A Father’s Letter to his Daughter, and much else besides
I’ve just finished reading your Egyptian Notebooks. They’re terrific, and I’ll tell you why I think so in this letter. Your mother and I being about to set out on some travels of our own your account comes at just the right moment. Already we feel a bit like we were about to get on something like the Jerusalem-Cairo bus that you describe, although in our case it will be a plane ride to Moscow.
I imagine it will be much as you tell it, “In the [plane], going at long last with the night coming, with the dirt [reality?] hidden, . . . all so mysterious and also, real.” Then at arrival, I expect we’ll also be switching to a cab to get to our hotel for the night, and experiencing again, as you describe it (although your particular impressions of the Cairo taxi ride will have been translated into impressions appropriate to the very different Moscow streets): “. . . squashed in the back seat, practically running over everybody, … music blasting, … amazing,” and that just as you did we will have to repeat to ourselves that we are in our “Cairo,” a completely new place in our lives.
Once there, wherever it is that we go, we will have left far behind the hundreds of duties and responsibilities that nearly overwhelmed us at the Waring School, our school, the one that your parents founded and the only school that you have ever known, and the one that for 18 years has dominated our lives.
We have always imagined (doesn’t everybody?) leaving, getting out from under in this way, boarding a bus or plane headed for an entirely new land, where the all too familiar will have been radically transformed into the new and the strange and wonderful, or in your words, into the “mysterious and amazing.”
But most of us never take that step, and for good reason. In our case we had our children and our school, neither of which, at least up until now, we were never before about to leave for such a long time. Life, both the circumstances into which we are born for no apparent reason, and those which we will have more or less freely chosen, mightily constrains us to remain where we are.
Other species would have it no other way. The starfish at the bottom of the tide pool, even the wolf recently introduced into the forests of Yellowstone National Park, the white tiger in a remote corner of the Indian jungle, are all content to remain just where they are.
But for man to act as if for him, too, there was but one niche available where he was to live out his life, is to act against his nature.
Natacha, from the time you went to California in Rocinante when you were just four years old, and to Berlin all by yourself a few years later when you were just ten, right up until now when you are traveling in the Middle-East and in Europe, still a college, or at least college age student, you will have never mistaken your own nature in this respect. You seemed to have always known that the whole earth and the earth’s peoples were yours to discover and experience.
The bus rides that you describe in your notebooks symbolize the breaking with the past as they run up great distances between ourselves and the prior circumstances of our lives. That’s the sort of thing I’ve felt so many times on the transatlantic flight to London or Paris, certainly every spring with our juniors, and when I can share their even stronger sense of going on into the new and the wonderful. And perhaps even more so in July when I travel by myself to France, a country that is for me no less new and strange even though in many respects now familiar, to join Josée in Provence in Forcalquier.
Flying to New York or to Washington, even to California, is not the same thing as these ocean crossings. For here what lies ahead is the same as what I’ve left behind. But, as you make clear in your journal, traveling, even ocean crossing, is not romance. Once in Egypt you bumped hard against reality. The romance was all over, if it had ever begun, when the taxi turned you out into the Cairo street.
Only when we reach our destination, perhaps, does traveling take on its most important dimensions. This is when we begin to experience a totally new and different reality. This is what happened to you when you stepped out of the taxi and found yourself, “in the streets, without the protection of the bus or car, not knowing where our hotel was, not knowing a word of Arabic, and being stared at by everyone, that’s when it felt different.”
Clearly while in Egypt you had left the comfortable and familiar behind and you confronted daily the new and the strange, and, yes, the wonderful. Otherwise you could never have written that in Egypt, “They walk barefoot, men spit on the ground, and lies sit on people as if they [the flies] were sacred insects.”
No romance here, just a new and powerful reality that you are encountering for the first time. This is what real traveling is about.
Your mother and I are talking about what we will do with our year off. As you know I want to travel to Russia (the Soviet Union). Your mother is not so sure. Having read about the food shortages, the pollution, the general hardships, the continuing presence of elevated levels of radioactivity following the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, she now reels that the Russia of Pushkin and Tolstoy, with which she first fell in love, is no more.
I’m not so sure. Gorbachev’s Russia is, to say the least, once again a Russia in flux. There are, I believe, as many different views, as many different and interesting ways of living and being as there were in the 19th. century of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov.
Once again, now in Gorbachev’s Russia, the philosophical speculation, the delight in ideas has been unleashed. The current intellectual climate is known as Glasnost. There is also of course the hard economic reality, the unfilled, dissatisfied people, who still wait quietly in line but with less and less patience, and probably no hope that things will ever get any better.
