Listener Essay - In My Own Time

Sep 2, 2014

  That Thursday morning in June, I awoke up before my 6:30am alarm. I was sixty-three years old and beside myself with anxiety and anticipation––full-blown first-day-of-school jitters. According to the directions on the Bennington College website, the drive should take me only two hours. Dinner for new students and their mentors was at five-thirty, and I wanted time to get settled in my dorm room beforehand. By noon, I began loading up my car with clothing for any occasion, toiletries, and bedding including the egg crate topper for the mattress that my student mentor, a Southerner who charmed me with her drawling description of my coming adventure, said I’d need.

“Now, Nancy, the one thang you have to bring, is a mattress topper, or honey, you won’t be getting any sleep.”

“A mattress topper?”

“The mattresses honey, you’d think we were kids, they have a hard rubber covering that you slip and slide around without the topper.”

Somehow I knew to bring hangers.

For the next two years, I’d leave my regular life for ten days in January, and again in June. I’d live in a dormitory and line up in the cafeteria for meals. Though I’d continue working as a psychologist, my life would be defined by an intense schedule of monthly reading and writing requirements.

My senior year in high school, I’d fantasized about going to Bennington College—I wanted to be artsy, the cool and creative type. Instead I was angry and an “underachiever”—there was a sad gap between my dreams and my reality. Now, taking the other road at my age, my friends said, was courageous. I worried about being able to do the work. Old enough to be the mother of most of my classmates, I worried about how I’d be perceived. And I worried about the relevance of my story.

As a young girl, I hid books everywhere—beneath my pillow, behind the clothes hamper in the bathroom, in a dresser drawer—always hoping for a chance to lose myself in the story. I’d make believe I was a journalist. My family lived in a pre-war, New York City apartment building, where the cast iron radiators protruded from the walls. The metal covering of my bedroom radiator was my reporter’s desk, from which I imagined I was covering critical stories.

The writing fell away, despite encouragement from teachers. Writing made demands of me—a personal honesty that I wasn’t able to pull off, even if no one else read a word of what I wrote.

At U.C. Berkeley I staggered through a major in anthropology. My long and winding road, one that included living on the land (of course without plumbing), three weeks in law school, and other adventures, ended in a doctorate in psychology. I did research on treatment for adolescent substance abusers. My office was on the sixteenth floor of Two World Trade Center.

On September 11, 2001, I was called out of a conference in Columbus, Ohio, to a room where a television was set up on a table with an emerald green covering. Trays of bagels, pastries, sandwiches, and fruit appeared. In that Ohio “green room” I watched my professional life disintegrate on CNN. Tower Two slid to its death like melted icing on a wedding cake. That night Buca di Beppo, a restaurant that boasts traditional (red sauce) Italian food family style, fed we stranded New Yorkers.

Two days later, after the long drive back from Ohio, crossing the just re-opened George Washington Bridge into Manhattan, I knew I’d write again.

I wrote about the red sauce. I wrote about the fire trucks festooned with blood-colored roses, wailing through the city streets, for the dead who couldn’t be found. I wrote about how the crimson ribbons reminded me of my mother’s lipstick—Revlon’s Oh So Red. I wrote about taking my therapy dog to Pier 54—set up as a rescue center—to make people feel better. I joined a journaling group, enrolled in online courses, attended workshops. Several years later, I decided to focus on my clinical work—and writing.

On June 22, 2013, the hood for completion of the MFA Writing Seminars program at Bennington College was placed over my shoulders. I was the second oldest person in my class of twenty-four poets, fiction and creative nonfiction writers. I survived, even thrived on cafeteria food. I survived the dorm parties that kept me up past my bedtime, my room often the hub for the over-forties contingent. Our class size fluctuated because of my classmates’ time-outs, brought on by the vicissitudes of personal life, some more capricious than others. For myself, I’d always said, “If I graduate….”

Pursuing this long-ago fantasy was such a good idea. One of the things I learned at Bennington was about personal truth —how our truths change, are subject to constant revision, and that’s okay. And when I took that other road, not forty years late but in my own time, I learned that, as George Eliot said, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”