Reading · Teaching

The Modern Medieval Commentary

It’s summer, and I’m shaking things up again.

Fall semester is right around the corner, and I’m sitting here reading medieval commentaries and having Eureka! moments.

I regularly teach excerpts from Macrobius’s Commentary on The Dream of Scipio—the passages where he delineates the different kinds of true and false dreams one can have–and I’m wondering why it hasn’t occurred to me before that it’s a useful genre.

The medieval commentary tradition is a wonderful thing, really. There are many commentators like Macrobius—well-educated, well-intended, and busy saving the works of antiquity from oblivion. Macrobius uses the Roman orator Cicero’s text as a vehicle to collect or “compile” classical knowledge and package it for a Christian audience.

The text of the Dream of Scipio is included, of course, all eight pages of it, and then the Commentary of Macrobius adds upwards of 150 pages. It’s very medieval of him.

He collects other information in order to help explain the Dream. Scholars have spilt considerable ink deciding what texts he used as source material for which passages, but the point here is that he did. He used other texts to understand this one. He gathered outside information to clarify the context and associate the content with other, comparable texts. He isolated passages and looked closely at them, using all his faculties and all his resources to do justice to the subtleties of the text.

In short, he did literary criticism. But he did it in a medieval way.

Medieval authors valued authoritative texts. When I teach Chaucer, we talk about how he repurposed old tales for his Canterbury Tales rather than making things up ex nihilo. Originality meant going back to origins, not being novel. So a commentator would do that very important medieval writing task of compiling materials and putting them in conversation with one another to learn new truths. A compilator was not an auctor, an established authority and the root of our modern ”author,” but the job was vitally important nonetheless. A compiler made it possible for readers to gain fuller understanding of the auctor. A compiler opened doors, shone light, brought clarity, and most importantly, inspired the reader to deeper appreciation of the text.

This is where I’m headed in the fall.

I’m not going to make my students write hundred-page theses explaining flash fiction, but I am going to introduce them to the process and purpose and pleasure of the commentary.

In a modern classroom, a commentary may include annotations, summaries of parallel or illuminating texts, historical context, analysis of language and style, and may very well include illustrations or other visual elements. I’m thinking it will be a notebook devoted to a single text that students work on all term—an interactive account of their experience reading their chosen text.

I can already imagine them knocking my socks off.

Reading · Teaching

The Return of the Verse Novel

People tell me all the time they don’t like poetry.

They don’t get it; they don’t see why it has to be so hard. They think it’s pretentious—you should just say what you mean, already; why torture your words in to form? They think it’s out to trick them and to make them feel inadequate. They’re on guard and defensive.

I think that’s all wrong.

I think poetry is just distilled language, in sharper focus, with the volume turned up–pick a sense. It’s true some of the writers I teach want to challenge their readers, but it’s not the poetry that challenges, generally; it’s the content. Dante is not dense because he writes in terza rima; he’s dense because we don’t know enough of his historical and political context to get all his references, nor enough of his religious context to grasp his spiritual claims in their fullness.

But man, the guy can sing.

So I’m on a perennial quest, every term, to break down walls in people’s minds and help them feel poetry. And lately I’ve discovered a tiny resurgence of a genre I was not expecting: the verse novel.

On our last trip to Solvang, my daughter and I each bought, without consulting the other, a verse novel. I don’t know about you, but I have very little experience with verse novels, and the one that comes first to mind is the quite forbidding. The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning is a 600-page whopper that I bought as an ambitious undergrad and left on my shelf. 21,000 lines of iambic pentameter had intimidated even me, the poetry lover.

But there is new hope. My daughter picked up a book that is sort of a biography in verse of Joan of Arc: Stephanie Hemphill’s The Language of Fire. And I bought a retelling of the Minotaur’s story called Bull: A Novel by David Elliott. Then she read mine and I read hers, both in a sitting.

These are novels told in verse, published in 2019 and 2017, respectively, and I thought also of Jane Yolen’s 2018 Finding Baba Yaga, and realized this might be a thing. If it is, let me just shout from the rooftops, Hurrah! Because all three of these are wonderful—lively revisionings of a well-known story spun in readable, small spurts of poems.

