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Personal/Theological Notebook: Recovery; Fukayama; Emily; Matthew Sutton and Adrienne von Speyr

My neglected journal lacks summaries of the following fun and interesting adventures. (Part One)

Cancer surgery – and recovery! Does life get any more exciting than ugly skin thingies on the side of your nose? For over a year I lived with this unsightly hole, and I'm obviously lucky in that this was really so much of nothing that I can just complain of its aesthetic effect. The non-metastazing basal-cell carcinoma on my left nostril was cut out by a friendly Jewish surgeon who regaled me with a tale of the apparently-miraculous giant statue of the Virgin Mary that had come with her house and which she had gone to great lengths to donate to an area monastic community, where it gained its peculiar reputation. This is the kind of thing people tell you when they hear you're a theologian. She also wanted to know if she could get a bigger tax write-off because of its apparent mysterious powers. The plastic surgery went swimmingly, with the details I related in my entry at the time. When I went in a week later, the surgeon and I – who now met face-to-face instead of us both being masked – were both pleased to have him announce that it was quite a successful procedure, and that the slightly more long-shot option we went with looks to have gone as intended, and thus likely to leave me without a mark. Jen and I watched in fascination over these last two weeks as the wound has almost entirely vanished.

Dan Lloyd and I did attend the Allis Chalmers Distinguished Professor of International Affairs Lecture, "American Foreign Policy after the Bush Doctrine," given by Dr. Francis Fukuyama on Thursday, April 12, at 7 p.m. This space should soon see Dan's summary notes of the talk.

[Retroactive Entry Designation: Moments That Justify My Life]: On the following Saturday, the 15th, I spent the afternoon and evening with friede, meeting her face-to-face for the first time, after being good LiveJournal friends for a few years, now. Her own epic account of the day
"Sir, I look upon every day to be lost, in which I do not make a new acquaintance."
-- Samuel Johnson, as quoted by Boswell in the Life

Well, this weekend (and by extension, this week) has ended rather better than it began. Granted, that did not take much.

After teaching (and being observed by Devoney), I left Columbia on Thursday afternoon about 3.30 PM. Due to airline delays (it snowed 7 inches in Milwaukee the day before), my 8 PM flight left at closer to 11, and I staggered into my hotel room after midnight, utterly weary, as you can see here.

The next day I tried to sleep in, but failed. The conference started at noon in Marquette's Alumni Center, 8 blocks from where I was staying. I was mildly preoccupied with getting over there, only to find George in the hotel lobby, waiting to lead the way. It was a beautiful day, and George had driven up from Indianapolis with a few old friends, who I spoke to as we walked.

The conference itself was... impeccable, for better and worse. The papers were very good, as befits a small coterie-like conference where graduate students don't give papers. I was enthralled by the papers, which were all breathtaking examples of scholars thoroughly immersed in their material, and had been for some time.

[More conference stuff of Emily's I here edit out, all the way to Emily talking to her advisor in the lobby of her hotel when I walked up on Saturday around 3:30, after the conference ended]

To Mike's astonishment and amusement, I RAN out of the hotel to greet him, and did not introduce him to George.

I should mention for those who do not follow my friends-list or read my comments much who exactly Mike is. In Facebook-world, Mike explains how we know each other as, " You know, I cannot remember. It happened on LiveJournal, near the end of her stay in York. But I can't remember if I tripped across her, or she me..." I am of no better help, as it turns out, though I'm pretty sure he friended me.

If memory serves, Mike's first non-how-are-you words to me were, "I thought you'd be shorter". Which I am, in truth -- I was wearing my commuting shoes, which have a not-insignificant heel to them.

Oddly, this is the first person I've met through LJ (ranks which include my best friend in CoMo and some of the best academic confidantes I have) who I hadn't spoken to much prior to meeting. As I joked to Claire, "We haven't had the 'this is weird' conversation!". Thus, for me Mike prior to Saturday existed as an affable, thoughtful, and in many ways serious presence. As I am only intermittently any of those things, I worried that I was sailing under false pretences, that the self I present in LJ is not the same as the grating person I often see myself as.

This is not just me worrying heedlessly -- the first time I met Claire she saw my Mawrter friends make a man run from a restaurant weeping, and the first time I met Tim he was startled by my tactileness and need for solitude and quiet. And everyone I know is somewhat disconcerted on occasion by how long it takes me to get used to making eye-contact, and my tendency to look away or down when I am thinking particularly hard.

It was this last personal quirk that, walking down the street with Mike those first few blocks, I worried I would not be able to get over. Fortunately, the walk was leading to the Milwaukee Art Museum, whose cafe would close within minutes of our arrival, leaving us to wander the museum itself until it closed an hour or so later.

