You might think a blogger would love op eds. “After all,” someone might say, “a blog is really just an op ed of a different sort.” Point taken. Yet, hopefully, this blog, is more, even though it purports to be from a residual Welshman, i.e. someone of Welsh heritage so distant that if he doesn’t do something about that, such as each week writing a piece called the Residual Welshman’s Blog, it would be lost.
“Is your ‘Welsh’ heritage really so worthy of preservation?” that same someone might query. “Why don’t you just do what everyone else does—move on, get on with your ‘American’ identity already. Get over this vain preservation of your romantic notions of ‘heritage.’” I’m sorry, this time point not taken.
Why? Because dealing with history, grappling with our own history, is actually not as much cathartic as it is enlightening. We must ask questions about how we got where we are, recognizing that “we” is not simply ourselves but it is the collection of those who made us who we are—our parents, our grandparents and, if we are lucky enough to remember them, our great-grandparents. Yes, as the Bible says, “we are not our own,” though I think St. Paul means what he says there (“and you are not your own” [καὶ οὐκ ἐστὲ ἑαυτῶν], 1 Cor 6:19) in a different way in that passage. There he is talking about redemption. Yet maybe I am, too, or at least what must lead up to redemption, for that same saint explains that you can’t self-redeem any more than you can self-birth or self-resurrect. We are part of a larger, human family, and that human family, like our own family, has problems.
What I am getting at, then, with this blog is the first thing we should do, if we want really to go forward into, say, the new year resolved to be better people—assuming betterment is on your mind at all—is to confront the truth of who we are, how we have become who we are, not forgetting the past but embracing it, confronting it, dealing with it, and maybe even admiring some parts of it. For there just may be some folks in our personal histories we admire. For me there certainly are.
I think a recent op ed. that I reluctantly read but basically agreed with states this pretty well. It’s about confronting the truth, taking ourselves out of our psychological safe spaces and looking hard and long at ourselves and saying, “Well, this needs to change.” And some of that may come with reminding ourselves why it needs to change. Maybe it’s just a matter of being a bit overweight, so for our health, our longevity, and our role in our family or our need to be a good example to others that we need to lose weight. Or maybe it’s something even more serious, like our comportment or something we do that we know our grandparents would never have approved of. Maybe that kind of recollection of the past can urge us to make some changes. Maybe we can learn to forgive more quickly, too—I speak for myself. I know for me, in that sense, my grandparents, who taught me the “law,” as it were, also provide an example of grace.
Thus, as we get ready to launch into the new year, I hope you and I and all of us can exercise the good judgment that hopefully our forebears once did, and be tough enough on ourselves to make the changes that need to be made, while showing the grace to others that, I hope may be true for you, our grandparents once showed to us. Paradoxically it all starts, as every new beginning always does, with the past.
Around the holidays there are only a few things that I’ve done that I’ve felt somewhat odd about doing that I later was really glad I did. Skiing is not one of them. I felt perfectly good about skiing, and enjoyed it even though I am not that good at it.
This is true of wearing odd Christmas clothing. Now I don’t do this often—in fact, like most people, I do it only during one period of the year. Inasmuch as we live in Texas, instead of sweaters, my wife and I sometimes don matching Christmas tee-shirts, which I will occasionally put directly over my regular holiday attire. For me, that might include a Christmas tie, and at least the knot of the tie is then visible above the neck of the tee-shirt and, as you may have guessed, meant to coordinate with it (a red tie and a green shirt). But wearing a tee-shirt over an oxford shirt, itself cordoned off with a tie is, in any other circumstance, unacceptable; yet it is one of those awkward things one can do this time of year and it is fine, just fine. Anyway, it’s acceptable during this season.
The same cannot be said for eating lingua all’agrodolce (beef tongue in sweet and sour sauce), a Sicilian favorite, especially around the holidays. Some years ago when confronted with beef tongue, I must say that I felt very odd about eating it and I have never looked back upon that experience and said, “Wow, now there’s something I’m glad I did” or, “I can’t wait till I have my next bite of tongue.” In fact I’ve always felt a bit guilty about eating someone else’s tongue, even if that someone else was a cow. They have such prominent tongues, after all, the way that peacocks have tails or camels humps. Might it be akin to eating a camel’s hump? I am not sure, but at least, I don’t think, in any culture peacock tails are deemed to be edible—even fried.
Yet when it comes to visiting a nursing home and, especially, spending a few minutes with some elderly people, whether you know them or not, singing Christmas carols to them, well that’s a far cry from tongue eating. In fact, it’s the opposite, I think, as you must use your own tongue and the wind in your lungs to sing to some folks whom you may not know or who, even if you do, no longer recognize you quite; but they are, you imagine and certainly hope, enjoying your best attempt at singing.
Now, when I say “your” I mean a group, not just one person; maybe you have brought a friend with you, or even a group of friends, or some family members. It’s great that way, singing in a nursing home, I mean. And, in any case, one person singing Christmas carols might well be a bit awkward. But there is, indeed, strength in numbers. So bring some family or friends, too, if you can.
And that’s what I would like to say this Christmas. Why not put on your tackiest Christmas sweater (or in my case, pullover tee-shirt) and try something odd but good, not like beef tongue but like visiting a nursing home and putting your arm around someone who needs you to do that? I, for one, am planning to do so. And, yes, given the opportunity, I will sing, too. In so doing, hopefully I may even bring joy to someone, a new friend but one who is, in fact, old, quite old.
Merry Christmas, friends! Please do, if the spirit moves, go and sing for there is joy in the air, theological yes, even divine, but also very human, as well.
Christmas Excerpt from The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes (pp. 108–114):
Simply being the neighbor of Mr. Charles Miller—the cowriter with Johnny Gruelle and Will Woodin of Raggedy Ann’s Sunny Songs, music that had made him famous some forty years before I knew him—helped me, if not to remove, at least to assuage the pain of some of the blotches on the escutcheon of my character. Mr. Miller’s deliverance came not by any words he said, though his words were kind, but merely because Sheila and I made Mr. Miller the object of our annual “Christmas ministry.” This sounds strange, I realize, because, as I have explained earlier, both Sheila and I (especially Sheila, but also I, if only incidentally) were practicing Jews. Yet I had recalled and now imitated my father’s various ministries to persons of poor fortune, many of which had been performed under the auspices of the church, of course.
Harry always went further than the mere parameters of any ministerial mission. If the church’s holiday ministry were to bring a poor family a Thanksgiving turkey, Harry would size up that family when he brought in the bird, accompanied, in accordance with the normal Jakesian attitude of generosity, by a full range of fixings and fresh bread and good Welsh Hên Sîr cheese. Having guessed the sizes of the children’s clothing, he would then go straight out to the army/navy store on Wyoming Avenue—for he loved to buy his clothes in that particular store—and buy ample amounts of clothing for the family. He would then put it in a box and leave it on the porch of the family so that they would find it when they came home. Indeed, Harry loved to use porches to give unexpected presents. On the occasion of my son’s fifth birthday, for example, Harry sent the excited lad out of doors to get the paper. Upon returning, my son delightfully discovered, hard by the front door, a shiny red bicycle with training wheels.
Such were the days of joy when we lived in my father’s house. But I return to Mr. Miller, whose special breakfast we served, every Christmas from 1968 to 1971. This gentle little old man incidentally provided me with a baby step toward redemption, not by works—lest I should have boasted, which, I confess, I did—but by the infusion of grace, through faith that had not yet come to me, but was en route, if coming in a slow boat. Among his rich and varied accomplishments, Mr. Charles Miller had briefly played professional baseball when he was twenty years old for the 1912 St. Louis Browns. […] Mr. Miller and I lived just behind Rob and Rich’s store, and we slowly became friendly. Mr. Miller was virtually a shut-in by the mid-1960s, when he was already an old man, and Sheila and I invited him to Christmas breakfast. We knew he was not Jewish, and, though we were, we knew that he should not spend Christmas Day alone. Added to this was the fact that he clearly enjoyed our company. So, each year on Christmas Day, I would prepare him pancakes and bacon, though Sheila meticulously avoided eating any—nor would my son. I perhaps snuck a piece or two during the preparation of the unclean meat, but, I rationalized, this was only to ensure that it was properly cooked so that we would not make Mr. Miller ill.
The delightful old man therefore offered Sheila and me a good excuse to celebrate Christmas, something I had sorely missed ever since quasi-converting to Judaism in 1964. I had always loved the story of the wise men, and, nearly as much, I wistfully recalled Christmas carols, with their eternally optimistic message of hope for humankind. Besides, having Mr. Miller over gave me an excuse to set up the Christmas yard, which I had loved to do since childhood. The Christmas yard, in turn, provided a reason to get a Christmas tree, which afforded me the opportunity to trim the tree and decorate the apartment, and of course to send out Christmas (and Hanukkah) cards, which gave me a pretext for celebrating both holidays, though emphasizing Hanukkah, of course. And celebrating Christmas allowed me again to create a space for my parents in the holiday season, because they could then visit us, mutely rejoicing in my gradual return toward Christendom with every Christmas present they gave their grandson. Perhaps to deemphasize the material aspect of the holidays, I would always tell my son in advance of Christmas specifically what Harry and Blanche had bought him, and then instruct him to act surprised on Christmas Day.
“Why, Mother, why?” he would ask.
“Because you don’t want to hurt their feelings.”
“No, not that. Why,” he would inquire, “do you tell me every year what they bought me in advance?”
“So that you can act surprised,” I would say with a mildly aggravated tone.
“No,” he would say, “I mean, why don’t you just not tell me so I can actually be surprised.”
“Because, if you were not to like what they bought you, you would not want to hurt their feelings, would you?”
“But Mother, in that case I could just act like I liked whatever it was that they bought me. Besides, I always do like what they buy me.”
“Just shut up and act surprised. More tea, Mr. Miller?” I said on Christmas morning, 1968, changing the topic of conversation.
“Yes, that would be fine, thank you.”
“What was it like writing all that music, you know, for the Raggedy Ann musical?”
“Well, it was exciting. We were in the big town in those days, in New York, I mean. Johnny Gruelle and I would go to the apartment of one of our closest friends, Will Woodin. Locking ourselves in for the whole weekend, we would just compose, and we would compose for hours. I mostly wrote down the musical scores while Johnny worked on the lyrics with Will, though we all worked on all of it together. I was the purest musician, and Johnny was the storyteller, while Will, whose true gift lay in keeping the finances, did a bit of both. Those were great days, and I was able to quit my job at Harms music and start my own business. There were tough times, as well, because in the midst of all our activity the stock market crashed and the whole country suffered in, well, you know, Elaine, the worst of times. My company survived, but just barely. Still, we had a lot of fun in the midst of the storms of life.”
“My mother spoke many times of those years,” Sheila said, “often with tears in her eyes.” This was a fitting statement, for I thought I saw a bit of moisture coming to the eyes of Mr. Miller himself, whether it was merely his age or the nostalgia that the moment afforded us all.
“Yes, those were hard times, but Christmas always got us through, not simply because it was, and is, such a hopeful season,” Mr. Miller explained, “but because the sales of my musical scores did much better during that season of the year.”
“Did you write more music with Johnny Gruelle and Will … what was his name?” Sheila asked.
“Yes, we did work on a few more pieces together. But Will—Will Woodin—was only a musician on the side. His day job was that of a financier, and had our compositional trio stayed together, I’m sure Miller Music Co. would have made it much bigger than it did, for after leaving Harms—a name I always thought was too foreboding to have lasting success—I set up my own music business. And Will, well, boy did he make it big! Having garnered quite a name for himself in the financial world, he was tapped by none other than President Roosevelt to be the secretary of the treasury. This occurred during the critical years as America struggled out of the Depression. So fine at what he did was Will Woodin! About the same time Johnny had been having some health issues, so he moved to the warmer climes of Florida, which spelled the breakup of our team. Ah, but we had some great days in New York in the late twenties and early thirties.” He paused reflectively and added, “You know, my dears, I have no regrets, no regrets at all. It really was a wonderful life.”
