One might expect a blog with this title to appear around Valentine’s Day. The next major holiday, in any case, is Mother’s Day, and that’s not usually a “romantic” day—except for Oedipus, I suppose, poor fellow. Yet Mother’s Day could be romantic for the husband of the mother, that is to say the man married to the Mother of the House, for there is something quite admirable and even, I think, a bit romantic about being married to someone who has dedicated her life to being a mother.
I imagine my own wife that way—she is and will always be beautiful to me in no small part because of her unswerving dedication to our children and the family that she essentially supervises. And I would marry her all over again, if I could. And, you know, I think that’s at least a little romantic.
The word romantic nowadays would sometimes seem to have taken on a meaning quite different than what I have proposed here. In the news I recently stumbled upon an article about an actress named Anna Faris. I only mention her particular point of view because I think it is emblematic of a wider trend, not because I dislike Anna Faris—I actually have no idea who she is as I don’t watch television—but I did read that she is, perhaps ironically so, the star of a show called “Mom,” which seems apropos as we are leading up to Mother’s Day quite soon (May 13).
Anna Faris’ use of the word romantic struck me because it seemed to me off the mark, and at any rate certainly contrasts sharply with what I wrote above. In an interview of her by Erin Donnelly from a March 28th publication, Ms. Faris is quoted as having said that she is seeking to “figure out what the purpose” is of marriage is.
“Is it safety for your children? Is it convention? Is it so other people respect your relationship more? For me, I’m just not quite sure where it fits.”
But she did not end her comments there, and this is the bit that truly jumped out at me:
“I am a romantic,” she added. “I believe in a partnership, I believe in companionship. I just don’t know if I believe in a ceremony of a wedding. You’d think that having successfully married parents would increase your odds. But how we’ve justified it is trying to make something work when we weren’t sort of picking up the clues. For me, it was sort of checking it off the list.”
It is most certainly not the case that I am offended by Ms. Faris’ remarks, which for all their lack of cohesion, nonetheless make it abundantly clear that she is highly ambivalent about the institution of marriage. Rather, I just found the bit about how she is “romantic” to be rather incongruous. Isn’t romance something meant to last? Isn’t the whole idea of a romantic movie about finding a special someone with whom you can build a lasting relationship—one that will last “forever”—someone you can ride off into the sunset with, have children with, struggle through hunger, cold, and disease with, and still love at the other end of the journey. But maybe I’ve missed something. Maybe the meaning of the word romantic was transformed along the way into temporary or ephemeral or exciting but not enduring. Or maybe it just needs a qualifying adjective like “curable” in front of it. If there is an incurable romantic, surely there could be a curable one.
Yet I’ll bet even in this modern, frenetically paced, and often all-too-dispensable age in which we live, the word still has its traditional meaning. I think that for the person who is “a romantic” the notion of finding that special person still abides. That amatory affliction would, to my mind, be the incurable type, and that is how even Mother’s Day can be romantic.
Happy Mother’s Day to my wife and to all mothers. May you suffer the affliction of love, as Ovid might put it. I hope it turns out to be an incurable case.
There are two kinds of people in this world, those who prefer funerals and those who prefer weddings. Now before you mutter to yourself, “That’s ridiculous, who would prefer a funeral?” let me explain. No one is happy when someone dies, and I’m not suggesting that that aspect of a funeral is good or attractive. And, in particular, when someone dies young, well, of course, there is nothing good about a life cut short. It is heart rending to read about, heart rending to watch the video clip of the husband being interviewed as he buys flowers for his wife’s funeral. No, nothing good here; just grief.
But there are other kinds of funerals, those that record a hopefully long and faithful life well spent, well lived. And attending such a funeral is, to my mind, somehow more satisfying than attending a wedding. The reason for that is because the funeral of such a person chronicles something that has happened. It is therefore first a kind of historical record. Now, in many cases, of course, that record is largely sentimental, and when it is, it shares certain characteristics with a wedding, which is often largely a sentimental occasion.
What I mean by sentimental occasion is one steeped in emotion. Not that there’s anything wrong with emotion or sentimentality. The VE and VJ days are for elderly veterans and were once for our entire country sentimental occasions. And there is every reason that they should be, for a victory over evil is a really big deal; I intend no offense if you happen to be Japanese or German or of a family descended from either nationality. What I mean is the political regimes that were in power at the time and mustered those nations to war were basically evil. Thus, the American victory over those powers was one over evil. (N.b. I did not say “a victory of good over evil”; I simply said “a victory over evil,” but yes, I would say, in the worldly scheme of things, that victory was one of good over evil.)
What does that have to do with a faithful life well led? Well, there is a sense that a faithful life—truly faithful to God, country, and family (and, yes, in that order) and within the last of these categories, to spouse, and then children, and then extended family (again, yes, in that order)—even if that life were not as long as one might have like to have seen, is a victory over evil. It’s much smaller, of course, than a whole country’s victory, which probably explains why there are not people cheering from the windows as the hearse and the motorcade pass by, and the lack of tickertape, as well. But the kind of life I allude to here might be well worthy of such acknowledgment and only fails to receive it, I suppose, because we are so used to the appropriateness of somber expressions at funerals. May this blog, if only pro tempore, be just that, and I pray my departed faithful friends can hear me cheering them now.
