Of Dogs and Books and Struggle
I have brought with me today my good luck charm, a paperback edition of The Iliad translated by Robert Fagles. In 1991 I was a Jesuit novice working in New York City as a chaplain at St. Clare’s Hospital for patients with HIV and Aids, patients waiting to die, really, and one night I went to hear Mr. Fagles read from his new translation, longing, I suppose, for some connection to when I read this book here at St. John’s College, because life was simpler then, and death was still just a thing I had found in a poem. And in line for his autograph, a woman ahead of me asked Mr. Fagles why Achilles was described as “shining?” He explained that the adjective dios was used throughout Homer for anything that seemed brighter or more powerful than the average mortal, hence “shining” or “brilliant” in the way that it might be beautiful and a thing to fear at the same time. Not able to help myself, I chimed in and said, “Like Charybdis in Book 12 of The Odyssey, where Homer calls her “dia Charybdis.” “That’s exactly right, young man,” he said to me, and asked me where I had gone to school, whereupon Robert Fagles inscribed this very copy of The Iliad, “To Andrew, whose Greek is doubtless stronger than my own,” and I have kept this book over the years as a reminder of the need always to be grateful and humble.
Graduates of the class of two thousand fourteen and the Graduate Institute, Mr. Nelson, Tutors, Parents on this extraordinary Mother’s Day, family, friends, and guests, I am more than grateful for having been invited to give this address to you today. I am humbled, in the way that a small act on a long path is humbling, because it makes you lift your head up and wonder at where you’ve gotten to, and where you’ve been. Your student committee for choosing a commencement speaker said that, from their perspective, I seem to have lived the kind of life St. John’s College teaches us to live, and would I tell you just a bit about that life. First of all, let me say that I love that I can refer to “us” in these words to you, a privilege I never dreamed of having when I was a student here almost 30 years ago. But, more interestingly, your request is one of the most surprising things I’ve ever heard in my life, because I assure you that when I walked down that path in front of McDowell Hall from where you are now, I knew that I had finished something difficult and unique, but “finished” is the operative word there. I was champing to get on with life, the first stage of which would be some manual labor around boats to balance out these books, and the idea of this education persisting as a tool that I might pick up and use when it was time to use the right tool, never occurred to me. Which, I will tell you, was solely a result of my blindness, my lack of insight, and not anything the College might have done better. Only recently, however, after many iterations of this life, and settling down to do the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do – be alone in a room with words – have I begun to see what it is that St. John’s College teaches us. In a world of subject, we are not just subjects. We are stories, each of us an imagination, each of us tracing an arc of beginning, middle, and end, on the course of which each of us must struggle, just as it is in the beginning of The Iliad – Meniv aeide Thea – right to the end, when they will bury us breakers of horses. And only in that is there any truth. But because you have asked a writer to speak to you today, let me tell you not about my life after St. John’s but before it, for that’s where the heart of the story begins.
I grew up in the early 1970s in the mountainous northeastern corner of Pennsylvania with six brothers and sisters and a dog named Troy, a lab and collie mix who was docile around children, intensely loyal to my mother and father, and yet prone to fighting with any dog who came within range of him on the leash, and off. My parents must have gotten him when I was a toddler, because I can’t ever remember living without Troy, and I grew up believing that everyone grew up with a dog. On the dead end rural delivery road where we lived, dogs were everywhere, and they were understood and judged by their temperaments and actions. Kelly was a lovable shepherd, to whom everyone threw sticks. Tippy was a mutt who feigned a big bark, then hid. Jeb, the Irish Setter was a goof. Our dog Troy was the warrior, strong and fleet of foot. But the dogs who terrified us the most as kids were Buddy and Pal, two canines of no particular breed that lived next door with the Hoffmans. We feared them because they were biters, dogs that would sink their teeth into anyone close enough for no other reason, it seemed, than that they could.
When Troy wasn’t on our front porch, he had his own dog-house in our back yard, where he too was kept on a leash, otherwise he would run, and get in a fight before he got home, and my father said that we just couldn’t let that happen anymore. And, although he had sun and shade and a good area to play in that yard, Troy lived with a broken spirit because he wasn’t allowed the freedom to run.
