“The seeds of destiny are sown in mysterious realms.“
“What does that MEAN???”
“It means that destiny is, well, OK, it’s like this. The seeds of destiny are sown in strange places.”
“Yeah but what are ‘seeds of destiny’?”
“So the whole vagina uterus thing is a ‘mysterious realm’?”
“Tom and Trevor, have you got an interpretation of that line of poetry to share with the class or are you giggling over something else?”
“Sorry Mr. Schmidt.”
“So, have you interpreted that line?”
“Trevor did, but I think he’s wrong.”
“Tom, there are no ‘wrong’ interpretations of poetry. The poet just wants you to think about what he’s said. Trevor can’t be ‘wrong’. There is no ‘wrong’. We don’t use that word in my class. Go ahead and tell us what you think. Stand up so we can hear you.”
Trevor stood, sure in his interpretation.
“Well, like ‘destiny’ is our future, right? And the seed comes from our dad and goes into our mom. And all that stuff inside women is pretty weird and mysterious. Realms are places. That’s what it means, ‘the seeds of destiny are sown in mysterious realms’.”
Mr. Schmidt’s face went pale and he held his lips tightly together.
“Dude,” Tom whispered, shaking his head, “I told you.”
Sharon, Shannon and Sherry turned bright red. Janine, Jerome, Janelle, Jessica, and Jim laughed so hard tears streamed down their cheeks. Ramona, Robbie, and Rex sat stunned, afraid to laugh because maybe Trevor was right and they hated this poetry shit. Others sat wide-eyed, staring at Mr. Schmidt, waiting for a cue.
“OK,” said Mr. Schmidt. “Who has the next line?”
Last night as I was learning about Confucius I saw a historian who reminded me of my thesis advisor and friend, Dr. Robert D. Richardson, Jr. I thought, “I haven’t heard from Bob since???” It was fall 20219. We’d lost contact with each other at some point in the 2000s and after I found a book he’d written — Nearer the Heart’s Desire — about Edward FitzGerald who had translated The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam into English. I wrote about it here.
I went online to find him, found contact information for an email, and wrote him, basically asking him if he were still alive as I’d found an obituary with his name but couldn’t be sure it wasn’t him. He wrote back — happily! — that he was still there. He asked for my address and sent me a copy of the book. I read it over a couple of evenings and loved it.
So…last night I again looked for Dr. Richardson online and, sadly, this time I found obituaries. The first was written by one of my former professors. I realized if I ever opened the alumni magazine that arrives from time to time in my mailbox, I would have known last year.
When I wrote the China book, he was in my thoughts the whole time. Although I was so burdened by wanderlust at that time in my life that I studied densely printed National Geographic maps for fun, Dr. Richardson was the one who put the China bug in my ear. He wasn’t serious, as it happens. He’d recently visited Shanghai and Beijing (1980) and had returned with the assessment that it was a grim, stultifying, ugly, evil place where no one should go. He referred to it as “Dickens’ China.”
“Why don’t you go to China?” he said to me one afternoon when I’d come into his office with a draft of my thesis and my wanderlust.
“How can I do that?”
“Just send a letter to a university with your CV.” (I didn’t know what a CV was)
When I actually DID that (after he’d recommended some universities) he became very worried. What if I actually WENT? He and his wife invited me for supper and the killed the fatted leg of lamb and asparagus for the event. After dinner, his wife and daughters left the dining room so Bob and I could talk. He was afraid I was having an existential crisis and recommended Erikson’s book, Identity, Youth, and Crisis. A week or so later, I saw him in the English Department office and he said, “Why do you want to go away so badly? You know what Milton said.”
Of course I didn’t. I had always found Milton unreadable. I shook my head.
“In Paradise Lost. He wrote, ‘The mind is its own place and can make hell a heaven and of heaven a hell’.” Milton’s actual words are a little different, but I think Dr. Richardson was a better writer.
When I was clearly determined to go, he introduced me to one of his students from China so I could learn Chinese. When I finally got a job and went, I wrote Dr. Richardson often. My letters were so enthusiastic that he searched for — and quickly found — a position at a university in Sichuan. He happened to be in Beijing when I was there but the government refused to allow us to meet.
