Archive for the ‘Humanities’ Category

There is a picture in a book I read about the trail builders in the White Mountains back in the 1800s; there are women and men in the picture, the women in heavy woolen skirts, and they are taking a break from their labors, sitting on boulders and looking away from the camera. The book described the notorious steepness of New Hampshire’s trails, and explains this with a character commentary on Yankees. For them, work and play were, if not synonymous, then entwined. On these idylls away from Boston, the trail blazers tramped into the woods, and, seeing a summit they’d like to visit, cut trails straight up. Shortest linear distance, with no switchbacks or grades to accommodate horses, just a track from point A to point B, come streambed, come rock ledge, come Triassic syenite or volcanic bedrock. The building of the trails was their recreation, if not a pleasure. These Yankees sought strenuous exertion and usefulness. I am an heir to this regional culture, suspicious of hedonism, which I define as anything where personal enjoyment overbalances utility. Friends have recommended and invited me to spa treatments, massages, mani/pedis, but I have always declined. What I do instead is go to the dentist.

There is an outward similarity between the spa and the dentist: the reclining in a padded chair, the turning over of control, the quiescence and resignation to be ministered to. Someone will turn her whole focus to one part of your body, and the rest of you will recede while she labors. I went to the dentist for a crown. I’d never had one, and was unclear about what the process meant, or what the crown itself was. The dentist and the assistant passed things back and forth across the space above my face, and the side of my head pressed into his flank when he reached for something on the far side of me. There were clicking sounds, and the drill’s whir. Then he used a sort of camera that he dragged all around my teeth, and up on the computer screen beside me emerged a 3D rendering of my molars against a black background. The topography emerged pixel by pixel, as he maneuvered the camera into the cramped spaces at the back of my mouth. It was like watching a documentary of deep sea exploration, an abyssal plain and mountainscape glimpsed through the lens of a remotely operated submarine. There was something unnerving about the picture, my teeth and jaw with the cheek and tongue sheared away. There was a feeling of seeing something not meant to be seen, or only seeable once something has gone badly wrong. Like deep sea fishes dragged to the surface and deformed and disfigured by the pressure difference. Like the toad I saw on the sidewalk in winter after a brief warm spell that must have tricked it into emerging, and where it died when the temperatures dropped again. Someone had stepped on it, and its innards, pearlescent as the inside of a mussel shell, were extruded from its mouth. He’d literally been downtrodden, had literally spilled his guts and would never make any sound again, and what was smeared on the sidewalk were the parts that are only revealed when you’re dead. My tooth picture was like that. I lay in the chair thinking of the phrase “obtain her dental records,” blandly technical, but summoning the same kind of dread as “dragging the lake.”

The dentist worked for a while, and then took another topography. The tooth needing the crown startled me. It was ground down, a burred nub, shortened to a squared off bolt in my jaw. The tooth itself had been drilled away, atomized, floating in submicroscopic bits around the room. I didn’t realize this was what a crown meant–replacing the whole top part of the tooth with a porcelain facsimile, shape and color matched to the original, while the original dissipated in a spindrift of saliva and rinse water.

I was left unattended for a while then, my mouth propped open on a plastic wedge, while some kind of cement dried. A timer counted down the minutes, and the dentist went to check on another patient. I thought about my ground away tooth, and my missing atoms, and about Democritus, the ancient Greek who proposed that everything, humans included, was just a temporary assemblage of particles that would eventually fall away from each other again, lose form, and dissipate. I contemplated this until, alone in the chair with no one wielding a suction tube, my saliva began to pool at the back of my throat. I could not close my mouth to swallow. I turned my head to the side, trying to keep my airway clear. Panicky, I pictured my larynx slowly subsumed by the rising tide. I pictured Tiger Lily tied to an anchor on the rock in Peter Pan as the water lapped and overtopped her. I sat up and pulled out the wedge and spat and alarmed the assistant who peered in and cried, “You can’t close your mouth!” I dutifully laid back, replaced the wedge, and calming again, thought how desperately, how dearly, I hold my atoms together. How, when threatened, keeping this assemblage of particles gathered in the form that is recognizably me draws all my focus and attention, until I am barest, narrow, instinct. No one’s teacher, no one’s friend, no one’s mother, no one’s wife, just a collection of matter around the endangered breath, and fear.

The dentist came back and popped the temporary crown in place over the ground down nub. He told me to be careful of it for the next few days, to treat it gingerly. That there’d been a fracture in the tooth that he’d repaired, but that the jangly nerve beneath would remember for a while. I would need to come back in two weeks for the permanent crown, which would be crafted in a lab somewhere to look just like my old tooth. He turned me loose and I went home and over the next hours the numbness gave way to an ache and heat in the jaw, and I avoided that side whenever I ate, and I was a satisfied Yankee, sore and tired, having spent useful hours doing something that needed to be done.

