Round Table

We're being pelted with blessings right and left -- two hours late this morning!  I wish I could save one of these unexpected days off for a really stressful period.

I'm fast discovering that having a blog means you can't be picky.  If I took the time to obsessively revise all of the "work" that's published online, I might lose my mind along with my afternoon.  Actually, the way I work best is to create a rough outline and sit on it for awhile -- in this case, a week.  Then just write it, and edit once or twice for clarity.  Then, gulp and hit "Print."  Done.

This is the second assignment for this week's class.  Similar to the stepping stone one, it requires you to think about influence and identity.  The assignment is to come up with a roundtable of influences.  Who sits there, and why?  It was a tough assignment; I arranged and rearranged several times.  There were many others I wanted to include, but there were only ten spots at the table (yes, I know it’s my imagination, but more than ten people and you can’t really hold a conversation.  Ask King Arthur how his 150-top worked out.)

Read the full list below . . .

My father sits on my right side.  When I moved to New York, the most momentous occasion of my life to date, he presented me with a copy of The Fountainhead.  He must have known how significant the character of Howard Roark would prove to be during architecture school, where everyone imagined himself a visionary; but he cut to the chase in his inscription, lamenting the lack of reference to “God, who created, and keeps on loving, this great world.”  This is my father: he inspires me by continually reminding me of what’s important.  He tends toward the prophetic, too; five years to the day after he inscribed that book and sent me away, I was married back at home.  And every roundtable should have at least one prophet, just for good luck.

My mother sits to my left.  I couldn’t decide which parent should sit on which side until I realized that their influence correllates almost completely with the two hemispheres of my brain.  And while my father inspires me, my mother helps me realize those goals one step at a time.  She is the only reason I’m still teaching; in the early days, when I was fighting with students who couldn’t sit still and parents who didn’t want to pay me, she helped me stick to my guns in diplomatic and professional language.  To this day, I continue to call her my mentor.  My father’s unbounding generosity may have made me more likely to host parties, but my mother was the one who showed me how to plan a great one, starting a week before with a menu and list of chores and ending with a husband up to his elbows in soapsuds who thinks he’s got the better end of a deal because he’s allowed, just this once, to smoke a cigar in the kitchen.  So whatever battles I need to fight, I need her, my Odysseus – her resourceful wisdom will help me conquer the city.

Beyond my mother is my priest, Father Gregory.  His gift for pastoral wisdom is unequalled. I have seen him resolve problems I thought were intractable – choosing out of the tangled web one single strand, pulling gently, and watching as it unraveled into a pile of harmless fluff on the ground.  He brought our family to Orthodoxy this way – with patience, humility and a lot of prayer.  He didn’t dismiss my thirteen-year-old arrogance and the barrages of questions I hurled, hoping to exhaust him; and once we were brought in, he continued to lead us gently in what we always found was the best way.  In my darkest days of college, he took me out to lunch just to talk, not to lecture.  In my most hopeful first moments of love, he encouraged me toward the marriage that would define the rest of my life.  I can’t imagine where my faith – or my life, for that matter – would be without his guidance.

On the other side of my father sits my priest’s wife, Frederica.  She has been influential in much the same way as father; inspiration, mainly taken from her career as a writer and journalist.  She is responsible for just about every professional writing job I’ve ever had; from the beginning, she’s been a nonstop advocate of my work and has told me that I should keep pursuing it, even when it seems frustrating and impossible.  Beyond that, I admire her for her open mind, her interest in and knowledge of almost everything, and her ability to articulate concepts and feelings the way no one else can.

