THE FIRST BOOK
Yesterday a professor recounted the story of another professor who was an associate professor and recently retired as an associate professor. The last two sabbaticals of her career were spent caring for friends with AIDS who were dying. She said, “That was part of her spiritual practice: service.” It made me cried. I covered my tears, but even to think about it again, this morning alone with only my coffee, I cry.
Although I never think that I shall go before a tenure committee (I’m not in a PhD program and even though I’m now in a graduate program I have the distinction of being able to say I have been rejected from more than a handful of graduate programs and I’ve never been accepted to one; I’ve only enrolled in one), my wife fancies it for me. She wants me to get a PhD, teach, and write and be a famous academic. She has more ambition for me than I do. Still, I think, if I were ever to be before a tenure committee, I would say, the first book of my career was written on the streets of Detroit. I spilled so much ink there in other people’s lives. Words and pages written that were never saved, could never be saved, in the hope that instead of having some object for libraries for posterity we might have, instead, our own lives with dignity and respect. The first book was written in Detroit, sitting around circles of people. It was written in words and images, but they were pressed not on paper, not as text on a keyboard, not written to RAM, they were spoken, they were touched, they disappeared into the ether. I can’t even remember all of their names. I can’t even keep all of the promises I made. That was my first book.
Now, I would feel behind, reading the first books of others, some just my age, some younger, except I never fully expected to be this age and still be doing something. I knew, rationally, that I wasn’t going to die. I did, but it was muddled by the fact that people were dying around me and some of them died, irrationally, which is to say against not only their age but their health. I didn’t expect to be approaching 40 (which I will tell you in a rational moment that I am not that there are still many years between now and that milestone except that I am aware of it because of a promise I made that when I was 40 I would be writing these stories, not my stories, I promised that I would have by then told all of my stories, but that I would write the stories of black gay men in Detroit in case they were all dead and unable to write and tell their own stories, and of course they are all not dead they are still in Detroit and I, I have left and not written my own stories and not written theirs and so I am consumed, waking up in the middle of the night wondering how on earth will I keep this promise that I made when I was too young to make any promises?), I didn’t expect to be approaching 40 ever so saying things, making promises at twenty-two and twenty-three about what would come to pass in seventeen or eighteen years seemed like a foolish endeavor of youth and it was and I would forgive myself for not keeping those promises if the ones that I made the promises were here today with me to laugh about them and reminisce and mock the foolishness of our youth but they aren’t and so I feel that I must keep these promises which is to say that even though the first book of my life has been written and while I know it and can see it and can read it so clearly I know that others cannot and so I have to write another which others will call my first book, but I will know better. I will know that it is the second or the third and I will know that it will never be as good as the first, it will never be as honest, as holy as what was written there in my past in Detroit. There are others who will know that too but they won’t be able to tell you unless you listen, carefully, to the cold, dark wind.