January 2019


My departmental colleague, Rob Hull, died unexpectedly yesterday. I would prefer to mourn his death in private and in person with others who knew and loved him, and I will do that. But public grieving in cyberspaceImage may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing, ocean, sky and outdoor has come to feel obligatory in this age of death-notice-via-social media. I’m not a fan of the latter. But I do want to communicate my affection for my philosopher friend.

Rob was kind. I think this quality of his character comes to mind for a lot of people who knew him. I think Rob cared about kindness. Which isn’t mere niceness but a virtue that must be cultivated and practiced over time.

Rob loved our students. He loved teaching. He knew that to introduce undergraduates to philosophy was to create the possibility in each of them of becoming a lifelong lover of wisdom (what philosophia literally means), and to seek the good, to care about the right things, to live worthy, beautiful lives. We toiled, he and I, in a higher education landscape that increasingly devalues religion and philosophy; that regards such disciplines as superfluous for the job training program that many now consider college to be.

Rob’s students loved him back. They were moved by his care for them, how he asked questions about their lives, cared about their futures, encouraged their scholarship and their athletic gifts (he was famous for this), seeing them as whole beings: body, mind, heart, and spirit.

I was making cookies for my own students (we do that kind of thing here) when I began receiving texts and calls about Rob’s death. I experienced what I have come to know as a truth of human existence: grief begins in the body and it exhausts our bodies. When death comes unexpectedly we are caught off guard by the physicality of the sorrow we feel—in our limbs, our chest, our throbbing temples. Or by a sorrow that leaves us numb, and wondering why we can’t feel anything.

The 13th century Sufi poet Rumi said:

Don’t run away from grief . . . Look for the remedy inside the pain.

Why on earth would we do that?

Because the ground of grief, the root of sorrow, is love. We grieve because we love. And love, too, lives in the body. Love is what we are made for.

I think Rob believed this deeply and he practiced it, like anyone does, imperfectly. I think his students sensed that he believed it. I think his kindness to them in explicit, practical ways—whether they were stellar students or struggling students—was one of the ways he lived this conviction.

I will miss Rob Hull, lover of wisdom, lover of students, and the daily, unassuming warmth of his witness.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

“Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye

 

 

Tears today for the beautiful life and work of Mary Oliver.

In late 2016 I submitted a solicited piece on her poetry to The Christian Century. They decided not to run it. We parted amicably on the matter (well, I Image result for mary oliver earth skirtswas a little vexed).

But that same afternoon I took a long walk on the beach (something Mary Oliver did almost every day of her life) and wrote another piece entirely in my head (something I never do).

I went back to the house where I was staying (I was on sabbatical and in Southport, NC at the time, thanks to my generous friend, Nola). I stayed up all night transcribing the thing. I sent it to The Christian Century the next morning (something I normally would never do—no editing? no second guessing? are you kidding?). It was received enthusiastically and ran as the cover story in April 2017.

The original piece was reworked and published last year in The Cresset, a journal dedicated to literature, the arts, and public affairs. It explored a topic that had consumed me for a long time: the charge of sentimentality in Oliver’s work. Responding to what I considered an irresponsible critique of Oliver in First Things (not surprised they published it), I noted how sentimentality as a putdown is often itself sentimental, and that it is almost always gendered in ways that go unnoticed and unreflected upon.

I love that piece.

Which is something the constitutionally-insecure me would never say. Why do I say it now? Because Mary.

Mary Oliver didn’t need to be defended or rescued by me. But today as the surprising waves of grief have washed over me, I’ve been reminded, again and  again, poem by luscious poem, how she and her life-giving words have saved me.

[NB: In his new book, He Held Radical LightChristian Wiman has a personal story about Oliver that is, by turns, tender, funny, wise, beautiful, and a little horrifying–in other words, classic Mary Oliver.]

And the poem below might be my favorite. It’s not well-known. Oliver wrote it when she was in her late 20s. Alone, it stands, in my view, as one of her best; if you know something about the trauma she endured as a child, it takes on an even deeper poignancy.

Rest well, Mary Oliver, lover of words and the world and their happy meeting. May the earth, as you once wrote, take you back tenderly.

“The Return”

The deed took all my heart.
I did not think of you,
Not ’til the thing was done.
I put my sword away
And then no more the cold
And perfect fury ran
Along my narrow bones
And then no more the black
And dripping corridors
Hold anywhere the shape
That I had come to slay.
Then for the first time,
I saw in the cave’s belly
The dark and clotted webs,
The green and sucking pools,
The rank and crumbling walls,
The maze of passages.

And I thought then
Of the far earth,
Of the spring sun
And the slow wind,
And a young girl,
And I looked then
At the white thread.

Hunting the minotaur
I was no common man
And had no need of love.
I trailed the shining thread
Behind me, for a vow,
And did not think of you.
It lay there, like a sign,
Coiled on the bull’s great hoof.
And back into the world,
Half blind with weariness
I touched the thread and wept.
O, it was frail as air,
And I turned then
With the white spool

Through the cold rocks,
Through the black rocks.
Through the long webs,
And the mist fell,
And the webs clung.
And the rocks tumbled,
And the earth shook.

And the thread held.