painting by Neville Herbert-Reynolds
By Norris Frederick
“I love my life, Dad.
“I love your life too, Dad.
“I’m just curious about life, not death, I just like thinking about life.”
It’s a late May morning, grey and raining, and my son Neville and I are feeling cozy in the car, as I drive him to his art studio. He’s very talkative this morning, and in a philosophical mood.
“You love your life too, don’t you Dad?”
I reply, “I do, buddy, I do love my life. I’m very grateful.”
Neville continues, “I’m just curious about life, the circle of life. It’s like in the Lion King movie when Mufasa is talking to his son Simba. He talks about the antelopes and the grass. When the antelopes eat the grass, they get life. I like thinking about life.
“And the circle of life. Then when the lions eat the antelopes, the lions get life too. And then when the lions die, then the grass comes, and then the antelopes get life. That is the circle of life.
I am curious about life, Dad. I love my life.”
A sense of wonder
Our son Neville just turned 40 years old. He is a person with Down Syndrome. He’s very social and has been called “the mayor” by some teachers, as Neville loves to go up and shake hands with people. Especially with pretty women.
He’s “strong as an ox,” as he likes to say, which comes in very handy for his older-than-we-used-to-be parents, who appreciate the many chores he does around the house. He plays Special Olympics tennis, and basketball, where his specialty is the 3-point shot.
In several areas, he is high functioning. He has an amazing memory for names, and for details about events, family, and sports. He’s very social, and keenly attuned to the moods of people around him. Neville can be hilarious, as in a recent family game of Uno, when he put down a “Draw Four” card, and the recipient said “Neville!” Nev quickly replied, “That’s my name, don’t wear it out!”
He reads in a book every day, for an hour or more. On days when we get the printed version of The Charlotte Observer, he reads every word of it. All that is a blessing, except when I’m looking for a section of the paper, and I shout down the hall, “Neville!! Where are the sports pages??!!”
“Oh, sorry, Dad, it’s right here.”
Neville is an outstanding artist, as you can see from his works at the top of this post and below.
painting by Neville Herbert-Reynolds
He does not do math well. At all. Neither do some of us.
He could never follow Plato’s arguments about Truth, Goodness, and Eros.
But he still philosophizes. Plato wrote, “All wisdom begins in wonder.” As you can see from our conversation above, Neville wonders.
Neville is a living testament to Aristotle’s comment, “All people by nature desire to know.” Aristotle viewed human beings as very malleable, and thus the person we turn out to be is influenced greatly by our family and friends, our health, and by luck. Neville’s having Down Syndrome was bad luck. His having Kimberley for his mother was very good luck.
I didn’t know Kimberley or Neville when he was born in 1982. Shortly after his birth, she ignored the advice of a physician who said Neville would be better off in an institution, advice that was common at the time. Instead, she read everything she could get her hands on, and connected with a network of people who were parents of children with Downs. Since people with Down Syndrome often have weak muscles as well as slow mental development, she organized a group of friends and the friends’ friends — 40 volunteers in all — to come to her house on a schedule to “pattern” Neville, moving his legs and arms rhythmically in order to strengthen the muscles and to form neural pathways.
And she talked to and with him, and read to him and with him, and taught him how to read, along with the help of a bevy of devoted and talented teachers. Even now, she and Neville walk together 30 – 60 minutes almost every day.
So the encouragement and support was there for Neville, that he might grow to wonder. Some of what he wonders is very specific, such as which animals predators eat, and what in turn can eat those predators. But he also wonders about the big questions, such as life. And the circle of life, and how a death fits into that circle of life.
He loves watching the Star Trek television series and movies. A favorite is “The Final Frontier,” in which the crew appear to be getting messages from God, leading the starship Enterprise and its crew on a search for the source of these messages. There’s an powerful scene near the end of the movie when (spoiler alert) the face and voice of God appears to the crew. But later we learn the source of this appearance, which Neville calls the “fake God.”
Although he would never put this in these words, he makes a “philosophical distinction,” between “fake” and “real.” That distinction between “appearance” and “reality” is central to philosophical wonder and thinking.
Be in the Present Moment
Neville excels in the practice that many of us try to achieve through meditation, journal writing, self-talk, and deep breathing. He lives in the present moment. And he lives with joy.
