Tag Archives: Dickinson College

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Is Shakespeare Dead?

So did Mark Twain entitle his famous essay that is a sharp, satirical look at Shakespearean authorship. In it he calls attention to the fact that most of the things we “know” about Shakespeare’s life are based on conjecture, the kind of conjecture that is itself, as so often happens with historical authors, back-formed from various details in his corpus. Hilariously, at the opening of the second chapter, Twain writes, “When I was a Sunday-school scholar something more than sixty years ago, I became interested in Satan, and wanted to find out all I could about him,” and he goes on to show how Satan’s reputation is built largely on conjecture, not clear facts. That, of course, is what he compares our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life to.

Twain’s satirical piece is meant to show us that the historical “Shakespeare,” himself largely a theory anyway, is not likely to be the true author of the Shakespearean corpus. He is, rather, likely to be a construct based on bits and pieces of that corpus. What we envision to be his physical body is reconstituted from the body of his work, causing his actual corpse to roll over in the grave. All amusing, all satiric, all well worth a few minutes of your time to read.[1]

I wish that the peevish students of the University of Pennsylvania, where I myself studied literature at one point, had read Twain before they demanded the removal of the picture of Shakespeare from the foyer of the building of the English Department. The painting was replaced with a picture of Audre Lorde, the well-known Lesbian feminist poet who passed away in 1992.

But returning to Shakespeare, I want to stress that while the physical human being, the man who was called Shakespeare is, like Audre Lorde, quite dead—whether he actually wrote any of the Shakespearean corpus or not—the one we call Shakespeare is in fact a tome, a ponderous tome, filled with marvelous plays that come alive for the reader and even more alive for the viewer and hearer of them, the person who goes to the theater to view the spectacle. I can remember my great professor, Philip Ambrose at the University of Vermont, stressing this very point with me in a Greek tragedy class. We were reading the Trojan Women, and he did not want us ever to lose sight of the fact that that play was a sight, a spectacle, visceral, real, meant to be performed, not just read. That is Euripides, and that is Shakespeare. Note the present tense. Euripides, like Shakespeare, is alive today. We can perform them both, we can pick them up. They have become their text and when we read them, when we perform them, we bring them back to life.

But we must, of course, read them, we must, of course, have access to them, and most importantly be encouraged to read them, perhaps in our teen years, especially at college or university. I don’t think most folks will just pick up a volume of Euripides in translation on their own and read him. I don’t think most folks would even think about learning ancient Greek to do so. Indeed, even the headiest college student is not inclined to take a language on his or her own, not inclined to study an ancient language without some reason to do so. Maybe the college will require at least some courses in literature. But the trend is going the other direction, of course, as colleges and universities are increasingly adopting a more practical approach, in some cases becoming more trade-schools.[2] I took a language in college because it was required. I took Latin because I had heard the professor was one of the best that Dickinson had. I only added Greek because that same professor, Philip Lockhart, encouraged me to do so. Years later, at Vermont, reading Greek with yet another Philip, this time with the saintly name of Ambrose, I was so glad I had added Greek those four years prior.

My point is this: if you send your child off to college, I hope you encourage her to go there to get an education, not a job. Of course, you want your child to be employed and to find a vocation that will make him happy, if indeed it is even possible “to find” a vocation. Rather, it is only possible to harken unto it, for the very word “vocation” implies that the job “calls” you, rather than you “find” it. Add to this that true happiness cannot be found in one’s job. It can only be found in one’s heart. You could have a rather unhappy job and still be happy. You could have the perfect job, and be quite unhappy. I know many college professors who fall into this latter category.

No, I’m not advocating that everyone study Greek. But I am suggesting that everyone who has the chance to read Shakespeare do so. He’s alive, even if he is no longer regularly required reading. The same goes for Homer, whether read more quickly in translation or more painstakingly in the original. And Euripides, yes, him too, and Virgil, and Dante, and Milton. Read them precisely because they are alive, and they will tell you something that will last you not one day but a lifetime. And if you’re listening carefully, they may, by the time you’re done reading, have whispered to you the very words that will provide you with happiness, the happiness that can’t come from “job satisfaction” or “finding the right vocation,” but can only come from within, from the heart.

Well, then, is Shakespeare dead? Only if we let him die.

[1][1] Easily found at pagebypagebooks.com.

[2] Alas, the university that I spoke about in last week’s blog did, in the end, decide to produce a rather slender core, cutting out, with a single vote, Shakespeare, Homer and Virgil.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cake

When I was in college, the word “cake” was used to describe an easy course or an easy test. It was “cake,” meaning of course, “a piece of cake.” That’s why, when a close college-professor friend used the word “cake” (oddly over coffee) to describe how the liberal arts core of his university was being gutted, I was surprised. (Now his university is a large, private university in Texas, which for the sake of my friend’s anonymity I won’t mention by name, as he indicated he had some qualms about anyone knowing just who was criticizing the power move by a committee hand-picked by the dean himself.) That said, that word, cake, really jumped out at me as I sat there sipping from my favorite mug, the one with Axel Munthe on it.

“What do you mean?” I queried.

