Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

My blog has moved….
     Two new blogs

My blog on teaching and writing is here.
My photoblog on gardening and living in western Montana is here.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2013 Michael L. Umphrey

The enchanted island [part 1]
     Teaching nobility by teaching literature

We see our educational crisis most clearly when we turn our attention to desire. We can’t miss the dispiriting reality that many young people don’t desire what we offer. We talk about disengagement and lack of motivation. We discern even among those who do their assignments what seem to be unintelligent or even ignoble desires. We talk about narcissism, cheating and consumerism.

Though our lives have something of the enchanted about them–-at the flick of an Ipod high tech speakers body forth the best music ever made, exotic fruits from every clime are piled high in brightly lit markets, family members across the globe arrive in our chambers via Skype, the best words ever written can be summoned from online archives for free, and the most beautiful people on the planet compete for our approval from screens in every building–-we are not satisfied. We think we want more. Probably we want something else.

Listening to contemporary arguments about education, carried on for the most part with no mention of anything very important, I find myself thinking about Odysseus, stranded on Calypso’s Isle, who knew he was wasting his life in spite of the goddess’s quite compelling distractions. Every morning he left the enchanted cave and climbed down to the beach to gaze out to sea in the direction of Ithaca where his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus waited. It was, he knew, a somewhat doggie little life he was living with the nymph. It was not what he was made for. 

He was born to make worlds. That’s what his place, Ithaca, meant to him–-his fields and flocks and herds, his friends and family, including ancestors gone to the underworld and posterity not yet born, and, most important, the kingdom that had emerged through his marriage to Penelope.

Odysseus’s marriage was more than a legal bond or even a sacred bond. Wendell Berry notes that “it was part of a complex practical circumstance involving, in addition to husband and wife, their family of both descendants and forebears, their household, their community, and the sources of all these lives in memory and tradition, in the countryside, and in the earth" (The Unsettling of America, 127). He had carved their marriage bed from an olive tree rooted in the soil of Ithaca. “That marriage bed, and what it symbolized of both his love for Penelope and his practical, human rootedness in an actual place,” which is necessary if love is to be enacted and embodied, was the goal of his long voyage of homecoming. His quest, his purpose, the telos of his heroism was a home that could only be had by making the world which situated it. “These things, wedded together in his marriage, he thought of as his home.” He understood that in spite of the pleasures his time with the goddess was a captivity, keeping him from a stronger desire. It was a vacation from the things he felt seriously.

Calypso’s island is a familiar place to most people. Many of us reached some island of relative peace and pleasure, compared to other places we’ve experienced. It isn’t what we set out for, but it’s better than it might have been, and who knows if there can be any more. One could settle.

Last week one of my better students stayed after class to talk a little about Jane Eyre–-the novel the class had chosen to read, mainly because she talked them into it. She was in a desultory mood, and the novel was tied up with her vision of how she wished the world might be. She was trying to bring into focus career plans for after high school. “There are no Rochesters,” she said.

“What you really want is to marry Rochester and live happily ever after,” I said teasingly.

“Yes,” she said, without smiling. “But boys are not like that anymore.”

It’s certainly true that they are less “like that” than they used to be. A recent report on marriage, “The State of Our Unions,” found that “both boys and girls have become more accepting of lifestyles that are considered alternatives to marriage, including nonmarital childbearing and unmarried cohabitation” in spite of the fact that for both boys and girls desire for “a good marriage and family life” remain high.  

Increasingly, young people feel trapped in a world where they do not know how to get to where they truly want to be. Philosopher Allan Bloom suggested in his 1987 bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, that an “unproven and dogmatically asserted” cultural relativism had sabotaged the “real motive of education, the search for the good life.” He said that modern students were “flat-souled,” having lost the sense of the transcendent, they had succumbed to the primal seductions of rock music in a culture obsessed with sex:

“Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.

Though the book provoked a storm of controversy, today such a description seems almost quaint–-a vision of American adolescence before the immersive stories of digital games such as “Grand Theft Auto,” which thrives on murder, theft and destruction along with virtual visits to a prostitute who can be subsequently mugged or “25 to Life” which features bloody gangs taking hostages and killing cops. Researchers at Boston University’s School of Public Health found in a 2011 study that one in 13 teenage girls reported having a ‘multi-person sex’ (MPS) experience, often initiated by boyfriends who had been watching pornography. More than half the girls “were pressured or coerced into a gang rape,” said the researcher. The population of the study was poor, urban kids, so the middle class suburbs need pay to great notice yet.

