James

February 12, 2007

ph_lonelygirl.jpgWhen I was eight I had just joined a new school. My father and I had moved cities for my father’s new job. My mother had died a year before and in retrospect I think my father accepted the change in position more for the change in city than the improved money or title. He had never been much of a title or money man.

On my first day in the new school I arrived home crying after a day of vicious taunting by the other children. It was a new experience for both of us and my father seemed at a loss for what to do, but comforted me. I asked him what to do and he said, “Son, I do not know. But in the morning we shall speak again and perhaps we will know more.”

My father was not a highly educated man but he loved to read. He also listened. Not in that manner where the person can’t wait to get their next word in but in a patient manner. He listened to you like he had something to learn from you and that what you had to say might be important.

That night my father did not sleep. He sat at table with a pencil in hand, writing. He had a shelf of his favourite books completely clear; all of them open on the table. Each of his favourite books had characters he admired and, as I was growing up, he would make up stories for me that contained them, giving them life outside the covers. When I would ask him to read me the books he would refuse.

“Those stories you read yourself. You have plenty of time.”

I believe he went through them all, looking for his most admired character’s best, most fundamental characteristics and distilling that down to something for me.

In the morning he and I sat down before school and he gave me a sheet of paper.

“Your words are written in red, mine in blue. This is like a play. We will read it once and then we will talk about it. Afterwards we will make changes if we agree they are necessary. Then we will do it again tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that.”

“When will we stop doing it, Papa?”

“When you tell me you want to stop. Your line is first, son.”

“Papa, the children at school make fun of me and call me names. They are cruel and it hurts when they do it.”

“Fear not little one. You will learn that the opinions of the outside world do not matter much. Tell me, whose opinions do matter?”

“Yours, Papa. And mine. In that order.”

“And what is your aim?”

“My aim is to learn, Papa. To learn until I decide I am ready for my opinion to be more important than yours.”

“And then what will you do?”

“Then I must choose the other people whose opinions will matter to me too. But they must never matter more than my own. My own opinion will always matter the most.”

“How will you choose those people whose opinions will matter?”

“I will choose the people who keep their minds as open as the world will allow. I will choose people who will learn every day; from reading, from listening, from observing, from feeling. I will choose people who are willing change their beliefs every day if what they have learned requires it. I will choose people who will find joy in a good argument even if the conclusion of the argument proves them wrong.”

“These sound like admirable people. Smart people. Why should your opinion be more important than theirs even if they are smarter than you?”

“Because my opinions will lead to my actions and I will never blame another for my actions.”

“What is the greatest danger of repeating this every day?”

“The greatest danger, Papa, is that this will become a mantra and then a tune and I will no longer hear it’s meaning, only it’s melody.”

I looked up at my father, the script over.

“Good boy, James.”

True to his word we discussed it every day. We added to it, cut from it. The first thing I asked he remove was “little one”. He laughed when I asked and then, after seeing my expression, stopped. He looked solemnly at me and apologized for the laugh. He said I was correct and if it made me uncomfortable then it was as bad as the other schoolchildren making fun of me.

“See James, even Papa makes mistakes. Making mistakes is not bad or evil. It is normal. The trick is to correct them when you realise they are mistakes. Then, if you have to, apologise to anyone hurt by the mistake.”

“Yes Papa.”

“Now, if you are a gentleman, you accept my apology if you think it is sincere.”

“I accept your apology, Papa.”

“Then I will forgive myself, son, as I had no bad intent.”

Later I asked him whether we could include the bit about mistakes in our morning speech. We did. One morning we discussed what to call our morning speech since we thought it needed something more personal. We talked of many names but settled on my suggestion, “our center”. We said our center every morning. At night we would talk about what happened to us during the day and sometimes we would add to, subtract from or change the language of our center so that it was clear. We did it every day for six months and then he died.

And, all of a sudden, there was no-one to talk to about how that might change our center. But this is how it finished:

“Papa, the children at school used to make fun of me and call me names. They were cruel and it hurt when they did it.”

“Yes son, all people are insecure and some will tear down others to make themselves look taller. You will learn that the opinions of the outside world should not matter much. You should never be cruel to others. You should try to build up others who you believe deserve your time. Tell me, whose opinions do matter?”

“Yours, Papa. And mine. In that order.”

“And what is your aim?”

“My aim is to learn, Papa. To learn until I decide I am ready for my opinion to be more important than yours.”

