College Cafes

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Is there a job where I can sit in an independently-owned local café, sipping decaf latte’s with soy milk, at a corner table with a good book and a perfectly-sized Moleskine journal and my one pen I like, surrounded by other bookworms with their open journals and well-worn paperbacks, a steady stream of “Kind Of Blue” on the speakers overhead? Would someone pay me to just do that:  Sit, sip and observe? Cause I would rock at that job.  I’d like to make a living killing time.

That’s what I’m doing today. That’s what I did for many hours during college, in a small café called Balducci’s or something like that right across from the Amherst College campus in the late 80’s. Reading Tolstoy and Foucault. Writing non-stop in a journal that I had hoped would reveal myself to me and instead, re-reading it years later, is just a never-ending whine about boys and fitting in.

Open on this café table is a notebook and a book, Anne LaMotte’s Operating Instructions, which I’m reading for the first time and thinking maybe this is a mistake. It’s brilliant. It’s a journal of the first year of her son Sam’s life (and so much more).  And it’s wonderful.  I love Anne LaMotte. If she is anything like she reads, my guess is we are made from the same stuff.  I don’t think we’d be friends, because I think we both have the same awkwardly vulnerable narcissism, the same writerly ticks. I mean, I think we’d love each other but I’ll bet I’d spend a lot of time trying to make her comfortable and not knowing if it was working and she’d just be, well, uncomfortable around me.  We have too much in common.  But I feel like she’s the older sister I never had and I fantasize that we are friends, we have tea together, she reads my writing and tells me what’s wrong with it, I’d take her to my Episcopal church with my barefoot female priest and she’d sing along with me.  I’d take her to my church basement meetings and we’d share drunkalogues.  She could be the mentor I’ve always craved. Which is why it may be a mistake to be reading her book because it’s making me think, why bother? She already wrote this book. And it was amazing. (I should also admit a kind of unhealthy obsession with meeting Rachel Maddow and being entirely convinced that we’d be friends and she would mentor me.  And maybe I might be creeping toward a similar thing with Sarah Silverman, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, Elizabeth Warren, Megan Berry, the mayor of Nashville, Mavis Staples and even my own preacher, Becca Stevens.  I should keep my distance, I think.)

I’m also re-reading my friend Catherine Newman’s book Waiting For Birdy, which I read when it was first published many years ago and loved but thought it so distant from my own life and a mutual friend sent it to me upon hearing I was pregnant. It’s her memoir her pregnancy with her second child.  And it is equal to LaMotte’s book to me in humor and pathos. I laugh. I cry. I love them both so much. This time, I’m reading Catherine’s book wanting to reach across the years and say, “Yes! You too? Thank you! Yes!” and I know Catherine and went to college with her and she’s lovely and awkwardly perfect and always has been and, like with Anne LaMotte, I’m so grateful that they wrote these books as my navigational guide through this confusion, but I’m also terribly bummed, because why bother?

So maybe I should stop reading. I’m having that same feeling like when I hear another Darrell Scott record full of breathtakingly incredible songs that are simple and complex and take me on an awe-struck roller coaster ride as a fellow writer – from gratitude for his simplicity sometimes — “I could do that”; to complete despair — “Oh my god, there’s no way I could write like that. I give up.”  Yin: Let’s go! Yang: Why bother!?

But it helps that I’m sitting in a café on Boylston Street in Boston in the heart of the Berklee College of Music community. I’m here to teach tonight and I’ve got some hours to kill so I park my throbbing feet in the corner to read and write and sip a large latte and observe co-ed life from my perch, 25 years beyond.  I’m relieved that they still dress in flannel shirts, sweatpants, hair in top knots barely brushed, school sweatshirts. They seem like children. Was I ever that young? They seem like children posing as adults with their Apple laptops open and their books cracked on the tables. It’s raining outside. Late Autumn rain in Massachusetts creeps around my neck and down my back and I could swear I should start a round of antibiotics already, convinced pneumonia is settling in.

I flew up this morning. It wasn’t a long flight, but I had to pee about 6 times. I chose my aisle seat wisely, anticipating this. I stuck my belly out more than it naturally goes so that everyone could see the reason why I was up and down the length of the plane so many times.

I make a living travelling, basically. And as I read Anne LaMotte’s book, I think, how am I ever going to want to leave my house again with a baby? I’ve already fallen in love with the little dude, even though I continually think someone has played a prank on me, telling me I’m pregnant, and in reality, I just stopped going to yoga and running and I’ve just gotten fat.  But I feel his hiccups like popcorn and I’ve seen the ultrasound videos and one little photo of him giving a high five is my screensaver, and right now I’d give my right breast for a hotel room and to lie in a bathtub with my feet up, rather than kill time before this class.  Also: I can’t wait to meet him, my little boy.  But I’m already afraid of leaving him. And so here, in this café, I start the game of imagining myself in a different past.  What if I’d gotten my MFA? Could I be teaching at a university and then be home with a paid maternity leave? Could I get enough Skype students to manage staying home for the first year and still be an equal fiscal partner in our family? How can I monetize my entire career into the next stratosphere for the next few months so I can rest on my cash laurels and sit home for a year with the baby and for a few hours a day, he’ll nap and I’ll write my book?

But I didn’t think this through, like I haven’t really thought much of my life through. Which, even though it may sound like I’m complaining or angst-ing, has been the most adventurous, wonderful life journey that I wouldn’t trade for a 401K plan.  It took all of that to get all of this and there was no way to plan for this.  As Jamey has said to me, when talking about who we were before we met and the huge changes we both went through before our orbits collided: “You can’t get here from there”.  I love that. I had no concept of here from there.

