The eucatastrophe at the center of the world


Historiated initial ‘R'(esurrexi) with the Resurrection, angels supporting heraldic arms to the left, in a Missal. Origin: Germany.  Public domain image from The British Library.

In his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien explains why fairy tales are so deeply satisfying and, far from being escapist, are instead spiritually realistic. His language isn’t easy to follow, but it’s worth sticking with it. He starts out by defining a fairy-tale as a eucatastrophe, or a tale with a sudden favorable resolution:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of…the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale); this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive.’ In its fairy-tale–or otherworld–setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace; never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure; the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.

The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth…But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in brief vision that the answer may be greater–it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt-making creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature.  The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.  They contain many marvels–peculiarly artistic, beautiful and moving; ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe.  But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.  The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history.  The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.  The story begins and ends in joy.  It has pre-enimently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be ‘primarily’ true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed…The joy would have exactly the same qualiy, if not the same degree, as the joy which the ‘turn’ in a fairy-story gives; such joy has the very taste of primary truth.  (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks…to the Great Eucatrastrophe.  The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous.  But this story is supreme, and it is true.  Art has been verified.  God is the Lord, of angels, and of men–and of elves.  Legend and History have met and fused.

The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the ‘happy ending.’ The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all this bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.

How very satisfying. Happy Easter!


Bob in Japan

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I just thought I’d share a few photos from Bob’s twelve-day business trip to Japan. He went with Italians, of course, because he works for an Italian firm. He said it was interesting being in a vortex of Italian/American/Japanese relations where there was usually some overlap between any two given cultures, but never all three. The conference he attended rotates between Asian countries, so next time Japan comes around, I hope to go with him!  It has been on my short list since I was a teen.

Below:  The height of cherry blossom season in Tokyo, a sleek conference room with reflections, the caffeinated secret of those 14-hour workdays, food as art, and an adorable little girl with her dad on a ferry.

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Waiting for Easter


Seems my mind doesn’t know what an easy winter is anymore.  So I’m implementing the gratitude cure as strongly I can.  Here are some of the things I’m grateful for:

Narcissus bulbs glowing in the late afternoon sunlight (see above)

Old C. S. Lewis favorites, such as “The Weight of Glory.” 

Listening to free music on Spotify, such as Antonio Bertali and Guillaume Dufay.

Occasional crystal clear days during which it appears that one can see every snow-covered crevice in the Alps from the end of Matteotti (and other avenues).

My new Italian class, twice per week.  I’m going to speak this language!

The appearance of early spring fruits and vegetables, such as strawberries, favas, and even a little asparagus, at the outdoor markets.

Sarie’s Sibelius concerto practice sessions.  And talks (not necessarily about Sibelius).

Regular exercise. If nowhere else, on a stationary bike.

My new, inexpensive bistro table by the kitchen door.  It’s my new favorite place to sit for my morning devotions, and best of all, it draws more people into the isolated kitchen.  (See below)  Thanks for taking me to the store, Rachelle!

New herbs on the balcony.  (See same photo below)

Every single friend who has invited me somewhere or prayed with me during the past two weeks.

That the Lord has demonstrated his love for us, decisively, in sacrificial action beyond what I can ask or imagine.  May my mind be better able to comprehend this unfathomable love and translate it into actions of my own.


Ink musicians

img-130316184334-001I’ve been doodling again.  These guys are from the Utrecht Psalter, and although it says they illustrate Psalm 149 (I checked the Latin text), I think these particular figures go with 150.  “Praise him with the sound of the trumpet.”  As Sarie said, “That looks more like a hunting horn to me.”  It almost looks like a shofar.

I just love their hunched shoulders, Dr. Seuss hands, agitated drapery, and expressive gestures.  Look at the group of three on the right.  Their curious expressions crack me up!  The Utrecht Psalter is full of illustrations like these, in a similar Carolingian style to the Ebbo gospels.

As for my technique, it’s still not nearly where I’d like it to be.  I’m still drawing in a Moleskine journal (thus the grid), and I did these in a combination of thick and thin fountain pens, augmented by a few brush strokes.  I suspect I need to be working on vellum, with a longer brush or quill or some sort.  My attempts don’t capture the easy grace of the original, but I’ll keep trying.

Regarding the incongruous notes in the top right corner, I was listening to a Tim Keller sermon from the Redeemer free sermons link and kept spontaneously taking notes as I worked.  The sermon was on Psalm 88, one of two Psalms in the Bible that doesn’t end on a hopeful note.  But the fact that it’s in the Psalter shows that God understands; he knows how we talk when we’re desperate.

There’s a great quote about Sam Gamgee in that sermon, too.

Easter windows

DSC_0059 DSC_0058I’m always interested in what’s displayed in the window of Amici Miei,* a nearby pasticceria.  This week, as Easter approaches, the windows are full of pane di pasqua (Easter Bread, and yes, that’s an egg on top) and agnelli pasquali (Easter Lambs).  I think the lambs are made out of a sweet almond paste.  The bread, in some versions, is braided.

