Monthly Archives: September 2018

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Foundations

The Curious Autobiography is very much a document concerned with foundations; the most precious kind of foundation is known as a family. One can have educational foundations, too, but really those tend to be moorings, not foundations. A great teacher comes but sadly, she goes, too. Until my senior year, I had Mrs. Zinieda Sprowles but for a moment in high school—less than a semester in tenth grade, for she fell and badly broke her arm and had to miss the rest of that term; Mrs. Crane replaced her. I learned much about literature and life from Mrs. Sprowles. I recall learning very little literature from Mrs. Crane, but rather, as memory serves, she busied herself with teaching Situation Ethics.

Situation Ethics, qua discipline, which I do not believe it actually is or ever should have been, basically justified immoral behavior if the situation calls for a bend or flex in one’s “rigid” upbringing. If your parents told you not to get drunk, for example, in the right situation it might be okay to do so; if your parents told you not to go to wild parties with girls from Holton-Arms School or boys from Georgetown Preparatory School, you can go anyway, and adjust your ethics to the situation at hand, from drinking too much to flirting to making sexual advances or even something worse, whether wanted or unwanted. It all depends on the situation, the ephemeral moment and what it calls for.

Now don’t get me wrong. Dear, sweet Mrs. Crane was a good lady, a nice person who cared about her students. She just happened to have drunk of the same bad fount from which other teachers of that same era (the late 70s/early 80s) had drunk—yes, there’s an awkward pun here somewhere. I think it is safe to say—or is it?—that we are reaping the sorry fruits of Situation Ethics now. Fruits may be the wrong word; dandelions might be more to the point. Dandelions look like flowers, but they are in fact weeds. Likewise, Situation Ethics.

Odysseus’ men in Lotus Island

But to return to foundations. As I said, educational experiences are moorings, not foundations. Family is a foundation. Friends, like education, are beacons or moorings. They might helpfully or unhelpfully guide you, whether offering a bad moment of lotus-eating or providing you genuine respite along the way, but then you’ll have to move on to the next city or town, and all too often fall out of touch, at least a bit, with your friends. But family is bedrock; and the values you garner from the family are hard to shake. You can go to therapy and learn that your parents were horrible beasts trying to mould you, to groom you into being just like them; you can read books about how to break away from the religious intolerance and bigotry of your upbringing. The Curious Autobiography, again, quite addresses that, and shows that for Elaine, it was, in the end an impossible task for her to become “unWelsh,” to lose her Welshness. And barring intentional neglect or death, you don’t fall out of touch with your husband or wife, your mother or father, your sister or brother. They are yours for life; they are, in fact, yours forever.

And that is what this blog is really about: a forever perspective. I have a friend whose mother is ill now, as was Elaine in the years leading up to her passing. These are difficult times for her and her mom, poignant for the memories they evoke and the memories, in caregiving, that they are providing. Sadly, one can’t go back in time and fix all the wrongs that one committed or, more certainly, those committed against oneself; (that mentality is admittedly very much in the air these days, a kind of balancing of the scales that too often goes beyond mere justice). But one can go forward in the darkest hour of one’s mother’s or father’s life, even the days of passing, with grace, forgiveness, and love.

a family reunion

So what is the foundation I am pointing towards today? It is an eternal, not an ephemeral outlook, the love of a family, the commitment to see that person, whether husband or wife, mother or father, through to the end, regardless of the pain, present or past, embracing every moment, thankful for every memory, even the hard ones, and rejoicing that though it is the end, it is not the end.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Speaking Redemption

Plato (c. 427-c. 347 BC)

It is just too easy to become jaded these days. The last two blogs have perhaps revealed a bit of my personal frustration about living in an age where it seems that ideas (admittedly only ideas)—sometimes known as “values,” such as truth, goodness, justice, which Plato called the “forms”—are no longer valued by folks so much. Rather, personal goals seem to come first, no matter what they might be. In other words, what is deemed valuable is any individual’s personal agenda, and facile applause follows achieving that, with little thought given to the value of that enterprise or its value to the common good. The idea of community is lost, it seems, or at least placed far behind the notion of the individual’s personal growth, even if that growth is in a direction that just may in fact be harmful to those around that individual, or at the very least, in conflict with what had hitherto been regarded as transcendent values.

