Living

The Little Things are the Big Things, vol. 2

In June of 2017 I blogged about a new personal mantra, The Little Things Are the Big Things. At that time I was thinking about it against a backdrop of Big Things:  graduations, weddings, births, and other milestones.

But this summer is rougher. This summer I am working harder to maintain my smile. So when I sit and muse on things that make me happy in the short term–things I could classify in my bullet journal under self-care–I come up with a new list of Little Things that I am trying to maximize or cultivate in my life.

The first thing is MORNINGS. My life runs on an academic calendar, so during the summer I am tempted to sleep in. For the first couple weeks I did pretty regularly, and it felt incredibly indulgent. Sleeping in definitely belongs on my list of Little Things that make me happy. But even more than sleeping in, I cherish the mornings I wake up but don’t have to go anywhere right away. These mornings I can make coffee and sit on my back patio. Something about a quiet, cool morning is even more restorative to me than extra sleep. My inner five year old still prefers waking to sleep; I don’t want to waste my time sleeping. But my inner octogenarian values the space and stillness and light and doesn’t need to play.

This morning in Diamond Bar. I have a sunflower pinwheel and caught a flock of birds on the wing.

The next thing is BOOKS. During the school year I read a lot, but it’s mostly texts for class, research, and email correspondence. I choose my books well, so I enjoy a lot of this, but email correspondence is rarely soul-stirring. In the summer I can read poetry with abandon, read novels I store up all year, sink in to non-fiction and learn something completely different. I do more internet reading than I ever plan to, but I also find something wonderful and unexpected every summer. In truth, I didn’t even get to the novels I put aside this year. I found more books and articles and comics serendipitously and read what I stumbled across instead. Maybe next summer.

DRINKS. During the school year, coffee is consumed like a vitamin. In the summer it gets to be an event. And I seriously had multiple tea parties this summer. I drove my kids to Camarillo for a formal one, but we also just had several times where a pot of tea was a focal point and everyone sat and enjoyed it together. I found myself chatting with friends and welcoming a new colleague with wine several times over the long, hot days, and my partner has started brewing his own beer, so home-brewed milk stout was a new delight. I did not see that coming, but he’s having so much fun and being so adorably industrious, everything about it is a small, good thing.

Lastly, which should be first, no doubt—PEOPLE. The generosity of friends and strangers never ceases to amaze me. People have sent me links and stories, jokes and support on social media. One of my favorite things about social media is how easy it is to be generous and thoughtful. How many more birthday wishes do we get now, for instance? And that’s just one aspect. Literally as I’m writing this, a friend recommended that I follow a favorite nature photographer. She thought of me and reached out, and on the one hand it’s a very little thing, but on the other it is not at all; someone I admire thinks fondly of me and knows me well enough to recognize something will give me lots of little moments of joy. That’s huge, actually.

Virtually-transmitted generosity (shall we call it e-generosity?) aside, I have also been the recipient of much very practical, physical goodness this summer. Sometimes it’s a small business operator adding a bonus to my purchase (I’m thinking of a lovely artist whose work I’ve bought before, and who this time included an extra piece for free). Sometimes it’s the really random fact that three separate women from quite different places in my life all gave me a big supply of cardstock. My hobby is papercrafting, and for no good reason at all, within a month I got so much raw material, I am thunderstruck—glimmery cardstock, colored cardstock, some scored, and envelopes of all sizes–all freely given to me with the hopes I could put it to use. I will. I promise.

All of this is to say that I feel very lucky, very fortunate, very blessed—however you conceive of that emotion. At a time when I’m deeply discouraged by the greed of institutions and people in power, countless individuals are working non-stop, like little unpaid elves, conspiring to bolster my faith in the magnanimity of my fellow humans.

There are many more examples, even from this summer, but I’ll stop there and invite you to take stock of the gestures of good will you have been shown this summer. May they be many. May they lift you up and lighten your load, and reveal themselves to be Big Things in Disguise.

Living · Writing

Candles and Flames

This is the summer of non-blogs. And I’m a day late again.

I thought of not posting at all again, but that seemed a cop-out.

