Robert Boucheron – Lycidas Redux

Robert Boucheron
Lycidas Redux

John Milton wrote ‘Lycidas’ in 1637 to commemorate the death of a college classmate that year. Perhaps Milton’s earliest publication, the poem gained immediate attention. It has been reprinted, anthologized, and studied in school ever since. It appears for example in The Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics, edited by Francis Palgrave in 1861. Many readers have called ‘Lycidas’ beautiful, a model of lyric verse, and their favourite poem.
      Many, but not all. Samuel Johnson went on a famous rant in his Lives of the Poets in 1789. Here is some of it:
 
One of the poems on which much praise has been bestowed is ‘Lycidas’; of which the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing. . . In this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new. Its form is that of a pastoral: easy, vulgar, and, therefore, disgusting; whatever images it can supply are long ago exhausted.

      By ‘diction’, Johnson means Milton’s unusual word choices, both academic and earthy. The ‘rhymes’ vary throughout in a loose, fluid, complex pattern that Milton may have invented, and that Keats adopted for his odes. Keats also copied the half-lines of three metrical feet that occur here and there. Curiously refreshing, they recall the unfinished lines of Vergil’s Aeneid and some of Horace’s Odes. The word ‘numbers’ refers to the meter, which is rough for eighteenth-century taste, iambic pentameter with many off-beats, as in Shakespeare.
      Johnson further objects: ‘This poem has yet a grosser fault. With these trifling fictions are mingled the most awful and sacred truths’, by which he means Christian beliefs. Also extraneous are some opinions on the ‘thankless Muse’ of literary life, the ‘corrupted Clergy’ of England, and fame, ‘that last infirmity of noble mind.’
      In modern terms, we would say that Johnson condemns the pastoral for being artificial and conventional. Yet Johnson’s poetry is open to the same criticism. He is too clear, rational, and level-headed for our taste. ‘Lycidas’ may be familiar through old acquaintance, but it is strange, and deep emotion runs beneath the surface.
      Edward King was the young man who died, in a shipwreck in the Irish Sea on August 10, 1637. He and Milton were students in Christ’s College, Cambridge, together from 1626. The Scottish professor David Masson wrote in an 1874 edition of Milton’s Poetical Works:
 
Milton, as we know, was indubitably the chief ornament of the little community, its ablest and noblest youth, supreme in everything; and before he left college as M. A. in July 1632, aged twenty-three, this had come to be recognized. . . Probably, however, no one was more liked in the college, both by dons and by students, than Edward King. Indeed, before Milton left the college, King, by what looks now like a promotion over Milton’s head, had become himself one of the dons.
 
      That is to say, Milton was older and more qualified, but when a fellowship became vacant in 1630, it was awarded to King, who showed promise and was a youth of ‘hopeful parts.’ Having read what he could find written by King, Masson adds: ‘This we learn, however, rather from tradition than from any specimens of his ability that have come down to us.’
      Milton returned to his father’s house at Horton in Buckinghamshire, about sixty miles from Cambridge. During the next five years, he may have heard news of King or visited Cambridge, but there is no evidence. King was training for a career in the Church of England, a project Milton had abandoned, when his life was cut short. A few on board escaped. King drowned, and his body was never found. When Christ’s College reassembled after the Long Vacation, someone proposed a volume of memorial verses to be published by the university press. It appeared the next year, a total of thirty-six contributions in Latin and English. Milton’s was the longest, and it was placed at the end, without a title and signed ‘J. M.’
      The placement is deliberate. It accounts for the first three words in Milton’s poem, ‘Yet once more.’ Masson says: ‘All the more striking must it have been for a reader who had toiled through the trash of the preceding twelve pieces’ (I have read them one and all, and will vouch that they are trash) to come at length upon this opening of a true poem:
 
                              Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more,
                              Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
                              I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude.
 
      The poem refers to King only by the pseudonym ‘Lycidas’, which Milton took from the Idylls of Theocritus, a Greek writer of the third century B. C. Originally from Sicily and possibly living in Alexandria, Theocritus wrote long lyric poems called “bucolics,” in which cultivated shepherds speak and sing in Doric, or low dialect. The details of costume and scenery are rustic, but the poetry is urbane. Vergil wrote a set of imitations in Latin, the Eclogues. The Renaissance seized on this bucolic or pastoral convention, and Milton follows the tradition.
      King came from Ireland. The character Lycidas appears in Idyll 7, where he is identified as a goatherd from Crete.
 
                              Soon with a quiet smile he spoke—his eye
                              Twinkled, and laughter sat upon his lip.
      
Meeting three other shepherds in the country, Lycidas agrees to a singing contest. He begins:
      
                              Safe be my true-love convoyed o’er the main
                              To Mitylene—though the southern blast
                              Chase the lithe waves, while westward slant the Kids,
                              Or low above the verge Orion stand—
                              If from Love’s furnace she will rescue me,
                              For Lycidas is parched with hot desire.

      The song continues for thirty-nine more lines on his darling and how he will toast her with wine. Then it mentions another singing shepherd, Tityrus, and yet another, Cometas, kept in a cedar chest and fed by honeybees. The whole poem is charming and inconsequential. Milton may have chosen the name ‘Lycidas’ at random, but the lines quoted above mention a sea voyage. King was unmarried, which parallels the situation of the Cretan goatherd. This might explain line 176 in ‘Lycidas’:
 
                              And hears the unexpressive nuptial song,
 
in which ‘nuptial’ is mysterious, and ‘unexpressive’ may mean ‘not expressed’.
      The allusion is far-fetched, but the theme of love is relevant, in the Shakespearean sense of affection. Without delving into Milton’s troubled marriage history and the modern queer critique of male friendship in earlier centuries, we can acknowledge the strength of same-sex bonds. The death of King may have affected his friends in the way a soldier’s death affects his comrades.
      Just as the rhyme and meter constantly shift in a way that recalls the movement of the sea, the voice in the poem moves about restlessly. We hear five speakers: the ‘uncouth swain’ who begins and returns, ‘Phoebus’ who is Apollo, ‘Camus’ who is the River Cam, ‘the Pilot of the Galilean Lake’ who is Saint Peter, and an unidentified voice in the last eight lines. The speakers address in turn the reader, the ‘woeful shepherds’ who are the college friends, mythological persons like the Muses and Saint Michael, ‘Ye valleys low’ who are told to strew flowers on the corpse, ‘O ye dolphins’ who are told to ‘waft the hapless youth,’ and finally Lycidas himself in lines 182-185. Characters appear and disappear as in a dream.
      Lycidas is pictured alternately as dead, his bones washed far away, or lying on a hearse, or in some vague place:
 
                              Where, other groves and other streams along,
                              With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves,
 
or most paradoxically, “sunk low, but mounted high,” like the sun that sets and rises again. In lines 12-13 we read:
 
                              He must not float upon his watery bier
                              Unwept, and welter to the parching wind.
 
