What’s alive in the short essay “Distance” by Judith Kitchen (I’ll wait for you to read it.) is big-hearted compassion, a wide-angle lens on memory. What, at first glance, could be mistaken for nostalgia – Elvis, records, saddle shoes, Grace Kelly – is nothing close to the syrup of nostalgia. Kitchen exams memory as way of understanding relationship, to the past and to others.
What fascinates me most in “Distance” is the way the couple dances through the piece, somewhere between memory and the reality of the table in the opening sentence. Though the pair in this essay “heard different tunes” and “did not always coincide,” though the boat drifted further from shore, Kitchen does not take up a tone of sorrow or resentment. Her tone is one of bittersweet understanding. She inhabits the space between things where anything is possible. Her words open up a space for understanding, even in the most difficult situations.
This is not nostalgia, this is interrogation of memory. An interrogation of memory that creates room for compassion. Not just for others, but for herself.
Each moment in this essay contains humanity. “So let’s not pretend. We cannot know more than what we’ve done together. And even then we see it differently.” Even then we see it differently.
Built into the essay is the language of uncertainty: “How could you be expected to know?,” “Maybe you reach across this table and take my hand.” By embracing the uncertainty she embraces possibility, in memory and in people.
This is what happens when you take a freshly sharpened knife to the folds of the brain, tease apart neurons, place them under a microscope, and still recognize there is still so much unknown.
I return again and again to this essay, to both its exacting precision and its open heartedness – two things that are often separated brought together through language. I hope we can all create the space for careful attention and compassion in our writing and our lives.
PS – This essay is from Judith Kitchen’s book Distance & Direction. I recommend this book to you along with her book-length meditation on memory and illness, Circus Train, and a collection of her poetry reviews, What Persists.