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Month: May, 2013

sayeth oprah: “ask yourself what makes you come alive…”

oprah better

dispatch from 02139 (in which the glorious “miss winfrey” — as the southern gentleman introduced her to the crowd — comes a-calling to commencement, and sends us forth…hot, sweaty and re-dialing our inner moral GPS…)

since, in all our together-in-chicago years, i’d never managed to amble over to that west loop studio of the glorious O herself, it was mighty considerate of veritas U to ink dear o-o-oprah in as this year’s commencement headliner.

why, with a mere 30,000 of us crammed in that polygon of grass and trees and library steps known in cambridgetown as tercentenary theatre, it was a veritable talk show a la fresco.

madam televangelist even joked, early on in her 29 minutes and 15 seconds of wisdom-spieling, that she’d hoped we might all be able to peek down under our chairs and find — voila! — free masters degrees and PhDs, which by harvard standards stirs a quicker pulse than the keys to any old lexus.

but that, dear friends, is leaping too far ahead into the proceedings of the 362d commencement of the oldest university in all the land.

back to the buzz that buzzed through cambridge, as the bells of harvard yard gonged once, then twice. and all of us, from points all around the square, we came trooping through the opened gates, first line of defense in the march toward harpo studios, 02138 edition.

we submitted to backpack checks, pulled proof-of-merit stubs from our sweaty pockets, and slogged through mud (for the night before the heavens opened wide and noah’s flood near poured). we found chairs that, had they toppled, would have slathered us in harvard ooze.

we sat through the blah-blah-blahs.

heard how the class of 1988 had raised a deficit-busting, all-time-record-setting $115 million (yup, you read that right, that was MILLION) in donations in just the last year, their 25th since graduation. we heard the sublime university president drew faust gilpin downplay her role as mere “warm-up act,” and acknowledge that there was “not a sea but a veritable ocean of anticipation” for the crimson-gowned miss winfrey who sat politely, legs primly crossed at the ankles, just a few feet away, as she awaited her turn at the podium.

and then, in all her splendor, the big O arose.

she belted out a wallop of basso profundo i swear they heard clear back in sweet home chicago: “O. My. Goodness! i’m at haaaaaaaaaarvaaaaaaarddd!”

“not too many little girls from rural mississippi make it all the way here to cambridge,” she began, though before she closed she spoke of khadija williams, one of the graduates of the harvard class of 2013 who had been homeless, attended 12 schools in 12 years, who “lived out of garbage bags,” who bathed in wal-mart restrooms so she could ditch the stench of the streets before walking into high school, and who, blessedly, had never ever veered from her holy path to college.

exuding that oprah-magic that has a way of making every couch potato in the country feel she’s the shoulder we can always lean on, that she’s with us in our skinned knees and our banged-up hearts, she mentioned straight off that she was addressing her remarks “to anybody who’s ever felt inferior, felt disadvantaged, anybody who’s felt screwed by life.”

not quite what you’d expect for a crowd of harvardians.

but, there, people, is the holy gospel. no one — not even harvard phi beta kappas — is immune from feeling less-than, marginalized, shoved to the sometimes sidelines.

and then, dear oprah got to the heart of the matter, what she called a fundamental truth: “it doesn’t matter how far you might rise, at some point you are bound to stumble. because if you do what we are constantly doing, raising the bar; if you are constantly pushing yourself higher, higher, ” — and here she mentioned that even though she hadn’t gone to the ivy-tangled college, she was simpatico with the type-A harvard-hard-charging personality.

“it’s the law of averages, not to mention the myth of Icarus,” she went on, “that predicts you will at some point fall.

“and when you do, i want you to remember this: there is no such thing as failure. failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”

she paused, the wise one did.

then she picked right up, simpatico as ever: “now, when you’re down in the hole, it looks like failure,” she said, sister-to-sister style, as if no podium, no rows of 30,000 chairs stood between her broken heart and ours.

“this past year,” she let on, meaning when clear across the country her OWN network was branded a failure, “i had to spoonfeed those words to myself.”

take time, she advised, to mourn what you think you might have lost. “and here’s the key: learn. from. every. mistake.

