In California especially but also, if to a degree less-pronounced, throughout America a new trend is arising: deferring or permanently putting off, i.e. not having, kids. I am writing about this trend for two reasons: first, a world without kids scares the life out of me. Second, I wish to advance the notion that a child is not a thing, like a house or a car or a Ski-Doo, that one expects to be able to accessorize at a certain income level. Those items are useful or, in the case of the Ski-Doo amusing. A kid, conversely, is a remarkable blessing and a constant reminder to do better.
My thinking about this all started in roughly 1990 in the backseat of a car. I was sharing a cab with a new acquaintance who then taught at Rutgers University in New Jersey.A German with perfect English, she minced no words. “So, I see” [but she meant ‘hear’] “that you have children, qvite [so she pronounced quite] a lot of them.” (We had three at the time.) “They must be very pleasurable.”Now kids are a lot of things, but pleasurable is not exactly at the top of the adjective pile used to describe them. They are challenging, delightful, cute, mischievous, even highly innovative. They bring joy and, sometimes, sadness, hope and disappointment, laughter and tears. But pleasure? And no, the acquaintance in question did not then, obviously, nor did she ever, to my knowledge, have any kids. And if she were looking for pleasure, perhaps it is good thing she never did have kids, for pleasure is, more or less, what a Ski-Doo is for.
But why is a world without kids scary? Here’s why: kids are the only sensible people left on the planet. They are, it seems more and more these days, the only folks who will actually admit they are wrong when they are and say that they are sorry. They express love the right way. They are sincere, cute, and affectionate. They know how to play appropriately. They genuinely like each other. They don’t see color or think in terms of race or other ethno-socio-political differences. They are great. They are adults’ best role models.
Yet people want children less and less. Or if they want them, they want them like they want a Ski-Doo. They want them for the wrong reasons. And, I am sorry to say, they treat them like a Ski-Doo, too, pulling them out from time to time for fun, but then just putting them back on the shelf—in the case of the Ski-Doo a rather sturdy shelf, I suppose—until the next time. The idea of a family qua sacred bond, nurturing trust, blessed haven—that ideal is fading fast. And it is doing so in the name of economic prosperity, aka lucre, filthy lucre, and, ultimately, pleasure. Money can’t buy you love—I heard that somewhere—but it can buy you a Ski-Doo. A kid can do, and indeed is, much more.
The Curious Autobiography is very much a document concerned with foundations; the most precious kind of foundation is known as a family. One can have educational foundations, too, but really those tend to be moorings, not foundations. A great teacher comes but sadly, she goes, too. Until my senior year, I had Mrs. Zinieda Sprowles but for a moment in high school—less than a semester in tenth grade, for she fell and badly broke her arm and had to miss the rest of that term; Mrs. Crane replaced her. I learned much about literature and life from Mrs. Sprowles. I recall learning very little literature from Mrs. Crane, but rather, as memory serves, she busied herself with teaching Situation Ethics.
Situation Ethics, qua discipline, which I do not believe it actually is or ever should have been, basically justified immoral behavior if the situation calls for a bend or flex in one’s “rigid” upbringing. If your parents told you not to get drunk, for example, in the right situation it might be okay to do so; if your parents told you not to go to wild parties with girls from Holton-Arms School or boys from Georgetown Preparatory School, you can go anyway, and adjust your ethics to the situation at hand, from drinking too much to flirting to making sexual advances or even something worse, whether wanted or unwanted. It all depends on the situation, the ephemeral moment and what it calls for.
Now don’t get me wrong. Dear, sweet Mrs. Crane was a good lady, a nice person who cared about her students. She just happened to have drunk of the same bad fount from which other teachers of that same era (the late 70s/early 80s) had drunk—yes, there’s an awkward pun here somewhere. I think it is safe to say—or is it?—that we are reaping the sorry fruits of Situation Ethics now. Fruits may be the wrong word; dandelions might be more to the point. Dandelions look like flowers, but they are in fact weeds. Likewise, Situation Ethics.
But to return to foundations. As I said, educational experiences are moorings, not foundations. Family is a foundation. Friends, like education, are beacons or moorings. They might helpfully or unhelpfully guide you, whether offering a bad moment of lotus-eating or providing you genuine respite along the way, but then you’ll have to move on to the next city or town, and all too often fall out of touch, at least a bit, with your friends. But family is bedrock; and the values you garner from the family are hard to shake. You can go to therapy and learn that your parents were horrible beasts trying to mould you, to groom you into being just like them; you can read books about how to break away from the religious intolerance and bigotry of your upbringing. TheCurious Autobiography, again, quite addresses that, and shows that for Elaine, it was, in the end an impossible task for her to become “unWelsh,” to lose her Welshness. And barring intentional neglect or death, you don’t fall out of touch with your husband or wife, your mother or father, your sister or brother. They are yours for life; they are, in fact, yours forever.
