Life is Like a Book of Chapters

You can’t skip chapters–that’s not how life works. You have to read every line, meet every character.

You won’t enjoy all of it. Hell, some chapters will make you cry for weeks. Longer.

You will read things you don’t want to read and have moments when you didn’t want the page to end. But you have to keep going. Stories keep the world revolving. Live yours. Don’t miss out.

These are thoughts and advice I wrote with a single person in mind, but I think it sounds broadly applicable, like a graduation speech for English majors (and others—I just work most closely with English majors). It was not received well. It was received with some gnashing of teeth and some pleading, and I get that, but there was nothing I could do but try to avoid repeating myself and offer a hug.

The good news is that most of the chapters are good. Most move your plot forward and expand your perspective and add to your character.

Most characters you meet are wonderful; some are helpful without being wonderful, and some are wonderful without being helpful. But many are wonderful and also make your life easier or happier or more productive.

At times when the global or national narrative seems overwhelmingly tragic and frustrating, I need to remember that those sweeping narratives are made up of millions of individual narratives, and the individual stories are usually more satisfying and more easily controlled.

And boy, are they wonderful. I know a retired teacher who stays active by volunteering in her daughter’s elementary classroom. I know a librarian who helps everyone she meets find something they need, from law code to job listings to availability of audio books—even when she’s not working. I know people who bake for others, who volunteer at shelters, who march and protest peacefully so that others can reap the benefits. People who crochet for penguin chicks, who clean up beaches, who work on cars, who lead classes at historical sites, who tell stories and sing songs and create art and offer guidance and shelter and support. 

All of those people have their own stories. They each contain their own constellation of memories and skills and heartbreaks and jokes. And all those stories add up to our larger narratives, so that when one person feels like one chapter of this book is too hard to live through, too overwhelming, too disheartening, it helps to twist the telescope a bit and focus on the microcosm, where examples of good work—of goodness itself—abound.

 So you can tag out—slap a hand on your way out of the ring and go home and restore yourself. Look at smaller scale narratives where, no doubt, great things are happening. But you can’t bow out completely, because all of the stories connect at some point, and we need your little one to help weave the big one we all share.

This is starting to sound trite (some may argue with the “starting to,” even), so I’ll close. But for those who could do with a reminder, stay for your story. Hug it tight. Live it large. And thanks for making the tapestry more beautiful.

Reading · Writing · Teaching

Fables are Real: Thoughts on Marcovaldo

I’m teaching Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo this week, and the older I get, the more I get out of it. I’m so full of things to say, I have to sort through them or risk imploding.

Marcovaldo is the protagonist in a short novel that doesn’t feel like a novel. It feels like a cartoon series to me more than anything—short vignettes with a guy who is sort of a caricature, but also one I can identify with sometimes and pity other times. The book’s subtitle is “Seasons in the City” and begins to explain why some classify it as a mid-20th century “nouveau roman,” or New Novel in the French tradtion. It’s a series of vignettes organized by seasons, not by events in an ongoing plotline.

The seasons pass in the city, but they pass more subtly than in the provinces. And poor Marcovaldo–whose history readers piece together from details dropped occasionally, but even more from his attitudes toward the world–must have been raised in the country, been drafted in to service during World War II, and later moved to the city where all the jobs were to raise his family.

All the jobs, but none of the humanity. All the jobs, but very little from the natural world.

He finds himself trapped in a demeaning job, resentful of the family he struggles to support; the story reads like a list of repeated attempts to escape.

This sweet image is from an Italian version aimed at young readers. This book can be read “simply.” But seriously, the more I read it, the deeper it gets. (Also, there is no point in the book where Marcovaldo stares at a ladybug, on his hand but it is very much the kind of thing he would do–perhaps not this sadly.)

So he’s an idealist in the sense that he thinks he can stumble in to a scheme that will rescue him from this. In the first chapter he finds mushrooms growing wild in the dirt near a tram stop, and he immediately plans a huge feast for his family—watching the mushrooms grow and bringing his kids to help gather them by the hundreds.

In another chapter, he reads in an old newspaper that bee venom has been used to treat rheumatism, and he turns his one-room basement apartment into a clinic, applying angry wasps to people’s skin under a paper cup. He’s receptive to the natural world and its opportunities.

But this is the city. The only mushrooms that grow there are poisonous. The wasp clinic (obviously) goes south and lands him in the hospital. He doesn’t give up, but readers can get tired for him, as he tries one way after another to get something for nothing.