I know what you’re thinking—“Talk about sentimentality!” And you’re right, of course. But to get back to that well led life: might not the funeral itself be an account for posterity of a victory over evil? Such a victory, though it may evoke it, certainly doesn’t always require sentiment. Rather, it requires only a tacit acknowledgment, a final tip of the hat, a prayer of thanksgiving, and the satisfaction of knowing that that person is at rest now in God’s arms.
A wedding, on the other hand, well, that’s a much dicier affair. According to a recent article by Christopher Ingraham in the Washington Post in which a new study is distilled for the less-than-conversant-with-sociological-ease audience, “the age-standardized divorce rate has actually risen by an astonishing 40 percent. . . .”
That is not exactly a sea change, but it is a very significant uptick and it’s actually a bit more frightening because, as the author intimates, so many young couples now cohabit instead of ever getting married, even if they have children. Yet those folks break up at an alarming rate, too, and that’s an unreported statistic, which means that when we consider the profound recent increase in the divorce rate much of it must be attributed to what is now called “gray divorce,” which is, indeed, at a higher rate than ever before, as another Washington Post article, this one by Brigid Schulte, reveals. Even the statistics cited in that article—i.e., that gray divorce rates have more than doubled since 1990—obscure the kinds of arrangements as those that the author playfully calls “‘Irish Divorce’: two people living separate lives and in all ways strangers, disconnected from each other, sharing only an unhappy past and a pair of wedding rings.” So, when I go to a wedding, I can’t help but think, “Well, I hope it lasts—most don’t.” And I’m not wrong, statistically speaking at least.
Yet perhaps it’s not as bad as all that, for I went to a Greek Orthodox wedding today. No, it was not the daughter that I wrote about in last week’s blog. Rather, it was a dear friend, a widower, who is remarrying. And the solemnity of that service revealed to me why I don’t like weddings, for I actually liked this one. It’s not weddings that I don’t like, I concluded: it is their usual lack of solemnity. The Greek Orthodox service had solemnity, and it had it is spades. There was the lengthy blessing of the rings, the threefold touching of them to the heads of the couple. Then there was the connection of the couple by crowns, and the tripartite blessing of the crowns, which were also touched to the couple’s foreheads. Then, after the crowning, the wedding dance, which was essentially the couple following the priest three times around the sacramental table while the priest sang beautiful religious songs about the saints who had gone before, particularly the martyrs. There was the union of the couple not simply by candles and hand holding, but by the administration to them of the sacrament of communion. There was a detailed scripture reading and an exquisite review and contextualization of the wedding at Cana. “Wow, if every wedding were like this,” I thought to myself, “I might like weddings again.”
“And why did you like this kind of wedding so much?” you may well wonder, especially because I’m not a particularly religious fellow. (I’m what my friends call “low church,” and I corrupt the youth by playing the rock-and-roll drums for an obviously somewhat progressive church service.) I think I know: it is because this wedding was the proclamation—admittedly a hopeful one, not an historical record per se—of good triumphing over evil. The good was instilled through the element of the wine of Cana and was mapped onto the soon to be shared life of that couple through the sacrament of which the couple publicly partook, just after crowns meant to anticipate their heavenly counterparts were placed on their heads. And those crowns were joined by a narrow filament, a delicate bond that might well symbolize faith itself, a band for a bond, a supple ribbon delicately connecting two souls.
Yet if you should attend a funeral, I pray it may be of a friend who has won a victory, even if it happens to be a victory in a life that ended too soon. And, should you go to a wedding, I pray it be something like the one I attended today, the bold proclamation of a victory yet to come on earth that has, nevertheless, already been won in Heaven.
It is often said, “Life is full of …,” and then after a pause, suited to the given situation or conversation, comes another word, more often than not, plural, sometimes preceded by an adjective, sometimes an adjective adverb combination. Among the possibilities are, “widespread suffering,” “stark natural wonders,” “very tragic events” or a combination of antitheses, “ups and downs,” “joy and sorrow” or the like. Now I admit that from time to time it happens that someone simply says, “pain.” But that person would likely be speaking from some kind of personal experience; something difficult might have happened in his or her life to prompt such a pronouncement. And it befits the interlocutor to listen to that person’s account of the pain, as he or she shows empathy. Pathos, indeed, is at the core of human existence.