And that is what this blog is really about: a forever perspective. I have a friend whose mother is ill now, as was Elaine in the years leading up to her passing. These are difficult times for her and her mom, poignant for the memories they evoke and the memories, in caregiving, that they are providing. Sadly, one can’t go back in time and fix all the wrongs that one committed or, more certainly, those committed against oneself; (that mentality is admittedly very much in the air these days, a kind of balancing of the scales that too often goes beyond mere justice). But one can go forward in the darkest hour of one’s mother’s or father’s life, even the days of passing, with grace, forgiveness, and love.
So what is the foundation I am pointing towards today? It is an eternal, not an ephemeral outlook, the love of a family, the commitment to see that person, whether husband or wife, mother or father, through to the end, regardless of the pain, present or past, embracing every moment, thankful for every memory, even the hard ones, and rejoicing that though it is the end, it is not the end.
I think I have figured out why old people like strange things. In part, of course, I am discovering this because I am getting older. But I think the chief reason that I have discovered this is because I have been rereading the Acts of the Apostles, a book of the Bible that few people read at all these days.
The chief reason for that is, I believe, because few people read any of the Bible at all. They are content to recognize it as “the good book” (when in fact for Protestants, at least, it is comprised of sixty-six separate books), instructions and guidance from on high, from “the Man upstairs,” or the like. That metaphorical description of God is, of course, less than dignified, even unbecoming. And at any rate fits with a no reading of but “general respect for Holy Writ.”
But old people, perhaps because they are themselves getting closer to the “top floor” (if I may indulge the societal predilection for undignified religious metaphors), would seem to be more inclined to read the Bible. Now most do it through something called a devotional book, which means some author has preselected bits and pieces of the Scriptures and then explained them. But some old people (and some young people, too, of course) prefer to read the Bible the way country musicians normally purport to drink whiskey—straight up. And if they do that, then they eventually read, often for the first time, the book of Acts.
Which brings by back to why old people like strange things. For the book of Acts is not normally one’s favorite book of the Bible. It is action-packed, geographically challenging—one really needs a map to read it—and religiously complex (e.g. Acts 21:21 ff.). But old people really like this book anyway. Why? I think I figured it out. It is because the Church described in that book is so very unlike any church they have ever attended. The Church of the book of Acts is active, vibrant, exciting, spiritual, robust, bold, faithful. The church that the old people are members of tends to be just the opposite of these things. In fact, they have sat in their pews and from time to time wondered why people still come to church, when the liturgy is all that there is, and Holy Communion, of course, the latter of which in and of itself, they rationalize, justifies the fairly limited attendance. But then they get gloomy and wonder, when they see a young couple or, worse yet, a young family, whether that family’s child, when it grows up, will actually come to this church or attend any church. And then they think of their own children and wonder if they ever go to church any more, for they don’t ask their kids too much about that, as they are all grown up and it’s true: they have to make their own decisions. At least they come with them to church on the holidays. “Sally’s kids won’t even do that much,” they mutter to themselves before they head off to the after-church cake and coffee.
But when they read Acts, those old people really get excited. Their imaginations run wild, in fact, for they imagine a time when the Church was vibrant, was engaged in society, had meaning and was connected to something bigger, Someone much bigger. Not the “big guy in the sky” or the “man upstairs,” but to God himself. And they ponder whether it could ever be so again. And that’s why they like the book of Acts. And so do I, and I know that it can be so and actually is in some churches.
Now that does not explain why old people like bad coffee—for they do, it’s a well-documented fact—or why they get unduly excited about a slice of apple pie, of which I am still not a fan, which means I must not be that old yet. Or why they love babies inordinately and feel encouraged when they see one—I am not there yet either, for I still think the world is in a tough spot and I do not become instantly optimistic by seeing or even holding a baby. Or why elderly men have such a penchant for t-shirts. I don’t think I know a single elderly gentleman who doesn’t wear a t-shirt or, for that matter, carry a handkerchief.
But they all love the book of Acts. And you don’t have to be old to read it. But if you’re not a Bible reader, I would advise you to read it only after you have first read a gospel (like Luke), for otherwise you might not understand what all the old folks are so excited about. But they are excited, and they are, strangely enough, inspired by nothing less than the very book of Acts.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Disney has four key values, as laid out in the Disney Institute’s book entitled Be Our Guest. These inform their approach to how they manage their theme parks and their entire operation, and these “values” are, as listed in order of priority– Safety, Courtesy, Show, and Efficiency.
