Monday, July 25, 2016

PARTING

Last night, a dear friend of mine who lives in Georgetown, or Washington, D.C., died. I dreamed of her departure before I received word that she had passed, and this morning when I opened two e-mails, I was not surprised by the news… just saddened.

Jane F. Bonin was an old friend who lived in New Iberia, Louisiana for many years, and we became acquainted during the time she taught English at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, Louisiana. She was an early encourager of my poetry writing and once co-authored a graded reading list for Iberia Parish Schools with me. During the early seventies, we also co-authored a house journal entitled Epiphany Tidings, an Episcopal church newsletter, and served on the board of a kindergarten sponsored by The Church of the Epiphany in New Iberia.

Jane’s contributions to Drama at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette were formidable ones — she wrote three books in this genre: Prize Winning Drama, Maria Fratti, and Major Themes in Prizewinning American Drama. She also received The Distinguished Professor Award, and when she retired from ULL and migrated to Washington, D.C. she distinguished herself on the staff of the Foreign Institute in the U.S. State Department.

But her sojourn in Malawi and Niger, Africa became her greatest life challenge, and she later wrote of it in The Color of a Lion’s Eye as a “six year drugless high with no social or legal consequences and no hangover. Nothing in my life has been as intense or as exciting as my time there…it was an overwhelming time from which I have not recovered and perhaps I don’t want to…” In Malawi she held the position of Associate Peace Corps Director; in Niger, she was appointed Peace Corps Country Director. Nineteen years passed before Jane produced a book about her experiences (2015): “…disparate threads of my six years serving those who serve in that place of astonishing and terrible beauty…”

This morning I hear her voice clearly in the words: “If I were in Africa we would sit on a mat under a tree and tell our stories one to the other. I hope this remembrance will be the next best thing.” Jane was a consummate raconteur, and the voice in the stories about Africa was at times witty; at others, poignant with sadness over “rotting flesh, maggoty wounds, glittering feverish eyes, grotesquely twisted limbs, cleft palates, and amputations,” but strong as she followed a leitmotif she lived by: “Serve those who serve.” During her darker moments in Africa she wrote that “‘the force that drives the green fuse,’ as Dylan Thomas called the life force, drives harder in Africa and creates both life and death with ever more velocity.”

Her book of twenty-four vignettes has circulated around Georgetown and Washington, D.C. and has found an attentive and appreciative audience — only a few months before her death, she read excerpts to members of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, hoping to inspire them with the desire to serve some charitable mission. Two months before her death, Jane made a last trek to France, which she loved, and in her spare time, she kept up her French lessons. At times, she sang in a large chorale in Washington. She loved music, language, art (Jane was once a docent in an art gallery), theatre – all cultural pursuits. She could also tell a bawdy joke, lift a glass, and prepare a gourmet meal for her friends.

Jane’s “tribe” of friends was large and diverse, and she was among those who advocate “nothing human is alien to me.” She embraced the disenfranchised, as well as those who moved in the circles of advanced culture. Back in the 70’s and 80’s I had the privilege of working with her in the Hunger Project. Our job was to raise both money and the consciousness of people about the seriousness of hunger in the world. At that time I was an executive director of a Girl Scout Council, and we staged a large event in Lafayette, Louisiana, using all we had learned in an old self-actualization organization, EST, about “intention” to end hunger. We spoke to a packed crowd. Jane went on to utilize her experiences in her role as a Peace Corps Director, and I later became an ordained deacon and Director of an outreach mission.

Through the years I never lost touch with this charming woman who, like most humans, had many faces and many talents. I last saw her this past year when she visited her daughter, Knowles Harper, at Sewanee, Tennessee. Somehow I knew it was a farewell visit because she seemed to be slipping away, although she hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer at that time. I told her we would visit again, and she said to me, “Any time you want me to meet you in some vacation place, I’m game.” She was always game for an adventure, but I didn’t follow through. I wish I had, and we could have gone to a prize place on my bucket list – the isle of Iona, a thin place where miracles happen. The next best thing I could do for her was to put her on the prayer list in another thin place, St. Mary’s Convent here at Sewanee – and, actually, the Order of St. Mary here has a sister Order in Malawi.

Of farewells, Emily Dickinson said it best: “Parting is all we know of heaven…and all we need of hell.” I’ll miss you, chere amie, but I also know you’re going to help them “pass a good time” and keep to their good intentions in the other world. As I once said in a homily for another old friend, and I don’t remember the source (readers of this tribute should know that the lines below aren’t original with me). The thoughts were taken from an article that describes spiritual movement in our lives: “the good and the affection we share with one another is eternal. They don’t start with us, and they don’t end with us. They come from and point toward God, toward love. No love we ever bestow on those who we care about is ever lost. It goes with them to God’s home and it stays with us. The love that goes deeper and reaches beyond material existence into the realms of spirit is the love that overcomes death because it comes from God, divine love.”  





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