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Essay

Seeds of Joy

By November 21, 2012 2 Comments
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This week, so many possible topics presented themselves as suitable for the blog:

  • Liz Lemon seems to be getting married (question arises: appropriate feminist triumph or overly conventional sell-out?)  
  • The Big 10 seems to be getting (to me, a purist) some very incongruous additions.  Maryland? Rutgers?  Really? Plus it is moving ever farther away from being “10”—surely this weird counting in conferences needs to stop at some point.  Am I the only one who thinks it unfortunate that the Big 10 will now have 14 schools in it, while the Big 12 only has 10?  Is it any wonder we have banking problems in this country with that kind of arithmetic going on at the collegiate level?
  • With the end of Hostess Baking, Twinkies and Ding Dongs, the madeleines of a ‘70s childhood, will now be consigned to the same bin of childhood nostalgia as The Dukes of Hazzard and Free To Be, You and Me.  Another way my elementary school-aged nieces will never understand the true complexity of that amazingly odd decade.  
  • The Petraeus scandal….oh, never mind.

Actually, the news story that most caught my eye of late is a lovely one, perfect for a week in which we focus at least momentarily (before the mad rush to trample each other on Friday) upon gratitude. 

What’s more it is a story that made me reflect on the kind of support we need to achieve our callings at their very fullest. 

No surprise, perhaps, but it’s nothing we might predict, nothing big.  For Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, it was a piano.  Under house arrest for years, heavily guarded and deeply isolated, separated from her husband and children, she often found solace in the dilapidated instrument (even if that solace came in sometimes angrily pounding the keys). The playing of Pachelbel, Bach, Mozart, Telemann—a small thing, no doubt, in an epic life given to incredible sacrifice and extreme personal privation.  But how that one freedom—the freedom that comes from the hope that art and beauty can provide—how that nourished the strength to pursue the greater freedoms for her country for which Suu Kyi yearned.  The piano was one thing the generals of Myanmar were not brave enough to remove—and today, Suu Kyi is free. 

But here’s what really struck me about this story: it is not just that Suu Kyi played.  It is not just that the music gave her, perhaps, a significant edge in the psychological war she waged while under arrest.  It was that she was able to play because of the work of three men—Saw Simon, Ko Paul, and Saw Sheperd. 

Piano tuners. 

As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, these three men—over the course of Suu Kyi’s many years of confinement—worked (often under survelliance themselves) to maintain an instrument ravaged by the vicissitudes of a tropical climate.  It wasn’t easy—the instrument was old and the spare parts hard to find.  But they managed to keep the instrument playable.  A small act of resistance.  One wonders how much more difficult it would have been for Suu Kyi to survive and triumph without her music—only made possible by these men’s efforts.  Surely, when the history of the quest for democracy in Myanmar is written, they will deserve at least a little credit. 

We know instinctually how important small acts are, of course—for good or for ill.  George Eliot provides a counter-example to the noble Myanmarian piano-turners when, in Middlemarch, she presents a scene where Dorothea and her husband Casaubon have an argument.  To begin to make amends, Dorothea tries to take her husband’s arm, and he responds by “ke[eeping] his hands behind him and allow[ing] her pliant arm to cling with difficulty against his rigid arm.”  A seeming insignificance.  But no, says Eliot:

…it is in these acts called trivialities that the seeds of joy are forever wasted, until men and women look round with haggard faces at the devastation their own waste has made, and say, the earth bears no harvest of sweetness—calling their denial knowledge.

We fail, Eliot argues, when we do not see the influence of every possible act of kindness, when we do not cultivate the “seeds of joy” that are within our power to plant in the lives of those around us.  And when we later bemoan the emotionally sterile landscape we inhabit, we are only deceiving ourselves as to how we arrived there. 

In our moments of gratitude this week (and really always), may we recognize and give thanks for those folks (many of whom we may not even know) who make our lives possible every day. 

And may it be said of us that we are planting the “seeds of joy.”

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

2 Comments

  • Dawn Boelkins says:

    Thank you for this lovely post. I've reread it several times, hoping to train my eyes to see seeds of joy and my hands to scatter them.

  • Jennifer L. Holberg says:

    Dawn–Appreciate your kind words. Thanks for reading, and thanks too for responding!

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