Jim Harrison was a husband. “I’ve been married for 46 years,” he told me when we met a decade ago in Livingston, Montana’s Owl Bar. He’d learned through our preliminary correspondence — during which I’d assured him that I’d been a compulsive creative writer since the age of seven and had “given my life to it,” the main criteria by which he decided whether or not to be interviewed by a young aspiring novelist — that I was newly married. The dream of being married had occupied half of my heart for as long as I could remember; it coexisted there with the equally consuming dream of being a writer. Now Jim said in earnest, exhaling the smoke from his American Spirit and assessing me kindly with his good right eye, “I hope the marriage works out. They tend not to these days.”
At 68 years old to my 27, Jim had experienced decades of matrimony in contrast to my eight or so months. Soon, he would become my literary idol as an author of fiction, poetry, essays, and memoir that — in their contagious vitality, their celebratory and compassionate explorations of the pleasures and pains that come with being alive on this rich earth — have done more to heal, inspire, and delight me than the work of any other artist. He would also become an authority in my eyes on conjugality and love, as well as a peripheral observer of my own marital and romantic misadventures.
“You know, you’re very attractive,” he told me a few times over the course of our interview, perhaps because he was never timid about his appreciation for women either in life or literature, or possibly because he accurately sensed that I did not know. Introverted, diffident, and in some ways naive, there was much I didn’t know, especially about men — my dad had been completely absent even longer than I’d been compulsively writing.
Jim was as dynamic a speaker as he was a writer, and our conversation that day covered kaleidoscopic terrain: xenophobia as the root of the world’s ills, his sighting of Jack Kerouac passed out in a San Francisco bathroom in the early ’50s, Native American cultures, Christianity, and whether or not it was a good idea to strive for poetry in every sentence. “Some people try to do it that way,” he said, ashing his smoke in a manner that conveyed he didn’t think he was one of them.
There was only one question he was shy about answering. “Doesn’t your wife get jealous,” I asked, “in response to the way you write so lustily about women? Even if it’s fiction?” I was a jealous new wife who imagined all wives must’ve been similarly wired. Jim was closemouthed. In a few days, though, he sent me a note in which he gently expressed that a marriage is, and should be, a mystery to all but the two in it. He was protective of his longtime bride and their union, and I was impressed.
He liked the finished article I’d written about him when it appeared in print and wanted to stay in touch.
My then-husband and I had moved from Montana to Los Angeles when Jim mailed me a letter. “The Yellowstone is flooding,” he wrote, “and you’re not here to help.” He said he’d been suffering from health problems and had just come out of the hospital. “It was so awful I should have gone to see you…” he said before declaring me a healer, albeit one with witchy tendencies: “You could have stolen holy water from the usual cathedral and mixed it with shark pee-pee, etc.” He asked me to continue with some research I’d been doing for him on the loup-garou, a mythical French werewolf that had captured his interest, and he closed with a request: “Send a photo…” I complied with a demure, decidedly Victorian headshot, shoulders and neck wholly hidden by a turtleneck, snapped by my spouse among the flowers at the L.A. Arboretum. This likely wasn’t the sort of photo Jim had in mind — his work is rife with carnal, playful, and sincerely heart-struck celebrations of feminine pulchritude — and he received it without comment. But at the time I couldn’t imagine that he — that anybody — would want something different. Any awareness that I might have been beautiful or desirable was at that time latent, locked away in a box to which I didn’t think I had the key.
Not long after that, somebody came along who did appear to carry a key, and the unlocking was both bitter and sweet: sweet because I was enchanted by the potent and persuasive sense of being seen in a novel way, bitter because he was not my husband. Feeling profoundly altered, guilty, confused, and unfit for my marriage, I sent a confessional email to Jim. There was no judgment in his reply, only sympathy. He advised me to “proceed with caution” if I proceeded at all, and wrote that he understood the experience of allowing oneself to be seduced, though he didn’t say explicitly whether it had ever happened to him. Still, I wondered if he felt disappointed. He’d wished me well in my fledgling marriage and now it seemed I was making a real mess of it.
A year later, I moved back to Montana by myself and adopted a solemn collie from the shelter who seemed, like me, to be in a quiet-but-constant state of emotional distress. I lived alone in a cheap apartment in downtown Livingston. The affair into which I’d stumbled had ended when I’d been unable to tear myself out of my marriage. My marriage had also ended when I’d confessed the affair and, after the dust settled, couldn’t stay with my husband, though I’d tried. I didn’t know where or with whom I belonged. I felt like a failure. These were dark days, dampened by tears.
I was walking my dog one afternoon when I heard Jim call to me from the sunken sunlit patio of the tavern where he sat with a few friends. I stepped down to join them. Always fond of dogs, he fed mine Cheez-Its from the basket on the table. I shakily talked with Jim and his commiserative companions about what had been going on. “It’s harder to write these days,” I told Jim, “without the sense of stability that comes with being married.” He nodded. I got up to leave and ascended the steps from the tavern patio up the sidewalk. Jim followed. We paused. Since I stood on a step and he did not, I was about six inches above him. I bent down and kissed the top of his head. He looked up at me and said my name. “What if you were really this tall?” he asked.
