Monthly Archives: September 2015

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Lost Art of …

Ah, the infamous “lost art.” One could fill in a number of notions after the three dots in the above title. A few phrases or words come to mind: kindness, gentility, non-electronic friendship. Less serious, too: tea brewing, whittling, even for many of us, gardening. Yet here I would submit for your consideration, letter writing.

Sprowles letterThis week I had a very unique experience. I received in the mail a single packet of four letters; one of which was a thank-you note written to Elaine Jakes by my beloved high school teacher, Zinaida Sprowles, whose first name means “belonging to Zeus.” And godlike she was, for Mrs. Sprowles, who is mentioned in the Curious Autobiography (p.101), was the under-appreciated gem of the New Hope-Solebury High SchoolNHS High School faculty. Originally a Latin teacher, Zinny (for so she was called) was, by the time I had her in school, nearing the end of her career. By then they had phased out Latin (so was the trend then, as the administration could see no use for it) and relegated the tenured, and therefore not able-to-be-fired erstwhile Latin teacher to teaching English courses, though they allowed her to retain the honors students’ section of what amounted to the best college preparatory courses at New Hope-Solebury, classes that were essentially Great Texts (or what is sometimes called Western World Literature). I was not an honors student, and thus I had no access to that track or to Mrs. Sprowles, unless she happened to teach a regular English elective.

Fortunately for me, she did just that, but it was the second term of my junior year. Hitherto I had known Mrs. Sprowles only from the school hallways. Yet, having met with Mr. Karl Richter, the school’s guidance counselor, with his help I constructed a schedule that included a strange elective—strange for me, that is, because I was a numbers kid, excelling in Physics and mathematics and a member of the geekily (but sadly all too fittingly)  “Mathletic Team.” The elective in question was “Detective Literature,” and it focused almost entirely on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and the figure of Sherlock Holmes. It was taught by none other than my hallway-only acquaintance, Mrs. Sprowles.

Class by class Mrs. Sprowles vivaciously led discussions on the characterization of Holmes or Watson, Doyle’s craft in writing, tension, climax and resolution of each work, construction of plausibility, and the list goes on. I had never encountered a teacher of this caliber. Why, I wondered, was she the only teacher in New Hope-Solebury who had no desk, no classroom? Was it some kind of less than subliminal message from the administration? In any case, she was the self-styled peripatetic pedagogue, though she was far more academic and Platonic than she was categorical and Aristotelian. In fact, that is what made Mrs. Sprowles so profoundly delightful: she was not someone who observed and put things into boxes but she was utterly academic, someone who sought the highest origins and deepest forms.

Aristotle
Aristotle

And that is what must have frightened the administration of New Hope-Solebury High School in those days, the fear that students would become so enamored of learning that they would follow this peripatetic pedagogue just anywhere she might happen to meander in her academic wandering. Indeed, some of us did. Having used whatever influence she had left with Mr. Richter, she managed to squeeze me into her honors class (even though I had been, outside of math and physics a grade-wise dishonorable student), she led me and the rest of that senior seminar to the theater of Dionysus where we witnessed by reading the Oresteia and came to understand the importance of justice and democracy. We would follow her to the ancient agora, where we could overhear Socrates speaking with the young all too self-righteous and overconfident Euthyphro in front of the Stoa Basileios. And, like all the truly great educators such as Socrates, she was misunderstood by the higher-ups.

Plato
Plato

This is the area, I think, in which Elaine Jakes and Mrs. Sprowles would have fundamentally connected, for both were educators of a similar ilk, all too often misunderstood by all but their students. Yet that letter that Mrs. Sprowles wrote was never sent, presumably because it fell into a crack in the desk or was covered over by two days’ worth of mail and, by the time Zinny found it, it was too late to send. Yet why did she keep it all those years? That I cannot ever know. But I am glad that her daughter took the time to send it to me, along with three other letters written by a very young version of myself—a first-year college student at Dickinson—to his former high school teacher and inspiration, Mrs. Sprowles.

