The Art of Tushery According to Tolkien

Yeah, he seems like he would be okay with archaic things

Yeah, he seems like he would be okay with archaic things

Last week we began a discussion on archaic language and its uses according to TS Eliot. If you missed it, you can check it out here. Today, we will continue our discussion with JRR Tolkien.

When Tolkien wrote the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, he filled them with archaic language. He made this choice deliberately as the “translator” of the languages of Middle-earth. This is a land wherein creatures are felled and cloven and smote, the Hobbits are afraid of Oliphaunts, and faithful Samwise “shan’t call it the end, till we’ve cleared up the mess.” Not everyone cared for what they considered affectation. Tolkien’s critic Hugh Brogan referred to the narrative style of Two Towers as “tushery.” Amusingly enough, the criticism is now far more dated than the book! Tushery (which my word processor won’t admit is an actual word) is writing of poor quality affected by archaism. In a letter to Brogan, Tolkien defends himself, “But a real archaic English is far more terse than modern; also many of things said could not be said in our slack and often frivolous idiom.” It is worth quoting the letter at length:

But take an example from the chapter that you specially singled out (and called terrible): Book iii, “The King of the Golden Hall’. ‘Nay, Gandalf!’ said the King. ‘You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.’ This is a fair sample — moderated or watered archaism. Using only words that still are used or known to the educated, the King would really have said: ‘Nay, thou (n’)wost1 not thine own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall . . .’ etc. I know well enough what a modern would say. ‘Not at all my dear G. You don’t know your own skill as a doctor. Things aren’t going to be like that. I shall go to the war in person, even if I have to be one of the first casualties’ — and then what? Theoden would certainly think, and probably say ‘thus shall I sleep better’! But people who think like that just do not talk a modern idiom. You can have ‘I shall lie easier in my grave’, or ‘I should sleep sounder in my grave like that rather than if I stayed at home’ – if you like. But there would be an insincerity of thought, a disunion of word and meaning. For a King who spoke in a modern style would not really think in such terms at all, and any reference to sleeping quietly in the grave would be a deliberate archaism of expression on his part (however worded) far more bogus than the actual ‘archaic’ English that I have used. Like some non-Christian making a reference to some Christian belief which did not in fact move him at all.

Or p. 127, as an example of ‘archaism’ that cannot be defended as ‘dramatic’, since it is not in dialogue, but the author’s description of the arming of the guests – which seemed specially to upset you. But such ‘heroic’ scenes do not occur in a modern setting to which a modern idiom belongs. Why deliberately ignore, refuse to use the wealth of English which leaves us a choice of styles – without any possibility of unintelligibility. I can see no more reason for not using the much terser and more vivid ancient style, than for changing the obsolete weapons, helms, shields, hauberks into modern uniforms.

I am sorry to find you affected by the extraordinary 20th.C. delusion that its usages per se and simply as ‘contemporary’ – irrespective of whether they are terser, more vivid (or even nobler!) – have some peculiar validity, above those of all other times, so that not to use them (even when quite unsuitable in tone) is a solecism, a gaffe, a thing at which one’s friends shudder or feel hot in the collar. Shake yourself out of this parochialism of time! (Letter 171)

For Tolkien, the way he employs old language is not an affectation but, rather, it is the most efficient way to express the mind of the speaker. He is able to accurately portray psychology through the way he writes. Without archaism, one is left with the distinct impression that the world of Middle-earth would be impoverished.

As if tushery is Not Safe For Work enough, how about another example taken from Deadwood. Deadwood is a television show written by David Milch. Although the stories are fictionalized, they take place in one of the last, true lawless towns of the wild west. Deadwood was once upon a time the site of a gold rush; it is now mostly a tourist trap. At the height of the mining boom, life here in fictionalized Deadwood is marked by blood, feuding, and cheating. As the town slowly develops rule of law, language plays an important role. In fact, it is the way in which men speak to each other that first evinces signs of potential civilization. The characters do not talk like us. In fact, they don’t even talk like people in the actual Deadwood would have talked. Instead, they use a blend of extremely foul, modern curse words (I do not know that I would actually be able to recommend the show to anyone for this reason) and archaic, almost Shakespearean sentence construction that comes across in a gorgeous, metered lilt.

For instance:

Who would argue that the venue was the cause of these happy memories, nor the bill of fare? The bitter coffee, the rancid bacon, those stale biscuits that were tomb and grave to so many insects. No, gentlemen, it was the meandering conversation, the lingering with men of character – some of whom are walking with me now – that was such pleasure to experience, and such a joy now to recall.

Who would have expected this from a popular television show about the old west? The language imbues the town with a sense of life and vitality that is unexpected. I would quote more to illustrate my point but, again, it is all pretty much loaded with profanity.

Something is odd about this town and these people who seem like unto us and yet also somewhat foreign. They may curse like us, but they sure do express their minds differently. An air of wonderment descends on this Dakota outpost; a mining town is not merely a mining town but an incubator of culture. In all manner of conditions mankind tends to create civilization. Foundational to the enterprise is our ability to communicate using intricate language full of symbol and loaded with meaning. This is how tradition is carried forth and developed. Words, including archaic words in their own particular way, are the gateway into the life of the mind. The inner mind is a whole wild west of its own, a place to mine the true riches of humanity. This is the beauty of these words and the men who use them.

Soft, what light through yonder window breaks?

Soft, what light through yonder window breaks?

From the profane to the sublime, let’s compare two translations of Psalm 23.

The NAB is the modern translation used in Mass:

The LORD is my shepherd;

there is nothing I lack.

In green pastures he makes me lie down;

to still waters he leads me;

he restores my soul.

He guides me along right paths

for the sake of his name.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil, for you are with me;

your rod and your staff comfort me.

You set a table before me

in front of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Indeed, goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life;

I will dwell in the house of the LORD for endless days.

This is fine, I guess. Our other example is the KJV, which is more or less the Elizabethan-language translation:

The Lord is my shepherd;

I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:

he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul:

he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;

thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:

thou anointest my head with oil;

my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The King James, although a deeply flawed canon that shows its political influences and (no fault of the translators) is missing essential ancient manuscript input, renders the scriptures in gorgeous, old language. This language is considered archaic today, but I ask, which version of Psalm 23 do you prefer? Which one is a better representation of a religion as strange and original as Christianity? The oddity of the language is a feature, not a defect.

You might object that the words only seem archaic to us today but were modern at the time and, further, the Scriptures have a unique standing in literature. Ah, but would you be interested to learn that when the translation was first made it deliberately employed words that were already considered out of date? “Yea, verily” would have made the grandmothers in the gallery at Shakespeare’s theater nod their heads in approval about the golden old days. The Victorians who later revised the King James embraced this principle and actually made it even more archaic!

It seems as though, even if words have a life cycle, perhaps we have given up on many of them far too soon. There is a richness, a grandeur, and a precision that archaic language (and only archaic language) can bring to literature. Yea, very, I say unto thee that these words are not so dead after all.

Do Something: Letting Obstacles Become the Way

Life can be overwhelming. Sometimes, it throws too much good at you. Or bad.

IMG_4171Other times, despite what life throws at you, whatever is left inside of you after the last bout of things life threw at you can prevent you from accepting or moving on to the new batch of stuff.

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Life is complicated. And frustrating. And we don’t make it easier, either.

I have gone through enough times in my life when I am angry about this or sullen and resentful about that to know that my response is often to vacillate. To do nothing. To rebel.

I’ve gone through enough of them to know how to snap out of it, too. And when I can get up the gumption to kick myself in the butt and force myself to take that first step out of the hole I’ve been hiding in… well, it’s awesome.

What is that first step?

DO SOMETHING.

Let’s take an example: a messy, messy room. We’ve all had them. And we’ve all had to clean them up, too. (‘Cause, hi mom!)

How do you handle a room that is so overwhelmingly messy that, really, the only thing you want to do is shut the door and walk away?

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There is simply too much to do. Your brain is exploding. Your heart is racing. You cannot imagine everything you’re going to have to do to get this room clean.

How do you fix that situation?

DO SOMETHING.

Start small. Baby steps. pick up one thing and put it where it belongs. Then another. And another. Don’t look too far ahead or you’ll freak out again. Just focus on the one task at hand, and when that is done, move on to the next.

It really so simple, and yet we psyche ourselves out all the time about it. Living in the present. Focusing on the NOW.

Sometimes, when my office is a mess–it usually is at the end of every single week (WHAT PIG WORKS IN MY OFFICE?!)–I dump everything into a box and pull one thing out at a time and put it in its place.

Sometimes, when I have used up all of the laundry baskets to store my clean and unfolded laundry for three weeks… (yes… ask my husband) I take them downstairs, one by one, and I Fold. Each. Piece. One. At. A. Time.

Eventually, my office is clean and the clothes are put away. Until next week.

babysteps

The dishes are another matter…

Things in life can be sorted like this, too.

Right now, I am overwhelmed (and blessed) with the amount of work I have on my plate. I’m finishing up my special on Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I’m working on The Faithful Traveler in Portugal. I’m editing and writing a variety of videos about Catholic Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. I have a job that requires some attention, and a husband who requires some, too. Oh, and then there’s my dog, who insists on playing ball, being fed, and being taken outside (ugh! the nerve!) I’m trying to keep working out. I need to eat and sleep.

