Friday, December 7, 2012

Willa Cather and Sue Rosowski

This morning the clouds are gray like stoneware clay. And I like to think of the sky, when the low clouds impose a ceiling on its infinity, as an unfired clay bowl, inverted. On this day, 139 years ago, Willa Cather was born. One of my favorite characters in literature is her creation, Ivar, the natural man in O Pioneers . But I don't want to write about Ivar, Willa Cather, or O Pioneers. I want to write about Cather scholar, Sue Rosowski. She died two days after George Bush, Jr. was elected president the first time, which was actually the second time that man would rule our so called democracy. (We'd all console ourselves with the fact that Sue didn't have to know Bush won.) The day I found out Sue died was November 5th, 2004. At the time, I was teaching at a fundamentalist university on the Great Plains. The students in my Global Issues class were sleepy. It was an early morning class. Looking out onto the sea of occluded faces, suffering the fact that George Bush would again be the punk-in-chief, was too much. I must have said something fairly alarming, or, maybe, under the stress of living, I whimpered a little (my mother lay dying, too) because, after dismissing the class and heading back to my office, before I could hang up my coat, the campus pastor tapped lightly at my door saying so-and-so-student had given him a call to report the state of my emotions, and would I like to talk, or to pray together. This visit was a mixed blessing, to be sure.

I want to write about Sue Rosowski. Sue was a scholar, a teacher, a guide, a friend.

The first time we met, we chewed over some passages from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The next time we met, we argued over my reading of the loon chapter in Thoreau's Walden. Sue was the reason I was accepted into the doctoral program at the University of Nebraska. She actively believed in me. She was the chair of my graduate committee before I switched to a focus in creative writing. And to illustrate what kind of Chair she was, I offer this anecdote.

Sue and I hadn't formally met for a period of time. And in that time, I'd changed my focus of study in the graduate office, rearranged the roles my committee members played, and kept pushing forward. All without mentioning it to Sue. One afternoon I received a note from Sue that said we were overdue to meet. We needed to catch up on my progress and get some paperwork filed. I responded, a meeting was scheduled, we met. I'd forgotten all about telling Sue she was no longer the chair of my committee. Later, after we met, I discussed what I sensed might become an issue with the graduate chair, who suggested we create a story about why Sue was no longer the Chair but a reader, and then tell it to Sue. I said, why would we do that? I'll just tell her the truth. (Ah, the truth. Seldom a first choice in political matters.) I was never very good at program politics. I never understood why professors would be upset to know they were no longer obligated to serve in whatever capacity on a student's committee; but several people warned me of a possible snag. I didn't understand the rabid competitions between students in the program. Professor H will be angry if you don't... So-and-so will be furious if you tell her your poem was published in X journal... The creative writing professors will be angry if your Chair is a Comp/Rhet. person... Sue will be angry to find she's no longer the Chair of your committee, etc. I doubted this, yet, was fearful. What if Sue is angry? I thought. What if my neglect ruins our friendship? Sue was a busy scholar and teacher. She was busy keeping cancer at bay. She was editing a book. She had two sons and a husband. She had other graduate students. She won't be angry or hurt, I thought, she'll be relieved.

Sue and I scheduled another meeting to discuss my written comps. At that meeting, we talked about her life. We talked about mine. We cried a little because she was fighting this disease, and university life, graduate school can be so stressful. Finally, I told her she was no longer the Chair of my committee, and how sorry I was that I hadn't let her know sooner, and how afraid I'd been to tell her she was no longer the Chair of my committee. I was really falling apart by this time. Sobbing, I'm sure. It's hard to do things right when you're under so much pressure. It's hard to be strong all the time. Graduate school's confusing. There was a long pause. And then Sue began to laugh. She laughed. And laughed. A contagious laugh. We laughed. For a long time, we laughed. University politics are so ridiculous, if for no other reason, they build walls between people. Walls built of baseless fears.

Every winter I head back to Nebraska and make the drive to the old Germantown Cemetery to visit Sue's grave. I loved Sue Rosowski. I still do.

No comments: