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.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Living in Wonderland

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.”[1] 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,[2] 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.

N.C. Wyeth, Pilgrims—Thanksgiving

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.[3] 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.[4] 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),[5] and bizarre plastic surgeries,[6] 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.”[7]

[1] http://activecities.com/blog/extreme-sports-listed-from-intense-to-insane/.

[2] http://nativeamericannetroots.net/diary/325.

[3] Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation (1620) and William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (1651).

[4] 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.)

[5] https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Unchurch-of-the-Singularity/139440006118027.

[6] This one is added, admittedly, simply gratuitously: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIyaK2yNn-w.

[7] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=9511.

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: A Taxi in Italy

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.[1] 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.”[2] 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.

[1] Psalm 46:10.

[2] Ephesians 2:8f.

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Instant Theology

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.

Sara Holbrook Community Center

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.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Lasagna and Human Beings

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.

90 N. Winooski

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.

View of Lake Champlain

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.[1] 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.

[1] Matthew 7:1.

 

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Struck While Jogging? No, But After

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.[1]

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.[2] 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[3]—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.[4] 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.

 

[1] https://www.nps.gov/linc/learn/historyculture/memorial-features.htm.

[2] https://www.baylor.edu/washington/index.php?id=944857

s[3] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (President of Zaytuna College), and Professor Robert George (Princeton).

[4] The highest award given for by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

New Hope, Pennsylvania is known for, among other things, ghosts. There is the ghost that is said to haunt the Inn at Phillips Mill, a ghost that rocks in a rocking chair and, it is said, occasionally steals delicious treats from the pantry of the famous restaurant of the Phillips Mill Inn, which is among the very best restaurants in Bucks County.

Now there are undoubtedly some who do not know Bucks County, Pennsylvania. That county is one of the three famous original tracts of land that William Penn created in 1682. He named it after his native Buckinghamshire, and he himself dwelt in that county’s small hamlet known as Falls. A school district not far from Oxford Valley (known as Pennsbury) is named after William Penn’s own nearby villa of the same name. Some of the towns of the county bear names also drawn from the English countryside, prominent among them (and proximate to New Hope), Solebury.

But all that is off the topic, for we are concerned with ghosts. The ghost of the Inn at Phillips Mill is one thing—it is a sweet-eating ghost, and likes to rock in a rocker. So everyone’s assumption is that it (he? she?) is overweight and probably badly out of shape. No one has actually ever seen its silhouette, but the facts speak for themselves. The missing desserts, sometimes amply missing, are a clear sign, and the self-propelling rocker, too, seems to have more wear and tear beneath its rocker rails than should be caused by a lightweight ghost. Thus, that rocker’s ghost is most assuredly weight challenged. I say this not to “fat shame” him or her; I merely state the obvious.

The ghost of the Logan Inn, by contrast, I personally believe to be spurious. I say this with all due respect to the former owner, whose mother’s soul this ghost is said to embody (if embody is quite the right word, which I doubt). That ghost, whose name is said to be Emily, may or may not be a psychological projection of the former owner. What is the evidence? First, ghosts rarely have names unless they are quite famous ghosts. Second, there is no proof of this ghost’s existence, other than a few creepy apparitions in a mirror of room #6 at that famous inn. Those could have been reflections of light or mere figments of the viewer’s imagination. I have no idea, but I only know what I’ve heard on the street. The entire affair sounded to me too far-fetched to be true. Yet even as I write this, I fervently hope not to be offending that ghost, should it exist, as an offended ghost is an unsafe ghost. Indeed, now that I think about it, why am I calling Emily into question? Perhaps it is my own psychological issues that make me question a perfectly good ghost story. Yet, admittedly, in Emily’s case, the evidence is lacking.

But the story of Aaron Burr in his underwear is, I believe, better documented. First, no one denies that Aaron Burr, then vice president, was on the run after his duel with Alexander Hamilton in Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton, who had purposely missed Burr, died the day after the duel. Burr, for his part, did not, of course, miss Hamilton and was charged with the murder; nonetheless, he was eventually acquitted of the charge and was able to serve out his term. Afterwards Burr tried to make Louisiana into a separate country, but failed to do so and eventually fled to Europe before being acquitted again and returning to New York. So why his ghost would be in New Hope is unclear, and why it is consistently said “to be seen in its underwear” is, perhaps, at least on the surface also unclear.