I’m not writing to say that I thought, when I read them, that my own three letters were well written or conveyed anything more than sincere appreciation to a wonderful teacher, or even that Mrs. Sprowles’ note to Elaine Jakes is anything to write home about. Rather, these four letters collectively reflect something bigger, something that is actually worth writing home about: the lost art of letter writing. It is truly a lost art, for art is an aspect of letter writing, as it involves several artistic choices.

First, one must find the right stationery. If one chooses a note format, as Mrs. Sprowles did in her unsent note to Elaine, one must ensure that the card befits the occasion, even if it is blank inside. Then there is the issue of penmanship. Here I’m afraid I fail miserably. Even my finest penmanship is shoddy at best, and I blame my fourth-grade self for snickering and treating as trivial the lessons of Mrs. Hendrickson, my teacher that year, who labored relentlessly to get me and one or two others in the class (was it Mickey? Todd?) to write more legibly. Then there is content, which of course is the most important bit. Yet even that comes out differently with a pen on paper than it does in a computer. It is not correctable on paper: one must get it right the first time.

And this is an art, an art that I was confronted with from a former generational iteration of myself. In case you’re wondering, other than the penmanship and poor choice of stationery, I did okay. But Mrs. Sprowles’ note was far more meaningful. How good it was to see her handwriting again after so many years. How rich and thrilling to know that she had cared enough to write my mother a note—a note I would never have known about had Mrs. Sprowles actually ever have sent it. And that is the key part of the art, the production of the artifact of the epistle itself.

Augustine writing
Fresco of St. Augustine

Memory is such a funny thing: it allows us to record in some deep recess of the brain a meaningful event, and never let go. It is something like hope, but backwards. In his Confessions, Augustine demonstrates the power of memory by going back in time to his childhood and his life as a young adult and rendering it all in seven lovely and quite memorable books. But then in the eighth book he begins to shift the notion of memory around so that with the final five books he has reoriented his own and the reader’s mind as he engages ideas that are otherworldly, heavenly. The way he does this is to anchor himself and the reader in the past by memories, one upon another. Mrs. Sprowles’ short note did that for me this week, and my mind looks forward to an otherworldly hope of sitting for tea with her again in a place far away that some of us call Home. I hope she has some of her delightful cinnamon buns with that tea, for I recall the last time we met we enjoyed them together, yet another sweet memory; but a sweeter hope.

pen

 


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Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Meaning of Life

Chris the sheepThe topic of this week’s blog may appear, at first blush, a bit unlikely, for perhaps you’re wondering who would be so pretentious as to blog about the meaning of life? I must be kidding, right?

But I’m not. Rather, it donned on me (the meaning of life, I mean), when I saw a picture of a sheep named Christopher in the news. According to the Associated Press article, the poor fellow was lost for several years in the Australian scrubland—a land I had never hitherto known existed—and, when his wool was removed, it yielded roughly 89 pounds of the stuff. The article said it was about half the body weight of the animal. That’s a hefty animal and a lot of yarn. Such an amount of wool apparently can provide one sweater each for thirty people. yarn-dyed

And that’s when it donned on me: I’d stumbled upon the meaning of life. And it’s not merely because I like sheep and can, thanks to Elaine Jakes’ having bought a farm (ch. 9 of The Curious Autobiography) when I was but a teenager, do a near perfect sheep voice imitation. Wherever I go, sheep are seriously impressed when I make a bleating sound (which, I’ve been told, echoes all too well the female mating-call). Nor is it because I happen to have been to Reykjavik, where I’ve seen and smelled some of the finest woolen sweaters in the world, sweaters that themselves still rather smell like sheep. (As I was but a student at the time, I hadn’t the money to purchase one; besides, it is normally far too hot in Texas to wear one). Nor is it because it is a Welsh family tradition to celebrate Easter with a meal of lamb. Nor is it because I am interested in metaphoric vocabulary derived from animal behavior: bull-headed (rather Minotaurish, isn’t it?); creepy (centipedish); catty (how fitting is that one?); jackass (need I say more?); mule-headed (definitely referring to the mentality); piggish (if you’ve seen a pig eat, you’d understand); rabbity (perhaps my favorite); birdlike (a bit too obvious, though “featherweight” is rather nice); squirrelly (entirely self-evident); lion-hearted (too little used any more); and, of course, sheepish. Yet I need not mention that one. And obviously none of these, nice as they are, sheds any light on the meaning of life. Rather, only this heavy-laden sheep does.