Now I can imagine why, if you’re a theme park with all kinds of potentially hazardous rides and with all kinds of shows that might involve fireworks or the like, safety would be first. So my point here is not to put down Disney’s order of priorities. But those priorities should, I think, likely be confined to the amusement park, for transferring them to, say, a family or a church or a college or even most businesses might not only be dangerous, but could even be worse than dangerous—it could be detrimental. And, anyhow, can “show” really be a value?
Just think about it. Imagine calling a family sit-down after dinner and listing those priorities to your children. “Safety first, kids.” That sounds good, but maybe it sounds better than in fact it is. Do you mean by it, for example, no contact sports, which by the way are nearly all sports? “Second, courtesy.” That one is, admittedly, hard to argue against. But what about “show”? “Always, kids, remember to put on a good show.” No, I’m afraid that would just be promoting hypocrisy. “And don’t forget to be efficient!” Well, yes, this is good, but is it really the fourth highest good? Wouldn’t sincerity, wisdom, diplomacy, kindness, gentleness, or even self-confidence outstrip mere efficiency?
In the case of church, safety first cannot possibly work. No preacher worth his salt can consistently preach safe sermons. Indeed, a good sermon must sometimes imperil the listener’s soul. What about courtesy in a church? Yes, I think that’s important, but normally the churchgoer would call this hospitality or gentleness or even humility. And “show.” I’m sorry to say that the churches that prioritize show are often the fullest but, paradoxically, simultaneously often the emptiest. And efficiency? No, I’m afraid not. The best sermons often run over time. The coffee hour after church should be anything but efficient—it should be a time of fellowship that seems to lack any sense of time altogether. No, no efficiency here.
Finally college. Should colleges be and/or offer “safe spaces”? While of course one hopes when one sends a child off to college that that child, no longer quite a child, will be safe, colleges, like churches, can only do their jobs correctly if they challenge the student, and that may mean by taking a sense of “safety” when it comes to their academic accomplishments, at least. “Courtesy?” No, not so much. Some of the best professors I ever had were quite rude. “Show.” God forbid. Taking college classes are not about being entertained but about being challenged and thus educated. And finally, efficiency? Yes, certainly it could be good for the students to be efficient. But professors can only be real professors if they chase the occasional rabbit and actually make “inefficient” use of class time. Professors are not mere conveyers of content. Books do that. The best professors I had, as I recall them, often went off on tangents that sometimes taught us more than the lesson itself.
So, I would not put safety first. I’m not sure it should be last, but if it were always first, the best we could hope for is tea and crumpets instead of sports and information instead of material that challenges us to the core of our being, all conveyed to us in the most efficient and courteous manner possible. Yawn; sounds boring. No, safety, I’m sorry to say, just can’t be first.
You might think a blogger would love op eds. “After all,” someone might say, “a blog is really just an op ed of a different sort.” Point taken. Yet, hopefully, this blog, is more, even though it purports to be from a residual Welshman, i.e. someone of Welsh heritage so distant that if he doesn’t do something about that, such as each week writing a piece called the Residual Welshman’s Blog, it would be lost.
“Is your ‘Welsh’ heritage really so worthy of preservation?” that same someone might query. “Why don’t you just do what everyone else does—move on, get on with your ‘American’ identity already. Get over this vain preservation of your romantic notions of ‘heritage.’” I’m sorry, this time point not taken.
Why? Because dealing with history, grappling with our own history, is actually not as much cathartic as it is enlightening. We must ask questions about how we got where we are, recognizing that “we” is not simply ourselves but it is the collection of those who made us who we are—our parents, our grandparents and, if we are lucky enough to remember them, our great-grandparents. Yes, as the Bible says, “we are not our own,” though I think St. Paul means what he says there (“and you are not your own” [καὶ οὐκ ἐστὲ ἑαυτῶν], 1 Cor 6:19) in a different way in that passage. There he is talking about redemption. Yet maybe I am, too, or at least what must lead up to redemption, for that same saint explains that you can’t self-redeem any more than you can self-birth or self-resurrect. We are part of a larger, human family, and that human family, like our own family, has problems.
What I am getting at, then, with this blog is the first thing we should do, if we want really to go forward into, say, the new year resolved to be better people—assuming betterment is on your mind at all—is to confront the truth of who we are, how we have become who we are, not forgetting the past but embracing it, confronting it, dealing with it, and maybe even admiring some parts of it. For there just may be some folks in our personal histories we admire. For me there certainly are.
