It was on fire when I lay down on it

book bingeMaryP’s book binge is half over. I’m not officially participating, but I thought I would offer a couple of book reviews during the month.

Readers may be familiar with author Robert Fulghum for his essay, All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten. It would be easy to despise Fulghum’s homespun, naively simple wisdom, but surely he has a point.

Clean up your own mess, for example: it’s one of Fulghum’s kindergarten principles, but many people never master it. Imagine how much the world would be improved if CEOs of massive industries took responsibility for cleaning up their own messes.

Complex ethical conundrums receive a disproportionate share of our attention. It would be more productive to focus on the situations where we already know what needs to be done: to press ahead determinedly to effect the necessary changes.
But I admit, I never would have picked up a book by Robert Fulghum except by happenstance. My parents had an audio cassette of It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It at their cottage. I popped the cassette into the player on a whim one afternoon, and I was instantly hooked.
Fulghum is a Unitarian clergyman, but he perceives commonplace things with extraordinary clarity, like a Buddhist. No one who sees as acutely as he does can be unaware of life’s dark side.

Fulghum confesses that one of his friends doesn’t like the Kindergarten essay:

He’s right. There are things I learned — and needed to learn — that were not taught in primary school. …

Power. Might may not make right somewhere in the world, but in our neighborhood the big boys always had the first and the last word. I learned that hitting people was sometimes necessary to bring people into line. Didn’t my folks hit me? The basic rule is clear: Always hit someone smaller than you.

He’s not really advising us to live that way, I’m sure. But he’s right, coercion and gratuitous violence are inescapable facts of life.

And Death. Not only did I discover that things could die, but I could kill them — bugs, lizards, worms, and mice. …

Here’s the tough part of what I know now: that the lessons of kindergarten are hard to practice if they don’t apply to you. It’s hard to share everything and play fair if you don’t have anything to share and life is itself unjust. I think of the children of this earth who see the world through barbed wire, who live in a filthy rubbled mess not of their own making and that they can never clean up.

They do not wash their hands before they eat. There is no water. Or soap. And some do not have hands to wash. They do not know about warm cookies and cold milk, only stale scraps and hunger. They have no blankie to wrap themselves in, and do not take naps because it is too dangerous to close their eyes. …

Their teachers are not sweet women who care, but the indifferent instructors called Pain, Fear, and Misery. Like all children everywhere, they tell stories of monsters. Theirs are for real — what they have seen with their own eyes. In broad daylight.

The above quote misrepresents the book, really. It’s the darkest passage in the 218 pages of It Was On Fire …. Most of the time, Fulghum keeps things positive. The book is saturated with humour, encouragement, and inspiration.

Fulghum re-read the manuscript one last time before it went to print:

I surprised myself by finding passages that are still funny to me, even after many readings. Humor is a bit suspect — conventional wisdom says it takes away from serious writing. So I wonder if the funny parts should be trimmed out. I think not — and here’s why:

To get through this life and see it realistically poses a problem. There is a dark, evil, hopeless side to life that includes suffering, death, and ultimate oblivion as our earth falls into a dying sun. Nothing really matters.

On the other hand, the best side of our humanity finds us determined to make life as meaningful as possible NOW; to defy our fate. Everything matters. Everything.

It is easy to become immobilized between these two points of view — to see them both so clearly that one cannot decide what to do or be. Laughter is what gives me forward motion at such intersections.

And so Fulghum turns aside from tears and serves up a platterful of laughter instead.

I started writing this post a couple of days ago, before the Virginia Tech massacre. Fulghum’s writing seems a million miles removed from such hellish, real-world events. But it’s a matter of choice on his part, not ignorance.

If the news these days is depressing you, this is a good time to read It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It. Fulghum understands despair, and even hints at it: but he won’t leave you stuck there.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Ozymandias
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 21:37:51

    Good post. I always enjoyed Fulghum’s Kindergarten essay. It is nice to read something lighter.


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