A Fishy Mailbox

A mailbox shaped like a fish

I saw this mailbox the other day and it immediately reminded me of an awesome scene from the fantastic humorous novel, Three Men in a Boat, written in 1889 by Jerome K. Jerome.

George and I … went for a walk to Wallingford on the second evening, and, coming home, we called in at a little riverside inn, for a rest, and other things.

We went into the parlour and sat down. There was an old fellow there, smoking a long clay pipe, and we naturally began chatting.

He told us that it had been a fine day today and we told him that it had been a fine day yesterday, and then we all told each other that we thought it would be a fine day tomorrow; and George said the crops seemed to be coming up nicely.

After that it came out, somehow or other, that we were strangers in the neighborhood, and that we were going away the next morning.

Then a pause ensued in the conversation, during which our eyes wandered round the room. They finally rested upon a dusty old glass-case, fixed very high up above the chimney piece, and containing a trout. It rather fascinated me, that trout; it was such a monstrous fish. In fact, at first glance, I thought it was a cod.

“Ah!” said the old gentleman, following the direction of my gaze, “fine fellow that, ain’t he?”

“Quite uncommon,” I murmured; and George asked the old man how much he thought it weighed.

“Eighteen pounds six ounces,” said our friend, rising and taking down his coat. “Yes,” he continued, “it wur sixteen year ago, come the third o’ next month, that I landed him. I caught him just below the bridge with a minnow. They told me he wur in the river, and I said I’d have him, and so I did. Good night, gentlemen, good night.”

And out he went, and left us alone.

We could not take our eyes off the fish after that. It really was a remarkably fine fish. We were still looking at it, when the local carrier, who had just stopped at the inn, came to the door of the room with a pot of beer in his hand, and he also looked at the fish.

“Good-sized trout, that,” said George, turning round to him.

“Ah! you may well say that, sir,” replied the man; and then, after a pull at his beer, he added, “Maybe you wasn’t here, sir, when that fish was caught?”

“No,” we told him. We were strangers in the neighbourhood.

“Ah!” said the carrier, “then, of course, how should you? It was nearly five years ago that I caught that trout.”

“Oh! Was it you who caught it, then?” said I.

“Yes, sir,” replied the genial old fellow. “I caught him just below the lock—leastways, what was the lock then—one Friday afternoon; and the remarkable thing about it is that I caught him with a fly. I’d gone out pike fishing, bless you, never thinking of a trout, and when I saw that whopper on the end of my line, blest if it didn’t quite take me aback. Well, you see, he weighed twenty-six pound. Good night, gentlemen, good night.”

Five minutes afterwards a third man came in, and described how he had caught it early one morning, with bleak; and then he left, and a stolid, solemn-looking, middle-aged individual came in, and sat down over by the window.

None of us spoke for a while; but, at length, George turned to the new-comer, and said:

“I beg your pardon, I hope you will forgive the liberty that we—perfect strangers in the neighbourhood—are taking, but my friend here and myself would be so much obliged if you would tell us how you caught that trout up there.”

“Why, who told you I caught that trout!” was the surprised query.

We said that nobody had told us so, but somehow or other we felt instinctively that it was he who had done it.

“Well, it’s a most remarkable thing—most remarkable,” answered the stolid stranger, laughing; “because, as a matter of fact, you are quite right. I did catch it. But fancy your guessing it like that. Dear me, it’s really a most remarkable thing.”

And then he went on, and told us how it had taken him half an hour to land it, and how it had broken his rod. He said that he had weighed it carefully when he reached home, and it had turned the scale at thirty-four pounds.

He went in his turn, and when he was gone, the landlord came in to us. We told him the various histories we had heard about his trout, and he was immensely amused, and we all laughed very heartily.

“Fancy Jim Bates and Joe Muggles and Mr Jones and old Billy Maunders all telling you that they had caught it. Ha! ha! ha! Well, that is good,” said the honest old fellow, laughing heartily. “Yes, they are the sort to give it me, to put up in my parlour, if they had caught it, they are! Ha! ha! ha!”

And then he told us the real history of the fish. It seemed that he had caught it himself, years ago, when he was quite a lad; not by any art or skill, but by that unaccountable luck that appears to always wait upon a boy when he plays the wag from school, and goes out fishing on a sunny afternoon, with a bit of string tied on to the end of a tree.

He said that bringing home that trout had saved him from a whacking, and that even his schoolmaster had said it was worth the rule-of-three and practice put together.

