The Saddening Afterglow of Things Accomplished

If I have a halfway decent night’s sleep, morning is my favorite time.  Such as right now.  I can drink my tea and type away for a couple of unmolested hours.  Then my attention wears down, because the screen quite literally drains my energy.  (Has anyone ever researched the physiological effects of screen-exposure—or did that stop with the heyday of TV?)  Believe me: pen and paper never had the same impact… but why write longhand when I’ll just have to copy out the result on the keyboard, sooner or later?

In any case, there’s work to do on the small part of my 25 acres that can presently be cultivated; and especially over the summer, I’ll pay dearly for getting outside too late if I tarry.  Yet I’ve lately been dreading the prospect of what awaits me.  Deer ate my young walnut tree back to the bark, despite the netting (which their teeth severed like shears); and though I was able to rehabilitate the plant somewhat after constructing an impenetrable fence (and also keeping handy a replica Navy .36 loaded with crayon), the heat has fried away those tender young leaves to nothing.  I’m afraid the sapling may never again spring back to life.  Then, after the deer and the blazing sun, I had the grasshoppers.  My efforts to become a subsistence farmer in retirement are not off to a rousing start (despite the cannonades of my black-powder crayon-sprayer).

I don’t miss my drudgery in a college classroom… or I do miss the classroom, but not the bureaucratic and quasi-political drudgery surrounding it.  But, no… the classroom itself, too, is something I can’t claim to miss: not the classroom as it was forcibly transformed.  In my final two or three years of employ, I was actually prevented from doing what I did best—and which, of course, gave me greatest satisfaction.  I had developed such a strong syllabus for the first half of the World Lit Survey that I would have matched it against any in the country.  I had translated for use in the class Solon’s first fragment, Marie’s Eliduc, a small sampling of Ariosto… but all of that was swept overboard, replaced by a peculiar course that claimed to teach “American immigrant” literature (and which appeared to be a semester-long rail against racist, patriarchal capitalism).  I would never have consented to teach such folderol at the expense of Euripides, Virgil, and Dante—but, of course, I was never asked.  It was designed for a Russian immigrant working on her Master’s whom the Chair wished to help along.

And then there were my freshman composition classes, which most profs of my years disdain to teach but which I had grown to love.  My approach had been devoted to critical thinking taught via Socratic method.  Students produced essays by following a chain of thoughts to its logical conclusion.  The discipline of seeking such objectivity was often a tremendous aid to the young person if prosecuted properly: I had seen it light up many a cold lamp.  Shallow, cliché assumptions were often left exposed by honest, impartial questioning; e.g., “If certain races or DNA profiles are identified as cultures, then how can we define culture as a cultivation of shared habits?”

This class, too, disappeared—devoured by a massive initiative to merge instruction with the latest “self-teaching” software.  The instructor became a kind of “roving geek” who answered questions about where this or that dropdown menu was hidden; and the students learned… what?  How to persuade by picture file and how to light up sentences with hyperlinks, I’m guessing.

That should be enough to depress any responsible professional in education… and depressed, I was.  During those last two years, I felt like some lower-level Judas in a dense, Kafkaesque network of nameless traitors.  But I’ve been rid of that living hell for almost fifteen months now.  Strange, that my sense of breathing free air has only resuscitated my regrets over courses lost four or five years ago now… over opportunities already long lost while I was still on the payroll. Any weeds of mourning should have found their way back into the closet by this point… wouldn’t you think?

Maybe my activity on social media wasn’t a good idea.  You might say that a hermit-farmer whose sole daily contact with other humans (other than his long-suffering wife) is through Twitter and Parler can’t help but have the decline of Western civilization sitting heavily on his heart.  My wife says that very thing, in different words.  People go on Facebook to share photos of their grandchildren and of their vacation in the Bahamas; people go on Twitter to post videos of dunghills in San Francisco’s streets and of tattooed “immigrants” flashing gang signs through the windows of detention centers,

But, again… it’s not the decline per se whose prospect oppresses me.  I think I’ve been keenly aware of a vast downward spiraling in our society since I was fourteen or fifteen, a very lonely resistance-fighter against the Sexual Revolution and the academic “culture” of relevance (i.e., the counter-culture).  I’ll admit that, now as then, the organized Christian church has been a severe disappointment.  I found little support in its shifting positions half a century ago; and, having just joined a rural Presbyterian church, I’ve been shocked to hear innuendo that “Christian duty” compels us to collaborate in undermining border security.  I have a son living in a “sanctuary” (i.e., “crime-forgiveness”) city… and my minister is busily patting herself on the back for working in a soup kitchen!

