An old friend died. It wasn’t a surprise. He had fallen into drugs, a decade ago, and never came back. Lost everything—career, home, wife, kids. Overdosed repeatedly, and intentionally, and was revived. But it was only a matter of time until—this time.

And yet, I was surprised. Not because I had been thinking he was getting better. No: because I hadn’t been thinking about him at all. When he first flamed out, I tried to help. Met him for coffees, had long frank talks. But then he just crashed even farther. It was terrifying and appalling. I was afraid he might try to get to his estranged family through me. So I pulled back. Stopped reaching out to him. I put him out of my mind.

Was that terrible? 

I think about a moment in the Book of Job—the Old Testament’s great parable of morality and suffering. By God’s whim, the title character loses everything: wealth, wife, children, health. He is left sitting in filth, covered in boils, and scraping himself with a piece of a broken pot. Job has always been a good, pious man. He doesn’t deserve this.

Which is the point. In the preceding books of the Old Testament, you see—the History books of the Jewish people, from Genesis to Esther—there is no such thing as not deserving it. Suffering comes from displeasing God. Displeasing God causes, and justifies, suffering. That is the crock that the Book of Job throws, very purposefully, against the wall. 

In his agony, Job is visited by three neighbours, ironically known as the Comforters. They speak loudly and at length for the old morality. Job must have merited the awful fortune he has received! Otherwise, God would appear to be unjust—and that is just unthinkable. For the most part, the Comforters don’t come off very well. (At the end of the book, God appears in a whirlwind, and reprimands them.) They are refusing to hear the unbearable sermon that the text is trying to be. 

But one of them—his name is Eliphaz the Temanite—at one point comes up with an amazingly powerful accusation. “Is not thy wickedness great?” he demands of Job. “And thine iniquities infinite?” 

“For thou hast taken a pledge from thy brother for nought, and stripped the naked of their clothing. / Thou hast not given water to the weary to drink, and thou hast withholden bread from the hungry. … / Thou hast sent widows away empty, and the arms of the fatherless have been broken.” (Job 22: 5-9)

Job might well answer (and more or less does, in the following chapter): I have not done any of those things! I have not been that kind of person!

But he has. We all have. If we think about it. 

We have taken, without properly recompensing, the love of a sibling or friend. We have failed to seek out the homeless and starving—though we know exactly where they are—to offer them food and shelter. We have not bothered to make sure that lonely old ladies, all of them, have days and hearts full of joy. We have left the orphan children of the world’s teeming slums exposed to horrible violence. 

And so on.

Not sins of commission. Sins of omission. But what difference does it make? Infinite suffering starts at our door, and spreads to the horizon. What are we doing about it? Basically, and almost all of the time, nothing. We put it out of our minds.

Isn’t that terrible?

A conundrum emerges here, at the very centre of ethics. We can’t save the world, so we mostly ignore it. We just focus on our own little corners: our families, callings, and lives. There, to be sure, we may act morally. But every time we do—and precisely because we do—we shine a light on the dark universe of mess that we are not even trying to clean up. Our own claim of goodness convicts us. So says Eliphaz.

It therefore becomes possible to ask: what’s the point? 

“If I be wicked,” Job cries out, “why then labour I in vain? / If I wash myself with snow water, and make my hands never so clean; / Yet shalt thou plunge me in the ditch” (9: 29-31). His “thou” is God, but it could just as well be Morality Itself. It makes demands on us that we cannot possibly fulfill.

And yet here—just here—the hole we are digging starts to turn into a tunnel.

We’ve reached a point, with Job, where it seems like morality is impossible for us. But that doesn’t make any sense. After all, morality is for us. The finite, imperfect, organic beings that we are. A being who could instantly avoid all sins of omission—end all wars, cure all cancers, prevent all devastating drug addictions—wouldn’t even need or recognize our morality. Which is why He, it, or whatever pronoun you put, doesn’t do that.

Eliphaz tells us that our own, limited moral actions convict us of failing to undertake all, unlimited moral actions. Our goodness illuminates the infinite necessity of the good.

But we can say: exactly! Our goodness does that—nothing else! Our working, our cleaning, our caring, our loving. Yes, in our own tiny corners of the world. Without us—without the good that we actually do, in the lives that we actually have—there wouldn’t be any morality at all. And if we didn’t focus on our own lives—our selves, our families, our communities—no good at all would ever get done. There wouldn’t even be any good that could be done.