“Mr. Miller, did you really play pro baseball?” My son piped in. “Mom said you did.”
“Well, as a matter of fact,” he said, stretching forth the neatly wrapped box that his old and wavering hands had brought with him, “I have a Christmas present for you, son. You open it, and I will tell you about my not-so-stellar baseball ‘career.’ ”
My son opened the box to find within a beautiful new baseball mitt. Mr. Miller explained the gift: “It’s a Rawlings infielder’s mitt, signed by Eddie Mathews. You know Eddie Mathews, don’t you? He was the famous third baseman of the once Boston, later Milwaukee, and lately Atlanta Braves.” He paused as my son turned the mitt over in his hands, sliding it on his left hand. “Mathews, you know, took Milwaukee to the World Series championship in ’57. What a fine long career Eddie had! He finally retired, playing his last season with the Detroit Tigers, just this past year,” Mr. Miller said smoothly, though it was clear that he was carefully reviewing the details of Eddie Mathews’s career in his mind even as he spoke.
“You can use this mitt for any infield position, except first base. I think you’ll turn out to be an infielder, son; I just have a feeling. You have a good baseball look to you, and a good baseball name.”
“Wow, Mr. Miller,” my son said, “I never had a mitt before.”
“Break it in well, my boy, and put plenty of oil on it. Oil’s the best stuff for a new mitt.”
So the next day my son went to Ristorante Villa Vito and oiled his mitt with a generous helping of Signora Favoroso’s olive oil, in which she had been soaking three cloves of garlic. For this reason his mitt always smelled more delectable than those of the other boys.
“My baseball career, I’m sorry to say, was, unlike Eddie Mathews’s, very short lived. I only ever played one game, coming up to bat twice, and grounding out both times. But my moment of fame, such as it was, came on a diving play in the infield. I was the St. Louis Browns’s new shortstop, young—if you can imagine it—energetic, and known for my glove. You know what I mean by ‘glove,’ don’t you? It’s baseball talk for fielding ability.
“Now I wanted to show the manager, George Stovall, that I could really play. The Browns had been terrible the year before and were not doing so well even for George, who had just taken over his managerial role, and was thus trying all kinds of things to get the team on a winning track. He wanted a good defensive unit, and when he heard about my fielding capabilities, he put me out there at shortstop in the seventh inning, hoping for my defense to help the team close out that game with a win. This was important because we had lost more than a hundred games in 1911 and we were on a similar trajectory that year. So here I was, fresh to the majors—I had only been called up at the end of June—playing what would be my one and only game on August 19, 1912, against the crosstown rival St. Louis Cardinals.”
“Oh, the nineteenth of August. That’s my birthday!” I piped in.
“It was the bottom of the ninth, and, as I said, I had batted twice already, to no avail, but now I was in the field at my shortstop position and ready to help our team close out this game with a win. A runner was on first, and there were two outs. Crack went the bat, and the ball went toward our third baseman at a clip. Lunging to his left, Jimmy—Jimmy Austin—snagged the ball and then zipped it toward second where I had to reach for it. The ball was thrown low, toward the legs of the base runner in full slide. I caught the ball, and tagged the runner, but I heard a loud popping sound as I tagged. Nevertheless, I managed to get the ball out of my mitt cleanly and fire it off to first base, completing the double play and getting us a badly needed win.”
“What was the popping noise?” my son asked.
“When I looked down at my arm, I saw my hand just hanging there by the skin. The wrist bone was completely severed, and the pain was, well …” He paused and lifted his left hand, pulling up the sleeve of his old man’s cardigan sweater to display the slightly misshapen limb. “I could never play baseball again. But as you can see, over time it healed, if a little crooked. That’s why I pursued my second love, music, and became a musician. And, thus, my life healed, too.”
It was time for cheese now, and I brought out my cheese plate, thanking God without words that Mr. Miller had forced me to keep Christmas, if not in my heart, at least in my home. It’s funny, I thought to myself, how Christmas is like the pungent smell of certain types of cheese. It has a kind of buoyancy, an annoying obstinacy. I later realized that Christmas shares that characteristic with Welsh Presbyterianism. Though we had eaten breakfast less than an hour before, Mr. Miller indulged in a sizable hunk of Hên Sîr cheese on a Carr’s water biscuit.
“The face on that cheese plate is, for all its luster, rather disturbing, Elaine,” Mr. Miller said, as I served him a second piece of the flavorful Welsh cheese. “Would it be possible, do you suppose, to turn it round the other direction?”
Fortunately, I wasn’t actually next to the woman, for she seemed very nervous to me. Yet though there was an entire aisle between us, it provided no comfortable hiatus, as an airplane’s aisle, even that of a Boeing 787, is more like one of the narrow canals of Venice than the vast Adriatic Sea that feeds that city’s beautiful system of aquatic thoroughfares.
Yet I’m not going to Venice, not this time. Rather, via a layover in Madrid I am Bologna-bound, where I will meet up with a dear friend, Piergiacomo, and his lovely family: Anna, his fine wife, and Margarita, their beautiful daughter. There we shall spend four days discussing art history—the early Renaissance, specifically, for that is what we most often discuss. Coffee in the morning, wine in the evening, and a day spent enjoying the hint of Piergiacomo’s pipe smoke in the air, testing one of his home-grown red peppers, talking about Italian food (for there is no better place in the world to do that than Bologna), and art of course, art and literature, and occasionally spiritual things to boot.
