Goose Has Gone to Fly

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Birds do, it, bees do it – not too sure about the educated fleas, but there comes a time to leave the nest and strike out on your own.

I’ve done my share of nest leaving over the years, but it is harder to watch your child leave than to do it yourself.

When I teach ethics and sustainability, I build a values map of my classes by asking the students, individually and in groups, one simple question:

“What do children need to know when they leave home?”

Or, to put the shoe on the other foot, what do we need to teach the children?

The answers range from the profound to the absurd, from the unteachable to the mundanely practical, but the final list of ten things reveals a lot about the group.

This morning, as my first-born left the nest, the question became far less academic.

The most evident lessons are obvious in their results, external markers of social expectations, manners and the like. Personal hygiene, like cooking ability, is pretty easy to check.

As a parent, it’s much harder (and more unnerving) to gauge the lessons that you taught without knowing it, because not all lessons are good ones.

Yet the longer I have thought about it, the more I have come to realize that parents are praised and blamed about their children far out of proportion to what they deserve.

We make our own choices. Period. Others may push and pull us, persuade us and even coerce us, but in the end we all choose for ourselves. Even submission is a choice. Anything else undermines who we are as individuals. It takes away our autonomy, our moral agency, and makes us less than human.

Years ago, I remember when my daughter went on what was billed a “human rights trip” through her high school.

Instead of a trip that sampled the beaches and shopping of France and Spain, she saw something of what was eastern Europe, from behind the former Iron Curtain in Prague to salt mines in Poland. I told her not to bother bringing me back some kitschy souvenir, but that if she saw something interesting, go ahead.

When she came back and presented me with a small chip of brick she had picked up from the streets of Auschwitz, I knew that the trip had been worth far more than its cost.

I have never been there and may never have the chance, but she had learned something for herself that I have spent a lifetime teaching other people’s children.

In a world of choices, the real triumph of the will is to remember the resilience of the human spirit, the power of hope, and the possibilities that unfold in a universe of relations from any single thing you choose.

Those possibilities can be horrifying if they come out of the dark side that lies in all of us.

But they can also be beautiful and inspiring, lighting up any dark place with love, peace, hope and joy — defeating that darkness, even if just for a moment, because it exists only because of the absence of light.

That’s a lesson to teach the children, all of them – they have choices, always, and choosing light allows them to see the next step clearly, however dim or dark the journey ahead might be at any point.

My daughter is a musician, but she learned along the way that music comes from the heart and the soul – a gift, as much as it is a craft, something that comes out of who you are, not just out of what you are able to do.

No parent could teach that, but it’s a lesson I’m glad she learned.

Her plane is about to leave, so it’s time for me to go back to the work I have chosen to do. I have promises to keep.

As a parent and as a person, I know I could have made better choices than I have, but I am still learning.

Life is a work in progress, after all. The sun always rises on a new day.

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Early the next morning, I walked down to the river at sunrise, as I like to do. It is a peaceful time, a few minutes that I can walk with my thoughts or just not think at all, alone and unpursued by the demands of the day.

I caught a picture of the sun rising over the Red River as it twisted east and then north out of sight, the trail of a jet arcing across a sky skiffed with bits of cloud.

James Taylor’s song, Walkin’ Man, has haunting lyrics. In the work I have chosen for myself, I am constantly sowing seeds. But there are many times when I feel the pull of the wild geese, the need to just keep on walking, drawn along by the journey and not distracted by anything or anyone.

Yet the wild geese come back, if they can. Some fall to hunters, others to the perils of the journey they make. Age makes no difference, because it seems better to fly toward the end of life than to be afraid of what lies ahead.

What we try to teach the children, our own or others, is rarely what they learn. In the end, the most important lessons are those they choose. Whether they follow our example or avoid it isn’t the point — just as long as they don’t let that yearning pass them by.

Birds do it, bees do it, all the time – leaving the nest is part of what it means to choose the journey, not just once, but many times.

But what biologists call the homing instinct is strong in all of us. Whether we make the trip in person or only in spirit, whether we make the trip frequently or only once in a while, we are all called home.

Remembering home reminds us who we are and where we come from. It grounds us, strengthens us, gives us a place to stand. It reminds us there is a place where we belong.

And that is a feeling you can walk with, wherever.