“…to keep her from the howling winds.”

Last week I attended ninth-grade “gallery night” at our local high school and came away heartened. Asked to create works of art inspired by something they had seen at a nearby museum, sixty kids wrote lucid statements to accompany their exhibits, and they were required to discuss their thinking with adults who put them on the spot. I liked the countercultural lesson: that art isn’t limited to emotional outbursts or mindless spasms of inspiration.

The teacher in my home reinforces the idea in her English classes. She shows the same kids how to scrutinize poems by Whitman and Dunbar so they can map their facets, imitate their forms, and understand that writing and reading are acts of practiced thought. In recent weeks, they’ve also rafted down the river with Huck and Jim, needled the dithering Prufrock, and held vigil in hospital wards with Frederic Henry from A Farewell to Arms. Romanticism, skepticism, generosity, regret, love, loyalty, loss—part of being a kid is growing into oversized gifts, not least among them the realization that your experience, though uniquely your own, has centuries of precedent.

Unfortunately, the worst times in our lives confirm the value of these lessons. I can add nothing but a preface to this unforgettable blog post by scholar and high-school teacher David Salmanson, whose wife died unexpectedly last month:

People keep asking me what they can do for me, and I keep answering that I don’t know yet. People also keep telling me that I seem so composed and that they cannot believe that I can write and think through all of this, but I can. Indeed, I’ve been training my whole life for it, for it’s times like this that the value of a liberal arts education is revealed. Since boyhood, I’ve read and watched Shakespeare and Rostand’s Cyrano and The Bible. I’ve studied history and art and literature. I’ve done science in the labs and in the woods and I’ve stared into the deepest recesses of the universe in the dark of night with astronomers and I’ve stared into the darkest recesses of my own soul with philosophers. So when the unthinkable happened I was ready. I have 10,000 years of human history providing me examples of how to handle myself in the worst times. It’s a handy thing to have on your side.

This, then, is the true purpose of education. We are, again, in one of those moments in history where the liberal arts is under attack for being irrelevant. The calls for job training and “useful” majors is on the rise again.

Majoring in business cannot teach us how to deal with the unthinkable. It may be a path to money, but it will leave you forever poorer.

Friends of the Salmanson family have set up a fund to help with funeral expenses and a memorial scholarship that gives young women the adventure of a month-long hike in the Southwest. If we can’t avert the unthinkable, we can at least respond with condolence and compassion, and we can support opportunities for others to live, listen, and learn. Someday it may help them bear the unthinkable too.

“Die Nachbarn haben nichts gerafft, und fühlten sich gleich angemacht…”

The fall is a dubious season for gratitude. The farm stands are closing, our garden is nothing but brittle black wires, and the bald forest can no longer conceal its lack of secrets. Wants and needs grow more insistent, and we get too little daylight with which to appease them. Bills accumulate. Grades are due. The skeptic is tempted to wonder if anything follows an age of acrimony and spite, or if this is it this time.

And yet I’m not gloomy, but glad. As much as I take heart in the stark beauty of the woods around our home and the curious creatures that land on our feeders or slink round the porch rails at night, the adventure of moving here has another dimension entirely, one I’ve not written about before: the other people who live here, and how they live together well.

We’ve made our home in a large agricultural reserve less than an hour’s drive from the D.C. border. Most of the reserve was set aside by the county’s liberal government around 1980, but it’s kept viable and thriving by hunters and farmers who tend to lean conservative. This sparsely populated corner of one of the most affluent, liberal, and educated counties in the United States was once a hotbed of Confederate sympathy. Today’s locals rebel against other domestic enemies: the sprawl, traffic, pollution, and pace of the rest of the Washington area. The cause is laudable, and far from lost, and I’m heartened by what transpires on this cultural borderland, where life is neither wholly urban nor fully country. I can take you to a century-old orchard where the apples and pears are so delicious that you’ll swear off grocery-store fruit forever. The proprietors, a family with hard, gnarled roots, will greet you in camouflage pants and NRA hats, happily taking payment from city hipsters and immigrants from nearby burbs. Mutual benefit, you see, is miraculous; it makes everyone nicer.

