"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Commonplace Book


"It smells good here," she said.
It did. It had the indefinable smell of a perfectly - kept,
well - loved American home; the smell found nowhere else on earth.
A smell of cleanliness and polish and Ivory soap and potted plants
and baking bread -- the sweet warm smell of simplicity and abundance.
. . . everything in the room felt kind and gentle and safe."

~ Marcia Davenport ~
from The Valley of Decision, 407
[More on my Book Blog]

Regular as clockwork, yet another Fall Semester has arrived, with all the excitement and promise of course descriptions and syllabi! Risking repetition, I thought the beginning of the academic year (see previous post also!) would be the right time for a review of my fortnightly initiative. The following outline is drawn from several previous posts -- Mission Statement, The Second Page, Pastiche -- and was prepared as a presentation for the American Literature Club of West Lafayette, Indiana, where my dear friend Elizabeth offered me the opportunity to share my work with the club members at their annual spring dinner meeting.

Naturally, I began with a special thanks to Elizabeth for her constant support in our various shared endeavors such as music, parenting, exercising, and -- our focus of the evening -- reading, writing, and blogging. To narrow the topic, Elizabeth asked me to please answer the question for well - read audience, with varying degrees of computer savviness: "What is a Literary Blog?"

To define simply, a blog is a personal website or web page -- technically a WEB LOG (thus the shortened "BLOG") on which an individual can record opinions, proverbs, poems, letters, essays, movie reviews or book reports -- along with photographs and helpful links to other sites. Adding new material or updates on a regularly basis is called blogging: Web Logging!

It is a digital journal or Commonplace Book that will be unique to whatever its keeper finds of interest, e.g., the clean metallic lines of the graceful leaves above (photographed earlier this summer at the at the Wynn / Encore in Las Vegas) and Marcia Davenport's blissful description of early twentieth homemaking. How are these apparently random items related? The blogger gets to impose the pattern! That's the beauty of blogging! All you need to do is choose your topic, decide how you want to organize your material, master a few simple functions on the keyboard, and hit "publish."

Five years ago, as I was getting the blog underway, my friend Eve -- also a writer and a teacher of writing -- asked me if I had a Dream Job in mind for my Inner Scholar. Indeed I did!

Always present in my mind whenever churning out an insight or two to share with a kindred spirit such as Eve, was the question, now how can I make that my work for the day? Because it feels so good, like an accomplishment. You know that old cliche that you know you're a writer if you just have to write every day? Well for me that doesn't mean I'm driven to lock myself in my room writing a novel, or stay up all night writing poetry; instead, it's more about articulating the daily worries and outrages and obsessions, then lining them up with the poems and stories and essays that will bring a little order to the chaos.

If I can take an hour or so to press beyond blathering, to organize all that angst and nonsense, channel all that anxiety into the written word, search out the literary parallels, send it out to an audience who "knows" (in manner of Carson McCullers), then I arise from my computer and say to myself, "Whew, that was a good morning's work," though I'm the first to admit that it's also play. The work of writing -- the discipline of daily expression, the task of scratching it all out, the quest of tracking down an old nearly forgotten poem or recovering a stray thought that's perfect for the moment before it gets away, the struggle with meaning, the satisfaction of connecting -- can feel so necessary yet also vaguely, if not blatantly, like a selfish indulgence, an undeserved luxury.

I wanted to create a space where the threads of art and life intertwine until a pattern emerges from the chaos; to generate some literary analysis -- scholarly yet painless -- about how literature fits into every hour of every day; to share and interpret what I have recorded and remembered over the years; to include a running update of my current reading; and to explain how it all fits together with the little things that actually happen in real life throughout the course of any given day -- in manner of Mrs. Dalloway.

To accomplish these quasi - para - academic goals, I designed three blogs:

a Book List -- which I update once a month with a brief description of what I've been reading recently

a Quotidian blog -- which I update -- not daily, but every other day or so with seasonal snippets, light verse, photographs of my cats, whatever comes to mind

and -- the page you're reading now -- my Fortnightly Literary Blog of Connection & Coincidence; Custom & Ceremony:

I have to thank my husband Gerry for the "Fortnightly" suggestion. He pointed out that readers would need to know how often to expect a new post. Not only did a two - week interval seem reasonable, but the term "Fortnightly" which I no doubt learned from reading English novels in my girlhood -- would lend a British flair to the literary enterprise.

Next, I chose as my watchword Goethe’s suggestion that

“One ought, every day at least,
to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture,
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words.”

