Mennonite Memoir, Lutheran Setting, Universal Spirit: Reconnecting After Twenty Years
My Mennonite memoir had a Lutheran birthplace: Valparaiso University.
I was a Senior Fellow in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts (LFP), headquartered at Valparaiso, in 1994-95.
The name Valparaiso means Vale of Paradise.
Mark Schwehn, who led both Christ College and the LFP when I was there, wrote the book that gave us the language for year-long conversation: Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America
My only teaching obligation was to create a year-long Colloquium for younger Fellows and Mentors. I chose the theme of spiritual autobiography and encouraged each member to probe the origins and conflicts in their spiritual lives.
I got to write and read and think — great luxuries in any life. I also felt my first stirrings of the call to write memoir there.
I made friends — deep, spiritually connected friends — with Fellows Tom, Jim, Beth, Susan, Paul, and Stephanie, all with dissertations to complete and new identities as professors to forge as they left graduate school behind and tested a vocation in undergraduate teaching and research.
In short, I got to be a mentor. I loved it.
I loved them. All of them.
I also had my own mentors: Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass, two of the most insightful, engaged, devoted Christian teachers and scholars I have ever known.
June 6-8, 2014, I came together along with many other former Fellows to celebrate twenty years since the publication of Mark’s book Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America. Mark also worked with many others at Valparaiso to create the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts. The first director of the program, Arlin Meyer, was also present to celebrate both the program itself and Mark’s retirement from his current role as provost of the university.
I felt a little weepy all weekend.
I wept because Mark allowed himself to weep as he thanked us, his many protegés who rose up and called him blessed.
I wept because Stephanie Paulsell, one of the Fellows in “my” class 1994-95, who is now Houghton Professor of the Practice of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School, has moved me so often with the softness of her voice combined with the sharpness of her mind. She spoke twice at the conference. Listen to her describe friendship in this video. I think you’ll understand what I mean.
In the middle of the conference I took a walk back to the place where I lived 1994-95, Linwood House. My eyes got a little misty here, too.
Every Monday afternoon twenty years ago, we Fellows and Mentors sat together in the Linwood Living Room and shared our spiritual autobiographies.
More than once, there were tears as each person told us the stories of how they had been formed or deformed by faith and what they longed for.
In that context I told a story about my father’s death that I had never told any other group of people, a story that I had pondered in my heart for fourteen years.
Because of that story, I eventually wrote Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. And because of that year I returned to Goshen College and then to the Fetzer Institute with a renewed vision of my calling.
Because of their stories, each member of the Lilly Fellows Program, went deeper into his or her own exploration of vocation. I am deeply grateful for that year, for those stories, and for each person whose story wove itself into mine and strengthened the tie that binds each of us in the mysterious created world to each other.
As we said often together in the Chapel of the Resurrection, “Thanks be to God!”
If you were to choose an Edenic year from your life, which one would it be? What made it so?
What a beautiful and touching story, and how interesting that you are connected with Valparaiso. That’s a topic for a book in itself, or at least a long essay. I used to think that I made an enormous mistake when I didn’t go to Valpo as a college freshman.
But that would have led me to an entirely different life, that of a professional academic, which is what I always thought I wanted to be.
But now I see that I often gravitate toward academics as friends not because I’m very much like them, but because (just as in a good marriage) we have enough in common to spark mutual admiration and stimulating conversations, but there are also enough contrasting differences to encourage mutual growth and to fend off too much competition and boredom.
The truth is, I would have been a very unhappy academician (unless every year of my career could have been like your edenic year).
What was my edenic year–I’d have to write a whole book to answer that question — oh, wait. I already did! 😉
My Edenic year happened in 1999, the year I moved to a cabin in the woods in New Hampshire and began my life of reading, writing and thinking.
By the way, I watched Stephanie’s video a couple of weeks ago and it has been gently but forcibly life-changing.
Tracy, some more fascinating connections between us! I’m enjoying another one of the lovely conversations sponsored by the Lilly Endowment right now, so this will be a brief response.
