knew the oldest secret

Rita Kitts 2

Several years ago, I read an article about a personality type that resonated so strongly with me I never forgot it. Except, I did—the title of the article, that is, along with its author, and the name of the type it described. The consequence of this memory lapse is that recently, when curiosity led me on a search for the article I never forgot, I had no means to find it. So there is a valid function for names after all.

The personality type the article featured was this: a person, usually a woman, who is the more or less unwitting hub of a vast wheel of human relationships. From many degrees of separation away, one could trace one’s way back through countless links and connections and arrive, every time, at this one person. She attracts people, she connects them, she fields by nature a multitude of interactions, always giving people somehow something they need, and putting them in a position to bond with one another. Had she never lived, neither would have innumerable relationships as we know them. Presumably people performing this role are innate to social organization; there is more to the mechanics of our cohesion than meets the eye. This condition, as I said, had some name, but evidently not a particularly official one, as I interrogated my psychologist friends and barraged Google to no avail. I was steered toward Adler and Jung—interesting, but not what I was looking for—and referred to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: “Counselor”? “Provider”? No, not really. And how much faith could I really put in an instrument that had once identified my ideal job as funeral director? But, after all, it’s only a name. As for the type itself, I remembered it when I started thinking of a little piece I wanted to write about a unique person I once knew named Rita Kitts.

Sometimes the wheels of thought turn slowly; Rita has been gone for two and a half years now, but I still think of her often. It’s odd the way people live within us—an interior phenomenon that isn’t really affected by the fact of death. It must be true, as I’ve heard, that we don’t completely vacate this earth until the last consciousness in which we live vacates it too. Or as Forster put it in A Passage to India: “People are not really dead until they are felt to be dead.”

I don’t remember the first time I met Rita—I only remember the general era when I first knew her. Of her background I knew nothing at that point; I only understood she was, in the late eighties, in her seventies and had recently started college. It was my good fortune that she had enrolled at LaGrange College, on whose faculty I had recently chanced to land, and that she became an English major which, not funeral director, was my field. I had her in several classes (I won’t say “taught” her—that’s absurd) over the next few years, and we became friends. I’m sure, as a college teacher, I’m not alone in my appreciation of the “non-traditional student.” People who are in your class because they want to be! Who appreciate what they learn there! Who understand the direct ratio of what one gains to what one invests! Who listen! Who are uninterested in the trivial and the shallow and the ephemeral! Who don’t already know everything! Who have life experience and therefore something to say!

That was Rita.

My point is not to nominate Rita as an exemplar of the aforementioned type. As I said, the irretrievable article made me think of her—in the sense that she, living alone, created her life in such a thoroughly social network—unimpeded by egotism, devoted to others. Many others. I used to receive regular notes and phone calls from her, letting me know she had said a rosary for me and my family, informing me of an upcoming PBS show she thought I might enjoy, telling me about some book or article, wishing me a happy Easter, whatever—always ending with “God bless.” There was something truly inspiriting about these gestures. The ideal funeral is one where each attendee first discovers that the guest of honor’s help and generosity were not unique to oneself. This was true of Rita’s funeral in April, 2012, when I realized it wasn’t just me getting the calls and notes, but everybody else in LaGrange too! Her life’s work was to love, encourage, and connect. Rita, a modest, pragmatic person, unsentimental, even a little brusque, would dismiss the preceding praise out of hand. She wasn’t trying to be righteous or to out-humble anybody; in fact, here is the secret of her appeal: she wasn’t trying to be anything. She simply knew the oldest secret in the world: the most rewarding way to live is to give, not take. Nothing is more grotesque than a selfish person, driven by the clownishness of ego, defined by what he or she acquires, motivated by the desire to incite envy, and in turn deformed by it—in other words, what passes for sane in America today. Rita had a carelessness with material things, business affairs, and so forth. She used her energy to infuse good will into the world. Man an island? How absurd. Every study of the contributors to human happiness and long life includes strong social bonds. As in language the central unit is not the word but the phrase—so in human life. Glen Beck preaches the pre-eminence of “the individual, the individual, the individual.” Oh, the dangers when the weak-minded are just smart enough to prefer textbook abstractions to real human feelings. Who see someone helping someone else and scream Marxism!

