The emails have been arriving with depressing regularity. Often the subject line is only the name of a friend. With dread I know what the message will contain: That person has died. In recent weeks there have been seven such losses. Three came in a 10-day period, and I fell into sadness.
–Roger Ebert, ‘ I remember you’
This isn’t a normal re-entry into the world of regular blogging. Oh, sure, you’ve noticed and I’ve noticed that I haven’t been here that much, that I’ve been waltzing off starting other blogs and—that greatest of blogging excuses—writing The Book (it’s true). And I could give the usual patter of apologies and promises and life-does-get-in-the-way-of-the-internet-strange-to-say speeches. But today I just want to start writing for you again, and talking with you again, and there’s a reason.
Roger Ebert died today. It was the day after he said he was going to start back—which, for Ebert, meant reviewing a lot of movies and working on a few more books. Yesterday, when begged our leave to take ‘a leave of presence’ from his work, he wrote with the vitality and enthusiasm of a far younger, far more well man. Today he’s gone to his reward, and the world has lost a powerful force for good.
This isn’t an obituary, or a remembrance, or anything like that. There are many others better suited to commemorate Roger Ebert. I didn’t know him. Never met him. Never wrote to him. I regret that, now.
But lately I’ve been grappling with questions, and sadnesses, as I’ve watched close friends go through shit and gone through some pretty deep shit myself. I don’t know what the questions are yet, honestly. I don’t know themes or issues or problems or—anything. I just feel them there, and deeply. And it’s pretty clear to me where it’s all leading—a poem or a story. Because that’s where such things inevitably lead me: that’s how I say what I can, as I’m able.
I’m not there yet. Nowhere close, probably. But the day before he died, Roger Ebert wrote:
At this point in my life, in addition to writing about movies, I may write about what it’s like to cope with health challenges and the limitations they can force upon you. It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital. So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.
I’ll also be able to review classics for my "Great Movies" collection, which has produced three books and could justify a fourth.
See what I mean about his enthusiasm? He wasn’t able to write it in the end—and who knows how many thousands, tens of thousands, of well thought, vigorous, unflinching, and kind words the world will miss out on because of it.
It’s like this: I want to start writing about all these things, because now, for good or ill, Ebert won’t be able to.
And Ebert wasn’t just a movie critic. Everyone’s running to say this on their own blogs now, and they’re probably right. He played with words. He was from Downstate Illinois and never lost the idiom, for all he learned this hardnosed Chicago clarity of his master Royko. And he believed in the power of words to liberate and to heal.
Take, for instance, the advice for writers he posted in 2008. It’s perhaps the least clichéd, least coherent, most idiosyncratic, and most arresting of the multitude of such advice columns I’ve read. Partly, or mostly, because after Ebert presents a paragraph from a book he especially loved—McCarthy’s Suttree, of course—he writes these words:
The most recent time I read those words, it was 10 o’clock at night in the rehab center. Dead quiet, in the dead of winter. My room chilly. I was holding the book while seated in a wheelchair by the side of my bed. The wheelchair tilted back to ease the pain of my shoulders, where flesh had been removed to try to patch the hole in my chin. I had a blanket wrapped around me, even covering my head and the back of my neck.
Something about that image has haunted me. The image has taken on a size disproportionate to the words. I can see that hospital room, the bit of light on the pages, the surrounding cold and dark. I know too well the dull ache of insomnia, of sickness, of the feeling that one is unable to go on. And yet it’s full of words, words, words—not words I would have written, or even words that I would choose for myself to read, and yet, Ebert wrote:
After weeks of depression, hopelessness and regret, realizing the operation had failed and I would probably not speak again, after murky medications and no interest in movies, television, books or even the morning paper, it was the bleak, sad Suttree that started me to life again. […] I picked up the book indifferently and started it the third time, after another failed surgery and at another low ebb because "at least I know it’s good."
Roger Ebert’s passing hit me harder that I thought it would. I think because he gave me words—his own words. In his reviews and his blog, with his words he championed clarity, elegance, and honesty, genteel wit and elegant derision. He had little brook with idiocy, still less with sloppiness or self-indulgence in filmmaking. He stood for a compassionate and liberal Christianity too little in evidence; he cherished downstate memories, places and people, with a fondness that bordered on the pastoral.
And he gave the world his words. How many times have I snuck over to his website to look for a one-star review to chuckle over? How many times have I stopped everything I was doing to read his latest blog post, regardless of subject matter? If you’d asked me yesterday whether Roger Ebert was a major formative influence on my life and writing, I’d have been genuinely bewildered, probably would have tried to name a few other authors and friends. But from today there will be no more new words from Ebert to read, and the world is a bleaker and sorrier place.
And so I sat down to write—to start saying thank you, to not be afraid to cry a little even here on this blog. To prepare myself, too, I think, for the time when others dearer to me will fall silence. And perhaps to start filling the void Ebert has left and others will leave—that everyone leaves, eventually.
There is a time to speak and a time to be silent, and it’s time to speak again. Because I’ve always believed, and always will, that we can use words and stories, memories and dreams, poetry and sound and laughter, to help us find our way through the silence of sadness. I read words written by a friend who’s hurting, I remember Ebert’s parting promise to ‘see you at the movies’, I see my daughter falling asleep cuddling—not a stuffed toy, but a book with my name on the cover—and I think I start to understand, and feel a time of silences coming to its end—or rather, to a new expression of silence. As George MacDonald wrote in a letter to Ruskin (30 May 1875):
Now we are all but Psyches half awake, who see the universe in great measure only by reflection from the dull coffin-lid over us. But I hope, I hope. I hope infinitely. And the longer I live and try to live, & think, & long to live perfectly, I see the scheme of things grow more orderly and more intelligible, and am more and more convinced that all is on the way to be well with a wellness to which there was no other road than just this whereon we are walking.
Let us thus call a word now and then through the darkness as we go.
It seems fitting, somehow, to give the last words of the day—and the first words of every other—in the form of a prayer by the immortal George Harrison: