From the Introduction
I see education happening in one of two formats: closed or open. In the closed system, it is the role of the school and the teacher to instill into the student a knowledge and belief of preordained notions and constructs. My parochial education was within that philosophy.
In the open system, the role of the teacher (and sometimes the school as a whole) is to open the mind to new experiences and to foster the development of the student’s innate sense of curiosity. It is the liberal education mind-and-body model of the ancient Greeks. They looked at the world in which they lived through human observation, experience, and reason instead of through a religious lens in which the mysteries that surrounded them were explained through transcendent powers. As a lifelong learner, I have been in a continuing process of opening my mind and doing what I can to help others open theirs.
From “A Good Death”
From my mother’s death, I learned that a soul knows when it is time to depart. Though she was in her early seventies, her death was unexpected given that her overall health seemed good. Through reflection and meditation, I came to understand that her spirit knew her checkout time was nigh. I believe she sensed or intuited that she had to wrap up earthly business before departing.
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I had taken her to a notary so she could sign closing papers on her recently sold house in which she had lived for over forty years and raised thirteen children. When completed, the notary shook her hand and said, “Congratulations, Mrs. Fabyanic. You’re a rich woman.”
She smiled and replied, “I’ll never see that money.”
Two days later, she collapsed and was likely dead before hitting the floor. She died painlessly and with dignity. Not a bad way to go.
From “The Great Pumpkin Pie”
Pumpkin season arrives halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. It is the dying time. The dark side of that period is the decreasing sunlight. The bright side includes glorious, rich colors, drying-leaf scents, and fresh-baked pumpkin pie aroma. And the annual rebroadcast of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. While it is a delightful, heartwarming, entertaining caper, it also develops a subtle theological undertone when Linus tries to convince his friends that the Great Pumpkin is real.
Linus teaches us a great lesson about undiminished faith in the face of scorn and mockery. As he writes his letter to the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown confronts Linus about his belief in fantasy. Linus fires back, pointedly telling Charlie that he will stop believing in the Great Pumpkin when Charlie stops believing in Santa Claus. Linus argues that the reason more people believe in Santa Claus is that he gets more publicity.
Linus is resolute, refusing to waver even after his one disciple, lovelorn Sally Brown, turns on him when she realizes she spent a fruitless night in the pumpkin patch instead of trick-or-treating. I have never spent a teeth-chattering night in a literal pumpkin patch, but I have metaphorically.
From “Passing the Time”
Summer has traditionally been the time to recreate, perhaps by heading to a beach or exploring America’s national parks. In conjunction with the drive to recreate, the summer reading list has become a popular aspect of American culture. Making a list of must-reads is understandable due to the nature of our work and vacation schedules. Literary minded people who love to read often find it challenging to make time in their daily schedules and routines. So they pack a bag of books, the list of which they might have grabbed from The New York Times. Packing a bundle of books to read is a worthwhile custom and practice, but if the books are only bestsellers, we need to talk.
Where that great idea of recreating through books loses steam is when the person speed-reads through their stack of novels, chewing them up and spitting them out at a pace akin to the rate their daily schedules devour their time. Rather than spending time in the world of the novel’s setting to which they have traveled, they make it a side trip, a short foray from their planned vacation route. Even though reading a novel while sitting under a beach umbrella does far more for a person’s mind than sitting in an air-conditioned room with the TV blaring, it ought not be merely another item on one’s to-do list to be checked off. Reading should not be about passing the time.
Reading is about opening the mind. It can be soulful and deeply spiritual even if the matter is a murder mystery or a sci-fi or fantasy escapade. Yes, we are the progeny of dour Increase Mather, descendants of his Puritans whose ethic condemned such idleness. So it is not surprising that you might believe you will go to hell for sitting and reading, much as the foot washers tell Miss Maudie she is for taking pride in her azaleas. Hell, there are schools and school districts in this land of the free that forbid the teaching of To Kill a Mockingbird. It makes me wonder if teachers will go to hell for teaching it or are already in it because they are not permitted to.
