May 10

Gentle Soul

Camping in langlade co, wisconsin


This is for my friend, Josh Gilman, a talented and generous person who is impossible to forget. He could change the life of another during a brief interaction, maybe because he didn’t see any interaction as “passing,” and appeared (and really did, I believe) to give all of himself to a person or a situation regardless of how small or insignificant it may be. This is what many people remember him as: someone who could be discussing the most personal and profound things with a stranger within minutes of meeting, someone who was as thrilled about life and its possibilities as we should all be, and maybe once were.


Perhaps more than anyone else I know, Josh made his life be about beauty and truth. What generations of people romanticized and further generation maligned and made fun of as cliché, he pursued in earnest and, I would say, with success. When he lived in Colorado, Josh would sometimes face his amp towards the Sangre de Christo mountains and play guitar to the uninhabited distance. If this sounds silly, the fault is with my writing.  Or maybe with our stupid jaded times, because, I assure you, we may be endlessly rediscovering things others discovered previously, but this is just what being human is about.  No two loves are ever alike, as no two sunsets are ever alike.


Josh spent much of his life traveling, abroad and in the U.S., for pleasure and in pursuit of ideas, people, or beauty. He’d hiked the Appalachian trail, where a bear raided his food and left him to walk a two or three day stretch of the way hungry. To my knowledge, he camped in Yosemite, visited the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, lived in the San Luis Valley in the high Rockies. I have beautiful pictures he took in Mexico, as well as from multiple trips in Southeast Asia, where he biked the length of the Malaysian peninsula to Singapore and eventually to Sumatra to see the Orangutans before they are eradicated from the wild. He spent significant amounts of time in Thailand on multiple trips and wanted to settle in Chiang Mai for good, though on his last trip there he came upon a politically volatile and unstable situation which thwarted any plans for staying. Josh also travelled to meet writers and poets he liked, or in homage of ones already gone. Josh admired Gary Snider, the beats in general, Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jim Harrison, Patti Smith, Neil Young. He travelled to meet Doug Peacock in Montana, and to hear Amiri Baraka speak in Madison, as well as others, I’m sure.


I don’t remember meeting Josh when we went to grade school together, but sometime around then I came over for lunch. We weren’t close friends and I didn’t know him that well, and hanging out on this occasion was the result of living a block apart and sharing the walk to school on occasion. I don’t think we were even in the same grade, since they put me in a class with younger kids because I had just come over to the U.S. from the U.S.S.R. and didn’t speak good English yet. I remember Josh striking me as an easy person to be around, and generous, more like the Russian kids I knew in that regard than American boys. I think even then, he saw material objects as meant to be shared and used for the purpose of making others happy. When we became friends years later, this was among the qualities that impressed me most about him. Without any pretense, like it was the most natural thing in the world, Josh did things for people he cared about, things to make them feel good.


I would get to know that house really well some years later, housesitting when Josh was living in Colorado. He was jealous that I got to hang out with Juniper, the brilliant border collie. Much of the handyman work the place has seen over the past decade has been my doing, for better or for worse. A couple years back, I spent a beautiful summer afternoon making a watercolor of the facade from across the street, a present Josh wanted made for Renee, his mom. Later in the day, a neighbor lady came to Renee to ask her if she was aware a man was drawing the house. In the heady days of Bush-era paranoia, perhaps she thought I was scoping out the place as a terrorism target.


In the mid or late 2000s I spent the summer living in the garage, which Josh transformed into a remarkably homey space with Asian hangings, candles, furniture, and whatnot– among the latter, a woven prayer rug from Afghanistan with an AK prominently and intricately depicted in the center, and a theme of weapons continued in the margins. Not sure where he got that thing. He had a way of creating sacred or liminal spaces which really worked in a magical, unfathomable way, half ritual and half empathy. We cooked food on a coleman stove and drove Renee mad burning huge bonfires and playing music into the night, as friends came and went with the ease afforded by a garage hangout and summer nights. The culmination of that period was the art rummage sale we held early in the fall, at which I sold every single piece of art I ever made up to that point to a generous friend and gave away many drawings to others. It was billed as “Full Moon Gallery,” a benefit for the Chiang Mai Artist Collective (which never materialized but was intended to be the next phase of our lives– more clearly so in Josh’s mind than mine).


