Tag Archives: hope

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Tears

Virgil (70–19 BC)

In a famous verse from Virgil’s grand epic poem he has the poem’s protagonist say to his close friend, “There are tears of things, and things of death touch the mind” (1.462). Perhaps it is the most famous line in the Aeneid, though there are a lot of quotable lines from that poem.That anguish, Virgil is saying in this most quotable line comes from “things of death.” The word in Latin is mortalia, which is often rendered “mortal things.” But that word “mortal” too often simply is misunderstood as meaning “human, not divine.” But the word mortalia does not mean that: it means things pertaining to death, as in the word mortuary, mortician or the all-too-aptly-named Voldemort. This is what touches our mind: death. The ancient poet Horace, too, admonishes his reader to live mindful of how short life is (Serm. 2.6.97). The reader who takes Horace seriously will ever carry at heart the tears of which Virgil speaks.

If you’ve encountered death close at hand lately, you will know that that is easier said than done. It’s a mere platitude to be able to say, “Well, you know, keep in mind we’re all mortal.” There’s that word again: mortal. The person who has experienced grief firsthand knows that such bromides don’t get you very far in the real world when you really confront the death of a loved one. And the person who has confronted that pain knows that mortal doesn’t just mean human: it means closely connected with death. It means aware of the pain and sting of death; and that person feels that they must now and forever be sad because of that pain.

But somewhere else hope is inscribed on a page, hope that complements the rich realism of Virgil and counters the glib advice of Horace or at least of the many sympathy cards that try but fail to comfort adequately. The poet of the forty-second Psalm writes,

My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”                                 Ps. 42:3 (NIV)

This is a brutally honest description—tears as our food—followed by an equally brutally honest question, both recorded right next to each other smack in the center of the Bible: “Where is your God?” How dare people of faith mention God at a time like this, when it feels so hopeless? And yet, the psalmist knows instinctively that the only real solace not just for death but for life is that our paltry lives have meaning, real meaning. In such a circumstance the vanity of pleasure or glory have no power: they avail for naught in the face of death. Rather, only God, the One who counts up our wanderings and gathers every one of our tears into a bottle, even recording them in a book (Psalm 56:8; John 11:35), can give real comfort. He can comfort because only He can give real meaning to all our suffering, our pain, our lives and the lives of those whom we have lost.

There really are tears of things, and mortal things really do touch our minds. We can cry—it’s okay to do so; we don’t always have to “be strong.” We can be weak, too. Perhaps it is really in our weakness where we shall find more strength than we could ever have imagined. May your tears be few in this new year. But if you have them, may they have meaning, that of rich memory, real comfort and, most importantly, true significance.




Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Dreams

For reasons I do not know, I am often asked about dreams. I have no idea why anyone would think that I would have an opinion, let alone knowledge regarding dreams. Unlike my mother and (rather more rarely) my grandmother, I do not read tea leaves, nor do I speculate about the stock market, nor do I play the lottery or even prognosticate successfully about politics—until three days before the 2016 election I thought Hillary Clinton would win, and, prior to that, I did not think President Obama would be re-elected (though I did think he would be elected the first time). In other words, I am far from an oracle. Yet time and again people ask me what dreams mean, and I have begun to wonder what it is about me that makes people think I would have any peculiar insight on that topic.

Yet, despite my lack of specific knowledge about dreams, perhaps I can address the subject in general terms. While I can’t comment on dream interpretation per se, I can say that dreams are important. When I say this, I don’t mean having dreams at night is important, though it might be for all I know. But having a dream—the way that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., did, for example—that is very important.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Why? It casts a personal or, in the case of Dr. King, a collective vision. It is both inspirational and aspirational. Following in the wake of Dr. King, we can dream of an America in which “people will not be judged by the color of their skin,” as he once said, “but by the content of their character.” Dr. King, I believe, was speaking about the merit that their character affords them, that each person would have the chance to receive fairly what he or she earned and not be held back for reasons of racial prejudice. And I think that most of us, or at least I hope that most of us, would agree with that.