I think a recent op ed. that I reluctantly read but basically agreed with states this pretty well. It’s about confronting the truth, taking ourselves out of our psychological safe spaces and looking hard and long at ourselves and saying, “Well, this needs to change.” And some of that may come with reminding ourselves why it needs to change. Maybe it’s just a matter of being a bit overweight, so for our health, our longevity, and our role in our family or our need to be a good example to others that we need to lose weight. Or maybe it’s something even more serious, like our comportment or something we do that we know our grandparents would never have approved of. Maybe that kind of recollection of the past can urge us to make some changes. Maybe we can learn to forgive more quickly, too—I speak for myself. I know for me, in that sense, my grandparents, who taught me the “law,” as it were, also provide an example of grace.
Thus, as we get ready to launch into the new year, I hope you and I and all of us can exercise the good judgment that hopefully our forebears once did, and be tough enough on ourselves to make the changes that need to be made, while showing the grace to others that, I hope may be true for you, our grandparents once showed to us. Paradoxically it all starts, as every new beginning always does, with the past.
When I saw Daniel outside the shelter, he said to me, “Hey, it’s you again. You coming tonight, well, I think that it’s a God thing, because I was just talking about how even though I’m homeless, I still have a home. We all do, even though we’re all homeless here. We have a home in Heaven, and we have MBK, the shelter, which is a building but in it we can find a home, at least for now, by loving each other.”
I was astounded—this young man had spectacularly paid attention to, even internalized, what I had said the previous week. His summary of what I had said was spot on: that home is not a house, not a building any more than church is a building. A church comprises sainted sinners, sinful saints—hypocritical people who struggle not to become hypocrites. That’s a church, and I heard a very nice podcast about it this week, for which I’ll share a link here. A home is where there is family, and family can mean a literal family or the family of those who have the opportunity to love each other with selfless love. Home isn’t just where the heart is; home is where the heart is free to love. To love the other person, whether that person deserves it or not. Even to pray for the person next to you.
Now I imagine someone reading this might be thinking, “That’s all very noble and ideal, but in the real world it doesn’t work that way.” And he might even add, “My home isn’t ‘out of this world.’ It’s here, it’s real; it’s not some kind of fictionalized, idealized place. This world is all we have to work with, so don’t through your religious mumbo jumbo my way.”
To which, given the opportunity, I might respond, “Who said anything about the real world? I’m talking about MBK, a shelter for the homeless in central Texas. What could be less ‘real-world’ than that?”
Now I’ll be honest: I might have easily turned that sentence around and asked, “What could be more real-world than that?” And by the way I do, of course, have my own ideas of an ideal home in this life, for I grew up in an idyllic, if not idealize place, not far from where Washington once crossed the Delaware to defeat the British in Trenton. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a real home, the real home, something far greater but no more imaginary than Washington’s Crossing.
And as I went back to the MBK shelter this week, I spoke again to those folks, gently, even gingerly. For I don’t know their lives. I don’t know how they wound up being homeless. I can guess that for some of them it may have been drugs, alcohol, pornography or mental illness or, perhaps, having had to spend time in jail for some wrong they committed or at least were convicted of. Maybe, in the case of many of them, it was just plain old bad luck, a bad break at work, a bad break with or within their biological families.
But I don’t go to MBK to be anyone’s judge. I go there to share some glimpse of what life might be like for them as they learn, as I still am myself learning, to walk by faith through this dark world and wide, and find in themselves that one talent, which is death to hide, that they might serve therewith their Maker, who will not chide them. Nor shall I, for I have learned from Patience that they also serve who only stand and wait. Last night, for yet another evening, I was privileged to stand and wait with them, my homeless brothers and sisters at My Brother’s Keeper. Cain could never have foreseen what the impact of that phrase, which he uttered about his brother Abel, would turn out to be when it would, one day, adorn the front of a humble edifice in central Texas. But, after a few visits to MBK, I think I am beginning to understand.
You get up every morning, you go to work, you try to be as nice as you can to your co-workers, one of whom is that grumpy one—not the curmudgeon who is curmudgeonly simply to be funny, to preserve the appearance of a crusty persona, who has a coffee mug with an ominous warning such as those given below (my personal favorite is “Good morning, I see the assassins have failed” or, really, the one with the little bird)—but rather, one who is genuinely a grouch. The one you have verbally to dance around, you have to be careful what you say and, in fact, even when you say what you’re sure is the right thing, he—usually he—or she will find fault, will turn something positive you said or did into something negative by what seems to you deliberate misinterpretation. Indeed, probably most of us, have someone with whom we work around whom we have to be especially careful what we say, whether that person happens to be especially politically correct, seemingly always waiting to pounce with (at the very least) a disapproving look because something slightly un-PC drifted from the barrier of your teeth, or because they are the boss and they want everyone to know that they are the boss. They want everyone in the office or on the floor to know that you are below them, that they outrank you. Add to this a steady state in which you can’t have a good idea; add to that, if you do, they might just appropriate it for themselves.