He was called out of the room at this point, and George and I turned our gaze upon the fish.

It really was the most astonishing trout. The more we looked at it, the more we marvelled at it.

It excited George so much that he climbed up on the back of a chair to get a better view of it.

And then the chair slipped, and George clutched wildly at the trout-case to save himself, and down it came with a crash, George and the chair on top of it.

“You haven’t injured the fish, have you?” I cried in alarm, rushing up.

“I hope not,” said George, rising cautiously and looking about.

But he had. That trout lay shattered into a thousand fragments—I say a thousand, but it may have only been nine hundred. I did not count them.

We thought it strange and unaccountable that a stuffed trout should break up into little pieces like that.

And so it would have been strange and unaccountable, if it had been a stuffed trout, but it was not.

That trout was plaster of Paris.

 

A mailbox shaped like a fish

A mailbox shaped like a fish

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Three Poems About the Sea

Although I grew up in Idaho, a landlocked state 800 miles away from the Pacific Ocean, I always liked the poem “Sea Fever” by John Masefield. I think most people are drawn to the sea in some way or another.

I even had “Sea Fever” memorized once, but I’ve forgotten it all except for the lines, “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky” and “the flung spray and the blown spume.” Here is the entire poem:

Sea Fever
by John Masefield

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

While I was thinking about this poem—whose narrator is very much an old sailor inhabiting 20th century Georgian England—I remembered that all the elves in the high-fantasy world of The Lord of the Rings by English author J. R. R. Tolkien also longed for the sea in much the same way.

When the elf Legolas traveled near the sea and for the first time heard sea gulls calling, his innate sea-longing awoke and was expressed in this poem:

Legolas’s Song of the Sea
by J. R. R. Tolkien

To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gull are crying,

The wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying.
West, west away, the round sun is falling.
Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling.
The voices of my people that have gone before me?
I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me;
For our days are ending and our years failing.
I will pass the wide waters lonely sailing.
Long are the waves on the Last Shore falling,
Sweet are the voices in the Lost Isle calling,
In Eressëaut, in Elvenhome that no man can discover,
Where the leaves fall not: land of my people for ever!

And finally, after remembering Tolkien, I remembered one more it’s-about-more-than-just-the-sea poem:

Crossing the Bar
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Then Let Me Tell Thee A Strange Story

I’m still reading The Temple, a collection of religious poetry by George Herbert (17th-century English poet and Anglican priest).

As it is the Christmas season, I was especially struck by the unique and witty imagery of Christ descending to earth—disrobing as He goes—and ascending to heaven—as a vessel or bag to carry us to God—when I read this poem last night. Merry Christmas!

The Bag
by George Herbert (1633)

Away despair! my gracious Lord doth hear.
Though winds and waves assault my keel,
He doth preserve it: he doth steer,
Ev’n when the boat seems most to reel.
Storms are the triumphs of his art:
Well may he close his eyes, but not his heart.

Hast thou not heard, that my Lord JESUS died?
Then let me tell thee a strange story.
The God of power, as he did ride
In his majestic robes of glory,
Resolved to light; and so one day
He did descend, undressing all the way.

The stars his tire of light and rings obtained,
The cloud his bow, the fire his spear,
The sky his azure mantle gained.
And when they asked what he would wear;
He smiled and said as he did go,
He had new clothes a-making here below.

When he was come, as travellers are wont,
He did repair unto an inn.
Both then, and after, many a brunt
He did endure to cancel sin:
And having given the rest before,
Here he gave up his life to pay our score.

But as he was returning, there came one
That ran upon him with a spear.
He, who came hither all alone,
Bringing nor man, nor arms, nor fear,
Received the blow upon his side,
And straight he turned, and to his brethren cried,

If ye have any thing to send or write,
I have no bag, but here is room:
Unto my Fathers hands and sight,
(Believe me) it shall safely come.
That I shall mind, what you impart,
Look, you may put it very near my heart.

Or if hereafter any of my friends
Will use me in this kind, the door
Shall still be open; what he sends
I will present, and somewhat more,
Not to his hurt. Sighs will convey
Any thing to me. Hark, Despair away.

Aphorisms

I came across this aphorism—inked inexpertly on a gridded calligraphy practice sheet—as I was sorting craft materials the other day.

Don’t wait to buy land.
Buy land and wait.

