Thursday, January 28, 2010

building blocks

At the high school I graduated from, there was a mandatory Bible class. The school had its roots in a religious history, but by the time I got there in 1954, curriculum Christianity was vestigial -- more an acknowledgment that an educated man living in America would have at least a passing understanding of the religious threads in the American culture.

In Bible class, there was no indoctrination or brass-knuckle creationism in the air. The class included homework like any other class. The only assignments I remember were reading a book on the life of Jesus and having to memorize the books of the old and new testaments.

I thought of this last night while watching a bit of TV. It must have been Ken Burns' series on the national parks in this country, but I didn't see the beginning or end of the show, so I don't know. The part I saw focused on American naturalist and (I suppose) visionary, John Muir.

In a brief biographical background, the narrator said Muir was born in Scotland and brought up in Wisconsin. His father, an "itinerant Presbyterian minister," was hard on his son, beating him into memorizing scripture. By the age of 11, the narrator said, Muir could recite much of the Old Testament by heart, and had memorized all of the New Testament. He went on to study botany and geology in college and proved himself an able entrepreneur in the jobs he held before heading into the wilderness -- specifically, to what is now Yosemite National Park, where he walked and studied and ruminated on God's works in a way that impressed and convinced many ... convinced them not necessarily to go to church, but to see what was around them in a visionary context.

But I got stuck on his memorization. Think of it: Eleven years old and he could recite all of the New Testament. Never mind religion, that's a hell of a lot to remember, let alone recite. At 11 ... or any other age. What a building block and what a frightful weight ... taking up so much of his young energies and focus.

The show made me wonder if, with all of his reshaping and revising of his early training, Muir was a happy man. His acolytes and admirers will scoff at such a question ... of course he was happy. But I wonder idly if he really was. Not that anyone can know for sure any more than they can know the happiness and peace of any other human being. I just wonder.

And the segment of the show I saw also made me wonder if everyone doesn't reshape and revise their youthful beginnings ... the building blocks and weights that painted their past. Whether rigorous or lackadaisical, whether conformist or non-conformist, whether loving or painful ... still, reshaping and revising the blessings and curses of the past into a living testament. Not that it's a matter of conscious decision or will power -- I just think it's what happens as naturally as the growth of daisies.

Teenagers may scoff at or extol their parents' missteps and foibles -- "I'm NEVER going to be like that!" or "I want to be JUST LIKE my dad or mom!" -- and experiences in later life may nourish similar conclusions and judgments, but the imagined control is, I imagine, more imaginary than real. How could anyone possibly be anything other than what they are? How could they help but be an utter original?

I'm not arguing for some dumbed-down fatalism, some it-is-written comic-book approach.

Last night on TV, President Barack Obama said "change has not come fast enough." He was referring to the woeful economy and the suffering people are enduring in the wake of the money-manipulators' greedy mistakes. He would like to make things better ... or anyway make people think he was trying to make things better.

But "change has not come fast enough?"

What that means is that things aren't changing to my satisfaction. OK. But are satisfactions the premise on which change operates, on which change depends? Are circumstances that arise my doing ... or not my doing? By removing one weight, what weight replaces it? There always seems to be one ... some blessing or weight replaced by another blessing or weight. Is this a way that encourages peace and happiness? I doubt it.

In high school, I took a Bible class. John Muir suffered at the hands of a righteous father and was filled with biblical words. Each suffers and delights in the freights and weights of a past.

Building blocks, we might say. Building blocks to build more building blocks. Wondrous and horrific building blocks. But no matter how many building blocks we may collect and place and reflect on, still the house is never complete. The blocks may soar to heaven or drag us all into unimaginable hells, and still ...

Whose house is this? Houses protect and defend, but the one who lives in them is utterly unique all the time ... unprotected, unprotectable and living. So...

Who is this alive one?

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