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where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: back to college

notes from poetry school

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“…the great poet should not only perceive and distinguish more clearly than other men [sic], the colours or sounds within the range of ordinary vision or hearing; he should perceive vibrations beyond the range of ordinary men, and be able to make men see and hear more at each end than they could ever see without his help. … it is therefore a constant reminder to the poet, of the obligation to explore, to find words for the inarticulate, to capture those feelings which people can hardly even feel, because they have no words for them; and at the same time, a reminder that the explorer beyond the frontiers of ordinary consciousness will only be able to return and report to his fellow-citizens, if he has all the time a firm grasp upon the realities with which they are already acquainted…

“the task of the poet, in making people comprehend the incomprehensible, demands immense resources of language; and in developing the language, enriching the meaning of words and showing how much words can do, he is making possible a range of emotion and perception for other men, because he gives them the speech in which more can be expressed.”

t.s. eliot, “what dante means to me”

“perceive vibrations beyond the range of ordinary [inhabitants of this moment in time on this place called earth], and be able to make [those souls] see and hear more at each end than they could ever [otherwise] see…”

that’s the essence of it to me. the whole draw toward language, toward poetry in particular, the knowledge that at the far reaches of this thing called our capacities we might — if we work at it, if we think about it — possess the possibility of capturing the ephemeral, the ineffable, the slipping-through-our-fingertips. those quivers of human heart and spirit that shimmer just beneath the surface, but once illuminated prompt us — each and every one of us — to sigh in recognition. “i am not alone.” i too know that pain, that joy, that loneliness. that hallelujah of the heart. the long dark night of the soul.

it’s why from the beginning, in writing — be it the stories i scribbled as a child, sprawled across my bedroom’s braided oval rug, or later in chasing and telling the stories of heartbreak and crime and injustice for the chicago tribune — i reached toward poetics, i reached toward those combinations of words that shattered through the barriers of the every day.

i never set out to write poems, i still don’t (i’ve written one to my name and it’s locked in a drawer, just as my mother tells me she too has reams locked in drawers, some burned along the way), but i have always always sought to understand the work, the magic, that poetics does, so that i too could weave it into the plainspoken sentences as i try to write my way through life.

the more deeply i read, the more deeply i study the powers of poetry, the more amazed i am by its otherworldly capacities. the more i ache to reach its borders.

why write? because we are plopped onto this planet as if a babe in the woods. there are mixed-up trails all around, and we are finding our way, every one of us. some are born with illuminators nearby. some are not. we all stumble onto lessons, onto truths, endure trials and temptations. come out wiser, if we’re paying attention. if we’re listening and keeping close watch. if along the way, we can trace the trails, write what we see and hear and come to understand, well then don’t we begin to serve as cartographers for those in the woods with us? might we cover more of the woods if we all share what we etch in our notebooks?

writers write, painters paint, dancers dance. we all illuminate the coursings of the heart in the movements that most stir us. poetry — the art of distilling the unseen, unheard, but often felt gyrations and quiverings of the heart and soul — poetry enters it all.

we reach beyond the range of the ordinary, we illuminate what’s often lost. we aim to hold it high, to whisper, “behold this holy moment, study its undulations, its depths and inclines. extract a droplet of wisdom.” and go on with your humdrum day.

that’s what i thought about at poetry school last week. that’s what i wrapped myself in. and carried home in my backpack.

***

culled from my notebook:

books you might choose to read, all highly recommended:

scott cairns, Recovered Body (especially, “The Recovered Midrashim of Rabbi Sab”)

denise levertov, The Stream and the Sapphire (poems that wrestle with faith and doubt)

mary karr, Sinners Welcome (her poem, “Descending Theology: Nativity,” reimagining the birth in the barn, leaves me limp, the poem i should read every Christmas morning…)

lucille clifton, Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988 – 2000, winner of the National Book Award

 

how do you try to capture the ineffable? and why does it matter to see and hear what’s beyond ordinary range? your thoughts on eliot’s thoughts up above? 

i can’t leave the chair this morning without a cannon’s blast of birthday blessings for my beautiful firstborn, who is off in DC, without an actual mailing address (he’s living in a condo not yet on the market and for some reason the developer can’t give him a reliable street address nor the promise that any mail would actually be delivered…), and who is turning 26 tomorrow. the only thing worse (for the mama, anyway) than a kid having a birthday far far from home, is not being able to send a single care package! so, not that he’d wander by to read this, but i am sending all the love in my heart and then some. i send prayers as well, mountains of them. may this year ahead illuminate all that is good and joyful in you and around you and because of you. i love you to the moon. have since long before you were born. xoxoxoxo

willie yawn

oh, dear God, i love this child, love him far beyond the borders of my humble little heart….

wisdom: extracting / seeking

 

before i pack my bags for summer camp for nerdy nerds (the so-called camp i’m going to has a pack list rife with yellow highlighters, five-tab binder, reams and reams of pages; dictionary, encouraged), i am dipping back into my nursing days, and wielding ice bags and ibuprofen like nobody’s business.

i’ve been up every hour on the hour through the night, employing what amounts to a giant-sized sock filled with ice, tied round the not-yet-swollen cheeks of my now-college-bound kid, the one who had his wisdoms extracted yesterday. excavated would be a more apt choice of verb, the friendly oral surgeon whispered, suggesting muscle (perhaps pick axes?) — more than usual — might have been involved. not exactly the last hurrah of high school anyone would wish for…

soon as we round the bend on impending swelling, soon as pudding and jello gives way to mushy mac-and-cheese (a second-day staple), once this escapade in extracting/excavating wisdom fades into the sunset, i am seeking wisdoms all my own: i’ll scramble to pack the last of my poetries and hop a plane to NYC, whereupon i’ll glide my way to new haven, aka elm city, where an empty apartment waits for me, and a whole div school besides.

in the rarest fluke of my non-adventurous days, i somehow found myself signing up for a one-week summer course, “reading poetry theologically,” at yale divinity school, a bastion of ecumenicism (with a strong dash of anglicanism) since 1822. i’d have signed up for this first week too, when a tantalizing class in henri nouwen was stretched across the days, but those wisdom teeth got in my way, so i’m signed up for next week’s poetry, taught, curiously, by a professor named david mahan, and i’ll soon find out if he’s my distant cousin who’s done away with his closing syllable, lobbed off his exclamatory y. (ours is not a name — with or without all its syllables — you bump into very often.)

i never was much for camp of the mosquito-and-sunscreen variety. never did like that kool-aid poured from vats, the red stuff they called bug juice, as if that would warm me to its redness. but i am positively twitterpated at the notion of making believe i’m back in school. the thought of loping down the cobblestones, my book bag swinging by my side, well, it’s akin, i’d think, to how cinderella felt when she traded in her whisk broom for her sparkly shoes.

