A photograph that had lived in my memory for nearly twenty years was recently brought to my attention on Facebook. It was taken in my room during my second year at Deep Springs during one of the weekly Student Body meetings. My two roommates and I had altered the modular furnishings to create a triple bunk (long since disassembled, at the insistence of insurers, I was told). On the first and third levels sat three students each; on the second level sat four, with another atop the adjoining armoire. Two more were in the foreground, knitting.
At Deep Springs and, I imagine, many other small, isolated communities, a certain convergence of personal styles takes place. We arrived distinct from each other but grew, externally at least, more and more alike: Long hair or a buzz with the #3 razor; generations of farm-suitable clothes intermingling and being exchanged; an inevitable preference for glasses over contacts. The passage of time only compounds the effect. People we knew by smell (not that difficult in that place) or by footfall at the time become blurrier, singly or together. Looking at this picture I at first mistook another guy for me. My mother mistook a different guy for me.
The photograph resurfaced because one of my classmates in the picture–a foreground knitter–died very recently, and an urgent flow of memories had sprung forth online and by email. Despite clothing and personal habits that were no better than the generally abysmal standard of the place, if not in fact worse, this one retained his distinctiveness–a kind of sharp-featured, soft-eyed, golden-haired beauty. Deep Springs introduced me, and I’m guessing many of us, to capacities for both kindness and cruelty that I did not know I had, but he was kinder than most of us. He drank prodigiously but managed to nurse the rest of us, who got drunker, at the end of term disaster parties. He clucked parentally about the handling of laundry and some basic elements of mutual care and courtesy, and while most of us were inclined to dismiss these admonitions, we did not dismiss him. He was genuine and, as I might have said later, authentic in his moralism. (This did give him a savage deadpan, which he used to great effect). In some respects he grew up faster than the rest of us. He may have arrived as mostly a grownup.
Our first year we had a poetry class, half reading modern poets, half writing and workshopping our own efforts, and he really excelled at that. He brought in a hand-written poem once, with a refrain that went something like “This is a failed poem, and Jesus was a failed man.” I was not a Christian then, but I found that sophomorically edgy. It was in utter earnestness however–this guy was nothing if not earnest–and inspired by the death, I think by suicide, of a friend of his. At any rate, the line stayed with me. I didn’t know much about failure then, at least in words or in religion, and I’ve spent much of the two decades since informing myself. Crucifixion is serious business, and there’s no cheap shock value in putting it in the harshest possible terms. There was a darkness and a woundedness in it–in him–that I wasn’t yet able to touch.
The generations of Deep Springs are swift, rising and falling in two-year arcs. Outside the Valley they fly away like a dream at daybreak, but inside they tarry and dilate. Your class intersects with the second-year men when you arrive, at the zenith of their commitment and responsibility. A year has been fully sufficient to make them Nazirites in their way: focused, assured, wearing their grime and their overused clothing and their mastery of the community’s lore and inner workings with ease, haughtily dismissing the year of popular culture that has passed them by “after we withdrew.” The long-distance relationships that were going to end have ended and the wounds thereof mostly been cauterized. As the year goes on, you grow in whatever mastery the place offers, you lose your girlfriends, you take on greater tasks and more esoteric projects. Meanwhile the second-years are gradually pulled away by yielding their roles, by anticipation of their future, or by wrathful meditation on a squandered or alienating present (this was shorthanded as “bitterness” in my time).
Then, as your cohort reaches its own zenith, they leave, and a new group arrives, showing you the puppyish zeal and high school sheen you shook off so eagerly that you forgot you ever wore it. And they, soft and well-scrubbed now, will witness your own cresting and diminishment as you witness their advancement. The bond with everyone in each overlapping group is strong, be it happy or resentful or, often enough, some measure of both. But only your own cohort experiences the whole arc with you. You arrive together, as one of my classmates put it, as if to a city abandoned suddenly, the pots still boiling on the stove, the laundry still tumbling in the drier. Two years later you abandon it together, your own projects uncompleted and your own messes merely gestured at.
For some it is hard to stay in touch, let alone come back. One notable alumnus, a former Ambassador to the U.N., didn’t visit for some forty years until recalled as a campus lecturer and honoree. He said, we were told, that he was afraid it could never live up to his memories. It is worth noting here that as a student this man scalded a leg in a freak hog butchering accident early in his tenure and spent several weeks in the hospital in town. This is just to say that the place, with the people you share it with, imposes a strange and powerful unction whose scent lingers, whatever you do or don’t do to preserve it.
The deceased was one of those few in my class with whom I had almost no further contact. I had no bad feelings toward him at all–quite the contrary, he was one with whom I can never remember quarreling and whose company I usually enjoyed. We just went to different places and led different lives, the circuits of collegiate couch surfing and, later on, weddings never bringing us together again. Some of us called him, rather too early in the morning or late at night as I recall, from a sodden get-together on the opposite coast. A couple of us were then married but without children, and there he was, already one or two kids (of an eventual three) deep into domesticity. Adulthood. He seemed to have arrived at some age-appropriate shore that we were not quite ready for. He was, if my memory serves, kind and friendly and perhaps a tad exasperated with us. That was the last time we spoke.
Now he’s gone, joining another classmate who died a few years ago of causes never precisely disclosed to me. Our class of fourteen is down to twelve. In that other case I had been much closer and had let myself drift away, half-consciously, as I found myself unable or unwilling to cope with the requirements of legitimate friendship. But I am still recalled to the woundedness, the darkness I glimpsed in both of them when I was too young to articulate anything like worry. Loss, especially of someone you’ve shared an experience without analogue in the rest of your life, is a keen blade whether it strikes from near or far, though it lands in different places. I wonder what turn might have been made, what answer may have been found while we willed to seek it. If we ever did.
It so happens that in recent weeks and months I’ve heard from another guy, a year ahead of me, who shares his thoughts about sobriety, God, and faith and spirituality. He, too, would have inspired worry, had I been capable of it. This turn in our once-dormant friendship is not one I would have ever expected. I may not even have wished it, at least for my sake. The horrid truth is that if we come to love someone as they are, we end up attached in some degree to their demons, too. Our own near misses, if we have them (and I had a few), can come to feel as inevitable as our course corrections. In the end, freedom and fate are impious hypotheses where the dead are concerned. The tomb, once sealed, gains the pall of inevitability one way or the other. Poems and men all fail, sooner or later. Fate and freedom concur on this point.
I am writing these words on the night of Easter, when we celebrate the happy ending that may be attached with the amateurism born of love to any cruelty of life. That’s not quite how it is told in the stories. We blast trumpets and wave banners, while the people in the texts are hushed and fearful. We sum it all up as the triumph of Jesus, but in the stories it’s as much a new beginning as an end, introducing a fresh horizon of possibility and failure.
And indeed, in the generality of things, our usage may prove the best and truest way to understand it: the hard fate and misused freedom of humanity rebounding in the surprise revelation of a tomb that was not sealed hard enough and a death whose clutches grip less finally than we have every reason to believe. But here, and of this little clutch of shepherdless sheep who met once in the desert, I do not speak in generalities. For each of us, what we do and do not do, believe and do not believe, has its own validity and its own inarguable truth on this side of the veil. The dead are dead and they will be missed without the consolation of a surprise ending.
Still, I will ask your prayers for this man and his family. And I will cast out hope for him, for me, and for you, in that fearful, whispered, surprised absence of the first new morning the world saw since the beginning. Easter is a celebration of God’s freedom, after all, which if it is real bespeaks a freedom woven into the nature of things, a freedom more powerful than the parabolic arcs we travel and the deepening grooves we inhabit.