Tag Archives: pathos

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Unexpected Surprises and il Commune

view of Hermann, MO
Hermann, MO

It is often said, “Life is full of …,” and then after a pause, suited to the given situation or conversation, comes another word, more often than not, plural, sometimes preceded by an adjective, sometimes an adjective adverb combination. Among the possibilities are, “widespread suffering,” “stark natural wonders,” “very tragic events” or a combination of antitheses, “ups and downs,” “joy and sorrow” or the like. Now I admit that from time to time it happens that someone simply says, “pain.” But that person would likely be speaking from some kind of personal experience; something difficult might have happened in his or her life to prompt such a pronouncement. And it befits the interlocutor to listen to that person’s account of the pain, as he or she shows empathy. Pathos, indeed, is at the core of human existence.

Yet so is joy. One can, in Aristotelian fashion, divide joy into a great number of categories. One such category could be the mutual sense of it in unexpected pleasures. These communal experiences might consist of surprises, those delicate shavings of time in which one can participate in a different kind of empathy than commiseration. This kind of empathy—where the word’s root pathos connotes experience rather than suffering—is the very kind we shared with Martha somewhere between Mt. Sterling, Owensville, and Hermann, Missouri, the burial place of George Bayer, whose grave I quasi-reverently (thoughtfully, at least) visited while jogging. Martha’s cheese shop is auspiciously named “Cool Cow,” one of whose “girls” was the covercow for an issue of the (perhaps not widely circulated) Sauce magazine. cheese magazine coverThat lovely most certainly off-the-beaten-track cheesery enjoys a contiguous and equally aptly named Bed and Breakfast, “M(artha) and T(om) Farm, LLC.” Tom, the principal cheesemaker, was away from his post, but Diane and I were happy to sample his tasty production at the hands of his wife, Martha, whose smile and piety can fill any room—it certainly did the cheesery whose smell and ambience we enjoyed for a few minutes that afternoon.

Martha of M&T Farms
Martha of M&T Farms

“Looks like a storm is coming,” Martha observed, making conversation as she glanced out the window between explanations and samples of Tom’s cheese production, adding “This one is a Havarti.”

“A real type-O cheese,” I observed, of course surreptitiously citing one of the funniest episodes in the Curious Autobiography (“Tea with the Professor,” 120–138).

“This one is a mild Irish-style cheddar,” she added oxymoronically, moving on to the next sample. To these she added several others, all quite nice. Alas, there was no Hên Sîr, but I did not expect as much. I told her that the Hên Sîr had been in our family an unusual symbol of authentic spiritual renewal (Curious Autobiography, 198–205). To this statement, I am glad to say, she did not look as puzzled as I would have expected; but she is married to a cheesemaker, so she might just understand.

Martha and Tom's "cheese cave"
Martha and Tom’s “cheese cave”

Finally, she revealed a cheese developed by an international congress that had met in Greece. I was assuming it would taste sharp and salty, like feta. Yet it did not; it was something more like a combination of Swiss and Gouda. I’d never heard of (what might be called) a diplomacy cheese, but as I ate it I thought, “If there were a cheese that could effect world peace, or at least a long-needed ceasefire, this would be that cheese,” for it was superb. Then I thought, using Welsh logic, “No wonder diplomacy has largely been effective on the European continent ever since the Second Great War.”

Hermann mapThe unexpected surprises that Diane and I shared not only with each other but also with those whom we met didn’t end there—there was Kathy at the White Mule Winery whose family had lived near that bend of Highway 50 in Owensville for generations, and the aptly named (if you fancy Mel Gibson films) William Wallace at the Hermannhof Winery and Sausage Shop, the name of which establishment is itself a mouthful. He had connected again with a girl whom he had adored in junior high school and married here—the stuff of a romantic film—and now, as he described his life in Gasconade County along the banks of the gently flowing Missouri River, he lived in paradise. Finally, there was the lovely mead winemaking family consisting of Esther and her son Patrick, chief winemaker of the Martin Brothers Winery, whose concoctions are carefully wrought—quite tasty, worth the drive. His brother Jonathan, founder of the business, was not present, as he was presumably traversing nearby meadows in search of just the right miel for the next mead making.

Patrick of Martin Bros. Winery
Patrick of Martin Bros. Winery

What I am getting at is this: contrary to the ideas inherent in the preferred means of communication (and of photography) these days, unexpected joys are by and large not “self” things. They require sharing, and sharing builds something that the Italians call il commune. I might have better chosen a German word, inasmuch as Hermann is a thoroughly German burgh; but the German Gemeinschaft does not quite render the Italian. The Italian does not mean “community” per se; it means, rather, a shared cultural experience that might include a sense of Gemeinschaft, and even a shared municipality, but includes something else, as well. It is (of course) less formal than the German, and more fluid. In any case, we shared a moment of il commune with Martha, Esther, William and Kathy.

William Wallace at Hermannhof Winery
William Wallace at Hermannhof Winery

Yet someone will point out that it is much easier to live life as it comes, just to take things as they are and not bother to go snooping about for such a sense of shared experiences. And, of course, that is possible. It is equally possible to see life as mired in difficulty and thus take a rather gloomy view of things—and here I speak as a residual Welshman who has from time to time himself taken the gloomier view. But when we do that, we can quite easily miss the joy that is there for the discovering, and we shall certainly miss the sense of il commune.

And then there’s marriage, for the reason we took this long trip was to go to a wedding. Now the wedding itself is likely not to have too many unexpected surprises; when a wedding does, it is normally a bad thing. But the life of two people together should be one of that very thing: il commune and with it, the concomitant opportunity for the discovery of unexpected joys. And that is what I wish for that couple as I close this blog: a life of il commune, which one must be intentional about building, and of unexpected delights. I suspect they will do this, for they are special because their very names suggest an apostle and a vine—perhaps they will choose John 15 for their ceremony—and have had their own cheese moments, at least insofar as cheese might serve as a symbol of spiritual renewal. I wish them, too, a perpetual sense of shared discovery.

