Once, when I was around ten, I picked up the upstairs phone extension and realized my father was already on the line downstairs. I don’t know who he was talking to but I do know he was talking about a girl he knew who never gave up, and he had that catch in his voice that I recognized as mingled admiration and pride. As I eavesdropped it became clear he was talking about me, which was very interesting because I saw myself as someone who gave up all the time. Sometimes I didn’t even try.
I’m not sure anymore if this story is a memory or a dream. I’ve come to think of it as a prophecy, because I’ve grown pretty dogged over the years. As a result my life is far more full than that girl in the last house at the bottom of the big hill on the last lane in town ever dared dream for herself. This is one reason I have always been drawn career-wise to teaching and story-wise to redemption tales – I understand those who are capable of much more than they think they are better than I understand the opposite kind.
My hilly Connecticut hometown had a couple of high spots where, on a clear day, we could see the Manhattan skyline glittering in the distance. It took me a long time to consider that it might be beckoning to me. After college I taught high school English at the next town over and then wrote for a local magazine.
I did eventually propel myself to Columbia for grad school. I chose a relatively sensible MFA in nonfiction, though every week I sidled over to the inboxes in the office where the fiction and poetry students dropped off their work, borrowed copies to read hungrily on my own, and snuck them back before anyone noticed.
During that time I was lucky enough to get a room at International House, the grad-school dorm and wildly successful social experiment funded by the Rockefellers in the 1920s. Suddenly I had 500 friendly neighbors from all over the world (and it was there I met the Jersey boy I later married in the I. House ballroom). I took up bike riding as my main mode of transportation in the blessedly flat borough of Manhattan. I organized readings for Columbia’s literary magazine, corresponding with the likes of Annie Dillard, Toni Morrison and Elie Wiesel. After a reading – one of his last — I helped Bernard Malamud put on his galoshes.
It turned out I loved living in the thick of things.
I became a freelance magazine writer, and I co-authored the award-winning Bicycle Blueprint: A Plan to Bring Bicycling into the Mainstream in New York City. The future husband and I moved downtown and found ourselves becoming Villagers, growing more bohemian as Greenwich Village grew less so, working hard in various organizations fighting overdevelopment, including one called Save the Village, a reincarnation of Jane Jacobs’ earlier group.
Meanwhile we raised two terrific sons. I volunteered in the classrooms and served on the governing bodies of all their public schools. I wrote lots of columns for The Villager, our local weekly paper. I found myself a first-rate fiction master class at The Writers Studio, and began publishing stories. I picked up where I’d left off as a teacher, and now am a veteran fiction, poetry and memoir teacher in the school’s thriving online program.
When our sons set off on their own adventures and the magazine industry dried up, I became a writing coach and developmental editor. I love helping writers as they find the strength and develop the skills to conceive, stick with, finish and polish a manuscript. Receiving their published books in the mail is pretty gratifying too. Three years after I started writing poems, I published a chapbook called Victory Boulevard (Finishing Line Press, 2018).
I also took up all the extracurricular arts I had given up on or not dared try as a child: acting in community theater at the great Hudson Guild, studying piano, and doing spoken word in open mics and cabarets, often alongside my singing husband. I created new translations of 65 Jacques Brel songs. I won some awards, including the New York Press Association prize for best columnist and two Willis Barnstone Translation Prizes. I felt a particular pride when my Connecticut high school added me to its Wall of Honor, a place I never expected to find myself.
My novel Save the Village began with a specific image of two former best friends standing in a doorway. It also began as a love letter to the neighborhood I’ve called home for so long, with my main character Becca serving as my prototypical feisty tenement-dwelling Villager. It occurs to me now that I was imagining a life path that’s nearly the opposite of my own. Becca and I met somewhere in the middle.