Tag Archives: World War II

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Handshake

handshakeYou may not know it but, when you shake someone’s hand, you are connecting with that person in a close and particular way and you are, as it were, touching with your own hand the embodiment and tangible representation of that person’s past.

Now I realize that the word “particular” in this opening sentence may sound, to an English speaker, vague. “Particular,” someone might say, “how so?” The response to that statement is, in many cases, something you can learn only over many years. I did a few days ago in Italy, in Farfa to be specific.

Farfa abbey courtyard
Courtyard of the Abbazia Benedittina di Santa Maria di Farfa

Farfa is not your typical tourist destination. It’s most enduring claim to fame is a monastery founded by a hermit known as Lawrence of Syria. That structure served for   years, as monasteries often do, as the principal school for the surrounding towns of Montefalcone, Salisone, and Castel San Pietro. Young children would walk over the hillsides from tFarfa streethese hamlets for miles to go to school there at the Abbazia Benedittina, to learn and, if they were lucky, to graduate from the fifth or sixth grade with what is, by modern standards, perhaps the level of eighth grade learning in the current (often too tepid) American educational system.

Fabio’s grandmother had been one of those schoolchildren, and he told me of her studying there in the very courtyard in which we were standing. The abbey chapel, still his family’s church, was also that of her family, a family which had to walk miles to church every Sunday from their countryside village as she did for her schooling. His grandfather came from another village not far away, and that selfsame grandfather was baptized as a baby near the turn of the century (nineteenth to twentieth) by Beato Placido Riccardi, O.S.B., then rector of Farfa, whose remains are on display in a glass-case reliquary in the church. He was eventually succeeded by the also beatified Ildefonso Schuster, an Italian with a Germanic name who welcomed, at first, the dawn of fascism in Italy[1] and was even

Beato
Beato Placido Riccardi O.S.B.

enthusiastic about the decision of the Italian state to invade Ethiopia, likening Mussolini to Caesar Augustus and seeing the invasion itself as an opportunity to bring the gospel to that nation.[2] (Perhaps he was unaware that Ethiopia, thanks to St. Phiip’s teaching in a chariot, is uniquely the oldest primarily Christian nation). Yet this dubiously beatified figure nonetheless did do the world the favor of writing a 447-page history of the Farfa abbey published in 1921.

 

Fabio’s grandfather was the personal adjutant of Rev. Schuster’s successor, working side by side with him during some of the most difficult years of the Second World War. While Schuster only eventually realized that Mussolini was not going to be a great leader and that fascism provided no real antidote to the world’s ills—the location of a concentration camp nearby the abbey may have been all the evidence he needed—his successor at the abbey proved a gentler man and, though he was never beatified, by Fabio’s account he even resisted the Nazis and Italian fascists.

Fabbio and family
Fabio and his family

Indeed, some of those held in the concentration camp escaped, in part through the agency of local folks like Fabio’s grandfather, who would give them food at night when those refugees slept in the fields. The food the Jews received and the access to the peasants’ land helped them for a time as they hid from the Nazis who were seeking to incarcerate them—particularly Jews of Serbian or Croatian descent, as Fabio recalled it—in the nearby concentration camp that marred the rolling Sabine hills, which lovingly encompass, like the great arms of God, the hamlet and abbey of Farfa.

Sabine hills
Sabine Hills

All this history, all this pain, struggle, sadness and finally joy at the destruction of the camp by the allies, with the help of those very locals, began with a mere handshake in 1979 when I met a very young version of Fabio on a bus in Rome. Now, all these years later, I visited his family homestead, his meager “fabbrica” on which is situated a modest but grand, in terms of its view, manor. I felt I had come upon the Corycian gardiner, though upgraded to modern times. There his lovely wife prepared a spectacular Italian luncheon—the primo of homemade pasta, secondo of both veal and chicken, a tasty insalata, an Italian tort for dessert, and then the treat of meeting his younger daughter, the great-granddaughter of his mother’s father, who had helped the fleeing Jews during the great war.

The next time I shake Fabio’s hand, I shall think of all this: his grandmother’s education and the courage of his grandfather, who had been baptized by Beato Placido; the slow learning curve of Father Schuster; the untold stories of the Jews who escaped; the tragic tale of those who did not. And the next time I shake your hand, I shall try to be ready to hear your story, for I learned from Fabio some 40 years ago, it all can so easily begin with a mere, but quite particular, handshake.Farfa church view 2

Farfa church

 

 

 

 

[1] Cf. e.g. http://es.catholic.net/op/articulos/61702/alfredo-ildefonso-schuster-beato.html.

[2] http://archive.thetablet.co.uk/article/25th-january-1997/14/doubts-about-schuster.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Christmas Yard (part 3, A Christmastime Judgment)

Christmas yardIt was a dark evening, cold, overcast. In Christmas Yard Presbyterian Church, a single room, well in the back of the edifice, beyond the apse that lay behind the altar, glowed not with Christmas décor but with lights that would better befit a courtroom. There, the elders of the church sat in a semi-circle and pursed their lips as the head elder paced back and forth in front of Reverend Griffith who was seated on a chair in the middle of the semi-circle. What did he think he was doing? Had he gone to the home of a black man? What exactly was he doing there? They didn’t want people like that in their church. And to the house of a Jap?gavel

“Don’t you know that we’re at war with the Japs?”

“The Pínqióng family is not Japanese. They are Chinese.”

“It is no different,” Iawn Angharedig, the head elder said, “These are troubled times. I heard you went to see Germans, too. Whose side are you on?”

“I’m not on a side, Mr. Angharedig.”

“Not on a side? Reverend, we are at war. Everyone is on a side.”

“Then I am on God’s side.”

“Is that why you went to a brothel? And you took a little boy with you, a Jew?” he snarled. ”And you visited the mother, too, a Jewess? And you brought them Kosher food? Did you use church funds for that?” All was not well in Christmas Yard.

It was not a matter of weeks but merely days until Reverend Griffith was shown the door of that church. Years passed. Mr. Umaskini eventually had a hard time walking, though well into his old age he stayed rent-free in the house that Foramen Acus owned, frequently visited and supplied with food by the former reverend Hugh Griffith and by a young pastor fresh from seminary, who preached not in the Yard but at a church under the table. The Pínqióng family was not detained in the Japanese internment camps that President Roosevelt created during the Second World War because that family was, in fact, not Japanese. Mrs. Llymder never remarried; she died a widow, but like the Pínqióng family and the Armut family, she had begun going to church, and therefore at least had a proper funeral.

Yet though Reverend Griffith had done her funeral, the church under the table was not a parish whose reverend was named Griffith. It was not a church with a steeple or stained glass windows or a rectory. It met in a large building outside of Christmas Yard. That building in fact was freshly refurbished. It was a place, under the table, where unwed mothers had been going for years. Yet, though it still served that clientele, it was no longer dilapidated and the church met there on Sundays. It had been refurbished plentifully by Foramen Acus, at his personal expense. That church’s young pastor’s name was a funny one, for he had a Jewish surname, but nearly everyone just called him David.

“Guten morning, Reverend Goldstein,” said the last holdout on formality, Mr. Ganz Armut. Even Mrs. Armut called David by his first name, though the Armut grandchildren, all seven of them, called him “Reverend David.” “It vas a gut zermon, ‘dis day,” Mr. Armut added, which phrase he pronounced with a thick German accent, thick though he had lived in Christmas Yard for nearly three decades. “A gut vun for zhe holiday. I like vat you say about Hanukah in your zermon, zu, und Christians needing zu love everyone, Jew und gentile both. Also, Merry Christmas, Reverend!” (Though by “also” Mr. Armut meant, “anyhow”, as Germans do when they use the word and pronounce it “alzo”—not “additionally” as an English speaker uses it.)

The last one out of the room that was designated as the chapel was Hugh Griffith, erstwhile pastor, now parishioner, though he sometimes would give a sermon when David needed a week off. He was late coming out because he was hanging signs on the bulletin board about the Pínqióng caroling event to be held in Christmas Yard. The caroling gang would depart from the Pínqióng family home—no longer crowded with children, though during the holiday it was brimming with life, as their children had by now their own children. Thence would they proceed singing hither and thither, all around the Yard. Reverend Griffith, who had been unmarried until he was in his forties, had no children of his own, though he thought of David as his son, as Joseph must have the King of Kings. Legally, in any case, David was, by then, Hugh’s stepson, for Mrs. Goldstein had become, a few years before, Mrs. Griffith.

Foramen Acus bestrode the Griffiths as he left the church about the same time, and they all made the long walk back to Christmas Yard. “Merry Christmas!” he said, “I am looking forward to caroling with the Pínqióng family next week. Lord knows, some of the folks in the Yard need to heed the words of those good songs of Christmas.”

“Indeed, we are, too, “Mrs. Griffith said glancing at Hugh, whom people now thought of more as “Hugh” than as “Reverend Griffith.” She then added, “Thank you for all you do for this church, Acus.”

“It’s my pleasure; God has blessed me with plenty of money,” Foramen Acus responded, and then added, “As you know, the good book says, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. …’

Charles Appleton Longfellow, hymnwriter
Charles Appleton Longfellow, hymnwriter

Thus did they carry on for the twenty minute trek back to the Yard, until, en route, as if to practice for the Pínqióng caroling, they sang a carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” putting a little extra emphasis on the final stanza.

*   *   *

Elaine’s story ended. I said to her, “Thank you, Mom. It was a good story, but do things like that happen in real life? Do folks really care about people like Reverend Griffith, and do stories really work out so that kids without dads, like me, in the end get dads like Reverend Griffith?”

“Well,” Elaine added, “David never had Reverend Griffith as a dad until he had grown up. And, remember, Reverend Griffith lost his job. And nobody cared for the Armut family because they were Germans, or the Pínqióngs because they perceived them to be Japanese.”

“No, I know, it must have been hard.” But then I added, “But it all worked out in the end, didn’t it?”

“Yes, it did, dear,” Elaine said, and she added, “And it will for us, too.”

If, dear reader, you wish to know how it worked out for Elaine, who in many ways was the Mrs. Goldstein of the story, you will need to read the Curious Autobiography. It’s not quite as sentimental (dare I even say sappy?) as Elaine’s story of the Christmas Yard, but you’ll recognize at least one of the characters, for the Reverend Hugh Griffith shows up there, too.

In the meantime, until you read that book or this blog again, Merry Christmas. May you hear the bells on Christmas day, and may they mean as much to you as they came to mean to the Pínqióng family, Foramen Acus, and the Armut family. “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men.”

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: A Prayer for Paris

… Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy:
when I fall, I shall arise;
when I sit in darkness,
the Lord shall be a light unto me.
—Micah 7:8

This week’s blog was to be about gratefulness and thanksgiving for seeing an old friend in Rome and making a new one in Paris. But that will have to wait. Now Paris has come under attack, and those of us who care, which I hope are most of us, are caught in a swirl of thoughts and emotions about a city that most have never visited.

Nevertheless, I have a feeling that somehow we know Paris, even if we have never had an occasion to be there. Those of us old enough to have grown up after World War II recall pictures, mostly black and white (e.g., in Look magazine), when we were kids, as Paris, like London and other cities that sought to recover from the Second World War, was being rebuilt and restructured. We think of the liberation of Paris in late August of 1944, when the Germans surrendered the city and retreated. liberation of Paris

American in ParisIf we should happen to be a bit younger, we might know Paris through film. Perhaps we’ve watched Singing in the Rain or been to a production of “An American in Paris” (or seen the movie) and can easily recognize Gershwin’s familiar tune. Paris is, and for most of us always has been, a place that represents something much more important than most big cities. It symbolizes and brings together style, frivolity, the power of art, history, romance, and beauty—in essence, all of Europe’s splendor and charm—in a single place. It is the place that by its very nature betokens a free society, where art and literature can flourish, where stamp collectors can wander through vendor booths along the banks of the Seine, where the name of a gothic cathedral can serve as a declaration not only for the most important female figure in Christendom, but also for the city, serving as a maternal figure for its country and perhaps the world: Notre Dame, Our Lady.Notre Dame

I took the picture you see here just a week ago when I was in Paris. I was there to meet a friend of a friend who was to help me with a large project I was working on in French. Maria and I struck up an immediate friendship, one that I hope and imagine will last for some years to come. And that is why I wrote to her immediately when I saw the news about Paris yesterday. My heart went out to her and to all Parisians for their immediate dire circumstance. I am glad to say that Maria was unharmed and is safely out of Paris now. But the fact remains, she could have been killed, and I, perhaps the most recent of her friends, would have been heartbroken; if I, how much more her parents and longer-term friends, teachers, colleagues?

And our heart goes out to all those whom we have not known, too, and it must. For the lives affected there are real lives. Real families are devastated. Even as I write this, in Paris some mother is lying on her bed sobbing (or a father on his knees crying out to God) because her only child was killed in a theater or a restaurant, simply because he or she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if we have a child, we can feel with that person, we can sympathize and we pray that our heartfelt sympathy will pneumatically comfort that mother or father across the miles, by some miracle of the wind blowing wherever it pleases. May it please that Wind to bring comfort now to those in need.

Someone might say the decadence of the West has brought this upon itself. And they would be wrong. I am not here saying that the West does not have its fair share of decadence. But no one in that restaurant was especially decadent. They were just people eating dinner. The problem with any argument that blames the victims is that it is patently facile. I can recall in the early 1980s certain Christians, some of them friends of mine, saying that the AIDS epidemic was God’s punishment upon those who engaged in dangerous sexual liaisons. But little hemophiliac children who needed blood transfusions were also dying of AIDS. The only way such an argument could work is to say that God is inaccurate in doling out his punishment; He cares less about collateral damage than might a general in the armed forces. But generals do care very much about collateral damage, and if a human being cares, how much more the Divine.

Rather than blame the West for its excess, I propose that we look for a moment at the human heart and ask ourselves a more relevant question: why do we hate anyone? By “we” I don’t mean we in the general detached sense of “mankind” but in the particular sense of you and me. I mean, in fact, why do I hate anyone. So I will start with me, and I will put the blame on the Paris attacks where it really belongs, on me as a human being, not necessarily me alone.

What is it about me that makes me hate my neighbor? I have spent the last 35 or so years trying very hard not to hate. Anyone who happens to have read the Curious Autobiography knows why. If you’ve read Augustine’s Confessions, you know what happens to Augustine in the eighth book. If you’ve read the Curious Autobiography, you can find in the tenth chapter an account of something similar. With all due respect to Daniel Burke, I believe—rather I know—that there can come a point in some people’s lives where they (decide to?) turn in another direction. Or perhaps they are turned, but I leave that subject aside; I can only say that, after chapter 10, I now want to try not to hate any longer.

Yet I admit that I have not been entirely successful. It is difficult to look in the face of evil on September 11, 2001 or November 13, 2015 or October 26, 2015 (if that is the correct date), or countless other dates these days, when innocents die in any number. We live in a cruel world, becoming crueler by the second. Fewer and fewer folks are going to church, though world religions in general are not shrinking. In the east and now in much of the west, religion is thriving, but it is not Christianity. To quote a recent article, “Muslims … in the second half of this century, will likely surpass Christians as the world’s largest religious group.”[1] While that article attributes the principal reason for Islam’s expected growth to “simple demographics” (i.e., Muslims will have significantly more children than other folks), it seems to me that there may be another reason, one derived from doctrine, that might speak to the growth of that religion: that, in Islam, works count toward salvation. But, though that can explain a lot and even give us, perhaps, some insight into the motivations of the suicide bombers in Paris, I leave that aside.

And I do so because we need to look into our own hearts, not those of others, to come to grips with what has happened in Paris. If we are capable of hating—even retributively—we must realize that others are, as well. We must understand that the blame for what happened in Paris falls on us all. It certainly falls on me. I have indulged in hatred, for whatever reason, many times since chapter 10. I am therefore as much a part of the problem as anyone else, including the terrorist himself.

Yet just because we are all to blame, does not imply that the response to injustice should be tepid. On this earth, people have been establishing justice through due process in the West since well before 458 BC, when AeschylusOresteia dramatizes the beauty of civic justice; in the East, 356 BC, under Duke Xiao of Qin. France’s president, François Hollande, has stated that the response will be severe . President Obama has said that America stands shoulder to shoulder with the French.

I close with this thought, one for myself, but perhaps for us all. I shall not hate the terrorists. Yet that does not imply a lack of resolve. I shall not indulge in execration. Rather, I shall pity them in my thoughts and lavish mercy on them in my prayers. Will that make a difference? Will it make God any “happier” with me? To the former, I hope yes; to the latter, I can only say that I think Milton is right when he says, “God doth not need man’s work or his own gifts.”[2] As for me, I hope to hold mercy in my heart even as I pray for stark justice in this world. That is my hope, my recipe for this week: Seek justice, love mercy.[3]  Bon courage, mes amis à Paris. Be safe, Maria …

Love Paris? click here

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Recipe for 13 November 2015: Hope for Paris, and us allwelsh spoon

 

Ingredients (serves one [at a time]):

One part mercy, one part justice, and a cup water from the well alluded to below. Mix with a Welsh love spoon thoroughly, and live. Failure to blend ingredients will produce less than desirable results. Failure to care about your neighbor at all will produce death; probably has already. As with another recipe, bake at 365 days a year; eat while still warm, and walk humbly.

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

—Micah 6:7-8

 

[1] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/#beyond-the-year-2050.

[2] “On His Blindness.”

[3] Micah 6:8.

 

Commonplace Thoughts of Residual Welshman: Halloween, Soul Cakes, and Parody

— Why, how know you that I am in love?

— Marry, by these special marks: first, you have
learned, like Sir Proteus, to wreathe your arms,
like a malecontent; to relish a love-song, like a
robin-redbreast; to walk alone, like one that had
the pestilence; to sigh, like a school-boy that had
lost his A B C; to weep, like a young wench that had buried her grandam; to fast, like one that takes diet; to watch like one that fears robbing; to
speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas.
Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona, ii.1


This is, quite literally, a Halloween blog since this evening is Halloween. It is in the recipe series, which as a regular feature will end just after Thanksgiving, though the blog may include a few Christmas holiday recipes, too, and possibly, given the polyethnic background of its author, a Hanukkah recipe, as well.

But today’s recipe shall, after all, befit Halloween, as this is an old holiday, alluded to even in the quote from Shakespeare cited above. Like Christmas Eve, which is not the evening of Christmas day but the evening before Christmas day, thus All Hallows Eve, of which Halloween is merely a contraction, is not the night of All Hallows’ (=Saints’) Day, but the night before. And, because this (no doubt syncretized) Christian holiday is the one that looks back primarily upon the dead, it is associated with every possible view of dead folks, including the popular ideas about zombies, ghosts, fairies, and phantasms. As to the autheticity of real fairies or real ghosts, well, you can see some other blogs, such as those about fairies and hobs, the ghost of New Hope, or eve the hungry and quixotic ghost of Sulmona. Those accounts aply befit today’s occasion.

Halloween, as I was saying looks back: Christmas, like Pentecost, looks to the very present idea of God incarnate. Easter obviously looks forward to resurrection. But I leave this cursory present-past-future schematization of the Christian calendar aside. Instead I turn to what Halloween has become: a parody. This is not a bad thing, as parodies are often funny, which is why children in particular enjoy Halloween so much. And they like the treats.

The idea of trick or treating derives most likely from the European fifteenth-century (and later) custom of “souling,” which involved the baking and sharing of soul cakes (the original “soul food”). The cakes were an expression of thanks for prayers for the dead, which, presumably corrupted by the natural selfish inclinations of humankind (in this case, the English and the Irish), swiftly degenerated into a demand for a cake in exchange for the souls of the dead (or at least a prayer for them).[1] The costumes were representations, therefore, of the dead—they were thus originally all ghosts, and the infamous seasonal jack-o-lantern pumpkin face was meant to represent the face of a ghost.[2]

Perhaps the oddest "political" t-shirt ever. For a less frightening t-shirt, see below.
Perhaps the oddest “political” t-shirt ever. For a less frightening t-shirt, see below.

While nowadays a jack-o-lantern can be carved as a frightening work of art to represent a popular figure and even wind up on t-shirts, pumpkins were originally but crudely carved, and thus a bit frightening.

The idea of the candlelight in the pumpkin was to offer illuminations for the dead whereby to guide them on their journey after death.[3] Are such lights today meant to offer a guide for the living? The prospect may be as frightening to some—and I don’t mean because jack-o-lanterns are apparently responsible for global warming—as the idea of the jack-o-lantern must have been in medieval times.

A modern-day jack-o-lantern: frightening or funny?
A modern-day jack-o-lantern: frightening or funny?

Which brings us back to the essential idea, as I was saying at the outset, that Halloween is a parody, and that’s why kids love it so. Thus was I thinking; and then there occurred to me one possible reason why adults nowadays seem to be liking it more and more, too. Perhaps it is because we ever seek more parody in our lives. And then I wondered why we crave parody, why the snarkier the better seems to be the trend now in American humor, American politics, and America in general.

Janet sporting a Curious Autobiography T-shirt
A great present for the holidays. All proceeds go to charity.

