Alena’s 25th Birthday Wishlist of Gloriousness!


I don’t know what regular grad school is like. Probably normal grad students don’t get to talk to some of their favorite authors about theoretical torrid passion between crabs while watching said crabs scuttle under the water or hang out with them over gelato while wearing pajamas during their grad programs.

The experience was weird and frankly kind of hard to write about. Not because it was bad– it was amazing– but because it all seemed to happen at once.

Theodora Goss, queen of fairy tale poetry (among other things), complimented my poetry. (And told me I looked like a goddess. But everyone was drinking by that point and it was like 100 degrees. She may have been hallucinating due to heatstroke.) Jim Kelly spent over an hour talking to me about writing while we shoveled gelato into our faces. Nancy Holder (who wrote a great deal of the Buffy novels as well as the novelization of the new Ghostbusters movie) danced in the middle of a circle of us to the Ghostbusters theme song while we all “danced” (it was flailing, really) and pointed at her and screamed “WHO YOU GONNA CALL” along with the song. David Anthony Durham kissed the top of my head. I got to spend a week with Jeanne Marie Beaumont, talking about poetry, including MINE, and she’s now my mentor for the semester.  I got to tell Martin Espada that he sounds like Christopher Lee when he reads aloud.

I made friends. I had a really intense (and embarrassingly public) panic attack. I read incredible poetry. I WROTE (possibly really good, I don’t know yet) poetry. I was brave. I talked a lot. (Too much, probably, but those of you who know me are pretty aware that when I’m anxious, I either get completely quiet or babble nonstop. I picked babbling because that seemed more productive for making friends. I think it worked. Maybe next residency I won’t have to do either of those things. Maybe I won’t be anxious. Or at least, not super anxious.) I talked to some of my favorite writers in the world. I discovered new favorite writers. I walked a lot. (Also too much. My knee is mighty angry with me right now.) I slept on a really uncomfortable bed and got a lot of bug bites. I watched my first Stonecoast friend graduate. I cried when Martin (I can’t figure out how to put the accent over the “i” on here, but you should be pronouncing that as “Mar-teen” in your heads, okay?) Espada spoke at said graduation because what he said was so profound and so resonant. I got my first choice for semester mentor and actually wept with glee and gratitude. I discovered how much I don’t know about the poetic aspect of my craft and am stupidly excited to learn those things. I’m excited to be in school for the first time since I was home schooled as a child. I sang karaoke (very badly) with strangers who became my friends. I ate really gross food. I ate really good food. I hung out with heroes of mine and was not disappointed.

I’m a little afraid of the future; I’m guessing most people are. Our country (and our world) is in a bad way, and it’s scary. But I’m also so, so incredibly excited. I know it’s going to be hard, but I think it’ll be hard in the good way. I am profoundly grateful for this experience and this opportunity, and I feel like I’m tumbling over myself wildly, like when a wave knocks you over and drags you under, but in a really, really good way. I feel like I’m being moved toward who I want to be, I guess. Like I’m beginning to become.

And it’s awesome.

Thoughts on Fathers

So, with this whole rapist swimmer asshole and his joke of a punishment, there’s a lot of discussion about men, about rape culture, about damaging patriarchal values right now, and I agree with a lot of it– our cultural environment is highly toxic, and encourages men towards animalistic behavior, telling them they’re entitled to women’s bodies and that it’s natural to have urges to hurt or take advantage of them, telling them to be wildly out of touch with their own emotions, their own bodies, to ignore their pain (physical or emotional) and channel it into gaining power over others, and that to do anything else is weak and shameful. This is the flip side of patriarchal sexism– if everything female is weak (emotions, self-care, love, gentleness, nurturing, etc.), then for a man to be balanced and healthy emotionally and physically, he’s discredited and mocked. It’s a very problematic cycle for both genders, not to mention the trans* individuals who are between the gender dichotomy and are victim to both sets of problems. As feminists, we often focus on the horrible things women are suffering right now– and we should, because these things need to be brought to light, and people need to understand that these things are not okay. But feminism is about equality, about removing the gendered nature of normal human behaviors like sexuality, having a full emotional range, being molested or otherwise abused, being empathetic, being strong, crying, falling head over heels in love, liking poetry, liking hunting, liking blue or pink or shiny, sparkly things, wanting to be an astronaut or a doctor or a teacher or a nurse or an engineer or a firefighter or a ballet dancer. The best version of ourselves lies between the binary framework imposed on behaviors that come naturally to all of us, regardless of our sex, and the worst version of ourselves is evidenced in a culture that teaches women that everything about themselves is inadequate and somehow at fault, and that teaches men that to show any of those “feminine” behaviors is shameful.