We are all only as real as the warp and woof in which we are threads. We are created by the connections we make and wouldn’t, I think, without connections, exist at all. Rita was a Catholic—devout and lifelong—and the church provided her with what she needed in life. She was her Catholicism, yet still managed to be completely herself. I believe the church performs two functions: it provides a structure in which people can organize satisfying social lives; and it offers transcendent meaning for the infinitely enigmatic human experience. Although I myself confess to have strayed, I respect both functions, and would even say the church’s emphasis on man’s better nature is socially indispensible—that is, if we’re to live together as human beings, not rats, in a viable democratic community, as we’re showing an increasing disinclination to do. Rita lived the essence of both functions, and if there was anything even vaguely evil or duplicitous or affected or vulgar or cruel in her being, I never saw it.

Rita was born in Toronto in 1916, and grew up as one of six siblings. How did she end up in LaGrange, Georgia? It’s amazing the people you run into in this town. She’s not the first person I’ve ever wondered that about. Including myself. What follows is sketchy—amazingly, I never really talked with Rita about her history—and I owe this general outline mostly to others.

In 1924, at the age of three, Rita’s younger brother Gerard contracted polio. In 1933 the Kitts family moved to Sheffield, Alabama for Mr. Kitts’ job. After graduating from high school Gerard worked for Reynolds Aluminum in Sheffield, and in the forties came to the Roosevelt Institute in Warm Springs, Georgia (30 miles from LaGrange), founded by FDR, for rehabilitation. Rita accompanied him, to assist him. In 1946 she took a job as a secretary at the Institute, and remained there until her retirement in 1984. Gerard went on to attend St. Bernard seminary in Cullman, Alabama, where he took monastic vows in 1952 (he had to get a dispensation because of his polio), became a priest in 1958, and earned an MA in History from Notre Dame in 1961, then came back to St. Bernard to teach history until 1972. He then did parish work, and died in 1990. Another of Rita’s brothers, Jerry, was a monk at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. After her retirement Rita moved to LaGrange; she had a few nieces and nephews scattered about, and her brothers whom she regularly visited, but for the most part her family was St. Peter’s in LaGrange.

Then in 1985 she decided to get a college education.

This is how she saw it:

“As the years pass, learning becomes one of the most exciting facets of life. Were not our minds made to be exercised, be it through books, people, or experiences? No, it is not easy. Great discipline and effort are required; but it can be a source of enrichment to one’s own life and the lives of others. The pursuit of knowledge (truth) continues to increase my understanding and appreciation of our Creator, the universe, other people, and myself. It enriches my life immeasurably and enables me to reach out to others and share this richness. Since God is the culmination of all truth, is it possible that we find God—find heaven—here on earth to the degree that we are open to the truth—to the fullness of life?” (written in 1997)

Typical of Rita—her most profound idea phrased as an expression of wonder.

My friend Scott Smith, also on the English faculty at the time Rita was an English major, likewise became a good friend of hers, and in the absence of close surviving family helped her with her business affairs, especially after she stopped driving and became increasingly frail in her last years. Rita hadn’t corralled much of the world’s possessions in her ninety-six years (as a touchingly austere final inventory among the paperwork attests), and there was some irregularity about her will; Scott ended up with a great folder of material, and Rita’s small purse. The latter, a black faux-velvet zippered handbag with embroidered lollipops, remained with him, untouched, until I mentioned to him my desire to commit some reflections about Rita to paper, and we devised the plan of opening the purse, which Scott suspected contained some money, and taking anything of value in it to St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, and hopefully speaking with her friends there. This, we knew, is what she would have wished. The purse contained insurance cards, credit cards, a Wal-Mart gift card, Rita’s driver’s license, her LaGrange College ID card (smiling proudly), keys, an “examination of conscience” bulletin from St. Peter’s 2011 Advent Penance Service, as well as, indeed, one hundred and seventy-five dollars in cash and some change. With this, we paid a visit to St. Bernard’s in November.

