The full text of the lecture I delivered last week in Austin, Texas.
You are twelve years old again. Your father announces, one December morning, that he has secured a license from the state to cut down a pine tree on state lands, and that this tree will serve as the family Christmas tree. Your mother packs a thermos of hot chocolate and your father packs a saw. An hour long drive delivers the four of you into the middle of nowhere. Only a hundred yards from your car, you find a beautiful tree, but your father insists better can be found further in a desolate woods which stands before you. You trudge on and on. An hour later, your father insists he has found the right tree, but shaves off a third of his thumb while cutting it down. Your mother wrings her hands and your father curses the tree with an impious oath. Your little sister begins to weep. The ropes which your father uses to strap the tree to the car are old and break when he tightens them. “Fine,” your father shouts up to the cosmos, “No Christmas tree this year!” The cut tree is abandoned by the side of the road. As you drive home, your mother says, “Some day, we will look back on this and laugh.”
You are fifteen years old again. It is a Friday night, family night, pizza night, and your mother has selected a film to watch. “I have not seen this movie since it came out in 1981,” she says, happily. You have never heard of the film before, though your mother says it is a comedy and that it is very funny. The pizza arrives by delivery and the movie begins. Several minutes into the film, a filthy joke passes and your mother nervously and looks to your father. While your mother is a very polite and kind woman, the kind of woman who blushes when someone says the word “sucks,” the film she has chosen for family movie night is a Richard Pryor film. A few minutes later, jokes about various aberrant sexual behaviors begin in earnest, and while your mother and father are laughing, they suddenly agree to turn the film off. “I didn’t remember it being so filthy,” says your mother, “I just remembered it being very funny.” She has turned the film off for your sake, for the sake of her children, and you have the suspicion that she and your father will simply finish watching the movie later, after you have gone to bed. You get the impression that if the same jokes were being made in a Seth Rogen movie released last week, your mother would be genuinely offended by them, though she is not actually offended by Richard Pryor.
You are sixteen years old again. Your civics class is on a road trip to Washington, DC. On the long car ride, one of your classmates takes control of the radio and turns the dial to a Top 40 station. After ten minutes of Nicki Minaj and Rihanna, the civics teacher says, “This music is simply too explicit, too filthy to listen to on a class trip.” Everyone in the car becomes quiet. The teacher turns the dial to a classic rock station. Gary Pucket’s 1968 track “Young Girl” plays and the students note the lyrics:
Beneath your perfume and your make-up
You’re just a baby in disguise
And though you know that it’s wrong to be
Alone with me
That come on look is in your eyes
Young girl, get out my mind
My love for you is way out of line
Better run girl
You’re much too young girl
After this song, “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones comes on. The class pays close attention as Mick Jagger sings:
Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good?
Brown Sugar, just like a black girl should
Finally, Led Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song” comes across the airwaves and the civics teacher continues to merrily pat out the beat on the steering wheel, lost in thought, as the students diligently apply their classical educations to discern what kind of lemon is being sung about, and why the juice of this lemon is running down the leg of the singer.
All three of these songs were released between 1968 and 1971, the years the civics teacher was in high school. He is known around school for the saying, “Things were different then.” He is a scrupulously moral human being, an elder in the Presbyterian church, and a ruthless enforcer of the dress code. None of his shocked students has the courage to ask him about the lemon or the black girl or the young girl, for he is lost in an innocent reverie of remembrance, silently pronouncing the lyrics, lips barely moving, like a priest who says certain prayers in secreto.
You are twenty years old. For the first time in your life, you are soundly in love, but she is all wrong for you, for you are Christian and she is apostate. You have seen the writing on the wall, but refuse to read it. One January morning, the two of you drive a hundred miles to do a favor for a friend, and far from home, you see a 24 hour marriage chapel called “The Hitching Post.” You joke about the possibility of getting married, although you know that marriage is the only way the failing romance can be saved. Before beginning the drive back home, you go to a candy store and purchase a jar of jelly beans, forty different flavors. In the late night dark of the drive back, you both select a candy from the jar and guess the flavor. “We should play a game,” one of you says. “We will eat the jelly beans one at a time. We will both pull a jelly bean from the jar. We will eat them at the same time and then, at the same time, say what flavor we got. If we get the same flavor on the same round, we will turn around and drive back to the wedding chapel and get married.” Years later, this story of profoundly cavalier souls joking and wagering their virtue and sanity on a game of chance has mellowed into a benign ornament which decorates the wing of a personal museum in the soul devoted to youth. Your spirit is a touch more luminous for it, although you acknowledge the origin of the story to be a moment of idolatrous romantic desperation.