Unclear to those who don’t know the full story, that is. That story runs as follows: When Burr was on the lam in New Hope en route south, he stayed in a small inn (now known as the Aaron Burr House).He had, perhaps out of fear during the duel or simply for other unknown reasons, soiled his pants. On the days that he stayed clandestinely in New Hope, just after the duel, which took place on 11 July 1804, he sent his pants and first pair of undergarments (for he had two) out to be cleaned. But then there came a loud knock on the door of his room in the tiny inn, which is located at 80 West Bridge Street in New Hope. And there he was, sitting in his armchair in the room, smoking his pipe, reflecting on the difficult events of the previous day. He was, naturally enough, forlorn, a broken man, for he had by then learned that Hamilton had purposely missed him. He fervently wished that he could go back in time, undo the stupid duel (for he was already thinking of the entire affair as stupid), and could just go back to Washington D.C. to serve out his term as vice president.

But time had marched on, and his valet had marched off with his pants. And now someone (he never found out who—a reporter perhaps?) was knocking at the door. And he was dying of shame and, of course, embarrassment for not having brought with him an extra pair of pants—so hasty had been his flight. And so, he climbed out the window and in so doing actually fell to the ground—an entire floor below! His heart actually stopped from the shock of the fall but, within a few seconds, started to beat on its own again. (That is the only cogent explanation as to why his ghost haunts New Hope and not New York, where he died years later a second time, for ghosts of people who die twice can choose whichever of the two locations they would prefer to haunt).

And, of course, because he died the first time in his underwear, that is all the ghost is allowed to (or, I am told wants to) wear. And many people have seen this ghost, not in the Aaron Burr House but only in the nearby street, West Bridge Street, late at night. I cannot verify beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is the case, in no small part because I now live in Texas, but that the last time I was there that was the scuttlebutt on the streets of New Hope, and I for one am inclined to believe it. Indeed, why shouldn’t I? I’ve walked by that house many time as a lad, and I always, every single time, got a chill down my spine, even in the hot summers that often occur in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. So, if you see a ghost in his underwear in New Hope, you’ll now know whose ghost it is—none other than that of Aaron Burr.

Happy Halloween! Beware of or, perhaps better,
be on the lookout for, ghosts!

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Is Shakespeare Dead?

So did Mark Twain entitle his famous essay that is a sharp, satirical look at Shakespearean authorship. In it he calls attention to the fact that most of the things we “know” about Shakespeare’s life are based on conjecture, the kind of conjecture that is itself, as so often happens with historical authors, back-formed from various details in his corpus. Hilariously, at the opening of the second chapter, Twain writes, “When I was a Sunday-school scholar something more than sixty years ago, I became interested in Satan, and wanted to find out all I could about him,” and he goes on to show how Satan’s reputation is built largely on conjecture, not clear facts. That, of course, is what he compares our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life to.

Twain’s satirical piece is meant to show us that the historical “Shakespeare,” himself largely a theory anyway, is not likely to be the true author of the Shakespearean corpus. He is, rather, likely to be a construct based on bits and pieces of that corpus. What we envision to be his physical body is reconstituted from the body of his work, causing his actual corpse to roll over in the grave. All amusing, all satiric, all well worth a few minutes of your time to read.[1]

I wish that the peevish students of the University of Pennsylvania, where I myself studied literature at one point, had read Twain before they demanded the removal of the picture of Shakespeare from the foyer of the building of the English Department. The painting was replaced with a picture of Audre Lorde, the well-known Lesbian feminist poet who passed away in 1992.

But returning to Shakespeare, I want to stress that while the physical human being, the man who was called Shakespeare is, like Audre Lorde, quite dead—whether he actually wrote any of the Shakespearean corpus or not—the one we call Shakespeare is in fact a tome, a ponderous tome, filled with marvelous plays that come alive for the reader and even more alive for the viewer and hearer of them, the person who goes to the theater to view the spectacle. I can remember my great professor, Philip Ambrose at the University of Vermont, stressing this very point with me in a Greek tragedy class. We were reading the Trojan Women, and he did not want us ever to lose sight of the fact that that play was a sight, a spectacle, visceral, real, meant to be performed, not just read. That is Euripides, and that is Shakespeare. Note the present tense. Euripides, like Shakespeare, is alive today. We can perform them both, we can pick them up. They have become their text and when we read them, when we perform them, we bring them back to life.

