Sunday 04 Dec 2016

Face-to-Face with Far Folk
Sjef Frenken

We'd barely sat down to tuck into our respective tacos, when Jack said: "I was doing some kind of IQ test on the web last night. One question was: 'What book would you take with you if you had to live on an uninhabited island?' You know, I couldn't decide. I think most people would come up with 'The Bible' or some other religious book that will help you get through difficult times."

I said "that makes sense, although it wouldn't be my first choice."

Jack continued, not the least interested in my interjection: "I thought of Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Jules Verne -- deep books, entertaining books, books of adventure, humour ... but I couldn't decide. I mean after you read a book a few times you know the plot, you've laughed at all the jokes, you've absorbed all the spiritual bromides. So, what's left?"

Jack paused, and then asked me: "What would you have said?"

"Well," I said, "my first answer would be the one G. K. Chesterton gave when he was asked what book he'd most like to have with him if ever he were stranded on an island. Chesterton answered: 'a book on how to build a boat'. I'd say that what I would most want to have with me would be a book on survival techniques -- on how to make and do things. Like, how to make a bow and arrow, a shelter, a fire, traps for food, means to combat predators. Things like that. Maybe not very inspirational, but certainly practical."

Jack, shaking his head, said: "I should have known!

We chewed some more on our tacos.

Then Jack said: "There was another question on the test: "Which persons from the past would you most like to meet and have a conversation with? What would you have answered?"

I said "Let me think about that for a minute."

Three bites on my taco and some impatient glances from Jack later, I had my answer: "Of course, I'm tempted to name people like Leonardo da Vinci or Cleopatra or Aristotle, but what would I really want to know about them, I mean after I'd got their autograph. What questions would I ask? We'd have nothing in common. I think our encounter would be pretty deadly for both sides."

"So who would you want to meet?" asked Jack.

I said: "I think I'd rather meet some of my forefathers or fore-mothers. I think there'd be genuine interest on both sides: mine in how they lived in the past, and theirs in how one of their descendants lived in what for them would be the future."

"So who'd you pick," asked Jack.

I said: "Probably a relative from the Middle Ages, say from around AD 1250, when things were pretty good in Europe all things considered and not counting the plagues. Then someone from the Dark Ages, say around AD 600, or maybe even earlier, before the Roman conquest. But most of all I think I'd like to meet one of my pre-historic ancestors, to get a feel for what things were really like in the times of the woolly mammoth and the sabre-toothed tiger. When you come to think of it, it's amazing that you and I are here at all, considering the incredible dangers and hardships our long-ago ancestors had to contend with -- wars, famine and disease ...."

We gave that a moment's thought too.

Then I asked "How about you, Jack?"

"It took me a long time," said Jack, "to come up with three. The first one was easy: I think I may have fathered a child in my hormonal heyday with a girl that disappeared shortly after our fleshly encounter. I'd like to meet that kid -- probably in his or her twenties by now.

"Actually, closer to forty I would think."

"No way," said Jack with unbelief in his eyes.

"Think about it," I said. "It's been at least 45 years since you were 18."

"Good Lord," said Jack, "has it been that long? I never knew her name."

"Anyhow," I said, "Who's number two?"

"Adam," Jack answered. "I'd really like to know what the hell happened in the Garden of Eden. The details, the talking snake, was it really an apple?"

"And three...?" I prodded.

"God," replied Jack. "I'd like to get to know where I stand in my relationship with Him. What my chances are of getting into the good place; what I have to do to make amends. Maybe get to know Him on a first-name basis."

I said "How do you mean?"

"I don't know," said Jack, "maybe get to call him Al or something."

"Al?" I said non-nonplussed.

"Short for Almighty. Or Hal, short for Harold, as in 'Harold be Thy Name'."

"You're pulling my leg," I said.

"Only a little bit; I'd still like to meet Him. Before it's too late, I mean -- before the Last Judgment" said Jack.

I said "you've given me an idea, Jack. Maybe I'd like to trade meeting one of my ancestors for a one-on-one with Lazarus."

"Why Lazarus?" asked Jack.

I said: "Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. I've always wondered why the Bible doesn't tell us anything about Lazarus's experiences while he was dead. Did he go to heaven? Hung around purgatory? I mean this is one of the most important questions of all time!: what happens when you die! Lazarus could have told us a thing or two."

"Sure," said Jack, "but that would have taken the suspense out of living and everything."

I said: "Jack, you're being a bit inconsistent: on the one hand you want to know whether you're in line to go to heaven, and on the other you don't want to know whether heaven exists."

"Consistency," replied Jack, "is the hobgoblin of little minds, as Emerson said."

I said: "That's not exactly what Emerson said. The exact quote is 'A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.' And I'm not being foolishly inconsistent."

"No," said Jack, "you're just being a pain in the ass."

After that riposte, there wasn't much else to do but put our garbage in the appropriate bins and go our separate ways.

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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