My family are Latinos, which means that even though the invitation to the Mongolian Barbeque says 6:30 PM (just thirty minutes before our one-year-old usually goes off to sleep), they begin to show well after 7:15 PM, except us, except us, since a few weeks earlier we were eating at the Italian place, to wish my mother and stepfather well, to say goodbyes before they went off to Italy for three months, that restaurant owned by an expert Italian chef from Egypt, where the food was perfect but the kids went nuts, screaming, throwing food, pounding the table, spilling drinks, finding seven hundred ways to ruin a nice evening at an Italian restaurant, so that we received from other patrons (and gave right back to them) all kinds of dirty looks, so that even this old lady told my one-year-old nephew, “My God. Can’t you just shut up?” and I gave her a long, cold What the fuck, grandma, you wanna start something? stare, until she quietly went back to drinking her old lady’s milk with her old lady’s pills. So, tonight, when my brother invites us out to dinner at the Mongolian Barbeque at 6:30 PM, we show up early, very early for Latinos, at 6:00 PM, and we feed our kids, and we stuff our faces, and we wait around like a bunch of idiot gringos for the Latinos to show up. Does this strategy work? Almost. By the time the peoples of Ecuador arrive to eat, our kids have already eaten, are therefore not grumpy, and we believe we, the parents, are in control. We believe we are geniuses, that this night is an enormous success. And we look around to confirm that there are no old ladies to intimidate. But the peoples of Ecuador have brought their children, and these children see my children, and they play with my children, and, now that it’s getting late for children, this evening at the Mongolian Barbeque becomes like a slumber party, with screaming and running and strange secret games long into the night. And Jonah, my three-year-old, who can blame him, who can say it could go any other way, gets himself into some trouble, because it is so late, and because he hits, and because he screams, and because he scratches, and because he kicks, and because he bites, and because he is three years old late at night with cousins and children, and his little child’s body does not know how to behave in a Mongolian Barbeque where there are no slides or wide open places to kick a ball. So he disobeys. And we tell him No. We walk him outside. We have a time-out. We come back inside. We tell him No. We bring him back outside. We spank. We bring him back inside. We tell him No. We bring him back outside. And it is late in the evening now, and we are driving home, and it is after the trouble, after our words together, after the time-outs, after the spankings, after his biting and hitting and kicking and screaming and telling children mean words. The night is quiet, and we drive silently along the road. And Jonah says, “I have to stop doing those bad things. I have to stop doing those bad things. But I just can’t.” I hear him say this, and I hear him repeat it, and I ask him questions, and Alli asks him questions, and he keeps saying it, keeps saying, “I just can’t, I just can’t.” I am moved to tears, and Alli holds his hand, saying, “We know. Mom and Dad know. We are the same way. It’s so hard, isn’t it, Jonah, to stop doing bad things. But do you know that we love you, Jonah, and that we are always connected.” And Jonah says, “I just can’t stop,” but then he repeats after Alli, “We are always connected.”
The past few days, I have been thinking about that night, about how rich and beautiful it was, about how my son taught me about honesty, and love, and the sickness of my inward life, how he taught me about my God who loves me and forgives me and abides even in my sickness. And then something else came to mind, an old student, Robin Dembroff, who, just before graduation, was inducted into the college’s honors society. She asked me to be the one to induct her into it, so I did. And this is the speech I wrote to do it:
Robin Dembroff is the smartest student I have taught, the one I thought about when, preparing for class, my anxiety would rise about my whether I know…more than they know. All professors know this feeling, know those moments: moments of faking it, of saying “I don’t know” in four-syllable words, of believing that any second now the game is up, moments of, “How long do I have look up and away, and say ‘ontological’ and ‘soteriology’ –so I can just—get—out—of—this?” It was her face I saw, her questions I imagined, her possible objections or obscure facts that made me afraid.
For this reason, I am glad to be rid of her.
