“Mary/Me” by Sylvia Sukop

Sylvia Sukop, 2018 PSP participant, Mark Slouka/Jaimy Gordon/Patricia Hampl/Stu Dybek workshop

Sylvia Sukop has an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis where she is the 2018-19 Senior Fellow in Creative Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The Southeast Review, Palimpsest, Flaunt, Huffington Post, and several anthologies.

I write personally voiced narrative nonfiction (essay, memoir, journalism, cultural criticism) and have recently started to experiment with doing so in shorter forms, including flash. This piece explores ongoing themes in my work — religious heritage, migration, and identity — and I am now embarking on a new project informed by my participation in PSP 2018.


My younger sister and I shared an upstairs bedroom with matching twin beds and, between them, a bureau that held aloft a Virgin Mary, one of our mother’s prized possessions. As newlyweds, our parents brought the plaster statue with them on the ship from Germany, packed inside a barrel among goose-down comforters and pillows, baking pans and black iron pots, and a bread slicer with a jagged circular blade. In the suburbs of Reading, Pennsylvania, we kneeled on shag carpet to say our bedtime prayers. Hands clasped at our small chests, we looked up at Mary while our mother watched. With painted blue eyes and silent nod, Mary returned our gaze, half-raising her arms in blessing. We wore Snoopy pajamas and our short hair in bangs. Mary’s wavy tresses slithered from beneath her long white veil. Cinched at the neck, her blue cloak parted to reveal a gown like vanilla drapes. Peeking out at the hemline, Mary’s toes, long as fingers, squashed a silver serpent, eyes popping, jaws agape, pink ribbon tongue split at the tip. With sweetness and poise and no hint of fear, she crushed the monster evil and I believed that she protected us. When we moved away from home, Mary stayed with our mother who said the Rosary alone till we came back to pray with her when she was dying. Before her body was laid in the coffin, I pressed my mother’s yellowed hands together, winding the shiny black beads around them just as she had asked me to.

Twenty years after our mother’s death, Mary reappears when we’re sifting the last of our parents’ things, lobbing into a rented dumpster what’s left after yard sale and donations. I take Mary in my arms—she’s the little one now—and strap her upright on the front passenger seat. At the office supply superstore, I spring for the expensive packing material and prepare her for the journey west in one of seven numbered boxes. Under fluorescent lights, Mary lies on the laminate counter, her expression changeless, same for the choking snake. I consider faith’s failures and resolve that evidence of its existence is worth keeping. The next day I fly home to California and when the shipment arrives a week later, Mary’s is the first box I open. She crowns through the bubble wrap and styrofoam peanuts and I can see she’s made it, hair, eyes, shoulders, hands—then, suddenly, further down, my fingers meet the sharp edge of cracked plaster. Lifting the statue fully out of the box, I find a fat chunk of Mary’s cloak is gone, broken despite my best efforts. I gather the fragments, place them in a miniature pail at her feet, my uneasy offering for our uncertain troth. But she stays. In a corner, on the floor, behind the closed door of my closet, she stays.


A version of this flash memoir was first published in the literary journal Soliloquies Anthology, issue 22.2, in April 2018.

“Eyes On Me” by Patrick McNeil

Patrick McNeil, 2014 PSP participant

Patrick McNeil’s short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Philadelphia Stories, Eclectica Magazine, The Head and The Hand’s Chapbook Series, and more. He is the organizer of Philadelphia’s own Backyard Writers Workshop, and founder of the Writers Retreat in Tufo, Italy.

Prague worked on me in lots of quiet ways I don’t think I understood at the time. Now, four years later, I organize a modest writers retreat of my own, inspired in a lot of ways by my experience in Prague. I’ve decided that the main thing is to strike a balance between living and writing, between consumption and production. Every writer needs to find their own sweet spot, and that’s what a program like this ought to help them do. I found mine in Prague, writing in the mornings, workshopping in the afternoons, and sharing the evenings and the city with a handful of people I’ll never forget.

