Alma Mater

I spent last Saturday evening on the small-town campus where I went to college, at a retirement party for a professor of mine, Anne. Anne is amazing by pretty much any measure: a brave progressive in a conservative religious tradition, a Roman Catholic nun on a liberal, secular campus, smart as can be, and unrelentingly conscientious. She's had cancer for seven years. She refuses to rush. She listens to everyone as though they matter.

In college, I floundered, looking for a mentor, and Anne's teaching was the closest I got to what I needed. My senior year, when, week after week, in the lower-level seminar class she taught, I listened and wrote but didn't say a word, she took me aside and asked that I "consider being more generous" with my remarks in class. She wasn't the first teacher to notice my shyness, but she was the first to challenge me about it so firmly and kindly. Generous. It was the first time I considered that by not speaking, I was withholding something important from others.

But still, I almost didn't go to this party. Being in that place—where for four years I felt such ungraspable joy and such paralyzing anxiety—is always loaded. And there'd be lots of standing around with wine glasses, trying to think of things to say. I'd send Anne a note, I thought, and be done with it.

Then my photographer friend Chris did Anne's portrait for the alumni magazine, and during the shoot he mentioned me, and she remembered me (fondly, even), and said something prim and wrenching like, "Tell her I very much hope she can come to my retirement celebration next week." And then she tracked down my email address and invited me personally, and I didn't have any choice but to go.

And I'm so glad I did. It was like going home. The professors knew me without even squinting very hard at my name tag. Other grads—both ten years older than me and ten years younger—approached: "You look familiar. Were we here at the same time?" We weren't, but they looked familiar too, and it wasn't even too uncomfortable to chat with them. I met people who are on paths I thought about taking but didn't. They're professors, researchers, ministers. I told them each, "I do writing and editing for non-profits. I have two little girls," and I wondered, How did this happen?

And the professors! I looked for a long time for the Buddhist whose "Intro to Religion" class hooked me the first term of my first year. When I finally found him, I realized I'd been scanning the room for his dark brown hair and beard; he was all grey. The Asianist who retired the spring I graduated was so thin, and his eyes had grown tiny behind his glasses. The Kierkegaardian's spine curled forward like a question mark, and he leaned in inches from my face to hear me talk. The Judaic studies guy I'd known for only a couple of months, I didn't even recognize. Anne herself seemed translucent, though radiant, and brittle. Stop, I wanted to say. Stop, all of you. Stop getting older. And don't die.

After dinner the Buddhist, the department chair, started off the docket of speeches in Anne's honor. "I'd tell you that I think Anne is a bodhisattva," he said, "but that would embarrass her." A dozen people spoke—other professors, other nuns from her community, former students—all in that vein: gentle, laudatory, funny, spot-on. The Judaicist read a handful of letters from students whose lives she'd changed, and everybody cried.

Anne spoke. She talked about a Harrison Begay painting of two Navajo weavers and a half-finished blanket—a painting she found so inspiring it had hung in her office for years. She talked about the beauty of imperfection and incompleteness.

Afterward, no one did much chatting. I walked slowly across campus, back to my car. Students swept by talking earnestly on their cell phones. There was a perfect half moon. The Asianist eased his way along the street towards home, arm in arm with his wife, and it wasn't clear who was supporting whom. When I turned the car on, Sam Baker's Pretty World was on the radio.

Driving home, I had a feeling I hadn't had in a long time: I'd been outside my life for those hours—outside this life I've gathered around myself one little decision at a time (and some big ones) over the years it takes a vibrant man to fade. And it was all here waiting for me at this end of the road, newly precious and newly strange: my husband, our girls, my work, our home.

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