Article by Ela Harrison

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Judith Kitchen: Despite Body, With Body

As a person who talks to dead people and who has tended toward disembodiment herself, I have some different words to add to the celebration and mourning pouring out for Judith Kitchen —

Wife, mother, grandmother. Cofounder, with her husband, poet Stan Sanvel Rubin, of the Rainier Writing Workshop (the MFA program from which I graduated). Writer in every genre, with a style both limpidly readable and fiercely intelligent. Superbly influential critic, mentor, editor. Supernaturally gifted “matchmaker” of mentors and students, and so inaugurator of many valuable and productive literary relationships. Founder of Ovenbird Press; champion of fine writing in a changing literary culture. Someone who never suffered folly gladly, but who never made a fool out of anyone.

By the time I joined the MFA program, Judith had been dealing with cancer for several years. It’s a low-residency program, done by correspondence (and Facebook!) with a jamboree of Residency (writing, workshopping, discussions, readings, graduation, shenanigans) each August. So unless we’re very lucky and meet up at a conference, or have classmates visiting or local, the periodicity of our meetings is one whole year.

In the weeks coming up to Residency, amid the stream of information, workshop materials, etc., that Judith sent out she would always include two striking points. One was the injunction to take care of ourselves and our physical presence, our basic needs. Not to burn ourselves out. To take time out for a nap if we needed one. (Such a compassionate attitude in a world otherwise littered with all-night black coffee and pipe tobacco!)

The second was an update on how she was doing. This was entirely for our benefit, to prepare us–“My hair has grown back, but it’s shorter and fuzzier than you may remember.” “I’m wearing a wig again this year.” “Don’t be concerned that I’m using a cane.” “I may need to take more naps this year because of a new medication I’m on.”

She didn’t dodge the issue that she was living with a serious illness, she didn’t want people to be worried or distracted by it, and so she was wide open about it, allowed it to be the fact that it was.

It’s so interesting to me that Judith went out of her way to acknowledge and give space to the needs of the body–ours and hers–and to the fact that physical appearances can be distracting, because for the whole time that I was honored to know her, my experience of Judith was less as a physical presence and more as an energetic essence and a voice.

Obviously, had I been a family member or a closer friend I’d have had more of a physical experience of her as well, but even at close quarters, I found her transcendent. Some of this was her ability to know and understand people, to see into them. Her insight was so uncanny, it couldn’t possibly have been a product of spending the requisite amount of time with each individual.

I would encounter her in more than one place at a given time, and it seemed as though she knew everyone beyond the physical. (What a perfect superpower for a director of a low-residency program!)

As a writer and critic, her ability to fathom and sanction both the old school and the avant garde is another example of that flexibility of view that goes beyond the physical.

On a personal note, I had my share of near-death physical problems while I was in the program. Judith always seemed to know more about what was going on than I told her. There again was a tacit understanding of existence/essence transcending the physical, and yet, in the same straightforward way that she spoke of her own health challenges, she always urged me to do whatever I could to get things right with my body.

I know that Judith is still with us. But not in her body, and therefore keenly missed. I invite all of us to take her example of getting our bodies to work as best they can but also of transcending the physical, remembering and honoring her as we learn to be likewise energetically manifold.

[article courtesy of Ela Harrison]

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