Tag Archives: meaning

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Trees and People

I wasn’t going to write a blog about trees and people until I read the news this week. Indeed, this blog is not going to be about trees and people, not really. It’s rather about the way that people are like trees.

DSC_0036The oak is a symbol in Virgil for strength. Indeed, the very word for oak, robur, -oris, is also used for strength in Latin generally. When Aeneas is described as having decided to leave his lover Dido, Queen of Carthage, he resists her stoutly (cum robore) when struck with her bitter objections, which come at him like cold, Alpine blasts of the North Wind. Notably, on that occasion, Aeneas’ oaken roots reach so far into the soil that it is as if they extend to the gates of Hell itself (in Tartara tendit).

But this is not how I want to say that people are like trees. Rather, I want to state something even more obvious. I want to say that people are like trees because each family member is like a limb on a tree and each family is a tree. Some families are oaks, some are pussy willows. But the important thing is that they are trees, with limbs, and they are all vitally connected, with grafts of saplings that form new, strong branches. And that rather obvious thing is the way that trees are like people.family tree

So when I read this week that a member of the terrorist group that is destroying the Middle East killed his mother because she wanted him to disassociate himself from that group, it struck me hard. For I have edited and written my mother’s Curious Autobiography, and through that experience I have appreciated her life even more than I had before I wrote it. 9781480814738_COVER.inddI saw in the writing of her story that it was, in fact, a story that was already written. I was just recording the story that someone else had written. She had written part of it, and God the other part. And that story touched (and if you buy the book, will continue to touch) all those connected to it—those privileged enough to have known her, to have appreciated and learned from her worldview, to have understood that behind her perception of the world lay that of her parents, and behind their view of the world, that of her parents’ parents, and so forth, stretching back generation after generation. That is the story and the origin of the values that supported it—it is what enabled Elaine’s curious life to be what it was, enabled it to have meaning and significance, which it most certainly did.

The values that those who had come before her were trying to pass on were transmitted imperfectly. Sometimes the full impact of those values could be lost, or at least misunderstood. But in the final analysis they were transmitted, even if occasionally they wound up skipping a generation. But they did not go away.

a family headstone

One of my cousins and I once stood in front of our grandparents’ headstones and talked about meaning and significance, values and morality. His view was that he was constructing values from the jumble that he had been handed. My view wasn’t very different in terms of “jumble” or that the values were somehow “handed” (off? over?) to us. The only difference was the verb. I was trying to derive values from what I was given, he was trying to impute values based on what he had been given. We share the same tree, we have inherited the same sap. And our tree is an oak.

But, to change the subject from a tender moment that two cousins once shared to the recent, terrible news, what values could a person inherit that would lead him to kill his own mother in the name of religion? Several times this week I found myself mulling the event over in my mind, contrasting that event with Abram’s obedience when he was instructed to sacrifice his only son, Isaac.

CARAVAGGIO The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1601-02
CARAVAGGIO, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1601-02

He couldn’t have known that he was doing something that would be a pattern, a harbinger of what God himself would someday do, for God provided a lamb for him from a thicket; Isaac was saved from death by a different kind of sacrifice. But in the case of the young mother in the news story—she was but 35 years old, in one account of the incident that I read—no one came to take her place. There was only a terrorist who, in the name of God—at least what he regards as god—decided that his mother’s desire to escape the juggernaut of the violent religious regime that was coming upon them in Iraq qualified her as a heretic. She merely had decided that what she was hearing, reading, learning, seeing—a blood bath, carnage, destruction, fear mongering, hatred, threats, wholesale executions—these things could not be from God. And she was right.

If you’re anything like me, you spend a lot of time trying not to kill trees. I try not to do stuff that will hurt the environment. I try to recycle; I avoid printing; I try not to use paper towels unless really necessary; hey, I even bike to work every day so as to minimize my personal use of fossil fuels. But while I’m worried about a real tree in this country, maybe I should be more concerned with the metaphoric arboreal destruction that is going on abroad. A young man killed his mother in the name of God, because she was viewed as heretical. I don’t know what I can do about it except pronounce first, that his mother’s life, like my own mother’s, had significance and meaning.

I don’t know much about her life, but I for one will not let her death simply be a casualty of war. I will proclaim that woman as a kind of martyr, for she bears witness to the fact that the members of this terrorist group must be stopped. We in the West cannot sit idly on our hands while thousands of people, who in a fundamental human sense are our brothers and sisters, are murdered. Some Muslim, some Christian. But either way, they are killed tragically. We can, at the very least, get off our hands, fold them and pray for those folks. And perhaps, before long, western governments can help them. Admitting the destitute as refugees may help for a time, but it will not solve the problem. If that regime continues to capture city upon city and impose radical Islamic law upon the territories acquired, then all that will happen is more people will die or be cowed into submission.

Until the governments act, whether western or Middle Eastern, all we can do is pray, and by praying we can save a different kind of tree than that which provides us with paper towels. And prayer is more than just a little, for God is far more outraged with the death of that mother than we. She was an oak, for she showed robust fortitude, she was courageous in the face of death. Her life had significance, and I pray, it will continue to have significance, for she risked it—or rather lost it—for peace, for hope, and for the love of her son, the very son who killed her. What was her name? We don’t know her name yet. But God does.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Angels and Headstones

As the title of this blog implies, angels turn up in surprising places. One might not expect to come upon an angel in a store that sells grave markers; that frankly is the last thing one might expect. Truth be told, one rather infrequently enters a grave marker store, normally known as “So-and-so’s Memorials.” Usually such a store’s modestly sized parking lot is far from teaming with customers and, if one does venture within, rarely, if ever, does one learn that that store is out of a certain type of headstone, or that they have a particular marker on “backorder.” And, of course, it would be gauche to suggest putting anything on layaway, as that would be driving the nail a bit too close to the thumb, so to say.

