Tuesday, April 10, 2012

On Finding Relief at Ragdale

             Last week I lost my unemployment insurance. Last week, I lost health insurance for my whole family. And, last week, Pat and I declared bankruptcy. Believe me when I tell you that I know that many people have had far worse weeks.
            The day of my bankruptcy hearing, I finally allowed my feet to hit the floor at four in the morning. I had been flinging the covers on and off, forcing Pat to roll over, readjusting my pillow, and picking up my glasses to look at the clock for what seemed like hours. The clicking of the analog clock’s seconds evoked images from science fiction movies – the painful slowing down of time before the dreadful, predetermined hour when life as we knew it would be completely destroyed.
It might be worth noting, here, that Pat was clearly going to sleep trough my apocalypse. In fairness, this might be because he’d already been through nights like this with me before. And we had – so far – arisen those following mornings with hearts still beating and no sign that our bodies had been claimed as hosts for a galactic showdown that was not of our making.
            Four in the morning is the hour for reckonings. Three o’clock still belongs to the night before. It is a post-party hour or the hour that one wakes up on the couch with the TV still on. But by four you have been to bed. You’ve attempted sleep and failed. You are up alone with no one to lie to. It is pre-dawn and the day is coming whether you like it or not. Four o’clock in the morning most assuredly belongs to tomorrow. Unless there is no tomorrow. In which case, you’ve got a whole host of new problems you haven’t even gotten to yet.
            I walked over to the clothes that I had set aside for the bankruptcy hearing. I was hoping to look respectful but not too upscale. The second part of that description would excuse the run-down pumps that I had picked up at a garage sale. Would the judge be looking at my pumps? Or at my sad, worried eyes?
            To be accurate, bankruptcy proceedings aren’t “hearings” or “trials”. By the time you sit in front of a Trustee, you’ve pretty much proved that you haven’t got a thing left but your second hand pumps and a prayer. The trustee takes control of your non-existent assets and BOOM… you’re discharged. With a credit score that looks like the circumference of a single cell organism and, if you’re me, a lot of self-reckoning.
            I am a woman who expects to pay her debts. I am a woman who likes to work hard. You can call me in the middle of the night and I will spend an hour listening. I will lend you money if I have it. I will watch your kids at the last minute. I am good for a favor, a pep talk, and a lengthy analysis of which pair of earrings you should buy even if the conversation bores me to distraction.
            I have my failings, for sure. But I am not a shirker, a flake, or a no-show.
            And I am bankrupt.
            Self-reckonings. Do I deserve a tomorrow?
            A suitcase was next to my worn pumps and the business slacks that I had only worn once before to a funeral. Yes. That afternoon, after my bankruptcy proceedings, I would grab that suitcase and hop on a flight to Chicago, Illinois. I was going to be spending an entire month at a writers’ residency called Ragdale in Lake Forest, Illinois.
            Was I running away? From my family? From the bankruptcy and my responsibility for it? That’s what it had felt like days before when I talked to one of my closest friends.
            “Everybody needs relief,” Stephanie said on Skype. I could see an unusually sunny afternoon in London outside the window behind her.
            “But it’s crazy,” I said. “I should stay here and get a job in a furniture store.”
            Lately, whenever I fantasize about getting a ‘real’ job, it’s always in a furniture store. Part of the reason is because the furniture in our apartment is falling apart and I believe I’ll get some good deals. But it goes deeper than that. I like furniture. It’s solid. It’s uncomplicated. It’s utilitarian. Furniture is the opposite of a poem. And, because being a writer is a small part of what landed me in bankruptcy, working in a furniture store feels solid. Like a cure. 
            “But you said, yourself, you’re depleted,” Stephanie said.
            “True. But any sane person would tell me to get a job, not run to an artists’ colony to write something that may or may not sell.”
            Stephanie smoothed her hair back from her forehead, “You’ve always said that you sell the things that you’re passionate about.”
            “I could be passionate about furniture. I could be super-passionate about a red leather club chair and hand-crafted knotty pine bookshelves.”
            “Listen. You’re not going to make that much money at that furniture store but you could make a lot of money selling a book. I could make the argument that taking the residency is the most fiscally responsible choice you have made in the past ten years.”
            I loved where this was going. Not only was I being fiscally responsible but I was also getting to spend a month living in a pretty room that looked out onto a prairie, reading novels, and eating gorgeous food that was prepared for me every day.
            Stephanie looked skype-straight into my pixeled eyes, “Trust yourself. You know that you need this. You’ll be better in every way. It’s healthy to look for relief.”
            I have thought a lot about that conversation since I arrived at Ragdale two days ago, relief suffusing my bloodstream like oxygen as soon as I stepped over the threshold of my room. I set up a picture of my two sons on my desk. I look at it whenever I doubt myself.
            There are different kinds of relief.
            I came here for artistic mooring. Time and space to listen to my inner voice. Room to distance myself from the expectations of others. I came here to be gentle with myself. To nourish my body and breathe crisp country air. But the main reason I came here, in spite of every practical reason to stay at home, was to save my own life.
            That sounds dramatic, I know. But I believe that our lives need saving over and over and over again. We all get lost. We all fuck up. We fuck up really, really badly. And when I look at that picture of my sons on my desk, I know that I owe it to them to find my way again. And, sadly, I wouldn’t have found it in a furniture store. Although I’d be happy to work there, once I’ve reclaimed what I lost. Or more accurately --- claim who I am now.
            Stephanie was right. We all need relief every now and then. And it is our duty to admit when we need it and to accept it when it’s offered. My relief is singularly luxurious and that is why I know – I REALLY KNOW – that people have had far worse weeks than the one I just had. I only hope that their relief comes quickly.
            Take it. Use it. And then give it to someone else.

Where I sleep

Where I write

Where I sit and think


  1. Sometimes my higher power speaks to me through your blog.

  2. The soul-baring honesty of this writing brought me to tears. Thank God for writers and their gift for- and willingness- to speak their truth! I'm sure you already know that so many people are going through financial hardships, losing their homes, filing bankruptcy. Someone will stumble upon this story and feel their pain, fear, embarrassment or all of the above ease a little because you put their experience into words when they could not. And the fact that you went on to the residency was the best part. We've got to follow our passion because that is the only way we know we are on the right path in life!

    Just a thought for you to mull over: when you come back, you might want to explore that furniture store thing. When you get a notion, idea, hunch over and over again like that, there's usually something to it. Maybe the experience of working there will flavor your next book, you will meet someone very important to the next chapter in your life, or it just might be the enjoyable part-time job that let's you relax financially for a minute. That last reason alone can be very powerful in building your self-esteem around money back up again. So anyway, I encourage you to play around with that idea and see how it feels!

    Enjoy your time away!
    Lisa Vail

  3. Yes, your honesty is amusing, Brett. :] Who would’ve thought that some women actually worry about the judge looking at their second-hand pumps? But as vain as it may seem, it is actually a rational thought. When in court, you should look your best, but not too upscale, as you said. It is to show your respect and interest in the trial.