Selected Articles from Past Issues of The Midcoast Inquirer
|"A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is a visible labor and there is an invisible labor." Victor Hugo
The Liberal Arts
What’s going on here anyway? — David McKeith
Ten years of solid growth with maturity has produced a remarkable program for our lifelong leaners. Ours at Midcoast Senior College is focused almost entirely on the Liberal Arts at a time in our history when some Liberal Arts programs on campuses across America are nervous about filling their enrollments. Certainly the continued support of our program with a telling jump in enrollment is evidence of the desire our seniors have to further explore what in the 17th-century was known as the “liberating arts.”
That’s an interesting expression. As conceived then, a certain rational body of learning would liberate one from at least two things: first, to be freed from one’s ignorance as that word was understood several centuries ago. That is to say, to be freed from one’s notknowing.
The second meaning is to free oneself from prejudgments or biases. To be free from prejudice. Thus, a certain body of study was believed to liberate one, and they called it the liberating arts. Soon, the Liberal Arts.
The Liberal Arts, as this body of learning is conceived, is composed mainly of four components:
(A) From a Humanities perspective, one focuses on what humans are thinking, considering, reflecting on, deliberating, or meditating on or about; on a person’s or group’s accepted wisdom or philosophy (meaning a truth or truths). That is, on ideas, ideals, and values; on belief systems ~~ principles and convictions. Here we are in literature, poetry, drama, philosophy, religious studies, art history, the history of ideas, and so forth. Also in the humanities, one studies the ways one can communicate such thinking from one person or group to another: the study of communication skills and languages.
(B) From the perspective of the Social Sciences, one examines how people conduct their lives: as individuals and in all kinds of groupings ~~ social, workforce, political, entertainment/amusement, and so forth. We inquire into how we relate with or get along with others. This focus is essentially on behavior, on interaction, and on interpersonal action: on psychology, sociology, social history, anthropology, archeology, economics, politics, and more.
(C) From the perspective of the Fine Arts, we examine the qualities of taste in the variety of artistic expressions, such as music, painting, architecture, sculpture, drama, and so forth. What qualities does good art have and how are these expressed? In the fine arts one is interested in how the creative self is developed and expressed.
(D) And we examine the world beyond humans: the physical, tangible, quantifiable world, animate and inanimate, that surrounds us, and the different ways we are able to know or understand it, measure it, and store and retrieve the collected data.
And this is precisely what’s going on here! Let your eyes run along the pages of any semester’s course announcement. See how well our program stands in the forefront of a liberal arts approach to learning. It’s another way to conceive of one’s freedom, and clearly this will be our path for years to come.
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A word for writers among us. . .
“I am a writer who came from a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. All serious daring starts from within.”
from Eudora Alice Welty (1909 – 2001), an American author of short stories and novels about the American South. Her book, The Optimist’s Daughter, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.
Between the covers .… April 2010–Judy Smith
[Judy Smith's first column, invites our readers to consider fresh titles for winter reading. Judy lives in Woolwich, has been in book groups for nearly 10 years and for 8 years has done literacy work at the Woolwich School. She will offer you her thoughts on some wonderful reads for both adults and the children or grandchildren in your lives.]
So many books, so little time! Hopefully this column will help you discover some intriguing books that you will want to put on the TOP of your waiting pile to read. My choices come from book groups, best seller lists, friends and family and some from just my wandering around bookstores. (Yes there are still some out there.) I will add some children’s books for all you grandparents and great grandparents.
My choice for this first column is a book that pleasantly surprised both my husband and myself. It’s Have a Little Faith by Mitch Albom who also wrote Tuesdays With Morrie. I picked it up because of my ongoing interest in faith issues as well as its long time on the best seller lists. What I discovered is a book that is both a page turner, YES a page turner, AND a spiritually rich gem. Albom is called by his former Rabbi and asked to deliver his eulogy when he dies. He begins a journey to get to know him again (much like with Morrie), and on that journey he also discovers more about what he calls his “former faith.” The alternating chapter is the compelling story of a poor black minister in Detroit and the congregation and church he is trying to save. Albom becomes deeply involved in that faith struggle as well. Along the way, he discovers as much about himself as he does about these different spiritual paths. Albom’s book is small, powerful and a great read. Some of the words of both these men, you will want to keep in your little book of quotes. Pick it up! It also makes a terrific gift.
For the children in your lives here is a book you and they will love, A Porcupine Named Fluffy by Helen Lester. The title is so much fun and the story inside is just as wonderful! The kids love the friendship that grows between Fluffy, the porcupine and his misnamed buddy, Hippo, the rhinoceros. I read it to first graders and it is a big hit!!! Good for preschool to 1st or 2nd graders as well as the reader.
Between the covers.…April 2011–Judy Smith
As we all eagerly await springtime I have some book ideas that fit both the busy and not so busy person. I have returned to my love of the short story. Recently I was in the gift shop of the JFK library in Massachusetts, and I was intrigued by a book of short stories by Ernest Hemingway compiled posthumously. This led me to think about some of my favorite short story authors and to search out a new book of this genre to read.
The book I loved and reread is Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the Pen/Hemingway award for this collection. Lahiri is of Indian descent raised in Rhode Island. I and her stories are tales of people struggling to navigate through and around diverse cultural heritages. One story, “The Blessed House”, concerns a young Indian couple, Sanjeev and Twinkle, who move into an apartment which is decorated with many Biblical symbols. As this couple talks and disagrees about their feelings about these symbols surrounding them every day lives, the larger meaning of their relationship becomes the story. Another is “Sexy,” a tale of a young Indian/American woman, Miranda, and her affair with a married Bengalese man. Miranda’s attempts to buy clothes she feels “that mistresses should have” define this tale. But Lahiri expands to questions such as what do the clothes mean? Is she a mistress without the clothes? How does Dev see it?
The other book is by Edith Pearlman, an author I admit I did not know, but whose reviews intrigued me to find it and read. In author Ann Patchett’s introduction, she writes, “what you have in your hand now is a treasure, one that if you get to the end, you know you can simply turn to the front cover and start all over again.” I like that. Unlike Lahiri’s, Ms Pearlman’s stories, take us all over the world, from Maine to Central America to London during the blitz. They range from a little girl lost in Harvard Square, to an elderly couple who take to shoplifting, to a Jewish grandfather in a South American country on Yom Kippur visiting his son. In this country, he regrets that he is “the only Jew” on Yom Kippur, but his travels with his son and the boy he is about to adopt provide rich lessons to both himself, his son and the boy. There are 21 stories from Pearlman’s previous collections and 13 new ones. You will, as I did, want to read passages to someone else as it is hard to define their beauty. As it read in The New York Times Book Review, “why haven’t I heard of Edith Pearlman?” Why indeed!
Between the Covers. . . June 2011–Judy Smith
Summer approaches and it’s a time for beach books. What is a beach book anyway? By this I mean one you cannot put down; one you read very slowly at the finish so it will NOT end for you; one that, no matter where you read it, in a beach chair, by the pool, or on your own sofa, holds you in its grip. AND I truly believe that this kind of book does not have to be any less meaningful than any other. Many classics can be defined as beach reads.
Maine author, Richard Russo, has written several books worth the read. Those I enjoyed are Nobody’s Fool, Empire Falls, Straight Man and That Old Cape Magic. This last begins with a honeymoon on Cape Cod and continues the marriage with ups and downs. It’s been described as “surprising, uplifting and comic.”
Many of you are mystery lovers. Each year as summer approaches, well known writers release yet another book. We are seeing new hardbacks by David Baldacci, John Sandford, Michael Connelly, Robert Parker, and Stuart Woods.
I love to read Toni Morrison’s books, and they will be on the bargain table. Whether you read Beloved or The Bluest Eye or one of her others, you will not be disappointed.
There are three recent books that I would put in this column as great beach reads. Water for Elephants by Sandra Gruen is already in the movie theatres. The book is a gem, and please read it before you see the movie. It starts with the memories of a man in his 90s in a nursing home and continues with his early circus adventures. Compelling for sure.
The Help is coming to the movie theatres later this summer or fall. It’s an unforgettable historical story of courageous black women and their white bosses. We cannot depend on Hollywood to always do a good book justice.
On the other hand, one book which I feel Hollywood did do well with was Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. The story centers around a murder trial of a Japanese-American charged with the killing of a popular village member. I found the flashbacks of the internment by the USA of Japanese-Americans to be fascinating, and after you read it, Netflix will send you the movie. Double pleasure.
Please consider Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. The author is a physician with two other books. This one is about medicine, Ethiopian history, and an intriguing plot with fascinating characters. You will not be disappointed.
Since Senior College classes do not begin until mid-September, why not take on a longer classic that you can give the summer to read? A few of those could be Moby Dick, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, or any one you have promised yourself you will “get to” someday.
For the younger children in your lives, take a look at How Rocket Learned to Read by Tad Hills. It’s about a dog who is eager to read and his teacher, a tiny yellow bird.
Whatever you read, I hope it transports you and gives you so much pleasure you will want to pass the books on. Enjoy the summer.
Between the covers …. September 2011–Judy Smith
I have had an unexpected reading journey this summer, a truly enjoyable one. I am chagrined to say that I had never read May Sarton’s books, of which there are many. Then the Patten Free Library in Bath hosted a summer read, four books with a session led either by David Miller or Susan Beegel. One was a discussion of Sarton’s Plant Dreaming Deep, the story of her first home in Nelson, NH., bought in her 50s. Some of the chapter titles tell the tale: Moving In, Neighbors Happen, Mud Season, The Turn of the Year and of course Plant Dreaming Deep. Her writing held me from page one. The story is serene and peaceful, to others in the discussion, not so much, and one person out of sixteen did not like it.
Sarton wrote: “I wanted to move in alone, the house and I confronting each other with no one to intercede on what I imagined to be a golden October day. Instead, I walked into the chilled emptiness in dark pouring rain.”
Susan Beegel’s biography of Ms. Sarton led me on to this reading map. I am now on book two (for me), Journal of a Solitude, heading to a third, The House by the Sea, her move to Maine in the 1970s. Then on to others of the 58 she wrote, such as her controversial Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. I read other books, very good ones, but was especially buoyed by having found May Sarton at this time in my life.
There is a book I have not read entitled, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. It is the story of a journey of the author, Nina Sankovitch, whose sister had died. As a way of dealing with grief, she decided to read a book a day for a year. Quite impressive! As part of an article in The New York Times about this book and its author, I spotted her blog and decided to delve into it. What I happily discovered is a website with all manner of things for book lovers. It contains the 365 books that she read with a brief explanation of each. AND then, there are many other places to go for books of all genres, for adults, children and on and on. It is easily manageable for anyone. The one drawback with this site is how much time you want to spend in this adventure. I find myself returning to it and finding new things I missed. The blog is readallday.org. Go there and get lost in the book world.
Between the covers.…December 2011–Judy Smith
Well here we are again. Snow has fallen already, but despite this the “copper season,” as your newsletter editor describes it, it is still here.
A few weeks ago I began my book group with 2nd graders at the Woolwich School! What a great way to start the fall! The enthusiasm for these 5 readers is so wonderful for me. Tell you more later.
Recently there was an article in The Boston Globe about a library tour in Concord, Massachusetts. People toured in-home libraries the way we have taken garden, kitchen and house tours. The article talked about how much you can learn about the owners by the style of libraries, the books upon the shelves, the collections, and the solitude. The article was written by a woman who took the tour with her 23 year old son. The tour was crowded with people hoping to let others know that ebooks are great, but I know hold-in-the-hand paper books are here to stay.
This brought me back to a book by Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life. She describes when she became a reader and how much “comfort” reading gives her, and then she offers intriguing lists in the back, such as “10 books I would save in a fire (if I could only save 10)” One of hers is Bleak House, by Charles Dickens; another, Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy. She lists 10 Mystery novels I would like to find in a summer rental, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John LeCarre, and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, by PD James. You’ll find 11 lists of books in all.
Anna Quindlen gives us her reading history. What’s on your bookcase? Should you pass it on? Her book is a delicious read and will lead you in many directions. It feels like being in her library.
Back to my 2nd-grade book group: We read a book in which one character was a snake. Having seen a young man in Reny’s that day with a REAL snake around his arm, I asked them why they thought this man was wearing this snake. One young girl replied, “Maybe he is from another country and that’s what they do there.” How much these young minds gather from many sources these days! We should all hope that books are one of these sources!
Jeanette Cakouros, long-time student among us, has published her four delightful short stories in an anthology entitled Words on Wednesday Night, edited by Janis Bolster (Reck House Press, Bath, Maine, 2010). At the time Jeanette was a member of a local writers‘ group that met regularly to read and critique each other’s work. There are other such groups in this area. If you are interested, ask your librarian for help in locating one for yourself. There are copies of Words on Wednesday Night at the Bath, Brunswick and Topsham public libraries.
On Reading Charles Dickens on his 200th Birthday. . .
….notes from John Beaven, instructor and student
English author Charles Dickens (1812-1870) continues to be one of the most widely read Victorian novelists. His voluminous writings describe the life and conditions of the poor and working class in the Victorian era of England, when people lived by strict rules.
Not too long ago I found this in a letter sent in the 1850’s to one of my London ancestors. “Have you ever read Martin Chuzzlewit? If not, pray read it. The character of Mark Tapley is one we must endeavor to emulate.” Could it be that my love for the novels of Charles Dickens is a part of my DNA?
Last spring, when I finished teaching a Senior College course, the first thing I did was to take an old battered copy of Bleak House off the shelf and start reading –for the 2nd or 3rd time. It took me a couple of months but I loved it. The book went with me everywhere, even on a Road Scholar trip to London where I had time for only a chapter a night.
The first thing to say about reading Dickens is that you must give it time – lots of time. Bleak House, for example, is 880 pages but there are 67 chapters. You can deal with it in small or large chunks. Remember, it was first published serially. Take your time. Savor the language. Go back to what you missed. Puzzle over the characters.
That’s my next point. There are 50 characters in Bleak House. It might be a good idea to write them down as you meet them. Then you can work out the relationships and where they fit in the story.
One thing I must say is that the characters are unforgettable. Their idiosyncrasies can’t be missed. It is possible to see their faces, notice their stance and hear their voice. That is the gift of Dickens as a writer.
To settle into a novel by Dickens is like going on a trip. We enter a world removed from our own. Yet, men and women of any time and place have the same conflicts, the same choices, the same desires as ours. They can be caring, cruel, loving, uncertain, generous, blind, or treacherous. They are always interesting.
Dickens was intimately acquainted with his world. From his earliest days he got to know every part of society. John Foster, his friend and first biographer, wrote that, in the midst of writing a novel, Dickens would walk “fifteen and twenty miles about the black streets of London many and many a night, after all sober folks had gone to bed.” He remembered people and events from his earliest days, who show up in unexpected places in his novels. It is said that Mr. Macawber’s flowery language in David Copperfield was an imitation of Dickens’ own father’s exaggerated speech.
There are so many of his novels to choose from. If you haven’t read him before you might want to start with David Copperfield (somewhat autobiographical) or Oliver Twist (perhaps you’ve seen the show) or A Christmas Carol, an absolute gem. My favorites are Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorrit, and, of course, Bleak House.
2012 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. In the coming year why not celebrate his birth and treat yourself to spending some time entering the 19th-century world of this master of prose.
P. D. James, Pemberley (2011)
….review by Lois Lamdin
P. D. James, everybody’s favorite mystery writer, has a lot of fun writing, in Jane Austen’s voice, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. This is after Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage, which, though foretold in the earlier novel, was clearly a dicey proposition.
How, in socially stratified 19th century England could the daughter of a respectable, but certainly not wealthy, English family – a rather dotty one at that – how could their offspring, even the brightest and sanest of the lot, adjust to life with the seemingly haughty Darcy on his splendid property, Pemberley? How could Elizabeth Bennet maintain her authenticity and self-respect in this new life of servants and social obligations?
A close friend who taught in the English department at Carnegie-Mellon would ask the girls in her 19th Century British Novel class, “How would you like to go on a date with Darcy?” It was a potent discussion starter. I wish that friend were around right now so that we could giggle together over what James hath wrought.
Actually, she has done a rather imaginative job of it, – or at least for the first half of the book. With Elizabeth’s family out of the way, she and Darcy have established a sane and comfortable modus vivendi, the Bingleys remain in touch, and they have two sons in the nursery with their Nanny whom the loving couple visit for at least an hour each day. The servants are managed, the grounds are kept, and there are even hints of an abiding passion between the no longer newlyweds. But, and clearly there must be a ‘but’ here if we are to have a novel, the Bennet family re-emerges when the least worthy of the Bennet sisters, Lydia, comes to visit with her ne’er do well husband Wickham, bringing crime and disorder in their wake. A murder has been committed during their journey and it looks as though Wickham may be the murderer.
At this point, P.D.James fumbles the Austen prose as she moves back to her own persona as one of the world’s best mystery writers. The telling details, the revealing conversations of upper class country family life, these are all but abandoned as we move on to detectives and policemen and conflicting testimonies and trials in a not quite so authentic 19th century town as — of course — the mystery is solved. The prose style has fallen from almost Austenian perfection to not quite prime Jamesian. As always, P.D. writes well, and this book is selling well – mostly to Austen fans like me – but I’d rather have the real James unraveling a real mystery. This does neither her nor Jane adequate credit.
Toni Morrison, Home (2012)
….review by Lois Lamdin
I have long believed that Toni Morrison is one of the Country’s best novelists, but Home gets my vote as Morrison’s masterpiece. It is a beautifully told story of a brother and sister, poor, black, raised by a grandmother who, when the children most need her, will not assume her role as a loving substitute mother, but is nasty, punitive, resentful of her two grand-children who have no other place to seek love but from each other.
After an idyllic first scene in a meadow where the children are watching cavorting wild horses, the mood abruptly changes when Frank, the eight year old brother, protects his four year old sister, Ceci, from witnessing the burial of a body, presumably of a black man, killed and being disposed of by southern racists. From that point on, the children’s lives together begin to worsen, and they are eventually separated by failures and deaths in the family, the exigencies of poverty, and their geographic divergence as well as their individual struggles to survive.
Many years later, a message reaches Frank that Ceci is dying, and he knows he must return south to the town of Lotus where she has been working. For the bulk of this slim novel, Frank, suffering the ills and evils of a black man in a racist society and in treatment for what we now call PTSD, caused by his watching his two best buddies, his ’home boys’, dying on a battlefield in Korea, has existed, though barely, by moving on from one disaster to another. Frank is as devoid of luck as he is of money, and always on the verge of losing his sanity or even a vestige of hope.
The story is told as an expressionist abstraction: a pool of red blood here, a hasty brush stroke of purple sex there, stretches of gray dystopia, abrupt and ugly black violence scattered throughout the canvas, and the hope of anything resembling true blue love or a viable future for either of them appearing and then disappearing only in brief snatches.
Frank and Ceci’s family name is ‘Money,’ fate’s cruel joke, for it is the lack of finances, as well as loving care, that makes it impossible for them to escape the woes and nastiness of their lives. Counting pennies is the only math that either of them has ever learned.
The novel is short, only 145 pages. I would term it a novella, but that would imply that it was ‘light.’ It is not light. It is heavy with meaning and grief, told with art, and is a great read.
What is beautiful in this story is Morrison’s writing. What we as readers have long known, that she is a master of fiction , is here brought to a glorious fruition in what must be her masterpiece. The ugliness of the novel’s content is wrapped in prose that sings with imagery that sears the mind, operating within a structure that uses short chapters to sting and wound and ultimately convince the reader that there is, after all, some coherence in the universe, and that love – and art – can exist within the parameters of a brief novel that will linger long in this reader’s consciousness.
Louise Erdrich, The RoundHouse (2012)
….review by Lois Lamdin
It is all there in the first line of this extraordinary book when the father and son are pulling the weeds that threaten their home’s foundation — the unseen green shoots, the upheavals, the betrayals, the births, deaths, marriages and infidelities, the moral questions and the revenge motive for murder.
I have always admired Erdrich’s writing, but this novel is perhaps the best yet – tangled, complex, asking moral questions within the confines of a legal puzzle: the questionable -judicial responsibility in a section of the country where irregular borders make a mess of legal matters — a tripartite division between Indian tribal authority, U.S. parklands, and private property. In this story, a rape takes place and very possibly a murder and child theft, but the woman who was raped cannot be certain exactly where each of the acts committed took place and under which jurisdiction it falls. The narrator, her son, a young Indian boy, Joe, whose reactions to the event range from an innate, if inarticulate, understanding of their impact and meaning to total bewilderment and guilt regarding their eventual outcomes.
Moreover, the boy, who had earlier happened upon a hidden trove of cash, had been instructed by a relative to disperse it, hide it in the ground, and tell no one of its existence. Later, this woman dug up and stole that money, leaving only enough for his college fees, and made off with it leaving her husband and the community behind, adding another layer of moral confusion to Joe’s life.
After a prolonged retreat from both job and family, Joe’s mother begins first to speak, and eventually to come out of her bedroom to rejoin her family. Joe, much relieved, abandons the vigil he has kept below stairs and goes back to spending his time with his teenage buddies. hanging out, drinking beer, and getting into the mischief of normal life, though he still obsesses about the heinous violation of his Mom and the accompanying child abuse and murder that had ensued. He also hangs out with Whitey, the proprietor of the local grocery store and gas station, lusting after Sonja, Whitey’s Indian wife, who, he finds out, has robbed his stash of the cash that he had buried with her help.
Revenge is never far from his mind, and he learns to shoot Cappy’s gun and quietly tracks Lark, the apparent rapist, murderer, and child abuser.
The eventual murder of the rapist, the confusion about who actually caused his death, and the subsequent car accident in which his drunken friend Cappy, the driver, is killed, raise the ante on both retribution and guilt. What has happened, Who is responsible, who has suffered, who must bear the burden? And, is there any such thing as fairness in this life?
The legal and moral questions left unresolved by this narrative linger long after the last page is turned and demand of the disquieted reader deep introspection. What we know for sure is that we are being challenged by a first rate writer. I have long cherished my shelf of nine of Erdrich’s earlier novels and will add this tenth one with reverence.
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Notes from the Poet’s Bench
The Maine Poets Society, organized in 1936, is a group that may interest some of our members. This Society is an organization of Maine writers actively engaged in creating poetry. These writers wish to broaden their knowledge of poetry; increase their skills; share their knowledge to help other writers develop and achieve; encourage high standards in writing and judging poetry; broaden fellow members’ interest, understanding, and appreciation of our rich poetic heritage; and support poetry in schools by encouraging students and assisting teachers, libraries, and other organizations to sponsor contests and readings.
There is an annual membership fee, and meetings are held three times a year in different parts of the State. For information about the society, you may wish to contact co-President Marta Finch of Bath: email@example.com. For membership information and application, contact Membership Chair Cynthia Brackett-Vincent. You may visit the MPS info page on her website, http://www.encirclepub.com/poetry/mps or e-mail Brackett-Vincent@encirclepub.com, or phone her at 207-778-0467.
Notes from the Poet’s Bench
In the spring of 2011, Gary Lawless, a well-received poet in Maine and around the world, and one whom we know as co-owner of the Gulf of Maine Bookstore in Brunswick, offered a course on the writing of poetry. Early in the semester Gary asked his senior students to bring in a poem each would like to read and comment upon. One of his students chose a piece from Gary Snyder of California, with whom our Gary Lawless lived and studied many years ago. Gary Snyder (born in 1930) is an American poet often associated with the Beat movement; he has long been an environmental activist who is frequently described as the “laureate of Deep Ecology.” Snyder’s poem which the student read was written in the 1960s:
For the Children
|The rising hills, the slopes,|
|are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
|lie before us, |
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
|if we make it.
|up, as we all|
|To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
|In the next century|
or the one beyond that,
learn the flowers
Commentary that followed: The road ahead is going to be difficult for all of us. But there is promise that “we can meet there in peace. . . .” Snyder’s clear message is that families must stay together, that we learn all we can abut the ecology of our neighborhood and region, and that we reduce our material possessions (Snyder’s anti-materialism).
Jo Miles Schuman, one of our perennial students and recently the teacher of an interesting course on Multi-cultural Art, has edited a collection entitled A Spicing of Birds: Poems by Emily Dickinson, with Illustrations by Early Masters of Bird Art (Wesleyan University Press, 2010). In the introduction to the book, Jo Schuman talks about birding in Emily Dickinson’s time; about artist/ornithologists from the 18th through the 20th centuries who created these illustrations; about the history of bird guides and the beginning of public interest in birding. Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), sometimes referred to as “The Belle of Amherst,” is considered one of the most original of America’s 19th Century poets. Noted for her unconventional broken rhyming meter, she used dashes and random capitalization in her innovative style. She was a deeply sensitive woman who questioned the puritanical background of her Calvinist family and explored her own spirituality in poignant, deeply personal poetry.
A sampling from Emily Dickinson’s verse about birds:
The most triumphant Bird I ever knew or met
Embarked upon a twig today
And till Dominion set
I famish to behold so eminent a sight
And sang for nothing scrutable
But intimate Delight.
Retired, and resumed his transitive Estate–
To what delicious Accident
Does finest Glory fit!
There are copies of Jo Schuman’s edition of A Spicing of Birds: Poems by Emily Dickinson in the Bowdoin and Patton and Curtis libraries.
Seasonal thoughts from the editor — David McKeith
There are several old favorites in my winter library, not the least among them Robert Frost on the poetry shelf. You may have noticed that several of his books begin with the poem “The Pasture,” a signature piece by which Frost makes several statements, depending on how one reads it. Let me give it here in its entirety:
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.
One thing we hear in this is that a friend is someone we want to be with. And recently when I was reflecting on this, my thoughts were drawn to a significant dynamic that occurs at Senior College.
In drawing fellow learners together in courses and at Winter Wisdom, there is a depth of interaction I believe is peculiar to our program. We are reaching a time in our lives when we feel a need to clarify our understanding of what has taken place during our lifetime and what preceded it; that is, what we have lived through without fully understanding or appreciating its significance. At the same time we want to know how events, ideas, and changing values have been shaping our lives without our realizing, or realizing completely, their affect on us.
As we choose courses and lectures, our program engages each of us with the ideas, ideals and values of the humanities; the variety and complexity of human behavior in the social sciences; from the fine arts, ways in which one appreciates and expresses, or learns to express, artistic taste; and knowing the world around us through the natural and physical sciences.
At every turn, what I see happening at Senior College is the deepening of each of our understandings within the framework of shared experiences ~~ of fellow-seniors asking questions others of us may not have thought to consider, drawing conclusions that may be fresh and meaningful to us, and interpreting experiences in memory that throw light on our own past.
Lest this seem a stretch from “The Pasture,” it is precisely the coming together of our generation in cooperative learning and fellowship that inspires each of us to continue to live fully, and clarifies our perspective on the distance we have already traveled. Doing this, we become a community of friends, enjoying being with each other. You come too.
A poem that speaks of music. . . David McKeith
The courses we offer at Senior College range across the Liberal Arts: from the humanities, social sciences, to the fine arts; from science to computation. This spring your editor so thoroughly enjoyed Stu Gillespie’s analysis of music from Europe’s eighteenth-century Romantic Era, that he left the course recalling Allan Inman’s beloved poem. As a nod to the richness of our cultural roots, and as a tribute to Stu Gillespie’s wealth of knowing and effective presentation, he wishes to print the poem here.
I am Music
I am Music, most ancient of the arts.
I am more than ancient; I am eternal.
Even before life commenced upon this earth, I was here – in the winds and the waves.
When the first trees and flowers and grasses appeared, I was among them.
And when Mankind came, I at once became the most delicate, most subtle and most
powerful medium for the expression of Man’s emotions.
When men were little better than beasts, I influenced them for their good.
In all ages I have inspired Man with hope, kindled their love, given a voice to their joys,
cheered them on to valor-ous deeds and soothed them in times of despair.
I have played a great part in the drama of life, whose end and purpose
is the complete perfection of Man’s nature.
Through my influence human nature has been uplifted, swee-tened and refined.
With the aid of Man, I have become a Fine Art. . . . .
I have myriads of voices and instruments.
I am in the hearts of all Mankind and on their tongues, in all lands and among all peoples;
the ignorant and unlettered know me, not less than the rich and learned.
For I speak to all of Man, in a language that all understand.
Even the deaf hear me, if they but listen to the voices of their own souls.
I am the food of love. I have taught Mankind gentleness and peace;
and I have led them onward to heroic deeds.
I comfort the lonely and I harmonize the discord of the crowds.
I am a necessary luxury to all Mankind.
I am Music.
by Allan C. Inman
Notes from the Poet’s Bench –David McKeith
American poet Mary Oliver (b.1935) has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The New York Times describes her as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet”.
Her poetry is grounded in memories of Ohio and her adopted home on Cape Cod, where she’s lived since the Sixties. Influenced by both Whitman and Thoreau, hers are clear and poignant observances of the natural world. An avid walker, she pursues inspiration on foot, her creativity stirred by nature: shore birds, water snakes, the phases of the moon, humpback whales, and more. She often carries a 3-by-5-inch hand-sewn notebook for recording impressions and phrases. Poet Maxine Kumin calls Oliver “a patroller of wetlands in the same way that Thoreau was an inspector of snowstorms.” She is a visiting professor at Bennington College in Vermont.
Oliver has also been compared to Emily Dickinson, with whom she shares an affinity for solitude and interior monologues. Her poetry combines dark introspection with joyous release. (The above notes are adapted generously from Wikipedia.) This poem is taken from her book of poetry, Dream Work (1986).
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -over
and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Anonymous commentary you may or may not agree with: Although the premise of this poem may seem simple, or even trite ~~ You have a place in this world, and like the geese you are free because of your imagination. ~~ the real gut of its message is quite provocative. From its first line, rife with intriguing ambiguity, the poem draws the reader in with a sense of immediacy and a keen awareness of how “you” may be feeling and what “you” may be thinking. This is a brief poem written in casual language, but it still manages to be stimulating and powerful. Not all poets can pull that off, but Oliver is one of the noted few who can.
For a charming video presentation of this poem, see www.youtube.com/watch?v=Quhbv97gjs0.
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Art & Music
A Brush with the Past. . . . . . . . .art notes
The 2011 Summer exhibit at Bowdoin College of realist-painter Edward Hopper’s artistic production in Maine between 1914 and 1929 brought together for public viewing 90 paintings of this famous American painter that have seldom been exhibited and are often overlooked in favor of his better-known work from the 1930s forward. In these early years, when he was struggling for recognition (Hopper lived from 1882 to 1967), he painted en plein air in Ogunquit, Cape Elizabeth, Two Lights, Portland, on Monhegan, and Rockland, among other sites.
Hopper studied at the New York School of Art under Robert Henri whose emphasis on contemporary life strongly influenced him. But Hopper was interested less in the human element than in the physical features of the American city and country. However, at first his pictures were too honest to be popular, were rejected regularly by academic juries, and failed in the marketplace. Until he was over 40, he supported himself by commercial art and illustration, which he loathed. But he made time during summers to paint, often along the Maine coast.
Instead of impressionist softness, he chose to picture the clear air, strong sunlight, and high cool skies of the Northeast. His landscapes have a crystalline clarity and often a poignant sense of solitude and stillness. Hopper’s maturing design was built largely on straight lines; the overall structure was usually horizontal; but the horizontals were countered by strong verticals, creating his typical angularity.
One website you may wish to explore is www.bookrags.com/biography/edward-hopper/
Stu Gillespie and Mark Davies in concert. . .
Many of you know Stu Gillespie, musician and composer, through his music courses; fewer of you know him as an active member of the Board of Directors and chair of the sub-committee responsible for Winter Wisdom. As well, some of you have taken courses with Mark Davies where you are invited to examine ancient Greek and Latin literature.
In 2005, Mark composed a poem and song entitled “Song of Freedom.” In his song Mark speaks about the concept of freedom using nautical imagery. This piece was sent to Nashville as a African American spiritual celebrating freedom from slavery; it has since been produced as a demo. In the meantime, Stu approached Mark about yet another idea ~~ could he use these lyrics to produce a totally new, grand choral work? With a nod from Mark, Stu produced a four movement work called “Song of Freedom,” premiered last August by the Lincoln Festival Chorus at the Lincoln Arts festival in Boothbay. The performance received a lengthy standing ovation.
About the music, Stu writes: The first movement begins with a fanfare. In writing this introduction, I imagine the concept of freedom as being a celebration and deserving of a grand announcement. We hear a narrator who introduces us to the call of freedom: “Oh song of freedom…show us the way.” The second movement takes place in a storm. We are on the ship of freedom which through history must brave rough waters. By the third movement, the storm has subsided. Our ship has become lost on a glassy sea. Suddenly our narrator exclaims, “I see the harbor, I see the harbor.” The motion of the music then becomes more forward as our ship begins to head toward the harbor of refuge. In the fourth movement, the introduction is a haunting trumpet solo using the melodic theme of the first movement. Like “taps,” this sets a mood of solemn contemplation reminding us of the sacrifice so many individuals have made for the cause of freedom. Out of this introduction develops the finale, “God’s love is boundless, God’s love is kind.” The pulse of the chords brings us tranquil resolution as we acknowledge freedom’s call. And as we contemplate the sorrow and sacrifice that we must frequently make for the cause of freedom, we modulate up to a heroic and resolute finale, singing the opening first movement theme “Oh Song of Freedom come lift us now…..Freedom, Freedom.”
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From History to Collective Memory and Back Again
Senior College regularly includes courses that fall under the general heading of “history.” The courses concern important periods of the American past like the Civil War era, or are focused on particular institutions, for example, the Army or the Supreme Court. Or they may be labeled as biographical: about significant figures from an earlier time. Courses on art or literature are also often organized from a historical perspective, as in a somewhat different way is a course on evolution.
In one sense “history” is about everything that happened in the past, whether or not we know much about it. But History is more commonly thought of as the academic study of some part of that past. Yet while historians usually start from the past, often they also look for lessons useful for the present. Indeed, much writing about history is turned to for just that reason: how to benefit from the past when confronted with new problems in the present. A notable case was the Gulf War in 1991 when then President George H. W. Bush reminded the American public of the 1938 German occupation of Czechoslovakia, while his critics countered by recalling the failed American intrusion in Vietnam in the 1960s. And of course FDR’s actions during the Great Depression have often been brought up during the present economic crisis.
Using the past to address a present problem is different from investigating the past for its own sake other kinds of commemorations represent. We are asked to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday not mainly to learn about an important past personage, but in order to rededicate ourselves to the ideals he symbolized. We go to the Vietnam Memorial not so much to learn about a now increasingly remote war, but to keep alive the huge losses that resulted from that war—whether we regard those losses as justified or unjustified.
Schools teach about American history in part to reflect values for the present. Not long ago, a chapter about Christopher Columbus spoke only of his exceptional heroism and ability as an explorer. Indians hardly figured at all, except as a welcoming party, or as “savages.” Today most history books devote much space to describing the way of life of Indians, largely in positive terms. Columbus may remain as an expert seaman, but there is more emphasis on the death and destruction that European explorers brought, both deliberately and by introducing new diseases. Much of the “history of history books” is about change, not change in America, but change in the perspectives of the books themselves.
So there are really two approaches to history. One is about the past for its own sake, though sophisticated historians recognize that one always brings the present to that past, since we have no way of understanding the past except through our present lenses. (When that becomes extreme and judgmental, it is called “presentism”: evaluating the actions of, say, George Washington as a slave-owner in the same way we would judge someone today who believes that owning slaves is their right.) But the other approach is the use of the past primarily to help us in the present, whether to solve a problem, inculcate values, or simply arouse greater patriotism or skepticism.
Over the last two or three decades, the exploration of the past as something used primarily for present purposes has become the subject of an interdisciplinary area called “collective memory.” Historians, sociologists, anthropologists, humanists, and a variety of others have joined together to study how the past is drawn on for present purposes. The term “collective memory” comes from a French sociologist, Maurice Halbwachs (1877-1945), with the word “memory” referring to how we recall the past for present purposes, and the word “collective” indicating a kind of memory developed and transmitted by groups—from a small group like a family to a large group like a nation. There are now many books and articles, as well as conferences and journals concerned with collective memory. Examples of books are Peterson’s “Lincoln in American Memory” and Schudson’s “Watergate in American Memory,” along with many others not so obvious from their titles.
Although it is useful to distinguish academic history from collective memory, this is not always easy or necessary to do. We are interested in the past both for its own sake and for its implications for the present. History and collective memory are often interwoven in Senior College courses, and rightly so.
Apropos of Howard Whitcomb’s course on Mount Katahdin…
“Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful . . . . Here was no man’s garden, but the unhanselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, and it was made forever and ever . . . . It was Matter, vast, terrific[,] the home, this, of Necessity and Fate. There was clearly felt the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man . . . . We walked over it with a certain awe.”
from Henry David Thoreau’s visits to what he called “Ktaadn” and published in The Maine Woods (posthumously 1864)
The Expanding Universe vs. the Non-Expanding Mind
Lois Lamdin (April 2013)
As a reasonably literate person who considers herself open to new ideas, I have a confession to make: no matter how much reading I do or how hard I try, I simply can’t wrap my humanist mind around the idea that ours is only one universe among many. Mind you, I have managed in my life to make an uneasy accommodation to the fact that the galaxy I grew up in is only one of many galaxies. It is mind boggling, but my mind is gradually assimilating the idea of a truth beyond what is touchable, feelable, and even apparently perceptible and provable by the current standards for great telescopes.
It is only fair to establish where this mind of mine has been and what it has learned to accept. I was an English major and eventually an English professor who believed fervently in words on paper. And you must remember that I and my mind once lived in Princeton two streets away from Einstein’s home, which should serve as some sort of validation by proximity. But even when in Princeton, I found it impossible to accept anything beyond the standard three dimensions – apparently 10 or 11 by now. Time as a dimension? Nonsense. I grew up with three. Only three exist. After all, I can demonstrate the three: horizontally, vertically and in depth. I can point at them, visualize them. They are palpably real. But I simply cannot tolerate more than three. Time is a condition, not a dimension.
Atoms are OK. I can’t see them either, but I have been persuaded by schematic drawings of the atom’s innards that it makes sense that they are not only real but are hidden here in my very own body as well as in bad things like nuclear reactors. Fortunately, they really don’t bother my body, not even the ones in my eyes, so I let them be, as abstractions, abstractions that can be turned into bombs, but shouldn’t be.
Atoms yes, but string theory, no. It’s not that I haven’t tried to encompass string theory in this aging brain. I have tried. But I have failed, totally. So string theory has absolutely no status in my understanding of the universe, which may be a clue to why the idea of multiple universes is totally unacceptable. It throws into turmoil all the thinking, political, social religious, philosophical, that has nurtured, illuminated and comforted humanity for thousands of years.
That said, I am apparently in denial of what others consider the newest basic truth: that our entire universe is not all there is, but that multiple universes exist with their own physical properties and their own multiplying perspectives. To put my present jeremiad against multiple universes into proper perspective, it might be useful to know that in high school I never progressed beyond the first semester of algebra, which my kind teacher counseled me was probably the limit of my under- standing of abstract constructs. I find it difficult to believe in the reality of anything I can’t see, touch, taste or smell. It’s probably why I have such a difficult time with religion.
Addendum to this article
Lois Lamdin (December 2013)
In last April’s issue of the Inquirer, I mused upon the fact that while it was difficult enough for me to imagine the dimensions of our universe, it was just plain impossible to encompass the scientific assertion that ours is only one of many universes.
In the December Harper’s Magazine, Alan Bateman turns to the subject of the spatial puzzles with which we mere humans are faced in terms of size, as well as space:
As brainy as we think ourselves to be, our bodily size, our bigness, our simple volume and bulk are what we first present to the world. Somewhere in our fathoming of the cosmos, we must keep a mental inventory of plain size and scale, going from atoms to oceans to planets to stars. And some of the most impressive additions to that inventory have occurred at the high end. Simply put, the cosmos has gotten larger and larger. At each new level of distance and scale, we have had to contend with a different conception of the world that we live in.
Okay. At this point Bateman is stating something similar to what I was trying to get at last April when I was musing about the size of the universe. But that was apparently not the limits of my non-comprehension. Bateman has now confronted me with a new and terrifyingly unimaginable conundrum – that the possibility of life – any life – in the universe is only a 0.00000000000001 (that’s 13 zeroes after the first O) percent shot. Or, in other terms, it is only one millionth of one billionth of one percent likely that we – you and I – could have come to exist, let alone all the other life forms, from atoms to apes.
These almost incomprehensible figures apparently came into Bateman’s consciousness when he and his wife were on a sailboat in the Aegean Sea, out of sight of land. both of them somewhat awed by their insignificance in the landscape, and musing upon how infinitesimally small they were in that vast space.
Along the way, Bateman has produced some glorious prose, but to know that it is a nearly impossible numerical possibility that we – the human race – ever got here at all, created, for me, an almost incomprehensible reality which I felt compelled to share with the MSC family. If you want to experience his article at first hand, it is:
“OUR PLACE IN THE UNIVERSE Face to face with the Infinite” by Alan Bateman, Harper’s Magazine, December 2012, pp. 33-38.
Read it, if you dare.
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