I wish I could be in West Virginia now, with the redbud and dogwood blooming and the leaves still pale green, where so many of the people I care for are mourning Bill Howley. The last time I was with Bill in this part of spring was at my sister Hannah’s wedding, at the Purdy house, which is maybe a twelve-minute drive from the Howley house, ninety minutes if you walk the ridges. Bill and Lorie sat with my parents, Wally and Deirdre, because they were family, and had been my whole life.
Calling him an uncle was easiest, and that’s what we said sometimes. I also felt him a bit of of an older brother – one that I wanted to impress, loved being around.
I remember putting up loose hay with Bill, using his horses and a pair of pitchforks, rolling the hay into the barn, a load at a time, by hooking the forks underneath, tines up, and rolling the whole pile over like a breaking wave of half-dried meadow grass. Sometimes Bill swore when the wave crested, and I tried to swear, too.
I also remember a day when Hannah and I were putting in a field of baled hay by ourselves, when our parents were away. We turned our tractor too sharply and broke an axle on the wagon. We knew somehow that we should borrow Bill’s blue farm truck so we could clear the field, and that he would understand that. It didn’t occur to us to call anyone else.
I also remember walking up the Howleys’ road in reflected moonlight one wintry night around Christmas and interrupting Bill on his way to bed. We had been visiting, and now my car was in a ditch at the mouth of his icy hollow. I knew he would drive down the snow-covered road and haul me out. It was strangely comforting to go back to the house and knock on the door in the dark, not to have to say goodbye quite yet.
I mention these moments because I didn’t have to reach for them. I realized after I heard the terrible news that these memories are part of the never-ending present in my mind. I think of them every week or two, in the normal course of things. They are some of my touchstones of how things should work: people helping each other, teaching each other, being there when you need them. Bigger people helping smaller people to be.
Bill and I spent an afternoon once – a different one – in his hayfield. While we put in the hay, he told me about theories of history. He talked about different ways of understanding how the world changes, what kind of power ordinary women and men have, what direction things might be going. It was a revelation. I have spent a lot of my adult life trying to think that way, teaching those things. On April 16, I finished teaching a yearlong class called “Past and Future of Capitalist Democracy.” Everything a professor teaches is a memorial to the people who taught him. That class was partly a tribute to Bill.
That afternoon in Bill’s hayfield is still a model for me of what happens on the best days: being outside in the sunshine, doing some work with your body, thinking and talking with real friends. Those days are also a memorial to the people who teach you to live them.
I think Bill read most of what I wrote – much of it, anyway. It meant a lot to me that he took me seriously. That was partly because he was a big brother, and also because he was a ferociously smart person by any standard, in a Yale classroom or outside with hand tools and a job to do. Those were two worlds that I shared with him in a way I did with very few people. That made our friendship a living bridge between my worlds, and it gave extra weight to his opinion.
He told me once that in my writing I was “just trying to be honest about the fucking human condition” and should ignore any critic who didn’t recognize that. It was, honestly, one of the best things anyone has ever said to me. Someone should say that to every young writer, not so much because it’s supportive (though they need support!) as because it sets a standard. Of course that’s what you should be doing.
Bill and I would occasionally remind each other of an ideal that Karl Marx sketched when he was still in his twenties: a person should be able to farm in the morning, hunt in the afternoon, and read and write in the evening – to live a full life without ever shrinking down to fit just one of those activities.
It was like a secret sign that this was what we were both trying to do, in our different versions. As far as I was concerned, we had figured out this goal together. Bill came closer to living it than anyone else I’ve known. I’m going to carry him with me, as a picture of generosity and enthusiasm and a reminder of how the world should be, for just as long as I am around.