'Raging Rivers of Narrative Flow':
The last time I applied to graduate school, it was 1958 and I was eight months pregnant. Preparing for a meeting with the head of Psychology, I surmised that my happy condition might strike her as a handicap. Women's Lib, at the time, was only a glimmer in the eye of a few deranged souls, who, like myself, kept Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique right next to their coffeepots. New mothers were not welcome in colleges.
Stuck with the external evidence, I planned a strategy of hiding my internal state. It took only minutes to convince the professor that my forthcoming offspring was basically a biological mistake, whose care would be entirely relegated to a bevy of servants, such as the rich women of royal Russian or German heritage were accustomed to employ. Being of such background herself, the professor bought the ruse.
A half-century later, I am again applying to graduate school. This time it's the MFA writing program at Sarah Lawrence. Again, I am preparing to meet the department head. Again, I have a handicap: now it's my age. How will this director look upon an aspiring student old enough to be his mother? The night before the interview, I rip apart my closet, deciding finally on the purple outfit. A recent acquisition, it stamps me as NOW.
The director is Vijay Seshadri. Since we both live in the city, he suggests we meet at Dean & Deluca's. I should bring writing samples. I'll recognize him because he's Indian, with a bushy beard. How will he know me? I'll be the terrified old woman cowering in the corner, I'm tempted to say. But I settle for, I'll be wearing purple.
Is Dean & Deluca's OK with me? I'd agree to anything. D & D, Vijay explains, is a famous gourmet coffee shop in the Village. On University Place. I'm not about to admit that I've never heard of University Place either. Later, three different people at the end of the phone line struggle to produce the information. Take the C train to 42nd Street. There, change for the N to 14th, walk three blocks to 11th and University Place.
The next morning, armed with directions and dressed in purple, I brave the subways. It's 11:00 am. We're to meet at 12:30. All things being equal, the trip should take a half-hour. All things are never equal. A quick perusal of the subway map—while hanging over a surly teenager on the C train—reveals no connection between the C and the N. The conductor listens attentively to my dilemma. Well, he isn't sure, but thinks I might take the shuttle west on 42nd. Conductors know these things, I figure, stepping confidently out onto the platform. But the conductor, now hanging out through the window, calls me back. He has changed his mind. Forget the previous advice. Go to 14th Street, then take the L eastbound. How far east? He scratches his head. "Don't know," he says. "But make sure you get out before Brooklyn."
The voyage takes twice as long as anticipated, but I'm still early. I choose a relatively quiet table for two. I try to relax, meditating on the ornate mandalas that decorate the floor and ceiling. They seem to sprout flowers with lion heads at their centers. The dining room itself is simple, less funky than I expected; rather classy, with marble tables and cherrywood chairs. The murals along the white-washed walls portray a bustling street scene surrounding—that's right—Dean & Deluca's.
I check out the customers, expecting mostly intellectual teeny boppers, this being the NYU area. I expect to feel out of place. In fact, however, the patrons are a mixed lot. A middle-aged woman is pounding on her laptop. There are students bent over books, corporate types loudly discussing business, and several pairs of elderly gentlemen, leisurely sipping ice tea. I am happy for these men, retired no doubt, and probably financially strapped, able to sit here indefinitely, ordering little and not being harassed by waiters. A wave of warmth for Dean & Deluca's and for the people in it washes over me. My breathing slows down. Maybe there is a place for me in this world, after all. Maybe I'm not crazy to hope for admittance to graduate school.
Vijay's beard is of the short, widespread variety, which doesn't connote "bushy" to me. I had imagined a long, pointy, tangled affair, perhaps on the order of a Hassidic beard, so I am pleasantly surprised. He is a solidly built, medium tall man in his late 30's or early 40's and reminds me of an Indian love interest from an earlier era. I scold myself for this mental indulgence.
While slowly chewing, he expounds on his philosophy of writing, warming to his topic with such metaphors as "the raging rivers of narrative flow." I despair of ever being admitted to the program, if such flows are required of the students. Far from raging rivers, my narratives more closely resemble timid trickles of muddy meanderings. As I begin to worry about the intense, cerebral quality of my potential mentor's sensibility, he suddenly reveals a softer side. He talks about his early years, his parents, his sister. Dipping into his childhood, Vijay, the raging river, turns into a gentle stream. "Writing about one's childhood is inherently lyrical," he says with a charming, small boy smile.
And then it's my turn to talk. Vijay listens intently and I end up blabbing more than I want to. He has put me at ease. I stop trying to hide. His gaze sweeps over the customers I had observed before. They are still eating, drinking, talking, reading, writing, typing, connecting. "The best writing is about what happens wherever you are," he muses, "like, as you're walking down the street or like right here." The elusive smile lights his face again. "This is where the stories are." I nod.
Vijay is ready to head for the gym. As we shake hands, I wonder how I did. He disappears through the glass doors, joining the stream of people depicted on the murals. I stay behind, pull out my notebook and start to write—about the here and now. A stereo in the background plays "Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I." It is a song I first heard in the 50's.
(A clinical psychologist, Theresa Cahn-Tober recently retired from the Indian Health Service. Actualizing a girlhood dream, she has enrolled in SL's nonfiction program. Her articles have appeared in Psychoanalytic Review, Dreaming, The Sun, and Current Lifestudies. A memoir of her childhood in Nazi-occupied Poland is nearing completion.)