I didn’t anticipate how the course of writing about Doug’s initial peculiarity would develop into an exploration of myself over the course of a handful of years. Such is writing. I received Doug’s permission to post this, misremembered bits and all, and sans any alias, because he is a marvelous and honest person, who would only ever buy Banana Republic clothing second hand.
I remember my first introduction to Doug, though it wasn’t a traditional ‘Hi I’m Jane/Hi Jane I’m John’ introduction. I was walking with Michelle and she pointed out a man in the near distance and said, “that guy is some sort of monk but he shops at Banana Republic.” I don’t remember Doug’s outfit that day, only that it involved a scarf and an impression of bohemian sharpness. There was a blazer involved, it might have had elbow patches, which, I know, sooo alt/collegiate. It was the early 2000s, so scarves had not yet reached the favor they enjoy in today’s fashions, and this was San Diego, where scarves were only necessary in the early morning hours of exactly three weeks out of the year. In sum, it was an Outfit, and we weren’t used to the faculty and staff wearing Outfits. Unless someone is committed to the most urban lifestyle San Diego has to offer, their wardrobe usually requires less attention- or at least, the appearance of less attention- than it would take to choose the cleanest casual shirt to go with your clean, casual jeans and high quality flip-flops. Doug was not tall, unhurried, and had ginger hair. Michelle said he was a new adjunct professor in the religion department and wondered how a monk could possibly do something so normal and worldly as shop, much less at Banana Republic. We had a brief conversation, musing aloud somewhere between envy and a confusing, shy version of judgment. If he was a monk, what was he doing working on our campus? And in anything besides… monkwear? Michelle and I were, after all, upper-middle class, Protestant 19 year olds: we knew of which we appraised. His mystery eventually deepened, for he engaged in suspect behavior like being a grown man without a wife. A well-dressed, unmarried young monk teaching at a semi-liberal Christian university was, unfortunately, a source of skepticism instead of healthy curiosity.
Later, maybe a year? my friendship with Michelle was moldering and I’d had enough of spiritual crises and declared a theology major in order to put a stop to all questions of life and love and destiny, because an undergraduate degree in theology was most certainly the end-all to such weighty matters. The religion department, by some stroke of the sillies, was putting on a faculty karaoke party. On a weeknight. In a classroom. (Evangelicals really know how to get wild, am I right?) The dichotomy of these decorated thinkers of heady topics singing along with a box in a dated classroom made me shyly giddy. Eventually it was Doug’s turn, and before he sang he dedicated his performance “to all the adjunct professors out there!” then launched into Beck’s “Loser”. I was new to the department, and it was all so exalted in my mind- this conglomerate of would be philosophers, biblical scholars and spiritual shepherds. Almost all were men, students and faculty, and the few other female students were more evolved and intellectual than I, who was in a constant state of ‘who should I be and who should I marry?’ I wanted to be accepted here but was deeply afraid I lacked the moral and intellectual stones for consideration. But here, at a karaoke party? Not so studious, not so exalted. And the oddball monk singing a self-deprecating song by an artist who wasn’t dead or retired and was even current and also kind of the epitome of natural, semi-dorky cool? Well then! I might stand a chance! Doug represented my chance: he was very important to me, a human talisman, and we hadn’t even met.
I eventually began attending the church where he was an associate pastor. The church was small, multi-ethnic, and not what you’d call well-funded. The English-speaking congregation was a hodgepodge of university students, members of the low-income neighborhood where the church building belonged, and the homeless. There were often dogs in attendance, too. I don’t have a writer’s memory, a fact that I regularly bemoan; I’m wired for facts more so than moments. I’m excellent at Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit, not at strolling down memory lane with friends and family. Being thus handicapped, I can’t tell you much about my time at the church under Doug’s tutelage. We still weren’t very well acquainted, only so much as anyone in the small community was. I associate him with a song we often sang when friends would move away and leave the church; perhaps he simply led the singing of it once, but he is forever linked to it in my mind. To me, the song was Doug’s contribution, his individual message among several swirling directives. “One body, one spirit, one hope for our call,” went the chorus, and its oft-repeated principle of unity gave me hope. I could have a place, because this was a round table situation where none were higher, regardless of gender or intellect or clarity of calling.