Eyes On Me

The astronomical clock in Prague has nothing to do with me. Still, it should hold your interest: the tragedy of Jan Růže, the ingenious maker of the clock, is a fascinating one:

To ensure there would never be another clock of its like in the world, the jealous King John blinded Jan upon its completion. Jan would have his revenge, though, by climbing the clock-tower and destroying his own creation.

“You do not need eyes,” adds the tour guide, sagely, “to make a wreck.”

But you don’t hear a word of this, you miss the lesson here. The idea of a jealous king has you thinking of me again. You have that non-look on your face.

It never really leaves. This was supposed to be a vacation from all of that.

Go home, then.

Except that when you do, there it still is, my side of the couch. The remote I used to give up without a fight. Every grilled cheese for the rest of your life, they were always my favorite. They still are, you know.

The rest of your life, try, try again:

The Cape of Good Hope, a Chor Bazaar in Mumbai, on a fishing boat off New Zealand, the farthest you could possibly get, in a conversation about something as not-me as flounder, you won’t be far enough:

“It’s like a Picasso,” you’ll say. “How both the flounder’s eyes are on the same side of its head.”

“You know she wasn’t born that way?” this other guide will say, enthused. “One of those eyes migrated all the way around to sit next to the other, so when she’s lying flat in the sand they’re both looking up at the same thing. Evolution, right? Real mindfuck.”

“Migrated?” you’ll say, stuck again. Something about the word, it’s not not-me enough.

Like you, the flounder evolved to focus on just one thing.

“Venice Vision” by Valerie Anne Burns

Valerie Anne Burns, 2016 PSP participant

Valerie Anne Burns is a writer, style consultant for home and wardrobe, and a graduate from the Hollywood school of hard knocks. She’s passionate about deep connection, the arts, mother earth, all animals, and rich espresso. Writing has become a more inspired focus after winning a full scholarship to the Santa Barbara Writing Conference and an acceptance and scholarship to The Prague Summer Writing Program. Valerie’s a recent breast cancer survivor, and has completed a first draft of her book, “Caution: Mermaid Crossing” – An indomitable spirit overcomes a life unimaginable by capturing moments of beauty. She’s also blogging about her warrior ride and so much more at www.cautionmermaidcrossing.com.

My experience at PSP 2016 was spectacular. It was an amazing combination of priceless learning, inspiration, and cultural bliss. Personally, it was also a welcomed reprieve in the middle of a breast cancer ordeal. I had the privilege of being in the presence of Richard Katrovas, Justin Quinn, Jaimy Gordon, Stuart Dybek, and Patricia Hampl for immeasurable education in the art of writing. I was particularly influenced by Stuart Dybek’s smart guidance and inspiring support. I workshopped a personal essay titled, “Venice Vision” in Stuart’s class. Not only did the exquisite beauty of Prague and PSP lift my spirit but strengthened my confidence to move forward as a writer.

Venice Vision

     All the colors I most cherish drifted by as I floated down the Grand Canal. Rich but worn shades of orange, pink, golden yellow and blues meandered by one-by-one. The water I floated on was a Caribbean aqua that wrapped me in a balmy warmth. It was not the dirty waterway one would expect in the canals of Venice. I viewed beauty in architecture while swimming beneath a vivid sapphire Italian sky. I felt released from struggle, free to spread far and wide, filling all my senses with wonder.

     Admiring the city suspended atop the Laguna Veneta, swimming in its resplendency, I reached my arms out wide in front of me, graceful as a sleek mermaid. Unaware of my body being ravaged, I was shapely and confident in my swim attire. I could feel the ripples of the sea swirling as I pushed forward in a breast stroke.

     I turned, looking back to my right, and discovered a man swimming in the same style. Just behind him was a sweet boy gliding along like a young swan. I gazed directly at the man as we exchanged a smile, sharing a knowing secret of being in a lovely dream together. It was euphoric, and I wondered in that split second, by the intimacy of the smile that passed between us, if this man and his boy would be the family I longed for. Refocused on my liberating swim with hands scooping turquoise liquid down to my sides, I tilted my head to the left to study the perfectly aged sunburst orange and terracotta pink grand structures of Venice once again.