Students sometimes get hung up on this aspect of him and label him as greedy. So this time I’m going in ready to redirect that line of thought. It’s not wrong; it’s just superficial.

First, Marcovaldo is poor. He’s not so much greedy as he is desirous of pretty reasonable things—enough space to house his family comfortably, enough food for them all to eat, enough time to enjoy the world around them. He’s an unskilled laborer with a wife and six kids. His wife has to be home to raise the kids, so it’s all on him to provide for eight people. That he continues to do that seems admirable to me. That he also looks for moments of delight and opportunities out seems healthy.

That is where I’ll start this time. He’s not greedy; he’s burned out.

He’s also lots of other things. He’s an early environmentalist; he notices and cultivates the natural world; in fact, he yearns for it. He’s a class warrior, showcasing the inequities in post-war Italy. He’s full of childlike wonder, always looking for butterflies and stopping to watch birds fly. He’s also kind of a caricature of Calvino—an introverted, disillusioned, middle-aged dreamer. He’s not yet Mr. Palomar, but he’s moving in that direction.

And now I’m thinking I need to write a paper about Marcovaldo. Maybe that would help get him out of my head, like listening to the whole song does, when I have a line repeating in my mind. I need to do something to stop channeling him. Because I can’t stop looking for butterflies and noticing the sunlight hitting pine boughs and freezing when I hear birdsong to see if I can find the bird. I just live in an area with too many birds for that kind of behavior to be practical. 😀

Picture Books · Reading

Cornucopia: Picture Books for Autumn

It’s been a while since I’ve done a picture book blog, and since a-something like twenty of my former students had babies in the last year and b-I love fall, I’ve decided to collect some seasonal books that don’t have snowfolk or reindeer as protagonists.

  1. “Little Tree” by Loren Long. When all the trees are little, everything is great, but when fall comes, one won’t let his leaves fall because he’s afraid of the cold. The problem is that stunts his growth, and once he establishes the pattern of holding on to stuff too long, it’s hard to break. I feel personally called out by this picture book, so I love it and need to share.
  2. “Room on the Broom” by Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler. This is such a great book: it’s Halloweeny, but just because the character is a witch. It’s mostly about finding your tribe and protecting your homies. And when your homies are all adorable critters, that’s awesome.
  3.  “John Pig’s Halloween” by Jan L. Waldron and David McPhail is the first Halloween book my son had, and we all loved it. I’m a sucker for good verse, and John overcomes his fear by making friends with monsters, so I feel like that is a win all around. The verse is so catchy we practically memorized the whole thing, and 18 years later, we still find ourselves using a line or two in conversation when it’s appropriate, which is more often than you’d think.
  4. “Thanks for Thanksgiving” by Julie Markes and Doris Barrette is our requisite Turkey Day book, in part because of the wonderful fall-toned illustrations that include wonderful family moments but also school and play. It also includes a blank page at the end for families to write in what they’re thankful for, which makes my Bullet Journaling heart happy. Train ‘em young, I say. You want them to read? Then read. You want them to be grateful? Then be grateful. And write that stuff down, so you can remember what it was like to be grateful for Thomas trains and Fairy Fudge.
  5. “The Giant Cabbage” by Chérie B. Stihler and Jeremiah Trammell. This one is adorably illustrated by Trammell and a sweet fable about coming together for a common purpose, then sharing in the fruits (or vegetables) of that labor. Fall is all about abundance, after all.
  6. “Persephone” by Sally Pomme Clayton and Virginia Lee, speaking of abundance… and what comes after the harvest.  This is a solid version of the myth of Persephone and her mom, about seasons and sorrows and cycles and the bond between life and death.
  7. “Georgie and the Robbers” by Robert Bright is not overtly a fall book, but it must take place in the fall, if one uses the illustrations as a guide. And since it’s about a ghost and an owl and a cat, it has an autumnal feel to it. It remains, after thousands of books, my very favorite book to read aloud. Part of that may be nostalgia. I had it as a kid and remember reading it when I was little, and then I read it to my kids. But when I read it to my kids, I realized how delightful the music and drama and character building is when you read it aloud. It’s amazing. It’s hard to find now, but if you want to borrow mine, or even better—ask me to read it to you—I’m down.

Happy Fall y’all.

Reading · Teaching

Layers like a cake, not like an onion: In Praise of Allegory

I love The Faerie Queene. There. I said it. I feel better.