But there are other kinds of dreams that cast less lofty visions. For example, you might dream of going to the Bahamas or Hawaii or on an Alaskan cruise. You might dream of your kids going to college or even getting some sort of graduate degree, being well educated and well cultured. Perhaps you hope, too, that they might have a better job than you do, have a happier life. You might dream that they would have less financial challenges than you have had to undergo, have less hardships, have more free time. And it’s okay, as far as I can tell, to dream about such things.

But be careful. For so many of those hardships, challenges, and difficult times were the very things that shaped you, hopefully, for the better. They did if you let them. For life, in that way, is like God. Either you’ll spend your whole life fighting with God (or at least the idea of God) or you’ll slowly (or perhaps suddenly) give in to both, realizing that if He’s just a crutch, like everybody says, then you, too, are in need of that Crutch. For fighting with God ends the day you realize that you’re broken. Only blind pride can keep you back from realizing that.

And life’s not dissimilar. When you stop fighting with the challenges of life—maybe that’s what St. Paul finally understood about life that is given to God instead of given to mere religion when he heard a Voice admonishing him not to “kick against the goads”—and embrace them and even be grateful for them, that’s the first step toward your own dream, not so much of visiting Hawaii as of living life well, even embarking on a greater dream like that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For his dream calls on all those who have ears to hear to put aside their prejudice, itself engendered by blind pride, and walk with him toward a better America and a better world.

But there’s one more thing I would add to my interpretation of dreams. You must remember old dreams to have new ones. You must remember Dr. King’s dream if you are to have your own. You must remember your parents’ and grandparents’ aspirations, hopes, and, yes, dreams for you if you are to have them for yourself or your own children and grandchildren. I think that is summarized in the Bible pretty well when the Prophet Joel says, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28). May you do the same, and may it be a dream that is both personal and collective, inspirational and aspirational.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Interest in the Boring

The title of this blog is anything but titillating. I chose it for that reason. It is meant to challenge us to ask a fundamental question: Why would anyone do anything boring? Life is tragically short. Given that fact, I think it is perfectly legitimate to ask why anyone would choose to do something boring.

I have a friend who is a philologist, and you can imagine even from the career description encapsulated in his professional title that he has what most people would deem to be a boring job. Perhaps an aversion to such boring jobs provides the very rationale, to the extent that there is a rationale beyond “ratings” or “advertising dollars,” for “extreme” television shows, or even reality television shows, which seem to me far from real. To take but one example, this week, when I had a bad headache, I turned on the television. We haven’t cable television, but as I occasionally like to watch sporting events, we decided to purchase an antenna that would allow us to get local channels. Now that everything is digital, we actually only sort-of get the local channels, as they often barely come in on time; there are all kinds of data transfer delays so that you often just see blocks of pictures popping up, especially, it seems at critical moments in a sporting event. But no matter—such is the digital age in which we live, like it or not.

But back to the headache. As I convalesced for a few minutes I did what I rarely do—turned on the television for a non-sporting event, only to find a telling example of reality television. Reality? It was a dating program where the same man kissed many women and then got to pick which one he would send home from his harem, presumably because she didn’t kiss well enough. What a message, I thought for young people: for young women, that they need to “compete” to get a boyfriend, in this case a creepy one and, for young men, that they should think of women as commodities, like automobiles, to be test driven and then chosen. Such a sad world we live in now. I’m afraid the show just made my headache worse.

Well, I thought to myself, what is the alternative? Is the alternative to embrace the “boring”? Church, by comparison, must seem very boring. Helping at the local recycling center must seem very boring. Volunteering at a shelter for the poor must seem very boring, too, by comparison with reality televisions shows like that one.


