Introduction & Letter to John Berger

It’s Halloween, Samhain, Dia de Muertos; it’s the time of All Souls, including the living and the dead. Perhaps during these spirit days, the membrane between our world and other worlds feel particularly delicate, as we invite ancestors back to our side of time. But for most people I know, the borders between the living and dead are always porous. I know no writer, thinker or artist who is not in ongoing conversations with the dead. Our ancestors are many, our lineages continually branching both forward and backward in time.

In the fall of 2018 I wrote to a group of writers with an invitation from No. 1 Gold: “please send a letter to a dead writer, artist, thinker or public person who is important to you — someone you’d like to write to. Think of it as an opportunity to be in conversation with the dead who live with you– your literary, artistic, and intellectual ancestors, guides, or friends.” I was interested both in “spirit” – the question of who people felt in contact with and moved to write to, and in “letters” — a form of writing that can be intimate or formal, but which is a gesture, and which gives the reader the feeling of being with the writer. A letter as a burst of thought or narrative or a hand held out, as opposed to a polished work of fiction or argument.

No. 1 Gold is committed to working in ways that feel joyous and nourishing; this means allowing our work to be slow – not only as a resistance to efficiency driven models of the culture industry and it’s glut of content – but also as a way to be thoughtful and intentional. We do things because we want to do them, we have said to ourselves. So when the deadline neared and writers asked for more time, it was no problem. I offered this by way of an extension: “The dead have time, I think, and will wait.” And yet, somewhere in the mix, we lost our own thread of time and the project was delayed for much longer than we anticipated. I have come to see that the dead may have time, but we the living are quite constrained. Our lives are marked with particular time stamps, and many of the letters that were sent to us contain these markers. There were letters written in 2018 to those who had just been lost, letters with the bright, painful energy of keen loss. There were letters that were less concretely inscribed in time, too, those written across great distances, to the dead who had always been dead to the writer. In all these letters, though, there is a bending of time and space (isn’t this what writing does in any case?) to draw our dear ones near.

I should add, though, that despite anything I’ve written here “spirit letters” did not begin as an abstraction or idea. First came the letters that I myself wrote without much thought, and then later came the thought. Here’s the first letter I wrote, to John Berger, on January 2, 2018.


Dear John,

I don’t know what to do but to write to you.

Yesterday, Genya and Ilana came to visit from around the corner and from Glasgow. When they left I was thinking of a possible city in which you might walk for thirty minutes and find yourself in the hills, or in the desert, or by the sea. Ilana described the Isle of Bute. My mind wandered to Shetlands, Hebrides, Faroes. I’ve never been to any of these places, but I always end up in the Faroes in my mind. Ilana had spoken about deep time, about James Hutton, the Scottish geologist who informed the Europeans that they had been mistaken about the earth, that it was incomprehensibly older than they had imagined. Ilana talked about her own artistic practice, which involves juxtaposing objects that are 14 million years old with objects that are four days old, and making fresh marks on handmade washi paper that will last 1000 years.

After they left I came across this on Instagram: “It’s no metaphor to feel the influence of the dead in the world, just as it’s no metaphor to hear the radiocarbon chronometer, the Geiger counter amplifying the faint breathing of rock, fifty thousand years old…. It’s no metaphor to witness the astonishing fidelity of minerals magnetized, even after hundreds of millions of years, pointing to the magnetic pole, minerals that have never forgotten magma whose cooling off has left them forever desirous. We long for place; but place itself longs. Human memory is encoded in air currents and river sediment. Eskers of ash wait to be scooped up, lives reconstituted.” It was posted by Maaza Mengiste and is a quote of Anne Michaels.

Four months before you died, I wrote: “He is old enough to be my grandfather, and I am not young. We have dwelled in time together– nearly forty years now.” This shared timeline, a source of so much courage in my life, broke one year ago today.

It’s no mistake to feel the influence of the dead. You know. You know how essential it is (to sustain a psyche and a politics) to have an overlapping memory with something earlier than yourself. You allow that reading can be a kind of visitation. That’s what writing is, too.

So I am visiting.

Here we are in a new configuration of time. Still, I wish you were here.


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