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Christmas All Year Long


The view from the north flank of Slide Mountain, towards Cornell and Wittenberg Mountains. Up here, the balsam fir grows and it smells like Christmas all year long.

Helping Tell the Story of Latin in the Twenty-First Century


Eleven years ago, I attended my first Rusticatio, a week-long Latin immersion experience run by an organization called SALVI that takes place in Bushrod Washington’s (grand-nephew of the pater patriae) old mansion in West Virginia.  I thought it made a fascinating story: there was a subculture of Latin speakers in West Virginia?  For real?  I wrote an article about it, but had no luck shopping it around.  Some years later, the Paideia Institute started a new online Classics journal, Eidolon, designed as “another way to write about the Classics.”  I submitted my article to them, and they published it as “The Latin Speakers of West Virginia.”  It became one of the most-read articles on the site for 2015.  It was at Rusticatio that I met David Morgan, whose passing inspired “In Paradisum David Morgan,” a piece I still cannot read today without tears.

A year later, when the New Criterion asked the Paideia Institute for an article about Fr. Reginald Foster, Jason Pedicone suggested I write it.  I took up the task with some trepidation: Reginaldus is a good friend of mine, and he and I have shared two decades’ worth of every kind of experience.  He is a kind of father-figure for me, and writing about him is complex.  But I submitted an article and they took it, publishing “The Vatican’s Latinist” in February 2017.  It became the magazine’s most-read piece in 2017 and far and away the most popular thing I’ve ever written.

It was around that time I realized just how lucky I have been with regard to the Classics.  I have had so many wonderful experiences, met so many incredible people, and read so many marvellous things, as a result of my education in Latin and Greek.  There are many, many stories to tell, and I’ve been close enough to many of them to write about them intelligently.  Later that summer I attended the conference of the Academia Latinitati Fovendae in Kentucky, and wrote about it, again for the New Criterion.  They published it as “Global Latinists,” and again it became one of their more popular pieces that year.

This month I add two more pieces to this list.  The Paideia Institute asked me to write a piece about a new Latin course offered at Princeton University, LAT 110, which was taught entirely in Latin.  Just a few years ago, attempting such a thing would have been considered outre at at place like Princeton.  Initiatives like this really have a chance to energize an entire new generation of Classicists – I’ve seen it my entire life – and I give Princeton tremendous credit for going out on a limb and doing it.  I went down to Princeton and wrote the article, which Paideia just published as “The Past Speaks.”  The article was held up for several months because Jason Pedicone decided that the article really needed video accompaniment.  The result really is splendid, and the video has gone viral, with more than 21,000 views in its first day online.

Two years ago I heard about Rafael Landivar, an 18th century Guatemalan Latin poet hailed as “the American Virgil.”  I tried to commission a friend who had visited Guatemala and seen his tomb to write about him for the journal I now edit for Paideia, In Medias Res (formed when Paideia and Eidolon parted ways).  The friend was not excited by the prospect, and so I just bought a plane ticket and went down to Guatemala, giving myself one of the most interesting vacations of my life, and producing this month’s lead feature in the New Criterion, “In Search of the American Virgil.”

There really is so much more to be said.  I’ve had in mind to do profiles of several of the other remarkable Latinists I’ve met: Terence Tunberg, Milena Minkova, Luigi Miraglia, Nancy Llewellyn.  I’d love to write about my experiences teaching Latin in South Africa, and travel to Australia (where SALVI has started holding Rusticationes) and Brazil (which has been trying to get a Rusticatio) and China (where, I hear, interest in the Classics is growing).  And I have much, much more to say about Reginaldus.  But what I have so far is a good beginning.


Found in the Basement of 85-31 115th St.


The faded inscription on the outside of the testimony.

My mother contracted to buy the Richmond Hill house “as is,” and it was full of stuff at the time she moved in. Most of the furniture I grew up with was in the house before any of us arrived. Many other things were there too – and are still there, in fact. There are quite a number of old letters and papers, pertaining to people we don’t know, and whose relationships are not clear to us. Edith Hull, who married a Mr. Pearl and became Edith Hull Pearl, was (I believe) the owner of the house previous to my mom; but there are many letters of the McLarty family – how they got here I don’t know. Here’s an example of these papers, a “conviction” or testimony of a Christian nature, written by John McLarty in 1881 to his son (also named John). There are a number of spelling errors, which I have preserved, and in general he doesn’t seem to quite finish thoughts or put in periods.  The document was written at 208 Lorimer Street in Brooklyn, a house which no longer exists. How it got here to Richmond Hill I don’t know.

Inscription on outside:

(selected) Thoughts on the use and value of a Liturgy in public worship
recommended to my Dear boy John McLarty
John McLarty
May 23 1881


May 23rd, 1881. My views and thoughts on the use and value of a liturgy as a sistem of Divine Worship.