     And then, in that instant I woke, only wishing to fall into the dream over and over. It has stayed with me for a long time now, just as clear as the morning I woke from this Venice vision. I hold on to the idea that the colorful dream’s purpose was to ignite a blossom of hope in my heart. The visceral memory stays close to me since enduring a harsh assault and lasting scars to my body with a spirit left frayed. I’ve replayed the vision prior to surgeries, and at night, when I would lie in bed with surgical drains pushing through my skin and spread out on my bed like the wings of a bird.

This vision was the contrast I often needed to rely on when lying on a gurney waiting to be rolled into the freezing cold, efficiently run operating room. Through all of it, I had to carry something so beautifully alluring to avoid the possibility of spiraling into a black hole of nothing but earthly survival. I described the dream to a close friend, so easy to recall as if it were a film running in my head. She responded by saying, “You want it all, don’t you?”, acknowledging my dream of swimming in tropical water in the canals of Venice as an idealistic fantasy in alignment with my nature. Without a hint of modesty, I simply replied, “Yes!”

I aspire to being surrounded by beauty in art and architecture while feeding my bliss in a turquoise ocean fit for the finest mermaid. Yearning for a partner and family, there is a man close enough to direct a dazzling smile just for me. Although I’m at an age where a little boy would be a grandson, it speaks to a subconscious truth. Enjoying the same watery dream, I consciously decide that this man capable of emitting a magnetic force toward my being must possess shared desires and longings. Like all humans that inhabit this planet, it’s connection we crave – Love in all its forms. The dream, although fantasy in its most exquisite state, continues to fill me with desire, love and appreciation.

So many of us are walking through life alone and daydreaming our way through the day. We are fulfilled by the little things; a kind smile, a welcomed compliment, or coffee with a friend that keeps us connected and grounded. We have different ways of coping with challenges and the overwhelming reality of facing them on our own. I find it easier to escape the harsher realities by concentrating on a pretty view, listening to a daily orchestra by a variety of birds, and feeling the vibration of hummingbirds over my head.

The ritual of tea with my hummingbirds provided an unexpected healing. They would fly right up to me and stare into my eyes while wings became translucent in their speed. I would hand-feed my richly colored hummies organic sugar water and they would sit on my hand for a long nectar drink. The tender trust that grew between us gave me strength to trust myself and feel worthy of healing and recovery; where I could find my way to believing in a flourishing life and the Venice canal opening wide just for me.

I wonder, though, how to remain optimistic when struggle and survival appear as daily companions. I marvel at the fortitude of people fighting a life-threatening illness. What do they do to get up every day, continuing life with a determination to carry long-held goals in their hearts? My experience led me to question how my mother, dying of breast cancer at such a young age in a hospital bed, dealt with her own dreams slipping away moment-by-moment. I work at ways to push away the trauma thrust upon me to make sacred space for imagining myself living out my loftiest aspirations.

No matter what some perceive is a challenge, you can always rise above; it is a cruel and all-consuming path few can relate to unless they have traveled it themselves. Many of us find medical environments to be an assault to the senses. There is a need for immediate attention and action you simply cannot avoid or wish away. It changes you, rearranging your world and all who orbit around it. It’s altered me and I’m sure I will forever discover ways it’s left an impact; good and not so good.

Perhaps it’s time to marvel at my own strength and fierceness. The four years of being in the harsh medical spotlight have illuminated my fear, vulnerability, and loneliness. It has forced me over the median to a road of caution I did not anticipate. On days when I felt an urgency to close my eyes and take a deep breath to empty myself of jarring lights, cold instruments, and endless needles, I recall a precious Venice vision – Light reflected in an apricot glow on patina-colored buildings, swimming to freedom in warm turquoise water, and receiving a remarkable smile that lights up the blackest of nights.