The permanent crown is in now, and it is a reasonable facsimile, though smoother and glassier than my real tooth was. The scan of my jaw is stored as bits of data on the dentist’s computer system until someone calls it forth, if they ever do. His little camera turns its light on some other person’s dental arcade, their seafloor trenches, and then afterwards what is meant to stay in darkness returns to darkness. But I remember the picture, my teeth with their cragged surfaces gray and cold as the moon. Only everyone has seen the moon, pocked and pitted, distinguished by its damage. My tongue seeks out the side of my lab-built tooth, sleek, impervious to decay, a shade brighter than the old one, and I wonder where my atoms are.

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On noticing

On the Schoodic Peninsula, north of Mt. Desert Island in Maine, we went to a bakery that a man runs out of his house. He sells his goods in the sunroom. We bought coffee and bread, and then he offered us the Sunday New York Times, missing only a few sections, which a customer leaves with him every week, and which he never has time to read because of all the baking that needs to be done. We took it, and drove to the sea.

IMG_1564At the shore, there were some white people, rich, generations safe and clear of any laboring past, who had given their children agrarian village names like Thatcher and Mason. The family gathered by the water, and someone tried to herd the kids who were pelting each other with rose hips. I watched three dolphins cruise by in the shallows, unnoticed.They were close enough in to hear the chuff of their exhalations when they surfaced. A herring gull flustered up and pounced into the water five times before coming up with the crab. An eagle crossed the cove. A friend of the family rearranged the grouping, had everyone shuffle just left a little, angle toward me. Cadence’s attention was flagging; get her to look up. This would be the Christmas photo card, and it would be admittedly lovely, no one could deny that. It reminds me of Bruegel’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” I have wide gaps in my education, and art history is one, so I had never seen the painting before I read about it in Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.” I looked the painting up with Auden’s gloss already in mind, and searched for anyone in the painting who might have noticed Icarus drowning. The people are all looking away, and even the sheep are inattentive. Only one bird, holding a hunched, maybe alert, posture on a branch overlooking the sea seems to maybe notice the legs disappearing into the water, and if she did, it was probably only long enough to realize that the shape plummeting down was not a falcon in stoop, but a boy falling through the air.

1280px-Pieter_Bruegel_de_Oude_-_De_val_van_IcarusWhy does any living thing notice the things it notices? There have been studies done on shearwaters to investigate how they find their way across a featureless ocean. Suspecting it was by scent, researchers began testing this by dousing the birds’ nasal passages with zinc sulfate, which renders the birds temporarily anosmic: deprived of the ability to smell. The birds are then released and followed with tracking devices. Some activities are not impaired by the lack of smell; the birds can generally find food and gain weight, and some do eventually find their way home, even after being dropped off hundreds of miles away, but their way-finding is altered. If they are near shore, they stay close to it, using features of the coastline to orient, like a visual tapping of a white cane. Species that usually migrate at night might shift to day time travel to better see these landmarks. But many birds wander aimlessly for the duration of their scent-blindness. I think about these birds all the time, released after the rinsing, their mental maps blanked out. What is in their minds? A gray static where the knowledge used to be? An urge for home, but no idea how to begin heading back to it? Panic?

D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Self Pity” reads in its entirety,

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

The first time I ever read this, it seemed true, and noble. But I have been among birds long enough now to find it absurd. What would make anyone think this? How would he ever know? Because birds don’t have expressive eyebrows that pinch together in a cartoon expression of anguish, we conclude they are either too stoic, or too dumb to their own suffering to understand it?

The literal disorientation of the shearwaters strips away one of the ways they make sense of the world. Eventually, the destroyed cells lining their nostrils are replaced and they can sense again. I wonder what that return feels like. It must come bit by bit, as each cell matures and links up into the brain pathway, until the map is fully restored. Does the shearwater even notice it returning? If there was fear, when does the fear recede? If there is relief, does it flood in all at once?

Farther inland on the peninsula, we went for a walk along old dirt carriage roads. A bird darted out of the shrubs and flew straight towards us, only veering left at the last possible second. A garter snake saw us, and tensing in fear, dipped its tongue toward the grass, startling an inattentive grasshopper. I love these chains of inattention, of failing to notice. I have watched a 30 second video of a black bear startled by a grouse over and over again. The bear saunters along, and then, as the grouse explodes from the underbrush, the bear jolts backward and you can see her haunches quiver for a second after the rest of her goes still and, head back, she stares at the departing bird. What is in these creatures’ minds in the moments before their attention snaps to the present?

The Schoodic Peninsula is a good place for an introvert. There aren’t many people around. When people are around, and I have to speak to them, I feel a bit like the shearwaters after the nostril rinse. I am blinkered, self-conscious, unable to fully process what is happening. I cannot noticewhen I am interacting. My second son is the only extrovert in our family. You can see his craving for contact as he roams the house and prods the rest of us, each in turn, to talk to him. The three of us peer out at him, molluscan, from our shells, observing, bewildered, exhausted. He asks me, if I could have a choice of superpowers, what would I choose: telekinesis, mind-reading, or invisibility? Invisibility, of course, I tell him.

