Living · Writing

A Hodge Podge of Small, Good Things

1: I started a Bullet Journal at the beginning of the year. In my head this is a sort of a mash-up of an art journal, a calendar, and a series of lists, so it appeals both to my creative side and my need for order and reminders. My normal mode of remembering is to write a list, so if I can keep all my lists in one place, I stand a better chance of not losing them, and if I can use stamps, markers, and/or washi tape, I feel like I’m playing, so this is Adulting Disguised as Play—always a good thing.

2: I also received a gift from a student today—just a small gesture, really, but one so thoughtful, personal, and entertaining as to be emblematic of all that is good in my career. I teach humans. I teach humans about books. I teach humans about books that entertain and instruct and challenge and provoke and affirm. It is a serious endeavor, one steeped in humanity, and a genuine site of connection to individuals and the world. And individuals are wonderful. Sometimes the world gets me down, but individuals are awesome.

This student gave me a rubber stamp that he had custom-made for me. It says “Never trust a vowel” in a lovely, crisp block of text. This is something I shout gleefully (but in all seriousness) in many of my classes, as I point out to students the words they know in various languages and traditions. If they’re translating Chaucer’s Middle English and get stuck on the word “holp,” I remind them to try other vowels, and most of the time they come to “help” on their own. Vowels are what change most readily (consider regional accents). I have joked in class that I write it so often on people’s translations, that I could use a stamp, and someone listened and acted.
3: Finally, a poem. I wrote it years ago, when my kids gave me some bug and I missed a dear friend’s wedding. In the throes of this miserable cold and flu season, it seems relevant again, and still a pipedream. I will never be Ironmom. I will always snuggle the sickie.
“A Resolution”
Someday I’ll learn not to
Comfort a sick child.
Not to welcome on to my lap,
In to my grembo
An oozing, seething
Bundle of germs.
When my son has a fever
I won’t rock him in the comfy chair
Legs over one armrest
Head on my heart.
When my daughter has a tummy ache
I won’t lay her on my stomach
Rubbing her belly
As if it were my own, like
Two spooning Buddhas, for luck.
When they cough
I’ll spin them away from me
Aiming them like guns at the world
Instead of pulling them close
Calming their spasms with
The beat of my heart
The strength of my arms.
I’ll be Ironmom.

I will never get sick again.

Reading · Teaching

Stories, Friends, and Order in the Universe, or Why Do We Read?

Today was that day in class when, compelled by the chaos of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, my seniors tried to define what kind of reader they are.
The novel is basically about reading. It begins with a Reader trying to read his new copy of If on a winter’s night and careens through the lives of an Other Reader, a Non-Reader, a publisher, a translator, an author, a student, and loads of other people. With all these different perspectives on text production and reception, it’s kind of natural to try and orient our own reading style. (It’s also easier to talk about ourselves sometimes than it is to sort out the labyrinth of the latter half of that novel in an hour, so it’s a common digression.)
But it’s important too, you know. Self-knowledge and all that. Good in itself. This is just the readerly fragment of ourselves.
There are a number of ways to read that my friends, colleagues, and students have described over the years. Today we mostly fell in to five camps:  those who read for character, plot, form, “aesthetics,” and “immersion.”  Some of these will need defining, as you can already see.
People who read for character view every new book as an opportunity to meet new people. They may love or hate them, but mostly they read because they are fascinated by people—by their motivations, their quirks, their backstories. These people tend to need to find someone they like or identify with (in fact that’s the main goal, probably, to find little bits of themselves in other characters) in order to finish the book. If all the characters are reprehensible, it’s hard for them to keep turning pages. These are the people who suffer when movie versions are different too—when the people they loved on the page are altered on screen, they take it very personally.
Those who read for plot want to see how everything turns out. These people read the fastest, skimming when they need to, and are often the ones who can’t recall details, and they certainly can’t quote lines, but they can summarize neatly; they know the story cold. These people tend to like action-packed adventure books or stories with twists or puzzles. Reading is an adventure—a puzzle to solve, a game to finish.
The “form” folks appreciate the structure of a book. They like repetition of scenes, especially when they differ slightly and mean something a little bit different each time. They read a book like a musical score, looking for motifs and waiting for the variations. This is fairly cerebral reading, and they appreciate clever authors with somewhat mathematical or mechanical minds. There are exceptions, of course—some books (and authors) build structure in more organically, like a vine rather than a skyscraper, but these readers still appreciate the order inherent in the story.
The “aesthetics” group is not just the Ivory Tower snobs (it may also be, but not exclusively.) These folks read for something striking—a particularly beautiful image that takes shape like a sculpture in their minds, or a line that feels more like poetry than prose. These are the ones who read with pencils in their hands, not wanting to lose a section that sings in the middle of a 500-page novel. For these folks every new book has loads of potential: who knows what gems they may find inside? They read to discover and to connect and to feel.
To Feel. The last group I add today is a response to my class today.  Four of eighteen students (English Literature and Language majors) said they read for “immersion.” When pressed, some of them said things that made me think they appreciate world-building and like to get lost in cultures and scenarios different from their own lives. They like science-fiction and fantasy but also historical—anything that makes them forget their own world for the duration of the book and completely lose themselves in the book. Otherwise it’s not really worth the time for them. They need to feel another’s experiences so tangibly, it’s like they are living the scenes as they unfold. This sounds to me like classic escapism, but some of them argued for aesthetic and intellectual pleasures as well.
Later in the quarter I’ll ask them if they have a favorite literary theory, and I’ll see if they match up.  Maybe the Plot People will turn out to be New Critics, and the Character Crowd will favor psychoanalysis. The Form Folks will certainly be Formalists (I hope), but what will the Beauty Bunch be? Romantics? And the Immersionists? Maybe they’ll all love Reader-Response. More likely, though, they’ll all surprise me again. Probably we’ll all need tee shirts like team jerseys, so we can easily find our tribe out in the world. We all read so as not to feel alone, after all.
Living · Teaching

Ancora Imparo: I am still learning

I’m glad to say I’m still learning.
Over the first ten years of teaching, I really worked on developing my teaching persona.  Who I am in the classroom is a little different from who I am in my street clothes.
Also, I have developed (or appropriated) some tag lines or truisms that have come to characterize my approach to the world and to literature and language: It’s all connected; There’s treasure everywhere; Never trust a vowel.
When students realize that Big Bang Theory is making use of ancient type scenes, or when they realize they can figure out the meaning of an old, say Middle English, word because they know a modern Spanish cognate, I say “It’s all connected.”
When they think a text sounds ridiculous (the titles of The Mabinogion and the Nibelungenlied always get snickers), or that it’s too old and foreign to matter to them, but they find some gem that sparkles for them, and that leads them in to loving it, I remind them “There’s treasure everywhere.”
When they beat their heads against the wall (figuratively!) trying to figure out how to translate Chaucer or Beowulf, sometimes a well-timed “Never trust a vowel” leads to an epiphany.
This year I’ve discovered a new truth: Context is everything.
I’ve taught Ovid’s Metamorphoses for ten years, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for fifteen, and they still remain fresh and vivid to me. Classics can do that. But part of my enjoyment is shifting this year, as I look deeper in to the order of events and stories within the works.
I have always encouraged students to look for structure and order in the works we read, but somehow this year, the context of ideas like the tragic deaths of children in Ovid (Apollo loses his son Phaethon and Inachus the river god loses his daughter Io, and both fathers mourn deeply) seem to come to a head in later stories, or at least to lend gravitas to them. After seeing several parents pine for their lost children, the story of Demeter succeeding in regaining her daughter from the land of the dead, even for half the year, is a consolation to all the grieving parents thus far.
In the Canterbury Tales, too, I’ve often noted that the connections between the tales get more subtle but also more numerous as the Tales go on, but this year I was compelled to read “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in the context of the earlier “Reeve’s Tale” (where there is a rape which is treated as a lark by its grim, bitter narrator, despite the obvious discomfort of the audience). The Wife’s tale, then responds to that whole scene—the Reeve’s introduction, his tale, and its reception—with a tale of rape that is not laughed off, but punished, the rapist threatened, put through an ordeal, and apparently rehabilitated. Yes, she’s a strong woman writing a tale of wish fulfillment for herself, but after she shows the Reeve what she thinks ought to happen to men who perpetrate or cosign such violence.
As a medievalist, part of my job is drawing attention to texts that came before the ones we read, helping my students to see the progression of ideas (or not) and the continuity of traditions. It makes us feel part of a historical continuum and lends a richness to contemporary and pop culture.
But this year, I’m devoting more attention to the connections within the text itself—adopting and exploring the idea that the text itself teaches us how to read it most fully. Context is everything.  We’ll see how much mileage I can get out of that.
*There’s Treasure Everywhere” comes from the delightful 1996 Calvin and Hobbes treasury by Bill Watterson. I use it for wildly different texts and scenarios, but it remains a pretty universal truth.
** Ancora imparo is Italian for “I am still learning,” and attributed to Michelangelo and therefore appearing on plaques and paperweights everywhere, as well as the top of this blog.
Living · Reading · Teaching