Here is pretty sweet. Here with a bit more money would be sweeter. But isn’t that a tired song?

We may have just bought a house. I’m crossing my fingers because this whole journey has been the most stressful thing I’ve ever gone through and I’m sure Jamey would like a respite from the tornado of hormones that I have been the past week.  Yesterday was a tsunami. I have not felt so whiplashed in a long time by my own emotions and yet, while inside them, I didn’t think “Oh, this is just hormones, it will pass,” I thought everything in my head was real, was truth, and I would never escape from the pit of despair.  And then, like it does, the sun peeked her head over the mountain and chased away the rainclouds and I was smiling and laughing again.   Rinse. Repeat.

Jamey said, ‘man, this is reminding me of your first trimester’ and of course, I have amnesia and said ‘What? What was I like?’ because I honestly can only remember the nausea. ‘Was I moody?’ and I’m pretty sure he did a spit take.

Here’s a picture that is the perfect metaphor for my first trimester.  I was coming home from my part-time job, driving in the dark.  I’d promised to pick up dinner for us on the way home. I don’t remember what happened or what set me off, but all of a sudden, a wave of grief hit me so hard I was sobbing in my car, talking to myself, talking myself off the ledge, then I was laughing AT myself. Then I was crying AND laughing at myself. That’s when I had a moment of clarity and called my Sponsor.  She, the wise Yoda-like presence in my life with a healthy measure of no-bullshit, said, “You’re hormonal. Go get some cupcakes.”  I pulled into Kroger, wiped my face of tears, and walked in. Getting one of those plastic baskets, I found the 4 pack of red velvet cupcakes I knew would make it all better and put them in the center of the basket. Then I thought, wait…I’m supposed to get something else, but what?’ and couldn’t remember.  I thought I’d wander up the organic aisle, try to find something healthy, like artisanal almond butter for $15 and some gluten free bread, to counteract the cheeseburgers I’d been eating for every meal.  And then, in the organic aisle, which is only a few feet long, I got lost. Not as in really lost, as in directionally lost, but as in spiritually lost. And there, in the center of the organic aisle, in between the tofu burgers and the bins of beans and bulgur, I started to cry again.  A woman approached me, clearly pregnant, and asked me if I was ok. I explained, ‘I’m not sure. I’m 3 months pregnant and I don’t know what to do.’ She looked into my basket at the cupcakes and smiled and gently put her arm on my shoulder. Just then, another woman, this one extremely pregnant, like 9 months and about to pop pregnant, came down from the other end of the aisle toward us. She took one look at us, one 6-month pregnant woman holding a sobbing woman holding a basket with cupcakes, and she smiled, nodded in absolute understanding, and put her arms around both of us.

When I got home, holding a plastic bag containing cupcakes, overpriced almond butter and fake bread, my husband looked at me and said, ‘Bad day, babe?’ and ordered pizza delivery.

About a month ago a friend of mine bought me a ticket to an event at our Performing Arts Center in Nashville that was a kind of round robin conversation about female empowerment in the Age of Trump.  A few authors, a sports star, a monologist, a famous (but unknown to me) actress and my preacher.  The main attraction was a famous author, a fellow woman in recovery who writes about transformational experiences, who tells her own story with humor and honesty. I was moved by parts of it. I was bored by parts of it. But at the end, that author said something that transfixed me. Stop looking for mentors. Get quiet and still and listen. Be your own mentor. And that struck me as a kind of Truth with a capital “T”.  And so maybe, as I sit here at this cafe, ‘killing time’, I’m not really ‘wasting’ time. I’m spending time. Spending it in a curious kind of quiet, a furtively questioning space overflowing with men and women paging through books and writing in notebooks, hoping to seek some answers to the large question that haunts everyone in their 20’s. Who am I? What is my purpose?

Today, my purpose is to do my job. To listen. But my purpose is morphing and is now tied to someone I have not yet met.  Someone I already love.  And my purpose is to enjoy every ache and urge to pee because I’m pretty sure this is a one-way ride here. I won’t get another ticket on this roller coaster.   Good thing it has great snacks and the bathroom is close by.

 

4 Comments

Amy. This is fucking brilliant. You have found your calling. You are in your stride. Your whipsmart writing is brave and bold and unabashed and gives us permission to laugh and cry and reflect with you. Thank you. It’s exhilirating to read and observe and walk with you, swollen ankles and all. And it’s reckoning, to see reflections of the same anxieties I (we, so many of us, especially female musicians) face. (Damn that Darrel Scott!) So keep it comin mama. I’m at that college table with you staring into space ruminating on how we’re getting from Here to There.

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Amy. This is fucking brilliant. You have found your calling. You are in your stride. Your whipsmart writing is brave and bold and unabashed and gives us permission to laugh and cry and reflect with you. Thank you. It’s exhilirating to read and observe and walk with you, swollen ankles and all. And it’s reckoning, to see reflections of the same anxieties I (we, so many of us, especially female musicians) face. (Damn that Darrel Scott!) So keep it comin mama. I’m at that college table with you staring into space ruminating on how we’re getting from Here to There.

Like

Pregnancy and parenthood mess us up in the best sort of ways. I’m thinking it looks great on you.

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I know I’m biased because I’ve always loved your writing ((prose and songs) but this blog is great. And this post is the best one since the one about the small plane ride in the Midwest. (among other things.). Literally breathtaking.
BTW there are no college jobs for MFAs if that makes you feel better.

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