Anyway. I could go on about the problems of sexism and the patriarchy and gender culture forever. I got my degree in cultural anthropology. They don’t let you graduate if you can’t go on about it at serious length.

Point is, I came across this post on Tumblr talking about how “shitty fathers” are a universal experience because we teach men to be irresponsible and abusive and be part of this culture of toxic masculinity and by the time they have kids, they’re way too screwed up to raise them.

And I can’t, in a lot of ways, argue with that. Our patriarchal culture is as damaging for men (albeit in less obvious ways) as it is for women. We teach them to follow a harmful cultural paradigm the same way we teach women, enculturating them as children and then being surprised when they turn out exactly how we’ve taught them to be– choosing power over empathy, the illusion of strength over growth, hiding their feelings so as not to appear vulnerable, engaging in violence rather than problem solving. In part, this is the fault of our culture as a whole. In part, it is the fault of parents who perpetuate this, and also the fault of men who, when they grow up and receive an education and experience the world, choose to ignore the illogical nature of this paradigm and continue perpetuating it as well because it’s easier that way.

But I don’t want to talk about how the culture persists. I want to talk about how it is interrupted. I want to talk about my dad.

I am one of few girls I grew up with or know without “daddy issues”– that is to say, I have an amazing relationship with my father. There are no open questions between us, no history of secret abuse, nothing that hasn’t been discussed and dealt with. There have been, and sometimes still are, issues– when he feels I’m not doing things the right way, when I feel he’s not seeing things the right way, whatever– as there are between all functional adult people who have opinions. But at the end of the day, he’s the first man I think of when I think of people who choose to step away from the culture that taught them abusive behaviors. My father (and mother, actually) had a crappy dad. That’s his story, and it’s not mine to tell, but suffice to say, I never met my grandfather on that side because of his violent behavior. I don’t think I missed anything. My father had a crappy dad, and while his mother was a wonderful, kind, loving woman who loved him without reserve, she was trapped in a situation that her culture taught her she wasn’t allowed to get out of. This was not her fault. She did remarkable things within the world she had, and whatever she did, whatever pieces of kindness and logic and observation and goodness she had, she imparted to my father. But the point is, my dad didn’t exactly grow up with progressive, well-educated parents who rejected the gender paradigm. He grew up in Kentucky in the 70’s, where men were men and the rule of thumb was taken pretty literally.

He’s a Celtic musician and environmental preservationist who wears a kilt, sings about the power of the feminine divine, and spent 20 years running a neopagan festival and retreat center with my liberal feminist mother in the middle of the Bible belt. He did theater. He loves Yeats’ poetry. He sang lullabies to his daughter every night, and while he never liked the fact that I love makeup and glitter and would make “ew” noises whenever I put them on, he also never tried to stop me from wearing them. When I was really little and had so many nightmares that I kept my sick mom from sleeping, he set up a cot in my room and sang me to sleep and sat with me if I woke up scared. He never told me I was too young to have feelings for boys (or that there was anything wrong with having feelings for girls, and never treated my girlfriends any differently than my boyfriends, even if they were fewer and farther between), never told me I was supposed to remain “pure,” never told me that I should get married and give him grandchildren– none of the things that other fathers around me were telling their daughters. He taught me how to defend myself from a very young age, sparring (carefully) with me as a little kid, teaching me kicks and blocks and pressure points so that I would never have to be a victim. He taught me how to cook, how to sing, how to paint, how to fish, how to keep myself safe in the woods or the ocean. He shared comic books and other nerdy stuff with me. He taught me astronomy. He taught me that my body was mine and mine alone, and how to defend it when people didn’t ask for consent before coming near it (which, damn, saved my life more than once in high school.) He taught me to follow my creative instincts and passions and never doubt that if I took my creativity seriously, it could be a life path, not just a hobby. He told boys who dated me that they didn’t need to worry about him– that I was the one they should be afraid of if they hurt me. He yelled at me if I screwed up, yes, but he was also pretty damn democratic about it– if I didn’t lie, I wasn’t in big trouble; if I explained myself, and was reasonable, he would be reasonable. (It worked more than it didn’t, which isn’t to say it always worked, because people are fallible, but it worked pretty damn well.) He read my work and supported my writing and my art, both by making sure I always had the supplies I needed and by giving good criticism so I could get better. (My mom, of course, also contributed to all of these things, but we did Mother’s Day last month, and it’s his turn.) I never had the kind of youth where I felt the need to lie to my parents or keep secrets from them (except maybe about how many starcrunches I had eaten, but that stopped when I was about 12)– I told them when I started dating, when I started having sex, when I questioned my life choices, when I was in trouble, when I was depressed. My father and mother divvied some of these things up– I talked to mom about boys more than I talked to dad, but dad is the one who gave me The Talk when I first started asking at the age of four– but my father never made himself unavailable, never said that there were Girl things and Boy things. He never made me feel that anything was out of my reach, and not in an unrealistic American Dream sort of way, but in the way where he made sure I knew that I was smart, and capable, and that if I didn’t know how to do something, I always had the option of learning how to do it.

