MATT POWER: An Appreciation

Yesterday, the internet exploded with tributes to my dear friend Matt, who died in Uganda on Monday (probably of heatstroke), while walking down the Nile on assignment for Men’s Journal. I wrote a couple griefstricken posts on Facebook and a bunch on twitter, but Matt worked best in longform. He deserves as many words as I can give him.

I met Matt in 2004, at Breadloaf. He was 29. He’d just published his first piece in Harper’s and he was very excited about it. So excited that when I met him, this skinny, t-shirted guy in a pair of jeans that he’d bought in maybe 1992,  across a crowded room full of writers, he had a gin and tonic in one hand (for me) and a copy of the Harper’s issue The Poison Stream appeared in, in the other. His enthusiasm was so high that I mistook him for some strange entertainment, perhaps a Breadloaf Welcoming Committee, but no, he was just Matt, and his pleasure in whatever he did radiated from him in all directions.

There was some question over whether he had ideas that I’d read his article right then, in the middle of cocktails, but luckily, I’d already read it, by fluke, on the airplane to Vermont, and so I was happy to crow with him, this total stranger, now my friend. Matt and I became instantly close, though I was in the fiction section and he was in nonfiction, in, as I recall, Ted Conover’s workshop. He had just emerged from living in New Delhi (and I think he might have gone back to India post-Breadloaf) when I first met him, and he was tanned and bony from roaming. He only kind of fit in at Breadloaf, where most people were newly writers and straight out of grad school, or comfortably established with houses, not wandering and already making this kind of career.  People referred to him as “That Harper’s Guy” – but he was also “That Radio Workshop Guy” and “That Guy with the Grin.”  Breadloaf is all cocktails and campfires, swimming holes and late night dance parties in the barn, and I kept seeing Matt whirring through it, in his element, periodically pointing out an obscure constellation, then whooping from somewhere on the other side of the fire.

Obviously, there was no way I was letting Matt out of my life. This was not a conference friend, but a friend for life, and that’s what we did for the next ten years.  The next time I saw him, a few months later, I had just sold the book I’d pitched at Breadloaf, and Matt screamed for celebration. I never heard him, in all the time I knew him, jealous of other writers. He’d smack his lips and generally bellow with laughter, and shout when someone made a big deal, or sold a lot of books, and it wasn’t that he was not paying attention to things like that. He was. He lived on the internet as much as he lived in daily life (recently we had discussions of how Twitter was like a giant party, and thus was irresistible).  It was a mixed bag, though, because not only had I sold my book and come to NYC to meet my publishers, my dad had also committed suicide. So I arrived in NYC three days after my dad’s death, rocked and weird, having not really cried, and came to Matt, who looked at me with one eyebrow up and demanded stories of my weird Idaho childhood, of my dad’s hoarder house. He was willing to hear all the horrible things I couldn’t talk about, until I could finally unknot myself. I’ve been thinking of that this week, the generosity that took. We didn’t know each other well. I told him every weirdness from my sled-dog raising Idaho childhood, and Matt, being Matt, was like, “Nah, that’s not so weird I can’t understand it. Tell me more.” I imagine this must be how it felt to be interviewed by him. He listened calmly to everything, asked questions, and then said, “Damn. Do you need me to go out there and clean up the property? I can get a ticket to Idaho and hitchhike out to your place.”

This was Matt at his brokest. This was Matt to a new friend.  This was Matt making this offer in December, when everything was frozen.

And so nearly ten years passed, in friendship, in celebrating each other’s publications, in sitting over tables muttering over our parallel careers. In me driving Matt over the border to Canada from Seattle a few years ago, because he’d been banned at some point, and was afraid he would get turned away if he flew. He wanted a distraction in the driver’s seat for the border guards. The guard had many questions for Matt – who was still in the system, though he wasn’t supposed to have been – and asked me what I was doing with “this firebrand.”  I said this firebrand was my friend.  I got to dance at Matt and Jess’ wedding. I got to hang out in their backyard, and sometimes, when I came to New York, I never even made it to where I was staying, because I just stayed in their house, sitting in their garden, watching Matt crow over his raspberries, paddling my feet in a wading pool, and talking to all the interesting people who roamed around all the time, living in the house with them, or just hanging out.