That branch of the Church Catholic, which I recognise, to which I am devotedly attached, and in which it has been my good fortune to be baptiesed, brings to her daily use, the rich treasures which her children have, during all these ages been gathering for her
How rich the Church is in historic, hallowed memories, how rich in noble works and deeds in philanthropic institutions, in great and honoured names, how rich in the blood of her martyrs and how especially rich in those inspiring hymns, and anthems, and prayers, which seem to bring as it were, the departed saints of old, back to our assemblies, so that those who are here, and those who are there, can worship God once more in the same transporting strains
There are many reasons why I cling with an increasing tenacity to those grand and sublime bursts of praise which have come echoing, rolling, down to us through the ages,
The Litany that incomparable formula of universal petition and prayer, who is there among us that would willingly relinquish it – that angelic strain the Gloria in Excelsis how could we part with it, and how could we replace it, and the noblest and the richest of them all, that sublime and soul inspiring anthem the Te Deum Laudamus why I cling to that as a child would cling to a venerable Mothers inherited blessing. Our modern hymns and songs of praise, grand and beautiful as many of them are yet they can never take the place of those sublime outbursts of praise sung by the saints of God, throughout the ages,
When I sing the songs of Sion I would have the hymns that cheered and encouraged the saints of old in their pilgrimage heavenward, I would have the hymns the martyrs sang on their way to the stake, I would have that angelic strain of the heavenly host, sung ages ago in the dawn of Christianity on the hillside of Judea
I think it impossible for our modern Church in our day to make another Te Deum at all comparable with the one we already posess. Before we can make another such soul inspiring anthem as that we must reverse the wheels of time we must have the shadow on the dial go backward, we must recall the sainted dead, we must rekindle the fires of persecution and restore the martyr age, we must arouse the spirit of that rushing mighty wind of pentacost, and awaken anew the lingiring echoes of the angelic song. We must visit the lowly manger and behold, even while the Magi present their offerings of gold, frankincense and myr, we must visit the dark and gloomy sepulchre even before the Angel watch have left their appointed places, we must reach the brow of that Holy Ascension Mount of Olivet, even before the cloud and the Master has vanished from our sight, then and then oh only may we hope to make another such Anthem, so glorious, so full of the breath of inspiration,
I trust the day is comeing, not far distant, when a broader, more healthy and comprehensive view of our sistem of divine worship will be more jeneraly known and accorded us and yet more adopted by our esteemed dissenting brethren, that those exemplary Christian bodies around us will ere long discover that they have unwittingly given up part of their dowry, when they will consent to the use of those time honoured, beautiful and reverent firms [forms?] and simbols which add beauty dignity and reverence to divine worship and which are the common birthright of all the saints of God. I have often considered the public worship of our dissenting brethren rather cold and negative, too unobjective and impoverished in its surroundings, too bald and bare,
I think the public worship of the sanctuary should be warm and positive, objective, in its lessons, and simbols, and rich in all its surroundings and appointments, responsive in its rendering, and common to all engaged therein,
We very properly think it right, devout and reverent to unite in the hymns of praise, why not also unite in scripture reading and in the common prayer of the sanctuary.
I think we might at least gather as it were around the feet of our Blessed Lord at his, the Christian Alter, and offer to him in an audible, responsive manner that beautiful, comprehensive prayer he had taught us to observe such and even more than such are my views and honest, reverent conviction in regard to the public worship of Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, Maker of heaven and earth.

John McLarty
May 23rd, 1881
208 Lorimer Streeet
Brooklyn E [20?]

The whole document. It’s attached with a tack.

Vance Kuhner’s Eulogy for Mary Costello.


[This is the eulogy that my brother, Vance Kuhner, gave at my mother’s funeral on Saturday, September 22nd.]

Mary Costello as a teacher at P.S. 66.


My name is Vance Kuhner, and I am Mary Costello’s son. I am not here today to mourn the woman I called Mom, or “Kid,” the woman most of you knew as Mary, some as Oma, some as Aunt, maybe some of you as Rose, or Sister Richard.

A week ago on Saturday, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, Mary left this world, and those who knew and loved her were instantly heart broken. It was hard to understand why this world had to lose such a ray of light.

But that’s not what Mary wanted. So I stand here today with great joy, as she wanted it, to tell of a Christian life well lived.

Mary’s life was taken by cancer. Everything happens for a reason, it is all God’s plan. That’s what I kept telling myself while I watched my Mother suffering. But it is easy to question everything when you watch someone you love in so much pain. I had prayed for a miracle. But what I did not realize was that the miracles were all around me.

The morning after Mary died, Sunday’s Gospel told the story of Jesus telling his disciples that he was leaving them, that he had to fulfill his mission, and that his mission included dying for all of our sins. When Saint Peter tries to stop him, He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” And I realized that I was falling into the same trap.