I heard the real question tucked beneath his seemingly light and irreverent one. I have never forgotten it. It is my favorite and most treasured of all the things he communicated to me in writing or in person. I must have merely chuckled in reply. Though I understood what he was asking, it didn’t seem quite possible yet that I could be “tall” — that is, powerful in my aloneness. I could be my own woman, with no husband, no lover, no hovering possible partners: just me. I could let go, at least for a while, of the lifelong dream of forming a permanent union with a man. I could rent my own house on the creek and become a hermitess of sorts, mend my mostly self-inflicted wounds until they closed, work hard to revise the novel I had drafted during easier days, get it published, and see the dream of a lifetime — which ran parallel to the dream of lasting love — come true. I wasn’t immediately sure if I could do this, but Jim’s question would echo, and I would do it soon.
In the meantime, whenever I felt especially blue I would spend time with Jim’s books, because reading about Brown Dog, Dalva, the farmer’s daughter, France, food, dogs, sex, death, revenge, and birds was medicine for me. He was the real healer, able to transmit his mind’s singularly heartening perception of the world through the medium of his poetry and prose. He was helpful outside the realm of printed pages, too. When a TV personality came to town to film an episode of his show and asked Jim about me, Jim replied firmly, “She’s not for you,” and that was the end of that. In those days, as he must’ve known, my boundaries were so permeable I might have been drawn into a situation that would have only caused me more pain. When word of this exchange got back to me, I was grateful.
After that, our lives filled with new diversions; we corresponded and saw each other less. My first book came out. I began to consider love again, my incautious heart now tempered by slightly clearer vision. And I continued writing all the while. As I grew taller, Jim slowed down a bit. Though he was still admirably prolific, he was aging. He had back surgery and shingles. He spent part of each year in Arizona, away from the stingingly cold winters and slushy early springs of Livingston. When he returned, I’d see him around town. From a distance I’d recognize his unmistakable shuffle, his canvas shoes worn like slippers with the heels smashed down, his uncombed shock of white hair, his careless clothes and cane. Always, I felt explosive affection.
A quotation of his — “There’s never an excuse not to do your work” — is taped above the desk where I’ve finished a second novel and where today I labor over yet another — one I’ve been working on in a state of vulnerability and insecurity, with a gambler’s blind faith, as I feel my way through its dark woods for the fourth consecutive year. I’m not sure what will become of either of these books, but then that’s no concern of mine. I wasn’t lying when I’d told Jim prior to our first meeting that I’d given my life to writing. And he’s the one I most look up to among all those who’ve given their lives to this weird and lonesome compulsion to tell stories by scratching ciphers onto sheets of tree.
I’m still thinking hard about marriage, love, and forming a forever union — a union of heads and hearts, with abundant heat. Just a couple of weeks before he died this March, I watched a 1993 French documentary about Jim. One short scene struck me as so piercingly beautiful I had to replay it a few times. Middle-aged Jim and his wife are driving down a country road. She is wearing bold dangly earrings. He reaches over from the driver’s seat to push back her hair and examine one of the pretty baubles in the most familiar, proprietary, curious, husbandly way, as if to say, “What is this new thing with which you’ve adorned yourself?” or “I know you — I know your head, your heart, your body.” Seeing this moment, I swallowed a sob. That small, intimate, seconds-long gesture encapsulated so much: what he cherished, what he guarded, what he held on to for nearly six decades despite inevitable difficulties, and what I want.
Jim and his wife had been married 56 years when she died last October. I sent him a card. Friends said the last thing he ever expected was that she would go first. He was the one with the unapologetic appetite for cigarettes, drinks, and rich foods. Six months later, he followed her. I heard the news on Easter Sunday, which seemed fitting; he’d mentioned during our first meeting at the Owl Bar that he’d been an ardent boy preacher and still believed in the resurrection. Of course his own resurrection will be perpetual: every time anybody turns a page of one of his books, there he will be. I went out and bought his latest, The Ancient Minstrel, the title novella of which is an imaginative memoir. Like so much of his other work, it alleviated my sadness, even though my sadness had been over the passing of the minstrel himself. When I got to the very last page of that story I lost my breath. I knew Jim wasn’t writing right to me — that he’d only thought of me for a fraction of the time that I’ve spent thinking of him — but that’s how it felt. Our communication had always concerned both writing and relationships. Now, it seemed, he was making his last definitive statement and proffering his final bit of advice on those subjects. They reached me with the same precision that a bird navigates to the end of his flyway with the help of the sun and stars:
I feel absolutely vulnerable and realize it’s the best state for a writer whether in the woods or in the studio…Feeling bright-eyed, confident, and arrogant doesn’t do this job…You are far better off being lost in your work and writing over your head…You don’t want to be writing unless you’re giving your life to it. You should make a practice of avoiding all affiliations that might distract you. After fifty-five years of marriage it might occur to you it was the best idea of a lifetime. The sanity of a good marriage will enable you to get your work done.
It was a reassuring end to our conversation.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.