Natacha, do you remember Andrea Lee’s Russian Journal? I remember you bought it nearly three years ago during one of our trips together to Cambridge to the bookstores. (Other than for international food, Chinese, Mexican, and Italian, did we ever go to Cambridge for anything other than books?) Even then travel writing was one of your great loves. Anyway, I found Lee’s book the other day when I was looking for a copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (which I didn’t find).
I opened the book to the first chapter and read, “My earliest visions of Russia were of an infinite forest, dark as any forest that stretches through a child’s imagination, and peopled by swan maidens, hunter princes, fabulous bears, and witches who lived in huts set on chicken legs. Tied to Russia by no claims or blood or tradition, I still felt, while very young, an obscure attraction to this country that I knew only from its violent, highly colored folklore; its music, through which ran a similar vein of extravagance; and the dark political comments of adults. It seemed to me to be a mysterious counterweight to the known world of America—a country, like the land at the back of the north wind, in which life ran backward and the fantastic was commonplace.”
This passage made me look carefully at my own reasons for wanting to go to Russia; —to learn the language, that which for years has been unfinished business in my life; —to experience and write about the great things that are happening in Russia right now, perhaps best described as the final throes of the October Revolution; to read Tolstoy and become familiar with his ideas on education for a book that I intend to write on the educational ideas of both Tolstoy and Rousseau.
Now I’m beginning to think that these may not be my real reasons at all, but that I, like Andrea Lee, am much more influenced by what is still a romantic notion, by the Soviet Union’s “violent, highly colored folk-lore, its music,… [it being] a mysterious counterweight to the known America… where life runs backward and the fantastic is commonplace.”
(Lee’s Russia, by the way, was that of Leonid Brezhnev, about as far from the Russia of Tolstoy as one can get.) Natacha, do you remember this passage? You had singled it out with a dark pen line in the margin. I remember at the time that you said you would like to travel to Russia, and I remember saying to myself, “Great, we’ll learn Russian together.” But when I broached this subject with you, of learning Russian, you were less than enthusiastic. You were, to say the least, not particularly interested in having me teach you Russian grammar.
Now your Egyptian Notebooks, and the passage from Lee’s journal help me to understand why. While traveling in Egypt it’s not the language probably that’s on you mind, it isn’t Arabic, it’s the people you meet, the new and different sights, sounds, and smells that you encounter everywhere you go, and I’m sure that you wouldn’t think of putting all these things aside and first immersing yourself in a grammar of Arabic or even a history of Egypt.
You made it clear to me that for you to travel means to do something quite different than go back to school. So I can well understand why traveling to Russia doesn’t necessarily mean first of all opening a Russian grammar, but rather “getting on the bus,” that which you always somehow sensed was most important.
When I think now about going to Russia in this way, just getting on the plane and leaving everything behind, naked so to speak, that’s when I begin to feel my age, unsure or myself, no longer confident, as I was, for example, thirty years ago when I got on the boat and went to France and met your mother. I do wonder a bit if my strength is still up to the task. This would mean going to Russia without a security blanket, that which I’m probably no longer able to do. So I surround myself with the kinds of security, the kind of reasons I mention above, with the comfortable things of my past, with language texts and literature and history books, with Russia, but a Russia bound in volumes.
I realize now that you knew then, three years ago, that travel to Russia meant something other than this, that it was the new and the strange and the wonderful, not Russian grammar, that you wanted to encounter and experience. I regret now that I didn’t then understand what you had in mind.
All young people should be helped and encouraged to travel as you have done so far in your life. Your mother and I have been trying to make travel and living in other lands a part of every Waring student’s experience by establishing a branch of the Waring School in France. So far, however, we haven’t succeeded.
What if instead of going to college all our graduates took their college money and, as Tamora did ten years ago, and as you’re doing now, traveled and wrote? Wouldn’t it be, for all of them, much more beneficial than the freshman year in college following directly on the senior year of high school?
[In May 1985, when Tania Aebi was only 18 years old, she cast off from the docks of South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan and sailed 27,000 miles around the world, alone, on her 26-foot sloop, Varuna.]
She did have her cat, Tarzoon, for company.
Wasn’t that experience worth at least as much as a college education? (Actually, she is now, I believe, in college. In her case what was to have taken the place of college, became just the prologue to it.)
It is surprising to me that this sort or thing doesn’t happen more often, and on the contrary that most kids never think of doing anything after high school other than going on to college. We who would teach our kids to be self-movers find that most of them upon leaving us move docilely onto college moved by social forces outside of themselves. I’ve always felt that one should not go to college without being ready, yet most everyone does.
