First a philosophy teacher and then an investment professional at major insurance companies and commercial banks, Philip Lawton now writes narrative nonfiction in Albemarle County, VA. He earned the bachelor’s, licentiate, and doctorate degrees in philosophy in the French-speaking section of the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium), an MBA degree in Finance at Northeastern University (Boston, MA), and, in December 2019, a graduate certificate in international economic relations at American University (Washington, DC). His personal essays and memoir pieces have appeared in Cagibi, JuxtaProse Literary Magazine, The Bookends Review, Streetlight Magazine, and the Bangalore Review, among others.
Learning by Heart
From WTP Vol. VIII #4
I have a supporting part in “Unknown,” a short film scheduled to be shot this weekend in Lynchburg, Virginia, about 70 miles south of my home in Albemarle County. It’s a low-budget project, the cast is unpaid, and I’ve been corresponding via email with the person responsible for wardrobe, hair, and makeup (usually three jobs on a movie set) because I have to put together a suitable costume from my own clothes closet. A few years ago I told my wife I wouldn’t work gratis, but I took a break from acting, and, now that I’m starting again, I have to update my demo reel. And, anyway, here I am, writing about it, also for little or no money: my opportunity cost is approximately zero. I’ve printed the script, highlighted my lines, recorded them in an app that allows me to rehearse them solo. Once I have the lines down pat, I can give myself a back-story and start getting into character. My call time is early Saturday morning, and I’ll be there, ready to take direction.
I could not have had better training in memorization than the parochial school education that began when, in 1953, I entered the first grade at Holy Family in Fresh Meadows, Queens, New York. The class stood when a nun of indeterminate age, wearing the black habit of the Sisters of St. Joseph, entered the classroom, said, “Good morning, children,” led us in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and the morning prayers, Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be. “Be seated.” Unintentionally noisy, we seated ourselves in manufactured chairs, with laminated wood seats and backs, attached by tubular steel to our equally spare desks.
We had recess in a paved schoolyard enclosed by a chain-link fence. Mother kept me in short pants too late in the season, my legs were cold, my overcoat made it look like I wore no pants at all, the boys who laughed and made me open the coat were too big to fight, and, in any event, I wasn’t the scrappy type. I complained, Mother objected (“But you look so cute!”), relented, bought me long pants.
No champion in the schoolyard, I excelled in the classroom, learned to write in flowing script under the Palmer method, still have some of my early report cards, signed by my father as often as my mother. The words of the prayers still come to mind, and my handwriting is refined to this day, just, sometimes, a little shaky. It should not surprise me that my grandchildren don’t know how to hold a pen; they don’t pray, either, would probably find memorizing a prayer or a poem pointless.
Our fourth- or fifth-grade teacher, an ageing nun, was to be late one day. The school, evidently shorthanded, selected a girl from one of the upper classes to monitor our classroom. She took her responsibility seriously, made it clear she would brook no misbehavior: we were to read in silence. I wrote a note, “This one is worse than the old bat,” passed it to a classmate, one of the popular boys. The girl saw motion, confiscated the note, read it, kept it, presented it to the teacher. Sister said, “Nobody ever called me old before.” Shame, I learned, feels worse than humiliation.
In the sixth grade, after we moved again, I transferred to St. Agnes Cathedral School in Rockville Centre, became an altar boy, learned the Latin Mass, wore a white surplice over a cassock, black in ordinary time, red on holy days. I came to love the ancient words, the hymns, candles, incense, altar bells, the shining colors of the priests’ vestments marking the course of the liturgical year. The celebrant faced the altar, spoke over his shoulder. There were laminated crib sheets on the sanctuary floor where the servers knelt, P for Priest, R for Response. The official translation was unpretentious, the pronunciation, printed in red. I was a Pharisee, left the crib sheet on the floor, reeled off the responses from memory.
P: Introibo ad altare Dei.
In-tro-EE-bo ahd al-TAR-ay DAY-ee.
I will go to the altar of God.
R: Ad Deum, qui laetificat juventutem meum.
Ahd DE-um kwee lay-TEE-fee-kaht YU-ven-TU-tem MAY-um.
To God, the joy of my youth.
Under watchful eyes, children become agents of their own indoctrination. The words I learned by repetition are still with me, the prayers I memorized are in my bones, their meaning is inescapably part of my identity, however poorly I may keep the faith today. Dogma carries weight, becomes, in time, the weight we carry. And how we learn matters, what we learn by heart, as children, may follow us to our graves or, in the absence of critical thinking, lead us to them. There is much to deplore in the parish elementary schools of the 1950s and 1960s, the authoritarianism, paternalism, priest-worship, above all the exploitation of shamefully underpaid nuns without pensions. The curricula invariably included religion, and memorization had its place as an accepted pedagogical technique, especially in the early grades. But, for all their faults, those schools were far from madrasas. We had duck-and-cover drills to prepare for a nuclear attack, yet we prayed daily, not for the destruction of Russia, but rather for its conversion. It has taken me a lifetime to understand that, given the times and the institutional constraints, most of the teachers did their best to overcome their own limitations and give us an education for the whole person.
After a third relocation, our last move as a family, I spent an unhappy year and a half in a public middle school in West Hartford, Connecticut, then entered a newly opened Catholic high school with sunlit classrooms and splendid laboratories. Here, too, most of the teachers were nuns, this time well-educated Dominicans in off-white habits with rope cinctures. They patiently taught us the hard business of reading, writing, thinking for ourselves.