There are things I must do, and sometimes my days just don’t seem long enough. Sometimes, I lie in bed, my mind racing, and I pray, “Dear GOD! What am I doing?! I can’t do all of this!”

And then I pray, “Jesus, I trust in you.” over and over and over and over again until I fall asleep and start the next overwhelming day.

It works.

But sometimes, things happen that prevent you from doing that one thing that you set out to do. And what then?

apple

The answer then is also simple: BE FLEXIBLE. AND KEEP DOING SOMETHING.

This Tuesday, I decided I would spend that day working on my website. The setting was perfect: my husband was out of town, so the only time I had to spend with him was when he called (LOL. I love my husband, I do! But sometimes being overwhelmed makes me go into BEAST mode and he gets neglected.). It had recently snowed, so I didn’t have to take the dog out (he’s potty trained). I had cancelled my personal training appointment that day because of the snow storm that never came.

Basically, I had ALL DAY to do what I wanted to do.

I never got it done.

First, my website was being slow. I thought it was the wifi, so I moved downstairs with my laptop and connected directly to the modem. GREAT. I had super fast speeds then.

But whenever I tried refreshing my page, it was still super slow.

exploding

I called my host, and they kindly walked me through a bunch of things. I emptied my cache. They sent some test emails.

Eventually, the answer was that my media files–the file that holds all of the photos and videos clips and everything else on my website–is huge. In fact, the guy on the phone told me it was one of the biggest he’s ever seen. Nice.

He also said that my photos were out of someone’s bucket list, which was a nice compliment!

The good thing is, the solution was easy. All I had to do was back up my website,  delete my old blog posts, now that my blog has moved over to Patheos, and back to work! Simple. The CS guy pointed me to some plug ins, and away I started downloading right away.

It is now Friday. That plug in I downloaded is still backing up my website. FOUR. DAYS. LATER.

I still haven’t done what I wanted to do on my website. But in the meantime, I went through all of my external hard drives and identified what was on them and how much space they had and labelled them all. I wrote a press release. I wrote a business plan. I wrote a script. I edited some legal books. Made some calls. Sent some emails.

Do you know what I wanted  to do when this whole thing started? I wanted to freak out, throw my computer out the window and throw a big ol’ tantrum.

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But what good would it have done? Instead, I just moved on and did something else.

You may think I’m bragging. I’d have to say that I am. I’m proud of how I responded to this frustrating situation because, for the first time in a long time I actually responded to a situation in a way that I wished I would respond. I’m not normally like this. Normally, I do freak out and throw tantrums. Even if they are just on the inside.

 

IMG_4250Recently, I came across a book called The Obstacle is the Way. It’s a really good book essentially about stoicism. I enjoyed it so much I’ve listened to the audiobook twice. I may listen another time. And maybe another. I want the concepts to stick in my head.

I saw so much of the saints and how we are called to be Christians, trusting in God and being grateful in this behavior, I think if he knew it, the author would have been frightened.

One concept he mentioned was the art of loving everything that happens to you. Recognizing that everything that happens to us can be a lesson, can help us grow, if only we see it that way.

It reminds me of something my mom says: no hay mal que por bien no venga. Translation: There is no bad from whence good does not come.

The Table of Contents for this book is a lesson plan.

The first part is the first thing what we must do: PERCEPTION.

I perceive the room to be so messy that it is uncleanable.

I perceive that room to be cleanable if I take it one step at a time.

I simply have too much to do. I cannot do it.

I can do it.

Let’s throw the Catholic version in there: I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.

Change how you think. Awesome.

Part TWO: Action.

First step: DO SOMETHING.

If something goes wrong, be persistent.

Is an obstacle in your way? Let the obstacle become the way.

challenge

From a Catholic perspective… on Tuesday, I tried to do something on my website. I couldn’t. Perhaps God wanted me to do something else. Maybe it wasn’t the right time to tackle that job. Whatever the case may be, I will do whatever else I can to make my day productive.

Part THREE: Will.

Are you disciplined?

Are you humble?

Are you humble enough to love everything that happens to you, good or bad?

Do you trust in your God as much as you say you do? Do you trust in Him in all things?

It’s a remarkable book. I highly recommend it.

For now, as my website continues to be backed up, I’m going to move on to another task, and them maybe another. Eventually, I’ll get that website done. But at least, in the meantime, I won’t have allowed whatever obstacles rolled in my way to keep me from getting things done.

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*All images were created using Bitstrips. Which is an awesome app.

The remembered mercy of broken things

This is a guest post by Thomas Springer.

Brett’s 1/2 –ton pickup, righteously dented and rusted per farm truck specifications, backed into our barn driveway on a winter Saturday with a special delivery. Attached to the rear hitch was an empty flat-bed trailer that was long enough to carry another entire pick-up if necessary.

“That’s a pretty big rig just to haul 50 lbs. of frozen meat in,” I hollered, over the phlegmy cough of the truck’s exhaust.

“It would be,” Brett said, “if this was my only stop. But I’m headed to Muncie (Indiana) for a load of hay after this. I found it on Craig’s List. There’s none around here because of the drought. They want $100 for a round bale if you can believe it.”

It was a custom delivery from Brett and Debbie Green’s M&M Beefalo farm in nearby Mendon. The packages we unloaded were frozen so hard that they clanked like porcelain dishes when we stacked them in the freezer.

A beefalo is two-thirds cattle and one-third buffalo. It’s leaner than cattle, but with a wilder, more complex flavor. Brett feeds his animals hay, pasture grass, green corn stalks, some grain and even over-ripe watermelons when he can get them. But no growth hormones. They live a clean, happy life, until, as farmer/writer Joel Salatin says “they have one bad day at the end of it.”

“I hope this batch lasts you!” said Brett with a conspiratorial grin.

We usually buy a ¼ of a beefalo from him each fall, but this year we needed a second order. That’s because misfortune intervened — although that’s a secret heretofore known only to me, my wife, a few family members, and now, our cattleman.

It befell us on a Saturday evening in July, one of those lingering, saffron-twilight interludes that’s perfect for grilling burgers over hardwood coals in the backyard. As I fiddled with stick matches and kindling to start the fire, I asked Emily to retrieve two packages of 1/3 lb. patties from the freezer in the barn.

“Be sure to shut the freezer door tight!” I instructed. I said it in a shrill, fatherly tone, born of the time-tested expectation that such dictates often fall on deaf ears. Seconds later Emily sailed passed with packages in hand, ran them to the house and within a minute was back outside on her trampoline.

After a quick defrost in the microwave the meat was soon asizzle on the wood-fired grill. It’s an imprecise operation. There’s no control knob on an open fire, no steel burners to ensure an even distribution of heat and flame. So you’re forever flipping here and nudging there to center the meat between the too-hot spots and the too-cold spots. You know the patties are ready when the muddy brown “done” juice seeps out and dangles from the grill’s underside like a high-protein stalactite.

While campfire cooking in mid-summer makes for a lot of sweating and squatting, the eldest daughter’s imprimatur during dinner made it all worthwhile.

“Dad,” her eminence pronounced, “these are the best burgers.”

And so they are. Beefalo patties, even when cooked well-done as my wife insists hers be, retain a ruddy color and rich flavor. Garnish with pickles, garden lettuce and home-grown tomatoes and you’ve got a fast, slow-food that can — mirabile dictu! — make an American teen forego the Golden Arches.

Not until the next afternoon did I realize that this would be our last beefalo cookout of the summer and fall season.

I was mowing by the barn when an ominous thought came to mind: “Had I checked the freezer door last night?”

It’s an old freezer with a weak door seal that must be firmly closed. As I rushed in I could see from the 30 feet away that it was not. It had been left ajar for 24 hours. And the barn’s indoor thermometer read 92 degrees.

I instinctively shut the door tight as if doing so now would make any difference. Then I opened it slowly, with the wincing trepidation usually reserved for one who has, with a sickening crunch, just backed over a child’s favorite toy in the driveway.

“Son of a, son of a, son of a … arrgggghhh!”

It wasn’t just the packages of beefalo –about 25 lbs. — that were thawed and dripping a wretched pink fluid onto the floor. There were also five pounds of gorgeous steelhead and Chinook salmon filets, caught from a boat on Lake Michigan. We’d won the trip in a church raffle and it would not be repeated. There were 20 bags of strawberries, picked on my wife’s family farm, the promise of winter fruit smoothies to come (and now bound for the compost pile). There were venison steaks for which I’d traded six pounds of honey from our hives.

It was such a wasted blessing. In all, several hundred dollars’ worth of food had been reduced to an oozing heap of vacuum-sealed offal. Apart from the money, these were prized provisions of a sort that only our home place can provide. We’d caught the fish, picked the berries and harvested the honey that we’d used for barter. It was our hands and those of our friends that had done this: Brett and Debbie, Brian and John. Their care and handiwork was the food’s provenance.

The loss was beyond infuriating. And someone – I knew exactly who – would have to pay for it.
Picture a hot, dirty, angry father as he stomps to the house. Imagine his self-righteous fury about to be unleashed, channeled into a tongue-lashing about waste, irresponsibility and carelessness that a guilty child would not soon forget.

Then, as the magma of recrimination reached its eruption point, an unlikely thing happened.
Near the patio a memory came to mind of a 10-year-old boy on a Saturday morning in December, some 40 years ago. It was before catechism classes, outside the old Catholic school on South Main Street in Three Rivers. A large puddle on the playground had frozen into an ice rink that made a perfect place for the boy and his friends to go sliding.

