Jean Shields Fleming
A letter that delivered truth bombs 41 years ago delivers wisdom today.
Whenever I’m in a mournful mood – when it’s a “drab, drizzly November in my soul,” to borrow from Moby Dick – I take out a letter I received forty-one years ago. Addressed to 108 Dudley Avenue in Los Angeles, it has travelled to every home I’ve lived in since then, a treasured talisman. Phil Rusten sent it. He was my 8th grade English teacher, forever Mr. Rusten to me. Back when I was in his class, I was sad a lot. It was just after my parents separated and I struggled to make sense of this death that had happened, the death of the family we had been. Neither of my parents could talk about it very well at the time, so I felt alone with my confusion and grief. Mr. Rusten, though, he saw me.
The letter found me when I was 19, living at Venice Beach, two blocks from the Pacific Ocean. My father, a math professor, was on sabbatical at UCLA, and, being at loose ends, I went with him. This was after hitchhiking across Canada and Alaska with a boyfriend instead of going to the university that was expecting me. Nowadays we might call it a gap year. But it felt more like a free fall.
I wasn’t ready for college. Adventure beckoned. So I went.
Maybe God really does look after fools because my boyfriend and I were fine as we headed north. North and north and north. We met kind people. We lived on ramen noodle packets, washed ourselves when we could, and pitched a tent wherever we were. Foxes woke me in the morning, playing outside. Sea lions poked their rubbery heads out of the water as I walked along a rocky shore. Grizzlies grazed for berries in the vast open land. I became fascinated by permafrost, a system perfectly adapted to cold. The northern lights undulated overhead, green shimmers dancing. This gorgeous world seemed to be showing off, inviting me to adore it. And I did. I do.
But still, I drifted. School didn’t make sense. What would I study? I had vague notions of wanting to write, but I wasn’t focused. So my father suggested I join him in Los Angeles. Where I drifted even more. First I worked as a bank teller, then as a signature gatherer for a water conservation initiative. I would set up a table and have one kooky conversation after another. “We don’t need to conserve water. Just remove the salt from all that,” said one visionary, gesturing toward the sea. Muscle men with parrots on their shoulders and roller skating, guitar strumming troubadours – these were my companions when the letter arrived.
In response to my anguished questions about what on earth to do with myself, Mr. Rusten sent three handwritten pages, in pencil, his writing still so familiar despite the years. It’s packed with truth bombs – about writing, but really about life.
You must not try to write so the writing can make you great – or even to achieve as much importance as you feel your own life has.... No product of our life can do that. Only living can.
These words were balm to me then, and they still are. The things I struggled with at 19 – how to live a meaningful life, how to be useful to the world – I still seek to master at 60. As if there’s a grand spiral staircase that we ascend throughout our lives, up up and around, where we can see our life’s questions, our psychic DNA, from different vantage points. From where I stand now, I can look back to my earnest 19-year-old self, and see how she’s connected to the 10-year-old beneath the backyard mulberry tree, drawn to meditation and dreaming of high mountains. And draw the circle to 60-year-old me recently returned from Kathmandu – high mountains! – after a course in meditation. The wheel turns.
Just seven years after that letter arrived, after I’d returned to Michigan, finished university and started my career, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and just like that, he was gone.
When he got sick, I was 26, teaching middle school – in part to honor Mr. Rusten – in Berkeley, California. I’d retreat into the Berkeley hills to hike alone, wailing on trails, railing at the gods. His condition was out of my control, and I couldn’t stand that I couldn’t do anything. That summer, I went back to Ann Arbor to be with him. While he was still able to walk, we strolled across the university campus where he taught. He had always carried nuts for the resident squirrels, and when they saw him, they stood up on their hind legs, anticipating the treats to come. He did not disappoint them. Over bowls of clam chowder, we discussed Hemingway. He’d always wanted to read him but had never gotten around to it. “I figured it was was now or never,” he said. And then he was hospitalized. No more walks. No stamina to read. I went to the bookstore and bought a copy of The Hobbit. When we were children, he’d read it aloud to us in a cabin by Lake Michigan. At night, by the light of a kerosene lantern, Bilbo and Gollum, Gandalf and Smaug, all of Middle Earth came alive through the magic of my father’s voice. After he finished each chapter, he trimmed the lantern wick and in the hush, the family all together, we watched it go from orange to blue then disappear into darkness.
We made it through that book – my siblings and I taking turns reading to him – and part way into The Fellowship of the Ring when I had to return to California to start school. Before I left, from his hospital bed, my father pulled me to him and held me a long time. “I love you,” he said. “I love you. I love you.”
A thunderclap woke me one September morning back in Berkeley. I looked at the clock – 6:30 – and decided to call him. His wife answered the phone, crying. My father had just died.
Here's Mr. Rusten again:
The Socratic dictum, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” holds true for everyone. When we are young it is mere ‘navel-staring.’ As we grow in wisdom, our life is part of all life, and we examine it (and ours) with an urgent ruthlessness lest the truth escape us – or be less than it can be.
Older now, more tender hearted than I used to be, I’m grateful to my questions, and to those younger me’s who tried to answer them. They made me who I am. Still willing to go when adventure calls. Still trying to understand the things that make me grieve.
And in the decades since Mr. Rusten wrote, there has been plenty.
Father, mother, aunts, grandparents, a beloved nephew, cherished friends – and a favorite teacher – all have departed this realm. Career gains that I chased turned out to be fleeting. The permafrost that captivated me in Alaska is melting. So many things done and left undone, as the prayer book says. I could go on, but you probably have your own list.
When it feels like too much, I remember this: there would be no grief if there were no love.
We love so much and the losses hurt so much that our hearts clam up, muffled and still as a winter day. Grief is love, frozen. Unfreezing feels impossible, too painful to contemplate. Yet spring comes. Warming our hearts by the flickering lantern light of our memories and hopes, our concerns and compassion; savoring the extravagant, everyday beauty of the world – still showing off, still longing to be adored – through such tiny steps, love unlocked can open the doors to grace.
As is only fitting, Mr. Rusten gets the last word on this.
You struggle more because you want more. Don’t ever despair of paying that price.
Jean Shields Fleming is founder and editor of Certain Age.
Aurora borealis Photo by Tobias Bjørkli