But I am not there yet. Rather, even as I write this I am in an airplane very near that nervous traveler. I can only imagine that she is nervous, for it is the middle of the night when everyone is sleeping or, in my case, trying to sleep. And while we are occupied with the vain pursuit of mental inanity, aka restful repose—nay, rather, sleep—she is furrowing her bag. Or is she rifling it? Or is it that she is rifling through her bag? I prefer furrowing, for she keeps digging into it as if she were making a furrow in the soil. And she seems to have found a vein not of flint or clay but of plastic, noisy plastic. And here’s the weird part: she keeps going back to that vein of plastic like a miner trying to hack into a vein of copper or iron. She keeps picking at it nervously, seemingly entirely unaware of how shrill crinkling plastic can be. Indeed, it’s not a soft plastic but rather the kind of annoying plastic that some brands of muesli are packaged in, the kind that, when you try to open them without a scissors, causes the muesli to spill either all over the table or, at best, into the cardboard box, and in either case is not capable of being put back into the plastic bag as it is now split too badly. Why? It consisted of that nasty, crinkly plastic, the very plastic this woman kept mining for, so it seemed.
All that to my right, across the aisle. To my left came some redemption, but not until the morning. Then, once the coffee was safely delivered to my seat, my nearby seatmate and I struck up a conversation about literature. Now, if you’ve read previous blogs, you know that I don’t normally engage in conversations on airplanes. But this time providentially, so it seems, I did, just a few minutes ago now as I write this. Mercedes is a teacher in Spain, at an international school with a good deal of Asian, and a generally diverse, body of students. She adores them, and it is easy to see that she is a good teacher. She is, too, a good role model for them, seeking to make them aware of the global crises that confront our world today. How can we just stand by while we are inhumane to our fellow men, while our planet dies of pollution poisoning? She seeks to know the motivations that allow some people to stand by and watch while others do seemingly heroic things, taking on causes not their own, making the welfare of one’s fellow man a priority higher than career or monetary gain or, in some cases, even the comforts of family life. All good questions. All questions she wants her students to consider, to take to heart.
And Mercedes has not only asked the right questions but rightly connected them with what so few do nowadays—framing of the world in spiritual terms. So many would accept a two spheres approach: God’s in his heaven, all’s wrong with the world. Or put another way, science is one thing, religion another. One frequently hears that formulation, as if it were a mantra. But Mercedes intelligently and counterintuitively connected the actions to spiritual outlook. It can’t explain every action, of course, and one knows that sometimes religious viewpoints produce disastrous outcomes. Terrorism motivated by religious fervor is one obvious example. But Mercedes was digging a bit deeper, considering teachings that don’t suggest such an outcome: loving your neighbor as yourself, praying for those who persecute you, asking God to do His will on earth and let His peaceful kingdom come, not the political or military kingdoms of men.
Wow, now there’s a not-very-nervous traveler; rather, there on my left I found in Mercedes what I call the thoughtful traveler. Meanwhile the woman with the plastic in her purse had fallen asleep, but all in vain, for now we were landing. We had come back to earth, the way one does after a good prayer, though with less bouncing around on the tarmac. And now on to Bologna. I can almost taste the food already, and I’m equally looking forward to friendship, reflections on art, and trying a few good home-grown peppers.
When I was a kid a certain cigarette brand presented a then-well-known slogan, “I’d Walk a Mile for a Camel.” It was a memorable line, a kind of clever reversal of the dromedarish role, as the camel is an animal that theoretically should be willing to walk a mile for its owner. But in central Oregon this week, in Deschutes County, to be exact, the local police had to take an unusual Sunday morning call, one about a camel meandering about in the town of Sisters. Sgt. William Bailey is reported to have said of the animal and the unusual affair, “He untied himself and went on a walkabout. A neighbor down the street saw him in a pasture and called it in. Oddly enough, another person happened to be in the area who had some experience with the camel. …” After the camel was confirmed to be an actual camel—were they wondering if it was a dromedary or were they ensuring that it wasn’t a robotic terrorist camel?—the lost animal was returned to its owner.
All of this is quite amusing, of course. Yet, when I thought about it, I realized that from time to time I feel a bit like that camel. I would like to untie myself and go for what Sgt. Bailey referred to, quite delightfully, as a “walkabout.” I would like to untie myself from my telephone, my email, even my daily routine. I crave freedom the way Bubbles (for “Bubbles,” however embarrassing it may sound, is reported to have been the camel’s actual name) craved her walkabout. And here I say “her,” because I am assuming that Sgt. William Bailey was using the generic “he” to refer to the animal, as I cannot imagine that Bubbles is really a male camel’s name; but maybe I am being sexist. After all, Elaine Jakes had a monkey named Betsy that I thought was my sister but who turned out to be my brother. But you can read about that yourself in the Curious Autobiography, chapter 6.
Yet where can I or anyone else find the peace and freedom that no doubt Bubbles was craving and courageously set forth to seek? I leave that for you to find out for yourself. For me, and for many ancient writers, I can say that it begins within. Augustine saw it as being dependent upon justice and connected closely in that regard with life itself (stipendium iustitiae uita et pax, Conf. 10.43). That Oregonian camel, lost between two worlds, offers us something to think about. Bubbles needed her freedom; perhaps she knew she simply didn’t belong in the world in which she found herself. She is like the pilgrim of St. Augustine’s others well-known work, City of God. She is in a world that is not her own, and she has to carry on during her walkabout there, but hopes eventually to be reunited to her true master.
This reuniting, I am happy to report, she did in fact achieve, assisted by none other than Sgt. William Bailey, who brought it about only after performing the aforementioned mammalian confirmation, odd as that may seem to us and undoubtedly to Bubbles herself. (It is, indeed, amusing to think of how this confirmation might have taken place: did the owner, standing behind a one way mirror, like one sees in the movies, have to pick her out of a lineup? Did they have a row of, say, a Great Dane, a donkey, and a horse and then, at the end Bubbles herself, so that the owner might have to think a bit before saying, “That’s her, the one on the far right with two humps”?)
