Living

The Saga of Moira Aschenputtel

Reading with a cat (or dog!) is one of my favorite images of contentment.

There’s something soothing about the quiet it requires, the warmth of the fuzzy one curled up on a lap or on the floor nearby. It’s an image of comfort, as we imagine the person sitting for a period of time, reading in quiet companionship. And a cat or dog, who can’t interrupt (at least not with speech) evokes a shared silence conducive to reading.

I was lucky enough to spend many hours over Thanksgiving break in such a position. I feel very rested.

I have spent many hours reading with pets over the years, but this weekend was a little different. This weekend we adopted a new cat because her person, my cousin, recently died. This kitty has quite a story.

This kitty found and claimed my cousin’s husband about four and a half years ago. She was alone and needed a home, and they were mourning the recent loss of their previous cat. It was perfect. Brian was retired and lonely while his wife was at work, so the cat became his companion, and in the way these things go, they rescued each other.

But then he got cancer. He was strong and healthy, and he kicked it, but it came back with a vengeance. Through a second round of chemo and some alternative medicines, including trips to far-off retreats and Bucket List vacations, the kitty stayed close, offering what comfort she could. When he died, she was the only other heartbeat in the house, and Carrie was consoled, but still bereft.

A married woman for two thirds of her life, Carrie was lost without her partner. The kitty was a tie to him, but also a reminder of her loss. After a few months, the cat started wandering off for longer and longer periods.

She was on walkabout when the fire came.

When Carrie evacuated, seriously fearing for her house and property, she looked high and low for the cat. The school where she taught third grade closed for over a week. She took refuge at her parents’ house fifteen miles away. She feared for the little gray cat alone in the smoke and ash. Ten days later the kitty returned–haggard, dirty, hungry, lonely.

In the months that followed, she stayed home more. She seemed to sleep more. Carrie described her as lazy. The truth was they were both cocooning, trying to decide what shape their life would take moving forward. My cousin made the decision to stay in the house. She resolved to renovate and redecorate and make the house hers–to shape her next phase of life purposefully.

But just as she seemed to be finding her footing, she went to sleep one Saturday night and didn’t wake up.

The cat went rogue.

How much, really, should one little cat have to take? How much can any of us take? She came and went, and the neighbors put food out for her, but she didn’t live there anymore. No one did. Instead, she watched.

In the weeks that followed, the house was emptied. The last ties to her people were boxed and bagged and donated and dumped. What reason could she have for staying there? The food, sure, but nothing else, really–at least not until the sweet voice and soft hand of a sixteen year old girl who scratched her ears and cleaned the cobwebs off her whiskers.
We went to help clean the house last weekend and came home with a new kitty cat. We have pets, and she was dirty and flea-addled, so she needs to be quarantined for a bit while she heals and recovers and adapts. And while she does, we’re taking turns doing our various homework in the back room with her. Because reading with a cat is the best way to read.
Living

The Grateful List for 2018

It’s no secret that the United States is going through a divisive, difficult time.  Human rights issues I keep thinking we should be long past are flaring up everywhere. People’s very identity is being questioned, challenged, denied. The divide between the rich and the poor is unspeakably wide, fomenting tragedy after tragedy. And old, medieval-era hatreds are sadly, not dead.

So what, then am I thankful for this Thanksgiving? The usual. People.
I’m grateful that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is back to work the day after she cracks ribs.
I’m grateful that my husband teaches, reaches, and defends Dreamers and other vulnerable students.
I’m grateful that my kids go to a diverse school where they are asked to engage real world problems and read a wide variety of texts—that their friends include Muslims and non-binary kids and immigrants and that they respect one anothers’ differences while learning to build bridges, not walls.
I’m grateful for young voters.
I’m grateful for artists—for painters and songwriters and musicians and storytellers—for everyone who makes us see new beauties and question old patterns.
I’m grateful for my cousin Carole, who passed away this fall, but who leaves behind a legacy of hard work improving literacy in her third grade classes, and for my aunt and uncle, her parents, who spent part of their retirement decorating her classroom, stocking her library, and reading at storytime—filling gaps in funding and staffing with service that so many classrooms in the US need.
I’m grateful for the firefighters, first responders, emergency crews, and neighbors who come together during disasters like the horrific wildfires California has endured this month. For the Auburn Girls Volleyball team, who lifted up the Paradise team, raising money, providing new uniforms and equipment but also food and companionship and solace.
I’m grateful for my family. Though I feel deeply for so many, my own life is marked by luck and serendipity and undeniable privilege. I’m grateful to be able to raise my kids as I like—in comfort and in love—and to have a partner who partners. When the world feels chaotic, they sort me and support me. My daughter reads me well and administers hugs when needed. My son tells stories and plays games to bring people together. My husband makes me laugh every single day.

