Monday, June 4, 2012

Somber Heart

Photo: Todd Doherty
Well, I won't lie: it's been a tough week. Not just for me, but for all of us in the English Department at WWU.

We received word last week that our future colleague, Genevieve Critel, died in her sleep last weekend. She was only 32 years old. We had hired her for a tenure-track position in Writing Studies, and she was our unanimous first choice (something that NEVER happens!) We were all so happy when she chose us, and she was so happy we had chosen her. We didn't really know Gen, but we felt her so strongly as already a part of our community. Her death left us breathless.

Then a former colleague's husband, also fairly young, died a few days later of cancer. And then over the weekend, the entire WWU community heard of the death of a student--a young man, an English major--by suicide.

In the midst of all this, a gunman kills five people in a cafe in Seattle.

What does one do in the face of this suffering?

I found myself burrowing deep inside, and yet at the same time, hungry for connection. Wanting just to touch people, see their faces, pat their heads to remind me they're still here. And yet I wanted to be very alone. To breathe. To sit with the knowledge that all our clocks are ticking down.

The origin of the word somber means "to cast a shadow." Somber is not a word I have occasion to use very often, but it's the word that kept ringing in my head all weekend. Somber. Like a gong. The reverberations shook me. I felt shadowed.

Then, yesterday, I started coming out of it. I could feel it, literally, in my body: a lightening. I'd like to think it's because I wrote most of the weekend. Or because I gave a reading as part of a benefit concert where I heard all kinds of women singing their hearts out. Because I understood, then, art as a deep kind of solace.

But it might not have been any of those things. It might have been just the natural progression of grief.

Sorry for the morose letter to you today. But where else can I be my authentic self than here, with you? Dear reader, what do you do when faced with emotions you can't really name? How do you live within them?


  1. I head off by myself to a place of wildness....a beach, a mountain valley....even a city park. And usually, unless I'm completely shattered, something alive rejuvenates my broken spirit. A bird, a dog, even a caterpillar...a flower. These are the things speak hope to me.

  2. It is hard to say, since every situation is different. For the most part, though, I write. I write, I take a lot of long hot showers (a fall back for me in any situation), and when I am not doing that I try to pass time visiting with friends and family. That lightening seems to come after some time passes doing these things, but you are right. Who knows if they actually help, or if I would have found a light switch without them. Either way, giving yourself some time to breathe and do things you enjoy feels really good, and it can help lessen the darkness.

    The happenings around here have been very sad. I think there have been more shootings and deaths (near me either physically or spiritually) this school year than I have ever encountered. I am graduating this weekend, though, and I look forward to turning the page.

  3. Dear Brenda, I am so sorry to hear of your loss and suffering. When my father died last year, I found that the words came and went. Some days I wrote and wrote as if the hammers of hell were after me; and then were many other days when no words came at all, when I seemed to inhabit a vast, cold, empty space. I tried to just be wherever the hour took me.
    Thinking of you xxx

  4. Dear Brenda, This post is so beautiful and I know it will resonate with a lot of people, even those far from your community. All these losses, these shocks to the heart. Your young colleague-to-be, the husband of the former colleague, the suicide, and now the random shootings in Seattle: it's a lot to take in.

    I have no words of wisdom here except to say that it is important when things like this happen that someone with wisdom and compassion is there to record these events--just as you have here for us. Thank you, Brenda, for your big brave heart.

    Sending you all my thoughts for peace and solace.

  5. Thank you so much for your responses. You help me remember this is all part of the grand adventure of being human. Blessings to you,


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