Billy Elliot, Chaucer’s Monk, and the Modern Reader

I was asked today, by a student doing research on teaching, how I feel when I am teaching.  There are lots of answers, of course, depending on how well it’s going, but the most prominent feeling I have in the classroom is electricity.  I even quoted the film Billy Elliot (where he’s asked what it feels like when he dances) because that’s what it feels like—electricity.

When it’s going well, we are looking at a narrative and feeling a connection to it.  A circuit closes for any number of reasons—someone discovers a parallel in the narrative to her own life, or a character who reminds a student of a family member, or the text recalls the tv show or movie they watched last week.  I talked about it as a current, as I reflect now, in rather sci-fi terms, of people establishing connections to texts and to each other, as if we create a cloud of electricity that we all tap in to (to varying degrees, perhaps, but when it’s great, pretty much everyone is plugged in).

Sometimes the current exists between two people (who we might say were “on the same wavelength”), but sometimes it is between a reader and a time, a text, a context, an archetype.  In my Chaucer class this morning, I had occasion to make a parallel I’ve never made before.  In the wake of the attack at Ohio State this morning, which was described initially as a shooting, I made the connection to our feelings about that kind of news—as college students who commiserate with other college students when violence erupts on campus, but who also sigh inwardly, relieved that it wasn’t on our campus.

This, believe it or not, was relevant to Chaucer’s “Monk’s Tale,” which is a collection of seventeen tragedies in chronological order from Lucifer through the 14th century, with the exception of a handful of vignettes that are typically referred to as “current events” for Chaucer:  the assassinations of King Pedro of Spain, Peter of Cyprus, and Bernabo Visconti.

This rather lengthy tale ranges from the fall of Lucifer, through the Bible and through history, with stops at Samson, Caesar, and Alexander the Great, to name a few.  But it is interrupted by these contemporary stories—ones that would have been more immediate and somewhat sensitive. The Canterbury pilgrims listen to the monk as we do to the news. The knight even knew one of those guys. But mostly it is a moment where tragedy becomes personal:  where individuals react with compassion when someone else’s king is killed and with relief that it wasn’t theirs.

When I connected this awful, complicated set of feelings to our reactions to yet another scene of violence on a college campus, that electricity sparked. Groggy, reluctant students still full of pumpkin pie and in vacation-mode woke up, sat up, and thought about how uncanny it is that we keep having these conversations in Chaucer class about contemporary problems.

I’ve taught this tale a minimum of fifteen times. Probably twenty. I’ve never framed it in that particular way before, never quite seen that connection. But I will make it again. There is truth to the claim that the text changes with each reading because the reader changes. And teaching reading changes, because the more of these electric moments happen in class, the more ways I have to reach the next group. And the more connections I can facilitate–the more sparks fired, switches flipped, circuits closed–the more students learn to make those connections themselves. Narratives inform narratives. The more connections we can see, the more skilled we become at reading our world, the more easily we write and re-write our own stories. And that’s how we change the world.
*That’s a stamped image of a lightbulb, by the way, from a Stampin’ Up! Stamp set called “You Brighten My Day.”

"Because I think I am getting better!"

There’s a lovely anecdote about Pablo Casals, the cellist, that I hope is based in reality, but that I love has taken on a life of its own, because I think it says something beautiful about humanity that we keep wanting to hear it.  The first version I saw was on Pinterest, a photograph of a newspaper clipping, unattributed in the clipping, and unattributed on the meme.  (Oh, the joys of the Internet—my inner English major cringes.)  But it was small and maybe not worth chasing down:  “The legendary cellist Pablo Casals was asked why he continued to practice at age 90.  ‘Because I think I’m making progress,’ he replied.”
I repinned this.  I love it.
Like Michelangelo’s famous “Ancora imparo” I am still learning, it gives us hope.  If the masters of this caliber still have things to learn, we, in our significantly lesser states of grace can rest easy.  It’s a process, and maybe we’re never done.  Ideally we’re never done, in fact; that way we can continue to learn and improve all our lives and nod at other people at their various places in this journey.  Some are ahead of us, some behind, but as long as we all keep moving, we’re all right where we should be.
This particular anecdote is even more charming to me because when I chose to write about it, the first thing I did (being such a responsible English major) was to try and track down that source.  Who had interviewed the master?  When?  What I found was a preponderance of reprinted vignettes, and a meme tradition.  The quote I offered is presented on the internet (and running with abandon all over Pinterest) in the same format as I found it—the newspaper clipping image—but also reprinted on lovely backgrounds with no regard for who said it, when, or in fact, who Casals is.  For the internet, this quote has become its own entity, and Casals needn’t even have existed, he makes such a good story.
But lots of people had realized he was a good story. My search took me to QuoteInvestigator.com.  (These people must have endless business, given the Internet’s slipshod handling of text.)  They found this quote in several places, actually, and even in several renditions.  First, it seems the artist may have said something similar in more than one interview.  The Quote Investigator team reports, “there is substantive evidence that Casals made a remark about making progress in 1944 when he was 67 or 68 years old as indicated by the 1946 citation. There is also good evidence that he made a similar remark circa 1957 when he was 80 years old” (http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/02/12/casals-progress/).  Then he may even have kept talking, or perhaps by then the charm of this story may have just taken on a life of its own.  In the quote I found, he was supposed to be 90.  It’s certainly possible he said it again. He lived to be 97; the last account of this quote puts him still saying the same thing at 95.  Either he continued to feel optimistic about his ability to learn and improve, or we can’t let the idea go, and keep telling the story, like a fish tale, with an older and older man. 
Why?  We want to believe that the master can continue to improve, no matter how old.  We need to.  Not only does it give us hope that even someone such as he has more to learn, so we (who have so much more to learn) are not alone, but the fact that he keeps getting older and older seems to suggest there is no end to this potential progress.  In an age of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, some manage not only to age well, but to keep improving, right in to extreme old age.  In fact, the Alzheimer’s Association suggests that continuing to learn, for instance a foreign language, or to play an instrument, is one of the best ways to stave off dementia (http://www.alz.org/we_can_help_stay_mentally_active.asp).  
Pablo Casals has become a little Internet legend, popping up here and there, borrowed by various groups and websites to embody the possibility of perpetual improvement—a model of aging not just gracefully, but exceptionally, so that old age is no less pleasurable and satisfying than any other age; in fact, it may hold the deepest pleasures because we weren’t able to experience them before.  This is definitely a comfort, and a gift. 
“I am getting better” is practically a mantra for me at this point, and a manifesto of optimism.  But the most important thing the Casals quote teaches me is the importance of the moments along the way.  Casals is quoted saying he is improving with practice at 67, 81, 83, 90, and 95.  He is improving at all those points.  But at all those points he is also already a master.  What he knows is enough to impress everyone but himself.  They are all points of success, not just transitions to the next, better phase of himself.  The life of this quote is the satisfaction and happiness that come from the moments where we pause and take stock not of the motion of where we are going, but the stasis of where we are.  Right now.  Still.  (And still improving.)

Texts and Textiles: How we make our peace

One of the wonderful benefits of a hobby is sharing it with a community.  I wasn’t out to convert everyone to love what I love, but I was keen on creating time to be creative, and time to be chatty with friends.  Most of my friends are creative, and those who thought they weren’t have been shown otherwise.  Before long, I established a space where my friends could crochet, cross stitch, sew felt coasters, and make labels for homemade products, in addition to stamping and paper crafting.  My dining table is an oval—the only better shape would be a circle, but a circle big enough for all our ramblings would be too large for my space.  The oval works.  It is cozy, welcoming, warm, and inviting—surrounded by wonderful people and topped with creativity.
Along with this making, though, we do other important work.  Sometimes I cook, and we have a meal first.  Sometimes we do a potluck sort of meal; sometimes we just nibble on snacks as we work.  All of that contributes to a feeling of nurturing conviviality, and to me gives the sense of “product in, product out.”  We eat, then we create.  Lately, though, for various schedule and complicated-life-related reasons, we have been meeting later, after dinner, and snacks are less necessary than they were when I was building this community.  Now what we feed on is words. 
A group of women around a table doing handicrafts is a recipe for conversation, of course.  It takes part in the long, glorious tradition of quilting bees, craft bazaars, and the more modern idea of the “Stitch and Bitch” session.  We talk as we work.  We tell each other the story of our days.  Whoever is having the worst time at the moment, and needs the support of the group most immediately gets to go first, and we sort of tacitly understand we need to “deal” with that person’s problems before anything else.  And that’s what we do.  I read an article in The Onion one time that detailed a Girls’ Night Out, where women spent the evening “validating the living shit out of each other.” That’s where we start.  Whoever needs to dump their drama on the table does so, along with the paper scraps and yarn and ink pads and chocolate almonds, and we sift through it together.  We are honest in our support, and not afraid to speak truth to each other, but overall, we are a very sympathetic audience.  And somewhere in the snipping and pasting and analyzing and categorizing, things get sorted out, set to right—we reassemble ourselves as we assemble our little projects.
After the first person has spoken, the conversation moves fluidly, in and out of associations, memories, current struggles and successes.  The stories that we shape while we’re making cards or knitting baby blankets or stringing beads for a bracelet are every bit as important as the physical product—individually, perhaps moreso.  What has happened is that lovely concatenation of camaraderie and comfort that a semi-common purpose facilitates.  We are all woven in to each other’s stories, as supporting characters and new narrators.  We help each other see from different perspectives and offer multiple solutions to dealing with current problems.  Then we re-position ourselves as main characters and write ourselves in to the future. 
Sometimes the drama is small—daily dramas of the home or workplace.  Someone’s child is struggling in school.  Someone else has a family member causing unnecessary trouble.  Some project at work is fraught with setbacks or frustrations.  We deal with all of that pretty quickly.  Sometimes, though, it’s big stuff—decisions about starting a family, changing careers, moving out of state, caring for parents.  I think we rise to those too, with the same sort of diligence and good will.  Fewer cards get cranked out on those nights, but that’s ok.  Crafting is only the vehicle—the excuse to gather.  The real work is social, communal, and yes—literary, as we rewrite our lives and revision who we are.  It’s true that sometimes you don’t know what you think until you say it out loud (or write it down, but that’s a different blog).  My crafting table is a place where past stories are analyzed and future stories scripted. Sometimes this happens quite literally:  we help each other word responses to angry clients and cousins, repeat mantras or catch phrases to help us deal with problems in the moment, and talk through strategies to solve particular crises.  Because some of us are in academia, some of our support happens in the form of reading and helping to revise academic papers, tenure packets, and grant proposals.  Or someone needs help crafting descriptions for items for an online store, or topics for a blog.  Really, very literally, much of what we deal with directly is made of words, and we are called upon to “wordsmith” our way out of problems.  We create as many texts as textiles around my table.
But all of this wordsmithing takes place around an oval table littered with scissors and markers and felt and beads, and over a drink or a snack or a meal, between a few friends, whose characters make possible not only the meeting, but also the changing—the crafting of well-wrought lives.
“Female Friends Spend Raucous Night Validating the Living Shit out of Each Other.” The Onion.  Feb 23, 2012. Vol. 48, Issue 8.  http://www.theonion.com/article/female-friends-spend-raucous-night-validating-the–27446

Happy Election Eve!

If I Can Wait for the Cubs to Win the World Series, I Can Get Through This Election.

This week’s blog is not overtly about reading, except as insofar as I am reading the world.  I want to tell you how I’m surviving this election.  It has been harder than any other, as I’ve heard many others say.  For me part of that was having my kids be teenagers, not voting this time, but both of voting age in the next four years.  This was a terrible way to introduce them to what I think is one of our greatest freedoms.  It was so difficult to talk to them about why I’m voting for my candidate, who was not my first choice.  But we don’t always get our first choice candidates, do we?  And we still have to vote, sometimes for someone we doubt.
I have tried to stay informed, so I can make the best decision, but while the internet makes so much more information available, it also produces so much that is questionable that staying informed seems harder than ever before.  Mainstream media is losing its credibility, and new media sources may be independent, but often are no less biased.
Usually I tell my kids we just have to have faith in the election process, but this time that has been very difficult to maintain, with corruption and voter fraud apparently at every turn.  So what do we have faith in?
I have faith that people are essentially good, and that bad behavior (dare I say evil?  Yes, this election I think we’ve seen evil) will be curbed by and for the greater good in people.  I trust humanity.  I trust it to screw up, to stumble, and to err, but I also trust it to rise ultimately—to learn and to love.
I am a Cubs fan, and have been for better than twenty years.  If the Cubs can win the World Series, we can survive this election and learn from the trauma it has caused.  It has been traumatic.  I’m exhausted and full of doubts.  Social media has kept each wretched act of this play right in my face for months now, and it has taken a toll.  But I’ve been a fan of human beings even longer than I’ve been a fan of the Cubs, and I’m certain we have our own 10-inning Game 7 coming.  We just have to keep believing.  It might help to sing.  Loud.  And vote.  We all need to vote.  And whichever direction we go, we have another tough road ahead of us.
Meanwhile, I’m going to listen to some beautiful music and read a good book and escape for a bit and see what I can do about recovering my balance.  When this is over, we’re going to need some metaphysical band-aids to heal the wounds we’ve incurred.  I’ll need to be whole myself to take part in that.  It’s going to start small, as all important work does—first with my family, and then in larger circles, like ripples in water.  That’s my wish for us on this election eve:  that we make decisions with the whole country in mind, that, starting from what’s best for our family, we vote for what we want for the world they live in, and that we do our part to effect that world.

While the Light Lasts

Dementia is a degenerative disease. It does not improve. One does not recover. The best we can hope for is to slow the current, as what was your life–your character, your habits, and your memories–slips over the falls at the end.  But this is not a post about water. It’s a post about light.

In the summer of 2007, my dad was admitted to the hospital for internal bleeding caused by the deadly combination of diabetes and alcoholism. When they tried to treat his alcoholism, they found he couldn’t remember the next day what the counselor had discussed with him previously. Rehab was deemed unnecessary on the grounds that his dementia made it fruitless. It was the first we knew of the advanced state of his dementia. Mom had not wanted people to know, and she had not realized how serious it was. Old men get forgetful, now, don’t they? He had about a two-hour memory window, but couldn’t remember what had happened before—a flashlight with a two-hour battery.
I started researching dementia. For him and for me.
Two years later, that window had narrowed considerably. When I moved him in to an assisted living facility closer to me, I took him some books. I asked him if he wanted to read. No, it’s too tiring. I read aloud “Casey at the Bat” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” They are long poems, but poems we both knew well—poems he had read to me many times over the years.  I thought he had five minutes in him, at least. He did not. He did not have a whole sentence in him. By the end of the sentence, he couldn’t remember what the beginning had said. He was confused, disheartened, frustrated, and tired. His mind was a matchlight that burned out almost immediately. I started wondering how long his light would last.
This is a question we’d considered in my youth while talking about photography. Photography is all about light—capturing light, manipulating light, diffusing light, redirecting light. When we went camping, we took pictures, and some of the best were taken in the ‘tweener times—the dawn and dusk hours where light was softer and often broken by shadows. This was a time when the color of flowers looked rich, not bleached, washed out by the midday sun. It was also the time of wildlife.
Deer are most active during these hours, more mobile, on the lookout for food and water they dare not seek during the bright light. The shadows keep them safer. The shadows also give them a texture, a depth, and the pictures taken during those hours convey a coziness and intimacy that is not attainable in full sun or in the darkness that follows dusk. It’s important, then, to shoot precisely during that window—after the sun has set but before the darkness obscures your vision completely. We shoot not frantically, but with purpose, and with intent to make the most of a fleeting opportunity, to take the best pictures we can in the best circumstances. Had I known this would become so comforting a metaphor for life, I would have paid more attention during those moments.
Sitting in his room in his retirement community, reading Robert Service aloud, I longed for epigrams instead of ballads. I sang him songs. Short songs, never the second verse. I wanted to give him cozy, comfortable memories, but distilled. I learned to speak in images: I bought a new car; the granddaughter lost a tooth; the roses are blooming. I brought in books of buildings and bridges, so we could look at them together (he was an architect). We looked at one picture, pointed out a favorite feature, and then put the book away. When words and images are illuminated in flashes, lasting only a moment, you learn to winnow the world down to beautiful seconds. If your whole life is one moment, with no connective tissue to others, you want to make each moment beautiful.
This is why dementia patients need caregivers (apart from the obvious, practical reasons).  If someone is there, pointing out lovely things, life is lovely. If not, the odds that they’ll think of a lovely thing are long; they’re more likely to start and then become confused, as the darkness gathers in their mind. Those of us without dementia benefit from perspective; we see things in a panorama or a film, with scenes succeeding scenes. Our current scenes have a past, a trajectory we can see, and a future we can sometimes predict. And all this cycling through days and nights and dawns and dusks serves us best when it reminds us to take the best shots we can while the light lasts.