Next to Frederica, sits my husband, Rob.  It’s difficult to describe the influence someone has on you when you share your lives; it begins in subtle ways, like tiptoeing out of bed so as not to wake him, knowing how long the day before him promises to be.  It changes your habit of leaving a plate with toast crumbs next to the computer keyboard; you know that grosses him out.  It keeps you from exploding when you see yet one more appliance unplugged – the mixer you thought was broken, the curling iron that wouldn’t come on.  You ignore many of his messes and foibles and oddities as you know he ignores yours; and in time, you even come to love those things, as they become part of the fabric of your life together.  But this influence is direct, too.  It helps that Rob chose teaching, too, but got there several years ahead of me; when a student challenges me, when an administrator makes it difficult to enjoy my job, I can’t just go home and complain – I can go home and find answers and support from someone who has been there, too.  And of course, the big questions – where am I going, and what have I been called to do? – will be addressed the best way.  Together.

On the other side of Father Gregory sits my closest friend and spiritual sister Zenaida.  Though more than three decades separate us, I can think of no one who understands me better.  She brought me through the darkest time of my life: when I had nothing in my life that mattered, she taught me how to sing the music of centuries and millenia past.  Through her patient teaching of Byzantine music, I found a way to ground myself in the life and teachings of the church, and so found my faith again.  She remains just about the only person I know I could say anything to, without fear of judgment or recrimination; she will listen calmly and then offer her undiluted opinion, with love.  We have shared much, and though we do not always agree (if my empire goes to war, I know she will be the first in line to protest) we can always be honest with each other, and that is a very great gift.

Next to Rob, fidgeting with her brown fedora and muttering to herself, is Sue Gussow.  I know she’ll be muttering to herself because she taught me that trick: talking to yourself is a great way to get people to leave you alone, whether you’re sketching monkeys at the zoo or required to attend a daydream meeting with a long-lost student.  Even in my fantasy world, I can’t make her happy to be there, or warm and loving towards me; she’ll probably shake her head at the way my drawing skills have backslid in the intervening years.  “You came so far in just a few semesters,” she’d say (that she won’t have forgotten me is due to her memory, not my talent.)  “Why did you leave?”  The last decade will melt away and I’ll be young and insecure again, trying to explain away something I’ve never fully understood.  I’ll try to tell her how unhappy I was there, how much I hated life and myself, how every lesson I learned came at the expense of my self-respect.  But you were there, too, I will say – your humor and accidental wisdom was a continual bright spot.  You taught me the value of a good struggle.  And at the word “struggle,” she’ll perk up.  “That’s what you need,” she’ll say.  “Life has been too easy for you since you left.”  She’ll grab one of the charred embers from last night’s fire and send me over to the wall, ignoring my protests about the conquests I have yet to make that day. “I’ll run this meeting,” she’ll say.  “You give me twelve five-minute drwaings of your feet by this afternoon.”

Now I’ve been kicked out of my own dream world, and the meeting is disintegrating further as Rob and his other neighbor, Carole Bigler, swap war stories and joke about my ability to cause chaos. Carole will ask if, at a scant five feet and ninety pounds, she can be the court jester.  She won’t have brought a costume, but she’ll gladly get up and do a dance if it keeps everyone there and on task.  This ability to improvise and motivate is what has made her my biggest teaching inspiration, beginning when I was a budding musician and continuing through to my first days as a teacher trainee.  She doesn’t use nearly as many “props” as most teachers do; with a pencil, a music book and maybe a deck of cards, she can captivate the mind and attention of just about any child.  She is her own prop; her expertise and deep love for the profession are all her students need.  Beyond that, she has a great respect for the human person.  She would never embarrass or humiliate a student, even if that student wanted to embarrass and humiliate her.  She personifies the love for mankind evident in the work of Dr. Suzuki, and before him by Christ Himself.

The last seat, all the way across the table, is empty; as we begin our business for the day, the door opens slowly and someone walks in to occupy it.  It may be my grandmother, my best friend from high school, or my first editor.  Sometimes Frederica or Rob sits there.  Once my blog gets going, it may even be someone I’ve never met before.  The only requirement for that seat is that its occupant has encouraged me to write – has told me that I have a gift, and that I shouldn’t give up.  I need them there.  I need them sitting at my table, reminding me why I called the meeting in the first place; and though they may be physically furthest from me, I put them there for a reason.  While I work and make decisions, I will rely on them for guidance.  I will look straight into their eyes.