I dedicated my China book to him, and while I want to sell it and for people to read it, the reader in my mind as I wrote was him. When I finished, and it was published, I sent him a copy. His response was one of the loveliest letters I’ve had in my life. Now I know that we completed our own circle in those exchanges.
Since then, I’ve remembered many of our contacts over the years. It’s normal that people pass in and out of our lives and even that we lose the thread of people we care about. I don’t really buy that “people come into our lives for a reason” thing, but it is impossible that all the people we care about can stay in the same place any more than we can stay in the same place. We don’t, not physically or psychically or philosophically or anything. It seems like human life is this constantly fluctuating mess of change. Once I thought it was like mountain climbing but now, if I were to give it a sports analogy it would be surfing. We are all trying to stand safely on our board and make it to shore. And shore? It might be a nice beach where we relax until we’re ready for the next set, sometimes it’s THE shore.
But I’m sad, a little washed out today, even with company coming. Dr. Richardson was a remarkable man, a very fine writer, an inspiring teacher and — in my little life — one of my staunchest allies. Here are a couple of lovely obituary/articles about him. He was a fine writer, a find scholar and an inspiring teacher.
Robert Richardson Jr., Biographer of Literary Giants, Dies at 86 (NYT)
Opinion: How America can shift to the right direction (WaPO)
The featured photo is from this article in USA Today about his biography of Thoreau
The email I wrote in 2018? looking for him when he was still there.
Dear Bob — I was looking for you online this evening and happened on a page that said you were dead. Someone left a note that was a tribute to your work on Emerson. I was stunned, wondering, “Is this true?” I kept looking and found nothing else that indicated you were no longer “here.” In doing that, I found out a lot about your recent projects and something about your current life. I hope you remember me. I think about you pretty often and how lucky I was that you were my thesis adviser, how right you were about who I am (though back at the University of Denver I didn’t have much of a clue).
I tihnk the last time we corresponded I had just finished writing a novel (with which I was in love) and I wrote asking what I should do next. You said, “Find an agent.” I followed your advice and went out in search of one — and that was the SASE days when one might be blessed with a rejection slip on actual paper. One of these said, “You need an editor,” and he was right.
My writing life has been fruitful, minutely rewarding financially, entirely without an agent and very enlightening. It’s brought me many of the happiest moments of my life. Most of all, I’ve loved what I’ve written and the work that’s gone into the books. Turns out I’m a Swiss Medievalist Historian — i know this is true because I was labeled by two Swiss Medievalist historians. You can see what I’ve done if you want to here at marthakennedy.co
Of your work I really enjoyed the little book, “First We Read, Then We Write” — I wanted to assign it as a text in one of my writing classes, but at that point I was teaching mostly Basic Business Communication at San Diego State and Freshman Comp at a couple of community colleges who had sold their souls to the beast of Prentice/Hall, so that didn’t happen. I love the William James book. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was my father’s favorite book. He carried a little copy with him when he was in the Army and that book was his last Christmas present to me before he died in spring 1972. Having learned (tonight) of yours I will have to get one.
Mostly I want to know that you are still here. I retired from teaching (what?) after 30+ years (double what) in 2014 and moved from the San Diego area to the San Luis Valley in Colorado. I love it. I’m surrounded by mountains; the Rio Grande traverses it, I’m 1 1/2 hour from Taos, I have real snow, the light is amazing, the people are warm and friendly. I’m in Monte Vista, a town of 4000 and the home of the first pro-rodeo in Colorado.
I hope you get this and I hope to hear from you.
121 1st Ave
Monte Vista, CO 81144
Last night I read a CNN article written by a therapist — John Duffy — that described people who weren’t all that anxious to return to “normal” life after the pandemic was over. “These people thrived in pandemic isolation — and aren’t ready to return to ‘normal’ socializing.”
The writer essentially labeled such people as “socially anxious” and described it as a kind of pathology. Personally, I don’t think being reluctant to wander around in a world in which a deadly pandemic is flying around is pathological but definitively sane. I know that social avoidance CAN be a problem for people, but not all people who are not super eager to return to “normal” life are struggling with a mental health issue. One thing the article never mentioned was people like me who do things — enjoy things — that you just don’t do with a bunch of friends or out in the world.
