Thomas Mertons and Chess
Brewed Awakenings Café in Milwaukee’s Brady Street community closed for business recently. I realized that for years I used to meet Tom there.
I had a friend in a young man named Thomas Mertons. He was utterly shrewd, pedantic, and a decidedly good young man. I realized this morning that I hadn’t heard of him in some time. Possibly the city and I have grown more healed of his loss.
He was well known by many as a chess prodigy – from the age of 13 he was considered one of the strongest players of the game of chess in the world – but I spent a good deal of time speaking to him. We would meet once or twice a week for three hours or more to play chess and talk about whatever came to mind. It was a good friendship for about 5 years. In his absence, I still consider the young man to be an old friend.
Tom had a notion of excellence that was curt, but a notion of realistic decency that was deeply ingrained in his personality. Once, I had attempted to quit smoking and thought to switch to less enjoyable self-rolled cigarettes. He simply stated, “Roll thin cigarettes.” in a poke at the absurdity of it. If I were to quit, that goal would be no cigarettes, not thin cigarettes. That was 20 years ago. I still smoke.
He and I lost touch when he started working towards a marriage. This is an aspect of adulthood that many decry and few explain, but people have to implode their relationships towards planned families, and so don’t have the time to discuss philosophy for days on end.
The relationships put a particular pressure on him to succeed financially while the world was less successful on the whole. The throes of the Great Recession of ‘2008’ were already underway and he was unable to support a lifestyle that he thought was moving towards success. The frank truth of the matter was very few people could. Our generation grew with the Dotcom/Startup expectation of wealth. But, it must come from somewhere, doesn’t it. And it more and more often doesn’t. More often than not.
He took his own life ultimately for economic woe and this deeply saddens me. But something about researching him for this writing today alarms me. This is: we forget too completely. Healing from a loss is good, mourning that loss is good. But loss should never be complete. In the case of Tom, I’m unable to find his chess games to discuss for this writing or any other images of him. The internet forgets a good man if I don’t write this.