Sometimes we wish we could have thanked someone who helped us, or helped someone who needed us, or simply felt appreciation for the human connections that showed up when we needed them to brighten our world. But such relationships often flow one way and the best we can then do is to pass the favor on once we recognize our indebtedness to those who are no longer around to thank.
In my own life, there was the woman who saved me from drowning when I was two years old (extending my life by 73 years, and counting, at considerable risk to herself), there was the teacher, Mr. Matthews, who trusted me to sail his sloop and when it was found drifting towards the rocky shoreline came and told me that my bowline knot was perfect and that the painter had snapped (thereby teaching me the power of trust in this uncertain world); and there was my mentor, Eric, who—when he couldn’t follow me into my new interest in Eastern spirituality–allowed me to discover for myself that I didn’t need a second opinion to affirm its value.
Two other people, whom I haven’t thought about much over the years, came back to my mind this week: my high school Latin teacher, Ms. McMann, and a fellow student in my Grade Eleven Latin class, Patrick.
I was not a good student in high school. My grades were typically 25—50% lower than those of the “brightest” kids who scored in the high 90% in all their classes. I was not in that rarified group who seemed to feel at home in an educational environment that left me scratching my head and wondering why I kept missing the mark. Even then, I sensed that it was important to learn more about myself and my world, and I kept aspiring to connect with the only place in town that seemed to be in the business of promoting knowledge, albeit in a limited way.
Latin was one of my least brilliant subjects. The reason I had picked Latin as one of my electives was because my mother wanted me to get a “classical” education, even though math was the only subject in which I excelled.
Sometimes I had to stay after school, while Ms. McMann helped me plod through the assignments that I had not got right at home. Looking back, she was the only teacher—besides Mr. Matthews—whom I can remember helping me. Perhaps that’s why Latin now feels like the subject that most directly supports my current interest in words and their meanings.
She also taught me something about the nature of knowing which remains with me to this day: knowledge is like the wind in the high branches of a Ponderosa Pine, blowing in an environment in which kindness and concern for other beings is more brilliant than any contrivance of reason or any feat of calculation. When someone helps you learn because they recognize your potential, you not only improve your grasp of a particular subject; you feel the innate intimacy that is the hallmark of true understanding.
I suspect that Patrick may have been the smartest kid in my high school–funny, playful, quick–but I later discovered that he must have harbored a deep sadness which I never saw.
We hung out at school, did a few things together outside of class, and I remember that one day he wrote a Latin phrase on the black board while we were waiting for class to begin:
“Semper ubi, sub ubi.”
(Semper=always; Ubi=where; sub=under). Of course this is an English pun, not a Latin one, but as one of the least adept students in our Latin class, I found his creative play a marvel to behold. It has joined my tiny library of famous Latin phrases, such as “Veni, Vidi, Vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) which Caesar reputedly said after invading someone’s land.
Along with my memories of another friend, Gary, who also didn’t make it past thirty, my memories of Patrick are mixed with a sense that I could have been a better friend. In spite of their brilliance, neither found a way to conquer the world.
I wonder if, fifty years ago, when he fell in front of a speeding train pulling through a subway station in Montreal, Patrick took his own advice, and was wearing clean underwear:
Semper ubi, in mundum (in cleanliness) sub ubi, Patricius.
May all of us who ply the waves of the ocean of Being not forget that the primal luminosity, which allows us to be individuals living here on Earth, is not ours to possess and therefore can never be completely extinguished by those who do not see us or make a place for us.
May none of us ever forget all those fellow beings who feel that they have no place: no space inviting them to step forward to be known for who they are.
It also helps to realize the consequences of one’s actions. How others were. are affected.
Yes, the living never get over it. Perhaps all the rest of us can do is try to make the world a little more hospital for everyone.