Tag Archives: Milton

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cake

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

“What do you mean?” I queried.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Difficult Road

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

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

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


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

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

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

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Air

On hearing a marvelous pianist, my friend, Helge Antoni play Edvard Grieg’s “Holberg Suite Opus no. 40” this week, I found myself stopping and thinking. I thought generally of music’s transformational qualities, its capacity to transport you from one state of mind to another, almost from one place to another. But when he played the fourth movement of that suite, “Air,” that is when I thought of something else: time.

Edvard Grieg

I say time not because I found myself thinking of the work’s title in Norwegian (Frå Holbergs tid) or even a language that I actually can speak like German (Aus Holbergs Zeit)—Little did I know until later that “time” (tid) was even in the original title. Nor was it the fact that the piece was written in 1884 to celebrate something that had occurred a bicentenary before, the commemoration of Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg’s birth; that detail I found out at the concert, though I think I had read it somewhere previously. But I had forgotten that when I was thinking about time, even as I listened intently to Mr. Antoni playing the piece so movingly, so timelessly.

If you recall the movements of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, you perhaps already know that they are based on eighteenth-century dance forms that were themselves connected with Baroque music, the music and the style of dance that came from when Holberg himself was living. [1] The Holberg Suite, then, was written to do precisely what it did for me, to transport someone through time to a previous epoch.

But the epoch in which I found myself was not two hundred years before. It was just a few years ago when Elaine Jakes died. For it was not the style of a Norwegian dance form from the seventeenth century that created an image in my mind, but it was the transcendent quality of the suite’s fourth movement, “Air,” that seeped into my soul and took me back, specifically to my mother’s death. Not in sadness or despair, but in an idea, an image. And that image originally occurred to me when I first encountered Death. For when I first encountered Death I had, as all of us perhaps at some point in our lives, never known him. He had been a distant reality to me, something that happened to other people, like a terrible disease or a horrendous accident or natural disaster.

Hercules Fighting Death to Save Alcestis by Frederic Lord Leighton, 1869–71

I was twenty when my grandfather, Harry Jakes, died. And hitherto I hadn’t entered into the holy land by way of reading. The notion of someone who could defeat death, like Heracles come to bring Admetus’ dear Alcestis back from the grave, was not an image, even in Dionysian theatrical terms, that had jelled in my mind or occurred to my spirit. Rather, Death entered Harry’s hospital room with a strong upper hand as I and my cousin Eric had, moments before, looked upon him, wired with tubes and grasping at his last few moments of life. We stepped out, hungry and in need of something to eat, when we were called back from the hospital’s canteen to the room, too late. He was gone. His soul had flitted away, on air, not even the Air of the Holberg Suite, but just air. Death had won, for now. But Air is written to be played in andante.

Andante religioso, to be precise. And thus it was that Death’s victory was but short-lived, for in just a few months I found myself, for the first time, entering into that holy land of which I spoke, encountering a literary force much stronger than the Euripidean Heracles. But that force was something greater than even a literary force, or even one made popular at the time (and incredibly still so) by a movie and, later, series of films. Indeed I was not on Miltonian ground, I knew before I heard Air what andante religious really meant. And that is why when I attended my grandmother’s funeral and when I came down the stairs the morning of my mother’s death to find her cold body lying in her bed, I knew that her spirit had risen on the air, the air of Greig’s fourth movement of the Holberg Suite. That Air leads to the joyous opening of the fifth, Rigaudon, a piece that is written to be “alive with energy,” allegro con brio. How fitting, for Grieg’s Air doesn’t just dissolve. It wafts, it wafts somewhere.

And so had Harry, though I knew it not. And Blanche. And, thirty years or so after them, Elaine. Their spirits had not just passed away, but had climbed, not simply “up” to a sky deity but to the Master’s home, a home beyond the sky. They had all gone, by faith, allegro con brio. And before they left they had given me a gift—not a cheese plate or a serving tray or even a teapot with a most interesting brown, undulating pattern. No, they had given me the faith to envision, or perhaps the vision to believe that the air on which our souls shall one day climb, leads somewhere, until we shall, about the supreme throne, of Him t’ whose happy-making sight alone, forever sit, attired with stars, in triumph over Death, and Chance, and even Time. But not Air. For when that day comes, that is precisely what we shall breathe, con molto brio.

Helge Antoni
Helge Antoni

[1] Further, cf. http://www.favorite-classical-composers.com/holberg-suite.html.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Colors

When Milton was writing Paradise Lost, he was, biographers tell us, quite unable to see. His light was “spent,” to use his own description from his nineteenth sonnet: he simply could not see. He could not perceive faces, or shapes or colors. With remarkable skill and precision, he dictated his magnum opus to two scribes. He could no longer see the vivid images of this world. He had receded into permanent physical nightfall, the black quietude of total darkness. He no longer knew colors firsthand.

