28 February 2008

Melancholy Matters

Last night I had the painful honor of speaking at a memorial service for my friend Lana Schwebel, killed at the age of thirty-five in an auto accident in summer 2007. My recollection is nothing special, but those who knew Lana may enjoy being reminded of some of her charms.

Doing Shockingly Well;
This Is Not a Eulogy

I was traveling in the south of France when I heard the grim news. I gave a moment's thought to cutting the trip short and flying home for the levaya service, but word reached me too late — I couldn't possibly make it to New York in time. A few days later, though, I made the melancholy trip to pay my respects to Lana's family, still sitting shiva. There Lana's father told me that, when she was a child, she didn't speak at all for a very long time. Even after she was able to speak, she rarely said a word.

I felt a strong temptation to stick my head out the front door and look for the name "Schwebel" on the mailbox, because I was pretty sure I had wandered into the wrong shiva. Someone who didn't speak? — that's not the Lana Schwebel I knew. There must have been two bereaved families in Queens, because the Lana I remember could hardly be persuaded to stop talking.

I knew Lana for nearly fourteen years, beginning when we started in the graduate program at Penn, and for much of that time she was my closest friend. This makes speaking today one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do. It's difficult for the obvious reasons, of course; it's hard to say anything without breaking down. But it's also hard to reduce fourteen years into fourteen minutes. I was asked to say a bit about Lana Schwebel as a scholar, but I'm no expert on her area of expertise, medieval literature; even if I were, I couldn't hope to explain her insights into traditions of purgatory in the Middle Ages with the same clarity she could. We'd talked to each other over the years about our work, but only recently did I read her doctoral dissertation, a learned work of 261 pages, drawing on history, literature, theology, and economics with ease and authority. What came through to me as I read the dissertation, though, wasn't the research into late-medieval culture, but Lana's distinct voice. I hope you've never had to fight your way through doctoral dissertations; they're dryasdust ordeals barely preferable to undergoing root canal. But not Lana's. In turning the pages of her dissertation I found myself laughing aloud in the library. Others might have said similar things about pardons and indulgences, but no one else could have said them so wittily.

So I'll talk not about her research, but about her writing — or, more egocentrically, about my writing. Lana was, and is, always present to me when I write; she's what many writers call an "ideal audience," especially for a writing guide I compiled in grad school, which appeared in print last month. She'd made countless suggestions, and often nagged me about publishing the thing, which is what prompted me to write the following dedication:
Finally I have to express a debt to Lana Schwebel, one of the finest writers, best teachers, quickest wits, and dearest friends I've ever known. She taught me a great deal about writing, about teaching, and about how to use the language, and I've shamelessly filched many of her ideas in my own writing, here and elsewhere. Over nearly a decade and a half she helped me in more ways than I can tally, and it pains me that she's not around to read this book and tell me how to make it even better. All that's left is for me to dedicate it to her memory.

For me, to talk about her memory is to talk about her voice. Stories are the usual way we remember departed friends, but my years with Lana don't resolve into many narratives. What I remember instead is a voice, a long series of conversations. Sometimes it seems like a single conversation, one that happened to take place over the course of years, with only momentary interruptions. It began as soon as we met. We must have been introduced at some mixer, but were more or less anonymous for the first few weeks of grad school. We became aware of each other one evening in the library — I was carrying a stack of eight or nine books, she was hunting down some obscure reference. We passed, kinda recognized each other, tried to recall names, asked about classes taken, all the usual beginning-of-the-school-year stuff. Before I knew it, we were talking up a storm on more subjects than I can count — and, I feel obliged to note for the record, drawing nasty looks from people studying in library carrels. (We'd lower our voices for a few minutes and then allow them to swell again, renewing the dirty stares.) It was maybe ten minutes into the conversation that I realized my arms just weren't going to bear that stack of books much longer, so we found somewhere to set them down. Ninety minutes later I realized I'd already missed two buses home. Over the years we made a habit of that: after a day of visiting museums, I'd head back to New Jersey, and we'd say our goodbyes at the subway station. Oh, wait — that reminds me of something else, and something else, and we'd stand there at the entrance to the Number 6, often in bitter cold or sweltering heat, as I silently noted one missed train after another. Eventually I'd tear myself away. But when we'd get together again — even after being out of touch for weeks — Lana would begin almost mid-sentence, as if not a moment had passed. And when we were unable to stay in touch in person, we carried on an E-mail correspondence that stretches to more than 800,000 words, more than 50 percent longer than War and Peace. If Baby Lana had little to say, Grown-Up Lana more than made up for the silent years.

