Archive for May, 2014

posted by Amy on May 22

Carl Sagan said, “Particularly today, when so many difficult and complex problems face the human species, the development of broad and powerful thinking is desperately needed. . . . Instead we find. . . an almost reptilian ritualization of the educational process” [Sagan, The Dragons of Eden, 1977]. He said (nearly 40 years ago) that the world needs more polymaths, but seems to be producing fewer and fewer of them. He said (and I agree) that for creative, multidisciplinary competence and mastery to develop in a child, he or she needs to grow up with “little or no pressure for conformity” and with real, rich opportunities to pursue whatever is of interest–no matter what it is–athletics, art, poetry, science, literature, music, philosophy, theology. We need people of vision, with the confidence and understanding to lead us out of the morass of the failed Enlightenment project and into a better, saner, more loving and intelligent world. That is definitely not a priority in the materialistic, market-based, “career or college ready” society of today. We need more Bertrand Russells, Rosemary Radford Reuthers, Wendell Barrys, Howard Thurmans, and Rachel Carsons, and maybe they are out there, but they probably aren’t coming out of public schools, or out of homeschooling that is focused on indoctrinating children into a narrow, reactionary worldview. And, arguably, we’d all be much better off if the bond traders and hedge fund managers and Wall Street market manipulators took up fine arts, or at least quit gaming the economy. What “college and career ready” has gotten us is Lloyd Blankfein and his ilk.

I am a polymath. No brag, just fact. I’m interested in everything, and I always have been. I read all the time, and I always have. I feel blessed and lucky to have spent the last six years in seminary. Theology is a primary discourse. To be a competent theologian, you need to be become acquainted with philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, political science, biology, neuroscience, and literature, in addition to the “traditional” seminary courses, and you need to keep thinking about how everything fits together.

Which brings me to the main reason I wanted to write about polymaths. The man who was the subject of my May 4 post gave a talk about two months before he died, and it was posted on YouTube. I just watched it today. The topic was nominally the Puritans and their relationship to the town in which he was living, but he covered a huge amount of ground: Luther and Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, William Faulkner, Perry Miller (his mentor), language, history, American Studies, AA, and William James, among other things. Oh, yes, he also talked about oxytocin. Except for one little segment, where I couldn’t quite follow his train of thought, I was completely on board. And it all relates to what I think I’ll be writing about for my doctoral dissertation.

Now I’m even more sad that he’s gone.



posted by Amy on May 4

I blogged a few months ago about the joys and foibles of dating at my age. I didn’t actually mention the suitor I liked the best. Maybe I was trying not to jinx it. That, and he had read and commented on my blog. It’s awkward to write about people who might actually read what I say.

Like all the other subjects of my dating essays, I met him through Craigslist. He was staying on Prince Edward Island for the summer, as he had done for many years, so at first we communicated mostly by email. Early on, I said to him, “tell me a story.” This is how he responded:

Once upon a time there was a young man who was going to America to study. Because his stepfather didn’t want to pay for the trip, he pulled strings and the young man ended up as a supernumerary galley boy on a freighter, getting his passage free. The chef, who had worked in a hotel close to the school where the young man grew up, decided to give the young man a hard time. The chef had taken much arrogance and condescension from the boys’ parents over the years and now was payback time. The young man got up at four, helped make coffee and rolls for the crew and then spent the rest of the day preparing food and cleaning up. Day after day he filled the deep sinks with herring bones and scales. He was free at eight o’clock at night. Then he would go up to the forecastle and when the ship plunged down he would leap up in the air and for a few ecstatic moments hang suspended in air, just laughing and laughing in delight. One night he turned around and up on the bridge were officers and crew laughing at the young man who became known on the ship as the Mad Professor.

 One day when the wind was blowing fiercely from the north, the young man took a bucket of herring bodies to throw them overboard. He threw them as far as he could into the wind and there they stood for a fraction of a second. The young man saw what was happening and his right leg began to move but all too late. A second later the herrings, blood, bones and all were plastered all over him.

Best of all was the morning when he opened the door to a sunlit Atlantic with big swells but no stormy waves and saw hundreds of dolphins making their curves , always leaping just at the top of the wave completing the perfect arc of wave and dolphin. One ecstatic moment after another. He asked the chef who by that time had become a good friend if he could stay and the chef permitted him to watch for four hours. Then suddenly, as if at the clap of hands, the dolphins were gone, every one of them.

And still they leap in the young man.

When they got to Newport News, the young man lined up with the crew to go ashore.. He had an inch-thick file. He had his x-rays, his passport, his seaman’s book, his sworn statement that he was not a Communist and would not overthrow the US Government. He had recommendations from the American ambassador to his country and from his professors at the University of LanceauxMeadows, and, most humiliatingly of all, he had his fingerprints, which, in his country, were only taken from criminals. When he came up to the immigration inspector he handed him the file. The inspector looked up at him and asked :”Syphilis?” “No,” the young man stammered and so syphilitic-free he entered the promised land where to paraphrase Robert Lowell who saw his father around every street corner, the young man hoped around every American street corner to find his father. He was now in the company of Barack Obama, and Huck Finn, and Luke Skywalker, and Augie Marsh and all those other lost American boys who were searching for their daddy.

