Tag Archives: nostaligia

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Reminiscing about New Hope & Adding Letters to a Name

A few years ago I subscribed to the Philadelphia Inquirers online version of the paper. I did it not only to read Faye Flam’s column “Planet of the Apes,” my weekly spiritual challenge workout, but also for sentimental reasons and that New Hope is in the greater Philadelphia area. Anyone who happens to have read the Curious Autobiography will be able to infer why one might feel nostalgic for New Hope. The setting of most of that book is New Hope, Pennsylvania, a place near Philadelphia and nearer and dearer yet to my heart. If you have been there, you may have at least a general impression of why that might be the case. If you have not been there and you happen to have the opportunity to go, I recommend it. It is a town of paradoxes. On the one hand, it is a very modern place, avant-garde is not a strong enough adjective to describe it. Most of the folks who live there are progressive, inclusive, sometimes open-minded to a fault; that fault, of course, is that sometimes an open-minded person becomes quite close-minded if the person with whom he or she is conversing is not as receptive to new ideas.

historic flag.New HopeOn the other hand, it is a very old place, a place not simply steeped in tradition but equally as much in the history that undergirds that tradition. New Hope is itself a stone’s throw away from Washington’s Crossing State Park, a place the records and preserves the memory of a vital moment in our country’s history. The Fourth of July and that holiday’s incumbent fireworks are serious things in New Hope—the entire Delaware River that separates that hamlet from Lambertville lights up with them, and they’re set off, to this day, I believe, from the bank parking lot. fireworks in New HopeNever mind that the bank is now a Starbucks. It serves the same purpose as the bank, for it’s a place to bump into friends. Those would now likely be folks who used to live there and are back in town, like you, for nostalgic reasons, as the locals have all changed from the old days—well most of them. I think I saw James Martin, our famous woodworker, downtown walking his dog the last time I was there. But perhaps I did not. Perhaps that was just a vision of the old days, when I would see him nearly every day, completely unaware of the depth of his learning under the Japanese master Nakashima, or even the heights to which he had taken that learning.

Cutalossa Mill, Solebury
Cutalossa Mill, Solebury

Indeed, many of the old locals who still abide have migrated to Solebury, which has its own particular quaintness. Some have always lived there, but come downtown less frequently than they used to. “It’s the crowds,” Brad Livzey told me when I last saw him and asked him how often he went into town. “There are just too many people. I get down to Fran’s Pub every once in a while, but honestly, it’s just too crowded—too much traffic.”

And he’s right, all that quaintness makes for a lot of traffic. But to come back to my discussion of that series in the Inquirer to which I alluded earlier. I read it along time ago now, but it is more or less the same as all the others she has written since; in fact, I think she now longer writes it, but rather only a variation on it for another venue, eschewing, even barring God from any aspect of our existence. That article was by Faye Flam, who I imagine still writes a column on how science has solved humanity’s problems and religion and spiritual things are stuff and nonsense. But Faye is really refreshingly honest about it. I actually love that column, because in it she touches upon the question of what is a choice, when it comes to faith, and what is not. And yes, as she says there, “People of faith wonder how we nonbelievers get through the day. Sometimes I’m not so sure myself.” I think she’s exactly right. I think I respect my friends who are atheists sometimes more than those who are believers, because I don’t know how they get through the day, indeed.

That said, I thought I’d close this week’s blog with a poem, one written for none other than Faye herself. Now I am not the first to have responded to Faye’s positions, as some have done so with reasoned and passionate prose, but I may just be the first in verse. It’s a playful ditty, meant not just for her, of course, but for us all, calling us all, if we can hear the call—Faye suggest we can’t, though I suspect at some deep spiritual level (concerning the idea of free will) she is wrong—to rethink our positions. But that’s the progressive child of New Hope in me, calling on all of us to rethink our assumptions. We could be wrong, and we must admit that. Indeed, the person of faith, the normal, boring churchgoing Presbyterian or Lutheran or Catholic knows that; they fight some battle for some minor doctrinal point, about which they could have it round about and upside down. But they also know one more thing: God can’t be wrong and won’t be restrained by our faith or lack thereof. And that is, to the believer, a great comfort. That is faith.