That is the power of the Adversary, of the deceiver. He attempts to thwart God’s plan. He sows the seeds of despair and hopelessness, and attempts to make us question God. It was he who put my Mother through such terrible suffering over the past nine months. It was he who attempted to make her turn from God. And it is he who tries to make us despair over her passing.

But he misjudges us, and he certainly misjudged Mary Costello. This was a woman of faith, who lived by the Gospels as best she could. This was a woman who lived the Christian beliefs of charity, faith, understanding, forgiveness and acceptance. This was a woman who dedicated her entire life to making the next generation better, to helping her friends, to raising her descendants. This was a woman who was never fooled by the Adversary, and found a way to work ordinary miracles every day.

When I asked my mother what she was most proud of, she said, “My children and grandchildren.” No one denies that she was proud of John, Mary Kate and I, and adored Ian, Kailey, Anna, Aurora, Brian Trip Three Sticks, Mairead, Mariah, John, Mary and Eva. We all know that she loved her two daughters in law Ellen and Catherine, and her son in law Brian. She considered them all her daughters and son. I said, okay, Mom, great answer, what is number 2? She said, “I was always proud of my ability to get through all of the challenges that life put in my way.” I call those her ordinary miracles.

Now, I think we can all agree that they don’t make miracles the way they used to. In my life, I haven’t seen anyone part the Red Sea, or ride their cloak across the English channel, but I did get to witness Mary’s ordinary miracles every day.

Because Mary’s life was fraught with challenges.

After a tough childhood in the Bronx, Mary moved to Queens, where she started her love of adventure and the outdoors with her friend Helen Schombs. She traveled a bit, worked with the Crow Indians on their reservation, and even took some flying lessons. But she had committed the sin of falling in love with my father. She tried to be a nun, but left before taking her final vows. She then went back to my father and they had me, my brother John, and my sister Mary Kate. This estranged her from her immediate family for a number of years. And my Dad was just about the worst provider that you could imagine. During those first fourteen years that they were together, life was tough. She averted disaster on a daily basis. It is now legend how we got to stay in a house that we did not own for twenty five years, how she held a collapsing ceiling together with a bottle cap and a screw, fixed plumbing with 2 liter Coca-cola bottles and old bicycle tires. How she put in a wood burning stove so that we would have heat, how she did without a hot shower for ten years. How she paid for Christmas presents with crafts that she hand sewed, how she waited tables at night after putting us to bed, while never missing a school trip or PTA meeting. How she went to night school and got a Bachelors and Master’s degree with straight As, putting all of us to academic shame. How she singlehandedly found a way to send all of us to Manhattan to Catholic High Schools and to three prestigious colleges (well two prestigious colleges and Fordham).

All of this she did, with a smile on her face, and a positive outlook on life. Ordinary miracles.

When I asked her how she got through those days, she told me, “with the grace of God and the help of a few good friends.” And God did send my Mom good friends. These were the angels in her life. People like Barbara Valis, Cookie Helmeyer, Jeanette Lalli, Jackie and Jimmy Variale and Howard Levardsen. She also had great neighbors who always looked out for us. Neighbors like Bea Delise, Anne and Jeff Kelly, Nicky and Angie Plackis who were always there to help us growing up. More ordinary miracles.

After she got through school, she got a job as a New York City school teacher, which was clearly her vocation in life. There she took her contagious spirit of exploration and learning to hundreds of children, showing them a bright future of what their life could be like. She was known for riding her bike to school, her mean lay ups in basketball that she never missed, and her determined spirit to give her students a well rounded liberal education. I am sure she was also known for those great hats and sunglasses, which were her fashion. She took her pupils into the woods, be it Floyd Bennett Field or Frost Valley, and exposed them to God’s everyday miracles that were all around them. It was there that she became close friends with Cathy Depalo who has been at my Mom’s side through thick and thin ever since.
Once she got the three of us out of the house, the next phase of my Mom’s life centered around adventure. She travelled extensively, Europe, Africa to include safari and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, South America to include Machu Picchu, Asia, to include the Great Wall of China. Her love for adventure, and her ability to find God in the outdoors, be it a desert plain in New Mexico, or a mountain peak in the Catskills is something that spoke to her faith and her relationship with God. She would bring her wild adventure stories back home to the place she loved most, Richmond hill, N.Y. It is funny to me that my Mom went all around the world, shook hands with everyone, but could not find any place that she liked better than Richmond Hill, N.Y. It was her home sweet freedom. I think God sent her to Richmond Hill for a reason. It was his plan, and the reason that she could never leave.

Was she a good friend? To quote the genie from Aladdin, You ain’t never had a friend like Mary. I am sure that everyone in here can attest to the fact that my Mom’s home on 115th Street was a hub of constant activity where everyone was welcome. The inside of her house was like a museum of curiosities from places throughout the world that she had travelled. She didn’t only collect things from all around the world, she collected friends. Who else enjoys travelling on Amtrak, because she enjoyed the conversations with people she just met? Mary loved her friends, and was the type of person that could always be counted on in a pinch, or if you just needed a kind word. One of my high school friends said, you always knew that Mary was on your side, even when no one else was. She threw a great party, which might be on some anonymous Tuesday or Wednesday or whenever she could gather friends and family to the house. And she could make a feast for ten out two chicken breasts and a loaf of Italian bread. Or in a pinch, that perfect popcorn. Ordinary miracles.

Was Mary a Saint? Far from it. In fact I would be afraid that she would come out of nowhere and smash me with a wooden spoon if she thought that I was going to stand here at her funeral and profess that. But what she was, what she is, is a Christian.

I spoke to you at the beginning about the Gospel. About the Adversary and the way he tries to subvert goodness, and take away what God has given us in life. And how he makes it so that we cannot see the goodness in everyday life. Mary worked small miracles every day of her life, and Mary displayed her Christian faith for all to see. Especially the Adversary.

So he sent her cancer.

It may sound trite, but cancer never had Mary, Mary had cancer. She never missed a step, even though she was constantly in great pain. She took no treatment, as it was terminal, but still found a way to go on her walks through Forest park to be with God, to let her friends come over and to visit them and to go on our family reunion vacation, to be with her grandchildren. She looked to her faith, and found a way to beat the deceiver at his own game. So I will tell you that in the end, she beat cancer.

But it was hard to watch her in pain, especially over the last week. John, Mary Kate, Cathy Depalo and I took turns helping her to get through the day. In the last days, she lost her ability to communicate. She was confused, scared, and in agony. But her faith never wavered. She called out to God to take her and asked God for his help to get her through the transition to heaven. As the adversary attacked, she countered with faith. At one point, Saturday morning around 3 A.M. before she died, she mustered whatever strength she had left, and dragged herself with me in tow from the living room where her bed was to the sitting room where she had an ambry. An ambry is a place where Catholics hold holy oils for the anointing of the sick, or baptisms. When we got there, she fidgeted with the key for a couple of moments, like she was trying to get something out. And then came back to me for an instant. She looked at me, with pained, exhausted eyes, and said, “Forgive everyone forgive. Forgive everyone forgive. Forgive everyone forgive.”

She then collapsed into my arms, and I carried my Mother back to her bed, where she never spoke anything again.

Her last words were that of the most important of our Christian values, forgiveness.

You left us Mom at 7:20 that evening. In relentless pain and gasping for breaths, with Mary Kate on one side and me on the other, you released the burdens of this life and went to be with God, your father Francis, your mother Helen, your sisters Helen and Margie and your brother John in heaven, who I know that you have missed every day for fifty three years. And even in death you taught us one last time about Jesus’ teaching of forgiveness.

She wanted me to tell you all not to mourn. She wants you to be happy that she has gone to be with God. She wants you to look forward; and know that the best way to honor her memory is to give charity, to be faithful, to live a life of understanding, forgiveness and acceptance. She wants you to know that she will always be here for us, in nature’s ordinary miracles, be it in the whispering of the wind through the trees, the crash of a wave on the ocean, the rushing of a stream, the patter of the rain, or the falling of the snow. And she wants to remind you that when life gets tough, you should find a way to produce those ordinary miracles, like she did every day.

I love you Mom.

Gendering Three Little Pigs.


I’ve now just recently read two different retellings of the Three Little Pigs story for children which both recast the tale as one of gendered virtue: in each retelling, the wolf and the two unwise pigs are male, while the wise pig, who builds a house of brick, is a female.  That the tale was retold in precisely the same way was striking: not an all-female version of the story, but specifically one where the bad and the unwise are male, and the virtuous and provident are female.  One is called The Three Little Pigs, by Emily Banks (published by Scholastic), and the other The Three Little Javelinas, by Susan Lowell (published by Cooper Square).

I don’t see any good coming out of stuff like this.  I think it’s every bit as bad as recasting the tale to make all the bad or unwise characters female, and the island of virtue male.  It seems shockingly stupid to raise our daughters and sons on this, from before they are even aware of what we are doing to them.

Editing In Medias Res.


I’ve taken on a new job, editing the Paideia Institute’s new magazine In Medias Res. That site naturally has already seen a fair amount of my prose, and hopefully will continue to do so in the future. For an introduction to what it’s about, please read the first editorial.  We’ve only just begun, but there are about ten pieces up there already, and more coming.

The Journals of Jean Sibelius.


At a certain point in my college career I stopped worrying very much about my classes, and decided to get my education directly from the university library.  One of the books I read at the time was Erik Tawaststjerna’s monumental three-volume biography of Sibelius.  I often find that great musicians can also write, but Sibelius particularly amazed me.  The excerpts from Sibelius’s diaries quoted in the book formed one of the most sensitive, eloquent, and accurate depictions of the inner life of an artist I had ever seen.  They still strike me that way; and I truly believe that at some point a slim little volume of Sibelius writings on the life of an artist would be most welcome.  They capture both the divine exultation of inspiration, and the acute despair of the fundamental inner artistic emptiness which drives it all.  Plus all the usual problems with family, self-doubt, critics, and (of course) money.  Sometimes the emotional extremes become funny – funnier even when the dates are put in (these alas lack dates), because you see that he can go from believing himself a god to hating everything about the universe in a single day.

“A wonderful day. Have forged a little but dreamt of even more. The atmosphere this evening was magical, but – always when stillness speaks there are dreadful overtones, the terrifying creatures of eternal silence.”

“My domestic harmony and peace are at an end, because I cannot earn enough to supply all that is needed, let alone pay off my debts. I find it impossible to harmonize what is right for me as an artist, with a necessity to produce income. Take for example my second symphony. It has brought fame and credit to Finland on countless occasions but it cost me 18,000 marks to produce it, and I’ve earned from it only 1,500. My debts mount with every symphony. Surely I was not sent into this marvellous world just to pay off debts.”

“I no longer feel at home in the city; my solitude begins. But the strongest and deepest feelings come to me when I’m alone. I’m at work on the development of the first movement, trembling. The fourth will be a psychological symphony. A symphony is not a composition in the ordinary sense of the word. It is more an inner confession at a given stage of one’s life.”

“The miracle that I am waiting for will never take place. I crossed out the whole of the development. I cannot work properly. Why these empty moments? I suffer so much that my heart bursts in my chest. Where do they come from, these tensions of the spirit, and the pain?”

“Fashioned the second part, marvelous day. Poetic. Life is waiting, this wonderful life that I love so much and which is yet so difficult to live. Don’t lose the sense of life’s pain and pathos, listen to your own inner voice and go your own modest but sure way. You won’t be any the worse for that. May I just live long enough! – for now I’m sure of my artistic path.”

“The fourth symphony is breaking through the clouds in sunlight and power, the Himalayas again. Everything bright and strong. Worked like a giant, the compulsion, the compulsion to write what is ultimately and forever right.”

“Always I’m alone. Alone at home, alone in Helsinki restaurants, alone on the road and alone on the train, alone. Wherever I turn it is black. But nevertheless I would not change with anyone. I worked with appalling effort – a life and death struggle with the symphony. I wonder how the third movement will work itself out, everything is in chaos and I need to concentrate. Lived in the illusions of youth. In the evening, a wonderful atmosphere – marsh mists and the gentle breeze.”


20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.


Reading the unabridged 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which is a lot longer than I thought it was. It also has a smattering of Latin, and pages and pages of delightful marine-biology nerding out.  Due to translation problems – and as far as I can tell, occasional wholesale alteration of the original French text – it is also occasionally unintelligible. “That day they brought up curious specimens from those productive coasts: fishing frogs that, from their comical movements, have acquired the name of buffoons; black commersons, furnished with antennae; trigger fish, encircled with red bands; orthragorisci, with very subtle venom; some olive-colored lampreys; macrorhynci, covered with silvery scales; trichiuri, the electric power of which is equal to that of the gymnotus and cramp fish: scaly notopteri, with transverse brown bands; greenish cod; several varieties of gobies, etc.; also some larger fish; a caranx with a prominent head a yard long; several fine bonitos, streaked with blue and silver; and three splendid tunnies, which, in spite of the swiftness of their motion, had not escaped the net.”

Gymnotus inaequilabiatus.

Gymnotus inaequilabiatus.

Review of a New Biography of Thoreau.


The University Bookman decided I was the right guy to review the new Thoreau biography, presumably because of all these years living off-grid and the defense of Thoreau I wrote when The New Yorker published its scandalous, fact-free attack on the man.  So I read the biography – a nice one, by Laura Dassow Walls – and penned a review, which you can find on their site.  In general, the more I know about Thoreau as a man, the more I admire him.

Temples The Shape of the Sky


I don’t quite remember the year or the date, but at some point I saw on PBS Mikis Theodorakis’s oratorio To Axion Esti. The force of the performance, however, I do remember. It started with a bit of orchestral chaos, and then a chord, and something that sounded like the voice of a lonely, mournful God, calling all the life of the universe into being. The singer was a gray-haired, comate man of incredible intensity – whom I now know must have been Petros Pandis – memorable even from a distance of decades. As a poem of the Creation it resembled Sibelius’s Luonnotar, but it was better than Sibelius’s Luonnotar. It is one of Theodorakis’s “metasymphonic” works – mixing classical forms with Greek popular music, and featured not only an orchestra and chorus and soloists, but Greek pop instruments and Greek pop songs. Some of the poppier elements I didn’t like – there was a charming crooner performing who looked like a Greek Captain Kirk. But like much Greek pop music, there was no doubt that the Greeks themselves in the audience loved it – the music was indeed popular. At some point – in college, I presume? – I found a recording of the piece and copied it onto a cassette tape.