In our lives, and only there, morality is. In our corners, and only there, the good lives.

And yes: the reality of our being necessitates drawing a line between the good we can do, and the good that we can’t. Indeed, we must refuse—and this itself is difficult moral action—to let the one be abused by the other.

My old friend who died was one of the sweetest, gentlest people I have ever known. He couldn’t bear any kind of harshness or cruelty. He had had a very difficult early life, and that weighed heavily on him. 

Somebody, in their little corner of the world, didn’t do the good, for him, that morality demanded.

That was terrible.


Somehow or other, in the course of my life, I’ve become an English professor. I’m never quite sure how to feel about this. When I look at my kids, when I look at the state of the world–when I look at the whole question of knowledge–it seems like there are far more important jobs I could be doing. Yet I’m always brought back to the study of literature, by texts that make it seem more important than anything else. 

Here’s one:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove;
Oh no! It is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark
Whose worth’s unknown, athough his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me proved
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Shakespeare’s sonnet number 116 (out of 154, which, let’s face it, is a lotta sonnets). I call it a coffee mug poem. That means you can buy it on coffee mugs. Also on posters, tea towels, Valentine’s cards, etc. It’s last year’s wedding song, if this year is 1610.

Evidently, sonnet 116 is a hymn to eternal love, and to love as eternal. Love doesn’t change, this poem says. No matter what. It’s like a transcendent landmark, or a star beaming out over the storm. Love doesn’t come down to the beauty of youth—rosy lips, and cheeks, and all that stuff. It isn’t even subject to time. There can’t be any “impediments” (obstacles) to this incredible force, insofar as it makes a “marriage of true minds.”


Do minds get married?

I mean, we shouldn’t get married without them. But we don’t get married with them. Bodies, not minds, are what take us to the altar. Or wherever else we hope to find love.

Erotic love, anyway. But even if we consider that other love—what Leonard Cohen calls “that brother love”—the point holds. Our buddies, our siblings, our parents—our children—we don’t just want them in our thoughts. We want them in our arms. Wanting them there is loving them; and loving them is wanting them there. Foolish? Maybe. Since we can only have them in time, and only for a time. But that, it seems, is love. 

Sure, says sonnet 116. But—if we think about it—what is that “wanting”? 

It’s a force. Beyond us, and before us. It sweeps through us; transforms us. We belong to it, not the other way around. 

Because we are physical beings, the love that moves us is physical. But the Love that does the moving is something else altogether. Don’t we feel this—don’t we know this—every time we love?

This is also why love can take so many different expressions. (I’m still ventriloquizing the poem.) It’s like a seal, or stamp, pressed into multiple inks. Love even takes different kinds of expression—two main kinds, as we’ve already noticed. One kind, erotic; the other, not. Indeed these two kinds of love are so different—so utterly antithetical—that if we see the one from the position of the other we may have to say, with Shakespeare, that that “love is not love.”


That enigmatic, tantalizing, entirely illogical phrase. Hanging off the end of Shakespare’s second line, like a car dangling over a cliff. Sonnet 116 rushes on to its complex qualifications: it isn’t love if it changes, if it’s fleshly, superficial, etc. But for a moment, Shakespeare has advanced a definition in the form of a contradiction. Love is not love. 

The insight, the paradox, he’s wrestling with is an ancient one. In the Western tradition, it’s primarily associated with Platonic philosophy. Its classic statement, certainly known to Shakespeare, is Plato’s dialogue the Symposium (ca. 385 B.C.).

Like all Plato’s major works, the Symposium presents an imaginary conversation between real historical figures: prominent members of ancient Athenian society, from the generation just before Plato’s own. The star of the show, as usual, is Socrates—put to death in 399 for, allegedly, corrupting the youth of the city. Plato’s whole philosophical career, in text after text, dialogue after dialogue, shows Socrates, instead, teaching them: about language (the Phaedrus), cognition (the Meno), justice (the Republic), and so on. 

In the Symposium, the topic of the lesson is love.

Now, the ancient Greeks took bodies very seriously. All those rosy lips and cheeks (and stuff). When they saw a beautiful young man—and it is always men, in Plato—they didn’t tend to assume, as we might, that his physical gifts were just one item in a range of potential attributes. That is to say, the Greeks didn’t tend to think that a good-looking person might also, or even as a kind of compensation, be dumb, or cheap, or mean. Rather, they tended to assume that he would also be sweet and generous and brilliant. The Greeks saw physical form as reflecting the whole self. A beautiful body, to them, was a window on a beautiful soul. 

