Transcendentalism, Nature, and Concord

About a year and a half ago I remember having what can only be described as a really good day. Now, if those superlatives don’t exactly bowl you over, it’s simply because nothing truly spectacular happened; I was just able to look back at the end of the day and realize how incredibly refreshing it was.

I had a day off from work (this was when I was managing a cafe in Harvard Square) and decided to spend it by myself exploring Concord. So I walked from my house-converted-into-an-overpriced-apartment to Davis Square, took the red line one stop to Porter and changed to the Fitchburg commuter rail line out to Concord. I then visited various locales including Thoreau’s replica cottage, Walden Pond, Louisa May Alcott’s home, the Old North Bridge, and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. I felt rather transcendent myself as I ate my lunch by the water’s edge of Walden Pond. It was a clear, mild (low 70s probably) October day. The leaves were just beginning to change. As I sat in that place near Thoreau’s little Walden experiment, and as I later visited the graves of several famous writers, I somehow felt connected to that legacy, that heritage of literature. I don’t necessarily agree with all their worldviews, but I still felt as if I was breathing in the fresh air of greatness. Call their ghosts muses or whatever, I also spent time writing; one poem in particular I am still eager to publish eventually. Thus, it was…a really good day.

In my American Literature class we will be taking a look at Transcendentalism over the next couple of weeks. Here is a small excerpt from M.H. Abrams’ immensely useful A Glossary of Literary Terms (7th edition) under the entry “Transcendentalism in America”:

What the various Transcendentalists had in common was less what they proposed than what they were reacting against. By and large, they were opposed to rigid rationalism; to eighteenth-century empirical philosophy of the school of John Locke, which derived all knowledge from sense impressions; to highly formalized religion, especially the Calvinist orthodoxy of New England; and to the social conformity, materialism, and commercialism that they found increasingly dominant in American life. Among the counter-views that were affirmed by Transcendentalists, especially Emerson, were confidence in the validity of a mode of knowledge that is grounded in feeling in intuition, and a consequent tendency to accept what, to logical reasoning, might seem contradictions; an ethics of individualism that stressed self-trust, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency; a turn away from modern society, with its getting and spending, to the scenes and objects of the natural world, which were regarded both as physical facts and as correspondences to aspects of the human spirit; and, in place of a formal or doctrinal religion, a faith in a divine “Principle,” or “Spirit,” or “Soul” (Emerson’s “Over-Soul”) in which both humanity and the cosmos participate.

It’s amazing how relevant some of these tenets are still today. In an over-commercialized, super-technological, empiricism-is-our-only-truth type of world, we need a return to nature, to unplugging, to spirituality.

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“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life. And see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” -Thoreau

I am most refreshed in nature. I have been blessed to get out into the wild in my life: the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali coastline in Hawaii, the West Highland Way in Scotland, Acadia National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and more. I live in El Salvador right now. And while it’s difficult to be isolated in nature (security reasons), there are some spectacular views, spectacular opportunities to witness another marvelous part of the world.

So here’s my advice. If you’re feeling the grind of the machine (corporate culture, for example, or whatever system is stymieing your life), break free. For a moment at least. Where is it you can go to transcend, to commune in nature? To know that you’re not just useless mass of atoms? You’re made of special stuff.

11 Greatest (Fictitious) Villains

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I was talking to one of my students today, and we were discussing a book he’s reading, how much he hates a certain character, and how a sign of good story-telling is based upon how much we emotionally hate (secretly love how much we hate) the villain. Thus, my non-expert list of Top Eleven Greatest Villains. Obviously this is pretty broad since I’ve included literary characters as well as film and television characters.

11. Daniel Quilp

Image result for daniel quilpThis one probably is unfamiliar to most people, but he is the main antagonist in Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. Described as rather dwarfish, Quilp is a brute who treats his wife terribly, constantly prevents the other beloved characters from achieving respite from his wiles, and creepily wants to get rid of his wife and marry beautiful, sweet Little Nell. Thus, though lesser known, he makes the bottom of my list.

