This one’s personal. We sent off another one of the group tonight. Thabo from South Africa has a flight on Wednesday, so we told stories and clinked our glasses and traded long, slow hugs all the way to the cab. David is gone now, and Peter and Karin, and Sapiyat, and the rest of us will trickle away one or two at a time from this place and this moment. Most of us are going back to jobs we love and people we miss. But the truth is that none of us want to leave.
Last Friday the 2008-09 Nieman Fellowship at Harvard officially ended. We rushed through the ceremony because Harvard President Drew Faust was the speaker and we were on her tight schedule. It didn’t matter. No ceremony could have gone slow enough to suit us. We would have been thrilled to drag it out for weeks.
You know how you stay up late on the last night of vacation because you don’t want it to end? We’ve been like that for a month. Our body clocks are wrecked. Some nights we stay up ’til sunrise and some days we sleep ’til noon. There is always another party or another outing and we say yes, yes, always yes, because when we’re together we have superpowers, together we can bend time back toward us, together we can almost stop it.
There are 29 of us fellows; add in spouses, partners and kids and we come to more than 60. Think about spending a year with 60 strangers from all over the world. Think about realizing, late in the year, to your shock, that you like them all. Love them, even.
Our time together is called a fellowship, and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about that word. When I was growing up it was a church word. In the back of any decent-sized Baptist church there’s always a fellowship hall, and that’s where you went after the Easter service or at homecoming to grab fried chicken and deviled eggs, and then sit down at long tables to talk. That was the real purpose of the fellowship hall — to spend a little time, get to know each other, deepen friendships.
This year we have made fellowship halls everywhere. We have had fellowship around tables at bars, standing on the bow of a whale-watching boat, drinking coffee around a weathered wooden table, sitting on benches in a stately old theater, in our apartments, in subway cars, out on the sidewalk, walking the long way home so we can be together two streets longer.
We have learned more about one another than we know about some members of our own families. We have shared secrets. We have had bitter arguments and patched the hurt places. We are still talking, still fellowshipping, even though the clock has run out and we are deep into extra time.
The test, of course, is the follow-through — how tight we stay together when we scatter to the corners of the globe, back at our old jobs, with our old friends, with so many things conspiring to fold up this year and put it in a drawer until the names are too faded to read.
That has happened to me more than once.
But here’s what we learned at Harvard: Love and friendship is all. You don’t have to go to Harvard to learn that, but damn if it isn’t a lesson that fails to sink in for most of us.
There are these wonderful inventions called e-mail and Skype, and there are still such things as telephones and postage stamps. There are these glorious things called airplanes that will lift us up from Charlotte and deposit us in Dublin or Beijing or Mexico City, and they can lift you up, too, to the places you need to go and the people you need to see.
Love and friendship is all, and the only way to make it work is to live your life in fellowship, present tense. That is what we plan to do. And if we play it right these next few weeks of seeing one another off will just be commas instead of periods, and the sentence will run on and on and never end, and we will spend the rest of our lives hugging and waving and parting but never really saying goodbye.