Last night, in a meeting, I suddenly found myself transported to Paris. First, I'd thought about that period back in early 2011 and for the year following where my world had become tight and small. Simple routine governed me. There was school, there was writing (often they were the same), and there was the business of getting healthy again. Desperation pumped fever into my blood. Even though, I felt I walked through the world with exposed nerve endings, purpose powered every step. And in the work was contentment. Then I was spirited to Paris. I remember how engaged I'd been, the commitments I'd picked up, the fellowship. The regularity with which I'd meet and be alive with people powered by the same desire. Sanctuary, and every week, I would find it. My days had expanded since the beginning. I had time to do things. Time to think. Time to walk. To perambulate, to cultivate the patience required for epiphanies. My memories of Paris are often of spring, and the spring of 2015 was perhaps the most charmed, thaumaturgical period of my entire life. Magic and fortune thickened the very air I breathed.
Another memory found me last night. And I have an idea of what prompted this one. For some time now, I've been trying to recover files from an old MacBook that won't fully boot up. Without success. One of those files is an essay I wrote for a class entitled "Connections in Law and Literature." An essay on Auden and Homer and dictators and citizens. I have emails from which I can recover the first draft, but the final one is stuck on a hard drive I can't access. And it's nigh impossible for me to think of that essay without thinking of that class and that professor. Who passed away in July last year.
This is what I wrote at the time:
"In law school, it’s unfashionable to be excited for class, so excited in fact that you show up early to talk with the professor, to pick his brain, and to have him all to yourself before your classmates arrive and formality (or some semblance thereof) blankets the proceedings. Even then, enthusiasm is generally frowned upon. Don’t raise your hand too many times. Do everything in your power to prevent that uptick in your voice that signals elation. In a place where you’re meant to learn, not the nobility of the law but its sterility, its callous disregard and its amenability to the supremacy of the white male majority, thrill and passion, the type to get a student to come early to a class, are suspect. You’re generally not learning why we have the 14th Amendment. You’re learning why a contract written on a napkin can still be enforceable.
"But within the first week, we were talking about the murder of Abel and the birth of proportion as a concept in punishment. We were talking about Cain’s Mark as a brand that simultaneously stains him and protects him. We were talking about the Commandments as legislation forcing penitents toward their better selves, and I had, in the week to follow, a discussion on The Eumenides to look forward to.
"But I didn’t just show up early to talk about Bleak House or Atticus Finch. I showed up early, because Professor Ferguson would ask me about my life, would guide me, knowingly or unknowingly, through one of the most bituminous seasons of my life. The semester prior, a personal cataclysm had crippled me emotionally, and academic consequences loomed. I was a husk when I’d first come into Professor Ferguson’s Law and Literature class. He got a fire going in the hearth, slipped a woolen blanket over my shoulders and some warm cardamom-flavored tea in my hands and waited as the color returned to my cheeks.
"I was excited to show up early for the class, because I was relearning my humanity.
"My final essay for that class was on W.H. Auden’s poem, “The Shield of Achilles”. The poem seemed ostensibly about totalitarianism and what failings in the individual account for the rise of the tyrant. I also saw in it Auden’s belief that we’re all capable of monstrousness, every single one of us, as well as its opposite. The essay, as with most of my writing, was an attempt to work through these questions and contradictions and all the messiness of the catholic human enormity. Ultimately, the essay was me trying to convince myself that I was a good person.
"Professor Ferguson and I talked about that essay and about Auden and about Homer and, at length, about being a good person.
"Regarding that last, he is the only law professor with whom I ever remember having that talk.
"My heart is broken."
He wore tweed blazers to class. Though Reynolds Woodcock might have scoffed at the material used to the color patterns or the way they sometimes refused to hug Professor Ferguson's waist. I wonder if he might at least admire the confidence with which he wore them. If not admired, then felt. Found himself triggered by the warmth and caring, the fervor with which it radiated from him. Whether or not Woodcock would smile or let fly a disdainful smirk would say more of that character than of the professor I had come to love. Still, to think of him is to be placed in the presence of a man whose soul, like the grandeur and sophistication of Paul Thomas Anderson's film, seemed infinite. Even after the screen had faded to black.