Tag Archives: Axel Munthe

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Amen

Harry and Blanche Jakes

It is a strange thing when you find out that a name actually fits the person or thing that it has been attributed to. For example, Harry means not “Duke of Sussex” but “Lord of the House,” and in the case of my grandfather, Harry Jakes, the latter title was indeed a very good fit. The name of his wife, my grandmother, was “Blanche.” I’m not sure how “white” was a good fit for her, albeit she was quite fair skinned; so, I suppose it could work. The name of her mother, my great-grandmother was Elizabeth, meaning “God is an oath,” itself meaning, of course, that God keeps his promises, which He certainly did in Elizabeth’s life and legacy. To which I can here give a heartfelt Amen, if belated, as Lizzie Ann passed away quite a long time ago; yet, her legacy lives on (e.g. in her great-great-great-grandchild, named Zoey, a name suited for its living on in) through the lasting remnants of the love she bestowed so freely.

But that’s people. What about animals? Well, my mother had a cat named Biggest that was curiously small; she named it as a kitten, and thus, when that name didn’t work out, there was a lesson to be learned: don’t name kittens based on their potential size.  

Her cat named Dammit got me into trouble at school. “What is your cat’s name, Yvonne?” Mrs. Hendrickson asked my class when I was but a small child.  

“Mittens,” Vonnie Ort replied.  

“And yours, Gregory?”

“Fluffy,” said Greg Pauwels.

“And yours, H.R.?”

“Such an awkward name,” I thought, even as a child. But then I didn’t hesitate any longer but quickly responded, and quite loudly at that, “Dammit!” Of course, in response to such apparent profanity (though it wasn’t profanity proper, as I was merely citing my mother’s cat’s actual name), I would wind up quite quickly in the principal’s office, and I deserved it, I suppose, as I relished being different than the other children.

But what about objects? For unknown reasons, my son named the car I bought him when he was graduated from high school, “Marty.” As it turned out I had a good friend named Marty, but that was mere coincidence. In any case, I inherited Marty the car because I am a writer and writers don’t make a lot of money, so they inherit their children’s hand-me-downs, rather than the other way round as happens in normal middle-class families. And I drove Marty (the car) until he died. Elaine named her last car Matilda. I named one of our dogs Hilda Pennington-Mellor Munthe, after Axel Munthe’s second but by far best wife. I think I would have been in love with Hilda had I lived in her age and come into her orbit, for she cared about the poor and was graceful at all times, it seems to me at least. Maybe she also loved animals like Axel Munthe, which is one reason I love him, as well.

Drawing of Axel Munthe by Salvatore Federico.

But that doesn’t solve the question about naming objects.  To shed some interesting light on it, however, I offer an item that has been in the news of late. This past week, in fact, two teenage friends, Tyler Smith and Heather Brown, students at Christ’s Church Academy, went swimming at Vilano Beach near St. Augustine, Florida. A riptide or the like pulled them quite a way off shore; according to the account in the news, some two and a half miles. They desperately tried to swim back to shore, but to no avail. Just when they were running out of energy, they prayed to God (where else?) for help.

Meanwhile, a crew of men on a boating adventure had set out some time before from Delray Beach, New Jersey under the guide of Captain Eric Wagner. (For those of you unfamiliar with American geography, that is quite a long distance from Vilano Beach.) Interestingly, Wagner said they had decided to go out to sea despite seeing threatening waves caused by possibly inclement weather conditions.  And, as it happened, Wagner and his men heard the young couple’s by now fading cries for help. It a matter of minutes, Wagner and his men pulled the flagging couple to the safety of what must have seemed an ark of refuge, even if Wagner and his men were not, to my knowledge, transporting any animals. When the young couple learned the name of that vessel, they burst into tears. Why? That craft’s name turned out to be, strangely enough, Amen. Yes, that is its name, and boats are not often christened Amen any more often than pet baboons are Billy.

It’s a strange thing when you find out a name fits. In the case of that vessel, the name is far more fitting than my having named one of our dogs Hilda Pennington-Mellor Munthe or, in the case of my mother, a cat Biggest or her monkey Betsy; yes, Elaine had a monkey and she named it Betsy, thinking it would make a good sister for me. You can read about it on pages 85-98 of the Curious Autobiography. And, by the way, Axel Munthe also enjoyed simian company, if enjoyed is the right word. In fact, he had a baboon named Billy, which lived with him in his apartment in Rome, an abode formerly inhabited by John Keats.  

