• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Michigan Seems Like A Dream to Me Now


On Wednesday, I was invited to speak to a group of MFA students at Columbia. WHERE I WENT. Let’s talk about PTSD. The first day of graduate school thirty-something years ago, I climbed the steps to Dodge Hall, tripped, fell and all my shit went sprawling. I always felt it was a harbinger of things to come: many stumbles, one great terrible fall.

I’m looking at the faces of the students and it’s all there: the anxiety, competition, bravado, meekness, the sheer ambition, the massive insecurities. Their questions painted the gulf between their world and mine. I felt happy that I no longer had to spend so much energy wondering if I would amount to anything. I also felt caught up short when they asked why didn’t I pursue poetry, art. Was it failure of imagination, belief, ego? What does it even mean to ask: do you have what it takes? Maybe the question should be: what do you have to give? One young woman really pressed me: why didn’t you become an artist. Why did you make your choice. I took a breath and said I had a mental breakdown while I was in graduate school, and I learned that I needed structure, a regular paycheck, and health benefits.

What about you?


28 Responses

  1. I went to Syracuse University to become an artist. In high school, I was a big frog in a small pond. I won the “best artist” award and a boatload of art supplies. I thought I was pretty special. When I got to SU, they put me in a fine arts dorm with real artists who carried their work around in huge black zippered portfolios. They scared the heck out of me. I wasn’t good enough. I lasted four days before I called my father to come and get me. I went home, enrolled in our local SUNY Plattsburgh, and became a teacher. That I could do. I’ve always taken the easy path. I have no idea what it feels like to struggle for something I really want. Even publication came with little effort. I never longed to be an author. It just dropped in my lap. The right editor at the right house must have been in a good mood the day he opened my “over the transom” complete, unsolicited manuscript with the cover letter which began: To Whom It May Concern. I had never heard of the major award that book won–again, dropped in my lap. My tombstone will probably read, “She never tried very hard. Shame on her!” .

  2. I’m a high school dropout who had two kids by the age of twenty-five; I can’t relate to any of this. Maybe that tiresome little chick can get back to us in thirty years with an answer to her own question about choice and the nature of compromise. I’ve got dinner to make.

  3. I wish you’d said, “I am an artist, bitch. Have you read me lately?” Mic dropped, and gotten the hell outta there.

    • Exactly. “Hi, I’m here because I published a fucking book while working full time. How do you define an artist?”

    • Perfect, Gail.

      Um… college girl… do you think hanging around the ivy league is a prelude to becoming an artist? Well, think again. You have no idea about life and its experiences because if you did you wouldn’t have asked such a stupid question. The artistic life comes all shapes & sizes and is built on challenging experiences, of which Betsy exemplifies better than most. Read her stuff, bitch.

      Betsy, I find it best to ignore the Snowflakes. They really have no clue, and their entitlement & narcissism make them think they’re just soooo special. Life will hone them. Darwin is at work, and btw, not all twentysomethings are special snowflakes. This chick sounds like a spoiled daddy’s girl, living off daddy’s dime. Good luck with that in the real world.

    • She’s a student. She asked a question, that’s what they do. She got her answer. No need for name calling.

  4. Really enlightening. At 52, I’m still wondering what I’ll be when I grow up 🙂

    • Betsy, You are not only an artist, you facilitate other writers so that their work gets read! YOU were the one asked to speak
      to them. She is young and I doubt she understands how complicated life is… Need I say more?

  5. Bullets to books in a few days, twenty-first birthday a month later. Short hair and no civvys. Faded into the cover of long-haired cammo and tried to hide in a bad marriage. Studied philosophy and political science, where I learned about essays from gifted profs. Thank you, Uncle Ho, for the scholarship.

    The PTSD surfaced years later, when I was a cop working on a complex investigation. My partner and I drove past a group assembling for a memorial dedication, many in uniform, and tears bled down my face.

