Tag Archives: courage

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Life in the Old Country

I’m afraid the title of this blog is a bit misleading. It sounds like I really know something about the old country, Wales—that I know specifically what it was like for the Jones clan, the Evans clan, the Hughes clan or the Eynon clan. I don’t. In fact, I can only imagine what it must have been like in mid-nineteenth century Wales. I can get a rough idea, though, from a piece by Chris Evans (a distant relative?), who in 2012 wrote a for the BBC on mid-nineteenth century Wales. Evans describes the most difficult of living conditions, living conditions that, even if they were not quite as harsh in Llwynhendy, a hamlet contiguous with Llanelli, as they were in Merthyr Tydfil, were undoubtedly hellish nonetheless.

How do I know? They left. By “they,” of course, I mean the Jones’ and the Evans’. The Jones’ didn’t bring much with them—just the contents of a black trunk marked with the name of Lucy Jones on the lid. But they most certainly did leave, and to cross an ocean, surely never to return, takes more than courage.

Courage is only the first step. It is not borne out of a desire to see the world or a quest for new opportunity. Rather, it requires a desire to get away from something, a strong desire. And what would the Jones’ and Evans’ have been fleeing? Well, if the article cited above is correct, it was the oppressive industrialization of Wales, from coal to ironworks, and the concomitant lack of opportunity for even the brightest to break out of the virtual caste system that they had been born into. If your father was a miner, you would almost certainly be one, too. If your father worked in the iron industry, chances are, were you a young man, you would, too.

And if that were not push enough, add to it a notable lack of educational opportunities. Now I’m not talking just about a robust liberal education, the kind I wrote about last week—the kind that allows the student to learn English literature, mathematics, science, art, and offers two years (at the very least) of language study. Rather, I’m actually speaking about education on a much smaller scale—what we would refer to as a basic high school education, or even a technical education that permits the person who receives it to move up the social ladder one or two rungs, not ascend it all at once. But to say that such educational opportunities were scarce in the mining towns of Wales would be a gross understatement. They simply did not exist. Yet how did David Evans, whose musical influence upon the family was profound—my daughter owns and still plays his violin—learn to play the violin, you might ask, and how did he get his hands on such an instrument in the first place?

The answer to that is shrouded in a bit of mystery, but suffice it to say that David would seem to have been born in America; whether his mother or father had been able to play the violin in Wales, we shall never know. But we can imagine. While we can imagine that he was likely not to have been the first person in the family to have musical ability—any Welsh miner could sing good Welsh hymns at Sunday service or even as he walked to work on a weekday morning—it is likely that David Evans was the first person in the family to play the violin, or even to be able to afford one. He would, himself, go on to write lovely Welsh hymns, one or two of which he co-wrote with a certain Reverend Hugh Griffith, whose name figures prominently in the Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes.

After such struggles, the descendants of David Evans, through the Jakes line, have had the great privilege of studying music at a major university in Texas with an excellent school of music and liberal arts. Sadly, even as I write this, however, that very university’s college of liberal studies is considering severely reducing its core requirements—the pitiable indulgence of the constant Sirens’ call for “practical” education. Hopefully, as there is more at stake merely than joi de vivre and simply beauty—there is, too, at stake truth, not the Keatsian parallel of truth and beauty but the truth that lies deep in a man’s soul, the profound truth that a woman like Lucy Hughes Jones was willing to travel across the sea to obtain—that truth is at stake, as it is, and must always be, the central goal of true liberal education. It needs to be preserved for a new set of dreamers, a new generation of immigrants longing to discover through music, art, science, mathematics, literature and language study the eternal Truth that has formed us and continues to shape us, and ultimately that binds each and every one of us together in complex, yet profoundly simple, humanity.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Three C’s plus one for the Holidays

christmas-decorations First, let me say that rambling on about words that start with “C” is unlikely to be quite as ridiculous as suggesting that one should vote based on the latest trends in syllables, whether more or less of them. Yet that’s precisely what I suggested a week before the presidential vote. And apparently the notion of a more syllabically flexible presidential name prevailed, because someone named Donald John Trump was elected, whose name has but a grand total of a slender four syllables, even with the middle name; yet when one adds a “The” to the front his name—and many have called him “the Donald”—one then gets the expanded version of five syllables. And that, my friend, is greater syllabic flexibility than Hillary Clinton could offer, even with her maiden name inserted.

Then, a few days after the presidential vote, someone offered me a safety pin so that I could indicated to anyone who saw me that I was “safe to talk to” about the election results. I think the idea was to comfort those who were afraid because the Donald had been elected. Of course I declined the offer of the safety pin, for I learned in college that my best interlocutors were my professors who were more like Socrates than unlike him. And then, just as she offered me the safety pin, the question of “What would Socrates do?” (WWSD) occurred to me, and I decided that it would be better to play the Socratic gadfly whenever possible. As such, I would, I thought to myself, challenge that interlocutor to courage, not safety. But then I’m not keen on safe spaces, as I think they can be dangerously deceptive. The world is not a safe space; heaven is. To try artificially to make a heaven of earth—ask John Calvin sometime how that worked out in Geneva—would certainly involve misleading someone, likely to their detriment. And thus I declined the safety pin. I told the person I was not “safe” and that I did not want to be viewed as such. Another person, with whom I was walking at the time, laughed audibly, and the disillusioned safety-pin-donor went on her way.

