Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Visiting Ukraine

Recently I found myself tagging along again with my friend the philologist as he visited Ukraine. The Catholic University there is an amazing place—the top academic institution in the country—with a vibrant teaching faculty, a vivacious coterie of students, and a caring administration. Behind it a strong driving force has been a Harvard PhD named Jeffrey who has helped to shape and guide the university to ever higher ground, including, for its improved location, some fresh ground—literally—next to Lviv’s central park.

The beauty of the town, the joy of the students, the vim and vigor of Jeffrey himself easily outstripped my own jet-lagged energy, and in a way contrasted with it. But a deeper contrast was in the acute awareness I and, I think, everyone had of the soldiers on the other side of Ukraine fighting and dying against the pro-Russian factions (and even Russians) just as we were enjoying a lovely “dark prune” tort with raspberry tea. The blood red tea made me think of the blood being spilt by the noble Ukrainian soldiers at that very moment, the prune cake of the mire in which their bodies might just then be lying.

And as we visited church upon church, I though in brief prayers about those soldiers and about a dear friend’s mother who was even as I was praying for her dying. I thought about the inevitability of death, and that death is all around us. “Lo, that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” And we do walk through that valley and beneath that shadow quite often in this life, all too often. Death is ubiquitous, too close at every moment.

Alcestis Triumphs over Death; Roman Sarcophagus from Ostia; Approx. 161-170 A.D.; Rome, Museo Chiaramonti

The ancients knew this. Euripides devoted an entire drama to it entitled Alcestis, the story about a husband, Admetus, losing his wife to death only because she chose to undergo death’s penalty that her husband might live. And then it struck me: Death is seeking us to pay something, to give something back. Does he require that in return for life? I don’t think so, or at least not precisely. If that were the case we would not be so outraged by death, would not weep so bitterly; rather, Death is asking us to pay for our sins. You can see it in the sarcastic and pitiless way he looks at us. He comes with no care for “timing,” no sense of decency. Rather, he comes to punish us—not the person dying, but the people left behind—abandoned, orphaned by Death. He has come to punish us for our sins.

Which is why Euripides, as if enjoying a vision of a spiritual sea change to come, portrays Heracles defeating Death, beating him mercilessly as he deserves. In that play, Heracles brings Alcestis back to life for Admetus. And I think I know another “mythology” that teaches this same thing, boldly proclaiming redemption and resurrection as a historical event. In light of which I think that the next line of the old Psalm then makes sense: “I will fear no evil, for thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Now I get it: the Psalmist is saying “Go to Hell, Death, or at least go back to Hell, for I am in a good state: ‘my cup runneth over’.” Is that the reasons those religious students at Catholic University in Lviv seemed so vibrant and alive, so optimistic even with Death knocking at another, not-so-far-away Ukrainian door? I’m not sure, but I am sure they at least know the twenty-third Psalm and, when the time comes in their life that Death draws nigh, they’ll remember what it means.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Thanksgiving and Other Arbitrariness

It is that time of the year to be thankful. At Christmas it is time to be merry. At Easter, a time to … well, that depends on your perspective. After all, these are arbitrary dates. Easter moves around every year, so its arbitrariness is self-evident. Actually, so does Thanksgiving.  But Christmas, well, that one’s nailed down at least.

But the fact that we attach a certain set of feelings to each one of these holidays, if we even celebrate them at all, well, that’s either nostalgia (e.g., my mother was, after all, always quite cheery at Christmas, or thankful on Thanksgiving, etc.) or it is merely the notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Black Friday is the day I always, like a lemming rushing to the sea, go out shopping for no real reason than force of habit.

