Promises to Keep
Recently, at one of those pleasant “curbside free libraries,” which have lately become so popular, I picked up a book called I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. I was intrigued by the title, for a personal reason. No one ever promised me a rose garden, either – and I never particularly wanted one – but I got one anyway, and though I don’t own it, you might say I acquired it by marriage.
I’m talking about the Santa Barbara City Rose Garden – a municipal treasure, which happens to be located just a few yards from the house where Dorothy and I have lived since 1973. It lies on our side of a sort of open park stretching between us and the Old Spanish Mission.
Dorothy’s family has been in Santa Barbara for generations, and we moved here so she could be near them. Our house was originally her mother’s.
The Rose Garden, maintained by a devoted corps of volunteers, is virtually our back yard. Too bad I’m not enough of a rose lover to take an interest in all the varieties. Even more a pity, because I assume from the book’s title that such an asset is one symbolizing an easy joyful life.
But I’m really more interested in promises than in rose gardens, anyway. Robert Frost, in one of his most famous poems told us that he had
…promises to keep,
And miles to go, before I sleep.
We don’t know what those promises were – and we don’t want to know. Those two lines stand as a metaphor for the essence and tragedy of all our lives: we must live, and fulfill our obligations, before we die.
But our lives are built on other promises – especially financial promises to pay and wedding vows. There are also, of course, politicians’ promises – but few of us give them any more credit than they deserve.
But what about the most important promises of all – those made by God – and one in particular concerning land ownership. There are many mentions in the Old Testament about these – but in the first one, made to Abraham, and bestowed upon his descendants, not only is the specific territory delineated, (as running from the Nile to the Euphrates), but all its then-current inhabitants – 10 different peoples – are named – all presumably to be dispossessed (which could only mean eradication, or, at the very least, enslavement).
This was the pledge that enabled the Hebrews to claim a “Promised Land,” and to consider themselves a “Chosen People” – thus prompting this witticism several thousand years later:
How odd of God, to choose the Jews.
Odd or not, that alleged promise, and the hopes and dreams built upon it, are, as we are all only too aware, still the basis of much trouble in our world.
The story of the transformation of those aspirations into a political reality – the epic called “Zionism” – is to me one of the most enthralling chapters of modern history (perhaps in part because in my late teens, I was able to spend a summer in the State of Israel, which was then only five years old.) It centers around a book called The Jewish State, published in 1896 by a young journalist named Theodore Herzl, who came from an Austrian Judaic background, but had been thoroughly assimilated. His most famous quote was “If you will it, it is no dream.”
But of course, there have been many other Promised Lands. One is the spiritual home of the Mormons in Utah, to which they were led by Brigham Young, who in 1847, overlooking what is now Salt Lake City, is said to have uttered the words “This is the Place.”
And Martin Luther King, on April 3, 1968, the day before he was killed, spoke more metaphorically of the ultimate triumph of his cause when he said that he had been allowed to go “up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
Since we began today in a rose garden, I’d like to end by taking you back there, to remind you of that famous poetry competition in Spain, in which the prizes were three roses. Third prize was a rose of silver. Second prize was a rose of gold. And the grand prize was: a real rose.