Reality and art mirror each other, or become each other. In her NPR music blog, Ann Powers observed that “pop music is very dirty.” Reviewing 2011, she noted that “there were several underground rap hits unabashedly celebrating oral pleasures; Top 10 songs about sex addiction, the cowgirl position and extraterrestrial booty; country music’s embrace of the stripper pole and a holiday performance from Lady Gaga in which she did a bump and grind while performing ‘White Christmas.? At this point, such reports fill volumes.

A typical response to them is affect a world-weary wisdom and intone that people have been complaining of youth since time immemorial. Some people are fond of a quote from Socrates: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Leaving aside that there’s no direct evidence that Socrates ever said that, the more interesting point might be that Socrates in actual fact lived at the end of Athenian democracy and the beginning of rule by tyrants. He was quite aware of a general dissolution--cultural suicide really--of Greek society. In fact, the moral corruption of society was his major theme, and the historical reality is that his Athens did not survive. Quoting him for reassurance seems a bit like quoting the captain of the Titanic, with water to his chin, chuckling because people have been warning of icebergs for years.

But what’s a teacher to do? Our work is difficult enough, amid such distractions as percussion lines marching in the halls to celebrate spirit week, phone logs to document calls home, emails with deadlines for curriculum maps to show compliance, PA announcements about photo retakes, staff meetings to discuss yet again the tardies, the dress code, and PDAs. All this can make it hard to wonder whether what Homer saw is still real, and therefore still relevant to that boy with the sly grin in the second row--to wonder what, precisely, such a kid might need to hear  from a man who rejected hanging out in a place where he could stay forever young, with no hassles, on an island with a goddess who shared her “perfect bed”?

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2011 Michael L. Umphrey

Without leadership, the nation fails
     The democratic dilemma

Without vision, the people perish. Only a vision that links their individual aspirations to some larger purpose can keep a people organized for their own welfare and survival. For such a vision to exist as an organizing reality, leaders must articulate it as well as make decisions that keep it functional. In a democracy where people elect their own leaders, a dilemma arises out of human nature. People can win votes and leadership through using the arts of rhetoric to flatter and lie. In power, such people give lip service to the vision but undermine it in the pursuit of self-interest.

Can a majority of voters be wise enough to resist flattery and see through deception?

Not if the education system is corrupted.

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2010 Michael L. Umphrey

A life in commercial landscapes
     What a gardener sees

In places that are prosperous, gardens abound. In modern America, that means commercial landscapers play a role in nearly any new development. I quite like many of these spaces, but they are quite different from most private gardens maintained by individual gardeners. Many who move past them every day cannot really see them in the way that gardens are seen. They remain partly abstractions, more the idea of a garden than an actual garden.

They are like paintings--abstract compositions with an unchanging quality, maintained at a moment of perfection.

I don’t dislike these plant designs--actually I enjoy them quite a lot, finding them a huge improvement over the asphalt and concrete expanses that characterize poorer places. But they have much in common with silk and plastic flower bouquets that present an image of flowers without quite capturing the essence of flowers. The dimension of time--the unfolding, developing, blossoming, fading, drying and decaying--that inform the gardener’s vision is, as far as possible, absent, leaving an aesthetic dimension somewhat emptied of meaning. Though such plantings are alive they are somewhat not living.

Typically, they rely heavily on annuals grown in greenhouses then transported to the location and set in place already blooming. This normally limits the palette to shallow-rooted and fast-growing flowers likely to flourish in spite of the disruption and to flowers that bloom all summer. Pansies, marigolds, petunias and geraniums are common, but rarely does one encounter columbines, lupines, or surprises.

Sturdy shrubs with trouble-free mulch exemplify the low-maintenance aesthetic, which is driven by converting care, the gardener’s joy, into maintenance, usually measured in dollars and understood as a cost. They are ironic constructs, in the sense that a carefree garden is, to some degree, an invisible garden. What is visible is not a garden so much as the image of a garden, in somewhat the way that what is present in a Pizza Hut is not Italy but a sense of Italy.

And so we create a world that has its beauty, but the beauty more of a modern mall than that of a centuries-old village. Such places do not evoke a sense of the people who made them and keep them. In such spaces, we are oddly alone, no presiding presence of a gardener or of life beyond our own breaking the spell.

