Monday, September 5, 2016


For a couple of years, I called myself “semiretired.” I had retirement income coming from one state university and a three-day-a-week adjunct instructor position at another. Now I’m working even less, and some musicians (including, I would hope, those who took my first-semester theory course) as well as some cruciverbalists will get the joke when I say that I’m now “demisemiretired.” I hope I may never have to call myself “hemidemisemiretired.” At some point I want to be rocking-chair-and-vacationing-whenever-I-want retired.

Among my demisemiretirement activities, I have the wonderful privilege of teaching a World Literature class at a local home-school co-op. The kids are smart and willing to talk and, truth be told, make the class more fun for me than one in which I teach what a hemidemisemiquaver is. A few days ago, in preparation for the class’s assignment next week, I read two short stories with some interesting parallels: Tolstoy’s “Where Love Is, God Is” and Hesse’s “Augustus.”

Tolstoy’s story essentially shows an old man living out Jesus’ statement that those who have served the least of his brethren have served Him. It all seems a rather straightforward, simple, pious tale of a man who consciously decides to obey Jesus’ words. And yet when I think of what it would mean to live this way every second instead of just looking back at some scattered shining incidents, the story becomes radical and extremely convicting.

Hesse called his story of Augustus a fairy tale, and indeed it does involve a couple of magic wishes. But Augustus lives a life with all the twentieth-century angst, dissociation, and unsatisfying immorality of a Jay Gatsby or a Rabbit Angstrom or a Sebastian Flyte. Hardly the stuff of Cinderella and Prince Charming. The problem is that Augustus’s mother, given one wish, wished that everyone would love him. The troubles he then develops in living a life with no checks brings into question the meaning of the “love” everyone shows him.

I think I did a good job pairing these two stories for my class. As different as they are, they share much on common. Each story finds its main character losing everyone in his family, making the lessons of love all the more powerful. Both stories have winter scenes, which to my mind help bring out the spiritual dimensions of crises. Winter scenes sure work for Dickens. And both stories involve apparitions and help from beyond the grave, another characteristic they have in common with Dickens’s most famous winter story. My wife and my children are all alive, it’s hot outside, and I haven’t seen any ghosts lately (that I know of). Can I apply these lessons of love today without having to experience the deprivation my fictional friends did? In other words, can I honour Christmas in my heart and keep it all the year?

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