Colors are remarkable things. To my mind, colors are perhaps the most amazing things in the universe, or at least the universe as I know it. Now I admit, that the strange fish that pop up from time to time are also remarkable.

Rare fish caught at Pamban. Photo: L. Balachandar.
Rare fish caught at Pamban. Photo: L. Balachandar. The Hindu (5.4.2014)

They are, often, surpassing strange, marvelous in their own right, if a quite terrifying right. I once had an alligator gar pass right by me when I was swimming in a lake. Startling.

Alligator Gar
Alligator gar from the Brazos River. Caught by Clinton and Charles Robertson








But to return to colors. Colors can be explosive.

Colorful fishFish themselves, even the not very weird ones, can be the bearers of those colors, and spectacularly at that. And so can human beings, particularly their eyes.

Gazing into someone’s eye (not, as one does on Valentine’s day, into someone’s eyes but rather into someone’s eye, quite literally) reveals not only the receptacle, as it were, of the colors, but also a world of colors per se, all dancing on a quivering, gentle and vulnerable stage.

The eye and the colors it both houses and receives cry out something even more special than a perfect sunset, which offers a moment of beauty, but one that is quite far away. They eye offers its luster close at hand. Yet, like the sunset, that beauty is untouchable, for one cannot and should not, of course, touch another person’s eye. Its beauty, its colors, are preserved in a special space, close at hand but strangely afar as well. And of that beauty, the most amazing part is the variegated color, the shifting moments of dark, light, blues,  browns, and greens.human eye

Color then is suggestive, to my mind, of a kind of unnecessary bonus for humankind. One could make the same argument for honey or chocolate or even coffee or hummus, but hummus, tasty as it is, is a human construct, made of natural ingredients, but nonetheless confected by human hands. Honey, purer, of course, and sweet as it is still requires some kind of harvesting. Coffee requires picking and roasting. Chocolate, say such as is in a dark chocolate dove bar, must undergo some true preparation by chocolatiers, of whom I know but one. Her name is Susan, and she was, she told me once, when she lived in California quite a good chocolatier. Now she is a student of literature.

But these treats, tasty as they are to ponder, are all delights that we human beings have harvested for ourselves. Colors are not. They are true gifts that, save to the blind or the colorblind, are here for all to see and admire, and to ponder. Yes, to ponder, for they need not have ever been there. We could easily have been born into a world without color (or honey, for that matter). And the world would have been, of course, far less sweet for the loss of both.

But how did colors come into being? Science answers that question in the form of a dissertation about refracted light. But the question of why there is color at all, why we do not live in a colorless world or colorless universe—indeed, we can even at the great distance of 48,678,219 miles (as compared to the Moon, which is a mere 238,900) see that Mars is the “red” planet—that question seems to me to be within the purview of philosophers or theologians. I can only say, from my limited vantage point, that colors make me think of a Creator of color, a great Artist of the universe,[1] who, not satisfied with a merely monochrome world decided to add color—to create color, and then to splash it upon all things. While I know we owe much to Isaac Newton’s analysis of how color comes into being through the refraction of light, still there is something beyond mere refraction that I am alluding to. I am alluding to why in the world (or rather, out of this world) refraction exists. Why, even though it does, the human eye can detect it at all. After all, so I am told, dogs can see only a touch of color. But we can more, many more, and to me the capacity to see that beauty suggest both that there was an Artist who rendered it and that that Artist wanted an audience to enjoy it. But I wax theological, so I leave that aside.

Rather, I would like to return to the issue of color as it manifests itself in today’s world, at least in my part of it, which is the United States. It seems to me that people think about color here either not enough or far too much. Either they fail to ponder what I just fleshed out above, not linking color with beauty or the Artist who created all beauty, or they ponder too well that things are different colors or, rather, that people are. Elaine Jakes, after whose Curious Autobiography this website is named, taught me a very long time ago not to see color, not to notice. She wasn’t politically correct, and indeed despised political correctness. But she was—or rather she chose to be—racially unbiased. (If you don’t believe me, read the opening pages of chapter 4 of that book.)

Bias, you see, is a choice—it is always a choice. It is never a matter of, “poor fellow, he grew up in a bigoted family. Perhaps he is simply suffering from a case of ‘affluenza.’” Yet at some point one decides to appropriate for one’s own or reject the values or biases or even favorite athletic teams one inherits from one’s parents.