for anyone who wants to play along at home, the reading list of poets (a brilliantly eclectic mix of voices, the very sort i love the most) includes: gerard manley hopkins, wendell berry, scott cairns, lucille clifton, denise levertov, mary karr, langston hughes, louise erdrich, and the glorious (new to me) r.s. thomas, an anglican priest from wales, often ranked as one of the three great english-language poets of the 20th century, alongside yeats and eliot, and often called “poet of the hidden God.” (be still my hidden heart.)

as was the case back in our year of thinking sumptuously, when in one academic year my appetite for binging at the course-list trough was forever whetted, i’ll send along a dispatch of whatever poetic morsels stir my hungry heart.

and now, before the timer pings reminding me to grab an ice pack, here’s the latest book for the soul, an exploration deep into islam, and my review of Muhammad: Forty Introductions, by Michael Muhammad Knight, as it ran in the pages of the Chicago Tribune last week:

‘Muhammad: Forty Introductions’ is a soul-stirring primer on Islam

IMG_1929‘Muhammad: Forty Introductions’

By Michael Muhammad Knight, Soft Skull, 320 pages, $16.95

Review by Barbara Mahany Chicago Tribune

When Michael Muhammad Knight — whom The Guardian of London has called “the Hunter S. Thompson of Islamic literature” — set out to teach a religious studies seminar on classical Islam at Kenyon College in Ohio, he promptly realized that no single snapshot served to introduce his mostly non-Muslim students to the great prophet Muhammad, “Messenger of God.”

Instead, the professor settled on 40 such snapshots, or “introductions,” drawn from a broad swath of voices — the canonical as well as the marginalized — citing ancient Islamic scholars, French philosophers, and even “Star Wars” (though not in equal measure).

His “Muhammad: Forty Introductions” is part gonzo devotional, part Muslim primer, and, ultimately, a soul-stirring portal into a personal vision of Muhammad.

The narrations Knight turned to are a bedrock of Islam: the hadith, an oral tradition of “news” or “reports” of Muhammad’s sayings or doings, a tradition that traces its lineage of authenticity through a chain of teachers, resting in proximity to the prophet himself. Hadiths — apart from the Qur’an — serve as instruction for Muslims looking for guidance in how to live their lives. As Knight put it, “I want to know Muhammad’s way of being human.”

Knight is a novelist and essayist who converted to Islam at 16, traveled to Islamabad at 17 to study at a madrasa, then got a master’s degree at Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina. In gathering 40 hadiths, the author followed the ancient Islamic literary tradition of the arba’in, wherein scholars over the millennia have collected and curated 40 hadith, often by theme. For Knight, who rose to literary fame with his 2003 self-publication of his novel “The Taqwacores,” now considered a cult classic and a “manifesto for the Muslim punk movement,” his “Forty Introductions” is a decidedly contemporary collection, reaching into queer theology, feminist commentary and core Islamic teachings.

Something of a crash course in Muhammad, Knight’s intellectually charged collection of fragments makes for a multi-textured, many hued mosaic. In a revelatory aside, Knight acknowledges that for every student of Muhammad, the prophet becomes a “montage of images, an arrangement of moving parts.” This fragmentation is inevitable — and necessary — he writes: “the ingredients of my Muhammad often come to me as shattered pieces that have been chipped away from something else.”

Alternating between the professorial and the personal, Knight hits his highest notes when he pushes away from the seminar table and bares his own soul. “Some hadiths soften my heart and bring me to tears,” he writes toward the end of the book. “I cling to the image of Muhammad as a gentle grandfather who lets his daughter’s sons Hasan and Husayn climb onto his back as he prays.”

While the introductions he’s chosen cover a full range and complexity — from Muhammad’s physical appearance to his family life, infallibility, legal authority and mystical nature — and while Knight boldly puts one interpretation or argument up against another (a seamless synthesis is hardly the point here), it seems particularly telling that he chooses as his closing introduction Islam’s parallel to the Golden Rule:

“The Messenger of God (God bless him and give him peace) said, ‘One of you does not believe until s/he loves for another what is loved for self.’ ”

And then, Knight reminds why this, of all teachings in all religions and world views, matters most in the end.

“Claimants upon a religious tradition have numerous modes by which they can disqualify each other as illegitimate. You pray wrong; you dress wrong. You read the wrong books, or perhaps read the right books wrong. Your prophetology is wrong. Your preferred scholarly authorities are wrong. Your opinions about permissible and forbidden acts are wrong. This hadith reminds us that we can get everything right … and still fail as Muslims on the grounds that we’re selfish pricks.”

Muhammad, the professor reminds us, came “to perfect the noble traits.” For emphasis, he adds: “Muhammad reminds us that becoming less of a selfish prick would confront many of us as an epic struggle. Being a good person isn’t the easy part.”

Knight, by way of his 40 Muhammadan introductions, illuminates the way.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

back to the summer-camp question: what would be your rendition of the ideal mosquito-free summery week away, with or without a tent? 

and before we go, i am sending the biggest smushiest birthday blessings to beloved nan, whose big birthday is today, and beloved amy, whose blessed day was yesterday. love you both to the moon and stars and back…..xoxoxo

yet again, i turn to the ellipses…

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i just realized that the ellipses — that trail of ink blots across a page — is perhaps my preferred punctuation. i’d been thinking, all week, that today would be the period at the end of a particular sentence. but then i realized, like so many things in my life, i prefer my punctuation in multiples, an abundance of dots rather than one. i prefer the soft close to the abrupt end, the holding on to the letting go, the voice fading into the distance, one last echoed “i love you” before it all falls to silence…

the boy i love is leaving today. flying to what is, in many ways, home. back to law school, back to friends who populate his thoughts, animate his days, friends to whom he’s stayed connected through the pings of his phone for the last 17 days, ever since he bounded down the escalator at o’hare international and folded me into his very big heart.

i know he won’t be back soon. likely not till next christmas. and that, to me, feels like a very long time.

which is why i’d been thinking of this as the period — punctuational stop sign — at the end of a particularly sumptuous sentence. two-plus weeks of late-night conversations, and the signature boom of his feet bounding down the stairs sometime mid-morning (or later), when the night-before’s leftovers would be pulled from the fridge, considered ponderously, studiously, in ways you might expect from a cerebrum in training, and then, only then, transformed into something distantly related to breakfast (or at least the feast that ended the long night’s fast).

neither he nor i nor any of us, really, has moved too far these past days. we took our cues from mother nature’s deep freeze, and burrowed under blankets. we are in some ways sated (there is only so much hibernating, so much foraging for leftovers, and even the fraser fir is starting to droop), but with each passing day of this last string of days i felt my heart taking charge here. my heart got more and more leaden. my heart sometimes seems to double in weight. it doubled this week. and, yes, yes, snappy vessel that it is, it will soon return to cruising mode, it will come back to equilibrium. life will go on. dramas will come and will go. my heart, bless it, will play right along.

