The grace of goodwill


“I dreamt that my hair was kempt. Then I dreamt that my true love unkempt it.” —Ogden Nash (1902-1971)

If you live long — and lucky — people may show up from an earlier time whom you will recognize as markers by which you take your bearings.

When I was a schoolboy at a small New England boys’ boarding school where I had been sent from Manila, an elegant young couple joined the faculty.

Mr. Buell, Tom, coached hockey, taught English, produced and directed school drama, was very funny, and handsome.

Mrs. Buell, Joan, shepherded her three small children, wrote poetry, coached drama, listened patiently to adolescent boys’ silly stories at dinner in the noisy dining hall, was very funny, and breathtakingly beautiful. When she walked across campus all activity ceased until she was out of view. If she was aware, nothing about her betrayed it.

Having grown up in Charlotte and Manila, I wasn’t much of a skater, but I became backup goalie so I could be coached by Tom. With no experience nor talent for drama, I faked my way into a bit part with a single line, so as to spend a few afternoons near Joan.

Fast forward 50 years. Our class reunion. The Buells, loved by many in our class, were urged to join us.

Uncommonly generous, they came.

Fifty years of aging had made them more beautiful. They moved the old boys of our class as they had those many decades earlier.

After I choked my way through speaking of my roommate, who had died, Joan wanted to talk, promised to send me an edition of the wisdom she writes, collects and memorizes.

They live in Portland, Oregon, where our son, his wife, and now, daughter, live. In one of those seemingly offhand remarks, Joan urged us to come see them when we were visiting.

By the time we returned from the reunion, Tom and Joan had entertained our children at dinner, along with several of the most fascinating people in town, from infants to the Buells in their 80s.

Our children told of a marvelous evening, poetry, singing, finding new dimensions to life in Portland. They have been often since we have stayed there, and this past weekend, Joan and Tom again had us for dinner. Joan sang the song, the lyrics to which she had written for our granddaughter Safiya’s first birthday.

Their house, in the hills above the city, was part of Joan’s life growing up. Tom’s sculpture studio and Joan’s phantasmagorical vision, crowd the place with fascination that could keep one entertained for weeks. I never had a conscious thought about them for a half century, yet the moment we reconnected, I recognized them: icons, become friends in the flesh.

The peculiar idea of God being born, like us, living and dying, like us — the Incarnation — is often called the Anglican heresy. Anglicans, Episcopalians, make more of this idea than many think necessary, or sensible.

A thoughtful person might find it somewhere between silly and insane. Either invisible, remote God, high in the heavens; or intimacy, human embrace, our richest encounter. I don’t mean to embarrass Tom and Joan. They are burdened with the modesty people of our generation believe good breeding requires. But an evening exploring Tom’s creations all over their place, hearing about their latest sojourn in a tiny fishing village in rural Mexico, watching them drink in year-old Sofiya’s wisdom, their delight in hosting people at their table and in looking forward to another day, stirs in me the closest I can imagine, to religious experience.

If there is more we are invited to taste here than an evening with Tom and Joan provides, I suspect it would be too rich for my palate.