(on the retirement of a friend from a lifetime of teaching)
"When one's work is accomplished honorably,
to retire is the Way of heaven."
-- Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching
There must be a last time for everything.
One of those fundamental truths of nature
we all know deep down somewhere
but don't like to talk about
unless we have to.
Firsts are always so much more fun.
The baby's first gasp of air,
an intake of oxygen,
a neuron fired,
a thought: I'm cold.
And a scream and a cry
to say, in words only a newborn can speak,
This is a good world.
And I'm here."
A first smile.
First words: "I love you,"
if we're lucky enough to hear that
(though we sometimes hear what we need to hear).
First loves. First dates. First kisses.
The first time a girl lets us explore--
like some intrepid adventurer of old--
the heretofore uncharted territory
of some great metaphorical "Northwest Passage."
The first time driving
behind the wheel
in a snowstorm,
afraid of the ditch
and of getting lost.
The first casting of the line.
The first fish caught.
The first time stringing a guitar,
and strumming of chords--
everything in tune.
A perfect feeling. A perfect sound.
Wrist and elbow, fluid.
The perfect softness of a woman,
the first woman.
Life as garden.
A first time moving away from home.
And the first hangover.
And the first sting of hurt, and of failure.
And the first time we think we have
felt the grip of death on our shoulder,
stared face to face into the void
(and how empty that must be),
turned our gaze away, lest it
like philosophy warns.
The first time we know what true pain feels like,
and the heartache of loss,
and of redemption.
The heartache of looking back at what was,
and of having, somehow, to start
all over again
at the beginning.
Though not quite the same as before,
because nothing is or can be.
Especially after thirty years of doing
the same thing
day after day.
Though different days and years, of course--
different names and faces
in the desks
over all those different years.
Thousands of names and faces
all becoming one.
The first student.
The final roster.
The first assignment.
The final examination.
A last pencil sharpened in the middle of a lecture.
A last excuse for missed homework.
A last request for, "el bano?"
A last time to hear the words
The last time to take a measure of a young person's life,
as if to say,
"This is you. I know you. You'll do well.... Or maybe not."
The last time to take a measure of ourselves.
This measure of a life
lived in that quiet desperation
so often hinted at
and carried out within these same four walls
of faded posters and pictures and paintings
hung on nails for thirty-odd years--first to last--
like Christ Himself, almost.
The Alpha and Omega.
Final words, maybe,
of forgiveness and salvation.
Words of wisdom, if we're lucky,
or perhaps ours will lean more toward the metaphysical:
Something like that,
like some transcendental code of Concord,
spoken by a madman spirit who had
moved beyond the meaning of this world
and leapt into the next with the shutting
and a last breath--
Thoreau's legendary last words, lying in bed,
A closing statement. A summation.
Conclusion of a life well-lived.
A final utterance.
and this year, so like the first,
We repeat it
as if we believe it:
"Be good to yourselves."
"Be good to each other."
"Do good in this world."
"Try to make a difference."
We believe it makes a difference,
we say to ourselves,
or else we wouldn't be here.
And in the end that's all that matters,
or so we like to believe,
here at the end of all things.
For there is, after all, a last time for everything.
A last time to recognize that it's not the first time
we've slowly turned ourselves around
and found from somewhere deep inside
the will to reinvent ourselves
and start again.
A first time, after all, to believe that for the last time
we will say to ourselves,
as if to no one else,
"I was alive.
There is good in this world.
And I was there."