Whenever my readers open The Fortnightly on their computer screens, I wish for them to encounter each item on Goethe's list:

a little song -- and amazingly, thanks to you-tube, I can include not just all of my favorite lyrics but also links for listening;

a good poem -- this would be my forum for sharing selections from all the wonderful poetry that I have been reading and collecting in notebooks for the past few decades;

a fine picture -- my favorite hobby has always been combining quotations and pictures into handmade posters, greeting cards, and scrapbooks for family and friends. On my blog, I could pursue this hobby, using my own photography or other beautiful photos and artwork found on the internet;

and last but not least -- a few reasonable words.

Goethe makes it sound so simple, I thought I'd give it a try, tying songs and poems together with just the right visuals and, hopefully, a few worthy observations of my own on the theme of connection & coincidence; custom & ceremony.

Connection: I wanted, if possible, to create a place of connections, in the spirit of E. M. Forster, who implores us in "Howards End" to connect: "Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect . . . ." I want to capture all the unexpected connections that amaze and surprise and suggest a pattern.

Coincidence: For me, nothing tops those moments when Life offers its own theme to a strand of apparently accidental events, and everything hangs together for a moment in such an uncanny way that you'd swear it was all planned out somehow! Those are the literary connections and coincidences that I am always on the lookout for, not that they require much tracking down, since they usually find me before I find them.

For example, I pulled together one of my earliest blog posts one morning back in 2009 when I came downstairs just in time to hear my son Sam saying: "It's my lucky rock; Mom gave it to me." Turns out, my husband was asking about the shiny rock that he had just seen Sam pick up from his desk and drop into his pocket. I was touched by Sam's belief in lucky rocks and by his sentiment of hanging on to a talisman from his crazy old mom. It was, however, no more than a fleeting morning moment -- yes, sweeter than most but still fleet -- until it suddenly took on a life of it's own.

Sam left for school and Gerry for work. I sat down to review my friend Jan's latest batch of short stories. I had read them earlier and was just collecting my thoughts to comment, when suddenly, my eyes fell on the title, "Pocket." How had I missed this entry, pocketed as it was, right there in between "Heart" & "Fable," which I had read several days ago? Can you imagine my astonishment when just a few lines into the story, the heroine exclaims: "Not even a lucky rock"?

A lucky rock? Like Sam's! What's the odds?

Sometimes, life is so full of coincidences that I think my head will split open trying to take them all in! It's enough to make me believe in the whole Universe at once! Here I was, sitting alone, reading a story about the very object my loved ones had been discussing a mere thirty minutes earlier. And not just any object, but a lucky, magic object, "something to keep forever." And now I know why I had previously overlooked "Pocket," -- because Fate was saving it up for me, a lucky story to read on a lucky Friday! Because, to quote Jan, we all need stories -- "clear, round, and easy to carry" -- in our hearts.


Back in college when I worked on the literary magazine, I was known as the editor with "a poem for every poem" because no matter what I read, I was always reminded of something else -- kind of like that "Scooby-Doo" episode -- if you remember the old cartoon -- when Daphne asks Velma -- the girl with glasses, the bookish one: "Do you have a book for every occasion?" And Velma answers, "Actually, yes." A poem for every poem, and a book for every book!

Along the same lines, just a few weeks ago, a couple of old friends shared the following funny, complete with sentiments such as

"Was there an old song written for every occasion?"
"Yes! I think there was!"

Or as my sister Di expressed it:
"Life is a musical!"
A poem for every poem . . . a song for every song.
Haha -- but true!

In addition to Connection and Coincidence, I wanted the blog to include my favorite passage from Yeats' poem "A Prayer For My Daughter." Naturally, he wants so many things for her, but chiefly a heart full of "radical innocence" and a life
"Rooted in one dear perpetual place . . . a house
Where all's accustomed, ceremonious."

"How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree."

From childhood -- perhaps impressed upon me when I first read The Little Red Story Book -- at any rate, certainly long before I ever read Yeats -- one of my goals was to organize the kind of home described in his poem, where order would triumph over chaos and no holiday would ever go unremarked: accustomed and ceremonious, familiar yet celebratory.

Thus the line from "A Prayer For My Daughter" has become the perpetual caption for the opening picture of every Fortnightly Blog Post. I hope that in some way (though not always in the same way) these photographs and illustrations will portray "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." Sometimes it's my own house (or former houses), other times, a cathedral, a log cabin, a playground, sites of historical interest or fame, a neighborhood mural, a village mosaic, a medieval tapestry.