Plato’s Socrates is a carefully-constructed travesty of this assumption. Physically, he is ugly: shambling, misshapen, old. But he has such a radiant mind, and expresses such beautiful ideas, that he is thronged with admirers from the top echelon of the Athenian dating scene.

In the Symposium—the title means “drinking-party,” which is the scenario—Socrates has attracted a bona fide stalker in the person of Alcibiades. This person was a notorious celebrity of classical Athens. He was a super-handsome, super-macho, super-sexy military commander. An up-match beyond the wildest dreams of smelly old Socrates. But Alcibiades, arriving late at the party, and already quite drunk, has a surprising complaint. The shabby philosopher has rejected his advances. 

The superhunk tells a long tale of trying to close with Socrates sexually. He has sat, dewy-eyed, at his teacher’s feet, but no advantage taken. He has wrestled with his crush at the gymnasium—naked, and oiled, is how the Greeks did this—but no dice. Finally, the frustrated lover invites Socrates to dinner, plies him with wine, and talks until it is too late to send his guest home. They lie down to sleep—and the handsome host pours his heart out. In so many words: take me, I’m yours.

“Alcibiades,” Socrates answers him, “truly you must see in me some rare beauty of a kind infinitely higher than any which I see in you.” “Whereupon,” Alcibiades relates, 

I fancied that he was smitten, and that the words which I had uttered like arrows had wounded him, and so without waiting to hear more I got up, and throwing my coat about him crept under his threadbare cloak, as the time of year was winter, and there I lay during the whole night having this wonderful monster in my arms. … And yet, notwithstanding all, he was so superior to my solicitations, so contemptuous and derisive and disdainful of my beauty [that] nothing more happened, but in the morning when I awoke—let all the gods and goddesses be my witnesses!—I arose as from the couch of a father or an elder brother.

 All night, the he-man cuddles the man-monster. But all night, cuddling is as far as it goes. 

What has happened here (or, I guess, what has not) has nothing to do with Socrates’s sexual preferences. Rather, it has to do with his sexual philosophy. This he claims to have learned (intriguingly) from a wise old woman, named Diotima. 

The argument is very famous. According to Diotima, it’s natural to love what is beautiful. Natural, and good; you shouldn’t try fight it. But if you really think about what you’re loving, in a beautiful person, you will realize that it is actually and more accurately beauty, as a phenomenon, in that person. 

If that is so, the love can’t stop at the beloved—even though it has to start there. Love for a beautiful person has to be treated as the first step in a journey toward an encounter with love as it is; love in the abstract, love itself. 

“He who would proceed aright in this matter,” Socrates (quoting Diotima) tells his companions, “should begin in youth to visit beautiful forms”:

And soon he will of himself perceive that the beauty of one form is akin to the beauty of another; and then if beauty of form in general is his pursuit, how foolish would he be not to recognize that the beauty in every form is one and the same! … In the next stage he will consider that the beauty of the mind is more honourable than the beauty of the outward form. 

In the end, the student of love, in the school of Diotima, will come to perceive

a nature of wondrous beauty … absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things. …  And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty.

This argument, this vision, is known as the Platonic “ladder of love.” It is certainly one of the most influential ideas in the history of the world. It means that loving another person is good—but that converting or (in Freud’s version) sublimating that love, redirecting it “upwards,” is better, much better. And this not as a matter of discipline or denial, but precisely as an attempt to honour and follow the impulse of love itself. From earthly, sexual, “lower” love—what the Greeks called eros— we are supposed to turn to “higher,” spiritual, celestial love: agapē. Love itself teaches us that it is not love. Agapē not eros.

The Platonic idea, 500 years after Socrates, fit seamlessly with the rise of Christianity. God is love, says St. John—but not in the way that Alcibiades would have meant, eros. Rather, the Christian deity, evidently another student of Diotima, is agapē. Or, in Latin: caritas.

The most beautiful Christian statement of this vision comes from St. Paul, in the thirteenth chapter of his first epistle to the faithful in the ancient Greek city of Corinth (for short, 1st Corinthians, 13). 

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,” Paul writes, “and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.

Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. …

And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

The famous King James Version of this passage has the word “charity” in place of “love.” That’s because it’s very directly translating the Latin caritas; which translates the Greek agapē; which is love, as heavenly, and eternal. And that’s what love really is—how it really is—says Paul. His Christian restatement of the Platonic idea, even more than Shakespeare’s, is stunning, searing, thrilling.

And false. 

Love always fails. 

Doesn’t it?

Even if it is patient; even if it is kind; devoted to the truth, generous, all-enduring, greater than hope, greater even than faith—an astonishing position for a man of God, like Paul, to take!–love dies. Because we do. And this point is completely unaffected by the Christian belief, to which Paul is trying to persuade us, in eternal life. Proved by it, actually! For we precisely have to lose our loves in this life, if we are to regain them in the next.

Shakespeare knows this, you see. Sonnet 116 sounds great, in a Céline Dion, I-know-that-my-heart-will-go-oooon kind of way. But under just a little pressure, that treacly assertion starts to ooze. Love “alters not when it alteration finds.” It doesn’t change when it changes? What can this possibly mean? Love doesn’t “bend with the remover to remove”? What’s a “remover”? Nobody knows. As has often been noted, Shakespeare’s opening language about “impediments” is lifted straight from the Elizabethan marriage service. It’s from the part of the ceremony where the priest asks the congregation if they approve of the union. And what might they say, if they didn’t? Maybe something like “Oh no!”—which is what sonnet 116, at the beginning of its fifth line, exclaims.

In his concluding couplet, with a poker face, Shakespeare shows how absurdly high his poem has sets its stakes. If the neoPlatonic argument of sonnet 116 is wrong—“if this be error, and upon me proved”—then “I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” In other words, nobody has ever loved anybody—not really, they’ve all been doing it wrong—and, for good measure, the poet never wrote anything, including the poem we have just been reading. Now it is pretty clear, as we have just been noticing, that the argument of sonnet 116 is wrong. The agapē it describes, eternal and cosmic and abstract, is not love, as we experience it. And that means that Shakespeare has constructed a no-win situation. If we accept sonnet 116, then we have to accept that love (as we really experience it) is not love (in its true Platonic being). On the other hand, if we deny sonnet 116, then the poem cancels itself out—Shakespeare “never writ” it. And that means that the very statement we are wrestling with—“love is not love” never gets made.

And that means, remarkably, that we lose the opportunity for talking about the topic we thought we were talking about. “Love is not love”–the Platonic formula–is what invited us into this classroom.

Can we take it any farther? I’m not sure.

But I’m pretty sure that asking this kind of question is being an English professor.

Ex paradiso

Last summer, we met Raffi. Or at least, my wife and kids did. The great children’s entertainer of the 80s, 90s and 00s was sitting under a blue umbrella in the Saturday market at Ganges, Salt Spring Island. This, for readers from away, is the largest and busiest of the rural Gulf Islands that lie just offshore from Vancouver.

Now, Ganges used to be a pretty conservative, Anglican kind of place, its chief attraction an old-fashioned candy store. (I mean, it seemed to have been fashioned for old people.) Today, at least in summer, it is the capital of a northern Bali: sleek yachts, packed patios, unbroken tans. The Saturday market is a Utopian extravaganza where exquisite crafts and sumptuous food get hocked for cosmic prices by stunning, ageless hippies. As a result, I missed Raffi. Whoring after ceramics (and that’s another story), I walked right past his booth several times without noticing. But C and our four children—ages 16, 14 (twins) and 9—had the presence of mind to perceive that the quiet, 70ish, olive-skinned man resembling Raffi, surrounded by posters about Raffi, and promoting the most recent Raffi album (“Dog on the Floor”), was, in fact, Raffi. So they marched right up and told him which of his songs had always been our favourite, when the kids were small.

C and I had last visited Salt Spring when our oldest was four months old. We stayed in a Ganges hotel and delightedly strollered our little boy around. There’s a picture of him jolly-jumpering in our hotel room. Another, in a local restaurant, where he’s planting a kiss on my cheek — the first I ever got from him! Baby technique is slobbery, but man, you don’t mind.

Since then, our family has grown, per southern B.C. tradition, through the rythm of a summer visit to the Islands.

The year after that first trip, our peaceable little boy suddenly entered the Terrible Twos while we were staying in a cabin on Mayne. He screamed if we stayed in, screamed if we went out, and double screamed if we wouldn’t let him run off cliffs. On that same trip, we learned that my wife was pregnant again—although we wouldn’t learn just how pregnant until her 20-week ultrasound.

