Sunday, January 31, 2021

One Final Visit Into The Past In Search Of Something I Had Forgotten

 I suppose it is not unnatural to revisit a place from your past with a certain expectation of rediscovering something you’ve forgotten. Life is a series of stages in which we are forced to abandon things that were once quite important to us. And being important to us, we are prone to search for them even though we no longer know exactly what it is we search for.

 I entered my alma mater last weekend with such an expectation, for the final time. The small Catholic liberal arts college I once attended has closed its doors and is in the process of selling off its assets. It’s sad to see such an institution go under, symbolizing as it does so many cultural values that no longer fit the times. It was understandable that such a place could no longer make it in such an age in which we now live. I had seen glimpses of its demise in its advertisements the last few years: it was attempting to adapt itself to a society that no longer prioritized a liberal education but instead demanded training for well-paying jobs. In fact, I have the suspicion that in the end it abandoned its soul in attempting to survive in a world that no longer has interest in liberal education, the arts, or anything deeply rooted in culture and Christianity. I have heard whispers that in its last years it failed quite spectacularly at sustaining both its moral and physical being.

 I chanced upon someone on Facebook showing sculptures they had bought at the liquidation sale and realized I had only a few hours left to return one final time to the place where I received my education. I hoped to find something there, some relic of my past, some souvenir I could possess of a place I would never again be able to visit. Some wreckage I might reclaim from the shipwreck.

 Updates had been done to the building in the 20-plus years since I’d been there, but it still bore the impress of its origins. Not the kind of antiquity that is timeless, but a building built in 1960 that sought to be modern but instantly became dated. Nevertheless, it was able to impart to me the true meaning of conservatism, the idea that knowledge of the past and ways of doing things should be maintained, that progress was not simply the paving over of what had come before.

 My first stop was to the library, where I was reminded of the true meaning of liberalism: the belief that all cultures were worthy of study and all opinions be greeted with an open mind if one hoped to grow as a person. I cannot help but think the word liberal has come to mean its very opposite these days, that open and vigorous debate was not as important as having the proper opinion.

 There are two great tragedies in life: a vast collection being sold off and a library being abandoned. But I was here to salvage what I could of the wreckage, to take into my care some refugees no longer welcome in their own home. I would take whatever books I had room for, whichever ones called to me and which I could best care for.

 It was the library of a Catholic liberal arts school. The books were mostly old, but they provided a breadth of learning that seems lacking today. Yes, there were many books dealing with Western civilization and Catholic teaching, like Kenneth Clark’s Civilization and a book by Thomas Merton. Treasures in their own right and the first to be added to my pile. But I also picked up a copy of the Upanishads, a book on Gandhi, and even a biography of the theosophist Madame Blavatsky. Whatever the beliefs of this Catholic institution run by Franciscan Sisters, they were unafraid of having their beliefs tested. Indeed, they seemed to think their beliefs nothing more than that if they were not.

 I left the library with as many books as I could cradle. I’m really in no position to be bringing any more books into my house, but some you just can’t refuse. After paying for them and dropping them off in my car, I returned to make a final sweep of the school, ostensibly to find a piece of furniture for an area of the house my wife is converting, though in truth it was to find that something I had left behind in my past. That something that had been missing, some proof that the past never dies, that what is important endures.

 I was like that on the day we sold our parent’s house. In a rush we had cleared out all their belongings so that now the house stood empty. And yet I needed to make a final, thorough inspection of the house. Because I needed to find that special something that would enlighten me, that magical talisman that would provide meaning to my lived experience. I never found it.

 So it was with some vague expectation that I walked from room to room. I scanned every table and shelf, expecting some item to call to me, expecting some almost supernatural connection to be made. But in room after room I only came across ordinary items. And just as I had done at my parents’ home, the further I went the more insistent I was to probe every nook and cranny in search of the missing piece.

 I never found it.

 And it was with the same sense of disappointment and loss and even disillusionment I had felt when leaving my parents’ home that I left Silver Lake College one final time. I left with a handful of books and a couple of other items. Common items, not magical talismans.

 How was it possible I could not reconnect with my past, with my former self? On a very deep level I felt it was not only possible but necessary that I do so.

 But the answers find us eventually, though not always when we demand them. My trip to Silver Lake college, like my final visit to my parents’ house, was not the time for reconnecting with the past but a time for saying goodbye. And that important something I had left in my past? Turns out I never left it at all. My time at Silver Lake College has had an important part in shaping who I am. The instruction I received and the work I undertook has been with me ever since the time I received my diploma. I would never have been so foolish to have left it behind.

 We are often forced to leave much of what we once were behind. Sometimes we would rather not but we have no choice. But no matter how far forward we travel and how great a distance we put behind ourselves and the people and places we once knew, we have to trust that we are carrying along the best of what we were able to take with us.

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