Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Church Signs: "Coming Home"

Last Tuesday was the 13th anniversary of my graduation from college. I decided to mark the occasion by writing a letter to my closest friends, "coming out" as it were, about my struggles, and asking for their help in finding my way to a life that works.

I have been committed for most of these last thirteen years to hiding my flaws, covering up my mistakes, grinning madly through my misery, and pretending everything is okay. I'm quick to scribble in a silver-colored lining to every cloud, and then lie about its extraordinary virtues. This approach has left me feeling alienated, unprotected, misunderstood, and ashamed—because I am both a liar and a failure.

As part of the Year of Healing, I felt it was time to come clean. To admit to these women I love and respect—and who love and respect me—that I have had a great deal of trouble staying alive. That any happiness they may have perceived, any success, was either short-lived or a false front. I have been afraid to visit with them or talk to them or to keep in touch because I was in so much pain. I was afraid that they would see it.

I decided to write to them to accomplish several things. First, the wise, loving part of my psyche suggested that these are people who would love an opportunity to help, to be included; they are the kind of friends who wish you would turn to them when you need something. So, I wanted to give them that opportunity; I wanted to open the door and invite them into my real life in a meaningful way.

Second, I thought they might actually be able to help. Because sometimes it is hard for us to fully see ourselves, I thought that perhaps one of them would have a vision of me that could work. Perhaps one of them had heard of a program, a book, a workshop, a person, a place, a movie--something that they thought I should experience. Perhaps there is some job they have always thought I would be perfect for. It was an inkling—an intuition—I had, to put this out there to them. I wanted to know what associations they made between me and a life of happiness. What did they see in that picture? How did they connect the dots? I trusted that if I panned through their imaginations, a chunk of gold could emerge.

Writing the letter was satisfying at first. It felt beautiful. I was able to find my words—or they found me. It was good to be reminded that I love writing because I hate (so much) the writing I do for work; and I hate the feeling of not knowing how to direct my skills into a format that earns me a living wage and satisfies my desire for a sense of purpose. But as I got to the second half of the letter, where I was honest about the extent to which my life has been at risk these last thirteen years, it seemed like too much to lay on them.

My third purpose in being forthright with them was so that, if I lost my battle to survive, they would not be totally taken aback. I wanted them to have some sense that it was a possibility, that I'd barely made it so far and that at any moment, I could completely fall through the cracks. I thought that if they were blindsided, it would seem so much more painful and confusing; they might blame themselves and wonder what they could have done to help. The letter was a way of gently, subtly, letting them know the truth, so that if they lost me altogether, it wouldn't come out of the blue.

Once it was finished, I realized this was too much to lay on them. It was depressing and intense, and knowing that I had nearly died so many times these last thirteen years, would sink their ships. It would cause so much concern that instead of offering the twinkling light of connection between things that might work for me, they would call and e-mail with grave concern, and I would be left fielding these calls, instead of following the light they might shine into my future.

So, I revised the letter. I addressed it to my entire class. (As Alumnae Class President, I can write to them all.) Instead of confessing my struggles and bracing my friends for my departure, or asking them for help and guidance, I offered a message to my classmates, a message of respect, encouragement, and compassion. I told them what I had been hoping to hear for all these years. Somehow, by being willing to reach out to my friends, to confess my weaknesses and my problems, I had discovered the truth I had been seeking for myself. I had set off for Oz, but then discovered the answer was right here at home.

Don't get me wrong. I am still struggling: my rent is due this week and I barely have it. I need a roommate, but don't want one and can't find one. I hate my job and have hated it for about thirteen years, so the cumulative drag is substantial. My love-life is a non-starter. (Two weeks ago I told the guy I've been seeing once or twice a month for the last few months that I'd like to see more of him and he said no.)

Yesterday, three days after making a $500 repair to my truck, the driver's side door wouldn't close. It has rusted to the point that the latch has broken off, which I expect is a very expensive thing to fix, since it would require body work. Yesterday, I drove around town with one arm out the window holding my door shut. Since I drive a standard, the other hand was busy shifting and steering. To really make things fantastic, a few weeks ago, my windshield wipers started going crazy every time I turn on my blinker; and if I turn it to the left, the blinker won't turn off after I've completed my turn. I have to do it manually. The cost of fixing the blinker/wiper fiasco is $250. So, for the time being, I will be holding the door shut with my left arm, while I shift, steer, and turn the blinkers (and windshield wipers!) on and off with my right. It's a good thing I'm coordinated.

But, here's the silver lining, and I promise this isn't just me coloring one in so that I can pretend things are better than they are: it's funny.

