help but retort, “I’M TRYING.”].

To that end, I’ve decided, after prompting from my doctor, to abstain from drinking alcohol (for the most part–I cheated on my birthday and at my brother’s graduation), to restart taking my daily vitamins, to restart a twice daily yoga and meditation practice, to create a bedtime ritual devoid of screens, to try to eat more veggies as the basis of my plate, and exercise every day, supplementing the hard pounding of running with lighter activities like biking and swimming or even just long walks.  It’s amazing how tight my muscles are because of nearly fifteen years of running.  I sometimes catch myself with taut muscles even just sitting at my chair, and once I catch myself, I can coax myself into softening.

Part of the issue is that I just had an overly busy semester: four classes, full load of teaching, belligerent male students, a second job tutoring undegrads in Spanish, lots of travel, helping my brother move, a persistently sick cat, freelance deadlines, applying for the non fiction editor position for our literary magazine.  I am just burnt out.

Throughout all this, my lovely boyfriend has been super supportive, more so than anyone I’ve ever met, and I remain ever grateful that he walked into my life last August.  He is so good to me, so kind, thoughtful, and funny.  I love laughing with him and feel so at home in his company.  At his and my mother’s coaxing, I took the six weeks I had in between my spring semester at UNCW and my summer semester at Bread Loaf’s Oxford campus (where I am now) forgoing new opportunities in exchange for relaxation.  I leisurely read some (not as many as I probably should have, but enough of that) of my books for Bread Loaf at the pool, at the beach, in my apartment on some of the more steamy, humid days.  I worked out twice a day, doing lighter activities, deeper stretches.  I did more with less, and it felt wonderful.

I guess though I’m glad I had the busy spring semester I had, if only because I needed that second job to save up for England, and because I have now arranged to give myself the gift of a third and final year of my MFA [Side bar: I have no idea how anyone does their MFA in TWO years], when I only have to concentrate on my teaching, my thesis, and participating in the editorial work for Ecotone (I got the non fiction editor position, to my surprise and delight).  I will be able to continue to do more with less.

I’m also grateful to be back in Oxford for my final summer with Bread Loaf.  It’s so beautiful here.  I studied abroad in 2008 at Oxford, at Worcester College (for those who aren’t aware, Oxford University is comprised of many colleges that function together much like a federal state under the umbrella term “Oxford”).  It’s just as magical as I remember, if much more congested with obnoxiously large and fundamentally slow tourist groups that make getting from point A to point B a painfully drawn out labor of patience.  I am relieved also to have experience with this city.  I’m amazed at how much is flooding back into my memory as I walk the streets and remember short cuts and favorite haunts.  I’m particularly grateful also to have already done many of the touristy things here so that I can use my time outside of class to focus on my reading and writing.  For example, today a group is heading to Blenheim Palace, the grand family home of Winston Churchill, and I’m staying behind to write here and catch up on work (and to save money for excursions that I haven’t actually tried before).  I also happily feel as confident as I’ve ever felt as a student, thanks to all that has brought me here–a good thing given that I have a ten page paper due next week, and two 18-23 page papers due in three weeks.

I had a hard time getting here, though, which undid a lot of the nice relaxation I managed to gift myself with before leaving Wilmington.  I decided to fly out of Raleigh, to save money, and to book a non-direct flight via JFK to Heathrow.  My flight out of RDU ended up being hours delayed due to weather, which whittled my three hour layover down to minutes.  Having never been to JFK’s airport before, I didn’t realize that I would have to switch terminals and that that was the reason for having a three hour layover in the first place.  I nonetheless sprinted, at 11PM, through terminal 7, dragging my impossibly heavy carry-on behind me (I was instructed it was important to bring all the books I needed for the term on my person in case my luggage was lost and because there was not a bookstore in Oxford guaranteed to have the editions I needed for my primary texts).  My legs were shot by the time I reached Terminal 8 huffing and puffing, only to have an airline employee scoff at me and tell me to just go straight to ticketing to be rebooked, because there was no way I was going to make the flight, since I would have to re-go through security after taking a train ride from one terminal to the next.  I also nearly got on the train to the city proper instead of the terminal, because they are right next to each other (of course) with no signage I could see.  I leapt off at the last second, sweating, after bellowing to the passengers, “WHERE IS THIS TRAIN GOING” in a panic.

