Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Conversion of the Professor

The professor read Plato; he dabbled in Barth
He cried upon Nietzsche and groaned over Sartre.

He studied the Forms and things-for-themselves
He took everything the library had on its shelves.

He thought about estrangement and despaired at dasein;
He marveled at the vanity of the good and the fine.

He listened to them argue how we know what we know;
He said, "I'm too stupid and my mind is too slow."

He tried to grasp Zeno, but it butchered his head;
"I am much too stupid, yes, much too stupid," he said.

"Where can I find wisdom? How can it be
that these men are so brilliant and cannot agree?"

He went home to his granddaughter, who was making plum goo
and asked her quite frankly, "What can I do?

"I—" he stopped himself in the middle of saying something dirty.
She got down her Bible and read to him from Proverbs chapter thirty.

The Professor's Trip

The professor was leaving. It was time to pack.
He threw away his stuff, and took an empty sack.

He got onto a plane. It flew like a flash.
Before the pilot knew it, they crashed.

The professor floated on the ocean, up onto the shore.
He laid still, then stood up and walked in his front door.

The Ambiance of the Professor

The professor was lost. The reason for it was something he couldn’t find.
“But,” as he put it, “that’s wholly irrelevant if you’re out of your mind.”

He survived on hazelnuts and poisonous blue roots.
At six he dined on candy cane and bamboo shoots.

He slicked his hair with beeswax and smoked water in his pipe.
“Mmm,” he murmured. “The water here is good, and it’s ripe.”

His entire time in the woods he was very careful to be polite.
He got out a hose and washed his toes every nineteenth night.

He missed his granddaughter, so he stopped by the post office and sent her a letter.
“I should’ve put it in the creek,” he said calmly and sadly. “That would’ve been better.”

He dug a piano from under the leaves, and gracefully lulled out a song,
Lost and Alone as Sand in Space, but the words, as usual, came out wrong:

A rock sinks in the sleek black sea, never to return.
The fire in my heart’s so loud I can hear it burn.

I’ll never see you again, never see you again, never, never, I cry.
The thought of you is my reason for living, but it makes me die.

The professor climbed trees; he jumped into streams; he thrashed around in the brush.
And when he missed her so bad he was blind, he unlost with a twitch and a rush.

When He Was Young and Spry

“Grandpa,” she said, “I wrote something for you to stop and read.”
He was dashing quickly down the road to check up on his speed.

He stood at attention to salute a toad, then took the proffered scroll
and gave it right back, so she read it aloud: The Dragon in the Bowl

I’th’days when my grandfather lithe and youthful was,
his now lengthous beard naught more than light fuzz,

a dragon sojourn’d unto the village market seekingly of apple pie;
but my grandpa, bloodthirst and rash, nor wanting sensible “why”,

for the sake of his kindly kin, yea, his kin and kith,
raisèd up his sword and smote the dragon thatwith.

The worm recoil’d and forthwith gave a prolong’d fiery bellow;
notwithstanding, the serpent gave battle. “A rather tough fellow,”

remarkèd the youth offhandedly as he took his lunch break
consist’d whichwas of apples, and largely of dragon steak,

whichby meanteth he that ‘twas disgusting and hard to chew.
Nevertheless, heldeth he to. “Instead I will make some stew.”

The professor approved of this longago fairytale very much, maintaining every word was true.
“Yes,” he told her, “the apples; even our diction—you have it right. That is what I used to do.”

The Courage of the Professor

They screamed in his ears, they screamed in his eyes
In their anger at the professor, they screamed out lies.

But the innocent professor didn’t flinch—what did he care?—
so he stood there and watched while they pulled out their hair.

Then, as they raced, shouting, after him, he boarded a train.
One said to the others: “Along this track is rough terrain.

We’ll wait till the professor’s asleep in the caboose
then as we go over the gorge we’ll let that car loose

and give it a big heave to the left or the right.”
They gathered around and cackled with delight.

Then there was the gorge. The schemer cried, “Quick, to the back;
our last glimpse of the professor will be as he falls off the track!”

They passed through a car where it seemed to be night.
One fumbled about and found a large candle for a light,

but when he saw what the long, red candle was, his face went white.
It didn’t have a wick, but a fuse. His teeth rattled; he took a bite.

The professor was sitting on the turfy side of the mountain, his intended destination.
The train was a pop can shaken up; then—there was no evidence of the decimation.

The Incompetence of the Professor

They knew the house was in danger; they had scene more than one spark
It was time to call the electrician and tell him the wires had begun to arc

He picked up the phone—but there was a laugh at the door:
it was the professor, inquiring as to what he was wanted for.