She is very smart, the best kind of student. And every teacher she’s had knows it. In this regard, then, she belongs in the EKE. And for this she deserves our recognition, deserves this ceremony, deserves my personal and heartfelt congratulations:
Congratulations, Robin. This is a big deal. A wonderful achievement. Thank you for being so smart, for taking so much time, for devoting yourself to such difficult questions, for being such a good writer and thinker, for being so creative, for being the kind of student who intimidates me.
But your being smart, or my being your professor of smart stuff—these are not why you asked me to be here. My standing here has almost nothing to do with smart stuff.
And I want to honor that. And I want to spend my time talking about you in ways I know match your reason for my standing up here.
There is a very short poem by the great storyteller Raymond Carver. Carver: that reformed and recovered drunk, that cheat, that neglectful father, that abusive husband, that generally mean person. The poem is called “Late Fragment,” which he wrote at the end of his life, just before lung cancer killed him. This is how it goes:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Carver, the brilliant storyteller and worst kind of person, who told his own life without excuses, presenting himself in his stories as the worst kind of person, finally found recovery, found a great deal of reconciliation, and, eventually, he found himself beloved on the earth—even so. It’s in the even so that his life story is told here, in the even so that my and your and Robin’s lives are told. We are suffering, wandering, confused, hurt—and hurtful—we are the kinds of people who, left to ourselves, are no better or hardly better than Carver ever was. And, even so, even so, we are beloved.
This is why Robin wants me up here. Because of even so.
To be honored in front of so many, to be told Good job, and Congratulations, and We think you’re something else!—it’s a kind of love, or a stand-in for it. At the very least, it’s like love. Because it’s people giving you this big good thing.
And in its being like love, this smart stuff event, I think Robin made the mistake of putting up in front of you someone who almost has nothing to do with her smart stuff, but someone who has seen her through years of her learning her own belovedness; someone who would assume her smart stuff and then ignore it; someone who will instead tell you about her belovedness even so.
Last year, Robin wrote love-letter-paintings to many, if not all, of the Torrey faculty, these people who represented to her smart stuff and even so. Her friend Renee painted likenesses, and then Robin wrote the words over the painted image. Here is what she wrote on mine:
Of course, he says. Of course, yes. Fingers skim along rows of bindings, pulling down certain volumes. Not that he means to read from each one. He wants to remember them, delight in them and, most of all, simply have them in his hands. He arranges the books in a careful stack on his desk and, each time he lays one down, talks about a particular section and the author’s particular genius. Always in particulars. And this—amazing. Amazing. He extracts a book and, for the slightest instant, pauses to feel its weight in his hand. While he tells me about the text, he turns the pages over, one by one, only to have their texture between his fingers. The rustle is warm and familiar. His eye skims passages, head shaking with awe. Does he know the corners of his mouth arch this way every time a familiar text is in his hands? Or how many students have learned to love fitting words through witnessing this expression? To find richness in so many things… We see it most when he looks at his son. Or hear it when his voice cracks, and he laughs at the remembering of himself. He leans back and is still. Now. Space to wordlessly revisit where we have been. Words are beautiful, but only as signs to wordlessness. I remember. Now. I am beginning to understand where understanding ends. He knows this place, and that is how he brought us here. Now. Nothing but to sit here and process. To process without being alone. To not be alone as the end of the question. And then—slight lean forward. I know the drill. Social etiquette for time awareness. My appointment should have ended long ago. I motion as if to leave, but when I blink, he’s leaned back again. A gentle, but defiant flash passes through his eyes. No, no, wrong, it says. Things can be different. He searches for something until he finds it. And then his finger jabs a page and slides the book to me. Read that, he says. Everything is in that ‘even so,’ he says. It’s wonderful, really. Even so. Wonderful. Even so.
And so, Robin: No, you are not alone. I hear you. I am connected to you. My wife, my in-laws, and I—we love you. You are a part of our family. You are a gift to me as much as I am a gift to you. You are a gift to this institution, to your teachers, to your friends, to your family, to our Lord. You are beloved on the earth. Even so.