Category Archives: Blog Post

Common Place Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Imagine Forgetting

A couple blogs back we were talking about time—about chronological time vs. living in the moment, and then considering how that momentary time (in Greek, kairos) was redefined roughly 2000 years ago.  In that blog I said how people are like elephants, and we tend to remember a lot of things.  I have vivid memories not only of my adulthood but even of my childhood.  My wife says that’s because I’m a writer; but I say, I’m a writer because I tend to remember.

But this blog is not about remembering but about forgetting.  That may seem to be more than a paradox: it may seem to be hypocritical to say, on the one hand, we tend to remember but then on the other hand, to turn right around, and say that we need to forget.  Now let me say that what you’re about to read won’t be hypocritical.  Nothing bothers me more than hypocrisy, for if there is any way to define sin—and my non-Christian friends like to try to get me to do that because they love to find exceptions to the rule; it’s a kind of game, I imagine—hypocrisy is that way to define it.  Run your eyes over the Ten Commandments, for example, or do it from memory, if you happen to know them.  At any point if you violate any one of them, think about it, you’ll pretend, in certain circumstances, that you did not.  You might confess to a close friend that you stole that thing or lied about something to someone’s detriment (which is what bearing false witness is about), or coveted a friend’s lifestyle or car or garden, but if asked publicly about that, chances are you’d deny it.  Same with murder, which hopefully, you haven’t done, same with adultery, etc. So hypocrisy is definitely not what I’m getting at here. 


Photo credit: Smythe Richbourg, flickr.com

Nor am I writing in this blog about the healthy practice of intentionally forgetting other people’s sins against you. That’s an excellent practice and one that takes time to develop; it’s not easy.  It’s something like mastering a skillful billiards shot or a timely quip at a dinner party. No, that’s not what I’m getting at either.


Photo Credit: Michael Curi, flickr.com

What, then?  I am talking about imagining forgetting.  If I’m right, and we humans tend to remember a lot of things, from the hurts we’ve experienced, to joys to random moments in our lives, then what I am about to suggest is something we must imagine doing, for I want to lay out a scenario where we intentionally imagine forgetting.  Imagine if you could forget all the things people have told you about people.  We are told that we are creatures of our habits; we are told that the world is a certain way—fluid—and we need to adjust to that fluidity, go with the flow, not resist it, for it is unnatural to do that.  We are told this or that political system is best, that guns should carried by practically everyone; that they should be banned. That there should be a southern border wall; that there shouldn’t be one.  That kneeling for the national anthem is an act of patriotism; that it is not.  That bathrooms should not be binary; that they should. That there is no such thing as right and wrong; that the opposite is true, there is such a thing as right and wrong, even if sometimes it is not easy to see. 

And all that endless din of opinion wears us down.  It wears me down, at any rate.  But what if we could forget all that?  What if we could just tune out all the constant droning of the world’s background noise and just go away and think.  What if we could forget the professor in college who said there is no God and equally forget the evangelist who once knocked on our door with some “reading material” to tell us all about his particular version of God—sometimes trying to judge us to make himself feel more righteous, I imagine, rather than trying actually to invite us to church or the like.

But what if we could forget not our lives, per se, but “it”—all the things the world tells us to think, to eat, to wear to become self-fulfilled—and instead, what if we could go, in our mind, somewhere safe to reflect.  What would we find there?  How would we honestly evaluate not who we are but who we have become? 


Photo credit: elmer.O in flickr.com

I think for each person, there will be a different answer.  Let’s take one example: a long time ago, someone named Elijah did this very thing, and he did so when he was in a moment of great distress.  He went to a place called Beersheba and went into the wilderness and sat under a juniper tree and felt that he had had enough of this world—he was, in a sense, at his wits’ end.  He examined his life and felt that he, like everyone else, had lived a life that wasn’t as fulfilled as he might have wished, that was cluttered with the same sins as everyone else.  And he was probably right.  And when he was there, in that uncluttered and quiet moment, something amazing happened. He went into a cave and temporarily forgot all the problems he was having and received spiritual nourishment that would help him through a difficult time, when he needed it—which was over a month long, according to the story.  And he poured out his heart there to God—his deepest concerns, his deepest disappointments, his deepest fears.  And then came a big blast of wind; but no, God wasn’t in the wind; then the earth shook, but no, God wasn’t in that, either; and a fire, too, but no, not there either.  And then came a small, still voice.  And he poured out his fears again when he heard the voice.  And that’s where he found peace, or maybe Peace found him.[1]

Elijah left that cave with purpose, maybe for him for the first time in a long time.  He found a way to put off his burdens, to offload his cares, his sadness, his fears, his shortcomings.  In the modern age in which we live, perhaps it is hard to imagine forgetting long enough to hear that voice.  After all, who has time to go into a cave for several days?  Yet maybe we don’t need a cave.  Maybe we just need to take the time to be alone, to think, to review our lives with God, to imagine forgetting.  Imagine that: if we can only imagine forgetting we might be able to see clearly again or, perhaps, for the first time, the first real kairos.


Small Still Voice, painting by James Ramirez, flickr.com



[1] My summary here is based on 1 Kings 19.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Do Dreams Mean Anything?

Namque ignes inter, quorum in me lucet imago …

Dante, Paradiso 20.30

In the very first year of the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud published an important treatise entitled in English, On the Interpretation of Dreams.[1] In it, Freud seeks to explain how dreams work, attempting to use psychology and analysis of emotions and memories to expound upon something that in other cultures and other times had been and still was, at the time of his writing that treatise, sometimes explained in religious terms. 

