Living · Reading · Writing

The Anti-Blog

I don’t really have anything to say today. I didn’t last week either, so I skipped a week, and I almost never skip weeks, so… you know… I’m here tonight. But I still don’t have anything, really.

What do I have?

I have some free time, having completed the draft of a paper whose deadline I just barely busted. Tuesday night is still “early in the week,” right?

I have some complicated feelings about Independence Day, since I’m grateful to live in a country that allows me to say how disappointed I am in us right now.

Grandma Isla loved dogwood and delicate things.

I have my grandma’s tea cups and her love of quiet, civilized time.

I have a really splendid family, who chose to celebrate our freedom by grilling hotdogs and playing a new board game. My partner got to use his firepit, and the girly made a monster fruit salad.

I have arthritis in my feet. Who knew? So I have some new foods in my diet and am cutting down on others, to do what I can to slow its advance.

I have some fear, but mostly hope for our future as a country and as a planet. I have a well-developed sense of wonder at the beauty of the world and the ingenuity of people who screw it up, but also rally to fix it.  

I have enough stamps that I can pick and choose from a variety of sets and materials and get more use out of them than they’re marketed for. And I have a partner who likes to see me happy, so encourages my hobby rather than complaining that it’s too expensive.

I have “Dirty Little Secret” stuck in my head. It’s my daughter’s fault. It’s on her playlist.

 I have a daughter who plays music while she tidies the kitchen.

I have lots of memories of fireworks and parks and watermelon and parades and my parents from my happy childhood. I have some holes in my heart where people like my parents have taken little bits of me in to the beyond.

I have a stack of academic books to be returned to various libraries, some classes to plan, a letter of recommendation to write, some portfolios to assess, and a fall schedule to tidy up… next week.

And I have a cat walking across my desk, telling me to wrap this up and pet her already.

If you’re still reading, I wish you a wonderful evening, a heart full of hope, and enough of whatever makes you happy.

Lucie is over my non-blog.

I used to be a medievalist.

I’m still a medievalist, of course, but in the years between grad school, where I wrote a master’s thesis on Beowulf and the Old Saxon Heliand and a doctoral dissertation on the scribes of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, I have not done the kind of manuscript study or textual analysis that I did in these works, much less kept up my reading facility in Old Saxon.

Actual evidence that I could translate Old English in grad school.

I am a generalist. I teach poetry from Homer to the 18th century, and I also teach a seminar on a 20th century Italian novelist. I guess it was bound to happen.

But it’s also a series of choices.

I have, in working toward tenure and promotion, done more research about the act of teaching than about the content I teach. That’s fine. Teaching is vitally important to me, and I do not regret that work. Also, I have never stopped wanting to read more, learn more, and broaden my scope. It’s why I chose Medieval Studies, as opposed to a smaller, more focused field. Some people make a whole career out of a single author. I have never been able to choose just one. (This holds for cookies too–and other things–if one kind is good, isn’t five a whole lot better?)

But I opened up my thesis the other day, and reading through my translation of the Old Saxon gospel and my argument about how the language was developing in relation to its other Germanic sibling languages, and the impact of that on our understanding of that text made me long to wander back to manuscripts and lay aside my anthologies for a bit.

Old English and Old Saxon texts minus the sweat, tears, and graphite.

There is a different kind of pleasure in encountering an ancient text in its original language. This was my job throughout most of graduate school, and if there is one thing I miss about that kind of study, it’s the language. To read The Heliand at that time meant calling up all my Old English and Old Norse knowledge and triangulating to deduce meaning in the Old Saxon. Otherwise it’s Dictionary City, and you look up every word. But if you’ve met Beowulf in an Anglo-Saxon bar, and watched Thor bash giants in Old Norse, Jesus’s life is pretty easy to follow in Old Saxon.

They warned me. My Anglo-Saxon professor said to relish our Beowulf reading, because that seminar was likely the only time we’d read the whole thing in the original. He was right. I look at excerpts to critique translations. I show my students a page or two, but never the whole thing. It’s not appropriate or practical in a sophomore level survey of British Lit.

But I miss it.

So diving back in a bit has been a joy. Not the deadline for this paper I’m writing, but the sitting and reading the stories again, and the language. Hearing the sounds of the long dead languages as I roll them around in my mouth and realizing I can still read them. Because the pleasure of a medievalist is to study languages for reading ability without the pressure of having to produce intelligible Old Saxon on my own. I don’t need conversation skills, just reading skills. And those skills have not diminished in my absence from the manuscript rooms.