One of the things I like most about those hundreds of thousands of words is that you can read them for days without finding a single cliché. I don't mean cliché in just the narrow, conventional sense. The novelist and critic Martin Amis declared a "war against cliché," reminding us that there are clichés not only of the pen, but also of the mind, the heart, the spirit. Not in Lana's writing. Cliché is simply laziness, and she was never lazy — notwithstanding the many mornings she decided to skip the gym in favor of pancakes with me. Her life was one of constant intellectual adventure: she studied art and English and history and philosophy and classics and religion. In an age of narrow academic specializations she taught nearly as many subjects: medieval doctrines of redemption, Latin ablative absolutes, twentieth-century sacred music. She was a regular at half the cultural institutions in New York, to the point where coat-check agents at the Metropolitan Museum of Art knew her by sight. She also thrived when visiting obscure corners of the planet — a little summer jaunt to Iceland or a weekend in Mongolia. And of course there was her love of languages. Not many people would go to the trouble of studying Chinese for a month before heading to China, and she had just finished a series of Russian lessons when she set out for her final trip. (In languages, I was always the lazy one. "Yo, Schwebel," I'd E-mail. "Translate this Latin, Greek, Hebrew for me. I can't be bothered to look it up.") She even decided to start a blog of her travels — but, concerned that blogging was itself becoming a cliché, she subtitled it, "This Is Not a Blog." She needn't have worried about blending in with the crowd: who else would have noticed that St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum was bright green, and dubbed it "a veritable Kermitage"? I suspect it's the first time Catherine the Great's Winter Palace has been likened to an amphibious Muppet.

Lana's whole life was a struggle against cliché, which is to say a struggle for originality and distinctiveness. It was evident even in the shape of her whole academic career — on the one hand, she was a woman of faith in an aggressively secular profession; on the other, she was an Orthodox Jew studying the Christian Middle Ages. Those who didn't know her were baffled by those choices, and twisted themselves into strange shapes trying to accommodate her without giving offense. She was never quick to take offense, though she'd sometimes roll her eyes in exasperation at good-intentioned boneheads who took it for granted that she was following a more obvious career path.

I was honored to be invited to the memorial organized by Lana's students in September, and one thing in particular struck me that night. I expected to hear "life-changing teacher," "challenged me," "showed me what I was capable of," all the usual praise for a good teacher. But "usual praise" seemed unfitting for her, precisely because it was usual — and therefore a cliché. I was delighted to hear almost none of that. Not that her students didn't declare Dr. Schwebel life-changing, challenging, and all the rest. It's just that they didn't fall into the conventional forms of praise. I like to think Lana had something to do with that. The writer I've studied most, Samuel Johnson, had a lovely zinger about a despised rival author: "He is not only dull himself," Johnson said, "but the cause of dullness in others." Lana was not only fresh and original herself, but the cause of freshness and originality in others. I felt, as I listened to each speaker that bittersweet evening, that it really was Lana Schwebel who was being memorialized, not some generic teacher. It wouldn't have fit anyone else. May we all be remembered so well.

It was that liveliness of voice, that refusal to lapse into hollow pieties and empty phrases, that haunted my mind as I tried to compose my talk for today. Memorial services are usually an opportunity to extract some larger meaning from horrible events, to try to make sense of what happened, to deliver some hard-won wisdom. But I have nothing profound to offer, other than profound sadness that she's gone and profound joy that I knew her as long as I did. It's almost impossible, at least for the likes of me, to talk about life's big questions without falling into mental, emotional, or spiritual laziness. I could start spouting mindless commonplaces, but I'm sure Lana would have none of it. She'd be gentle in her chastisement, but she'd roll her eyes and put me in my place. In such cases, I think it's best to follow the lead of young Lana, who hardly said a thing — sometimes silence is better than empty words.

Luckily for me, I've got no shortage of Lana's words in my head, including some of her last words. Three weeks after I got home from France, a long-delayed postcard arrived, sent from Irkutsk the morning of the accident. It must have been among the very last things she wrote. "Doing shockingly well," she said, and I don't doubt it. I'm terribly sorry to have lost her but, as another long-time friend put it, "I can't stop smiling when I think of her, or even do any wishing she hadn't been on that bus. That bus is where she belonged." I think that's true, however strange, even heretical, it sounds to say it. To wish she had been somewhere else is to wish she had been someone else, and I'm sure that someone else would have been much less interesting. Hollow commonplaces aren't for Lana Schwebel. I prefer to remember an unfailingly lively friend making me miss train after train, a dedicated teacher pushing her students to the same liveliness of mind she showed, a witty writer composing a blog that wasn't a blog, and a vivacious traveler going to new places — all the while doing shockingly well.

1 comment:

Erachet said...

Hello. I don't know if you were one of the people who read my blog back when Lana Schwebel was first killed, but I'm her Latin student (and I don't know if you were at the student memorial in the begining of the year but I spoke there). Just wanted to let you know that I really appreciated hearing you speak yesterday. Thanks!