June 2024
Leaves from My Notebook
Elaine Greensmith Jordan


I have an Austrian background, and I’m proud of my connections to Vienna, classical music and the Habsburg Empire. After all, in past eras Austrians held power over Europe and had a place in history. They’ve produced intellectual giants like Freud and artists like Gustav Klimt — even Maria von Trapp and a setting for The Sound of Music. This ancestry lends dignity to my view of myself. I wish it mattered, but it doesn’t. It’s like having a child’s sticker on my brow — a dopey emoji.

Here’s a favorite illustration of Viennese rulers and the folly of pride: When Crown Prince Rudolph took his own life, the ceremony of burial included a procession of family to the door of the church. With a golden staff the Lord Chamberlain knocked.

“Who is it?” a friar asked.

“His most Serene Imperial Royal Highness,

the Crown Prince Rudolf of Habsburg.”

“We know him not.” The door remained

closed. Again, the golden staff knocked.

“Who is it?”

“Your brother Rudolf, a poor sinner.” The door opened.

Another famous Austrian is Adolph Hitler, and that progenitor brings me to my senses. A sinner, indeed. It seems we Austrians are short on humility, and it’s been a lesson I had to learn. For example, I was given the gift of height, and that’s a ticket to respect. I got a free ride from the students I taught and the people in my church because I look rather imposing, dominating the room. Before they knew me well, they assumed I had special talents. I’ve been seen as strong, even wise, when I was as fumbling as the next person.

For silly reasons, we endow tall people with strength and intelligence beyond that of lowly short people. One study has shown that male graduates who were six feet and over command higher starting salaries than those under six feet. It seems that taller candidates win elections over shorter ones. I’ve read that when Jimmy Carter had to debate the taller Gerald Ford, Carter insisted their lecterns be placed far enough apart that they would never been seen together in the same frame.

We find our dignity and respect in many places. Some people are convinced they’ve lived past lives, back in times when they were exceptional, before they were born into our present. They will sometimes assume connections to royalty or heroic figures. I met a restaurant server who claimed to have been Cleopatra in her past, and a chiropractor convinced he was a Scottish warrior in a former life.

It’s fun and even comforting to think of ourselves as special. People of strong self-image like me and Barbra Streisand publish entire books about their lives. Hers is much longer than mine. Confidence like that is important, unless it overtakes a true self-image and becomes arrogance. I think of the comic television characters in The Office or the grasshopper who felt he was so agile and lively he could outlast an ant who humbly toiled and saved. The grasshopper learned a lesson.

On the other hand, it’s sometimes a challenge to feel important or commendable, as illustrated in Martin Bell’s The Way of the Wolf. When the humble Barrington Bunny searches the forest for assurance that he’s worthy, the Silver Wolf appears and reminds him that he’s all he needs to be, furry and warm. That news leads the bunny to offer his warmth to a freezing mouse whom he saves with his warm body: There was no sound except that of the howling wind, and no one anywhere in the forest noticed the great silver wolf who came to stand beside that brown lop-eared carcass.

We often stumble into a feeling of unworthiness much as we want to be special — like Austrian nobility singing The Sound of Music — when we really need support from a friend. I think the silver wolf is that friend who shows up, stands beside us, murmurs support.

Now that I’m ancient, I have to take my cane for security when I’m in new territory. My cane sends a message: “Old lady coming. Look out!” That’s a form of attention I hadn’t anticipated when I stood tall over my students. Aging has taken me on a journey to a better understanding of myself and, I hope, taught me some humility. I look back now on assumptions that gave me confidence, and find a bit of the grasshopper in that tall, busy, productive woman.

Depending on my Viennese ancestry is not the way of the humble bunny, I’m afraid. Nobility and kindness come with humility and self-awareness, not great lineage or height. We need a perceptive Silver Wolf to remind us that who we are is enough.

Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.