I haven't thought about blogging in years but the other day, for reasons I'll explain in a minute, I was re-reading old emails from an old friend and he mentioned reading my blog (and even commented on it once in a very funny way).
I have been thinking a lot about politics lately, and about this particular friend.
Since I moved to ATL I've had a hard time getting reconnected to politics, despite a few lame attempts. I'd say the main obstacles have been 1) my failure to learn to drive in city lacking not only adequate public transportation, but sidewalks, 2) being exhausted by work 3) not knowing people in the ATL political scene and 4) wanting to enjoy lazy weekends at home with my husband, who works out of town during the week. Just a couple of weeks ago, I finally got past the second hurdle. I finished some writing projects and the pressure in the administrative side of my new job has gone down as I've learned how to do it better. That's given me a sense of freedom about trying again to get re-involved in political activism. It also gave me the head space to start reconnecting with my old friend, who had asked me to read a draft of some of his new manuscript about 8 months ago when I was still overwhelmed and freaked out by work, and who I'd communicated with in February about something I was writing that involved a political theorist I thought he might know something about. This friend was someone who I'd just missed seeing because of both of our busy schedules and complicated lives several times since 2008 when I last saw him at an American Studies conference. Now, unfortunately, and for reasons that make no sense, it's just too late and there is no "later" when we'll catch up.
He's someone who I knew through politics when I "used to be an anarchist" (that's the expression he teased me about above). He stayed true to that tradition, and was active in anarchist politics and political theory. Of the people in Love & Rage, he was the person with whom I most often agreed politically; actually, in an email exchange we talked about having put edits in that afore-linked L&R Wikipedia page. In the 1990s, we talked and talked about debates that were going on in the organization, both on the phone and in person. I feel like we wrote things together, at least when we were on the coordinating committee of LnR together in MPLS. Years later, he wrote the most hilarious comments in the organization's Discussion Bulletin when he edited it in Phoenix. I hope someone has collected those. It included our intense position papers and proposals about our org's relation to the "race traitor" strategy, how to organize locals, cadre etc., interspersed with Joel's top ten lists of heavy metal songs for the Revolution, and how to keep cool in the Arizona heat. I learned so much from him, and he always talked to me as if he really appreciated my ideas. He also was a true friend; I used to go the movies with him and his wife, and they always supported me as I dealt with the fallout of a number of terrible decisions in my efforts at romantic relationships. He once took me out for a pitcher of malt liquor in our neighborhood bar and offered his shoulder to cry on after I was rejected by one of his own best friends. The malt liquor turned out to be a bad idea, but the shoulder to cry on was kind and the support was always there. When I told him I was getting married he said in an email, "That is wonderful! Do I know the lucky guy?" And I heard from another friend that he and his wife had toasted my happiness along with some other folks from L&R when he was visiting NYC after I had moved to Georgia.
In that later that's now not coming, we had a lot of promised conversations that would have been really great.
During the last ten years, he'd become really, creatively active in immigrant rights, from a revolutionary and radically democratic position. I am full of admiration for the work he did in Arizona. He's also written some of the best most critical writing on anarchism from within the anarchist tradition that I know.
Losing him is just terrible. I can't separate the Joel as a "human" from Joel as a political activist. He loved life and pursued his political vision with both passion and compassion. He was generous to friends, and as so many of my friends have commented in our conversations over the last few days, he was one person who could get along with people on all sides of big arguments in various groups, never making the political disagreements into personal grudge-matches. As a friend, he could accept people's limitations and appreciate what was best about them. If you read the linked obituary statements you'll see that was a very devoted husband and father, and if you feel so moved, please make a contribution to his wife and three children.
* * *
This experience brings me to two points beyond the fact that Joel Olson was a extraordinary person whose loss is inexplicable, shocking and heart-breaking to the people who were so lucky to know him. These two things are ONE - that friendships connected to doing serious political work are very special, and that it says something about what that political work does that is different from the routines that usually alienating capitalist daily-life puts us in - that's the concept of political miracles that my friend referred to in his piece on the Arizona Repeal Coalition's weekly meetings
TWO: If you can't afford time/money to travel to see them, call your damn friends on the phone! (and to those of you who I've been planning to call, expect a call from me for real this time.)
Facebook and email give us this illusion of being connected and of the connection always ready to be revived when we get around to it. Maybe that illusion's not true for everyone; maybe that says something more about me. There are emails of his that I enjoyed getting just because they were from him, but I often put off reading his longer pieces unless he had specifically asked me for feedback on them. Some of his mass emailed political articles were still "unread" when I saw them in my mail folder yesterday.
It's hard to live as if every day might be your last, or your friend's and I think that focusing on what I didn't do to see or talk to Joel in the last two years is, as one friend told me the other day, just a means of trying to take control of an out-of-control reality. And with that, I just miss my friend, and even miss the notion that one of these days, really soon, we're going to get in touch and really talk about all these things we've mentioned talking about later in real depth. The last email he sent me was one such promise - "I'd love to read it" he said about the thing I was writing that I'd asked his advice on. Even though I had a draft done a few weeks ago, I didn't send it to him, thinking he was busy with his own stuff and that I could send it to him when it came out this summer, but that I needed to remind him to send me that ms he was working on. Ah well.