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Great Books Chicago 2019

May 17, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Great Books Chicago is a weekend of book discussions held in Chicago. We meet at the Great Books Foundation and break off into separate rooms for discussions. We also attend events as a larger group. This year’s theme was Something Wicked This Way Comes which opened the door for a discussion of crime. We began with Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Misfit,” which is an exceptionally well-crafted story. (Check back next week for more on this story specifically.) We also discussed “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson.

What I love about these events – book discussions hosted around the world – is the great variety of people who attend. People with different occupations, experiences, and specialties always bring such interesting insights to the table. I welcome opinions that differ from mine because it allow me to learn more about humanity and the world. I genuinely believe that discussions like this humanize the world – permit us to glimpse something other than ourselves and our perspective. Moreover, when a larger group like this does find common ground in a text, it makes the likelihood of common ground on tough issues more approachable.

Rather than offer a summary of our discussions from my perspective, I thought it would be more interesting to use a few of E.O. Wilson’s words which underscore another reason that I treasure Great Books Chicago: the focus on interdisciplinary conversation. He writes:

“Studying the relation between science and the humanities should be at the heart of liberal education everywhere, for students of science and the humanities alike. That’s not going to be easy to achieve, of course. Among the fiefdoms of academia and punditry there exists a great variation in acceptable ideology and procedure. Western intellectual life is ruled by hard-core specialists. At Harvard University, for example, where I taught for four decades, the dominant criterion in the selection of new faculty was preeminence or the promise of preeminence in a specialty….

“The early stages of creative thought, the ones that do count, do not arise from jigsaw puzzles of specialization. The most successful scientist thinks like a poet – wide-ranging, sometimes fantastical – and works like a bookkeeper. It is the latter role that the world sees. When writing a report for a technical journal or speaking at a conference of fellow specialists, the scientist avoids metaphor. He is careful never to be accused of rhetoric or poetry. A very few loaded words may be used, if kept to the introductory paragraphs and the discussion following the presentation of data, and if added to clarify the meaning of a technical concept, but they are never used for the primary purpose of stirring emotion. The language of the author must at all times be restrained and obedient to logic based on demonstrable fact.

“The exact opposite is the case in poetry and the other creative arts. There metaphor is everything. The creative writer, composer, or visual artist conveys, often obliquely by abstraction or deliberate distortion, his own perceptions and the feelings he hopes to evoke – about something, about anything, real or imagined. He seeks to bring forth in an original way some truth or other about the human experience. He tries to pass what he creates directly along the channel of human experience, from his mind to your mind. His work is judged by the power and beauty of its metaphors. He obeys a dictum ascribed to Picasso: art is the lie that shows us the truth.” (40-42)

I quote all of that text not to say that E.O. Wilson’s book is perfect, but his point resonates with me. Increasing specialization and increasing separation will, most likely, lead to more separation. There is a key factor missing in much of our education – the idea of integration. I like that Wilson devotes a chunk of his book to the ways in which humanities may inform other disciplines. And vice versa. I do think that it is important to continue these conversations and to broaden our worldview as much as possible.

I greatly appreciate this joint effort between Harrison Middleton University and Great Books Foundation for hosting such a fantastic event! And again, check back for next week’s blog which continues with a discussion of wickedness.

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Poems That Celebrate Mothers

May 10, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I am blessed with strong women in my ancestry. Like most women, however, I find that their strength is often invisible. This invisible strength appears daily, hourly, routinely, in the way they made time for others, spent late hours fixing others’ problems, carrying the weight of the household in more ways than one. I love Alberto Ríos’s poem “Nani” which eloquently demonstrates this idea of invisible love. In the poem, Nani serves albondigas to a grandchild. In the poem, they have apparently lost a common language. The narrator explains that he is full, but then asks for more, realizing that she intends to serve. He writes, “All my words/ make her smile. Nani never serves/ herself, she only watches me/ with her skin, her hair. I ask for more.” They speak through an unwritten language which involves gratitude, faith, love. The narrator calls her the “absolute mamá,” which is a phrase that puzzles me, but I imagine that this absolute power grants her an ability to intuit scenarios of right and wrong, to offer help and sustenance.

Much of his poem speaks of a language divide which embarrasses the narrator. Yet, the two do communicate, and even though the foreign words make her smile, she does understand the narrator. Furthermore, there is so much unspoken dialogue in this poem. The narrator notes grandmother’s wrinkles, or the way her fingers work tortillas. Ríos writes, “I watch her/ fingers in the flame for me./ Near her mouth,/ I see a wrinkle speak/ of a man whose body serves/ the ants like she serves me….” She tempts fire for her family. She tends the stove and hearth. She bears the burden of the dead. She works steadily, aware of her grandchild, attentive to his needs. Furthermore, the poet links her to mother earth, and the relentless nature of nature. In describing the essence of this strong woman he writes, “Her insides speak/ through a hundred wrinkles, now, more/ than she can bear, steel around her,/ shouting, then, What is this thing she serves?” Though there is no dialogue in this poem, the reader feels a real connection between the two. The dynamic imagery, the string of actions we observe really ask us to question the language barrier that divides them. What is language? What does it mean to serve someone? The poem ends with: “Even before I speak, she serves,” which makes me wonder in what way(s) is language important to this poem and these two characters?

