Monday, September 03, 2007

Napoleon, or Gardening in a Delicate World

My colleague Myra gave everyone in our department a copy of the poem “Napoleon” on the occasion of her retirement. It’s by Miroslav Holub, a twentieth-century Czech Poet. I don’t have the translator’s name.

Children, when was
Napoleon Bonaparte born,
asks teacher.

A thousand years ago, the children say.
A hundred years ago, the children say.
Last year, the children say.
No one knows.

Won a war, the children say.
Lost a war, the children say.
No one knows.

Our butcher has a dog
called Napoleon,
says Frantisek.
The butcher used to beat him and the dog died
of hunger
a year ago.

And all the children are now sorry
for Napoleon.

Myra used the poem to illustrate the point that the world our children inhabit is vastly different from the world in which we grew up, so that the tools they will need for their lives are different than the ones we needed. She was speaking in the context of a university education. She was speaking of the changing geo-political scene and of technology.

Even without technological advances, my daughter’s world and my childhood one are very different. I grew up in a house in Texas with hordes of siblings. My daughter shares my one-bedroom in the city. We walk across the street to the community garden at least once a week and examine other people’s plants while I mention to anyone around that I’m on the waiting list and—isn’t my daughter cute—we’re so anxious to get a plot.

It’s because everything does change that I care so much about the garden. I want my daughter to know what seasons are for, so when we celebrate them in shul she’ll know what they mean. A garden as a way to grasp the intangible, the eternal.

These days what keeps me up in fear at night is the future and quality of our world. I fear that global warming will obliterate the seasons, making them abstract concepts. That the earth will eventually become so poisoned that the air and water will make us increasingly sick. It’s already happening.

I’m also afraid of other abstractions: that the political climate will erase for my daughter the crucial difference between the rhetoric of war (as practiced by those who call upon G-d to condone their high-handed ways, or by those who claim that G-d asks them to destroy) and the real essence of religious practice. Especially now, with the world-wide trend in the increased radicalization of all religions.

Will my daughter be okay? Will other people’s children in countries I’ve never seen survive the wars, the famines, the burden of others’ greed? Isn’t that a terrible way to phrase it?

No matter what new skills she acquires to adapt to a new world, I hope, my daughter can sometimes approach the infinite through all the gorgeous ephemera--the seasons, the fruits that we bless. I hope that the earth as we now know it remains a little longer for her.

No comments: