“The Lonely Letters” is an autobiofiction in which I attempt to think the relationship of quantum theory, mysticism, relationality, and blackness together by considering the sound and noise of Blackpentecostal spaces. Building on the work in Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility—as the project began before and was written during and after the academic book project—the “The Lonely Letters” attempts to think together what might seem to be disparate ways of thinking worlds known and unknown, the religious and the scientific, the noisy and the musical, with hopes of considering the epistemologies of quantum physics as Blackpentecostal. It is about love and heartbreak and hope and joy. It is about sound and subjectivity, about desire and movement. It’s about the sociality of life against the repressions of anti-black, anti-queer violence and violation.
Yes. Single. I’ve been single and the shit bothers me. And I know you wanna spiritualize it and say that I need to wait and be patient but I think, coming from you of all people, that it hurts to read you say that. It hurts when you say it on the phone. And you know it does because I hear your voice and you hear mine and you still talk to me and remain engaged and you know how I feel. And I know how you feel.
You never believe me when I say you’re beautiful, though I suppose I said it after a bit too late. I know you think priesthood is what you desire and I’m not here to stop you, never have been, but I think and have thought you were and are beautiful since the first time I saw you, since the first time you opened your gap-toothed smile up to me, hesitant, speculative, hopeful. The way I felt when I first met you? Astonishment might be the closest thing to it, the best way to describe what I felt. Astonishment as a kind of intensity of sense experience that is, at the same time, a rupture into spacetime, making time and space otherwise than Newton.
Look at this article. It says that particles’ “current” behavior are based on their “future” states:
Quantum laws tend to contradict common sense. At that level, one thing can be two different things simultaneously and be at two different places at the same time. Two particles can be entangled and, when one changes its state, the other will also do so immediately, even if they are at opposite ends of the universe – seemingly acting faster than the speed of light.
Particles can also tunnel through solid objects, which should normally be impenetrable barriers, like a ghost passing through a wall. And now scientists have proven that, what is happening to a particle now, isn’t governed by what has happened to it in the past, but by what state it is in the future – effectively meaning that, at a subatomic level, time can go backwards.
To bamboozle you further, this should all be going on right now in the subatomic particles which make up your body.
Your smile? Astonished me, opened me, made me feel some future, some moment to come, as if it’d already happened. Your smile? It’s as if the gap caused me to fall into a black hole, a space of opportunity, your smile made me quiver. Your smile? It illustrated what I think science only wishes to approach, that when I saw it, I knew you, knew you before I knew your name, knew you and knew us as us, as together, as entangled from some hallucinatory effect from something bearing down on me from outside me. Your smile? Ecstatic force, that which was outside myself caused me to withdraw into it and, by withdrawing into it, made a different relation to spacetime not only possible but plausible, not only possible but desirous.
It’s been years, yes, but it feels like yesterday. It wasn’t so much that I thought you the most beautiful thing in the world – I did – and it wasn’t that I thought our conversation was so wonderful – it was – that did it for me.
It was this: that first time we talked at the diner, I mentioned ever so briefly that Just Above My Head is my favorite novel, that I’d been meaning to buy an original copy of it because the one I had was so marked up but never had the opportunity to purchase and, of course, I’d want an original copy of the book but then we moved on to another topic and your having taken that information and lodged it in some somewhere far away in the recesses of your mind, only letting that knowledge flourish once again when months later – we were arguing, at that same diner, that night, after having spent so much time together that day and evening and the argument, of course, was not an argument at all but our closeness warming to each other – you allowed that knowledge to come back to the surface when I said to you
you never listen or pay attention to me! I already told you that!
Did I know that you would go home that very evening, go online, find a copy of the original printing, purchase it for me? And then your scribbled handwriting in the front:
to prove that I both listen and pay attention to you …
It was that that did it. That attention given to things that I did not even attend to as acutely as you scared the shit outta me. What was I supposed to make of someone who could detect in me the traces and remnants of hurt and pain that I did not even realize I enunciated? I did not know that I had spoken to you so freely, after all. Of course, now that I think about it, I said nothing different than I’d normally say or do when spending time with someone who I was interested in. It was that you had an inclined ear toward those things, you not only heard the surface but into and around. It was in the pauses and breaths I took that, I think, let you hear into the silence that was pulsating with meaning. But, of course, you heard the contours, heard the melody. It’s like you opened up what was in the statement, like pulling out the drawbars of the Hammond B-3.