But we must, of course, read them, we must, of course, have access to them, and most importantly be encouraged to read them, perhaps in our teen years, especially at college or university. I don’t think most folks will just pick up a volume of Euripides in translation on their own and read him. I don’t think most folks would even think about learning ancient Greek to do so. Indeed, even the headiest college student is not inclined to take a language on his or her own, not inclined to study an ancient language without some reason to do so. Maybe the college will require at least some courses in literature. But the trend is going the other direction, of course, as colleges and universities are increasingly adopting a more practical approach, in some cases becoming more trade-schools.[2] I took a language in college because it was required. I took Latin because I had heard the professor was one of the best that Dickinson had. I only added Greek because that same professor, Philip Lockhart, encouraged me to do so. Years later, at Vermont, reading Greek with yet another Philip, this time with the saintly name of Ambrose, I was so glad I had added Greek those four years prior.

My point is this: if you send your child off to college, I hope you encourage her to go there to get an education, not a job. Of course, you want your child to be employed and to find a vocation that will make him happy, if indeed it is even possible “to find” a vocation. Rather, it is only possible to harken unto it, for the very word “vocation” implies that the job “calls” you, rather than you “find” it. Add to this that true happiness cannot be found in one’s job. It can only be found in one’s heart. You could have a rather unhappy job and still be happy. You could have the perfect job, and be quite unhappy. I know many college professors who fall into this latter category.

No, I’m not advocating that everyone study Greek. But I am suggesting that everyone who has the chance to read Shakespeare do so. He’s alive, even if he is no longer regularly required reading. The same goes for Homer, whether read more quickly in translation or more painstakingly in the original. And Euripides, yes, him too, and Virgil, and Dante, and Milton. Read them precisely because they are alive, and they will tell you something that will last you not one day but a lifetime. And if you’re listening carefully, they may, by the time you’re done reading, have whispered to you the very words that will provide you with happiness, the happiness that can’t come from “job satisfaction” or “finding the right vocation,” but can only come from within, from the heart.

Well, then, is Shakespeare dead? Only if we let him die.

[1][1] Easily found at pagebypagebooks.com.

[2] Alas, the university that I spoke about in last week’s blog did, in the end, decide to produce a rather slender core, cutting out, with a single vote, Shakespeare, Homer and Virgil.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: “The sword over my head”

I found myself confused by his reference to the “sword over his head.” There I was, at a gathering of some of the brightest stars of any university, enjoying a glass of red under the shade of a pavilion just a few miles from a major university’s campus, discussing, of all things, their core curriculum changes. I found it surprising that I, a mere novelist, should be invited. “Perhaps I have been summoned to this elegant wine-and-cheese gathering,” I ruminated, “because they know I care about liberal education. Or perhaps because I blog regularly?” I wasn’t sure.

It did not matter to me, as I knew that I should relish my conversations with them all—historians (for there was more than one there), a physicist, an art historian and, best of all, literature professors, for again there was more than one professor of literature. They were there to consider how the changes to their new core proposal would be implemented.

I was skeptical, of course, about trimming too much out of their core, and some of them at least seemed to value my opinion. I cautioned them about removing history courses—as our country’s recent leaders, for example, seem to have forgotten to heed the lessons of history—and non-English language study as we live in a world where understanding other cultures through the way they think (i.e. their languages) is becoming more and more important. (Perhaps you will recall from previous blogs that I have a close friend who is a philologist and I often accompany him to conferences on literature, art or even linguistics.) I suppose that association alone has biased me a bit, since many of those conferences are in Europe. Fortunately, as do I, my friend can speak Italian, French, and German, so he gets around there pretty well. But to return to the wine-and-cheese affair, one conversation jumped out at me, and one phrase in it alone, to my mind, made the case all by itself for a robust liberal education.

That conversation was with a particular professor, whose department I don’t recall, and the phrase, or rather its particularly strange, in this case, application was “the sword over my head.” He said, specifically, “Well, when it comes to education these days, I really have the sword over my head.” The context did not in and of itself clarify the reference. He was speaking about how difficult it is to deal with students, and how parents complain. And he seemed to mean he was getting sick of dealing with virtually every aspect of the non-research bits of his job, i.e. teaching and all that involves, from disgruntled students to parents whose angry telephone calls he regularly receives to the occasional late homework or make-up test. It would all be easier, he seemed to say, if there were just less onerous requirements, a trimmer core that would give students more choice about what they were taking. The sword, he said, was over his head. And he seemed to say this last bit rather fiercely.