Though I did not realize it until now, it was probably the best choice -- I think of Lewis's words about friends side-by-side, looking in the same direction. I will not say anything so arrogant as that you can judge a person based on their responses to various sorts of art, but it is always interesting. I don't know that I have ever talked so much in a gallery before. I know enough of Mike to know that he has an arguably deeper sensitivity to art than I do, though it comes from a different place -- I think about what, for example, I know paint can do, and think about intentions and contexts and effects, while Mike... well, I shan't pretend to know, exactly.

At the MAM, I told Mike about the Barnes, my favorite museum in the whole world, and my discovery of the work of William Glackens there. Happily, the MAM had two Glackens on display -- neither of which particularly captured my imagination, but they did please me by association. As soon as we entered, Mike gestured to a Nautilus Cup with glee.  We also looked at an uncharacteristic Monet (a hasty, stormy cliffside), sat for a while examining an Ashcan School painting I would never have picked apart by myself, goggled briefly at Study for Three Portraits ("like a kaleidoscope!"-- Mike  "It's a STUDY?" -- Em), and our train of thought was disrupted by an eerie Zurbaran St. Francis. A confrontation with Corbet's Clément Laurier led me to mangle Julius Caesar under my breath, prompting Mike to retort that he would love above all to play Cassius. Had he said that before I met him I might have granted his ability to do so -- but confronted with the affable play of his features in the flesh, I must confess I nearly laughed. I know I laughed, delightedly, to find a portrait of Samuel Richardson (or at least, one that is attributed as such) in a corner.

I'm sorry (looking at the site as I am now) that we missed the Rothko Green, Red, Blue -- I'm of two minds about Rothko Chapel in Houston, and so I always wonder what others make of his work.

This was, at least in this observer's opinion, the sign of a truly successful afternoon -- there were so many things that could have been talked of, but there never would have been enough time for everything. I am still thinking of things that could have been unspun out in their own right for days.  It is in this sense that dinner was lovely, but dessert was, at least in my opinion, better -- a judgement made almost completely on the relative value of the "talk". As befits a good Johnsonian (and I was posing as a good Johnsonian this weekend), I like to think I appreciate good, sustaining talk, and in some senses, I had been truly craving it.

Dessert, as it turns out, almost didn't happen -- we got out of dinner about 7.30, which was when G had said he'd be back, and I felt a little guilty about being so sharp to him all weekend and spoke of trying to go back to meet up with him as he'd requested. Nevertheless, I allowed myself to trot in Mike's wake, and was the better for it.  As it turns out, G and I both got back at the same time (past midnight) -- I came back to my hotel room to find an email from G apologizing for staying out late. As you might imagine, I laughed -- God takes care of fools and small children, as my father says, and I have always qualified.

I wish, like Johnson's friends Burney or Boswell, I could chronicle even a fraction of what was said. As it is, I can recall snatches here and there, as the conversation flowed from one topic to another, folding back in on itself, belonging to neither and both, a protean sort of thing. We both have Jens (his girlfriend, my best friend) involved in saving the educational system, little kids we adore (his nieces, my FamWee), and a capacity to talk ourselves cottonmouth. We discussed "markets" both romantic and professional (we share a distaste for the former), touched lightly on teaching content vs. process, age and change, comics, our extended families, our respective undergrads, Notre Dame traditions vs. BMC, being an academic Catholic and feeling incapable of proper apologia (me), my conflicts with those who don't understand by I don't "just convert," faith and reason, why we study what we study (Mike pithily summed his own up as "My God is my work" while mine took... well, I'm not sure it was ever fully articulated) the affect of Romanticism on the modern constructions of love stories, Before Sunrise, etc. etc. etc. Dessert was four hours in itself, and blessedly we were in no one's way -- though allegedly a group of women behind me kept staring at Mike, thinking he was Adrian Brody. I will admit that the likeness is, especially in low light, not far-fetched.

More than what was said (though much was valuable), I was struck, and value most highly, Mike's ability to say precisely what he thinks. It is, in some ways, a trait I have had, if not drummed out of me, certainly altered. It was a reminder of how much I ought to remember to cherish those thoughtful individuals I know outside my discipline, with whom I may be truly candid.

I should say, vis a vis my worry about how I would perceived, I couldn't've been more wrong. As we sat down to dessert, Mike said, "You know, you're exactly as I imagined, only slightly more manic in your speech." As you might imagine, I immediately demanded a better word than manic, which has a rather worrisome set of connotations.

