Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Brief Return to Spoon River

In my July 29th thoughts, I quoted Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River poem, “Fiddler Jones.”

The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you…
I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;

I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

When I was a teenager, I didn't delve deeply into alternative meanings of the poem, or stopped to wonder if Jones was white or black, or put the poem into context with the other "epitaphs." I simply liked the idea of embracing your gifts. I thought, how lovely to have a life that is satisfying, both at the time and in retrospect.

I now know that we often realize our most precious gifts in just that way: people affirm and validate them for us. As a teenager and then as a young adult in school, I saw a variety of life-possibilities for myself, tried to get a good over-all preparation, and see where God led me.

A few years ago, I chatted with a long-time ol’ friend at a professional meeting. We chuckled at the differences between the work we each now do, and the professional goals we had during our school days. Our goals weren't utterly different from our present work, but we'd ended up in unexpected places. We agreed that we each had felt validated in some areas of work but not in others, and that validation was an important part of our respective “journeys.”

I also think about all this because my daughter is in college. She has several talents and goals; she has activities at which she likes to spend time, and other activities she'd like to try that are still on the horizon. Who will nurture her talents? Who will be sources of discouragement? What will be her own journey of discovery and fulfillment?

Sometimes discouragement can make that “vibration going there in your heart” all the stronger. You realize in yourself what your dreams and motivations are. William Least Heat Moon was not particularly encouraged in his efforts to write Blue Highways. He persevered and later chided prospective authors who believe they would write more if they received the impetus of grant money. He responds that if we really want to write, we will. The broader lesson is: if we aren’t doing a particular activity for which we long, perhaps we don’t really want to do it, after all.

But is that too simple? Plenty of people look back on their lives and see unfulfilled dreams, undeveloped talents, and desires for themselves for which they had no favorable opportunities. Masters’ “cemetery" is crowded with people of dashed aspirations.

The fictional Jones is one kind of life from among many possible examples. He did not regret that he was a middling success at farming, or that he didn’t try hard enough to farm and then time slipped by. Instead of a thousand acres (the achievement of the character immediately before this poem), Jones' wealth consisted of memories of people, memories of times, and a peaceful conscience. He might’ve agreed with this challenging quote from philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset: “Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.”

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