Monthly Archives: July 2015

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Miracles

I have a friend who has a beloved uncle whom I also know quite well—he might as well be my own uncle. Indeed, he allows me to call him by that familiar title. Yet he does not believe in miracles. I would like to say that it isn’t the case that he doesn’t believe they can happen as much as it is simply that he has never seen one. But, in fact, it is the case that he does not believe they can happen at all.

Now I myself am as skeptical as he is about faith healers on television who ask you to send money for a prayer cloth that they have anointed with some kind of healing oil. I am not sure whether this is just an American phenomenon; perhaps some of you who might be reading this in another country are not familiar with this phenomenon—I mean televised miracle workers, not miracles per se. Yet for those of you who may not know, I can tell you this much: at certain times of the evening in the States you might just flip to a certain television channel and find a certain man (for usually it is a male) who will touch some certain person in a crowd and (likely by some prearranged agreement) that person will throw their crutches aside and begin leaping about on the stage (for usually it is a stage) and declare that they have been healed.

Yet I don’t count such a spectacle as a miracle. Rather, it is precisely a spectacle, something that the (possibly well intentioned, possibly not) Rachel as a babytelevangelist has put together (whether to entertain or, more likely, to obtain donations). This is not a miracle. Instead, I count as a miracle a baby.

I write this on the very date, twenty-three years ago to the day, that a friend of mine had to deliver his own child because the doctor had gone out to have a smoke—I say nothing here about doctors ought knowing better—at the very moment that the child was appearing. My friend told me that he had the unique opportunity of receiving nearly half of his daughter’s body before the nurses came charging in to help. The doctor, in the meantime, was enjoying an unsanctioned rendezvous with the Marlboro man. That, to me, is a miracle—not the smoking doctor, but the daughter, choking, gurgling, gasping for her first breath as she entered rapidly into this world.MARLBORO CIGARETTES POSTER ADVERT, MARLBORO MAN, COWBOY SMOKING

To look closely at a newborn baby is a startling act, for it is to behold a miracle. It is amazing to think that the child has grown so rapidly in the mother’s womb. Indeed, it is more amazing to think that it has grown in another person at all. If you are lucky enough to behold it immediately after birth lying upon its mother’s chest, with tiny grasping hands, its look of new life, and the image of its mother’s love, you will witness perhaps an even greater miracle than the child’s birth. G.K. Chesterton once wrote “… we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. baby grasping handAs IDEAS, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears.”[1] In short, like that of the egg producing a chick, the idea of a human being, a mother, producing a baby is rather fantastic, at least if we suppose for a moment that we had never known how babies came into being. If we are not amazed by this, it is only because we take it for granted.

Now this is not the only kind of miracle that I believe exists, but I do believe that it is particularly miraculous. My friend has never quite gotten over his catching that child as she came into the world; he still talks about it, especially when he waxes nostalgic over a glass of wine and a bite of Swiss cheese, whose holes themselves, too, might just be particularly miraculous; else why would there be at least two theories about the holes in the cheese?).[2]

But beyond the particularly miraculous, the “that’s-amazing-when-you-think-about-it” type of miracle, there are also miracles that are peculiarly miraculous. It is that type that the charlatan televangelist tries but fails to emulate with his smoke and mirrors on television every week. That type is the kind that people all too often crave, about which someone might say, “now if I saw that kind of (peculiar) miracle, I would believe that miracles can happen.” But of course those miracles, indeed any miracles, particular or peculiar, hardly ever appear to those folks. There are two reasons, I suppose, for that.

Stockton Pres ChurchFirst, miracles are, by definition, miraculous. They don’t happen often or they wouldn’t be so. Second, the people about whom I am speaking can’t see the miracles when they’re right in front of them. They miss the particular miracles because they don’t recognize in the face of a baby a mind-boggling sight, a fantasy come alive. Nor would they see, of course, peculiar miracles, nor accept another’s account of them, such as Elaine Jakes catching the scent of cheese in a church in Stockton, NJ, and beginning to go to that church regularly soon after that.[3] Nor would they accept a story, even from a known source, about someone encountering an angel.[4] They may even believe that love is merely a chemical reaction of the brain and that forgiveness is something unachievable, especially in certain egregious circumstances. They might even say there are no such things as truth or justice. And they certainly don’t believe in Superman, or at least the archetype that he represents in the comics.

