Tag Archives: Latin

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Taking Chances

I had a longish, sc. longer than short but shorter than long, talk with a friend this week about taking chances. He was on the verge of taking a chance—doing something entirely out of the ordinary for him here in Italy—meeting up with a relatively famous person and having an extended conversation with the person, a well-known doctor, about the practice of medicine in Italy. He wanted to do so because he will be practicing medicine very soon in the U.S. So it was a chance for him to compare notes, as it were, with this doctor, a neurologist, about neurology back home in America and neurology here in Italy. But he was, naturally enough, a bit concerned. For one, he didn’t speak Italian. Second, he wasn’t yet familiar with the Italian train system, particularly the not-always-easy-to-use local trains that too often run “in ritardo.”

But he took the chance anyway. Not that he needed my encouragement, for we talked about this only as we were both, coincidentally, already walking to the train station at 4:30 a.m. Little did he know that he would meet up with a doctor who, though quite famous, couldn’t have been any kinder and that that same doctor would have called upon his niece, a college student majoring in English, to serve as an interpreter. On the train, as I dozed in and out of conscientiousness, I thought about how often I have taken similar chances, and how often they have worked out. I will here relay one anecdote as a kind of synecdochic exemplum.

Well over a quarter of a century now, I decided to study archaeology in Rome. I was in college, green, excited about liberal studies—for I had chosen them over the practical arts—and pretty certain that I was pretty good at these liberal studies. I could read ancient Greek, at any rate, which to me was the litmus test of anyone’s dedication to the liberal arts. (I have since then broadened my view, though Greek remains, as Winston Churchill once said, “a treat,” and Latin, “an honour.”)

There I was in Italy with only high-school French, some ancient Greek and Latin but no Italian, no iPhone (of course), no way of getting around the town save an incredibly-difficult-to-read bus map; and no knowledge of the Italian bus system. But, as I said, I took a chance, and within 12 hours of arriving, I had found my way to the center of study where I would be based for the fall semester and—and this is the amazing part—I had met the woman whom I would some day marry, though then I knew it not. All because I took chances.

You won’t be surprised to read that getting to know her required more chance taking. She had no romantic interest in me and, in fact, thought of me as rather uncouth. Some days I think I even seemed to her a ne’re-do-well scallywag in comparison to the other students; (she has since confirmed that this was her initial assessment of me). Such an impression may have arisen because of the overly casual way I dressed or my cavalier (at least when it came to grades) attitude; or maybe it was just because I tended to sit in the position furthest from the professor in class—always against the back wall; never was I the smiling student on the front row. Of all this, I am not sure. In any case, I recognized that the chances of us ever dating were not good, and to change that I had to take even more chances.

After slightly improving my attire—tasteful shoes and a new shirt can do a lot for a 20 year old—evening by evening I walked her home, as her residence was off campus. We chatted about topics from God to the stars in the sky to poetry, art and even joy of family life. Did these things win her over? Well, not any one by itself, I’m sure, but after many a walk home I think they collectively had some effect. Within two years, we did, after all, get married and wound up having that family we (at least I, at the time) had dreamt about so many years before. All because of a willingness to take chances.

And that one story, I think, can stand in for many others. I won’t tell how eventually I asked her out for dinner, or how I once brought her a rose, even though we were just friends, as we stood next to Bramante’s Tempietto on the Gianicolo, or how those “friends” finally kissed, right there by that selfsame Tempietto, just a few days before the program ended. She would stay on in Rome for another seven months until, after what seemed to me an eternity, even though I wrote her a letter every day, I would see her again. No, those things I leave aside in the name of good taste. But, although I won’t mention them, I will say this: none of them would have happened unless I, and she too, had been willing to take some chances.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero

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

Plato
Plato

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

elegant-cabbagetown
Elegant Cabbagetown B&B, Toronto

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

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

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

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

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

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cartoonish World

For Philadelphians, sometimes it seems like sports is the day’s top story. Sports are to many Philadelphians what politics or the arts, to some degree, are to New Yorkers. For this reason, perhaps, one of the more common features of the Philadelphia Inquirer or Daily News, and for that matter any newspaper, are caricatures, cartoon distortions of well-known figures.

Leonardo di Vinci, An Old Woman The Ugly Duchess 1490
Leonardo di Vinci,
An Old Woman The Ugly Duchess 1490

The idea is not new. The Romans would regularly depict political figures in cartoonish ways and even Leonardo Da Vinci playfully rendered such distorted pictures. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, some of the cartoons are aimed at coaches—Chip Kelly was a favorite, and I am certain that the primary cartoonist of the Inquirer is lamenting the coaching change for that city’s football team (Eagles), even as the San Franciscans rejoice.

