Tag Archives: Virgil

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cake

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

“What do you mean?” I queried.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Difficult Road

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

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

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


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

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

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

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Blog I Was Going to Write

A few years ago a friend of mine was going to write an article on the literary character Dido. He began to do so, only a few days later to receive in the mail an off-print autographed by a then acquaintance of his with virtually the same title containing virtually the same analysis of that famous heroine. I say famous because, though Dido enjoys her greatest claim to fame in Virgil’s Aeneid which not everybody has read, she also finds her way into other works of literature, other genres and works of art. purcell-dido-and-aeneasPurcell’s Dido and Aeneas gives Dido a voice you don’t just read but you can hear or see. dido-aeneas-in-concertWhile Purcell’s opera is well known, few likely know of Ovid’s famous letter (Epistula Heroidum VII) written “by Dido,” that is to say in Dido’s voice. It capitalizes, of course, on Virgil’s version, allowing Dido to explain her dilemma from her particular point of view.

That dilemma, in case you might have forgotten, is that she was madly in love with Aeneas and considered their relationship, which certainly did have a physical side, to be permanent. She interpreted the noises in the background that she heard when she and Aeneas were making love in a cave to be a blessing on their relationship—a blessing that made it enduring, that made it “marriage.” Aeneas, meanwhile, was so busily engaged in the act of lovemaking that he (presumably) didn’t hear or experience what Dido did. He perhaps saw their relationship as steamy, even meaningful, but not permanent and certainly not marriage. And thus they broke up when Aeneas went on to “law school” (i.e., to found the place that would become Rome). Dido meanwhile—what did she do? Well, you likely recall this point. She would elaborately construct a heap of wood and put on it everything Aeneas owned. She mounted the heap with Aeneas’ sword in hand plunged the sword through her bosom just as the heap was set afire. She died by her own hand and was burned, together with every memory of Aeneas, on a tragic pyre.

And that was the article—or something like that, something about Dido and how she dealt with her grief philosophically and spiritually—that my friend was about to write. But he never wrote it because he received in the mail a beautifully autographed off-print, an off-print that invited further discussion with its author and blossomed into an enduring friendship. He told me all this just yesterday when I read a very thoughtful piece written by a professor at Columbia University that had more or less the content of the blog I was thinking about writing. It was to be a blog about the disenfranchised. It was to be a blog that spoke to the depth of sadness of the human experience—the feeling of being left behind by society, the feeling that everyone else gets ahead except for you.

Maybe you were born into a home without a father. Maybe the poor mother who tried to raise you as best as she could had very little money, especially when you were a child. Maybe you were picked on at school. Maybe your mom smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and the person with whom she lived did, too, and maybe you kept getting pneumonia in part, though you never knew it, because you were around so much second-hand smoke. And the list could go on—the point is, maybe you just feel flat out sorry for yourself and you think, if only I hadn’t been born to such a disadvantaged situation, I could have done so much better. And then throw in the extras—the big negatives: maybe you are a woman, maybe you are a minority. You know there’s a glass ceiling for you. You can only ever achieve so much, and that’s it. And you might even feel that the world owes you an apology.

Not just the world—no, that’s too general. The person who owes you the apology is the person who has all those advantages that you know you did not have. That person is not a minority. That person is not a woman. That person did not grow up in poverty. That person has no pulmonary issues—never did. That person has had every advantage and never had the system rigged against him.

And all this makes perfect sense to you. That bastard owes you an apology. And he even owes you some of the money he has made and will make in the future. So you vote for politicians who promise you that they will tax him and give you better goods and services—that’s something the government owes all people. The problem is, of course, from that bastard’s point of view, he hasn’t been doing anything to hurt you at all. Maybe he even stood up to a bully once on behalf of someone he perceived to be weaker, maybe he gave his lunch to the kid without money, or loaned money to a poor kid at school and purposely never asked to be repaid. Maybe he went to the birthday party of the kid they always picked on at school. Maybe he walked you, yes you, home one day when you were cursing like a sailor over something a teacher had said or done. And maybe he didn’t judge you but just listened. Does he need to apologize for the fact that he happened to be born into what is clearly a more privileged situation?
sticks-and-stone-cartoonAnd maybe even that privileged white kid has his own struggles, I mean bigger than just pimples or not getting the car he was expecting from his parents, or being turned down for the prom date he was really hoping for. Maybe his dad has just been diagnosed with something really bad like melanoma. Maybe the severity of his dad’s illness is owed in part to the family doctor who, at the dad’s last routine physical, didn’t see a change in a one of the dad’s moles. Maybe this privileged kid has his own problems—different than yours, yes, but just as real. And maybe there’s even blame that could be doled out, blame much more particularized than yours. Maybe he could really blame the doctor in the same way that Dido had a legitimate beef with Aeneas. It’s one thing for Dido to hate all men because one behaved badly. But it’s much more visceral when she hates one in particular—hates him so much that she would commit suicide over his leaving.

Good heavens, we’re getting rather far afield. Or are we? What I am trying to say is this. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t feel pain, real pain. Some do have a lot less of it—but I would argue that they may in that lessening also have lost something of the full dimensionality of life, even have a smaller soul than those who have suffered in some way. Even if I can’t prove that, I can say this: expecting someone to apologize for something they didn’t precisely do is, if not ridiculous, at least unproductive. And that is the blog that I was thinking to write. But Professor McWhorter wrote it for me. So I now feel like my friend whose article on Dido was never written—at least not by him. So I leave you with this thought, one I owe to Dr. McWhorter. At some point we, as human beings, have to look forward.

The kid in the broken, poor and very smoky home has to decide not to smoke, to stay married even at those difficult moments when divorce seems preferable, and to work hard and to take advantage of whatever she can. She may never go to an ivy-league school—at least not as an undergraduate—but she might just find her way to a college, and she might prosper there if she is smart enough and willing to work hard enough. It might be, because it is economical, a community college at first. Then it might be, with some scholarship aid and some loans, a state university to finish. Then, if she is smart enough, on to graduate school, whether law school, medical school or maybe even graduate school in music or art or literature. The last three of these can be fully funded for exceptional students like her. Will she make it? I don’t know. The odds are admittedly against her. Yet in America, however imperfect its system is—and it is imperfect—at least she has a fighting chance.

Dido made it; she lives on.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Chance Encounters and the Pane of Glass

dickinson-college-old-east-building“You see,” I recall him saying as we stood on the dank stairwell of Dickinson College’s Old East Building located at the northeast end of the campus mall, “It is very simple, pal. Either there is one or there is not.” The one he was referring to is, of course, God. Dr. Philip Lockhart had the uniquely Presbyterian knack—to wit, the Westminster Shorter Catechism—of taking the difficult and reducing it to something highly condensed and yet entirely comprehensible.

In response to my query based on the conversation that Dr. Lockhart and I had on that old stairway, Roz replied, “Yes, of course, yes, yes, of course I do.” Roz, along with her husband and nephew, just happened to sit next to me in an airport restaurant in Toronto, where I spent a large portion of the day waiting for my sempiternally delayed plane. Indeed her response was enthusiastic: “I am a Jew. Of course I believe in God.”

9781480814738_COVER.inddI had only asked that basic theological question because I was offering her a slice of the story of Elaine Jakes, a story quite improbable—well, you know if you’ve read the book. For the fact that Elaine had been, mostly at different times, a Jew, Chinese, and African American reveals how each individual vignette elicits the annoying question as to whether the sum of the details of her story could just be coincidence. Frankly, it is just easier to explain if the person you’re telling it to begins with at least a hint of faith—in Roz’ case a good bit more than a hint.

Thus could I relay more confidently one of those improbable stories from the book, and thus did she smile, even chuckle, with amusement and delight. “But how did it happen that you became a writer?” she asked. “How could you decide to become a writer and study Greek and Latin, no less, in college? These are not highly marketable subjects.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero

“That same professor,” I said,” Phil Lockhart, directed me to listen to the voices of the past, to hear what the ancients could tell me not only about history and art and battles but about honor, and justice, and bravery. ‘The words of Plato, Cicero, and Virgil,’ old Dr. Lockhart so sagely said, ‘resound eternally. Learn Latin and Greek so that you can press your ear to the pane of glass and hear them for yourself.’ And he was right, of course. Dr. Lockhart was, like my mother, always right.”


Roz, a lawyer by trade raising a son of her own, was astounded, “So a teacher, a single teacher made such a big impact on you?”

“Yes,” I said, “and so did and still do the voices he referred to that I was able to hear through the glass pane. I can still hear Dr. Lockhart’s voice as if it were yesterday. And I learned enough Greek and Latin in college to begin to hear those other, older voices pretty well.”

“But how did you happen to take Latin or Greek in the first place?”

