Green oats in June

An Irish day on Cape Cod: It began with a 5K walking race along Nantucket Sound in South Yarmouth (Cape Cod Irish Village Road Race). At the conclusion of the race we enjoyed Irish music at the Irish Village. Unfortunately, any loss to our waistlines from the race was fully counteracted by hamburgers and pints of stout.

The day ended with listening to Celtic Sojourn on WGBH. That program featured a beautiful poem by Patrick Kavanagh, which is appropriate for Mother’s Day, or for remembrance on any loved one.

But I don’t read the poem as being only about remembrance; it’s more about valuing the “earthiest” aspects of all our daily interactions–walking “together through the shops and stalls and markets” or among the “green oats in June.” Kavanagh reads the poem in the video below.

When we lived in Dublin in 2007-08, I remember walking many times along the beautiful Grand Canal, which was near our apartment. You can see a statue of Kavanagh there (“The Crank on the Bank”). It’s also shown in the slide show and below.

The bronze Kavanagh is sitting on a bench as the flesh and blood one once did. It was inspired by his “Lines written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin”:

O commemorate me where there is water
canal water preferably, so stilly
greeny at the heart of summer. Brother
commemorate me thus beautifully.

If you were to visit Dublin, I recommend sitting beside him to contemplate the people walking by, the ever-present swans, and the stilly, greeny water.

Patrick Kavanagh, Royal Canal

Patrick Kavanagh, Royal Canal

In Memory of My Mother

by Patrick Kavanagh

I do not think of you lying in the wet clay
Of a Monaghan graveyard; I see
You walking down a lane among the poplars
On your way to the station, or happily

Going to second Mass on a summer Sunday–
You meet me and you say:
‘Don’t forget to see about the cattle–‘
Among your earthiest words the angels stray.

And I think of you walking along a headland
Of green oats in June,
So full of repose, so rich with life–
And I see us meeting at the end of a town

On a fair day by accident, after
The bargains are all made and we can walk
Together through the shops and stalls and markets
Free in the oriental streets of thought.

O you are not lying in the wet clay,
For it is harvest evening now and we
Are piling up the ricks against the moonlight
And you smile up at us — eternally.

Searching for trolls in Skurugata

It is generally understood that Trolls, when their territory is encroached upon by mankind, withdraw to some more secluded place. So when Eksjo was built, those that dwelt in that vicinity moved to Skurugata, a defile between two high mountains whose perpendicular sides rise so near to each other as to leave the bottom in continual semi-darkness and gloom (Hofberg, 1890).

It’s also generally understood that humans venture into the lair of trolls at their peril, and wise ones know not to walk defenseless into bottomlands of “continual semi-darkness and gloom.” But we knew of the troll ways and were not about to follow the path that the hunter Pelle Katt did in Hofberg’s fairy tale.

A Swedish friend asked why we were going to Småland, as if searching for relatives were the only thing to do there. We’ve learned there is much more, including visiting 12th century Romanesque churches and meeting local people over coffee afterwards, exploring lush forests with gorgeous lakes, taking walks in well-designed parklands, looking at quaint, red wooden farmhouses, and walking through villages with winding, cobblestone streets. But we were intrigued by the descriptions of Skurugata, which seemed of a different order of things.

Skurugata is about 13 km NE of Eksjö. To get there, we drove past lovely little farms with red houses and barns, cows, and piles of logs from the abundant woods.

The walk to Skurugata itself started off simply enough, a winding path through the woods, with moss-covered rocks and ferns. But it soon descended into a narrow ravine, with straight granite sides. At times, there was little more than 20 feet separating the sides, which rose to 50 feet and more. The walking was a bit tricky, since the rocks were moss-covered and slick from rain. There was also some climbing and descending that benefitted from the use of hands.

It was easy to imagine getting a foot caught in a crevice or losing one’s balance on an unstable stone. But the most dangerous part was neither the trolls nor the rocks, but the sheer beauty that made it hard to focus on walking carefully. The camera was shock-proof, but not my head.

Hofberg’s tale made me more sympathetic to trolls than I’d been before. Being forced out of one’s home is never good, even if it’s to a place as beautiful as Skurugata. He relates that every year a whole battalion of Småland grenadiers would march through Skurugata, beating drums and blowing horns, and occasionally firing volleys. Who knows how the poor trolls suffered through that! And Pelle Katt was no saint either.

