The one thing that everyone is interested in these days is food. I have been traveling, and I had dinner in Rome with two friends who even took pictures of their food before they dug in—two admittedly quite beautiful bowls of pasta. Before I was in Rome, I had been quite a bit further north, in the Czech Republic for the first time.
When I came back from my travels, I was recently, as I am invariably, asked, “So, you went to Prague—how was the food?” Indeed, in both Prague and Rome the food was quite nice. Like the Italians, the Czechs pride themselves on food and, to an even greater extent, on beer. The food was quite good there—Germanic in terms of flavor, but more delicate—and the beer was quite good, too, though the lovely Czechs who took me out to dinner were disappointed on my behalf. I think they were muttering something about it not being the right temperature, but I am not sure whether they meant too cold or too warm. I imagine the latter, as the beer wasn’t very cold.
I was, of course, in Prague to meet up with my friend, the philologist, who was there to study a rare manuscript housed in the National Library. Inasmuch as I had been in Europe over a week before he arrived and had thus adjusted to European time, when I met up with him there he, having just arrived, was quite jet-lagged, and thus had a hard time working in the library for many long hours, even though he had traveled quite far to study that particular manuscript. But what has that to do with food?
It has this in common: odd as it may sound, he has a genuine hunger for manuscripts, perhaps more avid even than the friends whom I met in Rome have for food. His hunger stems in part from his strange penchant for finding not-yet-considered things scribbled between the lines or on the edges of the pages. These are known as glosses or marginalia, respectively. What I envy is not so much his job—it sounds, after all, a bit tedious, doesn’t it?—but it is the passion, the hunger that he has for his work, work that to the rest of us might seem quite boring.
But some people don’t like cooking, either, and I would argue those folks are missing out on quite a lot of fun in the kitchen, which brings us back to food. For cooking can indeed be very rewarding and, of course, produce a palpably enjoyable result. But whether you’re cooking or studying or writing or driving cattle, I think the key thing is the hunger, the inspired desire for the task at hand, not just the eventual collection of the paycheck but the excitement, even the passion that goes into producing it, that really counts.
Now you might say, what if I have a job that doesn’t whet my appetite constantly? Well, I think the best thing to do is to discover something about it that you really do enjoy. You might have to spend some time thinking about how to find that passion, but probably it can be found. No job is perfect—even my friend will admit as much about his manuscripts—but finding the passion in your work might mean finding passion in your life or your marriage or your family as whole. And that is a spiritual exercise as much as it is anything else.
Well then, what about food? As I said, the food in Prague was quite nice. I had some tasty soup (kulajda) for lunch and a tastier dumpling dinner (houskový knedlík). All this talk of food is making me hungry now, so I shall sign off with a simple Chinese proverb that may remind us to seek contentment in even a less than passion-laden situation: “Coarse rice for food, water to drink, and the bended arm for a pillow: happiness may be enjoyed even in these.”
 Dictum of Confucius, as quoted in James F. Clarke, Ten Great Religions: An Essay in Comparative Theology (New York, 1888): 48.
Never until I had a balcony in Viterbo did I understand why there is an eye on a dollar bill. Now I know this connection is preposterous. I know that the reason there is an eye on a dollar bill is, conspiracy theorists attest, because the Masonic League or the Knights Templar held the image of the all-knowing eye of God to be among their most prominent symbols. I’m not so sure. However that may be, certainly the symbol intrigued Benson Lossing who crafted the seal on the dollar in the years leading up to 1856 when it was first published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. But that’s not what I mean. Rather I mean this: when you have a balcony in an inexpensive but lovely hotel in Viterbo, like the Hotel Tuscia, you see things you would never otherwise see, as if you were the eye of God.
Or, in fact, maybe you just hear them. For as I am writing this I am obviously looking at a computer screen, but I am taking in sounds, sounds coming from the nearest piazza, Piazza San Faustino, where a far from flawless cantor, if perhaps he is not so bad—he is, after all, a young man—is singing popular (I assume) Italian songs. I know enough Italian to know that most of them are about love (predictably). And I felt like, for a moment, Superman hovering over the earth and taking it all in, listening to a lone singer of love amidst a world in need of such singers, a world in need of love songs; for it is a world, indeed, in need of love.
