Yesterday I moved apartments. All day, while transferring my belongings, I was looking for a card that I knew had to be in my apartment somewhere. It was a Yale ID card for library privileges, one of those cards you get specially made for the research assistant job. The staff at Sterling Library have to scan it when you pick up a book for your supervisor. But I couldn’t find it anywhere.
I thought to myself: Don’t panic. Everything that gets put down somewhere gets picked up somewhere else, unless it’s been thrown away. Surely the card would turn up. Nobody else lived in my apartment, and it would have been extremely unlike me to throw it away. I have never thrown out anything else Charlie Hill has ever given me. One time I ran to his office in the snow because I was convinced I had figured out Tibetan Buddhism. By the time I got there, my hair was plastered to my head and covered in snow. This vexed him, and he wordlessly got up from his desk, dug around in the little library-slash-knickknack-hoard in the back of the room, and pulled out a Yale baseball hat. (He really liked baseball.) He put it on my head, fussed over it for a minute, and told me to never lose it. And I never did.
I’m a symbolic thinker, always looking for the proper metonym. Maybe that was why the loss of the library card bothered me so much. We are defined by the people who yoke us, the people for whom we are willing to act in uncharacteristic ways. Those are the ones we love. Getting books from the library, having things printed at Tyco: these are wildly un-Tessa-like things to do. Usually I don’t even remember to do them for myself. But for almost three years I ran these errands for Charles Hill. It was worth it to sit and hear him lay his plans, explaining what grand project justified needing the books in the first place. Being his RA was an eclectic mixture of responsibilities. Mostly, he wanted me to write essays, annotate bibliographies, curate lists of sources. But even when I was doing menial tasks, I got paid fifteen bucks an hour to watch my personal hero string Odysseus’ bow. It was the best deal I ever made.
I took the RA position at the close of my sophomore year. The first year and a half of my membership in the Charles Hill cult were just like anyone else’s—just like yours, probably, if you’re reading this. I went to his office hours religiously, asked him to be my sophomore advisor (he said he’d be “honored,” like he says to everyone), came to him with curated questions that I knew he would find interesting. I quoted him in the articles I wrote for the Yale Free Press. I memorized Edmund Burke’s “On Conciliation with the Colonies” to impress him.
But by early 2017, it had become apparent that I wasn’t interested in politics. (Here, Professor Hill would draw a distinction between “politics” and “Politics“ with a capital P, and say it was the former that I didn’t care for. We would all nod good-naturedly.) I didn’t want to study global affairs. I knew then that I would not end up taking any of his courses in foreign negotiations, diplomacy, grand strategy. When he discussed those things in office hours, I let my eyes glaze over, waiting for the neocons to leave so I could go back to listening to him talk about how DuBois sets up The Souls of Black Folk in the tradition of the Homeric epic.
That’s why he offered me the job, I think. I would have fallen through the cracks otherwise. Charlie Hill was an incredibly observant person, and a very warm one. He was always running tabs on his people, subtly checking in on them when he thought it would have been an imposition to ask outright. It made him happy to hear the steady Turing machine clicks and be reassured everyone was okay. I think this—I know it—because I’m like that too. I don’t know which came first: whether he picked me to be part of his world because he saw that I was like him, or whether I made myself in his image because his picking me was the best thing that ever happened to me.
There’s a crosswalk stoplight in New Haven (corner of Elm and York) that skips time when it counts down. It tells you in electric red letters how many seconds you have to cross—“30, 29, 28,” and so on—like a lot of digital walk/wait signs do. But unlike those other signs, this one skips from “60” directly to “20,” and I, a 24-year-old woman who has been living independently for years, am always thrown off by this. When I was an undergrad this was a serious impediment to my crossing the street. I just thought I had more time.
Another metonym: I just thought I had more time seems like a strange response to the death of someone old. But people live to 90 now. All the grandparents I have who were alive when I was born are still alive now. I didn’t see this coming.
Not a metonym: I was sometimes late to meetings with Prof. Hill because of this stoplight. The reason that I was disturbed by something as irrelevant to most people as a malfunctioning pedestrian walk sign is that I have serious attention problems. (That’s how you have to put it. You can’t say “I have ADHD” because people think it’s like saying “I have a splinter.”) I have a hard time taking my medication regularly because I’m afraid of getting addicted: I have a history of substance abuse. Alcohol. Sometimes I wonder if my professors knew—if Charlie knew. I went to his office, as usual, the week I quit drinking. He cleared his throat, told me he liked my new rosary, and said offhandedly, “You look healthier than I’ve ever seen you.”
Much of my life is defined by that struggle, with alcohol, with functionality. I see it now in the fifty-page commentary on George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan that I wrote for Prof. Hill the summer after my senior year. He did ask me to write it, although he probably regretted it when he saw how long it was. One paragraph I keep looking back at is this:
There is a pleasant romantic delusion, which is extremely pernicious and to which I subscribed for much too long, that the genius is ontologically sick. This is the theorem penned by Mann about Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. Their sickness, beyond providing fodder for their creativity, was their creativity: its basis and its completion. Without illness, the argument goes, they would be nothing. Mann’s tragic hero Adrian Leverkuhn was the personification of the unstable genius, the starving artist who is simultaneously a madman and a creator, and indeed is an artist only inasmuch as he is a madman. His bouts of creativity are bouts of mania or psychosis, engendered either because he is insane (mental illness) or in a rush of productivity caused by his knowledge that his days are numbered (physical illness).
