dispatch from 02139 (in which, alas, classes at veritas U have come to an end, and we begin to ponder just how deeply what we’ve learned will forever inform our going forward…)
the words are simple, etched in limestone.
each letter, maybe three inches, top to bottom, but looming, soaring, some 12 feet up, for those who pause to crane their neck, or shift their eyeballs heavenward.
i nearly tripped the first time i spied them.
“enter to grow in wisdom.”
i swallowed, smiled. charmed that old harvard would deign to dollop this inscribed dose of aphorism into its citizens’ daily lives. how quaint, i thought, for such a stiff-collared institution.
but then i found myself traipsing out of my way to duck beneath the hallowed words, as if they’d waft down and dust me with magic powders.
(this curious — and intentional — ambulatory detour, of course, might be traced back to the ancient parts of me that were trained to believe, long long ago, that splashing one’s fingertips in the holy waters perched beside the door of any catholic church was sure to make your soul sparkle with good graces for the day. or until you next committed some venial sin — say, coveting your first-grade neighbor’s frilly toothpicks, and pocketing said pokers in the dark confines of your dungarees, whereupon you’d rediscover them once home and feign total loss as to how in the world they got there.)
“enter to grow in wisdom,” indeed.
the words span across the brick-and-limestone dexter gate, one of the 26 such thresholds that encircle harvard yard, defining the pastoral from the pedestrian, the hoi polloi from the highbrow.
built in 1901, designed by the architectural greats mckim, mead & white, the brick-striped pillars rise from the cobbled sidewalk as a monument from a bereft mother, josephine dexter, whose son, samuel, was president of harvard’s class of 1890, but who died in 1894, just two days after coming down with spinal meningitis.
it’s a two-sided prescriptive. as you sashay in from the honking, screeching cacophony of massachusetts avenue, you read: “enter to grow in wisdom,” and as you bustle out, looking up onto the inner-facing side of the limestone span, you mouth the words: “depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.”
i can’t shake the incoming directive, “to grow in wisdom.”
can’t decide, is it command or invitation?
and does it matter which?
for me, all i know as i look back on two semesters, tucked in lecture halls, squished in pop-up seats with wobbly writing slabs, is that the words, more than anything, are a beginning without end.
i wish i could inscribe them across the transom of every space through which the human race parades. on the wall of every birthing room: “enter to grow in wisdom.” in the dingy, dim-lit passageways of chicago’s famous “el,” or boston’s “T.” in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, of course.
but why not, across the check-out aisles of the grocery stores, where too often i’ve seen squabbles erupt and nasty words exchanged?
and how about behind the dugout of the little league ballfield? or, above your own kitchen table?
wisdom, for me anyway, is holiness, is path to enlightenment, is how you begin to flush out deeper, broader, more fine-grained empathy, the gift that — when you pay attention, close careful attention — rises up from the pages of history and literature and humankind.
and so, this year, i came to cambridge to spark a hundred thousand wicks of candlelight, of wisdom.
i came, greedily, to soak up all i’d never had a chance to learn, to understand, to know. i came to fill in blanks, connect dots. put words to too many empty pages.
i stayed up late, rose early, because there was so so much i didn’t know.
because i was being offered dorothy day and martin luther king, mahatma gandhi and thich nhat hanh as pathfinders and teachers — and a host of modern spiritual pioneers and religious revolutionaries, besides.
i swallowed whole the complete works of virginia woolf, of nabokov, of bellow, of zora neale hurston, w.e.b. du bois, frederick douglass, and that living writer-saint isabel wilkerson, whose “the warmth of other suns: the epic story of america’s great migration,” should be required reading across the land.
i listened hard when paul farmer and arthur kleinman, the godfathers of global health and modernday disciples of pure goodness, implored us to not leave behind, not forget, the shadows of the world where medicines don’t flow, and one toilet might be shared by 10,000 refugees.