Now let me say straight off that I don’t think just any dream is a mandate from on high or any such thing. If someone suffering from diabetes dreams that he or she can live without insulin, that doesn’t mean that he or she should wake up in the morning and throw out that medicine.  That is one kind of dream, and it may be a wishful hope or even something that should under no circumstances be acted upon.  Not all dreams reflect a good outcome.

But is it possible that some dreams could suggest something?  One has to be very careful here, I know, for the soil upon which we walk in interpreting dreams is prone to shift rapidly.  Yet, even so, it could be, and has in the history of humanity been from time to time, the case that a dream can offer a premonition or even an admonition.  Take, for example, the account of the three wise men in the Bible. They were ordered by Herod to report back to him about the Christ child but, “warned in a dream” (Matthew 2:12) they stealthily departed for their own country.  In that same chapter, Joseph is warned in a dream by an angel to depart with Mary and the baby Jesus for Egypt.  And there are many other examples.  Daniel was given the ability to understand visions and dreams (Daniel 1:17), and the New Testament author, Luke, notes that such dreams are not to end in antiquity: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my spirit” and “…your old men will dream dreams” (Acts 2:17).

That said, I would like to share with you a dream I had the other evening and leave the interpretation to you.  Maybe it was “nothing.” After all, as Freud once famously said about a cigar sometimes just being a cigar, so a dream may just be a dream.  The context is this: I have been sharing with a close friend a bit about what a life with God can look like—the joy, the blessing, the sense of forgiveness and restoration, and even the unfathomable emotional closeness of thelove of Christ—but I did not share everything.  I did not explain that when you go into a lion’s den—and metaphorically speaking you will from time to time, if you’re living the Christian life correctly—people will think you’re crazy, or when you say that everything good in you isn’t really from you but from God, they’ll think you’re nice but a bit crazy, or when you try to tell someone that God actually does answer prayer, you guessed it, they’ll think your nuts.  Why?  It has to do with going in a direction contrary to that of the world. 

Whether or not my particular dream has any meaning, then–well, you can decide.  I and the person about whom I spoke in the previous paragraph were in an airport.  She was waiting in line to board a plane and everyone was in that line, all walking slowly in the direction of the plane.  Suddenly and weirdly (of course weirdly, it’s a dream after all) I was standing next to her in line. Somehow, I knew that something bad, very bad, was about to happen.  (I admit freely that, with all the airplane issues lately, maybe what I had read in the newspaper about Boeing 737 Max 8 planes informed this part of the dream.)  I had been sent to warn her not to go with all the other people—not that the plane was going to crash, or anything like that, but rather not to do what everyone else told her to do. I was sent to call her back from the direction she was headed, the direction that all the world nowadays goes in. That’s the direction of self-fulfillment,  self-realization, self-actualization, self-aggrandizement, self-self-self.  It’s about me, my desires, my wants, my needs.  All those people were heading in that directing, waiting in that line in what seemed to be an airport. And there I stood, warning her that this is really a bad line.  I didn’t say a plane would crash or anything like that but I said, this is not the line you want to be in.  She thought about it for a while, and then suddenly we fled, running the opposite direction, right along the side of the line of people. 

Resultado de imagen para aslan wikipedia

Now here’s the weird part, and the part that surprised me when I woke up, because up to this point there’s nothing all that shocking in the dream.  The people in the line started jeering at her.  Many said despicable things about her—that she was stupid to give up her place in line, that she was an idiot. Some yelled out that she had done bad things, some yelled out that she would never get her place back in that line again. But, though she was by now in tears, she seemed to trust me about this not being the right line, it being a bad line indeed, and we ran outside into a field. When we looked back, it seemed that the building (for by now it was a building and not an airport any longer) was on fire.  And now she was sitting in the field and a giant Lion came from nowhere—at this point I was out of the picture, but I could see her clearly—and that noble beast passed right in front of her as she sat there crying.  She reached out both of her hands to the lion, who passed right in front of her, and touched him as he was passing. And when she touched him she was immediately transformed: she stopped crying and had peace. 

I don’t know how much one can read into a dream like this.  But I can say that the people in the line were not very nice to her when my friend decided to go in a totally different direction based on what seemed a chance encounter in the line.  And the Lion?  I don’t know, but He had a markedly noble quality, worthy of a character in a book of C.S. Lewis. Was it a good dream? Well, you can decide for yourself.  I couldn’t have made up such a dream, for it happened, at least to the extent that dreams happen. But I can say that my favorite biblical character is someone named Joseph, whose life story has in many ways been replicated in my own many times over. So maybe, just maybe, this dream of going in a direction completely opposite to what is expected, what the world tells you is “healthy” (but really is not) will prove to be a good one in the end and for my friend, like the dream of Joseph, will turn out to be true.  Time will tell. In the meantime, a mere caveat lector will suffice: be careful if you reach out to touch a Lion, for He might just leave you changed.


Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois, 1863 oil on canvas, Musée Municipal Frédéric Blandin, Nevers



[1] Available on-line in toto at: https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Freud/Dreams/dreams.pdf 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Time and Life’s Narrative

In last week’s blog, I spoke about the possibility of our life being like a book—more specifically, like a palimpsest, a good, even great book that lies beneath an inferior text, a false narrative written over top of it.  And then, based on a conversation with a close friend, I thought and thought (a bad habit of mine) about this a bit more, and I would like to share with you a touch more about this idea.  If our life is like a book then it has a narrative, one that has chapters, an opening chapter and someday, closing one, as well.  It extends from start to finish, turns page by page, like a book. And like a book it has meaning, real meaning.  Thus, it involves the notion of time, which I suppose is what this blog is really about.

