Time to Say Goodbye, Again

SailorsGoodbyeAt this time last year I wrote a piece on why when it is time to say goodbye, it is important that it be done well.

This last weekend was graduation at the college where I teach. It was time to say goodbye after four years to over one hundred young men and women, having grown very close to a number of them, and shared much with all of them. And now I go to my office to commence a professor’s summer work, starting with grading the final exams of students who have gone their own ways. Their absence is palpable; indeed it is downright jarring.

But life goes on, right? We raise our children, and even they move on. Our parents raise us, and in time, they move on. I’ve had the pleasure of making remarkable friendships through the years. How many of them too—including myself, have moved on, in one way or another.

Dear God; one day I will have to say goodbye to my wife.

A soul seeks that which is solid, enduring. Memory is key. It is a kind of presence of what is no more. But even the presence effected by memory can only really have solidity if memory of the past is leavened by some hope for the future.

As years go by I feel that my soul is a kind of space to hold onto things—to events, to shared toils, and especially to faces. I love faces; I really don’t want to lose any. Perhaps sometimes I’ll wonder just why I’m clinging to them. I resolve to remind myself that it’s not because I don’t have hope, but rather because I do. And what I’ve held onto will be a basis for recognizing, and rejoicing; again. Some day.

Image: Philip Sadee (1837-1904)

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For the Sake of the Children

child_whip

“… but the soul of the hearer must be prepared by good habits to rejoice in the good and hate the evil, just as the soil must be well tilled to nourish the seed. “ Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics

For parents, it’s all about the children. Aristotle speaks of preparing a soul to ‘hear’ moral teachings. He is well aware that many young adults become in a sense beyond reaching–because of their bad habits. In his moral philosophy Aristotle never lost sight of the youth, and all that is needed to empower them to hear, and live, the truth.

His moral views are bracing. In an age of confusion, blur, false distinctions, and redefinitions, his clarion vision cuts through the mist.

To rejoice in the good and hate the evil; that is the object. There is a real distinction between good and evil, and the human soul’s responses should be patterned accordingly. Therein, alone, is real happiness: when the soul moves in affective harmony with the reality of good and evil. When this is accomplished—and it can be; we have seen it done—it is a masterpiece beyond compare.

Yet the soul is like soil. Earth calls out for the seed: it was made for it. But really to receive it, to nourish it, it must be tilled. Tilling brings out the latent power of soil.

What a power lies in the human soul, especially of children. Like warm, dark earth.

The formation of children is an art. Arts have specific means and ends. They must be learned, and practiced. Over generations. The art of ‘education’—the Latin word means a drawing-out, and it originally referred to the whole realm of forming the young—is fundamentally a tilling of the soul. So that it learns…to rejoice in the good and hate the evil. And thus to come alive, with its own true life.

From the very beginning of their children’s lives, parents can be molding those souls, ever so gently, carefully, lovingingly. Long before children can ‘hear’ moral teachings, they are hearing much; and their affections are being formed.

What art is more important? With what else should we be concerned? For the sake of the children.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher.

Image: Winslow Homer

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Silence of a Forest

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“The treasures within the earth were long hidden, and trees and forests were thought of as her ultimate gift to mankind. … Even images of shining gold and ivory are worshipped less by us than forests and their silence.” Natural History, Pliny

There is nothing like a forest. Especially in spring. Plant, animal and mineral meld seamlessly into a vibrant whole. How can we even begin to describe the confluence of factors that makes it so wonderful? Colors, textures, shapes, and smells. And sounds.

The best silence is not that of absence, but of presence. Somehow the sounds of the forest give emphasis to the silence, as though it were calling out, like a thrush in spring; to us.

One is struck by the emptiness, an emptiness of all that is not real, not natural, not belonging. Here I can just be, and be filled by that emptiness. Somehow I too belong, even while being an interloper of sorts.

A forest is not the ultimate gift, nor is it a proper object of worship. But it is indeed a gift: one much more precious than gold. And perhaps those who worshiped forests and their silence had glimpsed something, something we too often miss.

Would that we could learn how to see, and to hear. That silence. Especially in spring.

Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) was a Roman naturalist and general. His Natural History is an important early work in natural science.

Image: the woods behind my home this morning.

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Daddy, Where do Seeds Come From?

Sweet CornPerhaps as our teachers sometimes tell us, there is no such thing as a bad question. That doesn’t mean that some questions aren’t better than others.

It was some years ago driving past a field of corn in the vigor of its early maturity. Who knows at what depth within the boy the note of wonder was struck. Sometimes innocent and unclouded eyes penetrate reality, reaching what is behind the visible. Sensing the unseen in the seen, the boy probed into the pregnant darkness.

“Daddy, where does corn come from?” His father did not yet discern that deep waters were churning. Nonetheless the answer he shot back was both reasonable and true: “It comes from seeds.”

Seeds. The very word sings of mystery, if we have ears to hear: a mystery that reaches to the heart of life. The boy’s ears must have caught a whisper from somewhere. Could it be because his own flesh is sprung from a seed?

“But Daddy, where do seeds come from?”

The question emerged like a rumble from the depths. Indeed, where do the seeds come from?

They come from somewhere. According to some primordial and unchanging order, they come. To us.

One thing ought to be apparent: seeds of every kind are a gift. A gift to be received, and to be treasured. And to be sown, in due season. In love.

How to convey this to a boy? How to live this as a man?