The poems are mostly free verse—the kind of poem that makes me wonder why the poet chose to break the lines there… or they would if I weren’t swept up in the narrative. Some of them are visually poetic, and by that I mean the very way the words are presented on the page is beautiful. Some of Yolen’s have very, very short lines—two syllables. Or they build from short to long lines and back. Or they intersperse voices in italics. Elliott’s have pages that get progressively darker as Asterion the Minotaur’s perspective darkens.

This is good stuff, y’all. This is poetry that lets you in. It may be my predilections that lead me toward the myths and fairy tales (Joan’s legendary status notwithstanding), but they seem perfect subjects for this medium. You already know the story, or think you should. (Yolen’s first poem, in fact, is entitled “You think you know this story.”) So the content is not going to be the problem, as in Dante’s case. This time through, you just get to enjoy the show.

But all three of these are marketed for the Young Adult audience, which means that many readers will not know the stories. If this is the first introduction to these stories, that’s good too. They are more expansive than the myths, more personal than a “real” biography, more psychologically vivid than a fairy tale.

But they also get to sing.

And if they’re selling, that means young people are getting exposed to old stories through poetry. It’s brilliant, of course. (It always has been.) The poems are short, moving briskly through the narrative, switching voices, clapping back—even making Hamilton references–and because there are simply fewer words on each page, you get the sense that you’re flying through the tale. And that helps skittish readers feel like they accomplished something, which they absolutely have.

I hope what they’ve done is hopped on the bandwagon to revive a wonderful form. I hope that means more will come to my classes with less fear of poetry and more sense of its potential.

Living · Teaching · Writing

The List of Lists

Summer for a teacher is a weird thing.

My Writing Journal, Italian Journal, Creative Journal, Bullet Journal, and Bird-Watching Journal. Or, Summer on a Shelf.

On the one hand, we need to rest; teaching is exhausting both intellectually and emotionally (in addition to physically). On the other hand, as a group, we’re not particularly good at it.

There are conferences to attend, research to pursue, classes to update, texts to consider, lessons to plan, and administrative work that does not end when the students go home.

See? I have already started. Summer, for me, is about lists.

I have begun. I have made the List of Lists for this summer. It is inclusive, if not exhaustive, of all the things I want to do in the next two months.

For work, I will write an article, choose and prepare lessons for a new book, meet with Teaching Assistants to orient them for their first semester, and prep a class I haven’t taught in a while. This class needs to be updated for semesters, which includes finding a couple of additional books and planning lessons for them and shifting the entire syllabus, since my school’s switching from a Quarter system to a Semester system changes… everything. And then there’s the more intangible “work” I don’t get paid for, which include writing this blog and pursuing that dream of being a novelist–by finding an agent for the first book and getting past chapter three on the next one.

So much for the myth that teachers have summers off.

All those items are handily subdivided in my bullet journal in tangible, “actionable,” bite-size pieces.

After work, of course, there will be other lists. I’m still working on learning Italian, but my conversation partner is in Russia for the summer, so there are lists of movies to watch, verbs to study, books to read with a dictionary close to hand, and levels of language apps to power through.

What is that? Is that work? It will help me teach Dante. Is it Self-Care? I’m staving off dementia, you know. Is it relaxing time? Sure. But also no. Whatever. There’s a list for it.

Summer is also time for home. We have some Home Improvement-type projects going, including fixing the infamous Bee Pillar for real. It is functional (read: it keeps bees out) at present, but it is not pretty. So the first item on the list is Prettifying the Bee Pillar. In fact, if we kept the list just to Finishing Projects We Started Ill-Advisedly Before Summer And Had to Abort, we would fill our summer. But we’re optimists, and we have an idle-ish pair of teens, so we’re overstuffing that list as well.

I also do a Summer Purge, where I go through a room at a time and find stuff to donate and “share” with friends and fellow teachers (mostly books for understocked classrooms). There are lists for that, and officially, the whole purge is just one item on the Master List.