“because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more of who you are.”

step three: figure out the next right move.

to do that, she prescribed what she promised was the key to life: “develop an internal moral emotional GPS that can tell you which way to go.”

be willing, she all but preached, “to listen to, to be guided by, the still small voice within.”

amen, and hallelujah.

in fact, as soon as those three words — “still small voice” — spilled from oprah’s lips, the tall bespectacled fellow beside me turned and looked my way. we might not have succumbed to the GPS at our house, but we’re both believers in that still small voice within.

should you be so inclined, you can hear the whole of dr. winfrey’s wisdom words right here.

but one more blip of oprah-light before the standing ovation, mud-sunk heels and all:

“theologian howard thurman said it best,” O told us, “when he said…’ask yourself what makes yourself come alive. and go out and do that. because what the world needs is people who have come alive.'”

and that, dear friends, will be one of the questions i carry home, as i commence this life ever after, a life — not merely a year — of thinking sumptuously: what is it, i ask and i ask, that makes me come alive?

i ask you too: what makes you come alive?

can you see itty-bitty oprah up above? she’s there i promise. just to the left of the tent pole, reaching down under her seat. might she be checking to see if someone left her a free doctorate degree? in fact they did. dr. winfrey, i presume. 

muddled at the end…

muddled at the end

dispatch from 02139 (in which this year of thinking sumptuously is slipping through our fingertips, certificates of completion are now collecting dust atop the dresser, and we are due to turn back into pumpkins any minute now….)

so, at last it’s come, and now it’s gone.

may 22. that once-distant spot on the horizon, that date we magically hoped might never come near, the date when all the fellows and their co-vivants would gather one last ceremonial time, circle around the astounding historian and president of veritas U, drew faust gilpin.

she would stand behind the podium, all 5-foot-8 of towering intellect, and she’d sprinkle us with final words of wisdom and blessing, deal out certificates as if a deck of holy cards, and then we’d file out.


the year of thinking sumptuously come to a sorry close.

if no mortar boards were tossed in the air (the suggestion was nixed, opting instead for dignified closing benediction), there were exhales all around: sighs of relief, whoops of joy. and there were inhales: disbelief. oh-no-what-now? how’d that happen quite so swiftly?

i, for one, am clearly in the camp of the muddled.

so topsy turvy are my insides, are the thoughts rumbling through my brain, it’s a miracle these sentences aren’t flowing out in parabolas and circles.

i am one big gunny sack of contradiction.

i am deeply grateful — and i mean prostrate, belly-flopped, on the cobbled lanes, for crying out loud — for having had this wollop of a whirl drop into our laps in the first place. and i am oh-so-sick that i didn’t lick a few more morsels off my plate, didn’t break out of a few of the ties that bind me, always bind me.

i am more than sated, yes, but hungry for so much more — in the book department, for starters. i am lugging home a 10-pound box of syllabi that i intend to read my way through, even if i need to live to 210 to do so.

i ache for home, for the friends who know me through and through and who understand the hills and valleys of my soul. i ache to be back in my not-so-secret garden, perched on the birdhouse bench tucked along the bluestone path. i imagine tiptoeing down my creaky stairs, turning the corner into my farmhouse kitchen, letting the cat in from his midnight prowl.

and yet, last night at fenway (the final final outing of the year, a trek to the green monster, washed down with a belly-ache of cotton candy, cracker jack, and a triple cracked off the bat of the reigning mr. red sox, dave ortiz), i was looking a few rows down at my beloved friend from south africa and i thought i heard my own heart crack at the thought of being an ocean and a continent away from her.

and what about the great white clapboard clubhouse that’s been the beehive of this blessed bustling nieman year? every time i round the bend, come through that white picket gate (past the nostril-packing lilac and the korean spice viburnum in recent weeks), charge up the brick walk and bound through the brass-knockered front door, i’ve felt more embraced than a girl should be allowed to feel (by the old floorboards and colonial panes of glass, i mean, a place that echoes with three-quarters of a century of journalism heavyweights).

