By Sarah White
I’m taking a four-part self-guided workshop with Creative Nonfiction this month, titled “Playing with Patterns: Crafting the Braided & Collage Essays.” The intent is to draw us into examining the creative potential of juxtaposing themes through collage and braided techniques. I’ve never experimented with anything like that. I’m having fun with it.
An exercise in Week #2 was, “Write a short collage piece that uses sensory image to draw us into either (1) a seed of life narrative about three different places you have been connected to; OR (2) three seeds of narrative about one place you’ve been connected to. (By “seed of narrative” instructor Sharia Yates mean a hint of a story, or a window into a story using a few suggestive images or one scene.)
I chose #2, and chose to use my past two years’ Big MFA Adventure as the subject of my creative experiments in this short course. Here goes.
Halifax, MFA residency #1, August 2017.
Starting at the base of Maslow’s Pyramid, my first graduate school residency in Halifax was bedeviled by uncertainty. The need for physiological safety and security was uppermost. I’d arrived from Wisconsin at 4 a.m. due to a flight delay. Where was my dorm room? Waking from a quick sleep, where to find food? Every sense was unsettled by neediness. Through the two-week residency I was always half-hungry, unsatisfied by the food I did find—stupid baby carrots, flavorless goat cheese, packaged crackers. I soon tired of to-go carton meals, developing a deep aversion to the bendy tines of plastic forks, the futility of plastic knives.
I walked around the campus feeling unsafe around all the construction barrels, tangling with the safety-orange webbed fencing strung across crumbling sidewalks. I learned to find my way like a spelunker, turn by hazardous turn, to the pub in the basement of the Dalhousie administration building, only to find it beer-smelling and humid, its foods the grubbiest of pub grub.
The days were hot for Canada, but comfortable enough for this Midwesterner. I laughed at the sandwich board outside the convenience store that said “24 C – air conditioned! Come in for respite!” (That’s 78 degrees Fahrenheit.)
Halifax MFA residency #2, August 2018
The return to Halifax placed me higher on Maslow’s pyramid. By this time I carried a nifty little plastic case containing a real metal fork, knife, and spoon. I’d learned to Google “groceries near me.” I’d thought all year about what to buy, to make my dorm picnics more palatable.
Belonging and esteem were now my needs. I greeted returning classmates, renewing friendships with my Canadian fellow students, but sensed I stood a little outside their circle. I was one of only two Americans in the program, and not the charismatic one.
But I remembered how I enjoyed the attention of the upper-classmates who befriended me the previous year, and I took some under-classmates under my wing, especially the dramatic J, who was having trouble fitting the experience of residency to what she had imagined since acceptance. I invited her to visit Africville with me, purposely filling the weekend between classes for both of us, which I remembered as particularly lonely my first year. I was the only second-year on a dorm floor with seven first-years, and I became their mama and coach.
Together we survived a year of record heat and humidity—85 degrees Fahrenheit at midnight in my room, no fans to be had. I’d wake to swab my naked self with a wet washcloth I kept in the fridge at the foot of my bed, thinking of the irony—this dorm wing was named “North Pole.”
Halifax #3: Graduation, May 2019
Attending graduation wasn’t strictly necessary and wasn’t in the budget, given what I’d already spent attaining my MFA-Creative Nonfiction from University of King’s College-Halifax, but I wanted to roll that phrase on my tongue a little longer, extend this exquisite stimulation for one more run at Maslow’s pyramid. Here was my chance to see the view from the pinnacle, self-actualization.
I cooked up a scheme to cover my costs by running a writing retreat at a Nova Scotia farmhouse in the days before graduation. I was able to recruit some of my writing students from Madison.
I didn’t anticipate how grateful I’d be for my entourage when we rolled in from the countryside on graduation day. Everyone, including the other American, had a posse of family. I would have had no one—my family vaguely supported my whim of enrolling in an MFA but not enough to hie them hither to Halifax.
Perfect weather rewarded us for our two years of study, a day of sun and breezy cool piercing a month of rain. My regalia marked me as one of the celebrated, even if my too-large tasseled cap made my face strangely chipmunk-like in the photos.
Graduates processed behind a bagpiper, my class falling so far behind I couldn’t hear him, out of solidarity with our classmate E, whose disability made walking slow. After the ceremony, my writing retreatants gave me a dozen yellow roses, which made me secretly peeved at the waste until googling told me I could bring them home on the plane.
I cut down a plastic water bottle for a vase, wrapped a washcloth around it for stability, and placed it on the sink-counter in our shared bathroom—we had taken over the same floor in the North Pole—where it doubled to two dozen in the mirror. For the flight home, I swaddled the stems in stolen washcloth, thinking of my midnight swabbings the previous August.
Will I see Halifax again? Having finished my climb up Maslow’s pyramid, would it only disappoint? The only way to know is to go.