Now, one of the things my younger brother and I loved to do as boys was to go to our grandmother’s house and listen to stories of the old country, which is what she called what is now Slovakia and where she grew up during World War I. We walked past Troy’s coop and onto a wooded path on the way to her house, full of anticipation for that freedom of imagination that her stories allowed, even when we knew at heart that they were sad ones. We also never failed to wonder as we passed Troy – not with mischief but with pity – if we should just let him loose and then leave him alone to run, no matter what our father said. Wouldn’t he better off? Happier? Wasn’t that the whole point of having a dog?
In that same expanse of yard, Buddy and Pal, the biters, were tied up on their own property. They too wanted to break loose and run, but not run freely away from us. Rather, in all of their meanness, they wanted to run at us. That path was the passage of Scylla and Charibdis in our boyhood journey to go hear stories from an old lady about a place we could only imagine. And although I never wailed as we passed through, I wondered when Scylla would reach down for me.
One day, when I went to take something to my grandmother by myself, knowing that I would stay for some food and of course a story, Pal seemed especially aggressive as I walked past him and Buddy on the way into the woods, the dogs somehow knowing that Troy was tied up on the other side of the house. When I came back home some hours later, Pal saw me emerge, took a running start at his chain, lunged, and broke free of it. Then everything went in a slow and seamless motion. The dog did a summersault, shook his head and picked himself off the ground, looked up to get his bearings, and began running. Right for me. I was about 30 yards away from our back porch, not far, but a good distance to sprint for a skinny eight year old with a dog on his tail. And so I ran. I ran faster than I had ever run in my life, and at about 20 feet before I reached that porch, I slipped on the wet grass and went down on my face and hands, and all I could hear was a snarl, and then I felt Pal’s breath as he leapt on my back, and I put my hands up to cover my head and felt his teeth sink into my right arm.
That was when I heard my father’s voice above me yell, “Get the hell…!” and the rest I’m not allowed to say in public, but Pal screeched as the wooden end of a broomstick came down on him and he ran away.
My mother bounded out of the house then and took me inside and cleaned the bite and called Mrs. Hoffman, who said that her dog had never bitten anyone in its life, and the police showed up at some point, too, but nothing happened after that. Pal was tied up again and life went on as before.
Until about two weeks later on a Saturday. My father had a big vegetable garden on the side of our house, a full lot in which he grew tomatoes and peppers and zucchini and the like, and my brother and sisters and I had to work it. Weeding, mostly, but composting, harvesting, whatever was needed in the season. I was helping my father out that day, and Buddy and Pal were on their leashes barking up a storm, and Troy was in his coop watching them, wishing, no doubt, that he could have at them, but knowing, with my father there, that he’d never get his chance. Then my mother, whose name was Irene, which you know means “peace” in Greek, walked out of the house and came over to the garden to see how we were doing. My parents spoke Slovak as their kind of secret language between the two of them, and on that day my mother stood at the end of the garden, Buddy and Pal spinning on their leashes, and she said something in Slovak to my father, who stood up from his row, looked at those dogs, looked at Troy, took a puff on his pipe, and nodded. My mother went over to the coop and unhooked Troy’s leash and told him in Slovak to go. You know where he went. I watched Buddy and Pal cower in fear – much as I cowered – and then begin to wail as Troy lit into both of them. My mother stood by for a moment, and then walked slowly up to that house, Mrs. Hoffman on the porch of it screaming now to get Troy off her dogs, and so my mother did. Stepped right into that mayhem, yelled in Slovak for Troy to stop and come (a command we all knew), then took him by the collar and walked him back down to our yard. I was watching this, my father now with his arm on my shoulder, and she brought Troy, panting like mad, over to me and said, “Go to Andrew,” and Troy licked my face and raised his paw, and I got down on my knees and hugged him, buried my head in his black and shining fur that smelled so sweetly of dirt and I cried.