but right now, in the page-turning time, when this one sweet spell is still within my hold, and i know the letting go will come before the day is done, there at the concrete curb amid the crush of traffic at the double-glass doors marked “departures,” i am decidedly sputtering. wiping away a tear or two when no one is looking. reminding myself that this is what comes with modern-day motherhood. this is how it is to love a kid who is out doing the very thing you spent hours and days and weeks and years teaching him to do: stretch his wings, leap. wait for the soaring to come.

i will, of course, return to my everyday mode, the one where i now live with a heart in two places. the one where i pay as close attention as i’ve always paid to the heart that formed inside me. even when it’s 764 miles away.

indeed, as happens in a life that runs only in one direction — forward — i will live my days emphatically, be pulled into this narrative or that, very much in the here and the now. heck, in the past 36 hours alone, one of us got a newly-minted driver’s license, another scored a summer job, and another blew out another year’s birthday candles. the new year brings a percolation of promises and plots in the making…

but on my way to finding my bearings, in the midst of putting balm to the sting, i will immerse myself in what’s come to be my cleansing ritual, now woven into the choreography of every departure: once home from the airport, i’ll climb the stairs and turn to the room there at the top, the one where my sweet boy has stayed, the one that once was his little brother’s. i’ll change the sheets, vacuum the alphabet rug, dump the towels in the laundry. i’ll prop the pillows, and set it all just so. the room, then, will be ready, will be waiting. awaiting his someday return…

whenever that comes…the room and my heart will be ready…

at this cusp of the new-born year have your days been filled with goodbyes and teary departures? endings sure to follow beginnings…and what are the ways you’ve found to soothe the hurt, the missing of someone you love?

as if a dream…

as if a dream

the last flicker of red tail light just faded from the alley. i’d pressed my cheek as close to the glass as i could press — short of stepping out into the near frozen morning — straining to see the last dab of red glow fading away.

and, like that, poof, he’s gone.

my little christmas dream, my wish come true, has come to its hollow end. the boy i love is headed back to the college on the faraway hill, where, alone in his dorm room, the light through the window will burn. the green slope between red-brick dorms, one after another all in a square, it will be empty, will echo with the whisper of the few faint footsteps. the kid i love is among the one or two in the college who’ve been granted permission to type straight through the new year.

so christmas here was cut short, cut short by a very long thesis due in two short weeks — or, as i count it, 17 days, six hours and 19 minutes.

christmas this year was condensed. distilled to its short sweet essence.

which, in many ways, made it all the more delectable, all of it tumbled one delicious moment atop another. until last night, as i was clearing the christmas feast dishes, and the lurch in my belly made itself known. he’s leaving again, i remembered. before the dark of the dawn fades, he will be gone, i remembered.

so this morning, i did what mothers too often do: i watched the light fade away, into the too-far distance.

we wait, some sweet homecoming moments, for the light to come in through the distance. and then, on the other end of the dizzying spell of squeezing a hand that’s grown far bigger than ours, and bending low for a kiss to the brow of the sleeping man who’s back in his old twin bed, on the other end of shoulder pressed against shoulder at the cookstove, or plopping on the edge of each other’s bed for one or two thoughts shared in the dark, there comes the hour when the light pulls away, into the darkness again.

and so, in the space in between, we immerse ourselves deep in the holiest way to live: at full and piercing attention. stripping away the parts of ourselves that might otherwise get in our way — the part of ourself that, say, might prefer to do things a particular way; the part of ourself that normally flinches when butter and oil are splattered all over the cookstove (and the wall and the floor), but not this hour when it’s the college kid plying his craft of brussels sprouts bathed in a sizzling skillet of garlic and fat upon fat; the part of ourself that hadn’t planned on going to church on the far end of a one-hour traffic jam, but once we got there, well, i found myself awash in tears at the joy spread across the kid’s face as he remembered the church where he’d once made his first holy communion.

so it goes, when there’s only so much time — and you’re graced with the knowledge that, soon as it begins, it’s tumbling toward the close. you shrug off all the little things that don’t matter. you set your divining rod onto high alert. and you whirl through the short spell — the too-short spell — of 63 hours and change (including sleep time) and you inhale as if through a double-wide straw.

which, from time to time, is a very fine way to practice the art of being alive. as if the edges of your consciousness were bordered with a high-voltage fence. where, if you drifted into unconsciousness, into not paying-attention, a wee little zap to the noggin would jostle you back into full-throttle live-in-the-moment.

i remember how, in the days just before our wedding, a wise someone whispered to me a trick i’ve tried to ply ever since, even though the original instruction was only meant to pertain to the bride’s walk down the aisle: freeze frame the moment, the wise person intoned. take snapshots in your head, all along the way. that way you’ll never forget it.

and so, i attempt to pull that old trick from my toolkit whenever the occasion demands. as it did this christmas. as it did this very short spell when all i wanted was the one thing i found under the tree: both my boys, and their papa, nestled shoulder to shoulder for unbroken hours.

the little guy practically couldn’t let go. we were hunkered down watching a movie, and there were the little one’s arms, draped wholly across his big brother’s chest. loping down a city sidewalk, the big one flopped his very long arm down and around the little one’s cap-covered curly-haired head.

the two of them stayed up late all three nights. i drifted to sleep hearing their hilarity rise up the stairs, around the bend, and into my bed. last night i woke up long enough to hear a line i promised myself i’d memorize, but then, darn it, i woke up and couldn’t quite remember. all i know is it was something about, “you’re the best brother that ever there was.”

which, really, is all i need to remember, to know.

i wished for one thing for christmas. i wished for one thing my whole life long: that through trial and error, and stumble and fall, and mistake after blunder, i might over time figure out how to live and breathe love in a way that was purely contagious, that spread like a rash.

i wished for a womb of love, long long ago. i prayed that the boy i was about to birth would always, always know that love was his beginning and middle and end. i’ve lived and breathed to untangle wires, sandpaper rough spots; to make what unfolds in this house a pure bath of tender-hearted, full-throttle kindness. with a fat dollop of joy.

and this christmas i watched it unfold, one slow frame at a time.

i’ve got the whole roll tucked in my heart.

happy blessed boxing day, and how was your very own christmas?

willie ala brussels sproutsmr. firstborn, ala splattering brussels sprouts, ala christmas feast….