It also makes the past less potent. When the county was sweating over a 1913 monument to the common Confederate soldier, the local family that still runs a ferry across the Potomac claimed the statue and put it on private land. Most motorists who rely on the ferry (the General Jubal Early) probably aren’t glad that Johnny Reb welcomes them to Maryland, but the next river crossing is 16 miles away, so everyone gets on with their travels, including thoughtful commuters who hand hot coffee to windburned ferry workers on frigid mornings. Nowhere is the untruth of political absolutism more apparent. A community can indeed have a Confederate statue and charging stations for electric cars and a Buddhist temple and “’Drive Your Tractor to School’ Day” when diverse neighbors value common goods: an appreciation for the beauty of parks, forests, and farms; a conception of quality of life that loathes hideous overdevelopment; and mutual pride in one of the state’s best public high schools, an institution that helps the whole hodgepodge hang together.

There’s real need here, but the community tries not to wait for outsiders, least of all politicians, to notice and care. One small but formidable charity (for which I volunteer) runs a food pantry, provides transportation for the ill and the elderly, and helps neighbors pay bills when fate has otherwise frowned on them. Hunters annually donate thousands of pounds of meat; last week, scout troops rounded up more than six thousand pounds of dry goods. One church serves lunch every day to a hundred high-school kids and feeds any hungry souls who wander in. A new charity recognizes the talents of skilled workers among us by providing free home repairs for the elderly. Sometimes the good is wholly spontaneous: Last year, after word spread that a pharmacy clerk, a single African-American mom, had fallen on hard times, this community that still leans rural and white raised $2,000 for her on social media within 48 hours.

I can’t claim this place has no flaws. Liberal regulation can be ruinously stifling; conservative resentment can be petty and crude. Some mornings, the comments on the local Facebook group are cause for despair, and I hear and see plenty to remind me that the Chaucerian pageant of human iniquity tromps through even the pleasantest towns―but almost daily, I witness the alchemy of community. It defies reason, it couldn’t be reconstituted elsewhere, and often I doubt that it’s real. I know its active ingredients: There’s liberal do-gooderism and comfort with proceduralism and bureaucracy that comes from working in nearby Washington, plus a healthy dollop of wealth. There’s a proud, practical conservativism focused on building things, fixing things, and making things grow, plus a skepticism of silly and overwrought rules. There are strong churches, nimble private charities, and a sense of civic responsibility so ingrained that a town commissioner rightly tells newcomers that it’s only a matter of time before the community taps their talents. Left unsaid is the bounty they gain in return; we figure out that for ourselves.

In years to come, we’ll all need to learn to get along with people who aren’t like us, and who aren’t inclined to like us. I’m thankful to live in a place that proves it’s possible. This isn’t the season to contemplate anything less.

“Kindled by the dying embers of another working day…”

“I’ll be surprised if it sells six copies,” I said, and I meant it. When you test the patience of readers with a poem about moving from the city to the woods, published online over the course of a year in thirteen monthly installments, it’s foolish to expect even a trickle of demand for a paperback version. A print book of formal poetry about life in the Maryland woods, inspired by Old English alliterative verse and ancient and medieval calendar poems! Almost nothing is less marketable.

Yet to my amazement, all copies in the first batch are spoken for, and I’m planning to print up a second batch.

If you’d like a copy from the next batch, please let me know! Use my email address, jeffsypeck -at – gmail – dot- com, either to send me $15 via Paypal ($20 if you’re outside the U.S.) or to tell me you’d like to pay in some other way. The price includes shipping. (To browse the first drafts of each monthly installment, click here.)

I’m grateful to everyone who took an interest in this poem when I posted it in 2015 and 2016. It was one of those projects that takes on a life of its own, consuming your creative hours even though you no longer remember deciding to start it. I rarely write about myself, and I doubt I will again—but I like to think this poem is about something quite beyond myself anyway.

Thank you to everyone who’s giving The Beallsville Calendar an unlikely second life in paperback. Like the move to the country it dramatizes, it’s turning out so much better than I imagined.

“The time has come to conquer, and I’ll provide your end…”

Back when Turkey was up for membership in the European Union, pundits wondered: What’s “European” about the Turks? Not my country, not my continent—if the question still matters, then others can hash that one out. It so happens that at least in one respect, the Turks aren’t all that different from their neighbors to the west. I was intrigued, but not surprised, by a grand burst of Turkish medievalism reported in The Economist:

In a mighty motorcade, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, descended on the sleepy town of Malazgirt near the Armenian frontier on August 26th. He came to celebrate a millennium-old victory that Turks hail as the dawn of Muslim domination of these once-Christian lands.

Largely forgotten in the West, the battle of Manzikert in 1071 saw Seljuk Turks, led by King Alp Arslan, crush an imperial Byzantine army said to be twice their size. This Turkic push into Anatolia laid the foundation for the Seljuks’ eventual sucessors, the Ottomans, who took Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, in 1453 and whose empire at its peak extended from the gates of Vienna to the Indian Ocean.

Mr. Erdogan’s commemoration of a 946-year-old battle is a bid to woo Turkish nationalists . . . At Malazgirt, he linked the failed coup to the medieval campaign.

“We faced an assault on July 15th that appeared to be a coup attempt but was actually aimed at enslaving us…[we] fought the same figures as Alp Arslan,” Mr Erdogan told a crowd of thousands, alluding to wild rumours of Western interference. He was flanked by men posing as soldiers, clad in reproduction chain mail and brandishing scimitars. Other entertainment included displays of horsemanship and archery.

[ . . .]

He has been dusting off other episodes of martial history, presiding over lavish festivities that include fireworks and a laser show to mark the Ottoman victory of 1453. At Gallipoli, he has exhorted Turks to venerate their final victory before the empire was defeated in the first world war and dismembered by the victors.

All of this is darkly, depressingly familiar. On June 28, 1989, not all that far west across the Bosphorus, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia spoke at a ceremony to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. The 1389 battle hadn’t been a victory for the Serbs; it was one of a series of defeats that left the Serbs under Ottoman rule for quite a long time. In poem and song, Serb nationalists turned the calamity into a spiritual victory, a martyrdom on behalf of Christian Europe that the West never honored or even acknowledged. To Serbs, Kosovo was holy ground: a battlefield, a birthplace of saints, a homeland pried from their grip in the Middle Ages and denied once more by the region’s Albanian Muslim majority. The battle was so meaningful among Serb nationalists that Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand on its 525th anniversary. Yes, Balkan medievalism helped send millions of men to their deaths.

Milosevic’s defenders still argue that the speech he gave that day wasn’t inherently inflammatory, but it didn’t need to be. The location, the date, the conflicts brewing at the time, and Milosevic’s dramatic apotheosis by helicopter all told nationalists a story that cheered them. No one grinds axes without also honing their yearning to use them. The aspiration of Erdogan’s medievalism is the fate of Milosevic’s. That ended badly; this will too.

Diorama of the Battle of Manzikert (via Wikimedia Commons)

“Way down the street, there’s a light in his place…”

In August 2015, with little time for imagination to keep up with logistics, I left Washington and headed west, accompanying a loved one whose career was taking a promising turn. Together we made a home on an agricultural reserve along the Potomac River, surrounded by twelve acres of woods and overwhelmed by farmland, forests, small-town eccentrics, and wandering beasts.

At the time, I had just translated a medieval calendar poem stuffed to the margins with ancient lore about nature, astrology, and country labors. Somehow a tiny whim grew into a commitment as our strange new home dictated a poem of its own, and on difficult terms: I would write a new installment every month for a year. At the request of a few supportive readers who enjoyed the monthly poems as I posted them on this blog, I’ve collected the entire sequence into a 62-page paperback, the most portable form I was able to manage. (I owe huge thanks to my friend Leonore for letting me adorn the cover with a photograph I found so beguiling that it’s framed on my kitchen wall.)

I’d love to put The Beallsville Calendar in the hands of people who want to read it. If you’d like a copy, please send $15 to me via Paypal at jeffsypeck -at- gmail-dot-com, or email me to find out how to send another form of payment via mail. Please make it $20 if you’re outside the United States. These prices include shipping. I wish I could give the book away, but printing and shipping are costly.