“Time heals all wounds” is a proverb often spoken in amazement at how little pain we feel today for wrongs suffered long ago, but the curative and pacifying power of time does more than simply heal. Time holds the power to lay low mountains of regret. The passage of time can cleanse what is filthy, defang what is venomous, and touch a comic wand on events cursed with tragedy.
The powers of time are synergistic, at once working independently of us, but also in concert with us. Time is a cellar where the events of our lives age, and the butler of memory retrieves certain bottles for us of an evening when we do not expect them. Still, we become accustomed to certain bottles, certain tastes, and send for those vintages more frequently. The more often we drink of them, the more accustomed our palates become to the flavors, the more deeply we understand the past. We know that the juice with which we filled the bottles years ago is— and is not— the same liquor which returns to us years later.
My theme is nostalgia, the labor par excellence of remembering. I will confess that I am a deeply nostalgic person, and I believe this owns to two rather significant autobiographical facts. First, I married a woman I met when I was only fourteen years old. And second, I teach history.
It is the fate of the historian to wish he lived in any era but his own. The historian does not find a certain bygone era preferable for the dress, politics or architecture, but because the bygone era is fixed, and therefore meaningful. The present is ontologically profligate, however, and continually fritters away the meaning of the past; the past is certain, but the present is untethered, and any present event may become something, but is likely to become nothing at all. I am not particularly greedy. I only wish it was 1982.
The average man would, I wager, rather read today’s newspaper than yesterday’s newspaper. He would rather read today’s paper than last Tuesday’s newspaper. He would likely prefer today’s paper to the paper from the same date last year. However, as the date gets further and further back, eventually the man crosses a line wherein the prospect of the older newspaper is more intriguing. The present paper is speculation, as is yesterday’s paper, but far back enough, the past becomes correct or incorrect, right or wrong, prophesy or blasphemy.
No man may live his life as though it is a story; a life becomes a story only in the past, when it can be viewed with a narrator’s eye. In the present, we are all nothing more than characters blindly feeling for our way. Story is an act of remembrance, or, as Thomas Wolfe states in the preface to Look Homeward, Angel:
Fiction is not fact, but fiction is fact selected and understood, fiction is fact arranged and charged with purpose.
At the point the past is sufficiently far away that it can be selected, understood, arranged, and charged with purpose, the past is fiction.
Wolfe intentionally blurs the distinction between history and fiction when he writes that “all serious work in fiction is autobiographical — a more autobiographical work than Gulliver’s Travels cannot easily be imagined.”
My want, as an amateur historian, is not to return to 1982 naïve of the future, but to personally return to the year by myself and to walk around in a world wherein Wolfe’s selection, understanding, arrangement, and charge may take place in the present. This is, I grant, something of an ontological impossibility. The common name for the desire to return to a world wherein the present may be so known is “nostalgia.” If the past is fiction, then nostalgia is also a kind of fiction. Nostalgia is the apotheosis of the past, the apotheosis of memory.
Having been born in 1981, 1982 is a little familiar to me. I know the year from the inside, and have a few very faint memories of it. Nostalgia is a sickness for home, though home is both time and place, and few proverbs from the 20th century have been so ubiquitously and unquestioningly canonized as L.P. Hartley’s line, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The more unstable the world, the more we should expect homesickness to be rooted in a want for time, not location. The vaporousness of the present is an existential exile from the past; we all come from a place which had meaning, and the further we get from the past, the more certain its meaning and the more vacuous the present.
Many men yearn for the days of their youth, then, not because the world was objectively better twenty-five years ago, but because the world is subjectively better twenty-five years ago. A man’s youth makes sense because it is fixed, and therefor interpretable. His children will someday yearn to return to the present he is desperate to escape. If he is fair-minded, he will grant such yearning is only right.
Many Christians believe that a yearning for the past is ingratitude for the present, and that nostalgia transgresses Solomon’s command to “not ask why the former days were better” than the days at hand. Nostalgia also strokes the fur of the postmillennial cat in the wrong direction. Should we not be glad it is today and not yesterday? Is the work God is doing today somehow less than the work He did yesterday? Is nostalgia not an insinuation that God has made some kind of mistake?
I will address these questions in due time, but let me first offer a division.