Friday is a movie night. Around 4 p.m. he goes to his room to get a shower. The lead-up to the actual shower can last for an hour, as he listens to the music du jour, which ranges from The Four Seasons to Mary Chapin Carpenter to Kiss. Whatever the music, he sings along confidently and with gusto, even if a bit off key sometimes. He’s in the present; he’s happy.
He’s happy every morning when he wakes up, ready to go. His older brother Chris shakes his head and laughs, remembering when he was in high school and trying to get that last bit of sleep before getting up for school, as Neville blasted out the “Four Seasons” at high volume on his tape player. Every morning.
For the past twenty years, I’ve learned much from reading and listening to the Zen Buddhist Thích Nhất Hạnh (1926-2022). Nhat Hanh, who in 1967 was nominated by Martin Luther King, Jr., for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work during the Vietnam war, had an amazing presence of calm and understanding. (You can read a biography here, or watch a video biography here.)
In an audio recording of Nhat Hanh’s teaching about mindful breathing, he says, “when you are not there, not clearly there, you cannot see things clearly…. Therefore, to make ourselves available to our beloved ones, we should be there. And that is done by [mindfully] breathing in and breathing out. That is the practice of mindfulness, mindfulness means to be aware, to be aware of what is going on. Your child is coming, and she wants some attention, some affection, and the basic condition is that you are there…. Life can be found only in the present moment.”
I’m happy that this morning I was present when Neville was talking about his love for and curiosity about life, and about the circle of life.
We can all learn a lot from Neville and people like him.
 This is a loose translation, but it keeps the essential meaning of Plato’s thought, as found in the dialogue Theaetetus, section 155d. Socrates says to Theaetetus, “For this feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy.” http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0172%3Atext%3DTheaet.%3Asection%3D155d
WOW!!So beautiful and so profound! You have captured the essence of Nevelle and given me food for thought and inspiration. Thanks.
Flo, thanks so much for your comment!
I’m glad you elected to write about Neville…so pleased to know how he is doing. Timing of the subject matter of wonder, knowledge, and being “in the moment” as I have just picked up Siddhartha to read, something I first read in my teens. Enjoyed the new artwork, too! Keep painting and rockin’ to the music, Neville.
I do plan to repost on FB for friends…
Thanks, Gary. Enjoy the Siddhartha experience!
Thank you. I will share this with my family members. Hope you and your family are having a good summer.
Thanks for this, Gary, and for sharing with your family members.
Beautiful, Beautiful, Beautiful. It is so wonderful to be in Nevelle’s presence. I appreciate all the things about him that you mention in the beautiful piece. He is lucky to have Kimberley, you and the life he has. I learn from him anytime I am around him. Learn about life. Beautiful..
Thanks so very much, Ike. We all can learn from Neville, indeed.
Norris, I love this absolutely beautiful post about our sweet Neville! I never knew most of these things about him even though I’ve been around him many, many times. I had chills reading this – please give him a BIG hug for me & a hug to you & Kimberley for all you’ve taught him & you for writing it. Best post ever!! You’ve made my day. ❤️
Virginia, thank you so much for your words. Nev is indeed a great guy.
Neville is that one in a million special gift to Kimberly, you, and rest of us who have met him off and on through the years. Thanks for this meaningful story on his/your circles of life.
Charles, thanks so much for your words and thoughts. Nev is indeed a special gift.
Hope to meet him some day-thanks for sharing. Life is full of many joys!
Davis, thanks so much for your comment on my post about Neville. There are indeed so many joys, sometimes when we aren’t looking for them.
Love hearing about Neville! He is so blessed to be in a family that is so “present” with each other. Aren’t those “car conversations” some of the best?
Cynthia, thanks so much for your comments on my post about Neville.
Neville was created in God’s image, a perfect being, and God doesn’t make mistakes. His life has been a blessing to countless others and will be forever.
Robin, thanks so much for your comments on my post about Neville.
Thank you for sharing. I need to be reminded frequently to be more aware of the fleeting present, of how the present instantly becomes the past.
Neville has a lot to teach us all about living in the present. I appreciate your openness to his teachings. I will try to learn from his example as well.
I have known little about Thich Nhat Hanh. I was touched by his story. Many years ago, I had the privilege to sit with the Burmese teacher S. N. Goenka for a week of mindfulness “Vipassana” meditation. That experience has had an influence on me for the past 50 years.
I hope I have your permission to share your writings with my friends and family. I think they can benefit from your insights as well.
