This column has been ripening since it first appeared in September of 2014:
It’s tomato season. Yes, you can still find sweet corn — and peaches, pears, apples galore, zucchini, bell peppers, even pumpkins — at Farmers Market each Saturday morning. But the epitome of ripeness is red and round and a pleasure to slice. How to describe the flavor, the fragrance, the color, the fullness? Spanish has a good term for it: “Que Rico!” How rich.
So different from the pale imposters that define mediocrity the rest of the year. August and September are the only time to enjoy the treasure trove of tomatoes at Oak Park Farmers Market. I’ve probably eaten more this month than the previous months combined. The only downside is the long wait every year till August rolls round again. But the wait makes the arrival that much more precious.
My, what a difference.
Crabapple trees, on the other hand, give ripeness a bad name. These previously lovely trees (forming a cloud of fragrant blossoms in the spring) with the not-so-lovely name fill up with fruit this time of year, tiny apples that drop to the sidewalk where they are summarily smooshed, then rot. Pedestrians pick their way gingerly through the messy minefield.
So ripeness has its upside and its downside.
I thought about that last Wednesday at the Lake Theatre as I watched Roger Ebert on the big screen, his body disfigured by cancer and subsequent surgeries.
Our own Steve James and The Lake combined recently to offer a one-day, two-showing presentation of Life Itself, based on Ebert’s remarkable memoir of the same name. In fact, The Lake should book this documentary for a two-week run so our villages can show their support for James’ fine work.
Life Itself is a moving tribute to a well-lived life and a chronicle of that life’s ending, but really it tells the story of the long ripening of Roger Ebert, who turned out to be much more than a popular film reviewer.
His movie reviews endeared us to him, but what ripened him was his struggle with alcohol and cancer and his late-in-life love story with his wife, Chaz.
Later that day, I sat in Chicago Shakespeare’s Courtyard Theatre at Navy Pier and watched Lear lose everything. In the process, he discovers his humanity, but was it worth all the suffering? There’s the rub. The king’s counselor, Gloucester, meanwhile, loses his eyes but gains insight. Gloucester’s son, Edgar, consoles him (or is it really a challenge?) when he says, “Men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither — ripeness is all.”
Which reminded me of a translation I came across of the Lord’s Prayer from the original Aramaic, which replaced “forgive us our trespasses” with “forgive us our unripe acts.”
Stuart Sherman of Fordham University, who provided the scholar’s notes in the Chicago Shakespeare program, quotes the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, who contended, “We must suffer into truth,” prefiguring King Lear’s predicament by 2,000 years. But truth is one thing and wisdom another. As the Fool so wisely tells his liege: You should not have grown old before you became wise.
Which is everyone’s predicament — except perhaps those few who suffer their way to wisdom. Like Roger Ebert, who lost his speech but discovered his voice as he transcended his popular role as movie reviewer. In his blog, he wrote about alcoholism and his experiences with A.A. He wrote not about “Why I believe in God” but “How I believe in God.” And he faced his death clear-eyed, his spirit ripening even as his body disintegrated.
Lear, on the other hand, never ripens, and that is his tragedy though he does discover empathy. He also discovers his long-lapsed humanity, but he must lose everything first, and in the end there is no real redemption.
Ebert’s progression is fascinating and inspiring to watch whereas Lear’s regression is fascinating and tragic to watch. The last part of Ebert’s life was, in many ways, the best. He became a more fully realized human being. And Steve James was able to tell Ebert’s story so well because he has ripened as a filmmaker.
As a writer, I understand. I know that some of these columns take a year to write. Some take a decade. Some even longer.
Timing is everything.
The year is ripening our fruit and vegetables. Life, meanwhile, is ripening us, which takes time, patience, perseverance and loving care. How many die unripe or past ripe, littering the ground with the general mass of crabapples? How many die at peak ripeness, like a timely picked tomato?
Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” probably while praying, “Forgive us our unripe acts.” Some human beings, on the other hand, ripen.
My, what a difference.