“Prague and the Unbearable Truth of the Lousy Tourist” by Suzanne Roberts

Suzanne Roberts, 2011 PSP participant

Suzanne Roberts is the author of the award-winning memoir, Almost Somewhere (Bison Books, 2012), as well as four collections of poetry. Her work has been published in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, River Teeth, National Geographic’s Traveler, and elsewhere. She teaches for the low residency MFA program in creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College and lives in South Lake Tahoe, CA. More information may be found on her website at www.suzanneroberts.net

Prague and the Unbearable Truth of the Lousy Tourist

Before coming to Prague, I had heard that it was the most beautiful city in Europe. Friends most often used the word “magical.” And, in my first couple of days, I saw Prague the same way they did—defamiliarized by the cobblestoned streets, the ornate centuries-old buildings, the charming red streetcars, the looming Baroque clock towers, the Gothic cathedral spires jutting into the roof of the cloud-pleated sky.

Yet after a couple of weeks of wandering around, bumping into people because I wasn’t watching where I was going, I began to feel the seediness. The posters advertising Darlings, a “cabaret” famous for the midget prostitute who is rumored to dress up like Chewbacca or maybe an ewok. The smell of urine in the old town square.

Though the castles of Disneyland are modeled after those of Prague, the city wasn’t a Disneyland, and the denizens of Prague were not paid to smile and tell you Dobry den if you wandered within a magic meter of them.

Even the beggars started to seem fake humble to me.

But I could see how the residents of Prague could be sick of the tourists. I was sick of the tourists, even though I technically was one–spending a month in Prague at a summer writing program. To the locals, I was no different than the Germans with their pink ice cream cones, the Americans shouting to each other in their twangy English, the packs of Japanese waving video cameras around, filming the Starbuck’s tucked into a Baroque building, the KFC sign in front of Kafka’s birthplace—would Kafka himself have appreciated the irony? The Velvet Revolution may have freed Prague from a communist regime, but the city seemed to have passed hands directly to a tourist regime.

“I want this sandwich,” a man with an electronic guide around his neck would shout and point. “Cut into four pieces.” In a hurry, because there’s a tour guide with a giant yellow umbrella outside waiting for him.

“I cannot cut four ways. Just two pieces. You do it yourself.”

“May I please have tap water?”

“We don’t have tap water here.”

“No tap here? What do you mean?”

“Bottled, still or with gas.”

“Alright, to go.”

“Take away?”

“To go. To Go. TO GO.”

I would find myself siding with the woman behind the counter. So smug was I with my five Czech word repertoire.

The Velvet Revolution may have freed Prague from the communist regime, but the city seemed to have passed hands directly to the tourist regime.

Yet eventually I made my own travel faux pas – lost myself – because after a month living out of my suitcase, frustration met exhaustion met a little bit of entitlement.

I had decided to treat myself to a pedicure. I reasoned that I could read for my writing workshop, maybe do some writing and editing, and get my toes done at the same time. The perfect way to multitask. Plus, it was raining. Again.

The man at the salon was Vietnamese. He had been in Prague for three years, so he spoke a little Czech and about as much English as I knew Czech. I thought we had settled on a price before the treatment.

He cut my nails too short and then picked at the skin around the nails with his mean little metal tool until each toe bled. As I put my feet back into the grubby water tub, I hoped that my hepatitis shots were current. There was no salt scrub, no calf and foot massage. He must have wondered why I had hiked my pants up to my knees. This is a different place, I reasoned, determined not to be the typical tourist who expects to get everything just like at home.

When he was finished with the short torture session, he said, “You got paint with your French pedicure. Cost extra. 600 crowns.”

“Paint comes with a French pedicure,” I said. “It isn’t a French pedicure without the paint.”

He just shook his head. “600 crowns plus tip.”

I reached for his calculator and divided 600 by 16. “That’s 37 dollars. I am not paying 37 dollars for that.”