Jerry, thanks so much for your comments and insights on my post about Neville. And thank you for reminding me about your week of mindfulness “Vipassana” meditation. It’s always so heartening to me to hear about an experience that has been a powerful and positive influence, in your case over 50 years!
“…and the greatest of these is love.”
Thank you, Norris. Written as if told by a fire on the beach on a starry night.
This is an endearing description of your son, a special man who has found so many of the secrets to a well-lived life. My brother, Butch, the baby in a family of seven children, was also born with Down’s Syndrome – nearly 68 years ago. He died at age 36 from heart related issues. I and all my siblings agree that growing up with this funny, sweet, kind, and special person helped us all to strive to find his level of joy, peace, and mindfulness. I am grateful that today these unique individuals are being given more opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and to teach the world valuable lessons in what is truly important.
Rebecca, thanks so much for your comments and fine insights. Thanks especially for sharing about your brother Butch. I love your description of him –funny, sweet, kind, and special. That sounds so much like Neville. He clearly helped all who knew him. I’m grateful, too, that these folks are getting more opportunities in today’s world.
WOW Norris!!! Really enjoyed reading about your son, Neville. What a Blessing your family is to Neville and vice-a-
Beckie, thanks so much for your kind comment!
What a beautiful portrait you have given us of Neville. Thank you for sharing his art and his wisdom about life and being present. We look forward to getting to know Neville, you, and Kimberly better!
Susan, thanks so much for your comments about my post about Neville and his wisdom!
Thank you for introducing me to Neville. The world seems a little bit better today…
Olga, thank you for the comment about Neville and the world seeming a little bit better today. That gave me a big smile when I read it this morning.
Norris, once again I am the beneficiary of your articles / writings. I always enjoy hearing about Neville and look forward to meeting him someday. This has really helped me understand him (and you, and myself) a little better. Thank you.
Randy, thanks so much for your comments about the article about Neville. I love your observation that “This has really helped me understand him (and you, and myself) a little better.” That must be what happens whenever we understand someone a little different from us.
Norris, this is probably my favorite post of yours. How wonderful to see philosophical concepts applied to Neville’s wondering. You make it possible for me to consider myself a philosopher! What a great model Neville is in so many areas.
And isn’t Kimberley a wonder, too.
Nancy, thanks so much for your comment. There is much to be grateful for. I have always thought of you as a philosopher!
Hi, Norris… your posts always seems to arrive in my in-box just when I need to pause, regroup, and reframe my world… I loved reading about Neville and this thoughts and philosophy …. thank you for sharing a peek into his life. And, I LOVE his paintings!!!!
Teri, I’m happy to hear that you loved reading about Neville, and that it came at a good time for you. So glad you love his paintings! He’s amazing. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.
I remember you talking lovingly about Neville when I was your student 24 years ago. You had a glimmer in your eye when you described him. . And yes, we are all philosophers. The innate curiosity Neville has about life demonstrates to me that philosophy is not just for seasoned intellectuals. We all have a soul that longs to know. Neville is a gift to your family, and his art a gift to us all.
Catherine, thank you so much for your comments and your fine insights. I love your points that, “The innate curiosity Neville has about life demonstrates to me that philosophy is not just for seasoned intellectuals. We all have a soul that longs to know.”
It’s amazing to me that it was 24 years ago when you first heard me talk about Neville! Thanks so much for sharing that.
Norris, Beverly and I have just read your essay on Neville and want to thank you for this beautiful tribute to Neville, how he lives in the present moment, how he asks philosophical questions, how he enriches your life, and how he can surprise you with his insight and humor. It is a pleasure to read about him and how he is a daily blessing in your family.
Dick, thanks so much to you and Beverly for your warm comments. We are indeed blessed with him.
Such a beautiful profile. I wish I could be more like Neville. And I wish my brother Nick could read this. Cousin Barbara
Thanks so much, Barbara. We all could use Neville’s appreciation of the moment.
I am in love. Completely. Neville “gets it.” He expressed himself and his views in purity of thought. He’s got smarts, wild smarts, and I love him. I truly love him. Only met him once (In July? at your marriage ceremony) and I loved him then when he joined you and Kimberley at the altar. Who better to stand up for love then than Neville. Thank you for sharing your view and renewing thoughts with others about one so dear and so talented about life. Martha
Martha, thanks so much for sharing your love for Neville. I am uplifted by your beautifully written and inspiring thoughts.
Your memory is impressive, as indeed it was a July ceremony! I loved your sentence,” Who better to stand up for love then than Neville.”