As if going to Pacific Lutheran University for the Rainier Writing Workshop (RWW) would help. Make it all disappear. As if sitting in lecture halls, plodding between classes and workshops, strolling up and down Garfield Street in search of libations and late night conversations would make it all go away. As if hiding in my writing residency program would work. As if I’d never be found, flushed out, during those ten days.
I had this fantastic mind that believed that grieving Nigel’s, my brother in law, death would simply fade away during my residency. That I could take a break from family hurt. That escape, from tears and anger and lethargy, would be possible. Like someone had given me a hall pass. No one would notice me racing through the hallways, jumping and shouting: I’m free!
What I wanted was a breath. A place to sigh. Room to forget about my husband’s pain, his tears, his guilt. A stairwell to dwell without wondering how my in-laws were doing or not doing. I wanted a place where tragedy didn’t sit at the head of the table, pounding his fists and gnashing his teeth. I thought such a place, at least for ten days on the Puget Sound, were possible.
Hide and seek works two ways: you’re either found or you give up concealment, a combination of victory and surrender.
It was Sunday night, the first day of residency, when the unexpected guest at my table, the one I thought I’d left hungry in Montana, entered my dorm room. He perched on my bed and mocked me as I put away my books, made my bed, thumbed through the schedule. He hissed, “You shouldn’t be here. You’re mind isn’t here.”
I stormed away, forgetting the heaps of clothes on the bed and went to a place I knew they carried my type of medicine: beer. On Monday, workshops and classes began. My mind was dull yet scattered. Broken. It was not because of the beer. It was because of him. He sat on my lap, his sits bones digging, almost piercing into me. Words slipped at my tongue. I couldn’t remember what I’d read. Listening was almost impossible. Doubt crept in. All I’d been through, could I really handle grad school residency?
Why was I so damn confident that I could stride around campus, gathering friends in my arms, joke about the year? Why was I so certain that my brain could handle long days of words and lessons while really, all my brain (and truthfully, my heart) wanted was a break. A rest. The load I’d been carrying was heavy and not easily contained. Now this asshole showed up in Tacoma and sat on my lap, stood on my head and stomped on my heart.
On Tuesday, Scott Nadelson, a faculty member, gave a morning talk titled “Laughing Into the Abyss: A talk about comedy as existential howl.” At the start, it was about comedy. About what makes us laugh. There were even movie clips to make us chuckle while we slurped coffee. Then it turned. Then Scott talked about his best friend dying, and what it was like for him to witness. How he felt like he was going crazy. How everything was crazy in the wake of his friend’s death.
No longer was I laughing. My head hit the table, hard. I hoped no one had seen me, knowing that this wasn’t really true since I was surrounded on all sides. Would they really notice this dark haired head pressed against the wood? Don’t cry. Don’t make a sound. Don’t cry.
Please, don’t cry.
Was there a giant sign above my head? Some sort of bloody halo that flashed on and off: Woman Lying to Herself and Telling Others that She’s Not Sad, Not Mad, Not Grieving, Not Going Crazy. She’s Lying!
It’s happened at this place before, this I should have known. Last year I was hiding behind fiction. And it served my writing terribly. I was sought out, stripped down, made to show my true colors. Told that my story was worth telling. That it was important and that it needed to be told. You can’t hide at RWW. You just can’t.
Scott’s talk hit me at the cellular level. I willed myself to stay planted in my seat. No matter what, I said, don’t get up. Don’t run. Don’t get into your car and drive home to Montana. Stay. Stay and listen.
I made it through the talk. And I listened. What I realized was that I wasn’t the only one going crazy in the aftermath of an unexpected death. Yes, I was going crazy, that much was true, but I wasn’t the first person to do so. Scott gave me hope: he made it through the craziness of death. Hell, he written and published books. He was a nice guy.
Outside of the lecture hall, with my Ray Ban’s snug against my head, better to conceal my tears, I saw Scott. I thanked him for his talk and with a tremble of my lips, told him my story. Told him that my brother in law died in June and that I was going crazy, I mean, really crazy.
He sighed and said, “I feel for you. I really do.” He said other nice things but I was so busy trying not to weep and moan at his feet that I sunk my teeth into my bottom lip and nodded my head in agreement. I knew he knew what I was going through.
RWW, I’ve come to learn, but need to fully accept, is a place where you can weep. Where you can stand up and wave your crazy flag. Where you can cry, and I mean, sob outside of workshop. And you can say those things that are supposed to remain unsaid, like: I’m so fucking pissed this person hurt the people I love. I want him to stop hurting his family. I wanted him to go away, but not like this.
Words hold many things: worlds and universes, stars and sorrows. Joys and planets. Microcosms and the expanse of a black hole. Words also hold truth, if you let them. And words also have the capacity to hold you.
Remember my hitchhiker? The bone crusher? Dream dasher? When I didn’t leave during residency he released his grip. When I sank into the arms of a classmate, he disappeared. When I cried and wept, tears falling from my eyes onto a bare shoulder, he hissed but retreated. He had lived on lies, my lies. He had gotten drunk on my insistence that I was OK. My mantra that I was strong, so strong in fact, that I could carry the weight of all this: for my husband and for my family, was not a mantra but instead a stammering of false hope. They didn’t ask this, but I still placed that boulder upon my back. When I stopped telling lies, stopped being utterly consumed with appearing strong and invincible, he gave me up.
RWW is no place to hide. This I should know by now. And bit by bit, day by day, when I named my feelings and no longer felt obligated to stay silent about Nigel’s death and how I was dealing or not dealing, I no longer felt like fleeing. What I found was shelter.