After being rebooked on the next flight available–which was to be ten hours later at 9 AM–I meekly asked the ticket agent where I was supposed to spend the night.  “We can’t give you a hotel,” I was told, because my flight over to JFK was American, yet my flight to LHR was British Airways/Iberia.  I’d have to go back to Terminal 7, which I could not do because the trains were no longer running and most employees except the cleaning staff had left, and besides the point, the ticketing agent was deeply doubtful I would get a hotel voucher for a weather-related delay on a “code share” flight (a flight where two or more airlines share in the profits and therefore can shirk responsibility as to who is responsible for putting up delayed passengers).

At this point, I simply burst into hot, soft tears, apologizing to the ticketing agent for crying (side bar: WHY DO WE AS WOMEN FEEL THE NEED TO APOLOGIZE FOR OUR FEELINGS), saying, “I’m just so tired. I don’t know what to do or where to go.”

Somewhat pityingly, the man pointed to a plush arm chair in the business class lounge, telling me it was actually quite comfortable, and that I only needed to wait four hours before I could get in line to get checked-in for my new flight.

Still sobbing quietly, I called my mom and boyfriend, both of whom were still up, and both of whom tried to urge me to find a hotel.  My boyfriend was especially adamant that it might not be safe for me to sleep in the lobby of a terminal, not being through security, in NYC, but he backed off when I started to work myself up into a perfect panic not knowing where I would go or even how to get to a hotel.  I was also just exhausted at this point, not having slept well the night before my trip, and having sprinting while carrying a heavy carry-on bag for what felt like 30 minutes, all with a fist of panic around my heart regarding missing my flight.

My boyfriend then lulled me to sleep (after calling the airlines to give them a piece of his mind for not putting me up in a hotel) with sweet reassurances that I was safe, that he wished he were with me, that he had his arms around me.  I managed to doze in the arm chair next to a Spanish family in the same boat, only to be woken up by an unsympathetic cleaning crew member telling me I had to vacate the business class lounge because he needed to vacuum.  Wanting to retort, “you can’t just vacuum around my snot streaked person, jerk face?  It’s 2 AM for god’s sake,” I nonetheless got up and moved to the middle school esque desk like chairs right by the door that was blowing in cold air from outside and decided I might as well write a blog for Ploughshares that was due that weekend since there was no sleep to be had.

I got through the next day in a blur, only to arrive to my hotel in London very late, where I was overjoyed to discover my room had a large tub.  I took the hottest bath I could manage before drifting off to a deadened sleep after having been awake for nearly 24 hours.

I got to Lincoln College, Oxford (where Bread Loaf hosts their summer session over here) and unpacked, delighted to have my own private little room and bathroom overlooking a grove quad.  I was also delighted about England’s lush green hills and cooler summer weather–a relief after North Carolina’s swampy 100 degree humidity.

I then dashed back to travel mode, having gotten through orientation quickly so I could take a three and a half hour train ride up to Liverpool to participate in a conference on Silence and Meaning Making, at which I’d had my project on  silence and women’s poetry accepted.  The travel there was likewise fraught, as it turned out to the hottest day on record in the UK, and I got lost, only to discover my accommodation was 30 minutes outside the city center and not easily accessible to the conference site, so I arrived quite late.  The ordeal stressed me out so much I decided to come back a day early to Oxford, though I’m glad I presented and had the experience of meeting academics from all over the world who are interested in what I am interested in.  I also am submitting my paper for publication in a book on silence that the conference committee is editing.

Since settling back into Oxford, my favorite moments have been the quiet ones I spend on my own, either at writing at my desk listening to the bells, reading in my little armchair, walking in Christ Church Meadow and looking at the cows (yes, cows), staring up at the spires, sipping tea, wobbling on the cobblestones, waltzing past the tourists into the private, grandiose libraries, or running past the beautiful lush gardens alongside the river at University Parks.  Not to say that there aren’t wonderful people here and social moments–we have BBQs, pub quiz nights, formal hall dinners, lectures, receptions, excursions to London and Stratford to see Shakespeare–but after the semester I’ve had, those quiet moments are the ones I relish the most.

My classes are extremely interesting–the American Novel since 1945 and an independent study on women writers and the sonnet.  My professors are sharply smart and keep stunning me into new ways of thinking about literature and are very encouraging of my interest in creative writing, even going so far as to allow me to do a creative component to my final research papers–something I wasn’t sure I’d be allowed to do at Oxford, but that will set me up nicely for my return to my thesis in the fall.  Furthermore, I was nominated by my graduating peers to the executive committee to help plan Bread Loaf Oxford’s graduation ceremony (a nice vote of confidence in my eloquence, dependability, and organization skills) , so I’ll be doing that here as well.