At the oceanside, the family finishes the photo shoot, and the dolphins have moved on.  The shot was well-framed already, but may need further cropping and finessing at home to show them all in their best light. If it were Bruegel’s painting, it would be foreground to the exclusion of what is left of Icarus. There would be no sign of him.

My son asks me again about the superpowers. This time the choices are flying, teleporting, or invisibility. Invisibility, I tell him again. I want to be able to be in the world without anyone knowing I’m there. He is incredulous that I would not choose flying, but it all ends the same in the long run. Ask Icarus.

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The Cratchitt family coordinates their bows.

Tonight is the opening performance of A Christmas Carol at my college. My two sons have roles; one plays Tiny Tim, and the other, Ignorance. I have a role too: to drive them to and from, and to sit at every rehearsal and watch and listen, and to help them get dressed and made up and tell them to be quiet a lot. It’s a strange position, to see all the behind-the-scenes coming together of a show and to be only a passive observer. As it’s taken shape, they’ve moved from piecemeal scenes with characters missing each night to full dress rehearsal. Though it’s been tiring, I’ve found myself more fully in the spirit of Christmas than I’ve been in many years. Last night, sitting in the dark theater, I listened to the madrigals singing their carols, and the lyrics, profoundly and unambiguously religious, prodded into my brain and began to stir around a heap of ashy coals. Underneath, what breathed into life was the glowing red memory of sitting in the dim balcony at Sacred Heart Church when I was a child, among the hundreds of other Catholics rustling and pressing against each other, and singing. In that arch ceilinged space, and all the saints arrayed around, and the ladder-ribbed Christ suspended above us on the cross, I had known very early that I was faithless, and yet I loved that place, and the poetry of it. When I was old enough, I became an altar server, knotting my rope belt around my robe and lighting the candles, inclining my head toward the priest’s to pour water over his hands as he murmured, to me alone, it seemed, “Lord, wash away my iniquities and cleanse me of my sins.”

I no longer go to church, but I sometimes miss the sacramental hush, and the ritual, the rising and kneeling, and the echoing chant. But I found myself listening to those same hymns of Christmas in this different place, under a plaque of the comedy and tragedy masks and listening to the Dickensian syntax of the band of players. And though the songs are religious, the play is not really so. The admonishment to “keep Christmas in one’s heart” is given to mean kindness to one’s fellow man, and charity, and a care for the common welfare. Scrooge’s nephew says Christmas is “…the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” The heavy punishment for failure to see that is to be fettered as the ghost of Marley.

That’s all I look for Christmas to be. I’ve been avoiding the round-the-clock radio of more secular Christmas songs–Jingle Bells, Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, and that–and tried to hold in my head the sound of pure human voices raised in darkness.  I hear so many stressed out laments over Christmas, and over the dichotomy of choosing either the veneration of a Savior, or the golden calf of retail. This theater is my third way. Sitting in the seats among the waiting actors, watching Act I rehearse, the bewreathed Ghost of Christmas Present is tapping time behind me, Tiny Tim spinning his crutch beside me, and the student actors with their glowing cell phone screens are scattered here and there in the dark. I listen, and cannot wait to see it all at once, with a full audience. For despite having heard these lines over and over, it’s never quite the same as when the play goes off for real. The audience, after all, is transformed by the players, and the players by the audience, and we are, all of us, fellow passengers.

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I’m now five or so weeks into my teaching semester, and my own kids even longer into their elementary school year. Simon, our five year old, boarded the school bus for the first time in August. I’d thought I might feel at least some little twinge: our younger child off to school, no more babies for real now. But I felt no particular emotion (aside from the sense of freedom that came with his getting on that bus). When I tell people that, many of them appear a little unnerved, as if it indicates an overall lack of sensitivity to the passage of time, or to the bittersweet nature of kids growing up. As to that last, so far, it’s really only been sweet since I genuinely disliked caring for babies and toddlers. From here on, I suspect it may get harder.

With our elder son, we focused on the firsts. With our younger, the lasts. It’s a typical pattern, and one probably partly responsible for the defining personality characteristics of birth order. I am attuned to all the lasts in my second child like I never was with my first son. A couple months ago, Simon said, “Wow, now I can have gum like a big boy,” and it must have been that he’s gradually stopped using the phrase “big boy” or I wouldn’t have noticed it this time. But he doesn’t usually talk like that anymore, and he hasn’t used the term since. I was, at that moment, I think, listening to him describe himself as a big boy for the last time, and as he stopped calling himself one, he became one.

Kids aren’t good at understanding these subtle and slow sorts of shifts. They like the grand gestures, the clear delineations. One day, when Simon was much younger, I was carrying him down the stairs and reciting a poem to him. “And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow, imagine being Kevin. Which is he? Self-forgetful, or in agony all the time?” and before I could give the next line, Simon blurted, “in agony all the time.” It had to be one or the other, and I suppose he heard more music in that one.

