July 11, 2007
It is extraordinarily hard to write this letter to you, for two reasons. Writing while weeping is difficult. And you cared deeply about your students’ writing, so I long to make you proud, even now. Especially now.
The Talmud says, “Let the hand teach the heart.” You certainly taught me a lot in the classroom, in my very first semester at YDS, coming back to academia—back to Yale—after a 20-year absence. You opened my eyes to a world of possibilities in scholarship, in writing. You opened my heart by guiding our class through a profound history of spiritual autobiographies, writings by centuries of the faithful who had come before us. You teased out my delight in the pedagogical process itself that I had not managed to discover in college.
You balanced patience and a fabulous sarcastic wit flawlessly. I will be forever in you debt for guiding me through the morass of 21st century on-line research, library databases and electronic links. I marveled at your dedication to students like me, answering email queries right up until sunset on your passionately-observed Sabbaths. You were one of only a couple of professors who shared the importance of your religious life with your students, modeling a life of faith in academia.
You also modeled your dedication to our real learning. Asking each of us to meet with you individually, going over our first papers in minute detail, absolutely floored me. No other professor has done so since in my three years here. I was mortified, because sadly for me, I thought it was one of my worst papers ever (it was my first at YDS), but your were encouraging, offering wonderful writing advice. One of my favorite of your tips is something I do frequently, especially now that I’m writing sermons: I print whatever-it-is out in a wild font that I never use, sit in a place I never sit in the house or yard to review my work, then read it aloud, with fresh eyes and ears. Thank you for that, Lana. I always think of you when I do so.
We bonded a little more when we discovered our NYC connection, when I laughed probably a little too loudly at your urbane humor—which was sorely missing in serious-minded academia! When you organized sponsoring Doris Betts to come share her fiction at the YDS Bookstore, I mentioned my husband had written a musical based on a short story of hers. You literally jumped up and down like a 12-year-old, squealing, “Violet?! That is one of my favorite musicals of all time! I listen to that CD all the time! You’re married to Brian Crawley? Wow! Can I touch you?!” I shared your unbounded enthusiasm with my spouse, who was going through a professional rough patch—and it provided a definite boost. Then on learning that you were leaving YDS to teach in the city, I wrote you an email decrying my boo-hoos that I wouldn’t get the opportunity to take another class with you—while still wishing you all the best in following your dreams. You reminded me how much people who live in a city like New York miss it when they’re not there, and that you were thrilled to be able to live and work in your haven.
Your heart was huge and open. I was grateful for the respect and understanding you showed me when my dear friend and pastor died suddenly a month into classes—allowing me to participate in our tiny seminar of nine without speaking for a couple of weeks. I know, I know—I more than made up for that silence by talking your ear off later. Someone who will listen to everyday stories about one’s small children, especially when not a parent herself, is a shining star in my book. Your hospitality was flawless all around, including bringing snacks for all of us on special and not-so-special occasions alike.
Most of all, you were so down-to-earth, Lana—a quality I prize highly, as does God, I’m certain. Why else are we here? The very first day of that fall 2004 course, you asked us to call you by your given name, and happily led us outside for class on the quad, beneath the glorious autumn sun. We had such a great time we continued out there for three weeks, until it finally grew too cold. You shared your little life-discoveries as would a friend—like the importance of owning one really good pair of black dress trousers for interviewing, teaching, or ministry—while maintaining the great respect of your students for your vast expertise. I learned what a blog was on that first day of class when you passed out examples of autobiographical writing, sans sources. (Although I was probably the only one sitting on the grass who hadn’t ever read a blog, I was secretly pleased to identify the John Donne poem.) And I can’t imagine anyone coming close to your ability to “lecture” sitting at a seminar table—apparently without notes—making it seem completely conversational.
Mostly, Lana, I will miss your sardonic twinkle, your radiant smile, your incredible joie de vivre. You seemed to say Yes! to life at every turn. How can we cope with the loss of that life from the world? What does that say about God? How do your family and friends and students come close to beginning to heal from this profound tragedy?
I know what you might say, I think—something along the lines of Read what centuries of the faithful have written for generations… Or write about it... O.K., Lana, I will.
And I will remember you always. God bless you, in your new life-beyond-our-understanding, and God bless your family as their hearts begin to mend.
M. Div. 2008, YDS
“I’m only learnin’ to say ‘Yes.’
I’m bound to make mistakes,
but I’m bound to try.”