I remember very well the night I typed the last word on the finished rough draft of my first novel, Martin of Gfenn. I had little time to work on it — an hour or so in the evening which made the finished (ha ha) draft very repetitive because I had to catch up where I’d left off. Anyhoo I shut down my computer (an old Apple) stood up and wondered where everybody was. I’d spent so much time with all these interesting people, the characters in my book, and now my house was completely empty. It was one of those moment in life when you think there should be champagne and a big celebration but my house was empty (except for six dogs). That’s when I realized that to write I’d have to accept a kind of solitude most people might never even know.
At the same time, I’d had this incredible experience that was impossible to share with anyone. I’d written a novel. I’d brought my story, my vision, for Martin (the character) into real life. I’d done the work, the immense research, all of it, the library time (back then). Because of my book, I KNEW people who’d lived in the 13th century. The experience catapulted me into a different Martha, but I couldn’t share that, either. I remember sitting in my living room thinking, “If you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to accept solitude.”
My mom had social anxiety and she was always afraid her kids would, too. It was one of the reasons she didn’t want her two artistic kids to be artists. “You’ll always be alone.” But she didn’t know. Maybe the great designer puts each of us together exactly right for who we are.
I don’t dispute that there are people with social anxiety and that maybe it’s a problem for them (it was for my mom because she wasn’t happy). But not all people who are less than eager for a return to “normal” life fit into that slot. I came to understand this when I was teaching. There were meetings in which NOTHING happened. Problems weren’t solved. Some people talked and some people didn’t. I seldom did. Then someone would end the meeting and invariably say, “This was a good meeting. Thank you so much for sharing your concerns.” They would point to a list they’d written while the talkers were talking.
Two things went through my mind. First, only the concerns of the people who’d spoken up were on that list. Second, the REAL reason for the meeting had nothing to do with solving problems. These people just needed to get in a room together and yammer at each other. The act itself was meaningful to them. For me it was a complete waste of time. When I felt something needed to be changed I’d go find the person who could change it and talk to them or write them so they could share my thoughts clearly and compellingly laid out rather than in an emotion-laden rambling rant.
Social anxiety or not, we’re stuck in the world with each other and extroversion is “normal.” Many an introvert (like me) has no particular social anxiety, it’s just that “out there” is tiring and requires effort that being alone probably requires for the extroverted. I have friends who’ve had significant stress during the past year because they have been precluded from doing the things that they love to do. They’ve engaged socially much more than I would (or did). For them the risk of NOT engaging was worse than the risk of getting ill.
“A year ago, most of us could not imagine a world in which we not only didn’t have to go to work, school, restaurants, concerts and churches, much less that any such activity would be forbidden. And my socially anxious clients have now been basking in a wholly false sense of security for the better part of a year.”https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/09/health/social-anxiety-post-pandemic-life/index.html
In other words, the world in which the socially anxious are comfortable can’t last. They don’t own the world.
And then…in reality when I was 12, and had to give a prayer at church, in front of the congregation, I passed out, fell on the floor, humiliated myself and my mom. I was THAT afraid of public speaking. I knew even then that I could not live the life I wanted if I was that afraid to stand and say my say. I worked hard to overcome that. The moment I knew I HAD overcome that happened almost 40 years later, when, at the invitation of one of my students, I gave a lecture (one I’d given to this student’s class) on overcoming the fear of public speaking. There were 300 students in that room waiting to hear me. Some were there because it was required or extra credit for their communication class; some were there because they wanted some hope. They, too, knew they couldn’t go forward in their lives without overcoming that. I had a good slide show and a good speech. I also wore clothes in which my armpit sweat wouldn’t show because yes. I was terrified. But what’s the point of terror like that? There is none. It was a bit of an operation to set up and prepare, but…
I gave my speech. It was well accepted, applauded. Then, afterward, when nearly everyone had left and I was packing up my stuff, a young woman came to talk to me. She was so nervous her face was shaking, her hands were damp and shaky, too.
“Can I ask you something?” she ventured.
“Did you REALLY get over being afraid?”
“No.” I slipped off my jacket. My pit stains went to my waist.
“How do you do it? I never imagined you were nervous.”
“I had something important to say,” I told her. “More important than how I felt when I started to speak. That’s my secret. I think of what I have to say and who needs to hear it. And, I prepare. And I know that whatever happens, it’s not going to kill me.”
She wrote all this down, no longer shaking. Then, “Thank you, thank you so much. I think you helped me.”