“Well, this is the part that requires some measure of the faith we spoke of earlier, for it, too, involves an improbable string of coincidences. I wound up in Latin simply because on one solitary evening no less than three people—an Alpha Chi Rho fraternity brother whose name escapes me, a future college president named Chris Reber, and his roommate, Russ Fry, if I am recalling his name correctly after so many years, all told me to take Latin instead of waiting a semester for a spot in French to open up. ‘The prof is great,’ they all said independently of one another; ‘You simply have to take Latin!’ or something to that effect.”

And that prof was, of course, none other than Phil Lockhart. “He and the voices behind the pane of glass,” I continued, “all left quite an impression on me, ever directing me to higher moral ground, better thoughts, nobler action. Plato taught me something like faith, Cicero, honor, and Virgil, compassion, I think. Perhaps, Virgil taught me a bit more than just compassion; perhaps they all taught me more than those solitary ideals. And Dr. Lockhart …,” I paused, “taught me not only how to read them and understand their words but also how to write and speak and think.”

“I wish my son would have such a teacher and experience of college.”

“I hope,” I said, “that he does, too. I hope that he gets a chance to hear the voices behind the pane.”

Elegant Cabbagetown B&B, Toronto

“I wish I could have that kind of education myself,” she added. “Where can I learn something of this? Do you have a podcast?”

I think it was Roz who asked about the podcast—or was it the woman sitting next to me on the plane? In any case, it was now twice in one day that someone had asked me this question, for at breakfast Marci, a kind woman from Pennsylvania staying at our lovely bed and breakfast in Toronto (Elegant Cabbagetown), had asked the same question.

“Alas, no, but I think that The Curious Autobiography tells a lot of the story and can direct you toward some of the ideas and ideals I spoke of earlier.”

“I will buy it and read it!” Roz said enthusiastically.

Oddly enough, Marci had said the same thing at breakfast. Marci and Roz, if you are reading this now, I hope you can hear Elaine’s voice behind the glass. Her ideas and even her perception of life are built upon the great thoughts of the past. She is there, right now, just beyond the windowpane, sharing a pot of tea with Dr. Lockhart. Unless I am mistaken, it just may be that Cicero or Plato is sitting there with them.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Thoughts about Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Wolfenbuettel1Traveling abroad this week, I saw somewhere—I think it was Heathrow—a sign that vaunted, perhaps as a bit of advertising, something along the lines of your past having nothing to do with your present.  It might have been the very “maxim” pictured below, or something very similar to it.  I thought about it in passing at the time—how untrue, I mused to myself—not thinking that I would be writing about that untrue saying in just a few days’ time.when your past calls

And yet here I am, writing about precisely that.  And I am doing so for two reasons.  One is to call attention to the fact that our life choices—now, caveat lector, it is most certainly true that we and all people have choices—constantly inform who we are becoming. Let me go back, for a moment to the caveat that I have mentioned here between m-dashes. Too often I hear in dinner-party conversation among the intellectual in-crowd how great it is that we have so many choices today, in this modern world, for in the ancient world so few people had any choices at all.  Such a sentiment I would here significantly qualify: most of the so-called modern world to which that person is referring so cavalierly, has about as much choice as the ancients had, for most of this modern world lives in what first-world folks would qualify as poverty.[1] What that cocktail-party person means to say is, “In my very limited view of the world, there seem to be so many choices nowadays!”  But, if they could actually think for a moment to see that that is what they do mean, they might not say so anyway, as such accuracy doesn’t fly well at such highbrow get-togethers. Thus, they speak more generally, like a little child or some of the leading politicians of our times, sounding about as well-informed as each.

But I leave that aside to return to the fact that the sign that I saw, whatever precisely it said, similar to the maxim pictured above, could not possibly be more inaccurate.   It is inaccurate just as much for those of us who live in the prosperous regions of the earth as for those of us who do not, whether our choices are the comfortable type (“Let me see, which of these expensive colleges shall I choose to attend?”) or of the less affluent variety (“Shall I steal that piece of fruit from the fruit stand?”). And it is so precisely because we have, in either case, choices to make, choices in our soon-be-to past that will inform our soon-to-become present.