 

poetry school

poetry school

when the school bell rings, i shuffle over to class in my holey-est slippers. and, dating my pedagogical style, i haul out my spiral notebook, my pen, and settle in. click a couple buttons, and poof! poetry school’s in session.

so it goes when you go to college from the comfy confines of your kitchen table. when you’re hauled out on field trips to the lower east side, and south street seaport, without so much as buttoning a sweater.

over the wintry weeks, i’ve grown fond of my professor — she tells us to call her lisa, even though she’s listed as elisa in the course book. (she lets on, in a cozy email, that only strangers call her by her full name, first syllable vowel-prefix attached; she seems to be inferring that we are now admitted to her inner circle — how kind of her, how generous. see why i like her already?)

she tells that to the thousands and thousands of us who click into class from wherever we sit on the globe, and learn a thing or two about poetry in america, and walt whitman, specifically.

thousands and thousands, you ask? yup, if they packed us all in a lecture hall it’d need to be about as big as beijing’s bird’s nest, that iconic steel-strung stadium built for the 2008 summer olympics.

back on the days when we were settling into class, when virtual papers were being passed out, and we were going around the room to introduce ourselves, i tried to scribble down all the countries we come from. i started with ukraine, scribbled india, UK, bangladesh, serbia, south korea, nigeria, netherlands, lebanon, swaziland, kosovo, even togo. i practically ran out of room after packing in itty-bitty letters clear to the bottom of the notebook page, and sideways up the margins. i just counted 49, and i’m sure i missed a few.

we are all huddled round our laptops, our iPads, our clunky desktops for a class called “poetry in america: whitman.”

think not that this is mamby-pamby read-along at home. this is sit-back-while-the-brilliant-professor — from the comfy confines of her book-lined office in the red-brick barker center just off harvard square — waxes-eloquently (and without notes) about the quintessentially american 19th-century poet. and when she wants to show us an original manuscript, she just hauls her video crew over to the rare books vault in harvard’s houghton library and pans the lens up and down the page. and when she wants us to know the streets whitman walked in new york city, she pops up yet another video and walks us up and down the sidewalks, pointing out the print shop where he set type, showing us his newspaper’s proximity to new york’s city hall, and even the back alley where whitman got to know the prostitutes and actresses of mid-19th-century manhattan.

this is hardly a hands-off matter. why, this fine professor insists on “two well-crafted paragraphs,” in open response to questions about the poems. she and her technical wizards have provided a nifty annotation tool, so we — the thousands of students, all of whom speak a thousand different mother tongues — can identify anaphora (repeating the same word at the start of successive lines) and parallelism (repetition of certain structures throughout the poem) and the latest poet-trick of the week, apostrophe (an address or salutation, as in O sun!). and we have to post these things in public manner. so anyone who’s in the class can scroll along and peek over our shoulder and figure out whether we are complete dunces or might be onto something.

in fact, this global classroom comes complete with office hours and TAs. and those brilliant almost-PhD’s actually scroll through the online postings, those “two well-crafted paragraphs,” and comment on our postings.

now, for a timid soul like me, one whose hand might be quaking in an early round of hand-raising in a lecture hall the size of kingdom come, it is scary enough to hit the submit button, and watch your thoughts on walt whitman’s “crossing brooklyn ferry,” or “song of myself” get all but nailed to the village crier’s blackboard. but even i can suffer the possible indignities and disgraces from the loneliness of my kitchen, so imagine how the soul doth swell, when hours later you circle back and find the nice TA has scribbled “you’re really onto something,” there beneath your humble words.

this whole exercise, in fact, might be far more than what i signed up for. i thought it was a vigorous way to dig deeper into the world of poetry that so captivates my imagination. but, slowly and certainly, i am discovering it might just be a brilliant bathtowel-rub of confidence and faith.

we all have a million reasons why we never think we’re good enough. the joke at harvard, we learned last year, is that nearly every freshman shuffling across the yard is peeking over his or her shoulder, wondering who in the admissions office made the mistake and let her or him in. “they must have mixed me up with the brainiac whose name was after mine in the applicant pile,” you can’t help but think — unless, that is, your mother gave you cans of ego-builder for breakfast with your eggs. (mine did not.)

so, i bumbled into this class in the ways i often do. first i wasn’t sure if i was allowed to sign up. (i was; it’s free and open to the public.) then i thought i wouldn’t take it for the nifty certificate that says i passed (i figured i didn’t need any more papers in my rat’s hole of an office, and besides, what if i couldn’t cut it?). and i sure didn’t think i’d ever muster the courage to say a single thing out loud (you could film a video introduction of yourself, or cobble a few penned sentences; i opted for the pen — aka keyboard).

but then, somewhere along the way, i started reading and thinking, and melting under the warmth of this professor with her deep love of poetry and her proclivity for messed-up hair and quirky field trips. and then i wrote what i thought, dug down not too deep — because what i thought had already bubbled up and wanted to be typed — and found myself deeply engaged in conversation with mr. TA and a few other students of poetry, who, for all i know, might be typing from a drafty hovel in azerbaijian or a dim-lit flat in kosovo.

it’s what happens when you go fling yourself into any one of life’s classrooms, the ones that don’t come with comfort guaranteed. you find a two-track curriculum — the one where you absorb the lesson plan, as penned by the professor, and the one that’s more of an independent study, and you find yourself quietly, wholly, learning who you are and who you might become.

walt whitman, i’ve learned, was the son of a carpenter who came of age during america’s building boom. he schooled himself in new york city, first as a newspaperman and, always, a flaneur, a fellow who strolled the city inhaling its street theater and its lessons.

but i’ve learned too that the wobbly-legged just-born thoughts that spill from deep inside, might “really be onto something.” and that’s a gold star i’ll carry closest to my heart.

word of the week, thanks to poetry school: amative — sexually potent. (i learned that whitman might be described as such. you decide for yourself how you choose to apply to your very own self or someone you admire.)

any hour now, i am sliding into my snow boots and riding the clackety el downtown to meet my dear professor in the flesh. yes, indeed, she is coming to the poetry foundation on chicago’s north side — that transparent cube of glass on aptly named west superior street. she is coming for conversation about whitman and gwendolyn brooks, chicago’s own poet wonder. i can’t wait to look into her sparkly eyes — the professor’s, i mean.

learn more about MOOCs (massive open online course) and EdX, in particular, by clicking on those hyperlinks. 

do you have a favorite whitman poem, or better yet, have you flung yourself into any discomfort zone this week, and did you find that you somehow stayed afloat? 

the humility of knowledge

humility of knowledge

dispatch from 02139 (in which we recognize our humble stature before the gates of true knowledge…)

class is back in session. and that means my shoulder is sagging from the weight of books. my right hand aches from scribbling, fast as i can. and my whole body is inclined to bow down before the gates of knowledge, and confess how empty a vessel i truly am.

i’d intended to go easy this semester, spend whole days holed up inside this book-lined aerie. cut down on the classes to which i zipped across the leafy harvard yard.

but then the course catalog rolled out. and so too an inkling that this was but a last-chance vault to a long life spent with nose in books.

so why not, i reasoned to my reasonable self, take the hardest, highest bounce off that bouncy leaping board?

why not give it one with-gusto whirl, you and this heady voyage, the one where you get to slither into cushioned seats (for seats are cushioned, oh-so-cushioned, here in harvard halls), yank hard on the itty-bitty writing perch, and open wide for all the learning swirling through the chambers?

convinced, i signed up.