“Well,” explained the man embarrassedly, “not for anything particularly—
I mean, I was going to call—uh, when you—um, I know this seems silly—”

The professor quietly comforted him with a crumbly bit of sharp cheese,
so they showed him the place where the wires had been gnawed by fleas.

When he saw the problem, he calmly asked for a pickle and lumber.
“So you’re a carpenter?” they asked, confused. “No, I’m a plumber.”

They brought him a pickle, extremely small and sour
The professor nibbled at it and savored it for an hour

The brought him lumber so he repaired the bed.
“Well, that did need to be done...” the man said.

They gave him pliers, so he plied at the wall till the man said, “Bleep!”
which the professor interpreted as meaning he should go right to sleep.

They doused him with buckets and sprayed him with hoses;
it would have been more worthwhile to do that to the roses,

but they kept it up till the house burst out in flame.
“Wake up—this is all your fault; you’re to blame!”

The professor’s face just kept on smiling, so they left for town
and he snoozed in the fixed bed while the house burned down.

It rained for three weeks without a pause but he did not so much as start.
Amid the ruins the blackened bed molded, mossed, rotted and fell apart.

At last the sun came out and his granddaughter woke him to gave him some tea;
and the confused old professor, though wet through, was as happy as he could be.

The Fishing of the Professor

The professor could not be seen, only piles of twine;
“What’s that?” asked the fisherman. The reply: “My handline.”

“What’s your bait?” “A strand of my granddaughter’s hair.”
“It won’t work,” declared the fisherman. “It’s too fair.”

“My granddaughter’s hairs have caught many a swordfish.
Your flies only catch minnows, and none that are biggish.”

They went together through the woods to the brook.
One tied on his fly; the other, a hair on his hook.

The professor let out his line, mile after mile
At last the fisherman said, with a bit of a smile,

“If you let out much more, you’ll be fishing in the sea.”
Then, “Argh! Another little minnow. Dirge-dump! Gee!

“Those’re all I’ve caught; three hundred nineteen—”
“Good,” said the professor, “my bait has been seen.”

He began yanking it in. “For my kind of bait,
the fish don’t hit, so you don’t have to wait.”

Soon after, the creek water began to rise;
it came up until it enveloped their thighs.

The fisherman, much alarmed, cried out in dismay.
The prof said, “It’s only my fish swimming this way.”

Nearly blocking the stream, it came into view,
bigger than the fisherman’s minnows, all 562.

“What is that fish?”—“I am sure that you know.
It’s a sort of shark that died out long ago.”

The fisherman replied in a voice much too loud—
the type of voice that is likely to gather a crowd—

“I challenge you to a duel with a cowboy friend of mine,
one who’ll turn you to mincemeat and feed you to swine.”

One—they stood at opposite—two—ends of the street—three.
The cowboy’s gun was halfway up when—bang-kablammy!

—it blew up. The professor hadn’t brought his gun;
he explained very carefully why he didn’t need one:

“Do not worry. I’ll fire tomorrow. My bullet is fast:
when I shoot it, it flies swiftly back into the past.”

The fisherman and the cowboy went together to the old bar.
It’s said that between them they downed a good deal of tar.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dove Wings in the Trash Bin

We found a dove standing behind some yucca, shriveled, starved.
His blah eyes showed little life, only the last three dry kernels on a corncob.
I try to imagine hunger: the blurry world is a jerking, swirling dream
and my head goes thud-thud-thud while I double up as a wrathful belly orders
Food. No, I can't guess. Thank God we had our shotguns. You need a lot of faith
to look at something soft your hand enfolds that is hungry and can't fly.

The boy that can't walk reminded me of the bird that couldn't fly.
He was born too young, so the doctors advised, Let him starve.
But his parents loved him, and they'd professed the faith;
They said, It's not a crime to be no bigger than a corncob.
The doctors' wooden faces meant they wouldn't give the help that was in order
Yet his parents knew killing their son wouldn't kill the dream.

I wonder if he walks in his dreams.
In mine I run and fight and fly.
A guy does what he wants like giving the waitress his order
or getting into high school, I always figured, and won't starve.
It's an empty word. But here the exams mock my friends' brains as corncobs.
Will I still call not bragging "humility" when I test with no need for faith?

...and call giving thanks without gratefulness "faith"?
Only words...the time when waking was dreaming,
though hoary heads all around me were alive then. They lived on corncobs.
Sometimes sparse yellow teeth guillotined the squirming, muddy larva of a dragonfly
Stomachs that rejected bugs and wood could only starve.
Vegetables and meat were only for the man who gave the crippling order.