“Well, it seems that students and parents alike,” he said, “don’t find the traditional core valuable enough to want to be bothered to stick with it.” Now I knew, of course, from my own liberal education at Dickinson College years ago what this meant. The core requirements are the traditional courses—some mathematics, at least one (usually two) science class(es) with time in the laboratory, a history course, a philosophy course, at least a couple of English classes, four semesters or the equivalent of a non-English language—at the best colleges and universities about half of the classes a student will take are core classes.

“What do the parents and students have to do with the core?” I asked, though I anticipated the very answer he gave.

“Well, it seems that many colleges are moving to a consumer model—if the customer demands a different product, we have to adapt. And that’s what I mean by there is confusion on the dean’s part about the cake.”

“Cake?”

“Indeed,” he continued. “In caving into the consumer model which is driven by rankings generated by a magazine [sic!], the dean has clearly confused the icing and the cake. He is treading the core of what we are doing as if it were just icing on some pre-professional/job training cake, not the cake itself, upon which the job training and pre-professional job fairs are added like sweet floral decorations on an otherwise finely baked cake. Shakespeare, Milton, Virgil, and Homer are seen as mere icing, and job security as the cake. It’s upside down, man, it’s all wrong. And it seems quite clear that the dean wants it served that way, and he won’t listen to anyone telling him how inverted (and perverse) such a baking process is.”

Now I admit here that his analogy, sweet as it might be, is far from perfect. But it got me thinking. The fact is, when I look back on my own education at Dickinson the courses that shaped me the most were not simply those in my major—okay, as an Ancient Greek major, Homer’s Odyssey had, needless to say, a major impact on me and informed at least the spirit of the Curious Autobiography. But I shall never forget Milton—indeed, to this day I hold many sonnets of Milton in my mind, memorized and there to help me when I need them like Scripture—or Shakespeare or even my physics class or one of even greater impact, an anthropology class that considered South American urban poor. I studied art history, history, archery (for yes, physical education was also required) and drama, too. The core, not my individual major, was the center of my education. My major was, as my dear friend said, the icing on the cake. My education was the cake.

But it was far from “cake.” It was hard. Yet in those days my mother, Elaine, whose story I will here shamelessly put in a plug for you to buy and read, would never have thought to call and complain because I didn’t do so well in my Calculus class—it’s true, I did not. Yet not doing well in that class was actually good for me. The teacher was not a good one, yet I learned great deal from him about how not to teach, and it was amply worth the D+ that I got in that class. I am truly grateful for my broad, liberal education—an education that has stayed with me my entire life and made me into a writer, a blogger, a father, a husband, and even an amateur athlete (to the extent that I am one). Yes, archery and racquetball and a few other physical education classes shaped me (pun intended), as well.

So, where does that leave my friend—I’m afraid it leaves him about to bake a cake upside down, or rather to turn into a confectioner not the baker he signed up to be. He will be in charge of icing only. His Homer class (for he teaches Homer pretty regularly) will be under-enrolled—indeed it will probably cease to exist in a few years. And who will read Shakespeare or Milton, since the class that they were required in will also be out of the core? And many students will know no mathematics now, as it, too, has been removed. I suspect that donors may be less excited about giving to the university, as well. (I have given quite a bit to that university in the past, but now I think my money shall go to my alma mater, Dickinson, where a liberal arts education, I am glad to say, remains intact.) I hope for my friend he can prevail upon the dean to save those classic (if not classical) authors; but he doubts he can. Still, let me close this blog with a “Viva Shakespeare!” if only just for old-times’ sake (or should I say old-times’ cake?).

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cut to the Core

liberal-arts
A Young Man Being Introduced to the Liberal Arts by Sandro Boticelli, c. 1484.

A few weeks ago, in a blog perhaps uninspiringly entitled, “The Difficult Road,” I wrote about how valuable my college education has proved to be, how life-changing a course in anthropology was, how moving a course in history was, how challenging a course in Latin or Greek turned out to be. Hearing, if only imperfectly, the voice of Homer, considering the ways that party politics have stayed constant from antiquity to today, reflecting on the crisis of urban poverty and crime—these are just a few of the core issues that I was privileged to consider at Dickinson College, where I studied so many years ago.

Photo by Doug Kerr

Coincidentally I have a friend who teaches in a college here in Texas which is undergoing deep reflection on what constitutes a liberal education. They are looking at their own core issues. I say core issues because my friend’s institution is, in fact, reexamining what some call distribution requirements but others, more metaphorically, call the core, for those studies do in fact form the very core of what constitutes a liberal arts degree. At his institution there are a number of folks who want to trim that core significantly, chiefly for practical reasons. Some want to see the mathematics requirement eliminated (me genoito, St. Paul once wrote—“God forbid!”), as some students don’t like it; others, the science requirement curtailed, still others, literature and art removed from the core (nefas! [Latin for “an abomination”]) —after all, they say, literature isn’t everyone’s cup of tea—and finally, the study of non-English language done away with (double nefas!). Everyone speaks English nowadays, they argue. Besides, they add, students can simply elect to take those things on their own. And, they add pragmatically, the parents are wont to complain when their children find this or that course distasteful, uninteresting, and—and this is the big one—too time-consuming, too hard. There is no need to impose language or literature or art or even math on anyone. Those who have interest in math, can simply choose to study it; those with interest in language, can do the same. One of their more vocal proponents, so I heard, spoke at a town hall meeting, citing, a la ancient Greek rhetoric, the case of his own children: they simply hate, he stated contentiously, taking “superfluous” courses that are not in their area of study. His children, he apparently argued, would do much better (or at least be much happier) were they allowed simply to take courses in which they had genuine interest. Their grades would be better, their attitude better, their experience of college, much better overall.welcome

Now on the surface of it, that argument might seem to make sense. It is at least in part, right. No doubt the grades of the students—and I don’t mean just one person’s children but all students—would be higher. No doubt the students would seem happier, as they could simply take whatever they wanted. And, at any rate, if they were unhappy, they would have no one to blame but themselves. All true.

