The Struggle Not Availeth


“Say not the struggle nought availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain…”
–Arthur Hugh Clough

Now the smoke seems to be clearing since Dad’s death and we’re now more focused on my mother and her slow mental decline.  The grief from Dad’s death is not simple, but I’ve experienced enough losses over my 50-odd years to know that every loss is experienced differently.

I get caught off guard a lot.

My father, in many ways, was a character.  I think he wanted to be.  Unique.  Different.  And he was.

The other night we were watching one of our favorite British shows, Endeavour.  Since discovering cousins in England and later traveling to see them, I’ve been intrigued with the various customs, sayings, different foods, etc. in the former empire.  In one episode, DI Thursday said to Morse (the show’s main character), “You look like you’ve lost a pound and found a sixpence.”

I think I made an involuntary loud noise.  And had to pause the show.

My father used to say to anyone who looked sad, “You look like you’ve lost a pound and found a shilling.”  We thought it an odd saying, since at that time we weren’t familiar with English coinage.  But I usually responded, if I was indeed sad, “Well, I lost a pound but didn’t find any shilling.”

It happened again the following night.  Morse, a very literary, opera-loving detective, read a poem at the funeral of a fallen colleague.

“Say not the struggle nought availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain…”

He went on to read the rest of the poem, but I didn’t hear it.  I might have been choking on my glass of water.  I hadn’t heard the poem in many years, but in my head, the voice speaking it was not Morse, but my father, in his Indian-British accent.

He did that sort of thing all the time, but in the years of his retirement and especially in the months leading to his death, he didn’t resort to poetry anymore.  In many ways, after he retired, he was a man without an audience; a preacher without a pulpit.  A shepherd without a flock.  He really struggled in the 24 years of retirement.  He didn’t know anything else.

But I digress.

I suppose it’s normal when someone dies, but especially a parent, your whole life plays back to you at odd moments.  As I said, now that the weeks after Dad’s death have passed and “things” have to therefore be done and decided upon, I’ve bit hit with these random memories.

As a teenager, I have vivid memories of sitting at the breakfast table before school, and my father would put on one of his many hats, carrying some sort of office-type bag with him and pause with his hand on the door going out to the garage.

“I go to prove my soul…” he’d often say.

Wow.  Heavy.

When Dad was a child growing up in India–with an Indian mother who, for some reason, hated all things Indian–he was immersed in all things British.  My father rarely talked about his childhood or India years, and when he did it was just snippets.  He talked about the mango tree just outside his window, or the view of the Mahim Bay that inspired him.

At some point in his growing up, perhaps as a part of his education, he was made to memorize and recite poetry.  So he was known to randomly blurt out a line or two from one of the many poems he learned as a child.  He never recited the whole poem or even tell us what the poem was about or by whom.  It was as common to him to quote a poem as it was to other men at the dinner table to say, “I had an interesting day today…”

I usually rolled my eyes.  Dad’s at it again.

When one of us would bring home a friend, whether boy or girl, Dad inevitably would recite a line from a poem with great flourish and gestures and then lean toward the guest and say, “Do you know that?”

Well, they never did, and more often than not, they were intimidated.  I think sometimes that was Dad’s intent.  He liked to intimidate– not in a menacing way– but in a playful way.  It just wasn’t always received that way.

If not quoting poetry, he’d ask a philosophical or theological question.  “Is Man basically good or evil?”

We were used to it, but outsiders were not.  And again, if it were, in my case, a boyfriend or in my brother’s cases, a girlfriend, they usually looked to one of us as if to find out the right answer.

One of the old family stories includes the time when my late sister-in-law Barbara first came to dinner.  She’d been warned about Rollo.  She was ready.  When Dad started reciting some random English poem, Barbara cleared her throat and said, “Bill and Tommy were really good friends,…” reciting a poem from her early reading days.

We all laughed.  I think my father was confused.

My father admitted never being very good at small talk.  To cover this, he knew how to get others talking or else he’d go off on a monologue of theology and/or psychology or a mixture of both.  Usually people nodded, not knowing what in the world he was talking about, but when my friends from college came home with me, they just about sat at his feet and drank up his words.