Of course, the modern mall is the archetypal modern garden, organized to entice and compel the primary function of urban humans: wanting. We move through an aura of wealth and well-being maintained by unseen care and stripped of any sense of time as transience. We pass by a constructed now, going on with our dreamy business, undistracted by care. We are left, sometimes, with a vague sense of wanting something we can’t quite name.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2010 Michael L. Umphrey

Goodness is a vision
     A happy person is like a garden

Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.
Proverbs 29:18

I suppose the purpose of our life is to find our way back to the garden, where we are told we began. In the beginning, we did not need to care for the garden–it was a gift. So it wasn’t really ours. We couldn’t stay there, except at the cost of never being fully human.

The way back to the garden is to create it around us. Then it will be ours, and we will be able to keep it because we understand it.

When God finished creating the earth, he said that it was good. What did he mean by that? I’ve been thinking quite a lot about what “goodness” means, or how to talk intelligibly about what it means, because I meet a lot of young people these days who do not have any very useful understanding of what it means, who are not even sure it is something they should want.

They often confuse “goodness” with obeying a list of rules. This is understandable, since teaching an understanding of goodness often includes teaching rules.

But goodness is something much larger and more important than a list of rules. Mainly, it is a vision of the world as it has been and can be, a vision of people living in all the little and big ways that support happiness. Fully realized, the vision is a vast and complex ecological order, quite beyond the comprehension of children.

And so with children we teach little rules that both preserve the order and make visible its principles. Our rules are not meant to deprive our children of freedom. Quite the opposite–they are meant to be the stepping stones that keep us out of the cold, swirling forces we traverse moment by moment and that lead us to freedom.

When our children were small, exploring the world with hands and mouth, my wife and I kept a philodendron on the coffee table. For a time the poor plant got dumped on the floor or had its leaves torn off before we could intervene. Over and over we gently stopped little hands and said “No!” It would have been easier, no doubt, to simply to move the plant out of reach until the children were older, but that would be a controller’s strategy–to turn our home into a huge cocoon in which everything was either child-proof or out of.

Sure, we put cleaning solvents, prescription medicines, and other items that could cause genuine danger out of reach, but the philodendron was sacrificed to an ideal: it is better to awaken children than to pad the rooms where they are sleepwalking. And what we awaken them to is the order that surrounds them, which is the order of our lives, which is our best approximation so far of our vision of goodness.

So it was that we would sometimes encounter a gleeful daughter wildly shredding the leaves of our forlorn-looking philodendron. Such actions are teaching opportunities. So when a lightly slapped my daughter’s hand and said “No!” what did I want her to learn?

Obviously, I would have been disappointed if she had learned that plants are never to be touched, though from her child’s perspective that must at first have seemed to be my intent. In fact, I wanted her to learn things she could not then understand. “Thou shalt not touch the philodendron” was a little rule that didn’t express our final will. Rather, it was a means to a deeper law that might be expressed “Thou shalt respect living things,” or “Thou shalt live in a house of order.” And beyond these laws was a higher reality: “Thou shalt love plants.”

What we really wanted was for our children to learn to live in a garden, which is to say we wanted them to understand the earth and the processes of life, and we wanted them to care for the world in wise ways. We wanted them to recognize and desire goodness.

That’s quite a bit to learn. So let’s start with simple things: don’t touch the philodendron. We knew our daughter would question the rule, and we knew that as her questioning spirit became more mature, our answers, both implicit and explicit, would lead her toward understanding what we really wanted. Soon, we allowed her to help with such tasks as watering the plant. As she grew, we negotiated with her, gradually increasing her responsibilities and freedom to keep pace with her understanding.

In time the philodendron rule became irrelevant as she learned that plants not only could be touched, but they could be pruned, re-potted, fertilized and enjoyed. Beyond the philodendron rule lay profound principles, more difficult to understand but more liberating to live. Beyond the philodendron rule lay all the principles of wisdom, which are identical with the principles of goodness.

Wise traditions teach goodness by giving rules, because life is complicated in much the way ecosystems are complicated, and inexperienced people are likely to make decisions that damage or destroy their chances at happiness without understanding the long-term consequences of what they do. Good rules help keep people safe while they are still learning how life works.

The rules of morality are guidelines to long-term practicality. In many cases, they are summaries of centuries of experience about what sorts of actions tend toward misery, and of what sorts of actions contribute to happiness.

