One time, in the midst of moving across country, I stopped at my friend Bardwell’s house with my Ford Escort packed to the gills, my toiletries unwisely buried behind one of the seats. I was in my mid-twenties. Bardwell must have been in his early seventies.
He took my face between his hands and looked at me with his twinkling blue eyes and transferred into me some knowing of my own preciousness, as Jim Finley would call it. I don’t recall the words he used, but I’m sure they included “love,” a word I sometimes have trouble using with even my closest friends, though never, since that visit, with him.
Bardwell taught me and many, many other college students Asian religions. He didn’t reduce religion to a system of ideas but rather offered us a way of being in the world, a way he practiced. I always thought that when the Tao Te Ching talked about a sage, it was talking about someone like Bardwell.
He marked our papers in green or purple felt-tip pen and reading his comments felt intimate, as if the ink held the attention and love with which he responded to our efforts. He taught us to be careful with words: childlike not childish, pacifist not passive. He encouraged us to take risks in our writing and thinking by rewarding the successes and not paying too much attention to the failures as long as there was some daring in the attempt.
Long after I had graduated, he was the first to tell me the concept that now shapes my seeking in this life—that there is no such thing as our individual identities, that we are all parts of a single whole. He may have been saying it all along, but when I finally heard it, it stuck, though I had no idea what he meant.
There are many wonderful facets to Bardwell—his gentle and quick sense of humor, his love of puns and baseball, the way his smile sometimes reveals the six-year-old inside—but as ever, when I want to capture the essence of something or someone, I’ll steal a few lines from William Stafford, this time from the poem “You Reading This, Be Ready”:
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now?
That’s where Bardwell lives from—that breathing respect for all and for the reality of our interconnectedness held in the awareness that it is all gift. Should you ever be lucky enough to meet him, you’ll feel it.