But let me get back to the arbitrariness of the dates and the concomitant emotions adhering to those dates, or rather holidays. If the dates are more or less fluid and not really fixed on the calendar—indeed, most historians would not attribute the historical date for the birth of Jesus to December 25—I would here like to introduce an alternative way of thinking, and maybe even an alternative way of living. First, with all due respect to nostalgia—and I think it should sans doubte be accorded some respect—what if we really did decide to keep Christmas cheer all year round and try to be merry every day? And, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, try to be thankful every day? And what about Easter? Well, that’s not so easy to define, but one adjective that comes to mind is hopeful—so hopeful it is. And what if we should try to be so every day? That would actually require us to master our emotions and marshal them, each and every day, to address the circumstances of that day. And, I admit, that would be hard. It would require of us generous forgiveness, lavish kindness, faithful optimism.  

But just imagine, for a moment, the possible outcome? We could be fun to be around (merry), gracious and generous (thankful) and optimistic (hopeful), the last of these at least within realistic parameters. That might just make us pleasant, affirming, even likeable. Now there’s an idea for Thanksgiving this year. I, for one, am going to give it a try.

Happy Thanksgiving, today and everyday…

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Exploding Wedding Dresses

Fiber optic Christmas trees have not quite become all the rage, but there is a kind of rich quality to their kitsch-ness that, if only by assonance with Christmas, seems to work.  “At any rate,” your save-the-planet neighbor will officiously muse, “At least they didn’t have to kill a tree for the holiday.”  Also, the advantage of buying a fiber optic tree, especially one that changes colors, is that you can truly astound your spouse.  I remember doing this a few years back. My wife was out of town for a conference in November.  When she returned, I had the tree all set up and decorated—not just any tree, but a brand new tacky fiber optic tree that I bought at Walmart. Her jaw dropped, and if only for that moment of something like surprise and horror combined, it was worth saving the life, as it were, of a living pine.  And virtually all of our friends and neighbors were both shocked, even mystified when during that festive season they came to our house, the house of a writer, to find the kind of tree that they felt did not befit such an “intellectual” household. The shock factor was definitely worth it.

But what could be more amazing than a fiber optic Christmas tree?  I suppose a fiber optic wedding dress could be.  Yes, they’re all the rage—or maybe they’re not, but at least as much “all the rage” as fiber optic Christmas trees are. Still, they have the advantage of 1) offending no one in these times when practically anything can offend anyone. A fiber optic wedding dress can’t really offend anyone, even if it doesn’t sit well with their taste. Certainly “offend” would be overstating merely transgressing anyone’s taste.  Even grandma will have to say, “Well, dear, that’s very twinkly,” or something to that effect.  And advantage number 2) the groom will have no trouble identifying the bride as she comes down the aisle. “Yep, that’s her,” he will think.  Thirdly, the pastor can modify his question from “Who gives this woman?” to “Who gives this radiant woman?” or the like.  And she will literally be radiant, or at least her raiment will. Fourthly, after the ceremony everyone will say, “She just glowed, didn’t she?” And they will never have to lie about that, as they will certainly mean it.

But, if she divorces and has a divorce party and decides to light her dress afire,  then she will have to be especially careful, for fiber optic dresses burn, I would wager, much more quickly than traditional chiffon or lace gowns do.  Which is a fifth reason to opt for fiber optic dresses: divorce rates could well go down, as no doubt fiber optic dresses will bear the warning label: “IN CASE OF DIVORCE, DO NO INCINERATE OR EXPLODE.” And some will even add the further admonition: “RECOMMENDED: DO NOT DIVORCE.”

So that’s the moral of this enlightening story: save a tree at Christmas and surprise your spouse (if you have one already) and, at the very least, shock your extended family and neighbors by buying a fiber optic tree. If unmarried, using that as a spring board, when you do get married, buy a fiber optic wedding dress; finally, avoid an exploding dress simply by not divorcing.  Lesson learned.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: What a Dog’s Bark Means

Ferdinand de Saussure

Words are powerful things. There are lots of theories as to why: a brilliant Swiss linguistic theorist named Ferdinand de Saussure suggested that they are significance bearers, and he distinguished between the signifier and thing signified. In as much as he sees the connection between the two as arbitrary, he never really explains the shape of words, like say why the word “bark” is used to describe the way a dog barks (where “woof” is obviously the onomatopoeic equivalent). But he did correctly talk about their capacity to carry a “sign” that points to the thing they are signifying.