I’m grateful for my colleagues and my students, who strive every day toward improving the world. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to be able each day to try and do a little more.

I wish you a full belly and a full heart this Thanksgiving, friends. And maybe a little time just to sit and be.

(These pictures are from one of my favorite photographers, Tiina Tormanen, and from Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books. Viva Finland.)

Living · Teaching

Memory, the Mother of the Arts

The Greek goddess Mnemosyne is the goddess of memory. She is the mother of the Muses. So memory gives us the arts.

The Muses are the goddesses of inspiration who bless mortals with the gifts of song, dance, and contemplation. There are muses of epic poetry (Calliope), of lyric poetry (Euterpe), of love songs (Erato), of songs to the gods (Polyhymnia), of history (Clio), of chorus and dance (Terpsichore), of tragedy and comedy (Melpomene and Thalia), and of astronomy (Urania).
All of these arts rely on memory. Creating and performing these works means holding lines of verse, tunes, and motions in your head, keeping them in order, delivering them with the grace of a goddess. If we don’t have good memories, we can’t be good artists.
For all its miracles, Google is not helping us in the memory department. Don’t get me wrong; Google is amazing and powerful. I once employed its virtuosic search engine to identify a particularly nasty bug in my bathroom. I typed “big-ass bug with too many legs” in the glowing bar, and it delivered image after image of exactly the thing: a house centipede. So I know its phenomenal capabilities.
What I worry about is how much people are coming to rely on it. Sometimes I feel like my students have very little impetus (beyond the fear of failing quizzes) to remember anything; they’ll just Google it. My partner teaches chemistry. He has seen students who know the molecular weights of elements Google the weight of a compound instead of simply adding the weights together.
This seems small, I suppose, but I think it’s probably… not small.
When we stop calculating, we slowly lose the ability to check Google’s responses. When we stop memorizing things, we forget how to. When we don’t have stories and details and random facts that we find cool stored in our heads, we have nothing from which to create new worlds and solve the problems of this one. Memory is the mother of creativity.
It behooves us, then, to increase our memory. We need to go to the mental gym, not just the muscle gym. Those things that help us remember things? They’re called mnemonics, from Mnemosyne. Here are a few that always work.
 
Tell a story. If you want to remember a fact or a lesson, give it a narrative. We love stories (as evidenced by the fact that squarely seven and a half of those muses work in words). If you want to teach children to stay away from strangers, you tell them “Little Red Riding Hood.” If you want to teach them multiplication tables, it works there too. (There’s a video called Times Tales that animates numbers with narratives and helps kids memorize even math facts with stories).
 
Make a list. When we group things together that are similar, we visualize them together and see how they connect to each other. We have a tremendous ability to remember lists, whether we make up jingles for them or see them in our mind’s eye. Thinking of things’ similarities helps us remember them.
 
Visit your Mind Palace. Long before the BBC Sherlock visualized his Mind Palace to recall things, medieval folks imagined mental cathedrals, slotting facts or story blocks or shopping lists in to the stained glass windows of a cathedral and imagining themselves walking through it, seeing the items in order.
There are many more. When I have my students create journals for my Myth as Literature class, I give them complete freedom to use whatever tricks they can to help them remember the stories. Some make elaborate family trees. Some draw comics of their favorite scenes. Some write Tinder biographies of all the gods. Some theme their whole journal around what drink a god or hero would order at Starbucks and why it’s appropriate.
We need to do more of this, not less. We need to figure out what method works for us individually and what has a good track record on the whole, and we need to start employing these tricks. I’m heartened by the resurgence in Commonplace Books and Art and Bullet Journaling;  there does seem to be a trend currently to write things down that we want to remember.
Whatever we do, we need to combat the tendency to offload all our knowledge in to data files and websites. Otherwise we risk not only losing our ability to be creative, but also our own stories, our own lives, in the waters of Lethe, the River of Oblivion.
Living · Teaching

The Case for Joy, or the Other Side of Job

There is a significant thread in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales considering the issue of the biblical “Book of Job.” “The Clerk’s Tale” tells the story of Patient Griselda, a folk heroine often likened to Job. The Wife of Bath, in her Prologue, casts herself as Job’s wife, telling her husband to curse God and die. Other tales make reference more obliquely, but it is clear that it is a running trope, and that Chaucer keeps bringing it up from different angles invites us to ruminate on the lessons it teaches.