That story shouldn’t suggest anything to you about my parents except that they had a fierce sense of struggle and fairness. One born of life and books. Why else would they have named their dog Troy? Why else would they say, when I was a junior in high school, “There’s this school in Annapolis, Maryland that we think you should check out”? Why else would a social worker send every single one of his kids to college and pay for it all, so that we could graduate without any debt? My father had fought in the South Pacific in WWII and gone to college on the GI bill, then graduate school on his own, and my mother was the first person in her family – the eldest daughter – to go to college. We had books everywhere. Books were like bread in the Catholicism in which I was raised. And two rules in that house stand out for me still: You don’t waste food and you don’t destroy books. Which should sound obvious, except that, intellectual curiosity was almost more dangerous than the dogs where I grew up. Reading was welcome inside our home, but outside there was a kind of suspicion, a jealousy, a desire to be mean, call it what you will, among my peers, so that I was bullied for asking questions, for having answers, for being a reader. Often it only meant verbal taunting and names. Bookworm. Univac. Professor (which seems kind of funny when I think about it now). But sometimes it became physical, so that I had to raise a fist in order to defend the fact that I loved and wanted to read books, and that I would defend the book as furiously as I would defend myself. Sometimes I was successful. Most times I was not.
Does that sound like something from another time and another place to you? It was my time and my place, a struggle out of which I emerged only when I came to St. John’s College, and I wanted to paint those two pictures for you today for this reason: It made me see that the one thing we must do in our lives, and from which we should never shy, is struggle. If we are stories, then we will struggle. The Greeks called it the agon. The contest. Nothing moved on stage without it. And on this stage, some of you will struggle for your happiness. Some for your souls. Some for your children. Others for a moral compass to make sense of what it is you want to do, or perhaps what it is you want to stop doing. Some of you will struggle for your lives. But I would wager a sizeable bet that you already know about struggle. Because, I’ll bet, too, that when you chose to come here four years ago, you did so with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Excitement at having found this place, with people so wildly different from you, and yet so naturally like you, because they loved to read books. Your fights would be within them, not whether you should live without them. Yet you felt trepidation, too, because you had gotten this far with your own fierce sense of that love of knowledge, something you yourself learned to protect, maybe even fought for, and now you had to make that transition from protection to putting your imagination and reason and wonder out there for others. Do you remember the feeling of reading The Iliad and knowing that you would get to sit and talk about it for two hours with 22 other people? My God, I can remember thinking to myself, sitting right over there on a warm afternoon and reading as if my life depended on it: For this I have struggled. For this I will be grateful for a long, long time.
And yet, I will tell you as well that later there were times when all I wanted to do was to give up and go somewhere else, or rather get on with something else. I’d had enough of struggling through what I didn’t want to read, never mind where or how it fit into the program. There had to be something else, something beyond this sojourn. But that’s the way of it, no? That’s what becomes of having done something difficult and unique for a long time. That’s the becoming of the imagination. It’s a similar struggle between the excitement and trepidation you felt upon arriving. It means that now it’s time to go.
But let me leave you with a final story, this one about a dog I never knew, companion to a man with whom I’d never spoken, living on a land upon which I’ve never walked, but which I heard one day when I needed to be reminded about the lengths and limits of dogs and books and struggle. When I was in the middle of my discernment about whether I would stay in or leave religious life altogether for…well, for some other life, I was struggling with the fear of not knowing what to do. Not knowing which way to go. And my spiritual director, son of a Wyoming sheep rancher, told me about the time his father was herding a flock over new and unfamiliar territory, in order to get them home faster. It was taking longer than he had anticipated, and, what’s worse, as evening came on, a thick fog settled in so that he barely had an arm’s length of visibility. I will keep moving in the same direction, he thought, because he believed that he could read that land like a book, and he was sure that he was near to where he wanted to be. But as he pressed forward his dog began barking and barking and when the man called him to come, the dog brought the sheep to a halt and pulled at the man’s pant leg, until he gave in, because something told him to trust that dog, and he said, “Ok, boy, here is where we stop. In the morning we’ll move on again.” In the morning when he woke and the fog had cleared, he saw that they were standing at the edge of a cliff, and that one more step would have meant the death of him and the entire flock. He kissed his dog, then turned around and got to where he needed to go by a different path.
My friends, my fellow Johnnies, congratulations today. I wish you more than luck. I pray that you will struggle well in your lives, and that you will find no small amount of gratitude, humility, friendship, and peace along your way.