Hey, You Never Know.

I don’t particularly miss the start of the school year. I wasn’t popular in school. I hated homework. But this year, for the first time in quite a few years, I’m going to school again and I’m actually excited.

On Thursday, I begin a class with the Great Smokies Writing Program. I have been eyeing their classes since I moved here one year ago. My first hurdle was to become a legal resident of this state so as to pay in-state tuition. To me, I wasn’t “official” until I had a North Carolina drivers license and North Carolina license plates. According the the application for the program, I wasn’t “official” until I had lived in the state for one year. As of August 22–after more trips to the DMV than I care to admit–I’m legal on both counts.

The second hurdle, though, was scarier to me than the ladies behind the DMV counter. The words on the course description were clear: Instructor’s permission required for admittance. I was to e-mail the teacher. With what, I wasn’t sure. And so it was that I set out to write my second-ever “pitch.”

The class in question was for “intermediate” writers. Am I an intermediate writer? I wondered. After speaking with a few friends, I realized I certainly wasn’t a beginner. And the next step after beginner? Intermediate.

So on Sunday night–a mere four days before the class was due to begin–I got up the nerve. I combed through blog posts and articles deciding which to send. Reading things I wrote in my first writing class five years ago, I realized how much I had improved in that time. But would this man think I was good enough for his class?

I should note that my potential teacher is the head of the Great Smokies Writing Program. He teaches in not one but two Master of Fine Arts programs. He has written more than a few books and was just voted Best Creative Writing Teacher in western North Carolina. What was going through my head? That line from the old New York Lotto commercials, “Hey, you never know.”

So on Sunday night, I sent off my request: How I’d walked a five hundred mile pilgrimage across Spain. How I had 50,000 words written so far. Links to my posts on Busted Halo. Four pages from my draft.

On Monday morning, his response contained the words, “I love this” and “I have one opening in my class.” I was a little stunned.

Prior to five years ago, the only writing classes I had ever taken were forced upon me. I read Odysseus and wrote papers about the virtues of his long-waiting wife Penelope. I memorized the first paragraph of Moby Dick (and still, if pushed, can recite the first line). Prior to 2008, the last “creative” piece I wrote was probably for Mrs. Farina in sixth grade when our assignment was to describe our bedrooms. I’d written a line about the radio tower lights I could see blinking over the Catskills outside my bedroom window. I can still see her red-inked compliment next to that line. A smile crosses my lips when I think about how much that single compliment meant to me.

Prior to that, my greatest writing joy came from my mother’s laugh at a Christmas poem I had written in which I referred to “Holy Mother Mary and her husband Joe” (It was a rhyming poem. The previous line ended with “snow.”)

At some point, I deemed my writing only good enough for diaries. I hid them from the prying eyes of my siblings: under mattresses, in filing cabinets, and between winter sweaters stacked in my closet.

And then, my voice came out again: on the campus of the John C. Campbell Folk School. My classmates–complete strangers–complimented my style. Upon my return home, I got brave enough to read stories to my family after Easter dinner (much scarier than reading them in any public forum). And when friends asked me to write a book, I said, “No way. But how about a blog?” And five hundred of you liked it so much you subscribed to it.

The story now has a new chapter. On Thursday I will take my seat in an Advanced Creative Prose Workshop. And for the next fifteen weeks, Thursday nights may just be the best night of the week. Homework and all.

Grandma’s Cafeteria

(Note: This story holds a special place in my heart — not just for its subject, but also because it was one of the first stories I wrote during my first-ever writing class in 2008. I came across it the other day, and felt it had to be shared.)

“This is not a cafeteria.” That was my mother’s curt reply to any complaints about what was for dinner that night.

In many households, if you didn’t like what was for dinner, you didn’t eat.  We weren’t so lucky. 

If we didn’t like what was for dinner, we had to take what Mom called a “no-thank-you-please helping.”  Don’t like brussel sprouts?  You would ask for a “no-thank-you-please helping” and she would plop two brussel sprouts on your plate.  Didn’t like peas?  Your “no-thank-you-please helping” consisted of five of them.  As the lazy susan spun around, the helpings were doled out, and we looked at each others plates to make sure that our “no-thank-you-please helping” contained the same number of brussel sprouts that our sibling’s did.

At Grandma’s house, however, it was a completely different story.  Lucky for us, Grandma’s house was actually an apartment over the garage which could be easily accessed through a magical door on the first floor of our house next to my parents’ office.  The door to Grandma’s place was never locked.

Grandma and Mom must have had some sort of agreement that Grandma wouldn’t mess with the meals when Mom was in town.  But on those glorious weekends when Mom and Dad would escape the havoc of our home, Grandma was in charge.  And the cafeteria was open for business.

Prior to my parents’ departure, Grandma would ask all five of us what we wanted to eat while Mom and Dad were away.  She was a very smart woman and would only ask us when we weren’t in our parents’ presence.  She would then make sure to have all of those ingredients on hand.

And then, the day came.  Mom and Dad said their goodbyes.  And I don’t know who was happier –- Mom and Dad thrilled to be without kids for two whole days or us kids who knew that for the next two days we would have the privilege of eating only what we wanted.

A popular request was BLT’s for breakfast.  To many, a BLT consists of bacon, lettuce, and tomato between two pieces of bread with mayo.  But for the five Gallo children, BLT’s were a bit more complicated.  Each of us had our own preference when it came to BLT’s.  I didn’t like mayo.  Liz had hers without tomatoes.  Jeffrey didn’t care much for fruits and vegetables at all, so he just had a bacon sandwich.  Grandma knew how each of us liked them, and diligently prepared them for us.

Most dinners with Grandma were accompanied by salad.  Of course, this wasn’t your typical lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes tossed in a bowl.  We actually had our own little buffet when it came to salad.  Grandma would, with great precision, cut the tomatoes in perfect matching sized chunks.  Every cucumber slice would be the same thickness.  And each item was then placed in its own bowl so we could make our salads only with the foods we liked.  Liz avoided the tomatoes.  I piled on the onions.  Jeffrey ate his without dressing.

And, of course, there was candy.  Grandma, without ever saying so, demanded respect.  Though she would never turn down our requests for candy, we knew we could never just go into her cabinet to the left of the sink and take it.  We always asked first.  My favorite were Circle Things.  They were small, round circles of sugar in pastel colors, wrapped in striped cellophane.  Years later, when I learned to read, I was astounded to see that, on the package, they were called “Smarties” and not Circle Things.

Eventually, Mom and Dad would return.  And though we were happy to see them again, we eagerly anticipated their next trip when, once again, the cafeteria would be open.

Motherhood? No Thanks.

While wandering around a bookstore in LaGuardia airport, the cover of TIME magazine caught my eye. “CHILDFREE” stood out in bold, block letters. A couple in swimsuits laid on a white sand beach below the words, “The Childfree Life: When having it all means not having children.”

I picked it up and flipped to the article,“When None is Enough.” I couldn’t stop reading.

Click here to read more.