    With help from the VA, we- all in the circle I am part of-got through it. When I look back, it’s mostly to check the weather; when it’s to remember, it’s to smile in wonder and gratitude.

  6. I’ve never felt like I needed structure, or a regular paycheck, or health benefits. I’ve had such things for only the briefest of times. Each time, faster and slower than death, they gave me nervous breakdowns.

    Not that it was only those things — I’ve had many more breakdowns than real jobs.

    But I am surely an artist — even if the art that helps feed me isn’t the art I’d most like to make. The biggest difference between me and you, Betsy, is that I admit to it.

    Actually, there’s bigger differences between us than that. I might have (and be) a big Aussie dick, but you have bigger balls than I ever did — that’s how you managed to do what you’ve done, fold yourself into the boxes you have, deliver yourself to the world in a shape mostly unnatural for you.

    Along the way you’ve helped a million thousand hundred crazydream fuckers to place themselves somewhere realworldly. Not just editing and agenting, but ForestyTreeing, Bridging gaps between mothers and daughters and lovers — and of course, in the grand conversation you host for us misfits and lost ones right here.

    If that ain’t a life lived poetic and artful, I’m really not sure what is.

  7. I had a “nervous breakdown” in my freshman year at the University of Missouri (fine arts). Less than four years earlier, in 1970, I had been jailed for seven weeks as an incorrigible runaway, and spent five days in a “special cell” where I was raped repeatedly. There was no “awareness” or “sensitivity” in those days for women who were raped, much less for me, a boy who “should have fought back.” My years of suppressing it, ignoring it, keeping it hidden from others caught up with me in college, around normal people.
    I got permission to live alone, off-campus, so I had no “structure.” From day one I reacted badly to students my age, saw almost all of them as naive, privileged, whiny, and blissfully ignorant. I hated them, and hated myself for hating them, round and round. Made the Dean’s list, but I could not talk to anyone.
    Two things helped me recover. First, my dog. The struggle of caring for someone else, to not abuse or neglect her, nearly drove me mad—seriously, as in a crisis of wanting to mutilate myself—but I won that struggle, and became devoted to her. The second was befriending the male students of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Though I never told them what happened, they sensed kindred (dis)spirit in me, knew trauma when they saw it, and let me be a kind of live-in mascot in their off-campus house.
    I raised my first daughter alone, then two more with my partner. All are grown and living the dream in New York City now. I relived some of my college experience as they went to school and struggled. At times I envied and resented them and their friends, and my old bitter feelings—“they don’t know what real pain is”— re-surfaced, and made things tense between us.
    As to the art part: art saves me everyday. Writing, painting, collage, are essential to my well-being, to keeping trauma and despair on a leash. I admire anyone who devotes themselves to their art, always have. As a keeper of secrets, I resonate with the burning need to express, in anyone, by any means.

    • Thank you so much. So moving.

    • I, too, found a kindred soul in a veteran from the Vietnam War. There aren’t many people who, truly, understand the roil of emotions from surviving violent crime – but he,as a POW, did and I am very grateful for his kindness and honesty.

  8. I hope she keeps her resolve.

  9. “why didn’t you become an artist. Why did you make your choice.”

    The answer you gave was honest and sincere, and then? I like what Gail said. The thing is, you’re standing before them, an icon of perseverance, the epitome of what they ought to hope to become. I mean honestly, as if what you chose isn’t good enough? Maybe it was an innocent question…but I have to say your description of the audience gave me the impression SOME they think they’ve already “made it” simply by being there. Um, not so fast.

    And the thing is, you DID choose art, and you ARE an artist, and not only that, but you work in the world of artists, and with artists, I mean, hell, you basically live and breathe it. Sheesh.

    “What about you?”

