I think of you in Montana. I’ve only seen your place in summer, the buttes that turn gold in the afternoon sun and silver during those brief, ferocious rainstorms. But it must be snow and bitter wind now, the growing season already over for too long. I still have greens in my garden. It’s mid-December and we haven’t had our first frost yet. It should have come six weeks ago. I’m scared of what this might mean, but I’ve chosen to see it as a blessing. It has to be a blessing, doesn’t it?
When we last saw each other, you talked to me about writing and generosity. It was during that river trip we took on the Flathead, and the only people we saw in three days were the four big white men on the shore when we pulled our canoe out to go home. They were maybe ten years younger than us, and their youth and drunkenness and the absolute solitude of the place was utterly terrifying.
You said hello to them, Oskar, as if we were like them. But they knew we weren’t as well as we did. I couldn’t be nice to them. The way they talked about women and fags, the way one of them shook his shoulders when he talked, as if he still hadn’t gotten used to the muscles that surrounded his neck, the way another sent his pit bull into the water with a giant chain and padlock for a collar. You didn’t hate them, Oskar. You didn’t hate them, but I did.
I was so high from our three days alone, from floating on that boat and catching fish, that I’d forgotten the rules of the world we live in. The world that perhaps you live in more fully than I do. My pants and river gear were wet and I was sick of wearing them. I’d been about to change my clothes, had undone the button of my jeans when they pulled up. And I was so angry, Oskar, that I couldn’t just put on some fucking dry clothes. I got into our little car and tried to change there, but it wasn’t worth the risk of one of them seeing me through the dirty windshield. I don’t know what would have happened. Maybe nothing. Maybe nothing at all.
We killed the last fish in front of them. They had been on a stringer tied to a tree that hung over the water. The big pit bull came and sniffed at the blood and guts, and one of the men called him away. You waved to them as we left, and I reached over to wipe a pinkish stream of water and blood that hung in your beard. Do you think they might have hurt us, I asked. And you, the generous one, told me that living in Montana was just like any other place, that you just had to know how to read people.
You think there’s something wrong with the world that can slowly be fixed. Through kindness, through conversation, through that seemingly endless word, generosity. On the river, I told you that I have some soul trouble, and that my writing work was suffering. You asked me how many times over I’d be dead if I didn’t write. And this made me laugh. The answer is only once. We only get to die once. I don’t think I would have made it to my twentieth birthday without it. I wrote for survival just as you did. And the writing, like any blessing, carries something of a curse with it.
You asked what kind of generosity I had to have with the world and with my work in order to be able to write. What kind of love and devotion. I don’t know, I said. A thousand swallows flew in and out of tiny holes on the chalk white cliffs that rose on one side of the river. You can’t be a good writer and be afraid all the time, you said. That generosity you give to your work, you have to give to your own life, to your own self. You even have to give it to the people who might want to destroy you. You can’t be afraid of dying and you can’t be afraid of other people’s hatred. This made me think of a quote from James Baldwin that I’ve gone back to again and again since I was a teenager: that the person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality, for that touchstone can only be oneself. We all have our own particular sorrow, you said, even those men on the river. But you can’t think of yourself the way you imagine they might. I don’t think it’s true, that we die only once. We do it over and over again, everyday. But we don’t have to. That’s what you told me, Oskar. That we don’t have to.
Sister Margaret, in Baldwin’s play The Amen Corner, says, “Isn’t it awful how love never dies.” In the Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins play I saw last week, love is the only thing unafraid enough to jump with us into the grave. When the elders tell us, as so many of them do, that what is left after everything else falls away, is love—I hear them saying that we have to take full responsibility for our lives. There is talk among my people now, now that we are older, of a love so great that it has the power to heal our ancestors, and that to take up the work of healing oneself necessarily means healing the ones that came before you. My father has been dead for a decade, and I have become something he could have never imagined, and he too—I can feel this humming through the lines of history, time, existence—has set down some of the baggage he gave to me. A love like this, I think, reaches far beyond empathy, beyond ethic. People don’t relinquish power because it’s the right thing to do; they do it when they understand power is killing them too. The love the elders speak of is an ability to feel that is so deep that it leaves no choice but to stand with other people. It is a transformation of the mind, the flesh, and the spirit. To try and resist it will destroy you.
Snowing in Montana. That’s what the weather says today. You and I used to say that the only bad things that ever happened to us was the shit that already did. I hope you’re safe, that you’ve got the chickens locked up and that the dogs aren’t going crazy trapped in the house. I am working on my love, Oskar. I can feel the tide of my childhood, finally, going out. I am working on turning my fear back into wonder. I am working on a love that is unafraid of death.
Let’s see each other soon,