An open letter to Rebecca West
Dear Rebecca West,
There’s a moment I hope to remember, for when I need to remember it: I was reading some of the final pages of your book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, in a chain sandwich shop in a sliver of American exurbia, a bit of placelessness that feels like American nowhere and everywhere all at once, a place I would never care to render with the care you applied to the lands you traveled through, and I ran out of lunch hour before I ran out of pages, and I put your book into my bag, and I realized I was likely performing this particular action that I’d been repeating almost daily for nearly two months for the last time in my life.
I wondered if, as you left Yugoslavia at the end of your Easter journey, you knew, or could guess, you’d never return. I suspect so. I wonder what that meant to you.
I’ve been carrying your book around for almost two months, coincidentally paralleling the length of your journey. The next day, when your book wasn’t there, after I’d finished it at home the night before, my bag felt perceptibly lighter, and I missed the weight of those pages tucked against my side. Your book has been a great comfort to me, these last weeks. I mean, February’s tough, but it was more than that. Because like you had to end your book during a time of terrible global upheaval—”its record of pain and violence and bloodshed…while there rages round me vileness equal to that which I describe”—I’ve had to look up from your book at an America that seems increasingly mired in its own horrors, rushing toward utterly needless self-sacrifice, commingling societal despair with gross intellectual and political oversimplification, and I’m realizing how comforting the literal weight of those pages has been, a constant reminder that, yes, history is full of pain and stupidity and selfishness and death, but that also there are those among us who treat it with the subtlety and the appreciation for complexity it demands and deserves, and who seek out the beauty in it, and who have found a belief in the abilities of humans and art and the unpredictable nature of all of it to put forth ideas and times of value and honor, in spite of, or because of, all they must live through and deal with. You found reason to believe things can and will get better, that in our control and our lack of control, we can find our way steadily toward a world that’s worth it.
You’re right; history does not breed true. Yet I wonder how much of this you might have seen coming. And I wish you were still here to help me get a better idea of what to think about all of it. Of course, I don’t really know you, just an impressionistic version sketched out by the pages of your book and through drips and drops of information gathered from various half-skimmed articles. But the version of you I know, I like, and I appreciate; you seem like a cool chick. And I want to thank you, for making me want to scream and laugh and pound the table next to my sandwich (which was neither dark nor romantic) as I saw all these threads coming together into a complex, rich knot. I admit, I have often felt like an unworthy reader, in your deeply researched, intently lived presence. I can’t begin to image what you’d think to say to that. It doesn’t matter. I still thank you for writing your book, and for the opportunity to read it, and that I hope I can pass it along, nudge a few more people to read it, today.
Here’s to hoping we find today the courage we need to live the lives we ought.
Yours across time,