There, on a very cold day, we met a number of helpful folks, including Brother Charles Manning, and Abbot Cletus Meagher, who graciously accepted the donation and shared with us a half hour of his time, fondly remembering Rita, as well as Gerard, under whom he himself had studied years earlier, and whom he remembered as a “formidable teacher.” He recalled especially reading Daniel-Rops in Father Gerard’s history class—a writer I didn’t know, but discovered was a twentieth century French author, raised a Catholic, who left the church in disappointment at its indifference to modern dehumanization, then returned to it in deeper disappointment at secularism’s recusing itself from addressing man’s spiritual needs.

We just missed meeting one of Rita’s and Gerard’s closest friends, Father Joel Martin, who was just returning from a recruiting trip to China (about fifteen percent of St. Bernard’s secondary students are Asian) but with whom I later exchanged e-mails. He painted a memorable picture of Rita’s visits, which continued after Gerard’s death—always meticulously planned, with “appointments” to see various monks, and Benedictine nuns from the nearby Sacred Heart monastery. He wrote that he felt “pretty special” that she always asked to have lunch with him: “She always expressed thanks for me taking the time to visit, not understanding that it was an honor for me to be with her.” Through him, I could easily picture the pair of them at Denny’s, Rita with a notepad and a series of questions. “I remember thinking,” Father Joel wrote, “what can you possibly learn from me?” He explained how thoroughly she knew the Benedictine Rule, and how she tended to prefer the more liberal Catholic authors. “She liked the challenge and the ‘pushing of boundaries’ that they tended toward, yet her basic context was always love for the Church and its life and tradition. Her life of faith always focused on prayer and the psalms, scripture and the liturgy, and a preference for the needy and the suffering.” I could readily identify with his description of Rita when she disagreed with something he said, or was amused—the wry smile, or the way “she would laugh out loud with just one ‘Ha!’ followed by a huge smile. Then back to business.” In the courses she took with me, I respected her enough not to sanitize everything on her account, nor to censor what we read or the films we watched. I’ll just say: nothing fazed her.

I recently read an article that forecast the professions robotic automation was soon to displace, which was basically all of them, and I had a vision of a mechanized world with no need for people, and couldn’t help but wonder what the point would be. If all the recent time-saving technology, which has freed us up to watch more “Honey Boo-Boo” is the clue I fear it is, I don’t want to know. One hears the word “atheist” a good deal these days, as humanity struggles to keep viable a concept that science and the tragedy of history itself have made increasingly hard to support. There’s nothing new in this; it is an ongoing process that has accompanied the movement toward modern consciousness all along. Monotheism itself was an early step in the process toward atheism and bureaucratic efficiency—as increasing agricultural technology eliminated the need for spirits in nature, and increasing social complexity required a more efficiently-administered theology—the same force that gave rise to standardized language, or that led King Alfred to eschew paganism and embrace the Christian God, sensing that the unified England he envisioned would not be possible without its ethic. But the need for God—vastly defined—an idea such as the Laws of Physics or Randomness or Jehovah—that is inaccessible to human intelligence but felt to be in operation—that enables the construction of a meaningful rendering of human life—has not changed. It has simply evolved like everything else, which is why the science vs. religion debate seems so pointless to me. It is an argument not over two essences, but over two ways to express the same essence. To say that everything that can’t be translated into empirical symbolism is just filler and doesn’t really exist is as much a leap of faith as a belief in a divine being. Richard Dawkins, whose way of thinking I can’t distinguish from a fundamentalist Baptist’s, has his own God, whose primacy he asserts by what it condemns. Leaps of faith aren’t so much about faith as they are revelations of one’s mental architecture. The labor of the mind that defines us is not what we believe, but the believing itself.

