The man on death row in the federal penitentiary writes to me On lined loose-leaf paper that when he was a boy in the South He was so absorbed by tent revivals that he knew he would be A preacher, knew it in his deepest bones. I would stand on my Bed and preach to the babies, and stand on a barrel and preach To the chickens and the hogs, and preach the Word to the cow, Who would not come to Jesus nor to anyone else neither. Well, That is not how things turned out for me, which is a long story, But what I want to get down in this letter is the blessings I had When I was a boy. Now there is much to say that was not at all In the least blessed, it was a violent and perplex raising we had, But what I want to get down is that was a time of great wonder And satisfaction for me because I knew what I was going to be. I could spend a lot of time explaining how I came to not be that Which I knew I was going to be but I have wasted enough time In that fruitless pursuit. Thank you for reading this letter, which Is a kindness on your part. It allowed me to remember a blessed Time, there on the old barrel preaching the Word to the animals.
What are the things I should know about being homeless That I would never imagine myself? I ask a girl who was Homeless from age thirteen to age seventeen. You never Saw a nicer more pleasant neatly dressed kid in your life, This kid. The only way you can tell who she used to be is That she has a bunch of steel teeth. Any hint of difficulty, She says, you move. Move anyways, on general principle. Any safe spot you find will eventually be found by others. As for new friends, trust but verify, as some old president Said. Learn to lie with a totally straight face. Brush teeth! I still have trouble not lying immediately and defensively. That’s a problem for me. I got so good at it that it’s tough To not be good at it anymore. The best way to get by is to Perform, to not be who you really are, so the actual you is Not in danger. You can shuck the person you perform like A snake shucks a skin. Teachers here tell me I ought to be In theater, I should try out for plays and musicals, but that Is exactly what I am trying not to be, which is good at not Being the real me anymore. Does this make sense? You’d Be a natural, my teachers say, and I have to laugh because Natural at not being me is who I don’t want to be anymore.
Consider the case of a mathematician, in this case My oldest brother, who is (a) halved by an illness, (b) stilled completely by it, and (c) reduced to ash. Trust me, he would be the first to note that finally He finished his travels at 0.00416666667 of what He weighed for a long time. I bet then he’d spend Weeks poking into what else weighed exactly that. I’d get a terse note with a list in his meticulous ink: The cardinal on average weighs 0.992 of a pound, And the long-tailed weasel weighs exactly a pound. A letter like that is exactly like a zen koan, I think. It’s as much a door as a statement. Let us consider That we have all just now received this terse letter. It sits there grinning on the table next to the coffee. I don’t know about you, but I am going to dive into The whole weasel question. We have so little time, And there’s so much to be discovered. I want to be Able to be conversant about this the next time I see My brother. He’ll want to know. He’ll have missed A lot of time that could have been devoted to these Things, and someone has to carry the ball, whether It’s weasels or cardinals or cancer. How mortifying It will be if he asks me about something, and I have To say I didn’t pay attention, man, and he will stare At me with that laser stare and not even have to say, And what was it you did instead of paying attention?
The good sweet Lord knows I have nothing wise to say about anything Whatsoever; certainly that has been proven over the last fifty-five years That we have known each other. And while spiritual verve is inarguable, Religious pronouncements at a time like this can sound awfully shallow. So all I want to do this morning is find some word that can approximate The love I feel. Affection and respect are ingredients, sure, and certainly Laughter and stories, especially those that start out remember that time?, Because stories are a terrific way to say things that you can’t find words For. I keep wanting to push deeper, but I can’t get deeper than the story Of the time we broke your finger—all us kid brothers attacking the king At once, ostensibly in the flow of a football game, but really we wanted To take you down, to miraculously drop the taoiseach, because we loved You, because your were our hero, because you were the tallest and oldest, Because you laughed, even with your finger bent in the wrong direction, Knowing that we were so furious because a bruising tackle is a language Also. You can say a lot about love by hammering your brother in a game, It turns out. You knew what we were saying. I remember you taped your Finger back together and didn’t bother to tell Mom. We admired that too.