The only way a word can lose significance then, is to strip it of its meaning by endlessly adding meanings to it. When I was a much younger person, at the very inception of my career as a writer, I remember distinctly being at a conference at Rutgers University in New Jersey where I heard one of the speakers explain this phenomenon: he pointed to a chair in the room and said that it could be called a stool instead of a chair because it could be used as a stool. A chair, he said, could also be a ladder, if you’re changing a light bulb, or a night table, if you keep your water glass on it at night. A chair, he said, is not just a chair and, he added, it can be quite something other than a chair. The word chair, he said, therefore has no meaning. Words, he declared, simply have no meaning per se. They are arbitrary; they are so flexible that they have lost their elasticity.

But he wasn’t finished. He went further: nothing, he said, has any meaning. And, he added, as a result, there are no laws or rules that pertain to any individual. All rules, he boldly added, are, like words, artificial constructs devoid of meaning. Life, he concluded, has no meaning. Such a point of view may sound like a grand reductio ad absurdum, and in fact it is. I should, too, note carefully here that this speaker was not kidding around: he actually meant every word he said. To his credit, he had followed the path whither it in fact leads, into the great abyss of nihilism.

I wonder, though, if words did have real meaning, where the path would lead. Put another way, one can see that “bark” can mean both the skin of the tree and what my dog does when a burglar jiggles the lock on my door, or “love” can signify the passionate act that a young couple makes as easily as it can connote the compassionate act of hugging a disabled elderly woman whom you’ve only just met in a nursing home. Yet even though the words “love” and “bark” have remarkable range, that doesn’t mean they are devoid of meaning. The man burgling my house, unless he is hearing impaired, decides to rob another house; (I have a Great Dane with a very deep and ferocious-sounding bark). The young couple doesn’t need to be told what love is, nor does the person in the nursing home receiving the hug. They know. They know because words do in fact have meaning. They bear significance because the thing they signify has meaning. The life of the disabled person has meaning. The passionate love of the young couple has meaning. And any burglar can tell you that a Great Dane’s bark most certainly has meaning.

So, I’m sorry to have to report to the famous lecturer of many years ago, that he was simply wrong. A chair can be used as a nightstand or a ladder, but it is still a chair. Words have meaning because, in fact, life does, too. And that, in case you were wondering, is the real meaning of a barking dog.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Miracles and Blessings

A 3-budded rose

Elaine Jakes always pronounced the word miracle “myuracle.” I’ve rarely heard another person do so, and I honestly can’t recall whether Lizzie Ann Jones Evans (Elaine’s grandmother and my great-grandmother) or Blanche Evans Jakes said “myuracle.” It has been too many years since Lizzie died (1968) and, I suppose, too many since Blanche passed away in 1982. But my mother’s pronunciation rings in my ears just as Lizzie Ann’s blessing does.

Lizzie Ann’s blessing was as simple one: “God,” she said to me when I was but five years old, “has chosen you for a very special purpose in this life.” I think that, though a five-year old may not remember how that person pronounced miracle, that same five-year old could hardly fail to remember, throughout his life, the blessing of his great grandmother only four years before her passing at the age of 94.

I suppose that blessing is, for me, writing, and that’s why I write. And part of why I write is because I wish simply to chronicle everyday miracles (or should I say myuracles?), for it was not only my mother’s pronunciation of the word miracle that was striking but rather it was her inclination to see miracles in everyday events. Someone, perhaps a proper theologian, might be annoyed by the practice of seeing miracles in practically everything, for he or she might argue that it debases the value of the term miracle. A miracle, someone might say, really should be a spectacular event, something, well, miraculous, like a child being rescued from a burning building, someone recovering improbably from a disease or other condition, or someone whose life situation changed so dramatically that no other word than miracle will do. While I don’t disagree that all those things are miraculous, I think, like my mother, that day-to-day miracles can be just as telling, maybe even more so.

