On the day before Ash Wednesday, I found out that my favorite undergraduate English professor, Dr. Gayle Swanson, had died. She was buried on Feb. 27, so it was sometime last week, I'm thinking that she died. The details are sparse, but the thinking is that she had a stroke as she was taking her dog out before turning in for the night.
I feel strange in all sorts of ways. There's the realization that we're all dust, and we'll be returning to dust in short order. Plus, both Dr. Swanson and my mother had gone to Newberry College years earlier than I did. My mother was about 4 years ahead of Dr. Swanson. So there's the terror of realizing that if Dr. Swanson could be felled by a sudden stroke, so could my mother.
So could any of us, I know. But most days, I don't dwell on that fact too much. I try to dwell on what brings joy, not terror. I try to live in gratitude for all the good gifts raining down on my head. So let me remember all the ways Dr. Swanson shaped me.
I can approach a piece of literature from any variety of ways, using any number of lenses. Dr. Swanson showed me the practice of New Criticism. We didn't spend much time on an author's biography. We thought briefly about the historical time period in which the work was written. But we spent weeks, working through a poem or a short story, line by line, sentence by sentence. By the end of my undergraduate days, there were works, primarily great poems of the Romantic and Victorian age, that I knew inside out. Her training formed a great base for grad school.
She was the first who encouraged me to go to grad school to get an advanced degree in English. We didn't spend any time talking about what I'd do with a degree--those were different days. She saw that I had a talent for analysis. She saw that I loved to read. She saw my dedication, even when the literature demanded more of us. She told me that I simply must go to grad school. I did.
I wanted the life that she modeled, at least the part of it that I saw. I could imagine nothing more thrilling than training young minds in how to read great works of literature. Of course, I didn't imagine reading all those essays in the first year class. I imagined one semester immersed in the works of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and Keats, followed by the next semester diving into Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold.
It still sounds wonderful to me.
During my first year at Newberry, Dr. Swanson and the English department brought some South Carolina poets to the campus for a reading, a mini-festival. I'd been writing poems for years, but that reading was the first time that I saw living poets reading their work and talking about it. That community, too, became one I yearned to join.
Dr. Swanson encouraged that ambition. Along the way, she introduced me to the woman who was in charge of the public relations department for the school--that woman hired me. I wrote articles about students, and she sent them to the students' hometown newspapers. Those newspapers were happy for the copy, and I was thrilled to see my work in print--and I was paid for it! Ah, for the days of dozens of small, hometown papers with column space to fill.
Along the way, I learned to write a variety of ways, and I learned to do it quickly and efficiently when necessary. I learned the value of being on time. I got many an assignment because the PR head knew I could be counted on to deliver.
When my second chapbook was coming out, Dr. Swanson's name and address was on my publicity list. She called me to tell me how proud she was of me. I felt like I should have done more by that point in my career--at least one or two books with spines. She, on the other hand, was thrilled to realize that I was still following my first passions, the ones she had ignited.
Yesterday, I spent some time with T. S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday." I played with some lines of poetry, Eliot's and mine. This morning, I read parts of some books of theology and wrote a poem that works on interesting levels. In so many ways, I'm still on the same road that I first walked beside Dr. Swanson.
And then I wrote to some of my online students, even though we're on Spring Break. Like Dr. Swanson, I pointed out the strong parts of their writing, while giving them suggestions on how to approach the weak parts.
It's been a long apprenticeship/discipleship in the same direction, to use a variation on a title of a book by Eugene H. Peterson (his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society
, is a delightful and approachable book of theology). I am so grateful for the early mentorship and later friendship of Dr. Swanson. I can only hope that I am offering something similar to as many fellow travelers as possible through the years.