“The best work Hemingway ever did was with that shotgun,” says the only Dean sitting amongst us. You can literally hear the intake of air as I gasp, choke and laugh at the same time. “You did NOT just say that,” I say as I watch the Dean’s face glimmer with an evil pleasure at having shocked me. A group of us are sitting at a newish and hip Chinese/Japanese fusion restaurant in frigid Omaha, Nebraska. After sitting through an eight-hour board meeting for a literary foundation on which four of the five of us sit, the mood is jovial and light. There are three scholars at the table and a married couple who give an extraordinary amount of time and money to the cause simply because they believe in it. At least, that’s the best explanation I can glean from my conversations with them. The conversation at the table runs from authors to editor gossip to the state of higher education to the recent shooting of an Arizona congresswoman. Our food arrives and I help the sweet, if slightly unworldly, professor to my right learn to use his chopsticks.
Today was my first entrance into the world of foundation board meetings. Many of the members of the board I’ve known for years having attended conferences together and having been introduced to them by my dissertation direction who was wonderfully instrumental in making me feel at ease in this tight-knit community of scholars and other interested parties. About a third of the board I had not previously met; although, some of them I’ve had telephone conversations with or email exchanges. Every single one of them made me feel welcome and valued. They’re the kind of people you just want to hug, and I think, by the end of the day, I’d invited most of them to come stay at my home anytime they may happen to be passing through Mississippi. Though it became clear to me very early in the day that there were at least two factions on the board – those interested primarily in scholarship and education and those interested primarily in community and development – what struck me most was just how dedicated they all are to doing what they perceive to be the right thing, of doing right by the author who brought us all together. And then there’s me.
While it’s true that I wrote my dissertation on this particular author and devoted a fair number of years to the project, I have mostly walked away from that area of study, and that makes me wonder if I have the same level of commitment to the cause that the other members of the board appear to have. Still, I found myself being drawn in by discussions of things as mundane as projected budgets or as exciting as planned multi-million dollar projects. I found myself actually caring about the way in which a new space was going to be used and how the foundation planned to utilize the internet to bring more awareness to this author, to help educate the masses about this author, and to add revenue to the foundation’s coffers so that more money can be spent on awareness and education. No small part of my surprising interest in these things is due to the board members themselves whose passion is simply infectious, whose kindness and generosity make me want to be a better person. They’re just damn good people. Down to the last of them.
And that makes me think about what foundations such as these are really doing. I mean, look. Today, twenty or so individuals came together from all over the country – on their own dime, on their day off – to sit in an abandoned law office hashing out how best to raise funds, to spend those funds, to assist and give back to the community, to teach children and students and adults. This committee is responsible for the preservation of historic sites, for the hosting and organization of conferences – both national and international, for bringing cultural events of all sorts to communities in dire need of such activities, and yes, to helping keep literature alive. It is actually quite incredible. And while, yes, it’s all centered – in the short view – on one particular author, it’s also – in the long view – about so much more. It’s about ensuring that the things that feed the souls of society are not lost in the mad swirl of progress. And that’s something I actually am committed to.
We’re talking about Rome and a former editor of the New Yorker as dinner wraps up, and, even though I’m exhausted from the travel and the day, I can’t remember the last time I so enjoyed the company of friends – old and new. Last night, while talking with my mother about the trip, I said that I wasn’t sure how long I was going to be part of this foundation. I expected that I would finish out a year and then quietly resign my seat, leaving it to persons more actively involved or committed. Tonight, I don’t know if my reasons for wanting to stay are the right ones. I’m no more committed to this particular author than I was yesterday, and I have no roots or ties to the state or the town which the foundation spends a great deal of its resources supporting. But I am committed to what I see as the larger scope of the foundation’s mission. I am deeply committed to the idea that some things are worth preserving and maintaining, that some things are vital to our humanity. And, for better or worse, I’m committed to sitting with these lovely people and offering what I can, what little that may be, to helping them bring to fruition the things they are deeply committed to. Maybe we don’t have to all be there for the same reasons. Maybe each and every one of them had the same reservations I had before they attended their first board meeting. Maybe a year will go by and I will, actually, quietly resign. There’s no telling. But, tonight at least, I hope not. Tonight, I hope that my reasons are good enough.