Now if you’re not able to relate to that previous paragraph at this moment—for example, if you have a job for which you don’t dread going to work or even dread going into that certain person’s cubicle or workspace—then count yourself exceptionally lucky. And count yourself luckier yet if you can’t recall ever having that experience, if you’ve always had the kind of charmed existence whereby which you’ve gleefully gone to work without the slightest angst over organizational squabbling, never thinking “Gosh, did I say the right thing?” when you left someone’s office.
But I doubt many have that charmed of an existence. And for those of us who do not, then once the day is done, once we have done our job and followed our calling to the best of our ability that day in our comportment, words, and deeds, then the whistle blows, whether literal or figural, and it is time to go home. And there is nothing quite like coming home at the end of a long day, if indeed you have a home to go to, if you have someone there for whom you care and who cares about you. And somehow just knowing you have a home, a place where you’re appreciated just for being you—with all your faults, foibles, and fears—gives you strength to carry on, and renews your inner being so that you can get up the next day, take a deep breath and head off to work again with a fresh attitude, a broadening smile, and a hope for a better day, even with your crusty old boss or difficult co-worker.
Based on conversations I’ve had with friends whom I know not just in America but in many places in this dark world and wide, it seems to me that the world these days is caught up in the first paragraph. I mean that both literally—most of the folks I talk to have that person at work before whom they find themselves having to be especially accommodating and speak especially carefully—and metaphorically, for the world seems to be in a deleterious state. Maybe it has been heading that way for a long time now—I don’t know. But however that may be, it most certainly is in a negative funk. And here’s an idea why this may be the case: the world has lost a sense of home. Or perhaps it is rather merely that notion of home has eroded; when I say eroded, I do not mean that it has just changed, but I mean that it has declined, deteriorated. It has become a stuffy place, its air has become stale, its aura less than welcoming.
How so? Let’s start with what makes a home: that’s a family. Though a family is of course not specifically a physical space, it is nonetheless a place where you can breathe, catch your breath, take a deep breath for fresh air again. I spoke yesterday to a friend who has a twelve-year-old daughter. He loves his daughter and spent last Saturday with her. “Wonderful,” I said. Gingerly I queried about the rest of his family, but carefully suspecting that because he spent the day with his daughter that he was divorced—for otherwise he would have said “we” (meaning he and his wife) had spent the day with the child. As I suspected, he is divorced. He has a girlfriend; they’ve been dating about four years. She lives in Rome, he in Viterbo. They see each other once or twice a month, usually on a weekend.
Now I thought about his situation—and someone might say, “Who are you to judge?” and that person might well be right, but thinking about someone’s situation is not necessarily “judging” anyone—and as I thought about it, this occurred to me: inasmuch as his daughter lives with his wife (in Vetralla, a town or two away), he has no one to come home to. He goes to work, interacts with his co-workers, probably puts up with the one that no one gets along with, and then doesn’t have anyone to go home to. Maybe he has a dog or a cat, but not a person to talk to. And while someone might object and say not everyone feels the need for someone to talk to, I would suggest that the individual’s perception of need and the actuality of need may be different. Not everyone thinks they need to eat green vegetables. One can do fine with merely bread, meat and potatoes for quite a long time; but green vegetables are indisputably good for you and virtually everyone except children knows one should eat them, if they are available.
I’d like to close with another aspect of coming home that is missing from my friend’s life and from many lives: church. Church is a kind of spiritual home, a place that, for all its faults (just as a family has many faults) provides something like a larger home for a family or individual. Indeed, for single folks, divorced folks and for others who for whatever reason are alone, church can take over the role of refuge that family provides. You can go to church and come to know others there who can help you through the rough times. They, too, likely have bosses or co-workers who are difficult. They, too, know what it means to be lonely. They, too, know what it means to struggle with faith, to feel abandoned by God even th
ough we most certainly are not. And they can pray for you, with you, and over you. They can help you breathe. They become your family. Elaine Jakes rediscovered this reality late in her life at Stockton Presbyterian Church.
I leave you, my reader, with this final thought, not that work can be a drag and you should find some kind of relief, but rather that we all find challenges in the work to which we have been called, and we should seek inspiration to face those challenges. The root of the Latin word for “breathe” is in the middle of inspiration. Fresh air, a refreshing breeze can be found in family and faith. Go home, and breathe.