I’m not posting readily this summer because while my summer has had bright spots I would normally post about (a card-making crop, some great books, and some other wonderful moments), this summer has also been plagued with ICE raids and mass shootings, and it seems flippant to say it’s a lovely summer when it’s not.

I am torn. I am doing what I can to help, but it doesn’t seem like enough. I am trying to keep myself strong so I can lift up others, and I am sending more cards to people just to cheer them up than ever before, but I’m not blogging consistently. The kinds of blogs I tend to write threaten this summer to make me sound like a tone-deaf happy-ass. I am a happy-ass. I hope I’m not tone-deaf.  

I don’t know what to offer here this week, but I will say I squarely still believe in humanity and in the power of little things to overwhelm the world with goodness. I also hope we can get some big things straight in terms of more humane policy in the near future, so there’s not quite so much pressure on the little things to make us happy.

Meanwhile, I wish you all strength and hope and light above all. Shine on, you beautiful people.

This is one of the ways I imagine hope.

And before I leave, here is a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti entitled “Poetry as Insurgent Art.” Enjoy.

“I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.

Civilization self-destructs.

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words….”

Reading · Teaching

The Modern Medieval Commentary

It’s summer, and I’m shaking things up again.

Fall semester is right around the corner, and I’m sitting here reading medieval commentaries and having Eureka! moments.

I regularly teach excerpts from Macrobius’s Commentary on The Dream of Scipio—the passages where he delineates the different kinds of true and false dreams one can have–and I’m wondering why it hasn’t occurred to me before that it’s a useful genre.

The medieval commentary tradition is a wonderful thing, really. There are many commentators like Macrobius—well-educated, well-intended, and busy saving the works of antiquity from oblivion. Macrobius uses the Roman orator Cicero’s text as a vehicle to collect or “compile” classical knowledge and package it for a Christian audience.

The text of the Dream of Scipio is included, of course, all eight pages of it, and then the Commentary of Macrobius adds upwards of 150 pages. It’s very medieval of him.

He collects other information in order to help explain the Dream. Scholars have spilt considerable ink deciding what texts he used as source material for which passages, but the point here is that he did. He used other texts to understand this one. He gathered outside information to clarify the context and associate the content with other, comparable texts. He isolated passages and looked closely at them, using all his faculties and all his resources to do justice to the subtleties of the text.

In short, he did literary criticism. But he did it in a medieval way.

Medieval authors valued authoritative texts. When I teach Chaucer, we talk about how he repurposed old tales for his Canterbury Tales rather than making things up ex nihilo. Originality meant going back to origins, not being novel. So a commentator would do that very important medieval writing task of compiling materials and putting them in conversation with one another to learn new truths. A compilator was not an auctor, an established authority and the root of our modern ”author,” but the job was vitally important nonetheless. A compiler made it possible for readers to gain fuller understanding of the auctor. A compiler opened doors, shone light, brought clarity, and most importantly, inspired the reader to deeper appreciation of the text.

This is where I’m headed in the fall.

I’m not going to make my students write hundred-page theses explaining flash fiction, but I am going to introduce them to the process and purpose and pleasure of the commentary.

In a modern classroom, a commentary may include annotations, summaries of parallel or illuminating texts, historical context, analysis of language and style, and may very well include illustrations or other visual elements. I’m thinking it will be a notebook devoted to a single text that students work on all term—an interactive account of their experience reading their chosen text.

I can already imagine them knocking my socks off.

Living · Reading

Learning to Love

At our most base and primitive, all we care about is ourselves—survival. We protect ourselves and our families, so the line will survive. We hoard. We fight. We resist others and fear them because they may take what we need to survive.

But the history of world civilization—and of mythology, literature, and religion—is the history of refuting those impulses, of raising us up to higher selves, of forming communities and cultures that enhance the lives of all. These help us to thrive, not just survive.