But the rationale for core requirements isn’t to make college enjoyable for students. College is, for many people, a very enjoyable and even “fun” time in their lives; but it is fun in spite of, in most cases, not because of the core requirements. I remember signing up for classes that I didn’t really want to take but I was required to take. And I made the most of them. I learned to enjoy a class in something that I failed at first to appreciate because I knew that somehow it was ultimately beneficial. I didn’t know then, but that somehow was the result of a group of faculty members sitting around a table and determining for me what was good for me. Their authority for that assessment lay in their expertise, their study, their publications and, yes, their instincts. They did not consider the complaints of students. They did not consider the much more vociferous complaints of parents. They did not have a “target number” of credits that they were aiming for. Rather, they considered only what they sincerely believed was good for me, or at least me envisioned as the average Dickinson student. And though I didn’t then know precisely why I was thankful for their guidance, I was ultimately very thankful for it.

I say ultimately because at the time—like nearly everyone, I had fun in college in spite of the workload, not because of it—I would never have said that I was happy to have all those distribution requirements. But I understood the reason for them, even then. And perhaps, in some general way, I was grateful for them, even then. I am more grateful for them now because I know what they did for me: they forced me to learn. To learn mathematics, science, art and even Latin. But I would never have been able to say as much then or now, had the Dickinson core been cut to its core, been trimmed, been decimated in the name of some practical goal like the rate of graduation, appeasing overly concerned parents or making students’ college experience generally happier or more enjoyable. In fact, I would have been cut to my own core, for my intellectual and to some extent spiritual core was formed then and now is and will forever be indebted to that liberal arts education that I received so many years ago. I say it again: I would have been cut to what would ultimately form my own core.books-travel

So I wish my friend and his college well. Would that that institution come to its senses and hold fast to the core of its curriculum, of its very being, and preserve its character that it might vouchsafe that character to those whom it seeks to educate for a better life and a better future. What for each student might well become his or her very core is at stake.

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Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Difficult Road

I have a good and richly devout friend who says no one but God can really change anyone. All change, he insists, must come from on high. Well, at some deep, theological level, he may just be right. But in the world in which I live, I’ve seen a lot of things help one at least to see the need for change, and therefore, I think, it may be useful to look carefully at my friend’s formula. Maybe there are a lot of different ways that God changes people. Could he do so through other people, especially those involved in one’s life in certain key ways?

ancient-pathLong ago (in 1372, to be precise) Boccaccio wrote to Petrarch, suggesting that he had been put on the right path by none other than Petrarch himself. That path, Boccaccio states, is the “ancient path” that Petrarch had traced out with so much vigor and talent that “he could not be stopped by any obstacle or even by the difficult road.” Petrarch was, in fact, Boccaccio’s teacher. And what Boccaccio had learned from Petrarch was presumably the same thing that students of another teacher of rhetoric, a millennium earlier, had tried to teach his students: the path of virtue, a path opened by rhetoric and persuasion. That ancient teacher was named Cicero, the Roman statesman/philosopher par excellence. But more on him another time.

For now, I would prefer to return to my friend’s central premise, namely that God alone can transform someone. Again, that may be true in a theological sense, but in a practical sense, I think I agree with Boccaccio: education can, and in particular a great teacher—and that teacher need not be a Petrarch or a Cicero—has a peculiar role in that transformational work. Thus, what is known as a liberal arts education can produce some startling and quite valuable results. LucyJonesTeapot

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Indeed, I would say that the most valuable thing I own is not my great-great-grandmother Lucy Hughes Jones’ tea pot or her not-quite-Welsh (really Bavarian) cheese plate or even the old black trunk that transported them both, but my liberal education. At Dickinson I read Milton for the first time, and he taught me to understand what faith was long before I had faith to speak of. Plato led me to think about the best things—he called them forms—and he did so in his original Greek. Shakespeare taught me how to laugh, to care, to love and even to speak and write more dexterously. And Richard Wright made me at least a bit more aware of what it is like to be scared, make mistakes, and to understand such fear and error by looking through a poignantly pathetic character’s eyes.

And these were just the literature classes. I took an anthropology class, too, that educated me as to how poor so many folks in this world are. Subsequently, I would myself go to China and, later, Ethiopia and understand in person what I had read about and studied years before. And history, what can I say about that? I learned to love history from a great professor named Leon Fitts. He could bring Rome alive like no other. For another history class, I wrote a paper about my family’s history. 9781480814738_COVER.inddWas that the prototype of The Curious Autobiography? I’m not sure, but I think it may have had something ultimately to do with the scribbling down of that collection of tales. And Latin. Where do I start? Where do I end? If in the manner of the forty-third verse of Virgil’s second Georgic, I had a hundred tongues and a hundred mouths, could I ever truly explain?