The day after anything is the day after something. It’s too late for me to write about the something. For that something is Christmas, and that was yesterday. Even before that, last week, someone wrote to me privately about the last three blogs, “I don’t get it,” he wrote, “Christmas Yard? Is there a message here?” Well, I might say charily, there is. Yet I can’t expect everyone to get it. With such a story about a fictional place I could only hope to create a small window into the interior of Christmas, as if, standing for a moment on a snow covered street, one should unexpectedly cast a glance through the fog of one’s own breath in the crisp winter air to see into, ever so briefly, the home of a family not personally known to the viewer but perhaps long admired, wondering from afar, “What goes on in that family? What does a family like that do? How to they construct their family time?” This would be especially true if one comes from a family where time is never or rarely construed, where there isn’t a plan or a modus operandi in place for carrying on as a family, but merely a modus vivendi of mutual tolerance. I shall return to these familiar phrases, modus operandi and vivendi, in a moment, with a gentle adjustment of them both.
First, let me offer an apologia (“afterward”) about the tripartite series about a town called Christmas Yard, if you happened to have read it, in case anyone else might have had the same reaction as the aforementioned reader. The point of that story is to direct the reader’s attention and affection toward what, quite incidentally and indirectly, a family might be (or at least become) and, by extension, what any institution consisting of people might best encompass, whether that institution be a church or a town or society at large. One might deduce that this is my goal by effecting a contrast of the two churches in the last installment of the story. More generally, one can see this goal fleshed out in the combination of Elaine’s deep sense of social justice and my own still-in-progress sense of grace, especially when that kind of grace, sometimes known as charity, in fact, also dovetails with social justice.
But today I am writing about the day after anything, for there are rarely ditties or songs, blogs or essays written about the day after things; only those written about the event itself or anticipation of it become well known. To wit, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (not the day after), “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (not is heading back to the North Pole). Even non-Christmas songs like, “Until We Meet Again,” look forward, not back. It is safe to say that the day after anything, especially something that you’ve been looking forward to, could be a letdown. I have a friend who worked for years to get his PhD, and even the day he got it, as it turned out, was, to his mind, anticlimactic.
Another friend of mine’s daughter will be married in a few days. He recalls, not so many years ago, a moment in time when they shared at an event that likely no longer exists—for it is no doubt now deemed sexist or exclusive of fatherless families—called “Dads and Donuts.” He told me that he recalls that day vividly, how much it meant to his daughter and more especially to him to go and have a little breakfast with his beloved child when she was, I think he told me, just in the fifth grade. He explained to me that he was so moved by that day that he thinks of it often as he prays for her, and that he will remember it fondly till the day he dies. And now she is to be married and start a family of her own.
For her, the day after she gets married will be the day after the biggest party nearly anyone has in their whole life. Afterwards, there will be, of course, a bit of letdown. But here’s where this term that I said I wanted to come back to is relevant—modus operandi—or really, modus gerendi would be better. There are a few Latin terms here that sound as if they come straight out of an old law book or at least an old grammar book. But lest they should become for you, owing to their erudite tone, somnolent or soporific, it will be useful, both for us on this day after Christmas and for my friend’s daughter on the day after her marriage, to reflect upon them for a moment, as we reheat a piece of pie for breakfast or just relax and read the newspaper (or this blog).
For today is the day to put that old terminology into practice. Let’s start with the familiar modus vivendi, which may in fact be the way that any given family may have spent this past year. The implication of that Latin phrase, which, though it means “manner of living,” is most often simply a reflection of a live-and-let-live posture: “that’s fine, I’ll work around that, provided it doesn’t intrude too much upon my personal space.” Thus, modus vivendi really signifies a way of coping, or at best coexisting. While at times, of course, this has to be done, that is no way to conduct family.
Then there’s modus operandi. It’s a stronger term, probably too strong for how to manage one’s family, as it reflects a way of operating, the way one functions. “That’s his modus operandi,” someone might say, and certainly is the expression that detectives often shorten to “M.O.,” meaning the signature or trademark of someone, usually a criminal. And that’s not really a great way to conduct family, either.
That leaves us with the rather scarce modus agendi (or modus gerendi), both of which are so infrequently used that the former is automatically changed by the spell checker to agenda and the latter just underlined in red. But these archaic-sounding terms—and the latter is better—are what one really needs to know how to do to conduct family. The former means “way of doing” the latter “way of conducting” or “managing,” and thus the latter is a bit better, because one doesn’t “do family,” one “conducts” or “manages” it.
