Remember how I wanted to change my mind as we stood at the Hertz Counter in LaGuardia?
“I don’t want to go, I said. Please, just take me back home with you, okay?” I was surprised my voice and syntax sounded like I was ten years old, trying to persuade my father not to make me go away to camp. Well, I was going away to camp! I had my flashlight and warm coat. I had read those rigid rules about roommates and the not-so-subtle messages from Carol Knauss about the real risks of regression. It was entirely possible I was on my way to a disaster.
As you waved goodbye from the Hertz bus, I started to cry. I was so discombobulated that I couldn’t find the rental agreement for the Hertz guard at the lot exit. The drivers in the cars behind me began blasting their horns and I didn’t know which way to turn. Already I was regressing.
You laughed at me after Bread Loaf staff wrote to request my photograph because I sent one taken eight years earlier. I can now assure you that I was already intuitively within the Bread Loaf culture! I have only been able to recognize about half the faculty from their photographs in the Bread Loaf brochure. So far, I think Clark Blaise has won the contest for the greatest distortion of time. Coincidentally, two nights ago, Blaise read from a forthcoming book about time. Ten hours earlier his wife, Bharati Mukherjee, had spoken so eloquently about acculturation and cosmopolitanism that I decided her husband was a lucky man. After Blaise finished, I thought she was a lucky woman. Like us, they are a perfect cross cultural match; much smarter though.
Another surprise: I expected to be the oldest camper at Bread Loaf, but I am not. Further, the conference is heavily populated by menopausal women–probably because they finally have time to write since they can’t sleep. In my creative non-fiction workshop, we have all paused and changed, except for one young male writer who calls himself “Sundance.” In his solo status, he is appropriately respectful, surrounded by women like the one he left home to escape. Sadly, he is too inexperienced to recognize us as valuable source material.
I thought Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference was a place where writers went to write. I was so wrong! Bread Loaf is more like a listening camp! There are lectures and readings all the time. In between there is training in social listening at serial cocktail parties and shared meals. I have been most challenged by some of the poets. I often feel unable to hold all their stunning similes due to my personal federal-sized deficit of estrogen. For this reason, today I almost didn’t go to the morning lecture by the poet Ellen Bryant Voigt. But luckily something tugged me out of bed.
Voigt was crisp, on-fire with indignation about a critic’s recent assessment of Randall Jarrall as a mediocre poet and she launched into a remarkable exposition of Jarrall’s work. Voigt’s voice transported me back to Berkeley in 1961 when I stayed up all night writing an essay about a Jarrell poem in the dining room of the boarding house on Durant Avenue, while upstairs my hostile, narcoleptic roommate slept in our barely shared room. That poetry class was the only one I took in all those college years. By the time Voigt finished with Jarrall’s poem “Field and Forest” I was weeping for how I have wasted my life. I haven’t read a single Jarrell poem since I left Berkeley. I’ve been too busy.
Saturday night, Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish, read a new short story, looking like a puffer fish, stuffed with good reviews and endorphins from his openly salacious camp flirtation with Erika Krouse. By the way she lists Boulder as her home. Wallace was followed by Alan Shapiro (also unrecognizable from his photo) who read new poems about his aging Jewish parents and his cancer stricken siblings. Suddenly, instead of Shapiro’s sister and brother-in-law, it was the two of us who were being described having sex on your fiftieth birthday. Like her, I was bald and drunk on Adriamyacin and morphine. It was as if I had walked into a high school health class to find that someone had secretly videotaped the worst moments of my sex life for the instructional film strip.
Susan Schmidt, the woman sitting next to me, must have felt Shapiro’s poem pierce my body because she intuitively put her arm around me. I only know Susan from reading her workshop submission. She writes of sailing in the ocean, of her Quaker faith in synchronicity, and quotes a poem by, of all people, Kenneth Boulding. I have not told Susan that my fifteen- year-old son, Eben, is sailing the ocean for the first time with Kenneth Boulding’s granddaughter, Meredith Graham. So as Susan, whom I only know through twenty-five brine-laden pages, comforted me through Shapiro’s poetic narrative, I imagined that our normally land-locked son is writing his own poem on Meredith’s body, while lying on the deck of a boat in the Atlantic ocean under the watchful eyes of a billion stars.
I’ve decided one purpose of Bread Loaf is to remind writers that we are all sailing in the same small boat. Uncertain of which way the wind will blow, we drop our lines, fishing for affirmation, while trying to keep time at bay.