“Extra for paint.”

“A French pedicure is defined by the paint.”

“Extra for paint.”

“Do you know the word for thief?” I asked in English.

He shook his head.


More head shaking.

“What about stealing? How about swindler?” Now, I was really reaching. Thankfully, those words were not in my Czech repertoire.

“600. Plus tip.”

“Listen,” I said, “I have 500. That’s what we agreed on. And here is your tip. 50. 550, that’s plenty. That’s a lot. Too much, even. And it’s all I have.”

He shook his head, crossed his arms, and “Tsk, tsk, tsked.”

I turned on my 550-crown toes, and headed for the door. Another ugly American.

What was he going to do? Run after me? Call the police? It was true, that was all the money I had, so I turned on my 550-crown toes, and headed for the door. Another ugly American. I wanted so badly not to be this thing I couldn’t seem to help myself from becoming. Yet, this man had swindled me, hadn’t he? He, in fact, had treated me more poorly than I had treated him.

Walking back to my dorm room in the rain, the metallic ring of the streetcars sounded more like a whine than the song I had heard when I first arrived to Prague. But the pitter-patter of the rain and the cooing of the pigeons soon fell into harmony, and I realized that I had met wonderful people in Prague. The in-country staff of the writing program couldn’t be more lovely. Yet, there was that Disneyland feeling again: were they so nice to me just because they were paid to be? The people on the streets were not nice to me, but then again, most of them were fellow tourists.

My friend Sandra was to visit me in Prague. Before she arrived, I had told her the same thing about the city’s historic architecture, the beautiful parks, the graceful Vltava River. Did it never before occur to me that no one ever mentioned the warm people?

When Sandra arrived, we decided to visit Vyšehrad Castle. We wandered the grounds, relieved to be away from more of ourselves, the dreaded tourists, but also the waiters telling us there was no tap water, that the stale pretzel you thought was complimentary and just took a bite out of would be 50 crowns.

On our way back, we walked past the river, the swans preening and wagging their tails. Baby ducks swimming after their mother. The water refracting the evening light. We both wanted to extend this feeling of peace before heading back to the touristy center of town. So we wandered through a quiet neighborhood and came to a crowd overflowing from a small shop. They were all holding glasses, filled with white, pink, and red wines.

“Should we go in?” I asked.

“It looks like a local place,” Sandra said. “I’m sure they don’t speak English. But I think it’s a wine tasting. Czech or no Czech, we can do a wine tasting.”

Sandra was a wine representative back in the States, and I used to work in the industry and write for a small wine publication. This was our turf, our terroir. If wine couldn’t break down the language and culture barriers, I wasn’t sure anything could. We at least had to try.

“Listen, I know how to say hello, please, thank you, red wine, white wine, and sparkling wine. We can do this.”

“Okay.” Sandra was game.

There was that Disneyland feeling again: were they so nice to me just because they were paid to be?

We headed straight for the bar, and I didn’t stop to wonder what it says about me that I can order wine in about 10 languages but can only hold a conversation in two.

The rotund, bald man poured wine from barrels and bottles behind the wooden bar. He looked at us from the corner of his eye but didn’t speak to us. I bumped into a man next to me, and when I said, “Sorry, I mean pardon,” he turned to look at me, and I recognized him. How did I know him? The Rolodex of my mind flipping through the possibilities. Who would I know at a small local wine shop in Prague?

“I know you,” I said. “You’re um, um, um….”

He smiled and said, “Um, um, um.”

The Rolodex flipped to the right entry, and I blurted out, “Ummm. Miloš, Miloš, the guide.” He had guided a walking tour I had taken nearly a month earlier on my first day in Prague.

“Yes, so nice to see you,” he said.

“I am in the Prague Summer Program. The writing program.” Miloš guided many of the trips and is known as The Best Tour Guide in Prague. The writing program uses him because he specializes in the arts, specifically music, which was the theme for this year’s program.