But that’s when I thought of why in fact the reality television show is actually the boring thing—indeed I did find it very boring, as I could stomach it only for a few minutes while I sharpened my thoughts in my throbbing head about it. The reality is that going to a shelter to help the poor is anything but boring. You actually meet really interesting people there—real people with real problems—and you get to speak with them about your life, perhaps even what God has done in your life, if you’re volunteering through a religiously based organization. And God is not boring because he is not the God of “and”—for the man had this woman and that woman and then would send one of them home and next week start all over again and choose the next loser and send her home and then refine his harem and then pick another loser and so on. That’s the world of and, and, and. Advertisers thrive on it: you need this thing and this thing, oh, and by the way, that one, too. And then comes the next commercial. And, and, and …


But God is the God of buts. He says your life is a mess, but I am here to help you. You think you need this and this and that, but you really just need me. To the women in that television show, he says the world turns you into a commodity, but I say you are a human being. To the male star of that television show (and perhaps to any man watching it), he says you want woman upon woman but you won’t be satisfied until you let go of your hedonism and listen to the buts of the Ten Commandments and the buts of the whole story of the Bible. Moses was a murderer, but he was called to lead the people of God. Jacob was a trickster, but he would bear the name of Israel. Joseph was in jail, but he came to rule over Pharaoh’s kingdom. His brothers threw him into a pit, but he forgave them. Peter was a fisherman, but he was called to follow. Paul was persecuting Christians, but he became one. Lazarus was in the tomb and there was a bad odor, Mary said, after all the time he was in there, but Christ called him out. Jesus was dead—but he arose.[1]

But all that is boring churchy stuff—religion, hocus pocus in the age of scientific reality. Yet if reality television is any indication of the alternative, of the reality of this psychologically needy and spiritually defunct age, maybe, just maybe the boring might start to look, if not exciting by comparison, at the very least more palatable, for if it claims miracles—a good, highly educated friend of mine only came to believe in miracles when he saw them occur repeatedly in his own life—it still offers something that the stark world of reality doesn’t quite offer: hope. Hope is what we really need because hope says what God says: but. I’m in a mess now, but there’s hope.

Here I will end, I think, my discourse on the boring, as I have invited a friend to church tomorrow not with a promise of anything but that it may seem boring. We will sing, we will pray, we will listen. That sounds, I imagine, pretty boring. Boring, yes, but for a small word—but.

[1] I owe the refining of my thoughts about the word “but” to a sermon by Rev. Philip DeCourcy (“Jonah, Man on the Run,” 4th part in the series) who cites a similar observation by the late Rev. James Montgomery Boyce of Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Argument from Silence

If you were lucky enough to have had a good teacher of humanities in high school or college, perhaps you learned that making an argument from silence is a bad thing. The Latin term is, of course, rather august: argumentum ex silentio. Such an argument is certainly less persuasive than an argument based on solid evidence. The absence of holes for the poles of a wigwam does not prove that there were no Indians.

But I want to talk a bit about another kind of argument from silence, one that is in fact based on silence. That is the argument for God. But I start with the argument against God: human suffering. Now I acknowledge that animal suffering is horrible, too. An abused dog, an uncared for cat, or a horse suffering from malnutrition are all horrendous to look upon. But among these, none presents evidence sufficiently contradictory for the idea of God. Rather, human suffering does, whether caused by natural disaster, war, or human malfeasance. “If there is a God,” it is often said, “why does He permit little children to starve to death in Africa, hundreds to die in a mudslide, terrorists to blow up little girls as they are leaving from an Ariana Grande concert?” These are the best arguments against God—not evolution, not the fact that the earth is but a speck in the universe, not even the very good anti-God argument based on the hypocrites who attend churches. Those are interesting, even entertaining to debate. But the really good argument against God is, without doubt, human suffering.

But what is the argument for God? The argument for God is nothing quite as convincing, for it is ultimately an argument from silence. Not the silence of a wigwam’s missing pole hole. Rather it is the argument from silence and invisibility, from not hearing a word but somehow knowing, at least strongly believing, that He is there, and sensing that that silent argument changes everything. For it gives you hope. Hope, I think, is the strongest argument from silence for God.

Now what do I mean by this? Let us begin with the notion that hope is as invisible as it is intangible. You can’t see it, you can’t touch it with your fingers. But you crave it perhaps more than an alcoholic his next drink. You can’t go on without it, or at least you feel certain that you can’t. You get up in the morning and on your drive to work you can think only of the cruel oppression of the world, knowing that your job, perhaps, is in the hands of some of those very oppressors.