I miss my family, my Daisy, and my boyfriend something fierce, however, and can’t wait for them to come visit me for the graduation, followed by a week trip up to the Lake District.  After my parents leave, Jason and I will stop off in London for a few days to stay with friends.

All in all, of the 15 resolutions I made in 2015, I have been successful at keeping all but five, and as we’re only halfway through the year, I still have time to work on 1. developing a better editing routine for old work 2. writing more poems 3. submitting work 4. maintaining my twitter and 5. blogging here more regularly (though my Ploughshares gig does mean I’m regular in one venue, even if not here).

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Writer’s Week UNCW

This past week, UNCW hosted writer’s week, a special yearly event where writers from all over are invited to give craft talks, panels, and readings for the Wilmington community.  Professors of creative writing give their students time off from regular classes in order to encourage students to attend the events.  For me, it was a nice break from the usual slog of grading, teaching, and homework and helped remind me why I’m here–not to fulfill requirements, but to try out being a writer, see if it fits.

My favorite event was the poetry craft talk given by Patrick Phillips.  I had actually not come across Mr. Phillips work before that day, but I’m thrilled he was brought to my attention.  His forthcoming collection, Elegy for a Broken Machine, is one I’m excited to get my hands on–and I’m apparently not the only one, as I noticed Amazon smacked an editor’s pick award on it.

His talk was giddy, goofy, self-mocking, and joyfully, unabashedly smart.  He spoke of what makes a poem end–of closure, stating that he was partial to poems that, as Yeats said, “clicked shut.” He mentioned several poems that follow a rhythm or pattern, deviate, and then bring the poem home, using both meter and rhyme in order to signal to the reader that a finish is coming.  He likened certain metrical variations to the way a drummer cues the audience to the coming close of a song with a big flourish, that creates a sense of anticipation in the listener.

I always appreciate poets who can skillfully liken their craft to music.  Music somehow seems more approachable to people, young students, especially.  It can be a way in to an art form most often considered too elite (which I hate! Poems should be for everyone).

Additionally, after, when I went up to him to chat/thank him, Phillips encouraged me to keep a PhD in mind for a next step in my career.  Even though I’ll have three master’s by the time I’m 29, which, someone pointed out, is like the equivalent of a PhD, and even though I’m weary of the hoops of academia, I do still dream about being Dr. Shubert.  Always have, ever since I knew what a PhD was.  But I’m glad I’m getting my MFA, if only to rest on the other side of the creator/academic coin.  Phillips pointed out often PhDs get taken more seriously as teachers, and, well, my goal is to keep teaching at the college level.  He also affirmed my belief that an academic understanding of literature can be inspiring, though the flip side of that is to watch out for an overly analytical tone in one’s poetry, something I’m struggling with right now, to the point where maybe a PhD isn’t the best idea right now.  But I appreciated that he believed enough in my story to encourage me to go for it.

In other news, my students are starting to write their own poems this week, and I already had a panicked email from a student telling me she was lost and too scared her poems weren’t as a poem “should be.”  I directed her to Billy Collin’s “Introduction to Poetry” and Ruth Forman’s “Poetry Should Ride the Bus” and asked her what she thought those poets were saying about people who thought poetry “should” be a certain way.  I then gave her a bunch of prompts, told her poetry was possibility and encouraged her to have fun with experimenting and to stop being so hard on herself.  To find something she cared about to bring to life on the page, while still adhering to our core tenants of clear, precise, image-driven, non cliched language.

It makes me sad when students, especially college students, like her come to me in this state of panic, this state of “poetry cannot be for me, I must somehow inherently suck at it” in a way they do not do with non-fiction or fiction.  I’m not sure what kind of horrible experience they had with it in high school or middle school.  Right now, my middle schoolers take to it much more easily and without self-judgment or hesitation.  I try to call them poets early.  To urge them not to let any stodgy professorial type bar them from something that is as odd as civilization and should be as accessible as music. To that end, I almost find teaching middle school creative writing easier.  They have not quite yet learned to filter out their inner muse, to question it’s validity and worth.

I wish I still wrote like a middle schooler: much less self-conscious, more driven by the thrill of it.  I’ll try to keep that in mind when, next semester, as a poet, I tackle fiction, a genre I devour, but have not tried to write since high school!

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