At the cabin it’s my custom to cut paths to the house using an electric weed trimmer, and while I’m running the generator, I figure I may as well run the stereo as well, and fill the mountain air with music. My cassette of To Axion Esti came to the top of the pile, and I’ve been listening to it somewhat obsessively ever since.

I still don’t know much about the piece – I don’t have a full text for it, and I don’t know what most of it says. When I was younger I knew that it had flaws as a piece of music, which I still find true. At that time I was immersed almost continually in the greatest, most perfect works of art the world has ever known, from all ages. So of course many modern works seemed flawed in comparison. But I recognized then that Theodorakis had the same kind of power and depth that the old artists had.

That power and depth now seems all the more valuable to me, as I see so much artistic material that lacks it. At the cabin I am daily surrounded by a world that seems so much more beautiful than most of our cultural productions.  Though not all of them. The best work is still good and meaningful, even when the sun is rising over the mountains and the clouds fill the valley down below, or when the wind stirs the woods and the stars peep through the leaves.

I find myself curious about the poet of the oratorio, Odysseus Elytas. He supposedly modeled this work on the Byzantine liturgy, alternating between poetry and prose, ancient history and daily experience, sublime contemplation of the creation and deep searching of the inner life. The one segment of it I have a text for seems to add to the music rather than detract. I’m not completely sure what “temples in the shape of the sky” really are, but I like the phrase, as it calls up the holiness of all that is under the sun. And I’m impressed at just how much power modern Greek can have, with the long, long history of its words and the infinite associations they all have.

Ναοί στο σχήμα του ουρανού
και κορίτσια ωραία
με το σταφύλι στα δόντια που μας πρέπατε!
Πουλιά το βάρος της καρδιάς μας ψηλά μηδενίζοντας
και πολύ γαλάζιο που αγαπήσαμε!
Φύγανε φύγανε
ο Ιούλιος με το φωτεινό πουκάμισο
και ο Αύγουστος ο πέτρινος με τα μικρά του ανώμαλα σκαλιά.
Φύγανε φύγανε
και βαθιά κάτω απ’το χώμα συννέφιασε ανεβάζοντας
χαλίκι μαύρο
και βροντές, η οργή των νεκρών
και αργά στον άνεμο τρίζοντας
εγυρίσανε πάλι με το στήθος μπροστά
φοβερά των βράχων τ’αγάλματα

(Άξιον Εστί,Οδυσσέας Ελύτης Βραβείο Νόμπελ Λογοτεχνίας 1979-Μουσική Μίκης Θεοδωράκης)

Temples in the shape of the sky
and beautiful girls
with grapes in their teeth, I needed you –
Birds on high lifting the heaviness of our heart
the deep azure that we loved!
They are gone, they are gone.
July with its garment of light
and stony August with its small uneven steps
They are gone, they are gone
and deep beneath the earth clouds gathered, throwing up black gravel
and thunder, the rage of the dead
and slowly moaning in the wind
they came back with their chests thrust out
fearsome statues of rock.

Twenty Months.


Catherine has taken the children down to New York City, stopping there briefly before heading west. I am left alone in the cabin for the last few days of summer. After Labor Day I will join Catherine in Ohio, where we will spend the final month of Catherine’s pregnancy, awaiting the birth of our third child. In theory this interval of a few days gives me a little space and time to write. I find I am much more disciplined about such things now. Though I am working full-time at the plant nursery, and commuting almost two hours a day to get to work, still having just a few hours in the evening is so luxurious, and the chance to sit and think with my words so pleasurable, that I am sure I will be writing and productive.

But the thing I find myself wanting to write is not the book I am working on. I want to write about my family. I want to write about the twins. I want to write about this moment in my life, because I am aware a new chapter has arrived, and everything will change. For the past twenty months it has been just the two of us with our boy and our girl; and there has been a kind of perfection in it, a balance and a symmetry and a completeness that I have noticed again and again. In the pictures of the four of us there I am with a baby, and there is Catherine with a baby; when we sit down to dinner one baby is on my lap, and one on hers. We are the Family Square, and while Catherine and I both like the abundance of a larger family, there is something archetypal and powerful and desirable about what we have now, and I feel it.