Beowulf is still fierce and cocky (ӕglӕca); the Danish queen is still decorously smacking him down, telling him not to push his luck. Peter is still a badass; Jesus still is a powerful lord (mahtig drohtin), trying to rein him in. For my money Game of Thrones has nothing on these stories.

Maybe I’ll pursue this kind of work again seriously, but if I don’t, it’s nice to know I can still enjoy the experience of reading these “olde bokes,” as Chaucer called them. That’s what I was after all those years ago anyway.

Happy summer, everyone. May you find time for all the weird little things that make your heart happy. I’ll keep my nerd flag high, so you’ll know where to find me.

Reading · Teaching

Context is Key, or Where’d I Leave My Chaucer Goggles?


So I changed my new mantra from Context is King to “Context is Key” because nothing that sweeping needs to be gendered, and because I really think it works like a key. I’m thinking about how we use the text to read the text, how some works teach us how to read them, how scenes and characters mean different things if they come after others and you’re cued to them, and how deep reading of an author or a work can give you a particular view of the world.
There’s a lot there, but it’s all connected.
As a grad student in Medieval Studies, I didn’t have to mess with theory very much. Most of it was written way after my stuff, and so only marginally applicable. Just like you can’t reach back and call Chaucer a feminist when he would have had no concept of what that meant, it’s not really fair to judge a medieval poem by a 20th century theory.
But you can judge it by its own standards. I like the idea of using the text to view the text. Beowulf, for instance, offers a basic case to begin. The poem opens with a description of an ancient king, Scyld Scefing (or Shield Sheafson, if we modernized it), and some events of his life. His name is a train wreck, obviously–one that would have gotten him beaten up on Anglo-Saxon playgrounds–unless we read him like a mythic hero-king: one who provides both protection (he’s literally a shield) and sustenance (providing, for example, a sheaf of wheat) for his people. We get a brief biography, then he never comes up again, but he does set a standard from which we can judge Beowulf as a hero-king.
Other poets aren’t as brazen about giving directions to read their work, but they kind of do anyway. After reading Chaucer’s “Friar’s Tale,” where the devil refuses to claim a horse when its carter verbally damned it to hell–on the grounds he didn’t literally mean it–readers of the “Franklin’s Tale” are ready to criticize Arveragus for making his wife keep the little oath she made “in play” over her wedding oath, because even the devil recognizes intent—certainly her own husband should.
So some books teach us how to read them. By the end of a book, we’re keyed to subtleties the author couldn’t have made use of before, at least not to as great an effect.

But some authors also teach us how to read the world. After fifteen years of teaching Chaucer, I have learned to see humor in unconventional places, to look for patterns, and to judge intentions. Edmund Spenser has taught me to expect to find magic everywhere. Ovid has helped me view the world as interconnected and constantly changing, and to value change as refreshing, even rewarding. I think of this like putting on glasses in a process similar to when critics read from a particular theory’s “lens.” So if you need me, I’ll just be over here polishing my Chaucer glasses, trying to filter some sense out of the evening news.