10. Thomas Barrow

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Yes, I was a Downton Abbey junkie. The early 20th century history drama on PBS follows a British, aristocratic family as they adapt to strong social changes. Thomas Barrow was evil in many of his machinations, but he was tragic. He is a great villain because, like all great characters, he was extremely complex. He had his enemies and his loves. I went from despising him in the first season to rooting heartily for him in the last.

9. Ambrose

Found at The Kingkiller wiki page

Another lesser-known villain, Ambrose is a protagonist in Patrick Rothfuss’ hit fantasy  book series The Kingkiller Chronicle. Ambrose is a classic school rival: rich, egotistical, spoiled, jealous. He’s just talented enough to cause problems (he’s responsible for Kvothe being kicked out of the famous library, being whipped publicly, and being tortured a bit by a sort of voodoo doll), and his misogynist treatment of women makes you want to kick him in the bad place. I didn’t like Draco Malfoy, but I think I’d choose him as a friend over Ambrose Jakis.

8. Saruman 

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R.I.P. Christopher Lee (2015). Saruman both in the film and the book made such a great villain because of his change of alliance. Fighting for good when he thought it was a winning battle, he changed teams when Sauron grew strong. Though Sauron proved to be a stronger villain, Saruman was more human, more prominent to the readers. It made his betrayal all the worse. Nevertheless, as Gandalf prophesied, “There is only one lord of the rings, and he does not share power.”

7. Clubber Lang

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Here we go; here’s a fun one. “I pity the fool” who cannot understand the genius of this hard-hitting, boxing bad guy. This villain is not so much twisted as simply iconic. Plus, the best song of the Rocky saga is featured in Rocky III: “Eye of the Tiger.”

6. Macbeth

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Was Macbeth really a villain? Though he was the tragic hero of my absolute favorite Shakespeare play, his hunger for power made him a villain, another one of those complex bad guys whose evil was so profound (he slaughtered the family of Macduff) and yet who managed to elicit pity from the audience. Who cannot but feel some twinge of pity for the man who recognized his inability to wade out of the river of blood he’d stepped in, the man who recognized tortuously that “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing” (Act V, Scene 5)? P.S. I’m a fan of the Michael Fassbender adaptation.

5. Joker 

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“Why so serious?” Okay, so Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker was inspired. The only reason he’s not ranked higher is because, well, number 4 is too classic, and my top 3 were decided more on their cringe-worthiness. But Ledger’s performance was incredible; that maddening Joker was terrifying in his unpredictability. R.I.P. Heath Ledger (2008).

4. Darth Vader

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Trivia: “Luke, I am your father,” is actually a misquotation. Seriously. Check it out here. So…classic of classics here. He might be the most recognized super villain of all time after Satan himself perhaps. Complicated backstory. Redemptive final act to save his son. Great costume. Awesome voice (James Earl Jones). He may not be the villain that makes you wanna squirm like my top 3, but seriously, Darth Vader rocks.

3. Eli Sunday

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Though Daniel Plainview was not exactly a good guy, I HATED Eli Sunday. He was an absolute creep in the award-winning There Will Be Blood. Maybe it’s his fanatic, hypocritical, money-grubbing religion that makes him so hateful. But let’s be honest [SPOILER ALERT], no one was upset when his head got smashed in with a bowling pin at the end of the movie.

2. Dolores Umbridge

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There were some great villains in Harry Potter–Bellatrix, Greyback, and of course Voldemort himself–but no one truly bugged me like Umbridge. In fact, it was Umbridge more than any character that made me appreciate the genius of Rowling’s characterization; Umbridge legitimately ticked me off. Dressed in pink, acting all cute and sweet, that woman was the devil! She absolutely refused to admit the presence of danger and instead spent her energy torturing Harry or politely (ehem, severely) turning Defense Against the Dark Arts class into a textbook affair. Yeah, I’ll be joining the D.A. thank you very much.

