by Ron Petrou
Why is the Chestnut Hill-Mt. Airy neighborhood so extraordinary? Because it is, without a doubt, part of one the most naturally beautiful environs in the world — with its proximity to Fairmount Park, Wissahickon Creek, Forbidden Drive and Germantown Avenue, which is imbued with the resonating memory that George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and 9,000 Colonial Revolutionary War patriots marched down this avenue on Oct. 3, 1777, on their way to and from the world destiny-changing “Battle of Germantown” and their encounter with the British forces at Cliveden.
But there is something else that is more mysterious. On Thursday, Sept. 15, shortly after 6 p.m., we residents of this area witnessed a marvelous rainbow in the sky after a cold front passed through, leaving the setting sun sky resplendent with the full range of nature’s palette of all shades of yellow, green, blue and red.
But it was what happened between two people and myself in front of the “soup” table in Weavers Way that was a typical Chestnut Hill small miracle I especially remember. I had just bought some salad at the salad bar and was pushing my cart loaded with fresh, organic celery and onions, 7 Stars Yogurt and new delicious cups of Liberte yogurt for tomorrow’s lunch at work when I noticed a tall, handsome man with a friendly face and a tee shirt with “YALE” on the front.
I asked him what year he graduated from Yale. He said, “1981.” I asked if he attended any classes of Harold Bloom, the brilliant literary critic and prolific author. He said he hadn’t, but he added that as he majored in human development and anthropology, he attended classes with other extraordinary teachers. He said, “There are two types of students in college and graduate school, those who look for great courses or those who search out great teachers. The students who seek out great teachers are more likely to have life-changing experiences.”
As he said this, as we were blocking people who wanted access to the soup counter, a woman with a German accent said to us, “Are you soup blockers?” Which we were. She walked between us and began filling a container with soup. Leaving my cart, I moved next to the Yale graduate, who then continued the thought he was developing: “When I was at the University of Chicago, I had classes with Bruno Bettelheim …” Before he could go any further, the woman looked at him and said, “You did?”
He nodded and said, “Yes, and I had classes with Saul Bellow and Milton Friedman. In Saul Bellow’s class, there were only nine students.” It just so happens that I knew Saul Bellow when I lived in Chicago in the 1970s and was involved in starting the Chicago Waldorf School. In 1975 Saul Bellow wrote a book, “Humbolt’s Gift,” in which the main character was heavily involved in the study of the works of Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf Schools. That book then won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, and in 1976 Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I asked my Yale friend, “Did Saul Bellow ever talk about Rudolf Steiner?” He again said, “Yes.” With this added comment the woman stopped serving herself soup, and with quick, excited words joined our conversation (forgetting to fill her soup container further). She told us of how she visited a Biodynamic farm in the Rudolf Steiner-inspired Camphill village for “those in need of special care” in Kimberton, Chester County.
There she watched how their farmers broke up cow manure with sticks and shovels until it “didn’t smell any more,” packed it into cow horns and buried it into the ground some day in the fall, when the stars were aligned in a particular way. This woman said that later on she was given some of the transformed Biodynamic cow manure after it was dug up on a particular day in the spring.
She then gave some to her daughter, who used it as fertilizer with some of her plants and raved about how, according to our new woman friend, “My daughter said, ‘What was in that fertilizer? I never grew such large and delicious tomatoes?’ The woman then launched into a discussion of creative forces that are all around us and which we sometimes experience. The man with the YALE tee-shirt mentioned a researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who had done work in this field.
Suddenly, we all took out pens, scraps of papers and iPhones to exchange phone numbers, names and e-mail addresses. In the aisles of Weaver’s Way, amidst the many passing shoppers, we, almost oblivious to them in our excitement of crossing destinies and discovering new friends, sensing that such meetings are hardly “accidental,” entered into the dialogue that Goethe wrote was more precious than gold.
A while later the man had to leave, after he e-mailed both the woman and me from his iPhone. The woman and I continued talking about some of our most magical and marvelous life-changing experiences. Finally, I asked her if she would like to go with me the following night, Friday, Sept. 16, to a concert of sacred music performed by Vox Ama Deus the orchestra and chorus at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in center city.
She said she would. We arranged when and where I would pick her up. She lives in Chestnut Hill, I in Mt. Airy. Just before we parted, I asked her, “Do you know what Vox Ama Deus means?” She said, “No.” I said, “It means ‘Vox,’ voice; ‘Ama,’ love; ‘Deus,’ God; the voice of the love of God.”
Just another day of shopping in Chestnut Hill. And as I drove home from Weavers Way that evening, I saw a bright rainbow in the sky and a beautiful sunset over the Philadelphia Cricket Club on Willow Grove Avenue.
Ron Petrou, a Mt. Airy resident, has been a Waldorf School teacher (there is a Waldorf School in Mt. Airy), is a student of Rudolf Steiner’s “Anthroposophy” and attends study groups and arranges for lectures on the ideas and lasting accomplishments of Steiner at the Chestnut Hill Library.