Here is how it was.
I was afraid when I got to the retreat it would be mostly rich white people with rich white books about being rich and white. Or worse, rich white people with books about something more Glamorous. I was afraid we had been invited as part of the glamour.
But it was only half Rich and half Glam and so for all the rich folks I think we just read as different. It was like the way the city always paints the low-income housing hospital mint, lemon pie, and brink pink as if to say:
“We’ve done all we can to sterilize them.”
“What sweet thing are you making out of your fortuitous little hardship?”
“At least we’re demure here– on the precipice.”
The government says they’ll help you out with shelter but– if— “By the way, do you mind living in a petit four?” That way all the taxpayers can drive by and see the rainbow of their generosity, the spectacle of liberalism.
But these were the kinds of oblivious taxpayers who don’t understand the way their state-mandated donations humiliated the Glamourous Ones and so they didn’t really rub it in. Except, of course, in a couple of choice cases in which they brandished different sorrows in an attempt to bolster some mythic credibility. It was easy to tell them apart because the rest of us weren’t brandishing hardships. We were laughing out loud about missing teeth in a way that made them feel uncomfortable and then feeling sad and complicated about their sorrow.
Best and Worst:
It seemed almost foolish to start talking to the people who I would eventually talk to. Our latent friendship seemed such an embarrassing foregone conclusion that I was shy to begin. On the first night as a getting-to-know-you-game we were asked to find a partner and there were four or five I couldn’t have gone with because the facilitator had specified that we were to choose people we didn’t already know and they seemed too familiar. Of course they weren’t familiar and I didn’t know them. And: there wasn’t enough time to think like that.
Driving with G across the canyon from where we were staying I pointed to an enormous 1970s modern complex. “Wow,” I exclaimed with sincere curiosity, “what’s that?” We had been there four days already but it was only my second time away from the conference. She had been giving me a tour of the canyon and pointing out the really rich from the really really rich. With limited time I had decided to become an expert on Bel Air Knolls. For an hour I had pointed and she had obliged (that’s where Kathy Griffin lives, they’re cypress trees, yes– just like the movie.) “That?” she pointed, laughing, “that’s the University where we’re staying! In fact I think you can see ___ writing on the deck.” It was clearly him but I hadn’t been looking for him so I hadn’t recognized that hat and those legs. Soon it couldn’t have been anyone else.
“I saw a lizard!” ___ announced and later generously showed me a photograph of the reptile poised to run across the hot cement. “I got this one, too,” he said showing me a camera-phone image of the cement and the bushes from a greater distance. “If you know it’s there,” he said, “you can almost see the it.”
I wrote a note in cursive and it took him a moment to figure out what my letters were but he said the writing was pretty. Perhaps the worst thing to hear at a writing workshop.
Even when the moon was almost full
Even when the moon was full
Even when the crowd had thinned
Even under unforgiving institutional light
Even caught in headlights
Even as the rest of it turned into a restless, drunk din, and we perched distinct on the edge
Reading It Each All Other was still hard and dire.
And now I’m home and I’ve tried other outlets but it seems my only recourse is to write. Funny that that should have to be sufficient.
* A line from the entry “Angel” in Alistair McCartney’s encyclopedic novel The End of the World Book.