A few days ago, over coffee I was speaking with that dear friend of mine about life.  He was saying to me that for him life is about the here and now.  He couldn’t worry about the future because, he rightly stated, who knows about the future?  It hasn’t happened yet and you can’t worry about it.  And he had a point, of course, even one of biblical proportions, as Jesus himself says, in a famous proleptic phrase, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow,” and he goes on to tell his listeners not to worry about the future, for it will, he says, take care of itself.

But does that mean we should not think about the future at all?  If we don’t, we shall lose hope.  What do I mean by this?  Well, let’s think of it this way: psychologists are right, to some extent, to tell us that we need to accept the reality of our situation.  Yet, while one can’t usually change one’s circumstances entirely, accepting the reality of our situation doesn’t mean not thinking about the future and even planning for it, and it certainly shouldn’t mean giving up or trying to change things for the better.

My friend, who studied the classics when he was an undergraduate, seems to me to find his confusion on this point: he has remembered his Latin but forgotten his Greek. He has forgotten that while Latin has two prevalent words for time (hora and tempus), these terms do not offer the same powerful distinction as the Greek words chronos and kairos.  The latter term means time that is right here, right now, while chronos indicates chronological time.  Living entirely in the kairos and abdicating any serious consideration of the future necessarily involves abdicating any serious consideration of the past, as well.  If you give up hoping—for that is what the future is about, hope—you will find yourself giving up your memories, as well.  Now a psychologist might rush in and say, “Well, maybe that’s not a bad idea; some of those memories can be bad and you needn’t fixate on them.”  But no one said anything about fixating on them.  The reality is that you’re going to have those memories whether you try to forget about them or not, just as you’re going to have a future whether or not you try to plan for it (not worry about it, which by the way, is Jesus’ proleptic point).  We are, in fact, creatures of both chronos and kairos, and pretending one of them doesn’t exist is like pretending we don’t age.  We do, and we do have memories, and we will have a future.


Photo Credit: Fredrik Rubensson (flickr)

If there is such a thing as chronos, then how does the notion of kairos fit into it? The ancient school of philosophy known as Epicureanism argued that within the kairos one should find the maximum amount of pleasure, from food, which is what epicures became famous for, to drink, to sex.  Probably most modern college students live in the kairos, and I remember very well being one once.  I was in a fraternity whose old idealistic motto “Be Gentlemen” had long since fallen by the wayside and had tacitly and unwittingly been replaced with “Seek pleasure.”  They were, though they knew it not, modern-day Epicureans, though not in a fully developed sense, of course.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 3944306234_3ef0c83bac_o.jpg

Religion, badly done, only knows chronos.  It offers no kairos because it is afraid of pleasure.  But that most unreligious (but not irreligious) person, Jesus, takes the term kairos up afresh and appropriates it.  He claims it for his own.  I say this not just because, as He says, He came eating and drinking (Luke 7:34).  Rather, He claims it as His breaking into human existence.  He claims it as His breaking into our lives. He says, pay attention, right now, to what I am doing in your life—right now.  And when He does so He says two other things: your chronos—all chronos—belongs to me.  And that’s a scary thought.  But what’s the second thing he says that makes that scary thought something actually wonderful?

A story will help here.  When I was in that fraternity in college I did some things that I wish I had not; things I felt guilty about and I’ve tried to forget, but I could not because you can’t really forget.  You see, people are like elephants.  We remember, and we grieve like those great beasts, too.  When an elephant loses its mate, it grieves in a way that few other animals do. It grieves because it remembers its lost mate or its lost calf.  We remember our parents, if they have passed away, and we grieve.  We remember things we have done that were wrong or hurtful, things we did selfishly, and we grieve, perhaps because we hurt someone in the process or perhaps because we simply know we did something wrong—something that could, if He exists, offend God—then we grieve.  Something inside bothers us; we can try to forget about it, maybe we even can sometimes, but somehow it’s still there, like bangles on a memory bracelet we got from our grandmother or the hands of a watch that was once our grandfather’s.

That watch’s hands tick, tick, tick, reminding us that we are in chronological time, not simply momentary time.  And that’s where the second thing that Jesus says is so important: I forgive you. I have redeemed you, I have bought you back, and now you’re free. Free from those memories, free from their guilt, free from regrets, free from your sadness.  And He adds: You’re free, too, not simply to enjoy the present, but to enjoy a future, a real future.

How can this be?  “Come on, man,” someone might say, “Get real.  We are living in the twenty-first century. Don’t give me this religious stuff.  It’s a panacea; it’s not reality.”  Let me ask you this: isn’t it possible that we can misinterpret what is right in front of us?  I once spoke to a Catholic priest who told me that the bible is just a bunch of made-up stories meant to help us explore our deeper psychological hang-ups.  I spoke to another priest who told me that Jesus is the Son of God who broke into this world from Heaven and can break into our lives and change everything for the better.  One of those priests went through the motions of Christianity every day.  He gave his parishioners the eucharist, baptized babies, and even preached homilies (God knows what he said in them, though); the other did the same.  One was right on top of Christianity but missed the point; the other got it.