If you’re new to this odd project, feel free to fling yourself into the first drafts of each chapter: Prologue : September : October : November : December : January : February : March : April : May : June : July : August.

The Beallsville Calendar is probably the most personal thing I’ve written. It’s also the least polished, and certainly the most indulgent. Fearing I’ve written the verse equivalent of a 24-minute drum solo, I’m tempted to hack and slash through last year’s poetic brambles—but no, I’ll let them be. This poem called me to look closely at sights and scenes that grew wild at particular places and times, and I’m glad about that. If you buy a copy, I hope you find something worthwhile in it: an image that grabs you, a notion that moves you, a passage that gives you a laugh, or something more subtle that leads to a moment of peace.

“But she knows that when he goes, he really goes…”

Twenty-five years ago, I did something I might not have considered if I’d been burdened with uncommon wisdom or more common sense: I rambled around Europe with my best friend, hauling nothing but clothes, a camera, the money in my pocket, and cassettes for my Walkman. We began with no direction, but we’ve steered by the memory ever since.

For weeks, we wandered. We hitchhiked. We let bus schedules and the number of hours till nightfall determine our actual route. We staggered through thunderstorms fifteen miles from bus stops into quiet little seaside towns. We crept with unease through moonlit medieval churchyards. We found lodging even when we didn’t speak the language, have money to spare, or smell like civilized humans. We befriended strangers who cooked us breakfast at midnight; we imposed on startled acquaintances and long-lost kin. We slept on the floors of bus stations and ferry terminals. We got robbed, we had a minor misunderstanding with law enforcement, and we babbled our way out of conflict. We met the gaze of an Irish sea captain who prophesied a dark doom for foreign pilgrims. We jumped Metro turnstiles in Paris, celebrated midsummer on a farmstead in Denmark, downed beer with a Swiss soldier, tried to sneak into a cathedral library in England, and scrambled up a hill in Scotland to watch the sun set over a cemetery on the summer solstice.

No GPS can lead us back to those places and moments in time. We covered hundreds of miles with only two or three maps and a sketchy, error-pitted guidebook―but no cell phones, no transatlantic ATMs, and surprisingly few places that took anything but cash, and rarely the coin of a neighboring realm. Clean, chirpy backpackers bounded through train stations as they flitted from city to city, cathedral to cathedral, but their fellowship never engulfed us. Greater misadventures awaited in dumps no guidebook author saw fit to recommend. Note to young travelers: If the stranger in the next bunk is moaning and wailing till morning, no one at the YMCA will think less of you if you sleep in your boots and perhaps keep a knife close at hand.

I flew home on a Saturday and reported on Monday morning to my job as an assistant account executive for a tax consultancy. From my window, there was little to look at but the nearby highway, but for the first time, the unseen world beyond it felt reachable and real.

Before the summer limps to its grave, we’ll unseal a plastic bag we’ve stowed away for nearly half our lives. It’s full of receipts, ticket stubs, and other evidence of mundane conversations that long ago gave way to myth. The past isn’t just tactile or visual; it had a scent, the hardest of memories to put into words. What unremembered mood might come wafting from those scraps? Medieval people had a nose for wonder: If they opened a tomb and were hit with a sweet, pleasant smell, they were in the presence of the sacred. We modern types love to laugh at that, but it’s easier to honor the truth in legends when you’ve lived through and crafted a few of your own.

When I see us grin in blurry photos, I’m tempted to wonder if our present circumstances live up to our long-ago hopes. No―the older and grayer I get, the more foolish that question becomes. We’ve continued to hike, climb mountains, and stumble through foreign lands, but those just aren’t the measure of life anymore. My friend now runs his own law firm, and he’s testified before Congress. Work has taken him from Nairobi to Jerusalem. He married someone who became a vital friend of mine in her own right, as are their kids. When we sit and talk, I see in their faces the past and the future at once.

