Words of Power–the knotty beauty of the Kalevala

The Finnish national Epic, The Kalevala, begins and ends with the image of a skein of stories. The narrator talks of pulling one thread out and seeing where that story goes. One story connects to another, as we know, like drawing out more and more yarn from a skein.
I love to teach it at the end of our epics class, when people are well-versed in the distinctions between primary and secondary epics (primary being orally composed, the accretion of hundreds of years of story-telling finally written down, like the Odyssey or Beowulf, while secondary epics are authored, like Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost). I ask them on the first day which pile the Kalevalafalls in to, and the answer is both.
Not really, but close enough to be interesting. The Kalevala was collected and edited in the 19th century in a nationalistic effort comparable to the Grimms’ in collecting their fairy tales. And just as folklorists chide the Grimms for not being completely authentic in their reproduction of the tales they collected, Elias Lönnrot shaped, edited, and generally intervened in the song of the people much like an author would, even if not to the same degree.
The result is amazingly cool. Yes, I love it that much.
It’s got stories that feel achingly ancient, like the creation of the world by the water mother, Ilmatar. She is alone and lonely and begs for companionship, so allows herself to be impregnated by the sea. But when her child takes 730 years to gestate (!), she kills the time by shaping the heavens and earth from broken egg shells, the sun and moon from a yolk and some egg whites.
When her child is finally born, he is already an old man. He is a World Singer like Orpheus, capable of calling things in to existence, transforming things, and moving rocks and trees and animals with his songs. His name is Vainamoinen, and he is a rock star.
But he’s also old as the hills, so no one wants to marry him. In fact, the first girl we see him woo (and she is a girl—Merida from the Pixar film Brave leaps to mind), essentially kills herself rather than marry him. Aino goes to the edge of the water and is swept down in to the waves. It seems like she drowns, but she actually transforms in to a salmon that Vainamoinen catches later and must release. He mourns her twice. Like Orpheus.
So it feels old—very old—primal… creation of the world and human society sort of old. When Vainamoinen is wounded, he seeks the origin of iron, so he can write a spell to staunch the blood. The ancient motif of knowing “true names” or true history as a source of power over something feels prehistoric, almost. But here it is in a 19th century poem, where they’re also concerned about controlling the iron in his blood. It’s a beautiful mishmash.
These stories are so strange and so unsettling, they remind me what it felt like to be a child, when everything was new and therefore strange. But also marvelous. Also full of magic and potential. And because they elevate storytelling to the level of spell-casting, they remind me of our always present power to transform our world through words. Weaving is one of the oldest metaphors we use for storytelling. Text and textile are related. And we all have the ability to weave our words into wisdom; all we do is tug on that thread and see where it takes us.
Reading · Teaching

Slow Reading: How What We Read Becomes Who We Are

I went to my annual conference last week. I have spent twenty-two long weekends in May in Kalamazoo, Michigan at the biggest annual international medieval conference in North America. Coming from the West coast, I always think it should take me half a day, and the last few years it has taken upwards of 16 hours. This time I pretty much decided I’ve had a good run, but I don’t have time for the chaos of travel.

So it was important that I got good stuff out of what might be my last run. So the universe obliged me. This time I came home thinking big thoughts about Slow Reading.
As my university converts from a quarter schedule to semesters starting in the fall, we are all thinking about how our courses will change. Mostly, as a literature instructor, I’m looking forward to adding some texts back in to my syllabus. I certainly took things out when I moved from fifteen-week semesters to ten-week quarters.
But as I think about my Chaucer class, and as I met with Chaucerians and other folks who teach literature (I went to a particularly great session on teaching literature in translation), I think I won’t add text so much as add depth. I’m going to embrace, model, and flex my Slow Reading skills.
My session was a workshop on pronouncing Chaucer’s Middle English. We spent 90 minutes on 220 lines of the Wife of Bath’s prologue. It was awesome.
With that much time, you can figure out what everything means, then figure out how reading it different ways changes that meaning. You can talk about performance issues—tone, pacing, what words you stress or scumble, and what all that does to build an understanding of the character.
I’m just getting my head in to this mode, but since a recent article tripped across my social media feed reminding us that “slow reading” helps us think deeper and cultivate empathy, I started a list of things I want our slow reading to do.
Here’s the preliminary list.
Slow Reading is:

Knowing what every word means and does;
Looking at connotations in double entendres;
Understanding the context of the work;
Reading with attention to sound and visual rhyme;
Reading for musicality;
Reading for voice/persona;
Knowing your language;
Knowing your lit;
Knowing your history;
Knowing your shit.

Ok, I got a bit carried away at the end. It’s a work in progress. But it’s important, and I’ll keep thinking about it and working on it. This is how the words become a part of us. Skimming doesn’t do it. We need to read some things really deeply and let them change us. We cannot overstress the importance of the process of reading.
I’m starting to get really excited about semesters.
(The article I was referencing above is “Reading Literature Makes us Smarter and Nicer” by Annie Murphy Paul, published in Time, and available here:
Living · Teaching

A Post for Teacher Appreciation Week: In Praise of Teachers

I didn’t plan on these two weeks going together, but I like that they do. This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, so my Facebook memories are full of notes about my favorite teachers from my childhood and my kids’ childhood. Ok, I’ll bite. Last week I was singing praise for students, but of course, it’s all connected.

