Monthly Archives: February 2016

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Greek-like Grackles, Clairvoyant Orangutans and Other Paradoxes

Some things have struck me funny lately. These have turned out chiefly to concern the animal kingdom. As in the case of all incongruences or paradoxes, there is an element of inherent humor in them. In this blog, I thought I would consider a slender swath of them, offering a few of my own trifling thoughts in a rolling commentary.

I am not a native Texan, and thus I still find myself observing features of this state as if I were but a visitor here. It is not the case, of course, that my own state, which boasts to be the birthplace of America’s current vice president, doesn’t have a claim on various and sundry oddities. But still, I come from there—I was born less than twenty miles from Mr. Biden’s birthplace—so I leave aside Pennsylvania’s claim on nutty people or implausible things. Rather, I note here that birds in Texas, particularly those blackbirds known as grackles, congregate in intersections, perched high on wires or in a tree that is near the intersection or even upon the traffic signal. gracklesNowadays, a solitary grackle will even perch on the personal-space-invading camera that (I suppose) either records those impatient people who barge dangerously through red lights or controls the flow of traffic, or both.grackle on camera

But none of this is paradoxical per se. Rather, the incongruity, the strangeness of the event of the bird gathering, which is itself arguably weird, even bizarre, to a Pennsylvanian like me, lies in the fact that the birds seem always to be evenly spaced. My wife pointed out recently to me that they seem somehow automatically to know what the proper distance between them should be. And they are talkative. When one espies a grackle in one’s yard, one rarely hears the bird, for it is then normally busy about the task of finding a worm, or picking up some stray piece of straw or a dry weed to be used to build or strengthen its nest. But when the birds are in the intersection, they seem actively to be engaged in conversation, even lively debate. They remind me of men I used to see regularly in Greece drinking thick black coffee out of demitasse cups filled and refilled from shiny bronze ibriks.ibrik The birds are like those old men, gathered to talk, to share whatever comes into their minds, maybe even to gripe about the current political situation or the lack of promise that the next round of politicians holds. Like the Greeks, the grackles also like to sit and watch the passersby, of which, when I was in Greece, I was one and now find myself yet again, as I pass swiftly beneath the grackles perched overhead.

Greeks in plaka
Greeks in plaka

But Texan grackles are a lesser paradox—lesser, at least, I would surmise, than the wild parrots of Brooklyn. parrots in BrooklynApparently, in 1968 several parrots escaped from the Kennedy Airport; now what they were doing in the airport, e.g. if they were about to board a plane —which might be yet another paradox or a playful sort of mis-en-abime (sc. fliers within a flier)—or how they performed their daring escape or what their motive for escape even was, I leave aside, save to say that of course if just one parrot escaped from a cage, there would be no issue here, nothing to speak about, much less to write about. But a gaggle of them? How in the world? In any case, they would seem to have decided to imitate their forebears and to become wild parrots. Now that is odd, because parrots are normally not “wild.”woman with parrot They are highly domesticated, especially (at least before 1968), those that live in Brooklyn. Now one needn’t parse this too much. The fact that Brooklyn has wild parrots at all is amply paradoxical. Are they tougher than the nearby Bowrey parrots? Do they drive the parrots inside the Brooklyn brownstones batty?brownstones If they can talk, do they have thick, New York accents?

But the parrots have nothing on orangutans, for such primates are very intelligent, if easily entertained, creatures. Some of them are, it seems, also clairvoyant. orangutanTake for example, the orangutan who predicted this year’s Super Bowl winner. Apparently an orangutan by the name of Tuah destroyed a cardboard copy of the Carolina Panther’s logo and then, perhaps to show that he was not a complete Panther hater, kissed lovingly a replica of a Panthers’ helmet, but left untouched any of the paraphernalia appertaining to the Denver Broncos, thus suggesting to officials from Hogle Zoo that, the kiss of the helmet notwithstanding, the Denver Broncos would prevail in the Super Bowl.  If only they had won by a Tuah-point conversion.orangutan superbowl

But the orangutan has nothing on the swans. Swans, like termites, are creatures that mate with one another for life. Now since it is my wife’s birthday this very day, I think I shall end here, for she is graceful like a swan. She hasn’t a long neck like a swan—not that it is short, but it is not precisely swanlike—but she does do yoga and swans seem automatically to do something like yoga, as they are noticeably graceful. And she is that, and gracious, too, indeed, and she even, paradoxically, married me some thirty-five years ago, when she was but a lass, and I, a lad.

