Over the weekend, I received news that a good friend of mine named Guy Leekley passed away. He had battled cancer for 20 years, with multiple relapses, and had spent the better part of the last year resigned to his bed.
I fist met Guy in 2011 while visiting my grandfather and his wife in Asheville, North Carolina. My grandfather had been telling my parents and I stories about his neighbor Guy for days, but we weren't sure what to think about any of it. One evening after dinner, Guy and his wife visited us. Guy was recovering from his most recent run-in with cancer and had just had a femur replacement. He moved very slowly and looked fragile. But he and I ended up having a long conversation on my grandfather's back porch. I wrote about the impression it made on me in an old blog, a portion of which I have copied below:
My first impression of him (Guy) was that he was distant and impersonal - but after only a few minutes I realized I was mistaken. What I interpreted as distance was merely a calmness, and a lack of the pleasantries and fake smiles and words that generally accompany such forced meetings. He embraced our conversation and showed an intense focus and heightened awareness of my words and interests, rarities in any interaction, especially with a practical stranger. The next day, he invited me over to his house to meet his wife and show me his collections of books. He gave me a copy of his translations along with a book that helped him prepare for law school over forty years ago. His library of Greek and Roman texts, many of which were in their original Latin form, were remnants of his days studying the Roman Empire (in his own words he spent six years immersing himself in these texts - always seeking out the primary source to avoid bias). We talked about American history, the Constitution, the Roman Republic, Daoism, among other topics. At the end of my visit, he said next time I visit my grand father I should come for a week and study and write with him. Now, a few days later, I am beginning to sense the impact his calmness and intellectual drive made on me.
That impact has not waned in the years since. In 2013, my girlfriend Katy and I went to Asheville and spent more time with Guy. This time, he seemed twenty years younger than he did at our first meeting. He was practicing yoga regularly and had the vitality of someone decades his junior. In a memorable afternoon of conversation, we discussed everything from the writing of Marcel Proust to the inner workings of terrorist cells. No ideas or subjects seemed to be outside of Guy's interests. He was curious about everything, especially innovation and technology. While we ate together at a local Mexican restaurant, Guy asked Katy about the latest social networks and how people are using them to communicate. Shortly after returning home from that trip, I learned from my grand dad that Guy's cancer had relapsed.
I did not have the pleasure of seeing Guy again. He was able to communicate via email from time to time, however. The last time I heard from him was April 9th of this year. He told me that he could not wait to read a draft of my book and share his ideas with me. He also mentioned that he had conducted a similar project in the 1980's, in which he investigated the influences on Julius Caesar and his friends as teenagers. Although I am disappointed that we will not be able to discuss either one of our projects, I am deeply grateful that Guy's presence was a part of my life. More important than any historical analysis or insight, Guy gave me a belief in myself and the worthiness of studying history. Without him, I am sure the book I plan to publish would not exist.
I googled Guy's name earlier tonight in search of his obituary, and discovered two talks he gave in the last few years to groups studying meditation and Buddhism in North Carolina. In the first talk, Guy discusses the six fundamental insights he gained from forty years of studying the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese text. He comments on topics like compassion, emptiness, and transformation, among others. I felt his thoughts on the deceptive nature of language are especially compelling.
It can take a few minutes to get used to Guy's delivery. He's a very methodical speaker who makes references that may not always be recognized by the layperson. However, if you are curious about Guy and/or interested in the subject matter, I recommend listening to both talks when you get a chance.
In his second talk (below), Guy speaks to a Buddhist group about simplicity. Interestingly, Guy is skeptical about the notion of a "state" of simplicity, explaining that this is largely an illusion. He explains that a goal of Buddhism is to be able to confront the harshness and messiness of reality head-on, rather than rise above it through cultivating some kind of mental or physical escape. Definitely worth listening to.
I also discovered the beautiful, relaxing video below in which Guy recites his translated verses alongside photographs of the Chinese countryside.
I'll finish this post with a portion of Guy's translation of the text he admired most of all, the Tao Te Ching. For a long time, I kept his book next to my bed and would read random verses occasionally before bed. But ever since I moved to a new city, it has languished in a box in the basement. When I'm back home a few days from now, I plan on finding it again and restoring it to its rightful place. I can't imagine a better companion for a late night or a turbulent time.
The words below are taken from Verse 20 of the Tao Te Ching: A New Version of All Seekers. He may not admit it if he were still here, but these words are certainly an accurate characterization of the Guy Leekley I knew and admired. A True Seeker and a true friend.
While others revel in their excess,
I seem to possess nothing,
A simpleton indeed,
Out of touch with reality.
While they strut and boast,
I may seem confused, floating and blown about.
While they are busy and full of plans,
I may seem to drift.
The difference is that I am constantly nurtured
By that Great Mother, the spirit of the sacred way.