I mean, instead of feeling freaked out and depressed and suicidal and hopeless and like the bullshit and bad luck will never end, yesterday, as I was driving down the road, broke and single, less than a month from turning 35, with no roommate prospects and uncertain if I'd be able to pay my rent, let alone buy some groceries or a ticket to the movies, my debt growing like a cancer, avoiding thoughts of the tedious, low-paying, work I'm behind on, holding in the door with my left arm, as I attempted to steer, shift, brake, clutch, and turn the wipers off all at once with my remaining appendages, I laughed. I mean, I genuinely laughed. Out loud.

What used to make it not funny was the feeling that it would never end, that this poverty and isolation is life-threatening and there's no way out; it was the feeling that I am alone in my failure. Sure, I started out from a harder place than most, but I went to Smith. I should have parlayed that into something more. There are people living in trailer parks with nothing better than a GED in better financial shape than I'm in. There are people with degrees from community colleges or mediocre state schools who drank their way through school and slept through half their classes with more fulfilling and financially gratifying careers than mine. I have felt like I blew it and that's devastating. I have felt like such a waste of skin and space and education and love. (No wonder I was suicidal.)

But, the process of writing that supportive letter to my class was a little cathartic. I felt more stable and comforted afterwards. It gave me some perspective and access to my own wise, capable parts. And then, on top of that, there was an unexpected influx of letters from my classmates. 443 women received that e-mail. And, so far, about 50 of them have written back, along with some of their parents and friends and friends of friends to whom they forwarded the letter.

They've written some gorgeous e-mails, expressed sentiments that gave me goosebumps, and made me smile or laugh or cry. I have been embraced, and they have embraced one another—and themselves. It turns out, there were a lot of women like me who felt their lives weren't measuring up. Women who were struggling and feeling a little (or a lot) lost and alone. And now, we all feel a little less so.

We all started Smith with a common sense of optimism, determination, and purpose; there is a unity, a solidarity, that we call "the Smith experience." As we have journeyed off on our own courses, we have become increasingly disconnected from that. On the 13th anniversary of our commencement, I reached out and plugged us back in. I didn't have any ruby slippers, but I did have the keys on my keyboard. I clicked them together and said what I think is a modern translation of, "there's no place like home."

I said, "You are not alone." I said it to myself and I said it to them. And they returned the favor.

Below, you can read the original letter and some of the responses I received.

From: Naomi Graychase <graychase@gmail.com>
Date: May 23, 2007 2:00 PM
Subject: Happy Anniversary
To: Alumni <graychase@gmail.com>

My Dearest Classmates,

[I tried to send this note to you yesterday, but a glitch in the e-mail broadcast system prevented it from making it to you. C'est la vie.]

On this day, thirteen years ago, we stood in the blazing sun in black robes and white dresses (or pants suits) and sweated our knockers off while we waited to receive the hard-won diplomas of people who were not us. Then, when all the speeches were over and all the names had been called, we marched, dazedly, onto the grass in front of King and Scales, formed a spiraling circle, and passed our diplomas until we came up with our own.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The next day remains in the Top Ten All-Time Worst Days Ever for me. I hope it does for you, as well. That would mean that you still love and miss one another, and also that your life hasn't really been that bad since you stopped singing gaudeamus igitur twice a year and eating Fisherperson's Platter.

Spring has been cold and slow to come fully into herself this season in Northampton. Ivy Day was chilly and rainy. But nevertheless, last weekend, the town was swarmed with women in white, with name tags and tote bags, and the wistful, determined expressions of people who have returned to a place that will always be familiar and yet somehow never be the same, people who have journeyed through time (and airports) to invite their past to meet their future...people who are trying to find a way to squeeze in one more trip to Herrell's before they catch their shuttle back to Bradley.

I hope that these thirteen years have treated you well; that what you learned at Smith, whether it was to remain open-minded when encountering the unfamiliar--such as grapes paired with brown sugar and sour cream for dessert--or to speak up and think hard about what you believe in, has stayed with you and helped you through every victory and every loss.

We never read in the pages of the Alumnae Quarterly about the other kinds of successes in our lives, the brave and beautiful ways we get ourselves through the bankruptcies, miscarriages, divorces, lay-offs, betrayals, illnesses, and the other ugly struggles that come to all of us eventually. I think that's sort of a shame. I consider these things to be the true successes in life; the moments when we rise up amidst adversity and make brave choices and fight our way through. That's the stuff I really wish we were sharing--not that promotions and vacations and babies aren't fantastic; I love hearing about them. But I'd also love to know more about the creative, enlightened ways that each of you has managed to navigate what has been difficult in your lives. How you got sober or recovered when your business failed or found the courage to drop out of medical school and disappoint your parents or leave your spouse or care for your sick mother or whatever it is that you've done bravely these last thirteen years.