I say this because, just after getting off the train from Rome, where I passed a lovely and culturally rich day touring the Chamber of Deputies (Camera dei Deputati) and meeting a few powerful folks, a senator and a congressman—please don’t ask me how this happened; but if you want to know how things like this happen to me, read the final chapter of the Curious Autobiography, the bit on Vegas, for that should do it—I passed by the bus stop near Porta Fiorentina where a number of Africans were waiting for the bus. “Why were they waiting?” a friend of mine asked later. I tried to explain that they were likely “indentured,” a polite word for humans, in sinister wise, being trafficked. The sadness of these folks’ plight choked the culture, the richness, and the hope out of me in less than ten seconds. I wanted to stand at the bus stop with them. I wanted to play soccer in the park with them the next day. I wanted to participate in their sufferings as a little Christ, for the larger, more perfect version has more than participated in all of ours.
But that’s theology, and I don’t want to move in that direction. Rather I want to return to the singer in the piazza at the top of the block; for after a short break his song began to fill the square again. Ah, love again, and again, and again, for that is his solitary theme. Yet I couldn’t help think of the men gathering by Porta Fiorentina to ride the bus day upon day. How can I, or anyone, let them know that that same theme, if to a slightly different strain, is God’s very song, too? I don’t know. But I do know that, though I know not how, I want to participate in their sufferings that I might fill up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ. Can there really be anything lacking in that? I doubt as much—but perhaps just the message, the message of the singer, not always in tune, but beautiful, as I listen to it now from a balcony of a hotel in Tuscia, fittingly named, Hotel Tuscia. In closing, let me send you some blessings from Italy, from Tuscia, a place that is not quite Tuscany, not quite Rome, but rich in lovers’ songs and offering hope, I hope, to those without any, all under the Tuscan sun, under the all seeing eye of the One who truly sees and suffers with all humankind, and all this, just under my balcony.
My grandfather taught me to love history. Though he never went to college, Harry Jakes was an educated man. His education was garnered through the books he read, books about history, chiefly American history. He knew most of the presidents by heart. More importantly, he knew what they did and how ideally the country should function, its bicameral representative democracy, its three balanced branches of government, the fair and equitable distribution of power—a nonpareil essentially lost nowadays as we have a largely dysfunctional congress, increasing executive overreach, and politicized Supreme Court appointments. Yet Harry knew how the country had struggled to preserve its constitutional integrity, and when, and why.
And thus, beyond mere civics, that self-same grandfather taught me to love history. Yet for all his knowledge of history, Harry either did not have the capacity or desire to explain it fully—he rarely talked about “history” per se and indeed was generally reticent about what he was reading, though occasionally he would mention an important historical person, offering a slapdash and condensed biography. And that is precisely what I plan to do now. Yet I will not speak about American history or even my favorite, Roman history, but I will offer one of those random biographies as Harry used to do, in this case about Bill Glass. And there is a reason I will do so.
William Sheppeard Glass, who goes by Bill, a former football player and not a “historical figure” per se, is someone whose story informed my grandfather’s outlook on life. Born in 1935, Bill Glass grew up in Texas, went to Baylor University, and then played defensive lineman for the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns, retiring from the pros in 1968. In college Mr. Glass was a consensus all-American. As a pro, he proved worthy of the pro-bowl, and later authored or coauthored two books, an inspirational memoir entitled Get in the Game and another didactic work entitled Stand Tall and Straight, the latter of which is meant to foster character formation in young men. After his career ended, he attended Southwestern Seminary and would go on to learn about ministry from no less a preacher than Billy Graham. In 1969 Mr. Glass founded Bill Glass Ministries, whose primary thrust is to help emotionally and spiritually those who are in prison, though the ministry also touches those outside prison walls.
Now what does this have to do with Harry’s penchant for history? For what reason do I quixotically offer this biography of a defensive lineman? No president, no congressman, he. It is because incumbent upon Harry’s general reticence about history was an equal reticence about interfering in the way Elaine Jakes was bringing me up. Elaine, you may know from reading the Curious Autobiography, was more or less a lightly practicing Jew throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. And thus, I suspect, Harry felt it might be a breach of etiquette to encourage too strenuously his grandson to go to church, even though Elaine took me to synagogue but rarely, for she herself did not go regularly. Yet, Harry reasoned, if he gave me a record made by a football player speaking about his life—that football player was Bill Glass—then maybe I would listen. Maybe I would connect some dots that he thought, not without reason, I was not already connecting in my life. He was, and rightly so, deeply worried about my moral formation outside of church or, in my case, synagogue. And thus, Harry also thought, I suspect, that perhaps Bill Glass could make a lasting impression on me. Maybe I would even read Stand Tall and Straight, which I suspect he would have bought me for Christmas/Hanukkah if I had liked the recording of Glass speaking on the album that he had insisted I listen to.
Yet, though I was enamored of sports and especially loved football, by 1970 or so, when this was all happening, I had no interest in retired players—they were “old,” they were no longer playing, so I didn’t pay close attention to Mr. Glass’ impassioned appeal to turn to God, to give one’s life to Christ—though I don’t recall the specifics, I do recall the gist of the record. Had I listened, no doubt Harry would have been right to infer that I would have turned my life around—or rather God would have—and been on a better path, emotionally, morally, and spiritually. But that did not happen, not then.
Now I forgot about all this for a long time. I forgot about it until a year or two ago when I was biking near the now demolished Floyd Casey Stadium in Beverly Hills, Texas, where the Baylor Bears used to play. On the side of that stadium was a larger than life-size portrait of none other than Bill Glass. I stopped my bike and looked at the poster and I said to myself, “I recall that guy. But how do I know him?” And then, as I resumed my bike journey it came back to me—history, my own history, and that of Harry Jakes as well. The awkward moment when he asked me to listen to the recording of Bill Glass.
And I would have forgotten about that, too, perhaps, but history doesn’t go away and often has a way of coming full circle. Later this week there is a fundraising breakfast for a ministry to the poor in Texas known as Mission Waco/Mission World. That breakfast was to feature Bill Glass himself as the chief speaker—until a week ago, when it was reported that Mr. Glass, now aged 81, has fallen ill and won’t be able to keep his speaking engagement. Needless to say, as a ticketholder to that breakfast, I am disappointed; more importantly, I sincerely wish him a swift recovery. I had hoped to tell him in person what a difference, albeit not at the time but over the course of time in my own personal history, that record album had made.
And thus I write this, on the one hand, for him: to let him know how his own history, many years ago, touched me, for though the message did not take root then, it would later. Within a few years of that moment, his words would come back to me. This time they came afresh in written form in St. Peter’s first epistle, spoken through the mouth of another person with Glass-like compassion—she would later become my wife—in Rome, Italy, a long way from Harry’s home in Kingston, Pennsylvania, a long way from Floyd Casey Stadium in Texas or the stadiums of Detroit or Cleveland. And I write this, on the other hand, for all of us, to remind us that history, whether our own, our country’s or simply that of a single individual, can have bearing on the present—redemptive bearing—and that, though we may not see figures of the past with our eyes, if we can recognize them in our minds and our spirits, their words and their lives truly will not lose meaning. Though I may never get to meet him, Bill Glass’ words resound and will continue to resound in my mind. I heard them but once, warbling on a wind-up Victrola nearly a half century ago.
A train strike (sciopero) in Italy gives you time to think. And when you are traveling, sometimes time to think is just the right thing. For traveling should be—at least when you are traveling by yourself and especially not with small children—a time to think, to reflect, to ponder. Questions germane to traveling like “How did I get here?” or “Where am I going?” are also germane to our lives and, in a manner of speaking, they provide a framework for the kind of thoughts we should think if we are to be properly thoughtful people.
And traveling, in Europe at least, also helps us to think about being thoughtful because one often travels by train there—or I should say here, for I am writing this blog from Rome—and when one travels by train one has to negotiate one’s way through hoards of people, all trying to go in about the same direction. Really, they are going in various directions, and that is what makes working your way to your train so difficult. I try my best to be gentle about it, whenever possible acting as if getting to my train or making my connection isn’t all that important to me—even though it invariably is.
Now not making such a connection in Italy in the summer is not so bad as missing one in Switzerland or Germany in the winter. Of course the reason for that is the stations there are sometimes open-air and it is hard to stay warm in a not well-insulated or warmed station in the north. But in summertime Italy it is a different matter. Here one need not rush, need not bustle, for the country relies on a natural kind of lateness. Even my Italian friends call that “Italian time” and they take pride in a small amount of tardiness the way my German friends take pride in (or at least seem to expect) a certain punctuality.