The word nostalgia simply means “homesickness.” Nostalgia is a paradoxical yearning for the past, for if the past could be regained, it would no longer be the past. If the past could be regained, it would no longer be a fiction, it would no longer have meaning. The past must, by its very nature, always be distant; but nostalgia is a way of getting as close as possible to the past without destroying the past. Nostalgia is the sacralization of memory. At its’ finest, nostalgia is the formal sacralization of memory, the impression of religious institutions on secular and private experiences.
To explain myself properly, let me tell a story.
My taste in music is nearly universal. For years, I have maintained a massive collection of cassettes, compact discs and vinyl albums. I began my collection in earnest when I was thirteen years old, and since then, I have bought and sold my entire collection many times over. As of today, I own around a thousand CDs, though I would wager that I have bought and sold around ten thousand CDs since high school. I sell off my records for pragmatic and ideological reasons. When younger, I sold my record collections off now and then to purchase bus tickets, train tickets, date money. The day after I saw The Royal Tenenbaums, I sold around $1200 worth of techno records for around $150 and used the money to buy records by The Rolling Stones and The Velvet Underground. Twice in my college days, uprisings of anti-patriotic sentiment in my spirit prompted me to sell every piece of American music I owned, no exceptions. For years, my record collection has been an extension of my mind, an icon of what I loved and how I loved, how I wanted to love and how I wanted to be loved.
For nearly as far back as I can remember, though, my heart has crowned a single musical work above all others, George Winston’s 1982 solo piano album December. My devotion to December has emerged over the last two decades and principally rests on the kind of ancestor worship common to ancient paganism, but also in Chinese and Japanese culture.
Just before my first birthday, my father left the United States to spend a year in Korea in what military families call a “hardship tour,” an extended foreign tour without family. My first memory dates back to when I was just eleven months old, the date of my father’s departure. I recall him exiting our blue Cutlas Supreme and walking a hundred yards to a helicopter which rose straight into the air and conveyed him to a distant international airport where he would board a plane. I watched him leave from my mother’s lap.
Many years later, in the late fall of 1995, I asked my father about a certain tape he always played around that time of year, and he said that, while in Korea he had purchased December and become obsessed with it.
It was around this time that I had first become intrigued by my father. We had lately moved from Virginia to Idaho, and in the midst of the move I discovered a box of old diaries he had kept, including some from as far back as my infancy. In these diaries, I read an essay he wrote on the elegance of the handshake as a gesture of friendship. My father was an even-keeled and temperate man, but in my early teenage years, I had begun to keep track of his eccentricities. He was the only fit, healthy member of our family. He had run a marathon. He had seen a shark. When Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the icy Potomac river on January 13th, 1982, my father was one of a number of Army divers who descended into the water to pull corpses from the wreckage. Once, my father suddenly became a vegetarian for several years; he once suddenly swore off alcohol for exactly ten years to the day.
Upon hearing my father say he had listened to December exclusively while in Korea, I asked him to borrow the tape and told me I could keep it. For the following year, I fell asleep listening to the tape every night.
I would not say that my father and I are distant or close, though I think it fair to say I and my sister were largely raised by my mother. Up until the day I married, I had her sensibilities and her prejudices. But December quickly came to stand for the year my father was gone, this curio of exile from our family history. And later December came to stand for my father himself.
After a year of listening to December, I put the album away and did not listen to it independently of corporate, family listening around the holidays. When I came back to the album just after my high school graduation, I found it had grown in my absence. With this return to December, I discovered time, as everyone must do at some point in their lives. When I say I discovered time, I mean I discovered the uncanniness of time. I mean that as I listened to December at the age of 19, I could not escape the sensation that I was also somehow listening to it at the age of 15 and 11 and 8, for I had been listening to this music my whole life.
To do exactly and attentively at the age of 19 what has been done at the age of 15 is to experience the ineffable transcendence of personhood. Listening to December became a way of folding time over, layering time, storing time inside of time.
Imagine for a moment a stranger tells you he can return you to any year you choose, and after pondering a moment, you ask to go back to 1982. The stranger gives you an elixir in a small blue bottle, tells you to write the year 1982 on a scrap of paper, then swallow the paper and the elixir at the same time. That evening, you do just as you have been instructed, you fall asleep and wake up the following day under a tree in a park not far from where you live. It is noon. A little way off, a man and woman lay on a blanket sharing a picnic lunch.
What would suggest to you that the year was 1982? The way the people dressed? The model of the car they drove? The dateline of newspapers for sale? The year others reported it to be? If everyone you met was dressed as though it were 1982, and if the architecture of the buildings surrounding you did not exceed the styles of 1982, and if the Baltimore Oriels had not yet won the 1983 World Series, and yet the Dodgers had already won the 1981 World Series, you could reasonably conclude it was 1982. As you leave the park and continue walking around town, you observe a hundred thousand other sights and smells and sensations consonant with 1982. There is, however, at least one thing which is not exactly from 1982: you. Is it still 1982 if you are there? Most people I ask this say, Yes. But how many other things would you have to find in this apparent world of 1982 in order to question the idea that it was truly 1982? One thing? Two things? Twelve? If everything else in the world suggested it was 1982, and yet you discovered an iPod left on a restaurant table, then what year would it be? And after finding the iPod, you also discovered a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road on the shelf of a library down the street— then what year would it be?
I offer up this little fantasy as preface to this question: When a man sits meditatively in an empty room and listens to George Winston’s 1982 solo piano album December, what year is it? If this man sets aside a certain day, every year of his life in which to listen to December, what year is it when he plays the record for his child? His grandchild?
I ask not to discredit the existence of time, but to suggest that time is not so much like a nail as it is like water tied into ribbons.
Contemporary discussions of time travel are overly informed by H.G. Wells 1895 novel The Time Machine and the scores of stories which have follows in its wake. The idea that time could be negotiated with a machine is a materialist belief of the Enlightenment, during which, time was increasingly commodified and disenchanted so that it could be controlled. Stories of “time travel” per se are highly uncommon prior to the Enlightenment not because the concept was unthinkable, but because it was bound up within a Christian theology of the sacred.
For a Medieval man, time was not governed by scientists or technologists; time was governed by the Church. The relics of martyrs were sacred in the sense that they came from the past and also the future— the healing power of martyrs’ bones is simply the power of the Resurrection spilling backwards from the future over the levee of time. In like manner, the doors of a church were the gates of heaven itself, a place outside of time where the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant gathered around the Eucharistic altar, mystically joined together in the person and body of Jesus Christ.
Contemporary stories of mechanistic time travel often depict journeys into the past in order to right horrific wrongs, and yet a Medieval man would have entered a Church with similar intentions, for confession and absolution of sin reach into the past and render null that which might otherwise destroy a man. The Catholic Church and Orthodox Church yet maintain theologies of time which lead the faithful to say, “Christ is crucified” on Good Friday, “Christ is risen” on Easter Sunday, and “Christ is born” on Christmas Day. December 25th is not a reminder of what has happened, but real entrance into the actual, historical, chronological birth of Christ.
I am not suggesting that the liturgical celebration of Christmas is nostalgic. Neither is nostalgia the establishment of a religion rival to a man’s Christian convictions. Nostalgia is simply the image of religious reality sealed on secular memory. Nostalgia is the submission of a man’s personal history to religious form and sensibility. Nostalgia does not trespass upon true religion, but is simply the secular posture of a religious spirit. Nostalgia is the resting position of a soul which cannot permanently sustain the intellectual labors of piety.
I do not listen to December year round, for I know that familiarity breeds contempt. Neither does the Church celebrate Christmas year round. I only listen to December from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, and then I cloister the record the rest of the year. During these forty days, while on my own, December is very nearly the only thing I listen to. The whole record often plays without my notice, for it assumes the shape of cathedral silence. At least once, a reverie begins and the distance between the present and the days of my youth is sublimated. This is not mere memory, but re-entrance into a private atmosphere of being where the command, “Know thyself,” can be obeyed in ways apart from mere recognition of fault.
We are not nostalgic for things which occurred yesterday or last week. Today, I am the same man I was a week ago, a month ago, a year ago. We are not nostalgic for what is, but what was. Nostalgia is principally the submission of a man’s memory of youth to the contours of religion. We may be nostalgic for something after youth, but such nostalgia infrequently manages the potency of nostalgia for youth. When I refer to youth, I mean all that happens to a man before he turns 21. Before a man turns 21, his soul is far more malleable than after, far more open. The youthful experience of the world is shot through with an urgency and vitality often lost in adulthood. The soul is more easily overwhelmed in youth; we are more deeply affected by what we see and hear and taste when we are young.
Why is this?
Before the birth of my first daughter, my wife and I took a class at a local hospital where we learned many things about pregnancy and birth. Before the class ended, we were shown how to comfort a wailing newborn. “Bind the child tightly in swaddling clothes,” we were told, “and loudly shush the child by putting your mouth right up to the ear. The binding and shushing are a recreation of the womb.” We were told that that the first few months of a child’s life are the “fourth trimester,” so to speak, for nature has decreed that human children are born just a little too soon. Any longer than nine months and a child could not pass out of the womb, and yet at only nine months, a great degree of development is still in the cards.
The expression “fourth trimester” remained with me into the summer after Camilla was born, when I first read The Divine Comedy. Dante’s presentation of creation is sufficiently strange to offend both evolutionists and creationists, and while he never explicitly lays out an account of the first seven days, the reader of the Comedy becomes evermore aware of the dazzling, even alarming unity of Dante’s cosmos. Each of the seven spheres of the cosmos governs a different virtue. The moon governs faith, mercury governs hope, Venus governs love, and so forth. The earth itself slowly came into being as the formless, watery chaos described by Moses passed through each of the spheres, and, in passing, received the impress of the virtue governed by that sphere. The Earth may accordingly be thought of as a lump of wax which received seven different stamps— each of the stamps clarifying, not distorting, the image impressed by the others. The earth is thus a virtuous stuff, out of which man is made. Man is understood by Islam, Judaism, and Christianity alike to be the microcosm, the little cosmos, because, in being made of earth, man bears the image of the whole cosmos.
Along with many Medieval men, Dante did not believe that the soul was present in the body from the moment of conception. However, I do not believe this means the body has no soul at the moment of conception, simply that the body and soul are disconnected, in the same way that the body and soul of a dead man are disconnected. There is a chiastic aptness, an elegance of form, in seeing man’s life in the womb as the slow conjoining of body and soul, and his existence in the tomb as the slow separation of body and soul, for there is a Jewish custom that the souls of the dead do not finally depart from the body until the fourth day. So what is the soul doing in the time between the conception of the body and the entrance of the soul into the body?
To this question, we should recall Dante’s cosmology and consider that Dante assigned great meaning and value to the Zodiac. The soul issues forth from the Empyrean and returns to the Empyrean after death. When life begins, the soul traverses the cosmos and, like the earth, receives the impress of the spheres; however, the various positions of the spheres in the heavens means every soul is impressed differently. Following Christian adjustments to Ptolemaic superstition in Late Antiquity, Dante does not hold that the spheres overwhelm the human will, or that Mercury can rob a man of his autonomy. Like modern men, Dante believed that the spheres can influence, incline, and govern men. Millions of Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which, seen one way, is simply a sadness which besets a man when the sphere of the sun is not ascendant. Dante would not deny the sun such power, but Dante also believed that Jupiter and Saturn and all the rest hold similar kinds of power over life on earth. If it is not insane to say a man is inclined to be sad when the sun is down, neither is it mad to say a man is inclined to be lusty when Venus is up. As Dante ascends through the cosmos in the Paradiso, he learns the virtue appropriate to each sphere in his passing. Thus, Dante’s ascent through the cosmos after death parallels his descent through the cosmos before birth.
As the soul passes down through the cosmos towards the body, the soul is malleable, pliable. The wax of the soul is ready to receive the signet rings of the spheres. But, to return to the idea of a “fourth trimester”, the human being is born a little too soon, and the youth of a man becomes a final sphere, the eighth sphere, through which his soul passes. For this reason, the events of youth are impressed more deeply into the soul of a man than anything which comes after. Youth is myth and legend, and as we grow old, we meditate on the days of youth as the Jews meditated on the commandments of God. The youth of a man is the Old Testament of a man, for the world was not truly finished in the days of Abraham and Odysseus. God rests from His work on the seventh day, but does not declare it finished for more than five thousand years.
If a man can read the stories of Adam, Esau, and David, and perceive something dark and deep about himself in those stories, he can likewise read and meditate on the story of his own youth. Christ reveals himself as the greater David, the greater Adam, not the greater abstraction; Old Testament prophesies of Christ were not simply arbitrary checklists which would make the Christ easier to identify later. Old Testament prophesies were the deepest expressions of human desire for Christ, and in living out the prophesies of the Old Testament, Christ condescends to our desires. The life of Christ was not inevitable. If David had lived differently, Christ would have lived differently, as well.
A man’s youth is similarly a sacred text, a shaping and proclaiming of his deepest desires; we become the things we do.