That boss seems simply to want to make your job so difficult you can’t do it, let alone flourish in performing it. Rather, it is like one continuous fraternity hazing ritual, where every time you think you’ve accomplished something, done a task or prepared a report correctly, you are yet again chided, criticized, knocked down, made to feel small, made to feel worthless. Your work is never up to the standards which appear to you to shift at the will or whim of your boss. You’ve learned to live with that, but it is not a good situation and you know it. But it’s too late to change. You’re middle aged and you’re at the bottom rung of middle management.

This is where the argument from silence comes in, or rather bursts in. On that selfsame drive to work you think and think and think and wonder how you can get out of this situation, how you can extricate yourself, but you can’t come up with a way, not a natural way. And then you think of your faithful cousin, or your co-worker (the only one who actually cares about you), or your smiling and helpful neighbor, all of whom are cheerful, hopeful, encouraging people. “Why are they so?” you ruminate. And then it dons on you, in the silence of your car as you close your eyes for thirty seconds at a traffic light until the car behind you honks. They all believe in something greater than themselves, in a god, in God. The all have hope from on high. They all are convinced that the supernatural can and does happen. They get especially excited and exude their hopefulness on occasions such as Christmas or Easter, to the celebration of which holidays your smiling, helpful neighbor invariably invites you but you hitherto have invariably declined. Yet now, in a silent moment at this traffic light, hope breaks through, perhaps for the first time in a long time, since you were a kid, since you last bowed your head and said a prayer.

That’s just the beginning, not the end. And that’s the point of today’s blog, a beginning, a beginning in silence, based on silence. If you want to see where hope leads, keep reading each week. We’ll get there on another occasion. Another silent occasion.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Christmas Yard (Part 2, The Spirit of Christmas)

Those of you who read last week’s blog may recall where we left off in our story. That story was about a small town called Christmas Yard located beneath a large pine tree that the townsfolk climb to decorate each year to celebrate Christmas, whether those people were religious or not. Those who were not, simply did so to acknowledge that this time of year is especially kind and gentle, a season admirable at least for its effects if not for its faith. The religious folk then, as they still do today, acknowledged its spiritual side, inviting others to join them in the celebration, whether merely in appreciation of the general goodness of the season or an expression of faith in the specific goodness of God.

And that was, the reader may recall, more or less, the basis on which Reverend Griffith was operating when he took his Monday morning walk around Christmas Yard, carrying packages to be delivered to folks who had never gone to his church but had palpable needs. He visited an old Welsh woman, Mrs. Llymder, who over her parents’ objections had converted to Catholicism when she married her husband and, even though he died some twenty years before at the age of 49, had remained Catholic after his death. Another whom Reverend Griffith visited, Mr. Umaskini, also lived alone, having worked mainly manual labor jobs—his last being in a glass factory—until his health had run out. He now lived in a house owned by his last boss, the owner of that same glass factory, located outside the Yard under the divan, where also Mr. Pínqióng (pronounced Pin-chiong) worked. That factory owner, a man with the interesting name of Acus Mitis Dives, was a mild-mannered man of wealth, whom everyone familiarly called Forman Acus, which title the workers regularly mispronounced as “Foramen Acus,” albeit, as the owner, he was much more than the plant’s foreman. He actually charged Mr. Umaskini no rent—only asking for upkeep on the property in return for his living there—and made sure that Mr. Pínqióng always received some kind of Christmas bonus, not only because Mr. Pínqióng was a hard worker but because he had a family. In fact, Foramen Acus made sure that all his workers got some kind of bonus at Christmas, something not all the proprietors of all the businesses in Christmas Yard did.

