Last Friday was our annual Faculty/Staff Retreat Day and as usual we had a number of great options from which to choose. In years past I have looked for the retreat that most suits my spiritual temperament – silence. I have had some wonderful days both at the Jesuit Retreat House and at River’s Edge where I have recharged my spiritual, emotional, and physical batteries by reading, praying, and taking walks through their wooded grounds.
This year I resolved to avoid the easy silent retreat choice and pick something new, so I went with the Finding God in Nature retreat led by Paul Kobe ’79 of the Mathematics Department and Tara Henderson of Science. Besides the undeniable quality of the retreat leaders, this option also offered the added benefit of taking place at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and RainForest. Ignoring the obvious irony of the linking of ‘nature’ and ‘zoo’ I was excited to channel my inner Dr. Dolittle and ponder the relationship between humans and God’s other creatures.
Well, for the most part, what I pondered was that God’s other creatures are very much like humans on one really basic level – we all have a healthy aversion for really cold weather. Who would have thought that the temperature in Cleveland at the beginning of February would be in the teens? Answer: not me. Fortunately, the morning and afternoon talks, lunch, and our afternoon time in the RainForest were in a climate that ranged from comfortable to tropical.
The only time not accounted for was in the morning between Tara’s awesome introductory witness and lunch at noon. Always ready to put a lot of lipstick on any pig that fate presents to me, I bundled up, walked about fifty yards with my math friends Jon Barker ’87 and Cindy Reagan, took a sharp left and spent the rest of the morning – taking a page out of Dr. Dolittle’s song book – parlaying with the pachyderms.
Life is full of little compromises. Under normal circumstances (read: non-arctic conditions) the time I spend with those majestic beasts is determined by nothing else but olfactory considerations. There is, and I hope that I am not insulting my massive mammalian mates, a certain fragrance that on a warmer day would have severely limited my time in the elephant home. It is amazing how severely the fear of frostbite will dull the sense of smell.
My lack of concern for the assault on my nostrils was aided by the time I spent in a great conversation with Joe Zebrak ’87, magister incredibili of Latin and Greek and Chair of the Department of Languages. Our discussion ranged over a wide variety of topics, but centered mostly on our shared experience of being dads. Raising children has always been fraught with difficulties, but maybe never more so than now as the culture always seems to be several steps ahead of parents trying to guide their children past the landmines of seductive and alluring bad decisions.
Maybe it was no accident that we had the loxodonta Africana as our background companions. These noble beasts care for their young as a herd, and it seems that such an environment is superior to one where the best interests of children are too often superseded by adult self-interest at home and market forces in the larger culture. The world hoped for by Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin, where it is easier for people to be good, hardly stands a chance when faced with one where people, including – and maybe especially – children, are seen as commodities.
As often happens, my experience did not take the path that I had originally planned to travel, yet I found myself at the desired destination. My time spent with Joe and the pachyderms was both unexpected and enlightening, and was – other than the thought-provoking words of Tara and Paul – the highlight of the day. But also worthy of note was what I learned during my ill-advised, pre-RainForest, 1.25 mile afternoon stroll to and from the Wilderness Trek portion of the Zoo. I learned that of all the animals on-site I was the only one not smart enough know that you should stay inside when the weather is that un-bear-ably cold.