wool sweatersNow before I should dare divulge life’s meaning we need to consider something about sheep that is sometimes deemed offensive and certainly, among the most vociferous of sheep-rights activists, politically incorrect in the telling (non rectum reipublicae dictu). No, I do not mean to say here that sheep are stupid. That is a cliché; besides, to tell the truth, sheep have actually come out better than expected on their aptitude tests. There is no sense in perpetuating a false stereotype.

Besides, I would prefer to rehearse some interesting facts about sheep of which one might simply be unaware. First, even after many years, they have a remarkable memory, like elephants; they can also show emotion more readily than many other animals. And, apparently they can remember (or they know instinctively) which medicinal plants to eat when they are ill. Finally, they can even recognize (or at least mother ewes can) the bleat of their own offspring. In other words, sheep may not seem very much like us, but in many ways they are.

Which brings us back to the meaning of life. Before we can state in a mere blog in 1500 words or less what the meaning of life is, we must establish that sheep, like humans, no matter how stupid they may seem—and if one reads the news, it is not difficult to discover that we humans, even to our fellow human beings, can seem very stupid—are in fact not unintelligent. They are, in that sense, humanlike. I shan’t be sheepish about stating it plainly: a sheep can provide a very apt metaphor for a human being.

Unless we bear that in mind, we can’t discover the meaning of life, nor can we understand William Blake when he writes:

Little Lamb who made thee

Dost thou know who made thee

Gave thee life & bid thee feed.

By the stream & o’er the mead;

Gave thee clothing of delight,

Softest clothing wooly bright;

Gave thee such a tender voice,

Making all the vales rejoice!

Little Lamb who made thee

Dost thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!

He is called by thy name,

For he calls himself a Lamb:

He is meek & he is mild,

He became a little child:

I a child & thou a lamb,

We are called by his name.

Little Lamb God bless thee.

Little Lamb God bless thee.

William Blake, "The Lamb," from Songs of Innocence and Experience
William Blake, “The Lamb,” from Songs of Innocence and Experience

Blake, in his second most memorable poem—“The Tyger” being the most memorable, though “Jerusalem” is my favorite—long before the sheep intelligence study of scientists here tells us the same thing that the scientists have confirmed, namely that sheep are very much like human beings. When he writes “By the stream, and o’er the mead,” it is hard not to detect an allusion to the green pastures and still waters of the twenty-third Psalm, a poem that perhaps needs no introduction for most readers .

Both poems, Blake’s and King David’s, point in the same direction. They point toward the meaning of life. They suggest it, without quite stating it. But the oversized wandering Australian sheep perhaps says it better than even the psalm or Blake, or any scientific study about sheep, even the I.Q. test on which the sheep—and I assume there was more than one of them, for otherwise the results could be skewed, if Albert Einstein sheep Albert Einstein sheephappened to be the sole test-taker—out-performed, presumably, cows, goats and gazelles. And so it is that the sheep in question, the living Chia-pet king of wooliness, Chris, by his mere presence said, when he wandered back in sight of humankind, “I need help. Can you please shear me?”

And that is the answer to the riddle, “What is the meaning of life?” As without help Chris would surely have died, crushed under his own coat, the answer must be that we need each other; that we must help each other. We were born to do that. We reproduce, look after babies and care for our families simply to fulfill that unspoken charge. Many of us will be blessed to care for (sic) aging parents for whom we are privileged to do that. If we are living correctly, our lives won’t so much be about ourselves as about others. We will take the time to sheer each other’s wool, to gather it, to make sweaters for the poor; we will take the time to love each other from the heart. The world tells us “You, and you alone, matter, and you can do whatever you want in this moment.” But then it turns right around and says, “Get with the system, do the trendy.” The unstated premise is simply that so long as you stay current and don’t look back to the past or forward to the future, you’ll be okay.