But I leave these amusing images aside to return to Augustine’s idea of being uneasy in the world. When I was much younger, it seemed to me that this was predominantly a Christian teaching, even a command, and one that I didn’t really always like, for, I thought, the world has so much to offer. And while I don’t deny as much even now, I think I can say that it also is becoming crazier every day. But perhaps you don’t agree—and that’s fine. But I would challenge you to look hard at footnote 2, and last week’s (admittedly gratuitous) footnote 6, or even all of last week’s blog, for that matter. I think it is becoming a nuttier world, and my hope is that we can all recognize our own camel-status, or at least learn from Bubbles that, while there’s nothing wrong with enjoying our walkabout, we won’t really find “the peace that passeth all understanding” until we find a better home than this nutty place. O Brother! Nay, rather a mere “O Sisters!” will do, in this case specifically Sisters, Oregon. May you find the peace that Bubbles found and, in the meantime, enjoy your own walkabout.
The news seems, these days, in the United States at least, always to be extreme. Now it sounds old to say, “When I was a child, there were no ‘extreme’ news stories or ‘extreme’ sports, or ‘extreme’ anything.” Even if it is true—and it is true, I assure you—it isn’t the present reality. The present reality is one of extremes, extreme sports like “Zorbing,” or “Powerbocking,” or “Parkour.” They are extreme precisely because they are dangerous. A website devoted to them states it well (if un peu trompé): “Extreme sports are all about the thrill. For some people, it’s for pure fun, and for others its [sic] about testing the limits of what is humanly possible.” What was once hopping about on a pogo stick has been transformed into Xpogo—short for extreme pogo. Such extremes are evocative not of the world I once knew, but a kind of Carrolian Wonderland.
Take Thanksgiving, for example. It was once just a holiday, pretty innocuous on the surface of it. Of course, it was acknowledged that the (much more than) cultural appropriation—in fact it was territorial appropriation—of the Europeans had come to the Americas and had brought with them a desire for adventure combined with a desire for prosperity (and in many, if not most cases, a desire for new freedoms, particularly religious freedom), and that with their coming came cultural displacement, cultural suppression and the confiscation of land. These were the difficult consequences of the migration/invasion/exploration of the Europeans coming to the new world. With them they brought diseases, particularly the common cold, which had devastating effects on the native population. They also brought advanced weaponry, a different kind of civilization, new religious ideas, and different values. Yet in the midst of all this chaos there was an idea that was realized in a moment of peace that hopefully showed some goodwill coming from both sides of the principal ethnic and cultural divide between the Europeans and Native Americans (the latter of which is a term that itself is unsettling, as the name “American” is derived not from a native word but from the name of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci). That moment of peace, however idealized, is known as Thanksgiving, and I do hope that you and yours recently enjoyed a restful and peaceful Thanksgiving—if you celebrate.
I say “if” because it is now an emerging trend to ditch this holiday, too. I can fully understand and even embrace ditching Christmas. If one is not a Christian, why would one keep up the pretense of a emotive story about a baby being born in a stable, especially if that baby will, when full grown, prove either to be insane (claiming to be God, and all) or, worse yet, be so offensive as to impose his worldview on you—indeed on the world. I agree it is absurd to celebrate this holiday if you’re not a true believer.
But Thanksgiving had, until these days of extremes, always been given a kind of conditional pass. The condition is, of course, that one recognize that the European invasion/migration/domination had to happen, wasn’t preventable, and that it would be unrealistic and anachronistic to expect the settlers at the time to have had a post-modern perspective. They can’t be expected to have thought “politically correctly” in an era long before such a way of thinking existed.
But nowadays that free pass has evaporated, it would seem, as a prominent actress, Mayim Bialik, recently put forth a Youtube video in which she details four reasons why she finds Thanksgiving repulsive. “The truth is,” she states, “European invaders came to this land, took it from the indigenous people, raped, pillaged, gave them all sorts of diseases, called it their own, and desecrated a culture. It is one of the grossest examples of genocide in recent history and much as I don’t want to think about that, it’s really hard for me not to think about that when I think about Thanksgiving.”
That’s a lot of thinking, or perhaps not thinking it through. Genocide is hardly the right word, since it implies a clear motive—the way that murder is differentiated from manslaughter. Inasmuch as most Native Americans died from diseases brought by the Europeans, it would be a gross overstatement to say that the European settlers were genocidal.
Yet in the same spirit, I think, out-of-work quarterback Colin Kampernick, who single-handedly started a no-standing-for-the-national-anthem revolution, visited Alcatraz to support Native Americans who were celebrating “Unthanksgiving.” It’s hard to argue with the logic—of course we should support those who are oppressed or marginalized—until one ponders the whole Thanksgiving question for a few minutes. For if one does, one would rightly conclude that the point of Thanksgiving was never to vaunt, “We won, here’s our party to show that we conquered and oppressed the Native American population!” Only the most cynical person, someone deliberately imposing upon history their own interpretation of the events—admittedly often very sad events—could interpret a Thanksgiving celebration that way.
Indeed, the facts simply don’t lend themselves to such an interpretation. I say facts, because we have written accounts of them and, though, yes, these are written from the European perspective, they offer enough evidence to make it clear that the holiday’s origin is that of a harvest festival, and that the feast was shared between Native Americans and pilgrims. No one is pretending that there were not terrible atrocities associated with the European migration/invasion/conquest. But rather, Thanksgiving is actually a holiday that celebrates what it says, the giving of thanks. And that thanks was to God.
And there, I suspect, is where the true offense must actually lie. It’s basically the same offense that Christmas contains. It’s the name, not the history, or even the rewritten history. The name of Christmas has “Christ” in it. That is rightfully, as detailed above, a stumbling block, even an offense to the non-believer. And the entire meaning of the title “Thanksgiving” is offensive because it imposes upon the hearer the notion that one should (or some at least do) give thanks. And where else but to God himself? Yes, there’s the real offense. (And to make things worse, in most European languages the word “thanks” is derived from the Latin gratia, “grace,” a concept deeply embedded in Christian (and therefore European) thought. Muchas gracias. Lots of grace, thank you very much.