A Letter (or Two) for Faye

Ah, Faye, it will not go away,

No matter what you say, it’s here to stay—

Faith, I mean. And like your name, Faye,

You’re almost there, but need just two letters to complete

What comes in a gentle whisper. And wouldn’t it be neat,

If you knew which two, and could do that feat,

Could make your name and all your ideas whole?

Aye, from your tongue rich and raucous laughter would then roll;

And yet, without those two, what you write is just another way to extol

Empty science, which like empty faith, is void

Of all meaning, and just gets you annoyed

and makes you feel like Sigmund Freud.

On a overcast day, when everything’s symbolic

And the best arguments are simply vitriolic

So you (and I) drink like an alcoholic.

But that’s off topic, Faye, you know,

And I just want to tell you so

About those letters—were they ‘e’ and ‘o’?

No, no, one was an ‘H’, an ‘H’ for the ‘Here I am,’

That Abram heard from the Lamb that made the ram—

The very letter that completed AbraHam.

That’s the same voice, small and still

That spoke to Moses on the holy hill

That does not compete with science but by its will

Completes it, Faye, you see. Or do you see?

The other letter’s like what St. Peter calls a tree,

But means a cross, that is, a “T”.

For on that cross, dear Faye, a bridge was built

Over the river of sin, and past the mire pits of guilt

That makes those insipid disagreements over evolution wilt

By comparison. For to compare God and science, Faye,

You know, it’s silly, really—not to take away from what you say,

Or how strongly your readers feel when they repay

Your invitation to relate their strong opinions, some “for God”

Some “against.” And don’t you find it strangely odd,

That whether we shake our head or nod,

At the end of the day, Faye, He is, like science, here to stay,

And just like science, has much to say to our tomorrow and today?

But with this difference: his is the small still voice that can add, merely with two letters, true life to Faye.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Treasure Box

This week I was doing in late August what many of us do in the springtime; I was going through a closet, cleaning out a box or two that need to be cleaned out I admit that I did not get very far. The reason for that is I did the other thing that most of us, or at least many of us do: I slowed down to think about what I was doing. I paid attention to each object I extracted from the box. Some were pens that no longer write—one in particular stood out. There was a stickpin flag, a toy soldier, a napkin with a bible verse and a date written on it in my grandmother’s handwriting. These objects retarded my progress in cleaning out the box, indeed they prevented me from doing it at all, for I treasured all that I found.

“But of course you did not finish your task,” you might think, if you’re familiar with the Curious Autobiography, “You’re Welsh, wallgof (‘kooky’) man, and I know from that book (and perhaps from knowing Welsh folk) that the Welsh are known, among other things, for sentimentalism.” I don’t mean to coopt your speech or thought, but rather I merely state this much as a point of full disclosure before perusing with you the objects of the box and distilling together their importance, their value.

pencil caseAs I peered into this box—itself quite old, well tattered on the edges, and (from its appearance at least) no treasure box—it donned on me fairly early on that Welsh nostalgia might just kick in. It did, of course. It began with the aforementioned pen. That instrument was preserved in an old zipper case that had printed upon it the words, “Pocmont Lodge, Bushkill Pa,” no doubt a souvenir that my mother, Elaine had picked up on a childhood family vacation in the Poconos. Though the pen no longer wrote—nowadays a refill for this particular kind of pen would be nigh impossible to find—the pen and its case nevertheless presented themselves to me as objects of beauty. Like Elaine once did, her pen had written what it had to say, having poured out all of its ink in the pursuit of storytelling. In the case of Elaine’s pen, such storytelling was a frequent occurrence. The pen’s value lies, therefore, in its enabling her story, its facilitation of a story’s significance, which, in a nutshell, in the Curious Autobiography is a journey home not to a physical place but a spiritual one—a home that is more real than the house she grew up in on Rutter Avenue and lasts forever.