and leaving behind the curator — the great good friend who somehow believed in me this year, even when i was quivering with self-doubt — i cannot stand the thought of not having her in my every day.

can’t stand the thought of days not populated with seminars and masterclasses, with shoptalks and round tables, with spontaneous eruptions of big ideas and wacky antics down in the clubhouse basement where the computers always whir and the fridge is forever stocked with cranberry-lime fizzy water, my emblematic drink of the year.

one marvelous fellow-friend told me yesterday that she felt only one thing the other night, after the certificates and the lovely dinner and the curator’s jaw-dropping act of handing out, one at a time, the perfect book she had deeply picked for each and every one of the 24 fellows. she felt “complete,” my fellow-friend said.

how odd, i thought, that i feel quite the opposite. i feel rather incomplete.

is it some quirk in my wiring that has me looking at this whole thing upside down? or is it simply, as i’ve said all year, that i’ve been catapulted into a somewhere i always imagined was here, but i’d not tread before: i am learning my way through the landscape of slow-acquired wisdom, and i see so long and winding a trail ahead.

there are volumes to be inhaled and boundaries to be toppled. there are trapezes i aim to grab, and training wheels i might take off.

i am, in a million ways, so very much a beginner.

and it’s a slow road, mustering courage and backbone.

and there are miles and miles to go before i finally sleep.

and all along the way, i’ll be whispering my vespers of deep and everlasting thanks…for this most glorious and forever year of thinking so very sumptuously.

photo above is my mate, “the professor,” ambling into loeb house for the lovely and heartfelt final dinner. once the home of the president of veritas U, the brick colonial manse is now reserved for truly special occasions — when funders gather with their pocketbooks, or, in the case of the empty-pocketed nieman fellows, for the final push out of harvard yard.

all things nieman now have ended, but we’ll haunt cambridge for another month as little mr. sixth grader winds up his school year, and we slowly say goodbye to this city where a good chunk of our hearts will forever dwell. 

do you often find endings a whirl of up, down and sideways? 

morning prayer

morning prayer

dispatch from 02139 (in which we troop to the last morning prayer of this year of thinking sumptuously, moi and the long tall fellow who brought me here in the first place….)

he doesn’t often make requests, the tall bespectacled fellow now known around these parts as “the professor.”

but he did last night.

“would you please come to morning prayer,” he asked. “it’s the last of the year.”

i had a million and one things i thought i needed to do this morning, but i (a.) either got them crossed off the list before eight bells, or (b.) shoved them aside till 10 bells.

we loped together, the professor and i, across the cobbled lanes, up the hill, across the fresh-mown yard and up the steps of memorial church, that great steepled block of faith and prayer that looks out over the huddled masses of harvard college.

morning prayer is one of veritas U’s golden secrets.

each day at quarter to 9, the prayer chapel tucked behind the altar, the one with steeped rows of well-worn wooden pews, the one where eastern light pours through a two-story stretch of panes and glass, fills with a hodge-podge of harvardians and everyday cantabridgians (the latin-derived name for cambridge locals).

as the bells way up high in the bell tower clang their final call to prayer, the choir files in, their black and crimson-edged robes flowing. a wise soul steps to the podium, and the prayerful bow their heads and wonder what faith tradition we might draw from on any particular morning.

oh, i’ve heard suni prayers, tibetan chant, and a short story by amy hempel (that would be from the great church of literary fiction). i’ve listened to anglican prayer, and hebrew scripture. i’ve absorbed leviticus and the lord’s prayer.

and, by nine bells when the last hymnal is tucked back into its perch, i always waft out, lifted.

i’ve started many a day at morning prayer, finding deep grace there in the dappled light of a cloudy cambridge morning. or, as this morning, nearly blinded by the blazing rising orb.

i am moved to know that the great minds all around me are humble enough — and enlightened enough — to turn to the pews for truer higher wisdom. i find it sweet that so many professor emeriti shuffle back, as backpacked undergrads stumble in.

there is God at harvard, indeed.

that the man i married — a man whose prayerfulness is not widely broadcast — chose morning prayer as one of the closing rituals of this year of thinking sumptuously was indeed a grace note i’d not let slip away.

as the rev. jonathan walton, a soulful professor of divinity and minister of the memorial church, stepped to the podium and began preaching with a story about his 9-year-old son’s obsessions with greek mythology, and his tendency to pretend he is one of his pantheon of heroes — one day zeus, one day hermes, another day apollo — i caught a glimmer of a tear well up in my professor’s eye.

he is finding this leave-taking among the toughest ever.

and the rev. walton’s words, and the prayers of petition, were precisely what we both needed.

