The following is an excerpt from an email exchange that took place between one conversation partner–I guess I’ve renamed her “S.”–and me from this past weekend. I pick up the thread about education in Tuesday’s post. Till then, A.
There’s a rock on my desk. (A fine opening line!). It’s black. Away from the light and on the desk it’s black still. I turned it over in my hands, thought for a moment of Beckett’s sucking stones, and then put the rock to the light. By this time, it was morning. I brought the rock to the window and held it in my hands and turned it over again. Then… The flowers were like henna, were like bundles of fruits, were like the purple leaves that grew freely in my mother’s garden.
It was a gift, we know this because you told me so, but a gift of a kind that threw light on its being a gift. The gift first lures us, as it were, allowing us to see it as if it were an ordinary object that conforms entirely to our expectations. But then it entreats us to take a second look. When we do, we are surprised that it was other than what we had thought or expected. A good gift humbles us, revealing to us that our ordinary ways of perceiving won’t do it justice, implying also that our ordinary ways of being do life a grave disservice, taking the breath from life.
I think there’s something here about error being inextirpable from being human. Hegel insisted that modern philosophy got off on the wrong foot, with the idea that, since Descartes, doubt must be introduced in order for it to be vanquished and replaced, in turn, by absolute certainty. We think of life certainty as being not just the desideratum but also the default setting and yet, so long as we think this, we err doubly.
We err doubly and, in so doing, fail to learn. Hegel’s approach would be to show us how we started off in error because our conceptions of life and the way that life revealed itself may be discordant. Hegel, ever stern-browed, was on the path to telling a joke. Error in judgment, reason, and conduct must come first (so far, so good) as if we leaned into our perceptions, so that learning may come after, arriving with our whole person acknowledgment of our errors together with the object’s ‘demand’ that we make amends to it and to life.
The troubling implication is that education today, and parenting by extension, presumes that error is anomalous, perfection being a worthy and unquestionable ideal, and that good parenting is about getting along nicely, without any hitch. Perfection, the unfulfillable, external ideal lying beyond all too human existence, throws light on our very human blushes, as if our blushes arrived from elsewhere and could never be our own. Perfection is the fear of error captured as a frieze.
But good parenting is not like that. Parents get angry, they melt down, they yell, they almost lose it; they try one thing and then another; they get nothing from self-help nonsense; they err and err again, thus grasping the pain and release of the gift. The important point, however, is that they “show their errors” to their children, show their strengths as well as their weaknesses, but also that they are able to get the hang of putting their hand–just so–on the back of the neck, of brushing their child’s hair–just right–at the right moment, how–in sum–to set things to right. “Come here, old lady–thank you for putting away my bonnet–kiss me.”
This is the path of wisdom. Error, which must come first, won’t always have the final word; love will, love being (in this context) the strength to make and perceive errors and to make amends during the pianissimo moments. Love of children: a montage–a cat cozying up gingerly, rubbing her head against one’s hand.
My cat is rubbing his head under my chin, after having sat for a while in front of the window sill, where she gazed longingly at the morning doves cooing on my fire escape. I love the sound of those doves because it reminds me of my adolescence in Florida: the heavy humid mornings and swaying Spanish moss…
Children are incredibly forgiving. With them, if a parent is honest and brave enough to acknowledge her errors, amends can be made and love accepted wholeheartedly.
I think there’s so much pressure today surrounding the conceit of being the “perfect” parent. The other day P told me how, years ago, he had received this nasty 16 page letter from a professor somewhere in the Midwest that she had CC’d to 65 people in the company, because they had run an article saying that it was OK for a mother not to breastfeed her child if it wasn’t working out; suggesting that formula was OK as well. The professor accused P of supporting the formula industry. I wonder what she would have said about the anecdote that P told me of the time when he playfully tied his 7 year old to his chair with masking tape after having asked him 20+ times to sit down during dinner. His son giggled and wiggled the whole way through dinner. Would she have called it abuse?
When I first started working on the stone, it wasn’t so black, more of a dark gray, which got darker and darker as I worked on it. At first, I was annoyed, but then I surrendered to it: my hands and the stone clearly had more in mind than my pen. The stone wove its mystery on its own: through me but not without me.