I don’t have a horse in the Catholic/Protestant race, so I can read it without passion in that regard, but I do in the It’s All Connected race, and Spenser is ringing all my classical and medieval fangirl bells.

It’s a brilliant, sometimes hilarious compilation of previous works in service of a new narrative and a context where Spenser was interested in showing off his learning and skill. When I teach it, I scribble on the board an over-simplified equation that nonetheless helps students wrap their heads around it. Spenser uses classical epic conventions + medieval content + Protestant allegory to create the Faerie Queene.

I teach the third book (the story of Britomart, the knight of Chastity, and the only female knight) pretty regularly, but I haven’t had occasion to dive in to the rest of the book for many years.

It was right there waiting for me, as all the great books do.

Maybe that’s a definition of a classic—a text that waits for you, and when your crazy life lets you get back to it, it is every bit as delightful, surprising, and moving as it was when you first encountered it.

So the Faerie Queene….

Book I is the story of the Redcrosse Knight, the knight of Holiness. And it’s an allegory, right? So he IS holiness; he embodies holiness. But during the course of his quest, he is tested, he errs (literally!) from his path, and he needs to be rehabilitated; thus his faith is tempered. He is stronger than he was before.  

Redcrosse’s quest is to liberate Una’s (the One, True, i.e. Protestant Church) parents from the dragon.  But to focus on Redcrosse is to miss Una and her Perils of Pauline melodrama (or Penelope Pitstop, for 70s cartoon fans).

Una accompanies Redcrosse at the beginning, guiding him on his way (she knows where she lives; he doesn’t) and giving advice and encouragement. She’s lovely, really. And Holiness–in service to the One, True Church–defeats Error and her monstrous brood in the darkness of ignorance. So far, so good.

But even before the end of the first Canto, the wizard Archimago (Hypocrisy) sets deceptions in motion to raise doubts about Una’s virtue, and Redcrosse flees without her. Una wanders after him, alone and afraid, and in to her own adventures.

A lion tries to eat her. But as he gets close enough to see her, he is calmed and tamed by her… what… aura of goodness? Sure. He goes from wanting to eat her to giving his life to protect her; she’s that compelling a personage.

She is then claimed by Sans Loy (Lawlessness), who kills her lion and drags her off. She’s saved from him by a band of satrys, and saved from them by a mysterious half-satyr, half-human knight. It’s a little ridiculous, at least to a modern reader who can’t read Una among the satyrs as Princess Leia in the Ewok village.

And of course, Spenser is counting on his readers recognizing scenes, characters, and elements from other books like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and others. As a medievalist and a reader with a heavily annotated edition, those references are not lost on me, and there is a special pleasure in “getting the references” an author like Spenser drops. But what slays me is the pile of continued narratives since he wrote. My reading of The Faerie Queene is filled with moments of recognizing Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Marvel movies, Disney heroines, and countless other literary and pop culture references Spenser couldn’t have predicted but I can’t unsee.

Una will forever be the One, True Church, but also Princess Leia, Penelope Pitstop, even Eowyn the shield maiden from The Lord of the Rings. I don’t know if that would make Spenser spin in his grave, or if he’d think that all recognition was good recognition, but it sure makes for a delightful experience.

Reading · Teaching · Writing

On Light and Lightness

Apollo is the god of light in the sense that he inspires all things we associated with enlightenment: culture, arts (especially music and poetry), civilization, reason, medicine, and prophecy. As the sun, he IS light. So everything he touches is illuminated or illuminating.  Latin lux/lucere à English light. (Never trust a vowel.)

But when Italo Calvino writes his essay on “Lightness” in Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he’s not talking about brightness or illumination; he values weightlessness in the fabric and content of literature. This comes from Gothic leihts, and Latin went the leviarius/(“leviosa”)/levity route.

When I teach this essay, someone always asks if he means lightness like the quality of being bright or lightweight. If we were reading the original, the question would not come up; it’s entitled “La Legerezza,” of which we only have a relic in “legerdemain”—sleight of (or lightness of) hand. In Italian  the word for bright light is la luce.

Also if you read very far in to the essay, Calvino makes this distinction abundantly clear, but if you are an English reader who imagined brightness first, it can be hard to let go of. After all, we want our literature to be illuminating, don’t we? To light fires in our minds and to shine light on problems and people and practices. Good books do that.

That’s not what Calvino meant. He wouldn’t be so moralizing, to begin with. But he was aestheticizing. (I know that’s not a word in the sense of prescribing literary values, but I want it to be.) He was interested in defining ideals of literature, not humanity.

