Updrafts of Memory
Time during Anniversary Weekend feels very much as it does when I write; we swim and float and march through it; it buoys us up and threatens, now and then, to choke us. We’ve changed. Bodies rack up the years, while spirits wheel on sudden updrafts of memory. I hadn’t heard my roommate’s deckle-edged voice in 40 years, but I knew it from across the road even before I could see her.
At the Alumni Service of Remembrance, a tall, delightful woman says, “It’s me, Maura!” and introduces her graduating son, taller than both of us. During the reading of the Lessons her pixie third-form face comes back to me, and with it a teaching memories slide-show: Chris, jumping out from hiding behind the drapes in our Schoolhouse room; a round-faced boy screwing up courage to ask to borrow my blue suit for his Fiske Cup play; the father whose teacher-conference monologue about his own football days blots out—and explains—my concerns about his son.
To Holst’s regal Thaxted hymn tune students and alumni sing thanks for “the discipline of logic, the struggle to be clear,” and, in a special verse for St. Paul’s School, “the knowledge that continues in heaven as on earth.” At the Intercessions I pray for the son of gentle Vanessa Bowens, ’75, who died this past year—we called her Marion—and I hear her clearing her throat as if we’re back in Simpson House. Then the rector, a student during my teaching time, refers to a chapel talk delivered the year I was born by theologian Paul Tillich—yes, the very Tillich whose initially unreadable essays told us all those years ago to “accept that you are accepted.” Now his “Theology of Education” explains the crazy hope I have taken from the luxury of St. Paul’s back to my old/new life. The mission of Christian school, says Tillich, is to be “a small laboratory in which the large questions of Church and world can be studied and brought to a preliminary solution, a solution which could become an inestimable contribution…to the larger problem.”
At the People of Color Reception we fellowship over the larger problem. How could we not? I think of “The Case for Reparations,” an Atlantic Monthly cover story that lays out brilliantly how the American economy has stymied black wealth creation from slavery to redlining. It complicates the School Prayer to think, each time one prays it, that our “goodly heritage” has been built not only “through the love and labor of many,” but also the unpaid and unsung labor of many more. It complicates one’s “future hopes.” Sitting in a wide circle in Sheldon, we meet as partial, but not impartial, heirs.
On Sunday I stop to visit the former rector and his wife, Cliff and Alina Gillespie, with whom I shared Corner House as faculty; and continue north for a shiny blue afternoon on a lake with my older daughter, who lives and teaches snowboarding in Vermont.
Driving home to Philadelphia, all of it splices into a lifelong wonder poem. The large questions ask me how I have used these 40 years since the gift of my education at St. Paul’s School. I look back at merciless perfectionism and relentless drive to be worthy, to earn it—and the ever-present mercy of divine love.
Driving to the mountains my daughter loves,
like her father,
I listen to podcasts while dairy cows
whose swelling udders know no sabbath
range black and brown and white over grass so green,
that all summer and into the fall
it will give the lie to what we call Ordinary Time.
An Old Testament scholar with a wide-open Nebraska voice
says that “mercy” in Hebrew
implies care like the care of a mother for an unborn child.
It has the same letters as “womb,”
But with different vowel points.
I once named a woman Mercy.
Not my daughter, but a character in a book;
rushing, because I was pregnant again,
rushing, to get the merciless world of chattel slavery out of my mind:
To make room for the baby in my body.
What does it mean?
My husband asks this in his sermons, and I get distracted,
remembering him studying for seminary, a man in his 50s
finally answering a long, insistent call.
The smell of coffee came up the stairs while the laptop played
Hebrew letters to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
If these were God’s favorite people,
he’d ask in exasperation,
Why would he give them vowel points?
My body and mind have been plowed up and planted.
Lord have mercy, look what has grown!
And even though I’ve let so much topsoil blow away,
Wanting more and more and more,
still, mercy comes fresh in the morning.