Poconos MountainsThe flag pin belonged to Harry, her father. It had in days gone by been displayed on his lapel, once ogled by little children who felt deep in their souls the patriotism of that period of time immediately after the Second World War. As I beheld it, I could hear the big bass drum of a marching band passing by that played the national anthem in a grand celebratory parade. So I imagined. Those years long ago were not merely a season of patriotism; they were a time when Americans knew that an evil force had been eradicated and hoped vainly that an evil and racist ideology had died with it. Sadly, evil ideology is alive and well, and about racism, unfortunately I hardly need comment. Like the pen, the flag pin continued and still continues to tell its story, symbolizing in a single object a narrative much more important than itself, the constant struggle for America to be a better nation than it is.

lead toy soldierThe toy soldier told the same story but from a strikingly different point of view. Wrought of lead, so not up to modern child-safety standards, it had been my own toy soldier, though it was manufactured, I surmise, many years before the day it was given to me as a gift when I was a lad. My guess is that it dates to the 1940s. This tiny figurine was the model of a World War II American fighter who stands fast, gun in hand. “He seems to be facing battle,” I thought as I turned his tiny, paint-chipped clad figure about between in my right hand. “Would he approve of our wars today?” I mused, recalling having reenacted in playtime as a child many a fictional World War II battle with this fellow. How much have things changed. What does this little man who defies time, stuck as he is for years at a stretch in a closet, think of the modern world each time he is yanked out of his foxhole-like box to see the light of day again? Would he stand and fight for the current iteration of America? I hope so, as I had always fancied him a hero.

clothFinally there was a napkin, or rather a slip of cloth, possibly cut with rounded pinking shears, a term that itself has a rather archaic ring, upon which my grandmother had written—for to this day do I know her handwriting—a bible verse: “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.” Now my thinking slowed down to a crawl. I ruminated, “Does this verse mean anything to anyone anymore? Who gets it anymore?” I wondered, “Who cares these days about living a ‘godly’ life, dwelling in the house of the Lord? Isn’t everyone in it for themselves, for what they can get? Yet perhaps,” my thoughts wandered on, “just perhaps, the final thought about beholding the beauty of the Lord might still wake us up from our collective slumber. Might we care to seek after the beauty of God?”

These were some of the valuables in this box. The pen was from a time when each person’s life was a story that touched upon other people’s stories, when you might still find your way home. The flag pin suggested to me a country united, where one could rely upon one’s sweet neighbor for a cup of sugar, and where one did not “friend” an electronic face but might befriend a stranger in need. The toy soldier represents what I hope it still does, a hero, perhaps not so easy to find anymore, though in recent days, three such heroes or so showed up on a French train and thwarted a radicalized terrorist; such heroism is rare. And finally the slip of material. It is cut from a very different cloth than one usually finds, and it bears a very different message than the political correctness of today’s world. Like the first object, it points homeward, to a place where virtue is alive and well, abiding in heroes’ hearts.

In that box I found four objects far more valuable than merely “valuable,” for they are bearers, each in their own way, of a world, if bygone, still worthy of emulation. They were once perhaps normal patches of this country’s tapestry. “Was each person’s story happy in those days, was it then a perfect world? Were there not sad, profoundly tragic moments then?” someone might ask. Most assuredly there were. Yet every individual, or at least many more than do today, saw their life, their story as a part of a grander narrative, a narrative that made up a community, a country, a world, in a universe in which God gives meaning to each person’s life.

These objects have significance because they represent values. Their value is not the kind one might find on Antiques Roadshow. Their values are transcendent: a story, an anthem, a hero, and God on a napkin. I did not put aside the objects in the box to mourn the loss of those values and virtues in this dark world. Rather, I put them up to write this, for those values are not gone; they abide in the hearts of those who take time to look within the treasure box.