I threw out some books, things not fit for taking to a used bookstore. Much of what I threw out were things I'd been saving for the next generation, and letting go of these tangible relics from my own childhood tugged at every sentimental bone in my body. The elder nieces are happily working through the copies of The Little House on the Prairie books with Leslie, as I'd suggested, and the copies from our own childhood, the common tan or cream coloured mass edition that were available for so long, were now worn, yellowed, and tattered, or maybe even just disintegrating in a few spots. It's the stories themselves that count, I know, but it meant something to see "Novak" penciled in the front covers, in a handwriting that could have belonged to any of us. The few other early items that I tossed, which I can find better copies of later, took me a little extra while as I paged through them, looking for any other relics that might be worth saving, in order to spread to the kids that sentiment that can adorn love. I found a pair of green construction paper markers or awards taped together and acting as a bookmark, noting Leslie's having read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Cat Came Back in fifth grade, and I set that aside to give to the nieces to tuck into a book.
I find that I sort of enjoy having things like that in favourite or much-consulted books as bookmarks: things that can bring a smile or a memory back when you run across them. In cleaning my desk, I had tucked my "boarding pass" ticket from the "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition" that I saw with Angie and her folks here last year into the copy of Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places by Madeleine L'Engle that she had given me as a gift in April when I defended my dissertation. I was therefore amused a few days ago when I received a note from Angie, fabulously composed as part of the ongoing artistic project of her A Year of Letters, with the stationery for the note constructed partially from her "boarding pass" ticket to the exhibition. Timely.
Friday saw me having a farewell dinner with Meg: a dinner that had been too long in coming. Meg and I have gotten into the habit of just seeing one another once every several months, despite being in the same town. She graduated Marquette three years ago now, and we just don't have that easy convenience of running into one another on campus. So we both apologized for not getting around to having dinner earlier, but didn't dwell on the fact. There was a lot of news to catch up on: my finishing up and the shape of what I was doing at Loyola. She was crowing over me finally being "Doctor" and "Professor" Novak, expressing out loud the sort of gleeful amazement that sneaks up on me in my head every once in a while. She's seen the whole journey, in a way, since we became friends when she randomly found me in the AOL directory my first year here when she was a senior in high school in Iowa, thinking of coming to Marquette for her undergraduate, and wanting to know what "Theology" requirements were all about. The next year, when she arrived on campus, we began a more concrete friendship that baffled a lot of her friends, but has always turned out to be a treasure.
So I heard her news of the big breakup last fall, some weeks after I had last seen her, when we had shared a surprise train ride to Chicago together at the end of September, and about the new romance that started a few weeks ago, when a long-time friend, the guy everyone likes upon whom she'd had a quiet, matter-of-fact crush on for ages, confessed that he was carrying a torch for her. So for each of them to discover that the other was kind of mad about them has turned into great fun, and we talked about dating friends for quite a while, which she has never done before, to my amazement, since that's mostly been my experience. We were sitting outside The Twisted Fork until dark, which came late in early July: she had suggested that I might want to revisit an old favourite restaurant rather than go exploring, since I was on my way out of town. We continued to talk dating, drama, high school anxieties, good television writing, dogs, teaching theology to undergraduates, and travel as we then went walking in the neighbourhood of the mansions by Villa Terrace, and then back to her East Side place where she was once again sharing digs with Katie, her old college roommate, who we had sat and talked with the half hour after I arrived. We talked a lot about running and different work-outs. She had taken up running as a serious part of a new regimen, and it had been incredibly successful for her. I hadn't really been aware that she had put on as much weight in college as she said she had, but now she was trim in a way I'd never seen with her before, having become this long, leggy woman that she hadn't been. She's building up to a half-marathon right now, and it was cool to be able to use some running/training knowledge for her, because whoever designed her workout plan didn't understand distance running terribly well. So she was just radiating good health in a way that I could only congratulate and resolve to copy, as much as I can. We then took Dio, the retired grayhound racer she now owned, on a long evening's walk as we continued the conversation, until we sat at a bus stop on Farwell and I left. It was a farewell, but not, I think, a good-bye. We've gotten into that sort of "occasional" friendship that can dive right into the thick of things, and now that she's making more money since she left the theatre world for more lucrative work, she's traveling more regularly to see friends, and New Orleans would be just the sort of place she'd like to see. So it's entirely possible that we'll once again pick up in another eight months or so, and that would be just as good as ever.
Back in this un-air-conditioned sixth story apartment with bad air circulation (windows only on one side of the place), I'm often stripping down to just shorts as I work into the evenings assembling, sorting, and packing hundreds and hundreds of books. It's sweltering in here, even when it's dropped below 70 outside, and I'm finding the promise of my central air in the house in New Orleans to be more and more attractive in my imagination. I've sort of had my last "regular" Marquette time, even though I'm here for a few more days. The regular rhythm of the place is lost now.
I've taken a few hours in the evenings to start reading Brideshead Revisited again, which I've had the temptation to do for some weeks now, wanting to read it maybe one last time sitting by the mediaeval fountain in the courtyard at Marquette where I first read it the summer of 2004, so that aristotle2002 would finally concede that I was truly a Catholic. But with the occasional run of rain and thunderstorms we've had the last few weeks, that's only a possibility now and then. No rhythm there, either. Oddly, I've also taken to watching the 1981 British production of it at the same time as re-reading the book, leaving it on while sorting and packing in the living room. That's sort of a strange experience, taking in the story in two media at the same time. I'd once skimmed along in the book while watching, maybe for just an episode or two, probably when I first watched in, after that 2004 reading, just to see how exact or faithful the adaptation was. Now it forms a strange duet of reading and watching. I find I'm more struck this time around with how unattractive I find Charles as a protagonist; the joy of his first summer with Sebastian has faded in memory very quickly this time around, even though that stands out more strongly when I'm remembering the story from a distance. In this visit, I'm wearied by his long fade into a ruined version of himself, even though I know there's hope for the future. I'm also struck at how many parallels there are, that I never really considered before, for the "Sebastian" figure from my own freshman year, who so challenged me and woke me up to the world around me in a greater way.
It's got me thinking about a course I've thought about constructing for college students, based off a directed reading course I did at Saint Joe with one of the magnificent Nolan clan: a course on Religion and Autobiography, where we read Augustine's Confessions as the genre-maker and masterpiece, Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain, and Lewis's Surprised By Joy. There are others I could imagine adding. But then there's this piece of fiction in Brideshead Revisited, which, as fiction, clearly shouldn't be considered. But with the theme Waugh intended – the workings of grace on a diverse set of characters – it could be an interesting lead-in to such autobiographical readings since it would train a group of readers to accept and to be willing to look for some very subtle and unexpected operations of grace indeed.