Which brings us back to the notion of the day after, a day that might be one of reflection, especially if it’s the day after Christmas, when one is reflecting on how one didn’t do Christmas well—it was just aboutripping into presents, putting up with your child’s ingratitude or worse sarcasm, and laughing too often inappropriately or at least uncomfortably at your own husband’s crude joking. What was so inappropriate that mere laughter made you uncomfortable? Nothing, really, but—yes, there was something: Christmas is supposed to be a religious holiday, but perhaps “it sure didn’t seem that way.” Maybe for you Christmas day seemed to encompass everything bad about the season, playing itself out as materialistic, greedy and snarky; simply put, perhaps it felt empty. No, this was not my Christmas, but if yours should have been something like it . . . .
Here’s where the observation about the day after Christmas and my friend’s daughter’s immanent marriage finally dovetails. It is, on this day after the holiday, as will be on the day after her ceremony, not the time to think about what went disastrously wrong or just had to be tolerated. Now is the time to change the expression from modus vivendi, upon which most Christmas celebrations (and marriages) are based, to modus gerendi. It is time, not next year, next month or even tomorrow, but today, to start managing your family. That way, when Christmas comes next year, it will be special, not just an excuse to binge spend and ravenously tear off pretty paper. It will be a time of joy and wonder not because its story is unfamiliar, but the opposite, precisely because the story is familiar, for you’ve prepared for it spiritually all year long.
For that to happen, a change in thinking must come, for the time to structure your days and measure carefully each moment begins the day after, which happens to be today. After all, that is the central aspect of that revolutionary but perhaps archaic-sounding idea that the Bible calls metanoia: a changing of one’s thinking. The little-read but profound Roman poet Perseus once wrote, vive memor leti; fugit hora (“Live mindful of death; time flies,” 5.153). Few have ever penned better advice. With each moment comes the opportunity to draw another breath, formulate a fresh thought, craft a better phrase. What better time than the day after to turn in a new direction, one very different than the present empty, unmanaged course?
It’s too late to wish anyone Merry Christmas this year, for it’s the day after. But it’s not too late, with a bit of Divine inspiration and guidance, to begin to manage one’s time, to conduct family, to produce a very, very happy new year, or in my friend’s daughter’s case, a new family. Blessings on that project, dear daughter, and on you, dear readers. May you find your modus gerendi, remember forever your own personal version of “Dads and Donuts” or “Moms and Muffins,” and, finally, Dominus vobiscum, which, more or less, is Latin for “Happy New (and Every) Year!”
Thanksgiving Day in America is a time of great joy for some, joy sometimes laced with sorrowful memories. Yet one aspect that I particularly enjoy about Thanksgiving is the opportunity to recall, to reflect not simply on the many blessings of the year but also upon old friendships, family members who have passed away, and even those who are alive and well but who live at a great distance. Seeing Emil and Janet (née Jakes) a few weeks ago in Nanticoke was a blessing; reuniting with an old friend, like my Austrian friend Peter, who is coming to visit this Thanksgiving will be a sweeter treat than the pumpkin pie.
Indeed, seeing a friend after many years is a uniquely wonderful thing. A few days ago I was in Europe, finishing a trip to Paris and Rome. (God bless Paris, in this hour, and all of humanity in a difficult and especially tense moment.) On that occasion just over a week ago now, I went for the first time, at the invitation of a friend, to the university known as La Sapienza, Rome’s most renowned university.
The name of the university (in Italy held in as high regard as Oxford or Princeton is among Anglophones) means, when translated, “The Wisdom,” and though it enjoys perhaps the most interesting name of all the major institutions of higher learning in the world, it suffers from the starkest architecture and least comely examples of bas relief.
The reason for this is that most of the buildings of La Sapienza were designed by Marcello Piacentini (a name that means “little pleasing” and whose buildings please but litte), one of the principal architects of the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, under whom apparently ugly was then the new beautiful, just as abject was the new free. Yet this blog is not to be about politics or architecture or intended to slander the no doubt well-intentioned educational wing of the fascist regime, or even to be rife with paradoxical statements or oxy-(or any other types of)-morons.
Rather, it is about my trip to “The Wisdom,” where I heard the lecture of a certain Professor Conte, whom some regard as the most famous philologist in the world. Now it might sound a little bit funny to say the most famous philologist, for I just promised not to indulge in oxymorons. After all, you might be wondering, can any philologist really be famous? But Professor Conte is famous, at least in certain circles, and the sizable lecture hall (or aula) in which he presented his lecture at La Sapienza was so packed with students and professors that many had to stand or sit on the floor. There the esteemed, recently retired professor from Pisa delivered his lecture on literary “thefts,” or borrowings, as he was seated at a desk atop a raised dais at the front of the aula.