Which brings me back to thinking. For thinking about big questions based on little ones is a good thing, and thinking about being gentle and knowing that what time you have to leave is not nearly as important as where you’re going or how you get there. Sometimes you just have to face the fact that in life there will be a “sciopero” of sorts, a personal train strike or temporary setback. You may not meet an objective because of external forces. You may be criticized by someone fairly or unfairly and have to slow down and remind yourself of the long-term goal, that responding sharply is very unlikely to be the right thing to do. Rather, that right thing is likely to be gentleness.
One of the things that struck me on this trip so far—aside from how fabulous Italian food is and how impossible it is not to mention food in every blog that I write while I am in this country, even in a world gone mad—was a conversation that I had at a fancy affair with an American, a very nice and courteous chap, a fine human being, a gentle person. Yet there was, it seemed to me, perhaps something recently missing in his life, and that missing thing had not to do with food but with traveling.
Now it could have had something to do with food. After all, the fancy affair at which we met was a grand party thrown for a recently successful archaeological team, a party that I, as a mere novelist and blogger, was clearly crashing. They were wrapping up an excavation of an Etruscan tomb near Viterbo. The person with whom I enjoyed a rich conversation seemed at first blush to be a hired musician, for he deftly played the guitar at this affair, accompanying a marvelous accordion player. That same person in question, however, turned out to be there at the invitation of one of the archeologist. As for me, I was invited along by a friend of a friend, and, being naturally curious, I accepted the invitation, even if in fact I was more or less crashing the party.
And I am glad I did, for I had never been in a movie before. No, this was not a real film, but it was as if a scene from a movie, a particular one, perhaps my favorite: The Godfather. Mutatis mutandis, it was as if we were in the opening wedding scene, a great celebration with food of a high order of deliciousness that just kept coming, course after course. Over a glass of wine that was hand-crafted by one of the local magistrates (a certain Angelo, whom everyone called Sant’Angelo), the gentleman and I fell to talking about the big questions, what I am calling in this blog, the travel questions.
Like me, he had thought about such questions. But when he had encountered a certain sciopero in his own life—a complicated church situation—the strike in his life had presented him with an unwelcome challenge, temporarily perhaps driving him away from church. Still, I encouraged him in the midst of it to remember that there is a directional aspect to the whole question of religion, an aspect that simply by going through the motions sometimes maintains a true faith or, better yet, even sometimes kindles a deeper faith, a faith perhaps one never realized was possible—a faith in a God who can produce miracles. And thus do I hope that he finds his direction back to church, with his guitar in hand, for I liked him and I suspect that his joy won’t be complete until he finds peace in his music, in church, in life—in God.
And here I will stop, for it was, after all, merely a lunch I was crashing, not a scene from a movie, not something from my usual world of fantasy, of otherworldly ideas beyond reality. Yet even if it was reality, it sure did feel like a scene from that best of films. Could we have been, for a moment, with a real godfather, could we have been characters in a story? Perhaps that is the point, perhaps we are a part of a story, and we need to be reminded of that from time to time. And to grasp that, to garner what we need to live, and love, and thrive, perhaps we may require, from time to time, to experience a sciopero.
It’s that time of year again when we celebrate St. Valentine’s Day. Most won’t even think of the saint himself, not even in passing, though he enjoys a storied, if distant and rather unclear, history. A few faded details abide. A high-profile religious figure in third-century Rome, Valentine had an active faith and a fervent desire to share it with others. Imprisoned, possibly for performing Christian marriages, he was in 269 martyred for that faith during the harsh reign of the incompetent (though rugged and neatly kempt) emperor Claudius Gothicus, with whom he may have had prior personal interaction—the accounts are rather fanciful about this interaction, so I leave them aside here.
In any case, when in prison, Valentine would seem to have prayed over and brought about the healing of the jailor’s blind child. The saint was laid to rest very near the Milvian Bridge, a bridge that just a few years later would become very important in the history of Christianity. Since when I am in Rome I regularly jog over the Milvian Bridge, undoubtedly I have jogged quite unawares near the spot where the good saint was first buried. His reliquary today is further down the Tiber, nearer to its true mouth, in the Forum Boarium’s often-visited church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.
