Saturday, November 14, 2009
It's a photo of a photo I took when I was sixteen, I think. Maybe seventeen. I keep in on my prayer desk, in a frame that lines the photo with a quote from Thoreau, "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined."
His name was Ray Wright, and she is Ann, his wife. We were standing around the campfire, and I was so glad she showed up in the photo with him, given how dark it was. She meant the world to him, and I knew that simply by being in his English class. I wonder if any man ever loved his wife as deeply as he loved her.
And I wonder if any student ever loved her English teacher as deeply as I loved him. I met him when I was not yet his student. For some reason, I went to him after school and asked for his feedback on something I had written. (Now I can hardly believe I had the courage to do that, I was so shy back then. Must have been an unusual day.) He looked over whatever it was and said he looked forward to having me in his class the next year.
He taught me literature and grammar and vocabulary and writing skills, for which I will always be grateful. But more than that, he became my friend and taught me how to live. He was a very wise man, with a mind and heart that to me seemed bottomless. I could talk to him about anything, and did whenever I got the chance.
When I left for college, and he left for his PhD, we exchanged letters. The excerpt from one below gives you some idea of his wisdom. I realize now, though I did not then, that probably not many PhD students would take the time he did to respond to my letters with letters of two and three handwritten, single-spaced pages. This one was written in response to my struggling with the expectations I had absorbed from being a scholarship-financed student with multiple areas of ability, not knowing how to say "no" to anyone or anything, and consequently almost literally falling apart my freshman year:
Potential is such a deceptive term. There is always a degree of theoretical excellence that a person could achieve, but the product, potential, is the result of many factors which must include weariness, pleasure-seeking, lack of interest, and such things, all of which are a part of being human. When we say, "If I weren't so lazy, I could...," we aren't talking about potential; we are talking about utopian daydreams. What I ought to be must include consideration of my tendencies to be less...Get your rest. Decide what you can do without in your life, and simplify. Pray for wisdom. Look for everlastingness and cling to it. Be thankful for simple pleasures.
In another letter, he wrote about singing in the Ole Miss chorus at the Kennedy Center, the thrill of being in the place, and the beauty of Samuel Barber's setting of the Prayers of Kierkegaard.
He wrote about how he detested some of his classes and professors and the pomp and pride he witnessed in the world of academia, the lack of love for the literature and the lack of love among faculty, the competition and disregard for students. He didn't exactly discourage my ideas about heading for the Ivy League for graduate work, but he certainly opened my eyes to what it might actually look like.
He wrote about how much he missed his wife while away at school, and about marriage. He wrote about faith, and God, and how to have hope in this world by treasuring the small things, the simple things.
He could, I am certain, have gone to the Ivy League, if he'd wanted to. Or he could have sung or acted often in Kennedy Center or similar places, if he'd wanted to. He was very gifted as a writer, a teacher, a singer, and an actor.
But he wanted more than anything to be with his family and to make a difference in ways that actually mattered to people's lives. So he stayed in a small town at a small school that shared his values. He lived a quiet, simple life. In his later years, he took up golf and from what I heard surpassed people who had been playing for decades.
Then he got cancer, endured its horrific pain and the treatments for a few years, and then he died. On November 14, 2002. Seven years ago today. He had gone into a coma a few days earlier, and I actually drove to Searcy on the 14th in hopes of seeing him, but it turned out that I was driving to attend his memorial service.
The last time I saw him was at church in Searcy, in the hallway. We talked as we walked, he limping from pain, as the cancer had moved into his bones. He had been working on a sonnet, his last, and he stopped to recite it to me:
[Sonnet: Meditations on Dying]
It’s such an inconvenient thing to die,
To sink away from all we’ve known of love.
It feels so final when we say goodbye,
For only faith has seen those realms above.
The fading soul cries out for light, for breath,
More days to laugh, to love, to think, to be,
While pain-wracked nerve-ends plead for numbing death
And quiet rest for all eternity.
How shall we know, then, which of these to choose?
We hardly know what is, what merely seems.
Then give us, Lord, what we can never lose
When what we’ve known as life has turned to dreams.
Thus, self, and thought, and love will never die,
And we, in Him, shall never say good bye.
That memory is a precious gift.
I always felt that I was given another kind of gift, in that less than two weeks before that, while singing Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna with our chorus, he came into my mind. He was ill then, but I had no idea he was so close to a coma or to death. We were just singing that gorgeous music, and I thought, "Mr. Wright would have loved this," and for most of the piece I just had him there in my heart, imagining him enjoying the music.
It was my last time to "be" with him during his life. And, coincidentally, our singing that night with Mr. Lauridsen himself present, led to our singing his music not in the Kennedy Center, but in Carnegie Hall, which then again became a connecting place with memories of Mr. Wright. A couple of years later we also sang Barber's Prayers of Kierkegaard, which was another gift.
He was himself such a gift, and he left a wonderful gift behind, a poem that he wrote back when I was his young English student. I remember him talking way back then about the trip to the Grand Canyon that inspired the poem. And I will never forget hearing Dennis Organ, one of my college English professors, reading the poem at the memorial service, at the request of Mr. Wright's beloved wife. Here it is:
Once in Arizona, dearest love, looking down,
We stood hand in hand
And watched mules, tourists, guides,
And even airplanes (looking down!)
Diminish beyond our sight
Into the vastness of a canyon bright
We called—truly called, for such it was—
How many selves the size of us,
Would needs be multiplied
(Our life space being, more or less,
Though to us, all)
To fill such emptiness?
Set down in such a splendid place,
We seemed of such a puny race.
Yet would we not, in God’s good time,
When we were one with Him
Who fills all space
Think back (looking down)
Upon such “grandness”
And smile at our presumption?
And now, my dearest love,
You stand (looking down)
Before the canyon of your grief,
Vast beyond belief,
For I, who filled the splendor of your life,
I know, for you to me were all.
And I, my puny self at last set free
To fill, with God, His infinite space,
Can say to you that we,
You and I—and He
(Looking down) will one day stand
To see that this chasm which you call
(Truly call, for such it seems)
Is really, when we escape our finite dreams,
An almost invisible scratch
On an infinitesimal table top
On an insignificant patch
Of an earth diminishing,
To a stop.
--Ray A. Wright
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine:
et lux perpetua luceat eis.