A painfully short summary of Job, so we’re all on the same page, is: Job is a wealthy man with a large family, and Satan tells God it’s only because of his many blessings that he is so devout; if God took away his gifts, Job would curse Him. God tests Job by having his crops fail, his children die, his body afflicted with sores—the works. His wife tells him to curse God. He does not. He does, however, question God, reporting that everyone around him thinks he must be pretty awful for God to be punishing him so. God even responds, and when He does, he explains that humans have too narrow a vision of suffering. It is not a result of sinning; it is character-building. God wins his bet, and Job gets everything back—even new kids.
Tonight it’s the narrow understanding of suffering that catches my attention. Do we need suffering to become our best selves? It certainly builds sympathy, but I like to think empathy can be developed through our imagination, not just experience. For tonight’s blog, my friends, you need to know that I am an incontrovertible happy-ass. (“Optimist” works too, but you lose the “happy,”and I’m not ok with that.)
I think we can imagine other people’s suffering and learn from it. Not as viscerally, certainly, but I don’t think we need to suffer everything to realize some things are terrible. I’ve never lost a limb, but I can imagine how that might change my life. I have had heart problems, but I don’t think I feel any more deeply for others with heart problems than for those who’ve lost limbs.
You can feel free to argue with me on this point, but if you wait, I’ll give you another one to argue. I want to consider the opposite conjecture tonight. We may have too narrow an understanding of suffering, but if so, we also suffer from an inadequate appreciation of joy.
If suffering builds character, joy defines it. The things that give us joy are the things that make us unique. You can’t choose what gives you joy any more than you can choose whom you love or whether or not you like brussels sprouts (I do—they make me feel like a giant Mopsy Rabbit raiding Mr McGregor’s garden), so we kind of identify and understand ourselves by those affinities.
When we feel joy, when we’re super giddy and delighted, we seem to sport a sort of shield against the world’s woes. When I’m on my way to class to teach a text I particularly love, I bounce a little and dance a little and smile really broadly. Mostly it’s infectious, but sometimes it’s disconcerting for folks. But that just entertains me more because I’m already in joy-mode, so my shield is up and other people’s lack of understanding doesn’t dim me at all. You know the geeks who get all goofy when they talk about what they love; that’s what I’m talking about.
There is power there.
The smaller moments of joy matter too—what the Danish call “hygge,” or cozy delight. They mean the warm, fuzzy feeling you get wearing warm, fuzzy slippers in front of a fire while drinking something warm and (not fuzzy) delicious. The point is clear. We use the metaphors because the physical feelings are so deep. That is joy too, if calm and simmering rather than bouncy and electric.
Another thing joy does for us, in addition to helping us understand how we are unique, is it allows us to make connections with other people. When we meet someone who likes the same things we do, we immediately feel a bond. English majors, for instance, how many of you form an instantaneous  attachment when you see someone in the wide world reading a book you love? I know best friends who have been besties for decades because they bonded over a particular book. If it speaks to both of you, you must be in some way the same.
We are, all of us–in lots of ways–the same.
When we find something that gives us joy and we meet someone else who also loves it, that’s enough to forge a connection. When we meet folks who love something we don’t really get, we can still react to the feeling, still sponge a little vicarious joy, and (ideally) encourage them to keep on loving it.
Joy produces joy. It also makes us healthier. There’s lots of research on this, some of which is summarized very briefly in the UC Berkeley Greater Good article linked at the bottom of this piece. But the evidence is piling up. If we don’t give enough thought to how suffering helps us, we also don’t recognize the profound impacts of joy. Maybe that’s ok. Maybe the point is just to feel it, not to analyze it to death. But if we understood it a little more, maybe we would make choices that put us in joy’s path more often. That seems like a good project.
Find what you love. Get it; do it; be it–boldly. Help others do the same. I’m off to read a book in my fuzzy slippers.
Also the cocoa picture is mine, but the picture of the young ladies, Mopsy, Flopsy, and Cottontail is, of course, from Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.”