A Person of Your Education

It doesn’t take a sledgehammer to crack a nut – the only person I ever heard say that was my grandfather when he thought someone was doing a job ill-matched to their skills and ability.  His words came back to me this week as I read Michael Viney’s, ‘A Year’s Turning’ – a book that chronicles the monthly unfolding of nature and life in the West of Ireland.  I was reading ‘January’.  Viney wraps each chapter in the month; January is filled with storms, tumbling stone walls, mud furrowed laneways (sound familiar?).  Then, as you open the wrapping of each month by turning the pages, he makes links to history and literature and biology, he shares memories that are sparked in him.  There is something on every page that makes me stop, but this time it was a tiny insight as to how the locals viewed him, this incomer, an Englishman, who decamped to the wild west of Ireland in the late 1970s.  A ‘professional’ man, a man of education and learning, there he is, in the back of beyond, living an unglamorous – some might call it simple – life that required enormous daily graft.  The part where I heard my own grandfather was when Viney described himself footing peat (turf cutting and turning), then loading it, standing up high in the back of a trailer, having the sods thrown up at him by a neighbour, getting ready to stack and store the fuel under a tarp at the side of the house later in the day.  In this anecdote it is a wet summer’s day and the neighbour says to him: ‘Will you tell us, Michael, what a man of your education is doing up there with water running down his neck?’  Born to it and you want to run away, not born to it and you run towards it – is that what was happening?  I know it is a lot more complex, but that’s the point where I heard my grandfather whispering – he would have agreed with Viney’s neighbour.  I found it arresting in how it encapsulated, for me, the judgements we all make about how someone choses to live; as Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, ‘Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.’

Will we ever pass the point where opting for simplicity won’t be disparaged or seen as a cop out?  Will we ever not decide that when someone’s supposed quota of brains does not match their chosen path in life that something has gone ‘wrong’?  Will the time ever come when we re-calibrate roles and occupations and shuffle those that are valued with those that are not thus making them more equal?  Surely it’s time to unpeel those glued to the of the top of the deck and re-ordering them, moving those cards at the bottom that are labelled ‘menial’ and ‘unskilled’ up a level.  Jobs that don’t need a sledgehammer but need a lifetime of patience and compassion – minding children, taking care of old people, emptying bins, filling in holes in roads, cutting peat, keeping the world turning – jobs that are under-valued, both societally and monetarily.  John O’Donohue wrote that we are, ‘smothered and saturated without being in the least satisfied.’  Hopefully he doesn’t speak for everyone, but when someone leaps off the hamster wheel, dares to go back to the old ways, peels off some layers from their life, and turns their back on the things we have been schooled into needing, we ought not to think they have gone mad.  There’s more than one recipe for a successful life.

To A Schoolboy (Anon)

Ploughman ploughing a level field

His plough a magic tree

An oleaster tree


Ploughing a level field

His ploughshare a grey dove

His goad a spring of basil

His oxen two stags


Instead of wheat

He’s sowing small pearls

Ploughing with a magic feather

A peacock feather

3 thoughts on “A Person of Your Education

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