Walks with My Granddaughter Eva

Our granddaughter, Eva, has just been elected Ms. President of our town, Westport, CT). We couldn’t be prouder.

In my declining years, I’m leading a charmed life. Here Peggy and I are living in Westport, CT, just down the street from our daughter, Maggie, her husband, Kerry, and five of our grandchildren.

Here’s a picture of our house where we moved just three years ago:

Our grandsons, Oscar (10), Orlando (8), Markandeya (6), and Sebastian (2) usually stay overnight on Fridays and we have breakfast together Saturday mornings. All of them (except little Sebastian) love baseball, so Peggy and I spend a lot of time cheering them on in their Little League games.

About three nights a week, Peggy and I also have dinner at our daughter’s beautiful home. And with the advent of warmer spring nights, we’ve been eating outdoors, where we share not only Maggie’s gourmet meals, but the day’s “roses and thorns,” i.e. all of us taking turns telling about the highpoint and low point of our days.

When my turn comes, my “rose” is often an account of my morning walk with my granddaughter, Eva (12), who is the reigning “Ms. President” of Westport. [That’s right, Eva recently ran (albeit unopposed) for our town’s Ms. President and was elected based on her compelling presentation of a platform promoting planet-saving vegetarianism.]

In any case and for years, Eva has often joined me for my daily four-mile fast walks (which are getting slower all the time). This often happens on weekends, but sometimes we end up walking together to her school about two and a half miles distant. About half-way through our routine, we invariably stop for coffee at Starbucks and spend about 30 minutes just talking there on the shore of the Saugatuck River that runs through Westport’s heart. Our conversations are uniformly wonderful.

We often discuss what we’ve seen and heard lately on “Democracy Now,” Amy Goodman‘s Monday through Friday news program which Eva watches faithfully every day. (I’ve told Eva that if she continues her practice, she’ll end up knowing more about the world than most of her teachers at her Pierrepont School which she absolutely loves.)

Pierrepont School, Westport, CT

Both Eva and I are admirers of Malcolm X. So, we’ve watched and discussed Spike Lee’s film together (along with “Fahrenheit 451,” “Soul,” and “My Octopus Teacher”). We’ve also read Malcolm’s autobiography, and we’ve talked about Les Payne‘s latest biography about our hero, The Dead Are Arising (which I’m sure Eva will read on her own when she gets a bit older). I can imagine her producing some kind of research paper on Malcolm in high school or college. Anyhow, we often talk about X; Eva is intensely interested — as she is about almost everything.

And our conversations are so much fun.

For instance, just this morning, we had maybe our best exchange yet. In her history class at Pierrepont, Eva’s studying the Illiad and Odyssey. While Eva loves the tale, she was mildly complaining that her teacher takes the classic too seriously — i.e. she leads discussions as though Homer’s work were something more than what Eva recognizes as historical fiction.

“You know, Baba,” she confided to me, “I think they’ve misplaced Homer in the history section of our library; it really belongs in the fiction aisle. I mean, all this stuff about Helen of Troy as the cause of the Trojan War doesn’t make sense. How does anyone know that her abduction started the whole thing?”

“That’s a brilliant question,” I said. “You should ask your teacher.

“But you know,” I said, ” that’s probably true of all of the books in your school’s library. I mean they all should probably be classified as fiction. That’s what historians and other authors do; they write accounts that reflect their own biases. And that goes for the Bible too.” (I voiced that last part, because Eva considers herself an atheist, so I wanted to be even-handed about fields of study — she knows I’m especially interested in questions of faith and biblical interpretation.)

“But don’t be too quick to dismiss fiction,” I added. “Fiction is often more revealing of truth than history or scientific theory. It’s like my friend, Guy Patrick, used to observe about the Bible. . . ‘All of it is true,’ he’d say, ‘and some of it even happened.’ Hemingway’s and Faulkner’s novels are true, even though they didn’t happen. You might say the same about the poems of Emily Dickinson.”