I could go on– with either of my parents, there are a lot of incredible things they did for me and imparted to me– but the point is this: my father had a very toxic background, in terms of male role models, expectations for men, and the general patriarchal milieu of crap. He didn’t have the advantage of internet culture (which can be toxic, yes, but leads to the rapid spread of positive information as well as negative behavior) or the idea of gender enculturation or any of that until college, when he started studying anthropology and getting involved in the pagan community.

So, seeming non sequitur time–my boyfriend said something to me the other day. I randomly asked him what his favorite thing about me was, and he said, “You– well, this is going to sound very weird and clinical, sorry, but you do this thing where when you learn something, about yourself or other people or just… something negative, or problematic, you look at it and process the information and adjust accordingly. You adapt. You’re a living, growing, learning, changing person all the time, and I love that.”

Non sequitur explanation– my dad came from this toxic environment that told him to be angry and abusive to be manly, that taught that men were one thing and women were another and that men weren’t supposed to be about their feelings and all that. And then he started studying other cultures across the world and throughout time and looking at this religion that worships the divine feminine with the divine masculine and wherein they trade roles constantly. And he did the thing. He processed information and grew accordingly. I know he wasn’t his dad’s version of a “man” to begin with– it’s not like he ran off to a liberal arts college in Florida so he could marry a “pure” Christian woman and treat her like crap, okay, he had complex interests and skills from youth, but he chose to focus on them. He didn’t let himself become a product of his environment. He followed that urge to be more, worked his ass off doing stuff like building railroads and working at dinner theaters and shit, and he did the normal dumb college stuff, too, sure, but he learned things. He allowed himself to be changed by the things he learned. He didn’t stop assimilating new knowledge. He became a whole man, not the binary half-a-man with no feelings or empathy or gentleness or complexity that our culture has designed. He did “manly” things like martial arts and fishing and reading comic books and drinking beer and whatnot, but he also put on robes and worshipped the Goddess in the moonlight and explored ancient Mayan ruins and made staffs to sell at festivals and wore wrap skirts (I still own one of them, Dad, it’s blue and white and has cranes on it) and painted mountains and cooked for his family and became the dad that I have. He’s a white, cis, hetero male with a beard, and he doesn’t use that to make anyone feel like they owe him anything. If people owe him something, it’s a favor from when he’s done one for them already. There’s no sexist entitlement. From my earliest childhood, he treated me like a person, not a girl, and empowered me to be whatever kind of person I wanted to be, as long as I had integrity.

Yes, as a white, cis, hetero male, he had easier access to education  and privilege than men of color, trans men, and queer men do. Privilege is hereby acknowledged. But he came from a lower middle class family in the South where he was taught all the toxic crap that we still teach men in the “boys will be boys” culture, and he became a creative, brilliant feminist man who raised a daughter who never had to be afraid or ashamed or secretive with her father. I was hit by a boy at preschool once, and my female teacher just said, “boys will be boys. He probably likes you.” When I went home and told my dad, he said, “kick his butt, if that’s how he shows that he likes you, you don’t want him to like you,” and showed me how to pinch a pressure point in his arm if he tried it again.

