In August 2011, I moved to Baltimore to the general astonishment (and in some cases, horror) of my family and friends. I braved the downtown traffic for a year, and then three months ago, I moved a little further north. I knew this second move would mean change—a bedroom door, a backyard, a nicer drive to work, and a landlord I couldn’t talk to without stumbling over my words—but when I signed the lease, I had no expectation of anything beyond a more northern view of Baltimore’s light rail.
Enter change. Macro change. Change for the better. Unexpected. Challenging. Enter beauty. Enter Grace. New friendships. Relationships. People I barely know. Enter questions. Lots of questions. Questions about who I am, what I believe, what I’m doing with the rest of my life. Questions I couldn’t answer without long pauses and “uhhh’s” and “well, you see’s…”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer. Well…a writing student.”
“What do you write?
“So like…what’s that mean?”
“I’m writing about growing up Catholic in the South.”
Why did I just say that? I’m not writing about that at all. I haven’t written a single essay on that topic. I could have said anything and I went with Catholic and the South. I’m a cliché.
“Yeah…I really like it. It’s cool.”
Enter ePub. Enter more questions about my brand as a writer. About my genre. My style. Except this time when I can’t find the right words to answer, I don’t only seem dull, I’m also lowering my grade.
“Who is your audience and what do you want them to know about you?”
My parents. My college roommates? People I’ve tricked into reading my stuff by posting in on Facebook? I want them to know that I write and stuff?
“What do they want from your author website?”
Coupons. Everyone always wants coupons. No?
I freeze up. I rarely have any clue about how to answer their questions or the appropriateness of this voice on my website vs. that other voice in my essays vs. my general how’s-it-going-nice-to-meet-you-my-name’s-Michelle voice that I use every day. Questions upon questions upon blank stares and no answers.
Enter excuses about being young and inexperienced. Excuses about not being well-read. Enter new friends that don’t buy any of my excuses. Enter “well what are you doing to change that’s” and eye rolling on both sides.
Enter last Wednesday morning. I drove Amanda to the airport, and we watched the sun come up over the foggy city and drank overpriced, gourmet lattes. Since I moved I rarely find myself downtown anymore and almost didn’t recognize the streets or the shortcuts that I survived on last year.
We ended up on the wrong highway when time was essential. It wasn’t wrong in the sense that it wouldn’t get us to the airport, but wrong in that it wasn’t the “one with all the gas stations” (as Amanda put it) that we normally take. I was afraid we’d be late. Or that I’d be late getting back to the city for work.
But I drove like the city taught me to drive—with confidence, speed, agility, and a little bit of road rage. We realized that not only was this highway choice not the wrong highway, it was the very right choice this particular morning. As we found our way through the departures terminal, I became jealous. I told Amanda as much, and she agreed that I should be. Traveling is exciting. An adventure. A nervous stomach.
But I hugged her anyway, got back in my car, and headed back the way we hadn’t come. And she boarded a plane, and I weaved in and out of traffic, and a sureness came over me. The sense of excitement from the departures lane didn’t leave me as I’d expected it would. I was headed back into the city, into the traffic next to the men and women and children with handwritten signs, with the boarded up windows, with the graffitied benches and light poles, with the stop lights that need police assistance during rush hour because they’re too shy to make themselves heard. These are the things I thought about as the downtown cityscape filled the horizon, and still I was content to be heading that way. Happy even. Sure.
When I caught a glimpse of Lexington Market, I thought about an “almost-blog-post” I found on my computer last week called “an Elf Boot kind of ache.” It’s a stupid title, sure, but the “elf boot” was a nod to MIMAL, the elf (or chef, according to Wikipedia) that no one’s heard of here. I’d started this post last March from the looks of it, and it was somewhat pathetic which is why I believe I never finished it.
The post wasn’t simply about being homesick, although that was part of it. It was about being heartbroken. Not broken over the loss of a relationship, though at first that’s what it felt like; rather I was broken over the loss of a time. Of a plan that I’d been trying my best to live out. It was a kind of broken heartedness that only comes from aging.
Part of the ache is that I ended up here in Baltimore not because I was running away from anything but because there was so much I was running towards. And while that’s a blessing, it’s hard to love everything and everyone I left as much as I did when I was a part of it. And now to be so away from it. I was split. My heart in two places. I felt splinched like Ron (and my Harry Potter fans will understand the seriousness of that kind of affliction).
I can look back now at what I was writing six, seven, eight months ago and see that I was struggling with a growing gap between the possibility of a future in the place I’d grown up calling home and the reality of a life that was already beginning to take shape here. There was a new distinction between the life I’d tried to plan for myself, and the life I couldn’t have planned if I tried, yet here I was.
Enter traffic. Enter reality. Enter the rest of the story I was telling earlier. I arrived at work feeling buzzed (from the latte and from my new epiphanies) and I thought about Amanda on the plane, headed home to see her friends and family. And there was a part of me that still ached for those that I miss, but I wasn’t jealous anymore.
Everything’s changed. I’ve entered a new season of life where I’m trying out this thing called writing. And some days I’m pretty okay at it. And other days I think I should be a secretary for the rest of my life because that seems easier. But then I meet someone new and they ask me what I do.
“I’m a writer.”
“What do you write?”
I write about driving my friend to the airport. And the time we tried to sell our artwork at a flea market. I write about the house I grew up in, and how it’s hard to go to a place I used to call home and know that I’m just a visitor. I write about William Carlos Williams because I was told to do so, and I write about going back to Church because I want to. Because I feel compelled to.
I’ll write about growing up Catholic and in the South not because it’s a cliché but because it’s a part of who I am and a part of the story that got me here, in my apartment, writing at 7am with a cup of pumpkin spice coffee cheering me along.
“I write creative nonfiction.”
“So like…what’s that mean?”
I’m writing about the end of childhood. The ache of being splinched. The sureness of a bigger plan. The simultaneous excitement and unease that comes from only seeing one piece of that plan at a time. I’m writing about being young and inexperienced. About the self-consciousness of being a writer who hasn’t read much and what I’m doing to change that. It means that I’m not quite sure what “my brand” is yet, but I’m trying to figure it out. It means that years from now I hope I can look back at this early stuff and know that it’s awkward. But I hope that it causes laughter for me and those I write about, not tears.
I’m writing everything. And along the way, I hope to edit. Redirect. Be led.