Telling? Telling of what? That is the question for any miracle, big or small: what story is it telling? And, all this came up at a pub the other evening, just briefly, as I sat there having a beer with a famous archaeologist (who will remain nameless) about his improbable career and meteoric rise in the profession and just the many strange—in fact, were I to tell his whole story, surpassing strange—things that had to have happened for him to be the outstanding professor (for his command of the ancient languages outstrips nearly any other archaeologist that I’ve ever met) and stellar field archaeologist that he is. And while any one of those things could be fobbed off as mere coincidence, the sum of them, well, it amasses to a ponderance of circumstantial evidence of a miracle.

And that is what this blog is about: it’s the small “myuracles” that really add up that are, in many ways, far more spectacular than the big ones. Of course, we all rejoice when trapped miners are rescued from deep in the bowels of the earth. Or when a child falls three stories and survives, or when our friend recovers from an aggressive form of cancer. And we should, for those miracles are wonderful things, and I always feel sorry for the atheist who says to me, “If I only saw a miracle first hand, I’d believe there is a God” and then often adds, “but I haven’t seen one, and I never will.”

My response isn’t, “Well, I have, many times.” I think that, but I don’t say it. Rather, I say, “Have you ever seen a baby nestled in its mother’s arms? If that’s not a myuralce” (and here I deliberately mispronounce the word in honor of Elaine), “I simply don’t know what is.”

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Mahler Maul

One of the more delightful notes that my mother, Elaine, the subject and in many ways principal author of The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes, wrote on the small chalkboard in the kitchen of her lovely house that she dubbed the “Lizzie Ann” in honor of her grandmother, was the short and simple “gone to maul.”  Of course, she meant “gone to mall,” specifically the Oxford Valley Mall. I was in high school then, and I chuckled thinking about the fact that she was a teacher and a part of her daily repertoire was to teach fourth graders spelling.

And I thought of that incident when this week I read a piece by Isaac Stanley Becker in the Washington Post on a surprising fracas that occurred in Malmo, Sweden during a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. A woman, so it seems, was eagerly unwrapping some gum during the performance and this enraged the person next to her who then yanked the bag from the woman’s hand.

Gustav Mahler Œuvre d’Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) Vers 1909 Bronze.

At the end of the Adagietto, which, Becker divulges in his article, was one and the same as that conducted by Leonard Bernstein at RFK’s funeral in 1968, the woman struck back, slapping the man on the face. Her male friend then slugged the bag grabber, too, and a skirmish ensued, fortunately to be swiftly broken up by those nearby.

And this incident befits, it seems to me, the work of Gustav Mahler, for he was a deeply passionate human being. In his article for the Guardian entitled, “Big Bang Theory: Discovering Mahler” (10 Jan. 2010), Tom Service writes of his experience as a 12 year old lad discovering and, at first hating, Mahler. Later, however, a more mature Service falls in love with the composer and writes, “A Mahler symphony is an experience that should be as disturbing as it is life-affirming. That’s what we need to remember … as we all immerse ourselves in thrilling, terrifying, dangerous and occasionally consoling Mahler-mania.” The last hyphenated word here, I think, really says it all, for music, particularly that of Mahler, really can stir one’s emotions.  

But so can candy wrappers. Witness the Malmo mauling. But I know this personally, too, because, getting back to Elaine, she, it seemed to me, was often that person who was digging through her purse desperately seeking a mint. And had some man knocked her purse from her hand in a similar situation, I imagine that I might just have taken a poke at him. And in that case, I would have been no less aggressive than the mauler of Malmo, with or without the emotive inspiration of Mahler.

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: A World without Kids

In California especially but also, if to a degree less-pronounced, throughout America a new trend is arising: deferring or permanently putting off, i.e. not having, kids. I am writing about this trend for two reasons: first, a world without kids scares the life out of me. Second, I wish to advance the notion that a child is not a thing, like a house or a car or a Ski-Doo, that one expects to be able to accessorize at a certain income level. Those items are useful or, in the case of the Ski-Doo amusing. A kid, conversely, is a remarkable blessing and a constant reminder to do better.