But why do we enjoy these satirical portraits? Because cartoons can take the edge off a situation as easily as they can, with clever social wit, put an edge on one. For example, a political cartoon, such as James Gillray’s portrait of William Pitt and Napoleon carving up a plum pudding meant to represent the world highlights playfully the pressing issues of the early nineteenth century. Pitt uses both a knife and a trident-shaped fork to suggest England’s maritime prowess, while the feather-chapeaued Napoleon cuts off a substantial portion of the globe representing Western Europe. Napolean and world cartoonThis picture, in a way, simply stated the obvious—taking the edge off a moment of great concern globally. It is one of Gillay’s best-known pieces, and widely recognized as one of the best and most thoughtful caricatures ever made. Those of the coach in the Philadelphia Inquirer, not so much, at least not outside of Philadelphia proper.Chip kelley cartoon

But the point of this blog is not to review the history of caricatures or even to offer a few examples of them. Rather, it is simply this: I want to suggest that we now live in a world of distortions. Caricatures, once just funny pictures, now seem have jumped off the page into the real world. American politicians (and Americans in general) seem to me distorted, oversized, cartoonish. Either they are so cautious about what they say that they won’t dare use a word that could be in the least deemed offensive, or they will avail themselves of any word at all, even those that might have made George Carlin blush, if that were possible. They are either at the furthest limit of one side of the politically correct spectrum, or just the opposite, so far in the other direction that they could care less whom they might offend. The old-fashioned notion of decorum is gone, it is dead (or at least it seems so now) and it is no longer even talked about.

I imagine that even sophisticated college students may not know the word any more, unless they happen to take Latin. Yet infrequently nowadays do college students take the time to learn Latin, for it requires an inordinate amount of time. It forces you to slow down and think; it forces you to be thoughtful. And, well, I suppose with no Latin, there is no knowledge of what decus, decoris (n.) means; and then, no English derivative, decorum, or its deeper meaning. And without decorum you’re left with either extreme political correctness on the one side, or a complete dearth of it on the other.

Is it just me, or does that not seem to ring true to you, too? Now I’m not suggesting that there should be a “middle ground,” for there is no true middle ground between one kind of ridiculous mind game and another. But mightn’t there be something like moderation? There is a difference between these two ideas. Middle ground, at least the way that some folks construe it, is quite often seen as mere fence sitting, an attempt to hedge one’s bets or, worse yet, apathy. But moderation is something like decorum. I won’t have that extra piece of pie because it would be immoderate, indecorous. I won’t have that extra drink because by indulging in immoderate behavior I might say something unseemly. In other words, the notion of decorum, which must be undergirded with a healthy sense of shame, has been driven out precisely because people seem to feel no shame. Yet I leave aside the question as to whether we feel no shame because we are indecorous or whether we are indecorous because we feel no shame. Simply put, we do, and we are.

An example of what I mean can be seen in two different types of eating disorders. The anorexic will consume very little, so little that that person can but barely survive, and, in some very sad cases, die. They have put food out of their life as they are starving themselves. These I would liken to those who are extremely politically correct. They have a disorder: they believe that they have a right to put words or ideas out of their lives. They demand “safe spaces” because they are so easily offended. They must control their environment, and like the anorexic, they have very inadequate and distorted mental picture of themselves.

The indecorously opinionated person, who deliberately seeks to be crass and rude, is to my mind, something like the morbidly obese person. Such folks will respond aggressively to those who offend them. They will just keep heaping it on, like a person too heavy who takes an extra helping or two even when they know, deep down inside, that they should not. Yet even these comparisons are not fair, for neither the anorexic nor the morbidly obese person can be held accountable for their decisions, as they suffer from a mental disorder that had driven them to one of two extremes.

Pixee Fox
Pixee Fox

Rather the people of today’s cartoonish world, who are merely reflected in our politicians, are actually more like Pixee Fox, who has undergone surgeries to become cartoonishly slender or Homer Simpson (“literally” a cartoon character), who apparently in one of this most popular episodes of that television show purposely gains weight to achieve disability status.

Such, it seems to me, are we these days, and perhaps we should not be surprised if our politicians merely reflect us. Either we heap it on indecorously or, worse yet, we are offended on behalf of just about anyone in the world, especially those on behalf of whom it is politically expedient to be offended. Both are distortions of the real thing. That real thing, practically invisible these days, is the decorous, balanced, sensible and honorable person, who is simply polite and kind because it is the right thing to do, not because they want to curry favor or seem holier-than-thou (or more-PC-than-thou). They do not natter negatively on Twitter or prate provocatively on Pinterest. They do not seek merely to be confrontational or endlessly try to find something to be offended about in the name of social change. They do not conveniently revise history, judge those who have served our country courageously, or officiously attend upon the words of others hoping to find a way to pronounce condemnation and to vaunt their own moral superiority.

Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero

We find examples of decorous individuals described in great detail in Cicero’s On Friendship, in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (book 8), or Seneca’s Moral Epistles (9). But who reads these folks anymore?

So few do precisely because we live in a cartoonish world. We even prefer movies rendered from comic books: stories set to the silver screen that have real actors behaving cartoonishly. We have self-distorted; we have become too thin with political correctness or too fat with crassness.Joker in batman

Decorum. That’s what we need now more than ever. And that is what we have always needed. What ever happened to the idea of two people from two different political parties actually respecting each other? Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, how I hope you cannot see from heaven what a cartoonish mess we’ve made of all this. As things are now, perhaps we should “beg for … a discreet patience / Of death, or of worse life.”[1]Ronald-Reagan-Thomas-ONeill

And now it is time for me to go back to the book I’m writing, and you to your morning coffee or walking your dog. If you’re reading your paper, do grin a bit at the caricatures of the coaches of sports teams, whether in the Inquirer or the Daily News. But be wary of the cover of the NY Daily News, that simply takes too much liberty in the name of freedom of the press, for you needn’t look too closely at such distortions, if you live in the same cartoonish world that I do. Distortion, cartoons, caricatures are not just in the papers anymore. They’re walking about everywhere. And they are everywhere because it seems that no one takes decorum seriously. For my part, I am setting out on this new year not worrying about micro-aggressions, or what the politically correct flavor of the day might be; conversely, I shan’t seek to be crass, crude or wanton simply to provoke. Rather I am taking the boring path, one that seeks moderation, decency, and old-fashioned decorum. “Yet never knows what course that light doth run; / So let me study that mine actions be / Worthy…”[2] I don’t have to go to Rome or Greece or England to walk where Cicero, Aristotle, or even John Donne once trod. I can do it in my own neighborhood, my own home, with my own family and friends. That is the way of the old Latin word decus, decoris, which means “dignity.” Care to join me?

[1] John Donne, A Litany, X. The Martyrs

[2] John Donne, A Litany, VI. The Angels

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

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

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

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

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

Aristotle
Aristotle

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

Plato
Plato

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

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

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

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

Augustine writing
Fresco of St. Augustine

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

pen

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Spark

I think that every volcanologist should have the word “Volcanologist” on his or her business card. Probably they do, but I’m not sure, for I can imagine that they might have, instead, “Geologist” or “Professor of Geology.” Were I a geologist who happened to specialize in the subfield of volcanic studies, I would certainly have this particular, if heady-sounding and thoroughly technical title, on my card.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about a volcano is not its etymology, which is interesting indeed, and gets more thought-provoking the deeper one pursues it, so much as what powers it. While it is not impossible that it is related to the Latin fulgur (“gleam”), it is more likely a word of Etruscan origin.

The Apollo of Veii, ca. 510–500 B.C.
Apollo of Veii, ca. 510–500 B.C.

There was a Vulca of Veii, a great artist who portrayed the god Apollo with a famous terracotta statue dating to about the end of the sixth century B.C. But, of course, Vulca’s name did not influence the name of the Roman god Vulcan; rather, they are likely both derived from the same Etruscan—or possibly even Minoan root—which, if that line of inquiry should be correct, was connected with a god called Velchanos, who in Etruscan would seem to have become Velchans.[1] But I speak about disputed topics.

Mr. SpockNot disputed is that Mr. Spock in the popular television series Star Trek finds his origins on Vulcan, a planet that has paradoxically suppressed its fire—maybe the way a volcano suppresses its fire for a period of time, controlling it as long as it can until it erupts? I don’t know if that corresponds to Mr. Spock’s planet of origin, but it does not seem to correspond to his fine, if firm, personality, for as played by the great Leonard Nimoy, he never seemed very close to eruption to me. Yet I wax science-fictional.

Also not disputed is the fact that the spark of any volcano comes from within. The fire comes from deep inside, and watching one erupt is a spectacular thing. The apparent fury, nature’s passion, and the magnificence of the fireworks, quite literally, is mind-boggling. I felt this way when I watched Mt. Etna erupt afresh a few years back. And I marveled at this gobbler of philosophers, this creator of fecundity by its ash, this fireball maker—as its likely etymology from the Greek word for “burn” suggests. Yet there is an obvious downside to such an internal spark, so far as I can tell: it can be rather unpredictable, and along with unpredictable, dangerous.

