Tag Archives: terrorism

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Trees and People

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

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

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

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

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

a family headstone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Thoughts on “Thank You” and Related Natterings

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.texasflagstate

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.

Thank-You-word-cloud-1024x7911But 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,

divine divan
a divine 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!

welsh cookies recipe