So I shall close with this thought—that it is a strange thing that some animals can get right something like mating, a thing that people often do not get right at all. I thank God that the swan of my life chose not to be a wild parrot or a talkative grackle but has been willing to put up with an orangutan-like husband, one who has but rarely picked Super Bowl winners and is rife with bad puns (to wit, “Tuah-point” conversion). In any case, Happy Birthday to you, mon amie. To you dear reader, I offer the perpetual wish for the right kind of paradoxes and other silly things, whether generated by your place of birth, circumstance of work, a trip to the zoo, a park in Brooklyn or a Texan intersection bedecked with nattering birds, to fill your life. Life is full of paradoxes. Enjoy!

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Being There

stain glass windowOne of the more curious verses in the Bible, or perhaps, better said, one of the more curious things ever written is a short verse from the forty-sixth Psalm. The most frequently cited part of that verse reads in the King James Version, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

In the Hebrew, the name for God that is used is that very old title, Elohim, the “Strong One,” the same name of God used for him in the creation narrative. Yet that name is not the curious aspect of this verse. Nor is the imperative “be still,” for if you’ve ever had one of those days—one of those long days filled with endless meetings, stress, interpersonal problems, more stress, and political squabbles, and (need I mention?) even more stress, then, when you finally have a moment to unwind—perhaps on your drive (or in my case bicycle ride) home—then you probably get the “be still” part pretty well. You get home and you’re dog-tired, you’re just glad to have survived the jungle, the stress that maybe even some of your well-intentioned colleagues had engendered by a disapproving look, a small disapproving statement under the breath at a meeting. And you’re tired. Then, yes, then, it is time to be still.

To be still and know. Yes, that is the curious part of the verse. That second imperative “know,” that is not merely curious; it is strange, even a bit incongruous. For how are you supposed “to know”? Isn’t faith precisely not knowing, but believing? But the writer of Psalm 46, one of the unnamed sons of Korah, does deemphasize the Davidic idea of faith (e.g., Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God, Ps. 20:7). Rather, this son of Korah calls upon the reader to know.

And I spent a few hours this week trying to figure out how he could say that. And in my contemplations, ruminations and musings, I think I moved a bit closer to understanding what Korah’s son may mean. For I thought of you.

Not of you, in particular, but of you in general. I thought of all those people in my life who I am comforted simply to know are there. Many of these people I know in particular, others generally. I know a police officer because I bike by his house, and I sometimes wave to him as I pass by if he happens to be going out to his patrol car, which is always parked (no doubt to the delight of his neighbors and chagrin of potential burglars) prominently in front of his house. And I am comforted simply to know that he goes to work every day to protect my community. The same can be said of the small fire station that I pass on my route, though I rarely see the firemen out and about. I suppose they are in their fire station doing whatever firefighters do inside firehouses.firefighters

I do know my physician, but sadly I normally only see him when I am not at my best. Likewise my dentist seems to see me at the low point of needing a cleaning or at the yet lower point of needing a filling. And I know and am heartened to chat with the same person in the local market’s checkout line, if I happen to see that person a few times in a row. Just knowing these people are there regularly is a small source of stability in life. And when one of them passes away from this life, it is hard to take. Recently our piano repairman, Robert, died unexpectedly. He was such a nice man; he will be missed, truly so, not simply because was an adroit tuner, but because he was a good human being.

And when we lose someone close to us is without doubt the toughest thing we can go through in this life, even tougher than our own death. This week a basketball coach, Monty Williams, had to give a eulogy for his wife Ingrid killed in a car accident. It was gracious and kind, and there can be little doubt but that a small, still voice sustained him through that ordeal. For that is precisely when we need to be still, and know: His merely being there is a deeply comforting thing about God. For those who know Him may have a hard time being speechless before him, but we must know, simply know in times like that.

And even for the person who may not know Him well—perhaps this person goes to church irregularly or perhaps even regularly, but he or she might think it presumptuous to say “I know God.” Even that person or someone like that person can find some comfort in simply knowing that God exists. That there are rules that govern the universe. That these rules are not arbitrary. That we are not simply creatures of appetite. That the values that the television may enshrine as normative are in fact valueless and spiritually abnormal.