Kuhner Family

Having boy-girl twins has made me feel closer to the fact of female and male; I feel it as a kind of pleasure and richness. It so happens that our twins show many typical features of the sexes. John is taller, and heavier, than his sister; his body is thicker and more muscular, and his voice deeper. Picking him up, his stout, powerful little body is a pleasure to feel against mine; but then picking Mary up is another kind of pleasure, she feels light as a feather, more elegant, as if stripped down to essentials. Though in fact only three pounds separate them, everyone who picks them up notices the difference; it is as if she carries her body in a completely different way. Mary has beautiful hair, in a range of shades from tan to yellow to white, curling at the ends; it is one of the most beautiful substances I have ever seen in nature, refined and delicate, like spun sunlight. John’s hair has yet to get off his scalp; one person castigated me for not letting his hair grow the way we let hers grow, as if I was forcing him into a kind of military masculinity. But he’s never had a haircut: it just so happens that right now nature has made her hair long, and his short.

They are fraternal twins, and hence no more similar than any other brother and sister, which is to say, not necessarily all that alike. Mary loves being tickled, being thrown up in the air, and physical proximity: she does not sleep well without another body near hers. She is mercurial and ever-changing: she cries more than John does, but when she is happy – which might be thirty seconds later – she does it with her entire being. When she is really joyous, she throws her mouth open and shuts her eyes with pleasure. It seems harder for John to have such abandon; he smiles when tickled but seems to enjoy also the moment it ends, when he is back in control. People always comment on how serious his face is. He is capable of longer focus than Mary is, and enjoys inspecting the books of Mitsumasa Anno with me, lingering over detail, while Mary tries to grab the book and zoom furiously from page to page.

I have no idea how any of these traits will affect their later life, or if they will at all: I’ve never been this close to any child before, and I don’t know how childhood translates into adulthood. All I know is that I enjoy being with my children, and I am proud of them and love them. I love noticing things about them. Sometimes I dream about where their personalities will bring them, but I try not to read into things too much.

More than one of my contemporaries has told me something like, “John, you’re not going to believe how much you will love them.” But that I love them hasn’t surprised me. I was ready for that, and I have known what it is like to love people. What seems more surprising to me, and what I’m a bit less used to, is how much they love me. When I come home from work, I whistle as I approach the house and they come to the door, shrieking with excitement: “Dada!” At times I find them looking at me with what seem gazes of absolute love and admiration, of a kind I’m not sure I’ve ever received before, not as an adult anyway. I know it will get more complicated later – perhaps in just a few short weeks, with the arrival of the third child – but at twenty months, I feel I can say, “I haven’t messed this up yet.”

I heard another parent of twins say, “I don’t think I remember anything from the first two years – it was all just a blur.” I don’t think that will be the case for me. In fact, it seems like we have made enough memories in these twenty months for two lifetimes. They were born under the eyes of Mennonite midwives, and then Catherine’s family arrived with a big dinner for us, and the two little babes were passed around the great assembly; they snuggled against us all winter, but their senses began to blossom as spring arrived; and then we went to Italy, where they were welcomed and celebrated everywhere. They climbed Giotto’s belltower and rode in a gondola. We held them up to the Capitoline Wolf and let them splash in the Trevi Fountain. They have been to twenty states – have ridden on swampboats with Cajuns, standing at the prow, feeling the wind; have been to a wedding and funeral in Michigan, visited the Pope’s Latinist in Milwaukee, and sat picking flowers in the largest stand of Phacelia in the world during springtime in the Smokies. They’ve played with the gravel on top of the highest mountain in the Catskills. They’ve spent a week in Bushrod Washington’s mansion. They’ve learned to pick their own blackberries, walking to the bushes themselves and (after about two weeks of training) picking the ripe ones, knowing that red, for blackberries, means unripe. They’ve been to the zoo (they liked the bird house most of all) and the aquarium (“Pish!” they cry out, seeing them in the tanks), ridden the subway and been to the Museum of Natural History. They’ve had two weeks where we spoke to them only in Latin. They’ve camped by the Shenandoah and lived in the woods for seasons at a time. Just yesterday they walked an entire mile to a neighbor’s house, all on their own. I could scarcely believe they made it so far. (We did need to be driven back). But we’ve had them walking a lot. They follow trails in the woods, even obscure trails, very well even without my help, and they can follow my lead through the woods precisely – going around a tree when I go around it, touching a rock with their feet if I do it first. When we say grace at dinner they put their hands together to pray (which they love). They’ve been to mass I think every Sunday of their lives, including one Sunday when the Pope said the mass, and then came over afterwards to bless them both (John slept through the whole thing).

Indeed, when I think back on these twenty months, the amazing thing to me is that they won’t remember it – at all. It’s been so memorable. To me it seems like I’ve poured myself into them for the last twenty months like I’ve poured myself into no one else – probably not even my lovers, for though love always desires this kind of self-giving, we adults are not so available and present to each other as children can be. And yet – after giving myself to them as I have given myself to no one else – if I died tomorrow, all my children would ever know of me, in later years, would be a void – an empty place where a father should have been.

