In Memoriam

Looking back, it appears that sometimes in life, the Divine has picked me up and placed me where I needed to be without my having much to do with it. That’s how I feel about having landed my first full-time job in the office of one W. David Conn, vice provost for academic programs at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

At thirty-one, uncertain that I had any marketable skills but in need of a steadier income, I took an administrative assistant job in David’s office. Universities, I would learn, are very hierarchical places, and administrative assistants are near the bottom. I didn’t learn this from David, however.

Instead, when I’d been there only a few months, he asked me to take a crack at rewriting the university mission statement. He didn’t take my work to his meeting with the vice presidents—he took me and my work. I had no idea at the time how unusual this approach was.

David expanded my concept of generosity. When a decision needed to be made, he always focused on how it would affect the students rather than whether it meant more work for him. He championed causes like diversity and student advising when they had no home in the official university structure, not because it was his job but because he was passionate about doing the right thing. And he didn’t say a word the time I almost sent an important university report off without letting the president review it.

When we no longer worked in the same office, I saw him a few times a year to share a meal, and he always brought a tangible joy to the gathering. To be the kind of boss with whom it is easy to have a graceful transition into friendship is no small thing.

David recently passed over to whatever comes after this life, a far too early exit for such a wonderful human being. It’s hard to believe I knew him less than twelve years—his presence in my life and the beauty he brought to it seem larger than could have fit in that time.

Here are some other things I loved about David:

  • His eyes twinkled, never more so than when his grandchildren came to visit.
  • He laughed often.
  • He remained thoroughly British—at least to my American sensibilities—despite having spent most of his adult life in the U.S.
  • He never took himself too seriously. He always said, “The battles in academia are so fierce because the stakes are so low,” even though he was a lifelong academic.
  • He worked hard but maintained a healthy perspective on life. Both for himself and for those he worked with, family always came first.

I’m a better person for having known David. As they say in the Jewish tradition to which he belonged, may his memory be for a blessing. It certainly is for me.

Now

This is not an easy world to live in. A glance at any of the “Top Stories of 2016” lists will tell you that, but smaller, everyday occurrences reminded me of this truth at the beginning of 2017.

A friend’s grandma died. I learned another friend will undergo five months of chemotherapy. A third friend wrote about caring for his wife who is losing her memory.

Why start a year this way? Because it is the way the year has started.

These are not simple stories. On one hand, they tell of physical suffering, loss, grief. On the other, my friend’s grandma lived a good life; the cancer is not fatal; husband and wife still connect in beautiful ways.

These events hold pain and grace, and though we think of them as out of the ordinary when they happen to us, many people share these experiences every day. Their regularity does not diminish them. They are not war or famine, but they are hard.

A few years ago, a similar coincidence of the sad and the difficult inspired me to write this poem:

My Friends

One runs machine gun-guarded laps
around Bagram.
Two looks through the locked
door of her dad’s descent
into Alzheimer’s.
Three waits with her husband
for the report that will
read leukemia.
Four searches for her mother
after Fukushima—
fifteen thousand missing.

Today I saw a kestrel dive. His
wings stopped the world before
breaking through
bright green grass. My friends,
I will hold those wings for you.

We can do small, important things, like bring food, but most of all we can be present to the time and place and circumstances we live in and the people and other beings we live with, not forever, but for now. And now is all we have to offer. If we give it unreservedly, it may not change anything, but it will be enough.

As I hung up the phone after speaking with my friend who has cancer, I heard the first drops of rain falling on our parched California earth, and I felt deep joy—the resonance of beauty in our souls. All this is happening now.

Not Quite Barn Raising

After a mere seven years, my house is now officially painted. OK, with the exception of the downstairs closet and one bathroom door that needs to be replaced anyway, but I’m calling it done.

The final two stages were completed in large part thanks to my mom and three cheerful and generous friends, two of whom, miraculously, actually like painting. Discovering this fact was a little like discovering that some people enjoy being accountants. Who knew such marvels existed?

It’s important to note that this wasn’t only rolling and brushing. In my usual impressively foresightful manner, I had prepped exactly one of three rooms, which means some people washed walls and others taped, definitely the least fun parts of the painting process, yet they did it, as previously noted, cheerfully.

Perhaps the reason communities used to have barn raisings is not only that it made it a lot easier to get your barn built but also that it made the process a lot more fun. I have a pretty clear vision of what painting by myself would have looked like, and it involves a good deal of self-pity, like in the comics when a character walks around with a rain cloud over her head all the time.

But this was enjoyable—maybe not as enjoyable as if we’d all gone out to dinner or the movies but maybe more so. We had a chance to catch up, chat about life possibilities, eat really good watermelon, listen to the Beatles, admire each others’ handiwork, and laugh over our mistakes.