And Eva could see all of that. Despite her atheism, she even agreed that the biblical stories of creation might be truer (i.e. more revealing of human meaning) than Darwin’s revolutionary theory. Stifling a theatrical yawn, she said “Darwin might be factually true, but it’s more boring, I agree.”

Can you see what I mean about a charmed life — and about my charming granddaughter?

On Visiting the Hermitage of Thomas Merton

merton5

Last week I received a surprise phone call from a good friend. It was Don Nugent, a University of Kentucky historian who once taught Peggy during her graduate years. Don told me that his “Thomas Merton Group” would be meeting on Sunday. It would be the once-a-year special gathering in Merton’s hermitage. Would we like to come? What a question! What a privilege! Wild horses couldn’t keep us away (although a severe cold did prevent Peggy from accompanying me). In any case, here are the thoughts the visit provoked:

“On Visiting the Hermitage of Thomas Merton”

I entered a saint’s house today,
Thomas Merton’s hermitage
In Gethsemane, Kentucky,
A stark cinder-block hut
With walls unpainted
Stuck incongruously
At the end of a long muddy path
Covered with stones
And fallen brown leaves
In a bleak December woods.

The journey to Gethsemane was tedious
But grand –
Two hours along twisting roads
Through Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch
With their stunning landscapes
Of rolling bluegrass hills
And endless farms
Dotted with double-wides
And red brick mansions
With identical Christmas lights
Following the contours of their disparate roofs
And bathtub Madonnas adorning their lawns.

Near the monastery
I passed huge black distilleries
of presaging Spirits --
Makers’ Mark, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey.

Merton’s hermitage had a large living room,
A bedroom with a narrow cot
On which (no doubt) the saint dreamed
Of that nurse in Louisville
Who won his heart
And made him human
For the rest of us.
There was a kitchen and bathroom
And a chapel too
With a small square altar
And a wall with the Coptic icons
So dear to that mystic’s soul.

We sat in a circle
Twenty of us
In Father Louis’ living room
On folding chairs
Spotted with rust
Between a smoking fire
And the desk where “Louie”
Used to write.
Jacques Maritain once sat with him there,
We were told,
And MLK would’ve as well
Had not the assassin’s bullet
Aborted his planned pilgrimage
To the Great Man’s feet.

We listened to Brother Paul
Read his poetry –
A gloss on Matthew’s words,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
In the winter cold,
Some dozed,
One snored.
But brother Paul was on fire,
His breath’s vapor blending
With the hearth’s smoke.
For the wakeful,
His words lit flames
That made wood fire redundant.

All of us are poor
He said.
None of this is ours
Everything is gift.
Prayer knows the Reality
That is always there
But not perceived.
It is coming to realize
What we already sense
But normally do not recognize.
Prayer is a pause
That shifts the atmosphere
Of the soul.
It is encountering a Christ
Who comes in ways hidden,
But not recognized
For a long time.
Paul quoted Emily Dickinson
“I’m nobody.
Who are you?
Are you nobody too? . . .
How dreary to be somebody!”

Suddenly Paul jumped up.
“It’s time for Vespers," he said,
And ran off.
The rest of us scurried to follow him
To the monastery chapel.

“I used to live like this,”
I thought as I stared at the monks
In stalls opposed across a narrow aisle.
There were perhaps thirty of them
Mostly middle-aged and older
One black, the rest white, balding; some bearded.
“I did this for twenty-years,” I thought.
I wondered how.
All men, dressed identically,
Praying together seven times each day,
Keeping long silences
Punctuating endless hours of chaste study,
Now and then catching glimpses of women
And wondering about them
Before driving those thoughts from our minds.
I’m  glad I failed at that.

But Brother Paul was right.
It is all gift.
Trying to be somebody
Is quite dreary
Truly I was born without anything .
So were you.
My goal is
To keep most of it
Till I die.
What’s yours?