This was quite unexpected, and quite delightful. He wrote to me at first with the pseudonym of “Lance A. Meadows.” That, it turns out, was a clue. From Wikipedia, the source of all useful bits of information:

L’Anse aux Meadows (from the French L’Anse-aux-Méduses or “Jellyfish Cove”) is an archaeological site on the northernmost tip of the island of Newfoundland in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Discovered in 1960, it is the most famous site of a Norse or Viking settlement in North America outside Greenland.

Dating to around the year 1000, L’Anse aux Meadows is the only site widely accepted as evidence of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact. It is notable for its possible connection with the attempted colony of Vinland established by Leif Ericson around the same period or, more broadly, with Norse exploration of the Americas. It was named a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1978.

Later, after we revealed our true names to one another, he sent me a draft of the first few chapters of his memoir. He was originally from Denmark, and the story he told me was autobiographical, making him a modern-day Viking settler. I was a bit concerned about his age–20 years older than I. He was a widower, and he was still very distressed about his wife’s death about 18 months before we “met,” so he was understandably concerned about my health status. Nevertheless, we kept emailing and talking on the phone. We agreed that we were very well matched intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. We were sure we’d always be good friends.

He had retired from teaching at a Boston area university, but he planned to teach a course there in the spring semester if enough people enrolled. He talked to me about how he was going to teach it. His specialty was early American literature, and he included Indian stories and culture in his definition of “early American.” I thought that was awesome. He also read and critiqued a term paper I was working on over the summer. Later he suggested I write a play about a deeply moving experience I told him about. I did that, as a final project for my Theology and Trauma class. He asked to see it, and he gave me both specific, positive feedback and suggestions for making it better. It was wonderful to have that kind of mentoring and encouragement. No one else has ever done that for me.

Not long after he got back from PEI he took me out to a lovely dinner and gave me a beautiful necklace. I visited him at his house in Annisquam for a weekend in the fall. I enjoyed his company very much. We were friendly, open, and companionable, but not physical. We slept in separate rooms. He cooked for me. We went for walks on the beach with his little dog. He made space for me to get school work done. It was a memorable, joyous weekend.

Then winter break came. He went to Granada, as was his custom. I went to Denver. We kept in touch. In January we met for lunch in Boston. He gave me a beautiful wooden box full of art supplies. I gave him marmalade, homemade bread, and a pair of socks that I knitted for him, the second pair I had made for him. He had big feet, and I knit socks from the top down, so when I got near the end of the second sock I ran out of yarn. Rather than start all over, making the cuffs shorter so there’d be enough yarn for both feet, I finished the second sock with a different color. He loved them, or said he did. He said they made him laugh.

The winter weather was brutal, and the house he was renting was cold, shabby, and drafty. He hated it so much he took to sleeping in a motel, and then he found a different house to rent. I had to go back to Denver in mid-March, and he went to California for two weeks. So he said the earliest we’d see each other again would be April. That made sense.

Then communication dropped off a bit. I emailed to ask if everything was OK. He said he was fine. He was still in California, and busy. About a week later I phoned him. It went straight to voice mail.

A day or so later he hadn’t called back or emailed, so I checked his Facebook page.

There was a lovely photo of him with his eldest granddaughter in California, along with her sad and shocking news that her grandfather had just died. It happened the morning I left that last phone message. He was walking across campus on his way to teach his class, and he simply dropped dead.

His daughter posted on Facebook that there would be a memorial service in the Boston area April 26 or 27, a little over three weeks after he died. On the 25th I checked on Facebook for information, and there was none. So I Googled his name and found an obituary. As I read it, I saw all the things he had told me about himself–his stepchildren and children, his wife who had preceded him in death. Then, at the end, it said he was also survived by a newly-engaged fiancée, naming her. It also said when and where the memorial service would be.

I was very surprised about the engagement.

I went to the memorial service. They handed out a thick booklet containing remembrances and photos. It was a lovely, touching ceremony. The speeches confirmed for me that he had been honest with me about who he was, what he cared about, and what kind of person he was. I had formed an accurate impression of him. That was a relief, under the circumstances. One of his friends, who had been his student years ago, and whom he had told me about, wrote the most revealing essay, and one of the most touching. She said he had been very intense, private, and rather intimidating at first, and that he had evolved over time. She attributed that to his long, happy marriage and family life, and his lifelong quest for spiritual healing and transcendence. She closed by saying:

This slow dismantling of emotional defenses through love, this opening more and more deeply to the pulsating center of all life from which this love blooms, is the essence of the legacy [he] leaves to us. His wish for us would be to open ever more fully to each other, to step out of our fears and risk real closeness, to move through the portal into the bliss which awaits us all and where he is now enfolded.

That’s a good legacy.

His wife was a poet, as was his fiancée. From comments at the memorial service and in the booklet, I gather that the romance blossomed very quickly, early in the year. He proposed one day, not long after he got back from California, and the next day he died. One daughter wrote that he didn’t even tell her about the “last great love of his life.”

I am sad, and I miss him, and I’m very sorry I won’t have more conversations and meals with him, or more encouragement to write and create and minister. I’m going to assume he was planning to tell me about his engagement, and just ran out of time. I didn’t know for sure that I had been moved into a “friend zone,” but I don’t mind. He was a great friend, to me and many others, and his death leaves a gaping hole.

Both his wife’s and his fiancée’s books of poetry are available through Amazon from third-party sellers. I ordered them. I’ll put them on the shelf next to the copy of Women in Praise of the Sacred that he gave me.

The dolphins still leap.

Edited 6/8/14 to change the title.



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