Surpassing tragic picture from the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Photo by Jorge Láscar

And my dear uncle might say, “Well, for every ‘miracle,’ you produce, I’ll show you ten non-miracles, and worse yet. How do you explain the Holocaust alongside your so-called miracles?” And he would be spot-on right. This is the most vexing question. What he is essentially asking is why children die, why genocide happens, why there is human suffering, why there is such sadness in the world.

I cannot answer these questions. Rather, I can only revert to miracles. I start with the Italian adverb-adjective combination, molto particolare. I learned this expression from a dear friend who studies art. He uses it to describe the finest workmanship. It is a kind of Italian code word for “very beautiful, very well made.” Now, perhaps I am but stating the obvious, but I believe particular (i.e. the Italian particolare) miracles are often overlooked simply because they are the rule.

Lake near Lac Blanc
Mt. Blanc

One takes the beach for granted if one lives by the shore. One takes the Alps for granted if one lives on Mont Blanc. Babies are born every moment, colorful flowers bloom in green fields, peaches are succulent, and a true friend…—well you’ll know that when you find one. I made such a friend a long time ago at Dickinson College; his name is Tim, and he is a lawyer now in

Tim and me in college
Tim and H.R. at Dickinson

Harrisburg. I spoke of him to a dear colleague just yesterday; even after all these years I described him as closer than a brother. Such friendship is a particular miracle, too.

I am not so far off topic as you might imagine. If human suffering somehow mars particular miracles—certainly it does for my dear uncle and I believe for many others with whom I’ve spoken about the possibility of life having meaning—peculiar miracles, if not quite offering an answer, nevertheless somehow offer a response to the problem of human suffering. Such miracles are no less beautiful than the particular, everyday miracles, but they are strange in a different way than a chicken coming from an egg is strange. They are peculiar precisely because they defy natural laws. I take one (click here) or two (click here for another) recent examples from the news. If you look at these clips, you’ll see that they both record children coming back to life when they were dead. Not near death; dead. Now one could say that that kind of thing happens somewhere in the world everyday. But, first of all, it does not. Secondly, it does not happen to you every day. It does not happen to your neighbor or friend every day. And when it does happen to you, there’s a chance then that you’ll recognize that you were party to a peculiar miracle.

If particular (i.e. beautiful) miracles are tarnished by humankind’s inhumanity and the grief engendered by natural disasters, peculiar miracles are not so much a response as perhaps an antidote to the vexing question of human suffering. This would be especially true if peculiar miracles should be construed as messages from another world. If that were to be the case, the adjective peculiar would indeed be a good descriptive term for them. But that is the stuff of another blog, a blog about life—and wine and cheese, of course. And now that I think about it, perhaps the holes in Swiss cheese are a peculiar miracle after cheese

[1] Orthodoxy, p. 290.

[2] See

[3] The Curious Autobiography, p. 185.

[4] The Curious Autobiography, p. 206.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Spark

I think that every volcanologist should have the word “Volcanologist” on his or her business card. Probably they do, but I’m not sure, for I can imagine that they might have, instead, “Geologist” or “Professor of Geology.” Were I a geologist who happened to specialize in the subfield of volcanic studies, I would certainly have this particular, if heady-sounding and thoroughly technical title, on my card.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about a volcano is not its etymology, which is interesting indeed, and gets more thought-provoking the deeper one pursues it, so much as what powers it. While it is not impossible that it is related to the Latin fulgur (“gleam”), it is more likely a word of Etruscan origin.

The Apollo of Veii, ca. 510–500 B.C.
Apollo of Veii, ca. 510–500 B.C.

There was a Vulca of Veii, a great artist who portrayed the god Apollo with a famous terracotta statue dating to about the end of the sixth century B.C. But, of course, Vulca’s name did not influence the name of the Roman god Vulcan; rather, they are likely both derived from the same Etruscan—or possibly even Minoan root—which, if that line of inquiry should be correct, was connected with a god called Velchanos, who in Etruscan would seem to have become Velchans.[1] But I speak about disputed topics.

Mr. SpockNot disputed is that Mr. Spock in the popular television series Star Trek finds his origins on Vulcan, a planet that has paradoxically suppressed its fire—maybe the way a volcano suppresses its fire for a period of time, controlling it as long as it can until it erupts? I don’t know if that corresponds to Mr. Spock’s planet of origin, but it does not seem to correspond to his fine, if firm, personality, for as played by the great Leonard Nimoy, he never seemed very close to eruption to me. Yet I wax science-fictional.

Also not disputed is the fact that the spark of any volcano comes from within. The fire comes from deep inside, and watching one erupt is a spectacular thing. The apparent fury, nature’s passion, and the magnificence of the fireworks, quite literally, is mind-boggling. I felt this way when I watched Mt. Etna erupt afresh a few years back. And I marveled at this gobbler of philosophers, this creator of fecundity by its ash, this fireball maker—as its likely etymology from the Greek word for “burn” suggests. Yet there is an obvious downside to such an internal spark, so far as I can tell: it can be rather unpredictable, and along with unpredictable, dangerous.

Mt. Etna, Sicily
Mt. Etna, Sicily

So it is with us humans. Nearly every person whom I’ve known and respected has had not simply an internal spark—though of course there is always something of that—but rather an external spark, as well. That external spark, in the folks I’ve thought of as particularly superb, would seem to come from somewhere up in the aether, rather than simply from their surroundings. Permit me to explain what I mean. I’ve generally respected my teachers, over the years, because they found their inspiration in an author, someone whose works have had a particular impact upon the way they think, or even, in some cases, live. Their spark was not simply their own view of the world, but their view of the world as shaped by a voice or voices from the past. And even if such a voice were not always coming to them from very high up in the aether, it seemed at least to have given a good many of those Ivy League dons a way to think other than simply with themselves at the center of all things.

The same can be said for my friends. I’ve noticed that, though I love them all, those who find their spark outside themselves seem quite different from those who are their own spark. The person who finds the source of motivation entirely from within is often rather attentive to him- or herself. He or she might spend a lot of time on himself or herself, making sure his personal needs are addressed, her pride is not hurt, his rights are upheld, her own desires are fulfilled. He or she is like a volcano and every once in a while, precisely like a volcano, she or he might just erupt.

Yet those whose spark is from without, especially those who derive their internal fire from a vastly higher place, tend to put their own needs last. Indeed, they rarely talk about themselves at all. When you speak to them, you nearly need to pry their lid off, in some cases, to find out what they’ve been up to. You might see them in a hospital waiting room, a volunteer center, a military vehicle, or a church pew. I know some of them by name, such as a friend and his brother with oddly rhyming names, and their dear wives, whose names also rhyme. There is another couple, able and patient, who are like this, too; and those whose name is implicitly non-violent. And then there’s an Italian couple from the far north yet of humbly low origin, and those who, because their son adores animals, would never live up to their last name. They work in shops, in office buildings, in schools, in uniform; they volunteer endlessly, and they deflect credit from themselves. They love their neighbors as themselves, and sacrifice for others each day, all day long. They joyfully enjoy their lives well-lived simply because they have quite often, daily in fact, jauntily stifle their own happiness for others. These folks, whom I won’t name here so as not to embarrass them, are those whom I aspire to be like.

Saint Paul abbey church. Dedication fresco by Thomas von Villach ( 1493 ): Detail showing Saint Paul.
Stift Sankt Paul in the Laventtal, Austria. Dedication fresco by Thomas von Villach (1493): Detail showing Saint Paul.

They are not those castigated by a saint named Paul in a letter to a city called Corinth. There flame burns bright because it is fueled by an ethereal fire. To some, perhaps, they might appear to be common folk. But they are not: they are the heroes of our age.

There is a reason, mythologically speaking, that both the Greek Hephaistos and the Roman Vulcan are always described as limping. The god whom these names represent was cast out of Olympus by Zeus/Jupiter because he angered him as the king of the gods was punishing his wife, Hera/Juno, with chains for sending a storm upon Hercules. The mythological result was a limping fire god.

Lame Hephaistos leans on a crutch.
Lame Hephaistos leans on a crutch. From the East Central frieze of the Parthenon.

Now I don’t intend to suggest that Vulcan’s attempt to free his mother was not a helpful act. But I would suggest that the fact that the god winds up limping might perhaps, if only incidentally, provide an apotropaic totem to any who thinks that charting a course based on one’s own spark, and that alone, is the finest way to live. Indeed, Vulcan’s best act, perhaps, was the making of the armor for Achilles, armor that responded to pride and ultimately only promoted more killing.

Foundry Painter. Attic red-figure Kylix, 490–480 BC.
Foundry Painter. Attic red-figure Kylix, 490–480 BC.

For while this world will encourage us to find our own way, it just may turn out that there is no “own way” after all. And that is the point of The Curious Autobiography, the story behind a life journey like that of Elaine Jakes. It may turn out that there is a closer connection between all human beings than we had ever imagined, that in fact there really is a brotherhood and sisterhood among all humankind, and that there is a Father of all, somewhere far away in terms of divine nature, yet perhaps closer than we have ever imagined in terms of divine love. But that is all the stuff of another blog. In the meantime, I leave you, my dear reader, merely with an invitation to enjoy a glass of wine with a bite of Parmesan—I’m missing that now that I’m back from Parma—and, as you do so, to think about where the true spark comes from and, insofar as any of us can, to take up Spock’s invitation to live long and prosper.

[1] Andreas Bendlin, in Der Neue Pauly 1.2 (2002) 296–298, s.v. “Volcanus”; S. Blakely, in R. Bagnall et al. (eds), The Encyclopedia of Ancient History (New York/London, 2012), s.v. “Volcanus.”


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Traveling

Piergiacomo Petrioli


“May you be praised, my Lord, for our sister, Bodily Death, from whom no living human being can escape.”[1] Thus wrote St. Francis of Assisi some time just after 1200 AD. To St. Francis, my good friend Piergiacomo Petrioli assured me just yesterday, everything was good. “That’s the point,” he said as we sat in his living room in Bologna discussing how the Renaissance, which began almost precisely a century after St. Francis wrote this canticle, came about. “The point is that Francis cared about all of creation, saw everything as good because it came from God’s hand. And so,” he added, “even death could be seen as good, as a release from the troubles of this life.”

Giotto's St. Francis before the Sultan
Giotto’s St. Francis before the Sultan

And that, we agreed later in the course of the conversation, was the beginning of the period of Western history in which the focus on repeating over and over in the cold echoing chamber of the high-ceilinged central nave of a Gothic cathedral, “God is Pankrator (Ruler of All)” reverted to the idea that “God is a human being, too.” Piergiacomo added, “The point is that the emphasis of the Renaissance is not that ‘God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world’—he was quoting Browning, of course—“but that God, as a human being, suffers with us humans, participates in our humanity; that human suffering is thereby redeemed, dignified to the extent that even morte corporale can be nostra sora (i.e., sorella), our sister.” This he said, with my slight adaptation, of course, in a lovely Italian accent. St. Francis himself must have sounded like Piergiacomo, I thought to myself, gentle and warm.

But the title of this blog is not St. Francis’ views on death, but rather “Traveling,” and I come back to that now. For when I am traveling, one of the things I like to do best is to visit my friends on the continent and chat with them about things like the origin of the Renaissance, something I had never before connected with St. Francis. The reason for that is, perhaps, that somewhere in my mind the cautionary words of G.K. Chesterton were still rambling about, for he once wrote of St. Francis, “… it is not true to represent St. Francis as a mere romantic forerunner of the Renaissance and a revival of natural pleasures for their own sake. The whole point of him was that the secret of recovering the natural pleasures lay in regarding them in the light of a supernatural pleasure.”

What I think Chesterton is cautioning against is not the importance of the emphasis beginning with St. Francis on all created things being good that Piergiacomo and I were touting as foundational to the notion of humanity that the Renaissance would advance. In any case, such emphasis certainly owes itself much more to the rediscovery of ancient texts than to St. Francis’ memorable declarations about death or Brother Sun or Sister Moon. Rather, I think that Chesterton is railing against those who want to put St. Francis on a pedestal, or more precisely, those who would distort his views about the interaction of man and God. That same group might emphasize St. Francis’ love for animals as a part of creation to the exclusion of his view on redemption and humankind.