But Chris the wandering sheep tells us something else. He says, “Remember me.” He says, “Help me.” He says, “Let me have a future, don’t let me die.” He also says, and Blake says it for him (and for the tiger), “The one who made you, made me; we are in this thing called life together.”

Yet I don’t mean to imply mere mammalian reciprocity. Again, the world might just settle for a bit of that. But Chris’ story is different: he is not offering reciprocity but is providing a metaphor for the relationship of the human and divine. Chris needs our help, and the mere fact that he exists demonstrates to us what we were made for and that we, too, have needs that only someone higher than us, in our case much higher, can fulfill. Our existence, our pathos, sorrow, grief, wretchedness, and—dare I say it?—sin shows our deficiency in the same way the Chris’ wool shows his ever-waxing need. How ironic, then, that Blake’s little ditty suggest, too, that the lamb should be, like King David in his youth (or a still greater king), a child.

You may yet be wondering about the meaning of life. In case I haven’t been clear, I shall be now. It is, from one point of view, denying yourself to serve others. From the other point of view, it is, simply put, acknowledging how wooly life can get. Blake says the rest; if you don’t like Blake, take heart, you’ll get another crack at it: Christmas season is just around the corner, the stuff of another blog—rather a series of blogs about life once upon a time in a little town beneath a great arbor. In the meantime, whether with a ringer’s precision[1] or snagger’s compassion,[2] he who has Wolseley’s[3] to shear, let him shear.

[1] Quickest shearer; cf. https://www.facebook.com/ipaustralia.gov.au/posts/528059677247932.

[2] Slowest shearer.

[3] Electric shears.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Angelification

David Crowder is a musician whom one of my dearest friends really doesn’t like but of whom I happen to have firsthand knowledge. Having met him in a grocery store, I came away with a thoroughly positive impression; he even told me to call him “Dave.” His music is remarkable. Dave sings songs that sometimes involve angels or are suggestive of the beating of angels’ wings. When he mentions “the rush of angels,” compositionally Crowder does something interesting in his musical arrangement: he introduces a change in tempo. For example, he might adjust a time signature, just for a measure, and then quickly return to the previous signature (e.g., in his song “Shine,” which is a particularly powerful and emotional song on a variety of levels). As I am fortunate to be able to perform Dave’s music fairly frequently, I’m especially sensitive to rhythmic changes; I can say, from the vantage point of a drummer’s stool, at least, it seems to me that it is owing to angels that David Crowder’s music can be more difficult to play than that of other musicians.

Though angels are, of course, known in the Old Testament, the English word “angel” is derived from the Greek angelos. Both it and the Hebrew (malak) have approximately the same connotation, “messenger.” While many of us (i.e. Americans, and perhaps Westerners in general) may think of angels as oversized cupids (or worse, cupids to scale), the ancient descriptions of them do not bear this out. The mistaken, erotic image  seems rather to have been the product of a strange form of syncretism.

Clarence Another fictionalized portrayal of an angel, in this case one that I rather like within its storytelling (i.e. mythical) context, is that of Clarence in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Bungling, charming, human, Clarence defies any angelic stereotype. He is not the bold image of St. Michael expelling the fallen parents of humankind from the garden.

Tile flooor of Chiesa Monumentale, Anacapri
St. Michael Expels Adam and Eve, Handpainted Tile Floor of Chiesa Monumentale, Anacapri

Nor is he Gabriel, charged with the impossible task (but pulling it off brilliantly) of having to announce to Mary her soon-to-be, quite-difficult-to-explain-to fiancé/parents/friends new situation.

 

Leonardo's annunciation
Leonardo di Vinci, Annunciation

However much one may adore the early work of Leonardo, one nevertheless might say or at least think, “Come on, nobody seriously believes in angels today.” Well, about that one might be both wrong and right at once. It is right in the sense that, if one says “nobody” in such a sentence, one does not intend to be taken literally.  Rather, the speaker’s purpose with such a statement to be perceived as fan of folk wisdom, a purveyor of practical advice, an unsolicited but hopefully helpful social commentator. Yet this overarching truism is obviously wrong, as David Crowder has such high regard for angels that not infrequently he even changes time signatures for them.