The last time I had seen the great professor was about a quarter century ago when I was fortunate enough to visit Princeton University when he was lecturing there as a visiting fellow, as I recall, in Princeton’s famous Institute for Advanced Study. All of this was just before he became the top literature professor at la Scuola Normale in Pisa, which, when translated, is perhaps the second most interestingly named institution of higher learning in Italy, i.e., the “Normal School.”
All those many years before, that same professor and I had enjoyed a dinner together, after which we had stayed up smoking cigars, something I pretended that was not abnormal for me, although of course he knew it was. As he and I smoked—he enjoying the cigars, I merely trying not to choke—we chatted about literature and art, culture and rhetoric, and yes, even the idea of literary “thefts”—that is the way that one author might draw on the work of another—a fresh consideration of which was, all these years later, the subject of his lecture at La Sapienza. Such thefts, he said, are not plagiarism, but imitations that are adapted, reinvigorated, and deployed afresh; they are made new, made one’s own.
Seeing him again was something like returning to a favorite grove, one nearby your childhood haunts, if you should be lucky enough to have had a grove or a memorable childhood; I am fortunate to say that I did (cf. Curious Autobiography, ch. 9).
Yet to return to the metaphor, seeing such a friend is a situation comparable to when one might rediscover one’s favorite tree, the one under which you once sat reading and thinking, and reading some more. That is what it was like for me to have sat before him again as he spoke. I found the shade of that tree, its daunting height, the inspiring reach of its branches sweetly invigorating, joyous, refreshing my memory of years gone by.
We spoke for a few minutes after his presentation. He remembered me (“of course,” he said sincerely) after so many years. It was as if, save the cigars, we were discussing literature again, even his favorite poem, and mine; for we share a single poem, a single author. Moments like this are rare, but they are important, and I spend this blog writing about this one for a very good reason: I would submit to you that they are among the finest moments that we can share. Life is tragically short, and we have but few such opportunities. If Milton is more than poetically correct about his late espoused saint come to him like Alcestis from the grave, rescued from death by Herculean effort, though pale and faint, we may just see our friends again. It will not merely be in The Wisdom’s aula, but in the Hall of true wisdom.
But to say as much is itself a Miltonic theft, of sorts, which is why I do it here, both as a tribute to the professor and as a harbinger of a glorious hope. And, in as much as I am about the business of thievery, let me allude to a painting that deftly suggests such a scene, one by Raphael.
Though none in the aula of La Sapienza could have known as much that afternoon as we sat there listening intently to the professor, we were but a few hours away from the Paris bombings. How miserable that the arts and humanities can be so quickly destabilized by terror. How incredibly sad such a grotesque act can render the world asunder. Though the terrorists have sadly claimed the lives of a few, they have nonetheless failed to steal our culture, for they know nothing of the thefts about which we speak here. They shall never lay claim to the liberty of our souls that produces art, literature, and what the French call joie de vivre.
Yet we have much to be thankful for, even in the midst of such tragedy. And that brings me back to the notion of Thanksgiving, much more than “turkey day.” Rather, it seems to me that we might better nickname it “Memory Day,” a day to recall both the material blessings, such as shelter and food—a sample of which might be to your taste, see below—and those who came before, whether a distant quasi-historical memory of some pilgrims and their supposed encounter with Native Americans or someone in our families for whom we are particularly thankful. On Memory Day we might just recall all those who went before us: they made our country, the United States, what it is—a wonderful cultural mélange with a distinctly American moral compass and unparalleled work ethic—and they also made the world a better place.
Certainly, my grandparents did that: they sacrificed not simply for their family, but for the poor. Harry took part in, I recall distinctly, a number of mission trips to Haiti, long before community service became chic. Closer to home, he and Blanche, my grandmother, would often clandestinely provide food and clothing for the poorer families nearby—whether in Larksville, Shavertown, Kingstown, or Nanicoke—dropping the homemade care packages off on their porches. So, my dear reader, I will, for my part, think on these things as a relish the hope of seeing old friends again, both those who are founts of learning and thosefamily members, whose time in this world may have passed but whose legacy abides. Both are sources of humane and cultured inspiration. Their inspiration stands; it flies in the face of the cowardly acts of terror of our times. From both that professor and progenitors, I will commit humane “thefts,” as I hope to imitate both by borrowing directly from them in my thoughts and my life. And in that sense, I hope you will join me and be a thief. Sometimes, indeed, it takes a thief.
 In the inscription above the main portal the Latin phrase Studium Vrbis presumably suggests a center point for the study in the city rather than the discipline of Urban Studies or the like. When translated, it literally means “Study of the City” or “The City’s Study.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”“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.
No, 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.