my class list stretched and stretched — and stretched. somehow, i got to seven. and all the books to boot. (which is why my credit-card patrol called this week to see if someone had gotten loose and run amok with my account at the coop, that magnificent university book store where great minds — the professors’ — have curated stacks of books, and even browsing through a class not yours imparts a heady lesson in what tomes are deemed worthy of study.)

and here’s the thing: all week the image that’s floated in my mind is one of standing at the precipice of, say, the grand canyon, tiptoeing out to the edge, where you can see how far and wide that great gulf stretches, yet you can’t begin to make out the nooks and crannies, can’t see beyond the etched granite walls, into coves, up sheer cliffs. and you can’t help but feel so small, so incidental beside such grandeur. such majesty.

and so it is with the magnificent humankind creation, knowledge.

the closer you tiptoe into it, the grander all the vastness appears. the higher, the deeper, the more intricately chiseled.

and that’s where i perch. i am at the brink of something so immense it will take all my life to begin to grasp the flimsiest grasp. so immense it makes me wish for two or three lifetimes to wrap my feeble fist around a simple starter’s course.

i sit in african-american history, jaw-dropped, wondering how i got to my own mid-century and knew so very little. i need to speed-read, speed-think, speed-swallow to catch up on all that i don’t know.

i move to poetry, with helen vendler, that great mother northstar of all that is poetic in america, and i get dizzy. she recites line after line, from poet after poet. she makes it all make sense, makes it feel like for the first time in our lives we’re netting moonbeams and twinkling stars. and then i zip home, and plunk oh-so-slowly over the tomes that will last me a lifetime. i flip from poem to dictionary. i scribble words — and lines — that send me to jupiter and mars.

i even got ultra-brave and signed up for “postwar american and british fiction” with james wood, whom some have called “the greatest living literary critic,” and gosh-darn if i’m not going to feel adrift, but i’ll not stand ashore for fear of owning up to my sorry unschooled self.

what point in learning if not to start from scratch, or close to scratch, and swallow, chew, inhale, imbibe with gusto?

i’ve just been struck, at every turn this week, with how it is that as you step into the canyon, you begin to truly grasp its immensity, and your own itty-bitty dismissible stature. and isn’t it paradoxical — blessedly, beautifully paradoxical — how the deeper you thrust yourself into learning, the humbler you become?

you know so little, there is so infinitely much to learn.

it makes me sad for all the hubris in this country. all the clutter on the airwaves, and cyber-waves, of folks who’re sure they know everything because they read one blip as they went to click their email. lord help us, all.

a good dose of humility might be a fine prescription for the rampant cultural ails. all the know-it-alls might do well to ask, “just how much do i really know? and might i learn a wee bit more?”

but mostly it comes back to the simple posture of laying down our sorry selves at the time-worn feet of Infinite Wisdom. of assuming the age-old pose of acknowledging that we’re but empty vessels, and we are begging to be filled.

vowing: we’ll do the work, the fine act of turning pages, scanning wisdom, and breathing in the accumulated knowledge of all those who’ve trekked this way, and picked up a thing or three along the way.

we’ll dedicate our days to the holy work of trying to grow in knowledge, yes, and wisdom, absolutely.

do you often feel small, oh so small, in the face of all there is for us to understand, to come to know? and do you make lifework of learning? if so, what’s one book we should all add to our reading list?

one last fling

one last fling

dispatch from 02139 (in which….well, let’s not give away the whole story. not just yet anyway….)

alas, it’s not what you think. not here anyway. i know, i know. the more common usage of that flouncy noun, the “fling,” would be one in which all caution was hurled to the wind, and tumbling would occur.

like i said: not here.

for starters, the tall one is off being mr. professor this week, nowhere to be seen, for days and days on end. and when he trundles home, he’s bleary-eyed. or interested in talking only of the gates of harvard yard. not exactly pillow mumble.

and here, instead of silky sheets a la fling, there’s an afghan. a hand-crocheted one, mind you. and the cozy corner of a couch. and, most of all, a tall stack of pages to be turned.

alas, the fling of which i type is the one that lured me for months. seductive, yes. sexy, hardly. it springs upon that settled-in corner of the futon-couch, looking east toward the atlantic (though obscured by towers tall, a bumper crop sprouted across the hills of cambridge). the one where the lamp glows golden, and where the stack of books only grows and grows.

for the whole first semester, i dreamed of a day when nothing would call my name, nor insist on my appearance, nothing other than the corner of the couch.

and even though we’ve had a full six weeks away from lecture halls and seminar tables, it’s only been the last few days — days when the minus sign was hauled out of storage so thermometers could flash the bitter cold — that i’ve been nestling there where i so longed to be.

it’s taxing, this flinging. it goes like this: first, you shoosh everyone out the door quick as quick can be (so much so that they might wonder if there’s a toxic waste from which they’re being shielded), scrub the breakfast plates, pour the last of the coffee, then dive onto the couch, bottom first. unfurl the afghan, pull it tight around your chin. play eenie-meenie-minie-mo. with all the books. will it be a poet? a memoirist? or yet another poet?

fueled by pots of tea, and polished apples, it goes like this till sundown. all afternoon, i trace the disappearing light, as it trails from living room to dining room to kitchen, before slipping off the planet’s edge, making way for nightfall.

and here’s what i’ve discovered: i’m not so good at making like a lotus, knees akimbo, toes tucked under bum. i get the itches, oh, ’round half past 3. start looking up, thinking about popcorn. wondering if i should start to chop an onion, make like i’m the hausfrau fixing vittles for the clan.

like so many things in life that from afar look glorious, all sparkly on the shelf where we can’t reach, the fact is, once we’ve held them in our hands, we see the bumps and odd spots. a glorious afternoon’s reprieve is most glorious when it’s an interlude amid the madness.

when, instead, it’s the beginning and the end, when there’s no variegation in between, well, it all turns rather blah. even when the pages come in ooohs and ahhs.

and, whaddyaknow, like magic, i’ve come crashing to the end of this dalliance. i’ve only one last round, after this afternoon’s errands are wiped off the slate. and perhaps today, as the clouds come out to play, and the snowflakes start to tumble, i’ll savor that hallelujah romp under the afghan, me & all my books.

come monday, we’re back at it again, with a whole slate of classes filling up my days. i’d toyed with the idea of cutting back, of not carrying quite the load as fall semester. but then, i picked up the course catalog, and on and on, i clicked. carried on like a hungry girl in an ice cream shop, who couldn’t bear to pass up one more scoop.

sad truth is, in a mere four months, the sparkly shoes get kicked behind, the coach returns to pumpkin. this year of thinking sumptuously, it up and poofs! all gone! back to scrubbing chimneypots.