It might not matter so much what we do as who we do it with. Thank you, painting crew, for your help, your good humor, and the reminder that so many things in life are better shared.

Seeing Each Other Through

Friendship is a curious and wonderful thing. I spent last weekend with college friends whom I’ve now known for more than half my life, twenty-three years to be exact.

I find our friendship remarkable because we remained connected through a span of time in which human beings—at least in the western world—behave in ways that are designed to alienate people. I don’t mean that we were bad people, just that we were in our twenties, a period when we struggle so hard to establish an identity that we can feel threatened by others’ attempts to do the same. Now we can joke about our differences, but there was a time when we—or at least I—took those aspects of our personalities so seriously that we could have allowed them to pull us apart.

And that would have been a great loss because I can confess the important things to these friends, from jealousy toward women who can wear cute, flat, bad-for-your-feet sandals to my deepest heartbreaks. These are generous, funny, smart women, and we can laugh or be silent together, drink good wine or eat onion rings with equal giddiness.

These two know me at so many levels. They know I didn’t learn how to clean a toilet until my junior year of college. They know I will always be the last one ready to go. They have listened with great love and patience to my self-doubts and my fears that the world was falling apart. They have held the preciousness of my self when I couldn’t and reflected it back to me until I could find it again. They have done this not once but many times.

One of my favorite hymns, The Servant Song, says, “I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through.” I’m not sure that we can offer one another anything more essential than sharing our joys and sorrows. I know that Heidi and Molly will do exactly that for me and that we will be together until the end of our journeys, and that is a tremendous gift. I love you both. Thank you.

Thank You, Dear Friend

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.

Feeding Each Other

To channel some combination of Julia Childs and Emily Post: there may be no better way to celebrate resurrection morn than by dining on that most splendid of nature’s creations, the egg, in all its wondrous varieties—quiched, deviled, etc.—while enjoying the companionship of good friends. Which is what happened at my house on Easter.

What made this brunch so delightful is that my friends—and mom—are awesome. First of all, they cook well and they enjoy eating good food. Yes, that really comes first. Second of all, they laugh a lot and don’t mind being silly. Though no small children attended, the tallest, least furry bunny I’ve ever met brought a basket full of eggs and put together an Easter egg hunt for the rest of us.

Third of all, they are smart and welcoming and loving. This particular group had never gathered before, and only a few people knew each other. I suspect that anyone who heard the laughter or observed the general good cheer would have concluded that these people had known each other for a long time. One friend was talking about a benefit bike ride that he was preparing for, and everyone immediately volunteered to contribute even though they’d only met him a couple of hours before.

As one story tells it, heaven and hell at first appear exactly the same: rows of long tables laden with food and lined with people sitting at the feast. The people hold long-handled spoons. The handles are so long you can’t get the spoon to your mouth. In hell, everyone is miserable because they can’t eat. In heaven, everyone is feeding each other.

I think that’s what happened this Easter—we fed each other good food, good conversation and good humor and were willing to be fed by others. Resurrection might be as simple as that.

Here’s a poem by William Stafford about our daily chance for resurrection. I’ve posted it before, but it’s the perfect size for Poem in Your Pocket Day on Thursday, April 24. Stick this in your pocket and hand it out or read it to people. Guerilla poetry!

Yes
By William Stafford

It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out—no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.

Being Together

My apologies for missing the blog post unannounced last week, but I have a great excuse: I was visiting some longtime friends, which reminded me how life-giving it is simply to be together.

A couple of these friends I met in college, and I often forget how well they know me. When you live with someone for two or three years, you see every side of them—the kind, the impatient, the elated, the dejected. It’s rather miraculous that we’ve hung onto these friendships for more than half our lives because in that many years, we are all bound to do more than one something that pisses the other person off.

The remarkable thing is that spending time together is more important than the particular activity. Whether eating rhubarb pound cake at the up-and-coming restaurant in town or hamburgers at home on an overcast Memorial Day, playing with the toddler or meeting the cats and touring the new condo, the company made the moment. The rest of it was fun but secondary.

I don’t know why this is true, but I know it is. I’ll probably always remember certain moments listening to live music, watching theater, or eating great food, but I don’t think any of them will enter as deeply or mean as much as sitting with these friends and wondering about nearing midlife or catching each other up on daily happenings or not talking at all.

I think we’ve all done a good job of valuing our friendship throughout the years, but it seems that the older we get, the more deeply we understand just how lucky/fortunate/blessed we are.

Maybe love, like wine or cheese, can improve with age. And like the wine in its oak barrel or the cheese in its cave, it does so by simply being in the presence of those we love and appreciating who they are.