You just can’t escape when you are joined at the hip with a Samarai warrior.

I wandered off to another part of the pavilion, sipping on my Merlot. “What did this man mean?” I thought to myself. He seemed a reasonable chap, friendly and smiling, but then he closed his soliloquy on how a trimmer core would benefit most professors and students with that strange turn of phrase. Did he mean he had the sword poised over his head aggressively, like a Samurai warrior or Luke Skywalker fighting with Darth Vader?Or perhaps he meant he was holding it high, like Vuchetich and Nikitin’s grand statue of the Russian motherland perched above Volgograd, the city formally known as Stalingrad.

Well, I thought, he couldn’t possibly mean he was like Luke Skywalker. That was simply too aggressive for dealing with a parent, however disgruntled he or she might be. No, that simply wouldn’t work. But the image of the Russian motherland, perhaps that’s all he meant. Perhaps he just meant that he held aloft, via his PhD or his publication record or his status within his department, a symbol of power, a symbol that he was in control and that the parent or student or even disgruntled colleague or telemarketer who happened to call his work extension (for that, too, had come up in another conversation) would have to recognize that he, like the Russian troops who had boldly fought for Stalingrad, would not give up. He held the sword above his head, he was indeed on par with the Родина-мать!

“The Motherland Calls,” (Родина-мать зовёт!) unveiled in 1967 by artist/engineer duo Yevgeny Vuchetich and Nikolai Nikitin.

 

But surely, I thought, as I helped myself to a second (plastic) glass of Merlot, this is not what he meant. And then it donned on me, perhaps because I was thinking of my philological friend and his conferences, that this professor of whatever it was, must have meant, for all his bravado, the sword of Damocles. Yet he had forgotten or perhaps had never known the name of Damocles. Had he read Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, I wondered, in whose fifth book the story is featured?[1] Surely that’s what he meant. He knew of the story, but he didn’t know the story. He knew there was some story about a sword being over somebody’s head, but he didn’t know whose, he didn’t know how it happened, or even from what culture this marvelous story comes. “Did he even know who Cicero was or when he lived?” I mused.

Or did I in fact muse? Rather, I think, I was brooding. And that’s when one more thing donned on me. He was living proof of why preserving a robust liberal education is paramount. Yes, he had a PhD; yes, he was a college professor; but had he been liberally educated? He was his own counter-example. No, of course, a liberal education won’t enable everyone to cite every story correctly or catch all and any reference to each and every allusion. But it enables us to ask questions, formulate them better and more pointedly. It won’t remove the sword of Damocles from above any of our heads, but it might just teach us how to speak better, write better and to comport ourselves better. It might just prepare us to converse better, whether over wine-and-cheese or in a courtroom or at business meeting in France. It might just prepare us for life, to handle its pressure, how to deal gently and deftly with our fellow human beings. It won’t solve any of life’s problems, but it equips us to deal with them better. How I hope those folks decide to keep the most vital of their core requirements in place, lest they unwittingly take a seat beneath Damocles’ sword.

The Sword of Damocles, Richard Westall (1812)

 

[1] Cicero, TD 5.61: Certainly this very tyrant [Dionysius of Syracuse] made clear his opinion about how fortunate he had been. When one of his sycophantic followers, a certain Damocles, in conversation touched upon Dionysius’ prosperity, the majesty of his rule, the plentitude of his possessions, and his palace’s splendor, suggesting that there never had had been anyone more fortunate, Dionysius replied, “Well, Damocles, inasmuch as this life titillates you, do you wish to taste and experience my life and fortune? After Damocles indicated that he so desired, Dionysius ordered that the man be placed on a golden couch bedecked with a very beautiful woven tapestry, embellished with impressive works. … Yet Dionysius also ordered that amidst such luxury a gleaming sword, fastened by a horse’s hair from the ceiling, be lowered so that it dangled over that “lucky” man’s neck… Ultimately Damocles begged that tyrant to be allowed to depart as he no longer wished to be so fortunate. (My translation.)