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Tag: joy of learning

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?

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?