Wandering Back to Old English

I am teaching Old English for the first time in several years, and I’m so excited! It’s like revisiting an old friend. For a variety of reasons from the lows of a medical leave to the highs of a sabbatical, the survey of British literature has not fallen in my lap for… too long.
I thought for a while I might be an Anglo-Saxonist, which goes some way to saying how much I enjoyed the language and the culture of that Germanic, heroic, fatalistic poetry. It was the first dead language I studied, and I was entranced by the strangeness and the similarity to Modern English and American culture. Hwaet! Mead. Warrior-companions. All of that was awesome. I wrote my MA thesis on Beowulf and the Old Saxon Heliand.
Then I went on and discovered Chaucer, and my world shifted again, but part of my heart burns a candle for Beowulf and all his charming imperfections.
When I teach Beowulf, I build up to it. We look at the conventions of Old English poetry in small texts like “Caedmon’s Hymn,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Battle of Maldon,”, and then Beowulf brings them all together. Today, though, I’m stuck on the Wanderer.
“The Wanderer” is a brief poem, mostly a soliloquy, but framed by a narrator (lines added by a well-meaning monk? We will never know) who explains the speaker’s state of mind. He’s sad. He’s lonely. He longs for grace. He has lost his lord and kinsmen and finds himself alone in the world.
And this time, after a four year hiatus from Old English during which both my parents died, I read those words in a way I never imagined before. The Wanderer sounds like a man slipping in to dementia.
It’s not, of course. That’s me imposing a fragment of my life, or my father’s life, really, on the speaker. But I did not see it coming, and it rings this time through with that truth that works of literature change with us; as we age and our circumstances change, our experience of the text changes, because we are half of the equation—the reader.
The Wanderer gripes a bit. It’s usually called an elegy, but I entertain other genres, and this feels more like a complaint or a consolation poem, since he’s resigned to his fate at the end. He is frustrated by his circumstances and trying to get through by turning inward.
He has lost his relatives and his lord. Maybe there was a battle, and he is the sole survivor. Whatever the case, he has lost everyone. This is how my dad felt, as he saw people he couldn’t remember, when he could still recognize that he should know them. He began a slow descent in to exile—separated from everyone he loved.
The Wanderer learned “that silence is noble and sorrow/ Nothing speech can cure” (ll 13-14). Dad seemed to learn this too, withdrawing more and more in to his head, but not being able to articulate why. He seemed to have moments of calm when he was quiet, but got confused and flustered when he tried to sort things out. Hideous, debilitating cause aside, he would have made a good, laconic Viking.
I have read this poem twenty times. I know it’s not about dementia, and it’s not about me. It’s about the abject fear people feel in a culture plagued by cold and famine—a primitive, instinctual fear of being alone, not just because of loneliness, but because communities survive where individuals die.
But whenever we willingly enter the world of a poem or other text, it is in some ways about us. And this time, I was delighted to see it was about my dad. It was nice to see him.
I’ve just decided it’s a consolation poem.
(This translation is taken from Burton Raffel’s Poems and Prose from the Old English.)

January Reflections and Projections

I took last week off for Christmas, as promised, but not because I didn’t have anything to say.  My husband and I both caught the Cold From Hell, and it flattened us, to greater and lesser degrees, for two weeks.
The week before Christmas is a blur. We didn’t feel good enough to do many of the things we normally do—bake cookies, play games, sit upright for longer than thirty minutes at a time…. The week after Christmas is a NyQuil-induced daze, complicated by the panic of getting our son ready to go on his first trip away since 6th grade Science Camp.
So this is a blog about opportunities missed and taken and changes looming that we are ready (or not quite ready) for.
My boyo went to France with a school group over break. It was a short trip, just a week there, but we are grateful that he had the opportunity and we had the funds. I really believe travel is transformative, and wanted badly to be able to give my kids that experience. But doing that means he is ready.
He is graduating high school this June, but he belongs to this generation (maybe especially in Southern California, but maybe not) of kids who opt to live at home a few years longer, who choose to go to school locally for that reason, who don’t even drive until they feel they have to.
But this was the first step. The trip abroad, without any parental supervision. In the coming months he’ll get a driver’s license and choose a college, and the baby steps toward maturity will gain momentum.  They’ll have to. His sister, not quite two years his junior, will overtake him if he doesn’t.
So because we have an older boy who prefers to stay close and a younger girl who chomps at the bit, we stand to have an empty nest in a couple years. We’re doing what we can to help their transition and ours.
Because we were sick in the days before he left (and because he’s seventeen), the boy got less guidance on prepping for his trip. He comes home tomorrow, and all appears to have gone just fine. Because we are shifting gears from parents of munchkins to parents of young adults, we are tweaking our jobs and investing in our hobbies. In five years our lives will look radically different than they have for the last ten or so, so we’re buckling up and preparing for impact.
Regardless of our best-laid plans for this break that remain unrealized, it is over. I go back to work tomorrow, and the kids are back in school next week. But we’ve got each other, we like each other, and we’re helping each other move forward. There may even be cookies.