My friends’ parents never worried about my father, and had no reason to. He was the Trustworthy Dad. He still is. He is, as my friend Parking Lot Dude says, usually while in Dad’s hotel room at Dragon*con, drinking beer with us and eating Dad’s homemade beef jerky, “the coolest f*cking dad, can he be my dad?” He’s one of my best friends in the world, and not just because he raised me, but because he’s one of the few men in the world I’ve encountered who put integrity before power, who can discuss political and religious issues with intelligence and fervor without being an asshole about it, who doesn’t tell me I need to be any certain way because I’m a girl. He feels entitled to my respect because he’s my father, but he also knows that he would lose that respect if he stopped being worthy of it. And he’s never acted like he’s entitled to any other kind of behavior or choices from me, especially not just because I’m a girl. I don’t owe him a career path or grandchildren or a certain way of looking or any other thing, because I’m a whole, complex person, and he has always been very clear about that. We can disagree. We can debate. He might hate my eyeliner and cringe at the thought of glitter and seriously question the sanity behind my relationship choices.

But he supports me, and loves me, and is proud of me– not because I’m his baby girl, but because he helped create me and is proud that he helped make a person with skills, who makes good choices, who is open and honest with him and trusts him. I never doubt that I have a home to go back to. I never doubt that if my life falls apart, my parents will catch me and help me back on my feet, and that I won’t be shamed for it. I have wonderful parents– complicated, crazy, ridiculous parents, who I frequently argue with and sometimes want to squirt with a water gun just so they’ll stop talking, like bad cats, but I’m aware that that probably isn’t appropriate behavior, so I avoid it– and I am so grateful. My dad is a pinnacle among dads. He’s not a perfect person, that’s not at all what I’m trying to get across– he’s complex and flawed and filled with doubt and optimism and dreams and fears like anybody. What makes him awesome isn’t that he’s perfect, it’s that he chooses to do better. We are, as my old therapist would say, nothing but the sum of our choices. We can talk about who we are all day long, but our idea of ourselves is nothing if it doesn’t line up with the choices we make. And I don’t know my dad’s idea of himself, I don’t live in his brain. But I know what the sum of his choices is. I watch him choose every day, when faced with difficult decisions, people who let him down, people who treat him more poorly than he deserves, he chooses integrity. He works for a strong woman. He is married to a strong woman. He raised a strong woman. He isn’t intimidated by us; he doesn’t ask us to make ourselves small so he can feel big and strong. He chooses to be strong, to process his vulnerabilities and issues by talking about them and going fishing and taking the dogs on long walks and calling his family and other, generally healthy, things. He chooses, over and over, every day, to be a good dad, to be a good husband, to be a good friend, to be a creative and productive human who doesn’t reduce the idea of being a man to one binary concept. He keeps bees! He makes jerky and dried apples! He figured out how to make gluten free deep fried popcorn shrimp with me just to relive a memory from my childhood that I’d thought I’d never get to experience again because I can’t eat gluten. He cooks with me! He picks me up from the airport when I get back from three months in Ireland! He took me to Ireland in the first place. He sings with me when I drink. He makes my friends feel safe and at home and like they aren’t being judged or looked down on. He’s a freaking great dad.

So, long ramble over. In summary, Tumblr OP and other people all over the internet, I don’t need to say not all men. We already know it’s not all men. There’s that whole poisonous M&M metaphor that explains why that’s a problematic argument. I’m just as wary of men as a whole as you are; I walk with my knife in my hand when I’m in a dark parking lot. We all have examples of good and bad men in our lives– usually more than one of each. What I am saying is that there is a bad culture of masculinity. It’s awful. And when men, particularly fathers or men who participate in enculturating the next generation, choose to stop perpetuating it, they make things better. Not just by not repeating terrible behaviors– which, yes, okay, is a low bar of expectation, but it’s a start, and a sadly small percentage of men are even rolling their eyes and stepping over that bar, so we’ll start somewhere– but by raising a generation of people who have a better starting place than the toxic culture they came from. I am the best (and sometimes worst, I know) of both my parents, and it’s their choices that I am grateful for, because they chose really good bests to have.

