That’s what Jim asked me in almost every conversation.
There weren’t many of those conversations at first. We sat in the Fort Wayne Children’s Choir staff spouse section. I was intimidated because he was Dr. Ator and I was Jon. The associate pastor, the former professor, and eventually the hospital chaplain. Never the real academic.
Yet I looked forward to seeing him because he was genuinely glad to see me, and didn’t worry about small talk, and went to the question he knew that an academic creative needed to know someone else cared about.
“Are you writing anything?”
Are you doing the thing that in all the rest of the chaos gives you life? Are you finding and making meaning?
Eventually, we had some longer conversations, more frequent, on the porch or in the family room, which I talked about as two old guys talking — about higher education administration, teaching, God, family, and figuring out what things meant. We talked about what it was like to not be able to do the things that give you meaning. I better understood why he asked, “Are you writing anything?”
Sometime people call it “solving the problems of the world.” As in, “so have you solved the problems of the world?”, often spoken with an affectionate and slightly disparaging tone.
But really, it’s hacking away at the besetting problem of our lives. Building relationship. Making friends.
It’s hard for humans to make new friends as we age. To have that mixture of meaningless and meaningful conversation that weaves through the past and the present with only hints of the sheer uncertainty of the future.
Jim and I talked about all three, past, present, and future. He’d ask me questions about things that come up in my work as a hospital chaplain. We’d talk about his life and mine, about how faith can be challenging (and so can faithful people), about the things we both were learning. The things that friends who trust each other talk about.
Even in our skepticism about people and institutions, we were affirming in each other that there are things worth affirming. Like being together.
Early in this latter phase of our relationship, he told me, “I love you.”
He said, “we don’t say that enough to the people we care about.”
And he always asked about the people I love that he knew, Fancy Nancy and Hope.
I will miss him as a friend almost too late, a colleague in conversation, an encourager in doing that which gives me life and which I often neglect: Giving words to the feelings we struggle to articulate.
This, friend. This is what I’m writing.
I love you, too.
From a memorial service on 4/23/2022 for my friend Jim.