From “Sharing a Drink Called Loneliness”
When the blues hit, strains of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” run through my head. Talk about a downer. I picture scenes of taverns I frequented as a bar fly, sipping alone. At times, just being there offered solace because it provided an opportunity to escape the whirling madness of life. But often, it was an escape, a place to be rather than being home alone. It was comforting bellying up to the bar and recognizing other regulars who nodded, said hi, or asked how I was doing in superficial acknowledgment that I had been missed and was now welcomed back. It was also validating when the bartender asked, “The usual?” But the banter of bartenders and regulars were also subtle reminders that I was still alone.
“Food for Thought”
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Billy nails it when he croons that every patron is sharing the same drink. It’s a powerful metaphor since the literal drinks of choice being imbibed likely vary depending on each patron’s taste. My drinks of choice for such times are dark ale or vodka tonic. Single malt scotch is reserved for up times.
In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another.” Or barstools.
I am as guilty as anyone else of not keeping in touch with others. I used to regularly call, text, and send emails to check in on those I love, especially those in vulnerable situations. I still do, but not as frequently. Perhaps it is due to aging. I will ask my bartender.
Scientists have developed vaccines and cures for all kinds of ailments. Doctors are wizards when it comes to restoring good health. But no vaccine or therapy can be created for what ails the heart. Only honest recognition, human interaction, and unqualified love can.
In Albert Camus’ The Plague, the journalist Rambert is desperate to get out of the quarantined North African town that is rife with disease to return to the woman he loves who is in France. In an exchange with Dr. Rieux, he asserts that man is an idea. Rieux, whose training is in medical science and ethics, is taken aback. He counters Rambert, arguing that man is far more than an idea. Rambert fires back saying man is just that: merely an idea unless there is love. Further, he argues, we have lost our capacity for love. Rieux finds that he cannot disagree. He concedes the point, although he qualifies it by saying that if a person cannot prove he is more than an idea through love, he should at least show it by treating others decently.
From “A Slice of the Ice Cream”
I am one of thirteen, though my mother had twelve pregnancies. She raised us in a house that was not much more than eight hundred square feet. We never gave thought to being seriously cramped since the environment in which a person is born and raised becomes their normal.
We had one bathroom, which was often a semiprivate facility. Bath time was a production line. When we were young, we shared baths, which made sense in that it saved water and time. Even after I was old enough to bathe solo, it was not unusual for an older brother to walk in to take care of his personal business.
It was not always a heartwarming, Walton family, Little House on the Prairie experience. Tough, rough-and-tumble times hit as they do in every family. The most traumatic was the sudden death of our father when I was not quite four years old and my mother was pregnant with her thirteenth child. But we managed, due primarily to our real-life guardian angel: our mother. A Leo to the core, she refused to farm her children out to orphanages or foster homes.
I learned to count on but not to mess with Mumma. Once, when I was crying in protest as she slapped my bare back for a crime I hadn’t committed, she rationalized her stinging-handed justice saying, “Then that’s for the stuff I didn’t catch you doing.” How can you argue with such sound reasoning?
The total number of people living in my childhood home never exceeded fourteen. Soon after my father died, my eldest brother joined the military, and shortly after that, my eldest sister married. Over time, attrition helped it become a more workable number.
My mother’s kitchen was about sixty-four square feet. The original icebox, which was succeeded by a refrigerator after its demise, squatted inelegantly across from the gas stove. The space between them was too narrow to allow the oven and refrigerator doors to be open simultaneously. But then, why would you?
On the main floor, there were only two bedrooms, so my dad converted the attic into a third, more spacious bedroom. It ranged from butt cold during the winter to baking hot in the summer. Nevertheless, it relieved the space and modesty problem. Despite its severely constricted dimensions, the advantage of the lower bedroom was that it allowed for bunk beds. The older boys were privileged to sleep in their own bed. I never slept solo in a bunk or double bed until I was about thirteen and my brother Rich joined the Marines. I was the baby boy, which meant hand-me-downs extended beyond clothing.