He strove to remove weight from his works, sometimes in terms of content (like making a suit of armor trot around empty, without the weight of a body inside[The Nonexistent Knight] or like reducing gravity’s pull so that people could float up to the moon [“The Distance to the Moon” in Cosmicomics, which is the basis for the Pixar short “La Luna”].

He also tried to remove weight from his prose, so that it seemed somewhat diaphanous. He quotes Emily Dickinson as an example:

A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn—
A flask of Dew—A Bee or two—
A Breeze—a caper in the trees—
And I’m a Rose!

Occasionally one of my students will dig in, claiming that it is a higher good to strive to be illuminating than weightless, to which I can only respond that he’s talking about style, and that doesn’t have a moral obligation. Calvino means literature should tread lightly; it should lighten our load by lifting us above the weight of the world and in to the flight of the clouds and imagination. It should inspire contemplation, which is completely abstract and therefore weightless, and it should do so by means that feel light: literature’s form (lightened prose) should follow its function—lightening our spirits.

What began as an etymological exercise has turned in to an analysis of Calvino’s essay, which I didn’t plan on. But I have read and taught and thought about that essay so many times, it is hard for me to think of lightness in any form without also thinking of Calvino’s words. At the risk of sounding repetitive, it’s all connected.

Have a good weekend, y’all. Enjoy the light of the Harvest Moon.

Oak leaves in the sunlight on Mt Palomar
Reading · Teaching

Intro to Welsh: The Back to School edition

The school year has begun. It is not fall in Southern California by any measure but the academic calendar, but officially, fall semester has arrived. Kids are back in school, in air-conditioned classrooms one hopes, and my partner and I are swinging back in to a routine of lunches and carpools and homework and class preparation and grading.

But it’s August. Part of me is still offended.

Or it would be, if it weren’t so fun. It takes a couple days to figure out where classes meet and to put names to faces, and to move past the preliminaries of setting expectations and selling the class and yourself. For me the first week or two are always the most stressful, even though grading and responsibilities increase over the term.

In the first week I convince people to pay attention to me. I sell the class as important, useful, and fun. I sell myself as an authority but also as a person, because I know how much more pleasant a class is if you like your instructor. (This certainly does not always work, but I try. It’s a fine balance to hit—I’m kind of a dork, but an interesting, funny dork. If I push too far, they stop thinking I’m an interesting, funny anything, and all that’s left is the dork. This is impossible to come back from in my experience.)

When I’m teaching an English class, the odds are in my favor. I am largely surrounded by people who love books and have come there to talk about them. When I’m teaching a General Ed class, it varies.

This term I have mostly non-majors in my Folklore course. In the first week there has been a steady flow in and out of my class, as the prospect of all that reading and writing deters some people, or the dorkness proves insurmountable. People trickle in too, adding every day this week, not knowing what they’re in for.

Today I had enough laughing that I predict they will all stay.

We are reading the Welsh Mabinogion, a collection of folklore contained in two manuscripts that people agree come hundreds of years after the tales had been circulating. The first hurdle is convincing people to care about medieval Welsh stories. The second hurdle is convincing people to read Welsh.

I don’t give them the text in Welsh, of course, but I do give them a crash course on pronouncing Welsh so they can read the names and places more easily. I’m trained as a linguist; I got this. I break down the names in to sounds and help them pronounce the ones non-native to English. But today just when they got comfortable with short, one or two-syllable names, and were feeling pretty good, I hit them with the YouTube video.

 There is a twenty-second video of a normal, respectable-looking weatherman doing his job that has over twenty million views because he effortlessly pronounces a Welsh town whose name is fifty-eight letters long. Of course he does. He’s from Cardiff. But it’s kind of amazing anyway.

So I sprung this on my students near the end of the language discussion. They were feeling good. They could pronounce Rhiannon with appropriate breathiness. They wrapped their mouths around the double d sounding like the beginning of ‘then.’ Then Liam Dutton commented about the weather in Llanfairpwyllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, and they lost it. And I had them.

I know it’s a gimmick. I know it’s cheap. But if it makes them laugh, builds a connection with their fellow students, challenges them to figure out how that word holds together, sparks a curiosity about the language that extends to the literature and culture, and gets me a little buy-in to a fairly kooky subject matter, I’ll take it.

And we’re off.  Happy Fall, y’all.


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.