Another popular Easter dessert is the columba, or dove. It’s a type of bread made from the same recipe as panettone, which is the main Christmas dessert, except that it’s baked in the shape of a dove and is usually a little smaller than a panettone (which means, literally, “big bread”).

So far, I haven’t eaten any of these Easter desserts.  I’m pretty content just to look at them through the glass.  But I thought this particular lamb’s expression was pretty funny, so I had Sarie take a picture with her phone.  I do confess, however, that one reason for our self-control was that we were on our way to get one last hot chocolate from Grom.

(*Check out the link for some nice photos of their other pastries and also of Il Padellino, our favorite local pizzeria.)

From foreign to familiar


A gathering of young adults from our church, representing in various proportions and length of residency and with some margin for error: Nigeria, Ghana, the US, the UK, Australia, Swedish Finland, Indonesia, Brazil, and both northern and southern Italy.

My pastor’s wife recently lent me a fascinating book about navigating cultural differences, From Foreign to Familiar by Sarah Lanier.  Lanier is a consultant to foreign missionaries who has lived in many different parts of the world. Upon taking the book from the shelf, I immediately flipped it over, scanned the blurb, and exclaimed, “Sarah Lanier.  Well of course she would be from Georgia!  That’s a very Georgian name.” It gave me a funny feeling to immediately sense that familiar context in a foreign country.

As a matter of fact, I had just confirmed myself as a member of what Lanier herself calls a “hot culture.”  Hot cultures tend to have a strong sense of context, maintain a friendlier environment, value relationships over tasks, feel obligated to invite you if they mention an event in public, feel obligated to share food if they eat it in public, talk delicately around problems instead of addressing them directly and accurately, show deference to authority, have a strong sense of what dress and manners are appropriate for a given occasion, have a stronger group identity, and have a more relaxed sense of time.  The Southern US, at least when and where I grew up, was a fairly typical example of a hot culture, with the possible exception of the group identity.  (Southerners tolerate certain types of eccentricity quite readily, as long as the eccentric has good manners.)

I lost a little bit of this strong cultural identity as I grew up and moved on to larger cities within the South during the 70s and 80s.  I learned to tone down my accent and deal with sarcasm, because it was absolutely necessary in order to attend a big, suburban high school along with transplants from Chicago and New Jersey. But I’ve never quite lost these initial Southern habits and preferences, and in fact, often felt a bit flabbergasted in New York City when I’d try to arrange spontaneous get-togethers for other moms and kids. And I never quite got over my need to chat to sales clerks using colorful idioms, even though I knew better.  Even after fifteen years, I always felt a little too warm and sensitive in the context of that highly structured, achievement-oriented culture.  But I learned a different, more direct and efficient way of dealing with people, for sure.

Then we moved to Italy.

Obviously, not everyone in Italy, or even in Piemonte, is the same. Some people are much more formal and have a more developed sense of organization than others.  Some are warmer and kiss-ier than others.  Some are dressier than others, more extroverted than others.  But still, you don’t know where the assumptions lie until you’ve observed for a while.

Remember my initial frustrations with bureaucracy? I’m now convinced that the reason that, for example, it took me five months to enroll Sarie in the conservatory was that I made a couple of initial and egregious mistakes in dealing with Italian bureaucratic culture. And how could I have known better, since I was in (and from) the United States? Italian bureaucracy is a very high context procedure.  You really don’t know what it’s going to take until you’re right in front of the bureaucrat–perhaps for the third time.

Perhaps my principal mistake was trying to obtain a clear-cut enrollment procedure at all, and especially via e-mail.  Even though I didn’t have the option of meeting people in person, I needed it!  For another thing, there is a definite protocol for writing business correspondence in Italy.  By NYC standards, it seems incredibly formal: using the titles dott. and dott.ssa for just about everyone, using “illustrious” in the greeting, adding lots of flowery adjectives, and ending in “Porgo i miei più distinti saluti,” which the literal translation of “I send my most distinguished greetings,” just doesn’t seem to convey properly.  And furthermore, no one does anything until the last minute.  So no wonder I wasn’t getting anywhere!

But of course, I had no way of knowing this, and to this day don’t really know what the proper solution would have been.  The actual procedure not only required a passable knowledge of the Italian language and bureaucratic conventions, but also of Italian commercial procedures, such as filling out a postal check and having the proper identity information (which isn’t even used in the US). And furthermore, the same procedure that finally worked for us may not have worked for the next person. Sarie is still, to my knowledge, the first full-blooded American to have enrolled in the Torino conservatory.

But bureaucracy was only the initial and most aggravating problem.  I realized after some time here that I would require a different sort of wardrobe, a different sense of time and hospitality, and that I was likely offending people regularly by not following the proper greeting procedures when I entered stores. I’m slowly learning how to do these things, but I’m pretty sure I still step on toes.  Now I try to ask: Do I need to bring something to dinner?  Do I need to pay for that gift, or will that offend the giver?  And I understand, for instance, that even the most professional businesspeople will likely not return my e-mail until they have an answer, even if it takes weeks. Or plan any event more than a few days in advance.