What changed me the most? While I agree with my devout friend that encountering and wrestling with God is the most transformative moment one can have, one of the most important ways change has come to me is through the echoing ideas that found a permanent seat in my mind during my college years. In any case, I know the answer to a question a bit different from the one that opens this paragraph. That question is simply what the most valuable thing I own might be. I can say without hesitation that that most prized thing is my liberal arts education—not the degree itself but the degree to which it changed the way I think—for by it I learned to embark on Boccaccio’s (or was it Petrarch’s?) ancient path and to appreciate life’s journey along the difficult road.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Chance Encounters and the Pane of Glass

dickinson-college-old-east-building“You see,” I recall him saying as we stood on the dank stairwell of Dickinson College’s Old East Building located at the northeast end of the campus mall, “It is very simple, pal. Either there is one or there is not.” The one he was referring to is, of course, God. Dr. Philip Lockhart had the uniquely Presbyterian knack—to wit, the Westminster Shorter Catechism—of taking the difficult and reducing it to something highly condensed and yet entirely comprehensible.

In response to my query based on the conversation that Dr. Lockhart and I had on that old stairway, Roz replied, “Yes, of course, yes, yes, of course I do.” Roz, along with her husband and nephew, just happened to sit next to me in an airport restaurant in Toronto, where I spent a large portion of the day waiting for my sempiternally delayed plane. Indeed her response was enthusiastic: “I am a Jew. Of course I believe in God.”

9781480814738_COVER.inddI had only asked that basic theological question because I was offering her a slice of the story of Elaine Jakes, a story quite improbable—well, you know if you’ve read the book. For the fact that Elaine had been, mostly at different times, a Jew, Chinese, and African American reveals how each individual vignette elicits the annoying question as to whether the sum of the details of her story could just be coincidence. Frankly, it is just easier to explain if the person you’re telling it to begins with at least a hint of faith—in Roz’ case a good bit more than a hint.

Thus could I relay more confidently one of those improbable stories from the book, and thus did she smile, even chuckle, with amusement and delight. “But how did it happen that you became a writer?” she asked. “How could you decide to become a writer and study Greek and Latin, no less, in college? These are not highly marketable subjects.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero

“That same professor,” I said,” Phil Lockhart, directed me to listen to the voices of the past, to hear what the ancients could tell me not only about history and art and battles but about honor, and justice, and bravery. ‘The words of Plato, Cicero, and Virgil,’ old Dr. Lockhart so sagely said, ‘resound eternally. Learn Latin and Greek so that you can press your ear to the pane of glass and hear them for yourself.’ And he was right, of course. Dr. Lockhart was, like my mother, always right.”

Plato
Plato

Roz, a lawyer by trade raising a son of her own, was astounded, “So a teacher, a single teacher made such a big impact on you?”

“Yes,” I said, “and so did and still do the voices he referred to that I was able to hear through the glass pane. I can still hear Dr. Lockhart’s voice as if it were yesterday. And I learned enough Greek and Latin in college to begin to hear those other, older voices pretty well.”

“But how did you happen to take Latin or Greek in the first place?”

“Well, this is the part that requires some measure of the faith we spoke of earlier, for it, too, involves an improbable string of coincidences. I wound up in Latin simply because on one solitary evening no less than three people—an Alpha Chi Rho fraternity brother whose name escapes me, a future college president named Chris Reber, and his roommate, Russ Fry, if I am recalling his name correctly after so many years, all told me to take Latin instead of waiting a semester for a spot in French to open up. ‘The prof is great,’ they all said independently of one another; ‘You simply have to take Latin!’ or something to that effect.”

And that prof was, of course, none other than Phil Lockhart. “He and the voices behind the pane of glass,” I continued, “all left quite an impression on me, ever directing me to higher moral ground, better thoughts, nobler action. Plato taught me something like faith, Cicero, honor, and Virgil, compassion, I think. Perhaps, Virgil taught me a bit more than just compassion; perhaps they all taught me more than those solitary ideals. And Dr. Lockhart …,” I paused, “taught me not only how to read them and understand their words but also how to write and speak and think.”

“I wish my son would have such a teacher and experience of college.”

“I hope,” I said, “that he does, too. I hope that he gets a chance to hear the voices behind the pane.”

elegant-cabbagetown
Elegant Cabbagetown B&B, Toronto

“I wish I could have that kind of education myself,” she added. “Where can I learn something of this? Do you have a podcast?”

I think it was Roz who asked about the podcast—or was it the woman sitting next to me on the plane? In any case, it was now twice in one day that someone had asked me this question, for at breakfast Marci, a kind woman from Pennsylvania staying at our lovely bed and breakfast in Toronto (Elegant Cabbagetown), had asked the same question.

“Alas, no, but I think that The Curious Autobiography tells a lot of the story and can direct you toward some of the ideas and ideals I spoke of earlier.”

“I will buy it and read it!” Roz said enthusiastically.

Oddly enough, Marci had said the same thing at breakfast. Marci and Roz, if you are reading this now, I hope you can hear Elaine’s voice behind the glass. Her ideas and even her perception of life are built upon the great thoughts of the past. She is there, right now, just beyond the windowpane, sharing a pot of tea with Dr. Lockhart. Unless I am mistaken, it just may be that Cicero or Plato is sitting there with them.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Lost Art of …

Ah, the infamous “lost art.” One could fill in a number of notions after the three dots in the above title. A few phrases or words come to mind: kindness, gentility, non-electronic friendship. Less serious, too: tea brewing, whittling, even for many of us, gardening. Yet here I would submit for your consideration, letter writing.

Sprowles letterThis week I had a very unique experience. I received in the mail a single packet of four letters; one of which was a thank-you note written to Elaine Jakes by my beloved high school teacher, Zinaida Sprowles, whose first name means “belonging to Zeus.” And godlike she was, for Mrs. Sprowles, who is mentioned in the Curious Autobiography (p.101), was the under-appreciated gem of the New Hope-Solebury High SchoolNHS High School faculty. Originally a Latin teacher, Zinny (for so she was called) was, by the time I had her in school, nearing the end of her career. By then they had phased out Latin (so was the trend then, as the administration could see no use for it) and relegated the tenured, and therefore not able-to-be-fired erstwhile Latin teacher to teaching English courses, though they allowed her to retain the honors students’ section of what amounted to the best college preparatory courses at New Hope-Solebury, classes that were essentially Great Texts (or what is sometimes called Western World Literature). I was not an honors student, and thus I had no access to that track or to Mrs. Sprowles, unless she happened to teach a regular English elective.

Fortunately for me, she did just that, but it was the second term of my junior year. Hitherto I had known Mrs. Sprowles only from the school hallways. Yet, having met with Mr. Karl Richter, the school’s guidance counselor, with his help I constructed a schedule that included a strange elective—strange for me, that is, because I was a numbers kid, excelling in Physics and mathematics and a member of the geekily (but sadly all too fittingly)  “Mathletic Team.” The elective in question was “Detective Literature,” and it focused almost entirely on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and the figure of Sherlock Holmes. It was taught by none other than my hallway-only acquaintance, Mrs. Sprowles.

Class by class Mrs. Sprowles vivaciously led discussions on the characterization of Holmes or Watson, Doyle’s craft in writing, tension, climax and resolution of each work, construction of plausibility, and the list goes on. I had never encountered a teacher of this caliber. Why, I wondered, was she the only teacher in New Hope-Solebury who had no desk, no classroom? Was it some kind of less than subliminal message from the administration? In any case, she was the self-styled peripatetic pedagogue, though she was far more academic and Platonic than she was categorical and Aristotelian. In fact, that is what made Mrs. Sprowles so profoundly delightful: she was not someone who observed and put things into boxes but she was utterly academic, someone who sought the highest origins and deepest forms.

Aristotle
Aristotle

And that is what must have frightened the administration of New Hope-Solebury High School in those days, the fear that students would become so enamored of learning that they would follow this peripatetic pedagogue just anywhere she might happen to meander in her academic wandering. Indeed, some of us did. Having used whatever influence she had left with Mr. Richter, she managed to squeeze me into her honors class (even though I had been, outside of math and physics a grade-wise dishonorable student), she led me and the rest of that senior seminar to the theater of Dionysus where we witnessed by reading the Oresteia and came to understand the importance of justice and democracy. We would follow her to the ancient agora, where we could overhear Socrates speaking with the young all too self-righteous and overconfident Euthyphro in front of the Stoa Basileios. And, like all the truly great educators such as Socrates, she was misunderstood by the higher-ups.

Plato
Plato

This is the area, I think, in which Elaine Jakes and Mrs. Sprowles would have fundamentally connected, for both were educators of a similar ilk, all too often misunderstood by all but their students. Yet that letter that Mrs. Sprowles wrote was never sent, presumably because it fell into a crack in the desk or was covered over by two days’ worth of mail and, by the time Zinny found it, it was too late to send. Yet why did she keep it all those years? That I cannot ever know. But I am glad that her daughter took the time to send it to me, along with three other letters written by a very young version of myself—a first-year college student at Dickinson—to his former high school teacher and inspiration, Mrs. Sprowles.

I’m not writing to say that I thought, when I read them, that my own three letters were well written or conveyed anything more than sincere appreciation to a wonderful teacher, or even that Mrs. Sprowles’ note to Elaine Jakes is anything to write home about. Rather, these four letters collectively reflect something bigger, something that is actually worth writing home about: the lost art of letter writing. It is truly a lost art, for art is an aspect of letter writing, as it involves several artistic choices.

First, one must find the right stationery. If one chooses a note format, as Mrs. Sprowles did in her unsent note to Elaine, one must ensure that the card befits the occasion, even if it is blank inside. Then there is the issue of penmanship. Here I’m afraid I fail miserably. Even my finest penmanship is shoddy at best, and I blame my fourth-grade self for snickering and treating as trivial the lessons of Mrs. Hendrickson, my teacher that year, who labored relentlessly to get me and one or two others in the class (was it Mickey? Todd?) to write more legibly. Then there is content, which of course is the most important bit. Yet even that comes out differently with a pen on paper than it does in a computer. It is not correctable on paper: one must get it right the first time.