    I had to have all my i’s dotted and t’s crossed before I “allowed” myself the luxury of pursuing the dream. Which meant I went straight from high school into the work world. Like Averil, I had both my kids by the time I was 23. (Ha, Averil, beat you by two years!) Divorced by the time I was 26. Single mother for 13 years. I was too busy putting food on the table and juggling bills while hoping my ex would provide the child support check which was 50% less than what the courts would have mandated he pay, but I didn’t want to fight anymore.

    ANYWAY. I love your answer. And like someone else said, report back in about 30 years, oh young and naive one.

  10. I ran and ran and ran, finally running out of the door slammed on my stepfather’s rage. Ran down the streets of Yonkers and along the Palisades on the opposite side of the river. Went to college in the Midwest, but that didn’t last and soon I was hitchhiking around the country and across a couple of oceans. Ran into a mountain and turned to see a black bear eating my food but ignoring me. I like to think we watched the sunset over Long Lake together, but the bear was too busy eating my oatmeal, hard cheese, bread and grains to notice. I couldn’t think of any other place I’d rather be.

    Nowadays I sort letters and walk to work when I can, a mile and a half, partly along an old railroad bed above the lakeshore. Sometimes I move along in a fog. My thoughts wander until finding a place to settle and reveal part of a story I’ve been searching for. Every day I feel like I should just keep walking. I’m not used to stopping and still wonder if I’ll amount to anything.

    If money defines worth, I don’t have a pot to piss in; yesterday I just spent my last penny buying more land in these beautiful mountains. The kid better get a college scholarship, is all I can say.

  11. Do people really make choices? I’ve never decided a damn thing–every single thing I’ve done has been an act of desperation. When I write it’s because the alternative is throwing myself off a bridge; when I work it’s because I have to eat. I wish I could “decide” to do–or not do– one or the other–

  12. A well-timed post.

    Earlier this week, I attended a holiday luncheon at one of the area’s prestigious country clubs. I was the guest of an old friend who had married-divorced-married again quite successfully. There I sat: the granddaughter of an immigrant, one of the first in my family to even graduate from college, much less have friends with country club memberships, surrounded by this merry band of women discussing their glittering, top-shelf existence. The odd juggling act that is self-employment? the late night’s toil to find a few hours to write? the angst of another rejection letter? had anyone seen my brief mention in the NYT? Foreign topics to those-who-lunch. My friend smiled, though, and announced she would be hosting another, smaller gathering at her house in two weeks. “Look for my evite,” she instructed.

    I felt the mud on my shoes from taking the road less traveled, the hard surface of the measuring stick extending up and beyond my reach, the pinch from clothes more than a decade old and the breath of that inner voice, laughing in my face.

  13. with all the people you touch every day why do you not see that you are an artist?

  14. A man who was a great teacher, more of a father to me than my own father was or could be, told me, in front of the class — it was the final session of a private master’s class in fiction writing, one night in NYC, twenty-six years ago this month — “Callis, you have everything you need to get what you want, except you are afraid.”

    I hadn’t known it before he said it, but immediately he said it, I knew he was right. That’s my life. I learned fear very early, and it was a lesson I learned deeply.

  15. I checked in because I had this funny bit going in my mind about why your life is so much better than mine and now it’s not funny but interesting. Why did this person think you are not an artist? That is now interesting to me. What is art, what is it’s purpose, why have we been so brainwashed to think it is so essential? Who’s to say a therapist is not an artist? And then there is the art of the human condition but I’m not going there tonight because I could write a book and I don’t want to brag on Betsy’s blog. But God do I love that girl and I’ve never met her. Why is that?

  16. Art, demanding fruition, creates need. The person tasked with Art’s ambition serves that need. I don’t know if she fills it. I gave a year and a half of my life to strangers who took up residence in my head. They gave the whole of their existence to me. It made me want to die. It made me want to live. If a more preposterous experience whirls around in the cosmos, waiting to befall some poor bastard, I pray it not be me.

  17. Wow! This REALLY hit home for me. Great writing! Officially “following” now. Looking forward to more! -Marie aka http://www.goldisfromaliens.com

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