“And then what will you do?”

“Then I must choose the other people whose opinions will matter to me too. I will trust their opinions but they must never matter more than my own. My own opinion will always matter the most.”

“How will you choose those people whose opinions will matter?”

“I will choose the people who keep their minds as open as the world will allow. I will choose people who will learn every day; from reading, from listening, from observing, from feeling. I will choose people who are willing change their beliefs every day if what they have learned requires it. I will choose people who will find joy in a good argument even if the conclusion of the argument proves them wrong.”

“These sound like admirable people. Smart people. Why should your opinion be more important than theirs even if they are smarter than you?”

“Because my opinions will lead to my actions and I will never blame another for my actions.”

“What if all the smart people that you trust disagree with you? Should you not, then, consider the weight of all that intelligence enough to override your opinion?”

“Only through discussion or argument, Papa. I should speak with these people and understand their point of view. Perhaps learning will change my opinion or belief. But my opinion will always be the most important because they will lead to my actions and I will be responsible for those actions.”

“What if you discover, later, that your actions were wrong?”

“Then I will take responsibility for those actions. I will make apologies where necessary and I will carry the consequences of my actions with me.”

“When will you step free and allow yourself forgiveness? Will you wait for forgiveness from any you have hurt?”

“I will accept forgiveness graciously if it is offered. But I alone will gauge when I can allow myself to be forgiven. I will not be cruel nor lenient and I will always remember clearly my motivations when I did the deed that I now know was wrong and make those motivations the most important factor.”

“What is the greatest danger of repeating this every day?”

“The greatest danger, Papa, is that this will become a mantra and then a tune and I will no longer hear it’s meaning, only it’s melody.”

“Good boy, James.”

The words were large for a boy of eight to use. As we wrote and discussed it we sat with a dictionary and thesaurus, choosing the words carefully and discussing why one word was more appropriate than another. In fact I used the English language better than many of my teachers. But after my father died I could not look at our center any more, it hurt too much. I felt abandoned. A new city, orphanages, foster homes, boarding schools, more bullying, more mean spirits. The sound of groups of young children playing sounds joyful as long as you don’t listen to the individual sounds.

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11 Responses to “James”

  1. myotherhalf Says:

    Beautifully written. Poignant and strangely uplifting.

  2. Solnushka Says:

    Lovely. A thoughtful way to start the week.

    I find myself wondering if James ever got round to reading the books his father was so fond of though. This is going to bother me no end…?


  3. Dear myotherhalf,

    Thanks, glad you liked it.

    jester


  4. Dear Solnushka,

    Fortunately for you that is one of the opening chapters of my book, so you might just get to find out. Unfortunately for me, I am a procrastinator of stellar proportions, so as to when such book might be finished I cannot say.

    jester

  5. Solnushka Says:

    Well I think we can safely say you’ve got the trick of making readers want to read on, which is particularly annoying when,half way to work, I realised that what I _really_ want to know is what the books the father was reading actually were.

    The suspense may actually kill me.

    Oddly enough, I was thinking about the problem of a mantra becoming stale and spoken without the thought it really needed recently. I like the idea here of fiddling with the text as new ideas and circumstances demand.

    Now if only you could persuade the publishers of various religious works to agree…

    Deary me, that’s more thought to a piece of fiction I’ve given for a long time. When did you say you were going to finish the book?


  6. Dear Solnushka

    Should the suspense kill you I will have the dubious honour of having killed my first and most enthusiastic reader, resulting in book sales of (0) should it get released.

    I hope to finish it somewhere in 2002. Oops, that was the last deadline I gave myself… missed it by a little!

    jester

  7. Matt Langdon Says:

    That was truly an impressive piece. I particularly liked the idea of the father going through his heroes in fiction to work out how to solve the problem. That’s a big part of what my blog is about.


  8. […] February 12th, 2007 More Hero Workshop practical advice from someone else’s blog.  I found this piece of creative writing (I only realized it was fiction after I’d read the whole thing) and had to share.  […]


  9. Dear Matt,

    Many thanks, glad you enjoyed it. Sorry you didn’t realise it was fiction till the end. Suppose that’s good, though.

    jester

  10. Oscarandre Says:

    It’s all been said, Jester – a really interesting piece from start to finish.


  11. Dear Oscarandre,

    Many thanks,

    jester


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