Earlier that week, the boy had gotten his first pair of glasses and what a marvel they had been. For the first time in his life he could see, in fine detail, high branches of the tall trees that lined his street.

Such an expensive accoutrement must be protected, thought the boy. So with reasoning that could well be described as recklessly imbecilic, he removed the glasses … and stowed them carefully in his back pocket. It was, inevitably, just minutes before the long-legged, uncoordinated boy fell flat on his rear end. Thus did the new glasses shatter and their lens fragments cut painfully into his skinny buttocks.

My father was a barber and those glasses probably cost him a day’s worth of haircuts. On the way home, I feared his wrath. But it’s telling that my last memory of the event ends here. All I recall is that he didn’t explode. He lashed me neither with his hands nor his tongue. Did he sigh deeply and wonder how such an addle-brained son could have sprung from his loins? Perhaps — but he never let on that he did.

Anyway, by the time I reached the front porch I knew that I couldn’t tell Emily what had happened. I couldn’t lay this temporal loss, so inconsequential in the scheme of things, on the shoulders of a sensitive and usually conscientious 9 year-old girl. It would unjustly grieve her spirit. My father had stayed his hand, and in remembrance of that, I would stay mine.

His example of leniency was a fruit that took four decades to ripen.

Yet those of us who insist on thawing hamburger patties in a microwave oven aren’t inclined to wait long for anything. The head-long immediacy of modern life, the instant availability of all knowledge (even the proper spelling of availability, which the computer’s squiggly red underline now orders me to correct) precludes the long view. We live in a PayPal, overnight-shipping-from-anywhere culture. Instant gratification has been enshrined, even deified by our consumer-driven economy. By design, it’s a world that devalues and even derides patience, self-denial and self-control.

It’s instructive, then, to learn from those whose livelihood requires that they heed the seasonal limits that nature imposes on creation.

When Brett had mentioned “the drought” as the source of his hay shortage, I was at first surprised. The drought? Oh yes, the drought, from last summer. It was long since over for me and everyone else who doesn’t farm.

But when Brett says the “drought” he doesn’t qualify it with “last summer’s drought.” It’s still in the present tense for him. It’s as real as a barn full of bawling beefalo that need hay from somewhere if they’re to survive the winter. Brett will shoulder the drought’s burden until the spring rains, God willing, make his dormant pastures green again.

I told this to Nancy, who worked fall weekends at her family’s orchard and she understood completely. Last March weeks of record high temperatures in the 80s had made the fruit trees blossom far too early. Inevitably, when the weather corrected to seasonal norms, frosts came and destroyed nearly all the apple blossoms. Without blossoms there’s no fruit and the trees won’t bloom twice in a year.

But by fall? When customers came for their squash, pumpkins, garlands of onions, ears of dried Indian corn and, oh yes, bags of apples?

“We’re sorry,” Nance would say, “but there’s hardly any due to the hard frost last spring. We hope they’ll bounce back next year.”

Some customers were puzzled, others a bit put off.

“Well, yes,” they seemed to insinuate, “but we want our apples now.”

As if, through some digital chicanery, we could subvert natural law and produce pixelated Ida Reds on a virtual assembly line. Thankfully, we can’t. But next season, given the trees’ stored-up root energy, there could well be a bumper apple crop. Even should we forget last spring, we can count on nature to keep an accurate set of books.

Within these books – at least if you’re a tree — are pages ordered by a fixed, cellulosic memory of seasons past. It’s a record imprinted with concentric certainty upon their inner-most being. When I was a boy I used to wonder why people couldn’t be more like that. Wouldn’t it be crazy fun to lop off an arm or finger and count the growth rings? (To a curious boy, such thoughts are not morbid.)

While not anatomically true I may have been on to something. People and trees alike do bear within their circumference a lived history of plentiful growth, as well as indelible marks of injury and hardship.

In the haunting poem “Rings,” Joseph Bruchac, an Abenaki Indian poet, conveyed that sentiment about a load of old-growth trees that he saw chained to an Oregon logging truck. Even the smallest log, Bruchac observed, “has more than a hundred/scars around/the wrists of seasons.”

Alexander Pope, writing in 1732, had younger trees in mind (and certainly curious boys) when he composed this timeless proverb: “Just as the twig is bent so the tree’s inclined.”

The trick here is to bend with judicious care. In my experience, when maple saplings are bound too tight in the upright position the guy wires can leave harmful wounds of their own. One must loosen the wires as needed to accommodate new growth. It’s an apt reminder that all discipline should lead to freedom, not enslavement.

Finally, an image closer to home comes from Rachel Peden (1901-1975), an essayist and Indiana farm wife who wrote of rural life with a luminous sense of the ordinary. While raking her front yard, she compares the tree’s annual crop of leaves – meticulously grown from bud to leaf, then recklessly discarded as debris – with her own endless round of meals cooked, beds made, chickens fed and floors swept.

But the colored leaves now lying on the grass are not all. Inside the dark, rough trunk, the tree has added a new layer of live wood around its core … And something remains from a year of farm living, too … a layer of strength that will persist as a permanent record, long after the tedious household chores are raked up and carried out to the midden to disintegrate.

Peden strikes me as one who would understand the remembered mercy of broken things. A traditional farm is a place abundant with life and death, wonder and catastrophe. There must be times when even the strong can’t bear to hear the undiluted truth of it all.

Meanwhile, I’ll save the freezer story for a time when my daughter’s old enough to see humor in it. Until then it’s a door to the past that will have to remain shut – and with more gusto than she managed the first time around.

Thou Shalt Speaketh Up-to-Date(th)

or

How I Learned to Relax and Love Archaic Language

 (Part I)

 A word, like a person, lives and dies. We cannot fight neologisms. Time marches on and languages rise and fall. Even though we might quietly shudder at the thought of “googling” information and living a “green” lifestyle, it displays a lack of gentlemanly noblesse oblige to put up too much of a fuss. Friends, let us not stand athwart the progress of history and impose a false conservatism on a living, breathing language. Words change definition, old words fall out of use, new ones are created, and we must make our peace.

Princess Bride

However, one must absolutely draw the line somewhere. I absolutely will not “hack” my life for convenient living, or believe that a “feminist” is a pop star who dances on a stage in her underpants while wheezing out a vocal. And don’t even get me started on the way that errors eventually become the norm, such as “chomping at the bit” and “irregardless.” I also hate how words like “terrible” and “awesome” have entirely changed meaning (but I admit that I am venturing into curmudgeon territory here).

Language changes, yes, and sometimes that is a bad development. Not all change can be automatically ascribed to a positive evolution, sometimes it is Darwin warning us our culture has wandered into a cul-de-sac and we need to put the car in reverse and step on the gas.

Darwin Award

Words, because they are alive, stretch their legs and take a walk out into the ether, suspended somewhere between speaker and listener. The speaker may intend one meaning and the listener have understood another. The word has taken on a sign value not entirely in our control anymore. (which is why silence is the wisdom of the Fox). This holds true, in fact, for all art. I am not such a good philosopher that I would want to make any specific claims for meaning and symbol and just how much is subjective and how much is objective, but hopefully we can all agree that language, while retaining a healthy level of objective meaning, is often deceptively complex. What we think we communicate is not always the case.

This difficulty becomes the absolute joy of a poet, for language offers infinite possibilities and shades of meaning. A poem, Aristotle reminds us, is the language of possibility. It is about what might be and what ought to be. If facts and specificities are employed at all, they are always in service of the whole, which exists beyond individual instances. The ambiguity of words allows the poet to refer to the mysterious reality that intertwines with ours and yet is well beyond it. Gerard Manley Hopkins defines the problem as how one is to use words to make present The Word. He solves the problem by essentially breaking language down to a song of related words that inform each other by their proximity. For instance, in “Pied Beauty” he writes:

Glory be to God for dappled things

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.

Language, for Hopkins, has become a dance of individual words that are related, rhyming, speeding past the reader and dazzling so that the mind is taken away from any specific actuality to which they refer and directed towards the universal, the God who fathers-forth all of creation. In the same way a son is a living icon of his father, so too are all things icons of the Creator God. Hopkins has as his goal a beauty of language that will transport us to the inner heart of all things. It is here that we see the resemblance most clearly.

Poetically, there is another way of accomplishing the same goal, through the use of archaism. This is the intentional deployment of words that have fallen out of regular use or whose meanings have changed drastically over the years and yet the poet refers to the original use, often situating them in a new context. A master of this art is TS Eliot. His Four Quartets are about the cyclical, changing nature of life, how we drill down through the flux of nature and into the still place at the center, from the part to the whole. He talks about words in the same manner as Hopkins; “Words…reach ,/into the silence.” And, “Words strain/Crack and sometimes break…/decay with imprecision.” It is in the space beyond the words (although somehow mediated by those very words) that we encounter the unchangeable Divine.

Here is the Heraclitean flow as described in the Quartets:

 In my beginning is my end. In succession

Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

Eliot comes back to the cyclical nature of time again and again, making the form follow the theme and forcing language to enter into mortal combat with itself through contradiction. Only after we break through the white noise of words do we find the stillness on the other side,

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered.

Eliot is a great appropriator of the writing of other poets, creating a kaleidoscopic effect that mimics his deconstruction of language. For instance, he quotes Spenser’s “Epithalamion”

 In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie –

A dignified and commodious sacrament.

