fctry ^ 2

Remembering as an aid to everything

My friend John Wieja passed away December 25, 2017 in Zhuhai China, a few weeks before he would have turned 42 years old. I don’t know if he had friends with him there with him in the hospital, I don’t know if he had any family near him, I don’t know a what his last few days were like. I found this out, as one so often does now, from Facebook by reading the disjointed posts from friends scattered around the world. John and I had fallen out of touch over the years so I suppose that Facebook is sadly the most appropriate way for me to find this out. Which is a sort of shameful thing to admit, but here I am, trying to remember everything that I can about John.

We went to a profoundly weird tiny little college in the mountains of Vermont that has since closed down because the time of places like that is over. It was probably already over when we were there but we hadn’t figured that out yet. John was a transfer student but it was more accurate to say that he had come back to higher education. He had already done a variety of jobs, worked as a boat-builder, a luthier, as a newspaper reporter for a tiny newspaper called the Hardwick Gazette. An aside: when I once said that the small local paper was a bygone institution he got about as angry as I ever remember him getting with me, shouting that small papers were the lifeblood of direct democracy, a legacy and ode to the New England town hall meeting. He had lived in Europe, all over the US, he seemed impossibly cultured and strange. Sharply intelligent, bewilderingly well-read, his taste in music epicurean and surprising, he had the authority of both knowing and having done. He dressed in suit-pants, collared shirts, and tidy sweaters in a school where everyone else was in filthy Carhartts or corduroys and I was immediately taken by his sharp almost aggressive friendliness.

He and I were extremely close my last year of school. Now that I think of it, I really only had two or three friends there that last year so it was essentially an act of generosity of him to be my friend. We would sit up late in his starkly ascetic room, bare white walls, no furniture, which he kept frigid, leaving the windows open even in the deep of the Vermont winter, chain smoking and drinking wine or beer or rum or anything and puzzling through useless French theorists like Lacan and Deleuze, reading old poetry, new poetry, anything new and challenging and strange. He explained performative speech to me, and JL Austin’s locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts. We would listen to Stravinsky together and swap CDs of Messiaen and Schoenberg. He would make me listen to sections of John Coltrane over and over, trying to get me to hear what he found so amazing. I lived in a small apartment that hung over a waterfall, an impossibly beautiful setting, with a back porch that lead into a kitchen. I kept a typewriter on a small desk near the kitchen table and I remember coming back one morning to find a note typed and left on the roller:

I have drunk

all the scotch

that was in

the cupboard

One of my bottles of scotch, fifty dollars, a fortune for me at the time, was empty on the table and the other gone. It might be my favorite moment from those four years.

I don’t mean to eulogize John, like anyone he was contradictory and complicated. He could be petty, obnoxious, belligerent, unnerving. I can picture him carrying one of the cheap wooden chairs with which the school had stocked the dorms, casually slung over his frail shoulder, looking for a place to smash it into kindling for no reason whatsoever. His sense of humor tended towards the highly abrasive, he seemed to revel in the discomfort of anyone. He shop-lifted books from book-stores and stole them from the library. He berated people with whom he disagreed, he needled those who he liked, he brooded, he threw tantrums, he could be arrogant and dismissive. I’m not passing judgement, I certainly wasn’t any better, but it alarmed me how brazen he could be with his insecurities, his hurt feelings, his pettinesses. On any given day he smoked a remarkable number of cigarettes despite having a genetic disorder that made his lungs far more fragile than most. His wracking coughs were terrifying to hear, sometimes his entire body would double-over into each cough. I always wanted to tell him “you’re too fragile for this” but it seemed like it would be insulting to imply that I had any better idea than him about anything at all. But in remembering him, I remember everything with equal warmth, it feels of equal weight and import, and I miss all of it.

He moved to China a few years after he graduated to work as a translator and he stayed almost 20 years, which I find deeply impressive. The last time I saw him was in Boston when he stayed with me for a few days in 2007 while back visiting the US, more than ten years ago now. I remember eating pupusas in Jamaica Plain while he tried to coach us in the correct pronunciation of the Cantonese “ngóh”. I thought I was getting it right. I wasn’t but it was hilarious. He had learned Mandarin and Cantonese fluently, no small feat, and worked for a translation firm. For years after that we had the occasional short chat on AIM or whatever messenging platform we were using at the time. Usually mid-morning I would get his late-night sometimes drunken messages, early in his morning and late in my evening I would return them. One of the last things I remember getting from him was a message on AIM that said simply “I don’t want to lose track of you.” I can’t recall what or even if I responded. But slowly our interactions became those non-interactions of seeing and liking cat pictures and memes that he posted on Facebook. Maybe if ten more years had passed before I tried to remember I would have remembered even less than I do now and that thought is frightening.

There was a book that John gave me titled “Writing Is An Aid To Memory” by a poet named Lyn Hejinian and in trying to write what I remember I can feel myself remembering so much more of my friend. Of late I’ve been stuck pondering a vein of contemporary philosophy called Object Oriented Ontology which, at least in my estimation, posits that there is an existence to things which we might well describe as objects or systems just as there is to things that we describe as animals or people. It’s potentially a profoundly cold philosophy but it also opens a space for something ferociously human. In thinking about my friend passing out of what I know of this world and into something else, I’ve been thinking about OOO, about how much I actually believe this thing that I’ve been pondering which asks us to consider the ontological difference between a person and a plant. And I’ve thought of this: if there is no ontological difference, then this thing I do now becomes an even more ridiculous and profoundly human thing to do. If what I weight is this remembering and in doing so proclaim it of special import, if I can convince you of that importance, then that is because we both will it to be so in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. When I first read the words “To friends of John Wieja, I’ve just received some truly awful news”, I began to remember. In writing them down those memories grew and expanded. It became like a house of memories I could walk into, sit in, spend a day. I can will all of these things back into existence, even if just in my head and just for a moment. I remember so much more than I can write here. It’s such a desperately human thing to do.

I doubt John would have liked me writing about him, especially something as maudlin as this, but I suspect that he would have liked me writing something other than the dry technical or academic writing that I usually write. In writing this something occurs to me that I can offer up as advice of a sort: be kind to your memories. Treat them like a garden demanding of time and care. The only care that they respond to is time, unstructured time and space to unfurl themselves and breathe back into you. So give them that. Give them time to become real, to reify, go from a phrase, to a room, to a whole day, to the smells and textures and the crisp bite of the air on a wintry Vermont morning. It’s too easy to be distracted, to feel one must be productive, to need something new right now and then right now again. So many things tell us that they’ll remember for us, devices, services, systems, but none of them actually will take the time to breathe the life back into those memories be they painful or joyous or utterly banal. That’s an act incumbent upon us. Because our time is so rarely our own and because even though we never can know that what someone would have wanted us to remember we can always know that remembering, that odd human thing to do, is what marks the territory that holds what it means to be among us. Remembering is what we owe each other. Those people with whom you’ve spent your life will one day slip away from you. If you choose to, you can carry them with you, keep them and share them with others who they never even knew.

One afternoon, wearing suits and ties for no reason whatsoever, we went for a hike off a small dirt road intentionally getting ourselves lost in the winter woods, calf-deep in the snow though we were both wearing dress shoes, watching the last light slip from the sky while we smoked cigarettes and shivered, bemused by the oddness of being alive, laughing at ourselves as we wandered deeper into the trees. I’d like to remember this moment most of all for its small ridiculous beauty, to keep it like a charm against forgetting.

Thoughts? Leave a comment