I’m so glad Stephanie touched you and that you have found your own Eden, in many ways and through many connections to friends both similar and different from you.
What blessings we can be to each other.
I thoroughly enjoyed the “Friendship and Intimacy” video by Stephanie Paulsell. I so appreciated her likening friendship to a Christian practice — cultivated with time, trust and patience, and nurtured over time.
Further, I resonated with your bleeding edge observation that many would have given a wide berth to: “…formed or deformed by faith…”
What a wonderful heart-based time you had at Valparaiso, both then and just recently.
You asked, “If you were to choose an Edenic year from your life, which one would it be? What made it so?”
My Edenic year was 1972. Fifteen and still sopping wet behind the ears, I struck out on my own. My little wings were tested — sorely tested — but that’s when I learned (after several faulty, fluttery, bruise-ridden attempts) that I could fly.
You don’t know me, but I have watched you or been aware of you from a far. I played intermural basket ball at EMU with your husband back in the 60’s. Your book “Blush” is on my reading list. I need to write my own story sometime soon and your website and the above story is supportive and encouraging. Thanks.
I’ll have to ask Stuart about his previous basketball games. I know he took them seriously. 🙂
I so appreciate the fact that you will be reading Blush and that you left a comment on this blog. Please come back again. Have you found the .pdf I placed on my website for people who are just starting the memoir journey?http://shirleyshowalter.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/How_to_write_a_memoir.pdf
I also invite you to sign up for Magical Memoir Moments (weekly emails to help prompt your memory) at the top right hand of this page.
Dear Shirley, I have just returned from a week in Sarasota, Florida, a place that I know you also enjoy. Your blog holds so much information and encouragement for authors and would be authors. Thank you so much for being our eyes, ears and filter of useful and enriching information.
Your return to Valpariso must have been so renewing and confirming of your life and the paths you have chosen.
Thank you so much for sharing this warm and affirming experience.
Jane, did you visit Pinecraft? It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Sarasota. Hope you had a delightful time there. And I also hope to go back again soon, but in January, not June!
I did love that year, but I’ll bet you had some special times and places in your own life. May this year be amont your best!
No, Shirley, we didn’t go to Pinecraft. We were there for a wedding on the beach. Saw a lot of family members from everywhere.
I lived in Sarasota for a number of years while publishing my magazine, Wellspring, about the needsof children.
A beach wedding sounds lovely — and probably very different from a visit to Pinecraft. The Wellspring Magazine years sound like they were very important to you. Sarasota has been a warm and affirming place for both of us. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for sharing your delicious feelings from that year. Academia sometimes offers an oasis, but less often than in the past. It sounds like a turning point and crossroads for you.
Beautiful video. To me, friendship and love are spiritual practices for all of us of all traditions. I imagine Stephanie Paulsell would not disagree. As she speaks, I think about Greek philosophy and Tibetan Buddhist teachings on friendship and compassion. Love and charity were the virtues I most remember from my childhood Presbyterian experience.
There were a number of remarkable years from 1968 – 1972: marriage, a year in Palo Alto, CA, an introduction to depth psychological work, and arrival of my first child. I think of many power moments with meeting life transforming people and teachers, plus major life-changing years of loss.
It’s not too late for another one of those transforming years.
I love your conclusion, Elaine, that it’s not too late for another transforming year. I wish you such a year in the very near future. And the best protection against too much nostalgia is gratitude for the many wonderful years that followed this year.
Yes, I know that Stephanie would jump at the chance to make connections about the meaning of friendship across faith traditions. She is constantly teaching and learning across those boundaries in her work at Harvard.
A magical year for me was 1981-82, when I was on a Kiplinger fellowship to Ohio State, and met my future wife there. It was scary and a bit risky going north from my good newspaper job in Florida, but it worked out, to say the least.
To say the least indeed, Richard. What a different life you would have led had you never left Florida. No Kathy and no Shepherd memoir! We would all have been poorer if that Eden had not come into your life.
[…] has influenced me since my first fellowship at Valparaiso University. Both for his rule and for this admonition found in the […]