Yet so is joy. One can, in Aristotelian fashion, divide joy into a great number of categories. One such category could be the mutual sense of it in unexpected pleasures. These communal experiences might consist of surprises, those delicate shavings of time in which one can participate in a different kind of empathy than commiseration. This kind of empathy—where the word’s root pathos connotes experience rather than suffering—is the very kind we shared with Martha somewhere between Mt. Sterling, Owensville, and Hermann, Missouri, the burial place of George Bayer, whose grave I quasi-reverently (thoughtfully, at least) visited while jogging. Martha’s cheese shop is auspiciously named “Cool Cow,” one of whose “girls” was the covercow for an issue of the (perhaps not widely circulated) Sauce magazine.That lovely most certainly off-the-beaten-track cheesery enjoys a contiguous and equally aptly named Bed and Breakfast, “M(artha) and T(om) Farm, LLC.” Tom, the principal cheesemaker, was away from his post, but Diane and I were happy to sample his tasty production at the hands of his wife, Martha, whose smile and piety can fill any room—it certainly did the cheesery whose smell and ambience we enjoyed for a few minutes that afternoon.
“Looks like a storm is coming,” Martha observed, making conversation as she glanced out the window between explanations and samples of Tom’s cheese production, adding “This one is a Havarti.”
“A real type-O cheese,” I observed, of course surreptitiously citing one of the funniest episodes in the Curious Autobiography (“Tea with the Professor,” 120–138).
“This one is a mild Irish-style cheddar,” she added oxymoronically, moving on to the next sample. To these she added several others, all quite nice. Alas, there was no Hên Sîr, but I did not expect as much. I told her that the Hên Sîr had been in our family an unusual symbol of authentic spiritual renewal (Curious Autobiography, 198–205). To this statement, I am glad to say, she did not look as puzzled as I would have expected; but she is married to a cheesemaker, so she might just understand.
Finally, she revealed a cheese developed by an international congress that had met in Greece. I was assuming it would taste sharp and salty, like feta. Yet it did not; it was something more like a combination of Swiss and Gouda. I’d never heard of (what might be called) a diplomacy cheese, but as I ate it I thought, “If there were a cheese that could effect world peace, or at least a long-needed ceasefire, this would be that cheese,” for it was superb. Then I thought, using Welsh logic, “No wonder diplomacy has largely been effective on the European continent ever since the Second Great War.”
The unexpected surprises that Diane and I shared not only with each other but also with those whom we met didn’t end there—there was Kathy at the White Mule Winery whose family had lived near that bend of Highway 50 in Owensville for generations, and the aptly named (if you fancy Mel Gibson films) William Wallace at the Hermannhof Winery and Sausage Shop, the name of which establishment is itself a mouthful. He had connected again with a girl whom he had adored in junior high school and married here—the stuff of a romantic film—and now, as he described his life in Gasconade County along the banks of the gently flowing Missouri River, he lived in paradise. Finally, there was the lovely mead winemaking family consisting of Esther and her son Patrick, chief winemaker of the Martin Brothers Winery, whose concoctions are carefully wrought—quite tasty, worth the drive. His brother Jonathan, founder of the business, was not present, as he was presumably traversing nearby meadows in search of just the right miel for the next mead making.
What I am getting at is this: contrary to the ideas inherent in the preferred means of communication (and of photography) these days, unexpected joys are by and large not “self” things. They require sharing, and sharing builds something that the Italians call il commune. I might have better chosen a German word, inasmuch as Hermann is a thoroughly German burgh; but the German Gemeinschaft does not quite render the Italian. The Italian does not mean “community” per se; it means, rather, a shared cultural experience that might include a sense of Gemeinschaft, and even a shared municipality, but includes something else, as well. It is (of course) less formal than the German, and more fluid. In any case, we shared a moment of il commune with Martha, Esther, William and Kathy.
Yet someone will point out that it is much easier to live life as it comes, just to take things as they are and not bother to go snooping about for such a sense of shared experiences. And, of course, that is possible. It is equally possible to see life as mired in difficulty and thus take a rather gloomy view of things—and here I speak as a residual Welshman who has from time to time himself taken the gloomier view. But when we do that, we can quite easily miss the joy that is there for the discovering, and we shall certainly miss the sense of il commune.
And then there’s marriage, for the reason we took this long trip was to go to a wedding. Now the wedding itself is likely not to have too many unexpected surprises; when a wedding does, it is normally a bad thing. But the life of two people together should be one of that very thing: il commune and with it, the concomitant opportunity for the discovery of unexpected joys. And that is what I wish for that couple as I close this blog: a life of il commune, which one must be intentional about building, and of unexpected delights. I suspect they will do this, for they are special because their very names suggest an apostle and a vine—perhaps they will choose John 15 for their ceremony—and have had their own cheese moments, at least insofar as cheese might serve as a symbol of spiritual renewal. I wish them, too, a perpetual sense of shared discovery.
I have the same hope for a not-so-recently wed Welsh couple, also close friends, who seem to have taken the gloomier view lately. For them, it may be time again to look for the joy in the simple discoveries of life, such as can be found in a young family like their own. That couple must build il commune again. Perhaps cheese can be, for them, too, a symbol of shared spiritual renewal.
May both of these couples, Welsh and un-Welsh alike, share and delight in il commune, and may you, too, dear reader, have the opportunity to do so, as well, as you enjoy a bite of cheese from a perhaps unexpected quarter, remembering that cheese has been known to build domestic and international bridges and, surprisingly, from time to time even effect continental peace.