“life comes at you fast,” the reverend reminded. “how will we equip ourselves for the insecurities and anxieties that surely blow with the winds of change?”

he spoke of courage to go forth and to be seen as we are. he encouraged us “not to navigate under a cloak of invisibility, not to pretend what we’re not,” but rather to “wear our vulnerability.” only then, he said, can we own “what God would have us be.”

and then we bowed our heads and prayed for “core courage,” to face whatever lies ahead. and “for hope, to hold our heads up with dignity even in the face of despair; for love, to strengthen and embolden us to love fearlessly even in our vulnerability.”

we all shuffled out, trailing behind the reverend onto the broad front porch, where urns of coffee and baskets of bagels awaited. under the chill breeze of this fine may morning, we huddled in conversation with the wise minister.

my professor, i do believe, had breathed in essential courage.

i know i had.

it’s a breathtaking dollop of wisdom, to hear that we needn’t be fearless to go forward. to look around and realize that all that is asked of us is that we embrace the whole of who we are, and take our humbled, unfinished selves out into the world, beyond the walls of the steepled church, beyond the gated yard and cobbled streets, and get on with the business of making our life’s work whole.

amen to that, and to this holy blessed year. and to “the professor” who brought me here in the first place, and who accompanies me home, forever deepened by what unfolded here….

and to all of you, who came along for the journey, humbling as it was, bless you and bless you. we are off to the berkshires for a weekend’s romp, the last as the class of 2013. and then, come wednesday, it’s closing ceremonies and words of wisdom imparted in one final blessing. 

all in a penultimate week’s delight: pulitzer poet, mama’s milk and t-t-tina brown!

sharonoldsat graylag

dispatch from 02139 (in which we offer up a sampling from a string of days in may, as the year of thinking sumptuously hits its crescendo of pinch-me moment upon pinch-me joy, and conversations begin to be doused with impending dates of departure…)

monday (field trip): if you’ve been merrily playing along here at “the chair” all year, you might recall that long ago and faraway in nieman time, a big old bus pulled up to the curb outside the white clapboard clubhouse where niemans romp. and a field trip’s flock of fellows, each clutching a paper sack of road food, climbed aboard and rode into the wilds of new hampshire, to visit poet laureate donald hall.

donald hall

it was a poetic launch to our nieman year of thinking sumptuously. and it unfolded amid the crisp autumn days of october, when the calendar ahead was ripe with promise.

at the start of this, the penultimate week chock full of nieman adventures, we circled back to that same curb and yet another big old bus that ferried a smaller flock of us again to new hampshire, this time to the stoop of yet another poet, the recently crowned pulitzer prize winner, sharon olds.

while i held my breath and prayed the lumbering bus would not teeter over the edge of the skinny dirt road that cut a path through boulders and woods, sharon olds was putting out platters of donuts and pitchers of lemonade, and pulling back her long gray locks into a rubber band.

she’d opened wide the door of the cabin just up the hill from wild goose pond, tucked into the granite crevices of pittsfield, new hampshire. she’d set a pile of poems on a cedar table in the broad screened porch, set out a ring of creaky wooden rocking chairs, and ushered us in, one wide-eyed nieman at a time.

she loosed her mane from the tight-bound harness, and began to talk about how for so many years she was dismissed by “the academy,” those highbrows who deemed her poems too quotidian. all those years, more than 40, she paid no mind. and kept writing anyway.

“i did have the sense of ordinary stories of parents of young children having the capacity to be art,” said she.

