Tuesday, September 1, 2009

To Do Life's Labor

Up at 5:30 this morning, hoping that the unseasonably cool weather would give way to a good day. It didn’t take long for that hope to become reality for, as I read something that our daughter, Kristen, had written the night before, I was filled with the sense that something fine was waiting for the sunrise.

The largest portion of what she wrote described her experiences as a first-year teacher at Urbana High School, but she ended the piece with a description of Maria Shriver’s interview on Sunday’s Meet the Press show. Shriver talked about her Uncle Teddy and how he always made sure that everyone was “welcomed, loved and thanked.”

That image moved Kristen to write these words . . . So send those thank you notes. Post a message on Facebook. Write a letter. Tell someone something every day. Stay in touch. Even if it is just a single sentence it will mean the world to that person . . . Wake up tomorrow and be the change you want to see in the world. What a great reason to get out of bed!

I had just gotten out of bed moments before and here were the words in my daughter’s voice... Wake up tomorrow and be the change you want to see in the world.

Not a bad way to begin the day.

Just a couple days ago I was listening to some news program’s coverage of the current debate over the proposed health care legislation. One participant in the debate had said something like this, “This is America. We don’t take from me to give to you.”

Really? Whose America was this guy talking about? What other way is there of becoming the change we want to see in the world than by giving to others, especially those others who need the help we might have?

I was thinking of these things as I poured the second cup of coffee and skimmed the story on page one of what is left of The Chicago Tribune, a piece about the former student, now a Pastor, who coaxed his stroke-ridden old teacher back into life by reading him the poems that had been part of their teacher-student experience so many years before.

“This was one of those teachers that changed your life because they opened worlds you hadn’t imagined,” Pastor Blackwell said of his former teacher, George Ariffe.

It got me to thinking . . . if I was cast in that play as the old teacher, what poems would I want my former student to read to me if they were trying to be the change they wanted to see in the world? My guess is that most of former students would know a few.

There’s my favorite poem – e. e. cumming’s anyone lived in a pretty how town with its nearly inscrutable direction to trust the divine whisper and take the risk of loving and being loved.

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

And Mending Wall, the Robert Frost poem I first read when I was a junior in high school and decided for good that I wanted to be a high school English teacher.

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.

Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood has always reminded me to treasure the natural world as a gift from God, the surest sign that he watches over us, protects us, and claims us as His greatest work.

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

A poem I learned about from the custodian who cleaned my classroom, Rupert Brooke’s The Great Lover, a plea to live and love and appreciate.

I HAVE been so great a lover: filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love's praise,
The pain, the calm, and the astonishment,
Desire illimitable, and still content,
And all dear names men use, to cheat despair,
For the perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.

The last poem I taught each year, the last poem I taught as a teacher, John Donne’s A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

Anything by Shakespeare. Or Whitman. Or Dickinson. I could listen to most of Dickinson’s stuff two or three times . . . that would be fine with me.

Therefore—we do life's labor—
Though life's Reward—be done—
With scrupulous exactness—
To hold our Senses—on—

Life’s labor? I think my daughter had it exactly right. Our reward really is to be the change we want in the world by tending to the little matters of that world in ways that will make things better.

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