so, come round two of this exercise in fantasy academics, i’ve got my eye on this little roster:

monday mornings, i’ll get to work with noted historian henry louis gates, as i whirl through “intro to african-american studies.” then i’ll straddle two continents as i dive into “english 64 — diffusions: american renaissance and irish revival,” reading dickinson, emerson, hawthorne, melville, thoreau and whitman, alongside joyce, o’casey, synge and yeats. my cymbal crash will be mondays, wednesdays and fridays at noon when the northstar of poetry, helen vendler, waltzes into the lecture hall and barely takes a breath for the next 55 minutes, waxing poems, poets and poetry in a standing-room-only class titled (not so poetically) “aesthetic and interpretive understanding 20.”

on tuesdays, i’m dabbling in trees, forests and global change over at the science center. and washing that down with sacred and secular poetry. wednesdays i repeat monday but add a two-hour block of fairy tales and folklore with the jaw-dropping maria tatar (whose class i am already begging to enter). and so it’ll go, straight on through friday afternoons.

so my old couch will grow lonely. go cold. and i’m guessing, like any love that’s lost, i’ll soon enough hear that old stack of wood and cushion coo my name. it’ll sound sweet, seductive. and some rainy vernal afternoon, i might give in to the temptation, and curl up once again.

but for now, after two unbroken days of sitting and turning pages, i’m thinking a lecture hall, filled with laptops, and kids click-clicking away, that’s my new rendition of an afternoon’s fine fling.

silk sheets not included.

so, if you could pick one unencumbered afternoon to do wholly as you please, what might be on the list? and would you guess that it would ever, could ever, grow old? or have you found a tune that you could hum for a long long while? 

the reading list, in case you’re interested: 

“several short sentences about writing,” by verlyn klinkenborg. (heavenly!)

“on moving: a writer’s meditation on new houses, old haunts and finding home again,” by louise de salvo. (a gift; just diving in. looks quite heavenly.)

“birdology: adventures with a pack of hens, a peck of pigeons, cantankerous crows, fierce falcons, hip hop parrots, baby hummingbirds, and one murderously big living dinosaur,” by sy montgomery. (recommended right here at the table by our no. 1 turtle lover and aquarial expert.)

“good prose: the art of nonfiction,” by tracy kidder and richard todd.

“facts about the moon,” by dorianne laux. (a wild book of poetry.)

“magical journey: an apprenticeship in contentment,” by katrina kenison. (arrived in this week’s mail from a literary editor friend, who remembered that i liked kenison’s earlier works).

“prayers of a young poet: rainer maria rilke,” translated by mark s. burrows. (my beloved landlord and guiding light, in preparation for a rilke retreat next weekend at glastonbury abbey on boston’s south shore.)

first semester: fini

almost

dispatch from 02139 (in which, in the blink of an eye, the fall semester has come crashing to a close. and we look back, scratching our head, wondering, where’d that go?)…

seems like mere hours ago i was marching into my first lecture hall here at veritas university. my heart pounding like a kettle drum there in the hollows under my ribs. needing a swallow of water, fast, just to keep my lips and my tongue from sticking together, sandpaper rough against parchment.

then there was the first seminar, one of those too-small tables for grad students only, where each flank of the square was covered by IQs and brain trusts the likes of which i’d rarely encountered. not face-to-face and dissecting literature, anyway. these were kids on their ways to PhDs, for God’s sake. and there was me, old, silver, and with one measly goal: dear God, please let me finish one novel. please.

oh, i got into the swing of it, all right. piled on reams and reams of pressure (my specialty, honed over the years). nearly pulled one all-nighter (went to bed at 2, climbed outa the sheets at 3, typed till sun-up). plotted my weeks by when and where i could squeeze in hundreds of pages of reading. wrote and wrote and wrote, and wrote some more.

people would ask, “but you’re not getting a grade, right?”

righto.

then i shot back: “it’s a moral obligation.” if you’re going to sit there taking up space at a table of 12, you’d better cough up some thoughts and make ’em be weighty. or at least original. original, i was (a euphemistic way of saying i was out of the scholarly groove). figured i’d make up in life years, what i lacked in theoretical perspectives. shot my hand in the air, offered up tales from the front. from my days in the newspaper trenches. from life in the 1960s, a good THIRTY years before three-quarters of these kids came to the planet.

most of the time i forgot that i could have birthed any one of these kids. i was that old. they were that fresh-faced.

but now, one by one, i’ve bid goodbye to classes i’ve loved.

nearly cried, honest to God, at the end of “virginia woolf and religion.”

ditto, in global health, when arthur kleinman, the great godfather of the course, mentor to paul farmer, as well as the originator of the academic pursuit of what it means to cure the biosocial ills of the world, grabbed the microphone and bellowed: “i’m 71-1/2 years old. i don’t have to teach this. i do it because this is one of the most important things i do. i want to see you be the best you can be. we believe in this course as the first step in that direction.” and then he hit us with his closing wallop: “if there’s a single piece of wisdom on the art of living that we could give you, it’s this — to the extent that you do for others, you’ll do amazing things for yourself.”

this from a doctor who battles drug-resistant tuberculosis in the prisons of russia, who fights AIDS in the hills of rwanda, and all of the above in the rubble of haiti.

early this morning i turned in my very last paper for my hardest and favorite class: narrative writing. i never knew, till this semester, how damn hard it could be — should be — to craft a beautiful sentence. i’m embarrassed to say that, till now, writing came easy for me. put fingers to keys and they launched down the keyboard. not anymore. every verb is a goldmine, waiting for search light and shovel. nouns demand careful choosing. dispense with adjectives, adverbs and all the rest of the flimsy modifiers. be brave. go bold. choose deliberately, thoughtfully, and with the precision of surgery.

all in all, i’ve realized that it’s a helluva shot in the arm to be smack dab in your middle 50s, to be deeply anchored in the whole of your life, and up and throw yourself into the melee. to cast yourself wholly into the unknown, the unfamiliar, the deeply uncomfortable.

to have to find your way, memorize names, get lost, feel afraid, miss home, marvel, and gulp it all down.

i am, above all, resistant to change. a creature of habit.

well, habit ditched to the hills these past four months. i was awhirl in the world of the new.

and now, with thousands of pages, 11 virginia woolf novels, seven “modern spiritual pioneer” biographies, and lord knows how many typed words under my belt, i am sighing a deep heave of relief. and i am also inhaling. the sweet breath of accomplishment.

i did it. i did what i swore i could not do. i up and moved to a faraway place, a place i’d long inhabited in dreams. but dreams are barely ever even in color. dreams don’t swim through your soul with nuance and lessons. dreams don’t toughen your soft spots, thicken your muscles. dreams don’t sharpen your seeing. fill your head and your heart for the long road before you.

heck, i read a whole novel. at least eight times over. i managed to stick my hand in the air, utter a question. thread together a thought that wasn’t dismissed, not blatantly anyway.

i realized there aren’t so many chances in life to really, deeply, say to yourself: i did it.

it makes you a wee bit less wobbly. it stiffens your purpose. it makes you sit bolt upright and say, okey doke, now i did that. what’s next on the docket?