And we really should do some of that stuff they call Self-Care. In fact, it probably should be first. Things that refuel me at the end of the year include sleeping well past 6 am, staring numbly at the wall—preferably while holding a cat, reading pulp fiction and Other Books I Never Intend to Teach, and doing Crafty Sorts of Things.

I should also have a list for Health. So I do. I have every good intention of improving my diet (that’s worth a whole page in my bullet journal), maintaining my water intake when there’s no built-in measure of “a bottle per class,” upping my normal routine of dog-walkies to include elliptical training, and stretching my stupid Achilles tendon ten bloody times a day to combat my tendonitis. Yes, some of my lists are written for me.

It’s ok, though. Every time I generate a list, I relieve a little anxiety. Right now, with my summer neatly organized in a series of headers with cascading columns of items to check off, I am cool as a cucumber.

Bring on the heat, So-Cal. I’m ready.

Teaching · Writing

Crystals and Flames: The teaching edition

Italo Calvino’s essay on “Exactitude” exhorts tight, vivid writing and the continual quest for the mot juste. In each of his Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he presents a pair of contrasting qualities literature can have, and then he comes down on one side as being closer to his own practice and of most use to readers in the 21st century. So in the essay on Lightness, he also considers weight or gravitas, and says he simply “has more to say about lightness”(Six Memos 3).

This pattern holds for the remaining four essays—Quickness, not lingering; Exactitude, not vagueness; Visibility, not abstraction; Multiplicity, not singularity. He died before writing the sixth: Consistency.

Today a student expressed frustration with his even-handedness. If he’s going to argue for one side being better, why not stick to that? The short answer is because it’s complicated (as everything important is). The longer answer is because he sees the value of both traits in different contexts and in the interest of living a rich reading life. The deeper answer, I think in retrospect, is that while he chooses the side he most naturally leans toward, he admires and even envies those who occupy the other side. Today it came up in terms of teaching styles and professors.

The crystal: “the self-organizing system” (71)

When Calvino argues for the Party of the Crystal and the Party of the Flame, he conceives of placing authors in camps who favor structure over stream of consciousness—intrinsic order over associative, digressive, descriptive texts.

As I was explaining this dichotomy, I put it in terms of pedagogy. When I was in college, I had two professors who taught entirely differently. One came in every day and put a list of topics on the board, and no matter how esoteric the subject (I took themed courses entitled “Philosophy of Love” and “Philosophy of War” from her), we marched through those topics, in order and in detail. When I left, I knew what I had learned. I felt like there was significant content added to my brain every day.

The flame: “order out of noise” (71)

Another professor in the same department delivered content completely differently. I thought of him as a juggler of ideas. He came in and brought up one subject, which led to a discussion of a related subject, which led to another, like a juggler adding balls without your noticing. All those balls seemed to float in the air above us, one idea connecting to another, with students questioning and adding and variously contributing to the aerial show until it was time to wrap up. And when he did wrap up, all those topics seemed to fold back in on each other like Chinese puzzle boxes, and I sat in awe of how many disparate subjects and ideas seemed seamlessly connected in his lectures.

The juggler was a flame. The list-maker was a crystal.

When I realized that, I recognized the pull in Calvino’s essays toward the opposite side of each binary. He is a crystal, but he admires those who embody the flame in part because he could never pull it off. Every impulse he has directs him toward structure that builds meaning and reveals order. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t marvel at the apparent magic and mystery of the flame and those who embody it.

I know because as I was talking about my professors, I found myself envious of the list-maker. I can start with a list, but when I’m done, if we’ve hit 40% of those items in a class, I’m doing pretty well. I more often follow the interests and experiences of my students, so every class goes where they are more than where I guide. I would never compare my classes to the virtuosity of my idea-juggling magician, but I’m no crystal when it comes to teaching, and I stand in awe of those who are. Students respond well when they can leave with that feeling of having completed a list of tasks and mastered a body of knowledge, and I wish sometimes that I could give that to them. I can’t. I do something else which I think also has value, but I totally get where Calvino feels compelled to do justice to both sides, even though he favors one himself.

If I’m honest, it’s probably why I love him. I am a happy flame, but I remain fascinated by the crystal and its particular beauty.