My thinking about this all started in roughly 1990 in the backseat of a car. I was sharing a cab with a new acquaintance who then taught at Rutgers University in New Jersey.  A German with perfect English, she minced no words. “So, I see” [but she meant ‘hear’] “that you have children, qvite [so she pronounced quite] a lot of them.” (We had three at the time.) “They must be very pleasurable.”  Now kids are a lot of things, but pleasurable is not exactly at the top of the adjective pile used to describe them. They are challenging, delightful, cute, mischievous, even highly innovative. They bring joy and, sometimes, sadness, hope and disappointment, laughter and tears. But pleasure? And no, the acquaintance in question did not then, obviously, nor did she ever, to my knowledge, have any kids. And if she were looking for pleasure, perhaps it is good thing she never did have kids, for pleasure is, more or less, what a Ski-Doo is for.

But why is a world without kids scary? Here’s why: kids are the only sensible people left on the planet. They are, it seems more and more these days, the only folks who will actually admit they are wrong when they are and say that they are sorry. They express love the right way. They are sincere, cute, and affectionate. They know how to play appropriately. They genuinely like each other. They don’t see color or think in terms of race or other ethno-socio-political differences. They are great. They are adults’ best role models.

Yet people want children less and less. Or if they want them, they want them like they want a Ski-Doo. They want them for the wrong reasons. And, I am sorry to say, they treat them like a Ski-Doo, too, pulling them out from time to time for fun, but then just putting them back on the shelf—in the case of the Ski-Doo a rather sturdy shelf, I suppose—until the next time. The idea of a family qua sacred bond, nurturing trust, blessed haven—that ideal is fading fast. And it is doing so in the name of economic prosperity, aka lucre, filthy lucre, and, ultimately, pleasure. Money can’t buy you love—I heard that somewhere—but it can buy you a Ski-Doo. A kid can do, and indeed is, much more.

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Things You Hear at Conferences

It will be a great disappointment to you, I’m sure, to know that I finally went to a conference without my friend, the philologist, whom I often accompany to philological congresses. I enjoy going with him to those meetings in no small part because every time I do something exciting happens. I would write about that now, but frankly you would probably not believe me if I did write about it, as the events that follow him around are, frankly unbelievable. There has been gun fire, mad pursuits in swiftly driven automobiles, occasional fisticuffs, vel sim. And, add to that, an acute awareness of what vel sim. actually means.  One can guess based on etymology; and one does guess, of course, for rarely would one hazard looking up such an abbreviation in a dictionary, as 1) there’s a decent chance it won’t show up there; and 2) even if it did, there’s a better than decent chance it will be exactly what you thought it was: “or similar” or “or the like.”  But having him around obviates the need for a dictionary or even guesswork, and obviates, too, the need to look up the word “obviates.”

But that is off the topic of my particular congress, one that I went to quite on my own, one for writers; thus, to return to that topic. I am writing to respond obliquely to one of the papers that address the YA (young adult) audience.  I’m not even sure now why I wandered into that session, but I did; and when I got there I got an earful about Generation “Z”.  That’s the latest generation, the one that was born in the year 1995 or later. And what I learned was that they are a generation that expects service, particularly individualized service, and a generation that has a deep sense of solidarity.  The speaker saw this as a strength; could it not be argued that it is as indicative of a herd mentality? Populist movement? Probably the latter is, admittedly, going too far.

The speaker disapproved of, for example, the University of Chicago, where there has been, on the part of the administration, a deliberate move to coddle students no longer. His point had some validity: if students of Gen Z are expecting certain things—individualized treatment (what used to be called, disdainfully, “special treatment”), then it is a rather stark slap in the face not to give them what they are used to.  And he might be right.

Conversely, might it not, someone could ask, be good for them?  But this is not why I am writing about this topic. Rather, it is the fact that I think that what I’m concerned most about is the idea that, as they are used to being affirmed, we need to act around them and, more germane to me as an author, write YA Afiction that affirms them in whatever position they might wish to adopt.  In short, we should encourage them to believe something, even if it is something we don’t agree with.  Just “believe.”  And act on that belief. That’s enough.