This is why so many cultures have a myth or parable about gods visiting humans in disguise: why The Odyssey is essentially a long disquisition on hospitality; why Odin and Thor visit Midgard and Jesus appears to poor people to test their generosity. Because even though the strong, animal instinct in us compels us to protect what we have and exclude others, the higher path, the path toward community and humanity, is helping others.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses¸ Zeus visits Lycaon and, disgusted by his behavior (Lycaon does not believe Zeus is a god and tries to feed him human flesh and plots his murder). Zeus’s reaction is to flood the world and kill off this undeserving race.  The lesson here is multiple, including an admonition to have faith in the gods, but how one demonstrates that faith is in being a good host. Lycaon should have fed his guest, offered him shelter, protected him—not tried to kill him.

Lycaon should have read The Odyssey.

Photo of children embracing their animal natures. In children, it’s ok. 🙂

In The Odyssey, Odysseus the Greek hero and king of Ithaka is trying to get home from the Trojan War. His journey is a return trip. The main action of the war has passed (see The Iliad), and all he’s trying to do is get back. Why? That’s not really as exciting a premise for a book as chronicling the cause and scope of a war. It’s not a meteoric rise to fame for a hero who fights a monster or saves a maiden. It’s a voyage. It’s full of scenes where Odysseus is welcomed or attacked, of examples of good hospitality and, for lack of a better phrase, bad hospitality. The Odyssey is about how to treat people, and ultimately about how to be human.

Odysseus fails with some regularity.

He starts out with a host of men. Some are eaten by Laestrygonians. Some are eaten by a cyclops. Some are eaten by Scylla, the flying monster with six heads who fills each of her six gullets with one of his men. You’re seeing a trend here, yeah? It’s not about the guys; they’re essentially pawns (“red shirts,” in Star Trek parlance). It’s about Odysseus learning to be a person who is worthy to rule when he gets back to Ithaka. Odysseus learns how to deal with all different kinds of humans and monsters. He stops all over the Aegean on his way back, and when he stops in lands governed by good kings, he is welcomed and feasted and encouraged to speak. When he stops at a monster’s house, his guys get eaten. Lesson? Anyone? Humans, at least good ones, welcome guests. They care for their fellow human beings. They give of their resources, knowing that if they are washed adrift, they’ll be able to count on being welcomed and sheltered and protected.

The Christian tradition (and others) shares these stories. In the Old Testament, God floods the world when people forget how to be good people. In the New Testament, we are reminded to show hospitality because some have “entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13.2). And then there is the story of Jesus visiting the shopkeeper in the guise of three poor people (Johnny Cash’s “The Christmas Guest,” which derives from Helen Steiner Rice’s version of a French folktale, probably).

It’s a common enough trope, though. The same scene begins Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, really. A powerful enchantress tests the young French lord, and when he fails to be gracious and generous to another human being, she punishes him by turning him in to a beast. He acted no better than an animal; his appearance should reflect his monstrosity.

Why do we have to keep telling this tale? Does each generation need to learn it for themselves? Are we still so ruled by fear of scarcity that we require acculturating over and over again?

Apparently.

Fortunately there is no shortage of material, ancient to contemporary, that we can read or watch or listen to in order to find this lesson. To quote a friend who has learned it very well, “We belong to each other.”

Reading · Teaching

The Return of the Verse Novel

People tell me all the time they don’t like poetry.

They don’t get it; they don’t see why it has to be so hard. They think it’s pretentious—you should just say what you mean, already; why torture your words in to form? They think it’s out to trick them and to make them feel inadequate. They’re on guard and defensive.

I think that’s all wrong.

I think poetry is just distilled language, in sharper focus, with the volume turned up–pick a sense. It’s true some of the writers I teach want to challenge their readers, but it’s not the poetry that challenges, generally; it’s the content. Dante is not dense because he writes in terza rima; he’s dense because we don’t know enough of his historical and political context to get all his references, nor enough of his religious context to grasp his spiritual claims in their fullness.

But man, the guy can sing.

So I’m on a perennial quest, every term, to break down walls in people’s minds and help them feel poetry. And lately I’ve discovered a tiny resurgence of a genre I was not expecting: the verse novel.

