Monday, January 25, 2010

Of Cathedrals and Martyrs

In five days, I hope to be standing in a spot I have thought about for 40 plus years. We are visiting England soon, and among other places we will visit is Canterbury.

Pilgrims all! We will make a day trip to this site that was once one of the most visited places in all Christendom. (Remember Chaucer's Canterbury Tales? Yup, about pilgrims visiting that famous site.)

When I was a young master's student, I selected as my thesis topic the contrast between the historical Thomas Becket and the dramatic presentation of him in two plays: Jean Anouilh's play Becket and T.S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral. In an absolute gift for research, I had a newly published biography of Becket which helped me to sort out man from myth.

Becket was a larger than life character. Educated as a priest, one of the few options available for advancement for a young man without means, he and Henry II, king of England, were grand friends, bar-hopping and whoring together. Then, Becket was named Archbishop of Canterbury, found God, and turned on his friend, the king. In a radical turnabout, he began to block Henry's wishes at every opportunity. Henry was one of those fantastic monarchs who coalesced the power of the monarchy, at that time. But Becket stood in his way, insisting on the ancient powers of sanctuary and the ecclesiastical law.

In a fit of rage, Henry is reputed to have screamed "Will no one rid me of this priest" which four of his nobleman in Normandy (where the English kings resided) overheard. They promptly crossed the English Channel, stormed into Canterbury Cathedral, where they encountered Becket, who had sought sanctuary at the high altar. Perhaps taking their clue from their king, the knights ignored the high holy altar, and with swords raised, hacked Becket to pieces, scattering his brains on the stones. Faithful servants finding the devastated remains of their beloved archbishop gathered up the remnants of his body.

Becket was fast-tracked for sainthood. He was martyred in 1170 and was named a saint in 1173--almost unheard of (then). It was his elevation to sainthood that got all those pilgrims tromping off to Canterbury in the first place.

I too shall soon be standing there, contemplating Thomas the man and the myth. I do not know what I will feel when I stand there, but perhaps in a week or so, I shall be able to give a report.

Image of Canterbury Cathedral from Wikipedia Commons

Image of Becket at the altar from

Monday, January 18, 2010

Dust to Dust

Watching the news about the horrific consequences of the tragic earthquake in Haiti has got me thinking about dust.

With the first images coming out of this natural disaster, I have been struck with the way most people are covered in dust. Now, almost a week later, there are a few heart-warming stories of more survivors who are being pulled from the wreckage--and always, there is the dust.

The instant impulse is to cringe at the sight of so much dust--but then I got to thinking. There is an immortality to dust. One of my favorite church services in the cycle of the Christian calendar is Ash Wednesday. I grew up in a church tradition that did not emphasize the liturgical church calendar, so I came to Ash Wednesday services later in my worship experience. My personal faith tradition is solidly Protestant, but the current pastor of our church has a fine sense of the symbolism that a more liturgical approach affords.

He led us in our first Ash Wednesday service about a decade ago. Part of the service included the imposition of ashes--where we all go forward, and receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads. The ashes are derived from the burning of palms from the prior year's Palm Sunday service. For someone who loves and values poetic symbolism, I thrill to this cycle of meaning.

As each worshipper approaches the pastor, he asks our given name, and then says "Donna, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."* Now, you might think that smack of mortality would be depressing--but it's not. In fact, I find it reassuring. I am dust.

I find myself thinking about the endless cycle of life that dust encompasses. Even after we perish and return to dust, from that dust new life emerges. Some people hear that statement--you are dust and to dust you shall return--and despair. Not me. I hear that and think--how wonderful: Dust from the beginning of time still encompassing cells from the beginning of time, and continuing on into the forever.

There are two wonderful poems that capture this sentiment so much more artfully than I can express. X. J. Kennedy is a contemporary poet, and Walter Raleigh is--yes, that Walter Raleigh. His poem was written in 1618, the year he was executed by order of King James I--yes, that King James.

by X. J. Kennedy

When all my dust lies strewn
Over the roundbrinked ramparts of the world
I can be gathered, sinew and bone
Out of the past hurled
Delaylessly as I
Flick thoughts back that replace
Lash to dropped lid, lid to eye,
Eye to disbanded face
No task to His strength, for He
Is my Head—Him I trust
To stray the presence of His mind to me
Then cast down again
Or recollect my dust.

by Sir Walter Raleigh

EVEN such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days:
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.

*Genesis 3:19
Portrait of Walter Raleigh and son from the National Portrait Gallery, London

Friday, January 15, 2010

It's Big...Really BIG!

Every January, our state holds its annual state fair--the PA Farm Show. I know, I know--middle of winter, what's with that? Well, since 1917, Pennsylvania has held its annual state fair in the middle of winter. And indoors, at that. It is billed as the largest indoor agricultural event in the United States. (The Farm Show complex has some 615,637 square feet of display, exposition hall, and arena space--so, it's big...really big!)

We went to the Farm Show quite frequently when our children were little. What kid can resist all the farm animals--cows, pigs, goats, chickens, rabbits? And with no admission fee (although there is a parking fee) it is cheap entertainment.

As our children grew, we did not attend the show as much. So, this year, we decided to go again. Some things have changed, and some things have not.

People still like the machines--this year, there were a series of antique farm machines. Here is an old threshing machine.

This is a shingle splitter. I love the brilliant colors of the machine.

And, of course, there are the NEW machines--although there were far fewer of these than my husband and I recalled seeing in past years. Maybe the economy has made purchasing such machines more dear.

Children still love to play. Here, they had a sandbox full of corn to push around, and load. They loved it.

We wandered into the one arena to find a woman on a mustang--she was miked and as she rode around she extolled the virtues of these wild horses, and told how she bid on and got the horse she rode.

Another arena had ponies pulling weight--you can see the strain of the ponies in the blur of the photo.

And here is the weight they were pulling--we left as the announcer said "MORE WEIGHT."

People always go to the farm show for the animals. Last time we were there, there were no alpacas--now there are.

Not all animals are real--this entire scene is sculpted from butter (I am not kidding) and is the signature symbol of the Farm Show.

Here's the proof.

There were at least a half dozen cooking demonstration stands--all very popular, though I suspect it was really because they had chairs people could sit on. And they did. I don't know if they bought the cookware.

The more traditional animals--pigs even though there were many swine flu posters among the FFA entries.

And lots of lovely cows. Our local television news tells us these cows get bathed daily AND blow-dried while at the farm show.

We lasted less than 3 hours--tired out, we returned home. I think the Farm Show is a lot more fun if you have an awe-struck child in tow!

Friday, January 08, 2010

Reflections on a Teaching Career

Classes at my community college start up again next week. But, for the first time in the last 8 years, I won't be in the classroom. I am taking a break this semester--with my husband's recent retirement, we are both trying out being fully retired.

I have the option to return to teaching next fall. While I certainly have not made that decision yet, it is possible that I have spent my last hours in the classroom. That prospect has me reflecting on a teaching career.

I first began teaching fresh out of graduate school. I headed off to graduate school immediately after college. While working on my master's degree, I wrote a note of appreciation to one of my favorite professors at my alma mater. I said--if there is anything I can do to repay you, let me know. His quick response--how would you like to come and teach for a year. As it happened, one of the English professors was going on sabbatical, and the English department needed someone to fill in for a year. That one year turned into my first teaching career of 8 years.

When I initially went into teaching, I was a young, green English instructor--all of 22 years old to my students' 18, 19, or 20 years old. Some of them had been just two years behind me in schooling. I had that wonderful combination of youth: audacity and blissful ignorance. It never occurred to me that I didn't know as much as I thought I knew. The first few months in the classroom, reading student papers, taught me more about grammar than anything else I had learned to that point. Nothing like reading papers that you have to correct to teach you proper writing.

Since the college where I was teaching had a small English department, I had the opportunity to teach a wide array of courses. In addition to composition, I taught American literature survey, the development of the English novel, Shakespeare, creative writing, and literary criticism. I was the first instructor to teach the latter two courses. You can see I had lots of room for academic creativity.

One of the high points of my first teaching career was participation in a grand educational experiment. The college faculty had decided to try to do integrated studies to meet the general education requirements. The resulting course was an amalgamation of literature, history, art, religion and culture. To prepare for the course, a faculty team worked during the summer to select content, plan the lecture sequence, determine who would deliver which lectures, and generally attend to the details for making the general education course work.

I loved this course. As faculty, we decided to focus on several key cultural periods in human history, and gather around those points the various emphases we wanted to convey. So, for example, we selected the Indus Valley civilization or the Tang dynasty, and then used those focal points to cover the history of the particular time, introduce students to elements of religion, as well as select some representative art and literature.

Variously referred to as Gen Ed, or Integrated Studies, the course lasted for about a decade. While the professors loved teaching the course, many students hated it. For a variety of reasons, the Gen Ed course was eventually terminated, and the traditional approach to teaching the basic course was reinstated.

Thus, my first reflection on a teaching career: I love learning and teaching afforded me a front seat opportunity to learn continually.

More reflections to come.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Naming the Year

When the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" came out, the title rolled off the tongue so easily. TWO THOUSAND and ONE. It sounded right. It never occurred to me that perhaps that naming was not consistent with other year naming practices, if not downright incorrect.

So, as the millennium approached, and we all began to get caught up in the excitement--or dread--of not only the year changing, but also the decade, and also the century, we all named the year TWO THOUSAND.
When the next year rolled around, I was saying TWO THOUSAND and ONE--like the movie title.

But there was one recalcitrant and obstinate soul who insisted on saying--TWENTY O ONE. Charles Osgood.
Now, I dearly love CBS Sunday Morning. And Charles Osgood is such a wonderfully quirky host--what with his bow ties, his penchant for composing doggerel and his ability to sit down at the piano and play quite skillfully.

But somehow saying 2001 as twenty o one just sounded wrong.
So I persisted with two thousand and one. The next year was two thousand and two. . .and so on until this new year. Charles Osgood pronounced it--TWENTY TEN.

Then I heard other announcers and commentators all saying twenty ten. My insistence on two thousand and ten seemed. . .outnumbered.
So I began this reflection--how does one say certain dates.

The Norma
n invasion of Britain--1066? Ten sixty six. Not ONE THOUSAND and sixty-six. OK.

The last new century--1900? Not ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED.

I am now persuaded. But, still, it just sounds. . .weird.

So, what is it? 2010--two thousand and ten? 2010--twenty ten? Anyone?