sometimes i think, for creatures like me, creatures of habit and comfort, we’re not nudged into the woopsy-daisy zone quite often enough.

it’s a cold splash to the soul. a north wind howling down our spine. it’s waking up to this infinite possibility. the one with the timer that will, some day, clang.

it’s the knowledge that these days of our lives spin by but once.

and we’ve the chance to fortify, if we make the right choices.

now that i’m nearly done, now with a mere two classes on monday, and a smattering of nieman encounters left on the 2012 calendar, i’m looking ahead at all of the clear space. the hours and long afternoons when my afghan and tea mug will call me. when the long shelf of books on my desk will finally get cracked. the books i’ve tucked there for months now, deeply longing to read.

there is much to be done, now that i’ve learned: i can do it, we all can. if we ask one simple question — what needs to be done? if we wait for the answer. follow our hearts. and get the job mastered.

it is always an amazing wonder, how these words have a mind of their own. zig when i thought they’d zag. so what was going to be a meander about what i’d do next, now that i have a sacred six weeks for self-plotted journeys. but instead, the words seemed to want to course over the terrain of these last four months, and the refrain of the little engine that could: i think i can, i think i can. i did it. i did it. what mountain climbs in your life have pushed you up and over a particular ridge? and what did you learn once you’d done it? 

p.s. still waiting for baby up portland way. any day now, i KNOW i’ll be motoring to meet him. bless him for letting me finish each of my classes. what a good boy already. 

never enough…

dispatch from 02139 (in which we’ve returned “home” from our swoop down the eastern seaboard — a grand thanksgiving repast in new york city, in the brownstone at 94th and lex we have come to know and love for its grace (and wild rice salad, and indian corn pudding, and oven-browned brussels sprouts), followed by a zip through the lincoln tunnel to one fair haven, and my tall fellow’s ancestral home, the 1789 gardener’s cottage where, to this day, his heart ticks at its fullest, its soundest)…

i should have mastered this. should have figured this out. should have, should have, should have.

but i haven’t.

not when it comes to saying goodbye, not when the goodbye is to my firstborn, grand thump in my heart, big brother to the little guy, the one who’s been away, off at college for nearly three whole semesters now.

you’d think i could get through it without the preamble rumble down in my belly, without the pounding in my heart, without the tears welling and spilling.

but i haven’t.

each time, i swear, it feels like someone is unplugging a cord that keeps my glow up and glowing. that has something to do with how i breathe. that puts the purr in my heart.

each time, in the hours before, as i start to feel the yanking, the turning and twisting of parts deep inside, as i start to picture the hours and days ahead without him, without the unspooling of conversation that comes, unexpected, as i chop in the kitchen, as i fold laundry, as i tie my shoes and head out for a stroll, i start to see the color draining away.

i start to feel empty all over again.

i think back to the days of villages, when a mother and son would never be farther than a few cottages away, down behind a waist-high stone wall, through an arched timbered doorway, in a room where embers on the hearth burned orange, persimmon and red.

i wonder why, nowadays, mothers and children need live miles and miles, whole ZIP codes, away.

oh, of course, i settle back into my rhythms. get used to plowing through the day without the flash of his million-watt smile. without dinners fueled by his stories. (fact is, i don’t mind, not one little bit, seeing his bunk smooth and unrumpled. don’t miss the volcano of clothes he spills on the bedroom floor.)

we left the boy back in new york city. he’s a man now. my last glimpse of him was under a streetlight at the corner of 94th and lexington avenue. he filled out his shetland sweater, his chest now strikingly, breathtakingly, the shape and size and velocity of my own papa’s. a chest i always loved. a chest that made me feel safe against the world. and now that chest belongs to my son, my sweet boy, my strapping 6-foot-3 chunk of a man.

as i stepped back from his hug, from his long arms, broad shoulders, soft hands, i felt the pull like stretching of dough. i, into the distance. he, into the thick of his life. a whole weekend before him, a weekend with his beloved cousin and aunt, a weekend romping through the best of new york, a new york i’ll never see.

fact is, it’s his life he lives now. whole chapters and verse distant to me. unknown. uncharted.

as it should be. as it’s meant to be.

but that does not make the parting of mother and child one drop easier. not for this mother anyway.

it’s not that i want him tucked by my side. God, no. this is why and how i’ve raised him — to spread his arms wide as wide can be, to wrap in as much and as deep as he can, and then to soar high.

it’s just that along with that soaring comes the fact that mama bird’s back in the nest, or up on some other limb, watching the sky, watching the loop-de-loops. wings on alert, ready to spread, to enfold, in case there’s a fall, a need to harbor, to shelter again.

and that airspace between mother and child, that life space, it just seems to take — every time — getting used to.

i always think, i’ve never my fill of him. never enough of his stories. never enough of his heart. never ever enough.

and then, not long after i’d swallowed my goodbyes, i watched my own tall fellow, the one i married, say goodbye to his mama, down in fair haven, on the jersey shore. and i wondered if she too always feels it. that it’s never enough. that one more breakfast together. one more walk to the river. one more, one more, would finally fill the hole.

but truth is, i think it’s a hole that will never be filled. it’s a wanting that goes un-sated.

it’s a yearning, a hunger, a please-come-back that lies at the heart of deep love. most especially, at the heart and soul of mother love.

who in your life do you never ever get enough of? 

photo way above is my boys, big and little, plotting their flag-football moves in a game against the cousins, played on the lot behind the tall fence at hunter college on new york’s upper east side. i can’t get enough of watching the two of them entwine the whole of their lives…. 

photo below is my firstborn at his ebullient best.

happy blessed season of thanks, and beginning of advent, the season of waiting…..and now i am off to a long day of writing….classes wrap up in the next couple weeks. where did that first semester go???

trying to take a drink from a fire hose…

dispatch from 02139 (in which i herewith make the distinction between a “dispatch,” that is, a verbal  post card, reporting from the front, and a “meander,” the more typical musing from the chair. in this year of thinking sumptuously we will need a mix of both, and this week was so over-upholstered, it requires dispatch from which meander might be launched….)

loping down the cobblestones of cambridge last eve, the long tall fellow with whom i’ve entwined my life and i were volleying utterances back and forth in between the huffing and puffing that comes when dashing home from the theatre in attempt to a.) catch the president make his second-round acceptance speech, and b.) duly stop the clock on the babysitter’s tally.

in other words, we were speeding toward home, talking.

the subject at hand was how very dizzying this week has been, how “shopping” classes — a harvard eccentricity in which professors put on “the best of” lectures, and students, accustomed to cherry-picking the choices in their life, dash into lecture halls or seminar rooms, listen for as long as their attention holds, then vote nay or yea, either staying put (thus declaring they’ll take the course) or up and skedaddling (thereby letting the prof know that the dog-and-pony theatrics did not meet unspoken expectation) — had been at once exhausting and exhilarating.

