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.
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.
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:
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.