I attended middle school and high school at Lakeside in Seattle. In those days it was customary to have your friends and favorite teachers sign and perhaps inscribe your yearbook at the end of the school year. In 1980, the year I graduated, I asked Hugh Tower, my favorite teacher, to sign mine. This is what he wrote:
The dance must be danced above the terrible abyss,
It must be dark to see the stars,
And the word can only be heard in silence.
The first class I had with Mr. Tower was 7th grade Ancient History. We also read Homer’s Odyssey in a classics class that same year so we had two views into the Middle East. The epic poem which took us around the Mediterranean and Mr. Tower’s instruction on the Persian empire and the Fertile Crescent, the “land between the rivers” Tigris and Euphrates.
In 2014 found myself in Erbil, Kurdistan which is in Northern Iraq. I was an FBI agent, and as the Legal Attache in Baghdad, I was responsible for all FBI matters in Iraq. I had just returned from the US and was visiting my sub-office at the consulate in Erbil. My flight had arrived at 2:00AM and by the time I got to the consulate compound it was about 4:00AM and I couldn’t sleep. So I made a pot of coffee and took a cup out to a patio where I could watch the sun rise. As I settled in to enjoy the peace of this solitary moment a flash of insight came to me.
I realized I had lived the last year at the US Embassy in Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris River, and was now enjoying the morning light at the headwaters of the Fertile Crescent. I was living in the world Mr. Tower had described to me all those decades ago. I was surprised by a strong desire to share the experience and to thank him for teaching me about this place. And since it was decades later, I was able to find his email address and send him a message that day. I shared my experience in the morning sun, and also thanked him for the inscription in my yearbook. I even tried to describe how much it had impacted me over the years.
To my delight, I got a reply the next day and enjoyed hearing his news. We hadn’t spoken in 15 years at that point. But towards the end he shared something surprising. Wryly, he admitted he didn’t remember what he had written in my yearbook but thought he was probably just trying to be clever and funny. He was certainly glad to hear it had made such a positive impact, but it was not his intent when thinking of what to write off-the-cuff in yet another student’s yearbook.
I’ve taken three lessons from these events.
1) Profound gratitude for having been influenced by Hugh Tower.
2) A keen awareness of how the things you do penetrate into the people around you much more deeply than you often intend.
3) What he wrote is absolutely true: Life is indeed a dance over a terrible abyss, it absolutely must be dark to see the the full beauty of the universe, and the truth of who you are can only be heard in the deep silence of your soul.
Whether he was aware of it or not, and regardless of whether he intended to or not, Hugh Tower wrote a great truth in 26 words. And after 40 years, even knowing it was not by intent but by instinct that he wrote them, they still carry profound meaning to me.