‘Welter’ evokes the turbulence of the sea, and by extension the grief of the poet. But ‘float upon his watery bier’ is fanciful. The body disappeared. Toward the end of the poem, line 183 exploits this fact in an image of transcendence. Lycidas becomes a guardian angel:
 
                              Henceforth thou art the Genius of the shore,
                              In thy large recompense, and shalt be good
                              To all that wander in that perilous flood.
 
On hearing of the death of someone we know, sad and confused, we wonder where they have gone. Milton reproduces this emotional confusion.
      Milton had recently written two masques, Arcades and Comus, where humans and spirits enter and exit, make speeches, and use symbolic language. Comus was performed at Ludlow Castle in 1634, with music composed and performed by Henry Lawes. The masque was an aristocratic entertainment with instrumental music, song, dance, painted scenery, and stage effects of lighting, trap doors, and so on. It was a private theatrical production. ‘Lycidas’ could be called a masque of sorrow. Unlike Comus, the poem has no stage directions. It could not be performed, except perhaps in animation, but it can be read aloud. The overall effect is a fluid incantation, a disembodied voice that moves from image to image.
      The movement is easy but illogical. There is no narrative. One image suggests another, while the sea, drowning, singing, the head, and the shepherds recur again and again. Grief is just this unbearable repetition of painful thoughts. The image of the sea leads to Lake Galilee, which leads to Saint Peter, and to the gospel story of “Him that walked the waves.” Though written, the poem is a song, and shepherds sing, and:
 
                              Who would not sing for Lycidas? He knew
                              Himself to sing and build the lofty rhyme.
 
To a Renaissance poet like Milton, these images lead naturally to the Muses and to Orpheus, who was killed and decapitated:
 
                              His gory visage down the stream was sent,
                              Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore.
 
      The most interesting image is that of the shepherds. Milton amalgamates the shepherds of Theocritus with the poetical students of Christ’s College. In real life, these young men will become ‘pastors,’ the Latin word for shepherds. The loss of King, who would have been an asset to the church, prompts Milton in the guise of Saint Peter to denounce clergy who:
 
                              Creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold!
                              . . .
                              Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
                              A sheep-hook, or have learnt aught else the least
                              That to the faithful herdman’s art belongs!
                              These incompetent pastors write badly, too:
                              . . . their lean and flashy songs
                              Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw.
 
Does Milton mean their poetry or the poor quality of their sermons and preaching? This was a lively concern in England, and one of many that would lead to civil war in 1640.
      The most fully sketched of the apostles, Peter is impetuous and brave. In the gospel of John 18:10, in the garden of Gethsemane, he draws a sword and cuts off the right ear of the high priest’s slave. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus says, “I will smite the shepherd,” which alludes to Zechariah 13:7, “Awake, O sword . . . smite the shepherd.” If a sword can be called an “engine,” these passages explain the end of Saint Peter’s speech:
 
                              But that two-handed engine at the door
                              Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.
 
Milton’s note in 1645 makes this a prophecy after the fact: ‘In this Monody, the Author bewails a learned Friend . . . and, by occasion, foretells the ruin of our corrupted Clergy.’
      Last but not least in the catalogue of speakers and hearers, ‘Lycidas’ the poem addresses the preceding elegies. King’s college friends are present in the pages of the book. Various meanings of ‘the shepherds’ oscillate in the reader’s mind. Johnson says ‘there is nothing new,’ but he seems not to notice Milton’s sleight of hand. The complex imagery produces a dizzy effect that is both new and strange.
      The poem won praise for the beauty of its language, its technique, and the deft way it handles a wealth of images, inherited from classical antiquity and taken from the natural world. Milton learned a great deal from Shakespeare and shows he is a worthy successor. The machinery of seventeenth-century verse does not prevent us from understanding and enjoying Shakespeare, and the convention of the pastoral should not deter us, either. American readers find a direct parallel in country-western songs, which pretend to be by and about simple country people, just plain folks. Nashville is our answer to Sicily in the third century BCE.
      For all its poetry, the psychology of ‘Lycidas’ may be a stronger claim to fame. Milton shows a mind in the throes of grief. He requires effort and attention, homework to the reader today, but the reward is great. As for Lycidas, his reward is in heaven:
 
                              There entertain him all the Saints above,
                              In solemn troops and sweet societies
                              That sing, and singing, in their glory move,
                              And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.
                              The saints replace the shepherds,
 
and ‘wipe the tears’ leads to the next line:
 
                              Now, Lycidas, the shepherds weep no more;
 
      The address to Lycidas, the change in tone, and the repetition of ‘no more’ from earlier lines induce a slight jolt. But why does the dead man weep? The image of a celestial choir gives way to the image of ‘the Genius of the shore,’ which refers back to Saint Michael, patron of mounts and capes, in lines 159-163. Again, this is muddled and strange. Do these contradictory and impossible statements about Lycidas console anyone?
      The last eight lines are an epilogue that does nothing to clear up matters. We are told:
 
                              Thus sang the uncouth swain to the oaks and rills
 
Since morning, he has been ‘warbling his Doric lay,’ and now it is sunset. He sings to nobody, and nobody tells us this. The pronoun ‘I’ is not in the poem, and the poet is absent. Is absence the message? The final couplet, an image of departure, seems to say so:
 
                              At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue:
                              Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.
 
      The glorious language and images vanish. It was only an insignificant person who sang for his own pleasure. In musical terms, the masque of sorrow ends on an unresolved note.             AQ

Nan Cohen – On Mentors

Nan Cohen
On Mentors

Mentor—the same word in English, Dutch, and more than a dozen other languages—is easily defined. In actual use, however, it is a slightly fraught term. Mentoring implies disparity—in age, in experience, almost certainly in power. To have, or to be, a mentor requires a degree of consensus between mentor and mentee, but this is usually unspoken, and there are no real rules or rituals around the connection.
      Some institutions have attempted to formalize mentoring. At the school where I teach, for example, each new teacher is assigned a ‘mentor’ who offers informal guidance and helps the newcomer learn the culture of the place. The connections that form from these arrangements are often collegial and warm—but are they truly mentorships? I think not. Particularly in the arts—I’m thinking primarily of writers here—authentic mentorship is not bestowed by institutions. Perhaps it is, at its root, anti-institutional, the organic symbiosis of two individuals’ idiosyncratic needs.
      And it is temporary. To be someone’s mentor is a role, not a permanent appointment. We see this even in the story of the original Mentor, in Homer’s Odyssey. Sailing off to the Trojan War, Odysseus left Mentor in charge of his house; twenty years later, the place is overrun by Penelope’s suitors. Mentor speaks up for Telemachus’s plan to set out in search of Odysseus, but the suitors shout him down. He’s of no practical help—until Athena takes on his appearance.
      Once she does, the plot starts moving. In ‘the voice and guise of Mentor’, she promises Telemachus she will help him get a ship and crew: ‘You will achieve the journey that you seek,/since I will go with you, just like a father’ (in Emily Wilson’s translation, 2.268, 285-6). She recruits a crew, borrows a ship, casts a sleeping spell on the suitors, and hustles Telemachus to the ship and out to sea.
      And then she leaves him! In a showy way; after delivering him to his first host, Odysseus’s old Trojan War companion Nestor, she transforms into a bird and flies away, so that it’s obvious to everyone that Telemachus has been companioned by a god. Still, she’s gone. So much for going with him ‘just like a father’! Like his real father, she’s left him before he’s ready for her to go.
      The man called Mentor is no one’s mentor: Athena is. She comes in many guises, and she keeps showing up. She watches over Odysseus, sending him fair winds on his long journey home. She appears at crucial moments—as a king, a shepherd, a young girl—to point one of the heroes in the right direction, to get them moving.
      As in other myths, her supernatural transformations reflect the magical changes that are possible in the lives of ordinary humans. Rather than a permanent role, ‘Mentor’ may be a sudden infusion of the mentoring spirit into an ordinary person. Perhaps this is even truer for writers, who are most fully themselves when they are alone (like the ancient goddesses and gods, whom mortals cannot safely behold?), but who somehow keep finding ways to guide one another.
      Our true mentors may not even wear the guise of writers. A grandmother may assign us a quest; a friend might give us a magical object; a conversation with a stranger can point us in the direction we need to go. Only rarely will our mentors accompany us far on the journey. Sometimes what they have said to us becomes an inner voice that we can hear long after they have gone.
      And some leave us merely a sentence or two, delivered at the right time, remembered forever. Before Athena leaves Telemachus, he asks her, in her Mentor disguise, how to approach Nestor for help. He is too young, he says, untutored in speaking to kings. Looking ‘straight into his eyes’, she responds (3.24-28):

                                                  You will work out what to do,
               through your own wits and with divine assistance.
               The gods have blessed you in your life so far.                              AQ

Jami Fairleigh – Baking with Meryl Streep

Jami Fairleigh
Baking with Meryl Streep

Whenever I forget to feed Meryl Streep, she starts to stink. You could even say she goes a little boozy. A boozy floozy. I never imagined I’d have a relationship with Meryl or a relationship of any kind with something I keep in my refrigerator, but that’s the magic of these crazy times.
      Long before the rebirth of sourdough, before our Instagram feeds choked with images of glorious home-baked loaves, I’d ordered my copy of Ken Forkish’s book, Flour Water Salt Yeast. I’d poured over the descriptions, I’d read about the merits of home-ground flour, and I’d confidently begun a starter. And then another, and another. Each ended in disaster and the loaves of bread I tried to craft were bricks of doom: flat, lifeless, dead. I put away my fantasy loaves and did the sensible thing; I bought bread from the store.
      My foray into the world of baking was mirrored by my attempts at writing. Yearning to translate the stories my imagination conjured into real books, I bought a few books about creating fiction and got ready to write. That fresh document, that unsullied notebook with all those blank pages—they provided a sense of promise. Here soon, a story would be born, crafted of imagination and dreams.
      Like my baking, I soon learned that stories didn’t just happen; one could not write a novel armed with a wisp of an idea and the desire to have written a book. Sadly, I concluded that the magic of writing, that alchemy of creating something from nothing, was just not for me. I was a person who would buy my bread and buy my books.
      Then a tiny-tiny virus put the great big world on pause and suddenly, I had time. Time to worry, time to eat, and time to clean out our closets and my bookshelves. Time to reexamine my life, time to dust off old manuscripts, and time to revive story ideas that had been languishing in the recesses of my mind. I started again. I pulled out the draft of the novel I’d been working on, I revived my neglected blog, and I began a new sourdough starter and named her Meryl Streep.
      This time it worked. This time I had the secret ingredient, the magical component that had eluded me before; Time. Time to focus, time to experiment, time to dream. Now, I’ve picked the launch date for that novel, I’ve rediscovered how writing feeds creativity, and I’ve learned that when you make time for it, you can actually create something from nothing. I’ve also learned that a little of Meryl goes a long way. AQ

Wendy Kennar – Could I? Should I? Would I?

Wendy Kennar
Could I?, Should I?, Would I?

‘Can you still teach?’
      ‘Kind of,’ I answered.
      ‘You either can or you can’t. We can’t continue with this process if you can still teach.’
      It was November 2012, and I didn’t know how to respond to the CalSTRS (California State Teachers’ Retirement System) repre-sentative sitting across from my husband and me.
      ‘Can you still teach?
      There was a part of me that could still teach, that still wanted to teach. I’d only been teaching for twelve years. I wasn’t supposed to be looking into retirement this soon.
      But this wouldn’t be a traditional retirement. This would be a ‘retirement due to a disability. ’
      Could I still teach?
 
 
In my mind, the answer was simple. Yes. I still had the passion and the drive to go to school each day and create an environment within room 7 where children felt loved, safe, and empowered to try their best.
      Should I continue to teach?
      That was a different question. The answer was more complicated, and I was becoming less and less sure. I knew I shouldn’t be spending my lunchtime alone in my classroom, leaving voicemails for doctors, crying and pleading for their soonest possible appointment. I knew I shouldn’t be biting my lip, struggling with pain in my left leg, as I walked around the classroom checking on my students as they worked independently at their desks.
      Yet, how could I admit I was no longer able to teach? I had gone to college with one purpose—to become a teacher. Teaching is what I did, and who I was. If I wasn’t a teacher anymore, who would I be?
      I continued teaching after I first became ill, and I continued teaching after receiving my diagnosis almost a year-and-a-half later.
      I had initially considered my disease as nothing more than a minor inconvenience. It was a chronic condition, but so was my asthma. And fortunately, my asthma didn’t affect me on a daily basis. I assumed my autoimmune disease would work the same way.
      I assumed wrong. I learned that my disease wasn’t just a chronic medical condition; it was a chronic medical condition causing chronic pain.
      I told doctors that sometimes my legs hurt, as if I had repeatedly bumped into the sharp corners of a coffee table. Sometimes my legs felt heavy, as if someone had placed piles of books on them. Sometimes, it felt as if invisible shackles were attached to my lower legs, making it impossible for me to walk as quickly as I wanted. Sometimes my left calf felt hard and tight as if it was experiencing a never-ending charley horse.
      I had always prided myself on being a “tough chick.” I didn’t give up on things just because they were hard or more challenging or less desirable. After all, I was the girl who had gone to college while commuting on city buses. (A commute that required six buses a day and involved a total travel time of between three and-a-half to four hours.)
      I was the woman who had taught fourth graders until two days before my son was born. I was the woman who walked into the hospital on a Sunday afternoon, and six hours later, delivered my son through a natural, non-medicated childbirth.
      But this situation was different. There was no end in sight. This disease wasn’t temporary. I came home each day with less and less of myself to give my family. My thirty-plus fourth-grade students got the best part of me. I came home, and my toddler son got the rest of my energy. By the time he was in bed, I had almost nothing of myself to offer my husband. I felt increasingly fatigued, unhappy, and uncertain about how I could maintain my current pace.
      Working as an elementary school teacher didn’t provide me with a lot of opportunity for special accommodations or modifications. I couldn’t cut back on hours. I couldn’t just take a day off at the last minute. (A teacher’s absence must be called in ahead of time, sub plans must be provided; it is often more work to be absent than it is worth.) My rheumatologist had provided me with a note exempting me from teaching physical education. (I partnered with another teacher who helped during p.e. time.) I used the school elevator when I wasn’t with my students. But other than that, there was no way to lessen the burden, the stress, and the sheer will it took to effectively teach a roomful of children.
      I hadn’t even known there was an alternative. I thought I was living the life I was meant to be living. I had everything I had wanted—a healthy son, a loving husband, a fulfilling teaching career. Daily pain was just an unwelcome addition.
      My rheumatologist had advised me to explore my retirement options. At each appointment, he’d ask if I was still working. ‘Of course,’ I answered early on.
      My answers gradually changed. ‘Yes,’ I’d answer with slightly less enthusiasm.
      ‘I’m trying,’ I admitted.
      My husband and I met with the representative of the teachers’ retirement program to find out how the process worked. After the initial meeting, I spent hours completing pages and pages of forms that also required comprehensive medical documentation. My rheumatologist had his own packet of forms to complete, and I found out later, my school principal was also required to fill out her own set of forms. Upon receipt of my application, it would be reviewed to determine if I qualified for retirement. I was told the review process could take months. I asked my doctor if he thought I’d qualify, and he believed, without a doubt, I would.
      If I didn’t qualify, the decision would be made for me. I would continue to teach. This disease affected every aspect of my daily life—my sleep, my mood, my energy. I wanted to feel better for my son, for my husband, for myself. But I didn’t know if giving up teaching was the way to accomplish that.
      And, I still didn’t see myself as disabled. In my mind, my late grandmother had been disabled. She was a senior citizen who had suffered several strokes, whose body struggled with rheumatoid arthritis. She relied on a wheelchair on her bad days, and a cane on her better days. That wasn’t me.
      But I also knew that physically, I wasn’t the same teacher I had been when I had started teaching. Walking field trips were no longer possible. We used to walk to a neighbourhood park for picnics with our pen pals from another elementary school. We used to walk to the local Apple store for workshops. Those field trips had ceased. And, my leg had “given out” one morning while my class was testing, and I had fallen. (I quickly popped back up and assured my students I was fine though I was quite shaken.)
      The final decision came within days, not months. The state of California had approved my request for retirement due to a disability. I didn’t know what to make of the quick acceptance. Had the state of California quickly (and much more readily) acknowledged what I had spent over two years trying to ignore and deny?
      The school principal wrote a letter to my students’ families, telling them of my upcoming retirement and reassuring them that a substitute would finish up the school year. My students told me later that they knew something was wrong before I passed out the letters and told them the news. I closed our classroom door, something I usually only did during testing situations. They told me my face turned red. They told me I looked like I wanted to cry.
      They cried. I cried. I promised them that they were still stuck with me for about one more month. I told them we still had a lot of work to do. Nothing was changing during our last month together. One of my students told me he would start rubbing his bracelet, the kids called it a “superhero bracelet,” and ask it to fix my leg. And I wondered if I was doing the right thing.
      My co-workers wanted to throw me a retirement party. But I didn’t want to celebrate. I regarded retiring as failing. I couldn’t teach any more. My body couldn’t do it. I was disabled. What was there to celebrate?
      On the last day of my teaching career, my students came to school in their pyjamas for ‘Read Across America’ day. My students snacked and read with their second-grade reading buddies. And for the first time in my career, I didn’t participate. I couldn’t end my teaching career in flannel pyjamas. I needed my pants.
      The school acknowledged me with speeches and flowers at our weekly all-school assembly. And after school, we gathered at a nearby restaurant. Almost our whole staff, former teachers, our former principal. Colleagues who generally didn’t attend anyone’s retirement celebration came to mine.
 
 
It was March 1st, 2013, and I was less than a week away from my thirty-seventh birthday.
      To a certain extent, I have become a different woman since then. I am a stay-at-home mom. And when asked what I do, I reply: ‘I’m a writer,’ instead of ‘I was a teacher.’
      But there are times I desperately miss teaching. I miss bringing my electric grill to school and making quesadillas for Cinco de Mayo. I miss reading Roald Dahl’s Matilda with my class and then showing them the Danny DeVito film, as we compare and contrast the novel and the film (while snacking on honey graham crackers, in honor of the character Miss Honey). I miss our games—vocabulary bingo, multiplication volleyball, MadLibs. I miss taking my kids to sit outside on the front lawn for a social studies lesson, encouraging them to imagine they’re really college students, out on the front lawn of the quad…
      ‘Can you still teach?
      Seven years later, and I still don’t have a simple answer to that question.
      No, I can’t still teach in a traditional classroom setting. There are days I wake up and slowly shuffle out of bed and am grateful I don’t have to stand in front of a room full of children all day long. There are days I struggle to get out of my desk chair, and I’m thankful that no one is around to see me struggle.
      But, yes, I can still teach. I won’t ever stop teaching. I teach my son every day. I teach him values and morals. I use my extra teacher resources to supplement his classroom lessons. I teach him tricks to learn his nine times tables.
      And I am a freelance writer. I draw upon the experiences of my teaching career to write about education-related topics such as why we should never stop reading aloud to our children and how to get the most out of a parent/teacher conference. Most importantly, I am teaching through the use of my written words, educating others about my autoimmune disease and invisible disability.
      Retiring from teaching was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made. And at the same time, it doesn’t feel like it was my decision to make. I used to see my retirement as a sign of failure. As a very public acknowledgement of what had largely remained hidden and invisible.
      Now, seven years later, I don’t see my retirement as a sign of failure, but as an act of bravery.
      Can I still teach?
      Yes.
      I taught myself that bravery takes many forms. And taking a leap of faith, being forced to imagine my life differently, is brave. AQ

Fiona Jones – Twinkling

Fiona Jones
Twinkling

For most of a century, urban legend has held that the Inuit have a hundred words for snow. Whole armfuls of different linguistic units, each with its own fine-lined nuances, distinguishing one snow from another by temperature, thickness, flake size, adhesion, building potential… Because the landscape that shapes our lives should also channel our language, and the weather should feed our wisdom.
      I wanted it to be true. It isn’t.
      But here I am living in the UK, where rain shapes our experiences as much as snow shapes anyone else’s. We see rain often. Thunderous downpours and grey-clouded drizzle, sleet horizontally driven, large spattering drops that blotch the ground and bubble the water. Alternating sunshine and showers, and that long, dreary, drenching rain that spills autumn over into winter. The very word ‘weather’, untempered by adjective, defaults to mean ‘rain’ for us.
      Situated as Britain is—on the boundary between continent and ocean, in the meeting-zone of conflicting air masses—we can receive our weather from Siberia one day and the North Atlantic the next, carrying its Caribbean influence of warmth and humidity. And so we see rain not only frequently but also variously.
      Incidentally (or not), we also have armfuls of words for rain—dialect words, slang, euphemisms, onomatopoeia, metaphors, traditions: April showers, a splash or a soak, nice weather for ducks, bucketing, pelting, chucking it down. Scotch mist on a dreich old day, spitting and mizzling, liquid sunshine to wry optimists leaning toward irony. Rainstorms, cloudbursts, deluges, dropping down cats and dogs, the old man’s snoring. A fresh phrase if we need one for every rainy day in the year.
      There’s an empty space here for just one more word: a name for that ambiguous, almost imperceptible twinkle of moisture from an open sky—less than drizzle, hardly more than dryness, a half-sensed droplet or two like a sneeze from a butterfly.
      Twinkling: brief, negligible rainfall that leaves you never quite sure if you felt it or not.                 AQ

Mary B. Kurtz – A Dark and Gnarled Wood

Mary B. Kurtz
A Dark and Gnarled Wood

I want to write about the weather. I mean I want to write about climate change. But finding the words and naming the issue feels fearful to the point of unmentionable, like when we avoid speaking of ‘death’ and instead, say, ‘The deceased. She passed away. He’s at peace. She’s in heaven.’ But never straight ahead—‘She’s dead. She died.’
      I’m expecting my first grandchild in several months. In his or her lifetime, will he or she see what I saw today on the ranch where I live? The lone coyote who slunk across the meadow coming up from the riverbank as I sipped my morning coffee. A mallard duck pair searching for nesting ground as they wandered the cottonwoods outside my kitchen window. Three crows harassing one another for a mate and twigs for a nest, their decisions thoughtful but quick. The five, petite, white tail deer who ran across the county road, leapt over the barb wire fence and scampered south into an early spring wind. And the ritual first sighting of the diminutive Rocky Mountain Bluebell and the delicate yellow Glacial Lilly, faithful along my walking trail.
      I couldn’t watch Alfred Hitchcock and other scary shows when I was a child. The threat felt all too close and too real in my mind. And now in my sixties, when I lay in bed in the middle of the night thinking about climate change, I feel the same way: it’s too close and too real. When fears overwhelm me: I foresee heat so high life must be lived inside; I imagine drought that threatens food stores and fuels fights over caches of seeds; I draw up floods in my mind more primal in their will each spring as though Noah’s story may become mine.
      I am powerless in the inky silence. I grasp for control to protect my children and grandchildren. In the morning, I ask in daylight, how close, how real, how threatening?
      When my children were young, the micro-climate of our home was different. The year my daughter, Cassidy, was born, warm weather and shorts for Memorial Day picnics were never a given. The last few years, late May might be rainy, but short-sleeve shirts are hanging in Pete’s closet. For over thirty years, my husband, Pete’s, hay season began in late July and lasted through the county fair in mid-August. This year he the rolled out the mower, rake and baler and made tracks with his John Deere in early July. In the eighties, I expected the tomatoes in the garden to freeze by Labor Day. As the gardening season came to a close last year in mid-September, I gathered green tomatoes from my vines and put them in the windowsill to ripen.
      And in 2012, snowfall records were broken. We knew the run-off would be high, but when warm days and moderate temperatures at night collided, the melt accelerated. With my son, Andy, I stood on the county bridge over the waterway. Above the roar, I said, ‘Andy, my mind tells me we’re safe, but I don’t feel like we are. I’ve never seen a river like this. No one could survive in there.’ I failed to find the words for the raw power of the waterway that midnight in the years since. But if there were a nightmare, it was but a few feet below where we stood. The Steamboat Pilot, our local paper, wrote the next day, ‘Elk River sets a record at 8,250 cubic feet per second’. Later, it was declared a 500-hundred-year flood event.
      Thoughts and conversations about the weather, once light and inconsequential, a point of easy common ground in social conversation, now carry a heavier weight. Extreme weather events, like the 2012 flood, and the changes in our seasons shadow our thoughts about the future. Several years ago, I felt reassured that mankind could cooperate successfully with the will of the earth when scientists believed the stratospheric ozone layer could right itself if human activity changed: less carbon emissions and less deforestation. Now, new predictions, statistical data, forecasting models, create a new disquiet and questions arise.
      What mood are the climatologists in? Like me, do they toss in their fears, too, just as vulnerable in the silence of the night? Is there hope in the models, even those on the fast track? Will spring always erupt in the brilliance of green or will it one day weep?
      Michael Mann, a Pennsylvania State University climatologist, reports that changes in parameters like temperature, sea levels and carbon emissions have occurred ahead of the best projections. All time global temperatures have risen for the last three consecutive years. Both the North and South Pacific regions have experienced one of their strongest cyclones in the last year and a half. Tropical cyclone expert Dr Phil Klotzbach reported in Di Liberto on 5 May 2017, that tropical storm, Donna, was the strongest May cyclone on record for the entire Southern Hemisphere.
      And the West Antarctic ice sheet is on the brink of collapse, which in turn would destroy the ice shelf, creating a rise in the sea level of ten to twelve feet. This would be catastrophic for coastal life in Australia and New Zealand. When our overheated earth, now a greenhouse with only modest ventilation, threatens all living things with heat waves five times more likely to occur and portions of the Western Antarctica ice sheet due to collapse, what would help create change?
      The new Climate Assessment report now predicts, too, that the future of our world is truly threatened by climate change and a shift to extreme weather events. Produced by thirteen federal agencies, the scientific report predicts dire consequences to health, global food stores, economics, damage to infrastructures, and mental health. Of greatest concern, the pace of the changes to our climate that have occurred since the last report in 2014.

~~~

I recently discovered the word, krummholz in Barry Lopez’s book, Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. The crooked, gnarled wood lives in the transition zone between sub-alpine and treeless tundra, pressed by extreme vagaries of weather and physical circumstance. It survives at its environmental limit, its growth slow and irregular, windward branches failing to develop, but it remains a survivor, an elfin tree seeking low lying growth, intertwining, fortifying, and strengthening its hold. I weighed the question: as the extreme vagaries of weather create extreme circumstance for mankind, can we maintain survival at some future environmental limit?
      Laurence Gonzales, writing in, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Dies, and Why, explores, with the help of science and story, how and why certain individuals survive, whether in the wilderness or in facing any of life’s challenges. From stories of those who survived, they did so by keeping their wits about them and seeing the world, the situation at hand, as it is. They didn’t protest the situation. They worked with the reality of their condition, their plight, the scene as it was, one in which they needed to survive.
      Mann believes there’s hope if we look at history. When we do, science and honesty prevail. When society delayed acting on the issues of tobacco, ozone depletion, and the banning of chlorofluorocarbons, and lives were lost and damaged, we did eventually take appropriate action. So, I look for hope.
      After the signing of the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2015 by 195 countries, Norway agreed to ban all sales of gas and diesel-powered cars by 2035 and France has pledged to eliminate coal in the production of electricity after 2022. In addition, the Dutch government has set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 49% by 2030.
      According to recent reporting from National Geographic, China is focusing on renewables: wind, solar, and hydropower; Germany currently generates twenty-seven percent of their electricity from renewables driven by their commitment to reduce nuclear energy use; and with America’s Clean Power Plan, the United States will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by thirty-two percent by 2030 and produce thirty percent more renewable energy.
      In the middle of my nights, when I lay awake with restless climatologists, I still wonder, if the largest contributors to carbon emissions do not take effective action, what can I do to tame rowdy rains and winds, and polar bears looking for safe passage over a dwindling ice cap? Will my small efforts to recycle and reduce my carbon footprint, along with larger renewable energy programs and clean air plans worldwide, be part of civilization’s cooperative sculpting of a simplified but survivable existence, just like the intertwining of the crooked and gnarled krummholz wood?

