The University of Laurie (page 2)
Laurie wrote this piece for a 30-year virtual reunion of participants in a study-abroad program.
My Unlikely, Much-Revised Life
by Laurie J. Marks, March 2006
Yesterday I was mulling over my memories of the semester in England and was struck by the fact that I don't remember anyone's face. Then last night I dreamed about the conference center at Herne Bay. The place was teeming with people, and although I was certain I should recognize them, they were faceless strangers, and they didn't seem to know me either. That was a true dream, I thought this morning, as I was kicking open my car doors, which had been frozen shut by a freezing rain. (I had managed to get the driver's door open using a car key as a lever – it's amazing what a multipurpose tool a car key is. And, fortunately, the keyhole wasn't jammed with ice. When that happens, most people make use of blow dryers on extension cords. As I don't own a blow dryer, I would have had to resort to tossing bowls of hot water at the keyhole, but when the air is 10 degrees Fahrenheit, hot water becomes cold so quickly that this strategy often doesn't work.) That was a true dream, I thought. I was estranged then, even – especially – estranged from myself.
Incidentally, a few years ago I realized that I have prosapagnosia, a brain glitch that makes it difficult and sometimes impossible to learn or remember faces, so please don't take it personally. As far as my brain is concerned, everyone might as well be faceless.
Thirty years have passed since that significant autumn, and in May 2007 I'll be the guest of honor at a feminist science fiction and fantasy convention in Wisconsin. For the souvenir program they've asked me to write a list of ten things I'm proud of but wouldn't put in a resume. Here's one item for the list:
In 1977 I was going to be expelled from my Christian college because I couldn't force myself to attend chapel services, but I avoided that fate by transferring to Brown University, where I practiced Marxism, then became a feminist. Also at Brown, I married the man I divorced five years later when I fell in love with my wife, Deb Mensinger, with whom I celebrated our 20th anniversary this October.
Nineteen-year-olds don't know much, and what they know least accurately is themselves. When I was 19 and a sophomore at Westmont, if a seer had predicted I would publish eight novels by age 50, I might have asked, “Why only eight?” (A truthful answer, should the seer choose to offer one, would scare my naïve little pants off, but to know I'd be published would have gratified me but not surprised me.) If that seer revealed the being-married-to-a-woman thing, I would have been bewildered, since I wasn't even aware of the existence or possibility of lesbianism, but with some explanation that possibility would become imaginable if unspeakable. But if that hypothetical seer told me I would be a teacher, that's when I would call her a charlatan.
Fantastic though this fact would seem to my 19-year-old self, I have been teaching at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, for the last 10 years, and I'm actually pretty good at it. What I (hope to) teach my freshman students about writing is that real writing and learning happens through revision, and the more radical the revision the better, for in order to learn to write or think well we have to expect to, and be poised to, throw everything away and start over.
My chequered careers have included varied volunteer and professional experience with crisis intervention agencies, and I've accumulated a fair amount of training and experience in what is usually called active listening. As a composition instructor I spend a lot of time with each student, either in person or interacting with them through reading and writing, and as a result I regularly, particularly at mid-semester, find myself in a Kleenex situation, though (as logically follows from the fact that I don't own a blow dryer) I never have a tissue, and weepers must wander disconsolately down the hall to the restroom for a wad of toilet paper. Now the listening part is over and it's time for me to deliver to the student a useful suggestion. What I say is almost always a version of the one thing I think I do know, the thing that qualifies me as experienced though hardly wise: Don't assume that what matters to you now will be important in the big picture of your life; don't assume that what you now understand about the universe is stable, accurate, or true; therefore embrace uncertainty and change, painful though it often is, for this world needs not more certainty but far, far less. Writing is revision. Living is revision. Or, as the Buddhists say, “the way you do anything is the way you do everything.”
When I was 19, my uncertainty was an agonizing problem, because I thought the problem was with me – I tried with all my heart to be certain; I tried until I found myself standing on a bridge seriously considering whether I should throw myself off. Now, at nearly 50, that same uncertainty, despite the unfortunate fact that it's unpleasant by definition, is a virtue. And I did experience the equivalent of falling off a bridge a couple of years ago, an accidental fall in which I broke my back and would have died if my wife hadn't been there to breathe for me. I was grateful, grateful, grateful, for every agonizing (I also had managed to break three ribs and my sternum) breath. And still am.