Which irritated me.

They’d ask him questions and get him going deeper into his monologuing.  He had an audience!  He was thrilled.  I usually went to get some sodas.  This could go on for a while.

Instead of asking me how I was doing in any given moment, he used to say, “How is it with your soul?”  Um, I don’t know.  That was a big question.  It wasn’t until I was in seminary myself learning about John Wesley that I discovered that that was a line Wesley used in his pre-denomination covenant groups.  Each person was to say how their spiritual life was going.  Ah, another mystery solved.

I’m realizing, now, that all of us tend to be different people, in ways, depending on who we’re with.  Which one is the real person?  I guess we’re all just a sum of our parts, literally.  I’m an introvert.  But when I was a preacher, someone said I came alive in the pulpit (does that mean I’m usually dead?).  It’s true, that I was more animated, more expressive, even more confident when I was in the pulpit.  I loved preaching.  I loved weaving stories that people could relate to with the Biblical story.  I enjoyed taking them there to the scene of the story to give them a feel of being there.  Of it being less foreign.  It struck my creative cord and something I was good at.

But out of the pulpit, someone might suggest I was a different person.  Quieter.  More introspective.  Preferring the company of one or two people, and not one to “work a crowd.”  My daughter and husband yet different sides of me.  But all of those images of me are me.  It’s always been my goal to be authentic.  Real.  Wherever and with whomever I am with.

The same was true with my father, of course.  He was a character as a pastor and preacher.  The Englishman from an exotic country and a bit of a permanent tan.  He preferred English things to anything Indian, but that’s how he was raised.  I think that was a pervasive thing across the family tree, as I’ve come to learn more.  Dad grew up in India from 1929-1949.  He was present for the struggle for India’s independence from Britain.  He was there when Gandhi was doing his thing.  He was there during the Partition, when things got violent in the cities.

He never talked about any of that.  He only mentioned that he thought of Gandhi at the time, like many of the British then, as a “half-naked fakir.”  The middle-aged Rollo, now a longtime American citizen, grew to admire Gandhi.  But beyond that, Dad did not share any stories about living through that tumultuous time — decades before he would find out from a DNA test that he, in fact, had more in common with the rebellious Indians that the Empire that sought to keep them.

How much does what’s in our blood matter?  He grew up shaped by all things English.  He loved all things English.  Though his accent was a mixture of English and Indian (as I was informed by my cousins), we thought it was English.  After all, like American accents, there are many different British accents, based on region.  I never heard another accent like my father’s until I met my cousin Peter, now a resident of England, who also grew up in India.

I know my father struggled with his identity as an Anglo-Indian.  But he didn’t talk about it.  We’d ask him questions over the years, trying to piece together the puzzle that was him and therefore our ancestry.  He mostly avoided such questions.  His life in India is mostly a mystery.

I wish I could have got those stories out of him.  I wish he could have told them.  The more I learn about Gandhi, the struggle for independence after centuries of being in the British empire, the bloody aftermath, the clash of cultures and castes, etc., I’d have loved to have known what it was like to be there.  What is India like?  I’d love to go there, to get another piece in the puzzle, but I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to get there.

What I’m learning, however, is that we are all more complicated than what we appear.  We are the product of many cultures, influences, dreams, nightmares, struggles, and even identities.  We inherit both burdens and gifts from our parents.  Hopefully we even learn from some of their mistakes.

I always only heard a line or two from my father’s cognitive collection of poetry.  But I looked up the poem by Arthur Hugh Clough that Morse recited in that episode.  Apparently Clough struggled with a lot of expectations of greatness put upon him that he ultimately could not live up to.  He wasn’t as “successful” as he was expected to be, but went into education, and, of course, into writing poetry.

“Say not the struggle nought availeth,
     The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
     And as things have been they remain.
If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
     It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e’en now the fliers,
     And, but for you, possess the field.
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking
     Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back through creeks and inlets making,
     Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
And not by eastern windows only,
     When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
     But westward, look, the land is bright.”
It’s a poem about hope.  No matter what the struggle.  “Look… the land is bright.”

I trust my father has found that bright land.