Sunday, September 16, 2007

Paradise Regained

"The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitarie way."
-- John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1674

This week, ironically as I was preparing for a gathering of friends in celebration of Shameless's Next Landmark Birthday, I received some very sad news from a good friend who teaches at my alma mater. My advisor and friend, Desmond Hamlet, passed away the other night at the too-young age of 73 after a long illness.

Dr. Hamlet was a scholar of the 17th-century British poet, John Milton, author of many long poems including the enormous epic Paradise Lost. Born in Guyana, Dr. Hamlet had a beautiful, rich booming voice that carried the grace of language he was reading whether it was Milton or Derek Walcott. He worked with me and one of my best friends, D, as we two young white middle class women crafted research papers on contemporary African writers. Bless his heart, he took our enthusiasm for writing from another world and ran with it.

At the time we were at Denison, he was the only black member of the English department, and one of only a few people of color on the faculty, tenured or un. Our tiny campus was twice riveted by issues regarding race, once as we rallied the White Right board of trustees to abandon investments with ties to South African companies, a second as a student leader became the object of a series of racial slurs that became the focus of a campus-wide boycott -- joined by a great number of faculty and championed by Dr. Hamlet.

Last year my friend D was visiting her Ohio family with her husband and children from South Africa where she now lives. She and I stopped in to see Dr. Hamlet, but he had just taken ill with what at the time was thought to be a bad cold. We spent an hour or so talking with his wonderful wife and life partner, who updated us on their children and grandchildren and his work and the goings on at the university. We were so sorry to have missed him, and now we are even more regretful, I especially since I could have tried to pay him a visit on another trip I've made since.

More and more I seem to be losing the people who had the biggest impact on my life. My parents are both gone. Two of my music professors from college are gone. An increasing number of faculty, including Dr. Hamlet, are ill or leaving us behind. Family and friends and musicians all face varying degrees of illness or debilitation. Around me, close friends are losing people they love too. It is simply a part of living to live with loss. When death takes someone I say goodbye and thank you and I set them free because that's what they need.

I cherish my health and my life, and my children, and those loved ones I still am fortunate enough to call part of my life. I cherish the time I have to sit here and think quietly and honor them. I cherish what they taught me and the fact that I have the capacity to take it to the next level. When my time comes I hope I will have done some justice to all the positive influences I've been so fortunate to enjoy in this short life of mine.

I hope Dr. Hamlet has found his lost paradise. And I hope that his contributions will never be forgotten. He had an enormous influence on me. Even though I ultimately did not follow his same path as a professor, the lessons he gave me as a student and as a human being will always be with me: to practice integrity, excellence, creativity, and most of all, humanity.

Enjoy this track of Emmylou Harris singing that beautiful old sendoff, Angel Band. I am beyond delighted that I'll hear her live for the first time this year at IBMA's Fan Fest. If she does this one, I'm sure she'll have a lot of help from some pretty incredible sidefolks. I wonder what Desmond would think of my life's twists and turns, but I think he'd be happy knowing I found my paradise regained in this music I love and that I'm at peace, much as I hope he is now.


At October 02, 2007 12:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your words on the life and impact of a beautiful man. I regret to say that I did not take the time to be with Dr. Hamlet in the same manner as you and D. However, I am blessed to have been able to enjoy his teaching, his wisdom, his presence and his beautiful gift of a voice.

Thanks again for sharing your experiences with Dr. Hamlet.

Fellow Denison Alum '97


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