There's a man here whose words come out in any order
He says he's the one who gave the command. He says so with faith.
He comes often to our house—being shunned has left him starved:
no one wants to be around a thing that lives a dream,
stinking, with clothes never free from flies.
He had a good job, but then his brain became a corncob.

There's the boy, with his gun, harmless as a corncob.
He sits on his car and shoots each of us in order.
His cousin, evading invisible bullets with giggles, flies
right by him, like a swallow. I have faith
that she doesn't understand, not even when she dreams,
and that she hasn't any idea she's watching him starve.

Father, smile at him by injecting him with faith wilder than any dream
to keep him from starving for joy and counting himself a corncob
I sign your Son's name to my words: order him to walk—so his heart will fly.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Mirrors Make the Strongest Walls

Your humanness shimmers and trembles
like the surface of the well's clear water
that hides itself in its own gentle darkness
as I lie in the sun, trying to see beyond my own reflection,
a skin I must pierce through
to send my soul diving into the warm depths.

My dusty fingers poke into the water,
groping for something to cling to,
something fixed in you to hold.
And there is my face again,
lifting with the waves.

As I pull my hand back
the droplets fall like tears
because tears are the pieces of a soul.

How can I know you from the inside?
How can I learn more than solid, static facts,
like the rocks that make the walls of the well,
and hold moving liquid in my leaky hands?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

You are Dangerous

"[Fangorn] often comes here, especially when his mind is uneasy, and rumours of the world outside trouble him. I saw him four days ago striding among the trees, and I think he saw me, for he paused; but I did not speak...and he did not speak either, nor call my name."
"Perhaps he also thought that you were Saruman," said Gimli. "But you speak of him as if he was a friend. I thought Fangorn was dangerous."
"Dangerous!" cried Gandalf. "And so am I, very dangerous...And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli son of Gloin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion."—J.R.R. Tolkien

People who carry wands and battle-axes are not to be messed with. It's also a good idea not to mess with politicians, tycoons and football players. But we are beset with more dangers than that, for ordinary people are dangerous, in their own fashion. Even children have an ability to hurt or heal; the antics of a carefree child can do wonders for a parent consumed by anxiety about the future. In C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces, the repercussions of Orual's actions reverberate among both men and the gods—before she has any political power. She is puissant because her life is intertwined with the lives of other people, especially with the lives of her sisters.

When two people interact, their souls brush together and, many times, begin to interlock. Relating involves submission to an outside influence, even if a weak one; it involves a making bare or vulnerable some part of the being of both parties. This gives humans many kinds of power over each other. All humans can love or hate. Even small demonstrations of affection—a smile, a wave, an arm around the shoulder, a few simple kind words—can have great impact. I once heard one of my sisters crying bitterly in her room. I went in; she was lying face down, weeping into her pillow. I laid my hand on her back, trying vainly to think of some appropriate words. Presently, her sobbing subsided. My hand was a conduit of my love to her, a love which had a power I had not guessed at.

Many other types of power are inherent to humanness. We can shock, as films often do; we can advice and persuade: "But Brutus is an honorable man!" We can manipulate the emotions of others, as with the popular boy who flirts with girls he cares nothing for. We can teach by example—the most effective of didactic methods. In a very few words, we can change someone's opinion of his friend. An enthusiastic, "I love Chris," can drastically shape someone's opinion of Chris, as can "Did you know he eats his boogers?" We can give a girl flowers, or vandalize her car. Sex can be the sealing act of love—when used as God would have it—or cause immense destruction in the lives of those involved, and in the lives of their families and friends. Those with a talent in art or music can make us gawk, or dance, or cry—even without the talent of Dürer or Mendelssohn. Perhaps the greatest of human powers is prayer, a petition for intervention by the greatest of powers. Power is available even to the weak.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in his early philosophy as expressed in Being and Nothingness, held that love was self-contradictory. I object to Sartre's view of love, but the love of a fallen being does have an inherent inconsistency. For love involves the desire to draw close to, and once a fallen being has drawn close to its beloved, it will inevitably damage it; but surely to love is to wish the best for the beloved! We must be struck with a terror of damaging that which we love, for even without prowess, we have power. And we must be even more afraid of damaging that which we do not love, for it is that which we do not love that we are most likely to destroy without conscious intention.