Some of those values are eternal, for example, “Love thy neighbor as thyself”—or at least they should be. Others, not so much: put your napkin on your lap—okay, maybe that one ought to make the cut, too. But what about “text your parents daily when you’re off at college.” That might be appropriate for some folks, but not for others. That final example of a family rule, while far from a bias, is nonetheless one that can be changed and adapted to fit the circumstance. In other words, it’s a choice.

And so are crappy “values” or “biases” that you know are crappy and have no demonstrable foundation and should be done away with: they are choices. Looking askance at someone because of skin color or background or gender or social caste is precisely this. Which brings me to the idea that some see colors too well. Those who do, notice skin tone, and judge based on it. They themselves can be of any race. They themselves judge other groups inferior to their own. They themselves see that kind of color too well, and probably fail to see the color of the eye, or even of a spectacular sunset.

All colors matter, all are beautiful. At the same time, color does not matter, and it does not precisely because all human beings matter, and all are beautiful. I hope that you and I both see and not see colors this week, that we enjoy the colors that matter, not those that do not. Choose wisely, choose colorfully. May you choose to see the beauty of color.






[1]So Ovid once wrote, “God and better nature redeemed this strife, for He separated the land from Heaven and the waters from the lands… .” (hanc deus et melior litem natura diremit / nam caelo terras et terris abscidit undas)—Met. 1.21f.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Thanksgiving Day as Memory Day (and a Tender Turkey Recipe)

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.

La Sapienta bas relief
La Sapienza bas relief

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.[1]

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.

One of the principal buildings of La Sapienza.[2]
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.

Fuld Hall, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
Fuld Hall, The Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

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). book ad

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.

Raphael's School of Athens
Raphael’s School of Athens

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. foodforpoorSo, 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.It takes a thief




Roast turkey


[1] http://jsah.ucpress.edu/content/74/3/323.

[2] 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.”

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: A Prayer for Paris

… Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy:
when I fall, I shall arise;
when I sit in darkness,
the Lord shall be a light unto me.
—Micah 7:8

This week’s blog was to be about gratefulness and thanksgiving for seeing an old friend in Rome and making a new one in Paris. But that will have to wait. Now Paris has come under attack, and those of us who care, which I hope are most of us, are caught in a swirl of thoughts and emotions about a city that most have never visited.

Nevertheless, I have a feeling that somehow we know Paris, even if we have never had an occasion to be there. Those of us old enough to have grown up after World War II recall pictures, mostly black and white (e.g., in Look magazine), when we were kids, as Paris, like London and other cities that sought to recover from the Second World War, was being rebuilt and restructured. We think of the liberation of Paris in late August of 1944, when the Germans surrendered the city and retreated. liberation of Paris

American in ParisIf we should happen to be a bit younger, we might know Paris through film. Perhaps we’ve watched Singing in the Rain or been to a production of “An American in Paris” (or seen the movie) and can easily recognize Gershwin’s familiar tune. Paris is, and for most of us always has been, a place that represents something much more important than most big cities. It symbolizes and brings together style, frivolity, the power of art, history, romance, and beauty—in essence, all of Europe’s splendor and charm—in a single place. It is the place that by its very nature betokens a free society, where art and literature can flourish, where stamp collectors can wander through vendor booths along the banks of the Seine, where the name of a gothic cathedral can serve as a declaration not only for the most important female figure in Christendom, but also for the city, serving as a maternal figure for its country and perhaps the world: Notre Dame, Our Lady.Notre Dame

I took the picture you see here just a week ago when I was in Paris. I was there to meet a friend of a friend who was to help me with a large project I was working on in French. Maria and I struck up an immediate friendship, one that I hope and imagine will last for some years to come. And that is why I wrote to her immediately when I saw the news about Paris yesterday. My heart went out to her and to all Parisians for their immediate dire circumstance. I am glad to say that Maria was unharmed and is safely out of Paris now. But the fact remains, she could have been killed, and I, perhaps the most recent of her friends, would have been heartbroken; if I, how much more her parents and longer-term friends, teachers, colleagues?

And our heart goes out to all those whom we have not known, too, and it must. For the lives affected there are real lives. Real families are devastated. Even as I write this, in Paris some mother is lying on her bed sobbing (or a father on his knees crying out to God) because her only child was killed in a theater or a restaurant, simply because he or she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if we have a child, we can feel with that person, we can sympathize and we pray that our heartfelt sympathy will pneumatically comfort that mother or father across the miles, by some miracle of the wind blowing wherever it pleases. May it please that Wind to bring comfort now to those in need.