How do we make sense of all this in a world of extremes that seems at times, bespattered as it is with holidays such as UnThanksgiving, houses of unworship (known as unchurhces), and bizarre plastic surgeries, to be a kind of Mad Hatter’s world, Wonderland in its most deranged sense? I think John F. Kennedy’s words, taken from that same proclamation, cited in note 4, that he wrote about Thanksgiving just before he died, may offer us a sane a place to reflect and to offer our private thanks:
“Let us therefore proclaim our gratitude to Providence for manifold blessings–let us be humbly thankful for inherited ideals–and let us resolve to share those blessings and those ideals with our fellow human beings throughout the world.”
 Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation (1620) and William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (1651).
 President John F. Kennedy wrote in Proclamation 3560, “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving. On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together and for the faith which united them with their God…. Much time has passed since the first colonists came to rocky shores and dark forests of an unknown continent, much time since President Washington led a young people into the experience of nationhood, much time since President Lincoln saw the American nation through the ordeal of fraternal war—and in these years our population, our plenty and our power have all grown apace. Today we are a nation of nearly two hundred million souls, stretching from coast to coast, on into the Pacific and north toward the Arctic, a nation enjoying the fruits of an ever-expanding agriculture and industry and achieving standards of living unknown in previous history. We give our humble thanks for this. Yet, as our power has grown, so has our peril. Today we give our thanks, most of all, for the ideals of honor and faith we inherit from our forefathers—for the decency of purpose, steadfastness of resolve and strength of will, for the courage and the humility, which they possessed and which we must seek every day to emulate. As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.” ( http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=9511.)
Oddly, I was in Italy again this week. I say oddly because, as chance would have it, I tagged along, once again, with my friend who attends those philological congresses. As a novelist and blogger, I am there just to listen and learn. I won’t bore you with the pedantic-sounding details of this particular congress, rich as it was in variant readings and passages in manuscripts that have been interpreted, reinterpreted, and often misinterpreted from antiquity to the present. “Does this Latin word end in –es or that word in –is or the same word in –os?” These are, quite literally, the kinds of things that are debated at such congresses, and add to this that there is much consternation over the new interpretation.
To make an example of what I just wrote: imagine that sentence was fragmentary and all that was left in a manuscript was something that vaguely looked like, “… over the new interpretation.” Now imagine that it was (of course) handwritten, and imagine, too, that I have, as I do, very illegible handwriting and, two thousand years from now, or even less, say a year from now, two people stumbled upon this fragmentary, seemingly hastily scribbled, sentence. One interpreter of it might say, well, “I think that it says, ‘aver the new interpretation.’ That sounds like something H.R. Jakes would write” (assuming it was even agreed upon that I had written it). Then that person might add, “He likes archaic-sounding language, and his use of ‘aver’ on this occasion fits the bill.”
Someone else might say, “No, no, this is obviously but a fragment of a much longer sentence. He probably wrote something like ‘there is much debate over the new interpretation.’”
Yet the first person might retort, “But he is a decisive writer, and I think he wrote, ‘I aver the new interpretation.’ That means he agrees with this interpretation.” And so the debate would rage, perhaps you are thinking “Yes, and quite pedantically,” yet someone else, a philologist perhaps, might find such deliberation stirring.
Yes, it was this very type of congress that I attended, and then I needed, of course, a ride to the airport, for flying out of southern Italy, particularly its mountainous regions, is not easy. The airports are near the sea, and thus if one is at all inland, as we were, one must get a ride to the coast—in my case, to the lovely zone (and airport) known as Lamzia Terme.
I had enjoyed dinner the night before with my friend and his primary contact at the university, a lovely and wise professoressa who enjoys the fortunate circumstance of studying poetry and rhetoric for a living. My friend had known of her for some time, as he had many years before reviewed one of her books and then connected with her at a conference, in France I think; I’m not sure, as he attends many of these international congresses. And so it went over dinner and drinks—a lovely conversation about the environment, philosophy, literature and, finally, even the quite serious topic of immigration and human displacement that is so sadly not just affecting the world in general but, especially, disquieting the lives of those displaced, disheartened, and often quite desperate individuals who have lost all—more often than not fleeing at the peril of their very lives. Each of us agreed as to the severity of the situation, the sadness of the lives of those involved, and the need for a fair and equitable solution.
The conversation turned from these serious, quite human but comparatively mundane topics to those of the spiritual realm. How strange, I thought, for among intellectuals the concept of a spiritual realm, let alone God, is but rarely discussed. If it is, it remains just that, a concept and an “it.” But this was an interesting conversation because the name Jesus Christ was mentioned more than in passing and not merely, as it usually is, as an expletive. Rather, the passage from the Bible that was discussed was that of Mary and Martha, and Jesus’ elicitation of Martha to be calm and listen, “To ‘be still and know that I am God,’” my philologist friend said, obviously quoting a Psalm. The conversation then shifted to grace, a concept stressed, I think I might have pointed out, 500 years ago by Martin Luther, who reaffirmed the words of St. Paul, “For by grace are ye saved, through faith; and not of yourselves: it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast.” And thus went the conversation until I, undoubtedly clumsily and characteristically off-cue, brought up the comparatively entirely mundane subject of getting to the airport the next morning.
“Oh, don’t worry, there is a taxi,” said the professoressa. “It is all arranged. You can both ride together.” (Indeed, we were on the same flight at least as far as Rome.)
“Do we pay cash to the driver—I think I’m running low on Euros?” inquireth I, in an equally tactless manner.
“No, no, no …” she said. “It is all paid for already. Just get in and enjoy the ride.”
“Coincidentally,” my friend said, “That is precisely how grace works. No need to pay the bill—that’s already been paid at Calvary. One needs simply to,” and then he paused, as I could tell he was going to quote something, and I thought he was going to say, “be still and know that I am God,” for that would have made perfect sense at this climactic moment. But instead he said, “… glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
Of course I recognized the quote, as it is from the shorter Presbyterian catechism, a beautifully concise piece of sublime theology. We all had a good laugh, thinking of how a taxi ride could be a metaphor for grace. And, by the way, I did enjoy the ride to the airport, for Calabria is stunningly beautiful, and I am enjoying that other, more sublime ride, as not only in Italy, but perhaps here somehow more poignantly than anywhere else, la vita e’ bella. Enjoy the ride; it’s paid for.