 

Before you start thinking my view is simply archaic, consider this. If you are old enough to recall the 1980s, you must surely realize—one can easily see it from watching re-runs on the cable re-run channel—that pervasive snarkiness is something really new. And the reason I think that is so, is because American life has become a parody of itself. We are living in a parody of what was once the norm. Our new normal (which is swiftly becoming the new “norml”) is an America that our grandparents (at least my grandparents) would not have recognized, were they alive today. They would be appalled at the level of sensuality/sexual innuendo/bad words on television. They wouldn’t understand the new world order of politically correct speech. They would be confused as to why a football coach could be fired for saying a prayer. They wouldn’t understand why a baker had to bake a cake or face the possibility of paying $150,000 in fines. In other words, they would see today a parody of America rather than the America that had liberated Europe and defeated the Axis powers in the Second World War, the war they lived and worried and prayed through, and had subsequently stood for democracy against the USSR, sometimes virtually alone,[4] in a world that often refused to welcome the democratic form of government, imperfect yes, yet inasmuch as it represents all constituents, optimal. A world where Halloween was primarily a children’s holiday, a world in which archaic hymns of the ancient creeds of the church were still taken seriously.

Charlie Brown Great PumpkinIf the last paragraph sounds too Chestertonian, keep in mind that Halloween is the holiday that looks back, and that’s what the preceding paragraph does. But now, let’s close by looking for a recipe. It’s a simple one that gives us a taste of bygone Halloweens, for it is simply the Halloween cakes (soul cakes?) of Elaine Jakes. Some are ghosts, some jack-o-lanterns. She never used a cookie cutter for them, so they were always sort of clumpy and lumpy (as depicted below). She used food coloring for the toppings, but our recipe avoids that because nowadays so many folks have allergic reactions to them (and anyhow they’re not good for you). So, if you like baking cookies, enjoy. And enjoy the parody that Halloween affords, even if it is a reminder to you of the parody of our own modern days. Maybe, like children, we will eventually outgrow, to some extent, the parody of our modern times. Yet, even if we don’t, perhaps, if only indirectly and imprecisely, we can find personal spiritual solace in this dark world and wide, discovering our own burning candles to guide our souls on the way, no matter whose face winds up on the great American pumpkin. Now that’s a parody that’s worth recalling this Halloween, the Great Pumpkin. Thank you for your legacy, Charles Schultz.

Elaine's Halloween Cookies

[1] Margo DeMello, Faces Around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia of the Human Face (Santa Barbara, 2012), 167.

[2] N. Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (Oxford, 2002), 37f.

[3] J. Santino (ed.), Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life (Knoxville, 1994), 95f.

[4] Coates, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Politics (Oxford, 2012), 289.

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Treasure Box

This week I was doing in late August what many of us do in the springtime; I was going through a closet, cleaning out a box or two that need to be cleaned out I admit that I did not get very far. The reason for that is I did the other thing that most of us, or at least many of us do: I slowed down to think about what I was doing. I paid attention to each object I extracted from the box. Some were pens that no longer write—one in particular stood out. There was a stickpin flag, a toy soldier, a napkin with a bible verse and a date written on it in my grandmother’s handwriting. These objects retarded my progress in cleaning out the box, indeed they prevented me from doing it at all, for I treasured all that I found.

“But of course you did not finish your task,” you might think, if you’re familiar with the Curious Autobiography, “You’re Welsh, wallgof (‘kooky’) man, and I know from that book (and perhaps from knowing Welsh folk) that the Welsh are known, among other things, for sentimentalism.” I don’t mean to coopt your speech or thought, but rather I merely state this much as a point of full disclosure before perusing with you the objects of the box and distilling together their importance, their value.

pencil caseAs I peered into this box—itself quite old, well tattered on the edges, and (from its appearance at least) no treasure box—it donned on me fairly early on that Welsh nostalgia might just kick in. It did, of course. It began with the aforementioned pen. That instrument was preserved in an old zipper case that had printed upon it the words, “Pocmont Lodge, Bushkill Pa,” no doubt a souvenir that my mother, Elaine had picked up on a childhood family vacation in the Poconos. Though the pen no longer wrote—nowadays a refill for this particular kind of pen would be nigh impossible to find—the pen and its case nevertheless presented themselves to me as objects of beauty. Like Elaine once did, her pen had written what it had to say, having poured out all of its ink in the pursuit of storytelling. In the case of Elaine’s pen, such storytelling was a frequent occurrence. The pen’s value lies, therefore, in its enabling her story, its facilitation of a story’s significance, which, in a nutshell, in the Curious Autobiography is a journey home not to a physical place but a spiritual one—a home that is more real than the house she grew up in on Rutter Avenue and lasts forever.

