A part of me has always felt out of place. The place I should be, my soul says, is Paris during the années folles (1920’s), living a poor existence as a writer among other starving writers and artists. I’m eccentric, but many of them would be far more eccentric than me. They would create masterpieces that would maybe go unnoticed by the masses, but that would be so infused with their soul, with all of their being, that they would be powerful to experience. Maybe not easy, maybe not always beautiful, but powerful.
In my current life, I had never met anyone with this kind of brazen eccentricity, this thriving tortured spirit, their soul leaping out of them. And then, I joined Open Salon and discovered James Emmerling’s blog.
James and I liked to exchange quotations. One of my favorite quotations, and a foundation of how I feel about the creative process, is this one, by Jack Kerouac: “Your art is the Holy Ghost blowing through your soul.” I don’t know if I ever shared it with James, but that is how everything he wrote felt to me.
But there are many writers of whom I could say the same. And sometimes, it’s only in that kind of writing – something you post on a blog, or a fictional scenario or world you create – that the soul comes through. I quickly realized, though, that James was different.
I don’t remember when or why I first sent him a PM. It was probably to thank him for a line he’d written that had really moved me. Or maybe he wrote me first, perhaps apologizing, as he sometimes would, for a comment that he didn’t want me to take the wrong way (I don’t believe I ever did). What I discovered was the same voice I’d found in his posts: poetic, thoughtful, philosophical, naughty and silly by turns. James was the first person I’ve interacted with who could play that mad genius role. He made me feel a little closer to that home I’ll never know.
We exchanged messages pretty regularly, for several years. I regret that I didn’t save the messages, and couldn’t have when Open shut down, since we were blocked from our inboxes.
We did exchange our non-OS addresses, as well, when things were looking especially dark in 2012. But all I’ve found when searching through my regular inbox is one brief exchange with him. Still, I’ll hold it dear. It was, like most of our messages, about our lives and a few thoughts here and there – and there were unsolicited words of encouragement. James had such a sincere, warm, passionate way of making me feel like I mattered, as a writer and as a fellow soul. I can only hope that my replies to him made him feel that same appreciation, respect, and friendship. That same happy wave at a soul who was not a kindred spirit, but someone who I maybe shared a neighborhood with once, in another life -- in that life, I often think, where I still belong.
In the one longish email I still have from James, he wrote this:
i will get to paris someday. you may be a dowager by then but you wlll buy me a beer, no matter how poor or beseiged by spiders u are.
But you were already here, James! With me in another life, and I know you’ll come here now if you want. You’re free of the things that made you afraid to venture across the ocean.
James also had another influence on my life: He taught me to see bipolar disorder in a different way. One of the darkest shadows on my teenage years was my stepfather, who was basically a good person, but who was battling addiction and what had been diagnosed as bipolar disorder. When he was in an “up” phase, all he could do was talk and rant and rave, often incoherently or somewhat menacingly. And when he was down, he might have just been sleeping it off. It was troubling and gave my already unstable home even more instability. Those years made me recoil, to be honest, from anyone else who might have this illness. But James put another face on it.
I don’t know what he was like to live with in everyday life (although from what he wrote about his family and friends – and, later, his beloved Margaret and her family, and from what Margaret posted about him, it seems he was a wonderful, loyal, loving companion), but being able to see his soul changed a lot for me. I know James was a mental health advocate, and I’m sorry that I never got to tell him all of this. I guess I felt embarrassed bringing it up, even though I know that’s silly because he was the kind of person you could tell anything.
James and I stopped writing so regularly in recent years. I think it was because there came this moment where it was like, we’re both all right, domesticated, and on to other things. He had found love and a new family. I had become a mom. It was like the two struggling, starving artists that we had been, escaped starvation and headed off to happier days in our own separate ways. Every now and then, we’d reach out with a friendly hello and a few kind words for each other. And that was all.
And that is a beautiful ending to a story. I was so happy, happy beyond measure, that James had found, not only romantic love with someone who seemed perfect for him, but also a family he genuinely seemed to love, as well. I was always so glad to read how inspired he was by these new people in his life and heart.
And now, my heart breaks for them. Margaret, I don’t know if you’ll read this, but I can’t tell you how sad I am for your loss. From what James wrote about you, I know that you are one hell of a strong woman, and that you will get through this. But while things hurt the most, I hope you know how much all of us who knew James are thinking of you and your family, and sending prayers/good vibes to you, and wishing we could do more.
I wish I had a way to tell James so many things, and yet, a part of me wonders if he hasn’t heard all of them, hasn’t read this post. He was such a mischievous, metaphysical soul that I can’t imagine him completely gone. He never thought his departed family and friends were, so why should he be?
If you’re a more pragmatic person and don’t like to think of such things (and I do think I hear the echo of James’s written guffaw -- “Haw Haw!”-- at that), I’d encourage you to read or re-read his blog posts here at Our:
His last post, about Margaret’s mother’s last days, feels even more poignant now, and even wiser. As does everything there. James knew about life, death, and suffering. Not just through the poets and philosophers he loved, but through what he’d experienced. He also knew about joy, silliness, laughter, and that bright flame in our spirits.
I will not say I hope James rests in peace: I hope, rather, that he has an exciting and fulfilling and wonderful afterlife. I know that those of us he’s left behind will never forget him.
I wrote earlier about how James and I often exchanged quotations we liked. Going back through his posts, I came upon this one:
To live in hearts we leave behind
is not to die.