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But that is off the topic, as the first word is not challenge but “courage.” For courage is what we need in this dark world and wide. Courage to press on, courage ever to seek the best, not just for ourselves but for our communities as well. Courage well applied, involves transference of that courage also to those around us. And that may involve challenging someone to courage. And that is why I declined the safety pin.

The second C-word is “Christmas,” of course. I was reminded of Christmas today when I heard some carolers in a hospital in Houston singing quite beautifully Christmas carols. Of course, properly, the C-word should be an A-word, “advent.” But as advent leads to Christmas, I think it is safe to use the more definitive, if syllabically identical, term.

The third C-word ismd-anderson “cancer.” By cancer I do not mean the astrological sign “Cancer,” nor do I mean the Latin word cancer, which actually signifies a “crab” or “crawfish,” even though a crawfish is much more like a lobster than a crab. Rather, by cancer I mean just that, cancer, the destructive and debilitating disease. And I mean it because I was in Houston this week in a large hospital complex known as M.D. Anderson. There I saw some noble souls battling cancer with courage, and doing so just now in this Christmas season. None seemed to me to be feeling sorry for himself, none seemed overly concerned with the fact that that her hair had fallen out. One and all, so it seemed, presented the face of courage, of confidence, yet another C-word—the “plus one” of our title. And that confidence and courage were not the regular kind that many of us have. Rather this was a case of courage and confidence in the face of the imminent danger of cancer.

houston-hospital-complexThose folks’ confidence may have derived from them being in the midst of such a vast medical complex, imposing in its size, rife with competent research doctors, kind nurses, and a wonderfully caring staff. Or, perhaps, it came from the fact that they saw so many like themselves walking around—still walking, still living, still fighting cancer. Or it may have been generated by or at least fostered by the Christmas carols they heard being performed in the lobby, carols of hope and renewal, of God caring about mankind so much that he became a baby in a stable. Or was it something that was infused in them from a spouse, a friend, or maybe even God himself? In any case, courage and confidence went together there and seemed to me to take some of the fear out of the word cancer.nativity-sceneAnd I wish you all but one, of course, of these C-words, this advent season. If you happen to have the one I certainly don’t wish upon you, then I firmly hope that the other three will be there to help you stand against it.” If you’re fortunate enough never to have the Latin crab or crawfish eating your body away, then I pray that you’ll know those other three for whatever challenge, whether health related or not, you might encounter. And I know that these good C-words—courage, confidence and Christmas—exist (to which we could add others like care, comfort and compassion), for I saw them in the faces and heard them in the voices of some quite ill, but in many ways very healthy, people in Houston in a hospital called M.D. Anderson.

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Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Human Trafficking vs. Human Homing Ping

Why do strange things happen to me when I am flying? I mean, of course, flying in an airplane, to which event I shall return momentarily, for otherwise, the only time I fly is when I am in my dreams and this blog is not to be about dreams, unless one were to regard the ping as a dream.

That ping is the internal homing device that I believe every one of us has. Not all can hear it, or rather, not all choose to hear it. But it is there. It is that place, whether merely idealized and dreamlike or (likely also idealized and) real, where we feel that “home” is. We long for home, and our literature, art and culture reflects this longing.

Not every literary work, of course, does so. Some are steamy romance novels that really don’t reveal the homing ping at all—or do they? Could, even in a salacious adulterous affair, there not be a desire for a kind of fulfillment that is, though a perversion of the real thing, found in perfect love? And that love, or at least the nurturing, accepting and forgiving aspects of it, are reflected in true romance, true love, and true family that results from true love. But I wax St. Valentinian too far in advance of February 14.

That ping, as I was saying, most often harks back to one’s childhood, and I was thinking of it because over the weekend I had been in Wilkes-Barre, where I was born, and New Hope, where I grew up and I heard that ping very distinctly, standing in front of the old homestead, visiting my mother’s and grandparents’ gravesites. If you are among the lucky, you have had something like a family and a home and you innately know that home and family are what you craved then and what you ultimately crave, more than the ephemeral delights that the world tells you are important. You know that living in the here and now, living for the moment, will not satisfy. You know that there is home, somewhere, possibly a physical place (a town, for example) or possibly an ideal setting (the notion of a fireplace and a family, or even the heavenly realm) that beckons you. That is the ping. And this is why, of course, Christmas is a popular holiday, even among those who do not believe that there was a baby born in Bethlehem or that that baby grew up to teach profoundly and heal defiantly.

But that aside, as now having established, I hope, in but a very few paragraphs, that there is such a thing as the ping, I must speak about flying, or more specifically the last flight I was on just a few days ago when an aggressive, middle-aged, physically fit man carrying an opened laptop computer climbed over me. Before I could extricate myself from my safety belt, he said, “That’s my seat. Do you mind?”

“Of course not,” I said, wiggling out of his way.