Last summer, a ramble around New Jersey ended with both of us reluctantly appearing in a filmed endorsement for an Indian music store. I know nothing about Indian classical music; we just laughed and let it happen. It’s those dumb, sudden moments that feel most like youth, when happy confusion embraces the vain hope that you have an infinite series of wonderful riddles before you. Yes, something is always a few steps behind you, whispering falsehoods to lessen the joys on the narrowing pathway ahead. If you’re lucky, good people are still there beside you, and new ones have joined them who’ve heard all your stories but indulge their retelling. Listen to your own eager voice and hear what it long tried to make plain: you will never stop choosing how little difference there needs to be between looking forward and looking back.

“River, I’ve never seen the sea…”

As the teacher in my household prepares to steer her ninth-graders through tricky literary currents, she’s revisiting The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; I’ve hopped aboard and joined her on the raft. I read Twain’s novel when I was 14, but returning to it more than three decades later has been a revelation. I hadn’t expected to find that the natural focus on slavery and race had obscured Twain’s other related ideas.

I’m probably the last adult reader to notice what makes it such a rich and challenging book: the perfect ease of the narrative voice, the tender passages about life on the river, and the wrenching moments when Huck starts to comprehend Jim’s humanity. And holy crow, Huck Finn is an epic catalog of the deficiencies and absurdities of the antebellum South: family feuds of long-forgotten origin; the poisonous grafting of codes of honor to lawlessness and mob violence; and grifters peddling phrenology, cynical revivalism, and mutilated Shakespeare to yokels who fully deserve to be conned. I can’t be the first person to imagine that the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? owes far more to Huck Finn than to The Odyssey for its episodic mythologizing of Southern culture.

What leaped out at me the most, though, is Twain’s full-on satire of people who take their entertainment way too seriously. I’ve written before about the chapter in Life on the Mississippi where the state capitol in Baton Rouge ignites Twain’s rant about the South’s destructive obsession with the Middle Ages:

Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances. The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque “chivalry” doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it. It is pathetic enough, that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things—materials all ungenuine within and without, pretending to be what they are not—should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place; but it is much more pathetic to see this architectural falsehood undergoing restoration and perpetuation in our day, when it would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began, and then devote this restoration-money to the building of something genuine.

[…]

By itself the imitation castle is doubtless harmless, and well enough; but as a symbol and breeder and sustainer of maudlin Middle-Age romanticism here in the midst of the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries the world has seen, it is necessarily a hurtful thing and a mistake.

Twain is sincere in his loathing of romanticism, but in Life on the Mississippi he’s too blunt and unfunny about it to sound like anything but a crank. In Huck Finn, published two years later, he more effectively vents his ire through the excesses of Tom Sawyer, whose mania for tales of adventure tests the patience of his more practical friend:

We played robber now and then about a month, and then I resigned. All the boys did. We hadn’t robbed nobody, hadn’t killed any people, but only just pretended. We used to hop out of the woods and go charging down on hog-drivers and women in carts taking garden stuff to market, but we never hived any of them. Tom Sawyer called the hogs “ingots,” and he called the turnips and stuff “julery,” and we would go to the cave and powwow over what we had done, and how many people we had killed and marked. But I couldn’t see no profit in it.

One time Tom sent a boy to run about town with a blazing stick, which he called a slogan (which was the sign for the Gang to get together), and then he said he had got secret news by his spies that next day a whole parcel of Spanish merchants and rich A-rabs was going to camp in Cave Hollow with two hundred elephants, and six hundred camels, and over a thousand “sumter” mules, all loaded down with di’monds, and they didn’t have only a guard of four hundred soldiers, and so we would lay in ambuscade, as he called it, and kill the lot and scoop the things. He said we must slick up our swords and guns, and get ready.  He never could go after even a turnip-cart but he must have the swords and guns all scoured up for it, though they was only lath and broomsticks, and you might scour at them till you rotted, and then they warn’t worth a mouthful of ashes more than what they was before. I didn’t believe we could lick such a crowd of Spaniards and A-rabs, but I wanted to see the camels and elephants, so I was on hand next day, Saturday, in the ambuscade; and when we got the word we rushed out of the woods and down the hill. But there warn’t no Spaniards and A-rabs, and there warn’t no camels nor no elephants. It warn’t anything but a Sunday-school picnic, and only a primer-class at that. We busted it up, and chased the children up the hollow; but we never got anything but some doughnuts and jam, though Ben Rogers got a rag doll, and Jo Harper got a hymn-book and a tract; and then the teacher charged in, and made us drop everything and cut.