Some years ago now it was John Lennon, as I recall, when he was by then a former Beatle, that recorded a song entitled, “Instant Karma.” The point of that song, I think, is that there is a kind of very swift cosmic balance of right and wrong that immediately threatens the perpetrator of evil and somehow, as a result, we all shine on. (That bit is less clear to me, though it is a nice thought). In response to which, were I to overthink it as I am wont to do, I might wish to write something like, “If only instant karma really were so, these days especially.” Yet, of course, I would not mean it. I would not like living in a world in which I immediately received due recompense for any bad thing I might have done. I think I would not last long in that universe.
I greatly prefer the grace-filled universe that I do in fact inhabit but, I admit, I could never have wished for sooner than I came to understand it. But, while that point of theology, redemption, took some time to gel in my mind—and it is indeed still gelling—another point of theology was not able to enjoy such a durative state of development, as it was attached to someone’s buttocks.
I was reminded of the event in question only this past week when, as you might recall from last week’s blog, I visited the Sara M. Holbrook Community Center in Burlington. I mentioned in that blog that a church that my wife and I attended in the early 1980s provided food for the homeless folks who nightly lodged in that building during the long, cold Vermont winters. I believe that I may have failed to mention, however, that our church also met in that same building, leasing it every Sunday morning from the center, some hours after the homeless folks had left, though they would have been welcome to stay, of course. I don’t think many of them did.
Ray Commeret was our pastor, no doubt a man of Huguenotical descent—certainly he was so, theologically speaking. Yet I had no such luxury, having been raised Jewish. Accordingly, my newfound Christian theology was still in a state of development (and remains so, inasmuch as theological growth is requisite of theological humility). Oddly enough, Reverend Ray was not present in church that day. In fact, he was away for family reasons—something to do with his son, as I recall. We therefore had a visiting preacher, someone (equally lyrically) called Pastor Pete, if I remember correctly, a very kind man, rich in grace, robust in faith and appetite, which he demonstrated after service by scarfing several cookies and at least three not-very-good-for-you-but-churches-tend-to-serve-them-anyway doughnuts. Fortunately, Pete in no wise seemed put off by the fact that we met in a community center and not an actual church building. (Little did I know it then, but all the really great churches of which I would eventually be a part would lack for their own buildings, while the less robust churches I would attend would all have them).
Now this visitor, who as I said was very friendly, was in charge of the whole service and in fact would offer a rather long sermon. First he read aloud the scriptures, then led the prayer, and then preached, all leading up to the distribution of communion at the end of service before the final hymn. All that is good as far as it goes. And it did indeed go far—his sermon, that is, which, with all due respect to the preaching art, just droned on and on. At one point he wanted to make a point, as preachers often do, and to accomplish this he belabored the point—belabored, belabored, and belabored.
And as he preached on the key points he wanted to make—the title enjoyed a jingle such as “The Fall and the Call,” treating the doctrine of the Fall and the consequent call to follow Christ (Matthew 4:19)—the tail of his dress jacket caught the small plastic tray that held the communion bread. Now I don’t know if I have yet made it sufficiently clear, but Pastor Pete was a large man, more than triflingly overweight, with an excessively pert, even rotund buttocks that bulged quite generously and, someone might say, handsomely. The tail of his (then popular) aquamarine-blue dress jacket cascaded off that protrusion like a waterfall of finely spun material, though it functioned not as water but rather as a fisherman’s hook.
That hook caught the small plastic tray that held the communion bread.
As Pete preached, pacing hither and thither directly in front of the rather ordinary folding table that served as the Sara M. Holbrook Center’s high altar, his tails took with them the bread tray, dragging in now left, now right, back and forth, his corpulent body now obscuring, now revealing the body of Christ, each time Pete turned at each end of the table. The basket seemed to approach, turn by turn, ever nearer the table’s edge. That day, my wife and I happened to be seated quite uncharacteristically in the front row of folding chairs and thus I was nearest to the wayfaring communion bread.
All those who could see the table—nearly everyone in the room, I think—kept gazing on this spectacle, heads turning as if watching a tennis match, thoroughly astounded at the hocus pocus, as it were, of the body of Christ moving back and forth magically along the table’s edge. A relatively new convert to the faith, I had no idea whether the elements of communion were allowed to touch the floor: “Is the communion bread like the American flag so that it should never touch the ground? It must even be more precious than that.” So did I debate in my mind. Quickly prioritizing thus, I was ready to dive, if it were necessary, to save the corpus Christi, the very offering that had, in 33 A.D., coincidentally saved me.
Fortunately, Christ’s body needed no saving as eventually, by the grace of God, the coattail released its prey, like the whale opening its maw to release Jonah. I and a number of parishioners were, of course, greatly relieved at the sight—with me, I imagine, at least by proximity, being chief among them, even as Paul chief among sinners. And that was, I think, a moment of instant theology, as I had to reckon up the true value of the bread, that is the body of Christ—I would think on the wine another time. Concomitantly, I suppose, I also was able to reflect on the truism that sometimes what might appear to be happening magically right behind you can be at least as interesting as, if not more, whatever you might happen to be saying. Hoc est corpus indeed. Shine on.
By the time I studied at the University of Vermont, Sara Holbrook, who had been a professor of psychology there, had passed away years before, but her legacy remained. In 1937 she had founded the Burlington Community Center, intended to help Irish, Italian, and French-Canadian immigrants meet their own and their family’s needs and, ultimately, to obtain citizenship. Yet by the early 1980s the center, by then renamed in honor of its founder, among other things served as the city’s first emergency shelter and, in the evenings, that meant homeless folks did not have to sleep on the bitterly cold streets of Burlington in the wintertime at peril of their own life. They could, at least for the night, sleep on cots in the Sara Holbrook Center, and before bed receive a decent supper, courtesy of that shelter which was then working in coordination with various charitable organizations, chief among them at the time, churches.