This fall, I started a new job on the science faculty at my local community college. I moved into my office, set up my science books and my posters of marine life, and settled into my schedule teaching chemistry. Settling down to something has never been my strong suit. After my undergraduate degree in English literature, I went off to veterinary school for a general sense of how animals are put together, and how they fall apart. After that, teaching biology, animal science, and now chemistry. Unlike my colleagues with PhDs, my knowledge has never delved very deep, but has stretched very wide, my interests ever broadening. I couldn’t settle to one thing, drill down the way they needed to, become immersed in an exclusive subject. This job though, has an air of permanence. I’ve signed the pension papers with every expectation that I will be here no less than ten years, and hopefully far longer. I have stepped onto the tenure track. If all goes well, I will still be teaching here in thirty years.

across disciplines: drawings in the science halls.

Across disciplines: the drawings in the science halls.

Some people, when they hear about my educational trajectory, assume I got my English degree and then came to my senses and found something more practical, more marketable.  But I have been veering like this all my life. I have a notebook from when I was 11 and assiduously recorded everything I heard on a PBS special about neuroscience. By high school, I had vague ideas about being a writer instead. At the end of college, I thought maybe a poem-writing veterinarian– the animal doctor version of William Carlos Williams, but I could find fewer and fewer people who said anything aside from “pick one.” The English background was a benefit of course (“We need more scientists who can write,” one professor told me) but it was meant to be only background. Whatever I settled to for my graduate degree would be who I really was intellectually.

My office is on the third floor of the science building, but our hallway shares space with the art department. Our big corner classroom is a studio, and the bulletin boards outside are a revolving gallery. This week, it was figure drawings, skeletons in charcoal, and paintings of some large, bovine skull. Some of my colleagues find it irritating that so much of our hallway is consumed by art, but I love it. I’ve spent this first fifteen years or so of my adult life deflecting off one thing and veering into another. The longer I stay in this job, and the greater the proportion of my life I devote to science, the more I wonder what happens to that humanities part of me. The English major part that was not, despite what anyone thinks, a frivolity, or a luxury I indulged in before I got down to serious, marketable work. I am fortunate that I also love science, since the gods right now are smiling down on science education. Blessed be the STEM instructors. But I will always have my secret affinities, however many years of science teaching may encase them. Science is what I do, it’s what I teach, and I love it. But the humanities are who I am. And when I wonder if that true self can survive this commitment to a fundamentally different way of looking at the world, I suppose I know it will. It’s not a choice after all. Things grade into things. Little boys become big boys, a writer teaches science, and what we call everything is not always by its true name.

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What follows is a letter I wrote to the administrators currently debating the fate of the English Department at UMass-Amherst. The new building, proposed to take the place of the crumbling old Bartlett Hall, traditional home to the department, is designed to house almost exclusively large lecture halls. This is anathema to we humanities sorts. To my fellow UMass alums, if you’re willing to join your voice to this fight, please do it quickly. Public hearings on the plan options are slated for next week. Leave a comment if you need contact information for the powers that be.

Bartlett Hall, dubbed "worst building on campus" by the college newspaper. But once it's gone, what will be left us?

Bartlett Hall, dubbed “worst building on campus” by the college newspaper. But once it’s gone, what will be left us?

Dear Dean Hayes, Associate Dean Bartolomeo, and Associate Provost Harvey,

I was an English major at UMass Amherst. The decision to become one remains one of the best I have ever made. Our ranks may be dwindling, and the clamor for more STEM graduates seems, at first glance, to further threaten us, to elbow us from the table, but I have always felt confident in UMass’ continued commitment to the English course of study, for what it gives its graduates, and for what they, in turn, give to society.

When I arrived at UMass, I feared I would be subsumed by it, swallowed up. Anxious and diffident, I didn’t make friends easily, and on a massive campus thronged by more than 20,000 students, it was hard to keep track of anyone anyway. A person could melt into the crowds there and not be seen for days. The exception, for me, was Bartlett Hall. Crumbling, musty, but beloved to me in its dingy decrepitude, it became the center of my life my four years at UMass. I was never the sort of student to swagger into a professor’s office to chat, or discuss a reading, not because I didn’t want to, but because I was terrified. The only thing that saved me from slinking through my entire course of study without speaking to much of anyone outside of classes was that building. I sold coffee and donuts in the lobby on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to raise money for the English Society’s small literary magazine. Most everyone–faculty, undergrad, bleary-eyed grad students–stopped by our stand for the sludgy brew from our vat-like percolator one time or another, and we’d talk. I ran into professors and poets and students as I tramped up and down the stairs posting flyers about Open Mic mights, book signings, and one giddy March, the impending visit of Seamus Heaney. I spent my free afternoons reading in our closet-like English Society office, taken up mostly by bookshelves. With the door standing open, anyone might stop by, or no one might, but the simple, companionable feeling of occupying a common space started me feeling like I had a home there.

Now, that home’s continued existence is in jeopardy. I won’t mourn the physical  building of Bartlett itself, but the building set to replace it, the SCAF, concerns me greatly. As currently planned, the SCAF will offer almost none of the sort of classroom space English majors require. Our needs are modest: a small room with desks ranged round in a circle, so that we might be facing each other and within speaking range. We read, we speak, and we listen. We are hamstrung by large lecture halls with their chairs bolted to the floor.

Since I graduated from UMass with my B.A., I went on to become a veterinarian and now teach biology and animal sciences at a local community college. If my college brought forward a plan eliminating all laboratory space, I would join all my colleagues in righteous outrage. Laboratory space is fundamental to science education. Microscopes, bench-tops, dissection space, Bunsen burners, the litany of things we need to teach science–if our administration bustled in, bagged it all up and told us to figure out some other way, I’d follow them right out the door and off campus to find another job. English majors need their basic supplies too. The technology is simple, and the list modest: something to read, a group of other readers, and a room small enough to hear themselves think.

The request before you is modest in the extreme: reserve at least 6,125 square feet in the proposed SCAF building for that sort of small room. We are a low-tech people, with simple needs. I hope that the school I love and to which I owe so much will deem our small but fervent ranks worthy of this small consideration. Without it, I fear for our survival, and the world needs its English majors.


Sarah (Fahey) Courchesne, DVM
Class of 2002

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Secret spaces

I love the website apartment therapy. On days when my own house is not just cozily cluttered and lived in, but is covered in oily fingerprints, and there’s urine sprayed on the bathroom floor and there’s a smell that comes and goes but whose source cannot be determined, I sometimes sit down at my computer and scroll through images on this virtual confection of a design website. Every room they feature is well lit, perfectly accessorized, and utterly escapist. I know the rooms are real, in that they physically exist, but the world they conjure is delightfully fantastical.

A recent post’s theme was “Kids’ closets used as reading nooks” and it was predictably appealing. The closet nooks were full of squashy pillows, and gallery walls of artworks in a restrained color scheme, and a pristine pallet on the floor. As with many images on apartment therapy, many of the examples of closet reading nooks allowed me to revel in the beauty while feeling pleasantly smug and derisive. The images hint at, or outright blurt out, all the worst things about a precious, upper middle-class American childhood these days. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at these images, trying to figure out what exactly was bothering me.

The first thing was a photo of a little girl reading on her pristine pallet under a framed picture reading “Mama Loves You.” Granted, this child is quite young, and at that age would not have an expansive life outside her small, home-playground-library story hour, sphere. But the placement of that picture, beaming sunshiny supervision down on the child’s head even whilst in her private nook seemed to emphasize surveillance. Mother as Big Brother, choosing the books, the paint, the pillows in fabrics that are just the perfect subtly zany mix match.

Photo: apartmenttherapy.com

 A reading nook via apartmenttherapy.com

In the written copy for this post, I came across this: “You can keep the door to make a secret reading hideaway.” You cannot. When you build and decorate your child a designated reading nook, you may be providing them with a cozy space, a beautiful setting, and the much needed message that reading matters in this house. But you cannot make it a secret. My kids are not babies anymore, and we’ve been through the earliest phases of childhood where the sequential separations between mother and child begin. The cords were cut. They moved from sleeping in my bed, where I contorted protectively around them, into cribs in a separate room. They weaned, they learned to walk, they learned defiance and strong opinions. They went to school. As they get older, the physical separations shift to internal ones. The school age child begins answering, “What did you do today?” with, “nothing.” You find out from some other mother that your kid had some playground altercation and didn’t tell you.

The fantasy that a designated closet nook could ever be “secret” may be part of the desire to keep kids safe, to control their environments. And kids do love secret spaces. They like claustrophobic, dark little cubby holes. These closet reading nooks are cute, but they’re not secret, and to a kid, they’re not even all that nook-like.

I had a secret reading nook when I was young, and it was a corner of the closet I shared with two of my sisters, so it was jammed with stuff. I had to shimmy under the lowest row of clothes, wedge myself behind the hangers and shove aside a pile of shoes. It was almost too dark to read there, and it smelled like winter boots stowed away for the season while still snow and sweat soaked. I only went in there if I knew no one could see me climb in, and if someone called for me while I was in there, I wouldn’t answer for fear of giving away the spot. It was dingy and dim and secret.

Poorly lit? Smells like feet? Doesn't photograph well? Now that's a nook.

Poorly lit? Smells like feet? Doesn’t photograph well? Now that’s a nook.

Being one of five children, I often sought my escape outside the house. We didn’t have a treehouse or playhouse, or any adult-built, adult-approved play place. My favorite place to go was a medium sized pine tree where I had laid a plank across two branches to make a sap-covered, grubby seat. I would sit there after school and read or look out over the lake down the hill. It was nothing much, and would make a very poor feature photo for apartment therapy. But apartment therapy is for grown-ups. The things kids like are gross.

For now, I know where my kids’ “secret” places are. At ages six and four, they play out in the woods by themselves a lot but they still excitedly volunteer instructions on how to cross the fallen hemlock tree to get to a tussock in the middle of the swamp. I know they climb around in the unfinished, unheated crawl space under the eaves in our house. It’s dark in there, and it’s sweltering in summer and freezing in winter. There’s certainly no pallet in there, but there is some exposed insulation and nails sticking out in unpredictable places. It’s unattractive and fairly uncomfortable, and it’s what kids like. These places are still not really a secret, but they’re outside the realm of adult decor and aesthetics. They’re a little bit risky, and if kids aren’t allowed to go there, to push out from their safe orbits, to do stupid things by themselves, then I fear they’ll grow up to be the sorts of people who are too nervous to crawl through a tight spot, or to quell their panic and push on through a dark place and see what’s on the other side. Because much as I love a well designed room, the world is not a lovely, purpose built nook.  It’s less brightly lit, but much more beautiful.


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Last month, I was listening to one of the fluffy, human interest stories my NPR station regularly puts on. This one was on “Past Loves Day,” a day (September 17th) apparently designated to immerse oneself in the poignant nostalgia of all those loves lost or given up. It’s all very cheeseball and hokey, but it got me thinking of my own lack of past loves. I don’t actually have any. I did have a middle school “boyfriend” but that consisted mainly of making out behind the tennis courts after school. We were twelve, and I don’t think that counts. By fourteen, I was with Christophe, and we cleaved to each other then, never yet to part, almost nineteen years later. I think that one counts.

Sometimes, when people find this out, they gape, open mouthed, and say something like, “You never broke up? Never saw anyone else? Even for a little bit?” We did not. So I thought about this foolish Past Loves Day, and also about the less foolish premise underlying it: that these relationships enrich a life, open new avenues of understanding, and broaden a person’s horizons. I don’t feel particularly limited, constrained, or hemmed in by their lack, and the reason is clear: I was an English major.

What do you see here, snobbery? Or the salvation of the world?

What do you see here, snobbery? Or the salvation of the world?

When I started college, I had no idea what I would want to do for a job after graduating. I didn’t know if I would go to grad school, and if so, what for? My interests skittered and bounced around from ecology to poetry to history to chemistry. I flirted with several possible courses of study, and settled upon one of the most maligned. English majors, in our ramshackle falling-down Bartlett Hall, with our poetry nights and English Society meetings in a dusty room on the second floor, were derided and mocked by fellow students and by, I suppose, well meaning persons who asked, “And what will you do with that?” No one in the Engineering program was asked such a thing, nor the cynical business majors, though I think the question might be equally appropriate for many of them. “Why study the humanities,” much of the world seemed to sneer, “So you can use proper grammar while you’re serving me my coffee?”

I don’t remember how I used to answer these questions then, but my answer now is clear. I studied the humanities to become human. I’ve just finished reading Mark Edmundson’s collection of essays Why Teach? and his piece on English majors is what, if I ‘d had it then, I would have xeroxed and handed out to anyone who asked me any iteration of that derisive question, “what are you going to do with that?” Edmundson has this to say about our ever dwindling tribe,

The English major is, first of all, a reader. […] But there are readers and there are readers. There are people who read to anesthetize themselves–they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay–to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people.

Reading, and particularly the reading of fiction, of plays, and of poetry, alters the mind like nothing else can. I’ve seen movies that have stayed with me and affected me profoundly. I’ve read history, ecology and other sciences that have made me understand the world and its human and non-human machinery as I had never done before. But reading as an English major reads, that alters, to use an unfashionable term, the soul. The images from movies sometimes play across my mind again, but it’s as if they’re still on a screen. Two dimensional, in the lighting and the mood created by the director. The images I carry from books are indistinguishable from my own memory. Just as dreams feel real, like a true, though bizarre memory, so do all the books in my mind. The woodshed where Sethe sawed into her daughter’s neck is dim and dusty and conjurable as my own shed. Dickens’ London, grimy, grim and cast all in grays is vividly real to me, as are the fetid, squalid St. Petersburg rooms where Raskolnikov crouches like a rat in Crime and Punishment.

And if the places are real as my own memories, no less so are the interior lives of the characters. Our society may be coming around to an understanding of how this works; a study out this month points specifically to the reading of literary fiction as fostering empathy (as compared to the reading of non-fiction or of less highbrow sorts of novels and stories.) How does it do this (and I assure you, it does) and what’s it going to mean if English majors go extinct (as appears to be the trend)?

When I read Beloved, I had no children. The idea of killing my own child was all at once abhorrent, fascinating but largely academic. Was Sethe mentally ill? Was she accountable? Was she right, that they’d be better off dead? We would discuss it, write about it, read what other smart people had to say about it, and then move on to another book. But books stay with you, and Beloved may have been submerged in my mind for many years, until I had children, and they had physical bodies, and I watched them sleep and imagined my hands grabbing their slender ankles and swinging them headfirst into a wall, or laying the points of a sawblade against their necks and beginning to pull. Less a question of “was it justifiable?” it had become, “could I do it, and what would it take to drive me there?” I am white, privileged, living in the 21st century, with considerable comforts and assurances, and luxuries, but can I surmount all that and fly to that woodshed with her and look for what tools I can find? I can.