Assuming I am even partly right about what I have suggested above, then one might have every right to ask the following tough question: “How can I, in the face of changing values or, better put, the devaluation of traditional values, do or even say anything of value?” And I spent some time thinking about this very thing this week, and it came to me that there really is only one thing that one can do to make a difference in an Orwellian world such as I have described.

That difference can be traced, I’m sorry to say, to a source. I say sorry because the notion of any source aside from the individual is, these days, rather unpopular. The individual, it is believed, has the capacity and, more importantly the right, to determine for him or herself what is right, or should I say to determine what is right for him or herself. These palindromatic notions seem, as I hint at in the opening paragraph, to be essentially the same thing. But for those of us who might want to suggest a different, less popular and, yes I’m afraid traditional, perspective, we will look to find the source that I speak of.

That source is a mountain. Not one of the seven hills of Rome, not Athens Mars’ Hill, not Dharamsala in the Tibetan Himalayas, not even Mt. Zion in Israel. No, it is a much smaller “mountain,” really only a hill, one you probably have never heard of, known as Har HaOsher. It lies between Capernaum and Gennesaret, where once, it is said, were spoken by an itinerant rabbi something called the Beatitudes. These teachings can be summed up with any one of a number of quite positive words like grace, compassion, even love. Among those summary words, to me one, however, stands out: redemption. They are redemptive teachings, blessings on those who seek to practice even a fraction of them. That rabbi broke that blessing into bite-sized pieces. They’re not hard to do, they don’t lie “beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, ‘Who will cross the sea, get it and proclaim it to us so that we may follow it?’” No, “the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.”

If there is a solution to a world whose values are in dissolution, then, it seems to me, that the way through the chaos may just be to speak redemption, to show compassion and kindness to everyone we encounter. That rabbi did that very thing when the world he inherited was in at least as much disarray as ours is today. He chose to bless, to redeem. Perhaps we can, too, if we put our mind to it. After all, if we look for it, that redemptive word may just be very nigh unto us, already in our mouths and our hearts. And if it is, perhaps we should just speak it, for redemptive speech might be the first step toward a better world, precisely as it was quite a long time ago on a hill in Galilee.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Nut Cracker, Sweet

anatomy of a shoulder

Okay, it took this topic to make me type again, for I’ve had a tough surgery on my arm and, frankly, it hurts to type.  It hurts to do the dishes.  It hurts to pick up dirty laundry off the floor and it really hurts to fold the clean laundry. But who’s complaining? (I suppose I am.)  In any case, this blog, guided by my pain, will be brief.

But that’s not why I am writing this piece. It’s because in the few weeks I’ve been waylaid by pain, I’ve noticed that something impossible has happened: the news has gotten even weirder than when I stopped writing. I say nothing of the Kardashians—that’s just par for the course—nor say I anything about the president of the United States or Nike advertising or anonymous op eds to the New York Times.  I say nothing.

But I do say something about a certain man, S. Navin Kumar,  who set a new world’s record by cracking walnuts (217 in one minute).  It’s an odd record, walnut cracking.  Now, at first blush, this may not seem odd.  After all, someone has to crack the nuts, and maybe in a factory somewhere there was a competition between crackers and then, one marvelous and legendary day, someone won that contest—like sheepshearers in Australia.  Walnuts come primarily from Germany, then Turkey, China, Japan and Spain.  I checked it out.  So, let’s figure on Germany. There someone bet someone else a beer, no doubt, that he (probably he) could outstrip his counterpart Nussknacker (the German word for nutcracker is in fact Nussknacker).  “Ich kan Nüsse besser als du knacken,” he probably said, “und schneller!”   And that’s how it all started.

All things seem to start nobly, and only afterwards degenerate.  Take professional basketball for example. They once called real fouls, no matter who fouled whom. They also called traveling.  No longer. Big stars get free passes on fouls and traveling. Actually, almost everyone gets free passes on the latter nowadays.

But nutcracking—that’s the big surprise. What started as an innocent contest between two beer drinking Germans (sorry for the stereotype) has degenerated into head-slamming grandstanding and, ironically, this just when the NFL is cracking down on shots to the head and even uncalled for body blows.  Perhaps as a reaction to that, suddenly the world record for cracking walnuts with one’s head has been set—set in stone, I might add—S. Navin Kumar.  I suppose I, with the rest of the world, should simply congratulate him. But honestly, I think he must be nuts.

Okay, my arm is sore, which will allow you to forgive me for that rather weak closing line.