In the early days of my blog, my older brother, who like me, studied English in college, asked me, "Do you have an encyclopedic memory of poems or a really good search engine? You seem to always find one that fits the occasion. Cool trick. Guess I shoulda paid more attention in one of those literature classes that I seem to have forgotten."

A funny question. But luckily, the answer is Yes, I have both -- the memory and the search engine! On the serious side of constructive criticism, he suggested: "You are a true master in linking nuggets of wisdom, wit, and rational thought, but I see so little of the inner Kit. Or perhaps, I just haven't been reading enough of your blogs."

I really liked his comment about my nugget - linking skills, because it's true -- some entries are just a quotation linked with picture, but it's always a good match, one that no one else would have thought of, or even found (because I'm the careful reader, that's the objective of my blogging). I took his words to heart and trust that, as he read further, he encountered to a greater extent my inner voice -- which I'm sure is there! -- in addition to the voices of so many writers whose work I admire.

My creative writing teacher in college once wrote in the margin of my paper: "What's at stake here?" I have never forgotten that comment and think that my brother may be asking a similar question. What I took away from his advice was the need to take more personal risk, go out on a limb, bare more of my soul, embarrass myself a little bit, move beyond "So what?" And, yes, I have tried to test these limits (see for example "Never Fear").

The blog is a good place to experiment and push the envelope. In the meantime, I strive to deserve the great faith that my friend Jes, who teaches in Boston, has placed in this enterprise: "How courageous of you to insist on beauty and thoughtfulness every day in this, the 21st century! What a brave blogger you are!"

I see now that Goethe (1749 – 1832) was asking his 18th & 19th Century audience to search for the same: beauty and thoughtfulness -- in a song, a poem, a picture, a few reasonable words.

Flower Gardens, Carosel, and Wall Art (above)
at the Wynn / Encore, Las Vegas

In closing,
many thanks to my supportive friends and readers
for their ultra - kind observations:

Nancy T.: "Sing! Thanks for all the blogs -- photos, poems, book titles. Some days you are my own only source or mental stimulation. May you keep on singing!"

Pat F.: "I just want you to know that your blog today was one of the most touching and meaningful ever! Actually, I have read it several times, and listened to the music. The first time through, I was absolutely in tears! It realllllly touched me on so many levels. Thanks for being a friend and such a talented writer. . . . Thank you for this beautiful article today. It really touched me!"

Barbara T.: "this is amazing. I learn so much from you and marvel at the beauty of the paintings, photographs, memorabilia and WORDS that you share. Thank you. Barbara T."

Tim Th.: "Thanks, Kitti for your unending eloquent endeavor; it is a reading pleasure I enjoy!"

Len O.: "Your collections of objects and archives of documents and photographs make you the FB Smithsonian. I am always struck by the high quality of your nature and celestial photographs (assuming you are not funded by NASA), as well as the archives of photos and objects you have from your life (including your friends)."

And in reply: "I am honored to serve in the capacity of facebook archivist! Would that I were funded by NASA! I just use a little Canon PowerShot recommended by my niece Sara & my friend Natasha. Len, thanks again for your kind words, especially about my friends. As Shakespeare / Bolingbroke says: "I count myself in nothing else so happy / As in a soul remembering my good friends" -- including you & everyone else on this post!"

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, September 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Handed My Own Life

University of Glasgow Coat of Arms

[Thanks to Peter Bunder & Good Shepherd for this photo & caption]

Back to school already! The calendar year is nearly two thirds gone, yet in semester - speak the year is just beginning! After a few decades on the academic calendar, it becomes hard to measure time in any other way. I began my Freshman year at Northeast Missouri State in the fall of 1975, finishing four years later with a B.A. in English, one of the mere fifty - two Bachelor of Arts candidates listed on the last page of the graduation program (Spring 1979). My educational goals were not shared by many of my peers (most of whose names were listed among the many hundreds preceding the B.A.'s). While I did not elect to obtain the then popular Bachelor of Science in Education, I somehow or other ended up teaching for a number of years and was imprinted by numerous examples of what it meant to be an educator.

The closest I've come to a mission field was teaching at the Community College of Philadelphia. I taught a class for students who were trying to qualify for Freshman English -- so pre-freshman English. A few had not graduated from high school, but they had special admission status as returning students. A few were traditional students (age 18 or so) who had just not been served well by the Philadelphia public school system. Most were returning students, African American women about my age (late 30s at the time) and many were grandmothers! They were always surprised to learn that I was the mother of toddlers, at my age. I was impressed by the commitment they brought to their course work, and their determination to improve the level of their writing skills. Their dedication was inspiring, and many times they seemed to surprise themselves and each other with the success of their achievements. My last semester there, Spring 1998, I participated in a departmental evaluation, in an attempt to reveal something of how these small successes were accomplished.

