Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Waking the Living

As you know, you weren't at the retirement party the other day--though someone who looked oddly like you was there, which was disorienting. I kept looking and looking to see whether perhaps it was you, but changed somehow.

And change was very much the order of the day. As I've told you before, I've always thought that leaving a distinct community, like a school, is in some ways akin to death; the graduate, or the retiree, or anyone else who leaves, has to go on into the unknown, has to leave behind the context that previously defined part (or all) of his or her life. The people who are left behind feel a kind of draft at the door, and have to meet together to affirm the changing relationships--not just with the departed, but with each other. When someone retires or graduates, we call that meeting a party. When someone dies, we call it a wake.

Of course Tom isn't dead, or even really academically gone, as he plans to keep his hand in. But neither are the dead really gone--and I'm not thinking here of the spiritual afterlife. I'm thinking of a great tree that, dying, serves as nesting and forage opportunities for insects, spiders, birds, and bats. Shelf fungus weaves its way, eating wood like some blind animal, before flowering out its hard, perennial toadstools. When the old tree finally falls, you can tell which shelves predated the fall because they're still pointed along the trunk. Fungus gets disoriented, too, by change. The newer fungal shelves will come out properly sideways. In the dark, the mycelial threads feel the change and adapt.

Depending on species and location, things grow on the trunk, or don't. The bark rots off, or it doesn't. Moss makes its green inroads, or it doesn't. If it's a big, old chestnut, rotting from the inside out but never very much or very fast, the tree could make itself a tunnel in which children could build a fort, generations after the tree died, suddenly. Like any small animals, children want a safe, enclosed space they can call their very own. How's that for environmental education?

Or I'm thinking about whales, or even, maybe, great ships, especially the ones made of romance and wood. They disappear--pop!--from the surface, from vision, but inside the sea they persist, lying on the far side of the water, temporary islands of food and shelter, as successional waves of clams and worms and hidden things eat the leviathan and each other and then swim or crawl away, on to the next island dropped down to them by Providence.

Neither tree or whale nor ship (nor the trees that made the ship) is a living organism anymore. The nature of its relationships has changed profoundly. But tell it to the ship worms or the termites if you think the great being is really gone. We organisms like to keep our hand in.

The party had some element of reunion, students coming from all over, graduation years from prior decades pinned to the sweaters of game old women, groups of people standing together, rocking babies, talking of how it's been so long since we've seen each other, and we should really get together like this more often. We should start having real reunions.


Maybe we will have reunions. We probably should. But not so many people would come. Not all the people who think today that we should have reunions would come.

The reunion as life transition marker reminded me of the memorial service for the headmaster of my old boarding school. Unlike Tom, Michael really was dead, and unlike Tom, Michael was not really liked by many people--or Michael was not simply liked by many. He embodied and inspired a powerful ambivalence, but, for better or worse, he shaped our lives. Or parts of our lives, aspects of our lives, periods within our lives. Michael never admitted publicly that there was more than one way to benefit from the school, and there was never more than one acceptable way to leave it. If you didn't graduate--and most of us didn't--you weren't welcome back. Not ever. Of people who ran away (an admittedly dangerous and hurtful thing for a teenager to do), Michael famously once said "if you have to pee, go pee, but not on my leg!" In other words, get your needs met within the community, not by violating it. Fine, a noble sentiment, but to continue the analogy, Michael never did provide his students with any real choice of urinals. His leg got wet a lot, and there were a lot of exiles.

But when he died....it was like he couldn't keep us away from him anymore. Something collapsed, and we all rushed in, flowing across the country on only a few day's notice, dropping everything, to come to him, and to each other.

We had a reunion.

I doubt we'll have another one. There was a second reunion, a few years back, after the campus was sold--waking the school, as opposed to just Michael--but I didn't go, and I've heard no talk of anything regular. We're all involved in our own lives.

What is it that collapsed, that drew us all so powerfully in? I'm thinking of the death of a huge star, when nuclear fusion finally fails, gravity suddenly trumps radiance, and the star-stuff rushes in towards its center and then explodes, shining. I'm thinking of the attractive, descending vortex when a great ship goes down.

I have not had the opportunity to wake you professionally. I doubt I will. I wonder what I would say? Something complimentary, I'm sure; I've seen you work, and you are a treasure. But so much of our relationship has transcended the professional by now. So much of it is in these letters, which probably wouldn't make it into a professional wake. They'd have to wait for the final, personal wake, a thing I will likely endure, as I am much younger than you, and not particularly self-destructive at this point in my life. And I don't intend to drift away from you, not so far that a current from you could not reach me. But I will not think of that eventuality. Whatever happens to lives, I know life goes on. The old tree dies, the old hawk falls from the sky and something--what would it be, a tufted titmouse? You'd know, I'm sure--plucks the ruined feathers for its new nest.  Life goes on.

But I am partial to some lives particularly.

Best, as ever,

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