It is often said, “Life is full of …,” and then after a pause, suited to the given situation or conversation, comes another word, more often than not, plural, sometimes preceded by an adjective, sometimes an adjective adverb combination. Among the possibilities are, “widespread suffering,” “stark natural wonders,” “very tragic events” or a combination of antitheses, “ups and downs,” “joy and sorrow” or the like. Now I admit that from time to time it happens that someone simply says, “pain.” But that person would likely be speaking from some kind of personal experience; something difficult might have happened in his or her life to prompt such a pronouncement. And it befits the interlocutor to listen to that person’s account of the pain, as he or she shows empathy. Pathos, indeed, is at the core of human existence.
Yet so is joy. One can, in Aristotelian fashion, divide joy into a great number of categories. One such category could be the mutual sense of it in unexpected pleasures. These communal experiences might consist of surprises, those delicate shavings of time in which one can participate in a different kind of empathy than commiseration. This kind of empathy—where the word’s root pathos connotes experience rather than suffering—is the very kind we shared with Martha somewhere between Mt. Sterling, Owensville, and Hermann, Missouri, the burial place of George Bayer, whose grave I quasi-reverently (thoughtfully, at least) visited while jogging. Martha’s cheese shop is auspiciously named “Cool Cow,” one of whose “girls” was the covercow for an issue of the (perhaps not widely circulated) Sauce magazine. That lovely most certainly off-the-beaten-track cheesery enjoys a contiguous and equally aptly named Bed and Breakfast, “M(artha) and T(om) Farm, LLC.” Tom, the principal cheesemaker, was away from his post, but Diane and I were happy to sample his tasty production at the hands of his wife, Martha, whose smile and piety can fill any room—it certainly did the cheesery whose smell and ambience we enjoyed for a few minutes that afternoon.
“Looks like a storm is coming,” Martha observed, making conversation as she glanced out the window between explanations and samples of Tom’s cheese production, adding “This one is a Havarti.”
“A real type-O cheese,” I observed, of course surreptitiously citing one of the funniest episodes in the Curious Autobiography (“Tea with the Professor,” 120–138).
“This one is a mild Irish-style cheddar,” she added oxymoronically, moving on to the next sample. To these she added several others, all quite nice. Alas, there was no Hên Sîr, but I did not expect as much. I told her that the Hên Sîr had been in our family an unusual symbol of authentic spiritual renewal (Curious Autobiography, 198–205). To this statement, I am glad to say, she did not look as puzzled as I would have expected; but she is married to a cheesemaker, so she might just understand.
Finally, she revealed a cheese developed by an international congress that had met in Greece. I was assuming it would taste sharp and salty, like feta. Yet it did not; it was something more like a combination of Swiss and Gouda. I’d never heard of (what might be called) a diplomacy cheese, but as I ate it I thought, “If there were a cheese that could effect world peace, or at least a long-needed ceasefire, this would be that cheese,” for it was superb. Then I thought, using Welsh logic, “No wonder diplomacy has largely been effective on the European continent ever since the Second Great War.”
The unexpected surprises that Diane and I shared not only with each other but also with those whom we met didn’t end there—there was Kathy at the White Mule Winery whose family had lived near that bend of Highway 50 in Owensville for generations, and the aptly named (if you fancy Mel Gibson films) William Wallace at the Hermannhof Winery and Sausage Shop, the name of which establishment is itself a mouthful. He had connected again with a girl whom he had adored in junior high school and married here—the stuff of a romantic film—and now, as he described his life in Gasconade County along the banks of the gently flowing Missouri River, he lived in paradise. Finally, there was the lovely mead winemaking family consisting of Esther and her son Patrick, chief winemaker of the Martin Brothers Winery, whose concoctions are carefully wrought—quite tasty, worth the drive. His brother Jonathan, founder of the business, was not present, as he was presumably traversing nearby meadows in search of just the right miel for the next mead making.
What I am getting at is this: contrary to the ideas inherent in the preferred means of communication (and of photography) these days, unexpected joys are by and large not “self” things. They require sharing, and sharing builds something that the Italians call il commune. I might have better chosen a German word, inasmuch as Hermann is a thoroughly German burgh; but the German Gemeinschaft does not quite render the Italian. The Italian does not mean “community” per se; it means, rather, a shared cultural experience that might include a sense of Gemeinschaft, and even a shared municipality, but includes something else, as well. It is (of course) less formal than the German, and more fluid. In any case, we shared a moment of il commune with Martha, Esther, William and Kathy.
Yet someone will point out that it is much easier to live life as it comes, just to take things as they are and not bother to go snooping about for such a sense of shared experiences. And, of course, that is possible. It is equally possible to see life as mired in difficulty and thus take a rather gloomy view of things—and here I speak as a residual Welshman who has from time to time himself taken the gloomier view. But when we do that, we can quite easily miss the joy that is there for the discovering, and we shall certainly miss the sense of il commune.
And then there’s marriage, for the reason we took this long trip was to go to a wedding. Now the wedding itself is likely not to have too many unexpected surprises; when a wedding does, it is normally a bad thing. But the life of two people together should be one of that very thing: il commune and with it, the concomitant opportunity for the discovery of unexpected joys. And that is what I wish for that couple as I close this blog: a life of il commune, which one must be intentional about building, and of unexpected delights. I suspect they will do this, for they are special because their very names suggest an apostle and a vine—perhaps they will choose John 15 for their ceremony—and have had their own cheese moments, at least insofar as cheese might serve as a symbol of spiritual renewal. I wish them, too, a perpetual sense of shared discovery.
I have the same hope for a not-so-recently wed Welsh couple, also close friends, who seem to have taken the gloomier view lately. For them, it may be time again to look for the joy in the simple discoveries of life, such as can be found in a young family like their own. That couple must build il commune again. Perhaps cheese can be, for them, too, a symbol of shared spiritual renewal.
May both of these couples, Welsh and un-Welsh alike, share and delight in il commune, and may you, too, dear reader, have the opportunity to do so, as well, as you enjoy a bite of cheese from a perhaps unexpected quarter, remembering that cheese has been known to build domestic and international bridges and, surprisingly, from time to time even effect continental peace.