We tried not to add to the troll’s’ misery, although we did intrude on what seems like a sacred space and took pictures that only hint at its beauty.

[Double-click on any photo to enlarge it.]

References

Hofberg, Herman (1890).  Swedish fairy tales. Chicago: Belford-Clarke.

Outside lies magic, Part 2

I wrote most of my last post while flying from San Francisco to Chicago. Flipping through the airline magazine, the essay by Gerard J. Arpey, “The world is a book” caught my eye. It’s from St. Augustine: “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” That seemed to be the message of Stilgoe’s Outside lies magic.

But on reading the essay, I encountered another quote that seemed hugely at odds with my own experience at the time. It’s from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Wind, sand, and stars, writing about airplanes:

The central struggle of men has ever been to understand one another, to join together for the common weal. And it is this very thing that the machine helps them to do! It begins by annihilating time and space.

Yes, the machine, the airplane, was annihilating time and space, but it was doing so by destroying my connection to the world around me. Instead of seeing more deeply as Stilgoe recommends, I found myself seeking ways to ignore the drone of the engines and the constant pressure on my knees from the seat in front of me. Saint-Exupery’s means for promoting our common humanity has become a factory ship processing fish.

See Outside lies magic, Part 1.

Moving the world: A celebration of writing and community

Parc de la Tête d'Or, Lyon, Sergio Canobbio

Last Wednesday, I was fortunate to attend a significant literary event, called Moving the World: A Celebration of Writing and Community.

Over a three-hour period, I heard essays, letters, poems, and collaborative writing, but also saw drawings and paintings. I got to meet with the artists and to ask them questions about their work. The intellectual and artistic quality as well as the variety of the works were outstanding. The program was beautifully organized by Patrick Berry and Cory Holding.

An event such as this one is not uncommon; what made this one special was that it was held in the chapel of the Danville Correctional Center, and the artists were all inmates. They showed off the work they’ve done through courses offered by the Education Justice Project (EJP), led by Rebecca Ginsburg. EJP is a response to the abundant evidence showing that

College-in-prison programs reduce arrest, conviction, and reincarceration rates among released prisoners. Evidence has also linked the presence of college-in-prison programs to fewer disciplinary incidents within prison, finding that such programs produce safer environments for prisoners and staff alike. College-prison programs also have benefits for inmates’ families and, hence, their communities.

Captured Potential, Larry Brent

The EJP is an outstanding effort to help young men who want to become better family and community members. If you had experienced Moving the World, you’d at least have seen inmate-students focusing their energies on reading and writing, on reflecting about their lives, families, and communities, and perhaps most significantly, engaged in how they can make positive contributions to the world both inside and outside the prison.

As I said, the quality of the writing and the oral performances was superb. I was impressed with nearly all of the works. One, entitled “Progressive tears: A prisoner’s retrospective cry for Dewey’s help,” asked the philosopher John Dewey whether his progressive vision was still relevant today. Do we as a people still believe in equality and justice? Do we still see education as a means for building a better society? One may wonder, since the use of Pell Grants for prisoners was eliminated in 1994, and most prison college programs have closed.

Another essay asserts “We all want the same things.” It shows that both prisoners and ordinary people on the outside want prisoners to turn from crime to productive citizenship. Other works included letters to family members, poems, reflections on life. The painting, “Captured potential,” and its accompanying text, express well both the tragedy of prison and the possibilities. I doubt whether anyone made it through the event with dry eyes.

You can see some of the writing itself in the National Gallery of Writing.

An event like Moving the World makes the drudgery and nonsense of many other parts of life much more bearable. I not only enjoyed it in the sense of savoring, rather than counting, the moments, I was also impressed by the obvious thoughtfulness, organization, and high standards that went into it. I now understand why one instructor said that her participation has raised the standards back at the university.

References

Schopenhauer’s porcupines

Several years ago, I read Schopenhauer’s porcupines: Dilemmas of intimacy and the talking cure: Five stories of psychotherapy, by Deborah Anna Luepnitz.

It’s a fascinating book, and you don’t need to be a Schopenhauer scholar, a zoologist, or a psychotherapy patient to get a lot out of it. The entry card instead is being someone who relates to others or would like to do so.

It was there that I encountered Schopenhauer’s parable of the porcupines, the last of many from his Studies in pessimism:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.

