Truth. It’s a deceivingly simple word—one we’re tempted to believe comes flat like a pancake instead of layered like a wine.
I was raised on pancake truths. Most of us are: right and wrong, good and bad, rich and poor, black and white. The binaries keep life clear, and to be fair, they often match the mental capacity of a child. But we do not stay children, and pancakes aren’t wine.
Truth was changed for me by a termite; well, a story of a termite. I was sitting in a classroom of high ceilings and refractive windows, set aglow through colored slates of glass. The classroom was familiar; the professor was not. He was visiting. An applicant for a new position at my college.
A host of the English department faculty sat behind me, prepared to analyze the man’s aptitude over the 50-minute teaching period. They weren’t alone in their curiosity. Close-clipped gray hair, slender frame and incandescent blue eyes, he was introduced as Professor Behr. He then quickly informed us that we must call him “Mark.” He also said we could call him “My Prince” but that “Professor Behr” absolutely would not do.
At this point, I slyly twisted my neck to catch the eyes of my faculty advisor and flashed a half-cocked smile and a raised eyebrow. His eyes glittered, as if to say, “Just, wait for it.”
I faced forward to find Mark stepping away from the teaching podium and pulling close one of the insufferably tiny desks the rest of us had wedged ourselves into. He stopped a few feet short of me, flipped back the writing tablet and handsomely crossed his legs. I hid my grin in my scarf, unwilling to admit he’d gained my loyalty right then and there.
“Now, what,” he said, “did you think of our little story?”
He was referring to the assignment sent the week before: Chapter 1 of Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. It was the story of the Ark, freed from the gloss of a human narrator. We all knew the tale, but never told by an animal—a stowaway deemed threatening to the integrity of the Ark’s mission, a termite. The fugitive, who hid his family aboard the ark for their preservation, shares what he saw and felt and believed about the whole experience. He talks with passion about the animals that died together in the flood rather than separating into a chosen pair and the rejects. He exposes some of the less than savory escapades of Ham on the ark. He blusters about Noah’s drinking problem. By the end of the termite’s tale, I’d laughed, pursed my lips and found myself more than a little unsettled.
Mark clearly intended to lean into that unease. “What was the point of this story?”
It was quiet for a moment before I revealed my hand, “It’s designed to complicate our understanding of the real story.”
The eyes illuminated. “Marvelous!” he said, “What is your name?!”
“Katy, this it truly delightful. You said exactly what I hoped for and now I can terrorize you for the rest of the class!”
We all chuckled, my laugh a bit more breathy than the rest and spiked with anxiety. The acceptance-addict clamored inside.
“Who decides the real, or the true, story?” Mark asked.
Our laughter hushed. He pushed forward,
“What one, single story carries all of the truth in it?
“Today, you’ll leave this classroom, and everyone sitting on the right will talk about the devilishly good looking professor who stunned them with his acuity—I’m quite dashing from the right, you know. But those of you on the left, you see this ghastly crook in my nose that completely throws off my features. To you, I look like a buffoon, and you’ll name me as such to your friends. But who among you is right? Which of your carries the real story?
“Truth,” Mark declared, “is only gained when everyone speaks. It is the result of our collective, and it can only exist when we welcome the voices and heed the experiences of one another. I cannot know truth without you, and you cannot know truth alone.”
That day I started listening for the termites…and with some encouragement from Mark over the next year (because of course he got the job), I started telling the popular story less often so I could tell my story instead. Mark watched me and cultivated, and he began to fight for the girl beneath the acceptance-addict. He began to provoke me to say whatever it was I was really thinking.
In class, he’d sometimes declare things that infuriated me with their polarity. He’d grow dramatic or inflammatory. One day, Mark began class announcing that we would have pop quizzes for the rest of the year because he was so disappointed in our participation the last class. He went on and on about our disrespect for the academic process and our failure to cultivate fruitful discussion. It was excessive, and his generalizations were absurd. I leaned on my elbow and rolled my eyes, LOUDLY.
“I SEE YOU, EYEROLLER!” he shouted jubilantly from the front. “DON’T THINK YOUR PROTEST AND DISGUST IS LOST ON ME!” I was mortified. He was radiant. He addressed me as “EYEROLLER” the rest of the class. And by the end, all I could do was laugh at myself, and he was quick to laugh at himself too.
Every student taught by Mark felt the benefit of his brilliance and vivacity. But Mark changed my life because of his fierce choice to delight in my rebellion—my sauciness, my unfiltered truth. I knew he cherished me, because he welcomed the worst in me. He’s been a steady champion in my life, always inviting me to own my broken, bright, sacred and irreverent wholeness.
A couple of weeks ago, the morning I awoke to decorate my Christmas tree, I opened Facebook and felt like my world froze. The article couldn’t be true; the one that said Mark had died. I scoured the Internet and found the harsh, confirming facts: Heart Attack. In the night. Home in South Africa. Never woke up.
Mark was 52 years old.
I never said goodbye. I never had the thought I would have to. I’d spent the week before outlining the story I told above in the book I’m writing about college, and now I’ll be writing about Mark and all of why he matters to me carrying the ache that he’ll never read my manuscript to circle large chunks of text and demand in blue pen that I “consider the other side!!!!!!”
I find it heartbreaking and infuriating. I feel like the one stowed away on the ark while everything I love falls to ruin, shouting at the Creator and his drunk director of operations, “REALLY! THIS WAS YOUR GREAT PLAN?! BECAUSE IT’S BEEN SHODDILY MANAGED.”
The last thing Mark ever commented on that I wrote was a small and angsty blog post in a quiet little corner of the Internet. I wrote that day about how hard the beauty of life is…and how much doubt I carry about my piece of it: the book I’m writing…my relationships… Mark reached out from his corner of the world, just to say, “I see you, my dear, and I like what I see. I’m with you in the story and the truth.”
It feels most honoring to close this post like I closed that one, for the words all still ring true:
“I listen to the friends around me from 25 to 55, and they all have their stories of strain right now– their job or lack of job, their spouse or lack of spouse, their kids, their debt, their questions, their driving purpose or lack of clarity. We are all a burdened crew. And, we are more than that. As I survey the faces I know best, I see them walking into their stories with courage and integrity. In the midst of their own doubts, I experience their hope, and it tastes like God.
So I am going to try and keep writing and waiting and taking spontaneous trips, because this life we live is a hard kind of beautiful, and I don’t want to miss out.”
To Mark, my friend and mentor, all love and gratitude. My deepest prayer is that this side of life is only our silver rim.
Katy Johnson lives, dreams, writes, and edits in a messy, watercolored world. She’s a 26 year old, discovering her hope, her longings, and the wild spaces in her own heart. Her favorite creative project right now is called The Someday Writings, and someday, she may let those writings see the light of day. For now, she shares her thoughts here.