Not a word was exchanged until a young woman sat between us. I told her that I was a writer; she was mildly interested but, being a businesswoman, admitted that she doesn’t read much but prefers podcasts. I had nothing to offer her, as I have no podcasts. I’m not sure how to make one, though I, too, have listened to them (in my case, in non-English languages, as they are an excellent way to hone one’s language skills). I turned to my writing, she to a conversation with the man who had climbed over me, also a businessman, as I could not but fail to overhear.

Now I paid little attention to their conversation, as I was writing, something I much like to do when I am travelling. But it was hard not to overhear or to believe I must have heard wrong when my climbing fellow traveler said to the young woman, “Well, you know, kids make those things” (referring, I think to an article of clothing that he was responsible for importing for his company), “but I don’t have a big problem with that. I’m not sure what’s so wrong with an eight-year-old working in a factory in China.”

“Me neither,” she responded. “I had …”

“Kids that age should be playing or going to school,” I interrupted, barely able to restrain myself. “It is wrong for a little kid to have to work forty plus hours per week in a factory.”

“That’s your cultural expectation,” he responded curtly. “You believe that because in the culture you were raised in, kids playing or learning was the norm. But there, work is often a part of their schooling. Look, it’s a well-known fact that in other cultures there are other norms, other rights and other wrongs.”

boy with trash“No, I said. There are not. Those kids have no future in such an environment. They are often exposed to harsh chemicals that dramatically shorten their lives …”

He interrupted, “Many are helping to support their families. Suppose one of them had a sick parent or something.” It struck me odd that if he felt he had such an ironclad argument that he would, before he could make his case about the rule immediately divert to what would obviously be an exception to it.

“I started working when I was twelve,” piped in the young businesswoman, no doubt finishing her previous thought. “It didn’t do me any harm.”

“Working part-time after school and working full-time in a sweatshop (neither of them seemed familiar with that term or the history that is incumbent upon it) are two different things. I worked on a farm when I was a kid, but it’s not the same as an unsavory factory situation where children can get ill from the working conditions and don’t have a proper childhood.”

“There you go again,” quoth he, “imposing your cultural expectations. Besides, if they get sick and die, just ‘Get another thousand of them.’ That’s what a friend of mine says. There are plenty of people in China.”

Muckraker photo
Cover of 1901 magazine which published articles by muckrakers.

“Not to be a muckraker, but have you ever visited these factories?”

He paused only slightly, seemingly thinking that I had dubbed myself something other (perhaps a more than merely a four-letter word) than a muckraker, as he was clearly not familiar with that term, either. Then he said, “No, and I don’t need to,” though surely with no malice aforethought for that would require forethought, of which he had none. “My culture is not theirs, my values are not theirs. I can’t impose my values on their culture.”

I would point out here that his response sounds more sophisticated than it is. Though it masquerades as a radical form of enlightened cultural tolerance, it is actually nothing more than a rabid form of moral relativism that is in bed with big business and market-driven morality.

“Well, I have visited them,” I said. “There, children only worked; they didn’t laugh or smile or goof around. They were not able to play like normal children. They concentrated merely on the task at hand and nothing else. And I was told by my guide that they often get sick, even die, especially when exposed to chemicals or find themselves in bad working environments.”child in sweatshop“Then you just ‘Get another thousand’,” was the not-too-swift man’s swift reply.

Now at this point, had we not been in an airplane and had the year been 1985 or earlier, I think I just might have reached clear over the woman between us and smacked him full fist. But nowadays you get sued for that kind of thing, sadly, and probably arrested once the plane touches down. No, I did not take a poke at him. I was merely incredulous: this fellow was actually advocating a kind of human trafficking, or at least abuse of children, and he was proud of it. He was in favor of a type of slavery or serfdom. He would deny those children any sense of the ping one could possibly feel about home that develops (or at least should be given the chance to develop) during one’s childhood. In short, he would, in the name of business, take away children’s very childhood.

As I sat there the rest of the flight, it was impossible for me to write. Instead, I thought about those children, their lives, and said a prayer for them. I hoped things were better now, in China, than when I was there some twenty years ago; yet I feared they may not be better. Thus did I ponder, trying not to glance over at this ethical ne’er-do-well, reflecting on what I was feeling, emotions ranging from sadness to indignation to flat-out wrath.

My homing ping was stronger now than it had been when I got on the plane that morning. Though I was coming from home, I felt the call to go home, not only for myself but for my friends, the Chinese children whom I knew might never have time to feel it for themselves. It’s funny how having a forty hour or more work week in a factory might just take the sense of childhood out of someone, suppressing the ping, maybe even muffling it forever.

Just then another type of ping went off in the aircraft. It was time to fasten our seatbelts and prepare for landing. As we touched down, I hoped that those Chinese children could, at least, dream. Could they dream, perhaps, that they were flying?

And then, as we stood up to disembark, I punched the bastard.

Fight club passNo, I’m kidding. Rather, I thought that, were he ever somehow miraculously to stumble upon this blog, he might just need a recipe, one handed down, if only imperfectly, in the Jakes’ family. Nevertheless I would here offer it to him, and myself, and all of us.

Human Being Recipe child working hands