INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT JULIUS
Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: You touch on grief, queerness and other heavy topics in your writing, which we see in “Noble Silence.” What drives you to write about such heavy subject matter?
Robert Julius: I write about these topics because they are my personal lived experiences. I understand that they may be perceived as heavy subject matter, but being human is heavy! Grief and death are universal to the human experience, and yet, I am fascinated by the way death and grieving are kept quiet in American culture. We’ve sanitized death and put grief in a closet. Our culture glorifies youth and turns its head at aging and illness. When a culture is afraid to look at dying in an honest way, I think we lose out on an experience of truth—something that can open the heart right up. I want to make sure that my writing isn’t afraid to take a deep, long look at the things that scare us.
RR: We’re interested in the flashbacks and flash-forwards, and how time moves in the essay makes it feel like there’s an ambiguous present moment. Was that influenced at all by the meditation retreat itself? How do you approach thinking about time and narrative in your work?
RJ: I visited the retreat in January of 2016. My mother passed away in October of 2014. In the essay, my mother’s death is written in the present moment. I think this is a reflection of the way that grief lives in the body and psyche, how it’s not simply processed as a moment that has come to pass. Anybody who has lost a loved one knows that their death happens again and again. It’s always with the little things, like a specific song lyric coming back to you. Things that you wish you could share with the departed. I wanted to find a way to capture that recurring loss.
The sense of an ambiguous present moment, I think, comes from the scattered way the monkey mind is constantly dipping into the past and future to try and make sense of its predicament of being here in the inescapable present. Like anyone, I’m pulled to the past and future, but what I love so much about writing is that everything can exist at the same time on the page. We’re able to be at many times and places at once.
RR: We’re drawn to the essay through its calm and centered language and voice, and also because it’s such a personal topic. How did the essay begin and come together for you—with voice, subject, language, or something else?
RJ: At the start of writing this essay, I was diving head-first into my first creative nonfiction course at The Ohio State University. I had never considered writing essays before, only poems and the occasional short story. Since I was at OSU to complete my MFA in poetry, I had tried writing many poems about my experiences at Shambala Mountain Center, but none of them were really able to communicate what I went through there. I would say the essay first started with subject—out of a panicked need to write something before a deadline—but as I went, I found that the landscape of Colorado really grounded my language. My encounters with nature there, the openness of the sky against the backdrop of mountains, lent me perspective on the smallness of my being.
RR: How did you find the Buddhist meditation retreat? In what ways, if any, has the retreat influenced your writing?
RJ: The Buddhist retreat was part of a travel course offered by my undergraduate university. I found a flyer in one of the common areas and knew immediately that it was something I wanted to do, especially because it was in Colorado. I’ve always wanted to see the Rockies. I had studied Buddhism since I was sixteen. The concept of radical compassion and knowing that there was a path to work through suffering really appealed to me.
More than anything, the retreat grounded me with the tools necessary to live a more authentic life infused with presence. That kind of noticing has helped my writing in too many ways to count. It makes for an active practice wherever I go.
RR: Are there any other projects you’re planning or writing that you can share with us?
RJ: Absolutely! At the moment, I am finishing up the manuscript of my first novel. It is about a drag queen who returns home to grieve the sudden loss of his mother. After living far away from home for so long, he must contend with how life has changed and stayed the same in his hometown. It’s as much a story of homecoming as it is a story of learning which parts of yourself can only be found elsewhere.
Robert Julius’ work in Issue 8.3: