“What are you working on?” They’d ask. And I would have no words to fill the silence, no words to fill the whiteness of a page or screen.
I suppose that is the main reason I abandoned Manhattan for two months and exiled myself to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, Republic of. Land of snow-dusted mountains, homemade bread bowls bubbling with cheese, butter and eggs, orange wine fermented underground in millennia-old clay vessels and more ways to pronounce the letter “K” than the American tongue can memorize. I needed to go somewhere completely foreign and write, just write. Yes, I had written some articles and essays I was proud of but many more I forgot about as soon as the check cleared. In a city of writers, armed only with two degrees in music, the encouragement of my high school English teachers and a love of words, I felt underprepared and uninitiated. I hid myself behind the cushion of a desk job, writing only when I felt safe to do so but never admitting this to myself. My brain became a purgatory for ideas, a womb of long-gestating embryos. I kept assuring them, “Wait. Now isn’t the time. Tomorrow, I will sit down with cafe au lait and a salt bagel and give each of you form and life.” But I was caught off guard every time Tomorrow transformed into Today. I’d retreat and say, “Not yet. I need more time. I am not ready!”
I spent March 2015 in fantasy. That winter, I had applied to a M.F.A. theater program at an Ivy League institution in the city. The acceptance letter appeared in my inbox on the 27th of February, the beginning of my 27th year. A good sign. As I waited optimistically and anxiously for the notification of my financial aid award, I laid plans for the future. I would quit my desk job and devote myself to academic pursuits, confident that the benevolent Financial Aid gods would reward my waiting and relative poverty. I would stop dating actors and meet a litigation-lawyer-in-training on the steps of the library. Between classes, I would buy lunch at the Cantonese trucks on Broadway, and sip black coffee in a student lounge while reading Aristotle, Brecht and Patti Smith. Empowered by the name of an institution, armed with self-validation, I would confront Tomorrow and give myself permission to write.
And then the email came. They were proud to offer me, in support of my education, the generous sum of $120,000 in loans for two years. The news blinded me. For weeks, I saw nothing in front of me. Plans once smoothly laid were torn and twisted, like train tracks mangled by the surging waters of a hurricane. My newly-forged courage rusted. I had to decide between turning myself in, allowing my proud shoulders to be bent under the yoke of lifelong debt and…and what? What was the other path?
I did not have an answer. For me, more education and more letters at the end of my name had always been the answer. I broke my month-long silence with a friend, called Leopoldine, who had forged a non-stop, fulfilling career in a specialized field despite having no official university-bestowed training. Leopoldine had no degree to qualify her and no debt but a life full of creative energy. After my conversation with Leopoldine, I walked down Bond Street, where Robert Mapplethorpe once created, shocked and moved in his loft. I pounded the same cobblestones Patti Smith once did. It was a clear Saturday in April. I had one week to give the university my financial decision. I had my answer. I would not surrender myself to the debt, I would not choose safety, I would not hide behind fear. Instead of prolonging this search for validation, I would write and create, get messy and escort myself out on the gangplank. I would create and not owe.
Unshackled, I felt the need to flee. “To Detroit!” I heard Patron Saint Patti whisper in my ears. Or Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City. The street signs, the bars of New York City, the Manhattan sky at 5:00pm, the faces on the 3 train, the rhythm of the city had become too familiar to me. I had ceased to see them. I would take a few thousand dollars from my savings – what is a few thousand after one-hundred and twenty thousand? – and travel and experience new things. That would be my education.
From somewhere in my memory, Tbilisi appeared. A city where you can stand on an Art Nouveau balcony and take in the Caucasus mountains, 6th-century ruins, 19th-century opulence and 21st-century construction in one panoramic sweep. The city of exile for Lermontov, Pushkin, Akhmatova and Mandelstam, my Russian poet-guides. There I could marvel at unfamiliar avenues and sunsets, listen to the strange melody of a language with its many consonants encasing precious vowels, decipher letters that curl and tumble on street signs advertising coffee, SIM cards and bread from a tandoor oven.
Tbilisi. It was not the likely choice. I had never been out of the United States. Hell, I had barely ever left the East Coast for longer than a weekend. And here I was, planning a trip to a land not quite Europe, not quite Asia, where the fog of Soviet oppression had only recently dispersed. A land not yet sanitized by Western cultural hegemony. But I had shed the desire to feel safe and the craving for permission somewhere on Bond between Lafayette and Bowery, and I had made my decision. In September, I would make my way first to Oslo, to Riga, to Kiev and finally to Tbilisi, to see, feel, hear new things. To Write, at last.