To all that, all I have to say is a hearty Amen. You never know when your prayer will be answered and you’ll be scooped up by someone when you’re feeling lost at sea, someone you never thought you’d meet, someone who set out into a storm, metaphorical or otherwise, in spite of the danger. Yes, in a way he couldn’t have anticipated, by the grace of God, Captain Wagner, who did just that, was a hero. And Heather and Tyler know that their prayer was truly answered, for which no doubt they will always be thankful. May we all be courageous enough to put out into deep water to rescue another. And, should the situation arise, may just such a wayfaring hero happen upon you, courageous enough to pull you out of life’s sometimes overwhelming tides just when you need it. To which, I hope you’ll join me in pronouncing yet another Amen.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Coincidence and Morality

Coincidentally, I was in a hotel shuttle with a couple who hail from Oskarshamn, Sweden. “What a small world,” I said. “One of my favorite authors, Axel Munthe, comes from there.”

“Oh, yes,” they said, “we love Axel Munthe.” They were on their way to Disneyland, but I on quite another errand of consulting for a Californian liberal arts college.

“It’s a small world after all,” I said, not being able to resist, once I had discovered where they were heading. Chuckles all round.

But the essence of today’s blog is yet another coincidence. Not that seeing my old friend from high school was coincidental, for it was not. Indeed, a few weeks before we had planned the rendez-vous at a restaurant on the San Clemente pier; and what spectacular views of the Pacific coast can be seen from that pier! And the conversation was loaded with coincidences, too, if you believe in that sort of thing, for it takes a certain kind of faith to believe in coincidence. I haven’t that faith; I rather invest mine in Providence.

 

A quick synopsis of the conversation with John: life, family—kids in particular—jobs. And that is when it got interesting—how he had gotten his current position through a labyrinth of coincidences. And mine, too, I said. How I had come to be writing what I am writing now—no, I shan’t tell you, my reader, as that must remain between me and John until it is completed—and so much more. My work in California, and the potential for more where that came from, and on and on. All of which was loaded with coincidences, coincidences that can, in my view, best be explained by Providence, as it seemed that some of them were so coincidental as to suggest the evidence of the intervention of a divine hand, a divine plan.

“As you know, I am a moral agnostic,” John said, and then he added with a wry smile, “Probably the only happy agnostic I know.” I agreed that he is one of the few truly content moral agnostics that I know. And I agreed that he is moral, for he is. He lives by a moral code. And in spite of his clearly moral posture, a friend had, he shared with me, given him a copy of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. I told John about an old friend of mine, a doctor also named John, who had read that book and become a Christian.

“Yet,” I added, “I think you would enjoy C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity more. It’s really written for moral agnostics.” I then recapitulated a bit about C.S. Lewis’ life and his connection to J.R.R. Tolkien and the other Inklings.

We parted, John generously picked up the tab, and I got in my car and thought of what I should have added, of course, about morality, for I agreed with him that these days our society needs a good dose of morality and its twin sister civility. But what I didn’t state as clearly as I might have is that morality must have a source, an authority outside of ourselves, for if morality just comes from within us, one person’s morality could look very different from that of another’s. One person might justify stealing or lying or coercing or bullying and even casting aspersions on someone as means to a greater end, while another might see lying or the other nasty behaviors just enumerated as wrong under nearly all circumstances, or even all circumstances. In other words, as Lewis shows deftly in Mere Christianity, we are ourselves not the buoys or the stars and we are certainly not the compass or the magnetic poles. We are, rather the ships, or better the pilots of our own ships, and sailing out of line can damage or even sink our neighbor’s ships, too.[1] Without doubt we, as captains, can and sometimes must use dead reckoning to sail, but that would only be on a cloudy day when we can’t see the sky and we have misplaced our compass. So, being moral is great—good ship captains are welcome—but it necessarily derivative. And then the question becomes, derivative of what source? And that source does in fact matter very much. Do we really want it to be textless, ever-shifting cultural groupthink? Are there not founts (maybe Cicero Plato, Aristotle?) or an even higher source (perhaps the Ten Commandments?) that speak to our moral formation better than pop music, reality T.V. shows, Dear Abby or the op ed page?

Alas, I neither got that far in my thinking nor we in our conversation. Why not? I would like to say it was only because I had a plane to catch, but in reality it was because I am not as mentally quick on my feet as I would like to pretend I am. Yet it was a delight to see an old friend, and a joy to think through the need for civil discourse in a world so fallen, so in need of kindness, so lacking in grace and forgiveness. But there I go again, sounding like someone lamenting, “In my day it was much better…” But maybe, just maybe it was, and the only way back to that day or an even brighter and better one is to find, once again, our moral moorings and, most importantly, the Source that gives those moorings its authority. Not that it was all perfectly clear even “in my day,” but maybe just knowing that it is there at all can be our first step toward what Plato calls “the good,” as we navigate in these waters that have of late become choppy in terms of morality and simply civility. But the faith to get through it, to find the moorings, and to act on their teachings—that’s where coincidence ends and Providence begins.