Two years later, our much bigger and somewhat calmer boy, accompanied by two curly-haired toddlers, rode a blow-up whale on the lawn outside the old Surf Lodge on Gabriola. Galiano (close, but not the same) became our go-to island in 2007. C and the girls discovered a secluded beach that has been “ours” ever since (ok, you can see it from the ferry, but you have to know where to look). In 2008, our soon-to-be-youngest defeated an IUD rated at 99% effectiveness after my wife, for reasons best known to herself, went oyster-hunting, with her feet, in chest-deep and very cold water, to the point of hypothermia, and then took a hot bath. Etc. That was on Pender. 

In 2010, we camped with four other families, long-time friends of ours, on Galiano. Between us, we had enough kids that I have to do the math every time to believe it. They took over the campground. The evening we arrived, after putting up our tent, I made my way down to the beach to rinse off the sweat. I remember laughing, with sheer relaxation, at the ochre sun on the origami shapes of the massive, elegant Arbutus trees. We and our friends were all fortyish, solvent, healthy. Cocktails on the beach as the sun went down. Later that evening, we dined together—we families—shuttling hot dogs and casseroles via children and parents amongst our fires and stoves and picnic tables.

What happened? 

Well; what happens. 

Marriages fail. Politics intervene. Addictions, hidden for years, suddenly and disastrously burst out. And kids—they’re not so slobbery anymore. That camping trip can never be repeated.

But back to Raffi.

Our favourite song of his was never “C-A-N-A-D-A” or “Shake a Toe” or even “Baby Beluga.” Those were all good, and we were always grateful for the bright engagement his music provided. But the song we waited for, when the Raffi CDs went on, was: “The Changing Garden of Mr. Bell.” 

“Now you’re talking,” he said, when my wife told him that.

Raffi didn’t write this song. It’s by a pair of American kid’s entertainers, Janice Hubbard and Michael Silversher. Raffi’s version appears on his 1994 album Bananaphone (“it’s a phone with appeal”), released when he was at the height of his fame. “The Changing Garden of Mr. Bell” comes just after “Slow Day,” and just before “Naturally.” But Mr. Bell is something else.

Here’s Raffi singing it.

And here are the words. 

Mr. Bell’s from a foreign place; His family all were farmers.
He arrived from across the sea, and came to be next door!
And he works his land with a knowing hand;
Though it’s very small, he makes it grow so well,
In the changing garden of Mr. Bell.

These are astors and edelweiss, and rows and rows of roses.
Those are hives in the dogwood trees for bees to come and go!
It’s a wondrous sight, in the morning light,
And the earth is full —every color every smell,
In the changing garden of Mr. Bell.

For some reason, American writers notwithstanding, I’ve always thought of this as a very Toronto song. In my mind, Mr. Bell and the child-narrator are neighbours in one of that city’s endless, gritty, faceless suburbs. Nondescript houses, crummy yards. But the old man, through his effort and wisdom, has turned his modest space into a walled garden; which, etymologically, is the meaning of “paradise.”

And that’s all before we get to the bridge.

I once saw a photograph, upon his mantle shelf
Of a beautiful lady, a child in her arms–and a young Mr. Bell himself.
I wondered out loud about them, and he answered in the strangest way —
He just said look: see how the garden grows!
It’s always changing every day.

Mr. “Bell”? Actually, it’s Belzug, or Bel-amin, or “Bel, may be hard for you to pronounce.” The “foreign place”? Could be Poland, Germany, Russia, Ukraine. But it could just as easily be Colombia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Vietnam, or any of the crimson and piquant and  tantalizing locations from which people have urgently sought refuge for generations in little Canadian back yards. These, for them, have been the promised land. The old man’s arms, working in his garden, spell out Holocaust.

The last verse goes like this:

Mr. Bell has his morning tea, and I will bring his paper.
See the sun through the curtain lace dapple his face and hands!
Every day is new; There is much to do.
Life’s a mystery, full of secrets that might tell —
In the changing garden of Mr. Bell.

A song like this has to tiptoe dangerously between the touching and the trite. The last couple of lines, it seems to me, lose their balance a bit. But not this one:

“Every day is new; there is much to do.” 

If it works for Mr. Bell.

%d bloggers like this: