The Return of the Exile
George Seferis (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)
‘My old friend, what are you looking for?
After years abroad you’ve come back
with images you’ve nourished
under foreign skies
far from you own country.’
‘I’m looking for my old garden;
the trees come to my waist
and the hills resemble terraces
yet as a child
I used to play on the grass
under great shadows
and I would run for hours
breathless over the slopes.’
‘My old friend, rest,
you’ll get used to it little by little;
together we will climb
the paths you once knew,
we will sit together
under the plane trees’ dome.
They’ll come back to you little by little,
your garden and your slopes.’
‘I’m looking for my old house,
the tall windows
darkened by ivy;
I’m looking for the ancient column
known to sailors.
How can I get into this coop?
The roof comes to my shoulders
and however far I look
I see men on their knees
as though saying their prayers.’
‘My old friend, don’t you hear me?
You’ll get used to it little by little.
Your house is the one you see
and soon friends and relatives
will come knocking at the door
to welcome you back tenderly.’
‘Why is your voice so distant?
Raise your head a little
so that I understand you.
As you speak you grow
as though you’re sinking into the ground.’
‘My old friend, stop a moment and think:
you’ll get used to it little by little.
Your nostalgia has created
a non-existent country, with laws
alien to earth and man.’
‘Now I can’t hear a sound.
My last friend has sunk.
Strange how from time to time
they level everything down.
Here a thousand scythe-bearing chariots go past
and mow everything down.’
That’s the most interesting question in the world. How big is big enough? The Amish pretty much have solved it. Industrialism doesn’t propose a limit. David Kline, my friend, went to a Mennonite meeting. They were asking what community meant. And he said, “When my son and I are plowing in the spring, we rest our teams at the highest point on our farm. And from there we can see 13 teams at work. And I know that if I got sick or died those 13 teams would be at work on my farm.” Rightness of scale, you see, permits obedience to the Gospel’s Second Law.
…I like my physical life. I mean, I’m committed to live my physical life. I want to live my actual life, my body’s life, and die my body’s death with as little interference as possible. But I think that life for most people is getting less physical all the time. There’s a sort of death wish now operating among us. The future is eating us alive. If you’re obsessed with the future you can’t live in the present, and the present is the only time you’re alive. If you’re alive in the present, however bad the world is, goodwill still has scope to operate. You still can do a little something to make it better. Now is when the butterﬂies are ﬂying and the ﬂowers are blooming and the people who love you are putting their hands on you. That’s where it’s happening.
…If the teacher thinks that the place she’s teaching in is a good and worthy place then certain things are going to be communicated. “I’m teaching you things that could make you a powerful person. I don’t want you to start from here and get an education and come back here and desecrate this place.” Now most teaching has been done by people who think, “Coming from here is no advantage. I’m trying to give you something that will help you go to a better place.” Nowadays we easily forget that education makes bad people worse. But if you’re teaching for homecoming you can’t forget it.
Wendell Berry in this interview.
These are thoughts that I put down as I sat with my Grandma and other family members near the end of my Grandma’s life. She was in her own bedroom and surrounded by loved ones:
My body holds me closer hourly
It will have me know it fully before I’m fully known
Jacob wrestled the Lord’s angel
I have my gasped breaths and throbbing heart
This morning, my eyes bring less daylight
But this less of sight, less of hearing, heralds more
And I have let go, almost, of saying
Today’s snowfall blankets my roof and windows
Without my knowing now
Still, it joins the many here over months and years
Teaching long of rest and waiting
These small white bodies
Carry downward flames from heaven
Without heat but made of fire still
That banks and burns
My body cradles its own light as a treasure carried far,
Carried up, soon, past a snow that I’ll know newly,
A flame to lay down before my loving lord
Among her last words to me (the day before) were: “My little Jesse, you brought me tadpoles.”
And here also are the two passages that I included in my remarks at my Grandma’s funeral:
And following that train of thought led him back to Earth, back to the quiet hours in the center of the clear water ringed by a bowl of tree-covered hills. That is the Earth, he thought. Not a globe thousands of kilometers around, but a forest with a shining lake, a house hidden at the crest of the hill, high in the trees, a grassy slope leading upward from the water, fish leaping and birds strafing to take the bugs that lived at the border between water and sky. Earth was the constant noise of crickets and winds and birds. And the voice of one girl, who spoke to him out of his far-off childhood.
From Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.
A man may say, “I like this vast cosmos, with its throng of stars and its crowd of varied creatures.” But if it comes to that why should not a man say, “I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see”? One is as good as the other; they are both mere sentiments.
…I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one sovereign and one shilling.
From “The Ethics of Elfland,” chapter III in Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.
“Neither do I understand you; I can read neither your heart nor your face. When my wife and I do not understand our children, it is because there is not enough of them to be understood. God alone can understand foolishness.”
“…Then,” I said, feeling naked and very worthless, “will you be so good as show me the nearest way home?”
“…I cannot,” answered the raven; “you and I use the same words with different meanings. We are often unable to tell people what they NEED to know, because they WANT to know something else, and would therefore only misunderstand what we said. Home is ever so far away in the palm of your hand, and how to get there it is of no use to tell you. But you will get there; you must get there; you have to get there. Everybody who is not at home, has to go home. You thought you were at home where I found you: if that had been your home, you could not have left it.”
