Asking questions is my super power. I will ask the questions other people are afraid to ask. Questions people wouldn’t think to ask. I will ask questions that cut straight to the heart of the problem. So, after putting up with me for four mornings, I don’t doubt Chis Abani, who was leading our fiction workshop, was eyeing the exit. But in our last ten minutes together, I was finally ready to ask the question I’d been afraid to ask all along.
“What are your thoughts on MFA programs?”
He didn’t let the question hang in the air long before responding with exactly the same amount of thoughtfulness he had put into all of our exchanges the last few days. He assured me it was well worth it.
It shouldn’t have surprised me that the answer to my question didn’t really answer my question, but the class funneled out of the doorway and down the steps and I bobbed along behind, feeling bereft at watching my little island of deep thinking float away. Another participant, Jackie, hung back. She touched my arm, looked me straight in the eyes and said: “I am twenty years older than you are and I just have to tell you: don’t wait.”
Startled, I parried back with my list of reasons why I must wait. Student loans the size of McMansions. Caring for a little one and planning to have more someday. Et cetera, et cetera. She listened, smiled sagely and said, “There are always going to be things like loans and people who need you.”
Then she shared some seriously good parenting wisdom: “Your daughter is going to need you just as much at 10 as she does now.” She shared an anecdote of her daughter, who was in college, asking her boyfriend to call her so that he could use her motherly wisdom to get her through a bout of sickness as she traveled home from Europe. She insisted that, in many ways, our children need us more urgently when they are older. Her point, of course, was that if I wait until Penny doesn’t need me quite as much I will wait too long.
The idea that my daughter will need me just as much at ten really blew my mind. There is such a frenzy surrounding pregnancy, newborns, and toddlers. How many times have I heard, “It’s just a season. Things will get easier.” I don’t doubt that’s true in many ways, but what I really heard in Jackie’s statement was: Your children’s need for you does not have boundaries or time limits… unless you set them.
Still, I pushed back. If it wasn’t my daughter’s needs that were the sticking point, perhaps it was mine. “Jackie, I have never in my life had a sense of identity like I have as a mother. If I do something else, I might put that in jeopardy. I love spending time with her. She’s only a baby for so long.”
Compassionately, she stayed with me. “You will always be a mother. There’s no going back on that. And you are a baby, too.” I knew what she meant. I am a human being, wired for growth, just like my daughter. I also deserve nurturing.
We chatted a bit more and I thanked her profusely for caring enough to share her thoughts with me. We laughed together at our mutual propensity to say things other people wouldn’t and the degree to which others find that off-putting or intimidating. “I ask too many questions,” I say, “it’s because I have so much to learn.”
“It’s because you’re brave enough to ask them.” She smiled at me, her eyes sparkling, and walked away.
I watched the last glimpse of my island float into the horizon and turned toward home – heavy with books, notes, and things to think about, yet lighter than ever before.