I know it sounds crazy, but years ago I entertained the notion of attending divinity school. Crazier still, the one school I found myself wanting to attend was none other than Harvard Divinity. You see, I had a couple of friends who also happened to be Harvard Div. grads. One of them, a part-time university chaplain, thought Harvard would be the perfect place for me. Did she not know I was lucky to make it through public high school – only a year later to be kicked out of community college? Yes, I did learn from my mistakes and go on to graduate from a state university but holy cow, it was by the skin of my teeth. Don’t ask me why, but in her eyes I was Harvard Divinity School material. Poor woman, what was she thinking?
I never made it to divinity school – let alone Harvard. The closest I got was one afternoon when I, along with a few young undergrads from the local university, met for an hour with an admissions officer from Harvard Div. After the meeting I seriously thought about busting a move to Cambridge, Mass. But then not long after that, things seem to change. The idea of spending three years and a ton of money to get an advanced degree in theology or comparative religion when I hadn’t set foot in a church in years (other than the occasional weddings and funerals) no longer seemed appealing. Also around the same time, I received a promotion at work and for the first time I felt I had a career instead of merely a job. So no Harvard Div. for me.
So you can only imagine how I must have felt when I came across a copy of Andrea Raynor’s 2014 memoir Incognito: Lost and Found at Harvard Divinity School during one of public library visits. Of course, how I could not resist grabbing it? Had I attended Harvard like Raynor, this could have been me. Well, maybe.
True to her memoir’s subtitle, in Incognito Raynor recalls her experiences attending Harvard Divinity School, as well the period immediately following graduation. Judging by the historical and cultural references, I’m guessing she attended Harvard in early to mid 1980s. This puts it roughly seven to eight years after the events depicted in André Aciman’s semi-autobiographical novel Harvard Square. It begins with her arrival at Harvard as slightly sheltered, and as a result somewhat naive Midwesterner. (But true to Midwestern stereotypes she’s also comes across as wholesome, giving and unpretentious.) A recent graduate of Dennison University, she’s chosen Harvard not just as a place to obtain a world-class education, but also the launching pad for God’s higher purpose for her life. Starting out anyway, she has no idea what that higher purpose might be. But graduation is a few years away, and in her heart she’s confident it will all be figured out by then.
Along the way she meets a cavalcade of memorable individuals including a young Jewish lesbian intent on being a rabbi, an ex-con from South America who’s turned around his life, left-leaning church workers, homeless shelter denizens and snooty academics. The tales of her love life I found kinda amusing, since her love interests included a Colombian cellist, a medical student and her on and off Dennison boyfriend. As luck would have it, she also gets to take a class from the great Catholic luminary Henri Nouwen. She also gets arrested after taking part in a political protest. And in the end, without revealing too much, she finds her sense of purpose.
I found her memoir incredibly charming. While I wished she would have shared at least a few more details about what she was studying, I also realize that kind of stuff doesn’t always make for the most fascinating and exciting reading, especially for general audiences. My only knock on Raynor’s memoir is it kinda loses focus and energy after she finally graduates from Harvard. But like I said, it’s a charming read. It did not disappoint me.