Nobody can leave home. And nobody ever was or ever will be at home without having gone there.”
George MacDonald (Lilith)
“If I know nothing of my own garret,” I thought, “what is there to secure me against my own brain? Can I tell what it is even now generating?—what thought it may present me the next moment, the next month, or a year away? What is at the heart of my brain? What is behind my THINK? Am I there at all?—Who, what am I?”
From Lilith: A Romance by George MacDonald.
“You know nothing about whereness. The only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home.”
“How am I to begin that where everything is so strange?”
“By doing something.”
From Lilith: A Romance by George MacDonald.
From G.K. Chesterton’s “Turning Inside Out” in Fancies vs. Fads, 1923:
The passage from private life to public life … is always of necessity a passage from a greater work to a smaller one, and from a harder work to an easier one. And that is why most of the moderns do wish to pass from the great domestic task to the smaller and easier commercial one. They would rather provide the liveries of a hundred footmen than be bothered with the love-affairs of one. They would rather take the salutes of a hundred soldiers than try to save the soul of one. They would rather serve out income-tax papers or telegraph forms to a hundred men than meals, conversation, and moral support to one. They would rather arrange the educational course in history or geography, or correct the examination papers in algebra or trigonometry, for a hundred childrcn, than struggle with the whole human character of one. For anyone who makes himself responsible for one small baby, as a whole, will soon find that he is wrestling with gigantic angels and demons.
In another way there is something of illusion, or of irresponsibility, about the purely public function, especially in the case of public education. The educationist generally deals with only one section of the pupil’s mind. But he always deals with only one section of the pupils life. The parent has to deal, not only with the whole of the child’s character, but also with the whole of the child’s career. The teacher sows the seed, but the parent reaps as well as sows. The school-master sees more children, but it is not clear that he sees more childhood; certainly he sees less youth and no maturity. The number of little girls who take prussic acid is necessarily small. The boys who hang themselves on bed-posts, after a life of crime, are generally the minority. But the parent has to envisage the whole life of the individual, and not merely the school life of the scholar. …Everybody knows that teachers have a harassing and often heroic task, but it is not unfair to them to remember that in this sense they have an exceptionally happy task. The cynic would say that the teacher is happy in never seeing the results of his own teaching. I prefer to confine myself to saying that he has not the extra worry of having to estimate it from the other end. The teacher is seldom in at the death. To take a milder theatrical metaphor, he is seldom there on the night. But this is only one of many instances of the same truth: that what is called public life is not larger than private life, but smaller. What we call public life is a fragmentary affair of sections and seasons and impressions; it is only in private life that dwells the fullness of our life bodily.
When you have gone too far, as I think he did, the only mending is to come home. Whether he is equal to it or not, this is his chance.
From Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry (184).
Poem by by Emily Dickinson.
Though I get home how late, how late!
So I get home, ‘t will compensate.
Better will be the ecstasy
That they have done expecting me,
When, night descending, dumb and dark,
They hear my unexpected knock.
Transporting must the moment be,
Brewed from decades of agony!
To think just how the fire will burn,
Just how long-cheated eyes will turn
To wonder what myself will say,
And what itself will say to me,
Beguiles the centuries of way!
This passage from Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome expresses the same insight as the passage below from G.K. Chesterton (about the joy of rediscovering our own homes):
Only three days before Roger, being a sailing ship, had tacked up the field against the wind to find his mother at the gate by Holly Howe with the telegram that had set them free for their adventure. Now he had no need to tack. He had no need to be a sailing ship. He was a real boy from a real ship, come ashore on business with his captain. Since yesterday the field path and the gate into the wood on the way to Darien and the farm at Holly Howe had all turned into foreign country. They were quite different places now that you came to them by water from an island of your own. They were not at all what they had been when you lived there and saw the island far away over the water. Coming back to them was almost the same thing as exploration. It was like exploring a place that you have seen in a dream, where everything is just where you expect it and yet everything is a surprise.
…Soon they were nearing their island, and just as Holly Howe had seemed strange, so now the island seemed home. It was delightful to see it coming nearer, and to think of the tents and the camp, and to see smoke blowing away over the trees and to know that it came from the mate’s fire. “It must be nearly dinner-time,” said Roger. “Meat pie,” said John. “Hullo, there’s the able-seaman at the look-out.” Titty was standing under the tall tree on Look-Out Point. She waved and disappeared. “She’s gone to tell Susan we’re coming,” said Roger.
Now, for comparison, see this passage from the opening of G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (chapt. I, “Introduction in Defence of Everything Else”):
I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas. I always find, however, that I am either too busy or too lazy to write this fine work, so I may as well give it away for the purposes of philosophical illustration. There will probably be a general impression that the man who landed (armed to the teeth and talking by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool. I am not here concerned to deny that he looked a fool. But if you imagine that he felt a fool, or at any rate that the sense of folly was his sole or his dominant emotion, then you have not studied with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of the hero of this tale. His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?