Memento Mori: In Honor of Twila Papay

[Today's post is an address given to the faculty of Rollins College on April 30, 2014.  I offer it here as a way to honor my friend and colleague Twila Papay, but also as a commentary on the our tendency to think we can control how things turn out in life.]  

This morning, I went to my daily writing practice with a hard task, that of speaking about the retirement of my good friend and colleague Twila Papay. What to say? How to characterize her work here at Rollins? How to be honest about my experience with her and true to my admiration of her? In five minutes. I am humbled by this task, and I do not take it on lightly. There is something important here for all of us to consider.

As you know, last year I "retired," though I don't like to use that word: at the time, I called it a "re-direction,” and I think that's a good word for what many of us do after retirement. The past year has been one of the most creative years of my life, and one of the most professionally fulfilling. I am most definitely not retired. I'm more deeply engaged in my calling, my dharma, than I ever thought possible.

And, like me, those of you retiring today have had the pleasure of planning for and anticipating your retirement, of getting your affairs in order, of fore-warning friends and family that you are now on the loose, so to speak. Twila, as many of you know, was forced into retirement. Forced by an insidious medical condition that does not allow her to lead the active life she has been accustomed to. Surprised by a life circumstance she could not have anticipated or planned for.   She no longer enjoys the vibrant and engaged life she was leading just one year ago. I am told that she has good days and bad days, and while often quite clear about what has happened to her, she is often confused.

So, sadly, this is one retirement that we cannot celebrate. This is one retirement that forces us to think anew about what life can be and should be when we step away from a life of full-out dedication to a profession.

There really are a lot of varying notions about the word "retirement." And let me warn those of you retiring today: you'll come up against them almost every day this first year out of the gate. Catch me after lunch, and I'll give you some of the more ludicrous and annoying responses I've had from people. But most of you in this room will begin to craft another useful life. Some of you will continue to work and to create, simply re-directing your energies toward new projects. Some of you will learn how to relax. Some will give more attention to family and relationships. Some will seek adventure or design a life of deeper service.

I am experiencing the joy of re-directing my energies and my interests to a new audience, and I've never been happier or more fully engaged in life. And so with sadness I stand here to honor a friend and colleague who is not going to have the opportunity to say these words at the end of her first year of retirement. But then, maybe I reveal my own bias about what retirement is supposed to be. We err when we think we have control over what we’ll actually be doing--a decade from now, a year from now, a week from now. And we are mistaken to think that in order to grow more fully into who we are supposed to be (to follow our dharma), the outer manifestation of life has to look a certain way. For no matter what the outward form a life takes, the lessons go on. The spiritual teacher Ram Das suffered a horrible stroke ten years ago, making his life quite difficult and his speech slurred, and his life mission in doubt. And yet, he says today that the stroke was the greatest spiritual gift of his life. We must be careful about judging the way Life shows up for us.

So, instead of being sad for what Twila is experiencing, I want to hold the belief that Twila can move into a new way of learning about who she is and what she is all about. And that she will continue to give new lessons to us, too. Always a teacher first, Twila would want us to learn from her.

When Ed Cohen asked me to speak for Twila today, I told him I could not. I teach a yoga class on MWF at noon, and I thought that was a good excuse to decline the invitation. But the real reason I declined is that I was afraid. What can be said about such an unexpected turn in life that leads a colleague down an unimagined path? And then, there is the uneasy relationship that Twila and I had for probably the first decade of my life here at Rollins. There was tension, and I'll just leave it at that. And while I came eventually to understand some of the reasons for the uneasiness between us, the years lost between us will always be a regret for me.

And that's what I really want to say about Twila, her retirement, and the goodness that she leaves with us here at Rollins. Somewhere along the way, we both felt regret for the odd and uneasy alliance that existed between us. And at some point, I'm still not quite sure when, Twila and I healed that uneasiness. And I choose that word very carefully. The tensions between us, the disagreements on academic issues, the personality conflicts that riddled our interchanges were healed by a conscious decision we both made to stop. We had a hard conversation one night after class, and we decided this: to begin to appreciate the good that we knew existed in each other; to recognize the high goals we shared for our students and our writing program; and to accept and appreciate the very different skills and offerings we each brought to our job. We decided to let each other be her best self. And to praise that as often as we could.

And this is important, though I know it's going to sound hokey to a group of academics: but let me say it again. We decided to praise each other as often as we could. So for more than ten years now, Twila and I have most often started our conversations with compliments. With noticing something that the other did that we admired or appreciated. With pointing out a good idea that was put forth at a meeting, or observing a kind gesture made toward a student. We kept doing this, at first awkwardly, but by the end of my career here, quite joyfully. And this conscious practice of giving appreciation began to change our work and our relationship. We learned to like one another a lot.   We learned to let the one with the better idea take the lead in a project or task. We stopped fore-fronting the complaints we had about each other and instead focused on the skills and talents that clearly existed.

And we got better. We worked better. We were happier.

Don't misunderstand. This was no sappy-syrupy make-over of a professional relationship, with Twila and Lezlie skipping across Mills Lawn together in giddy happiness. Twila and I still disagreed. We fell into the old pattern of wanting the other to be more like ourselves. We were sometimes snippy, and one of us often became defensive. But these moments of annoyance no longer marked the tenor of our relationship. We learned that no single stance in life gives any of us a 360 degree view of a situation or a problem. The position from which we view the world gives each of us only a thin sliver of data. We benefit when we put those slivers of viewpoint together to create a greater range of vision.

Twila is a very smart woman and highly accomplished in her discipline, as her extensive vita reveals. She came to Rollins in 1985 and has served in every arena that the academic life requires. She was a teacher, a writer, a scholar, an advisor, a servant to the institution—full out. The energy she brought to her work was astounding to me. Many of you have experienced that energy, having served on committees with her, team-taught with her, collaborated with her, and benefited from her intelligence, reasoning power, her organizational skills, and her almost maniacal attention to detail and duty. Those remarkable qualities come and go for Twila now. But the qualities of the heart remain steady. There is still much for Twila to experience and enjoy as she takes this unexpected journey.

And to contribute to her joy, we honor her here today. We publicly thank her for her dedication and her enormous contributions to Rollins College, the English Department, and the Writing Program. And to solidify this honor, we announce today that henceforth, the "Best English 140 Essay" prize, awarded each year to a student in the first-year writing program, will be called "The Twila Yates Papay Award," furthering her legacy here at Rollins.

To conclude, I urge us all to consider the life-lessons that Twila is addressing: —that we keep asking ourselves "what do we live for? what is important?" —that we learn to appreciate each other, especially when we disagree — and that we keep the phrase memento mori in our hearts. Remember that you will die.   But before you die, your life will surprise you, and take you places you didn’t expect to go. How will you be with that turn of events?

And as Ram Das has taught us, remember also, it's all good; each path, no matter the challenges it presents, is yet another opportunity to wake up.