“i felt a little pissed off that people felt it wasn’t worthy of art,” she opined, letting rip a smidge of the saltiness that propelled her all those years (and stirring a silent “whoop!” from me).

she talked about how she’d never had “excessive conscious confidence,” but let on that there must have been a germ of it deep in her bedrock, “because i was writing.”

writing bracingly, and achingly, with an intimacy that might make you blush. or one that might make you sit up and see the artfulness in the everyday — its tragedy or, rarer still, its triumph.

here’s a taste: the poem, “the last hour,” from this year’s pulitzer-prize-winning tome, “stag’s leap,” about the shattering of her 32-year marriage. in 20 lines, she mines the heartbreak of a single frame in space and time.

Suddenly, the last hour/before he took me to the airport, he stood up/bumping the table, and took a step/toward me, and like a figure in an early/science fiction movie he leaned/forward and down, and opened an arm,/knocking my breast, and he tried to take some/hold of me, I stood and we stumbled,/and then we stood, around our core, his/hoarse cry of awe, at the center,/at the end, of our life. Quickly, then,/the worst was over, I could comfort him,/holding his heart in place from the back/and smoothing it from the front, his own/life continuing, and what had/bound him, around his heart — and bound him/to me — now lying on and around us,/ sea-water, rust, light, shards,/the little curls of eros/beaten out straight.


katie hinde at nieman

wednesday (seminar): that’s not all this blessed week held. come wednesday twilight, we all pooled at the foot of evolutionary biologist katie hinde, who set off fireworks for some of us, especially those of us who’ve spent good long years of our lives contemplating the liquid gold that is mama’s milk.

yup, katie hinde is one of the world’s foremost scientists on the unique mammalian capacity to “express a fluid for their young that enables them to survive and thrive.”

she is, in fact, harvard’s high priestess and professor of breast milk, proclaiming it, “the most complex biological fluid.”

“mother’s milk is food; mother’s milk is medicine; and mother’s milk is signal,” says hinde, who goes on to explain that there are “thousands of constituents in milk that have an impact on the infant.”

yet we haven’t begun to unlock the secrets — or the power — of all that flows therein, she says, before counting stem cells, immune triggers and fatty-acid brain-builders in the table of contents of what she terms “the magic potion.”

beloved by her students, hinde is a scientist whose passion for her work is downright contagious. her blog, “mammals suck…milk!” is a treasure trove for anyone intent on knowing even just a drop of all there is to know about mama’s milk. her knowledge astounds. her research blows my mind.

take a listen here to see why she sent at least one of us to the moon:

katie hinde: “why mammals suck” @ harvard thinks big 


tina brown

friday (shoptalk): still, the week wasn’t tapped to capacity. come friday afternoon, all fellows and co-vivants were huddled in our last shoptalk of the year. and perhaps the great minds and calendar-fillers at nieman saved the most sumptuous for last.

on tap: none other than tina brown — the inimitable, brilliant former editor of vanity fair, the new yorker and newsweek, and currently founder and editor-in-chief of the daily beast.

turns out the whole conversation was off-the-record, that journalistic cone of silence that allows for no-holds-barred opining, thinking aloud and occasional bloviating.

alas, i can’t spill verbatim quotes from the oh-so-smart-and-sassy brit. but i can tell you she wasn’t nearly so daunting as i would have guessed, after all these years of seeing her name and her razor-sharp wit in big bright lights.

i believe it’s safe to mention — without giving broad swaths away — that she endorsed my deeply held conviction that the whole culture of the internet is far too sneering and snarky, a “blood bath,” she termed much of it.

too too many, she said, “mistake snark for wit.”

and it all “creates drive-by shootings” of verbal bullets. “i love wit and wisdom,” she said, making the distinction that both of those are “generous of heart.” whereas snark — a wholly ungenerous stance — seems to have staked a claim as the universal cyber default mode.

all in all, twas a grand second-to-last action-packed week of nieman-ness.

next up, a class trip to the berkshires, and then the day we’ve all been loathing: graduation day, or rather commencement.

when we begin anew, forever changed.

and how, pray tell, was your week?