I didn’t see no di’monds, and I told Tom Sawyer so. He said there was loads of them there, anyway; and he said there was A-rabs there, too, and elephants and things. I said, why couldn’t we see them, then?  He said if I warn’t so ignorant, but had read a book called Don Quixote, I would know without asking. He said it was all done by enchantment. He said there was hundreds of soldiers there, and elephants and treasure, and so on, but we had enemies which he called magicians; and they had turned the whole thing into an infant Sunday-school, just out of spite. I said, all right; then the thing for us to do was to go for the magicians. Tom Sawyer said I was a numskull.

Huck and Tom argue about wizards and genies, and Huck decides to test his friend’s claims. It’s one of many times when he tries on the world-views of others as he struggles to work out his own:

I thought all this over for two or three days, and then I reckoned I would see if there was anything in it. I got an old tin lamp and an iron ring, and went out in the woods and rubbed and rubbed till I sweat like an Injun, calculating to build a palace and sell it; but it warn’t no use, none of the genies come. So then I judged that all that stuff was only just one of Tom Sawyer’s lies. I reckoned he believed in the A-rabs and the elephants, but as for me I think different. It had all the marks of a Sunday-school.

Of course—spoiler alert for time-traveling readers from the 1880s—Tom Sawyer plays a huge role in the climax of Huck Finn when he agrees to help free Jim from imprisonment in a shack. Tom and Huck could easily break him out in a moment, but the liberation has to happen on Tom’s convoluted terms. Day after day, Tom draws out Jim’s captivity by insisting on all the elaborate trappings of a swashbuckling adventure novel: a secret tunnel, a coat of arms, snakes and rats, a rope ladder baked in a pie—there’s even talk of sawing off Jim’s leg even though he could free himself from his chain simply by lifting the leg of his bed.

Many readers find the whole episode tedious and cruel, but the cruelty is the point. It would be easy to see the better-educated, middle-class Tom Sawyer as a lovable scamp who just wants others to share his bookish whims, but in Huck Finn he embodies a trend that Twain found troubling: the triumph of fantasy over reason and reality. Whatever the character meant to him elsewhere, Tom Sawyer is a figure of dangerous foolishness here. Wouldn’t Twain glower disapprovingly at the emergence of fandoms so all-encompassing that they inspire cosplay, cultural squabbling, and vicarious reinterpretations of history? He might have said that what our geeky age has wrought from harmless escapism will someday prove harmful to people who won’t play along. I guess we’ll see.

Jim is held captive for far longer than he needs to be because of storybook romanticism. You could see the whole Civil War in that, if you want.

“I can’t be left to my imagination…”

Sometimes, during the busiest weeks, we need to find time to slow down. I did—and in two blog posts about current approaches to art I noticed, and cheered for, implicit heresies.

* * *

First, via Cynthia Haven, comes video of California poet laureate Dana Gioia at the first annual Sierra Poetry Festival in April 2017. I’ve long been a fan of Gioia, but the first seven or eight minutes of his casual talk sum up every simple, contrarian impulse I enjoy in 21st-century poetry, which is as much of a niche pursuit as any can be. Gioia addresses a fellowship he describes as having “dedicated significant part of our lives, in a broader sense, to something our society doesn’t much value. We are people at odds with the values that are trumpeted around us in the media,” adding that poets aspire to exchange money, power, and social status for beauty, truth, and goodness. If your first impulse is to laugh at that, please think again: Almost nobody makes money with poetry, and doing something you love for its own rewards is actually a lot more normal than hoping your beloved hobby will turn a profit, earn you “likes,” or make you “YouTube Famous.”