Yet what about that person who claims to know God? Well, that may at some point be the subject of another blog, a. blog that would befit not the Lenten season but rather that of Easter. For a certain someone, whom no one ever expected to see again, once boldly proclaimed that such an intimate relationship between human and divine could and really ought to exist. Yet for now I leave that aside.

And shall I conclude without acknowledging that knowing that someone is there can have a downside, too? Nay, rather, I will concede the point that sometimes simply knowing someone is out there can be a frightening thing. I say nothing of certain world leaders who threateningly put bombs on small islands or launch practice long-range missile tests or who incarcerate missionaries, not to mention those terrorist groups who proudly render families asunder, killing parents, enslaving innocent children. We have recently seen so much of that, and obviously the continued existence of such folk is unsettling. But I believe that one of the sons of Korah, a long, long time ago, offered an antidote to what was then, as now, a world of unsettling political relations and the fears that they engender, rife with wars and rumors of wars.

That son of Korah quoted Elohim himself as saying, “Be still, and know that I am God.” That is some powerful reassurance in a world of pain and uncertainty. We simply need to be still long enough to remember that God, like a police officer or firefighter or even the person in the checkout line, is there. He is there for us when we need him, and even when we do not. In the stillness, we will find him, not in the whirlwind, not in the thunder or rattling of the earth or of some petty dictator’s (or our own leaders’) saber. And with that thought, my dear reader, I leave you now: be still, and, most curiously, know

Be still



Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: St. Valentine’s Day and True Love

Portrait of St. Valentine from the 18th century Église abbatiale Notre-Dame, Guebwiller (Alsace)
Portrait of St. Valentine from the 18th century Église abbatiale Notre-Dame, Guebwiller (Alsace)

It’s that time of year again when we celebrate St. Valentine’s Day. Most won’t even think of the saint himself, not even in passing, though he enjoys a storied, if distant and rather unclear, history. A few faded details abide. A high-profile religious figure in third-century Rome, Valentine had an active faith and a fervent desire to share it with others. Imprisoned, possibly for performing Christian marriages, he was in 269 martyred for that faith during the harsh reign of the incompetent (though rugged and neatly kempt) emperor Claudius Gothicus, with whom he may have had prior personal interaction—the accounts are rather fanciful about this interaction, so I leave them aside here.

Claudius GothicusIn any case, when in prison, Valentine would seem to have prayed over and brought about the healing of the jailor’s blind child. The saint was laid to rest very near the Milvian Bridge, a bridge that just a few years later would become very important in the history of Christianity. Since when I am in Rome I regularly jog over the Milvian Bridge, undoubtedly I have jogged quite unawares near the spot where the good saint was first buried. His reliquary today is further down the Tiber, nearer to its true mouth, in the Forum Boarium’s often-visited church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.

St. Valentine’s reliquary in Santa Maria in Cosmedin.
Santa Maria in Cosmedin.

But all that is history interspersed with legend. And I haven’t even mentioned the ancient Roman pagan religious festival of the Lupercalia, nor shall I, for the practical reality of St. Valentine’s Day in America is that it is a day to reflect upon that significant other person in your life, if you’re lucky enough to have one, or perhaps to entertain the idea of one, possibly even to entertain a particular person with a proper dinner and a glass of good wine, with a view to moving “idea” a bit closer to reality, as a friend of mine named Charlie recently did—bravo, Charlie! And thus, this blog, which has begun with a bit of story, moves on to reality.

Milvian Bridige
Milvian Bridge at Night

I wish to address the fine points of whomever one might peculiarly love in this blog, considering virtues as stimuli of affection and true love. My thesis is simply this: the love I refer to here, both that which the person whom I shall describe gives and that which that person receives, derives from those very virtues.

I would begin with the capacity to be long-suffering. Imagine if, instead of the presentation of champagne, chocolate and roses one might think of true love as the gift of a long-suffering, gentle and gracious soul. I should distinguish here between tolerance and long-suffering grace. Tolerance really means the capacity to put up with someone. That is not quite virtue. To my mind mere tolerance suggests a temporal limit. Even a dastardly person can put up with someone pro tempore. I might tolerate swinging a kettlebell for an extended period because I know that period of swinging and the pain that it is uncomfortably engendering in my shoulders will soon end. But long-suffering grace, that’s another matter. That implies an interminable period of patience that ends with charity, forgiveness and favor. And this virtue is endearing, in and of itself. If you’re lucky enough to have someone in your life with this virtue—one that outstrips even the positive thoughts about the connection of generosity, tolerance and creativity that one might find bedecking a disposable coffee cup—then you know what I mean, and you have someone whom you can love just for being them, for being the gentle and kind soul who they are.starbucks cup