These, along with the impoverished Armut family of German immigrants, did the good Reverend Griffith visit that Monday, when he was followed by the all too curious lad David Goldstein, who was dying to know what was in the packages that Reverend Griffith had brought to those folks’ houses. But now it was Tuesday afternoon, and David was therefore expecting the familiar knock on the apartment door. There stood the right reverend, tall, with a dark overcoat from the top of which spilled out a ruffled woolen scarf that carried in its soft crevices ample evidence of the snow that was falling out side, as did the flat top of the reverend’s ascot cap. This week, the peripatetic pastor brought with him several packages under his left arm. Another, which he bore in his right hand, was about the size of a square foot, and it seemed likely to be intended for Mrs. Goldstein.  “Though the reverend visits us nearly every Tuesday,” young David was thinking to himself, “he hasn’t brought packages before. Now is my chance to find out what is in all those packages.”

Mrs. Goldstein entered the room from her tiny kitchen, immediately offering the prelate a bowl of soup with hard cheese and some tea.

“Tea would be lovely,” he said. Once she had made certain that tea is all he wanted, she set about the preparation swiftly, getting up to leave just as David was thanking the reverend for not having been cross with him for following him the day before.

“Can I open the package? Is it for us?” David queried.

“David, really,” Mrs. Goldstein said charily, ashamed that David inquired about the package so boldly.

“May, not can, lad. And yes, if your mother lets you, you may open it. But,” the reverend said with some slight hesitation in his voice, “don’t be thinking it’s something that you’ll have a great deal of interest in. It’s really more for your mom.”

David and the pastor nattered about this and that until the return of Mrs. Goldstein, who had to work full-time as a waitress in the local restaurant, the Golden Pump, because her husband a lustrum ago had quit the marriage, when David was a toddler. Her waitressing skills allowed her to display great dexterity by carrying with unusual ease the teapot and two cups on a tray. She spoke first, just as David was tearing the brown paper off of the package, “You needn’t have brought us anything, Reverend.”

“I know,” he said, “But I thought you might be able to use a small package, especially as it’s that time of the year when there are a few extra visitors, a few extra expenses.”

matzoInside the bundle were three boxes of matzo and, wedged between two of them, a crisp ten dollar bill.

“I don’t know what to say,” she said. “That is so very generous. Is it from, …” she paused, “your church?”

“It is from God,” he said. “God has given to us generously. We simply pass on what He has given.” And after a few more minutes of conversation, the reverend slurped down his last bit of tea before saying, “Well, I had better be off now. I’ve got a few more errands to run.”

“Can I come along?” David asked before the Reverend could stand up and draw his overcoat, scarf and hat from the nearby fainting couch.

“May I?” Mrs. Goldstein said, offering the pastor his garments.

“Listen to your mother,” the reverend jokingly quipped to David, before appending, “Yes, of course, thank you, Mrs. G,” for he often shortened people’s names or gave them friendly nicknames. “Better I go alone this time, David,” the reverend added.

Before he could get out the door, Mrs. Goldstein thought it not inappropriate to qualify the occasion. “You know, Reverend, I won’t just start coming to your church because of your generosity.”

“Indeed,” he responded. “That would ruin it anyway. Generosity has to be from the heart. If ever you should decide to come to my church, don’t do it this time of year when I’m bringing you matzo.” He grinned, she in kind, and off he went on another Christmas errand.

“That is a good man,” Mrs. Goldstein said to David.

“I think so, too,” David responded to his mother.

“If all Christians were like him …” Mrs. Goldstein began, never finishing her sentence.

Meanwhile, though it was late afternoon in the small hamlet of the Yard and the old-fashioned looking lights high up on the enormous tree that loomed above the town began to glimmer, as the sun’s chariot had made its final turn toward the end of its daily course, curiosity came upon David, and he recused himself from the living room and the lingering words of his mother, stating quite mendaciously that he was going outside to play.

“To play what?” His mother wanted, as good mothers often do, greater specificity.

“I won’t be long. Can I?”

Permission was granted, with no correction of “can” to “may.” Anyhow, it was nearly time for Mrs. Goldstein’s shift at the Golden Pump. “You stay nearby the apartment. I’ve got to go to work.”

David took off in the direction that he had seen the reverend turn after he had descended the exterior staircase, essentially just a wrought iron fire escape, that adorned the side of the two story edifice, with its final step running parallel to the street in front; beneath their apartment was the Village Store, a tiny grocery and meat shop whose butcher, Mr. Lanius, was also the local special-occasion photographer, for weddings and such, as time permitted.