Living · Reading · Teaching

Mr. Palomar’s Blackbirds: How couples’ private language is both more cryptic and more elaborate than is reasonable

So I’m a closet linguist. I’m interested in language—how it changes, how it works, how it feels in my mouth, and how it paints pictures without your standard art supplies. I’ve probably spent more time on how it changes from a historical perspective, but I’m no less intrigued by how it changes in contemporary slang or in my own usage. Today I’m thinking about the language my partner and I use to communicate.

The catalyst for today’s ruminations is Calvino’s Mr. Palomar. In the chapter entitled “The Blackbird’s Whistle,” Mr. Palomar is sitting on his terrace, working , while his wife waters plants, and they both remark on the presence of the blackbird couple who visits. The chapter opens:

“Mr. Palomar is lucky in one respect: he spends the summer in a place where many birds sing. As he sits in a deck chair and “works” (in fact, he is lucky also in another respect: he can say that he is working in places and attitudes that would suggest complete repose; or rather, he suffers this handicap: he feels obliged never to stop working, even when lying under the trees on an August morning)…” (22)

…and we’re done. I’m in. I prepare for class on my patio, listening to bird songs and trying not to get distracted by the wind in the peach tree and the light on the mountains. And to a teacher, every book you read, every movie you watch, every place you go might someday be worked in to a class, so you’re always sort of working.

But that’s just why I love and identify with Mr. Palomar. This is a blog about language.

As he sits on the patio, Mr. Palomar listens to the birds. They seem to him to be communicating, and as Mrs. Palomar bustles about commenting on them, the human couple’s communication mimics the blackbirds.’ She comments absently that the flower bed is dry again, and:

“…from these remarks Mr. Palomar derives a general picture of tranquility, and he is grateful to his wife for it, because if she confirms the fact that for the moment there is nothing more serious for him to bother about, then he can remain absorbed in his work (or pseudowork or hyperwork). He allows a minute to pass; then he also tries to send a reassuring message, to inform his wife that his work (or infrawork or ultrawork) is proceeding as usual: to this end he emits a series of sighs and grumbles—’…crooked… for all that… repeat… yes, my foot…’—utterances that, taken all together, transmit the message ‘I am very busy,’ in the event that his wife’s last remark contained a veiled reproach on the order of ‘You could also assume some responsibility for watering the garden.'” (26)

When I teach this book, this is the point where some sweet, sensitive student worries about him. Why is he not communicating well with his wife? He must be so lonely, isolated even from those who love him. He’s not communicating. She’s talking, and he’s not listening.

I have to explain that this is just a conversation between two people who have been married a long time. They don’t need very many words, just like the blackbirds don’t need many sounds. They are enjoying a summer morning together, companionably parallel-playing, my husband and I would say. He’s doing his thing; she’s doing hers. They’re not interrupting each other, but they’re keeping one another on their radar. He’s alert to potential guilt about never watering the flowers; she’s aware that he’s working and trying to preserve his time while still being present. It’s a delicate dance. But it’s not loneliness.

As we approach our 28th anniversary, Rob and I have begun making jokes about what kind of eccentric old people we’re going to be. I’m certain no one will have any idea what we’re talking about. We talk in movie quotes (“Inconceivable!”) and expressions our children coined when they were little (“Put it in the fridge and save it forever,” which my son said about a train-shaped Jell-O jiggler when he was three and gets hauled out whenever anyone wants to hold on to something long past its prime). We use more Monty Python lines than any ten people should, and we refer to new people with old names, grafting names with personalities—some of people we knew, but others of characters from books or movies we’ve seen together. We have developed our own language.

Our kids understand most references, since we’ve spent years repeating the same stories. (They’re teenagers, so they’re quick to point out when we repeat ourselves. I hope as we age, their patience increases with our propensity to repeat ourselves.)

But to a stranger, I’ll bet we already don’t make much sense.

I’m ok with that. We communicate just fine. We understand each other. Our words carry more meaning because of our shared history. This kind of thing happens whenever two or more people share experiences, inside jokes, and adequate time together. We use language to communicate, but also to reassure, to comfort, to cheer, to share, to love. The birds may do all of that with their series of chirps and trills and silences too, but they’ll never understand the importance of knowing that “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.”

