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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 9/4/09

Life Lessons From a Dying Friend

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Message Paul Rogat Loeb
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My friend Robert Gordon is dying of lupus. He's a novelist who spent a decade teaching in the Washington State prisons and written essays for everywhere from Esquire, to The Christian Science Monitor, to the Boston Globe. Two months ago he wrote a wise and powerful open letter to Obama, asking him to tell the truth to America about our economic predicament, how deep a hole we've dug and how difficult it will be to get out of it. He sent it out to his friends. I was so moved by it, that I offered to post it here. It touched reader's souls, as it had mine, and Robert got hundreds of emails in response.

With his death approaching closer, Robert has now sent out a follow up letter to his friends, a more personal reflection, looking back on a life approaching its close. Again, it seemed too powerful to be seen by just a handful of intimates, and so again, I'm posting it as Robert's gift to a broader public community. I hope it touches your heart as much as it did mine.

Paul Loeb


Dear Friends:

As many of you know, back in September of 2003, I experienced a medically inexplicable "miracle" remission that lasted five years; a remission that enabled me to slow down and explore the Spiritual side of life. I trained and practiced Reiki healing, and strove, with mixed results, to become a less insufferably driven writer, teacher, partner and friend.

Writing? In time, I left writing behind. Just walked away. No regrets. Never again. Done.
Politics? Too stressful. No mas. Done. I devoted more time to my first love, music, and spent as much time as possible in the wild.

So it went for five years. I re-entered the work force as an assistant trailer hitch installer for U-Haul. Up to my elbows in grease all day. Learning how to read blueprints, solve problems and to drill through metal under the patient tutelage of the lead, Grandma Butterfly. Her story was such that working with her was like working side-by-side with a living beat poem.

Butterfly earned the same minimum wage I did. And--so that U-Haul wouldn't have to give her benefits--was designated as a part-time employee even though she worked 60+ hours per week. In order to feed her financially struggling children and their children, Butterfly made weekly stops at a local food bank.

For my part, I found trailer hitch installation to be absorbing. However, the pay wasn't high enough to enable me to make a dent in my medical debt. In time, I returned to teaching, and augmented my income by counseling ex-convicts and establishing a Reiki practice.

Teaching, counseling, Reiki, music, wilderness. Couldn't ask for more. Setbacks? Yes. Some life-threatening, all annoying. And none worth going into. Better to focus on the good, and the good was very good. A good life. A sweet life. One I savored all the more because I'd come so close, on so many occasions, to losing it.

Then? In September of last year, the miracle remission came to an end. My decline was precipitous. And much to my consternation, even as I was forced, for reasons of health, to resign from three jobs I loved, the literary muse awoke.

I did my best to resist, but the poetic frenzy is the poetic frenzy. Moreover, since the locus of this untreatable hence fatal flare is my brain-- well, the secret to permitting the muse to take over is simple: bypass the intellect. Don't think. Hence, with an increasingly compromised intellect-- with windows of lucidity closing daily -- bypassing the intellect was a breeze.

Within a matter of weeks, and against my will, I had an outline for a book I never wanted to write. An outline, mind you. Just an outline. I had no obligation to sweat every word in an attempt to turn that outline into a living breathing entity, aka a story. No way was I about to embark on this project. No way no way no way. And I stuck to my guns. For a week.

Then in mid-February, I met up with Barry Lopez: friend, mentor, whose every word, written or spoken, is in service to the Sacred. Barry Lopez is the Thoreau of our times. A National Book Award winner, yes. But above all a decent and generous man. A light house to many, myself included, for when we met, 25 years ago, I was most certainly drowning. My old friend took one look at me and before I had a chance to break the news to him, he broke it to me: He said "Bobby, your time is short. Please write the book."

How could I say no to this great man, this friend of the land and all who love it and mourn its passing? How, above all, could I say no to a cherished friend? So. I stand at the edge of the River. I stand there and yearn to go Home. I yearn in the deepest way. I miss my dad. I miss Bobby Kennedy. I miss the Blessed Mother.

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Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,winner of the 2005 Nautilus Award for the best book on social change. See (more...)
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