Two and two, necessary conjunction,

That is some intense, Elizabethan archaism. What is its purpose in what we would consider a modern poem? Well, it actually introduces into the overall vocabulary itself a contradiction. It is as if there are two dictionaries fighting each other. This is a more fundamental way to accomplish what is done by the individual word pairings such as, “destroyed/restored, rise/fall, extended/removed, flesh/fleshless, past/future.” There is a juxtaposition of modern with ancient, showing that language itself is not exempt from the constant flux of nature; words are not The Word.

Eliot shows the great potential of archaic language when incorporated into poetry by a skilled writer and he uses it in such a way that not only do the individual words contradict but the entire poem itself is a contradiction. The archaic words themselves still retain their meaning (they aren’t turned into neologisms), so they convey the theme both in the rediscovery of their original meaning and by the way they redefine the formal structure of the poem. This works so well precisely because these words have detailed definitions, and although they have fallen out of use, they retain objective meaning. Old words might be dead, but in the hands of a gifted poet there is always the possibility of resurrection. We would be mistaken to dismiss their use so easily in favor of purely contemporary vocabulary.

On a more simple level, archaism will grab the reader’s attention. I admit that this may appear gimmicky when done poorly, but consider the case of the new English translation for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Archaism has been introduced into the very sentence structure as all of the collects have come to both more accurately reflect the ancient Latin rhythms as dependent clauses pile up upon each other as well as to more closely align with older English formulations of those same collects. By doing so, the prayers become more expressive of the poetic intent of the Mass. It would make sense that the Mass would proceed in a poetic manner, after all, it is the very act of a people who are seeking the God beyond them. We are the part seeking the whole.

An unfamiliar word with the whiff of antiquity about it creates mystery for the reader to solve. The Mass is not “contemporary” (a hilariously archaic word in its own right) or “Pope Benedict at Consecrationmodern” (again, funny). It is not an everyday newspaper article that will be out of date the next day. It is a timeless artifact that requires a close reading. It is an adventure! The low-level grumbling in response to the new translation was enough to put the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years to shame. Particularly odious to the complainers was the change in the Nicene Creed, which went from “one in being” to “consubstantial.” What old-fashioned nonsense is this, proponents of modern language cried! This new word, the complaint goes, is archaic. It has lost its meaning. It is technical. No one knows the definition and it is not user-friendly. What such a complaint overlooks, though, is that the word has the great virtue of being incredibly precise. It emerges from the crucible of a philosophical discussion with deep roots. This one little word has worlds of meaning packed into it. It brings us back to ancient Nicaea and Plato’s Ladder of Being and Santa angrily punching the heretic Arius in the face. This is a word that is experienced in vibrant color, it smells of incense, whereas in the service of relatability and ease of understanding, the previous phrase was gray and boring. Worse than that, the “modern” translation was quickly falling out of fashion. The now more faithfully rendered translation, archaism and all, is timeless.

(I have a lot more to say and will post more on archaism soon. Hopefully this interests others as much as it interests me! Teaser: Tolkien, the television show Deadwood, and the original King James Bible)

Pattern Recognition

Late last year, I went on a retreat. A copy of Ronald Knox’s New Testament translation accompanied me. I’d heard that Monsignor Knox had succeeded particularly well at rendering Saint Paul’s labyrinthine syntax into clear English. Never having quite followed the various threads of inspired argument through more than five or six chapters of Pauline prepositional phrases and dependent clauses at a single sitting, I was eager to see if Knox could make the longer epistles more intelligible to me than his predecessors (Douay-Rheims-Challoner; King James; etc.) and successors (New American Bible; Revised Standard Version; etc.) had done. The central project of my retreat would be to study Knox’s version of Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans as a single piece of literature, reading all sixteen chapters of that longest epistle in order and in as few sittings as possible.

Having done it, I can recommend it: Knox’s Paul is lucid indeed–lucid enough to read with pleasure for sixteen-chapter stretches; lucid enough to make the letter read like an actual letter, addressed to you and me, rather than like a sentence-diagramming exercise. So the project succeeded in its immediate object. As for how well it succeeded in its higher objects of bringing forth the fruits-by-which-you-shall-know-the-reader, and aiding the salvation of (one or more) souls—well, it’s a little early to say. But Monsignor Knox has done his share. His work is good fruit in itself, whatever may sprout from the seed.

There’s another priest who also deserves credit for fixing one of Paul’s lessons in my memory—an architect. I mentioned that my reading of Romans took place during a retreat. The venue was Prince of Peace Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Oceanside, California. As the photos on the Prince of Peace website suggest, the largest part of the monastery’s physical plant dates to the 1980s. Something about the buildings’ hard-edged modernism (domeless, archless, vaultless; even the columns are square, not circular, in cross-section) combines with the SoCal beach-ridge setting to give Prince of Peace a Star Trek look—specifically, a Star Trek: The Next Generation look.[1] But although the architectural style of Prince of Peace lacks any of the curves necessary to connect it to historic monastic architecture (whether of a round-arch or a pointed-arch variety), and although this deliberate ahistoricism is a fault, still, the buildings have their own virtue.

My guestroom at Prince of Peace Abbey.

My guestroom at Prince of Peace Abbey.

They are the designs of the Mexican Benedictine priest Gabriel Chávez de la Mora. Before my retreat, I had never heard of him; having looked up photos of his other works since my visit to Prince of Peace, I find them also too deliberately ahistorical. But even if the buildings of Prince of Peace show too little deference to tradition, they still show, and encourage, reverence toward God.

The walls and columns consist mostly of cubic, unpainted gray blocks, so that you pray, work, eat, and sleep surrounded by grids. After spending 26 hours inside those grids, I did not feel oppressed by Father Gabriel’s rectilinear monomania, but, rather, focused by the consistency of his design. The regularity of all those little squares-and-squares-and-squares complemented the regularity of the daily liturgical cycle—the one marking off space at set intervals, the other marking off time, both of them abstracting from the subtler order of nature. When the tower bell sounded, the horizontal edges of all the squares along the halls and corridors conducted the eye, the mind, and the rest of the self along an invisible z-axis toward the abbey church. And the squares’ vertical edges continued implicitly, invisibly, infinitely into the sky above and the earth below.

Nor did Father Gabriel’s design succeed only on the basis of its orderliness (so comforting to us animals shaped by the dangerous unpredictability of a fallen world) and its pure God-of-the-philosophers abstraction. It also, despite its excessive ahistoricism, called to mind concrete historical realities of our redemption. In the first place, Father Gabriel designed the abbey church’s tabernacle as a modernistic Ark of the Covenant, built from gold cubes of approximately the same dimensions as the monastery’s ubiquitous gray blocks. To see the blocks anywhere in the monastery was to remember the tabernacle in the church. In the second place, the regularity of the walls was relieved here and there by the raising of five blocks—one “middle” block and the four blocks sharing its edges—into a Greek cross. Thus, not only did one imagine the horizontal lines extending toward infinite horizons, and the vertical lines extending toward infinite heights and depths; one also grew to see crosses, large and small, in all the intersections.

Prince of Peace - squares

And that is where Father Gabriel Chávez de la Mora conspired unwittingly with Monsignor Ronald Knox and Saint Paul of Tarsus to fix one lesson in my head—and, I hope, in my heart. I was sitting in a colonnade, with my back against one of Father Gabriel’s cross-gridded walls, facing another grid, and flanked by two more, when I read Monsignor Knox’s translation of Romans 6:3-5 (emphasis added):

You know well enough that we who were taken up into Christ by baptism have been taken up, all of us, into his death. In our baptism, we have been buried with him, died like him, that so, just as Christ was raised up by his Father’s power from the dead, we too might live and move in a new kind of existence. We have to be closely fitted into the pattern of his resurrection, as we have been into the pattern of his death [. . .].


[1] A 24th-century Starfleet uniform would look at least as natural in those surroundings as a 21st-century Benedictine habit. More than once, I felt a temptation to pull out my smartphone—that proto-tricorder—and scan the colonnades for life-forms. By God’s grace, I managed to resist.

Gethsemane Blues

This is a guest post by Casey Sharp.

“Please, no explanations inside the Church,” reads the poorly worded sign outside of the Basilica of Agony in Jerusalem. Located at the possible site of the Garden of Gethsemane and Christ’s final agonizing meditation before he submitted himself to die- the Basilica of Agony is not a place for explanations. The Italian speaking Franciscans living in the Church only wanted to urge the noisy tour groups to refrain from disrupting the serenity of a holy place by keeping their lectures on its history outside the sacred space, but the Friars unknowingly made a statement that could not be more appropriate for the Garden of Gethsemane.

According to tradition God wrestled with Himself in this place. God has a thing for wrestling- as with Jacob when he was renamed “Israel,” which means, “He wrestles with God.” According to the Gospels an Infinite Being condemned Himself to die. That makes no sense. There are no explanations. Why would we even include such a theologically contradictory story in our Bibles? When Pope John Paul II visited Auschwitz he called it “the Gethsemane of the modern world.” Like in the Gospel story, innocents had their final meditation before being condemned to an unjust death. Each murder of the genocide left behind a question about the possibility of continuing to believe in God. It is quite a glaring question mark. For many after the Holocaust, it was not possible to believe any more. As Elie Wiesel says of the Holocaust victims in their finals days- they became immortal. You see it in their faces in all the old photographs. Like Christ- they understood something infinite and terrifying in that final agony before they were condemned.

