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Category: joy of learning

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? 

entering cambridge

entering cambridge kitchen

the “entering cambridge” postcard sits at the foot of my kitchen window, just to the left of the coffeemaker, just to the right of the cake dome, where the blue willow plate offers up the daily special. it’s a point on the domestic map that’s pretty much the epicenter of morning, noon and bedtime.

at the top of the stairs, now nailed to the red wall in The Professor’s study, there hangs another version of the very same sign: “entering cambridge.” only this one is carved out of wood, hand-painted by a new hampshire craftsman.

entering cambridge

both serve as reminders, but more emphatically than that, they’re nudges, sharp elbows into the ribs. insistent “pssssst, you promised”s.

if a sabbatical — a year of thinking sumptuously — is really meant to transform your life, it demands an afterlife. the intent is not simply to pry open your cerebrum, insert wisdom and knowledge, then suture the whole thing shut and send you on your merry way.

the whole point, it seems, is to reshape, reframe, keep those brain cells ever open for business. ever famished.

there’s a beautiful ritual in judaism that at the end of shabbat — the holy interlude from sundown to sundown, friday to saturday — a spice box is passed around as part of havdalah, the candle-lit blessing that seals the sacred time, the end of the otherworldly 25 hours. the box is filled with star anise and clove and cinnamon bark, pungent aromatics. the thinking goes that as you take a whiff, fill your nose down to your lungs with those spicy notes, you’ll so carry the sweetness of shabbat with you into the week. you won’t confine the holy to one short slot of time. you’ll bring the holy with you.

so too sabbatical, a word with roots in sabbath, to rest, yes, but to restore, more emphatically.

it seems that our end of the bargain is that as disciples of the sabbatical, we are duty bound to bring home its truths, its wisdoms, and plant its seeds into our home soil.

thus, the entering cambridge signs, and why you’ll find them at the heart of the two rooms that are the heart of me (light-filled kitchen) and the professor (light-filled study):

i’ve long been charmed by the signs, posted at the entry point of every massachusetts town or burg or city. it might be the simple lines, the white crest, crisp black letters, the unassuming declaration of history in the middle line on each and every sign, “inc. 1635,” for instance, on the one for fine old cambridge, the city incorporated just 15 years after captain bradford planted his waterlogged boot on plymouth rock.

the first sign i carried home, carried home in duplicate, if truth be told, was “entering amherst,” the town where we tucked away our firstborn when he went off to college. the wee signs, in magnet form, were talismans to me. i stuck one in my cubicle at work, tucked one in my wallet, as if bumping into the forms in the thick of a workday, or while slipping out a dollar bill, brought me close, if just for a moment’s time, to my faraway boy.

quite simply, the signs charmed me.

now they inspire me.

here’s the backstory: on massachusetts avenue in cambridge, there sits a fine old map store, tucked between an ethiopian cafe and a funky hair salon. we passed it every time we drove to the little guy’s school. he and i noticed the entering cambridge signs in the window. we had a hunch they were for sale.

the little guy declared, on one of our winter drive-by’s, that we really needed to procure one for the professor, who’d already taken quite a shine to the fair city and whom we guessed might never want to leave.

it became a refrain: we’d drive by on the way to school, on the mornings when the bus didn’t quite happen, and the little guy in the passenger seat would declare we needed to get a sign.

so, at last, the week we were leaving, we did. we wrapped it, and left it beside the professor’s bed. so that, come father’s day morn, the day after we’d flown home, when the professor awoke alone in that third-floor aerie that had been our roost for all those glorious months, he’d find a stack of wrapped and ribboned packages.

unbeknownst to us, the professor had been thinking along the same cambridge lines.

lying on my pillow the last night i lay my head there, there was a postcard. an “entering cambridge” postcard. the very sign we loved, framed on 3-by-5 thick paper.

on the back, written in the wee small script of the man i married nearly 22 years ago, were words that made me cry. in part, he wrote that while it might seem odd to give an “entering cambridge” sign as we were leaving, the point was to make it a promise.

“we can always be ‘entering cambridge,'” he wrote, “always exploring, learning, loving, growing.” while it helps to be in 02139, he implored that we should enter cambridge even back in 60091. especially back in 60091, the leafy little life that’s ours when home sweet home.

it’s become a mantra: “enter cambridge.”

and so it will be.

a few months before packing up the 27 boxes, three suitcases and every inch of otherwise unoccupied space in the little black sedan, i’d started a new mailbox in my computer, one i titled, “back home: soft landings. ideas to make it better.”

in that cyber-cubicle i tucked a host of hyperlinks and emails, all intended to stir brain cells. the poetry foundation (chicago-based) is peppered throughout, as are offerings from northwestern university (just down the lane), the writing center at northwestern, the writer’s theatre, and that stalwart of chicago indie bookstores, women & children first (where one recent summer’s eve, i stood in line with some 300, mostly women, to listen to none other than alice walker read). added just this week, the newberry library, and another fine indie shop, the book cellar, a bibliophile’s dream that offers comestibles along with book clubs. why not a root beer float with your ayn rand, or panini with your proust?

since i’ve been home, i’ve been noodling ideas of ways to oomph the intelligence quotient of my day to day. i’ve considered commencing a reading circle (i’m allergic to book groups, for reasons that partly escape me, but mostly have to do with the inherent exclusivity — who’s in, who’s out — and my lifelong skittishness of circumscribed memberships). i’ve been eyeing one particular list of 100 classics, and thought of starting with no. 1, “jane eyre,” and working to 100, walt whitman’s “leaves of grass.” (this would take a lifetime, i presume, but might as well get started soon….)

a dear friend of mine who returned from a left-coast fellowship a few years back, told me this week that, upon her return to the heartland, she and a gaggle of friends hired a humanities professor from the university of chicago, and for $100 per person per semester, they carried on in her living room several years of dedicated study of the history and literature of significant chapters of civilization.

so here’s where you come in, chair people. because i promise i wouldn’t prattle on if this wasn’t winding back to you.

i’ll be recasting the chair a bit, continuing on the adventure of “entering cambridge,” but finding ways to do it even when 997.5 miles from the vaunted 02139.

rather than rambling just from the heart, i will be more inclined to take us on adventures, introduce characters i meet along my ways. some weeks i’ll simply indulge in what i call “marginalia,” peeking onto pages where we find scribblings in the margins of whatever great reads land before our eyes. other weeks, it could be “yellow highlights,” great lines from literature and longform narrative unspooled here for your reading delights.

it would be grand if the table could become a gathering ground for whatever percolates your mind, your soul, your appetite for wisdom. and i’ve imagined, too, leaping out of the virtual, and having real-live gatherings of the chair, right here at my old maple table. or, better yet, beneath the whirling fan of the summer porch, where lemony waters are always on tap.

over this past year, i carried you all to cambridge in my heart, and in my omnipresent red-flowered marimekko backpack. now i hope to bring you all along as my days of entering cambridge emphatically continue, here along the great lake, the literary home of sandburg and bellow, richard wright and gwendolyn brooks.

start now, posting whatever curiosities and trails you’d like to tack to our explorers’ list…

what are some of your favorite haunts, preferred routes for cerebral exercise in the corner of the world you call home?

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.

finished.

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? 

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.

wisdom.

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.

Image 1

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…

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?