On the day Toni Morrison passed on, as the whirl raveled and unraveled around me, and morning opened its strange eyes, I went first, of course, to her books. I couldn’t bring myself to flip through them yet. But I took them off the shelves and held them as anyone would hold the holy and the sacred artifacts of a treasured ancestor—with deep reverence and a sense of yearning. Though I’ve never met Morrison in person, some of her books are almost as close to me as I am to myself, and to lose her, suddenly, in the morning, felt personal.
I went to her talks on Youtube and heard, in that familiar voice, so full of complex laughter and whispery deep richness, a mechanics of truth-telling that made it hard to believe that the one who possessed it could ever not be right here. I went to social media to witness and partake in the mourning and the celebration. Then I went to my drafts. I went to my iMessages and notes and email.
I’m not sure what I was looking for, but what I found, when I went to Gmail and entered her name in the search bar, were various correspondences, dating back to 2007, from classes taken or taught, from classmates, students, mentors, professors, friends. I went to the earliest email in my Gmail, from 2007, a little after my college graduation. It was a correspondence between myself and a classmate of mine who was also a writer. In it we discussed Morrison’s work in the context of an African American Lit class we both took. We talked about our aspirations as writers. I was then on the verge of heading to New York to try out life in the city. It was an important snapshot of the moment.
So much has happened in the interim. Of course, life goes like that. But I felt compelled, as I read that correspondence, to respond to it all these years later. I meant it for their consideration, but I find, upon reading it again, that perhaps it has a life and function beyond that. Here’s what I wrote:
Toni's gone, and I'm in New York, and the words have nowhere to go, or they are everywhere around us, looming, moving, pulling us into ourselves even now these twelve or so years later. I don't know if what was stated in those early years, that there was never a timeline, is true, but I'm home tonight instead of at a local spot called Ode to Babel, where the Brooklyn literati and arts folks have gathered to read and share Toni's words, because I can't bring myself to bring myself out in the night. And I'm thinking of too much to put into a place, but I have to put something down. I have to put the words together, have to find a together place for the words to live because they are too much for the body, and the body is too much for the world and that's why we have to go.
This is the earliest email in my gmail memory in which Toni Morrison is mentioned. I know we must have been talking about her long before this point, but anyhow 2007 was still several eras ago, and so it is long enough ago that the prism of time can sit its heavy self between that moment and this, and we can look through its bending light to discern that time warps all perceptions, but that some things remain nonetheless unchanged. It brings to my mind the question of whether what was spoken in some earlier time, what was spoken and then came to pass, was foreseen, or if the speaking itself brought it to pass, or if we were blind and lucky. 'Were' could be 'is'--must be is--and so the question matters regardless of the fact that it cannot be resolved. It seemed a time more suited for looking forward, such that to look back upon it now is challenging without feeling a twinge for the relative innocence of that era, the pre-Obama moment, when we--so many of us--hoped.
I don't want the structures of my mind to impose themselves on this utterance. I want to talk about what I miss when I miss Toni, and of what we saw when we read her words and discussed them, what they made us remember, like water, perfectly, about what and whom was home. I want to talk only about the quality of the air of early hope, about the play of youth in warm and dark places, about the potential for light that always sources itself in the matter. I don't want to think about these words or about the fact that this is the world in which our beloved Toni took her last breath, this last-breathing world where the onus for formidable wisdom is thrust upon us, we who hoped back in those innocent days for something to be a part of, and are now a part of this apart-ness, coiled up in this dubious fabric of wars and rumors of war, violence and news of violence. There is, to be sure, so much to be joyful about today, but the joy comes different than it once did, as does the hope.
I don't know what to say about the passing of our beloved.
I want to say I hope, if you are troubled by her passing, as I am troubled, as water is troubled, as light troubles the void, that you are held, warm, well-kept, and light.