What is that point?  I will close with it, putting it quite simply.  Chronos runs horizontally, like that transept of a church, like the crossbeam of a crucifix.  Our lives are lived on that horizontal plane whether we like it or not.  We have all along the way small kairoi of pain, pleasure, sadness, and joy.  But we may be surprised to know that there is also a vertical beam, just like the central nave of a church or the huge vertical beam of a crucifix, on which the horizontal beam depends.  We may think of it running bottom to top, but from God’s point of view as he looked down on his Son dying on it, it runs top to bottom.  It is God’s moment of kairos, His redemptive entrance into human chronos. He comes into our lives by entering human history with a human name, in human form, not just to teach us, not just to do miracles, but to redeem us. That isn’t merely a metaphor; that’s reality.  And He does the same thing in our lives. He turns up in our personal chronos miraculously, at just the right kairos, more often than not when we least expect Him to.  I told my friend, as I watched him finishing the last dregs of the bitterness in his cup of dark black, and by now quite cold coffee, to be careful lest this moment turn out for him to be a far different kind of kairos than he is accustomed to.  I pray it may be so.


H.R. Jakes with Elaine Jakes a few months before her death.  The answer may be closer than you think.

Common Place Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Studying Palimpsests Naked

Okay, I admit it: I wrote this title just to get you to read this blog.  I admit, too, that I have done so before, when I wrote “The World’s Best Naked Exercise Program” last year.  So, I confess, too, that the word naked is, if not gratuitous, at least meant to be an attention grabber.

Well, the rock isn’t exactly an ancient manuscript, but you get the idea.

But this time, I would argue, it is really justified, because almost no one knows off-hand what a palimpsest is.  So “naked” just offsets the inherent boringness in the word “palimpsest,” even if no one knows what it means.

Not exactly a manuscript, but you get the idea again.

So what does it mean? And what does it mean to study a palimpsest naked?  For I didn’t just put naked in the title exclusively to offset any potential ennui.  Rather, I put it in for a reason, for a palimpsest is a text, normally written on vellum (calf skin) that has been written smack on top of another text.  The original text has been scraped off, normally in the middle ages, because vellum codices were then, of course, very high-dollar.  That scraping process stripped the text bare, removing the original text so that a new one could literally be superimposed upon it.

The problem is, of course—at least for philologists like my friend about whom I write from time to time—that the really important text is the earlier one.  More often than not, there are numerous copies of the tawdry superimposed text, but very few, very rare copies of the first text.  The process of making that text naked nearly destroys it.


Fragment of text New Testament (dating to the 6th century); reused in the 13th century
(https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9396897) 

And then I thought a bit, as I often do, and I thought how, if we can think of ourselves as books for a moment, maybe who we are, how we present ourselves to the world, is really represented by the second layer, our “second text.”  Life circumstances have, too often, stripped away the joy of our youth, the hope, the optimism, the idealism that we once had and replaced them with, well, “morals” but morals that really aren’t moral, “sincerity” that really isn’t sincere, human-made “rules” that really aren’t binding. 

But when we were kids, we knew that when someone promises something, they should do it. When our mom promised a birthday party, we were excited, and we never thought for a moment she would renege, would change her mind or forget about us on our special day.  We knew she would put together a nice little party, with silly hats and balloons, a cake and friends. 

Our younger selves, our first text, as it were, believed in that kind of thing—not birthday parties, per se, but people keeping their word, keeping their promises, and we tried very hard to keep our own because as children we knew innately that there was such a thing as right and wrong.  And, though the specifics of right and wrong can vary a bit between cultures, that there is such a thing as right and wrong—well, nearly everyone knows that, or at least nearly every kid does.  And we knew it was right to keep our word.

But the palimpsest that forms our lives, well, that seems to have been inscribed with a second text that isn’t too pretty—I speak for myself. It is kind of political, it’s kind of judgmental and, if we are honest, it’s sometimes kind of pissy, for lack of a better word.  But we have that first layer still, all these years after our idealistic childhood, if we’re lucky enough to have had a dash of idealism in that childhood.  But we can’t get back to it. Or can we?

Well, if we were inscribed with good stuff originally, then it may take a clever palaeographer to bring to light for us the original creation.  You see, if we’re all palimpsests because we were in a library where the head librarian was too cheap to buy fresh vellum, then maybe a new, a far more gracious Librarian can help us see who we were created to be, to discern what our original text was meant to read.  It may be that that new Librarian, because he has been away and out of our lives so long, has to buy back the entire library at a very high price, as such a rare-book library might just house a lot of semi-sacred volumes. 

It is not hard to imagine that that would be the case, as manuscripts, as we said above, are not cheap. And old, precious manuscripts with richly humanistic tales to tell—say the Odyssey of Homer or the Aeneid of Virgil or Augustine’s Confessions—well, those kinds of works cost a lot of money. They are irreplaceable. And, perhaps to our surprise, they are greatly valued by the new Librarian, even of the old one despised them so much as to allow—even to cause—them to be written over with a less than salutary text.  Perhaps it is so with us. We are so used to our second text being read over and over again and we’ve allowed our pages to be turned by so many rough-handed library visitors that we have become that second text—or so it seems, if we only look at the words written on us. 

But there are other words, less visible, hidden beneath. They are beautiful words, far more beautiful than the more common text written over them.  And now maybe that new Librarian can allow that text to come to light, to be restored.  Maybe our first story isn’t merely worth reading—maybe it’s something far more significant than merely a good read, for it’s the real story of our lives.