ONE person in that room NEEDED that message. Was her personality a pathology? No.
But after that…I gave several papers at conferences and all the normal things that were part of my life and job, but I was (with the exception of my book reading in 2019) never nervous again. Social anxiety — which I believe everyone has — is not “abnormal.” It’s human.
I got my second email this morning from The Washington Post about how to cope with the mental challenges brought by our time in history. There is a lot of stuff there, but one thing I know from my own life is right on:
“…lots of small practices can help you move forward and recover a sense of time … Alvord (clinical psychologist) said, you accept what’s out of your control and look for what’s in your control, even if it’s as small as taking a walk.”
I think I learned as a little kid that if I just take a walk (bike ride, run) things will improve, whatever things are. There was another good thing in this morning’s email regarding mental habits that deepen peoples’ depression and feelings of hopelessness:
- The “I can’t” habit. You automatically decide you can’t meet a new challenge. You give up before even trying.
- The catastrophizing habit. You see disaster everywhere, and fall into what ifs. You spend a lot of energy panicking.
- The all-or-nothing habit. If something doesn’t go just one way, it’s wrong. You’re irritated with yourself and others.
These are countered with challenge questions:
- The “I can’t” habit: “What is the evidence that I can’t do it?”
- The catastrophizing habit: “What are five other things more likely to happen?”
- The all-or-nothing habit: “What are some possibilities that fall between the extremes?”
Today’s newsletter thing was great — I guess I’m a fan of behavioral psychology which this whole thing illustrates. When I was having counseling myself, that was my therapist’s approach. She was perfect for me because I’m one of those, “That’s all very interesting, but what do I DO???” kind of people. Deep down I believe that we are what we do, the culmination of our choices and actions. I just wanted to make choices that worked. I wasn’t trying to expunge any deeply buried demons or get to the bottom of anything. I knew that dark icky stuff wasn’t going away. I wanted to learn how to live with it.
Still…I dunno. I think “sinking spells” are a normal part of life in any moment, “normal” or whatever this is. Maybe it’s all how we feel about our sinking spells, how well we’re able to ride them out and move forward. Some time ago — when I was still teaching Business Communication — I had an epiphany about the word “positive.” The text book talked about “good news” and “bad news” messages. Simply good news is what the audience wants to read/hear and bad news what the audience doesn’t want to read/hear.
It was challenging for my students to get that simple point, that good or bad depended on the audience’ desires, not theirs. A good news message started out with good news, ‘Yay! You get a refund!” a bad news message started with goodwill, an acknowledgement of the humanity of the audience, “We appreciate your business” or “Thank you for your inquiry” — something like that. Students had this idea of “justice” (“They want something they can’t have! They read the signs! Off with their heads!”) so it was challenging to teach this. Shouldn’t have been, but it was there I learned that we can’t take empathy for granted. Some people need to be taught.
The closing of both types of messages was supposed to be positive, and positive meant something that pointed to a future relationship. Positive didn’t mean up-beat or cheery, but something that pointed to a future that was better than the present, essentially the “light at the end of the tunnel.” In a business message like those my students were learning it might be, “Here’s a coupon for 10% off a future purchase” or “We hope to do business with you in the future.” Basically saying, “This, too, shall pass.”
Featured photo: For various reasons, I had a bad day yesterday. At one point, I started to cry. Teddy and Bear were very worried and Bear stayed worried (as is her nature) until I went to bed. The photo is Bear taking care of me in the evening. She can’t make me soup when I’m sick, drive me to the doc if I’m hurt, or offer any other concrete help, but when it comes to moral support, faith and affection, it’s pretty hard to beat a livestock guardian dog.
Yesterday I sought refuge with Bear and there was a whiff of fall in the air, the fragrance of damp fallen leaves by the pond. Fall was more apparent in the colors of the landscape which here, in the high valley, are universally golden except for the wild currant bush that turns bright red.
None of these out at the refuge.
I saw “my” cows, but Beautiful Bessie was no where in sight. Not that these are ugly cows.
The big fire in northwestern Colorado is keeping the mountains out of sight.
The cranes have arrived in their autumn numbers, different from spring when tens of thousands converge on the refuge more or less at once. In fall they kind of straggle in and head off at some point for New Mexico where they’ll stay until March. That’s the story, anyway, but my life here has shown me that they are around all year in limited numbers.