But all that is history interspersed with legend. And I haven’t even mentioned the ancient Roman pagan religious festival of the Lupercalia, nor shall I, for the practical reality of St. Valentine’s Day in America is that it is a day to reflect upon that significant other person in your life, if you’re lucky enough to have one, or perhaps to entertain the idea of one, possibly even to entertain a particular person with a proper dinner and a glass of good wine, with a view to moving “idea” a bit closer to reality, as a friend of mine named Charlie recently did—bravo, Charlie! And thus, this blog, which has begun with a bit of story, moves on to reality.
I wish to address the fine points of whomever one might peculiarly love in this blog, considering virtues as stimuli of affection and true love. My thesis is simply this: the love I refer to here, both that which the person whom I shall describe gives and that which that person receives, derives from those very virtues.
I would begin with the capacity to be long-suffering. Imagine if, instead of the presentation of champagne, chocolate and roses one might think of true love as the gift of a long-suffering, gentle and gracious soul. I should distinguish here between tolerance and long-suffering grace. Tolerance really means the capacity to put up with someone. That is not quite virtue. To my mind mere tolerance suggests a temporal limit. Even a dastardly person can put up with someone pro tempore. I might tolerate swinging a kettlebell for an extended period because I know that period of swinging and the pain that it is uncomfortably engendering in my shoulders will soon end. But long-suffering grace, that’s another matter. That implies an interminable period of patience that ends with charity, forgiveness and favor. And this virtue is endearing, in and of itself. If you’re lucky enough to have someone in your life with this virtue—one that outstrips even the positive thoughts about the connection of generosity, tolerance and creativity that one might find bedecking a disposable coffee cup—then you know what I mean, and you have someone whom you can love just for being them, for being the gentle and kind soul who they are.
I would add two more such virtues. The second is metonymous with the first, but distinct from it. It is the capacity to forgive. It is connected to the word grace, mentioned above. Grace is a flexible word, derived from the Latin word gratia, with a deeper (if less obvious) Indo-European Greek root (*gwreto-) that also gives birth to the English (via Greek) charisma, and encompasses the notion not only of elegance and proper balance, such as a ballet dancer’s grace, but also, of course, of thanks, liberal thanks (cf. the liberality of the word “gratis”). If you have a person of grace in your life, particularly the lavish kind of grace, not merely the non-clumsy kind of grace, then you know what I mean. And you are lucky.
Ah, but what about the final virtue? This is a strange one, for it doesn’t have just one word to qualify it, but several words. Steadfastness is one, but another is faithfulness, and yet another confidence. If you happen to have someone who is a combination of these notions in your life, then you are experiencing something rather unique in today’s world. I’m not speaking merely of romantically faithful—though that is obviously important, especially if you’re thinking of the traditional image of St. Valentine’s Day. Rather, when I speak here of faithfulness, I am referring to the kind that is closely akin to steadfastness, the unique capacity to stay with that person in your life through thick and thin, not to lose confidence in them when the chips are down—especially when a bad decision or two by that other person has caused the chips to go down, if not the ship to go down, as well. That steadfastness is grounded in confidence, divinely inspired confidence in the other person. When you have someone in your life who won’t lose confidence in you, no matter what, that is true faithfulness. That is the steadfastness, the confidence of which I speak. If you have such a person in your life, then you know what I mean. And you are lucky.
In closing, dear reader, I wish you as much this St. Valentine’s Day. If you don’t yet have such a person in your life, may you find one. And if you do have such a person, I hope you have time to celebrate him or her and, if you have a moment to reflect on what I’ve written here, to try to be such a person. I can say that a few years back I married such a person. And if you know what I mean, then you will say that I am lucky, lucky and blessed.
Happy St. Valentine’s Day, Sweetheart. You are the long-suffering, gracious, forgiving, steadfast and faithful light of my life. I love you for your virtues, I love you precisely for who you are.
I have a friend named Grace. We have been friends for years, and I always liked her ever since meeting her in, I think, perhaps the 4th or 5th grade. Though her own travels took her as far as Australia—long story—for the past several years Grace has had the rare privilege of living in the town in which we both grew up, New Hope, Pennsylvania. I, meanwhile, have lived in a variety of places, from Burlington, Vermont to Pennsylvania, to Rome, to New Jersey, and finally now Texas.
In Texas, oddly enough, I made another friend named Grazia, which is, of course, merely Italian for Grace. I always liked my Italian friend Grazia and her husband, Max, though I’ve not seen them for several years now since they moved to Houston. Both of their names sound like the Italian for thank you, grazie. Indeed, the Italian word for thank you is simply the plural of Grazia’s name, and therefore means “graces.”
“How funny,” I thought to myself the other day when I was out jogging. When you thank someone in Italian you’re sending them graces. And then I thought of Latin, of course, and it is the same. Welsh, gras, is an obvious cognate, though bendith conveys the idea, too, with an element of blessing. And what about Greek? Eucharisto. “Blessing be to you!” Well, it is the same. In fact, right in the middle of the word is a variation on that same idea again—charis—a blessing that is a gift given freely. And then, as if a Lutheran with his catechism in front of him, I thought, “What does this mean?” It means, of course, you want to bless the person who did you a good turn. You want to bless them freely.
But it means much more than that, much, much more, just as “good-bye” means more. The latter expression means, you may know, “God be with ye.” The PC crowd, who are now seeking to expunge any reference to “Woodrow Wilson” from Princeton, will no doubt go after “good-bye” next; surely good-bye is at least a micro-aggression against proper atheists and possibly even agnostics. Likewise, the word “grace” means much more than merely “grace.” It means blessing in the highest; it means a blessing with no strings attached.
Someone very dear to me this week said, “Words are just words.” Could he really know what he was saying? Does he not realize that words are more often than not much more beautiful, much more powerful than actions. It would be like saying, “art is just art,” or “the sculpture is just stone.” Think about the idea that the David of Michelangelo should be described as “just stone.” No, my friend, never tell a philologist that words are just words, for he will tell you that they actually always mean something. They mean a great deal. Wrought well, they can be the equivalent of Michelangelo’s David. They can bring healing; they can render peace; undergirt by proper actions, they can change the world.
But back to “thank you.” In Welsh, it is less comely (Diolch) pronounced with more phlegm than the Flemish Dank or the Dutch dankjuwel or the more widely known German Danke. Eucharisto. Grazie. Gratias ago. I render you graces, a blessing with no strings attached. I give you a free gift, a bunch of them. That is how thankful I am: there are no strings attached to my sentiment toward you. I recognize that your gift came to me with a similar spirit of free gift-giving. Thank you for that. That’s what “thank you” really means. And at the center of it is grace.
Then, as I was jogging, I thought about forgiveness, which is an exercise of that grace, certainly the most difficult exercise of it. Is that something like the “amazing grace” about which one might sing on any given Sunday? It is, rather, a response to it. I thought about it in part because I have a dear friend—actually a couple of friends—who need very much to exercise that grace now toward one another and toward others as well. Sadly, they don’t realize that the rendering of forgiveness would free themselves much more than the person whom they might forgive. No, they seem to think of the exercise of grace as some kind of transaction. At least one of them—perhaps both—feels that someone “owes them” something and he is demanding his due recompense; that he is a fool not to claim that recompense. That his whole life has been one of being taken advantage of, and he’s had enough. What he can’t see, of course, is that the forgiveness he needs to render will actually liberate himself more than the person whom he needs to forgive. (“Forgive us our sins as we …” What does this mean? I leave that aside.)
To find grace, I’ve tried to tell him, one must turn around. This is especially true when one is looking in a mirror and blaming every uncomely feature of oneself on someone else. “My nose—I hate it!—I got that from my mother’s side of the family. My ears—too small!—alas, alack, they’re from my father’s side!” Standing right in front of the mirror means quite often obscuring the other folks in the room, or if you do see them, they’re way behind you and in fact you’re viewing them in reverse. In truth, one rarely realizes that even when looking at oneself in a mirror one only sees oneself backwards. I simply mean this: a right- handed person in a mirror appears to be left-handed. Your hair will be parted quite on the opposite side than you really part it. The words on your t-shirt come out all backwards and funny looking. You can’t trust mirrors, and psychologists tell us that it is unhealthy, or at least a little strange, to spend too much time gazing in a mirror, where one can see oneself, certainly, but the vision that we see is skewed and inaccurate, blocking out those behind us or, even when not, seeing them in a skewed and inaccurate way, as well.
But it’s hard to turn away from the mirror and render grace to those behind you, especially when you can empathize better with the person in that mirror than you can with anyone else. Yes, that may be true, but the person you see in the mirror may not be who you think he is. First of all, as we already said, at the very least, he is backwards from the reality. And so is anyone else you see in the background. Your vision, which seems so accurate to you, is, necessarily, inaccurate, certainly when it comes to yourself. Secondly, the person you see in the looking glass may be not the real thing in a number of other ways. Folks with anorexia, for example, sadly do not see that they are morbidly underweight. Instead, they think they see, studies have shown, a person who is overweight; those who are morbidly obese quite often see something quite the opposite, or fail to recognize the danger that they behold.