But it is, I’m afraid, not enough.  If we write just to affirm having an opinion about something qua telos in and of itself, we are no different than the fifth-century sophists who said that what really counted was the ability to argue any side of an issue. Put simply, they affirmed style over substance.  The issue itself meant nothing compared to the capacity to argue for it.

The great anti-sophist, Socrates, however, held quite the opposite point of view.  He argued that what you say is more important than how you say it.  He chose questioning via dialogue (the “Socratic method”) because he felt that driving an argument like a lawyer was, in the end, less convincing. You might gain a temporary victory—convince your listener for a season—but in the end, the issue that you “convinced” him does not become his own.  It only does so when he or she dialogues about it and understands it from the inside out and, in the end, makes it his own.

Okay, where does that leave us with the things you hear at conferences, spAecifically about Gen Z? The same place as with the Millennials, Gen X and the Boomers, and, I suppose the Silent Generation and anyone else who will listen.  Let’s dialogue about something real.  Let’s challenge, not coddle, and love on but not simply cheer on each other of any generation.  And, as different as the generations might be, let’s remember this. We’re all in this together.

Tan y tro nesaf…  (“until next time…” [in Welsh])…

 

 

 

 

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Kool-Aid and Other Beverages

I don’t know about you but sometimes, when I engage someone in conversation, it seems that he or she has really drunk deeply of the Kool-Aid of this world. I say this meaning that the person would seem to have bought into whatever the most current trend is, or rather trends are, as there are always more than one trend trending at once, many of them closely bound, by certain sets of presuppositions, to others. To take but one example, marriage has become so flexible that it seems that it no longer has any real meaning. Some people say it’s archaic and unnecessary, others that it can be between a man and an animal, others that it can be monogamous in the most thoroughgoing sense: a person can even marry himself (in which case I fancy even no-fault divorce is impossible).

To get to such a point in one’s thinking one must have imbibed a deep draught of this world’s Kool-Aid, specifically that flavor that assumes meaning is entirely assigned, not inherent. I have a friend who has decided simply to go through the process of having a baby with his long-term girlfriend now and worry later about whether or not to marry. The unstated reasoning is, I think, that we live in a modern world nowadays where standards have been relaxed and the order in which we do things is not really that important. To view things otherwise is old fashioned and outmoded, and probably even sexist or racist or culturalappropriationist, or imperialist or some kind of -ist. (Little do people know that the suffix -ist means “believing in”; thus a feminist believes in women, a racist believes in race [qua superior distinction], a papist believes in the Pope, a spiritualist in spiritual things, and a sexist—well, you figure that one out).

The reason I am pondering thus is in part because I have just returned from visiting another friend, one very dear to me and whom I have known for quite a long time. He recently hosted a conference on old fashioned things: education and philosophy during the Reformation. I attended a bit of that conference and witnessed something distinctly different from the world that my other friend walks in. The first friend is modern, accepting some form of the relativism of this world, and quite easily, I think, adapting that relativism to his lifestyle. That isn’t all that lofty of an accomplishment, as there are few things less flexible than relativism. Kool-Aid is sweet, it tastes good, yet it has no nutritional value, and with the wrong hidden elixir, can produce dire, to say the least, results. I say nothing at this point of wild Georgetown Prep parties and the allegedly spiked drinks allegedly offered to alleged party-going young women: I would allege that you can judge for yourself.

Blood, by contrast, tastes pretty awful. My other friend, the one who held the learned and quite wonderful conference, does not drink of this world’s Kool-Aid. Rather, he drinks blood in the form of wine. That drink is not at all of this world, but of the one to come. He calls it the Cup of Salvation, and with it he eats the Bread of Heaven. There is no moral relativism for him, just justification won on a nasty instrument of death with the most unlikeliest of victories, one in which the Victor dies. He thinks of that every time he takes that wine chalice that carries the blood to his lips. The effects of that cup do not erode values, but rather engender, refine and reinforce them.

