Sunday, June 15, 2008

Memories of Last Summer

There was lightning on the mountains.

Whenever the skies behind the evergreens on Dartmouth campus darkened last July, I made sure to head inside.

My favorite place to watch a thunderstorm roll in was the Tower Reading Room in the Baker Library.

In a century-old room of endless shelves and dark paneling, a green plush chair faced each of the twenty-pane windows that opened onto the Dartmouth Green. Arriving between classes during the Summer Institute of the Classical Association of New England, I was able to settle into something like a private arbor, enclosed by bookcases to my right and to my left. They made possible an easy scan of well-worn spines and titles when my attention occasionally wandered from the book of Ovid on my lap.

If Mount Olympus is the home of Jupiter Tonans -- Jupiter the Thunderer, then there was something Olympian about this vantage point from which to watch storms move over the mountains and onto the Green.

If Mount Parnassus is the haunt of the Muses, then there was also something Parnassian about this vantage point from which to watch the mythological storms move across the pages of the Metamorphoses.

Menagerie, phantasmagoria, tapestry, scroll -- the tales of Ovid, both those that were familiar and those that felt thrillingly new, burst upon me those four days in July with delight and luxuriance and ferocity.

And then the surprise.

Early one morning I walked to a nearby church for services and listened to a reading from the Book of Genesis -- the familiar story of Joseph in Egypt. In Chapter 42, Joseph has not yet revealed himself to his brothers who have come to beg food during a famine. Unaware that this Egyptian governor can understand their language, the brothers talk to one another about Joseph and about the brutality with which they treated him long ago when they sold him into slavery:

"Alas, we are being punished because of our brother. We saw the anguish of his heart when he pleaded with us, yet we paid no heed; that is why this anguish has now come upon us."

Joseph chooses not to show his brothers that he knows what they are saying and what they are feeling. Their words, nonetheless, have touched something in him and brought it back. The reading concludes:

But turning away from them, he wept.

Another ancient story in a week of ancient stories. Another metamorphosis in a week of metamorphoses.

And this one struck home.

Will the adult Joseph at the height of his professional wisdom and stature be willing to change back to a younger Joseph, to re-enter a landscape where love and hurt are still fresh realities, to speak for the first time the saving news of who he is?

Of course he wept.

Breakthroughs are a sign, Ovid suggests, of the presence of the gods.

There is lightning on the mountains.


Anonymous said...

I'm forwarding this to someone I love very deeply who is in great pain right now. He used to say that some people walk in the rain, and others just get wet. If there is lightning in the mountains, I hope he'll take my hand and walk in the rain with me.

Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

I think it was Louis Evely who wrote "It is a sign of God that we will be led along roads where we had never planned to go". As my own life continues to reveal itself to me and as the metamorphoses continue, I take courage from Joseph and from you, Donald. Thanks

John said...

New roads, strange journeys, invitations to other, sometimes older landscapes.

Thank you both for offering some bit of acknowledgment that we share -- all three of us -- a trust in the surprises that life provides.

Ellie said...

Donald, this is the second time that your words have led me to a place I needed to be. I have never left a comment on a blog before, but I need to thank you.

Thank you.

Ur-spo said...

Again you have a lovely way with words.
I loved the photo - this sort of library I have longed to have all my life.

Vic Mansfield said...

I love John Sanford's "The Man wo wrestled with God" and his portaits of biblical characters and their metamorphoses.

I suppose metamorphosis is what is happening for me, but more at transformation, I suppose. But it feels like I am finding wings, at last.

John said...

Thanks to each of you for letting me know that my words have found a home in you for a little while. What a grand experience to figure somehow in your thinking and responding to the life before you!