Schopenhauer presents his parables as telling us just how life is, but Luepnitz takes this one in a constructive way. She shows through five case studies how we all have simultaneous needs and fears for intimacy, thus creating a dilemma for full living. As she puts it (p. 19):

Psychotherapy cannot make us whole, but it does allow us to transform suffering into speech and, ultimately, to learn to live with desire.

I was impressed with the book. Coincidentally, shortly after reading it, I had dinner in Philadelphia with a couple, one of whom was her patient.

References

  • Luepnitz, Deborah Anna (2002). Schopenhauer’s porcupines: Dilemmas of intimacy and the talking cure: Five stories of psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur (1891). The essays of Arthur Schopenhauer; Studies in pessimism (tr. Thomas Bailey Saunders). London: Swan Sonnenschein.

How useful is the concept of community?

de_UnamunoMiguel de Unamuno says that anyone who invents a concept takes leave of reality. I like that statement both for its literal meaning that reality can nver be fully captured by a single concept, and in the suggestion that concepts imply a kind of madness.

Unamuno’s dictum applies to the question “How useful is the concept of community?”, because community designations betray the individual in two senses. One is that every community designation necessarily strips away the uniqueness of the individuals within. A term such as “immigrants” is clearly impoverished with respect to the many reasons, origins, and experiences of immigrants.

But a community designation can not only strip away individual meaning; it can attach wrong, or even contradictory meanings. For example, if we say that someone is a member of the “elderly community,” we impute a large set of attributes that may be totally off. She might be 90 years old, but rather than suffering “elderly decline,” she might be longing for that iPod we had provided to the “youth community” to share the latest music. There’s even some evidence that the very old are healthier than the somewhat old, because they were the ones who survived past critical health hurdles.

What makes this all even more interesting is that we can’t think without concepts, and we do better when we make use of even faulty information. A member of the “library patron community” may come to the library to get warm, to order some coffee (as at Urbana Free Library), to get a date, to sleep, or a host of other reasons.

Nevertheless, it’s helpful to know that many visitors seek information. Similarly, many immigrants may need help dealing with often absurd regulations that don’t apply to citizens in a country. Many elderly people have special physical or mental challenges well beyond those faced by most younger people.

These thoughts keep bringing me back to the need for dialogue. In so many cases, well-intentioned people make judgments and decisions without really listening to those they’re trying to help. Most examples of community designations betraying the individual, could at least be better addressed by starting with the idea of listening to each others’ experiences first.

References

Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL)

accueil_biblio1 I was very fortunate to hear Elizabeth Pierre-Louis speak yesterday.

Elizabeth was on campus to accept the 2008 Young Humanitarian Award. As Director of the Library Program at Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète (FOKAL) in Haiti, she helped to set up 45 community libraries across the country. She coordinates the training and management of these libraries, which are improving the quality of live for the people there. Elizabeth described a wide variety of programs of FOKAL, including projects on supplying running water, developing basic literacy, supporting the visual arts, dance and music, debate, and economic education.

Throughout these many programs, there is an emphasis on participatory democracy, including organization and responsibility of citizens, leadership, financial and technical management, resolving conflicts, and collective decision making. Elizabeth’s work is just part of an amazing organization helping people work together toward common purposes.

The photo, of the Monique Calixte Library in FOKAL’s Cultural Center, and this text below are from the FOKAL site.

The Fondation Connaissance et Liberté / Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète (FOKAL) Cultural Center, built in 2003 in the center of Port-au-Prince thanks to funding from the Open Society Institute (OSI) and support from George Soros, is designed for meetings, training, reading, debates, recreation and discovery.

The center is comprised of a public library, with a membership of over 5,000 where children and youths from the poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince have access to reading materials in optimal conditions, a small auditorium, a café-terrasse and a cybercafé. The UNESCO auditorium is a hall designed for conferences, debates, meetings, audio-visual presentations, films, concerts and theatre. The center also includes a large atrium where one can discover the works of both Haitian and foreign painters, writers, and sculptors; and a sound and video production studio, a training hall and gardens…

FOKAL’s cultural center offers a place, eminently rare in Haiti, where peasants, women, children and youths from poor neighborhoods have a chance to interact with each other and with representatives of all sectors of society on subjects which concern education, the environment, culture, and democracy…