Always my goal was to reveal to the students their own capacity for intelligent thought, as mine was revealed to me. In An American Childhood, Annie Dillard vividly describes her initiation into the world of natural science, her early discovery, years before college, "that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself." I love her scenario of revelation, though the indifference of her privileged parents fills me with some misgiving:
“Mother . . . gave me to understand that she was glad I had found what I had been looking for, but that she and Father were happy to sit with their coffee, and would not be coming down [to check out her biology experiment in the basement]. She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?) and I had mine. She did not say, but I began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself. I had essentially been handed my own life” (148 - 49, emphasis added).
In Homegrown Democrat, Garrison Keillor writes of his education in very similar terms, describing himself as an undergraduate "with no money to speak of and no clear plan for the future but . . . teachers who engage him with gravity and fervor and that's enough. That was the true spirit of the university, the spirit of the professors who loved their work. That was the heart and soul of the place . . . ." He enumerates half a dozen of his most inspirational professors, concluding with a visit to the library where "that Niagara of scholarship holds you in its sway, the deluge and glory of learning, and you begin to see where work and play become one. And imagine working at something you love. And that was how the University of Minnesota gave me life" (94 - 96, emphasis added).

Several times during my undergraduate years, I too was "essentially handed my own life," not just in the English courses which catered to my "private passion" but once in a science class where we learned that "Much knowledge is gained in pursuit of even elusive goals," and once again in music appreciation where the professor explained that "we don't know what we like -- we like what we know" and then proceeded to teach us just how much there was in the world to know and like and love. Not only did I obtain personal attention when necessary, but upon one memorable occasion during my Freshman year when I arrived at an office door at the same time as a classmate, the instructor soon had us tutoring each other. My questions were answered by a peer whose questions in turn I was able to answer! Thus, even in uncertainty, my own competence was reinforced. I learned that I was capable of intelligent thought and that I could impart as well as absorb information. This was an invaluable discovery, which stood me in good stead as an educator. Though it was not always easy, I aimed for a similar transference of accountability during my years as a classroom teacher.

As for my private passion, one of my most rewarding undergraduate challenges was to work as an editor of the student literary magazine, learning to test and question my own critical thinking skills in ways which continue to influence and inform every writing task I undertake. I knew when I arrived at Northeast that I wanted to major in English; and when I took Modern British Fiction, I knew what, one day, my field of specialization would be. Never before had I read such wonderful novels or worked on such exciting assignments! From a handful of professors, I encountered generous and enthusiastic encouragement, and was challenged by their faith in my work and by the valuable information which they choose to share.

Regardless of one's private passion, the public study of language and literature should yield a certain breadth of vision when it comes to solving problems, analyzing common or repeated themes, and dealing with human conflict in a humane way. To portray the inevitable links between existence and language, to create an environment of personal actualization in which a whole and steady vision might be realized, to repair the learned disjunction between speaker and utterance, to not be fooled by wordcraft or lazy thinking -- those were some of my goals as a teacher of English. Particularly in teaching composition it seems important, perhaps it is even a mission to show students how to be responsible to language, to own it, and to overcome indifference.

I pointed out to them the significance of their own authority in what Stanley Fish calls the "interpretive community" and the relevance of their own contributions to the discursive enterprise referred to by Robert Maynard Hutchins as the Great Conversation and the Civilization of the Dialogue:
"How, then, can higher education escape dogmatism, narrowness, the invasion of academic freedom, and failure in its proper intellectual task and still do its duty by morals and religion? A possible answer lies in the Great Conversation. The Great Conversation began with the Greeks, the Hebrews, the Hindus, and the Chinese and has continued to the present day. It is a conversation that deals, perhaps more extensively than it deals with anything else, with morals and religion. The questions of the nature and existence of God, the nature and destiny of humanity, and the organization and purpose of human society are the recurring themes of the Great Conversation.

"There may be many ways in which a college or university can continue the Great Conversation, but it would seem offhand that one of the best ways is through the reading and discussion by all the students of the books in which the Great Conversation has been carried on by the greatest writers and thinkers who have taken part in it. I emphasize discussion because of the contributions that this method makes to the moral and intellectual habits we desire; and I emphasize reading and discussion by all the students and faculty because in this way the formation of a community can be advanced. To continue and enrich the Great Conversation is the object of higher education.

