2014, Archives, August 2014, The MFA Years

Leaving My Heart in San Francisco

I decided to apply for an MFA my junior year of college, shortly after declaring as a creative writing major. The more I sat in workshop and seminar, the more I understood that there was no place I would rather be. I never wanted to leave and I realized if I could become a publishing poet who taught creative writing, I would never have to. I could vacillate between my writing desk at home and a classroom for my entire life; spending my days reading poetry and talking about it with my students and colleagues, and my nights writing.

But, I had no idea what it actually meant to apply—to wait, to cry and thrash in anticipation of 12 rejections, to be sure you have been found a fraud, only to finally receive not one but multiple acceptances—and to then have to decide. I had no idea at the time that not only would applying for an MFA mean making a decision that would impact the next two years of my life and maybe its ultimate trajectory, but that I would have to make the decision while two years into a committed relationship.

* * *

Towards the end of my junior year I met Pete, a cook living in Brooklyn. We fell in love over the summer and I moved in with him before my last semester at Columbia University.

During that same year-and-a-half, my grandmother was crushed by a truck, broke nearly every bone in her body, and my grandfather’s Parkinson’s entered its last stage.

I had been contemplating applying to MFA’s my senior year, but decided that I needed to take the next year off, move back home, and apply for the following year while helping my grandparents prepare for the next stage in both of their lives.

Pete had been working at the same place for almost a year and a half and was ready for something new, ready to not live in New York City anymore and neither one of us were prepared to be without each other. So we decided he would come too.

A sepia toned picture of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

We spent the summer driving cross-country and arrived in San Francisco on August 01, 2013. I immediately began crafting large and tedious excel spreadsheets with every detail of each MFA program’s specific application and graduation requirements. I started contacting professors, drafting statements of purpose, and editing poems.

I had finally committed.

I paid the application fees, and hit send.

* * *

Throughout the process of applying, I was busy concentrating on all of the things that needed to be done for each application. I was too obsessed with perfecting all of it to be worried about not getting in or how being accepted might actually affect my family and the life I was building with Pete.

I also could not have foreseen that shortly after the five months between arriving in San Francisco and sending in my last application, Pete’s boss would decide to open his own restaurant and subsequently ask Pete to be the Sous Chef. The position came with a huge raise and all of the responsibility that Pete had been craving.

* * *

Sometime in February I received my first phone call. It was from the University of San Francisco. I had applied because I wanted the option to stay at home, and because D.A. Powell is on the faculty. Over the next month and a half I received two more phone calls, several emails politely declining my admission, and one waitlist.

My options were USF, The New School, or New York University. I had just moved out of New York and as much as I pined to sit in workshop with Sharon Olds, it took getting in to both of the New York City schools I had applied to to make me realize that I could not see myself moving back for a very long time. Pete felt the same.

I felt trapped. It seemed like I would be attending USF but was desperately praying for just one more phone call.

That phone call came on April 13, two days before the decision deadline. Lisa Olstein was calling to congratulate me on my acceptance to the University of Texas at Austin New Writers Project.

I was excited for all of 10 minutes. Until I realized that there was no way that Pete would want to move now, especially if the decision had to be made in two days.

What I hadn’t fully gleaned as we discussed the faint and somewhat absurd notion of moving right back from whence we came, was that Pete didn’t just not want to move to New York, he didn’t want to move anywhere. In the abstract, before the gnarly fingers of reality had groped us, it all seemed possible—he could follow me to San Francisco, we’d save a whole bunch of money, and then we could move wherever the MFA wind blew me. It was so romantic and such a load of shit.

Part of the reason Pete had ultimately decided to move to San Francisco with me was financial. San Francisco meant living rent-free in an apartment owned by my grandfather and being able to save money rather than scrounge for it. But, our month-and-a-half, 7000-mile road trip, that had hauled us and all of our possessions across the country, had left us both in the hole, and after 6 months of rent-free living we had barely broken even. Moving meant spending what little he had managed to save and resetting at zero again.

But, with Austin in the running, it was hard for me to see anything else. It was the program of my dreams: small cohort, full and equal funding, teaching experience, and room in my schedule for literature seminars.

Not only was it everything I had wanted, full funding meant that I could support myself and dedicate my time to school, without the burden of another job, loans, or the generosity of my family. But the only way I could see it being possible was to hesitantly approach the idea of long distance.

I didn’t want Pete to give up a huge opportunity for the hot, drawling unknown. I didn’t want him to move and then resent me for it and he didn’t want me to give up Austin and everything that it could mean for my career, didn’t want me to resent him either.

But, I didn’t know if it was even possible—if I was capable of being without him for months at a time. We do everything together and I feared I had forgotten how to live without him; that I would crumble without his physical support. I feared we wouldn’t recognize each other on the other side of two years. I feared everything.

On top of it all, I wasn’t just thinking about leaving Pete, I was thinking about leaving my grandparents too.

My grandparents have raised me and provided for me since I was 15. They gave me unconditional support, an apartment, a college education, and a future. They are my everything. Now, I was contemplating leaving them, again, when they needed me most—my grandfather slowly withering into a jumble of stutters and organ failures and my grandma still recovering from her accident, all while running her business and caring for my grandpa in his last days.

* * *

Shortly after receiving the call from Lisa, I emailed the program administrator for the email addresses of current students. I wanted to be fully informed before making my final decision. Maybe the students would say they hated the program and I could stay home. I wouldn’t get to teach and I would continue relying on someone else for my education, but I would still be earning my MFA and I would get to sleep beside the love of my life every night and see my grandparents every week. I would be with my grandpa in his last days instead of missing my chance to say goodbye because I was stuck grading papers in an apartment half way across the country.

That didn’t happen. I didn’t really think it would. In fact, they couldn’t stop raving about everything from the professors to the pedagogical training. It was everything I knew it was.

One of the students I corresponded with was in his last semester and had mentioned he had a fiancée living in California. I took it upon myself to dig deeper. I asked him if he was willing to talk about his experience of long distance relationships. In return, I received the most thoughtful and generous response I could have hoped for.

He broke down the two years into the actual amount of time he spent apart from his now wife, and made it seem doable. He explained the logistics of making it work and the emotional side effects it might bring. But, most importantly, he told me it was worth it. That was all my mind needed to hear.

It was then I realized that by allowing Pete the space to devote himself to becoming the Chef he wants to be and allowing myself to devote my time and my being completely to my craft and teaching, we would together be working towards fulfilling both of our ultimate goals of getting married and starting a family together.

After multiple long, and wonderful emails back and forth with the student from NWP, and several excruciating conversations with Pete, it was decided.

* * *

As I sit on my sofa in San Francisco writing this blog post, there are two weeks left till I will be hopping in a cab to the airport. I’ve signed my lease, scheduled my utility transfer, and confirmed my attendance at orientation.

I’m moving to Austin without Pete and without my grandparents. It’s going to be rough. There will be a thousand more tears than there already have been. I might not be there to say goodbye to my grandpa, but there won’t be any regret or resentment. I will rest assured that I am not only fulfilling my own dreams with this decision, but also Pete’s dreams, and taking everything my grandparents have so generously and selflessly given me and turning it into a life that makes the most of it all.

I can’t wait.


Ally Covino is a graduate of the New Writers Project, as well as the recipient of a Michener fellowship and a prize from the Academy of American Poets. She lives in San Francisco.

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