Nothing Lasts Forever

Last night as I was learning about Confucius I saw a historian who reminded me of my thesis advisor and friend, Dr. Robert D. Richardson, Jr. I thought, “I haven’t heard from Bob since???” It was fall 20219. We’d lost contact with each other at some point in the 2000s and after I found a book he’d written — Nearer the Heart’s Desire — about Edward FitzGerald who had translated The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam into English. I wrote about it here.

I went online to find him, found contact information for an email, and wrote him, basically asking him if he were still alive as I’d found an obituary with his name but couldn’t be sure it wasn’t him. He wrote back — happily! — that he was still there. He asked for my address and sent me a copy of the book. I read it over a couple of evenings and loved it.

So…last night I again looked for Dr. Richardson online and, sadly, this time I found obituaries. The first was written by one of my former professors. I realized if I ever opened the alumni magazine that arrives from time to time in my mailbox, I would have known last year.

When I wrote the China book, he was in my thoughts the whole time. Although I was so burdened by wanderlust at that time in my life that I studied densely printed National Geographic maps for fun, Dr. Richardson was the one who put the China bug in my ear. He wasn’t serious, as it happens. He’d recently visited Shanghai and Beijing (1980) and had returned with the assessment that it was a grim, stultifying, ugly, evil place where no one should go. He referred to it as “Dickens’ China.”

“Why don’t you go to China?” he said to me one afternoon when I’d come into his office with a draft of my thesis and my wanderlust.

“How can I do that?”

“Just send a letter to a university with your CV.” (I didn’t know what a CV was)

When I actually DID that (after he’d recommended some universities) he became very worried. What if I actually WENT? He and his wife invited me for supper and the killed the fatted leg of lamb and asparagus for the event. After dinner, his wife and daughters left the dining room so Bob and I could talk. He was afraid I was having an existential crisis and recommended Erikson’s book, Identity, Youth, and Crisis. A week or so later, I saw him in the English Department office and he said, “Why do you want to go away so badly? You know what Milton said.”

Of course I didn’t. I had always found Milton unreadable. I shook my head.

“In Paradise Lost. He wrote, ‘The mind is its own place and can make hell a heaven and of heaven a hell’.” Milton’s actual words are a little different, but I think Dr. Richardson was a better writer.

When I was clearly determined to go, he introduced me to one of his students from China so I could learn Chinese. When I finally got a job and went, I wrote Dr. Richardson often. My letters were so enthusiastic that he searched for — and quickly found — a position at a university in Sichuan. He happened to be in Beijing when I was there but the government refused to allow us to meet.

I dedicated my China book to him, and while I want to sell it and for people to read it, the reader in my mind as I wrote was him. When I finished, and it was published, I sent him a copy. His response was one of the loveliest letters I’ve had in my life. Now I know that we completed our own circle in those exchanges.

Since then, I’ve remembered many of our contacts over the years. It’s normal that people pass in and out of our lives and even that we lose the thread of people we care about. I don’t really buy that “people come into our lives for a reason” thing, but it is impossible that all the people we care about can stay in the same place any more than we can stay in the same place. We don’t, not physically or psychically or philosophically or anything. It seems like human life is this constantly fluctuating mess of change. Once I thought it was like mountain climbing but now, if I were to give it a sports analogy it would be surfing. We are all trying to stand safely on our board and make it to shore. And shore? It might be a nice beach where we relax until we’re ready for the next set, sometimes it’s THE shore.

But I’m sad, a little washed out today, even with company coming. Dr. Richardson was a remarkable man, a very fine writer, an inspiring teacher and — in my little life — one of my staunchest allies. Here are a couple of lovely obituary/articles about him. He was a fine writer, a find scholar and an inspiring teacher.

Robert Richardson Jr., Biographer of Literary Giants, Dies at 86 (NYT)

Opinion: How America can shift to the right direction (WaPO)

The featured photo is from this article in USA Today about his biography of Thoreau



25 thoughts on “Nothing Lasts Forever

      • “Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven.” It actually humanizes the Devil. Makes his motives understandable. More than a few people can identify with it.

  1. Thank you and I so enjoyed this post and looked at the link- The second one noted not still available. Makes me want now to read some of his work.  Am flagging the post for future reference. Linda 

  2. You were so fortunate to have had such a wonderful mentor! I think when we write with a specific person/audience in mind it holds us accountable and maybe pushes us to excellence. Our lives do intersect, run in tandem and often just pass close enough to cause a wiggle in our orbits….

    • That’s funny that you write that. Dr. Richardson said to me one afternoon while we were working on my thesis, “We teach that you can achieve anything with hard work but think about it, Martha. Even in Horatio Alger’s stories everything hinges on luck.” He died of a blood clot in his brain resulting from a fall…

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