"The Civilization of the Dialogue is the only civilization worth having and the only civilization in which the whole world can unite. It is, therefore, the only civilization we can hope for, because the world must unite or be blown to bits. The Civilization of the Dialogue requires communication. It requires a common language and a common stock of ideas. It assumes that everyone has reason and that everyone can use it. It preserves to all their independent judgment and, since it does so, it deprives any individual or any group of the privilege of forcing their judgment upon any other individual or any other group. The Civilization of the Dialogue is the negation of force. We have reached the point, in any event, when force cannot unite the world; it can merely destroy it. Through continuing and enriching the Great Conversation, higher education not only does its duty by morals and religion; it not performs its proper intellectual task; it also supports and symbolizes the highest hopes and the highest aspirations of humanity."
Robert Maynard Hutchins
from Morals, Religion, and Higher Education

In keeping with this focus on dialogue, I stressed the need to adhere to certain objective principles (use of the apostrophe, for example, or the conjugation of verbs!) not merely for the sake of following rules, but so that the students' contributions to the dialogue might be taken seriously; so that they do not undermine their own authority as readers, writers, and speakers; and so that they may learn to make the best use of that "tight economy of energy" which for Mina P. Shaughnessy characterized the transfer of meaning via the written or spoken word. In the developmental courses which I taught, I hoped for my students to discover that expressing themselves verbally went hand in hand with reading and expressing themselves in writing; and I tried to impress upon them that most human endeavor, education in particular, is a verbal undertaking. I urged them to think of each essay as "a try," an attempt to tackle one more problem and eliminate it before confronting another.

Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction contains a structural analysis of the curriculum in which he warns students that literary studies "are a question of the signifier, not of the signified. Those employed to teach you this form of discourse will remember whether or not you were able to speak it proficiently long after they have forgotten what you said." Despite the appeal of Eagleton's analogy, I always was, in fact, keenly interested in what my students had to say; and I continually reminded them that it is for this very reason -- the significance of their message -- that their mode of signification is so important. Myself a student of the message as well as the medium, I have to admire "that rare educator," described by Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings "who was in love with information . . . [and desired] to make sure that some of the things she knew would find repositories so that they could be shared again" (209). If, as Angelou suspected, such an impulse was not motivated solely by a love for the students themselves, then certainly it derives from a sincere conviction that they proceed with awareness, as cognizant as possible of their role in creating and naming the world which surrounds them -- a way to give them life, to hand them their own lives!

Henricus de Alemannia Lecturing his Students
from Laurentius de Voltolina, 1350s
For more on higher / liberal education, see
my previous post: "Back to School: A Scent of Knowledge"
and this vintage video: Bryn Mawr College

For a bit of academic humor you might want to try
33 Teachers Who Got The Last Laugh,
or Your Teachers Were Funnier Than You All Along

which I found to be very entertaining in a Breakfast Club kind of way!

In fact, it reminds me of another movie Class in which the English instructor is handing back papers with a negative remark for each one. When he gets to the last one, his comment is "This one offended ALL my sensibilities." It's been 30 years since I saw this movie -- (warning: it's a stupid movie; so this is not a recommendation) -- but I never forgot that one funny line!

That's the thing about being a student or a teacher: it always seems to involve grading! Reminiscing about these good and bad movies reminded my brother Bruce and me of our best grading stories.

Bruce wrote to say, "I once got a paper back with the international traffic symbol for "No" -- the circle with the slash through it -- covering most of the first page. In one of the few spaces not covered by the circle was the word "NO!" in big red letters. The rest of the pages just had big red Xs from corner to corner. The test was a final that I was required to take, but it wouldn't affect my grade. I only had to get something like a 40% on the final to get an A. So, I just went in and wrote drivel . . . didn't even study. The professor called me into his office and told me something like this: 'I know basically all you have to do is spell your name correctly on this test to get enough points for an A, but you ARE going to take this final.' He gave me an incomplete and I had to go take the finals when we got back from Christmas."

The prize correction / comment, which I still enjoy for it's sheer uselessness: "Revise for smoothness." This is the one and only comment that one of my dissertation readers put on the top of my 300 - page rough draft, without one single mark anywhere throughout the entire document (did he even read it? I think not). Now, whenever Gerry and I hear any piece of totally useless advice, we just say, "Revise for smoothness" (or sometimes "Go Over").

My advisor Leonard Orr (one of the inspiring professors invoked above) gave me some useful advise: He said to wait a couple of days, change a couple of words around, re-submit the paper, and say, "I revised for smoothness." Worked like a charm!


Next Fortnightly Post
Thursday, August 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading