Monthly Archives: December 2017

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Nervous Traveler

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.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Bubbles and St. Augustine

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. …”[1] 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,[2] 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.

[1] http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2017/11/deschutes_sheriff_deputies_cor.html.

[2] https://igotoffer.com/blog/nomophobia/; one must be careful, it seems, with one’s mobile telephone.