I spent the last week alone at my childhood home with my dad. He’d go to work. I’d wake up, spin wool, make hats, write, whatever. He’d come home. We’d have dinner (GARLIC BACON CESAR SALAD FROM SCRATCH FOR THE WIN) and binge-watch cooking shows and travel shows and talk about life, and then he’d go to bed and I’d binge watch superhero shows he’s already caught up on. It was good. It was peaceful and awesome, and I got to recharge. I guess what I’m saying is that, as Father’s Day approaches, I’m really thinking about how lucky I am to have the dad I have.

Thanks, Dad, for choosing to be better than the world tells you to be, and for raising me to do the same.

(And to the dads of rapist swimmer dude and all other creepy, horrible dudes, maybe start expecting better of yourself and your offspring. Better masculine culture starts with choosing to stop perpetuating the shitty one. Be a good example, and stop defending the bad ones.)

Perfectionism and Procrastination

So, I’m a perfectionist. I’m also a procrastinator and kind of a slob. My mom always wondered when I was a kid how I could be so organized yet so messy. My teachers throughout my life have always been baffled by the fact that I do my work and turn everything in at the last possible second. I find myself doing it even now– I just sent in a form for grad school past the deadline.
How does this line up with perfectionism?
The answer isn’t complicated– if it can’t be flawless, spotless, spectacular, perfect, it can’t be at all. The mess comes from the fact that it’s too exhausting to keep a room spotless at all times, and even a little mess ruins the perfection– a lot of mess doesn’t ruin it any further, and actually produces less anxiety than a perfectly tidy room with only a couple things out of place. A messy room can be easily categorized as messy and left alone. An almost-perfectly-clean room is categorized as “clean but wrong” and “work to do,” and if the perfectionist doesn’t have the time or energy to get it perfect immediately, it becomes a producer of heavy and constant background anxiety. Mess is simpler. Less painful. Less noise in my head.
The same proves true for paperwork, whether it’s an essay, fiction, or just a form to be submitted. There’s a terror for me that I’ll do it wrong somehow– that the essay will be subpar, that the fiction will be inadequate, that the form will be incorrectly filled out or sent in. Doing it at the last second means that if any of those things turn out to be true, and my head can just chalk it up to having done it under a severe time constraint and that weird anxiety-producing goblin in the back of my brain can’t berate me endlessly for being imperfect.
These are the parts of anxiety that medication and therapy haven’t fixed. I’ve been in therapy on and off since I was thirteen– nearly twelve years– and on anxiety meds for about five or six now. The combination of these things has really worked for me overall– I’ve gone from not attempting my work at all out of terror of failure to attempting it at the last minute, which is progress, I guess. I keep my living spaces a baseline of cluttered but not disgusting and am usually able to convince myself that it’s good enough without panicking and throwing clothes all over the room to “even out the mess.” But it never really goes away 100% for me, no matter how aware of it I am. The anxiety and perfectionism becomes, at times, completely paralyzing. With grad school approaching, that’s kind of terrifying. I feel my little brain-goblin or whatever digging its heels in when it comes to submitting my work and my forms, and I get scared that I don’t have the ability to actually function as an adult in an academic setting.

There’s no punchline or, I don’t know, wrapping-things-up closing statement here. I’m a mess and a perfectionist at the same time and I procrastinate like nobody’s business and I’m scared that that’s going to screw up the things I want to do. Comments like, “if you know about it, just stop doing it,” come my way a lot, and anybody with depression or anxiety on a clinical scale knows that that doesn’t help. Tricks with rewards like “you get a cookie if you do it!” don’t help for me; I just eat the cookie anyway, or decide no cookie is worth the panic.

If anyone who has a similar issue feels like giving a suggestion that’s less about beating anxiety via intense mega willpower, I would…really love to hear it, because being an adult with real deadlines is scary as hell in the face of a brain that isn’t always super helpful.