There are two passages in your Notebooks that show me, in particular, just how important a learning experience travel can be. Clearly you learned important things traveling that you might never have learned at home or in school. One example is when you describe the place of women in Egypt,
and how by experiencing what they experienced, in the stores and streets and in the post office, you became one of them, and how, like them you became something less than a woman, less than a person, just an object, an object of men’s insults and in your own case, being a woman and a tourist, the constanttarget of gangs of children demanding “backsheesh.”
You made us feel the same thing you felt when you say, “After a while I wished I could just shut my eyes and ears when I walked in the streets. I never felt more humiliated in all my life just being a person, than I did in Egypt. I think that is what bothered me the most,…”
This, I believe, is an essential learning experience (much more so, even, than the geography of the United states, or the Linnaean classification of plants and animals). Essential, because one of the greatest problems that confronts our present civilization, one that will have a lot to do with whether we survive as a species, is how peoples, pretty much confined to their own separate living spaces, can gain an understanding and a respect for all those other peoples in different spaces on the earth whose lives and life experiences are essentially different from their own. It’s clear that you are well along in the learning of this important lesson.
The other example comes at the very end of your journal. Here, in a longer passage you show us that you have learned an even more profound lesson than even that being able to put yourself in the place of another.
Actually, how you have learned both lessons, somehow from traveling and meeting people and encountering new things, I won’t attempt to explain. In fact, I don’t really understand how anyone learns anything really important. Learning for me, after over thirty years of teaching, is still a thoroughly mysterious process, certainly proceeding more from the learner than the teacher.
In any case, in this second example from your notebooks you show that you have learned the very best answer to the question “why.” And it’s not one of Aristotle’s four causes from his Physics. The best answer to the question “why?” is not an answer beginning with “because,” but rather a straightforward description or telling of the way things are. Your grandfather who is currently traveling in Wales, searching not very seriously at age 87 for his own roots in that land, doesn’t yet know this, or doesn’t want to admit it. For he’s always asking me why we are even on the earth, if we are mortal and one day have to die. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he says, “if everything we do will, in the end, come to nothing.”
He terribly wants me to answer him with a “because,” even though he knows that one “because” only leads to another “why” and another because and that there can be no ultimate satisfaction obtained in this way, which, incidentally, is the way of science.
The real answer to his question why we are on the earth is simply the truth and beauty which we can experience everywhere, dwelling in all things. That is always the best answer to the question why we are here. At least I know of no other as convincing and compelling.
Getting back to my second example of what you have shown you have learned, coming in that passage at the end of your journal, when you answered that girl on the Haifa bus who asked you why not being Jewish you had come to Israel. You seemed to understand that to answer her with a “because” would be totally deficient, totally unsatisfactory.
And instead you answered her by describing some of the beauty (and truth?) you obviously experienced while living and working on the Kibbutz at Gvat. You told her there were the friends you made on the Kibbutz, the climbing in the trees and picking the grapefruit, the folding and ironing the clothes in warm and comfortable rooms while talking with the mothers, the times when you listened to people speaking Hebrew and would recognize and even understand a word or two, and all the other experiences about which you felt deeply and strongly. That was why you were there.
I liked particularly what you said about being all by yourself, working in a factory where irrigation pipes and sprinklers were made to be sold all over the world, and those times when people would explain to you about the meaning of Purim and Passover, and your own participation in the holidays just like the Israeli Jews themselves, dressing-up and decorating the dining-room and gymnasium, and feeling right along with the others the excitement of the coming evening, the music and dancing, and you being asked to play the fiddle. I agree with you, that the girl on the Haifa bus must have liked your answer to her question.
Now on to your mother and me. The school year is coming to an end. The news of our leaving is now all about. Over and over again, at the various school events, the games, the Soirées, the Teas and Openings, members of our community come up to us and want to talk about our decision to leave the school.
The fact of our leaving gives these brief encounters more than the usual significance. Many people, being naturally generous, will put themselves in our place, and say, “You must be so proud. Your school is wonderful. You must be so proud of what you have done.”
Usually I don’t know what to say in response. It’s the same sort of thing when people tell us what wonderful children we have. In fact we spend very little time being proud of the school, of the students, or even of our own children. Pride is just not something we spend a lot of time feeling. Usually it’s a thing of the moment, hence my awkwardness in responding to those who tell me I should be proud.
In my experience pride is most often confined to particular happenings in the life of the school and in the lives of my children, just as its opposites, shame and disappointment. Although we don’t often admit it failure and disappointment are no less a part of our lives together than the feeling of pride in our successes. Pride is never a permanent condition, except, perhaps, when the subject of one’s pride is permanently removed from one’s contact, becoming then idealized at some great distance. This is certainly not the case of our relationship to the school.
