Levi G. 1953-2017
I won’t say that Levi was my best friend in the world—I have many wonderful friends—but he was the friend with whom I most resonated. When I was in Asheville we met every week for a couple hours, having breakfast and drinking coffee. As soon as we sat down we fell into the same deep conversation we’d been having for nine years. Two hours seemed like twenty minutes. We were on the same wavelength, somehow, about literature, writing, religion, our spiritual lives, psychology, addiction, our pasts, our present lives. Every time we parted, and I was walking away, I felt a twinge of sadness, because that conversation, the likes of which I’ve never had with anyone else, was over. It was as if it would never happen again.
Now it won’t. Levi died early on the morning of August 6th of a massive heart attack.
I met Levi in a Durham men’s group that some of us formed in 1988 after a Robert Bly Day for Men. He was a lively and provocative member of the group, very much involved in the Men’s Movement in those days, got to know Bly and Michael Meade and James Hillman personally. Before long, he had gotten a job in the western part of the state and moved from Durham, kept in touch only sporadically. I didn’t get close to him again until 2008, when my wife made the decision to rent a place in Asheville year round so she could look after her parents and her autistic brother. We spent the summers in Asheville, along with every break in the academic calendar, and he and I met once a week to have breakfast and swap stories.
He’d been a serious alcoholic in his twenties, was sober only a few years when I first met him. By the time he died he was one of the old crocodiles of AA, sober for over thirty years. He told me that when he was a young man he worked at a restaurant in Williamsburg and would take his tip money to a bar after work and drink until the money was gone. He’d wake up the next morning with a terrible headache and do the whole thing all over again. He told me about one day of drinking, a Sunday, when he began with Bloody Mary’s, went on to multiple beers for a football double header, back to hard liquor in the evening. I couldn’t believe the amount he put away.
One time when we were talking about our addictions, I said, “That thing most people have, that tells them they’ve eaten enough food, I don’t have that.”
He said, “I don’t have it for drinking.”
We stared at each other for a moment, thinking of all those limitations had meant to our lives.
One day he said to a woman friend—there was always a woman in Levi’s stories—that he thought he had a drinking problem and should go to AA. She said she thought he was right. She offered to go with him.
He never had a drink again.
He told me once that AA was a great example of the saying that, when two or three are gathered in His name, He is there. He also once said that God entered the world in humble circumstances, in a stable, and he continues to enter the world in the humble circumstances of church basements all over the country, where people drink coffee from Styrofoam cups and admit their inability to handle their deepest cravings on their own.
AA was Levi’s church, which he deeply loved and was completely devoted to despite all its flaws and problems; he attended multiple meetings per week. When we were out somewhere he was frequently greeted by other folks from AA. They beamed when they saw him.
His other deep spiritual practice—one he shared with my wife, but took to a whole new level—was the Progoff Journal Workshop. It was when my wife saw Levi at a workshop in Asheville in 2008 that she got the idea that he and I should start getting together. I’d been disgruntled at the thought of being away from Durham for so long. Levi made the Progoff method a major part of his life, and to say he had written thousands of journal pages is not an exaggeration. Every time I saw him he carried the leather satchel which held the massive binder he wrote in, often with an expensive fountain pen he’d bought for that purpose (it was one of the few extravagances Levi had; he was not an extravagant person. The only other thing he spent excessive money on was books). We often talked about writing he’d done in the past week, and he often said, as we parted, that he was heading home to write in his journal. I think it was another major tool in his sobriety; he faced the demons when they came up by writing about them.
His other spiritual practice was one we talked about constantly, though I had little familiarity with it. I believe the story was that he was in his twenties or early thirties, breaking up with yet another woman, when she gave him a copy of In Search of the Miraculous. “Start at the beginning and read it to the end,” she said. Most guys, being given a spiritual book by a woman who was breaking up with them, would have built a bonfire to burn it, but Levi read it, had read it many times since; it was one of the most influential books in his life. He subsequently drove many miles once a week to visit and be counseled by a woman who had done “the work” with some Gurdjieff disciple, then split off from him (Levi gave me the impression there were many such satellite people). By the time I knew him he was mostly reading commentaries on Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, not their original work, but that was his constant spiritual reading. He was obsessed with literature as well, but the reading he talked about most was the Gurdjieff stuff.