“Nani” celebrates a matriarchal figure. The way that the speaker critically narrates their own language gives the poem a bit of nostalgia. In Ríos’s poem, the reader feels the narrative presence of two figures, of the stove and albondigas, of the mint that sustains them all. That food is central makes sense for this poem, as it is another form of conversation.

However, in a poem like ee cummingsif there are any heavens my mother will,” word and deed and life have all been abstracted. cummings replaces any actual lived experience with an abstract expression of love. This poem describes the mother by comparing her to flowers. He writes, “if there are any heavens my mother will(all by herself)have/ one. It will not be a pansy heaven nor/ a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but/ it will be a heaven of blackred roses.” The image of blackred roses invokes both strength and beauty, as opposed to the fragility of lilies-of-the-valley or the common pansies. The poet’s mother, then, is extraordinary in some important, and perhaps indefinable, way.

The poem also depicts the father gently swaying in this garden of blackred roses. His eyes are petals, and their faces sway, much like the poem’s line breaks, fluidly moving in and out. Regardless of what the father actually does for a living, cummings calls him a poet, perhaps because he lingers over beauty, or because he loves with such devotion. Whatever it is, the narrator describes the richness of love with the way his father lingers over the deceased mother. This man is tall and strong and devoted. The poet, too, recognizes the genuine beauty of love in the act of lingering. As the father sways, he performs an act of gratitude to this incredible woman. The poem ends:

(suddenly in sunlight

he will bow,

& the whole garden will bow)

The interconnected world of flowers is the same as the interconnected world of humans. cummings gives voice to, what I believe, is one of the most elemental aspects of humanity: the idea that one act has the potential to reverberate. Here we see the father bow and, in response, the whole garden is likewise moved.

These poems of love and gratitude are interesting because they both involve unspoken language. The two characters of “Nani” share a room, but not a language. cummings’s poem, on the other hand, demonstrates a type of nostalgic devotion that exists when the mother is no longer present. Their care and nourishment remains, however, and in fact increases as the poets discover language adequate to represent such forceful emotions. These mothers are strong, capable, enduring, much like mothers everywhere.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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The Book of Seeds

April 26, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Spring is upon us. Just as blossoms begin to show their strength, color, and vibrancy, so too the weather changes and begins to warm. All of the seasonal changes often add up to a change in attitude as well. Flowers, I believe, bring out the best of human nature, fostering images of beauty, strength, love, hope, and imagination. But where does the beauty begin? How does the flower take root and gain enough energy to grow their blooms?

Paul Smith begins his recent book The Book of Seeds; A Life-size Guide to Six Hundred Species from Around the World (2018) with the following lines:

“Seeds are amazing. They can travel thousands of miles across oceans and continents, and can live for hundreds of years. A seed no bigger than a pinhead can grow into the tallest living organism on the planet. The smallest seed can barely be seen with the naked eye; the largest is the size of a human head. Over a period of more than 300 million years, seeds have evolved into every size, shape, and color imaginable” (6).

All of that seems amazing when one considers how little we discuss seeds in comparison to how much time is spent on animals, even extinct animals such as dinosaurs. Often we fail to notice the same awe-inspiring capabilities from plants of the same time period – ones to which we still have access! Paul Smith continues:

“Plant life on land evolved a staggering 600 million years ago, with the ancestors of many of these early plants still extant today: the mosses, clubmosses, horsetails, and ferns. These species don’t produce flowers or seeds; instead, they reproduce through spores. It was not until approximately 240 million years later that the first primitive seed-bearing plants appeared, an adaptation that conferred numerous advantages for survival, including the capacity for sexual reproduction in the absence of water, the ability to disperse over long distances, and the adaptability to survive in a dormant state for long periods of time until the right conditions arose. Today, the vast majority of plant species (more than 80 percent) are found in the tropics, but even places as inhospitable as Antarctica and the Sahara Desert support seed-bearing plant species” (7).

Seeds have adapted many tricks to optimize their environments. For example, some seeds remain dormant for long periods of time waiting until the conditions are ripe for life. Smith explains that some seeds, particularly those in warm, wet environments, do not remain dormant. Instead of storing energy, they choose to sprout quickly and gain access to the immediate environmental benefits. Other seeds, like the coconut, float which enables them to travel greater distances to access better growing conditions. Many seeds may remain dormant for years. One of the greatest examples of this was found in the 1960s during an excavation at King Herod’s palace in Israel. A 2,000 year old date palm seed was found among the ruins and when planted, it grew normally.