Today is a “school” day, and Hallowe’en is on the horizon. We’ll be making these little guys:
This is Megan, a prototype that we will take apart so the kids know how to put her together again. I will put her together again so at the end of the film I can add in the credits, “No paper and pipe-cleaner spiders were permanently damaged in the making of this film.”
And once more, I tip my hat to elementary school teachers. I don’t know how you do it. I just have two who like me and want to learn and it’s WAY more than I can deal with (in truth). And how do you do it now that recess doesn’t exist any more? I remember elementary school, and by the time recess came around I was so wound up it wasn’t funny and I was one of the calm ones…
I’m the head honcho of Martha, Bear and Teddy, but what that actually means in the grand scheme is less than negligible. I was talking to a friend on the phone last night trying to explain that since I retired, I know a LOT less than I did when I was “holding up the sky” and teaching everyone in the world how to write and communicate in a businesslike fashion. Both Socrates and Lao Tzu said (in their later years?) that knowing that you don’t know is 1) wisdom 2) the Tao. Or something… I was trying to explain to my friend that when we’re working our world depends on our expertise, and we have to KNOW what we’re spending 8+ hours a day doing, thinking, talking about.
The competence imperative is removed from our lives when we’re not holding up the sky any more. It’s really difficult to change gears or even KNOW we need to change gears; a lot of people don’t. I did, but godnose how I managed that.
I remember in my 30s getting together with another teacher (in her 30s) and marching to the boss’ (in her late 40s) office with a solution to the problem of students being unhappy in the level in which they had been placed at our language school. The students believed they’d been put in a low (in their opinion) level so that the school could make more money by making the students take more time to be ready to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). My colleague said the students should be placed in groups that they wouldn’t recognize as levels, “Blue birds, robins, what not,” she said, “instead of numbers like 102, 103, 104.” Students especially hated 104 — intermediate. It WAS hard to progress past that.
The boss agreed that a lot of students came to her wanting to be placed in a higher level, but that our testing was accurate and placement was almost always correct. If it wasn’t, students were given a chance to change levels. My contention was that there were students who would learn if they were slightly misplaced and had to reach. It got to be a pretty loud argument and you are probably reading this thinking, “Who CARES????”
As I got older I became a lot less polemical. The last episode like this I remember was between me (50 something) and some young teachers (30 something) over my syllabus. My syllabus evolved into this horrible thing, four pages long and covering every possible nightmare I’d confronted in my years teaching. I’d learned that a syllabus is a legal document and also a teaching tool. The more I spelled out about how a student could succeed (or fail) in my class, the more useful it would be for me and them. Students got it and liked it. It usually went in the front of their notebooks and they used it to gain direction in the classes I taught. But my 30 something colleagues complained that it didn’t “reflect the temper of the times” and was “snarky” and not “supportive.”
I didn’t even know what “snarky” meant, but I knew where I was in this business of holding up the sky. I explained WHY my syllabus was like it was and asked them to send me a sample ideal syllabus. Their response was how, after I had taught so long, didn’t I KNOW what a syllabus “should” be?
They were picking a fight, and I wasn’t having it. Aside from certain information a syllabus MUST contain, I didn’t think my syllabus was their business, but they were at the “We KNOW things” stage of their career, and I was at the “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate,” stage of my career.
When my mom died, an older friend described life as a “wave.” “Now you’re on the crest of the wave,” she said. I’ve thought about that often, even to the point of imagining waves and how strange it must be for the wave, who’s spent all its life out there in the ocean, to find itself suddenly on the alien world of the shore, all shallow and stuff, where water is no longer the WHOLE WORLD but, rather, sand, rocks, and — ewww — dryness. “Wow,” thinks the wave, “I don’t know ANYTHING about this.”
It has to be like this. In our middle years, the “productive years,” we’re doing the hard work of raising kids, earning a living and all that entails. A certain amount of aggressive certainty is absolutely necessary and part of human progress. BUT life’s REAL luxury, the earned reward of survival, might be not having to know everything any more. ❤
If you’re read my blog for a while you know there are twenty-something large books in my “studio” — journal/scrapbook things that I don’t want to keep but can’t throw out. They take up a LOT of space, and I don’t “use” them at all. (How would anyone “use” them?) A few of them are spread out on my work table now. If you open one and start reading, well, for the most part, they’re just awful.