Darting past the Village Store, young David pursued the reverend, shadowing him, and doing so again chiefly out of prurient interest in his comings and goings. And this time the reverend would surprise David even more than he did on his last promenade, for this time he went to the very edge of Christmas Yard, descending a snow covered hill and crossing a small corner of the plane known as “the floor” and heading under the shade of a raised plateau, known as “the table,” quite near the divan where, you will recall, Mr. Pínqióng worked for a gentle manager in a glass factory. Under the table there was the most unexpected of houses, and David thought he could see as they both approached (though David still lurking in the shadows only) the reverend crying as he bent on one knee, apparently to pray, before approaching.

That house was humbler than the Goldstein’s apartment or the modest house of Armut family; it was large, but completely dilapidated, and oddly there were two young women sitting on the porch, one with a fat belly. They seemed to recognize the reverend, but an older woman came out to chat with the reverend; she received the largest of the three packages that the reverend left.

David thought he heard the older woman express her thanks, though at the great distance he was from the building, he could not be sure. Reverend Griffith spoke in an inaudible tone with the two younger women on the porch, offering them each a small package bound with string and brown paper, each smaller than the one he had brought to the Goldstein home earlier in the day. Then he left, with David at his heels, but at a safe distance, so as not to be noticed. As they neared the snow-covered embankment that they had descended earlier, the reverend suddenly turned about, inviting David, as he had the day before, to join him.

“How did you know I was here?” David said, as if making his clandestine activity of following the pastor into a game of espionage. “I didn’t see you turn and look?”

“Your tracks in the snow of this embankment gave you away. Now, why are you following me this time?”

“So that I can see where you are going.”

“May, not can, my lad,” the rector replied hastily, though conceding to his own richly grammatical mind that “can” could work in this instance.

“What did you give those women? Who are they?”

“David, it would take too long to explain.” The reverend did not want to explain to David, who was but nine years old, that he had gone to a home for unwed mothers. He simply said, “I can say this, I gave them the best gift I could give them. Words of hope, words of healing.”

“Don’t you mean you told them words of hope?”

“I did, but I gave them those words, too; I gave them an old book, too, with some special pages for them to read so they might know something of the Spirit of Christmas. For the Spirit of Christmas is one that welcomes, redeems and invites.”

The reverend had given them, of course, each a Bible, with John’s ninth chapter prominently marked for them, and one or two other passages, too, especially Matthew 1 and Luke 2, for the holiday.

“Did you invite them to your church?”

“Yes, I did indeed,” said the reverend with a smile.

“Will they come?”

“We’ll see.”

David and the reverend walked briskly back to the tiny apartment that was tucked unassumingly just above the Village Store, conspicuously avoiding the storefront of the Golden Pump. Fortunately for David, he returned in time to eat some of the gift of the matzo and a bit of kosher hard cheese for dinner before his mother came home from work that evening. To keep the mitzvah, he waited half an hour after he ate before lighting the two requisite candles of the menorah, but then, per his mother’s instructions, went straight to bed before she should come home. Once in bed, he pondered the events of his promenade, his first trip ever outside the Yard, the strange explanation of the pastor about the women, the contrast of “giving” words and speaking them, and the pastor’s use of the expression, “Spirit of Christmas.”menorah

But those thoughts passed after a few minutes, for the next day would be the twenty-seventh of Kislev, the third day of Hanukkah, the third day of lighting the menorah. His mother would no doubt have a Hanukkah treat for him, perhaps a book, like the women on the porch of the large house had gotten, for the third day of Hanukkah was often a book giving day. So he said a prayer and went to sleep.

Yet trouble would soon be brewing in Christmas Yard. To learn of this trouble, my hope, dear reader is that you will stay curious, curious enough to read next week’s installment of this seasonal blog, “The Christmas Yard.” In the meantime, Happy Hanukkah and advent season leading up to, what I sincerely hope will be for you and yours, a very merry Christmas.

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.

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.