Elsewhere in his biography of that saint, Chesterton offers a vivid description of Francis that I think is likely to be precisely right:

“He was, to the last agonies of asceticism, a Troubadour. He was a lover. He was a lover of God and he was really and truly a lover of men; possibly a much rarer mystical vocation. A lover of men is very nearly the opposite of a philanthropist; indeed the pedantry of the Greek word carries something like a satire on itself. A philanthropist may be said to love anthropoids. But as St. Francis did not love humanity but men, so he did not love Christianity but Christ. Say, if you think so, that he was a lunatic loving an imaginary person; but an imaginary person, not an imaginary idea.”[2]

As usual, Chesterton gives us more to ponder than we may have wanted. His challenge to his reader is to consider St. Francis not in general, but in particular. And this is the challenge that Chesterton and later C.S. Lewis would lay at the feet of every churchgoer, every human being, to consider God in particular and each person in particular. It is much easier to love the idea of humanity than to love your neighbor.

Which brings be back to traveling, for how can I love my neighbor when I’m journeying such a long way from home? Well, if you’ve been reading any of my other blogs so far, I imagine you may know my opinion about the answer to that question. But in case you haven’t, I’ll tell one last story about traveling that might illustrate what I mean.

There once were two couples who went a traveling. One went to a large, impoverished city in Africa and bought bread and carried it with them everywhere they went in case they met any street children there. street children(As it turned out, they gave a great deal of bread away, and much more than food, as well. Indeed, I believe they would have surrendered their bodies to fire, were it necessary, to help those in need.) The other couple went to some other far more luxurious spot—Hawaii, I think it was—on vacation; that second couple gave money to world hunger relief organizations from time to time, especially when there was a crisis in the news. That same couple felt very good about their donations, and from time to time would tastefully mention their own generosity to their friends over dinner. But they could see no reason to encourage the other couple about their trip to Africa, or to help them in their admittedly limited-in-scope “humanitarian” effort. In fact, they gently rebuked them when they were having lunch together before they left. “You know, it’s a vain effort, you going there. It won’t cure all the ills in the world; you might even come back with one—a disease. Better to give money to some relief organization or something—that’s what we do,” they told the first couple in a well-intended, but condescending way.

The first couple was not taken aback. Rather they might even have expected as much, for they had long before come to love Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and even to understand that Bodily Death, too, is the sister of the moon and sun, and our sister, too. They were not going to Africa to rebuke that sister. They were going to find and help their brothers and their sisters. They did not love the idea of humanity, they loved human beings.

Now I myself did not and still do not understand one thing about the first pair, the couple who actually went to Africa, for I do not understand St. Francis’ idea that death could ever be our sister. I am rather angered by death, with Herculean emotions welling up from deep within. When a friend or family member dies, I feel that something fundamentally bad has happened, something gone wrong in the universe. But that is me, not Chesterton, not the first couple, nor probably the second. But I wax mystical.

Pope FrancisYet I was speaking about traveling. St. Francis’ travels are well known. Now another Francis, a new Pontifex Maximus, to use a Latin (and quite ancient Roman) term, is traveling, as well. He has just left Italy, to build a bridge to the needy, the poor in another hemisphere, one with which he is quite familiar. I will leave Bologna for a different America, the one with which I am familiar, only a few days after him. This Francis is not voyaging to Africa, but to Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay, countries where life is rife with challenge, where in every valley death casts a long shadow, where there are needy and weeping souls, real people, about whom it seems to have been forgotten by far too many who could care (but don’t) that they are human beings. In his travels the Pope will—indeed, I believe, already has—like St. Francis, bring warmth and love for human beings, not just for “humanity.”


In the meantime, until I leave, Piergiacomo and I will sit by and by, eating Parmesan and raising a glass to The Curious Autobiography, which he is now reading, and more especially and fittingly a cup running over to both the pope and the saint, whose love for humanity and human beings was and will be, I hope, remembered and, by the time this blog is posted, seen, as well. For our part, we shall consider the importance of the Renaissance again and again, admiring the work of artists, and reading a piece of literature or two—I hear Petrarch beckoning—and, before I leave, perhaps even visiting again Santa Maria della Vita here in Bologna. To the right of the altar of the central nave one can see the masterpiece of Niccolò dell’Arca, his Compianto, a sculpted work that portrays the humanity and pain of human beings in the face of the most horrific death in history, before history could be changed by a single naked act. But the nakedness of that act involves a trip I once took to Estonia, which will be the story of another blog about traveling, a blog I will write perhaps a long time from now.