Because I’d entirely forgotten this witty saying, it was a delightful surprise to read it again. An internet search revealed that this saying is attributed to American humorist Will Rogers.

Thus inspired, I went out on the internet and foraged for a few more clever aphorisms.

Happiness isn’t something you experience; it’s something you remember.
—Oscar Levant, American comedian

Love looks through a telescope; envy through a microscope.
—Josh Billings, American humorist

A bridge has no allegiance to either side.
—Les Coleman, British artist and aphorist

There is a woman at the beginning of all great things.
—Alphonse de Lamartine, French writer and politician

Some people will believe anything if you whisper it to them.
—Louis Nizer, American lawyer

The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.
—Theodore Rubin, American psychiatrist

Beauty, more than bitterness
Makes the heart break.
—Sara Teasdale, American poet

Not all who wander are lost.
—J. R. R. Tolkien, British writer

There is luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel no one else has a right to blame us.
—Oscar Wilde, Irish writer

A Poem About Prayer

I recently came into possession of a copy of The Complete Works of George Herbert, which I’ve been reading and savoring. (George Herbert was a 17th-century English poet and Anglican priest.) I was especially moved by this sacred poem on prayer, which is part of a beautiful collection of religious poetry by Herbert called The Temple published in 1633.

Prayer (I)
by George Herbert

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
         God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
         The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
         Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
         The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
         Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
         Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
         Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
         The land of spices; something understood.

Quotations from Till We Have Faces

Every few years, I re-read Till We Have Faces, the last novel written by C. S. Lewis, which was published in 1956.

Reading this tough, gritty novel lays me open and causes me to see my own heart clearly for a time, as cloaked pride and selfishness naturally arise there as part of my natural self.

The novel is a retelling of the Ancient Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche presented from the perspective of a woman named Orual, who is Psyche’s sister. It abounds with piercing, thought-provoking quotations.

In the novel, Orual relates her experiences with her sister Psyche and writes a book documenting her complaint against the gods, whom she accuses of being unjust and cruel. So strongly is she compelled to write her complaint that she declares:

“I was with book, as a woman is with child.”

And throughout her story, Orual makes many biting observations about the cruelty of the gods:

“I was not a fool. I did not know then, however, as I do now, the strongest reason for distrust. The gods never send us this invitation to delight so readily or so strongly as when they are preparing some new agony. We are their bubbles; they blow us big before they prick us.”

“Now mark yet again the cruelty of the gods. There is no escape from them into sleep or madness, for they can pursue you into them with dreams. Indeed you are then most at their mercy. The nearest thing we have to a defence against them (but there is no real defence) is to be very wide awake and sober and hard at work, to hear no music, never to look at earth or sky, and (above all) to love no one.”

“There must, whether the gods see it or not, be something great in the mortal soul. For suffering, it seems, is infinite, and our capacity without limit.”

Eventually when she finishes writing her book, Orual is able—in a dream or a vision—to confront the gods with her complaint.

“The change which the writing wrought in me (and of which I did not write) was only a beginning; only to prepare me for the gods’ surgery. They used my own pen to probe my wound.” 

As she stands before a judge in the courtroom of the gods, Orual begins to see that her own motives were not what she thought them to be.

“Read your complaint,” said the judge.

I looked at the roll in my hand and saw at once that it was not the book I had written. It couldn’t be; it was far too small. And too old—a little, shabby, crumpled thing, nothing like my great book that I had worked on all day, day after day, while Bardia was dying. I thought I would fling it down and trample on it. I’d tell them someone had stolen my complaint and slipped this thing into my hand instead. Yet I found myself unrolling it. It was written all over inside, but the hand was not like mine. It was all a vile scribble—each stroke mean and yet savage, like the snarl in my father’s voice, like the ruinous faces one could make out in the Ungit stone. A great terror and loathing came over me. I said to myself, “Whatever they do to me, I will never read out this stuff. Give me back my Book.” But already I heard myself reading it… 

“Enough,” said the judge. 

There was utter silence all round me. And now for the first time I knew what I had been doing. While I was reading, it had, once and again, seemed strange to me that the reading took so long; for the book was a small one. Now I knew that I had been reading it over and over—perhaps a dozen times. I would have read it forever, quick as I could, starting the first word again almost before the last was out of my mouth, if the judge had not stopped me. And the voice I read it in was strange to my ears. There was given to me a certainty that this, at last, was my real voice. 

There was silence in the dark assembly long enough for me to have read my book out yet again. At last the judge spoke. 

