On the Invincibility of Fathers

It’s my Dad’s birthday today—which means he’s now officially 61 years old.

People usually talk about a moment in their relationship with their parents when their progenitors’ frailties and vulnerabilities as human beings become apparent for the first time. This moment can happen fairly early in life—through an unexpected illness or a sudden outburst—or it can happen fairly late, but whatever the incident is and whenever it happens, what’s left is the stunning and bewildering realization that our parents are people too.

I don’t think I’ve had this moment with my Dad and I’m not sure I ever will. I’ve watched him grow older: his hair turn white, his waist grow thick, and his health become less robust, but in spite of all the obvious signs of mortality and weakness, he’s never stopped being invincible for me. My siblings and I have relied on him for as long as I can remember and he’s never let us down. Philosophers and theologians talk about their quests for certainty—for finding universal and immutable principles that people can hold on to—but all intellectual quests are ultimately rooted in existential searches. If I never cared to find an Archimedean point in my own career as a philosopher, it was only because I had all the certainty I needed in the fact of my father’s love.  This was a man who built his life around his children—and he did it quietly and unobtrusively, with a lot of humility and a lot of humor.

There are few phenomena in life I can’t talk much about simply because words massively fail, and my Dad is one of them. So: happy, happy birthday Dad. Just because everyone else says their dad is the best in the world doesn’t make my claim (that you’re the best dad in the world) any less true (because it is).

I love you.

On the Frustrations of Rest

After four days on a long-planned vacation, I’ve reached the following conclusion:

I have absolutely no idea how to relax.

This realization comes almost five years after leaving the corporate world and the only possible reason for its belated arrival is frank and persistent denial.

This isn’t to denigrate all the progress I’ve made over the last half decade in terms of slowing down. But as with all other manifestations of success, I’ve used that progress to avoid having to deal with stubbornly problematic areas.

My shift toward self-employment represents the latest in this series of clever self-concealment. For all intents and purposes, the transition was supposed to inaugurate a new era of relaxed and purposeful living—of having full control over my time and my energy and any activities that required both. But I only ended up importing a productivity-junkie mentality into a territory that unfortunately doesn’t have the necessary safeguards of well-defined workloads and well-defined hours. If I enjoy what I’m doing, and my work is my hobby, then why should I have a break—or more importantly—why do I even need a break? Aren’t rest and recreation merely consolations in a world where careers and vocations don’t necessarily coincide?

And this, I think, is where the root of my inability to relax lies: I think of rest as a sign of failure, a sign of having failed to engage in a line of work where freedom and security and responsibility and enjoyment come together in a single pursuit. I don’t—or at least I haven’t learned—to relate to rest as just rest, as the necessary pause that makes for a life well lived, in the same way that notes must be separated by intervals for music to be even heard.

Of course, realizing this is the easy part. Living it is another matter entirely. Good thing that I have the rest of my life to try.

On the Pleasures of Szymborska (Part 4)

by Wislawa Szymborska

As long as nothing can be known for sure
(no signals have been picked up yet),
as long as Earth is still unlike
the nearer and more distant planets,

as long as there’s neither hide nor hair
of other grasses graced by other winds,
of other treetops bearing other crowns,
other animals as well-grounded as our own,

as long as only the local echo
has been known to speak in syllables,

as long as we still haven’t heard word
of better or worse mozarts,
platos, edisons somewhere,

as long as our inhuman crimes
are still committed only between humans,

as long as our kindness
is still incomparable,
peerless even in its imperfection,

as long as our heads packed with illusions
still pass for the only heads so packed,

as long as the roofs of our mouths alone
still raise voices to high heavens—

let’s act like very special guests of honor
at the district-firemen’s ball
dance to the beat of the local oompah band,
and pretend that it’s the ball
to end all balls.

I can’t speak for others—
for me this is
misery and happiness enough:

just this sleepy backwater
where even the stars have time to burn
while winking at us

On the Pleasures of Szymborska (Part 3)

by Wislawa Szymborska 

Nothing can ever happen twice.
In consequence, the sorry fact is
that we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice.

Even if there is no one dumber,
if you’re the planet’s biggest dunce,
you can’t repeat the class in summer:
this course is only offered once.

No day copies yesterday,
no two nights will teach what bliss is
in precisely the same way,
with precisely the same kisses.

One day, perhaps some idle tongue
mentions your name by accident:
I feel as if a rose were flung
into the room, all hue and scent.

The next day, though you’re here with me,
I can’t help looking at the clock:
A rose? A rose? What could that be?
Is it a flower or a rock?

Why do we treat the fleeting day
with so much needless fear and sorrow?
It’s in its nature not to stay:
Today is always gone tomorrow.

With smiles and kisses, we prefer
to seek accord beneath our star,
although we’re different (we concur)
just as two drops of water are.

On the Pleasures of Szymborska (Part 2)

by Wislawa Szymborska

It has come to this: I’m sitting under a tree
beside a river
on a sunny morning.
It’s an insignificant event
and won’t go down in history.
It’s not battles and pacts,
where motives are scrutinized,
or noteworthy tyrannicides.

And yet I’m sitting by this river, that’s a fact.
And since I’m here
I must have come from somewhere,
and before that
I must have turned up in many other places,
exactly like the conquerors of nations
before setting sail.

Even a passing moment has its fertile past,
its Friday before Saturday,
its May before June.
Its horizons are no less real
than those that a marshal’s field glasses might scan.

This tree is a poplar that’s been rooted here for years.
The river is the Raba; it didn’t spring up yesterday.
The path leading through the bushes
wasn’t beaten last week.
The wind had to blow the clouds here
before it could blow them away.

And though nothing much is going on nearby,
the world is no poorer in details for that.
It’s just as grounded, just as definite
as when migrating races held it captive.

Conspiracies aren’t the only things shrouded in silence.
Retinues of reasons don’t trail coronations alone.
Anniversaries of revolutions may roll around,
but so do oval pebbles encircling the bay.

The tapestry of circumstance is intricate and dense.
Ants stitching in the grass.
The grass sewn into the ground.
The pattern of a wave being needled by a twig.

So it happens that I am and look.
Above me a white butterfly is fluttering through the air
on wings that are its alone,
and a shadow skims through my hands
that is none other than itself, no one else’s but its own.

When I see such things, I’m no longer sure
that what’s important
is more important than what’s not.

On the Pleasures of Szymborska (Part 1)

by Wislawa Szymborska

I am who I am.
A coincidence no less unthinkable
than any other.

I could have different
ancestors, after all.
I could have fluttered
from another nest
or crawled bescaled
from under another tree.

Nature’s wardrobe
holds a fair
supply of costumes:
Spider, seagull, field mouse.
each fits perfectly right off
and is dutifully worn
into shreds.

I didn’t get a choice either,
but I can’t complain.
I could have been someone
much less separate.
Someone from an anthill, shoal, or buzzing swarm,
an inch of landscape tousled by the wind.

Someone much less fortunate,
bred for my fur
or Christmas dinner,
something swimming under a square of glass.

A tree rooted to the ground
as the fire draws near.

A grass blade trampled by a stampede
of incomprehensible events.

A shady type whose darkness
dazzled some.

What if I’d prompted only fear,
or pity?

If I’d been born
in the wrong tribe
with all roads closed before me?

Fate has been kind
to me thus far.

I might never have been given
the memory of happy moments.

My yen for comparison
might have been taken away.

I might have been myself minus amazement,
that is,
someone completely different.

On the Pleasures of Milosz (Part 3)

by Czeslaw Milosz

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills—
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.