J was a graduate student when I met her. We were in the same poetry writing class in the mid-80’s. I was an undergrad. (I was in my mid 30’s, divorced, with three children, two teens and a pre-teen.) She is a year older than I am. We were born in the same month, she on the first, I on the last day. (Perhaps that is symbolic only to me.) I just found out that her fourth book of poetry was released last April. I went to the book store to see if they had it. They didn’t; the guy ordered it for me. I’m looking forward to reading her new poems. (It’s on Amazon, but I wanted to support a local independent book shop.) I have her other three books. I’ve read them multiple times.
I also just learned that last year J was named Poet Laureate at the university where she teaches. She writes the most beautiful poetry of anyone I have ever met. Ever. She’s incredibly articulate (her undergraduate degree was in linguistics), very bright, very knowledgeable.
The last time I saw J was in 1990. I was living in Berkeley. I was a grad student attending a state university (that I hated, but it was convenient for me), while she was a post-grad in New Mexico. We went to a book convention in San Francisco. She was going to be on a panel talking about being a lesbian poet and a woman of color. (Her mother was American Indian, though her father was English.) At that time, she gave me a copy of her first book of poems. Actually, she had given me copies of some of those poems when we initially met. I still have them. It was great to see her publish her first book. I hoped one day I would too.
A year after I last saw J, I was having a nervous breakdown. I was perimenopausal, but I didn’t know it yet. The symptoms had actually begun before my final semester as an undergrad. My doctor said I was too young (41) to be menopausal, when I asked her if that could be the issue. (The lab work showed no markers.) She was wrong. A few months after that doctor visit, I heard the term “perimenopause” on radio news. It had just been coined. Researchers had determined there is a stage women go through before actual menopause. Then they described symptoms I had. Unfortunately, I had quit my part-time job, because of how I felt, and no longer had health insurance. I couldn’t go back to see my doctor. I assumed I’d find work teaching when I got my master’s. Until then, I’d ride it out on my school loans. (It didn’t work out that way.)
Nothing was going right. I wrote a pitiful letter to J’s girlfriend. I’d met her soon after meeting J. She was divorced, with one child. We had lived in the same family student housing, but she’d been a grad student like J. She was (is) a sweet, gentle soul. She wrote back, and sent her (their) phone number. I called, blubbering, like a crazy bitch going over the edge. Which I was. J’s girlfriend was sweet and patient. J was less patient, really, but she suggested I move out there, go to New Mexico. I wanted to. Very much. But I still had one of my three children living with me. My daughter was putting herself through college and working part-time. I couldn’t leave my children, they needed to leave me. That’s how I felt about it. I couldn’t go.
That was the last time I talked with J. I felt my life and myself falling apart. I couldn’t think or concentrate. It was like being caught in the eye of a storm. I just had to hang on until it was over. I didn’t know it would take over a decade. It wreaked havoc with my life. (I didn’t write a thesis; I had to take clerical jobs; but that’s another story.) When it was over, I had to get up, dust myself off, and pick up from there.
The poetry reading and open mic last week (which I attend every month) depressed me a little. Once in a blue moon, there’s a good writer who reads. Occasionally, a writer is amusing. But it’s predominantly mediocrity, and even some downright crap. Some creative writing teachers/professors think the glut of MFA programs has created a glut of mediocrity in (creative) writing. (I hesitate to use the word “literature.”) I don’t disagree with that. Still, I wouldn’t mind having one. It’s still a master’s.
Though I do get positive feedback, I’ve grown increasingly dissatisfied with open mic. If it’s depressing me, it’s time for a change. I’ll probably attend next month, since there are people I like who attend. But I don’t want to open mic anymore. I’ll have to see what’s next.
I remember telling J, “I wish I wrote like you.”
“I wish I wrote like you,” she said. This surprised me.
“You do?” I said.
“Yes. I wish I wrote like this,” she said, sweeping her hand down the page of my poem. I didn’t even feel I knew yet how to write. It was practice, getting the hang of it. Today I feel I know what I’m doing. It’s up to others if they like it or not. I do wonder what J would think. I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again. She went her way, and I went mine. From her poems, I gather she and her girlfriend got married. I think that’s lovely. Especially, since I remember J saying to me, “I’m not lucky in love.”
At the end of the day, life is a narrative already written. It goes the way it was always going to.