That’s how my wife and I became involved with the poor, not just in Burlington but da per tutto, as they say in Italy. Yet our first exposure to folks who live on the streets was in the Sara Holbrook Center. We learned a few things there, most important among which is that homeless folks are people, real people. They’re not bums, not riffraff, not losers, though they are certainly folks down on their luck for some reason or other. But they are, first and foremost, people.
This was evident in the eyes of one man, a gentle soul, who week by week expectantly awaited my wife’s lasagna. She made two trays of that tasty nourishment for the shelter in the tiny oven of our apartment on North Winooski Avenue—I think it had room enough for two trays—and I would deliver them on my bicycle’s back rack through the snow, in some cases, to the Sara Holbrook Center, which, located on Front Street, was not far from 90 North Winooski Avenue, but it wasn’t close either. It was far enough away that I could gain in a short time on the bike as I rode along Burlington’s frigid North Street that took its breeze straight off Lake Champlain, an appreciation of how cold it would have been later that evening for lasagna-loving Sam, or any of those folks from the Sara Holbrook Center to have to live on the streets all night long. They wouldn’t have had the advantage of keeping their body warm by peddling the bike or the heat (along with an appetizing pre-prandial odor) from the lasagna somehow creeping up the back tail of my long overcoat that I would put over the back rack of the bike so as to keep the lasagna warm en route. No, without the Sara Holbrook Center, I reckon, some of those folks would have died, frozen to death on the cold and unforgiving streets of Burlington Vermont, the state’s biggest, and really only, city—pace Montpelier.
Of all of the folks I shook hands with when I delivered the lasagna, which was distinctly the most popular dish among the many donations that arrived each evening, I recall Sam the best. I think his name was Sam, I hope it was, for he did not want to be forgotten. I could see that in his eyes as easily as I could sense it from his words. He wanted someone to know that he was alive. He wanted to matter to the world, even to his community, but he seemed not to know how to do that save to be the first to compliment me—for as usual, even though I was clear that I had not made the lasagna but my wife had, I got all the credit for simply showing up with what my wife had actually made—and then Sam would be the last to bid me farewell as I headed out the door to remount my bike and head home where I would find my loving new bride having prepared me my own supper. (She never got credit for that or for so many things she did then or anytime in her life, and it has never bothered her.)
“Don’t forget me,” Sam would say, either verbally or, more poignantly, with his eyes.
“No, I won’t,” I would respond, adding somewhat awkwardly, “For God has not forgotten you.” Yet secretly I wondered about that. How could this man have found his way to this point in his life?
Then I remembered that he was a human being, and that Christ himself taught very clearly that is not one’s proper business to judge one’s fellow human being, but rather to care for that person. I learned then what I now know but must be reminded of every day, that folks different from me, however different they may be, however strange the twists and turns of their life might appear to have been, are in fact my brothers and my sisters. We are all in this human endeavor together. And the key to understanding that, or perhaps just the beginning of it, might just be, to quote another wise teacher (in this case not Jesus but Garfield), lasagna.
Sirens, police cars, stopped traffic—that’s what I saw and heard as I jogged along the Potomac for part of my run along the mall in Washington, D.C. For a moment or two I was struck by it all, and I thought that something of crisis-like proportions must have occurred; yet soon I reminded myself that in a big city, sirens are a pretty common occurrence and do not necessarily portend a major disaster.
Until my run that morning I had never seen the Lincoln Memorial, though like all Americans I know what it symbolizes. It was completed in the early 1920s and houses the famous statue of Lincoln, whose design by Daniel Chester French was executed by the Piccirilli brothers, American-born sons of the well-known Italian sculptor Giuseppe Piccirilli, who emigrated from his native land in the nineteenth-century. The building itself, which evokes the greatest of Greek temples, the Parthenon, is the work of the architect Henry Bacon. But these are all details gathered easily enough from the official website.
As I jogged up that monument’s steps, I somehow had a feeling that I had been there before, though in fact I never had. Yet I could feel the pulse of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which I had not realized until I was writing this was actually delivered when I was but a small child. I have no personal memory of that speech, but the very sound of Reverend King’s words are nonetheless vivid in my mind and I savor his powerful, grand and inspiring tone, and relish the cultural memory.
The Jefferson Memorial was more beautiful, I thought, delicate and less imposing that the powerful and more substantial Lincoln Memorial. What these structures and the Washington Monument across the Potomac’s tidal basin from the Jefferson Memorial all mean, however, is much more important these days than perhaps ever before. They would seem to symbolize the best about our country, the potential for our country to be united, to set better goals and to seek to achieve better ends. The harsh words, the virulent and palpable hatred of our politicians these days, the political squabbling that has virtually immobilized our country, as well as our government’s out-of-control spending—all of that clashes badly with what these monuments mean, what they preserve.
That this is the case became clearer to me after my jog when I returned to my hotel. I was on my way to a conference on the challenges of secularism to religion. Representatives of the three major monotheistic religions were sitting on a podium and discussing intelligently the issues that each of their faith traditions face in an increasingly secularized society. Now there were a lot of things that struck me that day, from early morning police sirens to the monuments that I saw on my six-mile jog, culminating with that interfaith dialogue, and I could wax poetic or at least prosaic on any number of them. But let me choose just one, the last of these.
Here sat three leaders from three different faiths—a rabbi, a sheikh, and a prominent Roman Catholic—on a stage before an audience that I imagine was as amazed as I was to listen to these tremendously wise men, one of whom was in town also to receive the Irving Kristol Award. There was no wrangling, no arguing, no vitriol, but rather profound respect for one another and each other’s religious traditions. And this was taking place in Washington D.C., the city of spleen. These men understood the significance of the monuments on the mall. The contrast between the bickering and back-biting of current leaders in of our country who, though they represent different parties, presumably hold a heart the commonweal and these men, whose religious differences are presumably greater than any political divide, could not have been sharper.
And that’s what struck me after I spent a day running around the monuments, struck me harder than anything I saw that day: respect, admiration and cooperation. Can you imagine? Now that would be striking.