I moved back to NYC from Seattle post-divorce a year and a half ago, and purposefully planted myself walking distance from that house, because Matt and Jess were family, and I wanted to live as close to next door to them as I could. Only ten days ago, two days before Matt went to Uganda, I tweeted my joy at texting them that I was cooking, and having them show up half an hour later, bearing wine and warmth. Matt and Jess together were the kind of couple who could make a feast out of a crust of bread and a few olives – not only in their own space, but in anyone’s.  When I moved into my apartment, we sat on the floor amid boxes and ate random items, while Matt inspected every corner of my apartment muttering about holes in the walls and badly done light fixtures. He’d become, in the last few years, with he and Jess’ place in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, a house renovation fiend. He liked the details. A few months ago, he came over to help me hang my taxidermied crocodile on the wall, and we had to call in another friend, because it turned out we couldn’t properly lift and hang a crocodile. Again, we ended up gluing all the rattling furniture, eating 9 hours of meals, and cackling before we flew out to three parties in one evening.

Matt had a personality that was visible from space – but it wasn’t the kind of personality you’d normally think of in those terms. He wasn’t obnoxious, though he could talk, and if you weren’t up to holding up your end of the conversation, he might vaudeville you for a while. He was gleeful, most of the time, and game for anything. He was intrepid. There was a reason he was an adventure writer, but in truth, almost everything he did was adventurous, even if it was just walking from his and his wife Jess’ house a mile north to my apartment. He’d arrive, bouncing on his heels, say “Hello, Sweetheart” at my door, grab me up and hug me, and and then shamble into my kitchen and uncork whatever he had in his hand. We’d commence the real business of breaking the universe down, into not just manageable chunks – that was not Matt’s specialty – but into connect-the-dots narratives, drawing ingredients from all of human history, when we could.

Matt did a lot of reporting over the ten years I knew him, and a lot of living, too. He traveled all over the world, and wrote a ton of pieces, each one fascinating, always gorgeously written, and notable for their empathy, curiosity, and vigor. He climbed mountains, rode motorcycles in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and with Jess on the ring road in Iceland. When he met Jess, he called me and said “I’ve met this girl named Jess, the one. I can’t believe it.” He was so giddy that the three of us drank a bottle of champagne the next day, and he spent the entire time beaming and levitating at his luck.  Jess is worth it. She was his perfect match, and as adventurous, generous, and insightful as he is. Matt got even more thrilled with existence in her presence: he tromped through jungles, and through deserts, and onto the eagles of the Chrysler Building. Matt was also a full-on New Yorker, in the old style. He was an engaged pedestrian, fascinated by small alterations in buildings, new plants in gardens. He talked to every small child he saw, and knew half the people on every street he walked down, in seriously any neighborhood I was ever in with him. When we were hanging out together, I’d often hear him make a sound of delight from another room, only to discover him looking at anything from an interesting bug to a wobbly table leg that he was in the process of fixing, to a photograph on my wall he’d loved before, but happened upon again, and loved as gleefully the second time around.

If you went to a party with Matt – and I did, lots of times, when one or the other of our partners couldn’t attend – you’d see him orbiting the room, and hear his laugh, as he talked to absolutely everyone there. One of the key things about Matt was that there was almost no way to get him to leave a party. Everyone who loved him knows this. Man could stay at a party, getting more and more happy, even until sunrise, if he was allowed. He did not like to leave, not when there were still strangers to meet and friends to greet.

The fact that Matt had to leave this party, this Earth, so fucking early (he was only 39, and every time I see the timeline, 1974-2014 I want to frantically scratch out the last number) breaks my heart.

