The Wheel Turns
“…and wisdom to know the difference”
From Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr
The wheel turns, the tides go in and out, and night gives way to day. Our winters are long, cold, and dark, while summers are hot as waves, turning my body upside down, pushing my head into the sand. Shakespeare, reaching far back with scribes, witnessed the Furies buffeting mercurial Graces—nymphs dancing on the head of a pin. The world I wander is a mystery swinging back and forth, as wars push armies across a small piece of land—fierce battles scattering the dead bathed in centuries of tears.
Why, why is there no peace, little love, and so many loud voices? I tossed these questions about as I biked to school, distracted by the Gothic edifices of great university halls. Did they know the answer to Plato’s riddle, Einstein’s frustrations, Sartre’s closed doors? Why is there a God that we cannot prove? Why the hunger amid plenty? Why do leaves turn brown and dogs I hold dear die? Why, why, why?
Questions of a three-year-old boy, turning eleven, yet the answers escaped me as I pedaled hard. My world of learned streets, mixed classes with many faces, and warm chocolate chip cookies had no answers. Back then they professed to understand why communism was bad, fascism worse, and the earth was no longer the center of the universe. They taught me so many dictums in school.
“No,” I shouted as I biked to school and debated the shape of the universe and the reason behind black holes. But Carl, my biking neighbor, shot back with the Austrian logic of his father, “That is not the way it is. You cannot prove that God exists, or that goodness is in someone else’s heart, or that our leaders will get it right. Often they don’t.”
Crouching under our desks, we waited for the missiles from Cuba to hit. Kennedy and Khrushchev started to talk, as Castro stewed. Carl and I still debated the merits of the atomic bomb—dreamed up just across the street by superbright men. Yes, drop it on two Japanese cities to show them we mean business. No, murdering so many leaves an indelible stain as we preach the virtues of democracy. Here in Princeton, where they drew the first pictures of the bomb, just across the field from my home, I knew that the tall, nice man shaking my hand and asking me how I liked school could destroy the world.
Carl and I took all sides—reaching for goodness, fighting evil, and knowing the desk over our heads would not protect us from a direct hit. We wrestled with the meaning of life each day—the books we read turned answers to questions. Homer spun tales with elaborate tapestries—holding out for the love of a war hero—better than the disciples full of parables or Moses’ burning bush. Still the bells pealed from stone steeples, professing dogmas that ordered our lives.
Eleven-year-old boys on bikes did not take to such pronouncements. We laughed, farted, and played chess with our comrades, who knew every known gambit before Bobby Fischer showed the Russians the crazed brilliance of his assaults. My days were full of excited talk, as we emerged from under the desks. The red phone connecting Russia and the United States saved us for another day of battle.
The foolishness did not end with the Cuban Missile Crisis, as we pushed into Vietnam, waded into Iraq, and wandered around places unknown. Bombs more sophisticated targeted the bad guys; still the stones marked the collateral damage we did not want to see. Beat-up psyches screamed silently; women and children wandered the terror-strewn streets of Aleppo, Paris, and Baghdad.
No god seemed to care; no one was up there to make things better. I pushed boulders up impossible hills. The moon rose, the sun sank, the seasons turned. Maybe I am wiser now with white hair, strong legs, and questioning eyes, but I don’t know. Why the ups, the downs, the good, the bad? Our leaders still tell us to believe; others mock. Why do the furies of jealousy, pride, and avarice still turn our garden stones? Where is the gentle voice of love and the flowers?
Today, I am not yet four score years, the dead are still with me, the suffering is the same—maybe less if I look another way—but the answers are no less clear. The whys of nature, sun, moon, and seasons test my moods. Love cannot hold back the questions. Why did God not stop us from destroying our world? We’ve tried to kill each other over and over, and still the lessons do not stick; why do we listen to pronouncements we know are wrong, presidents who do not care, and peoples who push each other to the brink each day?
Why is this so hard? Why can we not see the falling leaves, the setting sun, and the heart that hurts? Why can we not touch the beauty of the swan rising in the quiet morning sun?
I have biked many miles with these waking questions and looked at the stars in my sleepless nights. The books piled high sit close by with even more questions. The answers are less certain. I have heard the soft notes on high: harps, sopranos, and baritones soothing my soul. I have listened to birds bring in the morning light as hawks soared. The place I see—images on the wall and dreams just beyond—is what I make of it. Neither good nor bad, dark nor light. It is a place that mutates each day as I move through the miasma of my days.
There are no answers and no questions that lead me out. The balm of each day and every night is the quiet space, even a prayer, between the words that comfort me still. I stand between the sun and moon—each pulling the other toward me, and each sphere fading with the light. I stand here, white-haired, more clear of eye, with weathered skin, knowing that to ask, to proclaim, and to bike each day with the determination of an eleven-year-old boy is how I hold the orb of life—astonished, inquiring, and full.
I walk not with a heavy heart or full of the light hope that life, or I, will change. No, I journey out with the knowledge that the small seventh-grade desk saved me from the destructive demons coming down from the sky. It happened once; why not again?
John Ballantine, after Equus play and Trump victory
November 13, 2016