Indeed, the very word memorial is itself already driving that nail rather close, for the term is either a benign euphemism or an apt appellation. I prefer the latter, as I believe in memory, not that it may merely serve to be an ephemeral record of a life well (or otherwise) lived but also as a mental imprint that serves to preserve a record of meaning. It is a mirror image of the hope that can inform one’s future.

Kingston welcome signBut to return to angels and gravestones. I entered that gravestone store, located on Wyoming Avenue in Kingston, Pennsylvania in the spring of 2012 with my uncle Ed Johnson, a retired professor of the school once called Wilkes College, to buy Elaine Jakes’ memorial marker. That place of business is one that I have fortunately had few opportunities to visit; but that cold March day, with its crisp, biting wind, Ed and I were on just such a gloomy errand. Though Elaine had passed away a few months earlier, it was now time to put her ashes in the ground at Fern Knoll Burial Park. We needed, and indeed wanted, a simple memorial, something to put over the place where Elaine’s ashes would rest. I had no idea that I would that day encounter an angel.

Gingerbreak manNow I had only once before encountered someone I thought could be an angel. I was 21 years old and was involved in a very strange fisticuffs. My close friend Tim Hoy and I, then a college senior, were walking home from a fine dining establishment and even better bar known as the Gingerbread Man in Carlisle, Pennsylvania . We had spent a few hours in that bar chatting, Tim drinking beer, I Perrier because at the time I had mononucleosis, a disease during which one is told to refrain entirely from alcoholic beverages. Besides, Perrier was cheaper and quite refreshing, particularly with a twist of lime. I felt, frankly, somewhat sophisticated. We spent a few hours chatting about C. S. Lewis, the Baltimore Orioles (baltimore oriole capTim’s favorite team and, coincidentally, my favorite bird) and, by metonymic association, Cookie, the myna bird that taught me how to talk in a manner comparable to the way that a bear taught Elaine Jakes how to drive.

When it was time to walk home we took a less than circuitous course back to our admittedly shabby apartment, en route to which we encountered some ruffians—eight that I could count—who proceeded to engage us in a fisticuffs. Needless to say, they outmanned us. Tim’s jaw was broken on nearly the first punch. I fortunately did not rupture my then delicate spleen, to protect which I kept my arms over my belly, allowing my face to be knocked about at will, no doubt to the delight of the assailants.

Nonetheless, I don’t think either one of us were frightened—perhaps we hadn’t had time to be frightened, as it all happened so fast—until I heard and then saw one of the hooligans open his switchbladeswitchblade.  For a moment, I thought all was lost. It was not. Just as he was approaching me, pinned as I was against the side of a car, a large man came from nowhere. He seemed, at the time, of superhuman size. Indeed, I doubt I have in the flesh ever seen anyone so large unless seeing an (American) football player, a lineman, at a distance during a football game were to count. But even such girth I am not certain would surpass that man’s—if he was a man. I had a feeling at the time that both the size and the rapidity of his appearance and then sudden disappearance could qualify him for angelic status. Admittedly, he did not sing; nor did he have a harp or a halo or wings. Yet even if he was not a capital ‘A’ angel, he was at the very least a lowercase ‘a’ angel. He came to announce to that entire group of ruffians that it was over and they should go home. And that they did, immediately, without asking questions or even tagging Tim or me with one last upper cut or left hook. They scattered. We were safe, and we stumbled home. And maybe that night, just maybe, we encountered a real live angel.

Harry and Blanche Jakes
Harry and Blanche Jakes

But that apparition was vastly different from the angel that Ed and I encountered in the memorial store on Wyoming Avenue in Kingston, for there we came upon a small, elderly woman who asked about Elaine Jakes. Was this Harry and Blanche’s daughter, she asked? Blythe Evans’ cousin? “Yes,” we said. Oh, she said, I knew Elaine—a bit of a free spirit, that Lainey. What a wonderful lady and what a fine family she came from. Blythe—well, everyone was proud of him, the district attorney. And, her sister—“My wife, Lee Ann,” Ed piped in—well, she was a marvelous person, raised two fine boys, didn’t she? “Yes,” Ed, added, “my sons, Mark and Eric.” Fine lads, the woman said; one became a doctor, the other, was it a professor? “Yes,” Ed and I concurred, adding a few details to round out the family portrait.

But Harry was special, she said. He was a wonderful human being. He bought his mother and his father’s memorials here, you know, and Jemima Jones’ and Lizzie Ann Evans’. Then afterwards he used to come by from time to time just to say hello, just to be friendly and keep us here in the store up with what was going on at his church, with the family and in his neighborhood. A good man, that Harry Jakes, she said. In parting, she gave Ed and me each a small gift; a small metallic medallion of an angel.

Angel medallion
Angel Medallion

Take these, she said, and be blessed. It’s an angel, she said, a small gift to remind you that there are real angels. Ed smiled and took it, as did I, expressing our thanks.

To write this blog, I used Google Earth to try to find that memorial store. I thought it must still be there—after all, it was just three years ago that I was visiting and I bought the headstone. But though I thrice virtually traversed of Wyoming Avenue and looked up and down for it, I could not find it. I could not find even the place where I recall that it was located. It would seem to have come and gone nearly as quickly as that angel, if he was an angel, who delivered Tim and me from the valley of the shadow of death in Carlisle all those years ago. No, I’m sure that that store is there and that I just missed it. And perhaps that woman was not a real angel. But I don’t doubt that she gave us an angelic blessing, and that that blessing is one that points to the angels we encounter in this life, whether they be humans or something or someone, somewhat otherworldly, in human form.