photo way above: sharon olds at graylag, her 140-acre compound of woods and cabins on wild goose pond in pittsfield, new hampshire.

thumbprint a few inches below sharon: the poet laureate donald hall. next down: katie hinde, she of “mammals suck” blogging fame, and finally, in the wee bottom frame, ms. tina brown in brown leather armchair at lippmann house. 

enter to grow in wisdom

enter wisdom arch

dispatch from 02139 (in which, alas, classes at veritas U have come to an end, and we begin to ponder just how deeply what we’ve learned will forever inform our going forward…)

enter wisdom detail

the words are simple, etched in limestone.

each letter, maybe three inches, top to bottom, but looming, soaring, some 12 feet up, for those who pause to crane their neck, or shift their eyeballs heavenward.

i nearly tripped the first time i spied them.

“enter to grow in wisdom.”

i swallowed, smiled. charmed that old harvard would deign to dollop this inscribed dose of aphorism into its citizens’ daily lives. how quaint, i thought, for such a stiff-collared institution.

but then i found myself traipsing out of my way to duck beneath the hallowed words, as if they’d waft down and dust me with magic powders.

(this curious — and intentional — ambulatory detour, of course, might be traced back to the ancient parts of me that were trained to believe, long long ago, that splashing one’s fingertips in the holy waters perched beside the door of any catholic church was sure to make your soul sparkle with good graces for the day. or until you next committed some venial sin — say, coveting your first-grade neighbor’s frilly toothpicks, and pocketing said pokers in the dark confines of your dungarees, whereupon you’d rediscover them once home and feign total loss as to how in the world they got there.)

“enter to grow in wisdom,” indeed.

the words span across the brick-and-limestone dexter gate, one of the 26 such thresholds that encircle harvard yard, defining the pastoral from the pedestrian, the hoi polloi from the highbrow.

built in 1901, designed by the architectural greats mckim, mead & white, the brick-striped pillars rise from the cobbled sidewalk as a monument from a bereft mother, josephine dexter, whose son, samuel, was president of harvard’s class of 1890, but who died in 1894, just two days after coming down with spinal meningitis.

it’s a two-sided prescriptive. as you sashay in from the honking, screeching cacophony of massachusetts avenue, you read: “enter to grow in wisdom,” and as you bustle out, looking up onto the inner-facing side of the limestone span, you mouth the words: “depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.”

i can’t shake the incoming directive, “to grow in wisdom.”

can’t decide, is it command or invitation?

and does it matter which?

for me, all i know as i look back on two semesters, tucked in lecture halls, squished in pop-up seats with wobbly writing slabs, is that the words, more than anything, are a beginning without end.

i wish i could inscribe them across the transom of every space through which the human race parades. on the wall of every birthing room: “enter to grow in wisdom.” in the dingy, dim-lit passageways of chicago’s famous “el,” or boston’s “T.” in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, of course.

but why not, across the check-out aisles of the grocery stores, where too often i’ve seen squabbles erupt and nasty words exchanged?

and how about behind the dugout of the little league ballfield? or, above your own kitchen table?

wisdom, for me anyway, is holiness, is path to enlightenment, is how you begin to flush out deeper, broader, more fine-grained empathy, the gift that — when you pay attention, close careful attention — rises up from the pages of history and literature and humankind.

and so, this year, i came to cambridge to spark a hundred thousand wicks of candlelight, of wisdom.

i came, greedily, to soak up all i’d never had a chance to learn, to understand, to know. i came to fill in blanks, connect dots. put words to too many empty pages.

i stayed up late, rose early, because there was so so much i didn’t know.

because i was being offered dorothy day and martin luther king, mahatma gandhi and thich nhat hanh as pathfinders and teachers — and a host of modern spiritual pioneers and religious revolutionaries, besides.

i swallowed whole the complete works of virginia woolf, of nabokov, of bellow, of zora neale hurston, w.e.b. du bois, frederick douglass, and that living writer-saint isabel wilkerson, whose “the warmth of other suns: the epic story of america’s great migration,” should be required reading across the land.