I went on from my English degree to become a veterinarian, and thence to teach biology. I am now making my living off the sciences, smiled upon by the current mania for STEM education. I love biology; it is endlessly fascinating, endlessly amazing, and evolutionary theory is one of the most elegant and beautiful overarching ways of understanding the world that there could ever be. I think I’m pretty good at teaching it, and I hope to become excellent with time. I am glad of my advanced education in science. But I am far more grateful for my English degree. It made me human. I hope the beginnings of this appreciation for English majors starts to turn the tide. That we become viewed not as snobs with a rareified and irrelevant skill set, but as just the opposite: people with an unusual ability to inhabit the minds of other people; to understand, deeply, why they do the things they do, even if those things are terrible, horrific, and seemingly un-understandable. I hope this is the beginning of the rehabilitation of a humanities education. After all, without the humanities, where will we get our humans?

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For Heaney

Since I learned of Seamus Heaney’s death on Friday, I have been subtly off my kilter. It’s not enough to make me change my usual daily routines, or give much, if any, outward sign of mourning. It’s more like what Auden wrote of the day Yeats died: “A few thousand will think of this day/ As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.” Most likely, by next year, I’ll have forgotten the date, or even the month of his death. Listening to the news, as Parliament or Congress both bat around what to do about a pile of gassed children in Syria, I am occasionally staring off into the middle distance and thinking of a poet. What could be more frivolous?

Except, that’s what poets are for.

In 2001, in September, I was at a desk in a circle of desks in my Major British Writers class when a young man, whose name I can’t remember but whose face I can, first announced a few bizarre facts about a plane and the World Trade Center. We continued class. After class was out, I walked to the campus center and clustered with all the other students around the TV there. I don’t know if we were, in fact, studying Keats on that day (my chronology of those weeks is jumbled), but it was “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” that lilted in my brain every time I watched the repeating footage of a deep blue sky, a fire, and the worst of all, those tiny black dots arcing out from the building and to the ground.

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
   When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
   He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
   Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
It was not quite sensible, or even accurate to the occasion. Cortez and Keats both were full of wonderment, awe. But I couldn’t help it. Those lines, the image of Cortez and his men before the awesome blue expanse of the Pacific; there must have been terror in it too. The blue gulf I was staring into, the sky all around the towers, the sky as deadly as the ocean, if you have to jump into the center of it.
IMG_4804When I heard Heaney was dead, I was self-consciously sad. He wasn’t mine, not grandfather, father, or friend. Not an acquaintance, and not my national poet, American that I am.  How to account for the loss then? I read a lot of poetry during my time in college. Yesterday, I pulled down Opened Ground, Heaney’s volume of selected poems. I always dread looking at a book I marked up in college; my notations in the margins usually make me cringe. But I had evidently been more restrained with this book. The few underlinings or circles I had made were without explanation, and I can’t for the life of me know what they were supposed to signify. The lines they point to aren’t the ones I would underscore now. And that is the thing that brings me some solace. That ten years later, the poems are new to me again. They mean something different, and the meaning is in different places.
I read that Heaney’s last recorded words were in a text message to his wife. In Latin, they read Noli timere, “don’t be afraid.” What his true last words were maybe only his nurses know. Maybe there were no others. Maybe they were the nonsense garble of anesthetic induction. All I know of his last hours is that text message, his last written words. In a modern poetry class, I had to memorize his poem “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” and whether it was the familiarity bred by learning each line by heart, or something intrinsic about it, it remains one of my favorites. Now, instead of Kevin, the last lines will always make me think of Heaney himself, at the last:
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labor and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird,
And, on the riverbank, forgotten the river’s name.
Now he undergoes a shift, from living man to dead poet. He goes from husband and father to figure, history. Born the year Yeats died, now he joins him in the beginning of his own mythology. There will not be any more of the private man, any words only between him and his wife, or his sons, his one daughter. He can no longer elaborate, or clarify, or write another thing. Of Yeats’ death, Auden wrote, “The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the guts of the living.” Now, we put our own gloss on him. Remembering and misremembering fragments of poems, checking to see if another ten years alters our opinions of them. As long as he lived, he wasn’t ours. Now that he’s dead, he’s given over to us, and we bear him.

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You’ve all undoubtedly faced the flat sadness that comes from a lull in my blogging, as I have been on vacation on the Belgrade Lakes in Maine. While the vacation persists, the blogging must resume.

I’m raising two young outdoorsmen, and we’ve been fishing, kayaking, and hiking for more than a week now. My older son’s stamina for fishing is impressive at this point, and he can now paddle his own kayak for a moderate distance. Hiking, however, remains an area where we are years away from the day-long treks I once did. That will require many years of breeding and careful grooming, and to get there, I must strike the delicate balance of finding hikes that are ever more challenging, yet do not break down, defeat, or bore my young men.