You see, Just Above My Head was recommended to me by someone who’d taken notice of me when I was still in high school and he a senior in college and my mother – she was a secretary at the university – invited him to our house to eat on several occasions because he was far from home – New Orleans – and he said her kindasorta southern accent reminded him of everything he missed from home. That, and the piece of fried chicken she gave him when he smelled it wafting from the microwave as she heated it up when on break at work that day. He told her of how much he missed home and my mother was always inviting someone from the school down to the house and even though we didn’t have much, she shared with everybody. So I was used to seeing all sorts of folks. Until I saw him. He was not what I was expecting. Sorta short, sorta fat, sorta nerdy, glasses, sorta high tenor voice, sorta a drawl whenever he spoke. And, well, I was into skinny boys who loved Jesus so that we could pray together for our sinning after we laid in the bed together.
He came to our house more than once and I was taken by his ability to tell me what to do:
can I have some cold drink; can I have a napkin; may I borrow a fork
he’d ask all the time in the most polite way possible so much so that I knew I had to comply to that insistence, painful but loving and shy requests. Painful, of course, because he did not want to ask for anything, he felt it a slight and imposition. He was the embodiment of sweet. Anyway, somewhere in the middle of the year of his visiting our home, probably in December now that I think about it, he went back to New Orleans for the holidays and I was expecting him that Sunday because he always came to our house every Sunday after church but not that Sunday.
momma, is he coming over
no, he’s not.
So I sat in my bedroom, held my teddy bear and began to cry. I still don’t know why. I’d only watched him from the corner of my eye when he visited. I’d give him the things he’d ask for and retreat to my part of the table, not talking much, though he’d try and coax me into conversation often. Sorta amused contempt with this dude that would come to my house every Sunday as if he belonged. I resisted him for reasons I still do not comprehend because he was nothing if not kind to me. So there I was, in the bedroom, fourteen or fifteen or sixteen years old sobbing quite quietly because I did not want my mother or father to hear me.
Then the phone rang but it never rang for me so I didn’t give it much attention. My mother knocked on the door and told me to pick up the phone and it was him on the other line,
I know you miss me just kidding but no I’m not I’m playin so I wanted to call and say hello but no I’m just playing I just wanted to wish you a happy holiday because I know I’ve been bothering you by stealing your mother every week and now you have to deal with me taking some of your food and my bad but I just wanted to thank you because you’re a cool dude and you should know that and one day…
I did not, of course, know what to make of that run-on sentence but his voice washed over and under and through me like the spirit so I just rejoiced and was happy in the fact that I did not need to speak because my voice would have cracked anyway because I was crying.
That day began a new phase of our, I guess we could call it, friendship. And that same day, he told me how he had been reading Just Above My Head but how it was too much for me because I was still a sophomore, so too young to get it. He told me he would buy it for me when I was older but of course, he graduated, forgot about me and all, though I’ve never forgotten about him.
So yes, I mentioned Just Above My Head to you but only because I needed a new copy and wanted the original printing if possible. Your buying it for me put closure to my relationship with that guy who was too old for me but not really. But it also made me know that you would be attentive to me in ways that would both delight and annoy me. Isn’t it the case that we want someone to fawn over us until they do and then we think there something wrong with that person to give so much attention to us in the first place? That, perhaps, that attentiveness will mean that they will also detect that which we want to remain hidden away?
At that moment you were more beautiful to me than beauty itself, than the concept of the beautiful. And, shit, it scared me. It was the book. It was the scribbling inside. It was that you knew how to make me overjoyed. But if that was joy then surely lurking around the corner was disappointment, or so I convinced myself.
Astonishment is like that. You are confronted with something awe-inspiring and inducing. You are taken up in and assumed by that confrontation, dwelling therein, listening to its heavenly musics, abiding and loving and existing in some other temporality, some other such zone of time where time is not but what is given is and is as something constantly being taken away. Of course, what was being taken away in that infinitesimal encounter and confrontation was the idea that loneliness and brokenheartedness are perpetual and unending. Meeting you? I knew that shit was a farce and that happiness existed. Right in front of me. Smiling, gap-toothed, always. That smile? Maybe that’s the moment of entanglement, the moment of being taken and joined with another. It’s a sort of pairing that cannot be produced by laws and churches but only by intimacies, intimacies that emerge from the soon to come that determine the past nows.
But, of course, that’s only one side of astonishment’s encounter. You can’t stay there forever, can you? Who knows? I’m pretty sure none of us stays there long enough to find out if you can actually stay there so then we’re released to the other side and we run far away from that which prompted such feeling in the first place. [And don’t judge me for having many in the first place phrases; they are all anoriginal, in a way, they are all rooted in the same tradition of fear.]