The reason I ever bought into that theory at all is that I wasn’t put together in undergrad. Quitting drinking didn’t fix that: I’m still not. I oversleep classes and appointments. I delay things and take extensions. Even the most put-together iteration of me is an incredibly fragile equilibrium. (My apartment was too noisy a few weeks ago. I had to move to retain functionality.) So it was charming, the idea that there’s a degree of intelligence beyond which it’s fundamentally impossible to execute basic functionality. It’s reassuring to believe that. You get to be Einstein, or Godel, or whatever famously not-cut-out-for-life-under-contemporary-capitalism intellectual you want to be. You get to shout “I’M SICK! I’M SICK!” like in that scene from Synecdoche, New York, and toss around in bed and do nothing. But in the end, of course, it’s a silly thing to think. You need accomplishments to call yourself a genius. And you can’t get those without doing work.
I tried to work when I worked for Professor Hill. I did my best for him, but I am not a reliable person. I struggled to get things done when he wanted them, to reply to emails. He understood this pitfall about me, and he made me want to work. He knew I needed direction and firm deadlines but not to be yelled at. And he took me on as a research assistant for three years, even though I was not the best choice. Research assistants don’t have to be creative or smart. They have to get stuff done. Being enveloped in his world transformed my life for the better, but it must have inconvenienced him, at least at the beginning.
Sometimes the whole thing seems so illogical I’m not even sure it happened. Charles Hill walked around campus enshrouded in reverence and awe. There were members of my class much more functional and accomplished than I—it was Yale, for goodness sake—who wanted the kind of relationship with him that I had, the way he would brush it off when I dropped the ball. Why me and not them? Maybe, what I lacked in diligence and responsibility, I made up in enthusiasm. Or maybe I just needed him more than they did. Hospitals are for the sick, after all.
Like I said: I thought I had more time. I didn’t see this coming. Around New Year’s, Professor Hill emailed me comments on a magazine piece I’d written, and I never replied.
Well, I never replied yet. We carried out correspondences over months, not days. This is to some extent attributable to the fact that when he wrote me, it was usually with instructions for a project: “Write something about X.” His plans were both specific enough to be interesting and open-ended enough for me to be creative about the approach. Over the past two years, he had been thinking a lot about the future of artificial intelligence, so I had been writing about it. What I sent him in December was about how to interpret the AI advent in light of American religious history. It was exactly the kind of spin he loved to put on things.
He was full of zany ideas, really—like a sitcom character getting up to shenanigans. One week I’d be checking out books on originalism from Sterling and writing commentaries on Keith Whittington’s books. The next week I’d be writing about baseball (I emphasize again that Prof. Hill really liked baseball) and its relationship to the future of artificial intelligence. Could a machine, he wanted to know, get good at baseball the way it could get good at chess? In the process of brainstorming, he suggested something I thought was a very evocative Turing test: “explain why some people are dog people and some people are cat people.”
He loved being interdisciplinary, and the idea of interdisciplinary students serving as translators between fields. I have a degree in mathematics; naturally, Prof. Hill wanted me to learn Greek to translate Plato’s mathematical dialogues. He loved adding an interdisciplinary bent to something and seeing if it made sense. It reminded me of something Borges wrote in Tlon, about the poets of noun-less languages stacking together adjectives to create a resultant theoretical “poem-object.” Charlie would do this—add “mathematics” to something and pitch it to me as an idea.
“The mathematics of the Constitution,” he intoned slowly, watching carefully for my response. “Do you think that’s anything?”
I frowned. “No.”
He cleared his throat. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
It was hard to keep emailing him regularly after I graduated, although I stayed a degree better connected to him than I did to anyone else from the university. The one in-person meeting we had set up—February of last year—fell through because my flight got cancelled. But I don’t feel wrong about not responding to his New Year’s email. He knew I would get back to him, that I was writing something for him. He saw me as always working, spinning the wheels. Slowly, sometimes, but the work I’d output would end up the better for it. His email at the close of 2020 gave me some direction: separate out an idea I had into a few discrete concepts before I ran the next draft by him. And I was going to do that. I still will, now that he’s gone. Charlie Hill motivated me to see myself the way he saw me, the way he was: always spinning.
