first semester: fini

by bam


dispatch from 02139 (in which, in the blink of an eye, the fall semester has come crashing to a close. and we look back, scratching our head, wondering, where’d that go?)…

seems like mere hours ago i was marching into my first lecture hall here at veritas university. my heart pounding like a kettle drum there in the hollows under my ribs. needing a swallow of water, fast, just to keep my lips and my tongue from sticking together, sandpaper rough against parchment.

then there was the first seminar, one of those too-small tables for grad students only, where each flank of the square was covered by IQs and brain trusts the likes of which i’d rarely encountered. not face-to-face and dissecting literature, anyway. these were kids on their ways to PhDs, for God’s sake. and there was me, old, silver, and with one measly goal: dear God, please let me finish one novel. please.

oh, i got into the swing of it, all right. piled on reams and reams of pressure (my specialty, honed over the years). nearly pulled one all-nighter (went to bed at 2, climbed outa the sheets at 3, typed till sun-up). plotted my weeks by when and where i could squeeze in hundreds of pages of reading. wrote and wrote and wrote, and wrote some more.

people would ask, “but you’re not getting a grade, right?”


then i shot back: “it’s a moral obligation.” if you’re going to sit there taking up space at a table of 12, you’d better cough up some thoughts and make ’em be weighty. or at least original. original, i was (a euphemistic way of saying i was out of the scholarly groove). figured i’d make up in life years, what i lacked in theoretical perspectives. shot my hand in the air, offered up tales from the front. from my days in the newspaper trenches. from life in the 1960s, a good THIRTY years before three-quarters of these kids came to the planet.

most of the time i forgot that i could have birthed any one of these kids. i was that old. they were that fresh-faced.

but now, one by one, i’ve bid goodbye to classes i’ve loved.

nearly cried, honest to God, at the end of “virginia woolf and religion.”

ditto, in global health, when arthur kleinman, the great godfather of the course, mentor to paul farmer, as well as the originator of the academic pursuit of what it means to cure the biosocial ills of the world, grabbed the microphone and bellowed: “i’m 71-1/2 years old. i don’t have to teach this. i do it because this is one of the most important things i do. i want to see you be the best you can be. we believe in this course as the first step in that direction.” and then he hit us with his closing wallop: “if there’s a single piece of wisdom on the art of living that we could give you, it’s this — to the extent that you do for others, you’ll do amazing things for yourself.”

this from a doctor who battles drug-resistant tuberculosis in the prisons of russia, who fights AIDS in the hills of rwanda, and all of the above in the rubble of haiti.

early this morning i turned in my very last paper for my hardest and favorite class: narrative writing. i never knew, till this semester, how damn hard it could be — should be — to craft a beautiful sentence. i’m embarrassed to say that, till now, writing came easy for me. put fingers to keys and they launched down the keyboard. not anymore. every verb is a goldmine, waiting for search light and shovel. nouns demand careful choosing. dispense with adjectives, adverbs and all the rest of the flimsy modifiers. be brave. go bold. choose deliberately, thoughtfully, and with the precision of surgery.

all in all, i’ve realized that it’s a helluva shot in the arm to be smack dab in your middle 50s, to be deeply anchored in the whole of your life, and up and throw yourself into the melee. to cast yourself wholly into the unknown, the unfamiliar, the deeply uncomfortable.

to have to find your way, memorize names, get lost, feel afraid, miss home, marvel, and gulp it all down.

i am, above all, resistant to change. a creature of habit.

well, habit ditched to the hills these past four months. i was awhirl in the world of the new.

and now, with thousands of pages, 11 virginia woolf novels, seven “modern spiritual pioneer” biographies, and lord knows how many typed words under my belt, i am sighing a deep heave of relief. and i am also inhaling. the sweet breath of accomplishment.

i did it. i did what i swore i could not do. i up and moved to a faraway place, a place i’d long inhabited in dreams. but dreams are barely ever even in color. dreams don’t swim through your soul with nuance and lessons. dreams don’t toughen your soft spots, thicken your muscles. dreams don’t sharpen your seeing. fill your head and your heart for the long road before you.

heck, i read a whole novel. at least eight times over. i managed to stick my hand in the air, utter a question. thread together a thought that wasn’t dismissed, not blatantly anyway.

i realized there aren’t so many chances in life to really, deeply, say to yourself: i did it.

it makes you a wee bit less wobbly. it stiffens your purpose. it makes you sit bolt upright and say, okey doke, now i did that. what’s next on the docket?

sometimes i think, for creatures like me, creatures of habit and comfort, we’re not nudged into the woopsy-daisy zone quite often enough.

it’s a cold splash to the soul. a north wind howling down our spine. it’s waking up to this infinite possibility. the one with the timer that will, some day, clang.

it’s the knowledge that these days of our lives spin by but once.

and we’ve the chance to fortify, if we make the right choices.

now that i’m nearly done, now with a mere two classes on monday, and a smattering of nieman encounters left on the 2012 calendar, i’m looking ahead at all of the clear space. the hours and long afternoons when my afghan and tea mug will call me. when the long shelf of books on my desk will finally get cracked. the books i’ve tucked there for months now, deeply longing to read.

there is much to be done, now that i’ve learned: i can do it, we all can. if we ask one simple question — what needs to be done? if we wait for the answer. follow our hearts. and get the job mastered.

it is always an amazing wonder, how these words have a mind of their own. zig when i thought they’d zag. so what was going to be a meander about what i’d do next, now that i have a sacred six weeks for self-plotted journeys. but instead, the words seemed to want to course over the terrain of these last four months, and the refrain of the little engine that could: i think i can, i think i can. i did it. i did it. what mountain climbs in your life have pushed you up and over a particular ridge? and what did you learn once you’d done it? 

p.s. still waiting for baby up portland way. any day now, i KNOW i’ll be motoring to meet him. bless him for letting me finish each of my classes. what a good boy already.