By the time I figured out that kind of experience was possible and that it could be ongoing – how long had we lived together, sung and fucked together, and me not trust you still? – you were gone and talking about becoming a priest again. Again as if for the first time. And thus, the ongoing silence to anything emotional I said to you that you enacted. You know I still look at your copy of Just Above My Head almost daily, it’s still on the bookshelf underneath the television. Do you know that I often pick it up off the shelf, thumb through it so as to act as if there is nothing written on the front flap such that every time I open the front flap I feign surprise? Or, not feign really, because I am and always am surprised by your knowledge of who I was [and am? and would be? who knows?] demonstrated by your scribbled writing, but be astonished, still?
It’s because Baldwin says this:
Arthur realizes, for the first time, consciously, that Crunch listens to him, responds to him, takes him seriously – takes him seriously, even though he always makes fun of him.
You think, just because I’m bigger than you that I can’t be in love?
Peanut and Red were happy simply because Crunch and Arthur were happy.
There is always a beat beneath the beat, another music beneath the music, and beyond.
The song does not belong to the singer. The singer is found by the song. Ain’t no singer, anywhere, ever made up a song – that is not possible. He hears something. I really believe, at the bottom of my balls, baby, that something hears him, something says, come here! and jumps on him just exactly like you jump on a piano or sax or a violin or a drum and you make it sing the song you hear: and you love it, and you take care of it, better than you take care of yourself, can you dig it? but you don’t have no mercy on it. You can’t have mercy! That sound you hear, that sound you try to pitch with the utmost precision – and did you hear me? Wow! – is the sound of millions and millions and, who knows, now, listening, where life is, where is death?
Thirty [years old]. And I was alone, had been for a while, and might be for a while, but it no longer frightened me the way it had. I was discovering something terrifyingly simple: there is absolutely nothing I could do about it. I was discovering this in the way, I suppose, that everybody does, but having tried, endlessly, to do something about it. You attach yourself to someone, or you allow someone to attach themselves to you. This person is not for you, and you, really, are not for that person – and that’s it, son. But you try, you both try. The only result of all your trying is to make absolutely real the unconquerable distance between you: to dramatize, in a million ways, the absolutely unalterable truth of this distance. Side by side, and hand in hand, your sunsets, nevertheless, are not occurring in the same universe. It is not merely that the rain falls differently on each of you, for that can be a wonder and a joy: it is that what is rain for the one is not rain for the other.
Baldwin named an experience I sorta knew was available and possible in a vague sense but gave it flesh and bone, he didn’t romanticize it nor make it heroic, he just made my imagination sense and feel and sorta hear and touch and taste and smell that there could be something if I opened my clenched fist of conservative theology, my clenched fist of dogmatism, and breathe and breathe and breathe and hope eternal that perhaps I could find some kinda love if I stopped valuing solitude and loneliness and aloneness as the only possible habitation of divine call and encounter. He didn’t romanticize nor make heroic the pursuit of queer life, just elaborated as if it were one in many, one in infinite, ways that one could live life. And there’s a devastating precision with which he writes.
Whatever we hear in music is after the fact of its having been sounded out before its being played. Music is always after the vibration, it is delayed. And if what the song sings is different than the song, then the singing is always an attempt, a failed attempt, to get at the song. And if the song doesn’t belong to the singer but the singer is for the song (but, it seems important to note that Baldwin did not simply flip the statement but replaced belong with for), what it seems Baldwin is doing is also considering song and relation to it as necessarily a decolonial practice, a practice against possessive individualism, a practice that is about unfolding and outpouring and always having a posture of opening and yielding and giving.
There is a sorta clarity, a kind of refusal for the ornamental if the ornamental and the flourish meant discarding with material and textured ways of life. The ornamental and flourish, for Baldwin, emerge through expanding upon the mundane and quotidian and ordinariness of love and heartbreak, of friends and family all. It’s why the novel, every time I read it, still moves me. I read Just Above My Head again, as if it were the first time, and was struck by the chords of what always struck me, how – this time reading it – it’s like Baldwin talked about love and song as a sorta laminated analysis of quantum entanglement. What I’m trying to say is, what I’ve been saying to and about you about us is not novel at all, it’s something that I can only write to you about because of folks like Baldwin, because Baldwin gave me a kind of language and spacetime in which to dwell, his elaborations of Arthur and Crunch, of Arthur and Jimmy, of Arthur and his love for Hall.
Come over. Come see me. Please. Soon.
Ashon Crawley is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. His research and teaching experiences are in the areas of Black Studies, Performance Theory and Sound Studies, Philosophy and Theology, Black Feminist, and Queer theories. His first book, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (Fordham University Press), is an investigation of aesthetics and performance as modes of collective, social imaginings otherwise.