“Welcome. How did you get here? You have found the best wine shop in Prague. This is my second home. Do you want to try the wine?”

Sandra and I both nodded. Miloš told Roman, the bartender, that we would like to taste.

“He says you have only half an hour, I am afraid,” Miloš said. “They close at six.”

“That’s okay,” I told him. “Tell him we’ll be quick.”

Four hours later we were still at the bar, trying every wine on tap. Roman also started opening bottles from the shelves, and eventually we all switched to beer. I had made friends with a woman called Ana. Miloš translated. Though I couldn’t talk to her directly, I felt the harmony of female friendship through the clinking of glasses, the laughing at wordless jokes. Roman introduced us to his son, invited us to come back again. “I am honored to have you here,” he said through Miloš. We took photographs arm in arm, all hugged goodbye.

“You have found the soul of the city,” Miloš said. “You are true Praguers.”

“The Girl Who Carried the Record Player” by Tara Needham

Tara Emelye Needham, 2010 PSP participant, Patricia Hampl workshop

Tara Emelye Needham’s non-fiction has been published in Blind Field: A Journal of Cultural Inquiry (“How to Ask A Feminist to Do the Dishes”) and Guts Magazine (“Characters of Finance”). Her poems have appeared in J Journal: New Writing on Justice, Belleville Park Pages and Barzakh, and the lyrics from her current musical project, The Chandler Estate, appeared in Apogee Magazine. As of September 2018, she will be residing in Ankara, Turkey.

I attended the Prague Summer Program in 2010 to study the personal essay with Trish Hampl. Our workshop was a wonderful coming together of women in all different stages of life, from writers in their early 20s to writers in their 60s.  For many of us, the weeks in Prague were a rare time and space to dedicate to our craft in the midst of other responsibilities: family, work, community, and so forth.

The “Girl Who Carried the Record Player” is a piece I wrote in stages after Prague.  It captures some of the productive tensions of finding art-work-life balance and creating time/space for writing, as well as exploring the differences between supporting others and sacrificing one’s self.  It benefitted from the insights gained from our superb teacher, Trish Hampl, about non-fiction as well as from the workshop experience as a whole.

The Girl who Carried the Record Player

In the second grade, Kerry Flanagan went from classroom to classroom on St Patrick’s Day to perform an Irish dance routine for the students.  I went with her.  My job was to carry the record player.

It was a portable one of some bulk— a brown, tweedy, square suitcase full of wires and sound.  I held it with two hands, leaning it on my thigh in order to propel it forward with each step of my leg. I was excited to go along and I felt special. At that age, the distance between me and the star was small—just a few classroom desks.  Before even crossing the threshold of each room, I would spy an electrical outlet, and diligently set up the player on a chair nearby. Then I would stand to the side, in the front near the door, not quite part of the class, not quite part of the performance, but in the delectable middle, belonging.

I used to tease Kerry with my impression of her dance, sticking my tongue out a bit in concentration like she did, pointing my toes and jumping.  She would laugh and offer a quick lesson on whatever step I approximated.  But she never offered an impression of my carrying of the record player, with two hands, leaning it against my leg.  Ours was not a reciprocal relationship.

Kerry would go on to be the star in all of our high school musicals.   She could dance (in styles other than traditional Irish step), sing in a nasal voice with great projection, and had an irrepressible onstage charisma.  She was suburban Long Island’s own little Bernadette Peters. In tenth grade, she got the lead in Little Shop of Horrors, portraying the down-on- her-luck bombshell Audrey, singing “Somewhere that’s Green,” the show’s dramatic spotlight solo, with a perfectly cultivated lisp.   I was in the play, too—a background dancer and chorus member. It was a step-up from the year before, when I played a table in our high school’s production of Leader of the Pack.