For more on Renaissance Art, see Artsy’s website and follow your favorite artists. For example, see on Raphael.

[1] Laudato si mi Signore, per sora nostra Morte corporale, da la quale nullu homo uiuente pò skappare, from Michele Faloci Pulignani (ed.). Il Cantico del Sole di San Francesco di Assisi. Foligno: Tipografia di Pieter Sgariglia, 1888, pp. 10–11; My translation.

[2] The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius Press, 1986), 70, 29.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Fairy Wall and Parmesan

There is a wall running along the side of a small swath of land that is the yard of the property once known as the Lizzie Ann, a countryside residence in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, quite near New Hope. That house was once a dormitory of the Holmquist School for Girls. There dwelt a young Pearl S. Buckpearlbuck long before she would become a great writer.* There, years later, dwelt another fine writer, Elaine Jakes, in that selfsame house. Yet neither Elaine Jakes nor Pearl Buck (then Pearl Sydenstricker) knew when they were living in this humble abode that they would be such writers. Pearl was quite young, apparently living there (Elaine always attested) for a short time while her parents were on furlough from their mission in Chinkiang. (That brief stay, Elaine maintained, would compel Pearl eventually to return to Bucks County to buy Green Hills Farm, where she is now buried).

The young Pearl no doubt used her time there to reflect upon the bulk of her childhood, lived as it had been hitherto and would soon be again in China. Elaine, a middle-aged woman, used a pen to reflect in her personal notebooks on her life, there divulging wistful thoughts, fond memories, and not a few regrets. She had, as you may know from The Curious Autobiography, her own Chinese period. But she did not have the kind of family that her parents had enjoyed. Nor had she had the family that her sister did, nor that of Pearl Sydenstricker Buck. Rather, Elaine lived alone; she dwelt with books as her principal companions. Books were voices of the past, a past not her own, but no less important for it, creators of memory that she never had. They were, as they are for any good reader, best friends.

Hotel du Village signFor that reason she was never lonely. Another reason that she was not lonely were the fairies that lived in that wall, the yard’s far wall that separates the Lizzie Ann from the Solebury School’s lower campus, which would later be rechristened the Hotel du Village—a title I always found just a bit off, as there is no village (as pronounced in French or English) in the immediate vicinity of that complex structure. It had been, after all, the women’s campus of the Solebury School, a direct descendant of the Holmquist School for Girls. Today it is an exquisite, even sumptuous, bed and breakfast, still separated from what was the Lizzie Ann by the fairy wall.

stone wallThat wall was not significant for its natural luster, for it had none, unless one were to value its rustic feel and the rusticity of its rusticated concrete patches, for it was a crudely made concrete wall, with smoothed-out swatches of cement alternating quixotically with small patches of jagged stone, sometimes bedecked with moss, other times hidden behind weed-like wildflowers that grew out of cracks in the wall. No, this was by no means a wall of Nehemiah, no rebuild per se, yet it did show evidence of repair. Most significant were its cracks, which gave it some sense of venerable authority, if nothing else, while at the same time providing a place where fairies abode, who only emerged about dusk—and quite gingerly at that.

LucyHJonesTrunkIt is well known that the elfin hob of the Lizzie Ann had some commerce with these fairies, though he was loath to admit as much. He was, the reader will recall, a stowaway in the black trunk that came from the old country, from Wales, specifically from Llanelli (not at all pronounced the way it looks), or rather from a tiny suburb of Llanelli called Llwynhendy (also not pronounced the way it looks). That curious state of affairs and hitherto unseen development in human/Hobian relations has been well documented, both in previous iterations of this blog and in The Curious Autobiography proper. Yet the fairies were never mentioned there, in part because their actual provenance was, and remains, entirely unknown. There is a rumor that they first came from Piccadilly (but that would make them English), which in any case seems a mere onomatopoeia based on the ridiculousness of the word Piccadilly itself.

