I didn’t know him very well. Damon Loren Baker, who recently passed away. The news, however, was devastating. I met him briefly in Bergen in 2015 – totally focused on his own world, preparing something related to the exhibition, I think, but we managed to have a nice chat even if he was becoming increasingly distressed. Then a few years passed. He was such an intriguing presence on Facebook, where we intermingled in the usual spaces of common friends, shared complaints and moments of awe, and sometimes grumpy comments. He tended to appear and disappear from Facebook, in his better moments sharing his insights and inspirations, sometimes in a rather idiosyncratic manner, that apparently was hiding deep internal thought currents, not always easily making it to the surface. When I moved to Winona last August to teach there as a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence in Creative Digital Media program at Winona State University, my sincere awe by all things Midwestern became a ground that linked us a bit closer. I don’t know if he expressed it on other occasions, but he apparently seemed to like my penchant for the region that for many people is just a ‘fly over country’. It never was such a place to me. Soon I became totally enchanted and in love with open space, the Great Muddy, bluffs, slow pace of Midwestern life, in synch with Mississippi’s unhurried current, beautiful trees around Winona Lakes, sincere, honest and friendly people (even if sometimes a bit distanced), difficult history, Native American barely discernible but strongly felt presence, my friends: Talan Memmott, Davin & Carrie Heckman, Małgosia Plecka, awesome colleagues at Mass Communication Department WSU, and wonderful Zen Dharma River Sangha, as well as my dreams about eagles – in short, everything that kept me non-judgmental and eager to learn more about the place that quickly became a second home far from home, even if just for 4 months. So whatever appreciative I posted about “my” Midwest, Damon was usually quick to comment on or just nod, apparently glad I came to like the region so much.
Then I got back home, things started to get increasingly stressful as I was desperately trying to cope with all the (far too many) obligations at my own university upon arrival and then COVID-19 pandemic fast approaching (yes, we could have seen it coming from afar, unbelievable how we had not been aware until it became too late – in my case, too late to secure the access to my own garden located 3 km across the Polish-Slovakian border, which made me suffer tremendously throughout the whole 4-month lockdown). Anyway, just on the day my university closed down and the possible national borders closure was announced (12 March 2020) Damon approached me with what was to become our last conversation in Facebook messenger. I’m quoting here the parts of it:
I wish we had a chance to continue this conversation. On this day I was exhausted after a very long day of class meetings (it was to become the last day of class meetings as we knew it) interrupted by the loudspeakers announcing that we should immediately leave the building due to the pandemic (until now I don’t know why it was SO urgent back then that the administration ordered us to leave the building in the emergency mode), frightened by the unknown looming on the horizon, torn apart between the sudden impulse to run away (where?) and keep close to my family and friends… But I remember how refreshing this conversation was. How inspiring. Like the gasp of fresh air (much needed then and during 4 months to come) in the middle of the infamous winter in Kraków, where we suffocate from the air pollution exceeding all standards, on a pair with the most toxic Chinese cities. In a way, I am going to continue this conversation at some point. File under: writing projects to follow at the nearest opportunity.
So that’s how I ended up in the Zoom event, so generously and genuinely organized by Caitlin Fisher and attended by Damon’s friends and colleagues. The circumstances of his sudden and tragic demise are dire. We were sitting on three continents, across time zones, remembering Damon, shares scraps of stories and memories, reading aloud his Facebook comments and messages. I was listening to his friends who knew him longer and better than I did and it was as if we collectively woven his story, stitching the bridges to bring him out of an abyss, gradually seeing him emerge, it never was an abyss to start with, we’re keeping him as alive, as angry and warm in heart, as generous with words and ideas, as caring for people, as messy, crazy, infuriating, clever, brilliant, and ingenious, as always. Here’s what left of him out there (thank you, Jason Nelson for digging it out and sharing):
Damon’s Github: https://github.com/dlb
The unknown is gonna stay longer with me, after Polish Sunday’s presidential elections won by the Central European grotesque Bolsonaro cum Trump, openly opting out for the nationalist authoritarian state, supporting open discrimination against LGBTQ, immigrants, intellectuals, and open-minded people.
I think I know what would Damon say. Time to reinstate Flying Universities.
Thank you, all.