A decade of the law

It will be ten years this sum­mer that I set out on the jour­ney of becom­ing a “priest of the law” — tak­ing the first steps toward my degree, and my career, as a canon­ist.

It is with con­sid­er­able ambiva­lence that I reflect on that deci­sion, and all that fol­lowed. My life, and the life of my entire fam­i­ly, has been for­ev­er changed by the dis­rup­tion, the adven­tures, the tra­vails and the new expe­ri­ences which crowd­ed upon us, indi­vid­u­al­ly and col­lec­tive­ly, from the moment we left behind all we knew in search of all I thought we want­ed.

Every­thing has changed in these ten years. I have climbed to some mar­velous vis­tas, to be sure, but far more time has been spent wan­der­ing in the val­ley of the shad­ow of death. I can­not change any­thing that has tran­spired. Maybe I can learn from it: that seems a bit too cute for my taste, though. Prin­ci­pal­ly, I am grate­ful to have sur­vived it all, amazed to be still stand­ing, still breath­ing: that I still have a chance to try again.

When I first set out to study canon law, I wrapped myself in pride and ambi­tion: I want­ed to make a name for myself in this new dis­ci­pline, this new call­ing, which I was pre­pared to throw myself head­long into. I thought I had final­ly found a sphere in which I was real­ly going to be a some­body. But I lacked the for­ti­tude to actu­al­ly do the work that this would entail: I set­tled for coast­ing through as I had done my entire adult life, added idle self-indul­gence and near­ly con­stant ine­bri­a­tion, and the fact that all of us have sur­vived the exis­ten­tial train­wreck that ensued is a dai­ly cause for won­der­ment.

But sur­viv­ing is just what we are doing. I am learn­ing — for what seems like the first time — to push myself, to fol­low through on my com­mit­ments, to be the per­son that seem­ing­ly every­one except me has always believed I could be. That’s hard work. But I tell myself every morn­ing that it is hard work worth doing, and that I am going to do it.

Waiting to know

Six­teen years ago.

I still remem­ber so many details about that day, most of them so triv­ial, incon­se­quen­tial, which was, I think, all I was real­ly capa­ble of tak­ing in and pro­cess­ing any­way. I can still see my store man­agers face as she received an ear­ly morn­ing tele­phone call from a friend. I can still hear her sharp cry of alarm at the news, freez­ing me in place in the ghast­ly flu­o­res­cent glow of the back­room of the book­store where, a moment before, I had been sleep­i­ly try­ing to remem­ber all the mun­dane steps of count­ing out cash draw­ers and prepar­ing to open the shop for anoth­er day of busi­ness.

Even after all this time, I still don’t know what I can mean­ing­ful­ly say about the real events of Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001. But in the wee hours of this morn­ing, as I checked for updates of dam­age from Hur­ri­cane Irma and won­dered how my few friends and acquain­tances in Flori­da were far­ing. I was struck by how much our infor­ma­tion pipelines have changed from what they were when the jets hit the tow­ers. There was no Twit­ter. There was no Face­book. I knew peo­ple with cel­lu­lar phones, but no more than a hand­ful of them.

At the book­store, we rolled out the tele­vi­sion that was used for train­ing videos and stood around, employ­ees and cus­tomers alike, watch­ing the break­ing cov­er­age on net­work news. We eager­ly clus­tered around the news­pa­pers the next morn­ing when they arrived to pore over the writ­ten cov­er­age, to first begin to digest the news and to try to under­stand the how and the who of it. And a few days lat­er, when the week­lies like Time and Newsweek and The Econ­o­mist and the New York­er, we again eager­ly seized and devoured them to begin our jour­ney to real­ly under­stand­ing what had hap­pened, and what might hap­pen next.

And when time per­mit­ted, we would call each oth­er on our respec­tive work breaks and talk for a few min­utes, ask­ing each oth­er how we were, what we were think­ing, if we had heard any­thing new. We would take com­fort in each oth­er’s voic­es at the oth­er end of the line, the long spi­ral cord of the tele­phone hand­set fol­low­ing us around the cramped break room, teth­er­ing us to that con­ver­sa­tion, to that moment, to that exchange of dis­tant con­nec­tion.

