November 2016 Articles

U-Curve: On Revision



By Elizabeth Mosier ’84

My Bryn Mawr education didn’t end when I graduated. Twenty-five extra years spent at our alma mater, recruiting students and teaching creative writing, was like a second graduate degree. On campus and across the diaspora of alumnae/i admissions volunteers, I studied Mawrters whose style and substance impressed me at a time when I had just begun writing seriously and was trying to find my literary voice.

Recently, I reconnected with three of these women to ask: If you’d known yourself at Bryn Mawr as well as you know yourself now, what would you have done differently? Years later, life has tuned their voices to express their personal and intellectual concerns from both sides of 50.

Co-president of her freshman class and of Mujeras, Maribel Garcia ’95 took great pride in her Mexican-American identity. “What if I went back and experienced Lantern Night without rage or culture shock?” she says. “Good God! It was my Aztec phase! But I’m a totally different person now.”

Garcia credits Bryn Mawr Dean Jo Ellen Parker, her mentor in the Mellon Fellows program, with teaching her the language of the academy. That skill served her well as she pursued a doctorate in anthropology and as a university professor. Her anthropologist’s lens enlightens her parenting as she raises two daughters to take pride in their Latina heritage and be sensitive to their “blanquita” privilege in the Main Line community where her family now lives.

Back at Bryn Mawr a few years ago to lead an academic writing workshop for Mellon students, Garcia spoke with confidence bolstered by her Ph.D. and by empathy born of experience. But she’s practicing a different form of authority in her second career as a writer. “Anthropology clarified for me that I didn’t want someone speaking for my community—and that I couldn’t speak for others,” she says. “But now that I’m older, I think: Who’s going to tell that story?”

Drafting her first novel, Garcia is trying to relocate the voice she lost. To give herself permission to tell the story of Mexican immigrant parents and their Mexican-American children, she summons the fearless girl she was and the wise, compassionate woman she has become.

Award-winning poet and literary translator Moira Egan ’84 took a mythology course with Mabel Lang that “knocked (her) socks off” sophomore year. “If I’d known then what I know now, I would have studied Classics,” she says. “The paradoxical outcome is that, despite majoring in German, I live my life in the offsprings of Latin and Greek. I learned (modern) Greek in Greece, moved to Rome, married an Italian man, and write in sapphics. The writerly path doesn’t always make sense when you’re living it, but I’ve ended up in a place that makes perfect sense for me.”

At Bryn Mawr, reading texts in the original drew Egan closer to the unconventional life as a poet she revered and resisted, wary of the Bohemian life. The work of poet Marianne Moore, Class of 1909, helped her reconcile writing poetry with intellectual discipline. “Marianne Moore was seen as very scientific and precise, even dispassionate,” Egan says, “but those poems are just beautiful, vulnerable autobiographies through plants and armored creatures and weird tchotchkes sitting around her house. I’ve always maintained that part of the reason some people don’t like Moore is that her poetry seems cold. It’s not cold; it’s a metaphorization of the self.”

If mythology fed Egan’s imagination, Marianne Moore helped free her from the false duality between left-brain and right-brain, scholarly and creative thinking that had stalled her writing. Both pursuits shaped her aesthetic and planted the seed of using language to interpret the world on the page, literally through her translations and figuratively through her poetry.

Rhea Graham ’74 remembers gathering with classmates on the steps of Taylor Hall to hear John Briscoe, assistant to President Harris Wofford, tell stories about his civil rights work in Mississippi and Selma, Alabama. Listening, she perceived a fork in her road: work for change outside the system or through it?

Raised to focus on the future, Graham chose geology—“the closest thing to being a naturalist”—and achieved the grade-point average required to major in a department notorious for weeding students out. She went on to earn a master’s degree in oceanography and forge a career in environmental stewardship in a field that tended to steer graduates to the mining or oil and gas industries. On her way to (and from) her appointment as the first woman and first African-American to lead the U.S. Bureau of Mines, she specialized in engineering geology, environmental permitting, Indian water rights, and water policy planning.

“Geologists were natural resource exploiters,” she says, “and now, at the end of my career, everything geologists were supposed to do has screwed up the environment. Why did geologists waste all this time beholden to people who wanted to make money?”

Newly retired and a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, Graham is encouraged by the emergence of environmental studies as an academic field and by the wider range of jobs geology students prepare for today. She’s grateful for what her career made possible, including her happy marriage, capable daughters, nice home in the exurbs, and pension. Still, satisfaction with the work she’s done to protect our planet and pave the way for others resonates with the path of protest she didn’t take.

“I would have a harder time not saying, ‘I don’t care if I get ahead—I’m going to stand up for what I believe is right socially,’” Graham says. President Wofford, in his 1970 Convocation address, advised her class to find their way through tumultuous times with “deep respect for persons, an enjoyment of differences, and a robust readiness for dialogue.” Now, reflective if not regretful, Graham says, “When I turned 50, I started listening to my gut. When I turned 60, I started voicing what my gut told me.”