InsightOut: Cardboard, Thresholds, and Hope

Sam Hodgkins-Sumner is the Executive Assistant in the Office of the Principal. He graduated from U of T last year with a B.A.in Philosophy, and a minor in Christianity and Culture. Currently, he is in a cabin somewhere in the woods.


Cardboard, Thresholds, and Hope

Photograph of Odette Hall on the St. Mike's campus

If you’d told me in late February that assembling and packing boxes with Randy Boyagoda’s books and personal effects would be the highlight of my workweek, I’d have probably laughed (or maybe wanted to cry) at the idea. Yet that’s exactly how things turned out on June 11th. There I found myself sorting books alphabetically by last name—Ellison, Faulkner, Gaddis—and receiving instruction from the incoming FAS Vice Dean, Undergraduate on how to fold down cardboard flaps so as not to require any tape—a trick he learned working at a book factory in his student days. Only the crunch of the occasional Dorito break punctuated the thumps and thuds as we stacked pounds and pounds of American literature and Catholic tradition. Not a typical day at Saint Mike’s, but it sure beat Microsoft Teams meetings.

Why was this packing session so bittersweet for me? It had to be something more than working, eating, and chatting with our outgoing Principal, because I’d had the chance to do all of those during my year in his office. But in a sense, that was all it was about. For the preceding ten weeks, I’d missed the many interruptions by the people who show up at my door (who would have guessed that?), discussions of current events over morning coffee, and running into people on my way to the mailroom. My work hadn’t featured the conversation, shared meals, or other un-screen-mediated interactions that so make being a part of the USMC community rich and joyful.

We find ourselves in a liminal time. We’re passing between life before and after COVID as case numbers drop in many parts of the world, but worries of second waves and the absence of widely available vaccines or immunity tests mean that we haven’t crossed the threshold yet. We don’t know what life on the other side of that threshold will look like. Many have died; many have lost their loved ones, others their jobs. The pandemic, along with the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing demonstrations and public discourse, has reminded us of racial and economic inequality in this American election year. We can only hazard guesses at the timeline that runs towards social and cultural normalcy, towards full concert halls, naves, patios, and any of those other places where we gather in embodied groups.

Further, we find ourselves in a spiritually liminal time. Our regular rhythm of movement about the city, with its many external distractions and stimulation, has been disrupted. The resonance between COVID workspace and monastic cell is evident for those of us with the privilege of working from home; we were afforded a lot of time for rumination and reflection, at least before summer weather broke. The occasional escape-via-HBO-binge notwithstanding, something has shifted inside of most of us.

Again, we wonder: what ramifications—social, political, economic, and spiritual—will result from this liminal time?

As another entry in this series reminded me, times of privation and uncertainty can also be occasions for memory and hope. One of the most enjoyable and memorable aspects of my time in the Principal’s Office so far has been serving as a staff member in the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas. The Seminar is a synecdoche for St. Mike’s at its best: Gilson involves the integration of work, play, and friendship. Gilsonians study great texts together, enjoy pelting each other with dodgeballs every month, and share an experience of travel (barring pandemics). It’s been inspiring watching Professor Boyagoda offer his whole person to the Seminar as he led our office in its administration, taught students with the support of our two postdoctoral Fellows, and even brought his family to many of its events. Such leadership is among the many reasons we will miss him in the role of Principal. Although he’s moving on to the Faculty of Arts and Science, Professor Boyagoda will remain the instructor of the Gilson Seminar—an occasion for hope!

Another occasion for hope in our office lies in the fact that we’re gaining Principal Emeritus Mark McGowan on an interim term. Professor McGowan’s devotion to Saint Michael’s over the years, and his considerable institutional memory, will surely prove invaluable in the months to come.

I value working at a place like Saint Mike’s, a place that seeks to nurture the whole person in a community of study, service, friendship and spiritual practice. Although we can’t currently be together in the way we’d want, we can remember what USMC was like before our liminal moment, and look to the future with hope.