Handwriting can be crafting too!

I love writing. Not writing blogs or stories or poetry (although I love those too!), but the act of writing—of forming letters. I think text itself is beautiful.

This is a useful trait for a medievalist, I suppose, as decoding letters and transliterating text is easier if you also think it’s pretty, but today I’m really just talking about handwriting. In a world where some states are taking cursive writing out of schools, lots of things will end up looking like calligraphy, no? 
This means I’ve spent and continue to spend some time on my penmanship. My dad was an architect, and architects used to have to learn a particular script, so anyone could read the blueprints. (They don’t teach this anymore, incidently—another skill lost to the computer age.) I learned that blocky script from him, and by 5th grade I went the opposite direction; I decided I needed to have some distinctive features in my handwriting. I practiced pretty lowercase f and s and uppercase H and made them part of my repertoire. I was a geek.
I still am. Now I practice “lettering” with brush tip pens and online tutorials. I still think writing can and often should be pretty. As with any skill, it comes with practice, and I hand write a lot. I still take notes longhand (not that they’re elegant, but it counts), and keep journals around to jot things down that I need to remember or I need to write about.
My son found one of these journals recently. My son has many fine qualities, but his handwriting is atrocious. At some point even I caved and suggested he type his homework. But occasionally I try to encourage him, and truthfully, his writing is getting easier to read. On the way home from karate the other night, where I had been scribbling in my journal while he practiced blocks and strikes, he picked up the journal and started flipping through.
I asked him if he could read my scrawl, as I knew I’d been writing fast. “Kind of,” he said, but it’s weird because it’s a mix of cursive and printing.” Guilty. This was interesting to me. Did he really process cursive differently, so that it was jarring, slowing him down to sort of switch systems in the middle of a word? Is that a kind of dyslexia?  (His dad is mildly dyslexic.) Surely not. Maybe? I pressed him to discuss.
When we got home, I asked him to show me the passage he’d been reading. Ah…  Out of around 40 pages of text, my kiddo flipped to the one page I had written in Middle English. Yeah. That’s harder to read, but not because of my hybrid script. Too many letters, and not all of the right ones. Enough to make you feel dyslexic, maybe, if you weren’t expecting it.
Which brings me back to scribes and medieval writing. (Was I there? Only briefly.) Medieval scribes sometimes copied texts in languages they couldn’t read. Think of the possibility for errors! And even if they could read the text, “copying” needs to be in quotes, as they frequently changed the spelling on purpose or without thinking. They were human, just like we are.
And writing is a uniquely human act.  Maybe that’s another reason I want to give it its due.  To honor and appreciate the act of writing, the medium through which we convey our ideas.  And one I’m not prepared to hand over entirely to the machines.

Naming Nature (An Aspect of Reading the World)

I’m back from Michigan, and had a lovely conference: lots of good ideas bubbling up and rolling around and getting hit back and forth between people like ping-pong balls. But it’s also in Michigan, in the springtime at a campus on rolling hills and deciduous forests just waking up, and it’s always beautiful.
This time someone had the (friendly) audacity to point out that my pictures were of the trees, not the conference panels, and I was forced to acknowledge that part of my draw is to the woods; part of my time is spent sitting and walking outside.
It’s a medieval studies conference, so part of my imagination is always charged with that kind of life: I went to papers about Germanic myths and medieval material culture, so as I carved a path through the trees or took the one someone left for me, I felt a bit of that other world, living closer to nature than we do today. Certainly Michigan is no Scandinavia, but it shares enough for this Californian to have it work on my thoughts. I especially love taking pictures, finding plants I can identify, and plants I don’t recognize:  reading the forest.

Dogwood has been one of my favorite flowers since I was a child. My grandparents lived in Oregon, and Grandma loved Dogwood. I used to ask why there was Dogwood, but no Catwood, and finally concluded that there were wolves in the forest, but no lions, so that must be it. Grandma’s Dogwood tree was a Pacific Dogwood (Cornus nuttalli), and this was Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), but it still counts. They’re related, and the name indicates that.

It’s the names of nature I’m thinking about today. I bought a book about the character of Natura in the Middle Ages, so more will be coming about the grand idea, but Sunday there was an article in the New York Times about Carl Linnaeus, the Swede who invented the system of binomial nomenclature—the reason you can read the difference between Cornus nuttalli and Cornus florida on the page, and not just on the petals, so that’s the direction I’m headed today. Back to Scandinavia. Back to the woods. Back to the ways we bridge the gap between what we know and how we know it, by turning the world in to words. 
James Prosek, who wrote this article on Linnaeus, is working on a book “about how and why we name and order the natural world,” and his piece in the Sunday Times is a brief account of his retracing Linnaeus’s steps through northern Sweden:  Lapland. Linnaeus had traveled for five months, cataloging, collecting, and naming plants, and keeping a journal. Prosek followed skeptically, with a 21stcentury’s dim view of Linnaeus’s ego and privilege, as he ventured in to Lapland with some intent to exploit the Laplanders and some intent to name the world from his perspective. Prosek points out the flower he names after himself (Linnea borealis) as evidence of his ego, and then as he looks at others of Linneaus’s monikers, he discovers a pattern. 
Linnaeus uses Latin to name his specimens, which was the language of learning in 18th century Sweden. Prosek bristles at that, but softens when he sees Linnaeus’s attempts to be precise but also evocative in his naming. One example that changes his mind is a white flower Linnaeus called Dryas octopetala because the leaves reminded him of oaks, and dryads were the nymphs who inhabited oak trees. The flower has eight petals—a dryad in an eight-paneled skirt. 

Prosek finds this charming, as do I. He notes Linnaeus’s names attempt to be “thoughtful and carry physical and quantitative characteristics, metaphor, and allusion to myth.” It’s this storytelling aspect that appeals to me. Linnaeus attempted to encounter the unfamiliar with the tools of the familiar—to describe new flora in terms he and his readers would understand, to bridge the gap between the unknown and the known by creating names that tell a story. It is the oldest and best way to teach—to engage the imagination to help people remember the facts. 

And it still works, as I sat near the forest’s edge, daydreaming about wolves and a red-cloaked girl and the Dogwood she might pick for her granny on the way to the Chaucer panel.  

What I learned from my mother

I’m still processing my mom’s death, but since it followed a ten year decline in to paranoid schizophrenia, part of me feels like I should be farther along.  In some ways, after all, I’ve been mourning her loss for years. I mourned the absence of a grandmother in my children’s lives, the fact that she was “here” but couldn’t hear our triumphs and setbacks like she used to, the fact that every visit took her farther away from me, but not so far I could find any closure. 
Once she was medicated out of the terror-inducing delusions, she was still left with delusions. I had a mom, but not my mom, or at least it didn’t feel that way.  Her passing is allowing me to close some doors and open some that were too painful to deal with. It was too hard to think about the happy memories when I was faced with her suffering at every visit. But now that has passed, I can redirect my thoughts of her to the good ones–and there are many–and give myself permission to roll around in them. 
Upon some reflection, I feel like I’ve had something of an epiphany. I think I got my mind from my dad—my curiosity, my sense of wonder, my joy in learning.  But I know I got my heart from my mom. 
The middle child of seven, she grew up around kids and couldn’t wait to start her own family.  When she miscarried twins at 22, the doctors declared her broken and unable to have her own children. That broke her heart, but when it healed, or when the desire to raise a family overcame the failure of Plan A, my parents adopted two children.They told themselves it was better, even, because they could choose how to plan their family—a son first, then a daughter. So they made it happen. And she loved those babies like crazy.
Then she had me at 35. She didn’t believe it at first, the “broken” comments about her body still as fresh and wounding as they had been years before. She asked the doctor if one could be “a little bit pregnant.” But there I was.  And she loved me like crazy, too.
She loved lots of people and lots of things–painting and music and reading and traveling–and she was a model for me for how to have a heart open to the world.  Mostly, though, above all else, she loved her family:  her parents and siblings, and then her husband and children, her heart growing with each marriage and birth.
I found an anniversary poem she wrote for my dad on their 38th anniversary, where she described their family like a complete set—first came a blond boy, then a red-haired girl, then a little dark-haired baby. Genetically, of course, we’re all different, but she described us so sweetly, like a lucky kid getting all three colors out of the gumball machine. This was all framed in an ode to her husband—the best prize she’d ever won. She loved us, and she made it her life’s goal to make a loving home for us.

