Neile Graham described leaving Clarion West to us as “raw”, and that’s how I felt my last morning at the sorority house. Some people had already left. Others were packing. When my ride to the airport arrived, things happened so quickly. I went out to say hi to the volunteer who would take me to the airport, and suddenly my classmates were around me, bringing out my luggage and helping me load it into the trunk.
How do you leave Clarion West? You don’t. You kind of get taken away from it.
If you’re lucky you’ll have someone like Cassie to help you keep it together with secret tricks about stiff upper lips, Jei and Alex there to hug you and say you’ll see them again, Mark to come out of the house at the last minute and wrap you in a bear hug. And you might have Maria saying she’ll write to you, and Jack saying he’ll see you again. And just when you think you’ve seen everyone for the last time, there will be Cassie and Jei leaning out of an upstairs window, waving to you, making you laugh, and pushing you into tears after all when you thought you’d make it to the airport without crying.
So not writing about Clarion West after you’ve come back to your other life is a kind of shield, or maybe just a good guard against writing overly emotional blog posts (I have trespassed, alas, and must pay the price). Going back to life post-Clarion is hard. So hard. But it is worthwhile, because you carry your friendships, and your knowledge, and your new stories with you.
There is a poem by Rilke that wraps in and out of the feelings I have for my Clarion West classmates. The last Friday night party I spent time talking with Jeremy, about going back, and about how we were just beginning to really know each other. There’s this immense feeling of loss, of almost having.
You the beloved
lost in advance, you the never-arrived,
I don’t know what songs you like most.
No longer, when the future crests toward the present,
do I try to discern you. All the great
images in me – the landscape experienced far off,
cities and towers and bridges and un-
suspected turns in the path
and the forcefulness of those lands
once intertwined with gods:
all mount up in me to signify
you, who forever eludes.
Ah, you are the gardens!
With such hope I
watched them! An open window
in the country house -, and you almost
stepped out pensively to meet me. I found streets, –
you had just walked down them,
and sometimes in the merchants’ shops the mirrors
were still reeling from you and gave back with a start
my too-sudden image. – Who knows if the same
bird did not ring through both of us
yesterday, alone, at evening?
~ from Uncollected Poems, by Rainer Maria Rilke
At graduation we were given decoder rings that flash a blue light. I thought at first they were meant to guide us through our writing, to help us translate the mysteries and skills of craft into our own stories.
But the night I arrived home in Alabama after Clarion West, I discovered the real purpose of the decoder ring. I twisted the silver metal until the blue light flashed, hoping it would somehow take us all back to Seattle, back to the workshop and to each other. I stood in front of the mirror in my clothes that smelled of stale airlines, my pigtails I had brushed into place in the bathroom of the sorority house, and hoped that somehow the stories we had been writing would bend reality, and make this strange thing come true. But there was, of course, Of Course, only the blue blinking light.
So real life went on. I took a shower, I changed into clothes different from the ones I had worn the last six weeks. I plugged in my computer and sat at my old desk.
And there they were. Some traveling, some still in Seattle, some already home. All hearing echoes of each others’ voices, seeing friendly faces in strangers’. Spread out across the hemispheres, but still and always together.