"So many qualities are indeed requisite to the possibility of friendship, and so many accidents must concur to its rise and its continuance, that the greatest part of mankind content themselves without it, and supply its place as they can, with interest and dependence."
Johnson: Rambler #64 (October 27, 1750)
could only be supplemented by a few more observations. I might also note that I, too, would never have noticed George Bellows' The Sawdust Trail without her, but I was also quite taken with a portrait of a girl in the same room, the name of which now escapes me and which isn't on the Milwaukee Art Museum's website. The use of the colours was extraordinary, somehow being both very realistic and human, and yet also utterly unrealistic, like the large patch of blue-green that composed part of her forehead, but which was perfectly the colour of a vein seen under the skin. Emily mentioned that in her own painting, she used colour in such a "wide" way, and that also made me notice and pay attention to the technique in a way that I wouldn't have, otherwise.

I also remember a discussion of politics which she doesn't include, perhaps more on my end, when she asked me about my politics and I made my way from describing myself as "Contrarian," alluding to my annoying habit of drifting to the opposite end of whatever political consensus I hear emerging in a given room. My own strong inclination toward political independence (and that everyone else should be independent – just like me), and my annoyance with anyone who seems to think that any given political party or left/right orientation can be correct on every point while the other pole is miraculously – and conveniently – wrong about everything. This is the worst feature in American politics, to my mind, with the undemocratic demonization of the Other, and the lack of any impulse to work with others, and it's a mindset I try to warn my students away from as soon as I begin talking with them, especially given that so much of the American university and intellectual culture substitutes such orientations in place of actual thought. Thus, I ended up largely describing my politics as ultimately "Augustinian," in that I'm fully aware of human tendencies toward corruption and thus tend to vote not so much for strongly positive reasons, but rather for whoever and whatever I suspect is the least evil of my choices at any given moment. Emily didn't seem to think that this was entirely absurd of me, for which I was grateful....

It was one of those meetings that is an ideal result of a LiveJournal friendship. I say "ideal" because other than the basic surprise of the sound and styles of our speech, we really weren't surprised by one another: we had accurately conveyed ourselves in our writing. I did in fact notice Emily's avoidance of eye contact, even if I didn't mention it. When it came up in her original entry which I copied above, I simply mentioned that I understood the kind of vulnerability that comes with the real speech of eyes: if she was more aware of it than others, I figured that that was more to her credit than not, and that that sort of comfort would come as we got more used to one another, as it did.

That weekend had also seen the Friday the 13th dissertation defense of my classmate Matthew Lewis Sutton, with his long-developed project, The Gate of Heaven Opens to the Trinity: The Trinitarian Mysticism of Adrienne von Speyr, which had begun back when we took Professor Raymond Gawronski, S.J.'s course on the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar in the spring of 2004, which was one of the highlights of my coursework. I had long heard friends enthuse about Von Balthasar's work, particularly P.J. McCurry during our years at Saint Joe's in South Bend, but I'd never had the opportunity to really dig into his work in that way before. Matthew had been working on this project more-or-less since his research paper for that course, (von Speyr was a mystic with whom von Balthasar collaborated for years) and it was great to see it come to term in front of his board and an interested crowd. In Matthew's words,
In this dissertation, I synthesize what von Speyr says about the Trinity, integrate her many insights into its central themes, and interpret their significance in light of Catholic Trinitarian theology. My central thesis is that according to the Trinitarian mysticism (Mystik) of Adrienne von Speyr, the gate of heaven opens to the Trinity and reveals the original image (Urbild) of the eternal, immanent relations of triune love. The gate of heaven is opened by the Father in the mission (Sendung) of the Son to be the incarnate Word of obedience (Gehorsam) and together they have sent the Holy Spirit to be like a religious rule (Ordensregel) accompanying the obedience of the Son and the disciple. The open heaven reveals that the Trinity is the original source (Ursprung) of the sacraments and prayer, inserting man through the gate of heaven into the inner love of the Trinity.
I came in late because I had to teach until 4pm (he had started at 3) and I had to leave early because I'd told Jen I'd meet her at 4:30, and I hadn't known the defense would go until 5. That was a shame not only in missing more of the content, but also in not being able to with Matthew and his wife Elizabeth well, and not having a chance to pay my respects to Fr. Gawronski, who had since left the Department, to our great loss. Matthew and I had taken almost all the same coursework, so we were both kind of relieved that he got ahead in his writing, with me having been sick earlier and with my teaching responsibilities this year: that way we wouldn't go on the market at the same time and have to compete against one another for jobs!
Tags: art, conversations, friends-marquette era, livejournal, milwaukee, moments that justify my life, mysticism/spirituality, personal, political, theological notebook, trinity, von balthasar

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