Finally, my senior year, I had an open hour in my schedule that aligned with Doug’s Old Testament course. It was a 100-level general education class, one that I’d taken from another professor my freshman year, but that had been before I was a committed Theology major and was The Dark Semester when I’d been dumped and therefore made braindead by angst-ridden heartbreak, so I was hardly a scholar of the Pentateuch. I audited Doug’s class with nary a pen, surrounded by freshmen taking careful notes; I treated it more like one of his sermons in church. Early in the semester I worked up the courage to ask if he needed a TA to help with grading, and he readily accepted the proposition. I wanted to be his… something- not friend, though friendship would have been welcomed. His ment-ee, I suppose. I wanted a guru and a shepherd and I knew that he could enact that with the most possible kindness. I didn’t get very far beyond TA, student, and church member, though; I have an impossible, crippling time asking people for things. I’d have simple, courteous interactions with Doug and depart from them violently tyrannizing myself for my utter failure to rise above my fears and doubts.
I drifted thusly in his harbor, as his student and TA in the smallest sense. Because of my strict detail-directed memory, and, probably, lack of note-taking, I remember no specific Old Testament insight from his class, though he had plenty, only that he was against violence and didn’t like paying taxes because of violence done with tax revenues. He also spoke about credit cards and why it was unchristian to spend money you didn’t have. It was all humble and wise and so clearly scriptural that the assembled freshmen and I were regularly befuddled about why no one had said as much before. One day, he wrote ‘God Bless America’ on the blackboard and spoke with us about what it meant. Then he wrote ‘God dammit’ and talked about the similar message behind the two statements.
Later that day, my senior theology capstone would use the same classroom and the department chair would peer at the “God Bless America/God Dammit”-decorated blackboard and muse aloud to a tittering collection of seniors about “another interesting lesson” from Professor Harrison. It bothered me that none of them knew anything about the lesson. I wanted to say as much, but I was certain I would have done Doug’s reputation more harm than good with my faltering efforts. It seemed the university wasn’t sure what to do with him, and it felt like he knew the clock was ticking. Once, while sitting in the back of the computer lab, I heard one professor tell her students that Doug “didn’t believe in the Bible” and had no place teaching about it. I, seething, immediately emailed the provost and recommended that professor be officially corrected or at least gagged.
My timeline really begins to fuzz here, but there came a Sunday when Doug was no longer one of the pastors at the church. It was announced that he needed more time to focus on his dissertation or something vague like that, but most of us felt there were details larger than a dissertation that were being left unsaid. The only basis for our suspicions was the abruptness of it all; the church had trumpeted unity and honesty and had bade fond farewells to lesser-involved members many times over, and now Doug was gone in what seemed like a breath. That spring semester was his last at the university. He announced it in class one day and I sat in my seat feeling very sad for these freshmen who had allowed their worlds to be shaped by him and wouldn’t be able to glean more classroom opportunities from him. It was frustrating, too, that I had never stepped up, never invited him into my life the way I had so wanted to. I have a very thin memory of us sharing a goodbye, and I believe he said something very sweet (Doug is a sweet person, the way few truly are) and called me ‘friend’, which soothed and stung at the same time, because I knew it was sincere but it felt so undeserved.
Now Doug lives in a big city in a state with a southern accent. He has a Web site that encourages and teaches people to write letters to their friends and family instead of buying gifts. One day he discovered via Facebook that, by some fluke of comings and goings, we had a mutual friend who was not from our university/church circles. I had graduated the university with one class left to take, and it took me three years to get around to it. When I did, it was at a Sacramento community college and one of my classmates was a coworker of my housemate. We only ever chatted briefly, but, like you do, joined up on Facebook. Eventually the really cool tech company transferred her to the big city in the southern state, and for a while she was Doug’s coworker. “How do you know Grace?” he posted. I explained and he replied, “small world.” “I wonder how much longer,” I wrote back, “until the ‘small world’ concept simply becomes reality and we just say ‘world’.” He responded, “that made me smile,” which made me more proud than he probably would have guessed.