The artist collective in Chiang Mai was for us, but it was also meant to be a place and an experience available to anyone who wanted to escape the mindfuck that is this nightmare of a creatively stunted and competitive society for a simpler and cheaper alternative on the other side of the world, as well as for friends he had made there on previous trips. It would be a place where people could live in beauty and make art to send back to the states to sell. Almost as soon as he got back to Thailand, I think, it was clear that things had changed and the plans had become an impossibility: the friends he looked forward to seeing where in the dumps, the country was on the brink of rioting, the prospect of settling down was all but impossible. Biking the length of the Malaysian peninsula on the way toward Sumatra, hoping to see the last of the remaining wild Orangs before they were wiped out, he encountered angry and fearful people along the way. Later in the trip, armed with razorblades and a bottle of rubbing alcohol, he tried to get rid of the large “Siempre” we had tattooed on his thigh that summer before he left. Alone in some hotel room in some giant city, it must have been quite the opposite of what he hoped for when he left for Thailand with every intention of staying. I can’t fully wrap my head around this, but I can’t wrap my head around the way he just decided he was gonna start an artists’ collective across the world and went for it, with the assumption that if he built it, people would come. This is how legends are made. I don’t think I ever had this kind of confidence and certainty in my vision or myself.


Josh was genuinely happy to see people he cared about succeed, and was unstintingly generous with his time and energy towards this end. The art rummage was one example of his faith in me, commissioning the painting of their house another. At the same time, he could be utterly mute about his own art and accomplishments. I never learned about the book of poems he had collaborated on with Antler and two other poets, “Four Against the War,” until I googled his name this year. I don’t think we were friends when he was writing most of those poems, and he never showed them to me, so I was only to realize what a talent he had when I couldn’t tell him so anymore. This is the price of exceeding humbleness. Its not that I was ever unaware of how special he was when I did have the benefit of his company, but we don’t make a practice of telling as much to one another, assuming that the unspoken fact is confirmed automatically by virtue of our bestowal of our friendship on another. Of course this may or may not be the case, and probably isn’t the case when you are depressed or agitated and your entire demeanor sends the message that the whole universe is shit.


I saw the gnarly scar on Josh’s thigh where the “S” used to be when he came back later that winter, but even though I lived in a rented flat just up the block from him for the rest of that year, we spent little time with each other compared to the summer previous. At some point during the following year Josh had cloistered himself off from me and everyone else I knew for the better part of a decade. Because I didn’t see him for so long, I can’t be sure when the change in him took hold, and whether it did all at once or gradually over those years. It was clear that he returned from Asia shellshocked, but not as clear what happened and what it meant. Maybe he was going through the protracted funk of trying to figure out how to live meaningfully in a world which doesn’t care whether you live or die, just that you produce value. Though, this being a general diagnosis applicable almost universally among many or most of us, its probably not of much use.


When we reconnected after that period, Josh had much more sadness about him. For a year, we both lived in Bay View and could visit each other by taking a ten minute walk past the big park and across KK. I think Josh was miserable for much of that winter, because he said as much, but for me the walks we took just talking and hanging out were anodyne; though I too was depressed in my life and far from productive or pursuing anything like a concrete plan. Sometimes we walked to Anodyne Coffee and marveled at the way people live their lives and what they consider important. The extra time I got to spend with him that year is a huge reward I was somehow given for I know not what good deeds. Josh brought much wonder and beauty into my life, as I know he did to pretty much everyone who knew him.


Josh thought life was a spiritual journey. The way he had of being concerned with things on a non-physical plane meant he was present for whatever was going on then and there. In light of this, the decision he made must be seen as a considered one. It may be true that suicides are impulsive acts, and that prevented from carrying it out, a person has a 4 out of 5 chance of living out their lives to old age. But statistics don’t ask, “What were these lives like? Fulfilled? Happy? Meaningful?” At the same time, I know (as Josh surely knew) that there is an element of chance involved in all of this, and that life is fickle. It is always possible for everything to change at a moment’s notice, for love to take you where you didn’t know exists, for the shunned and ridiculed weirdo with his head in the clouds (yurodiviy of Russian folklore) to become the only person with anything resembling answers in a sudden reversal of everything anyone has ever known or taken for granted. He may have felt this gambling isn’t “honest,” or just that the odds aren’t good. Or maybe it simply comes down to the ratio of pain to joy, and his reached an unacceptable level.