We must also be struck with our potential for good—a potential we underestimate. Your smiles, your patience with the obnoxiousness of another, and underlying it all, your love are of much greater value than you suppose. Remember that a greater return is demanded of him who is given five talents than of him who is given two. A young man once had a long talk with his teacher after class. As he walked home, he cried, though his teacher had given him high compliments. He cried because he saw his own wasted potential. He saw that he had spent his strength in frivolity and sin and cried because he feared the responsibility that came with the blessings given to him.

On my first day of "Invitation to the Humanities," Dr. Eric M— gave a challenge to the class. He told us, "You are weapons of either good or evil. There is no neutral position. Which will you be?"

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Sweetness of Humility

"What kind of tree is that?" I asked my Chinese friend Jerry. The name he used had a familiar sound, but I couldn't remember what it meant. "Is the fruit edible?" I asked.

"Yes," he said, "But don't eat it; it isn't ripe."

"I'm going to eat some," I said, "Just to figure out what it is."


"Why not? Is it poisonous?"

"No, but it is incredibly bitter."

I plucked one of the hard green fruits and bit into it anyway—and immediately spewed it out in disgust. It was more bitter than anything I had ever eaten. It was a long time before I forgot the Chinese word for walnut.

Pride is as acrid as a green walnut. I have heard from a young age that I should forsake pride, but my sinfulness is such that I do not begin to relinquish a sin until I repulsed by it. Over the past several months I have tasted pride's acerbic flavor, and now I hate it—and as I result, I also love humility and its sweetness.

Indeed, humility is sweet. A scene from C.S. Lewis' Perelandra makes a profound comment on the nature of humility by picturing the innocence of the Green Lady:

[The Green Lady] stared for quite an appreciable time [into the mirror] without apparently making anything of it. Then she started back with a cry and covered her face...

"Oh—oh," she cried. "What is it? I saw a face."

"Only your own face, beautiful one," said the Un-man.

"I know," said the Lady, still averting her eyes from the mirror. "My face—out there—looking at me. Am I growing older or is it something else? I feel...I heart is beating too hard. I am not warm." (116)

"That thing" (she pointed at the mirror) "is me and not me."

"But if you do not look you will never know how beautiful you are."

"It comes into my mind, Stranger," she answered, "that a fruit does not eat itself, and a man cannot be together with himself." (117)

The Green Lady's beauty was not for herself: it was for the King. While she must have always been conscious of her own beauty in a vague way, she did not even know what she looked like. We speak of someone being "stuck on himself"; the Green Lady was stuck on someone else. Here is humility, not as a dry "spiritual" attribute, but as a charming addition to the Lady's physical beauty. The Apostle Peter understood this well.

Don't be concerned about the outward beauty that depends on fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should be known for the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God. (1 Peter 3:3-4)

Humility is also becoming to men. Once an unusually intelligent linguist was explaining some of the peculiarities of the Thai counting system to my father, my brother and me. He mentioned some of the speculations that certain linguists had relating to the subject, and then added, "But that doesn't really matter to us, does it." His apparent lack of interest in the details of the linguistic speculations demonstrated that he had told us this for our own interest and not to flaunt his superior knowledge, while his warm smile and use of the word "us" created an aura of camaraderie. He regularly spoke in this manner, and I loved him for it and respected him far more than if he had used his knowledge to diminish me.

Another example of sweet humility is to be found in Proverbs 30, where Agur son of Jakeh writes:

I am weary, O God; I am weary and worn out, O God. I am too ignorant to be human, and I lack common sense. I have not mastered human wisdom, nor do I know the Holy One.

Who but God goes up to heaven and comes back down? Who holds the wind in his fists? Who wraps up the oceans in his cloak? Who has created the whole wide world? What is his name—and his son's name? Tell me if you know! (1-4)

Here is profound humility. Not only does Agur not claim to understand the wisdom of God, he cries out that he has not even mastered common sense and human wisdom! As his oracle continues, it becomes apparent that he does have some wisdom to share. But even his wisdom is sometimes expressed in terms of things he does not understand (see verse 18).

One of the sweetest things about humility is its accompanying confidence. In an ironic paradox, pride, which presents itself as strong and confident, has a close relationship to insecurity, while humility, which overlooks itself, can be built only on an inner confidence. Insecurity tells a person his current size is unsatisfactory and that he has to inflate himself, whereas a person who is confident—that is, someone who trusts in God, for trust in anything else is false confidence—is able to honestly and sorrowfully admit his own faults. A humble person feels no need to respond in kind to deflating remarks because he has no pockets of hot air puffing him beyond his real size.

If pride is a green walnut, the bitterest taste ever to touch my tongue, humility is a honeycomb, the sweetest of all flavors.