But… but my point is precisely that I knew all this—not in detail, but in tendency—years and years ago.  I knew that the earth wobbles when she turns.  I think what’s taken me completely by surprise is the staggering number of lost opportunities that are truly lost, at least for my lifespan: the number of things that were good—that were beautiful—while they lasted, but that simply didn’t last… the fragility of life, of its best moments.  That’s the pain that I seem to take out on this hard red clay with my hoe.  I knew very dark despair when I was young, but also silver stars of hope.  I’ve now been to some of those stars, and they were indeed silver: they were exquisite, perfect in their way.  And then my life cycle extended beyond theirs.  Remembering them… it’s something I do more and more often—more, I think, than I brood over our impending social and political chaos.  And maybe it’s not their absence that haunts me or the terms of their destruction: maybe it’s knowing that, as they were first firing up or building their radiance to its peak, they were also ending.  They were very finite.  The thing that silvered them also made them short-lived.

Misery isn’t always ephemeral; perhaps it’s seldom so.  I don’t know how that can be possible… but human society does seem, somehow, to be perpetually degenerating!  That steadily descending vector is in itself a collaborative work of stunning genius.  The good things, meanwhile, are like a rare tree that bears life-giving fruit: it struggles to survive the juvenile stage, supports several animal species in its prime if it should mature… and then it yields to briars and vines.  The briars and vines seem ever-ready to overgrow everything else.  Should we humans self-annihilate and leave a deserted planet for some alien to discover in future millennia, its surface will teem with briars and vines.  No walnut trees.  Yet the good life is all about coaxing a walnut tree up from the hard red clay.

A year ago this past week, as we sat at our kitchen table in the old house for the final time (I would bundle that table, too, into the van the next day), I looked out the window upon the yard where my little boy and I had played baseball games with tennis balls, where I had later built him a mound, and where he had learned how to pitch well enough to send himself through college… and I cried like a baby.  My wife and I didn’t particularly like that house, that town… but they were collectively a treasure chest of our son’s upbringing, and I had just about emptied the whole thing out.  We couldn’t get all of it into a forty-foot trailer, and much was thrown away or left at the curbside; but I also found a place for more than one toy that hadn’t been touched for twenty years.  What I saw just then as I melted over a plate of untouched food… was it just my graying hair in the kitchen window’s twenty-year mirror?

I thought briefly that I saw all the slights of a hard, hypocritical East Texas town shortchanging my child because his dad wasn’t a big fish in its tiny puddle of oil money—or that I saw all the failures of Dad to intervene in a timely, effectual manner to get his son equal consideration here and there… but no.  No, that wasn’t it.  It wasn’t bitterness at all, though it made me weep—but not all tears are bitter.  I’ve managed to figure out by now that what I saw was all the happiness and the beauty.  We had had a good life there, in spite of the town’s deeply embedded problems.  We had had enough sun: nobody could take that from us.  And Dad… he had done just what he was supposed to do.  He had raised a fine young man… and released the young man to make his way in the world.  Mission accomplished.  And the curious old house had helped, and the sandy, battered yard had helped.  We had all given what we could… we weren’t perfect, but we had done well.  Now it was all over.  Mission accomplished.

I have become aware that these are not thoughts accessible to a young man.  This is not a young man’s depression.  A new house in a new state with plenty of new chores won’t drive it away.  The things that you do well in this life must be released: only the failures abide, like fragments of ancient jalopies in an old garage.  What you build that works drives away.  Somehow, in these years or days that remain to me, I must learn how to absorb the sadness of so much beauty, so many missions accomplished.  I hadn’t known that such a task awaited me.  How could I have?  It’s not the sort of thing a young man would ever understand.

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