2014, Archives, September 2014, The MFA Years

MFA vs. LDR: Some Thoughts On The Long Distance Relationship

So now it’s late September. The beginning of autumn—or, if you’re here in Los Angeles, of a bizarre season where 90-degree days mock us alongside nonsensical ads for pumpkin lattes and calf-high boots and chunky knit sweaters. For MFA applicants, it’s also the start of “high season:” summer is over, leaves are falling fast and application deadlines are suddenly as little as two months away.

In other words, it’s crunch time. So naturally, amidst the sea of to-do lists, GRE score reports, transcript request forms, multiple SOP drafts and resumes littering my desk and haunting my dreams, I wake up on a sunny Saturday totally preoccupied with the issue of long distance.

That’s right. The dreaded “LDR:” long distance relationship.

Spend a few years lurking on the MFA Draft Facebook page and commiserating with fellow late-twenty-something applicants like I have, and you’ll soon find the LDR to be of primary concern to a number of older (and even some younger) MFA hopefuls. No one puts it on a checklist alongside stipend and cost of living, teaching opportunities and student/faculty ratios, but perhaps they should. After all, it’s kind of a big deal. For those of us who are married or in committed relationships, do we ask our significant others to pick up and move with us? Or do we stare down the barrel of 2-3 years living apart? Do we ask the person we love to sign on for big move that might take us out of the city, state or country to one of, oh, 5-15 different possible locations, even though we won’t have a clue WHICH of these locations we’ll end up at until April 2015?

On the one hand, deciding to only apply near your current home, or in cities where you and your partner are happy to move, can help narrow the field. On the other, it can make things TOO narrow—the elimination of programs that might work for you, but would land your partner in a useless job situation or dreaded climate, for example. Being “in this together” can strengthen your bond. It can even feel romantic. But it can also foster immense pressure when you consider that your success as an applicant will not only determine your own fate, and that of your MFA dreams for the year ahead, but also that of your boyfriend or girlfriend, husband or wife, this person who loves you enough to take this crazy leap at your side…but who, at the same time, will inevitably prefer certain places over others—places you may or may not have the option to choose between once acceptance calls kick in after the New Year.

I’m no stranger to “doing long distance.” Over the past six years, my boyfriend and I have repeatedly spent up to 6 months living apart. We grew accustomed to bridging the space between Texas and California with phone lines and flight plans. And then, when it was all over, reveled in the opportunity to close the gap and co-sign a lease. Of course, living together bears its own challenges: tight quarters, minimal privacy, shared office space carved in along the perimeter of our living room (thank you, L.A. rental market!). And more importantly, little time to be alone; to miss one another’s quirks and habits; to remember, without influence, who we are without the other.

That being said, I simply wasn’t ready to do long distance when it came down to it during my first MFA application cycle. That year was a complete emotional roller coaster that saw me tearfully asking my boyfriend to follow me to grad school in the fall, giving up all hope when rejections started rolling in come spring, hatching a plan to move to Los Angeles with him instead by March, and then getting in off the waitlist at an incredible program and balking. I couldn’t have known until I knew, sitting there reading the acceptance email, that it wasn’t the right time for me: to make the MFA my life, to live across the country from my partner, to get and give all that I had to a program and make the LDR worthwhile.

When I look to the year ahead, to my MFA plans and hoped-for acceptance into one of ten programs where I can dig in and focus on my writing, the long-distance factor weighs heavy on my mind. There is the part of me that is still afraid: to live apart, to be lonely, to put even something as strong as our half-dozen years of love and life building to the test. But there is also the part of me that can’t help but feel a thrill. I haven’t lived alone since my immediately post-college days, when I rented a big room with wood floors and bay windows in a Berkeley Victorian on College Avenue. I loved that room. I loved it’s simplicity, its malleability, its “mine-ness.” I hung a tapestry on the wall and used a futon for a bed. My desk was an old dining table, big and dark and sturdy. I had a vanity in one corner, a bookshelf along the inside wall, and a wide-open space in the center for my yoga mat, where I spent a good hour every day burning incense and listening to Ravi Shankar and taking my time because I could, because no one was waiting to share the space, to use the car, to go get dinner, to brush their teeth or fold their laundry.

I think about living apart and what I see is simplicity. A studio maybe, small and basic with just the things I need to live and work. A bed; a desk; a little kitchen; a floor space for my mat. I see this space and imagine my capacity to focus, to question, to read, to research and dig. To know myself again. Not to reinvent—and I want to make this clear. I love my partner. I love who I am when we’re together. I have no doubt that he has made me a better person—calmer, kinder, more thoughtful, more conscious, more aware, more nurturing—than I was before we met; that he has brought out a softness and a depth in me I didn’t know existed back in that Berkeley house all those years ago. I’m not seeking space in order to change. I’m seeking space in order to deepen; enrich; magnify; concentrate; elucidate what it is that I am, and want, and can and will write and express and why it matters.

In theory, I can do this with him. In many ways, he helps me: when he asks me what I mean when I spout off an idea, and I realize I don’t know yet; when we stay up until 2AM drinking rye and talking about our families, where we come from, what our paths have been. But in other ways, my living with and loving him makes it tough to do the big work: the work of taking those questions and conversations and sitting down and shutting up and getting the words on paper. When he’s there, I want to be with him. I want to stroll to the Farmer’s Market and buy fresh basil and tomatoes and squash and make us supper. I want to listen to his stories, his hopes and aspirations. I want to clean our bathroom and fluff the Flokati rug and buy succulents to arrange near the kitchen sink so the place looks homey and cheerful. I’m incredibly lucky to feel these things, to have this kind of love. But like anything worth having, that love comes with challenges.

Living together is beautiful. It can also be consuming. If I get the chance to pursue an MFA next fall, I’d like the program, the writing, the short time I’m giving myself to do this work, to come first. Maybe this will take the form of a long distance relationship. Maybe it will mean making financial sacrifices to ensure a private workspace—an office, a co-working desk, a permanent residency at the local coffee shop. Right now, our plan is the former. But if I’ve learned anything from the MFA application process, it is to remain flexible; to move with change as it comes; to go with my gut, and make decisions when they arise—not try to hedge and guess beyond the present.

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