Some years after my father died, my mother had the rear roof raised to form a dormer, thereby converting the attic bedroom into more spacious sleeping quarters. I guess she had not thought to add a second bath, but I suppose there was no place to install one. Besides, by then, only about half of us still lived at home, so the bathroom demand had been become less taxed.
By today’s standards, we were working poor, though we never considered ourselves to be that. It was the way it was, and everyone learned to make do.
On Friday evenings, my older brother would drive my mother to shop for groceries at Kroger in the Miracle Mile Shopping Center. When they got home, everyone pitched in to unload and put away the groceries. When she had an extra thirty-nine cents, she would splurge on a half-gallon of ice cream. Usually, it was Neapolitan because with the three flavors of strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate, it was a good compromise. The ice cream came in a box, which she or one of my older sisters would unwrap and slice so that everyone got the same share.
Mostly, it was that way with everything. Despite hard times when cornmeal mush with browned margarine drizzled over it was dinner, we always had turkey for Thanksgiving. My older brothers Billy and Rich got the turkey legs at dinner. When I was nine or ten, I became particularly excited about Billy joining the Air Force because I inherited his turkey leg. I was thrilled my sisters did not share my love for the dark meat or gnawing on a drumstick.
No matter your age or size, fair was fair. The rules applied to your allotted time in the bathroom. You called your time to take a bath, which was enforced via an honor code. It was likewise with the TV, although there were sacred inviolable programs for the few of us who stuck a stake in the ground: Combat for me, Paladin for Rich, and That Girl for my younger sisters. Ed Sullivan and Tonight with Johnny Carson were agreed-upon communal rituals.
When I talk about our family’s story, the reaction is often, “I can’t believe it.” In hindsight, nor can I, and I lived it. As it is with many others, stories from my childhood echo in my memory and appear in my habits, methods, practices, and more importantly, in my values, perspectives, and life philosophy. They are who I am.
A slice of the ice cream. Fairness coupled with compromise to find workable solutions. Not a bad life philosophy.
From “What is Important”
As you can imagine, the writings of the Transcendentalists and their Romantic cousins resonate and echo in my psyche. They write about what is important. I recall reading and studying them in high school or college or both. After a half century, even Mnemosyne has not been able to jar the exact time and place from the recesses of my memory. No matter. I have always had a love for nature.
As a boy, I played for hours in the western Pennsylvania woods and never got bored. As a young man, I could get lost in those same woods, retracing trails my sisters, friends, and I had created that, over time, had reverted to their natural state. I also checked on an old tree with a bull rope around a lower branch that served in our imaginations as a hangman’s noose. The tree was doing fine when last I saw it.
One of my life’s proudest moments occurred during a storm-brewing early afternoon while, as a twenty-something, I was helping my sister and brother-in-law cut, bale, and pick up hay. My job was to stack the bales high on a flatbed wagon and pack them tightly. It paid off when, as the rain began, my brother-in-law barreled across an uneven, bumpy field to get the rocking load into the barn before the rain burst into a serious downpour. The load held tight. Not one bale lost. It was such a simple act, yet it still resonates, advising me of what is important and reminding me of what I could do.
It might have been my older brother Bill who first brought Henry David Thoreau to my serious attention. We had long bull sessions well into the night when, as a heady college student, I visited him in Arizona. I thought I was very smart until he schooled me on what deep, complex thinking is.
Still, it was not until I taught Thoreau that I came to fully (if I have yet) understand and appreciate his writing. He reduces life’s complexity to a simple equation. “Simplify, simplify,” he exhorts us in Walden. That is all…
…I ache for one last bull session with brother Bill, but it is too late.
Jerry Fabyanic is the award-winning author of the novel “Sisyphus Wins”and of the “Food for Thought: Essays on Mind and Spirit” series, Volumes One and Two. He lives in Georgetown, Colorado, where he explores the world of myth and story. He enjoys running, skiing moguls and climbing 14ers. Learn more at www.jerryfabyanic.com.