~~~

The unanswerable. The unknown.

~~~

I’m reminded of the movie, Life is Beautiful. Set during World War II, it tells the story of a father and his young son’s internment in a Nazi concentration camp. As the threat of death hovers each day, the young boy’s father creates an illusion of their life, a slight of hand in the movements of the small freedoms they both have. Guido, the father, tells his son, Giosuè he must perform certain tasks and with each task completed he will earn points towards a tank, a tank that would rescue them. As they lived each day, Guido was a joyful, magical mime for his son in the dysphoric scene.
      While I don’t wish to deny the reality of the changes in the climate, I feel the need to live with hope. So, as I place faith in science and technology to create a sustainable and viable transition zone where extreme vagaries of physical circumstance threaten our survival, I will also remember the inspiration of Guido, the joy in daily living, the mime he embraced so his young son would live each day free from worry and fear. AQ

Ivan De Luce – The Strange History of Amsterdam Street Names

Ivan De Luce
The Strange History of Amsterdam Street Names

My old street in Amsterdam, Pierre Lallementstraat, can hardly be called a street. It’s more of an open alleyway that leads to a courtyard. My old apartment building, a modern, pearl-white student housing behemoth, is one of only two addresses there. In fact, my building is so large it needs two separate front entrances.

Pierre Lallementstraat is named after Pierre Lallement, the inventor of the bicycle. This is highly appropriate considering the Netherlands is a land of bikes. But this tiny backstreet didn’t seem to deserve such a fascinating name. Then again, it seems as if every street in Amsterdam is named after someone. Coming from New York, with our numbered grid system, I’m not used to streets being named after anything. But in Amsterdam, there’s no grid. But there is a President Kennedylaan, a Churchill-laan, and even a President Allendelaan, named after the Chilean Marxist who was overthrown in a coup with the help of the CIA on September 11, 1973. As Social Democrats, the Dutch presumably saw him as a victim of injustice when they christened the street five months later.

There are other streets, too — ones named after Beethoven, Hans Holbein, Richard Wagner, Chopin, Rubens, Michelangelo, Raphael, Bach, Jan van Eyck, Titian, and Botticelli. And those are all within blocks of each other. My neighbourhood, in Watergraafsmeer, is composed of streets named after engineers. James Wattstraat runs along the front of my building. At least engineers are more interesting than grids of numbers.

Amsterdam’s street names started out like many old European streets — they were named after things that happened there, or after some unique feature about the location. But after the 1850s, as the city encroached on the countryside, the Dutch decided to come up with seemingly unrelated names. After 1870, cities began commemorating people by naming streets after them, especially in France.

While Holland was late to this practice, it made up for it by giving every conceivable figure a street named after them. There’s even a Lord of the Rings-themed neighbourhood in the town of Geldrop — take a right onto Laan van Tolkien, and soon you’ll walk along Frodo, Aragorn, Legolas, Gandalf, and more dwarf streets than you can imagine.

But back to our friend Pierre. He seemed to have nothing to do with Amsterdam or the Netherlands, but they obviously owe a great to deal to him. He was born in France in 1843, and in his hometown of Nancy, in 1862, he saw someone riding a dandyhorse, an early version of the bicycle which had no pedals and required the rider to pedal with their feet, like a bike from The Flintstones. He added the chains and pedals soon after, and so the bike was born. He never received the recognition he deserved, however. A Frenchman named Pierre Michaux became known as the man who invented the velocipede, and he was the first to mass-produce them. Pierre L. was probably dismayed, so in 1865 he moved to Ansonia, Connecticut and filed a patent for his velocipede a year later. When he returned to France two years after that, bikes were all the rage, which must have infuriated him even more. Pierre Lallement died poor and forgotten in 1891 in Boston at age 47. Thanks to an investigation in 1993, Lallement, not Michaux, is known to have created the first modern bicycle. Thankfully, Michaux does not have any streets named after him. AQ

John Talbird – Rembrandt’s Drawings

John Talbird
Rembrandt’s Drawings

Perhaps more than his paintings which he is more famous for, the drawings show a mind at work and struggling, a mind trying to connect personal thought to objective image, render two dimensions three, bring life to the white void with nothing more than pencil and eye. When you look at the paintings — especially his portraits with their flesh and earth tones, souls radiating from faces — you can see that he was a genius and understand why the world still loves his work, but I love the rough-hewn drawings more anyway. Rembrandt viewed these as the drafts, the practice runs for his real work, but their comparable simplicity has an electric charm. They put me in mind of a kid sketching cartoons on the subway or a bent old man with a floppy hat sitting on an embankment interpreting the creek that runs at his feet.

In Susanna from 1636, the biblical heroine surprised at her bath tries to cover her nakedness as she peers over her shoulder at we who have stumbled upon her privacy. She’s exposed to the elements — no roof over her head — to our eyes — a scrap of clothing clutched desperately at her groin — to two thousand years of fable, faith, and story. I got chills on the back of my neck when I first saw that painting in the Frick, but it wouldn’t be until much later that I found the sketch that led to it in a book and understood the rawness of emotion, the way it can peer out of the page like a creature hungry for flesh and I was glad that Rembrandt had had the time to temper that sharp outline with the colours of the world.

Bob Ward – Touching the Surface

Bob Ward
Touching the Surface

In Felbrigg Hall, a National Trust property in the east of England, there is a statue of an urchin examining the sole of his foot to remove a thorn. As usual in museums, you are not allowed to touch but, if you were, the sensation would be of cold smooth marble unlike that of a real foot roughened by trotting around without shoes.

The way things feel to our hands, feet, or tongue is an important part of human experience. That impulse to reach out and touch whatever seizes our attention is very strong and similarly we speak of ‘being touched’ by poignant events. We stroke friendly dogs; the physical contact creates a bond. When people are buying clothes, they finger the fabrics to judge what they might be like to wear. After all, the word ‘texture’ derives from the Latin ‘textura’ for weaving. A couple of centuries ago an ancestor of mine was apprenticed to a cloth-dresser, a specialist in improving the surface of newly woven bolts of woollen cloth. In the City of Leeds there were fifty tradesmen practising that craft. However, should you ever be wracked with remorse, one garment you won’t find on an outfitter’s rail is a hair shirt. Fashions change, even among penitent sinners.

Upstairs at Felbrigg the four-poster in the master bedroom is adorned with sumptuous hangings. You need to restrain an urge to let your fingers flirt with the tassels that dangle from the fringes. At a humbler level you might recall that Rupert Brooke in his poem The Great Lover celebrated both

. . . the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss / of blankets . . .

These days we have created a culture of tactile keyboards and touch-screens that makes us even more ‘hands on’. Through our finger-tips we enter the world. Just now my right hand rests on a mouse that controls my computer. But as a photographer I have long enjoyed recording the visual quality of different surfaces beyond what textiles offer. In my pocket I carry a small camera capable of taking good close-ups wherever I go. Etched by salt-water the blistering paint on a fisherman’s tractor can be revealed as an abstract masterpiece. Or I might see the spiky hoar-frost edging dead leaves, or a discarded viper’s skin, part of a creature you otherwise would not dare to contact.