Thank you, son, for asking this question. I will always treasure it. And it is ours to find an answer together.

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Mothers Love More

La Mere

“…mothers love more than fathers do.” Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics

I couldn’t decide whether this assertion made me angry. To be fair, from the context it is clear that Aristotle is speaking of love for infants.

I thought of my own experience. The days that each of my children were born stand out from all other days of my life. Finally to meet the person that we had been awaiting for months; to hold that precious treasure in my own hands; to see flesh of my flesh, the fruit of the love I share with my wife. How could Aristotle say such a thing about fathers?

Then I thought about it a little more. There is no image more precious to me than that of my wife holding our newborn child. They look into one another’s eyes. This is a sacred moment, unrepeatable and irreplaceable. This is the welcome that my child most awaits, most needs. This is the moment when my child first starts to see herself for who she is. In that gaze of her mother.

But why not in my eyes? I think the simple truth is this: in the child’s infancy, the mother is most able to see–to see the child for who she is. And greater insight means greater love. I do not immediately have such a deep connection with the child, nor such an intuitive sense of her personhood. We fathers often stand more at a distance; we also tend to objectivize. To be honest, I think sometimes we can be more in love with the idea of our child, than with the reality, which we have yet to come to know. To mothers, on the other hand, this baby is this baby; and it is nothing but beautiful.

Indeed, in this way they surely see things clearly–they see the child as the person she is, undistracted by accidentals. Therein, mothers excel. In this, as in so many things, I have much to learn from my wife.

I think this should not make me angry, but grateful. Most of all for our children’s sake.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher.

Image: La Mere (The Mother), by Elizabeth Nourse, 1888.

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Better to Wait

I'll Wait

“…yet he would not do amiss to wait and be ruled by time, the wisest counselor of all.”
Pericles, in Plutarch’s Lives

Yesterday morning in class a student looked out the window at the trees beginning to bud and said, “The trees look so sad; I just wish they’d hurry up and grow leaves.” A very understandable sentiment indeed, especially after a long winter.

Often we not only let ourselves feel the desire to rush things, we also act upon it. But one of the many things we can learn from the natural world is that good things have their proper season. And we must wait for them, and prepare for them. To take something too early is to disrupt, and sometimes to destroy.

In spring, for instance, many young people seem to experience an insistent if subtle inclination toward pairing up. For some this may be the right season; but for some it is not. In this area, as in so many areas of life, we grow impatient. We demand leaves, and skip the budding.

As regards many good things—perhaps most?—wisdom would counsel that we be ruled by time, that we be willing to wait. We seek fruit before its time, without the requisite cultivation. We demand immediate gratification, in everything from love to work to leisure.

Hindsight is said to be 20/20. To those willing to wait and prepare–for any number of things–hindsight can be added to foresight, the two seamlessly blending. And so time can become the wisest counselor of all…before it’s too late.

Plutarch (46-120 A.D.), a Boeotian Greek who became a Roman citizen, was especially known as a biographer of famous Greek and Roman men.
Pericles (495-429 B.C.), a great general, statesman, and orator, ruled Athens during its Golden Age. Several of his speeches are recorded by Thucydides (460-395 B.C.) in his History of the Peloponnesian War.

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Our Lawn, Our Eden

Dandelion

Last spring I posted a piece on dandelions, after I had been struck by the preponderance of death-dealing chemicals in the ‘lawn and garden’ section at the local big box store. Moved today by the appearance of tractors spraying herbicide over large expanses of lawn on a beautiful spring day, I once again make a plea.

We can care for our lawns—and other green spaces in and around which we live—without using chemicals that kill.

How we treat our lawns is intimately tied to how we approach the natural world as a whole. Is it a gift to be received, with an order to be reverenced and stewarded, or is it something to manipulated according to our preconceived plans?

Over two thousand years ago Xenophon wrote, “For you’ll gain more produce by sowing and planting what the land readily grows and nurtures than by sowing and planting what you want.” He warned that when we plant we must have an eye for what the land ‘wants’ and that we err in focusing too much on what suits our fancy or convenience. In a similar way, and a fortiori, we should be attentive to which plants the land yields up to us unsolicited—growing in our own little corner of the world:  our backyard.

If we take the time to learn the common ‘weeds’ that grow in our lawn we will find that many of them have wonderful properties. Maria Treben, a best-selling Austrian author on herbs writes that dandelions are “Nature’s greatest healing aid for suffering mankind.” Every part of the plant is thought to have healing properties—especially in the spring. Another great example is common plantain. Look up its picture and its properties; chances are both that you have it in your lawn, if you’ve avoided broad-leaf herbicides, and that you’ll find a use for it–such as in soothing bee stings. These are just two examples of the beneficence of nature at work in our own yards, if we but make the effort to learn, and to adjust our expectations and actions. The list goes on: white clover, burdock…

Some species indeed will rightly be deemed undesirable. There are safe and effective ways to remove these weeds without using poisons that kill whole classes of plants and may well have negative, even if unknown, side-effects on numerous other living  things, including humans.

At the end of the day how we treat our lawns is not about the dandelions; it’s about our own identity. How we care for the earth has profound implications. The book of Genesis intertwines the human vocation and the tilling of the earth. For many of us our lawn is the most direct context in which we interact with the earth. How we act here sets the tone of our broader interaction with the natural world, and the order written into it. As the wise have always pointed out, all is interconnected.

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