It is trite to say it was a dif­fer­ent time. But it was, and I am feel­ing that most keen­ly as I reflect on the dif­fer­ences in the flow of infor­ma­tion, in the gains in instan­ta­ne­ity in our news sources, and the cor­re­spond­ing loss­es in cred­i­bil­i­ty for the same. Six­teen years ago, we wait­ed to learn the sto­ry, hop­ing to under­stand. Now, we refuse to wait for the news to fin­ish hap­pen­ing before we want it parceled out and post­ed in eas­i­ly-shared snip­pets. And we don’t need to digest it, because most of us all know exact­ly what we want to know already. We already believe what we are going to believe. Any news sto­ry that attempts to counter what we already know? Well, that must be biased, or fake, or… who cares? We dis­miss it as eas­i­ly as we dis­miss our fel­low cit­i­zens who hold to dif­fer­ent hopes or ideals than ours. We don’t wait to lis­ten, we don’t wait to under­stand. It does­n’t even occur to us to try any­more.

Is this all because of that day? Is this chok­ing of our civ­il dis­course the result of those smoth­er­ing clouds of ash and dust that went roil­ing through the streets of Man­hat­tan? Is our nation­al patience and con­cord left buried under the unsort­ed rub­ble? I don’t know: I’m still wait­ing for the news to come in.

Goody goody gumdrops!

It was Dr. Michael Miko­la­jczak, the pro­fes­sor with whom I took three of my eleven cours­es in my under­grad­u­ate major (Eng­lish, if you are just join­ing us), who first inspired me to don a bow tie, for which I will always thank him, as I am sure does the gen­er­al pub­lic. A col­or­ful and dynam­ic instruc­tor, he is also mem­o­rable for his pecu­liar views on final exam­i­na­tions.

Lit­er­a­ture cours­es in a lib­er­al arts insti­tu­tion are not, in my lim­it­ed expe­ri­ence, gen­er­al­ly seen as con­ducive to eval­u­a­tion in writ­ten exam form. These are the sort of things we write essays for, texts spread out on our crowd­ed dorm desks while we fid­dle with the mar­gin and line-spac­ing set­tings and try to avoid spilling either cof­fee or beer on any of he library books. But Dr. M. had his own approach to ped­a­gogy, and he was very fond of the final exam.

On the morn­ing of a final exam, you should leap out of bed and say, “Goody, goody, gum­drops!”

I want you to think of the final exam as an occa­sion of joy,” he would explain to the class, and in each of the three semes­ters I heard this speech, the stu­dents seemed pret­ty uni­form­ly skep­ti­cal on this point. “The final exam gives you an oppor­tu­ni­ty to revis­it all that you have learned this semes­ter. On the morn­ing of a final exam, you should leap out of bed and say, ‘Goody, goody, gum­drops!’ ” The class would pret­ty much just be star­ing at him at this point, won­der­ing what he was on.

I won’t pre­tend I was any fan of those final exams at the time, but I have nev­er for­got­ten Dr. Miko­la­jcza­k’s words. And now, in the ulti­mate days of my grad­u­ate stud­ies, I think I can say I final­ly say that I share and embrace his enthu­si­asm. It is only in these long hours of pan­icked review that I am tru­ly see­ing the extent of what I have (the­o­ret­i­cal­ly) learned these past three years of work toward my Licen­ti­ate in Canon Law. It is almost not too strong to say that it is only in this review that I am learn­ing what before I had only heard, which is not meant as a judg­ment on my pro­fes­sors’ ped­a­gogy but rather as a telling com­ment on my own lack­adaisi­cal learn­ing style.

Let’s dis­pel any illu­sions you may be har­bor­ing about me. I don’t take notes. I don’t make flash cards. I don’t ask ques­tions. I don’t raise my hand dur­ing lec­tures. I don’t get around to read­ing a lot of the ‘rec­om­mend­ed’ texts, or even many of the ‘required’ ones. What do I do, then, to have made it this far in aca­d­e­m­ic pur­suits? Two things: I lis­ten in class, as active­ly as I can man­age, and I care. Most days, that is enough. Which is for­tu­itous, since that is all I can man­age.

Now, three days before I must stand before a pan­el of my pro­fes­sors and answer on the spot what­ev­er ques­tions they choose to throw at me, I am doing some of those stu­den­ty things I just said I don’t do. I am por­ing over canons and com­men­taries, labo­ri­ous­ly cre­at­ing a heap of index cards dur­ing the day which my lov­ing wife will use to quiz me in the evenings. I am, in a word, actu­al­ly work­ing at this, which feels for­eign to me (because it is), and also feels down­right thrilling.

