Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Workshops and Sanctuaries

“Buona sera, good evening,” he said what seemed to me a trace of a Swedish accent, “My name is Helge. It’s a manly name, a Viking name.” In fact, it is a holy name, related as it is to the German heilige, as in Heilige Geist (“Holy Ghost”). Thus, while the Vikings no doubt used this word as a perfectly “manly” name, it has connotatiVilla of San Micheleons, as does many a name, well beyond even the immediate context of a Viking village, let alone the cocktail reception for a musical recital at the Villa San Michele on Capri, where I first met Helge Antoni.
There he was with his lovely wife, Marisa, and the three of us along with a number of other interlocutors who dropped in and out of our conversation chatted in multiple languages—German, English, French, mostly Italian—about music, art, literature and the intoxication that Anacapri provided through its breathtaking vistas and villas, soul-charming alleys and ambulatories witape-on-the-roadh various twists and turns. Indeed, virtually no one drives in Anacapri, unless one has a very small vehicle such as a scooter or a “bee” (in Italian, ape, entirely unrelated, of course, to its false English cognate “ape”).

As I walked home from that evening’s lovely concert it dawned on me that I had met a world-class and quite famous musician, and in Marisa, his athletic wife, quite a fine Pilates expert. Little did I know, however, that I would enjoy much more than a mere conversation, that our friendship would blossom, that Helge would become like a brother to me. That such a circumstance could possibly arise was soon enough apparent to me from his and Marisa’s warm invitation to join them for drinks the following evening at the nearby mountain villa where they were staying.

And so it came to pass, in our evolving friendship, Helge, en route to a concert a year later, would come to visit me in the States, on which occasion I was reminded afresh of something I already knew but had, I suppose, forgotten or had at least not brought to the front of my mind for quite some time. Yet I had known it well, as I had so many other important things, already when I was a child.

That thing that I had known was the idea of a sanctuary. I am thinking in this case of the small workshop of my grandfather, Harry Jakes. It was anything but fancy, more or less just a workbench in the basement of my grandparents’ home on Rutter Avenue in Kingston, Pennsylvania. My mother, Elaine Jakes, lived with her parents for three years or so after her divorce and during those years my grandparents in many ways played the role of Wilkes Uparents for me while my mother finished her college education at Wilkes College (now Wilkes University). There Elaine, having enrolled for a second time after a scandalous dismissal which you may already know from The Curious Autobiography, studied English literature and history and was a makeup artist for the Cue ‘n’ Curtain theater troupe. Had she not had a young child, she might have been an actor in that troupe, but that, I think, is the stuff of another blog.

Photo by Brian Smithson.
Photo by Brian Smithson.

To return to my grandfather’s workshop: it was a magical place, truly glorious, where the sound of his old electric drill provided Scipionic music of the spheres. There it was a privilege to enter and to spend time simply listening to and watching the master craftsman at work. Of course, he was not a real “master.” He was merely a man then nigh unto his retirement years who was handy around the house. If it were broken, chances are Harry could have fixed it. If something needed a slight adjustment, he would use his creative powers to adjust it. If a unique dohicky had to be designed for a specific purpose, Harry would invent it. He was one of those rare people who could look at something broken and envision it in a fully repaired state—a mystical healer of humdrum objects. Owing to that particular trait, I, my cousins, and anyone who might enter that house on Rutter Avenue, which had once been the house of the family’s childless matriarch Aunt Jemima, all marveled at him.

Harry found in his workshop, it seemed to me, a kind of sanctuary, for it provided him with a respite from, almost a kind of therapy for, the worries of this world for him to work with his hands repairing things. Perhaps it was the metaphor of healing, after all, that offered him a powerful solace. But I also think that there was something about the attitude that was required to enter the place, that workshop that provided sanctuary a word that implies both that the place is a safe place and holy. The word itself, though it means “holy” comes to mean a place of refuge, a place of asylum, just as Helge means holy but becomes, to use Helge’s words, “a manly name, a Viking name.”

As I grew up and especially after my grandfather’s death I had to find other workshops, other sanctuaries. One of these I had stumbled upon before his passing, for as a teenager in New Hope I would often frequent the office of a local writer, John Pfeiffer, who wrote anthropological treatises for the popular market. He did a good deal of research for each of his books, and allowed me to visit him to pick his brain about writing and about the possibility of having a career as a writer.

Photo by Wally Gobetz.
Logan Inn. Photo by Wally Gobetz.

Carl Lutz’ workshop was the kitchen of the Logan Inn, the original inn of New Hope (the borough once called Wells Ferry) which, in the early eighteenth century, the town’s founder John Wells owned and operated even before New Hope was called Coryell’s Ferry, which it was after it was called Wells Ferry; all this is the stuff of another, in fact a previous blog. For Carl, who would later become the mayor of New Hope, the busy kitchen of the Logan Inn provided him with a kind of refuge from the business of running the Inn and, eventually, the whole town.

I should mention two other places that served as (and three other mentors who ensured) workshops and sanctuaries for me. One of these was Professor Phil Lockhart of Dickinson College, another Tom Corey, pastor of one of Philadelphia’s truly urban churches; the third, Mrs. Zinaida Sprowles, self-described peripatetic pedagogue, who bore workshop and sanctuary within, demonstrating that such a place need neither longitude nor latitude. Each of these provided refuge away from the stresses of life, and with them one did not merely learn what it meant to be an apprentice in an art, such as writing or cooking, but in life. With them I found myself often puzzling about bigger questions regarding meaning and significance, about what words meant, not merely how to craft them. Each of them showed how to read and, based on what was read, offered insights about what to write. In their sanctuaries where I pondered how to function as a human being, how to walk, indeed to see, in this dark world and wide, and how not to allow that one talent, which is death hide, to stay lodged, useless. But I wax poetic. Suffice it to say that in those sanctuaries I pondered the questions that would give me pause, that would compel me to understand that to be a proper human being requires participating in humanity’s pain and, eventually, would place a pen in my hand for that very purpose.

Helge Antoni, pianist
Helge Antoni, pianist

“Have them sit down,” Helge said, as he bestrode the piano in the college chapel, spacious enough for the master class that he offered to the assortment of musically trained college students assembled there. I watched and listened as they played in this makeshift workshop, a sanctuary in more than one sense, for Helge had lived up to his name, creating a sanctuary, whose walls were forged from notes and whose roof was made of wafting chords, supported by occasional applause and masterful instructions to a true master’s students in a master class. There I experienced sanctuary again, in a workshop that was no workshop, for it normally was a place of faith—not works, lest anyone should boast. And I realized again, as I sat there watching the love he had for those students and their warm responses to his gentle admonitions and corrections, that here learning could happen afresh, in a sanctuary. I remembered the teachers of my sanctuaries, from Harry to John to Carl to Zinaida to Phil to Tom, and back again to Capri, where I had met Helge.

“Heavenly,” the appropriately named master thundered after one of the students had played her piece, “just heavenly …” adding, after a decorous pause, “Wasn’t that glorious?”

“Indeed,” I thought, “it was.” But I was thinking of something much larger than the fine piece that the student had played. I was thinking of sanctuary and the sound of an old electric drill when I replied, “Truly, Helge, it was.”

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