But let me get back to grace. If you have a friend named Grace, as I do, be thankful. By virtue of her very name, she will, of course, remind you to be so. She will, too, remind you to be generous, as one needs to render grace freely. Her name will also—and this is most important—remind you to be more than giving; her name reminds you to be forgiving, not simply of those who have wronged you somehow—in ways that may appear in your mirror as MACRO-aggressions but in reality, when you turn away from the mirror, are, at the most, micro-aggressions—but also of yourself, and of everyone. What better time of year than the Christmas season to turn away from the mirror, which can so easily deceive, and to face reality, become thankful, giving, and most of all forgiving?
Well, I leave this all aside to allow this week’s blog to remain short and sweet, and to close with a tasty treat, the classic Welsh cookie—also known as Welsh cakes—that our family has eaten at Christmastime every year without interruption since Lucy Hughes Jones arrived from Wales in 1869. The recipe is that of Blanche Jakes, though she herself got from Elizabeth Ann Evans, her mother, who got it from her mother, Lucy Hughes Jones. Though Welsh cookies do not go so well with hot chocolate or coffee—I’ve tried them, and I don’t recommend—they are delightful with tea, truly amazing. You will give thanks for them if you try them with tea. So I recommend baking them, sharing them with friends. Even Elaine’s father, Harry Jakes, who hated raisins, loved them, though he dutifully removed the raisins, an act that always drove his wife Blanche to distraction.
Next week’s blog will be the first in a series of stories about Christmas. I hope you like them. Though they are technically fictional, like the Curious Autobiography, they are all essentially true; they hark back to a true time, one long past, when terrorism didn’t exist, or if it did, it was unknown to the community described in the stories. Then, even though grief and sorrow were all too familiar, thankfulness was simply an aspect of life, as was grace. And forgiveness was well known, as well. In that community, as you will see if you care to read these stories in their weekly installments—and here’s the spoiler alert—grace, in the end, would prevail. Please enjoy those tales, the Stories of a Christmas Yard, as you sit by your fireplace next to your Christmas tree, with your feet up on the divan,
and a cup of good Paned Gymreig tea served with a Welsh cookie or two. In the meantime, I hope you have had a Happy Thanksgiving, which itself is a felicitous rendering of grace. Diolch i chi, darllenydd annwyl, grazie, eucharisto, gratias, Vielen Dank—simply put, thanks for reading and, for now, good-bye!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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. So, 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.
 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.”
“Well, this is quite a booth,” I said when strolling the floor of the vast Book Expo of America Exhibit 2015 in May. “The colors are vivid and jump right out at you—pink and black. And the artwork is well done, so deftly thematized to your book.” All this I said when I first met Madison Kaplan, the namesake and, qua character, heroine of the book series that her talented mother, Nina, writes and illustrates. “She does all her own artwork,” Madison volunteered proudly. It was refreshing and frankly a bit surprising to see a young woman of twenty-three so proud of a parent.
I soon met Nina herself, the warm and friendly author of the popular Young Adult fictional work entitled Madison K. As Nina described it to me, the series tries to speak in a new and fresh way to girls becoming young women, encouraging them to think twice before making just any moral choice, before believing just any trendy way of thinking. I confess that I have not read much of this series whose target audience is obviously a demographic quite a bit different from myself. Kaplan complements her book series with a rich and various website (BLC; www.beautylandcouture.com) that speaks to young women about their appearance, focusing on something I am fairly unfamiliar with, makeup; but I shall return to that below. For the moment, suffice it to say that after my admittedly cursory perusal of one of the books in the series, I am honestly impressed. This series is doing something different than most YA fiction, and I am inclined to start my blog by warmly acknowledging that uniqueness; after all, Elaine Jakes taught me to embrace things that are perhaps a bit different and to be a bit wary of those ideas that are not.
