Being: Summer 2013

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It is a strange and contradictory summer.

Part of the time, you are entirely, freeingly unacademic. You bang down dirt roads in a rusted-out truck with no muffler and no inspection sticker, dust towering behind you. The windows are permanently rolled down, country radio permanently turned up. You help throw 300 haybales off a wagon and stack them in the barn, you set up sheep fencing, you learn how to drive the John Deere. Your father is building an outdoor oven in the garden behind the house, and you spend the last hour before dark with your little brother, balancing on top of the dome to apply the final layer of stucco. You both feel like giants, silhouetted against such a wide evening sky.

You work–six days a week as the vegetarian cook at a local farm and riding school. Up at 5:30 every morning, heat from three ovens on your face, to run a tight ship and bleach things and kill flies only when your Buddhist boss isn’t looking. You order quinoa in bulk and learn an astonishing number of ways to cook tofu. You play opera at all hours of the day, turned up as high as it will go, and make a few Cecilia Bartoli fans. You listen to talk radio, and try desperately to understand something of politics. And to your delight, you find a tiny community of intellectuals at this small Vermont farm. There is Jenn, the self-professed Feminazi, and Peter, the yogi, undergraduate degree from 70s Berkeley. You stand in the kitchen at six in the morning, pancakes burning behind you, and talk about psychoanalysis and gender roles and comparative religion with all of your might. It is a great gathering-in of perspectives, a time to ask a thousand questions you can’t ask anywhere else.

And you write. You live half in the future, on the other side of the grad school and Fulbright applications you agonize over.  You want to be in Germany, you want to get out of mid-western American academia, you want to already have your PhD and be the teacher of some students at some college, somewhere. You draw up a sort of intellectual creed for your future self, wildly romantic. Pursue REAL scholarship, the most rigorous there is, not watered down or “friendly.” Never take the easy way out. Only the exhaustive is truly interesting. Engage DIRECTLY with real ideas, texts, thinkers, the most meaningful that exist–no hiding behind secondary literature, behind works that are technically interesting but say nothing about the human soul. Focus on the connections, the dialogue, between whole genres, epochs, minds. Look the hardest ideas in the face, actively pursue Truth. The ultimate goal of scholarship must be teaching, otherwise it becomes something monstrous. Shrink from specialization. Be charitable. Be humble, but not self-effacing. Turn outwards. Elegance, humanism, joy, admiration ALWAYS.

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You start to realize how much of an idealist you are–the world is always marvelous and beautiful, even when it is horrifying. Most people are genuine and wish you well, and you wish them well in return with all your heart. Scholarship and academia and philosophy are toweringly meaningful, lovely realms. You will revel in everything, even if you are rather solitary and overworked and sometimes terrified.

The windows are flying open again, and behind it all are the lyrics of a song from a pretty exceptional band, which you listen to almost as often as the Cecilia Bartoli.

Keep the earth below my feet

For all my sweat, my blood runs weak.

Let me learn from where I have been–

Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn

Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn.

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Photography, as always, from Anna.

Being: Fulbright

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The below is a reasonably polished draft of my personal statement for the Fulbright Scholarship Program, specifically their English Teaching Assistantship–an opportunity almost impossible to attain, but too gleaming to pass up. It would place me in a German school for a year, teaching English to high school students, with a full stipend and time for outside research and study. And doors opened to me for further study in the United States or abroad. I can’t not try. The photograph is taken from my front porch.

In his Glasperlenspiel, Hermann Hesse defines vocation as a Call and an Admonition. It is a Call, he writes, because to experience one’s vocation is first to experience a summons from without, whether in the form of an idea, event, or another human being. This meeting of self and the world, he continues, brings with it an Admonition–the one called now has a charge to make good on it, to reach out to others as he or she was once reached out to. Vocation is both a gift and a commandment, and as such has the power to shape a career and a life.

My vocation is to teach. I define the word in its broadest sense: to share knowledge, to bring into dialogue and create conversation, to give others something that will shake them up and force them to see the world in a slightly different way. To engage in the pursuit of knowledge with the goal of giving it all back one day.

I’ve always had the passion, I think, though things were once more complicated. Homeschooled on a mountain farm in Vermont, I had few opportunities in highschool to engage in the sort of intensive academic dialogue I was looking for. I grew up surrounded by a supportive family and exhilaratingly lovely physical space, but my intellect was a closed loop–impatient, grasping, restless. Though I listened and talked and read, my desire to teach had nowhere to go.

Still, I tried. I hosted a series of “Symposiums” for siblings and family members, where I delivered pretentiously-titled lectures on joy in Nietzsche and early psychoanalysis. I read books my parents would not have approved of, and then blew my cover because I had to talk about them. I found online forums where I could write page-long posts about stage production in German opera. Outside of school, I led tours and taught fiber arts classes on our farm to hundreds of children and adults from around the world. But it wasn’t enough—by my senior year I was making myself crazy with excess intellectual energy, on the edge of serious depression and academically horribly lonely.

