DISCLAIMER: This is one of those “weird” pieces I warned you about. I wasn’t gonna post it, but then I realized that you’re all adults (really awesome adults!) and you can handle a little weirdness. So here’s another unsent letter to a person I admire. And David Rakoff is certainly one to admire. By some vague yet insistent impulse, I feel compelled to honor him – or his life, memory, legacy, whatever you hold onto when someone dies – and I hope you join me.
Written August 19
Dear David Rakoff,
It feels a bit strange to be writing to you now that you’re dead. And as far as you are – or would be – concerned, when you’re dead you’re dead. No transmutation of form or consciousness, no reincarnation as a housecat or hippopotamus, no return of soul to that from which it came. Your heart stopped beating, your lungs stopped breathing, and, with a brain no longer oxygenated, the neural impulses that constituted “you” fell still. So if you no longer exist, I’m not exactly sure to whom I’m writing. But I’ll write anyway.
I write because you did. As anyone who used to read my blog could intuit from its protracted dearth of posts, I temporarily lost faith in the value of circulating one’s personal reflections on a public platform. Who cared what I had to say? This question surely troubles every writer; it’s only natural to squirm in hesitation each time you lay bare your words with the inherently narcissistic presumption that someone else will, or should, gain something from them. And for that matter, David, why even bother writing with sages like you out there meeting our collective need for words, spinning perfectly finessed blends of memoir, wit, and verbal acuity into the purest literary gold?
I can only assume you grappled with similar self-doubt before publishing an essay or recording a radio piece, so I’d like to thank you for getting over it, for sharing anyway. Your words have meant the world to me, especially during this particular stretch of madness that I will one day recall fondly as “the good ol’ Peace Corps days.” Your words have soothed and innervated and nudged awake dozing corners of my imagination, my humanity. Without even knowing I was alive, you made my life better. You didn’t know this would happen… or did you?
That’s when it clicked for me: you shared your stories not out of narcissism but humility, placing a gallant trust in the inevitability that someone, somewhere, would be grateful you had. You said what you said, without apology or amendment, because that’s what you had to say – and that, you knew, was enough.
Yesterday I found myself in the throws of what some might call a total breakdown but what I prefer to term a “personal growth experience.” Upon denying my earnest – though, I must admit, quite annoying – requests for a visa, a supercilious border guard launched a particularly callous harangue mere inches from my face. “Nobody invited you here,” he spat (literally), among other pleasantries. On a better day I might have mustered the poise to handle such an incident with relative decorum, acknowledging that while he was by no means entitled to spit in my face, nor was I entitled to whine my way into Benin. But my best behavior was nowhere to be seen. Instead I unlatched the gate on a flood of hot tears and expletives withdrawn from my solvent treasury of Inappropriate Emotional Reactions. Sputtering breathless indictments in broken French (“It’s not… not good to treat a woman in this manner; you’re… you’re… mean!”), I plodded away in a huff of shame and desperation, scanning the decrepit roadside for an escape hatch or a portal to an alternate dimension. With no such luck, I had no choice but to withstand the stares and catcalls of curious children and ballsy young men grabbing the popcorn for their preferred genre of entertainment, The Angry White Girl Show:
“Hey, whitey!” one calls over.
“Shut the &%$@ up, you %*#^ing @$$holes!” I seethe in reply.
They laugh, and laugh, and laugh.
Well #^@&, I think to myself, inviting back the tears, they won.
Of course they did; I’d lost the moment I arrived in this country with this gender and this skin. I’d tried and tried… and tried and tried. But here I was, a disintegrating heap of hurt, and what bothered me more than these men was who I’d become in their presence: a vindictive, infantile, quivering harpy, the definitive opposite of peace. With mounting shame, I listed all the ways I needed to be better, kinder, calmer; to be the version of myself who could meet invectives with equanimity. See the bigger picture. Be peace.
Then came your words, David, recalling themselves from whichever hallowed brain lobe retains content from This American Life:
“I no longer have that feeling, although I remember it very well, that if I just buckled down to the great work at hand – lived more authentically, stopped procrastinating, cut out sugar – then my Best Self was just there, right around the corner… Yeah, no, I’m done with all that.”
Huh, I thought, symbolically erasing each and every item from my How to Be Better list, I’m done with all that.
And that felt better. Like peace. Or peace’s vindictive, infantile, quivering harpy of a sidekick who curses and cries and lashes out, then begrudgingly accepts that this is what is.
Thank you for divorcing your Best Self and being yourself. Thank you for being done with all that. And thank you for saying so, for laying bare your words so that I might hear them, that they might one day bring me a little peace at a West African border crossing that brought out my worst.