Living · Reading · Writing

The Wedding Vow is a Performative Speech Act

In the category of Wonderful Things I Never Thought I’d Do, I officiated at a wedding.

It was on Halloween, or Samhain, or Dia de Los Muertos, or Midterms, depending on your denomination. And it was an utter delight. This is good news, as it was quite stressful for me in the months working up to it. Contrary to popular belief, the ability to stand before a room full of undergrads and talk about how we read myths judiciously is not the same as the ability to enunciate clearly the knitting together of two souls before the people who care about them most in the world.

But I did it. And I am grateful for the honor. And I had such a lovely, lovely time, that of course, I have to write about it.

I was terribly, terribly nervous.

I was enchanted by the ritual of the thing. This couple—former English majors and alumni from my school—wanted some literary reading, a Welsh handfasting, and “whatever medieval badassery” I could come up with.  Hours of careful internet and bookish research convinced me that the formula was easy, but it was all about the details. Such is life.

You need a greeting and a general spiel about marriage and/or love. I got to say my version of “Dearly beloved” and mention that this couple met in a literature class, and that went some way to explaining why I was there, and why I was deploying William Butler Yeats instead of Ecclesiastes.

You need a reading—from a spiritual text typically, but in this case, I read Yeats’s “The White Birds,” and the bride’s uncle read the description of love from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. (I hadn’t read that before, and holy wow, is it beautiful.)

You need some rings, and some vows to accompany the exchange. (I may have made a cheap Lord of the Rings joke. I hope no one filmed. It was shameless.) And you need some promises you know you can keep. In this iteration, the vows were punctuated by the mothers of the couple binding their hands with  a sash, and when they had spoken their vows, they could literally tie the knot. That was very satisfying.

And then they smooched. That’s important too. It’s all important.

The vows are important; the words are important. The wedding vow is one of very few “performative speech acts” left to us in a literate society. As Westley notes in The Princess Bride, “If you didn’t say it, you didn’t do it.” But the march is also important. The recession of the wedding party, followed by the crowd. The first dance. The toasts. The cake. These are all formalities, all weighty, and all observed with remarkable consistency even at a wedding as funky and cool as a masquerade on Halloween.

Human life is formulaic. Our rituals are too. If we’re honest, our arts are too—music, literature, even visual arts. We bear according to pattern in so many things, from the genes we pass on to our children to our “regular” dishes at our favorite restaurants.

And that’s just fine. Because we find ways to make each step our own, while sharing enough structure to create bonds with others. Now this couple has their wedding story to share. It is uniquely their own, with all the goofy, delightful specifics and also its shared participation in a tradition. And in that lovely way that events turn in to stories, and stories belong to all who live and tell them, I now have a new story too.  

Picture Books · Reading

Picture Books that Inspire Creativity

One of my Teaching Assistants led a discussion in class today that ended with her students thinking about creativity and how it preserved their identity, even their humanity, in the face of mass marketing, corporate programming, and aggressive branding that tells us how to live.

One student shared that he felt most himself when he was playing his guitar—when he was alone with his thoughts and expressing his emotions without overt outside input. As they talked, the class agreed all art afforded that space, and then they realized that they used that creative or hobby time to make their most authentic connections to others—through their art.

It was a lovely moment, when students moved from reading a novel to applying some of the ideas to their lives. And it got me thinking, we need to start them young. There are, of course, picture books that can help. 😊 Here are some I love. If you have others, I’d love to hear about them.

Alison’s Super Awesome List of Picture books about Art and the Creative Process:

  1. “The Dot” by Peter H. Reynolds. One of my all-time favorites, this is a story about a kid who doesn’t think she’s artistic, and a teacher who brings out her best efforts. My favorite part is the end, where she pays it forward to the next kid who underestimates his potential. Every house should have a copy, she said firmly. It’s marvelous.
  2. “Little Mouse’s Painting” by Diane Wolkstein and Maryjane Begin. This one is also about visual art, and especially about what others see in your art (spoiler: themselves). But it’s true; we see ourselves in art—visual and other art—and the original artist can’t always predict what others will see or value. So we owe it to each other to keep creating.
  3. “Draw!” by Raúl Colón. This one is wordless, but speaks volumes about a boy’s power to explore the world in his art—to imagine and bring to life vast landscapes, exotic animals, the implication is anything, really—and to value art as escapist and aspirational. (Bonus: his later “Imagine!” takes the artist from his room to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, with equally magical and empowering results.)
  4. “Sun Bread” by Elisa Kleven. Not all art has to be painted. In “Sun Bread” a baker makes a vibrant, golden loaf of bread that looks like a sun, and it revives her community, stuck in the doldrums of winter. The book includes the recipe, egg wash and all, so that you can reproduce the sunny bread and understand for yourself “all the joy good bread can bring.”
  5. “The Quiltmaker’s Gift” by Jeff Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken. This one is about a greedy king who loves presents and has everything, but he can’t get his hands on a quilt made by the master quiltmaker, because she only gives them to people in need. He has to learn to give things up to get what he wants, but of course, he gets more than he expected.
  6. “The Night Gardener” by Terry Fan and Eric Fan. A mysterious gardener is transforming ordinary trees in to extraordinary animal topiaries in the darkness, and a community wakes up to new beauty every day. It’s a lovely fable about the transformative power of art.
Reading · Teaching · Writing

On Light and Lightness

Apollo is the god of light in the sense that he inspires all things we associated with enlightenment: culture, arts (especially music and poetry), civilization, reason, medicine, and prophecy. As the sun, he IS light. So everything he touches is illuminated or illuminating.  Latin lux/lucere à English light. (Never trust a vowel.)