‘Are you answered?’ he said. 

‘Yes,’ said I. 

The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, “Child, to say the very thing you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.”

A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” 

What she thought was righteous anger at the gods for stealing Psyche from her was actually possessive anger and jealousy that the gods chose Psyche and that Psyche chose the gods. Orual finds herself speaking from her heart-of-hearts in the presence of the gods.

“Oh, I can see it happening, age after age, and growing worse the more you reveal your beauty: the son turning his back on the mother and the bride on her groom, stolen away by this everlasting calling, calling, calling of the gods. Taken where we can’t follow. It would be far better for us if you were foul and ravening. We’d rather you drank their blood than stole their hearts. We’d rather they were ours and dead than yours and made immortal.”

In moments when she is most honest with herself, Orual makes these observations:

“It may well be that by trickery of priests men have sometimes taken a mortal’s voice for a god’s. But it will not work the other way. No one who hears a god’s voice takes it for a man’s.”

“It now seemed to me that all my other guesses had been only self-pleasing dreams spun out of my wishes, but now I was awake.”

And before her death, Orual tells the gods:

“I ended my first book with the words ‘no answer’. I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?” 

Thoughts on Love

I came across this eclectic collection of thoughts on love and marriage in my quote file yesterday.

A quotation about love

“What a strange illusion it is to suppose that beauty is goodness.”
—Leo Tolstoy

A quotation about love

“Under this window in stormy weather
I marry this man and woman together;
Let none but Him who rules the thunder
Put this man and woman asunder.”
—Jonathan Swift

A quotation about love

Early to bed may make you wise,
but staying out late gets you more guys.

A quotation about love

A quotation about love

A Far Green Country

There are beautiful descriptions of the world to come in The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia.

I’ve always loved the image and the idea of the “far green country” that lies “further up and further in” that are conveyed in these works.

“The journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it. White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

—Gandalf to Pippin (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien)

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now… Come further up, come further in!”

—Jewel the Unicorn (The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis)

A few summers ago, I set myself a writing exercise—to write a hymn verse. (This because I listened to or read a devotional talk in which a Latter-day Saint church leader encouraged everyone to try their hand at hymn writing. Alas, I cannot remember the name of the speaker and I haven’t been able to find the source of this counsel.)

The resulting modest verse unexpectedly proved derivative. I didn’t consciously set out to draw on Tolkien and Lewis, but the while I was writing the first draft, the words “a far green country” put themselves in the line, and the course of the rest of the verse was set. When I reworked the draft, the allusions just became stronger.

I stand, stranger to this place,
In the west, death stands in grace,
A shadow far and lovely,
Beyond, a far green country
Further up and further in
Where the light floods down the hills.
I will someday sojourn there.
There and home and past all fear.

One last note: This verse isn’t quite a hymn verse—although I started out writing for a 7777D hymn meter, which means that there are eight lines of seven syllables each, the meter of the verse is not regular, neither iambic nor trochaic, which means that it probably wouldn’t work well when sung to music.

Still, I’m happy with the verse because it allowed me to pay my respects with literary allusions to the bright images of Tolkien and Lewis that I have long loved.

A Good Meal Makes One a Better Person

A stack of books about what and how to eat

Alas, it is a truth that my feelings about and behavior to the people I meet daily are determined more by what and how well I eat than by my good intentions or my character!

The spirit and the body are the soul of man, but I sometimes find it dismaying and a little scary to realize that this spirit is attached to a body that doesn’t always behave well if it hasn’t eaten well.

The British writer Jerome K. Jerome expressed this truth perfectly in his 1889 humorous novel, Three Men In a Boat.

“How good one feels when one is full—how satisfied with ourselves and with the world! People who have tried it, tell me that a clear conscience makes you very happy and contented; but a full stomach does the business quite as well, and is cheaper, and more easily obtained. One feels so forgiving and generous after a substantial and well-digested meal—so noble-minded, so kindly hearted.

“It is very strange, this domination of our intellect by our digestive organs. We cannot work, we cannot think, unless our stomach wills so. It dictates to us our emotions, our passions. . . .

“. . . We are but the veriest, sorriest slaves of our stomach. Reach not after morality and righteousness, my friends; watch vigilantly you stomach, and diet it with care and judgment. Then virtue and contentment will come and reign within your heart, unsought by any effort of your own; and you will be a good citizen, a loving husband, and a tender father—a noble, pious man.”