Someone might say the decadence of the West has brought this upon itself. And they would be wrong. I am not here saying that the West does not have its fair share of decadence. But no one in that restaurant was especially decadent. They were just people eating dinner. The problem with any argument that blames the victims is that it is patently facile. I can recall in the early 1980s certain Christians, some of them friends of mine, saying that the AIDS epidemic was God’s punishment upon those who engaged in dangerous sexual liaisons. But little hemophiliac children who needed blood transfusions were also dying of AIDS. The only way such an argument could work is to say that God is inaccurate in doling out his punishment; He cares less about collateral damage than might a general in the armed forces. But generals do care very much about collateral damage, and if a human being cares, how much more the Divine.

Rather than blame the West for its excess, I propose that we look for a moment at the human heart and ask ourselves a more relevant question: why do we hate anyone? By “we” I don’t mean we in the general detached sense of “mankind” but in the particular sense of you and me. I mean, in fact, why do I hate anyone. So I will start with me, and I will put the blame on the Paris attacks where it really belongs, on me as a human being, not necessarily me alone.

What is it about me that makes me hate my neighbor? I have spent the last 35 or so years trying very hard not to hate. Anyone who happens to have read the Curious Autobiography knows why. If you’ve read Augustine’s Confessions, you know what happens to Augustine in the eighth book. If you’ve read the Curious Autobiography, you can find in the tenth chapter an account of something similar. With all due respect to Daniel Burke, I believe—rather I know—that there can come a point in some people’s lives where they (decide to?) turn in another direction. Or perhaps they are turned, but I leave that subject aside; I can only say that, after chapter 10, I now want to try not to hate any longer.

Yet I admit that I have not been entirely successful. It is difficult to look in the face of evil on September 11, 2001 or November 13, 2015 or October 26, 2015 (if that is the correct date), or countless other dates these days, when innocents die in any number. We live in a cruel world, becoming crueler by the second. Fewer and fewer folks are going to church, though world religions in general are not shrinking. In the east and now in much of the west, religion is thriving, but it is not Christianity. To quote a recent article, “Muslims … in the second half of this century, will likely surpass Christians as the world’s largest religious group.”[1] While that article attributes the principal reason for Islam’s expected growth to “simple demographics” (i.e., Muslims will have significantly more children than other folks), it seems to me that there may be another reason, one derived from doctrine, that might speak to the growth of that religion: that, in Islam, works count toward salvation. But, though that can explain a lot and even give us, perhaps, some insight into the motivations of the suicide bombers in Paris, I leave that aside.

And I do so because we need to look into our own hearts, not those of others, to come to grips with what has happened in Paris. If we are capable of hating—even retributively—we must realize that others are, as well. We must understand that the blame for what happened in Paris falls on us all. It certainly falls on me. I have indulged in hatred, for whatever reason, many times since chapter 10. I am therefore as much a part of the problem as anyone else, including the terrorist himself.

Yet just because we are all to blame, does not imply that the response to injustice should be tepid. On this earth, people have been establishing justice through due process in the West since well before 458 BC, when AeschylusOresteia dramatizes the beauty of civic justice; in the East, 356 BC, under Duke Xiao of Qin. France’s president, François Hollande, has stated that the response will be severe . President Obama has said that America stands shoulder to shoulder with the French.

I close with this thought, one for myself, but perhaps for us all. I shall not hate the terrorists. Yet that does not imply a lack of resolve. I shall not indulge in execration. Rather, I shall pity them in my thoughts and lavish mercy on them in my prayers. Will that make a difference? Will it make God any “happier” with me? To the former, I hope yes; to the latter, I can only say that I think Milton is right when he says, “God doth not need man’s work or his own gifts.”[2] As for me, I hope to hold mercy in my heart even as I pray for stark justice in this world. That is my hope, my recipe for this week: Seek justice, love mercy.[3]  Bon courage, mes amis à Paris. Be safe, Maria …

Love Paris? click here

Recipe for 13 November 2015: Hope for Paris, and us allwelsh spoon


Ingredients (serves one [at a time]):

One part mercy, one part justice, and a cup water from the well alluded to below. Mix with a Welsh love spoon thoroughly, and live. Failure to blend ingredients will produce less than desirable results. Failure to care about your neighbor at all will produce death; probably has already. As with another recipe, bake at 365 days a year; eat while still warm, and walk humbly.

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

—Micah 6:7-8


[1] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/#beyond-the-year-2050.

[2] “On His Blindness.”