A variety of seeds ready for spring planting. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

A variety of seeds ready for spring planting. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

More impressive than their amazing adaptations, however, is the important part that seeds play in determining human existence. Without plants that can be planted and cultivated as a food source, humans would have to remain hunter gatherers. Seeds, especially the ones that can be saved and transported, allow humans to move to a new place, or stay in one place. The ability to grow foods impacts social connectivity and health. Smith writes, “The adaptive leap that humans made from collecting grains and seeds to planting and harvesting them seems to have occurred in parallel in several different places” (18). This astounding idea – that multiple communities who did not know of each others’ existence arrived at cultivation simultaneously indicates something important about the nature of humans and of our interaction with the planet. Smith notes that around 9500 BCE Wheat, Barley, Pea, and Lentil “were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent – what is now Iran and Iraq” (18). From there, he continues:

“At around the same time, Rice was first cultivated in China, followed by Soybean. In the Andes, the Potato was domesticated around 8000 BCE, together with beans. In New Guinea, Sugarcane and the Yam appear in the archeological record about 7000 BCE. In Africa, Sorghum was domesticated in about 5000 BCE, and in Central America, Maize was first cultivated around 4000 BCE. Domestication of livestock occurred over a similar period of time. The transformation of wild plants into crops through artificial selection and breeding enabled human communities to establish themselves in villages, towns, and cities, and to flourish” (19).

While the history of seeds is astoundingly impressive (and seeds themselves are as diverse as imaginable), more importantly, however, may be the future of plants. Smith claims that plant diversity is of utmost importance since the majority of life on earth depends upon plants. He notes that we have studied relatively few, however. He claims that plants seem nondescript, but they have important roles in our daily lives. Smith ends his introduction with a quote by Aldo Leopold which underscores the point that humans would better serve themselves and the earth by adding a curious intelligence into their dealings with plants. He quotes, “If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering” (27).

I highly suggest thumbing through this massive collection of seeds. The diversity and colorful arrays are astounding. It will leave you with yet another reminder of the world’s vast richness.

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Mary Oliver's Contributions

March 1, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I never needed a reason to love the world, I simply just always have. With its faults and near-misses, its greed and its hope. I love the way it is patched together like a great quilt of countries and languages, mountains and deserts. Most of all, I love, and am humbled by the fact that somehow I participate in that great, complicated quilt. And so, many years ago, when I stumbled upon Mary Oliver’s poetry, I felt that I had found a kindred spirit. Oliver passed away in January of this year and to speak of her in the past tense grieves me greatly. Fortunately, her words remain so that her light is not altogether lost.

Oliver’s childhood was a brutal one, and yet somehow she turned around and made such beautiful things as the world had never seen. To create beauty from difficult circumstances is the first reason we should admire her. Mary Oliver turned to nature as the first place which gave her comfort. She avoided her family by walking out among rivers, flowers, and trees, but she also came to see struggle as part of the natural world. In fact, hope, in part, arrives as a result of struggle, and Oliver is eternally hopeful.

Her early work finds joy, ecstasy and divinity through nature. Then, in poems like “Rage” and “The River” she begins to address her personal pain and loss of home. She concludes “The River” with: “Home, I said./ In every language there is a word for it./ In the body itself, climbing/ those walls of white thunder, past those green/ temples, there is also/ a word for it. / I said, home.” It is an acceptance that home can be transient, not permanent. Every one of her poems grapple with big questions about love and faith, courage and forgiveness.

Many years later, she would say that she hardly knew herself in those early years. She said she had to go out and find herself, which she did by stumbling over rocky trails and along muddy rivers. That she taught herself the language of nature is the next reason that we should admire her. Countless people have quoted from “Wild Geese” or “Morning Poem” on blogs, mugs, letters, etc. Oliver’s language did not glorify or transcend nature, but put humanity squarely back into it. These poems, among many others, inspired friendship, imagination, and openness. She placed the human world within the most glorious riches of the earth, and then asked for us to witness that glory. The final sentence of “Wild Geese” is: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/ the world offers itself to your imagination,/ calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting - / over and over announcing your place/ in the family of things.” She reminds us that we are to participate with nature and to imagine that presence as part of one complicated family.

Oliver’s work has always been profound and moving. Yet, near the end of her life, she began to explore spirituality. In Blue Horses, she discusses all types of faiths as she herself battles cancer. Yet, once again, she finds that beauty is itself the answer. In the poem “Franz Marc’s Blue Horses” she expresses sorrow about Marc’s career cut short by World War I. She writes, “I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses/ what war is./ … I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc./ Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually./ Maybe the desire to make something beautiful/ is the piece of God that is inside each of us.” In this poem, the natural world and the human-constructed world collide with dangerous and negative results, and still, Oliver finds beauty and names it. She responds by attending to both Marc’s life and death in a way that offers him thanks. It is this attention to detail which will make us kinder. Again and again, she asks us to use imagination in order to remind us of our connections.

During her lifetime, Mary Oliver won many awards such as the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. In addition to her writing career, however, she also taught at Bennington College. She inspired others to seek answers to big, daunting questions. Therefore, her teaching pursuits offer one more reason to admire her. At the end of her short essay titled “Upstream,” Mary writes:

“Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones – inkberry, lamb’s-quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones – rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

She paid attention in a way that few humans find time for anymore. She invited all of us to do the same. Mary Oliver’s works never fail to inspire. And yet, certainly, if she were here today and reading this, she would defer not to her work but to the land itself, to the birds and skies that fly above all of our heads.

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