Thoughts on Mother’s Day

As Mother’s Day approaches, I turn my thoughts to my own mother (a wonderful, strong, crazy, brave, and supportive woman who is one of my best friends in the world), my maternal grandmother (a marvelous, spectacularly kind, generous, and caring individual who raised three children without the help of a husband), and my paternal grandmother (a woman I never got the chance to know as well as I would have liked, but who raised the best son and father I could imagine, and who was kind to me at every turn). These women have imparted many lessons to me throughout my life, from how to cook for myself to how to do my laundry to how to balance a checkbook to how to stand up for myself. I am spectacularly grateful to them for everything they have taught me, for the opportunities they have provided me, and for the work they did to get where they are so I can be where I am. They are nothing less than heroines in my eyes.

But as a writer, I have other heroines, too. Other mothers. Other women who have taught me the things that have allowed me to survive, thrive, and create. Those women have mothers and fathers too– Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, Anne McCaffrey, Joss Whedon, Stan Lee, JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling, Theresa Dintino, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Robert Tapert, Adele Geras, Alice O. Howell, Peter Beagle, Naoko Takeuchi, Charles deLint, Tanith Lee, Diana Wynn Jones, and so many others. Their literary parents made them into whole people who imparted powerful things onto my psyche as I grew, and as I continue to grow.

I learned from Xena, from Alanna, from Sailor Moon, from Molly Grue, from Sandriline fa Toren, from Gabrielle, from Aureillia, from Buffy, from Peggy Carter, from Hermione, from dozens of those authors’ and creators’ other children that to be feminine, to want love and romance and friendship and to be soft and gentle– that that is not at odds, does not contradict being strong, being powerful. In reading or watching or listening to their stories, I learned that I could want to be all things at all times and not just be being foolish or greedy or having dreams of grandeur– that we are all, at once, each character we have consumed and adored, and that to be human, and to be a woman, is no small, single thing. We are not caricatures made to fill niches in people’s minds, to fit people’s impressions– I am not the clever witch, or the robust warrior woman, or the rotund comforter, or the gentle motherer, or the wild artist, or the dedicated girlfriend, or the crybaby, or the fierce defender of the helpless, or the emotional wreck and social disaster, or the brilliant writer recluse, or the crafty artist, or the generous hostess, or the cheerful magical girl– I am all these things at once, shifting between them like the moon, and I gain nothing by trying to be any single one thing for anyone. I gain everything by acknowledging that every one of these women, from my real mothers to my fictional ones, lives on in me every moment that I survive, whether I am being strong, having a period of weakness, creating something, failing at something, or trying to become something new.

So, in recognition of Mother’s Day, I thank all of them– my mother, my grandmothers, the literary parents of my fictional mothers, and my fictional mothers themselves. I hope I can do justice to your vast wealth of being.

Spinning wheels and productivity

Making myself do productive things is hard.

Filling everything out for Stonecoast is hard AND confusing. THERE ARE TOO MANY PDFs and TOO MANY PAGES and HALF OF IT IS REDUNDANT and the rest doesn’t answer my questions.

But today I did all my edits (that they’ve requested so far, anyway) for my upcoming Sleeping Beauty story in Strange Horizons, “Gorse Daughter, Sparrow Son.”

Also I am feeling really good about the fact that I used the money they paid me for this story (which is about spinning and spinning wheels) to buy a new spinning wheel. There’s some seriously cool symmetry to that.

In other news, allergies are terrible, and I cannot imagine why anyone who has experienced springtime in Georgia would choose to move here. I don’t care if you have actual allergies or not– the sheer volume of pollen makes an actual sticky layer on the tongue. And on cars. It’s revolting. Also it makes it really hard to breathe.


Reflections on College

I didn’t get to go to the college I wanted to attend. I wanted to go to New College of Florida since I was a small child (maybe 5?). My dad went there, several family friends went there. I toured it three or four times growing up. I wore the school hoodie just about every day in high school. It was a brilliant, liberal, personal school that had a design-your-own-degree program, was all pass/fail, and was an honors college that required writing a full thesis to graduate with a Bachelor’s. It was on the ocean. It was a tiny school with incredible faculty. As the child of an alumnus, I was offered in-state tuition as incentive to attend. When I was a senior in high school, I applied during early admission, got in, and was offered a substantial scholarship. However, the old Dean, who had known my dad and knew me from all of my visits to the school, retired, and the new Dean wouldn’t give me the in-state tuition. What would’ve been a reasonably-priced education became unaffordable, even with the scholarship. Then, I grew incredibly ill, missed my last several months of high school, and was pretty much bedridden for just about six months. I went to college that year, but it wasn’t the college I’d spent my life dreaming about. I studied Anthropology, Art, and Religious Studies while I was there, and loved my classes, but it wasn’t the college experience I’d wanted. Don’t get me wrong, I’m EXTREMELY grateful that I was able to go, that my family could afford for me to attend (leaving me with no student loans, a remarkable feat these days), that I was able to be so close to home. I had a good college experience, but I struggled. I struggled with my health, with not having the experience I’d expected, with realizing that I wasn’t studying what I really wanted to be studying– writing– because I was afraid that it would leave me unemployed. I loved the Anthropology department, I adored my professors, and I learned things that have made me see the entire world as a completely different thing than I did before. But I still keep the old New College hoodie in a box in my closet because I can’t look at it without crying a little for the college experience I’d always dreamed of having. I graduated with my Bachelors in Anthropology in six years (being sick meant taking fewer classes at a time), magna cum laude, and it was a really triumphant moment for me even though it was in the midst of a personal tragedy. I had great relationships with my professors, I had made friends in school, and I was proud that I had finished something, even if I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Again, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity, grateful to my family for paying for school, and grateful to my professors for their support and kindness. But the lost dream of New College didn’t really stop hurting, even if it faded to background noise. I think we all have this idea of what College Should Be, especially when we grow up in an oppressive place– I grew up in rural North Georgia, where my peers treated me at best like an interesting animal in a zoo, at worst like a rabid animal that needed to be put down– and while I had a really, really good experience at Georgia State and met awesome people and lived good years and did cool things, it was never what I’d thought College Should Be. A home. A place to discover yourself. A place with smart people, people like you, who want to be learning what you’re learning and have long, late-night discussions about those things. You know. That. And part of that definitely came from the fact that I wasn’t in the department I should’ve been in, and part of it was the nature of the GSU campus (very spread out across Atlanta, with no actual real campus at all), and part of it was maybe how sick I was and how frustrated I was. Regardless, I graduated feeling like I’d missed something, and was kind of just resigned to that.

Discovering the existence of Stonecoast was like someone took away the notebook I’d written this whole proud-and-grateful-but-not-satisfied college experience thing in and put it up on a shelf and said, “You’re done with that, look at this,” and handed me a new, completely blank notebook with perfect paper and perfectly spaced lines and my name already stamped on the inside cover. It was like an opportunity for a do-over. It was the college equivalent of if someone combined New College (small, intimate, personalized education, on the water, filled with professors who adore what they do) with Alpha (the writers’ workshop that was basically the only experience I had as a teenager that demonstrated to me that there were good people my age in the world, not to mention people who thought in the ways I did, and showed me that there might be hope for a home for me, somewhere, someday) and plopped it down in the most beautiful state in the country and said, “here you go, Alena, here’s where you belong.” Running into the Stonecoast in Ireland program while I was staying in Dingle last summer just reinforced it for me– these people liked me immediately (which is rare, okay, I know I’m odd) and were so welcoming and kind, not in the “we’re trying to make you feel like we like you” way that I realized then that I had grown incredibly accustomed to, but in the “we actually like you, you are good at things and we have stuff in common and we would like to have you in our group” way. I felt like I had found a home among strangers. I actually went home to Marion House that first night after the readings and just cried, because my life had fallen apart in a way I didn’t even know was possible, but here, on another continent, in a truly miniscule town, was the same school that had looked like a lighthouse of hope in the distance, holding its hand out to me and saying, “Hey, why don’t you read one of your poems for us?” (Actually, that was Ted Deppe and Jean Marie Beaumont and then the class egging me on, but still, the point stands. Hand. Reading. That.) I knew I wanted to go to Stonecoast as soon as I heard of it, but that experience showed me that maybe I could actually GET IN.

