Back in January of this year, before 2020 became a year that many of us would rather forget, a woman who was very important to me died of a very aggressive lung cancer. The official diagnosis came just a month before her passing. Lise van Boxel, my mentor from my time at St. John's College in Annapolis, was too young to die. She was too fierce to die. She was too intelligent and beautiful and kind to die. A hole in the fabric of the cosmos was ripped open the day that she passed, and nothing will ever fill it.
It's taken me this long to be able to write something about her-- her life, her death. Writing about Lise has proven to be difficult, not only for all of the usual reasons that crop up when a dear person dies, but because we became acquianted with one another on account of writing itself; she was my Junior Language tutor at SJC. Writing was the thing that brought us together, the thing over which we toiled communally. On account of this, I've held myself to an impossible standard when it comes to the task of writing something about her. I'm certain, however, that'd she'd want me to stop worrying about writing and simply write. She'd tell me to put pen to paper and trust myself to do the task that I know I have to do. And so... here I go.
Among the many oddities that make up an educational experience at St. John's, there exists the fact that relationships between thinking people at the school (students, tutors, alumni, staff-- anyone, really) can and do form very quickly and with an incomparable intensity. When I walked into class on the first day of junior year, I understood fairly quickly that Ms. van Boxel was going to be a person who would change the course of my life. She was an incredibly intense person and educator-- some in the class would probably have said she was "intimidating," but I don't think this is quite the right word. "Intimidating" is a word often used by men to describe women who cannot be made to conform to the traditional mores of patriarchal order; Lise was no conformist, but nonetheless, she deserves better descriptors. She was acutely discerning, vibrant, magnetic to an extreme degree, and (more than anything) compassionate.
That year with Lise was an education unlike anything I have ever experienced. The year is traditionally seen to be the toughest of the four spent at St. John's due to the intensity of the coursework and the nature of the texts studied, but I was having the time of my life. As we worked through la Rochefoucauld's Maximes and Racine's Phèdre, as we had our hearts broken by Jacques Brel's "Ne me quitte pas" and belted out La Marseillaise (much to the amusement of classmates in the rooms next to ours), our little band of aspiring Francophiles reached out toward some of the deepest, most lasting, most incandescent truths of our lives.
In the spring, we read Nietzsche. Studying Nietzsche with Lise was something like learning to play the piano by becoming J.S. Bach's roommate. To have someone share her life's work with us in a completely unassuming but totally consuming way-- how can I even describe it? I'd never had that chance before, nor am I likely to experience anything like it again.
We continued our friendship beyond that year. Every encounter with Lise was like a shock to the system, a warm and restorative commingling of practical wisdom and transcendent (perhaps even spiritual) reaching. No sentence was ever wasted, no conversation ever forgettable. In the sea of philosophers, poems, hymns, and scientific revelations that was St. John's, Lise was a beacon-- a woman who could guide a certain sort of soul through dark and tumultous moments toward the solid ground of self-knowing.
When most people think of the word mentor, they think of someone who goes to great lengths to pass on the hard-won lessons of a life well lived to a mentee, who receives said wisdom and is forever changed. I think, however, that Lise redefined that word for me. Even among the educators who had an outsized impact on my intellectual development at St. John's, Lise stood apart. Though my respect for my St. John's education and the purveyors of it cannot be understated, no earthly paradise is complete without a treacherous, serpentine element. At St. John's, that element takes the following form: educators, having committed their lives to the pursuit of truth, take on young and aspiring thinkers as apprentice-like followers. Cults of personality develop, and even the best-intentioned teacher occasionally breaks what I now consider to be a sacred covenant by attempting to liberate a student only into a particular philosophical heritage. Educators, even some of the best of them, can sometimes treat students as golems to be crafted out of the materials belonging to a certain school of thought. And we, the students, are invited (however unconsciously) to become knockoffs-- cheap imitations of our tutors, who themselves are disciples in the same tradition of golem-craft. Here, disagreement breeds disappointment. Truths are pursued, but only truths that fit within a certain box. However benign this tendency to create a "legacy" may seem when one is caught up in the excitement of this sort of mentorship, the effect is damaging, and its consequences are long-lasting. I cannot help but look back on some of my cherished relationships at the college with a tinge of regret.
But this was not Lise's way.
Lise was the first of only two teachers in my adult life who did not comingle the art of education with that of legacy making. (The other teacher, it is probably no coincidence, is a close friend and colleague of hers.) For this, she has my deep respect and lasting gratitude. It is all the more impressive because of how extremely likely I was to try to fashion myself in her image; rather than allowing me to fall into idolatry, she took all of my nervous energy and self-doubt, hidden behind a false wall of pretend confidence, and redirected me toward self-actualization. She invited me to create. To be the first to travel a path that only I could see, that only I could define. To love wisom. To write poetry. To fight for something. You give up on a person when you decide they can't do something for themselves. Lise never gave up.
I moved recently, back to my home state of Ohio. In the course of unpacking, I found essays, notes, and correspondences between Lise and me. Seeing her handwriting on the pages of my essays at first provoked tears. Then, as I read her notes, her careful questions that opened new philosophical landscapes for me, her encouraging reminders, sentences that carved deep chasms in my soul, it felt for a moment as though I were once again participating in one of our cherished conversations. I closed my eyes and could almost see her across the seminar table, feel the intensity of the way her mind worked, see the connections that she could find in even the murkiest texts. I miss her all the time, and I do the best I can to live out the principles and ethics we cultivated together in the short time we had.
Warspeak: Nietzsche's Victory over Nihilism, the book that Lise completed just before her diagnosis, comes out in just a few weeks. Once again, I will have the chance to connect with her over writing. Her writing. It was language that brought us together, and language that will keep my connection to her alive. She once closed an email to me with the following words. They are simple, penetrating, and priceless to me. They were written by the woman who was my true mentor. How lucky I was. How lucky I am.
Always remember that your character and intellect enable you to do pretty much whatever you want. I know that you want to help others in some way. You always will, no matter what path you choose; it is part of who you are. My remaining wish for you is that you develop more faith in yourself, and I have little doubt that you will develop it.