Monthly Archives: January 2016

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Colors

When Milton was writing Paradise Lost, he was, biographers tell us, quite unable to see. His light was “spent,” to use his own description from his nineteenth sonnet: he simply could not see. He could not perceive faces, or shapes or colors. With remarkable skill and precision, he dictated his magnum opus to two scribes. He could no longer see the vivid images of this world. He had receded into permanent physical nightfall, the black quietude of total darkness. He no longer knew colors firsthand.

Colors are remarkable things. To my mind, colors are perhaps the most amazing things in the universe, or at least the universe as I know it. Now I admit, that the strange fish that pop up from time to time are also remarkable.

Rare fish caught at Pamban. Photo: L. Balachandar.
Rare fish caught at Pamban. Photo: L. Balachandar. The Hindu (5.4.2014)

They are, often, surpassing strange, marvelous in their own right, if a quite terrifying right. I once had an alligator gar pass right by me when I was swimming in a lake. Startling.

Alligator Gar
Alligator gar from the Brazos River. Caught by Clinton and Charles Robertson








But to return to colors. Colors can be explosive.

Colorful fishFish themselves, even the not very weird ones, can be the bearers of those colors, and spectacularly at that. And so can human beings, particularly their eyes.

Gazing into someone’s eye (not, as one does on Valentine’s day, into someone’s eyes but rather into someone’s eye, quite literally) reveals not only the receptacle, as it were, of the colors, but also a world of colors per se, all dancing on a quivering, gentle and vulnerable stage.

The eye and the colors it both houses and receives cry out something even more special than a perfect sunset, which offers a moment of beauty, but one that is quite far away. They eye offers its luster close at hand. Yet, like the sunset, that beauty is untouchable, for one cannot and should not, of course, touch another person’s eye. Its beauty, its colors, are preserved in a special space, close at hand but strangely afar as well. And of that beauty, the most amazing part is the variegated color, the shifting moments of dark, light, blues,  browns, and greens.human eye

Color then is suggestive, to my mind, of a kind of unnecessary bonus for humankind. One could make the same argument for honey or chocolate or even coffee or hummus, but hummus, tasty as it is, is a human construct, made of natural ingredients, but nonetheless confected by human hands. Honey, purer, of course, and sweet as it is still requires some kind of harvesting. Coffee requires picking and roasting. Chocolate, say such as is in a dark chocolate dove bar, must undergo some true preparation by chocolatiers, of whom I know but one. Her name is Susan, and she was, she told me once, when she lived in California quite a good chocolatier. Now she is a student of literature.

But these treats, tasty as they are to ponder, are all delights that we human beings have harvested for ourselves. Colors are not. They are true gifts that, save to the blind or the colorblind, are here for all to see and admire, and to ponder. Yes, to ponder, for they need not have ever been there. We could easily have been born into a world without color (or honey, for that matter). And the world would have been, of course, far less sweet for the loss of both.

But how did colors come into being? Science answers that question in the form of a dissertation about refracted light. But the question of why there is color at all, why we do not live in a colorless world or colorless universe—indeed, we can even at the great distance of 48,678,219 miles (as compared to the Moon, which is a mere 238,900) see that Mars is the “red” planet—that question seems to me to be within the purview of philosophers or theologians. I can only say, from my limited vantage point, that colors make me think of a Creator of color, a great Artist of the universe,[1] who, not satisfied with a merely monochrome world decided to add color—to create color, and then to splash it upon all things. While I know we owe much to Isaac Newton’s analysis of how color comes into being through the refraction of light, still there is something beyond mere refraction that I am alluding to. I am alluding to why in the world (or rather, out of this world) refraction exists. Why, even though it does, the human eye can detect it at all. After all, so I am told, dogs can see only a touch of color. But we can more, many more, and to me the capacity to see that beauty suggest both that there was an Artist who rendered it and that that Artist wanted an audience to enjoy it. But I wax theological, so I leave that aside.