Rita had her own God, which gave her the spiritual food she needed, which we all need: meaningfulness. (Including the exertion of saying everything is meaningless—which is just another way of saying that there is no language in which the essence of reality can be stated, which there isn’t. Self-awareness is faith.) Rita’s God enabled her to live a life of force and purpose, and one couldn’t be involved in her pursuit of “truth” without being deeply touched by the courage her faith gave her—the same courage that pushed her outside her lifelong shelter and into college. And, exercising it, as unaware of the cosmic whole as a single ant or bee is of the “hive intelligence,” she did more to hold society together than a thousand bureaucrats drawing up their missions and charts and rules. We keep trying to organize from the top down when we should start with the Ritas of the world and build up. She did the work that matters; bureaucrats invent work that builds resumes, not societies.

My mother died in April of 2011, a year before Rita. Mama’s last years were difficult, and following her death the merciful end of suffering dominated my emotions—until it faded and I began to understand the immensity of what I had lost. I had lost my father in 1993 and over the intervening years had watched my parents’ generation make its exit, one memorable personality at a time. I often saw (and still see) a mental image of a dais in a banquet hall holding the table of those above me, and watching the accumulation of empty seats. Feeling the loss of the generation I looked up to has been the loneliest and most painful experience of my life—like the ghost sensation of a missing limb. What do you mean it’s my turn? I don’t want the job. But more than that—the loss of people who loved you, who wished the best for you, who thought you were a good person, who prayed for you, creates a vacuum, I’ve learned, that nothing can fill. No more calls from Rita. The hub is gone; the center cannot hold. I believe I could easily fall into despair—except that I look over my shoulder and see an ocean of younger faces, isolated by their connecting technology, looking to me.

Rita earned a BA in English from LaGrange College in 1992, and added a second major in History, in her self-styled Cinderella period, in 2008, when she navigated a festooned and squeeze horn-equipped walker around campus. That year she wrote the following note:

“My time here has broadened my perspective immeasurably. I can’t tell you how valuable it’s been to me because my outlook on life at one time was very narrow. But here, I’ve just learned so much from so many people. It’s just unbelievable really—and everyone has been so kind and responsive.”

John M. Williams

John M. Williams

I teach at LaGrange College–a small, pleasant island in the ocean, Academia.  My colleagues are my friends; we are collegial.  I deal with creatures of inexhaustible charm, a foot on either side of that just beginning to widen crack which will force them shortly to leap one way, or fall the other.  They have vastly more promise than ignorance, but are rich in both.

I’ve been here so long I’m beginning to suspect some sorceress is playing a joke.  How did I get here?  Circuitously.

I was riding a stick horse in the pecan tree filled yard of a flat-roofed house in Auburn, Alabama–that much is vivid.  Then, it all begins to blur.  All my grammar school teachers were old (perfectly lovely) women; my children’s grammar school teachers were all hot babes.  Why is that?  The main thing I remember about high school is Mr. Goff.  Him, and a handful of friends (you know who you are).  I think everything I learned in high school could have been easily condensed into one strenuous afternoon.  Then college, where I was rejected by calculus and attracted to letters, my favorites being M and G.  The eras of my life have all been covered, one way or another, in my scribblings.  My childhood is encoded most accurately and completely in my story “In the Beginning Was Kitto.”  That gripping tale is not included here because it’s in a collection called Snake Dreams that I’m trying to sell!

After college, travel–then grad school, then travel, then five years in the printing business, then aimlessness, then LaGrange, grad school again, marriage, children, and a series of red felt-tipped pens.  Here, the birthdays have become like cards being fanned in a deck.  Like I said, a blur.  Blur blur blur.  You have to fight the blur!  Speak truth to blur!  You have to nail little exertions of precision to the shadowy walls of life’s dubious corridor.

To those of you in other trenches who hear this faint tapping–tap back!