I went at 1988-89 (Volume I of that year, seriously) yesterday with scissors and an x-acto knife. I cut out sheafs of pages, laughing, thinking that even if I don’t do anything more with it, and never manage to throw the books out, at least I’ll leave behind the “expurgated” version of “The Examined Life.”
For many years I wrote my personal thoughts and struggles in these books. I suppose it’s a pretty common human thingamajig to struggle over and over with the same aspects of personality or the walls that spring up in life, the stuff you can’t get over, around or through. For me, apparently, it was “luv’,” specifically a marriage that wasn’t working and my desire to have a romantic companion. I don’t know why that didn’t seem to me at the time a good reason to sit down and talk with my ex about our “non” relationship. Maybe I did and it just didn’t make it into “The Examined Life.”
There are greeting cards, photographs, funny things students said (like the title of this post) circular meditations on the meaning of life (didn’t find the answer, so circular). On the other hand, some of it is accurately self-revelatory. I did not purge the book of those bits of elaborate cursive.
Those are not trivial problems but, good god, are they boring to read about.
Mixed in with all that verbiage (rhymes with “garbage”) are some good insights, descriptions of moments which I could not have known at the time were major life moments, like seeing my first rattlesnake, watching the swirling gyre of seagulls rising from the ocean, being looked in the eye by a red tail hawk, the beginning of my hiking life in the chaparral, the beginning of my life with dogs and my first dog, Truffle who was then a puppy, getting my second dog, Molly. I could not know in the midst of 1988-89 how important these things were and how unimportant the other stuff was.
I think, though, this whole thing could be compiled into ONE that I really CAN use, another volume called, “How it All Turned Out here in Heaven” or something. Maybe just denouement. “Getting found almost always means being lost for a while.” Annie Lamont
But it struck me this morning how weird it all is. Here we are, more-or-less consigned to our domiciles, as if this were a second winter without the glorious compensation of snow, relegated to tasks our usual “busyness” would have made it easy for us to avoid.
In other news: if your blender breaks and you want a smoothie, the best tool? The lowly dinner fork.
I don’t have much contact with former students and don’t much want it. Most of my students were OK, some of them were fun, some were astonishingly great, some of them were unspeakable monsters. But teaching is a kind of transactional relationship. It’s a calling for many people. For me it was a calling, but in reality it’s a bunch of people (remember I taught college and university writing and business communication) who pay some money to learn some stuff they hope will help them earn a living when they’re finished. They pay. The teacher is paid in turn to teach them something useful to their future lives.
What that might be, however? That’s a big question especially when you aren’t teaching hard skills but soft ones.
You sign up for “a world of pain” when you sign up for this. Last night, for some reason, I thought of all the really horrific experiences I had as a teacher that included being pushed up against a wall with a student’s hand on my throat. I wondered why I was remembering this of all things in a world that’s scary enough as it is. Then I realized that it’s because a student emailed me a couple of days ago.
She is from Iraq. Her family refugeed to the US during the GWB war. She was young, 19. She was in my critical thinking class at a community college. She was aggressive and arrogant (defenses?). One day, as we were starting Fahrenheit 451 she said, “Why do we have to read this? It’s boring.”
Her whole strategy for going to school and approaching life, her whole feeling toward existence, all of that was encapsulated in that question. She was going to endure life by rejecting it out of hand. That would teach it.
I looked at her, kept my composure, and said, “Because it changed the world. You need to know what it says or you’re going to live in a future just like that. How far are you?”
I laughed. “Keep reading. Every book is boring two pages in.”
She kept reading and her attitude changed. Her attitude toward EVERYTHING changed. She never stopped challenging things, but she didn’t challenge me in that way again. She needed someone to stand up to her. She loved all three novels we read and saw herself as Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth, driving her car out of The Doldrums to conduct the orchestra of Chroma the Great.
We’ve corresponded off and on since I moved here. She finished her degree and has done a lot of traveling. I think for her, now, life is a journey. She wrote about her most recent trip which was to Iran;
“What I enjoyed the most, was the fact that I was walking on land where the Persian Empire started. Every step I took was a step in history every building I entered some famous scholar once sat their to conduct their studies. That to me was so powerful. It is as if you are walking in the past but right now. I don’t know how to really explain it. If you have ever stepped in a historical place you might know what I mean.”