On our last trip to Solvang, my daughter and I each bought, without consulting the other, a verse novel. I don’t know about you, but I have very little experience with verse novels, and the one that comes first to mind is the quite forbidding. The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning is a 600-page whopper that I bought as an ambitious undergrad and left on my shelf. 21,000 lines of iambic pentameter had intimidated even me, the poetry lover.

But there is new hope. My daughter picked up a book that is sort of a biography in verse of Joan of Arc: Stephanie Hemphill’s The Language of Fire. And I bought a retelling of the Minotaur’s story called Bull: A Novel by David Elliott. Then she read mine and I read hers, both in a sitting.

These are novels told in verse, published in 2019 and 2017, respectively, and I thought also of Jane Yolen’s 2018 Finding Baba Yaga, and realized this might be a thing. If it is, let me just shout from the rooftops, Hurrah! Because all three of these are wonderful—lively revisionings of a well-known story spun in readable, small spurts of poems.

The poems are mostly free verse—the kind of poem that makes me wonder why the poet chose to break the lines there… or they would if I weren’t swept up in the narrative. Some of them are visually poetic, and by that I mean the very way the words are presented on the page is beautiful. Some of Yolen’s have very, very short lines—two syllables. Or they build from short to long lines and back. Or they intersperse voices in italics. Elliott’s have pages that get progressively darker as Asterion the Minotaur’s perspective darkens.

This is good stuff, y’all. This is poetry that lets you in. It may be my predilections that lead me toward the myths and fairy tales (Joan’s legendary status notwithstanding), but they seem perfect subjects for this medium. You already know the story, or think you should. (Yolen’s first poem, in fact, is entitled “You think you know this story.”) So the content is not going to be the problem, as in Dante’s case. This time through, you just get to enjoy the show.

But all three of these are marketed for the Young Adult audience, which means that many readers will not know the stories. If this is the first introduction to these stories, that’s good too. They are more expansive than the myths, more personal than a “real” biography, more psychologically vivid than a fairy tale.

But they also get to sing.

And if they’re selling, that means young people are getting exposed to old stories through poetry. It’s brilliant, of course. (It always has been.) The poems are short, moving briskly through the narrative, switching voices, clapping back—even making Hamilton references–and because there are simply fewer words on each page, you get the sense that you’re flying through the tale. And that helps skittish readers feel like they accomplished something, which they absolutely have.

I hope what they’ve done is hopped on the bandwagon to revive a wonderful form. I hope that means more will come to my classes with less fear of poetry and more sense of its potential.

Living · Reading · Writing

The Anti-Blog

I don’t really have anything to say today. I didn’t last week either, so I skipped a week, and I almost never skip weeks, so… you know… I’m here tonight. But I still don’t have anything, really.

What do I have?

I have some free time, having completed the draft of a paper whose deadline I just barely busted. Tuesday night is still “early in the week,” right?

I have some complicated feelings about Independence Day, since I’m grateful to live in a country that allows me to say how disappointed I am in us right now.

Grandma Isla loved dogwood and delicate things.

I have my grandma’s tea cups and her love of quiet, civilized time.

I have a really splendid family, who chose to celebrate our freedom by grilling hotdogs and playing a new board game. My partner got to use his firepit, and the girly made a monster fruit salad.

I have arthritis in my feet. Who knew? So I have some new foods in my diet and am cutting down on others, to do what I can to slow its advance.

I have some fear, but mostly hope for our future as a country and as a planet. I have a well-developed sense of wonder at the beauty of the world and the ingenuity of people who screw it up, but also rally to fix it.  

I have enough stamps that I can pick and choose from a variety of sets and materials and get more use out of them than they’re marketed for. And I have a partner who likes to see me happy, so encourages my hobby rather than complaining that it’s too expensive.

I have “Dirty Little Secret” stuck in my head. It’s my daughter’s fault. It’s on her playlist.

 I have a daughter who plays music while she tidies the kitchen.

I have lots of memories of fireworks and parks and watermelon and parades and my parents from my happy childhood. I have some holes in my heart where people like my parents have taken little bits of me in to the beyond.

