things hang together

It was January of 2017. I was living on the westernmost edge of Eastern Time in South Bend, Indiana.

And, as far as winters go, it was fairly dark. Although I suppose I actually got more sun then than I would have in New York.

South Bend is roughly 15 miles from the border of Eastern and Central time. So, despite the fact that November 2016 had just ushered in gusts of uncertainty and gloom, and despite the fact that South Bend’s permacloud was fairly thick, I never feel the crush of winter dark at 4 p.m. on a December Thursday in Manhattan. There are silver linings.

I was earning my graduate degree in theology. It was my second semester of the program; I was drowning in insurmountable waves of imposter syndrome. I noticed a few weeks into the semester that all my professors were male. I hadn’t marked it at first. Once I noticed none of my professors looked like me, I wondered if that was perhaps the reason my mind was insisting over and over again I did not belong here.

In the choppy interior sea of self-doubt, I found one friendly port in the storm.

That January, I began a directed reading with Vittorio. Vittorio has the stature of Frodo, the visage of Harry Potter, and the magic of Merlin. My classmate and I squeezed into his office alongside shelves of books every Wednesday. We sat on folding metal chairs in the overheated 1970’s architectural atrocity of the faculty office building. And then we opened our books and were transported to Dante’s paradise or Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg.

Vittorio had a set of hangers behind his office doors we would put our coats on. One of the hangers in Vittorio’s office was made of light maple-looking wood that would fall apart at the joined seams. Each time I showed up, I would take off my parka or jacket, I would reach for a hanger, and I would pick up the busted wooden hanger which would fall apart in my hands. We would laugh, and I would put the two sides back together again. Then hang my coat on it. Repeat. It became sort of a recurring joke. A joke whose setup was its punchline—the simple comedy of insisting that something broken, isn’t.

At the very end of the semester, when we were talking with Vittorio in his office during our final meeting, he gave me the hanger to keep. And I don’t know if what happened next is related. But they fit together in my mind.

He told me the story of his astrophysicist wife. He’s a professor of Italian poetry and literature. She’s a scientist. She’s Argentinian, living in England. He’s Italian, living in Indiana (or he was at the time). She’s atheist. He’s Catholic.

Four years later, I still have the hanger. I recently pulled it out of my closet to look at it. Without fail, its two pieces came apart in my hands.  

I’m not sure why Vittorio gave me the hanger. I suppose some gifts are just spontaneous. I received it as a memento of our time together. Upon receipt, some gifts mean nothing. As you hold onto them, sometimes they mean more. The hanger is a tongue-in-cheek gift, a small recollection of a bright spot of laughter in winter. A recognition of belonging and encouragement when feeling at loose ends or out of place. I received it as a joke–the best kind: one that’s nothing more than a shared cause of laughter together.

I’ve kept it since as a promise – that what you think is bound to fall apart can still hang together.

1 comment

  1. Wonderful story. How stories unfold reactions reminds me of the movie Copenhagen. By my half Italian/half Chinese professor, teaching Understanding Chinese Religion back in ’74, I was gifted a Chinese language dictionary. He had taught us how in the culture, something is offered out of kindness and declined in respect; I declined. He further taught that in the culture something may then be offered a second time in sincerity and declined out of courtesy; I declined. He went on to teach that in the culture something might be offered a third time from the heart and if declined as an insult; I still have it. It haunts me from my bookcase. No, it begs me to hold it; I do. Happy Thanksgiving. We will have Bernadette and David with us.


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