The statement that struck me the strongest was this: “We don’t lead global lives.” Heresy! For all we learn from other perspectives and wider views, we can’t escape our own terroir, though many try. At a time when we’re supposed to aspire to be “global citizens,” whatever that is, Gioia preaches diversity of place, of values, of expression. I’m glad he does; those offer something true for all of us.

* * *

And then there’s this from the website Artsy: “Why the Rise of Workout Classes in Museums Should Worry Art Lovers.” Do we really need an “explainer” on this? I understand that some museums have grave financial problems, and I attended several museum conferences a few years ago where older administrators were openly terrified by their inability to attract a younger audience with the attention span of a capsized stinkbug. Turning art spaces into noisy, oniony locker rooms is not the answer. Museums have tried these stunts for a while; symphonies have also tried to cash in with gimmicks like crowd-pleasing concerts of orchestral versions of video-game tunes. In the long run, do these things attract more patrons than they repel? No one has said.

In my 21 years in D.C., I learned to laugh at Capitol Hill workaholics who pretended that a few hours of weekly yoga balanced out their frantic attempts to get noticed after working until dawn on those brilliantly persuasive bar graphs in a sorghum-subsidies report for the assistant to Senator Bedfellow. Learning to be alone to exhume your own thoughts is (to use the language of the stressed) a lifestyle choice—no piped-in soundtrack to every meal, no CNN or Fox News blaring overhead as you try to read a book or reconnect with a friend, no checking your phone every six minutes for nonsense.

I like music. I like video games. Yoga is good for you. I value my smartphone. But I’m zealous about there being one secular place left in our culture that isn’t about bodies rather than minds, or doing rather than thinking, or noise rather than silence, or therapeutic self-improvement rather than grappling with the difficult thinking of older, wiser minds. I suppose that’s my heresy. I support it with my wallet, but for now I’ll continue to live in the woods.

“Carving deep blue ripples in the tissues of your mind…”

I’m glad I went to college when I did; I get the sense that campuses have become less hospitable to eccentrics who seldom publish but thrive in the classroom. Perhaps the glut of job-seekers is to blame, or the dependence on adjuncts, or management priorities right out of the home office of Walmart. But I once knew a professor who hoped we would see that education could be bigger than all of that, and I was saddened to learn that he has, as Thomas Malory wrote of King Arthur, chaunged his lyf.

The right kind of student loved his classes. He urged us to rip our massive anthologies in half to make the world’s great literature that much more portable. He had us draw maps of mythical places, and he bombarded us with comic strips, song lyrics, modern poems, anything to convince us that knowing this stuff—and he did call it “this stuff”—let us form profound connections with our fellow humans, living and dead. When we read the Aeneid, he pumped us up by blasting Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses” from a boombox and banging his head in psychedelic bliss—but then the frivolity ended as he passed around a tiny vellum manuscript in Greek and quietly asked us to consider both its fragility and its durability.

The last of the fanatic generalists, he taught ancient and medieval lit, the Bible, the Romantic poets, Shakespeare, and the Arthurian legend, but he had a special fondness for the Beats. He also loved Samuel Johnson, and I’m sure that when he went to London every few years, he roamed the alleys and streets with an 18th-century mental map. I don’t know if students see his like anymore: an outspoken liberal who defended the worth of the Western canon. He did so devoutly but without chauvinism: he also studied Japanese and joined his wife in an Indonesian gamelan ensemble.

In 1992 I was mulling over two improbable careers: cartoonist and medievalist. When I popped by his office to talk about graduate school, my prospects hung in the air for ages.

“If that’s really what you want to do, then of course I’ll write you a letter,” he said at last, “but I would be just as pleased to know that I helped to create a very literate cartoonist rather than another academic scrounging around wondering where the next pittance of grant money is going to come from.”

I was stunned to hear a professor suggest that campus life was anything other than a bower of bliss. I don’t know if he accurately perceived my eccentricities or was giving voice to his own disenchantment, but he was right to make me suspicious of the whole business. Decades later, I still make up my career as I go along. With no clear path to follow, life has been harder, and maybe I worry more, but I’ve also traveled more, written more, known more kinds of people, and stumbled more often onto unforeseen luck. More wide-eyed students should hear what I heard; it takes years to sink in.