And this is an art, an art that I was confronted with from a former generational iteration of myself. In case you’re wondering, other than the penmanship and poor choice of stationery, I did okay. But Mrs. Sprowles’ note was far more meaningful. How good it was to see her handwriting again after so many years. How rich and thrilling to know that she had cared enough to write my mother a note—a note I would never have known about had Mrs. Sprowles actually ever have sent it. And that is the key part of the art, the production of the artifact of the epistle itself.

Augustine writing
Fresco of St. Augustine

Memory is such a funny thing: it allows us to record in some deep recess of the brain a meaningful event, and never let go. It is something like hope, but backwards. In his Confessions, Augustine demonstrates the power of memory by going back in time to his childhood and his life as a young adult and rendering it all in seven lovely and quite memorable books. But then in the eighth book he begins to shift the notion of memory around so that with the final five books he has reoriented his own and the reader’s mind as he engages ideas that are otherworldly, heavenly. The way he does this is to anchor himself and the reader in the past by memories, one upon another. Mrs. Sprowles’ short note did that for me this week, and my mind looks forward to an otherworldly hope of sitting for tea with her again in a place far away that some of us call Home. I hope she has some of her delightful cinnamon buns with that tea, for I recall the last time we met we enjoyed them together, yet another sweet memory; but a sweeter hope.

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Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Miracles

I have a friend who has a beloved uncle whom I also know quite well—he might as well be my own uncle. Indeed, he allows me to call him by that familiar title. Yet he does not believe in miracles. I would like to say that it isn’t the case that he doesn’t believe they can happen as much as it is simply that he has never seen one. But, in fact, it is the case that he does not believe they can happen at all.

Now I myself am as skeptical as he is about faith healers on television who ask you to send money for a prayer cloth that they have anointed with some kind of healing oil. I am not sure whether this is just an American phenomenon; perhaps some of you who might be reading this in another country are not familiar with this phenomenon—I mean televised miracle workers, not miracles per se. Yet for those of you who may not know, I can tell you this much: at certain times of the evening in the States you might just flip to a certain television channel and find a certain man (for usually it is a male) who will touch some certain person in a crowd and (likely by some prearranged agreement) that person will throw their crutches aside and begin leaping about on the stage (for usually it is a stage) and declare that they have been healed.

Yet I don’t count such a spectacle as a miracle. Rather, it is precisely a spectacle, something that the (possibly well intentioned, possibly not) Rachel as a babytelevangelist has put together (whether to entertain or, more likely, to obtain donations). This is not a miracle. Instead, I count as a miracle a baby.

I write this on the very date, twenty-three years ago to the day, that a friend of mine had to deliver his own child because the doctor had gone out to have a smoke—I say nothing here about doctors ought knowing better—at the very moment that the child was appearing. My friend told me that he had the unique opportunity of receiving nearly half of his daughter’s body before the nurses came charging in to help. The doctor, in the meantime, was enjoying an unsanctioned rendezvous with the Marlboro man. That, to me, is a miracle—not the smoking doctor, but the daughter, choking, gurgling, gasping for her first breath as she entered rapidly into this world.MARLBORO CIGARETTES POSTER ADVERT, MARLBORO MAN, COWBOY SMOKING

To look closely at a newborn baby is a startling act, for it is to behold a miracle. It is amazing to think that the child has grown so rapidly in the mother’s womb. Indeed, it is more amazing to think that it has grown in another person at all. If you are lucky enough to behold it immediately after birth lying upon its mother’s chest, with tiny grasping hands, its look of new life, and the image of its mother’s love, you will witness perhaps an even greater miracle than the child’s birth. G.K. Chesterton once wrote “… we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. baby grasping handAs IDEAS, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears.”[1] In short, like that of the egg producing a chick, the idea of a human being, a mother, producing a baby is rather fantastic, at least if we suppose for a moment that we had never known how babies came into being. If we are not amazed by this, it is only because we take it for granted.

Now this is not the only kind of miracle that I believe exists, but I do believe that it is particularly miraculous. My friend has never quite gotten over his catching that child as she came into the world; he still talks about it, especially when he waxes nostalgic over a glass of wine and a bite of Swiss cheese, whose holes themselves, too, might just be particularly miraculous; else why would there be at least two theories about the holes in the cheese?).[2]

But beyond the particularly miraculous, the “that’s-amazing-when-you-think-about-it” type of miracle, there are also miracles that are peculiarly miraculous. It is that type that the charlatan televangelist tries but fails to emulate with his smoke and mirrors on television every week. That type is the kind that people all too often crave, about which someone might say, “now if I saw that kind of (peculiar) miracle, I would believe that miracles can happen.” But of course those miracles, indeed any miracles, particular or peculiar, hardly ever appear to those folks. There are two reasons, I suppose, for that.

Stockton Pres ChurchFirst, miracles are, by definition, miraculous. They don’t happen often or they wouldn’t be so. Second, the people about whom I am speaking can’t see the miracles when they’re right in front of them. They miss the particular miracles because they don’t recognize in the face of a baby a mind-boggling sight, a fantasy come alive. Nor would they see, of course, peculiar miracles, nor accept another’s account of them, such as Elaine Jakes catching the scent of cheese in a church in Stockton, NJ, and beginning to go to that church regularly soon after that.[3] Nor would they accept a story, even from a known source, about someone encountering an angel.[4] They may even believe that love is merely a chemical reaction of the brain and that forgiveness is something unachievable, especially in certain egregious circumstances. They might even say there are no such things as truth or justice. And they certainly don’t believe in Superman, or at least the archetype that he represents in the comics.