When one is close to something there are always the ups and downs. One’s pride in what one is doing needs to he renewed continually — it’s never something that outlasts the particular event or happening from which it springs. Furthermore, episodes of pride always alternate with disappointments. We shouldn’t he proud of schools and children, rather of particular things that they have, or more important, are accomplishing.
Schools and children are complex structures and organisms. They are certainly never “finished,” and if we start being proud of them as if they were over and done with, we are doing them no favor —rather we are relegating them to the realm of the perfect, a realm in which no one really believes, and certainly in which no one wants to live.
On the other hand there are always particular things that are happening in the school that make me proud: an all-school meeting, for example, when the kids are speaking up and saying what’s on their mind, responding sensitively and intelligently to the question up for discussion, that which happens more and more frequently, as when the visitors were here from Masconomet High School, or just last week when Daniel Greenberg from the Sudbury Valley School was our guest; or a class with Matthew or Jim or one of our other humanities teachers when the kids are listening carefully to one another and thereby learning something they would never have known otherwise; or when the jazz ensemble is playing, Miranda singing, and Ron quietly but skillfully directing in the background; or Eric Lutz or Seth Prouty who, after being bowled over by clean body checks on the lacrosse field, then get right back up, almost as quickly as they went down, happily returning into the fray.
And I’m proud of you and Khaya in Forcalquier, thinking of Rokhaya struggling to render the cherry blossoms onto a rough, canvas surface, and of you at the computer, diligently compiling your Israeli and Egyptian observations and memories into your Egyptian Notebooks. When someone tells me I must be proud, these are the kinds of things I think about. And I like to think that with all of them I’ve had something to do.
The conventional wisdom has it that our leaving is a good thing for the school, that the people we leave behind will inevitably rise to the occasion, and they and the school become stronger for it. In this scenario one envisions a healthy sorting out of all the things that Josée and I did, about to be among the new Headmaster, students, faculty and staff.
People, who up until now have been afraid to step in and assume particular responsibilities, because, perhaps, of what seemed to be our intimidating presence, will now do so, taking on, for example, the editing and publication of Le Temps Retrouvé, the planning of the various school functions, the running of the school meetings, the preparing and monitoring of the various school programs and activities. In this scenario the school will go on pretty much as it did before, being still our school, perhaps even looking to us still for approval, even though others in our stead will have assumed all the responsibilities.
Do you believe it, that all this will happen? I don’t think I do myself. I certainly wouldn’t bet on it. Most of the things that Josée and I did probably won’t get done, and it won’t even matter to the life of the school. Instead, the school without us will go its own and different way.
I see Josée’s and my future relationship with the school much the same as our relationship with you and your brother and sisters. We love you, and we certainly don’t want to lose you, but the very last thing we would want or expect is that you go on living your life as you lived it while you were with us. We rather expect and hope that you will find a life of your own, for we know only in that way will you be happy.
The same is true for the school. A sorting out will take place, but where things will fall is, at this time, anyone’s guess. I’m excited, because I know things will be different, and newness and change, brought about in this way, by our leaving, can be, like traveling to a new land, a wonderfully enriching experience for all of us.
I would love to propel myself into the future and see the shape of things to come. I can do it for myself, but not yet for the school. I do know that just as you no longer look to your parents for the structure of your life, so the school will no longer look to us for its size and shape and many other important features.
There is a tie, a bond that remains, in spite of your leaving, between you and your mother and father, although we might be hard put to describe exactly what it is. So there will always be a tie between us and the school, although equally hard to describe and define.
Of course there are things that will remain the same. I feel certain that Josée’s and my values will go on being the values of the school even when we are no longer present. I feel certain of this because these are the values of any school worthy of the name:— the study of liberal arts, — the active cultivation of virtue, —the avoidance of vice, — the belief in the worth of the individual and of the community of which he is a contributing part.
If there is something else, a spirit, something that makes the Waring School a special and unique place —and I think there is— it’s probably not in anyone’s power to insure its survival. But on the other hand, the uniqueness, the spirit is probably not something that we could take away with us even if we wanted to. It’s now much more an integral part of the school, than our own private possession.
Natacha, we thank you for sending us your Egyptian Notebooks. Your mother and I wanted to reply, both to you, and to the Waring community, and together we have written this letter. It’s really from both of us. I hope we have convinced you of the worth of your own travel writing, and I in particular hope that you will stay right there in front of your computer and go on writing.
I must have convinced you of the value of communication, of sharing your thoughts and observations with others, in this case with your family and with the other members of the Waring School community. Also, you must now be convinced that you did just the right thing to take the year off —if this is the proper way to refer to living and working on a kibbutz in Gvat, Irsael. I don’t think it is. Rather your year has been a “year on.” Finally, are you convinced that your mother and I are proud of you? We are! We are also proud of our school, and, yes, us/ we with it.