A group of blackbirds isn’t a murder, right? Maybe a manslaughter? A misdemeanor?
Reading · Teaching · Writing

In Defense of Form in Poetry

Confession: I love sonnets. I love villanelles. I love heroic couplets.

I love words that have been wrought, not just lined up. I love rhyme, alliteration, and meter. Especially meter. That’s where the music lives.

Not that I don’t love free verse. I do. Not that I don’t love prose fiction. Of course I do. But I adore the extra intensity delivered by metrical verse, and I relish the extra engagement it takes both to read it and to write it.

Today I’m thinking about sonnets. Generally speaking, a sonnet is fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter, the marching, grave meter of ten syllables in an alternating pattern of weak/strong, weak/strong, weak/strong (five times, so pentameter) is the favored form for serious verse in English since the time of Chaucer. As an “iamb” is two syllables, a weak one followed by a stressed one, like ‘about’ or ‘before’ or ‘Denise,’ a line of iambic pentameter can feel as regular as a drumbeat: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”

Sonnets come in two varieties: the English or Shakespearean and the Italian or Petrarchan. Shakespearean sonnets, made famous by his prodigious ability and volume, divide the fourteen lines in to three quatrains and a couplet. These stanzas are often bound by rhyme, and the couplet at the end feels like a punchline or a conclusion the poem has been building up to with each stanza adding a different facet. It’s the “five paragraph essay” of the poetry world, and the thesis is the couplet at the end.

Italian sonnets work differently. Divided in to two stanzas of eight and six lines (an octet and a sestet), they lend themselves to different content. The first, longer stanza often sets a scene or makes a statement, and then the second, shorter one responds in some way—sometimes showing the flaw in the first image, or its faulty reasoning, or maybe just digging deeper in to it—questioning, exploring, or reflecting. This type of sonnet feels more like a debate than an essay, with the first position of the octet countered in the sestet.

So it’s a little form. You can read them quickly or linger over their construction. But they pack a big punch. They have to. They don’t have the space of a novel or even a ballad—just fourteen lines in which to make you sigh or wonder or weep.

Here’s one for the road. Christina Rossetti’s vision of an artist’s model. Enjoy.

“In an Artist’s Studio”

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel–every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more or less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

Color palette with brushes in studio from iStock
Reading · Teaching

Teaching Lies, or the View from the Front of the Class

One of the biggest lies of teaching literature is that if you’ve taught a text, you are prepared for what happens the next time you teach it.

In truth, though, every batch of readers is different, so every time through a text, even a short and relatively straightforward text, is a different conversation.

Last week I taught a short essay by Italo Calvino called “Why Read the Classics?” It’s a perfect introduction for lit students to Calvino because he’s talking about what they think is important—good books—and, in a series of definitions that tighten like a noose, he talks them through why he thinks reading classics is important.

I taught two sections an hour apart. There was virtually no overlap in the discussions.

In the first class the student leading the discussion was of a fairly conservative educational mindset, and we spent most of our time trying to articulate the advantages of reading a shared literary canon. (And this, even though we failed in that class to find one text every person had read.) Topics ranged from the influence of ancient and medieval classics on modern masters to the structural and plot similarities of old texts and new, to the realization that human emotions and reactions haven’t really changed in 3000 years.

I tried a couple times to broach the subject of Calvino’s argument for ‘personal classics,’ but I didn’t get much traction, and the conversation kept veering back to a canon—a widening canon, to be sure, including women and authors of color and other underrepresented writers—but it was generally agreed that a list of books that well read people know was a good thing. It forms bonds between people and creates a sense of shared ownership of an intellectual past. The more cultural history we share, the more jokes we get in movies and books.

The second class never mentioned ancient texts at all. The student leading that discussion responded to the idea of Personal Classics like a kid in a candy store and opened up a discussion of favorite books and how they shape us, regardless of whether anyone read the same ones. In this class Calvino came out looking like an iconoclast, which is fair, but he’s an iconoclast steeped in Ovid and Dante, Shakespeare and Dickens.

