On Bearing Witness

Last week I spent a mad hour rummaging through desk, closet, and box, looking for a particular notebook. Understand, that I possess many tattered notebooks, and do not often recall their content based on their covers. 

Still, at last, after much rifling, a green patterned book in hand, I found what I was seeking. Notes. Minutes, really, from a series of meetings long ago. A thread to the past, that I needed to see.

Tomorrow will mark the first of Matt Power’s formal memorials. The snow in his native Vermont will keep melting, and loved ones will gather to honor his life. I hope the crocuses will show. And the daffodils. Too early for sunflowers though, the bright flower he once dressed as to protest the auctioning of New York community gardens. A sunflower perched in a tree, pulled down by police. That, was Matt. 

It has been several weeks since Matt  died. I have thought of him every day since I heard the terrible news of his passing. On a recent visit to the city, I saw glimpses of his face many times in the crowd. I haven’t known what to write. Or even if I’ve had the right.

I won’t pretend I knew Matt very well. I know he is gravely missed by hundreds, probably thousands of people across the globe–his friends and family, his acquaintances, his admirers, personal and professional. Many of them have written tender and eloquent remembrances. Roger Hodge, former editor of Harper’s and a good friend to Matt recently gave a particularly sad and beautiful interview  with Vermont Public Radio that you can listen to here.

Though we did not know each other well, Matt left a big impression on me. I think he left and big impression on everyone. It might have been his broad, impish grin, but really, I think it was his spirit. He was so genuinely interested in everyone, everything. He enthusiasm for life was infectious.

I first met Matt in the fall of 2009. I was working at Orion Magazine, and we hosted a weekend-long “young” writer’s conference at a big lodge in the Adirondacks. We invited Matt. That notebook I was so desperately seeking contained all my many notes from our group discussions on art and action, darkness and light, the future of nature, nature writing, and the world. 

I remember these discussions, their quality, their depth, and poetry. But perhaps more than that, I remember the down time. Sitting around the table at meals. Ten conversations at once. I know Matt was a fearless, compassionate writer. A free-spirit. When you read the tributes, they all mention his thoughtfulness, his curiosity, and his generosity with his time and advice. That was easy to see, even in a single weekend.

But how I will always picture Matt, is running around a ping-pong table. Is dancing to a Bruce Springsteen record, and shouting, with a room full of writers, the line I’m sick of sitting ’round here trying to write this book! I imagine him sprinting with us, through the dark, naked, into the frigid fall lake water. I picture him quoting Camus, and lines from “Asphodel”–probably, It is difficult/ to get the news from poems /yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there– though honestly, I cannot say for sure.

And too, I think of him speaking on the need to bear witness. Whether sitting with the poorest Sioux in Pine Ridge, rafting down the Mississippi with a bunch of anarchists, talking to drone-operator veterans, or rummaging with dump scavengers in the Philippines, Matt created a space to let people tell their own stories. Stories the rest of us need to hear.

The world needs so many more people like Matt. And the truth is, I wish I were more like him. He will was an inspiration, and will be missed by many– a testament in itself, to a life well-lived. We can honor him by reading his wonderful work, by continuing to bear witness to all the disenfranchised people to whom he gave such insight and voice. We can choose to not look away.

My thoughts are with his wife and family.

Credit: GQ Magazine



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