The Last Word

With much sadness, I have just now changed this website’s description of one of We May Be Wrong’s founding members – from the present tense, to the past.

In 1960, a 24 year old Dr. Paul Clement Czaja (January 9, 1936 – May 8, 2018) had just earned his Ph.D. in philosophy when he persuaded Nancy Rambush (then headmaster of the Whitby School and founder of the American Montessori Association) to let him teach existential philosophy to children.  She was impressed with his enthusiasm and his willingness to work for practically nothing, but since she thought parents might not understand the importance of teaching philosophy to children, she asked if he wouldn’t mind teaching other things as well.  So Paul “officially” taught creative writing, Latin and various other subjects not often taught to ten year olds.  But philosophy was his first love, and it found its way into everything.

Only fourteen years older than me, Paul was more an older brother than a teacher.  He showed me how to love the world around me; introduced me to the joy of learning everything I could about it.  The way a magnifying glass could make fire; the way Latin could turn language on its head yet still come out as modern English; the thrill of catching butterflies in nets; the way the Greek Alphabet could be painted with Japanese brushes and jet-black ink; the vital inner parts of dissected foetal pigs; the wonders of the Trachtenberg system of mathematical calculation; the wiggling of microscopic paramecia in pond water; the thrill of catching people and their stories with a 35 millimeter still camera, that of making our own stories with  a 16 millimeter movie camera, and then, the even weirder thrill of telling stories with frame-by-frame, stop-motion photography; the writings of Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and James Baldwin; the power of telling stories of our own  with just pen and ink.  We spliced and edited rolls of movie film we’d made and, somehow, we even enjoyed diagramming sentences, rummaging through grammar the way we searched for the Indo-European roots of words. Though I was not yet a teenager, Paul introduced me to Ingmar Bergman movies, to Van Gogh’s Starry Night, to Rodin’s The Thinker, and to Edward Steichen’s photographic exhibition,  The Family of Man.

To say the least, it was not your typical middle-school education.

They say that when a butterfly flaps its wings, it can have profound effects on the other side of the world – a concept I first heard from Paul, I’m sure.  If I hadn’t met him, he wouldn’t have written the recommendation that got me into Phillips Exeter, and I wouldn’t have… well, if a single butterfly flapping its wings can have a profound impact, having Paul as a teacher every day (winter and summer) for four impressionable years was like being borne to Mexico by millions of Monarchs.  We stayed in touch during my later school years, and then persisted in friendship as the difference in our ages seemed to vanish with the passage of time.  And so, I was pleased that he joined We May Be Wrong in 2016 as one of our founding members.

But now, it’s time for a confession.  As we tried to get our new website off the ground, Paul proposed that WMBW publish a poem he had written.  Being a man of great faith, Paul wrote a lot about God – prayers, poems, meditations.  When he proposed that WMBW publish his poem, I disagreed on the ground that I didn’t want the brand new website to come across as “pro” or “anti” anything controversial.  I didn’t want to risk alienating potential followers, be they liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, believers or non-believers, by implying some sort of hidden agenda.  (The ONLY agenda was to be the benefit of listening to others with an open mind.)  Holding the keys to the publishing platform, I declined to publish his poem lest it be misunderstood to evangelize about God, rather than fallibility.  But even then, I told him, once the website has been up for a while, we might be able to publish that sort of thing.

Well, the time has come.  I wish I’d published it before he left the earth he loved for the better one he yearned for.  For Paul,  I can only say a prayer of thanks for all he did for me, and for so many other children, and now, share his wonderful poem.  (It seems only right that he should have the last word.)

Fire in the Soup: A Creation Story

It happened

when

this earth

had just cooled down

from

being molten magna

to being

simmering

and steaming

rock,

and

when

the vaporous skies

had emptied

eons of towering cumulus

clouds of rain

making oceans

which

were so great

that

the whole sphere

became

much more a watery world,

and

the rocky land

was

but one large

continental island

there

in the middle

of a now

beautiful blue planet.

 

And then

when the heavens

were no longer

veiled

by that thick

envelope

of sulphurous cloud cover,

and

the earth’s atmosphere

became

pure and clear

and

allowed

the stars of the universe

to shine

so brightly

that

the night sky

seemed to be

white

with black peppery dots,

it

happened

that a flame

came streaking

through the sky

down

to earth

sizzling

the warm soup

of the sea

somewhere

changing

and

charging

that chemical mineral ooze

into

the very first

protozoa

that ever was

on this

so singular planet.

 

Later

when that protozoa

eventually became

thinking,

questioning,

wondering

man,

the idea

arose

that perhaps

that life causing

flame

which

once upon a time

sizzled

the oceanic soup

could be

the pure energy

that is

love,

and

if

that were

so,

then

all life

that

ever evolved

from

that first protozoa

would be

somehow

spiritual

and

of the eternal God —

for

philosophers

and

theologians

say

that

God is love.

Such a thought

seems to be

a happy,

hope filled,

heuristic

kind of

thinking.

–Paul Clement Czaja

 

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2 thoughts on “The Last Word”

  1. Joe — Thanks for the words about Paul Czaja. Like many other former students of Paul, I consider him by far my favorite teacher. I have only a few specific recollections, not nearly as many as you have, but I powerfully remember his energy, love of life, and enthusiasm for expression. Phil McIntyre

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