But why, in a blog about Wolfenbüttel, Germany, do I start with a disquisition about how it untrue it is that our past does not inform our present?  Precisely because Wolfenbüttel embodies very well the veracity of my proclamation.germany3
You may not know that Wolfenbüttel, founded in perhaps the tenth century and located just eight miles east of Brunswick on the map above, is but one of over eight score towns in Germany with a the nominal suffix  –büttel, indicating a hamlet or settlement of some kind.  Yet Wolfenbüttel stands out among the other “büttels” for its tranquility and striking beauty.  Undamaged during the bombing raids of the Second World War—raids that devastatingly wreaked destruction upon nearby and nevertheless still very quaint Braunschweig—Wolfenbüttel is a city that by its very look and feel preserves a rich cultural heritage.

One way that it does so is obvious to even the casual visitor, who admires its buildings that feature prominently delightful and typically German half-timber design.

Wolfenbuettel streetYet another way, though is less obvious.  It is the fact that one of its buildings, the Herzog August Bibliotek, houses one of the finest manuscript collections in all of Europe. Visitors come from around the world to see some of these books when they are on display. Yesterday I had the privilege of studying one of these, a very old manuscript (ninth-century) of Virgil.  This book was written about when Charlemagne was Holy Roman Emperor, before Wolfenbüttel itself was even one of the “-büttels.”  It was a different world then, though a world nonetheless filled with non-first-world choices.  It was a world when books were extremely precious objects, a world in which learning was starting to bloom again, thanks to the intellectual vision and appreciation for learning that the aforementioned emperor embodied.  He himself would seem to have come to appreciate learning a bit later than most young men, and even studied Latin when he was emperor, relying not merely on knowledge acquired as a youngster.

However that may be, let me return to how Wolfenbüttel is the answer, if not the antidote, to the false dictum with which this blog opened.  Merely entering the Herzog August Bibliotek, one senses that one is stepping into the past. Then, hunching over an ancient manuscript one realizes this even more robustly. The scribe who painstakingly made this apograph (i.e. a direct copy) of the Palatinus manuscript (some five hundred years older than this one) was himself connecting with a past more distant than the Palatinus manuscript from which he was working. He was, in fact connecting with the author of the body of work that contained the poem at which I was looking, Virgil’s eighth Aeneid.  That portion of the larger work (the twelve book version of the Aeneid) was written probably between 25 and 20 BC, a quarter of a century or so before Christ was born.

In the manuscript I was studying there are occasional mistakes, misspellings.  The scribe, perhaps because he was tired or had had too much to drink, occasionally switches the letter -i- for the letter -y-, writing, for example, “Thibrym” for “Thybrim” (the name of Rome’s most prominent river).  It is not a moral error, by any stretch; yet it is, in fact, an error, one recorded for posterity to see, or at least for me to notice when I am reading the manuscript.  That mistake is, thankfully, one that has little impact on the Virgilian tradition; but it is, nonetheless, a part of the history of that tradition.

Gottfried Leibniz

So, when one sees a sign or advertisement or whatever it was that I saw in Heathrow—if it was Heathrow, or was it Hamburg?—vaunting that one’s past ought have nothing to do with one’s present, one must stop and think about Wolfenbüttel’s Herzog August Bibliotek.  One must think of Gottfried Lessing (in the 18th century) or, before him, Gottfried Leibniz (in the 17th century), each of whom served as its head librarian.  One must think of them meticulously safeguarding that manuscript, one that I held in my hand yesterday, a document that contains a poem from the past, a past that is not lost, but informs our present in more ways than we know. The Aeneid, and other works like it (e.g. Livy’s Histories), influenced not only modern writers and artists but also political theorists, some of whom have shaped modern foreign and domestic policies.  The great institution of democracy itself, even if in the next American national election it should produce a less-than-desirable leader, is obviously owed to ancient models.

So I leave you, dear reader, with this thought. Our past does, in fact, inform our present and our future.  Our choices, particularly the universal moral choices that transcend the normally starkly demarcated boundaries of first, second and third worlds, are like that manuscript. They will be, whether of good moments of neat penmanship or weaker moments rife with error, with us in this life for the long term.  My hope for myself is that from here on out I choose wisely, I act thoughtfully, and I remember my past, lest the mistakes I have made before be repeated; let whatever parallel in my own life there may be for the river “Thibrym” not be repeated that way.  Let me live delicately, thoughtfully, and let me make choices that inform my present in a positive way. And based on my experience of this delightful town known as Wolfenbüttel, I extend that very hope to you.

wolfenbuettel square

P.S. To all my readers, because I am traveling, next week’s blog will not post until Sunday.

[1] https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-global-poverty


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: Time

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

John Milton
John Milton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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