But this blog is not meant to engage in a debate about the existence of these heavenly beings. Rather, it is meant to analyze them, ever so briefly, so as to suggest that they can help explain, on the one hand, the strange behavior of some of your friends who might bring to you strange-sounding “religious” information and, on the other, to suggest that we can all, religious and non-religious alike, take a page out of the angelic playbook. Let me start with the latter of these two ideas.

One role of angels that I have alluded to in a previous blog seems to be protective; hence the idea of a “guardian” angel. For this reason the notion of a fallen angel seems particularly evil: the guardian has turned into the predator—how perfectly Satanic. One thinks of the abuse of power in the hands of any person given charge over a dependent. Few would disagree that such abuse of a guardian’s role is evil, even if fewer yet would admit that it is Satanic. Yet it is, as I said above, not merely Satanic, it is perfectly so, precisely because it is the abuse of one’s authority. Would that our elected officials or any overpaid overlord bear that in mind.

Battista Hagar
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Hagar Assisted by an Angel
St. Peter and Angel
Bartelomé Esteban Murillo, Liberation of St. Peter

The concept of a “guardian” angel no doubt derives from the notion that angels appear in the Old and New Testaments fairly frequently in this role. I need not burden this piece with examples, as one or two will do. An angel appears to Hagar, the maidservant of Sarah and helps her in her time of need.[1] Peter’s escape from prison is another example.[2] In both cases angels show up unexpectedly and deliver someone from distress. And in our lives, there may be times—hopefully there will be—when we can show up to help someone in distress. One need not be a true believer to conclude that one should help a person in distress. The degree to which one engages in such help may correlate to the depth of one’s faith (or may even provide a path to faith), for such a merciful act is fundamentally God-like. Yet it is also fundamentally human. But I posit that as a challenge to believers, not as a rebuke of those who reject the faith. Suffice it to say that anyone can “angelify” in this sense of helping another human being in need.

I now turn to the second aspect of angelification which must begin with a kind of apologia. I use the Greek term here, borrowed of course from Socrates’ famous defense speech in which he explains the sum of his life’s work successfully to generation upon generation of readers but unsuccessfully to the jury at the time. Thus I use that term to explain how the Greek term differs from its English cognate (the English word “apology” obviously derives from the ancient Greek). The ancient kind of apology is not meant to express regret or remorse but rather merely to offer an explanation, an “after word,” which is what apologia means in Greek. And that explanation is simply this: those Christian folk—for I offer this apologia only for that group—who are eager to bring others with them to church or a group meeting or the like, are acting as messengers in the truest sense, for what they try to explain to their fellow human beings is a message.

A touch more explanation here may be required, as it is not just any message that that person is trying to share: it is the good message (Greek, euangelion), sometimes translated as “good news.” My apologia, then, is not for that news, which, since it is good, needs no apology. Rather, it is for us messengers who, not being angels and thus imperfect creatures, might sometimes come across poorly, misspeak, or even jumble up the message—not explaining that good message in every instance as well as it deserves, for it is a message of hope and forgiveness, a good message indeed in a world full of grief and sorrow.

In trying to bless in either of these ways, whether by offering a helping hand or acting as a messenger, one is playing the part of an angel. One thus “angelifies”; one metaphorically becomes an angel, like Clarence trying “to win his wings,” which, if not the best theology,[3] is nevertheless the narratival catalyst for that old, quite wonderful movie. And in the process, one is blessed—one does get one’s wings, so to speak, though not the kind that Clarence seeks. Rather, by blessing, one becomes blessed, by understanding others and meeting them where they are, perhaps one can, oneself, be better understood.

Thus, figuratively speaking, one can angelify and be blessed by so doing, helping another, speaking the blessing of good news to a desperate world. If one does, one must be careful of the rush of angels’ wings roundabout, for those wings will be beating close by, as a being from outside our own time bumps up against our mortality. That will effect a change of time signature, a new beat, and it can affect the way we think about life and even how we might live our lives, now and forever. There are indeed, at least in that sense, angels among us. And I myself have heard of others, too—a chapter in the Curious Autobiography (pp. 225ff.)perhaps, in the distant future, of yet another blog on angels.

 [1] Genesis 16.

[2] Acts 12.

[3] Milton says it quite pithily: “God doth not need either man’s work or his own gifts” (“On His Blindness”).

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Meat and Greet

It is probably unnecessary to state as much, but it is nonetheless true: when one first moves to a new region of the country, it is possible to feel awkward and out of place. This is particularly true if you grew up on one of the coasts of the United States and you happen to move toward the middle of the country, or vice versa. We were then, several years ago now, living in New Jersey only forty-five minutes from New Hope, Pennsylvania, where I had grown up, and, as we neared our departure date, one of my more opinionated friends said going to Texas would be like falling off the edge of the earth into a pit of fire, still another, a place where people pretended to be your friends but weren’t really, and another, even more negative (and vociferous) about the move than the others, stated plainly that Texas is a place where they kill animals and eat the meat; he was vegan. I could say little as I had as yet not spent any time in Texas, but I imagined that the first friend was overdramatizing the matter, the second, naively unaware that duplicity is ubiquitous, the third, equally naively unaware that meat eating is also ubiquitous. These were the circumstances of my departure.

It was quite a few years ago now, but I recall vividly my first few days in Texas. Though of course I found what I knew already, that the people, like all people, were not perfect, I quickly discovered that they were in fact far friendlier than advertised. I had not known but soon learned that they shared with Pennsylvanians the characteristic of loving football to obsession. I also swiftly found out, since we moved to Texas in early August, that Texas, even without fire pits, is truly hot in the summer. And many Texan folks enjoy something called barbeque; since moving here, I’ve eaten it at numerous backyard parties, weddings, and funerals. I should not have been surprised, I suppose, that nearly all Texan churches enjoy sponsoring get-togethers that involve barbeque, and that Lutherans, in particular, like to drink beer at such events.

And so it went: our arrival, a new church, a barbeque get-together in the heat of our first Labor Day in Texas. It was very hot indeed, and everywhere I went I saw that there was something else “hot” to remind me, in all capitals: HOT Rodeo, HOT Jr. Football League, even HOT plumbers (which sounded to me more like bachelorette-party entertainment than men handy with pipes). It was only later that I came to find out that HOT stood for “Heart of Texas,” and was not what I thought, i.e. “hot” in all caps, as if to remind the reader that it is screamingly hot in Texas.

As a strange welcoming ritual, I suppose, I was invited right off the bat to get involved with the church in a particular manner: I was to join the picnic committee early on the day of the barbeque, Labor Day, to prepare the brisket. Now, if you have read the Curious Autobiography, you may already have already inferred that I had no idea what brisket was. Yet here I was, in the heart of Texas—though I knew it not from the HOT signs, which I assumed referred to the temperature—warmly invited to slice a cut of meat, one that I had never eaten. I knew this would scandalize the third of my friends listed above, and I think I may have mentioned it in a letter to him later, undoubtedly to his chagrin.

Mmm, brisket“Don’t forget to bring your knife,” the picnic committee leader by the name of Jody said, having introduced me to his brother Cody just after church that Sunday before the slicing. I must have looked puzzled, because he quickly added, “You do have a knife?”

Taken a back, I paused as I gazed upon these strong men—both builders, as it turned out—both clad in jeans and what I fancied Texan-style shirts (Jody’s of a light blue color with trim around the pockets, Cody’s similar, but of a burnt orange hue). Each, though lacking a stereotypical ten-gallon hat, sported a significant but not oversized belt buckle that gleamed and befit—not in terms of shine but in terms of effect—their clearly oft-worn yet nonetheless well-kempt cowboy boots. In this case, with me they were building a relationship and nascent friendship, not a house.

Photo by Bayush Smith
Photo by Bayush Smith

“I’ve got an extra,” Cody, his brother quickly added. “He can borrow my old one.”

“No, he should have his own,” Jody responded, with the shamanistic authority of a guardian of a rite of passage.

“Perhaps I can buy one,” I said, trying to cut this Gordian’s knot. “There’s a grocery story within walking distance of the house we’re renting.”

“If it’s the one I’m thinking of, they won’t have it,” Cody quipped.

“Surely they’ll have a knife,” I added naively, thinking of grocery stores in New Jersey. “They normally have a section with cutlery.”

They both looked at me in a slightly puzzled manner. “Cutlery?” Cody chuckled inquisitively. “No, this knife is not ‘cutlery.’ It’s an electric knife.”

“What is an electric knife?” I said, looking even more puzzled than they had earlier. They both broke out in laughter, and I soon joined in.

Having obtained an electric knife at another location, I rose early on that still somewhat warm Labor Day, the day of the picnic itself, to go to the church to slice brisket. Upon my arrival, I was astounded to learn that Mr. Jander had been up all night cooking the brisket, which he had buried in a fire pit. These were all new terms to me. What was a fire pit?—I recalled having been warned of these back in Jersey, but I dared not ask at a church gathering about that hellish sounding word. I could only imagine that it was a subterranean cavern in which brisket is roasted to perfection.firepit

“All night?” I thought to myself.

Jody must have read my mind. “Well, probably since two or three o’clock.”

Thus did I ruminate, “I have never heard of such dedication to a meal.” But I did not yet understand what a meal means in Texas. It is like building a house: it has to be done right and many will come to help. It is also a peculiarly Lutheran ritual, and thus it was an honor that I had been invited to join the other men—for they were all men—in the slicing of the meat. (I later learned that the reason for it being an all-male event was to give the women a day off from any and all duties—a thoughtful touch, particularly on Labor Day, I opined.)

I fully admit that I was far from dexterous with an electric knife and had to be instructed several times. Mr. Jander was pretty easy going about the whole thing, even though it was he who had been up the entire night. O.E., for he was called by his initials only (something I can relate to), was a bit more stringent about the cutting technique. Fred was perhaps the best of the slicers, always trimming with a smile. Soon Cody and Jody had taken me under their wings, and I was found myself slicing brisket like, well, if not a pro, at least not like a young man from Philly.

“Good cut,” Mike, another of the picnic men said encouragingly. I was a bit envious of his method, and was curious how an accountant could be so able with an electric knife. To my query about his technique, he simply said, “Not too fast, just a little at a time.” At that point in my life, that was a piece of profound wisdom, more profound than he could have imagined. Of course, Mike was also responsible for counting the briskets to ensure we would have enough for the entire church.

Yet, in the end, this blog will have nothing to do with brisket, for I have not mentioned (and I do not intend to) how succulent that feast was, or that brisket, unlike most other cuts of red meat, goes especially well with beer, or that Lutherans sometimes serve well-cooked zucchini (lightly sautéed in beer) as a side. Nor will this blog have much to do with building, Jody and Cody’s profession, unless that building should be a metaphor for giving extra effort, putting in the extra time to do things right or, even better, should represent relationship building and acceptance. For my friends on that day taught me much more than the art of slicing brisket. They taught me the art of friendship, of welcoming a stranger, of embracing someone a bit different than oneself. This is a lesson I’ve learned, and perhaps we can all learn, over and over. The picnic committee helped me to see it in action, for they lived out what is known as the golden rule, with which if you’re not familiar, I would refer you to just one verse of a book perhaps less than popular these days. That verse is the thirty-first of the twelfth chapter of the oldest of the gospels, Mark, and reads, “And the second is like [it], namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.”  The first…, well, perhaps that is the stuff of another blog.beer brisket,sliced

Someone recently asked me why I write these blogs. My answer to that question is the same as the picnic committee’s to slicing. You, dear reader, and I are merely busy about the brisket, chatting and getting a meal ready for others. If you’re a vegetarian, there are some zucchinis that need to be sliced   over on the counter. Jody and Cody will show you where to find them. Just be sure to bring your knife.

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