Rather, I would like to return to the issue of color as it manifests itself in today’s world, at least in my part of it, which is the United States. It seems to me that people think about color here either not enough or far too much. Either they fail to ponder what I just fleshed out above, not linking color with beauty or the Artist who created all beauty, or they ponder too well that things are different colors or, rather, that people are. Elaine Jakes, after whose Curious Autobiography this website is named, taught me a very long time ago not to see color, not to notice. She wasn’t politically correct, and indeed despised political correctness. But she was—or rather she chose to be—racially unbiased. (If you don’t believe me, read the opening pages of chapter 4 of that book.)

Bias, you see, is a choice—it is always a choice. It is never a matter of, “poor fellow, he grew up in a bigoted family. Perhaps he is simply suffering from a case of ‘affluenza.’” Yet at some point one decides to appropriate for one’s own or reject the values or biases or even favorite athletic teams one inherits from one’s parents.

Some of those values are eternal, for example, “Love thy neighbor as thyself”—or at least they should be. Others, not so much: put your napkin on your lap—okay, maybe that one ought to make the cut, too. But what about “text your parents daily when you’re off at college.” That might be appropriate for some folks, but not for others. That final example of a family rule, while far from a bias, is nonetheless one that can be changed and adapted to fit the circumstance. In other words, it’s a choice.

And so are crappy “values” or “biases” that you know are crappy and have no demonstrable foundation and should be done away with: they are choices. Looking askance at someone because of skin color or background or gender or social caste is precisely this. Which brings me to the idea that some see colors too well. Those who do, notice skin tone, and judge based on it. They themselves can be of any race. They themselves judge other groups inferior to their own. They themselves see that kind of color too well, and probably fail to see the color of the eye, or even of a spectacular sunset.

All colors matter, all are beautiful. At the same time, color does not matter, and it does not precisely because all human beings matter, and all are beautiful. I hope that you and I both see and not see colors this week, that we enjoy the colors that matter, not those that do not. Choose wisely, choose colorfully. May you choose to see the beauty of color.






[1]So Ovid once wrote, “God and better nature redeemed this strife, for He separated the land from Heaven and the waters from the lands… .” (hanc deus et melior litem natura diremit / nam caelo terras et terris abscidit undas)—Met. 1.21f.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Reminiscing about New Hope & Adding Letters to a Name

A few years ago I subscribed to the Philadelphia Inquirers online version of the paper. I did it not only to read Faye Flam’s column “Planet of the Apes,” my weekly spiritual challenge workout, but also for sentimental reasons and that New Hope is in the greater Philadelphia area. Anyone who happens to have read the Curious Autobiography will be able to infer why one might feel nostalgic for New Hope. The setting of most of that book is New Hope, Pennsylvania, a place near Philadelphia and nearer and dearer yet to my heart. If you have been there, you may have at least a general impression of why that might be the case. If you have not been there and you happen to have the opportunity to go, I recommend it. It is a town of paradoxes. On the one hand, it is a very modern place, avant-garde is not a strong enough adjective to describe it. Most of the folks who live there are progressive, inclusive, sometimes open-minded to a fault; that fault, of course, is that sometimes an open-minded person becomes quite close-minded if the person with whom he or she is conversing is not as receptive to new ideas.

historic flag.New HopeOn the other hand, it is a very old place, a place not simply steeped in tradition but equally as much in the history that undergirds that tradition. New Hope is itself a stone’s throw away from Washington’s Crossing State Park, a place the records and preserves the memory of a vital moment in our country’s history. The Fourth of July and that holiday’s incumbent fireworks are serious things in New Hope—the entire Delaware River that separates that hamlet from Lambertville lights up with them, and they’re set off, to this day, I believe, from the bank parking lot. fireworks in New HopeNever mind that the bank is now a Starbucks. It serves the same purpose as the bank, for it’s a place to bump into friends. Those would now likely be folks who used to live there and are back in town, like you, for nostalgic reasons, as the locals have all changed from the old days—well most of them. I think I saw James Martin, our famous woodworker, downtown walking his dog the last time I was there. But perhaps I did not. Perhaps that was just a vision of the old days, when I would see him nearly every day, completely unaware of the depth of his learning under the Japanese master Nakashima, or even the heights to which he had taken that learning.

Cutalossa Mill, Solebury
Cutalossa Mill, Solebury

Indeed, many of the old locals who still abide have migrated to Solebury, which has its own particular quaintness. Some have always lived there, but come downtown less frequently than they used to. “It’s the crowds,” Brad Livzey told me when I last saw him and asked him how often he went into town. “There are just too many people. I get down to Fran’s Pub every once in a while, but honestly, it’s just too crowded—too much traffic.”