i cried too often in a semester of african-american history — AAAS 118: from the slave trade to the great migration — as my stomach turned and my heart splintered into shards. i could not fathom lashings nor lynchings, but i was left gasping at the recountings of how these inhuman acts were headlined as spectacle, and thousands of white folk turned out to cheer charred black flesh dangling from a limb. and hoisted children to shoulders, so the little ones could get a closer look.
i could not even muster the ancient christian prayer, “father, forgive them, for they know not what they’re doing.” that prayer holds no merit here. there is no excuse, no feeble claim for not standing up to cruel injustice. no pretending you don’t know.
and so, with two fifths of my classes this semester spent studying the injustices of white to black, generation upon generation, century upon century, i kept asking myself why i could not tear myself away from the readings, why i was the sole tear-stained silver-hair, amid a sea of smart-as-a-whip undergrads, who filled notebook after notebook with names and dates and stories of those brave souls who rose up to try to stanch the hatred.
it felt as if the answer wasn’t meant to come to me, not yet anyway. and so i sat there, squirming at times, when kids shot hands in the air and spoke bracingly about white privilege, and great-grandparents begat from slavemasters’ rapes of enslaved great-great-grandmothers.
for most of the semester, i thought perhaps i was being readied for a spate of journalism back in chicago’s blood-splattered landscape of racial inequities.
but it’s dawned on me in recent days that — as i sat feeling powerless to turn back the clock and right the wrongs, and wanted to burst out of my (white) skin to stand up to oppression — the task is here and now: our every days are filled with injustice, are filled with small acts of hatefulness for which we can’t afford to turn our heads, to cower in the idleness of our kitchens or our gardens, our leafy enclaves.
maybe it’s the deep-veined jesuit framework upon which my early college days were founded. maybe it’s just the lens through which i’ve always seen the world. but the particular brand of wisdom that’s been birthed in all these months is the one that now springs from a few essential jottings from my notebook:
1.) beware the single story, preached professor kellie carter-jackson, a rising star among african-american historians. “the single story creates stereotype; it’s not untrue, but it’s always incomplete. it robs people of their dignity. we create a single story when we show a people as one thing, as only one thing, and repeat it over and over. the consequence of the single story is that it makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.”
2.) search out the voices that have been silenced through history. embrace bottom-up not top-down history; sift through the past to mine the stories of those who fought injustice, even when the price they paid was life itself.
my bookshelves are spilling. my pens, dried of ink. the margins of pages read like constellation guides, so stained with stars i’ve drawn to mark the wisdom there contained.
it all comes back to wisdom.
for me, that’s been a lifelong prayer. i’ve long pictured a frame from the far-end of my life, when i might become the wise old woman, bent and wrapped in shawl. when my kitchen table would be always set, and the teapot hot to pour. when there would be chairs, many chairs, filled with folk of every stripe and color, size and spot.
now, though, that might not be mere wisp of a storybook’s dream.
now, i’ve entered to grow in wisdom, and, for me, there is no departing from that holy sacred path.
thank you, All Knowing Light and Wonder, for this great and glorious school year, now winding to a close……
how do you, my chair friends, carry on in your chosen path of wisdom?
(photo credit “depart” arch: blair kamin)
and great and glorious thanks to my most amazing professors: harvey cox, stephanie paulsell, paul farmer, arthur kleinman, paige williams, the kooky “cooking & science” crew; henry louis gates, lawrence bobo, luke menand, helen vendler, james wood, kellie carter-jackson, and the amazing amazing harvard undergrads and grad students who so generously invited me into their privileged conversations, both in the classroom and beyond, at coffeeshops and lunch counters, in my living room and under shade trees in the yard….God bless you each and every one….
and, most of all, to ann marie lipinski, curator of the nieman foundation for journalism at harvard university, for picking my sweet blair for this year of thinking sumptuously. and, i suppose, to blair for picking me so long long ago…