1. Negan [SEASON 7 SPOILER]

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Is there really anyone else? At once smiling, at once intense and spilling your guts, the leader of the Saviors in The Walking Dead freaks me out. He is exact. He is unforgiving. HE KILLED GLEN! With his barbed wire bat, Lucille, he seems to have qualms about nothing. He’s sickeningly entertaining. He’s the alpha-male, the head patriarch. He’ll steal your wife and make you thank him for it. What?! Rick, please beat this guy.

Okay, what about you? What do you think about the list? Who would you add/subtract? 

Self-Realization

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Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.

Zora Neale Hurston’s character, Janie, said this at the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God. This next week is my last before receiving my third degree, this one in literature (the previous two in religion). I just submitted my final research paper, “Self-realization in Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Though Hurston was a famous figure in the Harlem Renaissance, her works are often conspicuously devoid of racial politics. Alice Walker noted this as well: “I think we are better off if we think of Zora Neale Hurston as an artist, period—rather than as the artist/politician most black writers have been required to be.” Nevertheless, Hurston’s novel should appeal to anyone who feels they don’t have a voice. Part of my thesis was that Janie, the main character, only achieves self-realization by pushing past social norms, social expectations. As a chronic people-pleaser, I can’t help but think of a phrase my very wise mother has been repeating to me a lot over the last few years: “You’re not responsible for anyone’s happiness but your own.” I still struggle to internalize that, but what freedom! This isn’t a cop-out from serving others (it’s not a selfish self-happiness that ignores all others). But it IS understanding that it’s not my ability/responsibility to control how people react to situations. Also, I don’t need to worry so much about social conventions. I just “got tuh find out about livin’ fuh [myself].”

It’s not until Janie stops listening to rigid social norms of her culture that she finds love. But what a love! So coincidentally, shout out to both Black History Month and Valentine’s Day (a few days ago)! May you find self-realization and love and freedom! Even after Janie’s great love, Tea Cake, had died, she found life from her love.

Then Tea Cake came prancing around her where she was and the song of the sigh flew out of the window and lit in the top of the pine trees. Tea Cake, with the sun for a shawl. Of course he wasn’t dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.

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“Tea Cake…lit in the top of the pine trees.”

Saying Goodbye (and Understanding Home)

Home is one of the most powerful motifs I’ve ever found in literature or theology. 

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My dad, my mom, my girlfriend Elena, and I at San Martin, basically El Salvador’s version of Panera Bread Co.

In my senior’s English Literature class we’re reading Robinson Crusoe (I needed something in our textbook that would hold their attention amidst senioritis better than old poetry they couldn’t understand–remember, English isn’t their first language). At the beginning of the story the main character is being persuaded by his father not to set out on his adventure. Let your imagination wander a little bit, and it’s a rather tearful, dramatic account. Robinson Crusoe’s brother has already died on his own adventure, and his father withholds his blessing (and God’s) if his son insists stubbornly on his journey to the sea.

Now, my experience with my parents has never been like that. They’ve always been supportive of my adventures, the path of my life (and it’s taken quite a winding way). But it’s always so difficult to say goodbye. I said goodbye last July when I moved to El Salvador. I said goodbye after visiting them at Christmas. And I just said goodbye to them last Tuesday after they were in the country for a week. My parents are beautiful people, and we are very close. It was difficult to say goodbye. I love them dearly. So this is an important lesson to adventuring.

Always remember where you came from. There’s a worn-out statement packed with meaning. Nobody is so alone in life that they would not be missed if they left. Stay in touch. Send a postcard. Love the ones you leave behind. Visit. And when your journey’s over, it’s okay for your tired feet to find their way back home. Home is one of the most powerful motifs I’ve ever found in literature or theology.

A little bit out of context, but I’ve always loved the sense of this statement from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

“What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”

…a little bit of honesty

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reading at my hostel in Quito, Ecuador (2014)

Because I’ve tried to be more consistent and at least post once a week, and because I’ve spent this past week a bit sick and busy, and because frankly I just don’t have a whole lot of time today, this post is a bit of a ramble. And a bit of honesty.

Confession: I want to be a published writer. I don’t want fame or fortune or success really. I simply want the validation that I don’t absolutely suck at my passion. I’m sure a lot of artists can relate to that. I’ve sent writing in the form of poetry or fiction to publishers or agents probably about twenty times now. Nada. It can be disheartening. But I keep telling myself that this is part of the game; this is the grit and the grime, the how-much-do-you-want-this, the kick-you-in-the-nuts and start again process that all determined people must face. Is publication the great satisfaction in life? Of course not. But if we’re determined to do something and feel strongly about what we do, we have to keep at it.

So today’s post is a renewal of commitment and energy. Art was never meant for notoriety really but simply to say something that’s important to the artist and maybe, collaterally, to their audience. Thus, publication or not, it’s still important if for no other reason than that it is coming out of me. It is reflection and release.

Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re sweating towards, keep working. Don’t forget to lean in and love others (I guess I’m saying not to be so consumed that we miss the greatest purposes of life), but don’t stop. The world needs YOU. Unique, weird YOU. Thank YOU.

 

a little bit of love, E.E. Cummings and Damien Rice

The thing about poetry is that its power and brilliance lies in its weakness. There are only a handful of universal themes, but poetry takes that vague generality and fractures its meaning and its telling (its story) into a thousand-million little tributaries which break off from the complete thing and then eventually find themselves coming back to their source or running dry awhile away.

What can be more general than love?

Famed avante-garde American poet E.E. Cummings explores the tension of love in his poem “[love is more thicker than forget].” Love is paradoxical in nature, just beyond defining but never going away. “love is more thicker than forget,” says his opening line, forcing the attention and the absurdity while defying normal English conventions. It is “mad and moonly,” “sane and sunly.” But importantly, “it cannot die.”

Famed Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice has appealed to select audiences throughout the years, namely my college roommate Jimmy. Because of Jimmy I was introduced to Damien Rice though I have still listened to very little of his work. His largely mellow tunes also (surprise, surprise) explore themes of love and relationships. On his most recent album My Favourite Faded Fantasy (2014), the narrator of “Colour Me In” states his desire to “repress it [love]” and that “love let me down.” But guess what? He couldn’t escape it. To live without love is a foolish, unwinnable game. It’s what colors us in.

So read this poem, and then watch Rice’s performance. What are the connections you make? [p.s. it’s a good practice, connecting art forms and messages across mediums, genres, and times]

love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail

it is most mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea

love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive

it is most sane and sunly
and more it cannot die
than all the sky which only
is higher than the sky

Poetry: Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”

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First of all, can we just acknowledge how cool Walt Whitman looks? I mean, like the original mountaineer hipster guy. Okay good, glad you agree.

I first came across Whitman in college quite by accident. I honestly can’t remember how I found his poem “Song of the Open Road,” but it was while compiling a POI (program of oral interpretation) for my forensics team in college (think debate/speech, not CSI). It’s sad, really, that I “accidentally” stumbled upon one of America’s most famous poets. But this truth perhaps highlights how far I’ve come literarily-speaking since that time.

Whitman (1819-1892), a humanist journalist, essayist, and poet, was not always loved for his poetry. His free verse was very unconventional, and his overt liberality of human sexuality was ill-approved. Nevertheless, his legacy is one of the trademarks of American literature. His works praise humanity (i.e. “Song of Myself”) and are quintessentially American in their wild, rugged freedom. And if you aren’t very familiar with Whitman’s poetry, you may have at least come across his famous “O Captain! My Captain!” which was written about the death of Abraham Lincoln and more recently immortalized in Dead Poets Society (starring Robin Williams).

So, without further ado for all my freedom-loving, adventure-seeking, open-roadies (yes, I subtly wanted to pretend I have “roadies”), literature is something that should become a friend on your journeys if it is not already. Nothing goes better with travel than deep thoughts (think Chris McCandless in Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild”). Thus, Whitman’s “Open Road” is almost like a companion guide to the adventurer. I’ll share a few lines from the rather long poem, but you should read it all for yourself. Happy adventuring!

[a few pictures from my trip to Scotland a couple years ago]

 

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The earth expanding right hand and left hand,
The picture alive, every part in its best light,
The music falling in where it is wanted, and stopping where it is not wanted,
The cheerful voice of the public road, the gay fresh sentiment of the road.
O highway I travel, do you say to me Do not leave me?
Do you say Venture not—if you leave me you are lost?
Do you say I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and undenied, adhere to me?
O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you,
You express me better than I can express myself,
You shall be more to me than my poem.
I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also,
I think I could stop here myself and do miracles,
I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me,
I think whoever I see must be happy.
Forever alive, forever forward,
Stately, solemn, sad, withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble, dissatisfied,
Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men,
They go! they go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go,
But I know that they go toward the best—toward something great.
Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

 

Faustus Makes a Deal with…Will Ferrell?

This week in my online Renaissance class we are reading Christopher Marlowe’s famous play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. In the play Faustus makes a deal with the devil in exchange for a life of decadence for twenty-four years on earth. In addition to various other tasks, we were asked to analyze the continued effects of Marlowe’s narrative on contemporary culture. I chose SNL’s “The Devil Can’t Write a Love Song” featuring Garth Brooks as Milo, an uninspired musician willing to sell his soul for a hit song to Lucifer, aka Will Ferrell. Please enjoy!

Poetry Wednesday: “The Story-Teller”

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Mark Van Doren (writing.upenn.edu)

Mark Van Doren was a poet, critic, and professor born in Hope, Illinois (a couple hour drive from where I grew up). Educated at the University of Illinois and later Columbia University (where he would later become professor), he won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1940. Highly influential, I first came across Van Doren’s name while reading the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (still one of the most moving works I’ve ever read).  As I post poetry on Wednesdays I am often learning about the poets alongside my blog readers. I can say, Mark Van Doren is a guy I’d like to know more about. Nevertheless, this poem struck when I came across it a few days ago, and I feel that it helps capture the essence of the creative story-teller, a vocation which knows that all is alive and life is a grand story to share. I hope it stirs your imagination as it has mine. When someone tells a good story, a “worm” is wakened “in the world’s brain” and nothing stands firms again. What great story has done this to you?

He talked, and as he talked
Wallpaper came alive;
Suddenly ghosts walked;
And four doors were five;

Calendars ran backward,
And maps had mouths;
Ships went tackward
In a great drowse;

Trains climbed trees,
And soon dripped down
Like honey of bees
On the cold brick town.

He had wakened a worm
In the world’s brain,
And nothing stood firm
Until day again.

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Poetry Wednesday: Abandoned Farmhouse

photo from Poetry Foundation

Ted Kooser, 2004 and 2005 US Poet Laureate, visited my small, Midwestern university back in 2009. Unfortunately I was not able to attend his poetry reading at the time. Nevertheless, I became slightly acquainted with his poetry.

Ted Kooser, born in 1939, is a pastoral, Midwestern poet of sorts. He focuses on rural landscapes and universal themes, and what makes him so powerful is his accessibility. In an age of obscurity, abstraction, and elitism in poetry, Kooser brings poetry back to the people. Perhaps Dana Gioia sums up Kooser best.

…unlike most of his peers he writes naturally for a nonliterary public. His style is accomplished but extremely simple—his diction drawn from common speech, his syntax conversational. His subjects are chosen from the everyday world of the Great Plains, and his sensibility, though more subtle and articulate, is that of the average Midwesterner. Kooser never makes an allusion that an intelligent but unbookish reader will not immediately grasp. There is to my knowledge no poet of equal stature who writes so convincingly in a manner the average American can understand and appreciate. -Can Poetry Matter

Here I share Ted Kooser’s “Abandoned Farmhouse” (1980). What might we discover if we came upon an abandoned farmhouse or any old building for that matter? What do we deduce without a word when we meet someone? What kind of burdens are they carrying? Perhaps Kooser’s poem does not exactly raise our spirits, but it helps us think about our lives and the symbols of our stuff.

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.