i’d just said that i had looked forward all the dizzying day to sitting quietly in the theatre, the famed cambridge-based american repertory theatre (A.R.T.), absorbing all that needed to be absorbed.

but instead of quiet, a landscape for contemplation, the play that had just unfolded before our eyes, “marie antoinette,” by hyperkinetic and brilliant playwright david adjmi (he was there to talk to us, along with the director, as we sipped prosecco and nibbled blanched broccoli in the lobby before the play), had been one of full-throttle sensory explosion (in the most glorious way), and rather than theatre as respite, the evening had added yet another massive volume of thought and image to sift through.

to that, the lanky fellow replied, “this whole thing is like trying to take a drink from a fire hose.”

indeed.

i am gulping as fast as i can. and still, my face, my front, right down to the tips of my yellow rubber rain boots, is soaked with all that i can’t  fit into my stretched-wide-open maw.

i do believe i’m missing 98 percent of what’s gushing from the eternal hose. or so it feels.

and that’s only because here in the city of infinite wellspring it comes so fast, so furiously, you’d need a hippopotamus’ great vast jaw to open wide and swallow.

besides taking in trips to thoreau’s walden pond, and a glorious slice of atlantic coast called crane’s beach, and an apple orchard in ipswich where cider donuts were plopping down in doughy life-preserver Os, then floating along a hot oil river till crisped to sugar-and-cinnamon-y perfection, this week was all about taking to the classroom.

our brave little soldier was first up, marching to the bus stop on a rainy morn, declaring, “i don’t want a helicopter mom, i’ll do this myself.”

and so aboard the bus he climbed, the purple cow bus, as it’s so designated. and off he went for the next nine hours. we scooped him up at day’s end from a basketball court where he was the only white kid playing among a forest of sky-high shooters.

he beamed, as did they, when they reported to us that it had been revealed that our not-yet-5-foot shooter could keep up with the best of ’em.

bumping home in the back seat of our cambridge mobile, he went on to declare at least one teacher “awesome,” and was astonished to find the one kid he knows at the school somehow magically made his way into every one of our little guy’s classes. so, all in all, except for the english teacher he thinks is “super tough,” it was an A+ start to his rendition of this adventure.

while he was off being brave, his mama found her heart near pounding through her chest as she took a seat in the far back of her first harvard lecture hall.

wasn’t long till i distinguished myself as the only one in the 300 seats of paul farmer’s global health class who curiously pulled out a pen. i was the odd scritch-scratch amid a sea of click-clack-clicks, as the 18-year-olds madly pound out notes on laptops, and toss curious glances at that archaic instrument, the stick pen.

the school week didn’t end before handing me rejection no. 2 from yet another harvard prof, who refused to let a silver hair sit in on her graduate-level seminar, “the major works of american civilization.” but, touché, i was in the room, pulled right up to the conference table for the whole first two-hour slot, long enough to snare a reading list and syllabus so i can play along at home.

by week’s end it seems i’ve — let me grab my fingers and begin the course count — “ethical reasoning 22: justice,” with rockstar legal thinker michael sandel (that’s the classroom pictured up above, if you can believe, and sandel emerged, bounding, as the chandeliers brightened, from the depths of a sunken staircase on stage, after class opened with a shake-the-rafters rock-anthem video); narrative non-fiction, a seminar for nieman fellows and the occasional tagalong (c’est moi); “modern spiritual pioneers and religious revolutionaries,” in which we explore the lives of leo tolstoy, mohandas gandhi, lech walesa, thich nhat hahn, dorothy day, abraham joshua heschel and martin luther king; rockstar global health doc paul farmer’s “case studies in global health: biosocial perspectives,” in which i wind up either enlisting in the peace corps or finally heading off to med school to save the world;  the hilarious could-be-sit-com “science and cooking: from haute cuisine to the science of soft matter,” in which rockstar chefs jet in from around the world for tuesday lectures, including the likes of much-famed ferran adria (from el bulli in spain), bill yosses (white house pastry chef), dan barber (blue hill), and wylie dufresne (wd-50).

take a breath. it’s still only tuesday aftenoon.

we then dash down to rockefeller hall at the div school, for “virginia woolf and religion,” in which we read at least one woolf novel per week, and present a five-page paper for all the class to critique.

since i’ve been unceremoniously dumped from two classes, poetry and religion, and the major works of american civilization, i intend to homeschool my little old self in the case of those two.

and — why stop when on a cerebral binge? — i’ve a long list of nooks and crannies to explore, among them grolier poetry book shop, inc., the longest-surviving poetry-only book store in america. cross my heart, i’ll soon trek to thoreau’s cabin, at the end of a heavenly trail that traces the shores of walden pond. and i do hope to spend a starry night in the hermitage in newbury that is the retreat house of the monastery just down the lane here in cambridge.

so so very much on the sumptuous list.

but what of the glories that seep in through the cracks, at unexpected moments and places, such as the school bus stop where i’ve met a parisian single mum who founded the french equivalent of city year (a year of do-goodery for kids from 16 to 22), and who is here alone with two kids for a full fellowship at harvard’s kennedy school of government? or the elegant finance professor, just back from a year in china, who each morning strolls in his crisp white shirt and chapeau, and is teaching me the ways of elite chinese 18-year-olds who, at every turn, buck the communist party’s so-called restrictions?

and what about the wife of a long-ago nieman fellow who has invited us into her painting studio and informed me that back in 1981 the tagalong of the fellow was known as the “co-vivante,” instead of the more pedestrian “affiliate,” our current official tag?

it is dizzyingly much. but not too much. because i stay up late to sift through my day’s notes, and i bend my knee and ask for strength whenever i need. i’ve already found my place, near the book of petitions at st. paul’s, where i venture when ready for refueling.

i must dash to scoop up soccer shorts off a cambridge front porch, because even amid all the thinking, there is soccer to be played. but before i go, i’ll add a new chair feature, the word of the week: last night, while listening to adjmi, the playwright, he mentioned something about a “quiddity,” a word that caught my ear, made me lunge for my pen, a word i’ve not yet had a chance to look up. (though i just did, and it means “the essence of a thing,” a word i’m sure i’ll put to great good use.)

so that’s the quiddity of it all, from here in 02139, at the end of — could it be — a mere week three. only 45 left to go. perhaps by autumn’s end, i’ll have managed to get my thirsty gullet moist in the rushing, gushing fire hose.

do please forgive the book report of a posting, and know that i write not to wow a single one of you, but with an innocent’s sense of over-exuberance, and pinch-me-is-this-real. i’ve a mama or two who want to know every bit of reporting from here on the front, and this one’s for both of them. and you and you and you…..

i intend to introduce thought of the week, as well, but now i must dash, and then i’ll need to scroll through my notes to find the one juiciest morsel worth laying out on the table…..

so the question of the week is simply this: what’s your word of the week? or big idea of the day??