Yet as the title of this blog implies, this is a ghost story that ostensibly is about a haunting of Sulmona, an Italian town, a small one, located on the edge of the Majella National Park near the Adriatic shore, forming a triangle with two nearby coastal cities, Pescara and Lanciana. It is far enough from them and from Rome that there is no chance that the ghost of Sulmona could wander in either direction. It stays confined to the arboreal park and only occasionally wanders into Sulmona’s center, always at night. And when it does, it makes a beeline for the main square where there is displayed prominently a fine statue of the town’s most famous poet, the long-dead Ovidius Naso, whose very shade, it is said, is this ghost.
That ghost is as playful as Ovid was a poet. Ovid, you may know, was so playful, so bawdy, that he was banished by the emperor Augustus; to give a historical context, this is the very emperor who was reigning when Christ was born. So, Ovid and Christ were contemporaries, Christ the younger, as Ovid was born in 43 BC. Yet why Ovid’s shade, if it is Ovid’s, haunts Sulmona is a mystery. There is a rumor that it has to do with women.
Now it is not what you might be thinking; yes, if you recall your history, Ovid was known as a bit of a dandy not only because of his poetry but also owing to the unsubstantiated claim that he was spending far too much time of a romantic nature with Julia, the emperor’s daughter. While it may not be (and need not be true) that Ovid was carrying on with Julia, it is certainly true he had the gumption to write at least to two tomes of poetry explicitly for women and that he wrote much more than that about women. The facts are these: the third book of his Art of Love(Ars Amatoria) was addressed to women, to help them create rendezvous with men; his Love’s Remedies (Remedia Amoris) was for both women and men, so it does not count. He also wrote the Heroides, letters in the first person penned by famous heroines to their often less famous lovers—and Ovid donned the female voice to accomplish this; I say nothing, in passing, about my role in the composition of TheCurious Autobiography.
Yet clearly Ovid’s boldest venture, his “I’m-treading-on-territory-that-should-perhaps-better-fall-to-the-too-little-known-Roman-poetess-Sulpicia” work that could have been perceived as sexist, was the less than catchily entitled Medicamina Faciei Feminae(On Makeup). This work never was among those great books, those Harvard classics that most people talk about when quipping dilettantishly about antiquity. This lesser known work is a book about makeup, much like Nina Kaplan’s lovely website.
The difference, however, between that website which appeals to young women who are just now learning to apply makeup correctly and to make good choices about that (and about life) and Ovid’s work is simply this: Nina Kaplan is a woman and thus can speak from experience. She knows her makeup and she knows what it feels like to be a young woman figuring out womanhood and this particular aspect of it—though admittedly makeup is not for everyone, of course. Elaine Jakes, for one, rarely wore it. Ovid’s transgression into the world of makeup was, from a netherworldly perspective, a much greater offense than the poet’s possible dating of Augustus’ daughter, or his recherché and erotic elegies, the content of which ostensibly bothered the emperor. So, while Augustus exiled Ovid to Tomis in his lifetime, it is said that in his after-lifetime, the shades of Roman women, like those who hounded Orpheus to death, called down an irrational curse on Ovid’s soul, a curse that compelled his shade to have no rest and ever to wander the (admittedly lovely) Majella forest, whence he cannot return to Rome but at least finds himself on Italian soil.
When he does come into town, pieces of Parrozzo (a soft cake characterized by a rich chocolate coating and almonds) left out for the ghost at the foot of Ovid’s statue in the town’s square by caring contemporary Italian women always is taken up, it seems, by the ghost, but never quite eaten. Rather, it finds itself strewn out in a line going back into the woods like a Sondheimian trail of breadcrumbs, as, of course, a ghost can’t really eat or drink, as it is made of spiritual matter.
I did not tell Nina Kaplan this story, as I did not want to frighten her or anyone at the Madison K. booth. In any case, I felt it did not befit so busy or august an event as the BEA. But I did warn her that Madison K. just might show up in a blog about a ghost. Is there a moral to this story in a blog that purports to affirm that life is worth living and books are worth reading? Well, of course there is, for the continuum, if an imperfect one, between Ovid, Madison K., and “BLC” remains unbroken, in a sense, and the warning to a man with too little knowledge of makeup, such as myself, not to interfere stands, lest he wind up in the doghouse or, in the case of Ovid’s ghost, experience something worse. And, more importantly than all of this, of course, is the notion that the past is ever with us, a repository of stories, within the context of which we are writing our own, which form a strand in yet a grander narrative, the Author of which will, perhaps, eventually be the topic of another blog.