It seems to me that doing what I “should” be doing at certain predictable stages of my life has never turned out very well.
When I was twelve, after taking a summer of religious instruction preceding my “Confirmation” as an “adult” member of the Methodist Church, I confided in my mother that I didn’t understand and/or believe a lot of what I was going to have to “affirm” in the ceremony. This put her in such a complete tizzy that she had me talk, one-on-one, to our minister in his office. I was mortified, of course, but stammered out, as best I could, the issues that concerned me. And the minister said to me, “Don’t worry about that. Just go along with the ceremony and say what you’re asked to say.” On some level this was a great relief; on another, I wondered about the point of it all if one could just lie in order to fulfill an expectation.
Similarly, I went to a college during a time when, upon graduation, if one were not at least engaged to be married, then one headed to unknown territory. Not wanting to go to unknown territory, I duly became engaged to be married (insisting upon it, as I’m ashamed to recall). But in the weeks leading up to the wedding, I started having doubts about whether this was the right thing for us to be doing. I shared some of these fears with my mother–again–waiting until the night before the wedding. She listened, but then attributed my doubts to the wedding jitters and told me to go through with it anyway. People had been invited. The dress was hanging in my closet. Everything was in place. Again, I went through with something a part of me doubted, to the detriment of everyone involved.
At this point of my life, retired, the next stage is supposed to be “giving back.” This expectation still gnaws at me. Yes, I mentor younger people and am starting to teach a couple of returning-adult classes in just a few weeks. But is that “enough”?
These events put me in mind of the supposed purpose of it all—what is the expected outcome of education these days? Much has been made of our governor Scott Walker’s recent comments about the purpose of higher education being closer to prepare students for jobs rather than, as the UW Mission Statement reads, to extend “training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition,” as well as [enabling] “the search for truth” [which] is “basic to every purpose of the system.”
Frank Bruni, in a New York Times op-ed piece called “College, Poetry, and Purpose”, interviewed one of his former college instructors, Anne Hall, now 69, who is still teaching work by “old white dead men” (especially Shakespeare) in a culture that denigrates such learning “for its own sake.” In the article,
“She praised an undergraduate business major in the class that she is currently teaching, Poetry and Politics in Ancient Greece.
‘She said that going to college develops something in you that’s like a muscle, in the same way that when you go out and play tennis or whatever sport, you develop certain muscles,’ Hall told me, adding that she agreed with the student.
“That brought Hall to her own answer about college’s mission: “It is for developing the muscle of thoughtfulness, the use of which will be the greatest pleasure in life and will also show what it means to be fully human.”
The muscle of thoughtfulness. Reflection. A part of me thinks, “but there are those who cannot even READ, let alone have the tools to reflect on what they have read.” Such observations have led me in the past to volunteer for literacy programs, after-school reading programs, etc. But in every case, I have had, for one reason or another, serious doubts about what I was doing, and why.
I was moved, this morning, on reading Oliver Sacks’ piece entitled “My Own Life: Oliver Sacks on Learning That He Has Terminal Cancer.” He is 81 years old and writes, in part:
”I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.
“This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).
“I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.
“This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.
“I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
While I am over 10 years younger than Mr. Sacks, I agree with what he says about the fact that most of the current problems on earth will be solved by people much younger than we. He believes that he has “given back” as much as he can in that regard.
Maybe reflection IS the gift—both to and from—us who are classified among the old and newly old.
When we were in New Orleans, Steve and I visited Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter. It was just a little hole in the wall, but at least one/quarter of the books were poetry—and not just the “old faithfuls” either. (The owner confided that he judged a bookstore on the quality of their poetry selection.) While Steve browsed the fiction, I started to read one of BillyCollins’ books, Horoscopes for the Dead, which I ended up buying. I love many of the poems in that collection, but this one, “Silhouette,” is one of my favorites, partly because of the fun it pokes at what we think we “should” be doing:
There is a kind of sweet pointlessness
that can visit at any time,
say this afternoon when I find myself
rustling around in the woods behind the house
and making with my right hand
the head of a duck,
the kind that would cast a silhouetted
profile on a white screen
in a darkened room with a single source of light
if one were in the mood to entertain.
But I am outdoors today and this duck
has a wrist for a neck
and fingers for a beak that never stops flapping,
jabbering about some duck topic,
unless I rotate my arm and let him face me.
Then he stops his quacking
and listens to what I have to say,
even cocking his head like a dog
that listens all day to his master speaking
in English or Turkish or Albanian.
There was talk of war this morning
on the radio, and I imagined the treads of tanks
churning over the young trees again
and planes hacking the air to pieces,
but there is nothing I can do about that
except to continue my walk in the woods
conversing with my hand—
so benign an activity that if everyone
did this perhaps there would be no wars,
I might say in a speech
to the ladies’ auxiliary of the Future Farmers of America.
And now it is getting to be evening,
a shift from blue to violet
behind the bare staves of trees.
It is also my birthday,
but there is nothing I can do about that either—
cannot control the hands of time
like this hand in the shape of this duck
who peers out of my sleeve
with its beak of fingers, its eye of air.
No—I am doing no harm,
nor am I doing much good.
Would any bridge span a river?
would a college of nurses have ever been founded?
would one stone ever be placed on top of another
if people were concerned with nothing
but the shadows cast by nonexistent ducks?
So the sky darkens as always,
and now I am tripping over the fallen branches
as I head back downhill
toward the one burning light in the house
while the duck continues its agitated talk,
in my pocket now,
excited about his fugitive existence,
awed by his sudden and strange life
as each of us should be, one and all.
But never mind that, I think,
as I grab the young trees with my other hand,
braking my way down,
one boot in front of the other,
ready for my birthday dinner,
my birthday sleep, and my crazy birthday dreams.