I spent the year since graduating doing my best to get published. I’ve had ten publications so far, a couple of which actually paid me decent money (one paid for the plane ticket to Ireland, for instance). I applied to Stonecoast and held my breath. And eleven days after I submitted my application, I got a call from the really cool lady in admissions to tell me that I got in. It was 11:30 in the morning, so I was asleep, and I actually asked her repeatedly to tell me that I was awake and not dreaming (I was kind of a giant spaz). But I got in. My work was good enough. My recommendations were from amazing people, and they said wonderful things about me. My writing was enough to impress what is, in my opinion, the most dazzling array of writing faculty available. Something inside me settled, just a little, like a house shifting on its foundations. For the first time as an adult, I really, really knew what I wanted to do, where I wanted to be, and I got it. I got into the school of my dreams. And I’m nervous, and I’m excited, and okay, yes, terrified, a little, that something will go wrong. But I know also that if it does, I’ll handle it. I will wrestle any large carnivores (bears, alligators, whatever) I have to wrestle to get to this place. I am going in July. I will be there. I am gonna do the thing. I don’t have words for how excited I am. I ordered a bunch of poetry books written by the faculty so I’m familiar with their work before I arrive. I’m EXCITED to learn things. I haven’t felt like this since the dream of New College got pulled away– not that I didn’t learn things excitedly with the Anthro program, but I wasn’t…eager, I wasn’t hungry to know more in this same way. This feels magical to me. And I’m stunningly, stupefyingly grateful. I’m grateful to get in. I’m grateful that I had the courage to apply. I’m grateful for the amazing recommendations I was given. I’m grateful for the family (especially my mom, who went over every aspect of the application with me and handheld me through clicking “submit”, and my dad, who actually put the envelope with my manuscript INTO THE MAILBOX before taking me for milkshakes) that supports and applauds my writing career. I’m grateful to everyone who pushed me to apply and kept chanting “YOU’LL GET IN SHUT UP STOP BEING SCARED YOU WILL GET IN!” (cough*Jen*cough) I’m grateful to my whole amazing community for this whole thing.

I’m also scared, because academia was rigorous and exhausting and frequently tedious, and a part of me is worried that this will be like that. That I’ll just procrastinate and waste my time. But mostly I’m not. And when I worry, I think back the single best help I was ever given in college, when my professor, Faidra, sat me down and said, “It’s okay for it to be hard.” And I protested that it WASN’T hard, all the work was perfectly doable, I just couldn’t make myself DO it. And she said, “No, it’s okay for it to be hard to make yourself do. It’s okay for it to be hard for YOU, even if the work isn’t hard for you. It’s okay. Give yourself permission for it to be difficult.”
So I’m gonna do that. I’m going to give myself permission for this whole thing to be exciting and terrifying and potentially difficult and just…look forward to that. Look forward to the fact that, even if it IS difficult, it’ll be difficulty on the road to doing exactly what I want to do, with the people I want to be around, in a field I love and am maybe (probably) really good at.

So yeah. Bring on summer. I’m stoked.

Thoughts on Identity

On days when I’m completely adrift, I think of all the things that remind me of myself. Amber, because it is golden and warm, hard and malleable at the same time. Teapots, round-bellied and givers of comfort. Owls, fluffy and soft, sharp and watchful. Short grain brown rice. Rainstorms. Badgers. Old books. Gluten free scones.

If I cannot come back to myself, I remember the people who raised me. My mother is homegrown tomatoes, eaten in the garden in the heat of summer. Is a cup of Irish Breakfast tea on a Sunday morning, sipped at while watching birds at the feeder on the porch. Is hours of homeschooling, frustration, understanding, support. Is days in the sun by the lake, planning things, knowing that we are both the sort of people who will make sure they come to pass.

My father is learning to paint, the smell of acrylics faint but distinct. Is the sound of a cleaver hitting a wooden cutting board through meat and spices while he narrates like my very own cooking show. Is a bowl of popcorn covered in odd things, eaten in front of tv shows about superheroes. Is a little blue collection of Yeats poems.

My grandmother is the smell of garlic, is the feel of its papery skin sticking to my fingers when I slice through it to make a pasta dish in the middle of the night when I have been too sick to move for days. She is being curled up on a couch and believing that it is more comfortable than the bed, even though it isn’t. Is us watching awards shows and dance shows for the outfits, not what’s going on. She is the hours of planning my hundred different weddings, late into the night.

If remembering the pieces of myself is not enough, I at least know I am some amalgam of warm summer tomatoes, superhero tv shows, and the papery skin of garlic. I’m somewhere in that. And that’s not nothing.