I have a stack of academic books to be returned to various libraries, some classes to plan, a letter of recommendation to write, some portfolios to assess, and a fall schedule to tidy up… next week.

And I have a cat walking across my desk, telling me to wrap this up and pet her already.

If you’re still reading, I wish you a wonderful evening, a heart full of hope, and enough of whatever makes you happy.

Lucie is over my non-blog.
Living · Picture Books · Reading

Idylls of the Introverts–a summer tradition

A Tree Grows in Solvang

When my son was ten, he and my partner played a tabletop fantasy game called Warhammer 40K. This involved lots of painting of tiny soldiers and model tanks and buildings, and it sort of peaked when they found out there was a convention in Chicago. At first, my eight year old daughter and I thought we’d go too, but we also thought it sounded like watching movies in a foreign language about subjects that don’t interest you. So we passed and decided to think of our own thing.

I had always wanted to go to Solvang, a little tourist town in the Santa Barbara wine country with Danish roots (and therefore bakeries). There was even a Hans Christian Andersen museum.

As a Girly Getaway, it had loads of potential.

I made a reservation at a Bed and Breakfast with a fairy tale theme, and we got a room filled with Danish lace and paintings of swans and princesses. It was perfect. We bought Dala horses and ate abelskivers, the little spherical pancakes drizzled in raspberry sauce, and we decided this was our thing.

And that was before we discovered the bookshop.

The bookshop is what kept us going. The Book Loft is a lovely, independent bookstore with used and new books and the best Fairy Tales and Folklore collection I’ve ever seen.  We each bought an armload of books, and we headed across the street to the park to examine our haul. We read under a tree all afternoon.

Since then we have done largely the same thing every summer. We love the little town, but if we’re honest, we go for the books. It’s a perfect destination for us, although neither of the boys understand.

We chat all the way there and back, and if it were a trip with girlfriends, we probably would buy wine and keep chatting. It’s not.

It’s with my favorite bookworm, and we spend a considerable chunk of our time sitting next to each other companionably and reading. We stop to read each other funny passages or show a picture or summarize a great story. We are geeks. When she was eight, I was already buying more picture books than she was. She was reading children’s fantasy novels, and I was collecting picture books and new versions of fairy tales.

Now she’s a teenager, and she reads YA fantasy novels. I’m still collecting fairy tales. This year I got a couple collections with an eye to adopting one for my folklore syllabus in the fall. But the first thing I did was read one of her books—a verse novel about Joan of Arc. And she read a collection of graphic novel-style fairy tales I’d picked out to stay current. That’s right. We both sat there and read a whole book under that tree before one of us had to go to the bathroom.

Book Haul 2019

Several things stand out about this to me (or they did, when our hotel smoke alarm went off and the front desk guy came in to turn it off and saw our giant stack of books strewn across the bed and looked at us like that was one thing he’d never seen when he entered someone’s hotel room at night.) Maybe this is weird. Maybe the fact that we essentially make a two-day bookstore run every year is weird. Maybe that we take a vacation together but don’t talk half the time is weird. Maybe the fact that we’re happy doing essentially the same thing, eating at the same restaurants, and that we go to the fudge shop the first night for us and on the way home for the boys, since we can’t be trusted not to eat theirs is weird. (That seems least weird to me of this list, frankly.)

But the fact is some day she’s going to be 21, and even though people have been recommending wine to her there since she was 13, she will someday take them up on it, and the dynamic will change.

I tried to shake things up a few years with different locations or (gasp!) restaurants, but she has always been somewhere between reluctant and outraged. I have pushed her to all the local museums and the ostrich farm, with the tacit understanding that we should probably know more of the area than the park and the bookstore, but really, what makes us happy is the quiet time leaning against each other under our tree, comparing this year’s books to last year’s, and chatting with the shop workers and servers who only see us once a year, but remember us anyway. Some comment on how much she’s grown, like the server who remembers her back when she wore Crocs with gibbitz in them and clapped at the Red Viking because they served her milk in a pilsner glass.

The secret to happiness is indulging your inner geek. Especially with someone who high fives you for it.