Jennifer Mills Kerr
Founder & Teaching Artist
A World in a Line Writing Workshops
Split, Divine Caroline, November 2007
Last night I had a dream that I was writing on a beach. The water, a stunningly clear turquoise, undulated against the sand. There was a deep drop from shore; I would only have to walk a few feet before completely submerged. The beach was completely empty. I’d left my friends far down shore. Notebook balanced on my knees, I wrote that I’d just had my divorced finalized (I signed off on the agreement last week) and then, suddenly irate with myself, slammed my notebook face down on the sand. What was I doing writing in this beautiful place? I needed to swim.
I dove in and swam breast stroke underwater amidst the twinkling blue. My limbs stretched in relief and satisfaction. As I swam, I noticed a few other people swimming past me—my friends—one of them eighteen years old. Wishing for solitude, I felt annoyed. But they swam past without speaking. Would they find my notebook on the beach and read what I’d written? I continued to swim, but felt disconcerted at this possible discovery. Eventually, I joined some of the others far down shore but continued to feel distracted, unsettled.
After I woke this morning, I realized the dream was a catch twenty-two. I couldn’t enjoy the bliss of swimming because of my writing, and I couldn’t enjoy my writing because of my wish to swim.
I wonder now if the dream expressed my life writing and teaching; these two worlds work in concert, but also split my life into two. Teaching is “out there”—at the podium, in the light. I must relate to people (some of whom I enjoy, others I do not); I talk a lot. In fact, it feels like I talk all day long. The college is located in a very large town—not quite a city in my eyes, but close, with its pain of gangs, crime, and drugs. My pace on campus is quick. I socialize, smile, explain, organize, analyze, and of course, talk a lot.
My home life, on the other hand, is so different. I live on an eight acre farm of apple trees, the sound of cars like wind in the distance. It’s a reclusive life, quiet. I write, meditate, pray, dance, take naps in the orchard. Some days, my house rests in a sweet, blank silence, sunlight falling through the windows like a beautiful woman’s hair. Other days, music floats through the rooms, usually a female singer, acoustic, singing of love, loss, redemption. My time is spent unwinding from the spin and schedule of school. The days after I work at the college, I usually close the blinds, wishing to hide after the bright activity of campus life.
I can’t stay in one place or the other for very long. Too much teaching makes me dizzy; too much tucked-away writing time atrophies my spirit. One complements the other. Still, I’ve often thought that it’s an odd life to lead.
My life has other splits. I was born in Brooklyn, New York; we lived in an apartment twenty-five floors up, amidst the gray haze and twinkling lights of the city. When I was three, my family moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, a wealthy, all-white community filled with trees, birdsong, the scent of grass. I played outside with my dog for hours at a time. Climbed trees. Swam in the neighbor’s pond. There were butterflies and crickets in Connecticut, ladybugs and frogs. White, white snow. Ice-skating. The stars.
Occasionally, on the weekends, my family visited my grandmother’s townhouse in Brooklyn. Since my father had no connections with his family, I only knew my mother’s relatives in New York. The women wore pant suits with high heels, blue eye shadow; they snapped gum and spoke with rough accents, voices scratchy from Marlboros. They were certainly different than my mother, who by this time wore mink coats and twenty-four carat gold—but my mother never appeared like the women from Connecticut, who wore Laura Ashley dresses and used “May I” in their questions.
My grandmother’s house was small, dark, and comfortable; tomato sauce bubbled on the stove, the kitchen linoleum wavered with the weight of everyone’s footsteps. We—my aunt and her family, sometimes my uncle and his—sat at my grandmother’s kitchen table for hours at a time, eating peppers slathered in olive oil, chicken soup, spaghetti with meatballs and sausage, Italian pastry. Sometimes, I went out back to play with my cousins, entering an overgrown, rectangular plot bordered by a chain link fence, the jutting rooflines of neighboring homes our horizon.
Not that I claimed one place more beautiful than the other; I was a child, and I loved all of it.
I remember watching the Addams Family television show and paying extra attention to the female relative who looked like Doris Day. Gracious and sweet, she appeared remarkably clean and ordinary amidst her family of monsters in that cobwebbed haunted house. Of course, I never thought of my family in New York as monsters, but they certainly possessed personality, speaking loudly, teasing one another, interrupting, and laughing with their mouths full. Their audaciousness would be described in gentile Connecticut as ‘coarse’ or ‘crass’ or ‘rude.’ But I found my exposure to this other world empowering. None of my friends in Greenwich had ever been to Brooklyn, and probably hadn’t seen people who dressed like my relatives—except maybe in the movies, but that didn’t count because that wasn’t real life.
Now, I live another kind of split. My family continues to live on the East Coast; I moved west years ago. Through my mother, I hear of births and engagements, Christenings and weddings. Most holidays I’ve stayed in California, wishing them well. My mother has continued to live in Greenwich, but she lived in New York for thirty-three years and will never shake the city’s sensibility of “What do you expect?” with a disinterested shrug. Along with her updates and gossip is her clipped New York accent, subdued now, but there nonetheless, and I wonder if she ever questions where her home truly is.
My father passed away twelve years ago; he and my mother divorced when I was eleven. I often think that children of divorce understand the nature of duality quite well. Our families are no longer one unit; we are forced to see our parents as different people, relationships with each growing separately. There’s separate time, separate houses, separate holidays, separate conversations on the same topic. My parents never spoke after their divorce which accentuated the split even further. Each parent’s life was one world, completely unknown to the other, and each maintained its own character. The time spent with my father was exciting, unnerving, and terribly lonely; time with my mother was quiet, familiar, and chilly. But I can recall, in my teenaged years, consciously thinking of my mother while sitting in my father’s house, trying to bring her into the circle of polite conversation with my sisters, my father, and his new wife. I knew I had left her behind, and I yearned to bridge the split.
Monday nights are always difficult for me. After four joyous days in the hushed home life of the orchard, I must rally myself once again to engage with the lively world. My alarm goes off at five thirty, and from that point, it’s go-go-go for the entire day. There’s a sense of excitement, too, shedding my cloak of solitude, gliding with the current of campus life. Interestingly, I still practice building the same bridge I did as a young woman: while in the classroom or writing lab or faculty office, I try to picture myself in my other life, reading by candlelight or simmering soup on the stove. I may be out in the world teaching, but I’m also a woman who is writing a book. Lives on a farm of apple trees. A woman whose conversation over the weekend consists mostly of prayer. But the memory of this other person that I am, this other half, is faint, hardly recognizable. I can’t hold her in my mind. And I come to the same conclusion that I came to all those years ago, seated cross legged in my father’s living room. That that other person, the missing person, isn’t here with me now. For whatever reason, she’s not a part of this world. And although I miss her, I have to let her go.