Once Upon the Ides of March

Last Wednesday, I sat in the North Oval Room of the University of Virginia’s Rotunda. It’s an auspicious place, one of Thomas Jefferson’s pinnacle achievements now marked as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Jefferson modeled the Rotunda after Rome’s Pantheon, explaining how it was to “represent the authority of nature and the power of reason.” One could never accuse Jefferson of underselling expectations.

I took my spot on one lonely end of a massive boardroom table that seemed to stretch all the way to DC. Around the table sat professors I admire and respect, teachers with serious academic pedigrees. In other words, nothing like me. I was there to defend my PhD dissertation. After course work and languages and a grueling year of comprehensive exams, I’ve spent two years writing about Wendell Berry’s marvelous fiction and how God’s grace shows up in the common, everyday fabric: in that rich Kentucky soil, in those rivers and hills, in those sturdy friendships, in their sorrows, in the life they make in that one unique place. My hope was to better understand Berry’s writing, but just as much, my hope was to better understand my own world and how God shows up in the unique places and people of my life.

There I was, sweating bullets, only to realize that right off the bat I’d made two unfortunate blunders. First, we set my defense date for March 15: the Ides of March. Ominous. Worse, just under the wire, I’d scratched out my heartfelt acknowledgments on the very first page of my dissertation and there, in an ill-advised flourish, I misused the word literally. I mean seriously? – literally? The abuse of this word is the bane of most every middle school grammar teacher in the English-speaking world. I didn’t have tons going for me in this context, but at least I’m supposed to be a writer. I’m supposed to understand elementary vocabulary. I felt like I was rolling into the Rotunda on my tricycle.

Thankfully, the defense went well, and I’m now done. It’s a marvelous feeling.

I’ve asked myself numerous times over the past 5 years why exactly I’ve done this. I’m not entirely sure, but at the most basic I did it because I wanted to and because Miska saw something important here as well. I remember the day when Miska, after years of batting around the crazy idea with me, said, “Winn, I think you have to do this.” That was the lynchpin.

Miska’s my best friend, my partner, the one I trust the most. Last Wednesday, on the other end of that long table, Miska sat there, observing, smiling. Every once in a while, I still hear people talk about the “self-made man.” That’s ridiculous.


14 Replies to “Once Upon the Ides of March”

  1. So very strange to read “fan mail” about Wendell Berry. While I can certainly admire his body of work, it is tainted by the fact that I was one of the luckless few who had him as an instructor in the middle 60’s and the U. of Kentucky. It still ranks as one of my worst classes ever. He taught journalism and basically spent the entire semester convincing us that we would never want to be journalists. Tres strange. As an early instructor, all the grades were pretty abysmal. I had come out of Honors English and was not accustomed to having a teacher simply say “no” to whatever idea I had. I did not become a journalist (but then I didn’t plan to even then) and am now a college instructor myself. I suspect he would have been fired in these days of political correctness. Congrats on the degree.

    1. You know what, Jan, I can imagine this. Wendell certainly has a pointed and at time belligerent way of seeing the world.

  2. Dear Winn,
    Congratulations on completing the years-long process of your Ph.D. And thank you for writing so endearingly about Miska, especially in this particular place. I have a husband who, like your beloved wife, spoke a word that sent me on a similar journey. Self made? There is ‘literally’ no such thing. We do well to acknowledge the fact, and often. Rejoicing with you!

    1. Your husband sounds like a good man. (and with magical powers, that certain misspelling has presto! disappeared). Peace to you.

  3. If this makes you Dr. Winn, I am glad because you have many times diagnosed what I needed hear by reading your words. Congrats to you and your family, especially that wonderful wife.

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