This part of Maine is good for that. The Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance has blazed several trails of varying duration, from quick roadside vistas to rather substantial multi-mile hikes. Today, we headed to the Sander’s Hill Loop trail. It’s manageable, a modest grade with some fair views from the low summit. It’s a four snacker, requiring 2.5 hours for our troop to complete, and that with only two brief stints of carrying the boys on our shoulders.

Most importantly, there are trailside oddities and diversions:
a log ladder to a boulder overlooking Watson Pond,


rock ledges and a warren of small caves and tunnels,
and some small scale wildlife, like two snakelings, a copper colored frog, and a caterpillar thick as a thumb undulating luxuriantly across the trail.

A spring peeper

A spring peeper


All these break up the journey into manageable bits. With young kids, there is no sustained attention, nor can uninterrupted hours be devoted to anything.

Last week, at the carnival of unnecessary items that is the Marden’s discount store in Waterville, their book section was stacked with publishers remainders of poetry. I was an English major, and I spent three good years mooning around reading Yeats, drinking coffee and scouring The Montague Book Mill (“Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find”). I got nostalgic, standing in the Marden’s aisle across from the suede-look recliners and bins of clothesline and vinyl sandals. For six dollars, I got three books of poetry and carted them back to our cabin on Long Pond.

Most of my days here are spent stealing a bit of time to read or knit between botherings by my kids, listening to Simon say, again and again, “Mum? Wanna see this?” [crashes a misshapen paper airplane into the floor] “Wanna see that again?”

Sometimes I dart off and read a depressing poem by Philip Larkin. Then one of the boys calls again. I can only read a poem or two at a time. At first, I was feeling sorry for myself about that. Then I realized, that’s exactly how I ought to take these poems: one at a time, to carry with me while I watch the airplane crash again. One poem to roll around in my mouth like a stone for the next few hours.

Besides, there’s only so much Larkin a person can take before she loses the will to live entirely.


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Road trip

I do travel by plane a bit for work, as miserably evidenced by my last post. For that work, Georgia is as far afield as I have ever gotten. Still, that’s pretty far for me, and in my personal travels, I just about never leave New England. This past weekend, however, we drove out to Rochester, New York to see long-lost friends (we lost them to Arizona. A terrible thing.) who were visiting family there. Rochester was about as far north and east as they are likely to be, so off we went, driving.

IMG_3989We are New Englanders, and so small staters. Maine seems outrageously large to us. But New York is bigger still. The boys were bewildered that we could drive for hours and still be in New York. Rochester is a cool little city, and I wish we could have seen a bit more of it than a day and half affords. But by Sunday afternoon, it was time to head back east again. We had arrived after dark on Friday night, and we were leaving in broad, glaring daylight, so the landscape was fully visible. On either side of the road, flat fields opened out. I remarked on the flatness, and Christophe responded, “Rochester is less a city of the northeast, and more the first city of the midwest.” Sage, that guy. It’s not just one thing, of course, that sets one place apart from another. When we passed between the cliff faces left where a hill had been blasted away to make room for the Thruway, there was neat, tile-stacked shale instead of solid granite. Gradually, hills began to appear, and at Albany, unable to face  the drive on the Turnpike through Massachusetts, we took the back way through Vermont instead. We toured the smaller roads where relic motels of the 50s motoring age sat mouldering and vacant. The road dipped and turned alongside cobbled rivers, and we were hemmed in closer and closer by green forest on all sides. We ate lunch in Brattleboro, Vermont, where vegan cafes are on every corner, and the smell of pot, patchouli and incense seems to hang in a cloud running the entire length of the Connecticut River, and I was brought to mind of my years at UMass, and felt the tug of home.

Malcolm had been quiet a while, and suddenly announced that he had finished his reading–a chapter book of a hundred pages or more. He’s been reading well for some time now, but this was reading an entire book on his own, asking for only two words’ meanings: novices and  initiation. This is a world I’ve been waiting for him to enter, remembering the trips I would take as a child to the library on my own, to get stacks of books to read on my own. Wholly self-sufficient, it seemed to me, and my memories of the summers when I was seven, eight, nine, seem to have no parents or other adults in them at all. That’s the part of it that had not hit me until now. His first big book, read start to finish without me. All the other stories and characters we’ve carried in our heads jointly, simultaneously. Mutually understood small references to what we’d been reading in our universe unto ourselves. He announced he’d finished his book, and I felt more sundered from him than at the moment he was born and his tether to me was cut. He began leaving me then, but it took six years and a book to make me notice it.

IMG_3988By now, Simon had taken a nap and was reanimated and philosophical. Malcolm drifted off to sleep, and Simon, four years old and lacking any self-sufficiency, began peppering me with his usual questions. “Mum, why is the road so tippy?” “Mum, am I so great and so beautiful?” “Mum, what’s this stuff in my ear? I call it ‘ear fug'” and finally, this one, that struck me hard, because he’s my younger son, and no one after him, and soon he will stop asking this kind of question, and enter the solid, sensible realm of all the grown-ups,

“Mum? Do you remember when you were a tiny baby and I was way back nowhere?”

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