Goodness is closely related to wisdom, since happiness in this world will be fleeting unless our thoughts and actions are in harmony with the way things really are.

“Truth” is our name for such harmony.

A happy life is similar to a garden–it is a thing of beauty made out of the materials of this life, arranged in harmony with both the laws of science and the principles of beauty. It is an emblem of care, and an embodiment of joy. It includes a long history of things learned and remembered, and a long future of things desired and hoped.

It is here. It is now.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2010 Michael L. Umphrey

To know the place for the first time
     Learning through care

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot (Four Quartets)

Eden did not require care, so in choosing death over imperishable bliss, Eve was choosing to be human--to be a planter and a cultivator, to watch and labor in a place where there was a need for care. Her tasting the forbidden fruit may have been done in a desire to make the fruit real.

So her descendants labor outside the garden, catching glimpses of an imperishable beauty that we experience almost as nostalgia. Through care we learn what beauty is really, and how much of a gift it is, really. Through care, we learn to have a human heart.

“What we lost through [Eve’s] act of transgression we never really possessed, for without a human heart in its midst, Eden was wasted on us,” Robert Pogue Harrison observes. “Yet the mortal earth into which we fell was not.”

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2010 Michael L. Umphrey

A garden is slow music
     Making time visble once again

A garden is like slow music, a composition that arises in time. A garden is always a story, a series of events constantly evoking care from the gardener, who sees both what he hopes will be and what is actually present, actually unfolding.

Unfortunately, gardens are largely invisible to modern people, who are living in a hurry, seeing kaleidoscopic surfaces which change constantly, without meaning, without rootedness in narratable time within which the thoughtful person learns to transform images into radiant phenomena. So the hurried soul sees only the image of the garden, the garden itself as invisible as the soul.

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2010 Michael L. Umphrey

Modern irony
     Say what?

Correction in today’s New York Times:

A report in The Caucus column on Friday about President Obama’s remarks to lawmakers and religious leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday rendered incorrectly part of a quotation by Mr. Obama about the current political debate. In noting that “we become absorbed with our abstract arguments, our ideological disputes, our contests for power,” he went on to say, “And in this Tower of Babel, we lose the sound of God’s voice.” He did not say “this tower of babble.”

We seem to be losing, a little, our power to be understood.

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2010 Michael L. Umphrey

The context of childhood
     Waiting for Superman?

An attentive young girl in her school desk surrounded not by a garden but by desolation--it’s an evocative bit of propaganda for a film I haven’t seen: Wating for Superman, which won the “audience award” for a U.S. documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s by the director of An Inconvenient Truth. So that’s two strikes against it.

The image catches my attention because it suggests an important truth: the environment in which education takes place matters profoundly. The School of Epicurus was a garden at his house on the outskirts of Athens. Withdrawing to a garden in dark times, when humanity is under siege from the forces of darkness, can be a sanctifying mode of sanity.

If our culture continues its “progress” towards “ideals” that are toxic to childhood people of good will are going to have to contemplate the realities of our public schools, the environments in which childhood is embedded.

I’m skeptical that this film--emerging as it seems from progressivism, which is much of the problem--is likely to tell important truths. However, since its promotional poster does resonate in me, I’ll look forward to giving it my attention.

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2010 Michael L. Umphrey

     Overcoming the world

I’ve been enjoying Christmas more intensely this year because my sense of good things being threatened has been getting stronger. On Christmas Eve a solemn troupe of pompous old men believed by themselves to be among the most powerful in the world voted to put themselves in charge of physicians, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and all of us. That they lack the wisdom to do what they have promised matters less than that they have no real intent to deliver on those promises. Though some claimed privately to be uncomfortable with the carnival of lying and theft, like good Stoics they wore their masks and did what they had to do.

Theirs, after all, is a tragic world. The thing to do, maybe, is to get money and power and to find ways to keep it.

The corruption and collusion were well-publicized, the deceptions were easily discerned, and the opposition of most citizens was duly recorded. It seems, for the moment, not to matter. In the foreground the gray heads stood in television lights paying public homage to goodness by insisting that what they did they did for the poor–assuring us it was a noble accomplishment–trying, vainly it seemed to me, to distract us from the ancient rituals of thievery, bribery and threats going on in the background, not quite respectably hidden. I don’t know whether they know what they do.