The following summer I attended a second-tier music camp to play violin and get away from the mall-beach-mall cycle of summers on Long Island.  A few weeks in, auditions were announced for solo acts in the variety show.  Come and try out with any song you want.  Bring the music.  Even though I was listening to the Cure and the Smiths, wearing a lot of black eyeliner, and compulsively writing letters to a brooding artist boy back home, I was drawn to that incomparable combination of music, sweat and spotlight that a solo promised.  I knew the intro monologue and lyrics to “Somewhere that’s Green” by heart. I had brought the song with me.

I searched out the audition room, as earnest and impassioned adolescent renditions of “If I were a Rich Man,” and “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” took over the basement of the music building after hours.  I was so scared.  So nervous.  Not because I did not think I could sing it.  I was more confused by my deep desire to do so. By age 15, I was well-practiced in the arts of self-doubt, so when an undeniable urge made itself known, I was cautious and suspicious, pensive and philosophical. Even if I could accept that I wanted this, it seemed audacious to ask for it. (Cue the Smiths: “Shyness is nice, but shyness will stop you…”) I was so close to walking away from the fluorescent lit room, but I handed over the music to the director and came in on cue: “A matchbox of our own, a fence of real chain link…”

My performance was a revelation.  I was the star of the show, of the whole summer.  The musical theater director built a special set for me:  a trash can overflowing on a little platform that rolled out, a little slice of Skid Row.  I sang perched atop the trashcan, first doing the monologue in my own version of the lisp, then singing the song with its crescendo and climax, and quiet whisper ending.  I wore a green, clingy dress that fit the part, brought out my hazel eyes, and announced my blossoming bosom to everyone including myself.  My newly acquired, late 80s Suzanne Vega bob haircut framed my face.  I was placed center stage for the group number.  I was voted “most unique” and “most interesting.” People told me I could have a career in singing if I wanted it.  My photo made it into the catalogue for the following summer. No one there had heard of Kerry Flanagan. And finally, someone was carrying the record player for me.

Needless to say, I was doubled-over weeping in the backseat as my parents drove me away from summer camp, knowing that with each mile closer to home, my fifteen minutes faded and were forgotten.  And I was right: by mid-autumn, I was miming cocktail party banter in Mame while Kerry had actual, audible lines and a starring role.

The record player was the start of a pattern: my life moves in cycles of carrying the record player or singing the song: from sitting quietly—though impatiently—while my first boyfriend noodled on guitars in Matt Umanov in NYC to teaching myself to play guitar and starting my own bands.  From writing and publishing my own ‘zine, to supporting small literary publishers as a professional arts administrator; from publishing my own poems to chauffeuring visiting writers to their readings as a graduate student. From tediously grading student papers to obsessively revising my own personal essays.

There are many possible explanations and ways to account for these cycles: some of the “big fish, small pond” variety and the reality of competition; others of my tendency to take myself out of the running because of fear of rejection and discomfort with my own ambition; and still more related to the necessity of earning a living, which I have tended to do in the realms of the arts and humanities, but in administrative or educational roles.  But even when my own artistic endeavors are coming to fruition, finding expression and even an audience, there is a part of me that more easily assumes the role of the girl who carries the record player.  Partly, its because I am good at it. Dependable, reliable, I set the stage so others can twirl, dance, write, sing and soar.  Even back then, I mistakenly thought of myself as Kerry’s understudy, but in reality, I was her manager, selected by my teacher because I was a straight-A student who could afford to miss the class time, would watch the routine respectfully, and bring back the record player —and Kerry— in one piece, without sneaking out for whatever reasons a second grader might sneak out.  I could handle “the talent.” But what about my own?

In the end, being close to art is not the same as making it.  Realizing that I have sometimes confused them is terrifying. And in making a living, particularly in the creative fields, the best parts of you can consistently go to bringing others’ projects and visions to fruition.   As I grow older, I am compelled to ask myself: do I want to be the girl who is carrying the record player, or the one dancing? The question goes beyond the necessary quid pro quo of being part of an artistic community, mutual support and recognition—which I firmly believe in.  You realize you simply must start carrying the record player for yourself, or something will be lost.