And she did. Warm, supportive, comforting, cozy, cinnamon-scented, celebratory home-life, I learned from her. And I am ever grateful.


Lots of Work, but No Less Play: Observations on Academic Worklife and Personal Happiness

Every once in a while a student who’s considering going in to academia asks me how I manage to maintain a happy work/life balance.  I certainly don’t feel like an expert, but I am happy. But he first answer to that question has little to do with me:  find a partner who supports you and likes seeing you happy.
Rob and I got married very young. We were both sophomores in college, both enjoying college, and both invested in a long haul, education-wise. We were also both youngest children, so a friend of mine who was interested in Birth Order and personality warned us that “Two youngest children will spend each other in to the ground.”
I suppose he wasn’t wrong.  We’re still paying off student loans, even as our children get ready for college. What we both brought to the relationship, whether from birth order or some other reason, was a conviction that we deserved to be happy, and joy at seeing the other person happy. That was enough to be getting on with.
Some of the ways that has been borne out over the years are by spoiling ourselves and each other by spending money on our respective hobbies. One of the vows we wrote in to our wedding ceremony was “to encourage each other’s development as an individual, through all the years and changes of our lives.” One thing about getting married at 19: growing up and changing needs to be understood and embraced. He plays WarHammer, a game which involves dropping a ton of cash on plastic bits you can’t even play with until you’ve built and painted them. It also means I happily spend $20 on a single stamp set, seeing it as an investment in my future happiness.

It also means we’re protective of each other’s time. He’s quick to point out that a free weekend is sometimes worth more (cosmically) than what I would make grading Graduate Writing Tests, and I was overjoyed when my raise meant he could drop a class at the school that was both farthest away and the least fun for him.

Mostly, though, it means we have each other’s back in terms of support. When he’s got grading to do, I safeguard his time by picking up slack around the house. When I have something to write, he packs the kids off to Magic Mountain for the day.
Perhaps what’s most surprising about this is not how stinking lucky I am (I am—I’m aware!), but how this balance happened in a single generation.  My mom was delighted to be a Stay At Home Mom, and my dad was delighted to be a Provider.  But somehow as they raised me, it never occurred to me not to work outside the home. And Rob, who was raised by a single mom, always knew he wanted to be an involved dad.
Maybe that’s a place to start, or in my case, end—start from the understanding that you need to work—to contribute—but with the knowledge that a) there are different kinds of work, and home-making counts, and b) if you work at something you love, you’re already halfway to balance.  Second, remember that no matter how much you love your job, it is a job.  As such it supports your life, but is not your life.  This is the difference between living to work and working to live, right?  You owe it to yourself and to your family to have a full, happy home-life, and if you have kids, to model that for them.
And then, if you can, get on the Scheduling Committee, so you can write your own schedule. 😏
PS:  The Robbian Corollary to Work/Life Balance requires far fewer words.  He believes you need to be challenged to be happy, but also supported.  So the best way to do that is to have a demanding, challenging job and a relaxed, happy home.  Hard Job/Easy Home, rather than Easy Job/Hard Home.  I could be wrong, but I expect that’s his advice for everything from choosing a career to choosing a partner to the Grand Secret of Happiness on Earth.  He’s much more succinct (and dramatic) than I.