Reading Annie Dillard on a picnic table. Tiny ants trudge around in myopic busyness. One ambitious climber clambers up and onto the open pages of the book. I fail to observe him and so crush him with my hand. He dies slowly over minutes, seconds, aeons. I watch him die: it is the only gift I can give him. His filament legs stop moving and he goes still. Goes. Gone. A universe of death packed into his inarticulate articulated body. Goes. Gone. I look up at the patchy blue sky. It seems to ripple above the water of the lake. It envies the lake’s shores, the lake’s shapeliness. A form of meaning. The horizon is an obstruction, not a limit. Gone. I begin again to read, now careful where I put my hands.
He was spherical, armed cap-a-pie, sleepless, and ready for all comers…He was very extraordinary and knew everything and was a bumble-bee–a benevolent monster of pure intelligence, zigzagging, ranging, and uncatchable. I always had this feeling about Royce–that he was a celestial insect…Time was nothing to him. He was just as fresh at the start of a two hours’ disquisition as at the start. Thinking refreshed him. The truth was that Royce had a phenomenal memory; his mind was a card-indexed cyclopedia of all philosophy…His extreme accessibility made him a sort of automat restaurant for Cambridge. He had fixed hours when anyone could resort to him and draw inspiration from him.
To watch water, to watch running water
Is to know a secret, seeing the twisted rope
Of runnels on the hillside, the small freshets
Leaping and limping down the tilted field
In April’s light, the green, grave and opaque
Swirl in the millpond where the current slides
To be combed and carded silver at the fall:
It is a secret. Or it is not to know
The secret, but to have it in your keeping,
A locked box, Bluebeard’s room, the deathless thing
Which it is death to open. Knowing the secret,
Keeping the secret–the herringbones of light
Ebbing on the beaches, the huge artillery
Of tides–it is not knowing, it is not keeping,
But being the secret hidden from yourself.
I want to say a few words about Kevin, my brother.
Bear in mind, as I do, a passage of scripture. “For…your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Col 3:3
I cite this passage because I believe each human being to be ultimately a mystery. That does not mean we know nothing of one another, but it does mean that we know only the hither side of one another. The yonder side we do not know. Only God knows us hither and yon.
Kevin was more mysterious than most. But here is what I know: he had an outsized personality that could command a room or a stage. He was ferociously smart. No one was quicker than Kevin. He had a remarkable memory. His musical gifts were prodigious, even gargantuan. He enjoyed the attention and the accolades music brought him, no doubt. But in the end he cared about the music: he cared about getting it right. He cared deeply about the standards internal to the music. He cared about the standards imposed by his instrument, the guitar. He listened intently to the music and to his guitar, always trying to coax as much of the former as he could from the latter. He was a highly skilled artist.
He was also big-hearted. He hated suffering, and sought to end or soothe it whenever he confronted it. He was able to adjust on the fly to the people around him, family, friends, other musicians and, most notably, the patients he nursed, old or young, able or disabled. He laughed big; he laughed without ceasing. He had an insatiable appetite for life.
I admired his gifts and loved him. He sometimes exasperated me, sometimes infuriated me, as brothers do brothers. But I loved him. No one like him will replace him. No one is like him.
It’s been a joy to have known David Kangas. It is with sorrow that I learn he has died.
He was an exceptionally good Kierkegaard scholar, and read Melville’s late poetry, too. A student of his and good friend, Aaron Simmons, has written a moving tribute.
In 2012 when he first found out that he had Stage 4 cancer, [David] emailed his good friend Martin Kavka and said this:
“First off, ‘stage 4’ cancer, which is what I have, is by definition incurable. So treatments are a matter of buying time. How much time is, of course, unknowable by anyone. I’ll take whatever becomes available. . . . Existentially, I consider myself fortunate to have never believed the human condition was ‘curable’ (the professional opinion of a philosopher which I couldn’t resist telling the doc). Nor, thankfully, have I ever put much credence in the techno-pragmatic complexes of our culture…
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Reading Dillard is nursing a shot of peaty single malt scotch. Sip carefully, purposefully. Just enough to wet your tongue, whet your mind. Burns, burns as it goes down, steals your breath. You may never breathe again. Release the shot glass–stare at it, wonder if you can stand another pour. You see double.