I’ve never considered myself smart. Not academically smart at least. No degrees or letters after my name to brag about. Smart in the school of life, maybe. Leaving home at fifteen because of troubling circumstances, my focus was survival. I talked my way into an apartment lease when I was a teenager, weaseled into working without a permit before I was a legal adult and started a retirement account when I was sixteen and living below the poverty line. So, smart enough to get by. Smart enough to tell the snakes in suits from the pure of heart. Learning to keep my head above water, but never learning about the precious things like history and literature. My lack of a formal education has always been my Achilles’ heel. A self inflicted insecurity crouching just below the surface of each thought, holding me captive, forbidding me from speaking up and speaking out.
To my younger self, schooling felt like a luxury for privileged people with loving parents and consistent dinner times. The energy it takes to study should be used to make money and pay bills. School was for the elite, not for me. I have spent my life nodding my head and smiling through dinner parties where the subject matter felt beyond me. Asking questions occasionally if I felt safe enough, but usually stopped by the fear of not knowing. Immediately shrinking when someone mentioned their university as it rendered me invisible. How could I possibly have anything to add? Keeping myself boxed up because, as silly as it sounds, I didn’t fully realize I was allowed to be any different. Moreover, I was singularly focused on survival and found myself with a career that I managed to do well in by sheer will, luck and really hard work. Success did little to soothe the ache of not feeling like enough.
My partner Stephen and I recently bought a home in the magical paradise of Primrose Hill. Coming from America, I had never seen anything like it. I’d worked in London sporadically for years, but had never been to the cozy, sweet streets of the village. The warmth and charm vibrated off the walls of its pastel-painted buildings. The canal comforted me with its angelic swans floating past its earthy graffiti. Sandwiched between two parks, it was paradise.
With more stability in my life, the hunger to learn kept bubbling up but work and travel and… well… life… was consuming me.
And then the pandemic hit. My love and I bunkered down. After the fear and panic subsided, there was just the still quiet left.
It was an email from a friend about a six-week online creative writing class starting the next day. There would be reading, assignments, deadlines. Other students to critique and discuss ideas with. Having unexpected free time on my hands, I signed up.
The video lessons began. The tutor Sarah, with goddess gray hair, guided us through material that moved me. Her love of words came through her heart directly into mine.
The city was closed but my mind was open. Retaining tiny bits of normalcy, Stephen and I would use our allotted hour of exercise to walk through the park. The poetry of the previous day’s reading manifesting itself in the flowers and birds.
With the change in food supply, I discovered Dot Provisions. A local chef turned entrepreneur-making-lunches-for-the-neighborhood-during-Covid, Dot would walk to drop off her healthy, delicious creations accompanied by her vibrant smile. We’d briefly chat – me in the doorway, Dot standing by the gate. Her lunches were a respite from making three meals a day while in lockdown, freeing me up to get back to my studies.
A little time passed and things slowly eased. I’d walk the soft streets of Regent Park Rd past the closed flower painted doors of Greenberry Cafe to pick up my tutor’s recommended reading from Alice and Jessica at Primrose Hill Book Shop. Tuned into learning, walking home past blue plaques and Sylvia Plath’s house, the history of the neighborhood making itself known to me.
Thanks to a syllabus and deadlines, I’ve read more in the past few months than in my entire life. Hemingway, Orwell and Joyce. Things I’d heard of but only pretended to know. The short stories The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Yellow Wallpaper, and The Lottery. Introduced to the harrowing journals of Captain Scott and his ill-fated expedition. The reading accompanied writing assignments on plot, character, dialogue, encouraging us to draw from our own lives — which lead me to this, my first ever creative writing submission.
Lockdown led to learning, and with each new morsel of information, the shame that’s held me hostage started to fade. After finishing my course, my lovely tutor Sarah emailed me feedback that has continued to heal the broken bits of my confidence. She encouraged me to continue my educational journey with a longer program, one with real credits and a piece of paper at the end.
I start my certificate in creative writing in the fall. All of a sudden that word ‘smart’ doesn’t seem so intimidating after all.