LONDON CALLING I
A blog from a writer in London
LOOK RIGHT! LOOK LEFT!
Going through the passport check at London-Gatwick, I chose the wrong line. I queued up with the European and other United Kingdom passports, and I felt very deserted by the Louisville group. Those of us with the Spalding University MFA in creative writing program were all wearing thoroughbred pins. How could they all have vanished? I told myself not to worry. I’d surely see them at baggage reclaim, as it is called.
The Brits sure have a way of saying it properly. All these years I’ve called it the baggage claim, but if you think about it, in the most technical sense of the word, you can’t call it claiming if you’ve owned it before. If it’s yours, and you let it go, then it’s baggage reclaim. I think these words make it not only a more accurate experience, but a happier one. Reclaim is an act of welcoming, a reunion, rather than an act of acquisition.
So it is that I have arrived this morning in London to reclaim a dream: To be a writer of a great work.
All these years, I’ve been going after it – an act of conquering. But perhaps it’s a matter of letting happen what must happen. As writer Anne Lamott (“Blue Shoe,” “Traveling Mercies,” “Operating Instructions”) prays each day before she writes, “God, help me get out of the way today so that what needs to be written can be written.”
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Our bus takes us in to London from London-Gatwick, which apparently is somewhere near Iceland, because it takes us half the morning and into the afternoon to chunnel our way through the traffic in the small squares and parks and cities that lead into London proper. One rotary is arranged in such an intricate patchwork of turns, stoplights and pedestrian crossings that it has red rectangles marked off to inform bus drivers of a fine zone. At each crossing, pedestrians come to the words “Look Right” or “Look Left” painted in the street.
How helpful the British are! It turns out these signs are painted on the streets everywhere. This is not just because addled-headed Americans were stepping out into the street and getting smashed like wily coyotes. No, it’s because sometimes the streets are one-way streets, and so sometimes you have to look left. Still, I learn after a day of walking through the streets near Kensington Square, Picadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and Soho that this feature is going to come in handy. In Ireland, 27 years ago, I nearly got smashed by a green double-decker bus because I was looking left. Someone pulled me back from the curb just in time.
It takes a while to reorient yourself to looking right before you step into the street. I’ve been doing it a whole other way for most of my life. The first few moments as the bus left the airport, streaming along the left side of the freeway, I had the sensation that I was turning the clock back, like the first of the five Tibetan rites. It’s like rewiring the circuitry in your brain.
But that is exactly what I’m here for. I’m here to get a graduate degree, a master of fine arts in creative writing, with a concentration in narrative nonfiction and fiction. We kick it off with a brief residency in London and Bath, England, and then for nine months, we exchange packets. I have to send in writing. I have deadlines. Someone is going to make me write these great works.
It’s taken a lot of rewiring to get here. That’s why I spin counter-clockwise during my Tibetans. I want to turn back the clock. I want to unlearn, as Gloria Steinem says. “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood,” she says. It’s never too late to reclaim a dream.
But it requires untangling a lot of old ways of thinking about things. For instance: Carolyn the dance-all-night girl (though this is how I met my soul friend Bill. We were supposed to go play pool or blackjack or some other game my father taught me, and instead, we’ve been loyal friends and colleagues for the better part of two decades); Carolyn the soulful-poet (wearing black, carrying a notebook and a tortured romantic heart); Carolyn the flirt (dressed to the nines); Carolyn the shy girl (please choose me); Carolyn the daughter of a man who inspired her, quoting Shakespeare at the dinner table (“Out, out brief candle; life’s but a walking shadow”); Carolyn the daughter of a man who’s the ghost of Literary Past.
My father, he haunts me, he guides me. Last year, I told his ghost it was time for me to go it alone. We struggled, he and I, like Jacob wrestling with the angel. I will never walk the same again. And it is good. I know my destination now. Last night, from the plane I noticed the lights of the East Coast cities looked like dendrites, clusters of lights with long tendrils that stretch deep. We were leaving that behind. It’s a clean, empty slate. Time to look right.