Poconos MountainsThe flag pin belonged to Harry, her father. It had in days gone by been displayed on his lapel, once ogled by little children who felt deep in their souls the patriotism of that period of time immediately after the Second World War. As I beheld it, I could hear the big bass drum of a marching band passing by that played the national anthem in a grand celebratory parade. So I imagined. Those years long ago were not merely a season of patriotism; they were a time when Americans knew that an evil force had been eradicated and hoped vainly that an evil and racist ideology had died with it. Sadly, evil ideology is alive and well, and about racism, unfortunately I hardly need comment. Like the pen, the flag pin continued and still continues to tell its story, symbolizing in a single object a narrative much more important than itself, the constant struggle for America to be a better nation than it is.

lead toy soldierThe toy soldier told the same story but from a strikingly different point of view. Wrought of lead, so not up to modern child-safety standards, it had been my own toy soldier, though it was manufactured, I surmise, many years before the day it was given to me as a gift when I was a lad. My guess is that it dates to the 1940s. This tiny figurine was the model of a World War II American fighter who stands fast, gun in hand. “He seems to be facing battle,” I thought as I turned his tiny, paint-chipped clad figure about between in my right hand. “Would he approve of our wars today?” I mused, recalling having reenacted in playtime as a child many a fictional World War II battle with this fellow. How much have things changed. What does this little man who defies time, stuck as he is for years at a stretch in a closet, think of the modern world each time he is yanked out of his foxhole-like box to see the light of day again? Would he stand and fight for the current iteration of America? I hope so, as I had always fancied him a hero.

clothFinally there was a napkin, or rather a slip of cloth, possibly cut with rounded pinking shears, a term that itself has a rather archaic ring, upon which my grandmother had written—for to this day do I know her handwriting—a bible verse: “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.” Now my thinking slowed down to a crawl. I ruminated, “Does this verse mean anything to anyone anymore? Who gets it anymore?” I wondered, “Who cares these days about living a ‘godly’ life, dwelling in the house of the Lord? Isn’t everyone in it for themselves, for what they can get? Yet perhaps,” my thoughts wandered on, “just perhaps, the final thought about beholding the beauty of the Lord might still wake us up from our collective slumber. Might we care to seek after the beauty of God?”

These were some of the valuables in this box. The pen was from a time when each person’s life was a story that touched upon other people’s stories, when you might still find your way home. The flag pin suggested to me a country united, where one could rely upon one’s sweet neighbor for a cup of sugar, and where one did not “friend” an electronic face but might befriend a stranger in need. The toy soldier represents what I hope it still does, a hero, perhaps not so easy to find anymore, though in recent days, three such heroes or so showed up on a French train and thwarted a radicalized terrorist; such heroism is rare. And finally the slip of material. It is cut from a very different cloth than one usually finds, and it bears a very different message than the political correctness of today’s world. Like the first object, it points homeward, to a place where virtue is alive and well, abiding in heroes’ hearts.

In that box I found four objects far more valuable than merely “valuable,” for they are bearers, each in their own way, of a world, if bygone, still worthy of emulation. They were once perhaps normal patches of this country’s tapestry. “Was each person’s story happy in those days, was it then a perfect world? Were there not sad, profoundly tragic moments then?” someone might ask. Most assuredly there were. Yet every individual, or at least many more than do today, saw their life, their story as a part of a grander narrative, a narrative that made up a community, a country, a world, in a universe in which God gives meaning to each person’s life.

These objects have significance because they represent values. Their value is not the kind one might find on Antiques Roadshow. Their values are transcendent: a story, an anthem, a hero, and God on a napkin. I did not put aside the objects in the box to mourn the loss of those values and virtues in this dark world. Rather, I put them up to write this, for those values are not gone; they abide in the hearts of those who take time to look within the treasure box.

 

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

view of Hermann, MO
Hermann, MO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Wallace at Hermannhof Winery
William Wallace at Hermannhof Winery

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

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

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

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