I knew he was walking the Nile with explorers in Uganda. I’d finally gotten around to not worrying about him every time he traveled – after 10 years of intermittent nerves. We’d talked at dinner about the trek itself, and the kind of terrain, the weight of his pack. We talked about hippos and their ferocity. This was nothing compared to some things he’d done over the years. The first five years I knew him, he’d regularly text or email me on his way to far-flung locales, or from random airports, and it’d be “off to K2,” or “motorcycling to the highest point  in the Himalayas.”  The fact that his life ended while he was walking down the Nile makes a certain kind of narrative sense, but it’s miserable sense. I can’t believe the guy with the grin is gone. He seemed like he’d live forever. He liked a river story. He liked to start at the source, and make his way down. He did versions of this several times, in the Amazon, on the Mississippi, with varying degrees of success, across Nicaragua by boat on the Rio San Juan, following in the path of Mark Twain. Years ago, when he had the idea for Mississippi Drift, the piece he wrote about floating down the Mississippi with a bunch of anarchists on a salvage raft, we talked about the glorious analysis of the American Dream way the piece *could* be structured. Then he actually got on the raft, and it became a stalled-out situation. The piece he ended up writing about the Mississippi was funny and weird, but not noble-glorious. There’s no wham bam American dream in it – unless we’re talking about the American Dream of Walmart and dumpster diving, which in truth was always part of Matt’s assessment of the interesting things about the world, scavenging, selling, seeking, battling with nature and sometimes losing.

Everything he wrote, he wrote with acceptance of situations most people would find hard to place in context – but Matt’s context, for everything he reported on, was humanity and the diverse pleasures of being human. His piece The Magic Mountain, about economics in a Philippine garbage mountain, has haunted me for years, because he describes walking that mountain tremendously viscerally, and also with grace. You can smell the garbage. You can also see a beautiful mountain made by men. Matt, while recently particularly known for his work writing about adventurers-by-choice, also wrote a lot of pieces about the underserved and ill-treated.  I edited a draft of his Pine Ridge piece years ago, as well as one of the piece he initially wrote for the NYT Mag, ultimately for Slate, on the harm-reduction injection drug clinic in Vancouver, moving things around and changing tenses, trying to shrink stories into wordcounts without mangling them, trying to get to the guts of the story without doing disservice to its subjects. Matt was a generous reporter. He reported evil in the world, but not in his subjects. He saw people as complicated, and most of the time, he liked them for their complexity. He wasn’t a naive wanderer – I realize some of this makes Matt sound blind to badness. He wasn’t. If he thought someone had transgressed against one of his close ones, he would offer to punch them for you. If he thought someone had done something morally unsound, he would rant. (Matt and Jess were the good examples of journalists I was thinking of when I wrote this piece on journalistic ethics & the Dr. V. article a couple months back –  we’d just had a dinner conversation about permission, about telling a subject’s secrets, and about the horrible things that can happen when you tell a story and it gets shrunken into a soundbite, or worse, incorrectly rendered once it’s out in the world.) He had a wicked sense of humor right alongside his generosity, and occasionally it would come out and startle you into laughing til you cried.

In 2007 (?) he emailed me a very due –  first draft of Escape to Mount Kenya, from his apartment in Brooklyn, and then got on a train to meet me in Manhattan for dinner. I’d bribed him into Manhattan with my editing services during the 40 minutes he’d be underground, and by the time he arrived, I’d redlined his poor piece into oblivion. He had faith. He accepted all the edits. That is a certain kind of person, a guy who trusts an editor enough to accept all her changes without arguing. Matt was that kind of person with his friends, and I suspect also pretty much that way with his more official editors.

I met a lot of them last night at a bar where we all toasted our friend and told stories. Matt was loved like crazy, by strangers, by people he met once, and by his loved ones.  All those categories were crying at the bar as his obituary was read. There were two walk-in randoms in the bar last night, the only people not there for Matt. One of them asked me “Who was that guy? He sounds like someone from a movie.” And then when Matt’s obituary was read, I saw that stranger crying.

I was standing adrift in the center of the room when Matt and Jess’ friend and former housemate Par Parekh walked in, and beelined at me to hold me tight for the next several minutes. It was the right thing, in saying goodbye to a man who gave hugs that could save a person’s life. I know Matt gave hugs like that to so many people, and standing there last night, these two deep friends  of Matt Power (always referred to by his full name, because come on, he was a superhero) holding onto each other because the guy who was guiding our expedition had died on the river, that was right.

I can’t believe Matt Power died on the river. I can’t believe Matt Power isn’t still trekking and toasting the joy he always had, for everything he did, for his amazing wife, for his amazing life. So many people are grieving him right now, and grieving the words he won’t write, too.  There are a lot of broken hearts all over the world. He was loved.