Holocaust
Surpassing tragic picture from the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Photo by Jorge Láscar

And my dear uncle might say, “Well, for every ‘miracle,’ you produce, I’ll show you ten non-miracles, and worse yet. How do you explain the Holocaust alongside your so-called miracles?” And he would be spot-on right. This is the most vexing question. What he is essentially asking is why children die, why genocide happens, why there is human suffering, why there is such sadness in the world.

I cannot answer these questions. Rather, I can only revert to miracles. I start with the Italian adverb-adjective combination, molto particolare. I learned this expression from a dear friend who studies art. He uses it to describe the finest workmanship. It is a kind of Italian code word for “very beautiful, very well made.” Now, perhaps I am but stating the obvious, but I believe particular (i.e. the Italian particolare) miracles are often overlooked simply because they are the rule.

Lake near Lac Blanc
Mt. Blanc

One takes the beach for granted if one lives by the shore. One takes the Alps for granted if one lives on Mont Blanc. Babies are born every moment, colorful flowers bloom in green fields, peaches are succulent, and a true friend…—well you’ll know that when you find one. I made such a friend a long time ago at Dickinson College; his name is Tim, and he is a lawyer now in

Tim and me in college
Tim and H.R. at Dickinson

Harrisburg. I spoke of him to a dear colleague just yesterday; even after all these years I described him as closer than a brother. Such friendship is a particular miracle, too.

I am not so far off topic as you might imagine. If human suffering somehow mars particular miracles—certainly it does for my dear uncle and I believe for many others with whom I’ve spoken about the possibility of life having meaning—peculiar miracles, if not quite offering an answer, nevertheless somehow offer a response to the problem of human suffering. Such miracles are no less beautiful than the particular, everyday miracles, but they are strange in a different way than a chicken coming from an egg is strange. They are peculiar precisely because they defy natural laws. I take one (click here) or two (click here for another) recent examples from the news. If you look at these clips, you’ll see that they both record children coming back to life when they were dead. Not near death; dead. Now one could say that that kind of thing happens somewhere in the world everyday. But, first of all, it does not. Secondly, it does not happen to you every day. It does not happen to your neighbor or friend every day. And when it does happen to you, there’s a chance then that you’ll recognize that you were party to a peculiar miracle.

If particular (i.e. beautiful) miracles are tarnished by humankind’s inhumanity and the grief engendered by natural disasters, peculiar miracles are not so much a response as perhaps an antidote to the vexing question of human suffering. This would be especially true if peculiar miracles should be construed as messages from another world. If that were to be the case, the adjective peculiar would indeed be a good descriptive term for them. But that is the stuff of another blog, a blog about life—and wine and cheese, of course. And now that I think about it, perhaps the holes in Swiss cheese are a peculiar miracle after all.swiss cheese

[1] Orthodoxy, p. 290.

[2] See http://brightmags.com/why-does-swiss-cheese-have-holes/.

[3] The Curious Autobiography, p. 185.

[4] The Curious Autobiography, p. 206.

 

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.”

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: A Space for Hope

Hope is the word most often searched on Google by those feeling desperate. One wants very badly to find a space or at least a place, virtual or otherwise, where hope may not glibly “spring eternal” but rather may be as it were a part of a landscape, mortar holding the brick of a garden wall that one feels a sense of security there. That is the place where someone will say and actually mean, “It’s okay. You’re safe now. You still have a future. There is—this is—a place of hope.” To get to that place, to appreciate it, most often one must go through some frightening and sobering moments, to have faced some tough times, times in which hope was nearly in full eclipse. I know the darkness of such an eclipse well, for my grandfather, Harry Reed Jakes, passed away when I had just finished my sophomore year in college. For a season I lost hope.

Salon of 1874, Painting. - The Trojan Horse, by Motte, vintage engraved illustration. Magasin Pittoresque 1875.
Salon of 1874, Painting. – The Trojan Horse, by Motte, vintage engraved illustration. Magasin Pittoresque 1875.

Thus do I recall: I was reading Homer’s Odyssey not as a class assignment, for the school year had then ended. Rather, it was book envy, plain and simple, as I had not had it on the syllabus of my section of Western World Literature. For whatever reason, Professor Culp had not put the Odyssey on her syllabus, choosing instead the Iliad—an interesting introduction to college,for that thoroughly violent epic was the first thing I read at Dickinson, that gentle autumn season not so many

Vietnam helicopter

years removed from the last troops coming home from Vietnam.

Truth be told, it may have been the first entire book I had read for a class in quite a long time, as in high school, at least until I had taken Mrs. Sprowles senior English class, I was the master of partial preparation, pioneering then what seems to have become an art form among many precollegiate and even college students today. Yet I did know when I walked through that gate of Dickinson College that I was passing through what I would later, thanks to another text in that same class of Professor Culp, recognize as a Dantean-style gate, perhaps still adorning the Benjamin Rush campus today, with cast iron letters mounted upon an uninviting arch that read Lasciate ogne speranza (di pratica cattiva del liceo), voi ch’ intrate, which in English means “Behave yourself and study!”