And that, folks, is why I put up with everything for so long.
And, as I post this, this song plays on Mohammed’s Radio:
19th century writers used a lot of words. It would be another hundred years before a different style of writing would catch on. Emerson is wordy. There’s no way around it. It’s an incontrovertible truth. When I taught “Self-Reliance” I did it by making a worksheet that had one question per paragraph. The idea was if the student could answer the question, he/she had the jist of the paragraph.
My students hated it, or, anyway, I thought they hated it. When I wrote my thesis advisor, who had edited the Emerson’s Essays we were using, and told him I was teaching it, he said, “Find out who likes it. Get their names and I’ll send them autographed copies.”
The next time I went to class I asked, “Do any of you like ‘Self-Reliance’?” 3/4 of the class raised their hands. I said, “It doesn’t affect your grade. I just haven’t tried this before.” No one put their hands down. Dr. Robert D. Richardson had to send 25 autographed copies of the book.
The message of “Self-Reliance” is that through self-knowledge, a person can learn to act and live in harmony with his/her true nature. The essay is full of beautiful passages buried in the labyrinth of Emerson’s prose. One of the loveliest, densest and (to me) truthful passages of “Self-Reliance” is very dense, but the message contained within it strikes home for me. It concerns “Whim.”
I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation… “Self-Reliance” Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Whim” in this case is essentially following your heart. You don’t know where it’s going to lead, but the thread to which it attaches might be the heart’s goal. It might not, but, as Emerson says, “…we cannot spend the day in explanation.”
One of the chapters in Beyond Feelings, the Critical Thinking book I used for years and years, was titled “What is TRUTH?” It was a very hard chapter to teach because it went against most of what my students had learned in their lives about Truth. It was fun, though, provocative and engaging.
The author of Beyond Feelings — Vincent Ryan Ruggiero — made the case that:
- Truth is not a matter of opinion
- Just because we don’t know what it is, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist
- Truth is not personal
- Belief doesn’t make something true
The search for truth is the essence of curiosity. Its best friend is humility.
Ruggiero’s objective was to stimulate students to question, and they did, sometimes loudly and fervently. “No! That’s my truth and you can’t change it!” My job at that point was to help them understand that what they were defending wasn’t truth at all. It was their belief about something. It’s a threatening idea that can leave a person — especially a student who’s worried about his/her GPA — feeling like they’re standing on the sand by the ocean while the water pulls the sand out from under his/her feet. Students who had been penalized for saying, “I don’t know,” had a hard time with the fact that “I don’t know” is a valid answer when they, uh, don’t know. In my class it was never a wrong answer.
Those who understood (and most did after a while) felt a sense of liberation. They didn’t have to waste any more time defending anything.
Personal taste and personal belief, however, are always true. A person can speak for him/herself in that dimension and always speak the truth. An example:
“Does God exist?”
“I believe so.”
“But do you KNOW he does? Can you prove it?”
“No, but I can’t prove that God DOESN’T exist, either.”
The pure essence of belief. One endless (and easily escalated) argument bites the dust. Belief is a choice and requires no defense. Truth, however, is an objective reality and needs defense through demonstrable evidence.
I had a colleague at one of the colleges in which I taught who HATED the idea of objective truth. He said it was fascist because it insisted everyone believe the same thing. He absolutely didn’t understand it. First, objective truth is not an idea. Second, it has nothing to do with personal belief. This guy also hated it when I subbed for one of his classes and presented a PowerPoint (1998!) on Kafka’s life. “What does PowerPoint have to do with Kafka?” This teacher never saw the show, never saw the streets of Prague in Kafka’s time or photos of Kafka “writ large” and projected to the class so they could SEE a world that, in space and time, was completely alien to them. (Because, really, what did Kafka’s world have to do with Kafka? Or the fact that he was a real person not a concept?)
No point arguing personal belief. I shrugged and avoided him from then on, not so much because of his opinion about truth, but because he dismissed a technological tool just because he didn’t want to learn it, even if it was relevant to the world in which his students would live.
Here is an interesting analysis of the “truth vs. belief” phenomenon.
Why Smart People Believe Coronavirus Myths