We have asked this same question forever- The Problem of Evil might be the most persistent theological question, and possibly the most important too. CS Lewis and others try to explain it away by looking to free will. They say God must allow us to do terrible things, but try telling that to mothers whose children died in the Holocaust. Tell their mothers that the free choice of Nazis is more important than the lives and continued free will that their children might have enjoyed if they were allowed to live. Sometimes it is unloving and therefore heretical to be too orthodox in your explanations. Then we get into natural evils- hurricanes, diseases, floods, ect.- and the list of what a loving God allows continues to amplify the awful question. 

Though I appreciate CS Lewis’s view, it leaves us wanting, but CS Lewis wrote about evil in that way earlier in his career. Later in his life, after the death of his beloved wife, he adds a new element to the idea of evil in the world saying, “Sometimes it is hard not to say, ‘God forgive God.” Sometimes it is hard to say so much. But if our faith is true, He didn’t. He crucified Him.” All evil in the world exists under the watchful gaze of a loving God. Theists cannot escape this. The Creator knew what He created and permitted in his creation. Even Satan is God’s Satan at the end of the day. Positing an evil force in the universe only delays the question- it does not solve it. This is why the story of Gethsemane is necessary even though it offers no real explanations. Christ dies for OUR sins, but He also dies for the fact that HE allowed us to sin. He totally and completely reconciles Himself to everything He created and allowed, and reconciles Himself in the most agonizing way imaginable because only that would do. Though it makes no sense, we can say we affirm a God who relates to all unjust suffering in the most intimate way possible. 

The nexus of this question is found in Gethsemane, or Auschwitz, or Rwanda, or the site of every school shooting. Turn on the news, and you visit Gethsemane. Inside the Basilica of Agony you will find traditional Byzantine Christian art, “the rock” where Jesus wept (according to traditions), and what you would generally expect in a Christian Holy site- except for one motif in the Church that goes to the very heart of Christian Existentialism. Above the beautiful altar and “the rock” where Jesus wept, you will NOT find a giant imposing crucifix like you see in most Catholic Churches and certainly most Christian holy sites. Instead of a crucifix, you see a mosaic of the scene in Gethsemane, and if you sit there at dawn in silence looking at the scene you might ask God about His goodness, and Jesus is asking the same question with you. You see no imposing figure of Jesus above the altar. Instead, you see a small and lonely figure collapsed on a rock surrounded by a moonless void of a sky. Far off to the right you see the apostles asleep, unwilling and unable to help Jesus carry his question. Way up in the top of the sky is an angel, but he is too far away to offer any consolation to Jesus. The angel is only a vague reminder of hope- all but lost in this scene. The Franciscans of the Basilica are right- you will find no explanations here.

After mass at dawn one morning the Friars allowed me stay in the Basilica for an hour before it opened up for tourists. Jerusalem was still sleeping like the Apostles, and I sat there in silence as the faintest light began to creep in the blue to purple colored stained glass, and I could hear birds outside in the Church’s olive tree garden (they call it the Mount of Olives for a reason). I stared at the lonely Jesus collapsed on his rock, and I walked up to the stone before the altar and put my hand on it- the only pilgrim in the entire holy site, which is a very rare occurrence in Jerusalem. Personally, I could not care less if this stone is not the ACTUAL stone where Jesus wept. The fact that pilgrims have come here and prayed, and wept, and remembered this story for nearly 2,000 years in this exact spot is enough for me. Their prayers and tears have consecrated the place. I stared up at Jesus and the unhelpful but hopeful angel far above Him. No explanations came, but maybe something more important. I realized I could only love a God who is willing to crucify Himself. I can’t worship a detached God who tells Holocaust victims that what is horrific has a purpose in the long run. I might theoretically acknowledge that idea, but I’ll never really be able to believe it. Luckily, I don’t have to theorize away all the suffering in the world. In fact, that would be unChristian of me. Instead I can look to Gethsemane. Without explaining the presence of evil, I sit inside the questions and the contradictions with my God. I am in good company. 

I left the Basilica as the first tourists where beginning to enter- mostly adhering to the poorly (or appropriately) worded sign asking them to keep a respectful silence in the Church. Outside the church faces the Kidron Valley leading up to the Temple Mount, which is the physical symbol of all the hopefulness and eventual joy that is absent in Gethsemane. I do not know how to connect the Basilica of Agony and all its lonesomeness to the Temple Mount and all of its hopefulness, but like the “poorly worded” sign, there is a lesson and a paradox in the fact that a little valley separates the two. I may never be able to bridge that valley with my limited understanding, but as I look up the hill to the Temple as Jesus might have on that agonizing night, I like to think I find something better than an explanation. I find my God. 

Casey Sharp is one of the founders of the Society for Humanitarian Archaeological Research and Exploration, or SHARE, a nonprofit that uses archaeology as a vehicle not only to unearth treasures, but also to promote dialogue among young people from Israel and Palestine. Sharp is currently living in Israel, working on a master’s in archeology from the University of Haifa, near the Lebanon border.

Why I am (not) Charlie

I am not Charlie because, even though millions of supporters have taken to the blogosphere (and, occasionally, to the streets) and’ve begun using the catchphrase Je suis Charlie/I am Charlie to express their solidarity with the victims of the shooting that took place at the offices of Charlie Hebdo last week,* there’s still a lot that makes me uncomfortable about using those loaded words.

I am not Charlie because saying “I am Charlie” kinda not only sweeps the ridiculously complicated elements leading to the shootings under the proverbial rug, but it frames everything in a dangerously simplistic dichotomy of West-vs-Middle-East or free-speech-vs-oppression or European-social-systems-vs-struggling-minorities or liberals-vs-fanatics or whatever shape your weekly slice of us-vs-them takes. I am not Charlie because, in addition to publishing pictures of the Prophet, the magazine has regularly shovelled layers of uncritical shat at social groups and people they obviously haven’t taken the time to understand.** I am also not Charlie because, incidentally, I’m not a magazine named Charlie Hedbo and French is not my forte.

I am not Charlie because I did not employ workers who are now dead *** and more who are wounded.**** I am not Charlie because attacks on my person and whatever staff I have didn’t overshadow the four people who died at a nearbyish grocery store. I am not Charlie because nobody, especially four additional people in Zinder, Niger, happened to die for my latest issue this week.

I am not Charlie because I’d kinda like for people to give my religious beliefs a serious investigation before dismissing them***** and wonder if the God I try to worship demands that desire extend to try to understand a religious tradition that’s not my own – that, and I wonder if it might be humanizing/helpful/worthwhile to try respecting the dignity of a love people have for a historical figure that’s as deep or deeper than the love I try (and fail) to have for a carpenter from Galilee.

I am not Charlie because I’m undecided about where I stand between the fact that freedom of expression is something ridiculously vital and the fact that responsibilities come with each/every freedom. I can’t quite say if I’m Charlie or not because I dunno whether the fact that most of the post-Jan-7th twitter-sphere seemed to forget the mag’s constant stream of ridiculous vitriol is a bizarrely touching act of mercy or terrible lapse of intellectual integrity.******(*******)

I am not Charlie because I don’t stand (intellectually) with people who say #iamcharlie while having issues when other people use that self-same freedom of speech to talk about abortion or alternative marriages or Holocaust denial or dead Palestinian children or ISIL precepts or the Ku Klux Klan – either freedom of speech means freedom of speech for everyone (especially the apparently disgusting, backwards or generally dangerous) or you’re not really all that interested in it.

I am not Charlie because displays of solidarity disturb me when they demand so little of the people displaying them, especially when those people conveniently forget the fact that several people die in terrorist attacks every week – apparently they don’t deserve rallies of over two million people.

I am not Charlie because it wasn’t my blood on the ground on January 7th, 2015. I am not Charlie because I don’t draw pornographic images of the Trinity. I am not Charlie because I myself don’t know to what extent I’ll defend freedom of expression. I am not Charlie because I hope, one day, to be able to say something of substance about Islam. I’m not Charlie because I can’t draw very well.

I am not Charlie because I am willing to compromise. I am not Charlie because that desire to compromise extends to folks labelled “terrorist” or “fanatic.” I am not Charlie because my values have never given me cause to run for my life. I am not Charlie because I’ve never died for what I believe in.

I am not Charlie because I wasn’t stupid enough to publish something under threat.

I am not Charlie because I am not brave enough.

 

 —

 

*The magazine was satirical and published some pretty offensive stuff in general, and was one of the few publications that didn’t back down from printing pictures of Muhammad. Which, according to some interpretations of Islamic precepts, is a rather large no-no occasionally accompanied by death sentence.

**Not that I take the time to be properly informed. Nope. Guilty there. I don’t even know if it is possible for most people to be as informed as we ought/beg them to be.

***Frédéric Boisseau
Georges Wolinski
Franck Brinsolaro
Elsa Cayat
Stéphane Charbonnier
Philippe Honoré
Bernard Verlhac
Jean Cabut
Michel Renaud
Mustapha Ourrad
Bernard Maris
Ahmed Merabet, a police officer killed at the scene

****Simon Fieschi
Philippe Lan
Fabrice Nicolino
Laurent Sourisseau
Various policemen

*****While I’ve never read the magazine itself and so don’t know how substantial the articles are, the cover images at times have been beyond gratuitous.

