Archive for December, 2017

“Joyful as the silver planets run…”

I don’t know how 2017 dwindled into twilight so quickly—but when I look back, I’m pleased by the blog-year I had. Here are the highlights, a savory literary chowder that combines a hearty base of medievalism and a dollop of poetry with a rare pinch of the personal.

While hiking the entire Appalachian Trail in Maryland, I stumbled over medievalism first at the home of a forgotten poet, then in the Gothic chapel of a widow with a penchant for ghost stories, and finally in the philosophy of the father of the Appalachian Trail itself.

I also found medievalism at the federal cemetery at Antietam, where a charming little castle may have been meant to send a message to the conquered South.

The teacher in my household helped me see that the end of Huckleberry Finn makes sense when you understand Twain’s hatred of Southern romanticism.

Scholars made obvious points about medievalism and race this year, but they’re missing the subtler stories, like the six-decade history of Harriet Tubman being likened to Joan of Arc.

What do “Game of Thrones” and ISIS have in common? According to one feminist scholar, weirdly similar assumptions about “historical authenticity” and violence. Speaking of which, let’s keep an eye on the intertwining of medievalism and nationalism in Turkey.

I was happy to praise To the House of the Sun, Tim Miller’s vast and prophetic epic poem about the Civil War. The book is a wild, quirky, humane masterpiece inspired by the world’s great religious and literary texts, and it’s perfect for readers of poetry whose tastes run transcendent and strange.

While celebrating ten years of blogging, I published a book of medieval-inspired alliterative verse about moving from the city to the country—and people bought it. (You can too; just send me an email.)

What do we do with the unrepeatable adventures of the past? If we’re smart, we aim our memories toward the future.

Another blogger turned profound loss into a lesson and gift for the rest of us.

I remembered a professor who told me to “study something lasting.” And so I have.

I wrote myself a note of gratitude for moving to a place with a sense of a community, a reminder that in dubious times, we all still need each other.

As always, thanks for visiting in 2017, no matter what brought you here, whether you left a comment, and wherever you wandered to next. I’ll keep writing in 2018; for now, here’s to a season of prosperity and peace.

“…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.