I’ve been having a lot of dreams about grad school lately. In some dreams, I’m back in Moreland Hall, teaching or sitting in my office grading. Sometimes I’m in a workshop. Usually, though, my dreams occur off campus. I am back in Corvallis—for whatever reason—and I am driving or walking along the road that parallels the Willamette River. And there is my advisor, Tracy, walking along the road. I don’t want to stop and talk to him. He looks too distracted, too in his head, too writerly. I recognize myself then as his student, as someone who admired him but isn’t quite sure who he is. And this is where I know that I am in grad school. I get this great, overwhelming sense that I haven’t learned enough, that time is running out and I haven’t read enough, haven’t had as many classes as I need. That I’m not good enough.
In some dreams I’m doing something more mundane, like getting my hair cut by Totally Terri, a crazy lady who liked to cut hair and talk. Mostly she liked to talk. I can’t remember why we called her Totally Terri. Maybe that was the name of her shop. Maybe it’s because she always said ‘totally.’ Totally Terri lived in a trailer in the country (I can only imagine it was a single-wide). Totally Terri was a crafter. She decorated shoes and sold them.
I really wish I could remember what she called her shoes. It was probably something like ‘dream runners,’ or ‘glitter feet.’ The shoes were your average Keds, usually unlaced and painted with glittery gold spray paint and adorned with a variety of beads. At least, that’s how I remember it.
I can see Totally Terri in my mind’s eye, but I honestly can’t remember much about her. What I do remember is that she cut my hair better than the gals over at the SuperCuts, and that she talked a whole lot. Totally Terri talked more than anyone I’d ever met. Well, maybe that’s not completely true. I’ve met quite a few people who talk a lot. But Totally Terri did talk more than the average person—way more.
A basic haircut from Totally Terri usually took at least an hour. More if you asked for a shampoo and blow dry. The blow drying took a particularly long time because Totally Terri had to turn off the dryer to talk.
I can remember thinking that the only reason I let her cut my hair was for the fodder. To me, every strange encounter is fodder. And I’ve had my fair share of strange encounters.
Totally Terri was very much like a budgie. She’d stand behind you, scissors in one hand, a comb in the other, and she’d put her hand on your shoulders and she’d become completely focused on what was in front of her. Totally Terri would watch herself in the mirror while she talked. It was as though cutting your hair was a distraction, an interruption to the flow of the one-way conversation. It was as though the only person she saw in the mirror was herself. And she was totally fascinated with what she saw. Totally.
Totally Terri had relationship problems—I remember that, too. I remember that she was divorced, or had ended a long term relationship. And she was seeing an older man, a Native American. They had something in common, though I can’t remember what it was. The Native American man would take Totally Terri to pow-wows. They were in a drum circle, or maybe they danced. I do know that Totally Terri was working on her own ‘costume,’ as she called it. Full head dress, leathers, the works. Totally Terri was totally into costuming.
One thing I learned in grad school was that, to get my money’s worth, I had to tell Totally Terri to cut more of my hair than I wanted her to cut. I’d ask for two inches rather than the usual one because I knew what she was up to. She purposely took less of the length just so I’d come back to hear the rest of her stories. I was too broke to do that.
I’m not sure why I’m thinking of Totally Terri tonight. Maybe it’s because I’ve been trying to distract myself for some reason, trying not to think about the characters I’ve already created, the ones who are on the page, waiting for me to come back to them. Maybe it’s because I see the potential of Totally Terri as a character. I don’t know where I’d place her in story. I don’t know what she’d do or who I’d pair her with, but I do know that I want her. I want to know more of her.
I’d love to sit with her right now. I could use a haircut. I could also use a good yarn. And I could really use a good story from a classic crazy lady with a Native American beau, some sparkly shoes and a whole lot of pomade.
The truth is, I do miss grad school. I don’t really miss the long nights spent grading, or the bad food or the terrible Corvallis coffee. I don’t miss the way the warm air would blow the smell of cow dung in through the windows of my apartment. I don’t miss the mouse in my kitchen or the leak in my ceiling. I don’t miss hanging out at the K-Mart just because it was too hot to be anywhere else. I don’t miss most of my cohort, the snobbery or the bad writing. I don’t miss the freshmen or the plagiarism. I don’t miss the insecurity, the anxiety, the way everything was too much. What I miss, I think, is the rhythm. Or maybe instead of the rhythm, I miss just knowing why I was there. Every day, even when I would bang my head against my desk or cry or drink or do whatever I needed to do to help me get through it, I knew I was there to write.
I knew Totally Terri was cutting my hair because I wanted to write.
Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time questioning why I am here. Not so much in the existential sense, but more in the practical sense. Why, after three and a half years, am I still in the same job? Why have I chosen not to pursue a full time teaching position? Why am I spending my time teaching people to teach people how to write, rather than spending my days doing my own writing? Why do I value job security and a good salary and good benefits so much, when, until just a few years ago I was doing okay without those things?
Why am I still living in someone else’s house, rather than owning my own?
Why am I still living alone?
Why do I cringe every time the woman who cuts my hair talks to me?
Why do I put so much into my work? Why do I check my work email late into the evening and first thing in the morning? What could I—what should I—be doing with my time instead?
I know that I am quite resilient. My resiliency has been tested several times, in some unbearable ways and I’ve managed to find myself, to return to myself again. Two years ago I was at my lowest, and I’ve managed a lot since then. I am, in comparison, doing great. Things are good now. Normal. Safe
And maybe that’s it. I think I’ve plateaued. Two years ago I was pouring out writing nearly every night. Some nights I felt like I couldn’t breathe unless I wrote. The subject matter is still somewhat scary when I go back and read it. I was reading a lot of Beckett in combination with narratives on suicide and the stuff that fell onto my page was a mix of the two. Dark and rhythmic.
I was my own Crazy.
But now my mental state is good. My depression is, as the doctors say, ‘well managed.’ (Though I tend to think of it as just not here right now.) Things in my life seem easier, more ‘normal. ‘ I go to work, I walk the dog, I cook, I spend time with Robin and Maiana, and there’ s not much more. Nothing that feels like it needs to be written about. Nothing pressing, nothing that has to come out in order for me to breathe.
I keep waiting for something to happen.
But instead I find just the rhythm of my life, my day to day, my now. I take Lake City way to Bothell every day. I stop at the same QFC when I forget my lunch and need to grab a Lean Cuisine. I drive in the same lanes coming home because I know to avoid getting behind a bus. And in all this I’ve found myself on a life-course that doesn’t allow me much interaction with the crazies. When you put yourself in this kind of rhythm, meeting Seattle’s most deranged is not really a possibility.
There are no Totally Terri’s in my life right now.
So I suppose I’m looking for something to jog some memories, to set me in another place and time, to give me something to write about. I have these glints of memories, these weird hits from time to time of moments from my childhood, for instance, but nothing lingering, nothing lasting, nothing that makes me want to sit there for a while and just explore.
The South seems so far away right now. When I think of the Carolinas I think of my mom and her declining health, and I don’t want to think about that.
Mattie and Joe seem far away, too. I don’t think much about migrant life these days.
And I think it’s okay that I’m not writing about the characters I’ve already developed. They will be there when I am ready to return to those pages. Or maybe it’s that I will be here when they are ready for me to finish their stories.
What I need is something new. A break from the rhythm of my now.
And I need a haircut. Totally.