So, my friend, that’s what reading a palimpsest naked is all about.  I hope you’re not too disappointed that the palaeographers in this story who examine the manuscript are not actually doing so in the raw 😉. Rather, I hope sincerely that, under the angelic flutter of the wings of that new Librarian, we all can find the deeper text, and written on it, deeper meaning.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Simone, the French-speaking Cat

When someone gives you a gift that has a name, you should pay close attention to what they say.  This happened to me—my not paying attention—when a dear friend named Jenny was moving to Boston and gave me her cat. I assumed that the cat was French because when Jenny told me his name I thought she said “Simone.”  Now I spell it “Simone” with an -e because in English, if I spell it Simon, we would say “Simon” as in “Simon says,” even though in French it would be “Simone” as in “Simon dit.” And that is why I thought he was French, because his name was not Simon but Simone, with the emphasis not on the penult but on the ultima.

And thus, I spoke exclusively French with the cat. Now admittedly, my French isn’t perfect, but presumably neither was his; in fact he knew no French at first, as his real name wasn’t Simone but rather “Sumo” because he walked like a Sumo wrestler. But, as I said, I hadn’t paid proper attention when I was given him as a gift and, because Jenny moved to Boston, there really wasn’t much follow up conversation about the cat, besides, “How’s he doing?” “Has he adjusted?” once or twice by telephone. And the answer was, “Yes,” and “He seems to know quite a lot of French,” to which she didn’t really respond; by her tone, she sounded a bit perplexed, I think, by what must have seemed to her a strange statement; but, she made no real response, and thus for a season I remained in the dark about Simone’s actual ethnicity.

It was, in fact years later that I learned that Simone had been spuriously named and, what is more, spuriously enfranchised as a Frenchman.  But he learned French even though he had to start from scratch.  And he did so because he was smart, genuinely so.  For he also learned to use the toilet. He did that by watching our children stand in line for the bathroom on a school day.  Each would use the bathroom as quickly as possible and then the next, and so forth (seven children, all pretty patiently waiting). And then, far back at the end of the line was Simone, the spurious Frenchman. Il a attendu patiemment, et il est allé au W.C. faire la même chose que les autres.  He would climb up on the toilet seat to relieve himself directly into the commode. This was an amazing way to save money on kitty litter (litière pour chat), and made for no messy clean up (tout propre). 

And so it went, year in and year out, until the children all left the house.  Simone was, without doubt, the most intelligent cat we ever had.  He didn’t like to be petted for very long, but did like it more than Piazza. He spoke only French, liked only dry cat food, and was the only cat I ever had who really deserved to be arrogant, for he earned it.

If you want a cat like Simone, my advice is this: speak exclusively French to the cat.  It will lead him or her to believe he is smart and sophisticated. Then, let him observe your children in the morning. And then, of course, give him full access to the bathroom or spa.  And, voilà!  You’ll have a super sophisticated pussy who deserves to be treated like French royalty, and you’ll never have to change your kitty litter.

As Simone would have said, jusqu’à la prochaine fois…

Mayochup is like Simone, a unique blend
(in Simone’s case, a blend of a Frenchman and a cat)

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: On Second Thought

I tried to imagine for a few minutes last night when I was unable to sleep what it might be like to consider the possibility of God almost for the first time.  I wrote a blog a few weeks ago about the fairy world, how believing in a supernatural world is a kind of therapy.  I didn’t make that up; lots of studies say that those who believe in a higher power are more equipped to face the biggest challenges in life. And I don’t need to rehearse here the notion that successful twelve-step programs are founded upon such a principal.  It that blog I called it, playfully but not trivially, fairy therapy. And one of my friends even said that it gave her pause, made her consider, at least for a moment the possibility that there could be a spiritual reality that we can’t see.

And then, I thought, as I lay there in bed last night, about the best way to explain something you can’t see, a spiritual world that is every bit as real as the world we live in, but invisible.  It’s based on faith—that was the idea behind last week’s blog—which, from time to time, can put air under your wings, as it were, even though you can’t see that air. And that air under your wings can keep you from crashing to the ground; literally, I might add, quite literally.

But that was last week’s blog, and the fairy therapy was a few weeks before that. And then I thought, “No, I’m looking at this the wrong way round.  For, in a sense, God’s stamp upon on his creation is visible.  You just have to look for it.” 

Take for example an optical illusion. You look at it one way and it looks like vases or trees or a duck or a dancer spinning, and then you look again, and you see a rabbit, or faces or people’s silhouettes, or that same dancer spinning the opposite direction.

The Romans knew this, and their mosaics often playfully encompassed examples of this strange phenomenon.  Yet this doesn’t really prove anything about there being a spiritual reality beyond the physical dimension in which we live. Not one thing. 

“What’s your point, then?” someone might well ask.  I suppose what I’m really trying to say is that life is simply worth a second thought, worth a second look.  It’s too easy to see suffering, anger, greedy people, as if they were all pillars or vases and just walk away. And I’m not talking here about something sort of kitch, like a t-shirt design—though perhaps a second look at that, too, might just give you a big hint. 

I’m talking about life itself. And if you take a good look at it, maybe, just maybe you’ll find that what was once “luck” should be transformed into providence. What were our personal inadequacies could even be transformed into our greatest strength.  What were once our vices could be utterly discarded and replaced by virtues.  I’m talking about what were once stern challenges being transformed into blessings, prune-faced judgment being transformed into love of our fellow human beings; even self-hatred can be changed into proper (but not gloomy) self-scrutiny; our selfishness into selflessness, our icky self-righteousness, into God’s imputed righteousness.  Yep, that’s what I’m talking about: a reorientation of one’s mind from a life without God to a life where there is practically no way not to find Him, in the eyes of the needy, the words of a wise friend, the embrace of a parent, sister, or one’s child. 

So maybe, just maybe, it all deserves a second thought, and even a second look.  You just might see it all quite a bit differently on second thought.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Turbulence

Untitled-1
Cary Grant. (His stepson, Lance Reventlow to whom he was very close, died in a plane crash.)

On my first flight to Italy as a fully fledged adult—I am not sure as to what age I was precisely, but it had been over a decade since I had traveled to Italy since my college days—I was seated near the back of the plane, in one of those seats nearest the bathroom. I thus couldn’t cause my seat to recline, and, as I was in a window seat, it was hard to access the bathroom, even when it was so close by.

But as it turned out, I didn’t need to cause the seat to recline, for there was an abundance of that fairly standard event in airplane travel, turbulence—so much I couldn’t have slept even if I had wanted to.  Now I fly all the time to gather information for my work, as I am a writer who painstakingly researches my novels, which is why I don’t produce them at a rabbit’s pace.  And as a literal frequent flyer, I can say that while turbulence is not rare, severe turbulence—the kind where you think this flight might just be your last—is very rare indeed. In fact, I have had only two frightening moments when flying, one involving turbulence, the other when the hydraulic system of the aircraft failed. My non-reclining seat was on the first of these, the turbulent ride.

There isn’t much, as a passenger you can do to counteract turbulence. You can drink the rest of your coffee quickly before it spills. You can tighten your seatbelt. You can hold the hand of the person next to you. You can pray. That’s about it. And, of course, I did some of these—I didn’t hold the hand of the dude next to me; seemed inappropriate. But had he been a little old lady, I might well have. I especially did the last of them, that is pray.  Why?

Well, because an old verse of Scripture explains what faith is, and faith is what you do when you pray. I know that may sound weird, but when you pray, you participate in the invisible. And that’s where turbulence pertains to this discussion. It’s about invisibility, invisibility connected to prayer. How? Well, an old verse says that faith is being certain of what you hope for and certain of what you cannot see. And prayer obviously involves faith.

Now how can you be sure of what you cannot see? That’s where the turbulence I encountered on that long flight from JFK to Rome comes in.  The plane would not once or twice, but quite frequently suddenly drop. I mean a long, long way. Sometimes it felt that we were in a free fall of sorts, and I could see from my unique position of the back of the plane the nose of the plane twist to the left or the right during one of these long—spanning several seconds—free falls. At one point the plane pitched forward. People were screaming. And then, bang—and I mean BANG!—the plane would hit another air pocket, and slowdown. You see, when the plane is in a vacuum, it falls like a dead weight. In my case, it dropped and dropped until it hit another unseen, unseen but entirely real thing—air—could catch it.

amy grant
Amy Grant

When the plane was in the vacuum it was all by itself, seeking something to fill the vacuum, something unseen but real. I can tell you that air is definitely real, not simply from having studied physics and other sciences, but actually from dropping several thousand feet until something entirely unseen, but nonetheless very welcome at that moment—filled up the very real void in my life: in that case air. But in the rest of my life, I think my air is something called faith—not religion, but faith. I hate it when someone says I’m religious, for I am not. I know full well how truly irreligious I am. But when someone says I’m faithful—to my friends, to my employer, to my wife and children—well, even though I know I come up short to all of them in true faithfulness, I am glad that at least some glimmer of the faith God gave me as a free gift comes through. It wasn’t religion or religious fervor or religiosity that caught my plane when it was in a free fall. It was, rather, air, and air is like faith. It fills the emptiness, the loneliness that not even the perfect boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, even the perfect looking person—a Cary Grant, a Hugh Grant, Richard E. Grant or Amy Grant—can fill, though granted they’re all fine looking, and probably rather fine people!  But the real filling of the real void—well, that takes air. And without it, your plane can go into a swift and scary fall.

HughGrant

Left: Hugh Grant

Right: H.J. Jakes, imitating a bobcat; in those days (well over a decade ago now) someone told him he looked a bit like Hugh Grant😉)

So what is faith? It may not be a perfect analogy, but I think it is more or less believing in air. I was doing that very thing when my plane was falling.  And I was deeply grateful for that air. For it is faith, and it is also the air I breathe. Open this for a glimpse of that unseen thing, air: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gs_qlCWrPk




Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Love is the Reason

Well, we passed St. Valentine’s Day, and this year I was supremely busy so I couldn’t write a blog about love or romance or huggin’ and kissin’… and maybe that’s a good thing, as this time of year that’s all one seems to hear about. So I did a little research; I had an idea that if people really are “inspired” by St. Valentine’s Day, there would be a higher number of babies born 9 months from that date than in any other month.  The notion made good sense to me.

But there are not.  In fact, it seems that in the United States, at least, the greatest number of babies born are in August.  Which means that the act of conception would have to have transpired around the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday.  Gosh, that’s weird, I thought to myself. Who wants to sleep with anyone on a very, very full stomach?  I still think it’s weird.

