In my dream, I am a phoenix.
I am standing in the wake of a tornado: shattered concrete, ashes, splintered beams, debris from buildings I have known, lived in, even. A wiry gray dog extracts himself from underneath a broken door, lifts his leg to pee, and walks out of the frame. The world is silent.
At the highest point of the mass, the ground begins to vibrate. The rubble glows a golden hue, trembling, shaking violently until from its center a great red bird shoots upward, wings thrown wide, streamlined and shimmering, all feathers and gold and light.
I am standing a distance away, but I know that the phoenix is me, and I am it.
I will shed.
I will rise.
When I sat down to write the first sentence to Finding Petronella, I lit a candle and poured myself a cup of coffee. I drank it half down, blew out the candle, changed the title of my document from “Finding Petronella” to “Chapter One” to “Just Words On Paper.” I cleaned and reorganized my desk. I picked up my ukulele, but did not play. I got up and went for a walk. I sat back down. I lit the candle again.
“My cracking open did not begin with a bang, but with four whispered words,” I wrote.
And I was off!
Eight pages later, I read what I had written. It doesn’t suck, I thought, and I sent it in to five low-residency Creative Writing MFA programs to see if they thought I was as ready as I felt.
I am doing everything that scares me. Surrender has been the name of my game: surrendering to the words coming out of me without trying to make them into anything in particular, surrendering my ego to put my head down and work a job I don’t love in order to make a little money, surrendering my fear of inadequacy and self-doubt to lead a 10-day winter backpacking expedition with college students in the sub-zero Adirondacks, surrendering to loving and being loved by someone I left 3,000 miles back in California without wondering too hard about where things are headed.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m writing about these things in neat little sentences, but if you read in between the lines you’d know the way my brain and my heart battle for supremacy on a daily basis (luckily/unluckily my heart usually wins). You’d see the way I collapsed crying in a snowbank on the side of the road one day and in an act of unanticipated grace, Gracie the Golden Retriever (who usually doesn’t give two shits about you unless you’re holding food) draped her warm body across me. You’d understand that when I turn my car radio up on the 25-minute drive home from the rock gym where I work, I’m trying to drown out my own thoughts with Brandi Carlile’s soulful shout-singing on Exit 97.7.
But how I arrived in this moment is neither here nor there, neither good nor bad. It just is. In a way, I feel like I am mourning my old life so I can begin anew. I am afraid. There, I said it:
HEY WORLD, I AM AFRAID!
And I am trying my damndest to walk straight into the middle of my fears and sit down until they become my friends. I read this poem by Joy Harjo today:
I release you, my beautiful and terrible
fear. I release you. You were my beloved
and hated twin, but now, I don’t know you
as myself. I release you with all the
pain I would know at the death of
You are not my blood anymore.
I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won’t hold you in my hands.
You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
And I made my decision. Out of the five incredible schools I’ve been accepted to: Vermont College of Fine Arts, Spalding University, Goucher College, Pacific University, and Stonecoast MFA at the University of Southern Maine, I choose the latter. It does not have the fanciest pedigree, or the widest-known reputation. What it does have is faculty who live in many directions, as I do: a writer-musician, a woman who formed The Telling Room to help youth find their voice, a man who lives in Montana and writes nature into words. It also has an Associate Director who is willing to work with me to find a creative solution to my burning question of how I will finance my education, who tells off-topic stories in a northeastern accent and laughs a deep belly-laugh and promises that somehow, we’ll make it work. But most of all I choose Stonecoast because, quite simply, that is what my intuition is telling me to do.
I made this decision as I make most of my decisions of late: gather all the facts, load Gracie the Golden Retriever into my Dad’s pickup truck and hightail it to the mountains, and walk until the truth rises to the surface. I’ve made lists of pros and cons for each program that I can recite in my sleep, read excerpts from faculty, called program directors, emailed alumni, inquired about financial aid, but at this point I am just going through the motions. I know where I am supposed to be. And that place is Portland, Maine.
Stonecoast MFA Class of 2017, here I come.
Time to shed.
Time to rise.