Thursday, August 25, 2016

Remembering Bennett, Remembering Cuba

On Tuesday, I drove out to the Eastern Shore of Maryland for a memorial service celebrating the life of a wonderful human being named Bennett Lamond. It has been almost a decade since I graduated from Washington College and moved out of Chestertown, but somehow, driving across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge still feels like going home. It was a perfect Chestertown day: blue skies, sun sparkling off the water as I crossed the Chester River bridge, a bit of a breeze. A good day for remembering Professor Lamond.

I did not ever have the opportunity to take a class with Professor Lamond. I can not claim him as a close friend, or even really as a mentor, except in the sense that he seemed to be able to befriend and mentor everyone he met with his affectionate smile, sparkling eyes, rich laugh, encouraging words, and just the right story for the occasion, told in his inimitable voice. While I never had a class with him, I did have the privilege to travel with him to Cuba. It was the summer after my freshman year -- 2004 -- and with the exception of a high school ski trip to Canada, it was my first time leaving the United States.

That trip changed the trajectory of my life, or at least clarified a change that had already begun. Up until that point, I still had, at least in the back of my head, the idea of majoring in English, or at least picking up a Creative Writing minor, one of the reasons I'd chosen Washington College to begin with. After Cuba -- a trip led by Dr. Christine Wade, who would eventually advise my senior thesis -- I gave in and declared an International Studies major. I was a young progressive, convinced of my own rightness, a walking embodiment of the tongue-in-cheek-truism that "nobody knows more than a college freshman." The U.S. had invaded Iraq the year before. I went to Cuba eager to hear political critique, to study the revolution 50 years later -- a revolution, so many of the Cubans we spoke with insisted, that was ongoing. I soaked up the alternative viewpoints we heard, voices that turned on their head U.S.-centric impressions of the island. Afterwards, I wrote what must have been a stunningly inexpert research paper on propaganda and ideology.

And yet, there with us in Cuba was Bennett Lamond, the poet and beloved professor of literature. To remember my time in Cuba is to remember Bennett, to be reminded of the beauty of the place, its poetry.

I wish, now, that I would have spent more time asking Professor Lamond what he thought of it all, and just listening. Remembering Bennett there makes me imagine seeing the place and the people through his lively, twinkling eyes. I remember him, and I remember the stunningly clear blueness of the water, the spray of waves on the Malecón, the taste of mangoes cut fresh from a tree. I remember conversations with the bartender in one of our hotels; the long bus ride across the island. Making children laugh by trying to dance salsa in the streets of Trinidad. Ernest Hemingway's house. I remember the artists, the authors. I remember misunderstanding and under-appreciating an architectural tour.

I wish I could go back and see it again, with Professor Lamond's eyes. To see and to hear it all as a story, as a poem.

Bennett Lamond had the soul of a poet, not only the profession. In the Hebrew Bible, the term we translate into English as "soul" is nfesh. The Hebrew word does not mean some incorporeal aspect of a person -- the Hebrews had little patience for the disembodied or the immaterial, for the escapist, perhaps unlike the medievalists whose work Bennett taught. Rather nfesh means the deepest part of one's being, or the whole of it -- the embodiment and more-than-embodiment, the fullness of it. Professor Lamond had the soul, the nfesh, of a poet.

He was kind, funny, whimsical but in no way shallow. He loved students and was a mentor for so many, students and faculty alike, at Washington College. The priest's homily at his memorial service referenced 1 John 3:18 -- "My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth." It was a beautiful tribute to his life and the way he truly loved, but -- I thought -- the scriptural reference was ever-so-slightly misplaced. For while Professor Lamond surely loved in deed and in truth, he also surely loved words, and loved in words. For the poet, the professor of literature, there is no such easy separation between word, and tongue, and deed, and truth. The words, the tongues, reflect and generate and give life to the deed. They reveal the truth.

The memorial service was held at Emmanuel Church in downtown Chestertown, on Cross Street. Emmanuel -- another Hebrew word -- means "God with us." For Christians, the term evokes the announcement of Jesus' birth in Matthew's gospel. The term is of course much older than that, from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, and bears with it the promise of freedom and return from Exile.

I associate the word with all of the people and places which remind me of God's presence in our midst, which help me remember -- in the words of one of Professor Lamond's favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins -- that "the world is charged with the grandeur of God."

The people and places which help me remember that there is something beautiful, something more, right there in front of our eyes.

Professor Bennett Lamond was one of those people who reminded me -- who reminded so many people -- of something beautiful, something more.

To which the only proper response is gratitude.

Thank you, Bennett.

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