Saturday, December 27, 2008

What They've Got That I Haven't Got

Well, I'm starting to get really excited. The wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-you can't-sleep-so-you-write-in-your-blog kind of excited. A lifetime dream is about to come true. It's not the horse in the backyard that I've always wished for or that trip to Venice we had planned for this February. We had to cancel that so I could pursue this. I'm about to embark on an MFA program in professional writing.

Now what on earth is that, one might ask? And why would that be a dream of a lifetime? Simple. It's what I was always discouraged to do. And here, at the ripe old age of 52, I'm still rebelling against my writer parents. They were against education in the arts. "You either have talent or you don't and if you have it, you use it."

To them, one didn't waste time in graduate school learning to do something you already know how to do. They were old school, boxcar-riding, depression babies. They neither had the money or the time to indulge in MFA programs. (Actually, they weren't hobos riding in boxcars but I thought that sounded good.)

So now that they've both left this world and moved onto that great graduate program in the sky, I've found the courage to pursue this dream of my lifetime - to become a fulltime writer. They were fulltime writers and strongly discouraged me from following in their footsteps. Like good parents, they were trying to spare their child from a life of misery. And like a child who wants what she can't have, I've held onto this dream with a vengeance.

It's not that I don't like working in the prison and being a social worker. I've managed to write a book, a few books actually, while doing so. And articles and poems and screenplays. So, what's the big draw to the MFA? "What have they got that I haven't got?"

In the "Wizard of Oz", when the wizard is distributing the rewards, he prefaces each speech to the four seekers with "but they have one thing you haven't got." To the scarecrow, he says it's a diploma. I suppose I'm looking for the diploma, the piece of paper which will allow me to eventually write for a living from home, perhaps teach, and graduate from the prison. But it's more than that.

Someone once said that MFA programs don't teach you how to write but they provide courage. In that respect, I'm more like the lion than the scarecrow. It's not the brain I need, not the diploma but fortitude. That's the one thing I didn't get from my parents - an alcoholic father and an unhappy mother. Perhaps that's the one thing they couldn't give.

In the end, I suppose courage is the one thing I can only give myself - permission to act in the face of fear. But let's be honest, that little ticket stub called a diploma won't hurt either. It stands out on a resume and says "she can write" or at least "she can fulfill the requirements of a degree program." In the end, my parents will probably prove to be right. Nothing takes the place of action. And for now, this MFA is the action I'm taking.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

In Praise of Imperfection

Yesterday, I mailed off a bundle of Christmas cards, finished the last of my Christmas shopping, came home and wrapped presents while "Scrooge" was playing on the TV. A perfect holiday-prep day, all around. And yet I felt like garbage inside.

I had done all the right things. Not in the order of Mother Teresa, mind you. I wasn't collecting money for the poor or passing out Toys for Tots but I hadn't murdered anyone or stolen anything. Now why is it that every time I do something decent, maybe even good, I feel so bad?

I have a cantankerous mind. It misbehaves in all sorts of ways but the most annoying aspect is this inclination to cut myself to shreds when I have tried to be good. I guess the Apostle Paul called that our sinful nature (see Romans 7.) But I no longer believe in sin. Then again, I might rethink this.

I no longer believe in a personal savior either though I might rethink that, too. I'm certainly in need of one. But whenever I call upon the name of God or Jesus, it's as if someone shouted "Incoming" and I feel like diving under the nearest table for cover. No offense on the Almighty. It's not Her fault. It's a residual effect of the cult.

So, I pick myself up and dust myself off, a daily experience. I've gotten to the point that I pray to God just to help me not be afraid to pray to God. If that makes sense. The last sentence in Paul Tillich's incredible book The Courage to Be goes something like this: "The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God disappears in the anxiety of doubt."

This God that's bigger than God is the God of imperfection, the God of what is. This God does not condemn. This God lives with, grows with, falls with, suffers with me. Sounds suspiciously like the little child born in Bethlehem. Maybe I do believe after all. Believing through self- doubt like mine is like trying to see in a monsoon. But I'll give it a whirl and when I do, I'll remember that I'm allowed to be imperfect. There's a word for that, too. Grace.

Merry Christmas.