Tree trunks bear close study and appreciation for their subtle variations between species. Scots pines have bark that breaks into islands, richly coloured especially when wet, whereas the bark in sweet chestnuts is incised with dramatic swirling ridges. In my garden there is a kind of birch where, as the trunk expands with growth, paper-thin bark peels off in curls tinted green by algae. In the creviced surface of trees lurk spiders and beetles, often the prey of small birds. Springtime snails venture upwards across this rough terrain in a search for the succulent fresh leaves in the woodland canopy. Ivy, of course, constantly exploits trees as a passage-way towards the light. Even when torn away the ivy’s clinging roots get left behind as tracks across the bark.

Walls too are worth inspection. In the area where I live, East Anglia, bricks were in short supply and those made in the region weathered badly as time passed. So many buildings were faced (and still are) with flint cobbles dumped by retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age. The resulting walls are full of character, supporting small ferns, moss tufts and colourful crinkly lichens.

Text itself literally acquires ‘texture’ on the spines of leather-bound books, where the lettering may be embossed in gold leaf. However, you could say that a printed page assumes a virtual texture arising from the nature of the typefaces used in all their different forms, serif, non-serif, italic, bold . . . Contrast ‘Impact’ with the refinement of ‘Palatino Linotype’ or the eccentricity of ‘Crazy Loot’. As you read, let your eyes, as it were, caress the words. For the non-sighted, they are trained to feel words through the medium of Braille. But in doing so, I wonder, can they ever hear the surfaces they touch by the process of synaesthesia? That’s an attribute known among small children but mainly lost in adulthood, whereby a stimulus to one sense raise a response in another.

By analogy, music may be described as having texture. Performers touch their instruments with their hands or lips and we talk of being touched. How running your fingers across harp strings evokes the ripples in the surface of a lake. Composers meld complex layers of sound, fabric for the ears. Harmony relates to smoothness, discord to rough edges. The ‘minimalists’ Steve Reich and Philip Glass arouse one’s feelings with repeated phrases in constant variation that manage to haunt the soul.

Human sensations are richly textured. Do keep in touch.

Four-poster bed hangings, Bob Ward, photograph, 2017

Bryan R. Monte – My Calling

My Calling
by Bryan R. Monte

As a lecturer of English language and culture at a Dutch polytechnic, I watched for years as some of my freshmen struggled to declare a major and choose an eventual profession. For me, however, this important decision came quickly, easily and by accident at the very beginning of my education.

When I was in the first primary school class, I came home every evening and taught my younger sister that day’s reading lesson. I helped her learn how to sound out the words using the examples from my Fun with Phonics book. “Hs,” I told her, “were the sound you made after running hard and had to catch your breath. Ss were the sounds snakes make as they slithered through the grass.” I was so happy to share what I was learning in class that was helping me to start to decode the newsprint my father read every night as he argued with the television news announcers. With my help, my sister was soon reading the simple texts tacked above her kindergarten classroom’s chalkboards and recognising words and phrases from the books her teacher read to the class. So at the age of five, I discovered I could not only learn how to do new things, but I could act as a conduit for this new knowledge. I could pass information onto others and check, whilst I was doing it, if they grasped what I was trying to teach.

Sometimes, though, in later life, I wondered, as some of my undergraduates did, if I had made the right career choice. Even though teaching seemed to be my calling or beroep, the Dutch word for profession, it was also a very labour-intensive, low-paid profession in comparison to other specialist and similarly complex and continuously-certified professions that work with the general public, such as pharmacists, (my father’s and next younger brother’s choice) or audiologists. I wondered if teaching was perhaps the best expenditure of my time and energy and if there was a measurable, social return on my efforts.

In addition, I wasn’t able to teach every year after I left college with my MA in English and writing. I taught for one year in exurban New England where I felt perhaps I’d been chosen for the job because my name, as the other teachers, ended in a vowel. Here, the male and female teachers sat at two, separate tables and I felt I would only be accepted if I married, produced children and lived there for a generation. In addition, every Friday evening that winter it snowed heavily. By midnight, the roads were impassible, making a foray into Cambridge gay society for the weekend impossible.

I knew there was a place in America where you didn’t have to worry about blizzards or being gay so, at the end of that school year, I moved back to California where I had obtained my BA at Berkeley. Here I never had to worry about spending an hour digging my car out of the snow in the winter before I could drive somewhere. I could also chose from scores of gay places and organizations for society. I did, however, discover I had moved back to an area that had a glut of teachers. After applying for dozens of teaching positions, I ended up getting a job in an insurance company because I was literate, organized and could file, retrieve, update and print computer forms with ease. I stayed in insurance because I discovered that most of the teaching jobs available in the Bay Area were free-lance and without benefits, including most importantly, health insurance during the AIDS epidemic. So I held a weekly writers’ workshop in my living room and taught technical writing classes at the UC Berkeley Extension one evening a week every other semester to keep my teaching skills sharp and my CV updated.

I did learn something meaningful, however, when I worked at one of the insurance company’s divisions that had underwritten a lot of “bad business” that year. Due to the losses from these new accounts, which outstripped the earned premiums, the underwriter at the desk next to mine remarked that if the company had shut its doors for a year and we had just sat at our desks and read our continuing education insurance books and not written any new business, then the company would have made a bigger profit.

But insurance as well as education, has a social benefit that is largely discounted these days by companies and governments driven by short-term profits or objectives. And I could enumerate and measure these educational and social benefits as clearly as I could my incoming freshmen’s English fluency seven years later in the Netherlands. At the beginning of the college year, I administered the same standardized tests in writing, listening and reading, whose scores dipped consistently overall by a percentage point (two points for reading) each year for over a decade.

Despite this, though, I could see definite progress in my students’ spoken English once they were in my class. At the end my of my first class of freshmen English, the students left the classroom complaining to each other in fluent Dutch (usually unaware that I could understand their every word) that they had too much homework. After going on their freshmen and sophomore excursions to London and Dublin, visiting museums by day and pubs by night, however, the value of English and my small talk conversation drills became more than apparent as they suddenly discovered they wanted to chat up that handsome or beautiful British or Irish young man or woman at the bar. (My coach drivers for these excursions also complimented my students saying they were the only group who consistently showed up on time and who took their rubbish with them). By their senior year, these same students left my classroom at the end of the first class complaining to me in fluent, polite English, using the persuasive phrases I had taught them, that they had too much homework. Then I knew all my time and energy as head of English had not been wasted, that it wouldn’t have been better if I’d stayed in the teachers’ room and spent most of my time reading books and planning curricula as some of my predecesors had done. I knew that due to my efforts, I had managed to change the world, even if by just a little, for the better. AQ