Somehow, at a certain point in my life, I ended up in Las Cruces, New Mexico for graduate school. Well, actually, I know exactly how this happened but it’s a relatively long story that none of us have time for at the moment. The point is, I was living in a desert, which I had always wanted to do and which I enjoyed doing immensely – but… I was living in a desert, you know?
And there were two funny times at which my fish-out-of-water (almost literally) experience in this desert made me realize how far from home I had come. Both of these funny times happened in writing workshops during which I, as the author of the work being discussed by the class, was not allowed to speak or intervene in the conversation.
The first workshop was to discuss my poem Midwestern Mermaids, which was, in truth, a poem I had written at least five years before. This, Dear Reader, is forbidden in most cases – this handing old work in and pretending it is relatively new. In other words, I was cheating.
Oh My God.
When my classmates and Professor were done with their discussion and I was allowed to respond, I walked up to the board and drew a map of Michigan and the Great Lakes – and explained, that, in fact, Michigan was surrounded by water. The title and the poem were not attempting to be ironic.
But this was a “funny” time for me because I felt oddly protective of Michigan. I felt oddly snappy and offended by the collective ignorance regarding the Great Lakes. I had never taken very much pride in being from Michigan. In fact, it is only in the last few years of my life that I have really begun to consciously respect my home state. But, in that moment, during THAT workshop… oh boy… the Michigan came out in me. And it surprised me.
Then, again, the following year, I was in the second writing workshop. Again, I was not allowed to speak. I had written a story – really it was memoir thinly veiled as fiction – about me, my mother and my sister walking on the beach in Frankfort on a windy late-November morning. The story refers to the fact that the women in the story have to begin shouting at one another to hear each other speak as they get closer and closer to the lake. And this, in my classmates’ discussion, was pointed out as a clearly incorrect detail because OBVIOUSLY no lake is large enough to have waves big or strong enough to produce noise that a person might have to shout over. OBVIOUSLY I was mixing up the ocean with lakes. OBVIOUSLY I didn’t know the difference. So, again, at the end of the workshop, I corrected my classmates and schooled them on the glory of the Great Lakes. And, again, I felt bizarrely attached to those lakes, protective, especially, of Lake Michigan.
Interesting side note: the one student that argued most vehemently about my mistake in that story sent me a snarky email a year or two later saying that he had been to Lake Michigan and he still maintained there could not be waves big or strong enough to produce the need to shout. If I had the kind of time on my hands that he apparently did, I would’ve emailed back and said that Traverse Bay (which is where he had travelled) is NOT on the big lake, exactly, it’s a BAY! And thus, no, one would not see the waves on a BAY that one would see on the open, big lake. Duh. But whatever.
I am in this odd phase of my life where I am becoming something new. I can kind of see the outline of what I’m becoming but I can’t see the whole picture. I am doing a lot of looking back at where I’ve come from, things I’ve written in the past, old ways of thinking. Okay, yes, it’s called middle-age, I guess – but I’m just at the beginning of that, just at the bottom of this large hill – not over it yet. So, in this phase, I’ve realized that I’ve been writing about Lake Michigan forever. I’ve realized that I have ALWAYS said Lake Michigan is my final resting place. I’ve realized that a certain small-ish portion of the northern-Michigan shore of Lake Michigan is my true home. And those moments back in graduate school when I felt offended, protective, defensive about Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes – and maybe even Michigan itself – were moments I might’ve recognized as moments of clarity. They were moments I knew myself and what I was about best. Rare moments in a young woman’s life where she wasn’t pretending to be what she thought everyone else wanted her to be.
That’s part of what being at the bottom of this hill is about: realizing that life is too too too damn short to be anybody but who I am. And so, the trick is in finding out precisely who that is. I’m definitely getting there. Most days, I feel like I’m really close to knowing. And strangely, looking back on that poem, on all of my old stories, I see that maybe I’ve really known all along. Maybe at least part of figuring that out is having a good listen to my younger self.
And another part is wearing a Mermaid Tail! Because, People, there sure as hell is water in the Midwest and some of it is sure as hell big enough to produce waves one might have to shout over to be heard.
So, I’m shouting.
And I’ll keep shouting all the way up this damn hill
& probably all the way down it too!
Shout, with love, Teamies.