October 2022 . . . .

Notes on a life.

A friend of mine died. It was in March, but I didn’t know, because I was consumed with the health problems of another friend, and I had just emailed him and although I knew that his heart was failing I didn’t know that it was not going to last much longer. Perhaps I should have sensed something was happening, something was wrong. He asked me for my home address, said he wanted to send me something, but didn’t say what it was. Maybe a picture. Maybe a book. And though I’d given my new addy to him before, I didn’t think anything of this re-request. We sometimes ask for something more than once and are chided for not remembering. I don’t know what happened to it, he might have typed. No big deal, I would have responded to such a thing. Here you go. Even only typing, without the reassurance of hearing someone’s voice, conversations with old friends can be indolent and comfortable, like telling a story to someone who’s heard it a hundred times before when you enjoy your own words and they just don’t mind that you’re doing it again, or maybe they do, just a little, but they cut you that break. That is how friendship works.

He was an artist. He worked in paint, clay, pencils and pens. The world is full of people who can take what they see and make something else out of that vision, raw or refined, complex or spare. I am not one of those people. I don’t resent the lack, but I respect that capacity in those souls I come across. I’m sure you know what I mean; you know someone who can draw or carve or dance or sing or build or compose. Don’t you like knowing them? Isn’t it special? I think it is.

He didn’t follow many rules. Had a tough time with certain kinds of authority. Colored outside the lines, sometimes. Didn’t believe in God, except in that he saw all of nature — creation — as something remarkable, fantastic. The creation out there. That which came from inside himself, and others. All divine.

He had a big heart. His morality was a simple one that requested we all be nice and share. A child’s idea of right and wrong. He gave things away — anything he had, things he made and things he found that he thought you might like or need. Sometimes he came over and needed to sit in the woods and work or just to get some peace and quiet — asked me for a folding chair and did I have any beer in the fridge? or where was my fishing gear? Such simple audacity made it easy to tell him yes and over there and make himself at home. I wished I could be like that, all of the time. I still do.

He made a life-sized clay bust of me one Saturday, long ago. Before the hurricane, as I track things. When there were so many more tall old trees in the woods. I sat in my kitchen, and he spread everything out on the table: an oilcloth tarp and the plywood plank upon which he had affixed an armature and a burlap sack of brown clay. The armature was a small white skull, troublingly realistic. He talked while he warmed the clay in his hands and began attaching it, bit by deliberate bit, to the armature. About work, which he was about to quit, because he was planning to relocate. About his family and their crazy lives. He knew people, vaguely famous people in art and in music and in that way that someone who is gregarious and odd and interesting is permitted to infiltrate themselves into the world of celebrity. He would tell me when it was OK to take a sip of coffee and when I wasn’t allowed to move around, so I mostly had to watch him work out of the corner of my eye. The memory, therefore, is more auditory and peripheral than I wish it was. Don’t we all have moments in our lives that we wish were more intentional, more aware of their importance down the long road?

Not long after that — when the clay bust was sitting, slowly drying before firing in a studio the next town over, he did leave, went north to a city where he’d found an old house he could afford — one of those situations where both house and city need so much work that no one even considers them fixable. He got it for a song and started in on it — tearing our walls and re-glazing windowpanes. I’ve taken out all of the bedrooms upstairs, he told me, and turned it into one large loft. Lots of light for painting. Or a basketball court. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he wasn’t joking. He found work that paid enough and grew his own vegetables in the little front yard — if you’re going to grow food, you should be ready for people take some, so make it easy for them — and drew and painted.

He didn’t pass away. Passing away is for people worried about dying. He didn’t worry about it. Didn’t run full speed towards it, either. He just wasn’t all that upset that his health hadn’t been great for a while, that of all things it was his heart that gave him trouble. He missed working, told me that sometimes he was just bouncing off the walls bored, but that wasn’t very often. There was a fairly long period when what he did, volunteering on a suicide hotline, kept him out of his paints and pencils. He said it drained his creative energy, and yet he gave it freely away. I asked myself more than once, who does that? Who makes that sort of sacrifice?

Near the end, he was back to drawing, because he could hold and control the pencils, but not painting, because brushes didn’t quite go where he wanted them to. He didn’t mind, though. Or, perhaps he did, but he kept that to himself.