[3] Micah 6:8.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Time

Milton’s sonnet “On Time” ends with the triumphant vaunt, “… Truth and Peace and Love shall ever shine / About the supreme Throne / Of Him to’whose happy-making sight alone, / When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall climb, Then all this earthly grosnes quit, Attired with stars, we shall for ever sit, Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and Thee, O Time.”

John Milton
John Milton

What follows is my own, perhaps merely whimsical, conjecture: this sonnet, which Milton possibly deemed the lesser of his two on the subject, was intended to be written on a clock case. I imagine, likely in a romantic flight of fancy, the blind bard having written or having revised this poem at an advanced age (though commentators in fact do not; based on its style, they date it early in his career). That said, in my undoubtedly capricious reading of it, I imagine the poet taking a moment to write (or revise) this poem for posterity, one that he knew might never be discovered but, if it were, it would be only after he had been attired with stars and was sitting astride the very throne that he describes in this poem.

In any case, Milton would seem to have had his own doubts about Chance, as in his sonnet he groups it with Time and, worse yet, Death. Good heavens, what could be so bad about chance or luck or even their positive cousins, serendipity and delightful randomness? Well, I think that Milton must have figured something out, the very thing that I spoke about in last week’s blog. And death? The gloominess of death obviously needs little exegesis. But time? Well, that’s another matter.cosmos2

So great a matter, in fact, that Milton devotes two entire poems to it. This one, in my view the rather more mature of the two of them, stands out to me for its powerful language. It begins, “Fly, envious time, till thy run out thy race, / Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours, / Whose speed is but the heavy plummet’s pace … .” In the continuation of this verse, he goes on to command time to glut itself (a powerful image) on what its womb devours (an even more striking one). Time, it seems, is a greedy and licentious fiend. Whatever it gains in the end turns out to be—at least for anyone who might share the poet’s point of view—so little, merely mortal dross.

Dross was as a strong word in Milton’s day as it is today. It suggests offal, scum, waste in the most hideous sense of that word. Add mortal to dross, and it is clear: it is the part of us that pertains to death. It is, or is at least partially, encompassed by what the King James Version often refers to as the “flesh.”

Milton’s sonnet then, winds up telling us that the spirit will ultimately triumph over the flesh, when once our heavenly guided souls will quit this dark world, and wide. But in the meantime, we are here. We face the tragedies of natural disasters, the sorrow of human hatred, our own outrage at our fellow human beings when they are outraged about what we deem less than outrageous, what we might even call the wrong things. In short, what bugs us is humankind’s gross failure to prioritize correctly; such prioritization is closely related to the notion of time being wasted, as all of this happens while time ticks away, however wonderful it may be to know that the subscribers to Milton’s point of view have a hope of triumphing over it one day.

Salvador Dali, "The Persistence of Memory"
Salvador Dali, “The Persistence of Memory”

What to do? Well, Milton alludes to some of the answer to that: you can’t do anything. You can only know that time is defeated in the end, and derive comfort from that; you can even mock it with imperatives (“fly,” “call,” “glut”) or deleterious adjectives such as “envious” or “greedy,” but you can’t beat it. Yet there is, perhaps, one thing you can do that Milton does not tell us here.

You can choose. You can choose not to allow it to cripple you. I’ve know some dear friends crippled by time. They could not manage it: it managed them. One lost his job because of his mismanagement of it. Another failed a college course, while another used it as an excuse for not completing the tasks set before her. Still another, appropriated it for an excuse never to marry or have a family; another, never to travel; still another, never to commit to any organization, such as church, that could take up his time, which was already, it seemed to me, in any case consuming him.

You can choose to make the most of time. If you’re married, for example, I believe that means to use your time wisely, even choose to be a certain kind of person. One might think of marriage as two folks moving in together for the first time—it is, for some, precisely that. One cannot force one’s spouse to use the time well, or even to keep his or her side of the room tidy; one can merely request it. messy bedBut one can certainly use one’s own time well and one can literally and figuratively clean up his or her own side of the room. One can set an example. Therein, one can master time measuring it day by day not wasting it.

Though we don’t often see it this way, time is, in the end, much more valuable than money. Money comes and goes; time simply goes, or has Milton says, it flies—something not original with him, as it goes back to the ancient poet Virgil, who in his third Georgic wrote, “time flies, never to be recovered” (tempus fugit inreparablile tempus). So, before we can enjoy our Miltonic triumph, we have to overcome time ourselves, it seems, not necessarily in our own strength—but that is the matter of another blog—yet certainly with a good deal of our own effort. We must, as the bard once said, against “time’s thievish progress to eternity,” tidy our own side of the room, whether that be in our marriage or in our workplace. Time to get after it: time’s a wastin.’