Photo by Doug Kerr
Photo by Doug Kerr

And so it came to pass that well before we entered the hyperborean swath of that academic year, I encountered warriors battling along the banks of the Simois, Sarpedon’s fate hanging in the balance, brave Andromache handing baby Astyanax to her husband, Hector, as they forebodingly bade farewell, until a kingly father would beg a proud warrior for the body of his fallen son for another type of goodbye scene. That son, the selfsame Hector, would in a ghostlike apparition soon charge his comrade Aeneas to save the Trojan remnant and sail for Hesperia—yet that in what I then thought a lesser text in that selfsame class.

While I enjoyed many of these stories, the other classes, I jealously grumbled, had one better, for they were reading the Odyssey, and of this aspect of their syllabus I was more than just a bit jealous. Besides, I was learning Greek with the legendary Professor Lockhart, a professor who taught much more than merely Greek; he taught life, and expounded upon why books such as the Odyssey are important. “They’re not simply the classics,” he said, “they are the air we breathe, the water we drink; they are food for our souls.” It took me a few years to grasp this statement in any full sense, and I suppose I am still doing so.

HarryandHR
Harry Jakes with his grandson

And so it was owing to “epic envy” alone and to no other reason—for I did not yet know what an important tale the Odyssey would tell me, never having read it—that I took that book along when I went to visit my grandfather, Harry Jakes, in the hospital for what would be the last time. It was two score less four years ago this month; he died on Father’s Day. This was particularly poignant to me, for he had played an important role in my life, as I had never known my father. He was a good father to Elaine Jakes, perhaps even a better father figure to me. Thus, when Harry died I felt without hope, lost, and had there been Google then, I’m sure I would have tried to Google “hope.”

But I would not have found it, not alone at any rate, for I have learned that hope is only one strand of three, like three fates or three graces, as the Greeks and Romans believed that such ideas (and deities) came in threes. For example, there were three aspects of Diana: the goddess associated with the hunt, with childbirth, and the moon. The Graces (Charites) came in three, too: Aglaia, “radiance,” Euphrosyne, “joy,” and Thalia, “bounteous bloom.” But as joyously, radiantly, blooming bounteous as these are, together they do not form the kind of cord of which I suggest hope is but a slender, yet nonetheless strong part. The second part of that cord, the largest and most vigorous part, is Love.

Now Love is something that nearly everyone can agree about or at least say something positive about. Even in these staunchly secular times, rarely will one meet a person who says, “Love’s just an emotion,” or “You know, it’s strictly a chemical reaction of the brain,” or “What is love, anyway?” or even rarer, “Love is always self-interested, when you get right down to it.” Now I admit I have met such people, usually a dour bunch, with pursed lips and supercilious eyebrows that move up and down seemingly independently. In contrast to that small minority, I think that most folks would agree that “Love is vital” or “human” or maybe, if they like music, they would go so far as to say (or sing) “Love is all you need,” with an upbeat and in-tune pitch of voice, rendering the listener an optimistic alternative to the prune-mouthed, odd-browed realists. Even the less than musical might at least say prosaically, “Well, love’s really important.”

But that’s not what the Odyssey is about, of course, not quite. Or if it is about “love,” it’s a different kind of love. Perhaps it’s the kind that is spelled with a funny combination of letters, three vowels, three m’s, one c and two t’s. Unlike “love,” that word is not very popular, and has often delayed an engagement or two for well more than a year—though it held Penelope and Odysseus together for twenty. Yes, those of you good at word puzzles have already deduced that this kind of love is commitment, admittedly to some a word that is pedestrian, even flat-sounding, but certainly really a bit more “real” than the kind that the “we’re-all-just-a-bunch-of-chemicals” crowd objects to.

But to get back to the Odyssey: it points us homeward. It’s the story, as you likely know, of a war hero finding his way home and cleaning up the problems that accrued while he was away. It’s a text that has a timeless message, even if it is one that is cast against the backdrop of mostly outdated ideas of revenge (though even those values are, sadly, often still found in action movies). Odysseus must come home; such a journey in Greek called a “nostos.” I could not see it then, but my grandfather strongly believed that he was about to make his nostos, not to a home or a house where one can find a hope for life, but to another Home where one finds such hope realized. The commitment that he had shown throughout his life that was reflected, in part, in his love for me and my cousins, Eric and Mark—that was the second strand of the cord, the cord that, if all three strands remain, seems unbreakable to the casual observer, which I confess I was then.

cordBut what about the third strand? Well, as that’s a matter of faith, I prefer to leave it aside for now. Perhaps I’ll come back to it in a future blog. For the time being, suffice it to say that two of the three strands are Love and Hope, and hope only can make sense if one believes that there is such a thing as unfailing love, a.k.a. commitment. Yet who am I to say all this? Well, I’m just a “might-not-have-been,” as I said in my first blog, one who happens to be a writer, who normally writes about elfin hobs or ghosts. And I, dear reader, next week, will tell you another story more along the lines of a hob or a ghost, or perhaps something entirely different but no less entertaining than a lesson in Greek literature, like this one, that involves and expounds on an archaic term such as “nostos.” Yet perhaps the Odyssey’s nostos is an adventure worth having, whether you discover it in a book or, better yet, in your life.