I would add two more such virtues. The second is metonymous with the first, but distinct from it. It is the capacity to forgive. It is connected to the word grace, mentioned above. Grace is a flexible word, derived from the Latin word gratia, with a deeper (if less obvious) Indo-European Greek root (*gwreto-) that also gives birth to the English (via Greek) charisma, and encompasses the notion not only of elegance and proper balance, such as a ballet dancer’s grace, but also, of course, of thanks, liberal thanks (cf. the liberality of the word “gratis”). If you have a person of grace in your life, particularly the lavish kind of grace, not merely the non-clumsy kind of grace, then you know what I mean. And you are lucky.

Prix de Lausanne 2010
Aaron Smyth in Don Quixote.

Ah, but what about the final virtue? This is a strange one, for it doesn’t have just one word to qualify it, but several words. Steadfastness is one, but another is faithfulness, and yet another confidence. If you happen to have someone who is a combination of these notions in your life, then you are experiencing something rather unique in today’s world. I’m not speaking merely of romantically faithful—though that is obviously important, especially if you’re thinking of the traditional image of St. Valentine’s Day. Rather, when I speak here of faithfulness, I am referring to the kind that is closely akin to steadfastness, the unique capacity to stay with that person in your life through thick and thin, not to lose confidence in them when the chips are down—especially when a bad decision or two by that other person has caused the chips to go down, if not the ship to go down, as well. That steadfastness is grounded in confidence, divinely inspired confidence in the other person. When you have someone in your life who won’t lose confidence in you, no matter what, that is true faithfulness. That is the steadfastness, the confidence of which I speak. If you have such a person in your life, then you know what I mean. And you are lucky.

In closing, dear reader, I wish you as much this St. Valentine’s Day. If you don’t yet have such a person in your life, may you find one. And if you do have such a person, I hope you have time to celebrate him or her and, if you have a moment to reflect on what I’ve written here, to try to be such a person.  I can say that a few years back I married such a person. And if you know what I mean, then you will say that I am lucky, lucky and blessed.

Happy St. Valentine’s Day, Sweetheart. You are the long-suffering, gracious, forgiving, steadfast and faithful light of my life. I love you for your virtues, I love you precisely for who you are.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Welsh Poets, Russian Icons, and Other Points of Confusion

Russian icon.LenaNot because they are boring but because they are sensible, poets usually contrast things that are quite contrastable. In Prif Cyfarch the first ballad of Taliesin, the oldest of Welsh bards (6th c.)—assuming it is his, and assuming it does date from the sixth century, and assuming his name was Taliesin, and so forth (all topics I leave aside here)—posits contrasts from start to bottom. At the very beginning the poet asks, “Which was first, is it darkness, is it light?” Later, in about the middle of that ballad, he vaunts his capacity as a bard to defy time: “I am old. I am young. I am Gwion [a name], / I am universal, I am possessed of penetrating wit. / Thou wilt remember thy old Brython [Britain] (And) the Gwyddyl [i.e. the Irish], kiln distillers, / Intoxicating the drunkards. / I am a bard; I will not disclose secrets to slaves; / I am a guide: I am expert in contests.”[1]

Taliesin is, too, an expert in contrasts. His ambivalence about humankind’s origins in light or darkness, his conflicting statement about the bard’s sempiternal status of being old and young at once, his assumption that (as opposed to the mead-drinking Welsh) the Irish are drunkards because they are the suppliers of the distillations of kilns, and that he is the keeper of secrets (implying there are those who don’t know the secrets, e.g., slaves) and that as such he is a knowledgeable guide (to those who don’t know)—these are just a few of the contrasts that Taliesin sets out in his first poem, a poet that defines itself, as we all do to some extent, by contrast with those around us.

