A few weeks ago I was in the kitchen, singing along with Emmylou Harris, mixing up a batch of muffins, popping them in the oven, filling the house with cinnamon-apple aroma. Twenty-three minutes later out came my creations: poor, diminished little edibles. That’s what happens sometimes if a baker interchanges ingredients. This powder for that soda did not work.
Exchanges on any level can prove tricky. One example plays throughout William Trevor’s short story “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil.” Miss Nightingale, the dreamy, idealistic teacher, knows her shy, delicate student is a musical genius, capable of “symphonies unwritten.” She continues to teach him even when she discovers that after each lesson, a personal possession goes missing. Snuff-box. Swan figurine. Rose-petal paperweight. But for her, the exchange is worth it. As long as he enriches her life with music, she lets him be thief in her home.
The Scripture asks, “What would you exchange for your very soul?” In Robert Bolt’s award-winning Man for All Seasons, Richard Rich exchanges perjury for a promotion and thus ensures Thomas More’s death. And his reward? Attorney General in Wales. The doomed Thomas says to him, “Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. “But for Wales?”
When I ask myself the question of profit and exchange, what comes to mind is the inexorable stripping accompanying old age. Now, there is nothing worth my soul.
Last night I re-read Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” a poem I link to my father. Seventy years ago, the words were his life lesson to us (my sister, brothers and I were so young). Strange how I just noticed that while the poem challenges the reader with the “If” of endurance and humility, the poet waits until the very end to describe the resulting dignity and honor that makes the exchange worthwhile.
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds worth of distance run—
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.
My father used Kipling because he wanted us—his sons and daughters– to recognize what comes before the final interaction. He wanted the words, their rhyme and rhythm, to teach us children about decisions and free will. Each time he recited this poem, he let the words ask the question, “What are you willing to do to be the best human being you can be?” This for that. A noble exchange that remains ours for the taking.