No man is an island, entire of itself

Every man is a part of the continent, a piece of the main (wrote John Donne).

My obsession with houses sounds very tone-deaf, after recent events, both George Floyd’s death and the following protests. (This business of selling and buying a residence is a bit like pregnancy; after a certain point, you’re committed, and it gets to be hard to focus on anything else, the more so after labor pains actually start. The only way out is through).

I keep thinking of my students. In English, students skew female, but I’ve taught some African-American men who added so much to my classes, and who had gone through a lot to get there. One had bipolar disorder and a phenomenally creative mind; he wanted to write novels and screenplays, and to study English literature so as to learn his craft and help him create order in the stories that flooded his thoughts. Another was a programmer who wanted to use elements of the Mabinogion in a video game. One was a musician, so depressed and grief-stricken after his grandmother died that he couldn’t manage to do any work, but he was still a good kid.

I don’t know where any of them are now. LRU, even in these demographically challenged times, is a large regional university; it’s easy never to see a student around campus, and I often miss graduation because of the big medieval conference at Kalamazoo. I hope they’ve graduated or are on track to graduate, and make themselves and their families proud. I hope they find challenging and stimulating jobs, and do the creative work they feel called to do. I hope they have good lives.

I hope they have lives.


And if these men had not been talented and deserving students, if they had been clods? Let’s go back to John Donne: If clod be washed away by the sea, [America] is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls:

It tolls for thee.

On August, time, and grace

It’s being one of those long, busy months. I still feel the stars hurtling through the heavens, the northern hemisphere slouching into a new season, but there’s less time to appreciate the passing of time now that classes have started again. My life is carved into lists, lists for each class, lists for research, lists for house, health, finances. Sleep, once again, is iffy, because I am over-stimulated. Not worried, there’s nothing to worry about, but change is coming down the pike, this year, next year, soon, and I feel unsettled.

August has been long in part because of two trips. I went to a most excellent conference, which stimulated in all the good ways; research is definitely exciting at the moment. Sir John accompanied me on a trip to my old stomping grounds, during which we had a very active social life. It was great to see people, but I wish we could have scattered all our events over a couple of months instead of cramming them into a week!

We went to a dinner that assembled several high-school friends and our spouses. We all married “out,” that is, to people who are from somewhere else, met when we were adults, who know only by hearsay of our long-ago parties, excursions, jokes, and catch-phrases. In such a mixed group, we can all be our adult selves, with minimal reminders of the teens we once were. Maybe my friends would be okay with the reminders, but I am much happier as an adult and prefer to think that I have moved far beyond my young self. Long ago, when I was slightly freaked out about turning 18 and thus being legally adult when I had little notion of how “to adult,” as the phrase now goes, the host of this dinner assured me, “Grown-ups have more fun.” I have found this to be true.

We also attended a memorial service for a friend’s father, a beloved and influential teacher. My friend told me that he had kept the poems I showed him when I was, what, 18? 20? I am not, now, a poet. I channeled my creative impulses into literary research, and as a scholar I am tolerably successful. (That is, employed!) I may have a better appreciation for poetry because I once wrote some; I don’t know. My friend’s father’s great gift was to see and respect young people, children and teens, as complete people, interesting in themselves, not for what they might become. If they were interested in basketball, poetry, or rap music, then he talked to them about basketball, poetry, and rap. He learned from them. They learned—we learned—something about how to be an adult who pays attention, who is kind, who takes people of any age seriously.

These are not lessons I learned from my parents.

I am still most extremely imperfect in putting those lessons into practice.

These two events, and others with them, have me thinking: who do I want to be, and how can I be that person? My lists and obligations do not sum me up; they are part of me—I’m sure my friend’s father made his own lists—but not all of me. I want to live with something of the attention, intention, and grace that he had, that he gave freely to everyone who passed through his life.

Le pire a été évité

Ballade pour prier Notre-Dame
Dame des cieulx, regente terrienne
Emperiere des infernaux paluz,
Recevez moy, vostre humble chrestienne,
Que comprinse soye entre vos esleuz,
Ce non obstant qu’oncques rien ne valuz.
Les biens de vous, ma Dame, ma Maistresse
Sont trop plus grans que ne suis pecheresse,
Sans lesquels biens ame ne peut merir
N’avoir les cieulx. Je n’en suis jengleresse.
En ceste foy je vueil vivre et mourir.

François Villon

Παρὰ το πατρὸς

τὸ ἥμερον καὶ μενετικὸν ἀσαλεύτως ἐπὶ τῶν ἐξητασμένως κριθέντων: καὶ τὸ ἀκενόδοξον περὶ τὰς δοκούσας τιμάς: καὶ τὸ φιλόπονον καὶ ἐνδελεχές.

ἔπιθι δὲ καὶ ὅσους ο δας, ἄλλον ἐπ̓ ἄλλῳ


(My adopted father: civilised, long-suffering, tranquil after long study and careful thought; never conceited about things considered to be honors, always diligent.

You will go like so many others you have known, another and another.)

Marcus Aurelius, 1.16 and 4.48; translations limping but my own.

Grumpy and grumpy, with a side order of grumpy

Could I have some with not so much grumpy in it?

I have lost a stripy scarf I’m fond of. There is a great deal of snow on the ground. The house has settled a bit more so there are more cracks in the ceiling (we were hoping to sell it before any more settling happened). Sir John has had an infection that could have been serious (fortunately he is responding to antibiotics and all is well, hence I am merely grumpy about this and not freaking out). We’re a little under-equipped for being snowed in, due to his illness and me not getting the right things at the store, which happened because I was distracted by the first week of classes and having to finish off final edits to the revised introduction to the Big Honking Translation (okay, yay that that’s done). Lady Maud’s father has entered hospice care, which is sad though he has had a good life and people are rallying around because he is a wonderful, loving and beloved man (a great contrast to my father, the old grouch). The son of a friend of Sir John’s has been diagnosed with cancer. This child is still in single digits. I feel guilty feeling grumpy about my scarf (let’s just say I’m displacing my distress) when 2019 is already sucking very hard for a couple of sets of friends.

The nicest thing this week was reading The Dalemark Quartet, which I got for Christmas and finally broke out. But the downside to that is that now there is no more Diana Wynne Jones that I have not read. I put off Dalemark for years, so that there would still be something. I’m trying to persuade myself to do some work rather than getting out Rotherweird, which I got in London, intending it for the plane, but then our over-seat lights didn’t work so I spent the flight working on my laptop (and got quite a bit of useful course prep done as well as saving the book, so ill winds etc).

Paul Sherwen

I’m late to the, uh . . . to the wake.

But I only found out today.

For something like two decades, I’ve spent several hours a day, in the height of summer, with Paul and Phil talking to me about cycling during the Tour de France; I’ve heard them commentate on various other shorter races around the year, together or with Bob Roll or, occasionally, someone else. As Sir John said to me when my voice broke, “There are probably people you count as close personal friends whom you’ve spent less time listening to.” It’s true: I never met Paul, but his face and voice spent a lot of time in my living room.

I guess I always hoped I would meet him, that some year, we’d make it to France for the Tour or one of the smaller races, and somehow we’d be at the right place at the right time and bump into him and Phil, share a laugh, maybe even a glass of wine. We’d be just another random contact with fans, to them, but it would have made my year.

I liked this tribute.

Remember, remember

Seventeen years ago, the weather was just like this.

I taught on Tuesdays, that term.

I usually listened to the news in the car, not before leaving my third-floor walkup.

My neighbor caught me in the hallway to tell me, as I was leaving. I didn’t understand. I thought, small plane.

When I tuned in to the news, the second tower had already come down.

Noah Adams’s voice broke. (Was it Noah? One of the NPR reporters.)

I called to find out if LRU was carrying on as normal. They were.

I carried on. I taught. Everyone was so shocked that all we could do was continue to do the things we always did, like shattered glass hanging together for a few seconds before it starts to fall out of a window.

I remember the morning. I don’t remember the end of the day.

For this fall’s freshmen, the world has always been this way. This is not their before and after.