But when Italo Calvino writes his essay on “Lightness” in Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he’s not talking about brightness or illumination; he values weightlessness in the fabric and content of literature. This comes from Gothic leihts, and Latin went the leviarius/(“leviosa”)/levity route.

When I teach this essay, someone always asks if he means lightness like the quality of being bright or lightweight. If we were reading the original, the question would not come up; it’s entitled “La Legerezza,” of which we only have a relic in “legerdemain”—sleight of (or lightness of) hand. In Italian  the word for bright light is la luce.

Also if you read very far in to the essay, Calvino makes this distinction abundantly clear, but if you are an English reader who imagined brightness first, it can be hard to let go of. After all, we want our literature to be illuminating, don’t we? To light fires in our minds and to shine light on problems and people and practices. Good books do that.

That’s not what Calvino meant. He wouldn’t be so moralizing, to begin with. But he was aestheticizing. (I know that’s not a word in the sense of prescribing literary values, but I want it to be.) He was interested in defining ideals of literature, not humanity.

He strove to remove weight from his works, sometimes in terms of content (like making a suit of armor trot around empty, without the weight of a body inside[The Nonexistent Knight] or like reducing gravity’s pull so that people could float up to the moon [“The Distance to the Moon” in Cosmicomics, which is the basis for the Pixar short “La Luna”].

He also tried to remove weight from his prose, so that it seemed somewhat diaphanous. He quotes Emily Dickinson as an example:

A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn—
A flask of Dew—A Bee or two—
A Breeze—a caper in the trees—
And I’m a Rose!

Occasionally one of my students will dig in, claiming that it is a higher good to strive to be illuminating than weightless, to which I can only respond that he’s talking about style, and that doesn’t have a moral obligation. Calvino means literature should tread lightly; it should lighten our load by lifting us above the weight of the world and in to the flight of the clouds and imagination. It should inspire contemplation, which is completely abstract and therefore weightless, and it should do so by means that feel light: literature’s form (lightened prose) should follow its function—lightening our spirits.

What began as an etymological exercise has turned in to an analysis of Calvino’s essay, which I didn’t plan on. But I have read and taught and thought about that essay so many times, it is hard for me to think of lightness in any form without also thinking of Calvino’s words. At the risk of sounding repetitive, it’s all connected.

Have a good weekend, y’all. Enjoy the light of the Harvest Moon.

Oak leaves in the sunlight on Mt Palomar
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.

Teaching

Billy Elliot, Chaucer’s Monk, and the Modern Reader

I was asked today, by a student doing research on teaching, how I feel when I am teaching.  There are lots of answers, of course, depending on how well it’s going, but the most prominent feeling I have in the classroom is electricity.  I even quoted the film Billy Elliot (where he’s asked what it feels like when he dances) because that’s what it feels like—electricity.

When it’s going well, we are looking at a narrative and feeling a connection to it.  A circuit closes for any number of reasons—someone discovers a parallel in the narrative to her own life, or a character who reminds a student of a family member, or the text recalls the tv show or movie they watched last week.  I talked about it as a current, as I reflect now, in rather sci-fi terms, of people establishing connections to texts and to each other, as if we create a cloud of electricity that we all tap in to (to varying degrees, perhaps, but when it’s great, pretty much everyone is plugged in).

Sometimes the current exists between two people (who we might say were “on the same wavelength”), but sometimes it is between a reader and a time, a text, a context, an archetype.  In my Chaucer class this morning, I had occasion to make a parallel I’ve never made before.  In the wake of the attack at Ohio State this morning, which was described initially as a shooting, I made the connection to our feelings about that kind of news—as college students who commiserate with other college students when violence erupts on campus, but who also sigh inwardly, relieved that it wasn’t on our campus.

This, believe it or not, was relevant to Chaucer’s “Monk’s Tale,” which is a collection of seventeen tragedies in chronological order from Lucifer through the 14th century, with the exception of a handful of vignettes that are typically referred to as “current events” for Chaucer:  the assassinations of King Pedro of Spain, Peter of Cyprus, and Bernabo Visconti.

This rather lengthy tale ranges from the fall of Lucifer, through the Bible and through history, with stops at Samson, Caesar, and Alexander the Great, to name a few.  But it is interrupted by these contemporary stories—ones that would have been more immediate and somewhat sensitive. The Canterbury pilgrims listen to the monk as we do to the news. The knight even knew one of those guys. But mostly it is a moment where tragedy becomes personal:  where individuals react with compassion when someone else’s king is killed and with relief that it wasn’t theirs.

When I connected this awful, complicated set of feelings to our reactions to yet another scene of violence on a college campus, that electricity sparked. Groggy, reluctant students still full of pumpkin pie and in vacation-mode woke up, sat up, and thought about how uncanny it is that we keep having these conversations in Chaucer class about contemporary problems.

I’ve taught this tale a minimum of fifteen times. Probably twenty. I’ve never framed it in that particular way before, never quite seen that connection. But I will make it again. There is truth to the claim that the text changes with each reading because the reader changes. And teaching reading changes, because the more of these electric moments happen in class, the more ways I have to reach the next group. And the more connections I can facilitate–the more sparks fired, switches flipped, circuits closed–the more students learn to make those connections themselves. Narratives inform narratives. The more connections we can see, the more skilled we become at reading our world, the more easily we write and re-write our own stories. And that’s how we change the world.
*That’s a stamped image of a lightbulb, by the way, from a Stampin’ Up! Stamp set called “You Brighten My Day.”