Should I have felt this sort of agency regard­ing my own learn­ing before now? Absolute­ly. I am embar­rassed and ashamed that I have large­ly slouched through my aca­d­e­m­ic degrees, because I could, rather than muster the ener­gy and courage to real­ly try. Who knows what I might have become? At the least, prob­a­bly a bet­ter man. But it is too late to change what is past; what I can do is change the game, even at this late hour, and I am unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly con­fi­dent that I might be able, not only to make this work in this crit­i­cal moment, but to make a last­ing change of it that will open new pos­si­bil­i­ties of pro­duc­tive learn­ing and knowl­edge reten­tion for me in the future.

Baby sister no more, and yet always

I remem­ber the first day of Decem­ber, eigh­teen years ago. It was a soft, snowy morn­ing on our farm on the west­ern edge of Min­neso­ta, and my two sis­ters and I had fin­ished feed­ing the goats and chick­ens, and had some­how wan­dered down to the end of our short dri­ve­way, where we were engaged in a play­ful fight with quick-packed balls of the wet, heavy new-fall­en snow. We were osten­si­bly watch­ing for the arrival of our chi­ro­prac­tor, delayed by the weath­er, but we had most­ly for­got­ten about that after a few min­utes of joy­ful squeals.

Then dad’s voice rang out across the silent yard.

If you want to see this baby born, you bet­ter get in here now!”

Oh, things were hap­pen­ing fast! We wal­lowed across the snowy yard, tum­bled into the house, and—no doubt leav­ing our win­ter clothes is a tan­gle heap in the porch—we qui­et­ly piled into Mom and Dad’s tiny bed­room which was today the birth room. And it was not long at all before a tiny new sis­ter slid into the morn­ing light and into our lives.

We had a spe­cial bond (I think) all the years I was still home. There are a great many pic­tures of the grin­ning teenage Me with an equal­ly-grin­ning wee sis­ter in my arms: “My two ends” our moth­er always called us fond­ly. I walked her to sleep for her naps, often to the sound­track of the bois­ter­ous Russ­ian clas­si­cal music I was so fond of in those days, or the jaun­ty Bea­t­les songs I was just then dis­cov­er­ing (or The King’s Singers’ cov­ers there­of). One of her first words was “Help!” to request the song of the same name.

And then off I went to col­lege, and I nev­er came back. Not to stay, any­way. She has grown up a great deal since then. Her expe­ri­ence of being a home­schooled teenag­er has been very dif­fer­ent from mine, prob­a­bly inevitably. She is a very tal­ent­ed musi­cian and dancer, although I have almost no first­hand knowl­edge of her impres­sive per­for­ma­tive vir­tu­os­i­ty, since my adult life has kept me large­ly far away in recent years from the excit­ing events back at my fam­i­ly seat. I have missed out.

And now she is eigh­teen, get­ting ready to leave the house her­self very soon, just as I did back when she was just mas­ter­ing the abil­i­ty to form whole sen­tences. Dance through life with con­fi­dence, Lit­tlest Sis. You will be awe­some.

Until the music stops

There will be no way of know­ing when my heart will stop work­ing.

But it will: I am quite sure of that. Not soon, don’t wor­ry. I imag­ine I have a sol­id twen­ty years left that I can more or less count on. After that, though, I will be fool­ish not to regard each day as a com­plete roll of the dice: dice which I not only can­not see, I don’t even know how many sides they have.

This is (I believe) my first time writing—in pub­lic view at least—on a top­ic that I roll around in my head con­scious­ly every sin­gle day, and have done since the end of the last mil­len­ni­um, when what had been a sel­dom-talked-about fam­i­ly tragedy sud­den­ly became a pat­tern, a genet­i­cal­ly-deter­mined fate that there would be no avoid­ing. I was going to die of a heart attack, just like my pater­nal grand­fa­ther and his two old­est sons (so far). It was just a ques­tion of when.

But I don’t want it to seem that I feel doomed, that I am cow­er­ing under the shad­ow of a fam­i­ly health trend that haunts my every wak­ing moment. I find it near­ly impos­si­ble not to sound fatal­is­tic when I speak of this top­ic, which is per­haps in large part why I have kept it very pri­vate: I don’t feel fatal­is­tic about it. I sup­pose in a strict sense I do feel doomed to this spe­cif­ic fate, but I don’t see any rea­son to rail against it. I can do a lot in fifty years, I think, if I try hard. I have admit­ted­ly not tried very hard through most of the first thir­ty, but I feel like I am turn­ing a cor­ner now as I head into the mid-thir­ties. I am ready to live, to work at mak­ing a life for myself and my fam­i­ly that I can be proud of, and that they can be glad to have shared with me.