I’m not the first to note that all too often, it’s the best ones that are taken away, that seem to stand no chance of making it in this world. I won’t be the first one to say that this isn’t right, and that it doesn’t have to be this way. The facade was maintained, only a generation or two ago, that the goal of all our endeavors, all our industry, is for the betterment of the lives of men, the notion was that progress was human progress, concerned with the welfare of our species, if not the welfare of all life. There was serious discussion of what people would do with all their free time once menial tasks were mostly automated. Maybe it should have been obvious that this was a charade all along, and to some it probably was. Today, even the charade has been dropped: “progress” has come to mean the development of objects from simple into more complex forms, the total price of the stocks traded by robots and rich people on the NYSE has come to be an indicator of the fitness of our society, and no one talks about growth in terms of our minds or souls any longer. A society which, in the words of Aldous Huxley, is based on “organized lovelessness” does not deserve to exist. It is yet to be shown whether it can exist, in the long run.


Why we put up with it is another question. Clearly, many of us are simply not aware that any alternatives exist. Most people are convinced that the best they can hope for is a raise, a winning lottery ticket, “true” love, as opposed to the false kind. They’ve never seen a truly happy person in their life, have no idea what happy people do, where they come from, what kind of environment they inhabit, what they consider important. Most people wouldn’t know what they’re looking at if they did come across such a phenomenon. I have, and what’s more, I’ve been one. A very faulty one, perhaps, but one nevertheless. By and large, this is a matter of the company you keep and are blessed with. The friendship I got to enjoy with Josh was part of the reason why I know what happiness for human beings feels like.


Kurt Vonnegut, speaking to an assembly of the American Psychiatric Association, said: “All of you, I am sure, when writing a prescription for mildly depressed patients… have had a thought on this order: ‘I am so sorry to have to put you on the outside of a pill. I would give anything if I could put you inside the big, warm life-support system of an extended family instead.’” Whether they did have had such a thought is something only they know, clearly they wouldn’t remain psychiatrists long if they not only believed such heresy but went around saying so. But I will take Kurt Vonnegut’s wisdom over an assembly of psychiatrists any day: the point is that family—extended family—is an essential element we humans need to succeed, or to exist on any level but the most unfulfilling. Extended families don’t treat each other as bosses, employees, competitors or customers. Extended families offer a human being the opportunity to love and be loved, to be a student and a teacher, to be comfortable in the knowledge that they are accepted for who they are and will always be, that while they may do something that can hurt or disappoint, they themselves will always remain a part of the group. By and large, no group of people, related or not, gets to live any longer in a manner that would allow their members to live, grow, and die in the embrace of the kind of community that we require to thrive, certainly no one I’ve ever met. If we’re lucky, friends fill some of that space for some of the time—I consider myself about as lucky as anyone I know in this regard. Needless to say, it’s a tall order to maintain the level of support we require in an informal group of this kind.


Here’s hoping that the end of this dark age is at hand. When we finally manage to change the premises on which we’ve built this society, premises like man’s mastery over the rest of creation and, by extension, some men’s mastery over others, we may have a chance of ridding ourselves of the organized lovelessness that is the condition of such a society. When and if we do that, we will surely remember the ones who didn’t make it as the victims of the bad old days, and some as the prophets who pointed the way towards sanity. Not that that can ever take their place.


I miss Josh almost daily, still. Living in a city which we spent so much time in together can’t help but remind me of things we did, but even without outside triggers, I am the person I am today because of Josh. Sometimes I feel like with his passing, I am taking on his qualities. I got a puppy recently, and this has brought on all kinds of changes and new experiences which sometimes seem like deja vu, except not of something I’ve already lived, but that Josh did. I imagine him training June to “heel” and curb her prodigious energy as I do the same with puppy, or walking the Milwaukee river trails as we do almost every day.

josh at taj mahal

Photos in this post except the top one are ©Josh Gilman.

Stay tuned for a page featuring Josh’s poetry, fiction, travel writing, photos, and more.