I was in and out of his office more than usual, my last few weeks of undergrad. One time I fell asleep there. I even went to his office hour every week, which was very unlike me. Mostly I was just bracing myself for being without him: taking a deep breath of his world before venturing outside it. But I came up with plenty of post hoc questions to justify my extra there-ness. I was trying to decide where to go to grad school, so Professor Hill drew one of his famously incomprehensible diagrams to help me. (The different programs were different convex solids in threespace.) When my chronic illness got worse over the summer, I called him a lot, asking if I should maybe take some time off. He was adamantly against it. He told me—these words ring in my ears always—that if I took time off I’d never go back to school. He didn’t mean this as a general rule. He meant it about me, because he knew me that well. Care dripped from his words, always, but especially when he invoked the advisorial right to deliver that kind of honest counsel. There’s this canard about watchful, strategic people that they’re cold and detached. But Professor Hill’s strategic nature was one more vessel for his warmth, for his long, protective wingspan.
I will never have another advocate like Charles Hill. The way he knew his students—learned about them, carefully, the better to be able to fight for them—was extraordinary. He was the perfect storm of planning and perception. I was confused and disorganized (and constantly under disciplinary investigation), but being able to collect all the data and bring them to him like a covered wicker basket, to watch him map them out for me, saved me.
Professor Hill understood the importance of being tethered to people, to projects. He spent his life studying Buddhism and Paradise Lost—his two graduate school specializations. He was freewheeling, eccentric, yes, but never rootless. He’d turn away from you in his office to pick up the phone and take a 45-minute phone call from Henry Kissinger to talk about their dogs (he loved to do this) but then he would always put down the phone, clear his throat, and look at you expectantly.
Life according to Charles Hill wasn’t about being continuously functional, or even reliably functional. I couldn’t manage those things sometimes, and I know that sometimes frustrated him. But he never made me feel like a failure. To him, success wasn’t about always already being there. It was about coming back. I can do that, I thought as an eighteen-year-old. I can do that, I still think now.
Professor Hill didn’t advise my thesis. It wasn’t in his wheelhouse. I had one other mentor in undergrad whom I loved dearly and who was an expert in the topic, so Prof. Hill ended up serving as a secondary advisor. But an entire chapter of it is a nod to him: an examination of Tibetan Theravada Buddhism.
My senior year, one of his other mentees asked him to put together a course on Tibet. Professor Hill was overjoyed. As his RA, I helped with the course planning—the last course I’d ever help him design. My fall term was spent in the new English translation of the Bardo thodol and weekly discussions where Prof. Hill and I would bash our heads against a wall trying to figure out how to avoid Evans-Wentz’s corruption of Tibetan Buddhism by Western sensibilities. It was my favorite semester.
I think about Tibetan Buddhism a lot of the time now, and how wrong Carl Jung was about it. And I think about George Bernard Shaw. And John Milton. And baseball, and Operation Passage to Freedom, and constitutional originalism, and Plato’s mathematical dialogues. I fell in love with the Commedia before I met Professor Hill, I remember—but everything since has been seen through his lens.
This is to say: I suspect we all secretly think we are Charles Hill’s true intellectual heir. It’s hard not to. I know I’m a harder sell than some of the others because I’m violently anti-pragmatic, and I don’t really understand or want to understand foreign relations. But we can all agree that he made us want that, right? I know he made me want to be viewed as his disciple, as one of the members of his tradition. The leader of the cult, the high priestess of the World According to Charlie. And I am better for that. “Leading by example” is often a vacuous phrase, bereft of normative meaning. But Charles Hill made it mean something.
I’ve often said that my idiosyncratic brand of kinship egoism lends primacy to three particular virtues: loyalty, authenticity, and discipline. In that order. These qualities are the things I most appreciate in others and seek to cultivate in myself. Professor Hill made me want to want those things, to have the correctly aligned desires for self-improvement. The hardest part is making the map. I didn’t have to do that—he did it for me.
I’m done feeling strange about writing this. Yeah, the essay—the blog post essay, for goodness sake—is an inherently narcissistic medium. I know that. I spent yesterday trying to conspicuously “not make this about me” and resenting other people I thought were doing that. But within a day, I broke, and now here I am, same as them. I feel like it is about me. Because the thing about Charlie Hill was, he made you feel like the word revolved around you. And honestly, in those moments when you found yourself appreciated, loved, protected by the man who was so clearly one of the greatest intellects alive, it did.
I found the library card today. The mountainous relief that crashed over me felt strange: while looking for the card, I had been repeating to myself that he wouldn’t be upset with me for losing it (it expired in 2018!), that I didn’t need his paper trail in my life to prove that we were important to each other, that he was gone whether the card turned up or not. And all those things are still true. But when I found it, I cried.
Sometimes I say my life happened the way it did because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bad things have happened to me—awful things. I have suffered. Weirdly, There but for the grace of God go I works both ways; the near-misses were misses because God meant them to be, and the collisions were willed by Him, too. I almost switched out of my first-year seminar with Professor Hill, before I knew who he was, because I (incorrectly) thought it conflicted with my math class. But I didn’t, so here I am.
The library card sits before me. My unsmiling photo is labeled with “c/o Prof. Charles Hill.” How apt. I sit here looking at it, and looking at the baseball hat, and notes and diagrams that look distinctly geometric, and archives of Overleaf documents, emails, scrawled letters: dispatches from my life in the care of Charles Hill. And I am sad, very, but also staggered, and I mean that—staggered by how lucky I am. There for the grace of God go I.