From my unique perch as a writer, and therefore an incessant, if sometimes reluctant observer of the world around me, it is very interesting, poignant, touching, and even dolorous to watch the effects of the distinctly different draughts of my two friends upon each of them, one ennobling, even sacred; the other, well, normal by worldly standards, and thus vulgar or profane, in the truest sense of those adjectives. I hope that the Kool-Aid and its contents don’t leave too lasting an effect on the latter. I know that my other friend’s sanguine and salutary drink will leave a lasting effect, permanent in fact. And I hope to share that cup with him many years from now, on the far side of the Jordan.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Foundations

The Curious Autobiography is very much a document concerned with foundations; the most precious kind of foundation is known as a family. One can have educational foundations, too, but really those tend to be moorings, not foundations. A great teacher comes but sadly, she goes, too. Until my senior year, I had Mrs. Zinieda Sprowles but for a moment in high school—less than a semester in tenth grade, for she fell and badly broke her arm and had to miss the rest of that term; Mrs. Crane replaced her. I learned much about literature and life from Mrs. Sprowles. I recall learning very little literature from Mrs. Crane, but rather, as memory serves, she busied herself with teaching Situation Ethics.

Situation Ethics, qua discipline, which I do not believe it actually is or ever should have been, basically justified immoral behavior if the situation calls for a bend or flex in one’s “rigid” upbringing. If your parents told you not to get drunk, for example, in the right situation it might be okay to do so; if your parents told you not to go to wild parties with girls from Holton-Arms School or boys from Georgetown Preparatory School, you can go anyway, and adjust your ethics to the situation at hand, from drinking too much to flirting to making sexual advances or even something worse, whether wanted or unwanted. It all depends on the situation, the ephemeral moment and what it calls for.

Now don’t get me wrong. Dear, sweet Mrs. Crane was a good lady, a nice person who cared about her students. She just happened to have drunk of the same bad fount from which other teachers of that same era (the late 70s/early 80s) had drunk—yes, there’s an awkward pun here somewhere. I think it is safe to say—or is it?—that we are reaping the sorry fruits of Situation Ethics now. Fruits may be the wrong word; dandelions might be more to the point. Dandelions look like flowers, but they are in fact weeds. Likewise, Situation Ethics.

Odysseus’ men in Lotus Island

But to return to foundations. As I said, educational experiences are moorings, not foundations. Family is a foundation. Friends, like education, are beacons or moorings. They might helpfully or unhelpfully guide you, whether offering a bad moment of lotus-eating or providing you genuine respite along the way, but then you’ll have to move on to the next city or town, and all too often fall out of touch, at least a bit, with your friends. But family is bedrock; and the values you garner from the family are hard to shake. You can go to therapy and learn that your parents were horrible beasts trying to mould you, to groom you into being just like them; you can read books about how to break away from the religious intolerance and bigotry of your upbringing. The Curious Autobiography, again, quite addresses that, and shows that for Elaine, it was, in the end an impossible task for her to become “unWelsh,” to lose her Welshness. And barring intentional neglect or death, you don’t fall out of touch with your husband or wife, your mother or father, your sister or brother. They are yours for life; they are, in fact, yours forever.

And that is what this blog is really about: a forever perspective. I have a friend whose mother is ill now, as was Elaine in the years leading up to her passing. These are difficult times for her and her mom, poignant for the memories they evoke and the memories, in caregiving, that they are providing. Sadly, one can’t go back in time and fix all the wrongs that one committed or, more certainly, those committed against oneself; (that mentality is admittedly very much in the air these days, a kind of balancing of the scales that too often goes beyond mere justice). But one can go forward in the darkest hour of one’s mother’s or father’s life, even the days of passing, with grace, forgiveness, and love.

a family reunion

So what is the foundation I am pointing towards today? It is an eternal, not an ephemeral outlook, the love of a family, the commitment to see that person, whether husband or wife, mother or father, through to the end, regardless of the pain, present or past, embracing every moment, thankful for every memory, even the hard ones, and rejoicing that though it is the end, it is not the end.