But I would like to move away from the question of love-making and get back to love.  For, you see, love and love-making are closely related ideas, but not quite the same.  A husband loves his wife, and the two make love; that makes sense. But you can love someone in another way, too.  In an interview, Michael Learned, who played the mother in the Walton’s, a 1970s TV show, says she loved Ralph Waite, her co-star, but never “ruined” their relationship with one another by taking “that extra step” (to quote Ms. Learned in a recent article about their relationship).[1]

But even the kind of close spiritual bond that they shared is not the love I want to talk about here.  Rather, I would like to talk about the best line I heard in a movie that I recently saw. The movie is the story of a young reporter named Lee Strobel, who is now a professor in Houston, Texas. He began his career as a star reporter for the Chicago Tribune.  The movie is punchy, hard-hitting stuff, and even entertaining.  It’s about Strobel and his whole family’s strange journey from a life in which reason, reality, and even a touch of gloom dominated their thoughts to a belief in possibilities, excitement and, dare I say, even the prospect of the miraculous.[2]  But the reason I tell you this is, as I said, the line in question. At a climactic moment in the film, Strobel, who is investigating all the historical aspects of the crucifixion of Christ, ponders why in the world Christ would die on the cross, and he comes to this conclusion: “So love is the reason.” 

That was a profound moment for Strobel in the movie and it’s a profound moment for the viewer, as well.  Love is the reason. You could just put the period there; for everything.  Love motivates, love opens up new horizons, love makes us open to new possibilities, and love can even tempt us to believe in miracles.  I had dinner on Friday with one of my most beloved old friends—I say old, but he’s only 35—we have been friends since he was about 20 (I’m a touch older). He once did not believe in miracles; firmly so. Yet now he does. What happened?  Did he see miracles?  (Yes he did, but only because he was by then looking for them).  For what happened in the meantime was, well, the line from the film: that’s what happened. He first saw that love in a great college professor named Carl Vaught.  That could have been miracle enough.  But he saw the love elsewhere, and now he carries that love with him and conveys it to all he touches. And, if I may say, this young man touches a lot of people, and not just because he has an Oxford PhD; he has touched me with his love that his simultaneously his own and also a gift he received, a gift of the cross.

I close with that thought: love.  I hope, even pray, that it may surround you, envelop you, even from time to time embrace you.  For that is what love does.


[1] https://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/waltons-star-michael-learned-says-she-and-tv-husband-ralph-waite-were-in-love

[2] The film is entitled, after a book that Strobel wrote, “The Case for Christ.”  Despite its rather pedantic sounding title, I warmly recommend the film. The second great line of the film was a paraphrase of C.S. Lewis’ statement that if Christianity is wrong, it is of no great consequence; but if it is right, well, “that changes everything” and life is filled with wonder and “impossible” possibilities.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Self-Detoxification

In these days of relentless torrents of self-help blogs and the endless bombardment of intended-to-be-helpful-but-laboriously-over-linked Twitter posts, who wants to read another blog on self-detoxing? But, this is not a cleanse, not something you eat that makes your bowels do weird things and “cleans out” your system. That’s too gross and well beyond my purview.  No, today’s blog is not about that.

It is a well-known fact that every psychologist or psychotherapist, priest or rabbi, guru and even your local yoga instructor will tell you that to be psychologically healthy you need to forgive yourself. There’s a wellness website (and a pile of other websites like it) dedicated to that very theme.[1]  It might be harder to do if you’ve murdered someone or stolen from an elderly person than if you simply snapped at your parents or snubbed a friend or forgotten your anniversary.  But in each case, a person cannot really heal until he or she forgives himself.

Yet in a piece that I read this week[2] entitled, “The One Thing You Should Never Say to a Toxic Person,” the message was made clear in just a few paragraphs that one should never say, “I’m sorry,” to a toxic person.  Now I spent some time (maybe too much time) thinking about this. What if, I thought to myself, you do something like the things mentioned above—aside from murder, of course, for the person would, indeed, by then be dead—to that “toxic” person.  Shouldn’t you apologize?  NO! is what that article screams: under no circumstances are you to do so, because to do so means you’re “giving in to the situation.” 

And then, amidst these ruminations, I thought some more.  Who are these “toxic” persons?  And then I thought, what if I am a “toxic” person. And then I thought—clearly, I was thinking a bit too much—who isn’t a toxic person?  I mean who doesn’t do stupid things, say stupid things, behave irrationally or behave in unfriendly wise from time to time?  And then I thought of the basic problem I was having with the article—it was lumping people into categories. There’s a presumption of “us”—that’s you and me; we’re in the “good,” non-toxic category, versus “them” (the bad, toxic people that seem to intrude upon our presumably otherwise charmed lives).  That’s a good-guys and bad-guys mentality.  But are we really non-toxic, like Crayola Crayons?

When a good young man comes to Jesus in the bible and calls him “Good Teacher,” Jesus doesn’t object to the teacher bit, but he challenges the young man about the “good” part.  I won’t belabor this point; let me just say that the gist of that passage (Mark 10) is simply this: everybody is a toxic person. St. Paul says the same thing in a different way (Romans 3:23).

So, then I thought, if we are all toxic folks, and if we have to forgive ourselves, among others, to have any sort of peace in our lives, don’t we have to apologize to ourselves (and others) for our (hopefully not-too-pervasive but probably worse-than-we-realize) bad behavior?  But if we’re not allowed to apologize to toxic people then we can’t apologize to anyone, including ourselves.  And if we don’t apologize to ourselves, can we forgive ourselves?