I took four years of classical Latin in high school. There’s memorization in learning languages, too, gendered vocabulary words, irregular verbs, declensions, conjugations, idioms, which case follows a particular preposition. I didn’t study hard enough, squeaked by, more or less voluntarily went to Hartford High for a remedial course the summer between my junior and senior years. But I was fortunate, as a high school student, to have been exposed to some of the classics of Roman literature, and I’ve read more, in translation, over the course of the years. “And give up your thirst for books,” Marcus Aurelius counseled his son, “so that you do not die a grouch….” Bad advice. Cicero got it right in his quasi-fictional essay, On Old Age, where the elderly Cato tells his young friends, “And indeed if it has any provender, so to speak, of study and learning, nothing is more enjoyable than a leisured old age.”
It’s also in high school that I had my first part in a play, a murder mystery with a dramatic death scene. I had a lot of lines to learn, but the part came naturally, I played a cad, died onstage protesting my innocence. Years later I would watch a black-and-white movie, released in 1957, with Tyrone Power in the same rôle. I remembered most of the lines, said them in unison with the great actor. I’m old now, hope to live out my days in peace, die naturally, in the warm shelter of my house, with my wits about me and the grace of an honest confession. But not soon, I’m not done, my heart and lungs are strong, I have things to say, if it’s grow or die, then I’m still growing.
One of the books we were assigned in a high school religion class was Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving. I still have it in my library, read it again, more than half a century later, for this piece; in retrospect, it was a sophisticated choice for a Catholic school, Fromm was unenthusiastic about the personal God of monotheism, retraced the negative way, saw the love of God as a sort of mystical union with the One, a spiritual analogue of erotic love—that is, romantic love—when it is not merely a result of vanity, for example, or the anxiety of aloneness. “Erotic love,” he wrote, “if it is love, has one premise. That I love from the essence of my being—and experience the other person in the essence of his or her being.” But I had little interest in learning the art of loving, cared only about mastering the craft of seduction and the mechanics of intercourse.
I might have been more open to Fromm’s sober ideas after I was undone. The notion that there’s one and only one person for everybody may well be delusional, as he suggests. All the same, a breakup is physical no less than emotional. There is a strange feeling of wooziness in the chest, an unaccustomed awareness of the heart, arrhythmia, shortness of breath, all of them, I now read, medical symptoms of “broken heart syndrome.” The corporal experience fades away, the spiritual damage may last decades, some lost souls cannot leave the past behind, they turn to work and other painkillers, slog through life without hope.
I never knew my maternal grandmother, she died before her time. Gramp did not remarry, his sisters helped him raise the children, Fromm might have thought him deluded by the myth that love comes only once. But his was, in many ways, a good life, he was successful in business, generous to the church, cherished at home, the model of a decent man, not faultless, but better than most, someone I’d have done well to emulate more faithfully. Sipping sherry one evening, in his seventies (as I am now), he quoted the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, in the FitzGerald translation that was popular in his day:
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
He was reaching back half a century; the first line of the quatrain (“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough”) slipped his memory. Perhaps he thought it inessential. I did not correct him, just delighted in the moment. I was not given to declaiming poetry, would not, in any case, have chosen that particular verse, but I nodded, thought of someone far away, silently recalled the opening lines of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It is good to have memorized the poems that speak to us. Provender, so to speak, for old age.
The luckiest ones recognize, with Fromm, that love is also an act of will, that erotic love requires commitment as well as chemistry, that, given an attraction between two unique people, love is an available option. We can grieve the end of a passionate relationship, reproach ourselves, with good reason, yet survive, find or rediscover someone compatible, and, in the fullness of time, choose to love again—provided we love ourselves. Of course, that proviso may be the hardest part: coming to see ourselves as worthy of love, deserving of care. “Paradoxically,” Fromm says, “the ability to be alone is the condition for the ability to love.” But the point is that love is not merely fate, it is equally a decision.
What I find most striking, reading The Art of Loving again, is the way Fromm treats the practice of love. He reviews the general requirements for the practice of any art: discipline, concentration, patience, and a supreme concern with becoming a master rather than remaining a dilettante. These are habits I tried to cultivate in my working life, traits I try to bring, in retirement, to my writing and acting. Yet I did not reflect that an amorous relationship calls for the very same attention, that it, too, requires the conscientiousness we routinely dedicate to things like making a living, writing an essay, performing a rôle, things that are, in the end, so much less important than loving an incomparable person from the essence of our being. Like any other simple truth, this one—love takes care—is utterly obvious once it has been said, would be trivial if it were not so vital.
In “Unknown,” I play the lifelong friend of an old Scotsman who is slipping into senility. The setting is a timeworn house on a brick street in an old section of Lynchburg, we can see the James River from the front yard. Inside, while the camera rolls—it’s a one-camera production—we have a chess match, it’s a weekly event, but today my friend’s mind wanders, he thinks of his late wife, grows anxious. I’m on top of my lines, the other actor is a pro, we’re both fully in character, the shoot goes well, half a dozen takes to get different camera angles.
On a break, the screenwriter and director tells me about watching his mother descend into dementia. It was a long, hard goodbye, he says, it lasted over three years, and she seemed to lose her recollections in reverse chronological order, he could see it happening, oblivion progressively extending into the distant past, ultimately touching her childhood. Cicero writes, “…the most desirable end of life is that which comes while the mind is clear and the faculties are unimpaired, when Nature herself takes apart the work which she has put together.” I fervently pray to be spared my mind, memory, identity. But if life clings to me too long, if I grow addled, become a burden, finally fall into that drainpipe spiral of confusion and forgetfulness, then one of the last images I will hold in memory is a boy shivering in a city schoolyard, wanting shelter, wishing the bell would ring.