I have had classes that met somewhere in the middle—nodding in the direction of our literary forebears and then careening off on our personal trajectories. I have also had classes who spent the whole time niggling with either Calvino’s list of definitions or his list of accepted classics.

But no class is the same. The more times I teach a text, the better prepared my opening comments are, and the larger my range of responses to topics that come up with some regularity, but really, truly… we could go anywhere. Giving students the reins in this way is not so much an act of bravery as an exciting spectacle—an intellectual event.

After nine pages of refined definitions and compelling exceptions, Calvino’s conclusion can feel like a bit of a cop out. We should read the classics (the accepted canon and our personal favorites) because it is better to have read them than not.

But he’s not wrong. We define ourselves and construct ourselves in affinity with or in opposition to what we encounter in the world. That means the more we encounter—the more characters we meet and situations we seen navigated—the finer we can tune our personalities. And the more fun we are at cocktail parties. And the better we react when classes or conversations go places we’ve never seen coming.

Read. Think. Talk. And grow. Have fun out there, y’all.

Reading · Teaching

Every Story is a Palimpsest

Spring semester classes started today for those who have a Tuesday/Thursday schedule. This semester I am teaching classical and medieval mythology and postmodern novels—quite a spread in time, if not culture. Ovid’s Metamorphoses takes up a little over half of the myth class, and the postmodern author I’m teaching is Italo Calvino, so there’s overlap in Italy, albeit 2000 years apart.

I often take some time to impress upon the myth students how valuable it will be to have learned these stories. I show them how the same motifs and characters keep getting reused through the centuries, how some of the stories even inform our language, as in the case of the myth of Narcissus giving us ‘narcissicism’ and the Hercules myth leaving the metaphor of a ‘Herculean effort.’

Today as I was teasing that idea out, we discussed the need for some familiarity in our stories. No one wants to read the same thing over and over, but no one wants everything about a story to feel new either.  So even stories that are set in wildly inventive places use character types and plot lines that we’re familiar with. We need a foothold or an entry point. If it’s all new—new setting, new character types, new plot elements, new structure—we can’t make sense of it. We say it’s too weird. It’s stupid, or that most damning of student responses: it’s boring.

But if you give us something familiar—a reluctant hero, say—in a new context—let’s say the futuristic world of the Matrix movies—then there’s enough for us to follow along with.

This strikes me as a Cosmic Truth related to “It’s all connected.” And it’s one I think is most succinctly captured by Alberto Manguel in his recent book, Packing My Library.  He writes, “Every story is a palimpsest…” (80). And he’s absolutely right.

A palimpsest in its strictest sense is a piece of paper or vellum that has had something written on it that has been erased, so something new can be written over it. In the Middle Ages it was very common, because vellum was so expensive to produce, that scribes would scrape off the top layer of skin and with it the original text, so they could use it again. In later times, you can imagine erasing from paper and getting the same effect. What matters here is that some of the old text remains, kind of a ghost in the background, still visible under the new text.

Manguel’s use of it is metaphoric, of course, but no less vivid. Every story we tell has ghosts of other stories behind it. Sometimes that ghost is the plot, like a new rendering of the King Arthur tales or the Trojan War or a biblical story. Sometimes it’s a character type, like Neo’s reluctant hero archetype in the Matrix example. Sometimes it’s structural, like the frame narrative structure (of stories within stories) of the Arabian Nights or The Canterbury Tales or Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler.

As I begin another semester with three new groups of students, watching them pick through the pages of the past, introducing them to characters they already know but didn’t realize how old they were, I think this might be my favorite part of the term. It’s a type scene too, of course—the Hero on the Frontier: where you stop and take stock and think about what’s about to happen, planning the best approach and reveling in the anticipation.

When I get older and my filters drop, I’ll probably start saying the things I always think: ”Once more unto the breach, dear friends!” Turn the page. Read this story again. You already know it, but now we’ll look closer, go deeper.  Let’s just hope I stop before getting to the part where we close the wall up with our English dead.

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.”