I was a pretty good student. I liked learning stuff. I wanted to be smart. But I didn’t want to be too smart. I didn’t want to be The Smart Girl. First, I knew they didn’t have many friends, and second, I really didn’t think I was Smart, not with a capital S. I kept high grades, but not straight A’s. (If Mom-Alison knew Kid-Alison, we’d have a talk, by the way, but we didn’t, not for years.)

Third grade was a banner year. It was the only year until grad school, probably, that I got straight As all year long. And the reason was Mrs. Jeanne Mayer.
Mrs. Mayer made us buy a composition book. We brought it in every day, and we copied down the Riddle of the Day and the answer to yesterday’s riddle upside down underneath it. This was brilliant. I learned to write clearly; she explained that we’d want to keep it, so we should do our best. Eight-year old me bought that, hook, line, and sinker. In fact, I still have it. I doubt she meant us to keep it that long.

As a mom I learned what a big deal 3rd grade was. It’s the last real primary year, the bridge to “upper grades,” and a crunch year, making sure kids have mastered their multiplication tables and have “learned to read” (so they can “read to learn” in 4-6). As a child, I felt none of this.I thought 3rd grade was a blast.

We learned cursive that year, and this was the most painless practice I ever did. They were dorky jokes, but I loved it. I looked forward to hearing the answer the next day. It started our day, so we always started out laughing, and I learned school was fun.
That was huge.
I got straight A’s that year because I couldn’t bear to do less than that for her. There was a group of us who got to go out for pizza at the end of the year with the vice principal, so I wasn’t the smart girl; I was one of several.
But that wasn’t the carrot for me. I did it for Mrs Mayer.
She was kind and funny and smart and wanted us to learn how to be good people as well as good students, and in her class those overlapped considerably. From that point on, I loved school, and I kept loving school.
When I went to grad school, it wasn’t because I had a Brilliant Plan in place; it was because I couldn’t bear to stop taking classes. When I decided on a career, I found one that took that in to account—as an educator, part of my job is to keep learning, and it was the only way I could figure to get paid to keep going to class. And in a very real way, I owe the flicking of that switch in my brain to Jeanne Mayer.
So here’s to teachers! For the hard work they do shaping humans, flicking switches, lighting fires in minds and hearts. Happy Teacher Appreciation Week. Hug a teacher, y’all.
(And there’s a “Reflections” shot of me as a third-grader. The 70s were hard on all of us.)

It Takes Twenty (or Thirty) to Tango–In Praise of Students

I teach two classes in the morning and then have office hours, and do another class in the afternoon.
Last Friday I was dead tired, and as I slouched in my office before dragging myself to the last class of the week, I was thinking I wouldn’t make it. It’s a General Education class (so a mix of English majors and lots of other folks) on folklore and fairy tales, and for that particular meeting, we read two essays on how folktales work. There was no magic or jokes inherent in the text to help me. I figured I’d do my best to lead to them through the essays they read for class, and let them go a few minutes early. There are some perks to university teaching, and I am grateful.
We went over time.
Not because I’m a good teacher; I was not on my game Friday. Because I have amazing students.
I think students place too much emphasis on the instructor when it comes to thinking about how successful a class is. I often hear them in the hall (or in my office) gushing about their favorite classes, and how fantastic the professor was.
To every student who ever thought your class was awesome (or terrible) because of the professor—I charge you to think about the rest of the humans in that class. The best planned class falls flat if the students don’t come to the party. And the best students can lift a peaky prof right out of the doldrums.
We started with an essay by folklorist Alan Dundes that describes how folklore differs from authored literature. They loved his grouchy attitude, and when I gave them a bit of context and biography, they loved him even more. They defended his defensiveness, sympathizing with his marginalization by more traditional, ivory tower, literary scholars. They kind of loved his personality as they saw it filtered through his argument. And they came up with the longest, subtlest list of distinctions between folk and literary tales we’ve ever produced, in all the years I’ve taught this class.
I love my job.
I love that every class is different, composed of entirely different humans, with different experiences and backgrounds, in a different mix each time. I always have certain things I want to cover, certain things I want to say, but if I’m honest a huge chunk of each class session is pretty unscripted. I react to what they like and know (and don’t know and don’t like), and we talk about what needs understanding until the time is up.
Whenever students ask what they missed, I refer them to another student for notes. I can and do sometimes supply an outline for what I wanted to accomplish, but I only take in a page of notes on any given day, and it’s only a starting point. It only scratches the surface of what we end up doing and thinking and learning.
My favorite thing to write in letters of recommendation for former students is that they “contributed substantively to the success of the class.” They did. Without them, I’d just be a reader.