Levi was a working class guy, with working class roots; he talked a lot about both of his parents. His father was a taciturn factory worker, nothing like Levi (no AA, journal workshop, Gurdjieff work). They had to move at one crucial moment in Levi’s life—breaking up his high school basketball career—because his father needed to find work. Part of Levi’s story—we heard this even in the men’s group days—was that he was trying to move beyond that working class background, where men worked hard and drank hard and never talked much to anybody, certainly not other men. He somewhat sabatoged himself when he was a young man, using the drinking and drug taking to ruin his first crack at college, but he graduated years later and then got a masters, had a long career as a substance abuse counselor. He was a wonderful counselor, I’m sure, but I’ve always thought there was an academic and a philosopher in Levi struggling to get out.
Levi’s literary tastes were more post-modern than mine; he was obsessed with Thomas Pyncheon, whom I’ve never read, went on and on about Pyncheon’s theories of how we’ve gone wrong in our lives and politics. There were certain books that Levi read repeatedly, Pyncheon’s work and various books about him, William Gass, also, every few months it seemed, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. He’d read much more in philosophy and psychology than I had, was always naming some modernist philosopher I’d never heard of. He loved movies, YouTube videos, documentaries about philosophers. I think that in recent years he spent more time looking at screens than reading pages. He had an incredible obsession with the television series Mad Men, watching it multiple times and binging on it, finding in it the entire history of Western civilization.
Levi talked to me often about doing something more with his work, making sections of his journal into a book, writing a novel about some key moment in his life. He never pulled the trigger on that. I sometimes think the things he didn’t do—become an academic, become a philosopher, write a novel—had to do with the pull of his working class roots. He’d come a long way, but couldn’t quite put his voice into the world. He wanted to, but never did.
At other times, though, he realized that his journal was the great work of his life, a massive and obsessive attempt at self-understanding. That’s what AA was too, and the Gurdjieff work, his brave and powerful attempt to examine his life as a human being in the world. Thoreau set out to live life deliberately, but I can’t imagine living a life led more deliberately than Levi’s.
When my wife’s autistic brother lost his father, the man he’d lived with all his life, Levi began visiting him once a week as a counselor and helped him get past that. He immediately, the moment he met him, treated him as an interesting human being worthy of respect. He was Louis’ first real friend, though they met when Louis was 59. Just a couple of weeks ago, when Louis was to start meeting with an autism therapist at a new office, Levi drove him there on a dry run, gave him the confidence he could go alone. I ache for Louis as much as I do for myself.
The last time my wife saw Levi, at the beginning of another spring Progoff journal workshop, he had lost weight and looked different; his color wasn’t good, and he was having a problems with his gums, which he wasn’t looking after. “I’m coming to terms with my mortality,” he said, rather solemnly, and she said, Come on, Levi, get your teeth fixed, take care of yourself. But she remembered that moment when she heard he had died.
I too felt in recent weeks that he’d been looking back on things, wondering about his legacy. I would guess that his legacy will be in dozens, hundreds, thousands of AA meetings where he stood up and spoke his wisdom, saw that living a life of sobriety wasn’t just a matter of not taking a drink—though it started with that—but facing whatever was leading you to drink, fear or anger or shame, facing that thing and feeling it, learning from it. A life of sobriety was better not just because it didn’t damage people but because it was richer, facing the demons and traumas that pull us away from the beauty of living.
What I’ll always remember is those Saturday mornings when I’d be in some impossibly crowded Asheville coffeehouse and I’d get my coffee and go back to find a table, and he’d come in the front door to get in line, and look back and see me there, and smile.
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