I have the same hope for a not-so-recently wed Welsh couple, also close friends, who seem to have taken the gloomier view lately. For them, it may be time again to look for the joy in the simple discoveries of life, such as can be found in a young family like their own. That couple must build il commune again. Perhaps cheese can be, for them, too, a symbol of shared spiritual renewal.

May both of these couples, Welsh and un-Welsh alike, share and delight in il commune, and may you, too, dear reader, have the opportunity to do so, as well, as you enjoy a bite of cheese from a perhaps unexpected quarter, remembering that cheese has been known to build domestic and international bridges and, surprisingly, from time to time even effect continental peace.



Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Artists and Poets in New Hope (and Asbury Park)

“The poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all, they just stand back and let it all be.” The words of an arguably pretty good poet, Bruce Springsteen, from a song called “Jungleland,” not necessarily his best ditty, for his best songs are all on his first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.” SPRINGSTEEN_ASBURY-PARK_album coverThat record that was, like The Curious Autobiography that inspires this blog, quirky, innovative, and pushing the envelope of its genre. Nonetheless, the words that open this paragraph and stand out in “Jungleland” are of interest here, offering as they do a not-so-subtle criticism of poets “down here,” meaning, I suppose, the poets of the pockets of cities where trouble brews, where fights break out, where lawlessness rules.

Yet that is not what I want to talk about with this installment of the Residual Welshman’s blog. Rather, I want to say that, thanks to Elaine Jakes, I knew, even when I was a child, some pretty fine poets, whose names have not abode in my memory, for my mother introduced me to them when I was too young to remember. I think, though, that they were not the poets that Bruce Springsteen criticizes, for though they were “down here,” they were nonetheless writing something meaningful. I met them and heard them read in Philadelphia when Elaine lived on Pine Street with Sheila, who loved me as if she were herself my mother. Those poets performed at the Egg Bar on the corner of Twelfth and Spruce. They had profoundly deep bathos, reading their works aloud with insufferable pathos and an earnestness that befit a time of social upheaval and change. They wrote about racial equality and social justice. They didn’t write “nothin’ at all.” But Bruce Springsteen did not hear them. I did.

[03] Lenis Rabbi.rev
Drawing of Leni’s b&w oil painting, “Rabbi” from The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes.
James martin walnut table
Walnut Plank Coffee Table by Nakashima Woodworker James Martin.

When Elaine moved to New Hope she became part of a new circle of friends, many of them artists. A few, like Leni Fontaine, whose workshop was on Fisher’s Alley, James Martin, whose small woodworking gallery was on North Main, and Gretchen Laugier, whose rather spacious atelier was on South Main, were quite good. Others, like Cookie McMurphy, were rather bad. Cookie did not seem to me to know much about art. She did, however, know a great deal about “texture,” a word she liked to use quite frequently when attempting to speak about art. As a lad I took “art lessons” from Cookie, which was fun, for I liked playing around with plaster of Paris and paper-mâché, two artistic expressions that seem curiously French (particularly the latter). “Why should French art forms,” I wondered at age nine, “be of such great interest to a woman who is obviously of Scottish descent? And why,” I continued to muse, “is she so concerned with texture? And why,” my juvenile mental nattering mustered one final thought, “does she smell of cheese?” Of these three queries I only ever got a satisfying answer to the third: her apartment was directly over Ye Olde Cheese Shoppe of New Hope. That is why Cookie and her dog, Thom (with a silent ‘h’), always smelled of cheese.

But to return to the art lessons. I am overbold in criticizing Cookie McMurphy’s lack of precision, shall we say, when it comes to art, for I am even worse at it. But I learned not so much from Cookie—though I did learn from her quite well the importance of texture—about the value of art as I did, say, from Simone Martini, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Marc Chagall, Rob Evans, Paul McCoy or Makoto Fujimura. These taught me on their own, through their art.

Art and poetry. That’s where we began, and that’s where we shall end. I think Paul McCoy or Mako Fujimura would agree with me that the point of art is the expression of something true, something real through a means that reflects that something; I say this, because on separate occasions I’ve had dinner with Paul and Mako and I have been lucky enough to hear each of them speak about their own artistic creations. Lessing LaocoonLeaving aside any Lessingesque difference between verbal and non-verbal expression, I think I can say at least that poetry shares a particular quality with good art: each points beyond itself to something else, a grander idea. Neither kind of artistic expression is meant to be pretty; rather each wants to be good, divulging a kind of beauty that is not associated with an aesthetic ideal of beauty. Rather, poetry and art direct the viewer or reader toward something beautiful not as beauty is known with the eye, but with the soul.

Another word for what that beauty might be or at least encompass is, I think, “meaning.” Art and poetry can remind us in this flood of mortal woes, in the chaos of life that, while there is not always order or deliverance from our immediate circumstances, there is meaning in the middle of them. Would that there be comfort, too, but that is perhaps the subject of a future blog—nay rather, it is the provenance of poets and artists, of which I am certainly not among the latter. I do not have a dog with a silent ‘h’, I do not smell like cheese, and I was always a bit skeptical about “texture” as being vital for every art project (though Paul and Mako would be right to say that it is for some). Nor do I believe that plaster of Paris comes from France or even that paper-mâché is entirely French. To wit, another friend of mine, a papyrologist, tells me that the ancient Egyptians used it liberally for mummy masks. But more on mummies and their masks on another occasion. For now, perhaps it is enough to admit that I could be wrong about plaster of Paris. But if I were, would it not in that case be le plâtre de Paris?