Since we don't currently have a forum for exchanging those stories and ideas, I want to take a moment here, on the 22nd of May, 2007, to pause and to acknowledge that for every one of us who has earned her PhD or published six books or married a dreamboat or landed her dream job or bought her dream home or given birth to brilliant children, there are a lot more of us who got a little lost along the way; who made difficult choices between career and family; who quietly left marriages that weren't working or jobs that weren't right; who lost children, or couldn't have them, or had children who were sick. Some of us fled our homes when Hurricane Katrina hit, some of us fled for other reasons, and some of us are still searching for something that really feels like home. Some of us are sick and some of us are nursing spouses or children or parents who are fighting illnesses they may not defeat. And the courage, intelligence, compassion, and strength that these things take are worth applauding.

I hope that all of you are thriving and happy and healthy, but for those of you who aren't--don't let the Quarterly (or anything else) fool you. You are not alone. Whether you are plagued by ambivalence or something easier to diagnose, there is someone among us who is struggling like you.

In the diploma circle it took more time for some of us to find what we had earned than it did for others. If you are feeling lost, I hope you will hang in there, stay on your feet and keep passing to the right (as it were), and yours will come eventually. And if you are one of the ones that have already found the metaphorical diploma with your name on it, I hope you are whooping with delight and throwing your cap up in the air tonight.

Happy Anniversary.
Naomi Graychase
Alumnae Class President, 1994

Sample Responses:

Dear Naomi,

I am profoundly moved by your anniversary message. Thank you so much
for finding a graceful way to honor the diverse (and often, as you point
out, unspoken) paths we've all taken.

I made a few false starts at Smith and made a few more in the years
following my time there - a Master's in a field that incurred a lot of
debt but few professional prospects; some years spent thinking that my
job experience wasn't sufficient to earn a decent living (so I settled
for being woefully underpaid); time spent doubting, doubting, doubting.

But here I now sit at 36, feeling respected at work, making progress
towards a much more interesting Master's degree, and being exceptionally
content in my family situation and surrounded by friends old and new. I
am reminded again by your message that much of what I learned implicitly
during my time at Smith - speaking my mind in personal relationships,
classroom settings, and conference rooms, being able to interact
respectfully with a diverse group of people - continues to matter a
great deal in how I move through my day-to-day life, and I am grateful
for those implicit lessons.

Most of all, though, as I make plans to travel to the commitment
ceremony of two Smith friends this summer, and as I catch up over email
and phone with other Smith friends, I am reminded of how exceptionally
fortunate I was to be surrounded by so many remarkable women during
those fleeting and confused years, and am secure awed and inspired by
them - and all of us - to this day, in our mistakes and our triumphs.

Warm regards,
Kelley Smith


Your email is spot on, and eerily relevant. I spent the weekend with a
group of Smithies, one of whose husband is battling advanced brain cancer.
She was suffering, she called upon us, and six of us flew in at two weeks
notice from various points around the country to be with her to talk, laugh,
cry, and drink a whole lot of wine. It is an ugly thing which she is
experiencing, but it was so beautiful to see how the Smith sisterhood is
helping to sustain her through her ordeal.

Thank you so much for this fresh take on the thirteen years behind us.

Warm regards,
Melissa (Merten) Belleville '94

I'd like to say thank you for your anniversary wishes. I had two friends email your message to me at work before I even had a chance to find it in my own private email. I guess you could say it spread like wildfire. As I wrote to my friends after I read your words, "I felt a whole hell of a lot closer to the sisterhood of Smith in that moment than I have in a long time. I felt supported and part of a whole...not like I'm out here floundering on my own." I, in fact, cried - in that good, cathartic way. I am blessed with a wonderful life, but still have times of ambivalence, where I think I ought to be more. That perhaps I should be living up to the reputation of Smith. You remind me that I have. In every choice and decision I make (to leave a job, take on debt, leave a relationship), I act as a product of that wonderful environment. I am independent, intelligent, compassionate, and strong (whether I feel it or not). I am right where I should be, right where many of us are. It feels great to be reminded that I am part of a larger whole. That the sort of women Smith produces are exactly like me. I will keep making choices and may even pass to the right on some things until I find exactly what it is I'm looking for. I have no doubts my ribbon-wrapped diploma will arrive. So thank you for your anniversary wishes, I wish you double of the same!
Best regards,
Marcella Davis

Labels: ,