This poem and a lovely gift I received got me thinking this week about contrasts and cases of things easily mistaken. Before I get to the latter two ideas, let me begin first with the gift, a small plaque of Smolensk’s Cathedral of the Assumption. This gift was gently and generously presented to me by the mother of a friend of mine. That friend, Lena, and her mother both hail from Russia, from Smolensk itself, a modestly sized city of 327,000 most famous, perhaps for the Battle of Smolensk in 1812 when it was besieged by Napoleon where he was opposed by the Russian general Barclay de Tolly. Its most famous monument is the now-lost portrait of “Our Lady of Smolensk” attributed to St. Luke himself. Napoleon assumed that the Russians would defend the church at all costs and therefore stay close to the town, but they came out on the plane to oppose him. The Russians allowed their city to burn as their army retreated. Thus, while Napoleon won the battle, it was a high price to pay, a Pyrrhic victory.

Hodegetria virgin
Virgin Hodegetria, 13th c.

Golden eyeThe Cathedral, however, is not so much famous for that battle (or for the James Bond film “Golden Eye”). The icon itself went missing after the Germans conquered Smolensk in 1941. Was the icon destroyed?[2] Was it simply stolen (and still exists somewhere in some hidden Nazi vault)?[3] These questions are, of course, beyond the purview of this blog.

But I wax art-historical. Let me return to what I wanted to say about the confluence of the portrait of the lovely gift of the Cathedral of the Assumption, now on my desk, and the idea of contrasts that the quite old Welsh poet Taliesin brought to my mind. That idea was the question of anyone’s perception of “otherness,” on the one hand, and anyone’s confusion of contrasting ideas such as foreignness and familiarity, or, more especially, mildly contrasting ones, such as strength and power.

I’ll begin with the former, starker contrast. As I gazed at that image of the church this week, I had to think to myself how different Lena’s life must have been, growing up in Smolensk, and how even more different that of her mother, living much of her life in Soviet Russia. How for her mother, in particular, she had learned of Lenin and Stalin as heroes of the state and of Barclay de Tolly as a local hero—though he was not born in Russia, as he was born in modern day Estonia—as opposed to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr. How different than my own—did I really mean “inferior to my own”?—Lena’s mother’s worldview must be.

And then it donned on me, how appallingly provincial my thoughts were and how, inasmuch as I am myself of Welsh descent, I should never indulge in such thoughts, as my forebears came from the tiniest of tiny and “meaningless” places. Though the poets of my tribe may from time to time playfully reference the Gwyddyl’s propensity for strong drink and have made uneasy alliances with Brython, mine is of a surety but a heritage of humility. My family comes from a small and, to most of the world, insignificant place (Llanelli) where, by all accounts, the beautiful if highly guttural and for me, at least, hard-to-pronounce language is waning, perhaps dying. There’s a lesson here somewhere. It’s a lesson of humility.

Napolean at the Battle of Smolensk, 1812 Jean-Charles Langlois – The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 159150 (public domain)

Then I thought about the easily confused ideas of strength and power. Undoubtedly puffing out his chest with pride, pompously perched on prancing steed, Napoleon watched most of Smolensk burn to the ground in August of 1812. Just over a century later, the Germans destroyed much of the city when they occupied it in 1941. It wasn’t a strong place, it doesn’t have a history that proclaims martial superiority. Rather, like most of the world, it suffered loss, it suffered humankind’s inhumane ravishes. Its most beautiful and famous icon is lost. Though after the Second World War it was proclaimed a Hero City, from all external appearances Smolensk lacks power. Yet I have a feeling that Smolensk and the people of Smolensk have great strength. I have a feeling that they have become much stronger from the losses that they endured. I have a feeling their strength is much greater than those of us whose towns have not endured such trials can know.

We human beings all too easily confuse strength with power. Smolensk’s famous Lucan icon did not have power in and of itself. Rather, it preserved the record of power, it embodied strength. Strength? The strength of a baby sitting on the lap of a mother? Yes, that very strength, not simply the image of the powerful relationship of mother and child, but the allusion to the strength that that particular Child would show as an adult in the face of the abuse of power by religious authorities and political figures: in His suffering, in His weakness, strength, admirable strength, masking but presaging cosmic power.

So I close this blog as I began, with a double-hinged idea: a challenge to myself to see the world from the point of view of another—some might even say “the other”—and to all of us to recognize that an apparent dearth of power does not imply a lack of strength. Rather, in may in fact imply an extraordinary Source about which we have but slender understanding.

[1] Trans. by William Forbes Skene, The Four Ancient Books of Wales (1868) from the fine and thoroughly Welsh website of Mary Jones at I thank Mary Jones for the proper reference.