[1] Lewis, Mere Christianity, Ch. 3, passim.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Amazing Things about Birds

birdsI thought this morning about birds, as I heard them chirping outside of my window. I have always preferred spring to fall because of the chirping of birds, I think. And so boldly did they emit their shrill song this morning that they made me think of spring, even think it was spring as I heard the birds speaking to me from their nests in the backyard’s treetops.

The notion that birds speak to me personally is something not unusual, at least not unusual to me, for when I was a small lad, my mother, Elaine possessed a myna bird t9781480814738_COVER.inddhat could talk. Curiously, Elaine named that bird Cookie after a cat that my grandfather had owned when she was a child, and it could be argued that it was Cookie (the bird) who taught me to speak. She (Cookie, that is) had a particularly saucy vocabulary which she acquired from I am not entirely sure what source and some of the words she said even got me into trouble at school from time to time—that story is recorded in the Curious Autobiography (117f.)—but I won’t mention that bird here, for I am opening my discussion about the amazing quality of birds rather vis-à-vis the Platonic form of bird than my personal experience of bluejayone individually pedagogic feathered animal. And with regard to that Platonic form, it was neither Axel Munthe, nor my Uncle Ed, nor John Keats, nor even Elaine Jakes—a bird aficionado in her own right—who taught me to love birds, particularly birds of the wild. Rather, it was the birds themselves. Their soulful warbling, their strident cries, their playful banter, even their occasional inter-avian argumentativeness or the unique cock of their head that sometimes seems to connote an otherworldly understanding—all these taught me to admire them, even to love them. And so did my sempiternal amazement at their migratory patterns and practices.

To wit, though I have no particular level of expertise when it comes to penguins and therefore rarely participate in water-cooler conversations about them, I was nonetheless surprised to read the story of a Magellanic penguin by the name of Dindim that a caring scientist, Pereira de Souza once saved from an oil spill. The poor animal was certain to die and could not extricate himself—(Dindim has been confirmed to be male)—from the mire until Mr. de Souza fished him out, bathing and feeding the tiny animal until he was sufficiently well to be set free in the wild. Already this story is an amazing one, for the notion of a rescued penguin in Brazil might, at first blush, seem unlikely. It did to me, as I had no idea that any penguin at all would have been anywhere near Brazil. More unlikely, however, is the fact that there is an important tag to this touching story. Dindim returns each year to the home of Mr. de Souza; he does so faithfully, as if he recognizes and owes a debt of loyalty to the one who saved him.

Stranger yet is the fact that the rescue took place over four years ago but nonetheless the penguin has returned each year in late June, staying right through the fall until February. It is possible that the penguin travels to the well-known penguin love-nest Patagonia for breeding and then returns to Brazil. That is not known; it is also possible that he just goes somewhere else to chill out (a fitting expression for a penguin) and then, after a season, returns. But the important thing is not where he goes or how far he travels; that, I suppose, is Dindim’s own business and will eventually be the business of those who study and track him. Rather, the remarkable thing is, of course, that he returns to the one who saved him, the one who rescued him.

Now I am not going to map too tightly onto the habits of the average churchgoer the penguin’s practice, though perhaps it is a good example for us all. And in a teleological sense, perhaps it will prove to be as true for any one of us as it is for the Magellan penguin in question. But I leave that aside to think of the signal quality of that penguin: Dindim’s most striking feature is his loyalty to Mr. de Souza, how he spends his time when he is with his savior. Indeed, the degree of affection that he shows when they are together is remarkable. The penguin treats that human being as if he were his best friend, and thus understands what perhaps few people understand: faithfulness and loyalty, qualities whether innate or cultivated that are too often lacking nowadays.

So this week I have decided to draw for myself a lesson or two from the birds; I’d like to sing every morning—at least in my heart if not the shower—about the joy and blessing of waking up to a new day. And I would like to see clearly in the bird with the obfuscating name of Dindim a shining example of the qualities of loyalty, faithfulness and even steadfastness that we might learn from that particular bird. (I do not mention Cookie here, the myna bird that taught me English). But were Cookie alive today, I am quite certain that she would say, “Learn from the bird, learn from the bird!” And she would be right.

magellanic-penguin
Magellanic penguins