That same year, I answered his call for a research assistant, an offer he rebuked. “It’s mindless work,” he grumbled, instead sending me home for the summer with an Arthurian tote bag: Malory in Middle English, Layamon’s Brut, and hundreds of pages of secondary sources ranging from credible archaeological studies to wackadoodle theories about the “real” King Arthur. Lacking any guidance or goal, I worked out my own mental outline of medieval Britain. I later built a ten-year teaching job on that.

When he organized a major conference on medievalism, he told me to check it out. The invitation itself was a compliment, but I was too callow to realize that such an event on my own campus was something I ought to attend. A few years later, he sent me the published proceedings, which started me thinking. I wander, I stall, but I do tend to get where I’m going. Did he know?

He could be frustrating. The forms I needed signed and the letters I needed written couldn’t compare to the brilliant conversations with Cavafy and Boswell that seemed always alive in his mind. More than once, he got into deep trouble with fussy little bureaucrats. I like to think he angered them by taking seriously the proposition that a university was a place to explore, to experiment, to gain perspective that makes you free in ways that the world can’t suppress.

We didn’t know each other well, but we shared stories about growing up in tight neighborhoods with large extended families. I hadn’t seen him in 24 years, but now and then a package would surprise me: boxes of books, a cache of poems, letters that rang with good cheer even in the face of failing health.

Good teachers leave you gifts long before you understand their value. Shortly before I graduated, he read my paper on an ephemeral modern author and congratulated me on work that was well-written and cohesive. Then he looked me in the eye and said, by way of farewell: “Study something lasting.” And so I have.


(Polaroid Land Camera photo of a grotesque near the University of Delaware campus)

“Now, the mist across the window hides the lines…”

Longtime readers might be surprised by how few medieval-ish doodads we have in our home. My office houses a framed copy of the opening of an Icelandic manuscript and a tiny set of Domesday Book postage stamps, and until recently that was about it. When we began renting a large house in the woods, the owners left us with a great deal to work with: not only sunny flower beds and several acres of bird-besieged trees but also walls with so many nails and hooks for hanging photos, artwork, and curios that we weren’t sure we could fill them all.

We did find art for most of them—but not all. And so a few weeks ago, when I noticed two bare nails over a doorway, I decided to put up some blemmyae.

The myth of the blemmyae goes back to the ancient world, when Herodotus described this race of creatures who resembled headless men but carried their faces in their chests. He placed them alongside other humanoids, such as dog-faced men, who were believed to abide along the coast of North Africa. During the Middle Ages, the blemmyae got dragged into texts about the wonders one might find in Africa and Asia. Alexander the Great captures several of them in one romance, and that wonderful liar Sir John Mandeville claimed to have seen some near India. Some medieval writers drew a comically fine distinction between headless men with faces in their chests and headless men with eyes in their shoulders. These beings went by various names, but their legend carried over to the Americas, where Sir Walter Raleigh chased rumors of their existence near what’s now Venezuela.

My blemmyae came from England. Oakapple Designs, a lovely company in South Yorkshire, has acquired the right to make casts of artwork at certain cathedrals and sell them to the public, and the cost is very reasonable. You can browse their assortment of people, animals, and mythical creatures, which runs rampant with angels, bats, dragons, green men, and monks.

According to Oakapple, the two blemmyae over my doorway were made in the 15th century for Ripon Cathedral, where they’re apparently carved onto misericords: folding wooden seats in the choir that can be leaned on in times of need.

I can only guess why people believed in these creatures for so long. Maybe they mistook certain stoop-necked primates as headless; perhaps real tribes of humans wore armor or helmets that gave Europeans peculiar ideas. I find these particular blemmyae rather ambiguous. I’m not even entirely sure what the one on the left is doing with that stick. What I do know is that the carver at Ripon Cathedral thought they were civilized: take note of the clothing and shoes. That’s good enough reason to welcome them into our home—and if they inspire a story or poem, so much the better. I doubt they’ll be the strangest things to emerge from our time in the woods.