Okay, I admit it: clearly, I have overthought this thing.  But transcending my labyrinthine ruminations and their concomitant natterings I would leave us all and myself with this challenge: let’s not look at others as toxic, but look at ourselves instead and say, you know, how can I get my own toxicity out of my life?  I think one way is to say I’m sorry whenever it’s warranted. And to say please. And to say thank you.  Elaine Jakes taught me these basics a long time ago, and, you know, I have a feeling that she was right.


[1] https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-forgive-yourself#1.

[2] https://finance.yahoo.com/news/one-thing-never-toxic-person-140500923.html.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: You Just Can’t Make This Stuff Up

A fecund imagination can cook up a lot of things.  Elaine Jakes had a fecund imagination. That is, I suppose, the reason why, when she told me about her veterinarian who wore a turban and used a magic wand I was, understandably perhaps, skeptical.  Needless to say that story was true and made it into the Curious Autobiography (pages 191-94), even though I was worried at the time that no one would believe it when they read it; but, like the rest of that book, it is based on fact—I was there to witness it—because you just can’t make that stuff up.

Another story that is alluded to but not fleshed out in the Curious Autobiography is the account of the very cat that we took to that veterinarian, Piazza della Minerva, or just Piazza, for short.  (She was named after that square.) If you read what comes next, you might be disinclined to believe what this cat would do. Let me begin by saying I don’t know why the cat did these things. It was a calico, and calicos are sometimes a little weird (even for a cat). 

Cats are, I probably don’t need to tell you, not the same as dogs. Highly funded animal studies at top research show time and again that cats are not as intelligent as dogs.  But these must be wrong.  No cat I have ever had (except for Coco, who was really an unintelligent cat) has been as dumb as any dog I have ever owned.

Piazza della Minerva[1]

Now dogs are smart in a particular way.  They can learn to do certain things; they are trainable.  They can sniff like nobody’s business, and the can help law enforcement in remarkable ways. I’m not trying to put down dogs here. But cats, they are smarter because the pretend to be unteachable. They pretend a lot of things. Dogs rarely pretend, and when they do its really kind of cute, because you can tell that they are lying.  They are, in that way, very childlike.

But cats—they are good at disguising things.  Give a dog a pill and he will either eat it because it is wrapped in cheese or a slice of turkey breast, or he will spit it out right in front of you and, if he looks up at you, he will look guilty about it. Give a cat a pill, and she will carry it to some other part of the house or apartment and spit it out. She might even try to bury it under the edge of the rug, if she really doesn’t like the pill. 

And while dogs can be bad, cats can be downright diabolical.  Let us return to Piazza, for example. Somehow, and I shall never know how, Piazza used to climb up on ledges that run atop an interior door.  She would literally perch on the top of the doorframe and wait for a human being to walk beneath. And when that person did so she would leap onto the person’s shoulders.  It seemed to be some kind of game.  Most of the time she would miss and then grab onto the person’s chest with her front claws and slide down the person until about the waistline. This was disconcerting to me and my wife, who lived with the cat.  It was even more disconcerting to our guests. 

If you want, you you can buy a silhouette of a cat on your doorjam from Etsy.com.[2]

The problem was, of course, that when the cat would grab onto us, its claws would create great furrows in our skin, usually our chests.  This was less of a problem for me, as I normally wore a button-down shirt to work, with a tie and jacket to hide my scars.  But my wife, as many women do, wore a blouse. Blouses are normally open and airy, and it is quite possible to see furrows in one’s skin when one wears a blouse. 

And of course, one has to explain furrows.  “What happened to your chest?” was the normal line of questioning that she encountered at work from a colleague, her boss, or even a customer—she worked at J.C. Penny at the time in the complaints department. (Needless to say, the folks who frequent the complaints department are a bit more direct than those who merely go shopping.)   Some people would mutter that she was “obviously self-mutilating” or “clearly having marital problems.” Still others, with the fecund imaginations with which this piece opened, made up stories about her moonlighting as a welder or as the operator of a milling machine. (This last group obviously had too much time on their hands.)

            A vertical milling machine.

Now we tried to train the cat away from this behavior, of course.  I would hold the cat aloft near the ledge and tell her, “No, bad cat. No jumping.” But it never worked. And no one ever believed us unless they came over for dinner, even though we would warn them. But then the dinner party would wear on, and we would all have a glass of wine or two and then they (and, incredibly but invariably, we ourselves) would simply forget to look up before passing through one of the door jams in the apartment. That’s precisely when Piazza would pounce. And the visitors were, needless to say, distressed, even if the cat did land successfully upon their shoulders and not cause a furrow.  Some would even cry out audibly.

Why do I tell you this story? Simply to demonstrate that if you have a cat you really don’t need a fecund imagination.  Perhaps next time I shall tell about Simone, the cat that only spoke French. There is really much more to the story than that. But that, another time, for you just can’t make this stuff up.

Simone, the French speaking cat… for another blog.


[1] Photo by Lalupa – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2414592

[2] https://www.etsy.com/listing/222705997/wood-cat-door-topper-four-poses?gpla=1&gao=1&&utm_source=google&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=shopping_us_e-home_and_living-other&utm_custom1=a8271f2b-8db3-4af7-ab47-9a1a639f884a&utm_content=go_270949475_21143549195_69017208515_aud-537409439212:pla-106550423075_c__222705997&gclid=CjwKCAiAsoviBRAoEiwATm8OYKOx02rTxPI6VTSJKEfnA27bQQ40zNxrchDnSHlBkePF7YcDAaWumBoCSG0QAvD_BwE