******I mean that genuinely – I’m disturbed but actually kinda moved too.

*******Although, when I think about it, all the best mercies are usually a lapse in something.

 

 

Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.

The Echo of Silent e

AnneOnce upon a time, there was a little girl named Karen who met a little girl named Anne. Both of us were eleven years old, or somewhere thereabouts. I lived in the United States in the late twentieth century, while Anne lived almost a century earlier, in Canada, in a village called Avonlea, in a house called Green Gables. This was no impediment to our becoming friends; we agreed there was excellent scope for imagination in having a friend from another time and place. Even when we bumped against annoying barriers set up by adult society (Anne was a staunch Anglo-Protestant whose grown-ups looked down on French Catholics, while I happen to be descended from quite a lot of Canadian French Catholics) we were too obviously kindred spirits to let such nonsense come between us. Because, you see, my middle name just happens to be Anne spelled with an e, and long before I met Anne Shirley, she and I had reached identical conclusions about the importance of that final silent letter. So much more distinguished than plain old A-n-n. Can you hear it, how that little e crowns the silence with its song?

At the age of eleven (or somewhere thereabouts), I had already discovered how few people can hear that silent e. Until I met Anne Shirley, in fact, I thought I was the only one. I also thought I was the world’s only eleven-year-old who wrote stories for fun. Certainly, no one else at my school had brought unassigned work into the second grade and pleaded with the teacher to read it aloud. No one else had tried to convince our fourth grade class to perform an original play for the other fourth grade class. No one else, when their friends came over to play, said, “Let’s write!”

But Anne did.

She was shier about wanting her work read than I was, but even braver about creating stories to enact. She got into a great deal more trouble for the sake of dramatic realism than I ever did, though it was fortunate Baton Rouge had none of Avonlea’s idyllic settings, or I would have found my way into quite a few “scrapes” she had inspired. Anne proved to me that there were, in fact, kindred spirits in the world, that imagination really was as powerful as I had always suspected. Anne of Green Gables assured me in a way no one else ever had that I was not alone.

Anne grew up faster than I did; that’s what happens when two friends are born almost a century apart. This proved to be a blessing, though, because watching her mature from an awkward daydreamer into a graceful, scholarly young woman gave me hope. I never believed I would achieve even half of Anne’s ability to captivate new friends, which might be why I never did. But I watched her develop virtues like kindness, generosity, the ability to forgive–all stemming from the core of childlike wonder that she never lost–and I took the lesson to heart. My catalogue of sins is longer than Anne Shirley’s, but whatever virtues I possess, I owe in some small part to her example.

Anne grew up faster than I did; but eventually, I passed her up. The girl who had been a playmate, then a role model, became a tether to a part of myself the world often tries to crush. That childlike core of wonder–mine is cracked and splintered. There are several layers of superglue holding it in place. But it is not shattered and swept away, in part because Anne is always with me to help me collect the pieces. There is more than nostalgia left for me in her yellowed pages. I am there, a girl of wind and starlight with flowers in my hair.

Common sense would say that, for a friend to love you, she must actually exist. She must have a pulse, and breathe real air, and look at you with real eyes. Anne and I know better. We know that sharing a story is enough. We know our friendship is only possible because she was imagined, and because Someone also imagined me. We know that love lives in the unheard echo of a tiny, silent e.

Looking for Jesus at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

As the City of Philadelphia readies itself for the World Meeting of Families and the visit of Pope Francis in September 2015, I thought I’d tell you about some of the fun things I like to do in this city. While I’m not a native Philadelphian, I’ve lived in the suburbs for more than a decade and have tried to learn as much about the city as I can. Of course, what I like is what interests me–there’s much more to do beyond just what I find interesting. But perhaps you might find this info useful, for your next visit to the City of Brotherly Love!

TFT_PhilaMuseum2

Recently, I took a friend to the the Philadelphia Museum of Art, probably most famous outside of Philadelphia for the one piece of “art” on the outside: the Rocky Statue. Everyone who comes to Philly has to pose in front of this statue. It’s a thing. (Oddly enough, I don’t have a photo of it. Here’s a link to its official website!)

Inside is a lot of art, and I’m not going to tell you about all of it. You can check out their website for more info on their collections etc. The amount of time you spend in a museum depends on how interesting you find its exhibits and pieces. There is plenty in this museum that caught my eye and plenty that didn’t, but I definitely think it’s worth a visit.

Over the years, as my tastes have solidified, I’ve found that I spend much less time in museums because I know what I like and I know what I don’t care about, and I don’t waste time. At this stage in my life, when I’ve been to many of the world’s famous museums, I find that my habits are this: I look at the “famous” paintings that I’ve studied–the Mona Lisa, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (think Ferris Bueller), Liberty Leading the People, and La Guernica. Then, I am drawn to those works of art that either call to me because they are simply gorgeous, or to works of sacred art. What can I say: I know what I like.

On this visit, these are some of the paintings that caught my eye:

"Portrait of A Roman Lady (La Nanna)" by Sir Frederic Leighton

“Portrait of A Roman Lady (La Nanna)” by Sir Frederic Leighton

I am a big fan of the Pre-Raphaelites. I love their use of color, I love how idealized, yet realistic their subjects look, and I just think most things they paint is gorgeous. This painting of Anna Risi, called Nonna, is just one of many Lord Leighton painted of his muse (and lover). I think she was beautiful.

"A Reading from Homer" by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

“A Reading from Homer” by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

I love Alma-Tadema’s work, but his subjects are always lounging around. It makes me wonder if her just hung out with lazy people…

"The Moorish Chief: by Eduard Charlemont

“The Moorish Chief: by Eduard Charlemont

This painting of a Moorish Chief is very big–almost 5 feet tall! It’s beautiful in person.

Visiting a museum, is always a fun place to laugh. There’s always something that just seems less pretty and more funny. This painting made me want to run out of the room.

Léon Frédéric's "The Source of Life"

Léon Frédéric’s “The Source of Life”

Those are some very long torsos.

Then there’s the art that makes you want to just cry, in a good way.

"Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels" by Carlo Crivelli

“Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels” by Carlo Crivelli

When I first saw this, I thought, “Goodness, those angels are ugly!” But the more I stared at it, the more I thought, “I think I’d be ugly crying if I were them, too…” Now I can’t look at it too long without breaking into tears. The pain of those angels just hits you right in the gut.

"The Annunciation" by Henry Ossawa Tanner

“The Annunciation” by Henry Ossawa Tanner

This is one of the prettier depictions of the Annunciation that I’ve seen. And the room in which the painting is placed is gorgeous!

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I love how realistic this painting is. Mary looks young. She looks a little afraid but not like she’s trying to hide (as in Rosetti’s “Ecce Ancilla Domini!”) or angry (as in Simone Martini and Lippo Menni’s “Annunciation”).

Detail of Henry Ossawa Tanner's "The Annunciation"

Detail of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Annunciation”

She’s humble, curious, interested. And I love how the angel is more light than form. Because, really, who knows what an angel looks like, anyway?

In this same, beautiful room, is the very large painting by Philadelphia’s pride and joy, Thomas Eakins.

"The Agnew Clinic" by Thomas Eakins

“The Agnew Clinic” by Thomas Eakins

Detail of "The Agnew Clinic" by Thomas Eakins

Detail of “The Agnew Clinic” by Thomas Eakins

The museum has a lot of Eakin’s work, but this is his largest piece. It features a partial mastectomy taking place in a large amphitheater. Eakins was famous for his scientific realism, and he really made a study of the human body. While I didn’t see it during my visit, his painting of the crucifixion is really amazing.

Here is a little slideshow of some of the other sacred art that I found to be very pretty.

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Other beautiful sacred art that I didn’t see, but which is on the museum’s website is “The Crucifixion”, “Christ Bearing the Cross” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Presentation of Christ in the Temple” by Leonard Bramer, and another by Heinrich Jansen, “Christ on the Sea of Galilee” by Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix, “Christ Crucified on the Sacred Heart”, Artist unknown, and “Christ Performing Miracles” by Lucien Simon.

Then there’s the “art” that makes you want to cry, in a bad way.

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Someone actually paid a lot of money for this.

What is this?! And how much did it cost the Philadelphia taxpayers?

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But that nonsense was at least replaced in my memory by this gorgeous room, reminiscent of New York City’s The Cloisters, which I love.

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And who doesn’t love beautiful stained glass?

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The artistry in these windows is amazing.

Then there are the reliquaries, which, I’ll admit, I always feel weird seeing in museums and not in churches. That said, it’s better to see them in museums than not at all, but I do wonder where the relics went.

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This arm reliquary is of Saint Babylas, and it comes from Germany, dated 1467. It’s made of silver, gilded silver, and rock crystals. St Babylas was Bishop of Antioch around 240 AD, and he was martyred during the Decian persecution. St John Chrysostom says about him:

… he presided over the Church which is among us, and saved that sacred ship, in storm, and in wave, and billow; and what a bold front he showed to the emperor, and how he lay down his life for the sheep and underwent that blessed slaughter….

Read more here.

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This reliquary bust is of a Benedictine Nun, possibly St Scholastica!!! I think it’s really well done!

I’ll admit that when I see reliquaries in museums, I do touch the glass… they’re still third degree relics, right?! The museum also has a reliquary bust of St. Francis Borgia, but I didn’t see it.