“It goes so fast,” every older parent says to me. “You can’t believe how the time flies by.” I have to say, I haven’t experienced the acceleration of time – to me, the past twenty months have seemed to be about twenty months in length. Indeed, I feel almost the opposite: how slow, how deliberate, how graded it all seems, this process of humans growing up. When they were six months old, they were little philosophers, who wondered at everything, who saw red and stared fixedly at it, trying to discern what redness was; but then philosophy passed at nine months, and they wanted fun: they wanted levers to pull and buttons to push, they wanted adults to make funny sounds and they wanted to push around toys with wheels. Just now, in the past month, they have a new pleasure, the pleasure of words, and knowing what things are: we walk down the driveway and, “Mud!” they exclaim, or “Rock!” Their emotional intelligence also continues to grow: they console each other now, and offer each other things; but there is so much more complexity – decades more of it – awaiting us. There doesn’t seem to be anything particularly fast about the process.

But the slow pace of human growing makes it all the more suited for savoring. My mother told me this many times: “You don’t really remember your own childhood; the time you really enjoy childhood and understand it is as a parent.” In the past two weeks, I have been at times alarmed by how much time I have been spending in the blackberry patch – where they want to go pretty much all the time. But it is beautiful to be there with them: probably an economist could come tell me that since blackberries are cheap at ShopRite, I should just buy the kids a few packages of them and go do something more productive. But the economist is wrong. In fact, as I was doing it the other day, I wondered which writers would understand the importance of going out with your children to pick blackberries. Henry David Thoreau, preeminently. Vergil. Homer. Wendell Berry. Probably Dickens. But not many others. Most have had better things to do than attend to little children.

At times, of course, enjoying it all is difficult. There is a lot of work, and it takes a toll. We presume the workload is quite a bit worse with twins – we certainly find having only one child to be pretty easy, in comparison. Looking at pictures of the birth just last night, Catherine shook her head and said, “We looked so much younger then – and that was only a year and a half ago!” I didn’t want to say it, but I was thinking the same thing. We both have a slightly battered look now. Mary in particular is a bad sleeper, and I find myself walking through the woods to get her to sleep (which works, but sometimes, at the end of the day, feels very burdensome). Both are still nursing, and Catherine is committed to weaning them naturally – i.e., whenever they lose interest in nursing. But that shows no sign of happening, and it has grown increasingly taxing on Catherine. I have worried more about money in the past twenty months than in the previous forty years. When I think of all the diapers changed, the putting pajamas on screaming kids, feeding them meal after meal and snack after snack, the constant effort to keep them happy and entertained and learning, the time spent teaching them manners and empathy, the broken dishes, the unexpected messes, the wailing and crying as if it was incumbent on them to mourn for all the grief of the world, the lugging them and their things, cleaning and bathing and everything else – it becomes clear to me that all of us, myself included, are living lives of the basest ingratitude toward our parents. It is an absolutely unpayable debt, and we live in complete ignorance of it until we have children ourselves.

But as parents it is useless to think that way. Raising children has to be its own reward, and indeed it is. God perhaps, or Nature I suppose, gives us this feeling: indeed I feel grateful to my children for the time I have been able to spend with them. I think they are beautiful, and for whatever reason – call it superficiality – I love to be around beauty. I also think they are wonderfully made; I think they understand far more than most people believe, and they respond to intelligent, mature treatment – as long as you understand their limitations. In fact, I am impressed at how energy and ingenuity are rewarded in parenting, perhaps more than in any other field: reasonable, well-expressed excuses are useless with toddlers. But energetic ingenuity can make a day with a toddler a wonderful thing. Sitting at a table in a restaurant for fifteen minutes waiting for your meal, can you turn that one napkin in front of you into an endless source of amusement? Or will you just sit there patiently and wait for them to start throwing the silverware onto the floor? You learn the art of changing the topic – as they reach for the fork, you cry out, “Look at that birdie outside the window!” And as immature and as annoying as they can be at times, they are still well made. Walking with a crying baby in the woods, if I pull up short as if in alarm, they instantly – instantly – become silent, and look where I am looking, to find the danger.

Goethe wrote a most excellent novel called Elective Affinities, based on a set of chemical experiments he had been party to, which showed that two stable compounds, when put in each other’s presence, could each break apart and recombine, as if the elements involved saw a better partner for themselves and elected to take the opportunity. He uses this as a metaphor to explore marriage, personal connection, and, ultimately, fidelity and infidelity. A similar principle is at work with any new addition to a community: all the old relationships are changed by the new presence. We don’t know how the new child will affect our family life: all we know is that things will change. But I feel grateful to all involved – to Catherine, to our twins, to God – for what we have had so far.