A show about planes aired on PBS last night. Images of early wood-and-canvas aircrafts flashed on the screen. A black-and-white still of a World War I general. The narrator’s deep voice captured the general’s sentiment without irony: These flimsy flying contraptions have no place in battle! One hundred years later, the general seems so distant.
I can’t stop thinking about her. I bought her book, Distance and Direction, but forgot when last I saw her to have her sign it. Another time, I thought. In the book, Judith writes, “The time that’s gone inhabits a realm of its own.” Where? I wonder. How distant?
Humans are beholden to so many things: oxygen and calories and water. Our flimsy corporeal contraptions always crash in the end. But flying—this modern ability to move through the air—tips the balance in our favor. In flight, we get to say, “Screw you, Big Bad Unyielding Law of Gravity. No hollow bones, but looky me up here!”
Last Christmas, my husband gave me a flying lesson. I waited until July to take it. The helicopter was a tiny glass bubble with a whirly-gig hat and tail. The instructor and I barely fit inside. First he tried teaching me to hover, but kept having to take the controls so I didn’t crash our glass bubble. Hovering is the hardest part—like holding a mass of whirling air in one place.
She was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease then breast cancer—only just this morning I read the diagnosis in an old interview. Why do these details matter to me now? Why do I search for “interstitial lung disease,” as if the definition—a disease that makes getting enough oxygen into your bloodstream (that is, breathing) difficult—is equivalent to understanding something important about her. As if breast cancer is a reason.
My home state of Alaska is an enormous landmass 2,000 miles from the continental United States. We had to fly most places. The loud and shaky twin engine turbo prop was, to my kid self, a familiar machine. Take off was the fun part: the rising up, wheels bouncing off the airstrip, until the plane swayed and the ground zoomed away. There is probably more to this, but that’s all I can remember.
“This is not dream,” Judith writes, “but memory. Time set in motion, swirling in its own vortex.” I’m not sure what she means, and now I can’t ask her to explain. Writing memory is like hovering. You have to keep coming back. As a writer, Judith is a deft pilot. She lets memory unfurl and gather. She brings it back, considers it. She hovers. “The time that’s gone inhabits a realm of its own.” I try to hold her meaning in my mind as it swirls.
When did I first defy gravity? I’m not sure. Defiance takes time. I do remember leaping from our cement retaining wall, hovering a moment before our patio smacked the breath out of me. The day I found out she died was like that. Smack! “This is not dream, but memory. Time set in motion, swirling in its own vortex.”
A vortex is a mass of whirling fluid or air. Above the trampoline in my old gym, a blue practice belt dangled from two ropes. My coach used to have me belt up, put aside my fear, and jump as high as my muscled thighs could take me. He jerked the ropes through the pulleys. My body became a whirling mass. His body, a counterweight, gave me extra time in the air to flip and twist.
I don’t want to write about flying or death; I want to write about this brilliant and defiant and generous woman. This woman who inhabited a realm of her own, who defied gravity, and who encouraged so many of us.
I remember Judith teaching a class on writing essays, pushing us to risk. “Meaning will happen,” she said. Or something like that. She was always saying smart things, always encouraging us.
Encouragement, I think, is a counterweight to failure. Just a little can steady you, keep you from crashing, and give you space to discover. I hear her say, “Trust yourself,” and I feel something rising.
Quoted excerpts are from Judith Kitchen’s essay, “Displacement,” in her collection, Distance and Direction. Judith and her partner, Stan Rubin, founded the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University. She believed a writing program should be about community, not competition, and the program stayed true to Judith’s vision. As a graduate of the Rainier Writing Workshop, I feel honored to be part of that special community.