i listened hard when paul farmer and arthur kleinman, the godfathers of global health and modernday disciples of pure goodness, implored us to not leave behind, not forget, the shadows of the world where medicines don’t flow, and one toilet might be shared by 10,000 refugees.

i cried too often in a semester of african-american history — AAAS 118: from the slave trade to the great migration — as my stomach turned and my heart splintered into shards. i could not fathom lashings nor lynchings, but i was left gasping at the recountings of how these inhuman acts were headlined as spectacle, and thousands of white folk turned out to cheer charred black flesh dangling from a limb. and hoisted children to shoulders, so the little ones could get a closer look.

i could not even muster the ancient christian prayer, “father, forgive them, for they know not what they’re doing.” that prayer holds no merit here. there is no excuse, no feeble claim for not standing up to cruel injustice. no pretending you don’t know.

and so, with two fifths of my classes this semester spent studying the injustices of white to black, generation upon generation, century upon century, i kept asking myself why i could not tear myself away from the readings, why i was the sole tear-stained silver-hair, amid a sea of smart-as-a-whip undergrads, who filled notebook after notebook with names and dates and stories of those brave souls who rose up to try to stanch the hatred.

it felt as if the answer wasn’t meant to come to me, not yet anyway. and so i sat there, squirming at times, when kids shot hands in the air and spoke bracingly about white privilege, and great-grandparents begat from slavemasters’ rapes of enslaved great-great-grandmothers.

for most of the semester, i thought perhaps i was being readied for a spate of journalism back in chicago’s blood-splattered landscape of racial inequities.

but it’s dawned on me in recent days that — as i sat feeling powerless to turn back the clock and right the wrongs, and wanted to burst out of my (white) skin to stand up to oppression — the task is here and now: our every days are filled with injustice, are filled with small acts of hatefulness for which we can’t afford to turn our heads, to cower in the idleness of our kitchens or our gardens, our leafy enclaves.

maybe it’s the deep-veined jesuit framework upon which my early college days were founded. maybe it’s just the lens through which i’ve always seen the world. but the particular brand of wisdom that’s been birthed in all these months is the one that now springs from a few essential jottings from my notebook:

1.) beware the single story, preached professor kellie carter-jackson, a rising star among african-american historians. “the single story creates stereotype; it’s not untrue, but it’s always incomplete. it robs people of their dignity. we create a single story when we show a people as one thing, as only one thing, and repeat it over and over. the consequence of the single story is that it makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.”

2.) search out the voices that have been silenced through history. embrace bottom-up not top-down history; sift through the past to mine the stories of those who fought injustice, even when the price they paid was life itself.

my bookshelves are spilling. my pens, dried of ink. the margins of pages read like constellation guides, so stained with stars i’ve drawn to mark the wisdom there contained.


it all comes back to wisdom.

for me, that’s been a lifelong prayer. i’ve long pictured a frame from the far-end of my life, when i might become the wise old woman, bent and wrapped in shawl. when my kitchen table would be always set, and the teapot hot to pour. when there would be chairs, many chairs, filled with folk of every stripe and color, size and spot.

now, though, that might not be mere wisp of a storybook’s dream.

now, i’ve entered to grow in wisdom, and, for me, there is no departing from that holy sacred path.

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thank you, All Knowing Light and Wonder, for this great and glorious school year, now winding to a close……

how do you, my chair friends, carry on in your chosen path of wisdom?

(photo credit “depart” arch: blair kamin)

and great and glorious thanks to my most amazing professors: harvey cox, stephanie paulsell, paul farmer, arthur kleinman, paige williams, the kooky  “cooking & science” crew; henry louis gates, lawrence bobo, luke menand, helen vendler, james wood, kellie carter-jackson, and the amazing amazing harvard undergrads and grad students who so generously invited me into their privileged conversations, both in the classroom and beyond, at coffeeshops and lunch counters, in my living room and under shade trees in the yard….God bless you each and every one….

and, most of all, to ann marie lipinski, curator of the nieman foundation for journalism at harvard university, for picking my sweet blair for this year of thinking sumptuously. and, i suppose, to blair for picking me so long long ago…