Every year when the sun climbs into the blue horizon and sets over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a gathering of poets and prophets, writers and artists gather. I have always wanted to go. My browser sits open to their website, and I skim over the details. It claims to be equal parts spiritual retreat, artist workshop, and festival. It is the conference I have most wanted to attend since I started this online journey of sharing my words and baring bits of my soul in this strange world of writing. I look at the price tag and close my browser.
I convince myself it’s impossible. Time away from my children, the cost involved, and the travel is too much. Maybe some day.
In some ways, it is that New Mexico was home to me for so many years. My childhood memories collect at the throat of the Sandias, I still smell the smoky chili skins charred black and green like the back of a whiptail lizard sunning himself in the foothills under the hot desert sun.
I remember the taste of cocoa, it’s tiny dehydrated marshmallows bouncing on the top of my styrofoam cup, powdery cocoa clumping up as I stir and I sit wrapped in a cocoon in the back of our Landcruiser, watching the sun ascend and the heavens open up to a sea of hot air balloons. I remember Mr. Peanut, always the gentleman with his top hat and spectacles, looking down impassively with a sham of a smile from his space in the heavens, just like the face of God.
I remember the Village Inn with its cracked vinyl booths and spotty lighting. The pots of coffee that would go stale as I piled the ashtray with lipstick-stained cigarette butts and wrote my pain with my trusted Bic pen, its cap chewed down and mangled. New Mexico is the place the ink first found paper and I’d scratch out words trying to find myself, find meaning, find God.
I didn’t know I was writing prayers. Lamentations, Psalms, maybe even Proverbs. The praise would come later.
Writing gave me a place to unravel my mad mind. I could make sense of the tangled syllables only when they swept across my page. To see the letters arrange themselves into words and the words into sentences and the sentences into meaning, was like performing magic. To make the words obey was like casting spells, never knowing which ones would turn on you.
New Mexico is called The Land of Enchantment.
As teens, we used to joke it was the land of entrapment because so few of us got out. I got out but lost the magic somewhere along the way. I dropped out of high school and got my GED on the first try. At 17, I couldn’t imagine there was more to learn pent up in a classroom, stuffed in a desk doing the assigned reading and essay assignments I could’ve aced in elementary school. I resented filling in bubbles on standardized tests and lining up to be measured. I wanted to be free.
I got a job and worked. I moved out. My pen got quieter as my world got busier. I didn’t have time to worry about God or finding myself; I had bills to pay.
“But you’re smart and you’ve done well,” she says reassuringly.
“I know, but, y’know. I don’t have any credentials. I mean, I’ve never had any, like, formal writing classes,” I say in a voice draped in an apology.
We’re talking about pitching articles and I admit that I never have. I’ve been writing for four years on the web and never have I really pitched an article, submitted an unsolicited guest post, or sought out a place to feature my words without first being asked, without waiting for an invitation.
I waited for someone to tell me, You’re good enough.
“What would I even say in the bio I submit? Writes her feelings on the internet? I don’t have anything to put on a real writing query.” I reply. I don’t think I am making excuses. I think I am being realistic. I am not setting my sights on things I can’t accomplish. I am taking things one step at a time. But I am afraid.
I am afraid of being in over my head. Of my words showing up and embarrassing me. I am afraid of pronouncing something wrong because I’ve only ever seen it in the pages of my books. I don’t often travel in circles where these words are needed.
I had to google what an MFA in writing was after a voxer conversation with a friend. If you are uninitiated like me, it means Master of Fine Arts. It’s the thing you get when you do all the school and know all the things about creative writing. It’s what I don’t have.
I came by writing the way someone takes to doggy paddling or instinctively rolling to their back when thrown in the deep end. It was a lifeline holding me up from the endless abyss. Bobbing my way back up to the surface, arms and legs kicking frantically to stay afloat. Sometimes when I write, it feels like one big gulp of air before being tugged back under the waves. I haven’t trained for smooth strokes and all the parts working in tandem to slice through with barely a ripple.
I write like a woman drowning. I write with a desperation to know and be known, to understand God, to see glory. I write to breathe again.
My husband is a laborer. He paints houses in eggshell white and custard semi-gloss. He’s labored for 18 years in backbreaking work. His hands are never fully clean no matter how much he takes a scrub brush to them. They are stained with his work. The rims and ridges of his nail beds have ribbonlike stains the color of an Albuquerque plateu. We are blue collar and we live a simple life. I’m not ashamed of it until I am.
I see people who’ve chosen to live among the poor and are applauded for their noble choices. It’s one thing to choose to be among the poor, it’s another to not have enough to keep the electricity on or worry your paycheck isn’t enough to make rent again this month. There’s no nobility in that.
I’ve lived so much of my life with scarcity as a constance companion. You learn to set your sights lower. Always lower. You underline the portions of the Bible that talk about contentment and suffering and you hope for the payoff one day. But really, you’re not so much hoping for character and perseverance as you are for another ten bucks so you can buy some top ramen and toilet paper.
And when you have the luxury of free time and wifi, an open Scrivener page on your MacBook to write on, and a latte on your desk, you know that you are no longer in that place. You know you are afforded a voice. An opportunity to be known and seen and understood. People will listen now. Only now, you don’t know what there is to see, and who there is to know. Now you wonder about those college degrees and those fancy words you’re not sure how to say and you worry about your missing teeth and smiling too big or crying too hard. You worry no one will understand you at all. Because you fit and don’t fit and fancy words don’t make up the differences.
But what you worry most is that maybe you will put it off. You will fool them all into thinking you have something to say, you’re scared to death that the doors will open for you and you will have to show up. You won’t have any more excuses. You can’t hang back and mumble about timing or cost or the inability to make it happen.
You will make the pilgrimage home, back to the red dust and scorched land, back to the place where your story first lost its voice and you’ll find it again. The magic of true words, the land of enchantment. And when you find them, you’ll have to write down the story that set you free.
You’ll have to believe you are good enough.