I never really learned about thank you notes. Some families do it, some don’t. I just don’t remember anybody in my family talking about it much. Then I married into a family of people for whom they are very important. You’d think that nearly three decades of being expected, and often gently reminded, to attend to something might tip me off to its importance, but not having learned the custom young ends up being a real handicap for me. Usually if a family member or friend gives me a gift, I make a mental note to follow up with a thank-you, and then I go looking for the thank-you notes, and at first I can’t find them in spite of my mother-in-law gifting them to me every Christmas for the last 27 years, and then I start to write the note, and I don’t really know what to say. I start worrying that my sentiment will come up short, that I’ll get some detail about the gift, or the giver, wrong. I start envisioning them holding the note, reading it, and judging me. I keep no record of who I owe these notes to. I often neglect to ever mail them. Usually I just walk around all the time assuming most of my family members and friends are disappointed in me in a general way.
I’m now back two weeks from one of the best travel and/or study experiences I’ve ever had: The Bay Path University Field Seminar in Dingle, Ireland. Suzanne Strempek Shea, Tommy Shea, Leanna James Blackwell, this is my thank you note.
First Paudie O’Shea drove me from Kerry airport to Dingle in his van, which had a chicken under the passenger seat. He was talking to me cheerfully about his cholesterol in a charming English/Irish combination while he pointed underneath my seat, indicating there was a chicken under there. I was confused. Turned out it was baked, and for his wife Marina’s lunch. We stopped off at his house on the way to my guesthouse to deliver it. Then when we got to town, I met Tommy Shea for the first time when he greeted me while I was still in the van and insisted I go with him to see the city and get my first meal in Ireland (seafood chowder and Crean’s lager at John Benny’s, home to Mike, to the only sarcastic bartender I could find in a week of scouting local bars for sarcastic bartenders), while we talked about writing and books and Tommy showed himself to be a warm, friendly, endlessly curious and totally fun person. On my last full day in Dingle, I’d run into Tommy on the street in front of our guest house, and I’d know he could tell I’d been crying but and he showed concern but didn’t make a big deal about it.
Here’s why, Tommy: Back in June when I was making my plans to go to Ireland, finishing up my workshop pieces, picking out the workshops I’d attend, researching faculty, I’d come across Ann Hood, who would be leading a fiction workshop during the seminar. I was already familiar: I’d read a bunch of her tight, funny, knowing essays already. She’d written about food, about family, about how much fun she had imagining herself as possibly related to mafia when she was young. Some of the same stuff I like to fancy that I write about. I was impressed. She seemed like the writer, like the person, I’d always wanted to be.
Then I read that Ann had lost a young daughter. I remember coming across the piece, while I was taking a few minutes of break time at work, finding a Facebook post about how she’d written the book Comfort: A Journey Through Grief about the experience. I couldn’t even read the whole post. I just stared at it, gape-mouthed, for a few minutes.
I have two teenaged daughters. My irrational fears for their safety have haunted all the dark corners, and occasionally the bright, shiny front room, of my mind ever since each of them was born. Ann Hood had faced down the largest demon I’d ever even conceived of and written a book — by all accounts a beautiful book — about the experience. That is badassery, and not just garden-variety bad-assery. That is bad-assery on a mystical, magical level that I am afraid to touch. I’m afraid if I come into contact with it for more than three minutes my hair will fall out and my organs will cease to function.
Suddenly I couldn’t even face Ann’s picture on Facebook without almost bursting into tears. To be fair, I’m of the age where I burst into tears just about every time our dogs do something cute or when I miss garbage pickup day, but this was emotional response that I was not interested in learning how to to handle. I snapped my laptop shut. My break was over. I didn’t want to talk about fiction anyway. I would not be signing up for Ann Hood’s workshop.
So I go to Ireland. I take a creative nonfiction workshop with Tommy and Suzanne Strempek Shea and a playwriting workshop with Leanna. I’m immersed in finding ways to assimilate and understand the super-positive things they say, which my ego goes crazy for, and the suggestions for improvement, which my ego likes to put aside for at least a few days before really thinking about. On Monday, all I hear is that everybody loves my stuff and I’m funny and wise. On Wednesday, I realize that people also said I need to go deeper. I need to put more of myself on the page. I need to not dash stuff off and call it done, to maybe not always go for the quick jokes, to not be afraid of the dark corners.
Suzanne and Tommy also said, have you read Ann Hood’s stuff? She’s amazing. You two have a lot in common. I smiled and imagined I looked like a coyote, thin lips stretched over too-big teeth. Yeah, I’ll have to check her out, I said.
We had craft talks every day, and I attended Ann’s, reasoning that I could probably be in the same room with her without breaking down, because she’s written so much I felt relatively safe that we might not get to the sad book. Her latest, The Book That Matters Most, was due out within weeks so she talked about that. My cowardice was rewarded. I’d looked forward to Michael Ruhlman’s talk on the last day of the seminar, because he’d written so many books and articles I’d liked so much and I figured his talk wouldn’t challenge me emotionally because he mostly writes about food and, you know, he’s a guy.
Michael’s talk was where it all fell apart for me. He writes about a lot more than food; in fact, he’s got a new book of fiction due out this fall. I think he’s at Breadloaf while I type this. Anyway, yeah, he’s a guy, but he talked a lot about the pain and emotional toll of a writing life. He talked about writing about one topic but then going deeper and being brave and real. And about ten minutes into his talk he gestured toward his friend of 30 years, Ann Hood, who was sitting behind me. He told us about Comfort. About Ann’s bravery.
I could hear Ann react behind me, very quietly. I managed to make it though the rest of his talk. Then I just about got back to my room before I totally lost it.
After about an hour of crying and looking out my window at sheep, I realized what I’d felt wasn’t an aberration, wasn’t a freaky dumb thing I did because I’m so afraid to face my fear. It was kind of the reason I went to Ireland in the first place. We’re all afraid, to a certain extent, all my new MFA and Ireland seminar friends. I might have been the only one to take things to such a clownish level as to slink around pretending not to know who people were, but I think only Tommy saw my reaction, and it didn’t seem to freak him out. I think because that’s why he and Suzanne and Leanne and Ann and Michael and all the other amazing faculty and speakers we heard from in Ireland were all there too. There were all there all doing their damndest to show us, by example and with love, how to do just this.
So, thank you for that.