Confessions of a Word-Hoarder

I am a philologist.  But let me explain what I mean by that, because we’re not all in agreement. has three definitions, one that is first and “current,” a second it marks as older, which actually means quite another thing, and the third, which it lists as “obsolete” and is the one that I claim.  Of course.
The word comes from the Greek roots meaning “lover of words.” Philo-logos. This means in its oldest form, it could refer to people who study (and love) language or those who study (and love) literature, that which we make from words.
The current definition falls on the side of literary, but not in the sense we think of; it means literature scholars who act as sleuths, trying to place and date texts given the raw data of what appears in a manuscript or other text.  The “older” and therefore outdated meaning is the other side of that coin—historical linguistics, essentially, or the study of ancient sound systems and grammars and theories about how language changes.
Linguistics and literature go hand in hand for me and always have.  One must understand the language in order to read the literature, of course.  When I graduated from my undergrad institution, it was with a double major in English literature and French language. I knew I wanted to focus on the medieval period, and I looked everywhere for a graduate program that would let me do both literary and linguistic study (by which I meant historical linguistics and language study).  I didn’t find one.
Instead I found a wonderful linguistics program in a department with four medievalists, and I started in linguistics (for two reasons, really: 1- I was still laboring under the notion that the more scientific-sounding the degree, the better, and 2- I wanted to learn the languages and how they changed, so I could really dig in to the literature).  “Historical Linguistics” as a field, I was told on my very first visit, was dwindling, but I could certainly pump up my linguistics degree with medieval language classes.
Everyone felt my ill-fit.  In linguistics classes I brought up literary considerations, and in literature classes, I asked about the translation and original language.  My thesis for my MA in linguistics was really very literary, and I had to add one long, discursive, decidedly linguistic footnote to demonstrate my skills before one member of my committee would sign off on it.
One of my German professors laughed and told me I was born a century too late; I really belonged in the glorious 19th century tradition of German philologists, with the Grimms and others, who studied language and literature together.  That’s where that “older” definition comes from.  It used to be a thing.  But in the modern academy, we have specialized far more, and now it’s tricky to do both.
Tricky, but not impossible.  Some programs allow one to choose two specializations.  Comparative Literature programs always include instruction in multiple languages.  Or you can choose my way.  Get a degree in linguistics, and then get another in literature.  My way is not time- or cost-effective, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

Some famous philologists you will have heard of include Jakob Grimm and JRR Tolkien.  I do not pretend to rank myself with them, just to ally myself on the grounds of similar affections, as a lover of words.

(The image is of the first page of Beowulf in the Cotton Vitelius A.xv manuscript, now housed in London’s British Museum.)

Stones and Stories

Last week was my kids’ spring break, so we hopped in the car and drove to Utah, staying two nights in Bryce Canyon and two at Zion National Park.  My kids are teenagers in the 21stcentury, so by nature sedentary and attached to their computers and cell phones as if to IVs.  They are also my kids and Rob’s, so they have the added bonus of being bookish, imaginative, and mildly introverted (I totally was an introverted kid—I think I’ve grown up to be an ambivert, but I still LOVE my downtime, for anyone snickering), so they resist long adventures and would naturally choose to stay home and “chill” for spring break.  Unfortunately, for their short-term goals, I think it’s important to a) unplug, b) explore the natural world, and c) encounter and begin to understand the rest of the world.  Poor kiddos.

Bryce Canyon awoke my inner rock hound.  It is a geologist’s playground, and we soaked up both breathtaking vistas (literally—it’s roughly 9000 feet elevation, so the air was thin!) and scientific descriptions of the rock formations. “Hoodoo,” for instance, is the glorious term for the pillars of stone that form as the walls of limestone erode from walls to a line of individual spires. Of course we went to the geology talk with a ranger, where we learned about the eons of formation and erosion of the canyon as well as the strata of stone and mixture of minerals that make it so beautiful—pinks and oranges and reds of the stone against the green pine trees, the blue sky, and in April, the white snow.
But the best part for me was when he told us the legends.  He barely hinted, just teasing us with one story, really, that the Navajo told about Coyote luring all the bad guests to a spot where he promised them a banquet, but instead turned them all to stone. Those hoodoos, man. They look like people.
Because they form in rows, they look like lines of people, like families or groups of people interacting.  I usually have one eye on wildlife and find myself repeating “someone lives there” every time we see a cave or an obvious shelter that could be a den, but here I was muttering the whole time, “They look like people,” so I may have been smug when the ranger told us this tale. And I was struck by the common theme of hospitality, remembering my Odyssey, and my Beowulfand all the other tales that teach us about being good guests and hosts, “lest we entertain an angel unawares.”
Tolkien said “he sees no stars who does not see them first of living silver made that sudden burst…” (and some more great stuff, in my favorite poem, “Mythopoeia.”)  This was that kind of moment.  I could not see the stones as stones completely until I had my imaginative moment about them.  I know they’re masterpieces of sediment and erosion, but they look like people—people in line, people walking together, people with animals (some were shorter and decidedly canine-looking, or maybe I was getting carried away…).

I had a momentary affinity with those Navajo all those years ago, who looked and saw stories. I wasn’t expecting that.  Beauty, yes.  Nature, yes.  Geology, yes.  But not kinship.  That’s another reason to keep waking the kids up and shoving them in the car and dragging them out in to the beautiful world.