And he’s right, all that quaintness makes for a lot of traffic. But to come back to my discussion of that series in the Inquirer to which I alluded earlier. I read it along time ago now, but it is more or less the same as all the others she has written since; in fact, I think she now longer writes it, but rather only a variation on it for another venue, eschewing, even barring God from any aspect of our existence. That article was by Faye Flam, who I imagine still writes a column on how science has solved humanity’s problems and religion and spiritual things are stuff and nonsense. But Faye is really refreshingly honest about it. I actually love that column, because in it she touches upon the question of what is a choice, when it comes to faith, and what is not. And yes, as she says there, “People of faith wonder how we nonbelievers get through the day. Sometimes I’m not so sure myself.” I think she’s exactly right. I think I respect my friends who are atheists sometimes more than those who are believers, because I don’t know how they get through the day, indeed.

That said, I thought I’d close this week’s blog with a poem, one written for none other than Faye herself. Now I am not the first to have responded to Faye’s positions, as some have done so with reasoned and passionate prose, but I may just be the first in verse. It’s a playful ditty, meant not just for her, of course, but for us all, calling us all, if we can hear the call—Faye suggest we can’t, though I suspect at some deep spiritual level (concerning the idea of free will) she is wrong—to rethink our positions. But that’s the progressive child of New Hope in me, calling on all of us to rethink our assumptions. We could be wrong, and we must admit that. Indeed, the person of faith, the normal, boring churchgoing Presbyterian or Lutheran or Catholic knows that; they fight some battle for some minor doctrinal point, about which they could have it round about and upside down. But they also know one more thing: God can’t be wrong and won’t be restrained by our faith or lack thereof. And that is, to the believer, a great comfort. That is faith.

A Letter (or Two) for Faye

Ah, Faye, it will not go away,

No matter what you say, it’s here to stay—

Faith, I mean. And like your name, Faye,

You’re almost there, but need just two letters to complete

What comes in a gentle whisper. And wouldn’t it be neat,

If you knew which two, and could do that feat,

Could make your name and all your ideas whole?

Aye, from your tongue rich and raucous laughter would then roll;

And yet, without those two, what you write is just another way to extol

Empty science, which like empty faith, is void

Of all meaning, and just gets you annoyed

and makes you feel like Sigmund Freud.

On a overcast day, when everything’s symbolic

And the best arguments are simply vitriolic

So you (and I) drink like an alcoholic.

But that’s off topic, Faye, you know,

And I just want to tell you so

About those letters—were they ‘e’ and ‘o’?

No, no, one was an ‘H’, an ‘H’ for the ‘Here I am,’

That Abram heard from the Lamb that made the ram—

The very letter that completed AbraHam.

That’s the same voice, small and still

That spoke to Moses on the holy hill

That does not compete with science but by its will

Completes it, Faye, you see. Or do you see?

The other letter’s like what St. Peter calls a tree,

But means a cross, that is, a “T”.

For on that cross, dear Faye, a bridge was built

Over the river of sin, and past the mire pits of guilt

That makes those insipid disagreements over evolution wilt

By comparison. For to compare God and science, Faye,

You know, it’s silly, really—not to take away from what you say,

Or how strongly your readers feel when they repay

Your invitation to relate their strong opinions, some “for God”

Some “against.” And don’t you find it strangely odd,

That whether we shake our head or nod,

At the end of the day, Faye, He is, like science, here to stay,

And just like science, has much to say to our tomorrow and today?

But with this difference: his is the small still voice that can add, merely with two letters, true life to Faye.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Trees and People

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

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

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

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

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

a family headstone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Happy New Year: Weddings and Funerals

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.

VE dayWhat 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.

rachel in wedding dressA 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.

Greek temple cakeYet 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, Greek wedding crowningthe 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.”

Marriage at Cana by Giotto, 14th century
Marriage at Cana by Giotto, 14th century

“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.

Well, I shall quit my rambling now about weddings and funerals. I hope, of course, that you attend more weddings this year than funerals.

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.

Happy New Year!