In such a time I turned with heightened gratitude again to the story of a baby in a manger, to the endless memory of a birth that left the Olympians stranded, power draining from the tawdry myths. The age of petty gods with doleful powers, of bestial nightmares demanding appeasement, began to recede.

No one is free to ignore that miraculous birth. The most venal little king who has gained a throne through the pettiest methods now feels compelled to justify his rule by speaking of victims, by pretending to act out of compassion. It wasn’t always so. Alexander thought it enough to provoke awe. Concerning himself with the plight of the poor didn’t–couldn’t have occurred to him.

Ancient societies did have the ideal of compassion–but it was chiefly within defined groups, the boundaries strewn with victims. For centuries people had depended on scapegoating and ritual sacrifice for cathartic moments, driving Satan out through cyclical violence that relaxed the tension, refocused the rages that come of living against one another.

Jesus changed the game. In his story we are confronted with a god who came willingly among us to suffer, to accept the full measure of violence orchestrated by the Olympians who needed to refocus and pacify the mobs, and then to teach us a profound truth about this world, giving us the key to peace– if we want it more than we want lesser things. He was born into a faith that had long taught that every person is an immortal soul, equally valuable to God. Being condemned by the world in a pattern of violence that even his staunchest disciples could not resist, he was tortured to death.

But the story does not end. Jesus disrupts the cycle. He returns from victimhood with a simple message: “I am innocent. I have overcome death.”

The consequences of that moment ripple through the ages. Mists dissipate. A pattern hidden in endless cycles of violence since the beginning of the world comes into view.

Today’s world is dominated by a commitment to compassion. We all feel compelled to care about others, or to pretend that we do. Compassion is now understood as a universal claim upon us all, including the rulers of the earth. And there’s no real doubt about where that revolutionary idea entered history. It comes from the Jewish and Christian story:

“Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you to drink, a stranger and welcome you, naked and clothe you, sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:34-40)

Such a teaching shook the world to its foundations. Of course, the powers and principalities against which we contend, of which Paul spoke, didn’t simply go away. Indeed, they have never been more powerful. The modern totalitarian spirit finds itself forced to pay homage to Christ, taking up the cause of victims, claiming the mission of redemption as its own. Judas, among the first to oppose Christ, serves as a model. When Mary anoints the Savior’s feet, Judas protests that instead of buying perfume the money should have been given to the poor. “He said this, not because he cared about the destitute,” John tells us, “but because he was a thief. He was in charge of the moneybag and would steal what was put into it.” (John 12:4)

“Why wasn’t the money given to the poor?” asks the thief, the willing instrument of murder. He parodies the master. It’s the pattern of the great ideologies of the twentieth century, which, while speaking of helping “the people” and promoting the common good, made that century the bloodiest in history. What they offered was a parody of the kingdom of heaven. They promised money and food and healthcare, but in practice the promises failed.

In truth, an individual counts for nothing to the socialist masters. Their vision is grand and abstract. Individual persons are stifled, flattened and hollowed out, having little left to do but to comply. Amid the vast machinery assembled in the name of compassion, people soon find themselves quite alone, quite powerless, quite desperate, with nowhere left to go. Modern totalitarians talk of a future city of man, an egalitarian cage of mind-numblingly complex design, where the authorities have outlawed poverty and fear as they continue their work of perfecting society through applied and enforced reason, in a nightmarish parody of heaven.

It becomes more clear day by day that Christianity is the main obstacle to this vision. The work of the kingdom of heaven is to perfect every person, to invite all of humanity into a universal family of equals who have educated their individual wills through a recursive process of sin and repentance to be able to live with freedom and dignity, at peace with all.

It also becomes more clear day by day that people who understand this need to talk about it explicitly. Most who support the totalitarian spirit are sincere in their desire to live in a compassionate world--many of them are merely deceived. Those who authentically desire peace will be drawn to the continuing story of a baby born to topple the princes of the earth by living moment by moment in love and friendship with all he met. They need to hear that story, and they need to see its consequences in the lives of neighbors. Our work now is to discern and denounce the decoys–the seductions–that turn souls away from their divine source to lose themselves and their liberty in a phantom kingdom, the sound and fury mounting, and to live by the rules of the better world that is being born–

to ask forgiveness, to take upon ourselves the name of Jesus Christ, and to take responsibility for doing the things he would do.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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