Mt. Etna, Sicily
Mt. Etna, Sicily

So it is with us humans. Nearly every person whom I’ve known and respected has had not simply an internal spark—though of course there is always something of that—but rather an external spark, as well. That external spark, in the folks I’ve thought of as particularly superb, would seem to come from somewhere up in the aether, rather than simply from their surroundings. Permit me to explain what I mean. I’ve generally respected my teachers, over the years, because they found their inspiration in an author, someone whose works have had a particular impact upon the way they think, or even, in some cases, live. Their spark was not simply their own view of the world, but their view of the world as shaped by a voice or voices from the past. And even if such a voice were not always coming to them from very high up in the aether, it seemed at least to have given a good many of those Ivy League dons a way to think other than simply with themselves at the center of all things.

The same can be said for my friends. I’ve noticed that, though I love them all, those who find their spark outside themselves seem quite different from those who are their own spark. The person who finds the source of motivation entirely from within is often rather attentive to him- or herself. He or she might spend a lot of time on himself or herself, making sure his personal needs are addressed, her pride is not hurt, his rights are upheld, her own desires are fulfilled. He or she is like a volcano and every once in a while, precisely like a volcano, she or he might just erupt.

Yet those whose spark is from without, especially those who derive their internal fire from a vastly higher place, tend to put their own needs last. Indeed, they rarely talk about themselves at all. When you speak to them, you nearly need to pry their lid off, in some cases, to find out what they’ve been up to. You might see them in a hospital waiting room, a volunteer center, a military vehicle, or a church pew. I know some of them by name, such as a friend and his brother with oddly rhyming names, and their dear wives, whose names also rhyme. There is another couple, able and patient, who are like this, too; and those whose name is implicitly non-violent. And then there’s an Italian couple from the far north yet of humbly low origin, and those who, because their son adores animals, would never live up to their last name. They work in shops, in office buildings, in schools, in uniform; they volunteer endlessly, and they deflect credit from themselves. They love their neighbors as themselves, and sacrifice for others each day, all day long. They joyfully enjoy their lives well-lived simply because they have quite often, daily in fact, jauntily stifle their own happiness for others. These folks, whom I won’t name here so as not to embarrass them, are those whom I aspire to be like.

Saint Paul abbey church. Dedication fresco by Thomas von Villach ( 1493 ): Detail showing Saint Paul.
Stift Sankt Paul in the Laventtal, Austria. Dedication fresco by Thomas von Villach (1493): Detail showing Saint Paul.

They are not those castigated by a saint named Paul in a letter to a city called Corinth. There flame burns bright because it is fueled by an ethereal fire. To some, perhaps, they might appear to be common folk. But they are not: they are the heroes of our age.

There is a reason, mythologically speaking, that both the Greek Hephaistos and the Roman Vulcan are always described as limping. The god whom these names represent was cast out of Olympus by Zeus/Jupiter because he angered him as the king of the gods was punishing his wife, Hera/Juno, with chains for sending a storm upon Hercules. The mythological result was a limping fire god.

Lame Hephaistos leans on a crutch.
Lame Hephaistos leans on a crutch. From the East Central frieze of the Parthenon.

Now I don’t intend to suggest that Vulcan’s attempt to free his mother was not a helpful act. But I would suggest that the fact that the god winds up limping might perhaps, if only incidentally, provide an apotropaic totem to any who thinks that charting a course based on one’s own spark, and that alone, is the finest way to live. Indeed, Vulcan’s best act, perhaps, was the making of the armor for Achilles, armor that responded to pride and ultimately only promoted more killing.

Foundry Painter. Attic red-figure Kylix, 490–480 BC.
Foundry Painter. Attic red-figure Kylix, 490–480 BC.

For while this world will encourage us to find our own way, it just may turn out that there is no “own way” after all. And that is the point of The Curious Autobiography, the story behind a life journey like that of Elaine Jakes. It may turn out that there is a closer connection between all human beings than we had ever imagined, that in fact there really is a brotherhood and sisterhood among all humankind, and that there is a Father of all, somewhere far away in terms of divine nature, yet perhaps closer than we have ever imagined in terms of divine love. But that is all the stuff of another blog. In the meantime, I leave you, my dear reader, merely with an invitation to enjoy a glass of wine with a bite of Parmesan—I’m missing that now that I’m back from Parma—and, as you do so, to think about where the true spark comes from and, insofar as any of us can, to take up Spock’s invitation to live long and prosper.

[1] Andreas Bendlin, in Der Neue Pauly 1.2 (2002) 296–298, s.v. “Volcanus”; S. Blakely, in R. Bagnall et al. (eds), The Encyclopedia of Ancient History (New York/London, 2012), s.v. “Volcanus.”