I believe Matt guided the expedition, though, up mountains and into the sky, across countries, into the unknowns of the human heart. His work was cartographic and compassionate, and every piece I read taught me something new about how to see the world. The last thing we said to each other – in the last few years, we got into this happy habit – was “I love you so much. I’m so glad you exist.”

I’m gonna say it again, right now. And I’m going to remember to say it to the people I love, because frankly, you can never say that enough.

Here, I leave you with some last lines from Matt’s work. From years of taking passes at his drafts, I know how he liked stories to end, with movement and change, with the feeling that everything, while unresolved, was still glorious. That there was room on earth for fascination and for a million stories, and that they were still happening, all around us.

That nothing was ever finished.

The pounding surf of the Caribbean echoes through coconut groves, and where the river meets the sea, the ghosts of a thousand journeys drift on a slight breeze.” – Exploring the New Nicaragua, National Geographic Adventure, September 2006

“All his clothing, his journals, photographs, identification – everything but his life – had been lost, and he found himself in a place he had often been: broke and homeless, coming ashore in a strange city. The river, of course, continued on without him.” – Mississippi Drift, Harper’s, March, 2008

“A cliff swallow glides into the sheltering alcove, and rises on an updraft without a wing beat. It levitates a moment, as if painted into the landscape, before returning to its nest of mud and straw, built just where the Buddha’s head had been.” – The Lost Buddhas of Bamiyan, Harper’s, March 2005. 

“I am nowhere near home. The train is waiting for me, it hasn’t pulled out yet. All the ghosts of the workers who built this railroad, all the people who have, knowingly or not, helped me across this huge continent, all swirl around me in those few moments. This is the great secret of trainhopping. And this is what it means to be alive.” – Trainhopping, A Modern Day Hobo’s Journey across Canada, Blue Magazine, December 2000. 

“The flooded forest is the epitome of all childhood nightmares, and yet I’m not afraid. I now understand the realization Stafford came to while crossing the Napo delta: He learned to let himself float, to feel the tranquillity of the moment he was in. Stafford has a long way to go, perhaps 18 more months, but you can’t rush an expedition like this. It will take as long as it takes.” –  Lost in the Amazon, Men’s Journal, June 2009. 

Read Matthew Power’s work. It’s beautiful. It will be worth your time. He was worth mine. I wish I’d had more of him on this beautiful planet, in my living room, in my kitchen, in my inbox. He was one of the great loves of my life, after all, and how many of those do you get?  There’s no past tense for Matt Power. I love the hell out of him.  I’m going to miss him every day.

You can’t rush an expedition like this. This is what it means to be alive.

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30 thoughts on “MATT POWER: An Appreciation

  1. Pingback: 2014 CHRYSLER INTREPID

  2. Wonderfully written. Thank you for sharing. Matt and I grew up in diapers together in Middlebury, VT and attended High School together. He was an indomitable spirit with an infectious personality. Those of us who knew him were truly blessed.

  3. well put.

    met him when he got to nyc activist squat scene, good guy. i like yourline here best”He reported evil in the world, but not in his subjects. “

  4. 39 years old is too young too die! He probably would have been a four-time finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in international reporting. Thanks for blogging about Matthew.

  5. i sometimes wonder if the adage the great die young. For I am now sixty eight and therefore not great. But this story reminds me of the greats. Those who risk all for the story. Those willing to sacrifice for the truth to come out. May they always live in print.

  6. Worlds are shaped by rivers and it would have taken a mighty one to have shaped the hearts that Matt touched. He continues to do so and remains immortalised through his words. The good ones always leave too soon because we never want them to leave they are the life of the party.

  7. Thank you for this intimate portrait of a writer I must now seek to know even more about. This description of his writing intrigues me as a travel writer: “He traveled all over the world, and wrote a ton of pieces, each one fascinating, always gorgeously written, and notable for their empathy, curiosity, and vigor.” I am sorry for your loss. I’m am sorry for our loss. -Renee

  8. Pingback: On Bearing Witness | Otter Down

  9. Thank you for this beautiful tribute to your dear friend. I didn’t know him but thanks to you I now know of him and can get to know him through his writing. I hope you and Jess and all of his many friends take comfort from the huge footprint he left, is still leaving, on the world.

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