Next Wednesday, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, our community will say farewell to John Shoop, who disappeared while sailing on Smith Mountain Lake.
I won’t presume to eulogize John Shoop. I was fond of him, and I think he liked me, but I can’t claim to have known him well. It takes years – and many contexts – to know a man well. I didn’t have that opportunity.
Many will be better equipped to speak in John’s memory. His was a merry, generous and outgoing soul. A man like John makes many friends, and keeps them.
St. John’s is a cozy church, and I’m sure John’s friends could fill it several times over. I trust they will.
But if I don’t attempt to sing John Shoop’s praises, I’ll miss him. I feel intensely for his wife, Thea, whom I’ve known a good deal longer – through her service in the country library system.
I’ll also be thinking about his son, whom I don’t know. He has, too soon, lost a remarkable father. I know how that feels.
For myself, I’d prefer to reflect on what John taught through the example of his life. When people leave us, honoring what we learned from them is a way of keeping them alive.
I got to know John through the Shepherd’s Center, where he was one of the perennials in my Shakespeare classes. He signed up for my very first class – probably at Thea’s instigation – but he kept coming back for more, term after term. John and Thea attended many of the shows we discussed in class, and he usually reported on their reactions at the next class.
This was true of a good many of my Chester Shakespeareans. Over time, we formed a fairly compact group which eagerly discussed the texts, attended the plays, and discussed our impressions. It was delightful to gather every week with people in their 60s, 70s – even older – who were hungry to learn new things.
I believe this says a great deal about human nature. Humans certainly aren’t the only species which delights in learning, but we’re high on the list of creatures who pursue knowledge right up to the end of our lives.
John was 74 when he went for his last sail. He was still learning – still up for adventure – right up to that day.
There’s a lesson in that.
Curiously enough, I’ve just finished a remarkable novel which has much to say on the topic of lifelong curiosity and action.
Recently, my best friend and I spent a day on the Oregon coast. In a Cannon Beach bookstore, she picked up the one remaining copy of Brian Doyle’s Mink River. Pretty soon, she was reading passages aloud.
It sounded good, so two days later, waiting for my plane at Sea-Tac, I downloaded the Kindle edition. I finished it in 48 hours – and immediately started it again.
It’s that good.
Mink River is a beautifully written tale set in a small town on the Oregon coast. Funny and tragic by turns, it concerns the lives of a dozen or so inhabitants of the town – mostly, but not exclusively, human – over one of northwest Oregon’s short sunny seasons.
Its enchantment lies in those characters, who are drawn with unusual clarity, depth and affection.
The two central characters – Worried Man and Cedar – are in their late sixties, but their hunger for knowledge and adventure is undiminished. Worried Man, his Salish Indian name, is not particularly worried, though he’s deeply compassionate. Cedar, a name he took when post-war amnesia and a near drowning erased his past, is as rooted, tough and resilient as his namesake.
Worried Man and Cedar constitute the town’s Department of Public Works. Between them, they’ve expanded their department’s mission to include everything possible to benefit the town’s residents – human, furred or feathered.
At the novel’s climax, they climb Oregon’s daunting Mount Hood, they call it by its Salish name, Wyeast, in search of the secret of Time.
In a lifetime of reading, Mink River is one of the best novels I’ve encountered. It came as a special gift to meet Worried Man and Cedar – two older guys with bold, questing spirits – at a time when I was thinking of John Shoop.
For many years, my favorite poem has been Tennyson’s Ulysses, a celebration of those questing spirits which yield nothing to the years. If I were to speak a word in John’s memory, it might be this:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Farewell, John Shoop.