Clearly the fairies are not domestic. I say this because they normally took coins, with preference given to British pence or Canadian cents, from a coin dish—for Elaine kept such a dish—in the living room of the Lizzie Ann or from the tips of the less generous tippers at the Hotel du Village. These coins they would place, with great caution and entirely surreptitiously, in the zig-zagging wall cracks. Some say these were the doors of the fairies’ houses, but this is mere speculation, and ill-informed at that. Rather, I am certain that this numismatic collocation was an altruistic act, however one may parse it, as the coins were obviously placed there for the children who played in the yard to find. I shall in a future blog enlarge upon who these children were and precisely what their connection to Elaine Jakes was. Suffice it to say they had little money of their own, as they came from a family of modest means. Even the youngest of them, a little girl who once wanted to stay four years old forever, still remembers. The fairies knew about the children’s less than affluent circumstances and thus took—some might say “stole”—these coins for the children’s delight in the finding, mirabile inuentu puerili.

That fairies commit such acts should come as no surprise. Even the entirely undocumented and frankly ridiculous myth of the “tooth fairy” demonstrates that fairies are amply capable of transporting coins great distances. And, as obviously even a mythical creature such as the tooth fairy has no money of her own, she would have to have procured said income by clandestine, dubious means. Normally she would filch it from the parents of the child whose tooth was lost, of course, which is why parents are often believed to be the actual givers of money for teeth.

Gwilym the elfin hob
Gwilym the elfin hob

But I wax mythological. Let me return to the wall fairies of the Lizzie Ann, beings far more valid than the so-called tooth fairy. Those of the wall, while they may have been irritated from time to time by Gwilym the household hob—no doubt, if they were taking money from the change bowl—must have been in cahoots with him for this ultimately altruistic business, as I doubt he would have tolerated their frequent entrance into the Lizzie Ann unless he were in on the project. He did, it is now known, have a soft spot for children. And for cheese. And thus, undoubtedly, the fairies softened up the otherwise occasionally crusty andparmesan not infrequently sarcastic Gwilym with rather hard Parmesan cheese, the block version of which was his favorite non-Welsh cheese; he was otherwise always de gustibus loyal to the domestic Gymreig Hên Sîr—non disputandum.

His Parmesan leanings, however, were in evidence from the fact that he would regularly purloin that Italian cheese when it was left out, which it was from time to time, on the cheeseplate, whose covering bore the features of a face that had for generations frightened all the small children in the family. When that cover was in place, Gwilym had no chance to get to the cheese—no chance unless the fairies (obviously working as a team) would en masse lift the cheeseplate’s ponderous and stunning lid, while other fairies pulled out a giant glob of Parma’s best contribution to the world. Indeed, I’ve rarely had a better moment than eating Parmagiano in Parma, the city in which I was enjoying the cheese at Tiffany di Gianpaolo Conciatori just two weeks ago, so I understand Gwilym’s penchant, or rather his weakness, too well. At this point, I must publicly admit that I believe there may also be a dairy fairy, as Paestum’s mozzarella di bufala is a strong competitor to Parma’s Parmagiano. (If ever you are in Paestum, be sure to eat some at Nino and Sandro’s Ristorante del Hotel Poseidonia Mare, near the beach; for pizza in Paestum, try the world’s best da Pasquale at the Taverna del Parco on the aptly named Via Nettuno, no. 45).

Pasquale, owner of Taverna del Parco and best pizza chef in Italy
Pasquale, owner of Taverna del Parco and best pizza chef in Italy
View from Ristorante Taverna del Parco
View from Ristorante Taverna del Parco

But I laud the fairies, not simply for their industry but their desire to provide poor children with coins, which no doubt they in turn merely used to buy candy or some other ephemeral treat. Yet there is the important point. The fairies found purpose in giving, both giving Gwilym delight and, more importantly, the same to the children. They held a common goal of serving and working as a team, working together for a greater end. And there just might be something for us people, to learn from these fairies, whatever their provenance.

So raise a glass to those flitting sprites the next time you partake of wine and cheese, or walk beside a garden wall, or think of China or Pearl S. Buck, or think that you may have encountered an elfin hob, or can’t find the right change, or any change, in your change bowl, or, at the very least, when you brush your teeth. And forever keep in your heart the lesson of the fairies, whether they come from Llanelli, Llwynhendy, or Picadilly. Such a silly sounding word.

*I have no proof Pearl S. Buck lived in the Lizzie Ann; nevertheless, this is something Elaine consistently maintained.