I personally find the Piemontese to be about right on the hot/cold culture spectrum. They have a reputation in Italy for being cold and reserved, but aside from a few apathetic bureaucrats, I usually find them to be not unlike myself, at least in their comfort with emotion.  As I’ve learned how to address them, I find that they can be almost conspiratorially friendly. The nicer manners, the sense of proper dress, the family connections, the indirect way of getting information, respect of elders, and the greetings in stores, all remind me of the culture of the Southern US. But a culture as group-oriented as Naples or Sicily might have overwhelmed me completely.  So, I feel like I’ve landed in the right part of Italy.

I may list more of these “foreign to familiar” differences as I run into them. I certainly don’t have a handle on them yet, but I’m starting to get a little more comfortable, at least. And at our international, English-speaking church we have plenty of Africans and Filipinos, and smaller numbers from many other cultures, who provide yet other perspectives and greater variety along the hot and cold culture spectrum.  Interesting!

Bits of serendipity

It’s March! It’s really a lovely day here, in the high 50s and sunny.  People are out in the piazzas, and we have our balcony doors open for the first time this year.  Bob is home again from the US. We went to church and then went out to lunch again at the bistro that I wrote about a few weeks back. This time we helped translate an order for some British consultants. On the other side of us were three couples speaking a combination of French and Italian.

Sarie may have a part in a low-budget movie, but I’ll tell more details about that later, after she’s done some of it.  Meanwhile, we are making plans for all of us to go to back to Georgia and New York this summer, and for her to go back to the festival in the Catskills this summer with a friend from the Torino conservatory–this girl is the best violinist there, really.

In order to make plans for this summer, we had dinner at the friend’s family home last night. As usual, it was interesting having dinner with Italians. They made us farinatafoccaccia and individual pizze in a hand-built brick oven. During dinner, Sarie’s friend’s little brother helped Bob with his pronunciation of  soccer team names (“Not regia, reggia!”), and Bob taught him the names of American basketball teams (“Seventy-seeks.  Errs.”). After dinner Sarie’s friend’s father explained how he makes violins. Yes, he makes violins!  It’s his hobby.  We find that this sort of advanced hobby is quite common in Italy.  (See also the first sentence of the previous paragraph.)

Oh, and this morning my friend Francesca brought me some real espresso cups from a coffee bar. I’ve been really wanting some because they’re thick, like my restaurant ware dishes, and I couldn’t find any to buy anywhere.  I really think espresso tastes better out of thick white porcelain.

When we went out for coffee last week and I mentioned in passing that I couldn’t find real espresso bar cups anywhere, she smiled knowingly. “Oh, you just have to ask someone who owns a coffee bar to give you some!”

“Ask?”  I said, “Oh, I don’t think I’d be comfortable doing that!”

“Hmm, I guess not. You’re not Italian,” she nodded. “I have a friend…”  And then showed up at church this morning with six cups and saucers.

Bob goes to Japan next Saturday.

Other than that, things go on as usual.

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Top:  Caffè macchiato in our new cups. Bottom: It goes well with this Piemontese torta alla cioccolata, which was gift (along with the recipe) from another friend’s mom.  You put jam inside the slices as you go.


At JJ’s request, here’s the recipe for the chocolate cake.  I hope I’m not giving away secrets!  I think you could do the same sort of jam-filling with any good chocolate cake, so if I get this adaptation wrong, just use your own favorite chocolate cake recipe.

Also, keep in mind that Italians don’t precisely measure all their recipes like Americans do.  They learn a lot of them in the home.  So, if you try this and it doesn’t come out moist, keep adjusting it.  The original is, to use an Engliano phrase, “Moist-issimo!”

3 eggs

7 spoonfuls of sugar (see what I mean?)

2 glasses (a glass is roughly a cup, I think) of “00” grade flour (very fine)

1 glass mixed flour, bitter cocoa powder, and 16 g package leavening (the Italian brand is PaneAngeli, and according to a website I found, it has equal parts vanilla, baking powder and baking soda in it)

1/2 glass oil (she uses sunflower instead of olive to keep the taste neutral)

Mix well and put in the oven at 180 degrees C (~350F).

John Cleese on creativity

I don’t usually just post a video, but I came across this one this morning while looking for something else, and it’s excellent.

A few years ago, I lead (or tried to lead) a series talks on homeschooling with a largish group. I wanted to emphasize creativity, and it never quite took. But this video is just the kind of thing I liked to show and tell about the most.

In a nutshell, for creativity, you need:

1. Space
2. Time
3. Time
4. Confidence
5. Humor

Sample nugget:

“The people I find it most difficult to be creative with are those who need all the time to create an image of themselves as decisive…And if, while you’re pondering, someone accuses you of indecision, say, ‘Look, Babycakes! I don’t have to decide ’til Tuesday.'”

But listen to the whole thing, because it’s John Cleese, and he would know!

Meanwhile, I’m off deciding what to do next.  I’ll get back with you next Tuesday.