Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Morning Thanks--a life

I was 32 years old when someone at Bread Loaf Writers Conference called to tell me they were offering me a scholarship for a position as a waiter. I had no idea what being a waiter meant, but I understood vividly from the conversation that the offer was a good, good thing, an honor.

The house where we lived at that time is long gone, as is the tiny kitchen where I stood, phone in hand, listening. The call had come in the middle of lunch, our two little kids sitting beside us.

It’s now more than 30 years later, but I will never forget that call because I had the sure confidence that my being chosen for a scholarship to the granddaddy of all writers conferences, Bread Loaf, was a signal that, as a writer, fame and fortune lay just down the road. I had just published a book, my first, with a local press; now, Bread Loaf beckoned. The New York Times Book Review wasn't far away.

When I flew into Burlington, Vermont—early, because I was a waiter—I met a beautiful woman, my age, married with two children, an aspiring poet, also a waiter. Someone from the Conference picked us up, but we took the hour-long drive together into Vermont’s Green Mountains.

She had Dutch blood, her parents from Michigan originally, and she was married, two kids.  We swapped pictures.  Her name was Deborah Digges.

Ten days later, when we boarded a plane to leave, she and I stood on the stairway, waiting to enter the cabin. She looked at me and shook her head. “I hope this plane crashes,” she said, and she meant it.

At Bread Loaf, she’d been wooed by a celebrity poet, and she’d fallen. On the dance floor at night, the two of them looked like smarmy high school lovers, which might have seemed embarrassing if it hadn’t happened to so many others. Another waiter—also married with kids, two of them—told me it was important for him to have an affair because, after all, as an artist he needed to experience everything in order to write with authority.

On the plane home that day, I thought long and hard about her wish, wondering whether someone’s soulful desire could ever turn, magically, into reality.  She made me think, on that very flight, about dying, maybe for the first time in my life.  What if the Lord would take that plane down, as she wished--and what if I would go too?

I'll never forgot that flight, never forgot rehearsing the "what if?" of my own life and death.

Deborah Digges went home, left her husband for the handsome poet, whom she married and, subsequently, divorced.  Her career as a writer blossomed into high renown.  I have, in my possession, several of her books, including two memoirs, stories of a childhood ruled by parents who seemed fanatically religious, and her own motherhood fraught with great pain.

Her work was highly celebrated, her life itself a novel, waiting to be written.  

One day a few years ago I read an obit, hers. Deborah Digges died one afternoon out east at the university where she taught.  She'd taken a long stairway to the top of the football stadium and stepped off the edge, a suicide.

Today, or so says the Writers Almanac, it's her birthday.  She would be 62.  

The Christian in me wants to fashion a homily here, create a moral lesson out of a life that once upon a time--or maybe more than once--crashed and burned.

But I'll let others sermonize because there's a good deal more in her life or yours or mine than can be fit comfortably into a three-point sermon. 

She was, for a few days, something of a friend.  One afternoon she said something that changed my life after a fashion, begged me to see all my days in terms of their ultimate end.  I was young when I met her, but never quite that young again.

Such things happen.  Sometimes there are no words, even for a poet.

This morning, in many ways, I'm greatly thankful for her life but wish it had been different.
The image above is a drawing for a thoughtful article remembering the life of Deborah Digges.  

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