When I was young, I recall listening to certain songs for days on end. I recall listening to a certain song hundreds of times, back to back to back. I recall playing the song on headphones and turning the volume up to painful levels, and still forcing the headphones further into my ears with my palms. All the movies that have changed my life I saw before I turned 21. What adult has not heard a piece of music or seen a film and immediately wished he could have seen it at the age of 16? It is well and good that adults should say to themselves, “First love is rarely true love. There is no sacrifice, no commitment. It is all sentiment, feeling, and pining.” We are haunted, nonetheless. There is a verve to first love and, as adults, we are intrigued at the thought of recapturing it.
Youth is a kind of fever dream. It is barely real. It is an existential drunkenness. What little the authors of Scripture have to say about adolescence strikes modern ears as overindulgent and lenient. “Do not remember the sins of my youth,” prays the Psalmist, as though twenty years of diverse sin could simply be balled up like a sheet of paper and tossed over the shoulder. Solomon is equally cavalier when addressing young men at the end of Ecclesiastes:
You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, I find no pleasure in them.
We are a little hesitant to admit there are such epochs in life because, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice,” has nearly turned us all into emotional and moral nihilists. American Christianity is largely content that, no matter what happens, we ought to wear a happy grin and proclaim faith that God is doing something wonderful for us. Contrast such tendencies with Solomon’s claim that:
When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other.
American Christianity typically amends this teaching to:
When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: the “good times” weren’t all that great after all, and things aren’t all that bad now.
Nostalgia is always felt toward times, not singular events, and while many historians claim that movement from one era to another is never sudden, always illusory and a bit fabricated, Solomon is a little obsessed with eras. In Ecclesiastes 3, Solomon claims there is an era for everything: a time for this, a time for that.
Nostalgia is wonder at a bygone time. Nostalgia is wonder over time itself; the purgatorial power of time to make sacred what was common, to find meaning in what was abject, to draw out prayers of thanks for that which was formerly despised. Nostalgia is the answer to Sophocles’ bitterness that a man is always kicking himself today for what he should have been doing yesterday. Because the past must remain ultimately inaccessible, if it is to remain “the past,” nostalgia is melancholic, but the melancholy of nostalgia realizes Solomon’s teaching that, “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by the sadness of the face the heart is made better.” Nostalgia bids us enter the room of the past, but only beneath the veil of memory. That veil allows us to edit the past, refine the past, interpret the past, even transfigure the past…
Solomon’s prohibition against “asking why the former days were better than these” simply assumes the former days were better. Of course, most of Ecclesiastes is a mockery of those who would attempt to gain an advantage over the world, a mockery of those trying to take dominion over the world; the man Solomon describes asking why the former days were better asks the question that he might exploit the world, stack his money higher, live longer, command more respect. Solomon’s theme is the vaporous nature of human life. Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. In the end, the earth always takes dominion over man. Nostalgia sets in when a man enters the autumn of his life; the beauty which attends nostalgia is the beauty of autumn, the mildest of the seasons, the season in which we begin looking forward to the end.
The charge which concludes this lecture is rather simple: Your students are yet in the Old Testament of their lives. Your students are building those events which One adult may bless another adult, but adults have power over the imagination of their children; you can be the wildness of God to your students. Certain truths may only be communicated to a child; we do not believe certain truths as adults because we did not learn them young enough. These truths require not only reason, but an ontologically eminent authority to declare them— for the most part, adults acknowledge no ontologically eminent human authorities. While I say I believe in the miracles Augustine records at the end of the City of God, in truth, I only hope I believe in the miracles. I encountered these miracles too late, and so my intellect is too weak and too materialistic to credit them with genuine enthusiasm. Sadly, I have come to the miracles as an adult hearing another adult.
But I have taught my children that stars are angels, that the moon is Mary, that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Jesus. I have told them that Peter Pan will become real at the end of the time, and I have written letters to them as Peter Pan from the future. I have given my students final exams they could not finish, and then torn up those exams. The good teacher will have spent many hours trying to recall what kind of teacher he wanted while younger. I have a beard which is two feet long because it struck me years ago that a teacher with such a beard seemed far more desirable than a teacher without such a beard. Although I had no names to ascribe to my desires twenty years back, I know now that the teacher I always wanted in high school thought like Robert Graves, wrote poetry like Hermann Hesse, was as reasonable as the Fox from Till We Have Faces, but also terrifying like the priest of Ungit. As an adult, there is absolutely nothing stopping me from being this person for my students.
What determines the way you dress to teach? What principals govern your choice of music for your classroom? From whom do your borrow the look in your eyes when you say, “Know Thyself.” You can be a mythmaker to them. You can be Virgil to them. You can be Abraham to them. You must be.