Overall, visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a wonderful experience for art lovers of all kinds, even those stodgy ones like me, who just like looking at Jesus, Mary, and the saints! When you’re in town next, be it before, during, or after the World Meeting of Families, be sure to stop in and look around. You’re sure to see something that you like.

If you are coming to Philadelphia during the World Meeting of Families,  join me on my fun and informative tours of Catholic Philadelphia, including the five local shrines and some historic churches! For more info visit our website.

Going to Italy and Coming Back Again

Going

We flew Air France. It was my first time on that carrier. On the flight to Rome via Paris everything seemed better than on any other airline I’d ever flown on.

Before serving dinner, the attendants gave us a menu written in French in one side and English on the other. The food seemed far above ordinary airline food. It was French! There was pate! The creamy stuff that looked and tasted like raisin pudding was called mousse!LibertyPlaneFromItalyMedium

Liberty didn’t share my enthusiasm, but then he was glumly pondering the upcoming 12 or so hours without a cigarette. I, on the other hand, was in some sort of delusionary state in which the melamine cups seemed to be china and the coffee served in those cups was the best I’d ever had!

I was delighted that, after serving the meal, the attendants passed up and down the aisles again offering extra bread. How sophisticated of them: They were speaking French! It was French bread!

“Plus du pain?” “Mais oui, s’il vous plait!” More bread! Yes! Please!

A happy blond baby girl of about a year old sat quietly on her mother’s lap across the aisle from us a few rows towards the front of the airline. She never made a peep. (Liberty conspiratorily whispered a joking comment to me, “I think the baby’s on drugs.”)

Airplane Baby BedWhen it was time for the little girl to sleep, an attendant hung a cute little bed with mesh sides for her from the ceiling. The baby went to sleep without protest, and she awoke calmly in the morning as we neared Charles de Gaulle airport. The mother lifted the smiling child out, and the attendants then came and unhooked the little bed and put it away.

The flight attendants  were friendly and smiling as they gave out free wine and beer along with the soft drinks.

The seats had more leg room than usual on a transoceanic carrier. Each seat had its own personal video screen on which you could watch one of four movies in French or English, or you could play games.

As the trip went on, I was amused to find on the menu on my personal video screen a show about exercises to do in your seat without disturbing the other passengers. A slender woman, who was more serene than any human I have ever seen, demonstrated the exercises.

As she spoke, she sat absolutely erect in a white gauzy sleeveless top and pants, with her blonde hair tied back. She was barefoot. Her chair was placed on the front deck of a small green wooden boat that was drifting on a tranquil blue-green sea. You could see nothing except the woman, the chair, the drifting boat, the anchor rope, and the sea.

From time to time, the camera would shift away from her to a collection of actors of all ages seated in airplane seats following her instructions.

The camera zoomed in closely as she showed how to shift your weight to one side and tighten one buttock. Now shift to the other side and tighten the other buttock. Now the first buttock again.

The camera moved away to a shot from the back of the stiff actors in the airplane seats, who were rocking from side to side as they tightened one buttock and released, tightened the other buttock and released . . .. I just had to laugh.

The exercise show came to a close with the perfect woman sitting cross-legged on a beach. Rows of white candles in glass hurricane shades formed a half circle in front of her. Palm trees and the ocean were behind her. Her soothing voice led us through a breathing exercise as the camera did a tight shot of her rib cage and as it rose and fell, rose and fell, up and down with her breath . . . .

What a charming airline, I thought. I must fly it again if I ever have the chance. All was well.

Then impressions started to sour a little. Liberty and I were supposed to meet with our tour group in Paris after their flight from LA. We were supposed to fly with them the rest of the way to Rome, but their flight was delayed. The Air France attendants would not give us any advice about whether we should continue on our connecting flight to Rome without the tour group. When I pressed one of the attendants who had been so friendly on our flight, he glared at me and said, “Madame, I have work to do.”

We got on the connecting plane hesitantly, not sure that we had done the right thing. As it turned out, we were taken care of. We were met at the airport by a Japanese woman holding a sign with the name of our tour group “Littleways.” When we told our greeter that the rest of the group had been delayed, she sent us ahead of the group in a van with our luggage to the hotel. After check in, we were pleased to find a balcony in our room, and when we leaned out and looked to the left we could see the dome of St. Peter’s. All the hours during our stay there we could hear St. Peter’s big, deep bells.

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Presepio in St. Peter’s Square 1999

Coming Back

Before leaving Italy twenty days later from Milan, we changed our reservation to return a day earlier than we had planned. Air France, like all of the airlines in Europe, and like Hertz and other companies, does not have a 24 hour 7 day a week phone number. Companies have what they call a “green number,” which is toll free. But the toll free phone is answered only during business hours and not on weekends or holidays.

Antonio, our tour guide, told me that even if it wasn’t Saturday, no one would be answering the phone. That day January 7, was still part of the holidays. He explained, Italians are at home with their families for the holidays.

The Italian Christmas greeting gives a clue about these matters: “Buon Natale, Buone Feste” literally means “Happy Birthday (of Christ), Happy Feasts!”

The plural word feasts is used because they don’t just celebrate one feast at Christmas. They start celebrating eight days before Christmas and end some time after the feast of the Three Wise Men, Ephiphany, on January 6.

Everyone was going back to work on January 9, the next Monday, but on Saturday the 7th the feasts were just not yet over yet.

In order to call Air France to make the change in our reservation, I had to first use my AT&T direct card to call the United States and then dial the 800 number for Air France. Because the call was being placed on a phone card from Italy, it was billed at the standard AT&T direct rate for calls from Italy to the US, at around $7.50 for the first minute and about $3.50 for the next minutes. I recently got the bill. That call cost me $24.00!

During that expensive phone call, the Air France clerk told me to be 3 hours early at the airport to go to the counter and pay for the ticketing change and get the new ticket. Fortunately for us, Antonio, the tour group leader, also advised us that 2 hours would be more than enough.

To get to the Milan Linate airport, we ordered a limosine because it cost less than a cab. The driver, another Antonio, was friendly and talkative. We conversed all the way to the airport in a mix of Italian and English.

He was taking the city streets, he said, because the freeway would be jammed that time in the morning. Milan traffic! Boh! Yesterday when he went to the airport, a cab driver crashed into a Volkswagen. He smashed his fists together to show the head on collision. When he repeated the story a second time, it started to dawn on me how painful it must have been for him to witness such a thing. “How terrible,” I had to agree.

“Yes,” Antonio said, “I saw it!” He mimed the head on collision again. “The cab driver–Kaput!” He paused. But, he said, rallying from his compelling memory of the death to his professional duty, I shouldn’t worry. Not with him. He is Number One driver.
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No, he doesn’t live in Milan, but near the hotel outside the city. Milan proper has problems, he said, pollution, immigrants, crime . . .. In its favor of the old city, I offered my enthusiasm for the cathedral in the city center, with its white lacey Gothic spires and the gold statue of Mary as a young girl on top of its highest pillar. La Nascita della Maria. Que bella chiesa! We had toured it the day before.

Just then, with a pang I remembered a site I had meant to see, and now couldn’t. I told him that I was sorry not to have seen the basilica of San Ambrogio (St. Ambrose).

Neither Antonio’s English nor my Italian were up to my desire to talk about my interest in St. Ambrose. Ambrose is the highly-venerated patron saint of Milan. His patronage is so deeply rooted in the public mind that even the Communists call themselves “Ambrosini.”

I’d learned during my Catholic schooling that in the fourth century St. Ambrose had been instrumental in converting and had baptized St. Augustine, who in turn had profoundly affected the philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church. But I’d gotten truly intrigued by Ambrose and his relation to Milan only the previous summer while I was reading a story in a collection of writings from travelers in Italy. The story “Mediolanum” (which is the Roman word for Milan and means “in the middle of the plain”) is by a writer named H. V. Morton and taken from his book A Traveler in Italy, which was published in 1964.

Like Alice in Wonderland, Morton started by doing an ordinary thing on an ordinary day and then was drawn down an unexpected opening into another, mysterious world. The place that Morton chanced into was an antique, sacred place, immensely significant in the history of Milan, a place that exists on another level and almost on another spiritual plane below the present-day bustling streets of Milan. The mysteries in Morton’s story were sacred ones.

Morton wrote, “During one of my early-morning walks, I came unexpectedly upon the Ambrosian Basilica. …. Crossing the atrium, I entered a dark Lombardic church, cold as an ice box. As I stood shivering I noticed a glimmer of light under the high altar.”

Morton followed the light, descended a set of stairs, and found himself in a crypt with a number of old women dressed in black who were waiting for early mass to begin.

A man hurried in with a ring of keys. He used four different keys to unlock four different parts of an altar piece, and then he cranked open four metal shutters to reveal what Morton called “one of the world’s most awesome survivals.”

Saint Ambrose Crypt in his Basilica in Milan

“Three clothed skeletons were lying side by side upon a bed or bier within a crystal shrine, the central skeleton resting upon a higher level than those its right and left. This was my first sight of the bones of St. Ambrose whose remains have been preserved in the basilica since his death in Mediolanum in 397. . . . The skeletons on either side are the remains of the martyrs St. Gervais and St. Protasius . . . Roman soldiers who died for their faith long before the time even of St. Ambrose.”

In the tomb, St. Ambrose is in white, and the martyrs are in red.

The bodies of the two Roman soldiers are from the mid-second century A.D. They are lying on either side of St. Ambrose because St. Ambrose had been led by a vision to find their bodies. For many years before St. Ambrose’s discovery, nobody knew where they were.