After all of that, stepping onto my college campus was like stepping into the sun. This was Hesse’s Call—suddenly there were hands reaching out, pulling me alongside, giving me a place to stand and more opportunities than I could take advantage of. The intellectual dialogue that had existed for me only in the ideal world became suddenly vital, something I could take hold of as a career and a future.

It was at college, then, that I fell fully in love with teaching. Today, as a rising senior I have my own third-grade Latin classroom at a local Preparatory School, spend my evenings working in the Writing Center, hash out adjective endings and coach oral exams as a German tutor. I take students to the opera and talk about politics and music, sit on undergraduate conference panels on Greek tragedy or 20th century Germany. A professor told me last semester, “Don’t go into teaching unless you have a fire in your belly.” I do, I said, and this is where I want to be.

And what about the future? I hope to continue my studies and someday teach at the college level. Wherever I end up, however, education will always be for me as much a career as a life philosophy. Firstly, because I have always found that teaching, along with being an artist, is of all the professions the most hopeful: it begins with the understanding that there is something in mankind worth passing on, and those worth passing it on to. That, to me, is the root of all humanism, of all true creation and scholarship. And secondly, because the worldview behind education leaves so much room for awe, curiosity, and humility. There is something both incredibly humbling and beautiful about working with the human mind, about seeking to unlock its potential for admiration and understanding.

Above all, though, I want to teach because of the second part of Hermann Hesse’s definition–the Admonition, the commandment. For me, it’s not enough just to be grateful to those professors who sought me out when I was very much alone. I want to offer something in return for their investment. And so I would be honored for the chance to reach out to other young people, to talk to them, to let them speak when they are trying to say something. In the end, teaching does not just or even primarily have to do with imparting knowledge–it is also about giving others the tools they need and the opportunity to articulate a voice.

This, I think, is what it means to make the pursuit of knowledge unrelentingly, magnificently personal.

Art: Dada and Bread & Puppet

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I went down to Chelsea last night to see a traveling performance of the Bread and Puppet Theater in the old town hall. The setting was classic Vermont–tiny town surrounded by green hills, dusty wood-floored room with paneled ceiling and folding chairs in front of the stage. A space and a part of the state I love.

I had heard of Bread and Puppet, but had never seen one of their performances. Founded by a German baker in New York and now located in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, the group has spent the past half-century baking bread, writing manifestos, and presenting provocative, surrealist, and occasionally anarchic spectacles in New England and around the world. They are Cheap Art and Political Theater, they say–art is for everyone, art is food, art wakes up sleepers!

The show I saw  was based on a series of Renaissance paintings and entitled, quite lengthily, Piero Della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross: A series of tableaux vivants depicting the legend of the true cross as seen in Piero’s murals in Arezzo, mounted on a stage which resembles the Death of Adam lunette, with the Contemporary Crucifixion of an Oppositionist by Bread & Puppet Butchers and Bureaucrats.

Indeed. The four performers mixed larger-than-life puppetry, instruments, and sung and spoken word–sometimes shocking, sometimes beautiful, always with an underlying layer of absurd humor. The portrayal of the Christian religion was sometimes satirical (was God perpetrator, victim, or spectator?), sometimes deeply respectful and almost reverent (the tableau of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba with a recitation of the Song of Songs, for instance). In keeping with the group’s motto, Biblical archetype met Newsweek drama in the last scene, where contemporary “oppositionists” were symbolically crucified–the last being, rather predictably, Edward Snowden. 

If you are in Vermont and get a chance to see them, do. The gritty, vital feel of the evening and the political/artistic philosophy of the company were, to me, quite reminiscent of various avant garde movements of the early 20th century, and particularly of Dadaism. Tristan Tzara’s brilliant and insane Unpretentious Proclamation, for instance, somehow fits right in. I include it below, as it too loud to be ignored.

How different this type of artistic expression is–Dada and Bread and Puppet–than the order and rigor of a Renaissance painting, the self-conscious profundity of a Mann or Dostoevsky novel. How much more playful, unstructured, irreverent–yet still provocative, shaking us up and making us reconsider, trying to get at what it means to be human and live in the world and create.

Art is crazy. Above the rules of the Beautiful and its inspection, indeed.

Tristan Tzara

Kunst: Rainer Maria Rilke

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Kleine Motten taumeln schauernd quer aus dem Buchs;

sie sterben heute Abend und werden nie wissen,

daß es nicht Frühling war.

Small moths tumble shivering out of the boxwood;

they will die this evening and never know

that it wasn’t spring.

~~~~~

Ich bins, Nachtigall, ich, den du singst,

hier, mir im Herzen, wird diese Stimme Gewalt

nicht länger vermeidlich.

It is I, Nightingale, whom you sing,

here, in my heart, this song becomes a force

no longer avoidable.

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Photography from the ever-talented sister, again. Yes, that is where I live. Vermont is amazing.

Being: Language, Virginia Woolf, Sugaring Season

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The thing about studying this beautiful foreign language is that it leaves me starving for English. After oral exams and sight translations I want to collapse into familiarity, into the comfort of Shakespeare or Nabokov or Gerard Manley Hopkins.  For all the intoxication of foreign languages, there is always for me an underlying level of disquiet, a persistent feeling of having the rug pulled out from under one’s feet. There such a luxury in one’s own speech, really, in the ability to fly through paragraphs unencumbered by dictionary and pocket grammar. The resonance behind the words, cadence and illusion–all there for the taking. English majors are spoiled, I think.

The desire to flee into English was strongest last August when I returned from Germany. I was weary of my own ineptness in the language, of stumbling through small-talk with bus drivers and trying to read between the lines in Kleist, who never meant what he wrote anyway. Petulantly, I wanted beauty and familiarity, wanted to be able to read a hundred pages in one afternoon. So I fell into Nabokov on the iron daybed on our porch, reading, reading, reading, too hot, with my eyes half-shut and the neighbor making hay across the road. Nabokov’s prose was sick and beautiful, and above all searingly good English.

This Christmas break the desire for familiarity was the same, after a semester where the only prose in my language I studied was secondary articles on Cicero. Boring, oder? So I looked forward to a few weeks of literary English, Plato word lists be damned. This time, there was Virginia Woolf–The Waves, on the recommendation of a friend who copied out a quote for me that was too arresting to ignore.

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I finished The Waves in two afternoons in front of the wood stove, moving a bronze bookmark back and back to the last page. It had been three years since I had read Virginia Woolf, and I had forgotten the beauty of her English–heady stuff, prose not as red-blooded as Nabokov but equally as musical.

The first time I read Woolf–To the Lighthouse–I was 17 and a senior in high school, making notes in the margins for a presentation on art and atheism. My recollection of the book had since receded to only a sense of the prose, vague outlines of imagery like the wedge of darkness before the sea.

Memory is funny, though. The book and author are, for me, unalterably bound to another recollection, one still piercingly vivid. It was late March in Vermont–maple sugaring season–and I was reading To the Lighthouse in the tiny sugar house across from the barn. I copied out the quote about the wedge of darkness and wrote a little more.

I am sitting in the sugar house, looking out the white-washed door into the last clean light of day. Luke is on the step, spitting into the yard and melting the edges of his rubber boots on the door of the arch. This is a terrible season for sugaring, and all the neighbors gather to commiserate. Too warm–too early–the sap is not sweet. The Beedes made 9 gallons out of 400 taps, and Jim Curtin burned his new front pan. The Cute Farmer Down the Hill once again drank more beer than he made syrup.

There is something about the light in March in Vermont, like it is filtered through air that is is thinner or sharper or something. As clear as Woolf’s prose, or clearer, perhaps the apotheosis of clarity. And the whole world is flowing, water, mud, sap, everything is liquid flowing downhill. My sister and I scratched Elvish into the arms of the plastic chairs inside the sugar house, raw-cheeked and smelling like smoke. The steam off the boiling sap curled the pages of anything we were reading. The wind was coarse but warm enough for sweaters and no hats. There were lambs in the barn.

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Now reading Woolf again, in January when nothing flows, this memory of sugaring comes back and the vagueness of To the Lighthouse is also filled out. There are the same themes, I think, running throughout Woolf’s entire opus like a symphony.

For instance there is always the sea. The descriptions of ocean and light that run through To the Lighthouse and The Waves are like worded versions of the sea interludes in Benjamin Britten’s opera, I think. Dawn, Morning, Moonlight, Storm.

 

And time. Time is romanced in Woolf, ebbing and flowing like snowmelt in March, or like music, but certainly not like history or clocks. What was she getting at? Perhaps Wagner had it right in his Parsifal. Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit–Here time becomes space. Or perhaps it was the opening lines of Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

In Woolf one is never certain. A day, a life–which has passed? And was the one as long as the other? And time lets fall its drop. The drop that has formed on the roof of the soul falls. On the roof of my mind time, forming, lets fall its drop. What does that mean?

And one more thing, that struck me as especially oxymoronic, dreadful, somehow misplaced in the clear light in March, and also now in the firelight in January. In Virginia Woolf there is such darkness at the edge of being. The roar of blackness just within consciousness was louder than any spring flood, measureless, burning. I was disturbed, and tried to get at that in the art and atheism presentation. And now, here it was again, writ large in The Waves.  Now I say there is a grinning, there is a subterfuge. There is something sneering behind our backs. That was frightening.

And so Virginia Woolf’s sea broke itself, her nights were full of wind and destruction. But the destruction, whatever else it was, was beautiful.