When Morton was writing about his own discovery in the 60s, he was surprised to find that most citizens of Milan were not aware either of the presence of the ancient relics of their patron saint Ambrose in his basilica. Since then the word has gotten around.

St Ambrose's TombThe editor of Italy: True Stories of Life on the Road noted that nowadays no one is allowed within four feet of the glass case, “for security.”

It is too bad, I said to the limosine driver, I had so wanted to see the bones of St. Ambrose.

Antonio offered a solution, “We have time. I will take you there.” I should not worry, he assured me. He would accept my Visa as payment.

No, I said. It’s better if I do what the airline told me to do, get there early. “But,” I said, “if I ever come to Milan again, I will call you.” I couldn’t miss St. Ambrose a second time. And I would call him, but the second he gave me his last name, I forgot it, I think because I know deep in my heart that I never will go back.

At the airport Antonio parked the limosine, and we all got out. After he took out our luggage, Antonio ran my Visa card through his card reader in the trunk. Liberty gave him a tip.

“What do you feed him?’ the driver said. “There’s nothing to him. Not like me.” He gestured at his belly. “Not like me either,” I said. For a few moments, we shared a comfortable camaraderie between two ample-bellied people, a man and a woman of a certain age.

Then the little credit card machine chirped and typed out its okay. The receipt came out. I signed it, and we had to go.

“Speak Italian,” Antonio said to Liberty as a final word of advice.

At Milan’s Linate Airport

Both Antonios were right about there having been no need to hurry. The Air France counter was closed for still another hour after we got there. When I inquired, I was told the clerk was having her breakfast. I wished I had known so I could have stayed at the hotel longer to relax and enjoy my breakfast too. Or maybe a side trip to see Saint Ambrose….

I put the time to good use by stopping for a visit at a chapel featured prominently in the airport newsletter. After helping me find the chapel, Liberty went to find someplace to smoke.

The airport newsletter showed pictures and brief biographies of four airline employees of all ages who had recently died from natural causes, along with pictures of priests vested to officiate at their funeral masses. This was unique, the official organ of Milan’s Linate airport dedicated to honoring the work and lives and deaths of ordinary people who work there. Maybe this respect for workers is one effort of those Ambrosian communists?

At the chapel entrance was the last of the presepios I saw in Italy, which is a country with many, many, presepios on display during the holidays.

Presepios are little scenes that portray the birth of Jesus. They always include the baby Jesus, his mother, Mary, and his foster father, Joseph. Almost always they include an ox and ass, angels, shepherds, sheep, and the three kings. Sometimes they include an assemblage of other characters who might have lived in the village near where Jesus was born.

Churches and civic groups vie with each other to see which one can have the biggest or most elaborate manger scene. In my 500+ photos from our trip, I have photos of every manger I came across wherever cameras were allowed.

Because cameras were forbidden, I hadn’t been able to photograph my favorite presepio, the one in St. Mark’s duomo in Venice made of Murano glass. Murano, one of the islands in Venice, is reknowned for the skill of its glass blowers. The best hotels and homes around the world boast Murano chandeliers and wall sconces.

I already knew I had found a treasure when I came across the manger scene in St. Mark’s and saw its figures are made up of hand blown colored glass. The Murano glass presepio was in a dim area behind the altar rail on a side altar. Its presence was not advertised, and it was mostly unnoticed by the tourists who go through the church by the hundreds. I had knelt for over an hour at the altar rail gazing at the nativity scene and being thankful in prayer.

The figure of Our Lady was blue, I remember, and one of the three kings was purple with an orange crown. I felt privileged (as I think Morton had felt privileged by his discovery of the relicts of St. Ambrose in Milan).

As Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad, the traveler’s greatest joy is to see something not previously seen. Even though the glass manger scene is no secret, it is usually seen only by Catholics attending mass.

Along with the joy of discovery, the beauty of the craftsmanship, and the moment in time that the manger scene portrays when the omnipotent God put aside his glory to be born as a poor child, all touched my heart.

At the Linate airport the day we left Italy, the presepio was set up as a village about six feet deep x eight feet wide. The figures of the twenty or so villagers were about six inches tall. A mill wheel revolved in a stream of water. The villagers were motorized too. An old lady drew water from a fountain.

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Presepio at Milan’s Linate airport with smoke from the erupting volcano!

This manger scene was unique in my experience because a ten inch tall volcano in front of the stable gave off smoke and red light!

Inside the chapel a sign indicated two divisions, Catholic and other, but there was no physical barrier dividing one side from the other. In front of the pews on the Catholic side was a tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament. The tabernacle was a bronze globe with a tiny red laser light beaming from its center.

As I sat there praying my Morning Prayer from my Liturgy of the Hours, I was pleased that I had a sacred place to come to while I waited for the Air France clerk to get back from her breakfast.

The Last Lap

From the start, even the Air France flight back to Paris didn’t seem as nice. The nasality and unintelligibility of the English instructions were now annoying me. “Ladies and genylmenn…”

In Paris again, we had to wait three hours at de Gaulle airport. I bought two American magazines with photos of the fireworks at milennium celebrations (which I’d watched on CNN like most of the other people in the world eight days earlier– while I was sick with the flu in my hotel room in Rome.)

While I leafed through a French magazine with photos and articles about the freak storm that had taken down hundreds of ancient trees at Versailles and all over France, Liberty found a place to smoke, then came back to the gift store to buy candy to use as a pacifier during the long non-smoking hours to come.

The plane that was taking us back across the Atlantic was smaller than the one that brought us. So much for the extra room between rows. When I lowered the tray, it wouldn’t lie flat because it rested on my (ample) stomach.

My mood on the return trip was so changed that the cups no longer seemed at all like china. The coffee was now mediocre at best.

No personal video screens on this flight either: There was a single video screen for every 10 rows, so we all were going to watch the same movie together. My ear phones worked only when I held them pressed into each ear with my index fingers. And even so I had to strain to catch any dialogue.

The attendants were unfriendly. The food this time was below-average for airline food, placing it in the almost-vile category. I only remember a wilted piece of butter lettuce lying limply underneath a scoop of pea and a carrot salad dressed with mayonaisse that had a metallic taste to it.

When I finally slept, the angle I slept in put a kink in my neck. I woke up with a painfully dry mouth to find I had missed the movie. On the far away video screen I could see the beautiful woman from the exercise video surrounded by candles. I couldn’t make out her relaxing words with my crummy ear phones, but I had missed most of the exercise tape anyway.

Long hours later, just before we landed in San Francisco, we heard a hissing sound we’d heard before and hadn’t thought much about. Liberty and I discussed it and decided it was the fumigants that the airlines spray before landing an international flight. A minute later, a big blob of white foam plopped down onto my right shoulder on my black wool blazer!

For lack of another option, I used the airline blanket to wipe the foam off. When I looked up and saw more foam dripping from a seam in the overhead compartment, I wiped that off too.

I keep meaning to get around to writing Air France a letter of complaint.

At SFO, a customs officer asked me if I had any meat or fruit. I thought about the mortadella (which in our country is otherwise known as baloney) that I had almost bought as a gift in a roadside stop–near the city of Bologna–and I said no.

The officer must have seen my hesitation; he waved me into the aisle where they look for contraband agricultural items and food stuff. In that aisle an officer asked me again what I had, and I said nothing except chocolates (chocolates are okay). We had to lift all our baggage off the cart from where we’d recently loaded it up onto the belt to go through their x ray machines. Then–after all that–attendants were talking among themselves and didn’t inspect the bags as they went through.

To get the rest of the way home from San Francisco, we took the shuttle van that was waiting at the traffic island outside the baggage claim. There were three other passengers.

Our driver must have been well into a double or triple work shift because he kept nodding off and swerving while he was driving. Trying to drop off a journalism student newly arrived from Spain at Hayward State college, the driver couldn’t find his way to the student’s dorm. Even though we asked him to several times, the driver wouldn’t ask for directions from his dispatcher or look at a map. I decided not to report him but I wanted wanted to try to prevent him from putting anyone else through the same ordeal. I also didn’t want him to get in a wreck and kill himself or anyone else.

I resolved that when/if he got us home I was going to say to him, “Look I don’t want to get you in trouble, but I insist you go home. You are dangerous to yourself and others. If I call the shuttle company in a half hour and find out you are still on duty, I will report you.”

But I fell asleep before we got there and was foggy brained when I had to wake up to get out of the shuttle. Liberty politely paid the man and tipped hin, When he got upstairs, to my surprise, he went to the phone immediately and called the shuttle company to report the driver. After he hung up, he said, “I hope I didn’t get him fired.” I told Liberty what I had planned to do. He said he thought that would have been the better thing to do, but it was too late.

The inattention of the custom’s officers turned out to be the proverbial blessing in disguise, because the next day I came across what I thought was a pine cone, which I’d forgotten about in my luggage. I had been fascinated because from the looks of it, I surmised that Italian pine cones are quite different from ours, and without giving it any thought I brought it home from the Borghese Gardens in Rome.

When I showed the pine cone to Liberty the day we got home, we both experienced all the emotions you can imagine as we thought about what might have happened if the customs people had found that in my bag!

When I moved into my house here in San Jose the next year, I saw that the neighbors have a magnolia tree. And on the sidewalk I see many examples of the “Italian pine cones,” which turned out to be magnolia cones after all.