Call and Response

“We seize the unrealistic question–the call–as an opportunity to formulate a response. Maybe my “call” and our “responses”–yours; mine; my students’–might be just enough to anchor us, to ground us, to keep us steady, and to keep us connected to what matters most.”

A few months before Daniel Boorstin retired in 1987 as the 12th Librarian of Congress, I had the honor to interview him. It was a rare opportunity. Armed with pencils and pad, I was readied with more than an ample number of questions, the answers to which I hoped might reveal new insights into the man whose prolific, prize-winning books included the trilogy: The Americans: The Colonial Experience (1958); The Americans: The National Experience (1965); and The Americans: The Democratic Experience (1973).

I still remember one of those questions.

I wanted to know, as preposterous as I knew the question to be, what book in the Library of Congress he would keep if he had to throw every book away save one.

I still remember Dr. Boorstin’s response. It stings as much now as it did then.

“Oh, I can’t answer a question like that. It’s not realistic.”

Of course, he couldn’t.  After all, the Library of Congress is the largest library in the world with more than 25 million cataloged books.

Nonetheless, he proceeded to respond to my unrealistic question.

“I might say the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). When dictators burn books–let me say the first books to keep are the books that would be burned by a dictator. I’m saddened that people in parts of the world … can’t read what they want. We should weep for our fellow human beings who can’t read whatever they want.”

You would think that I would have learned a lesson about asking unrealistic questions.

And I did.

But if you’re thinking that I learned not to ask unrealistic questions, you’re wrong.

What I learned is this: ask the questions even if they might be perceived as unrealistic.

And that is exactly what I have always done. And that is exactly what I will keep on doing.

It should come as no surprise, then, when I tell you that I love asking my students questions, even unrealistic ones.

Just last week, smackdab at the beginning of the semester, I tossed one to my Creative Writing students: 

“What important lesson have you learned during the pandemic?” Write a 500-600 word essay responding to the question.

I had no sooner given the assignment than Dr. Boorstin’s comment started reverberating in my memory. “I can’t answer a question like that.”

But after the echo quieted, I remembered that Dr. Boorstin responded to my question anyway, unrealistic as he considered it to have been.

And I remember so vividly that his response joyed me, thrilled me–not so much for the content (though I think that his selection of OED was a stellar choice)–but more because he graciously went right ahead and responded to a question that he had just stingingly characterized as unrealistic!

Truth be told, it wasn’t until just now–this very moment, actually–that I realized how successful I was with that interview. I went into the interview simply hoping that I might gain at least one new, unique insight into this acclaimed historian. And I did! By asking my unrealistic question, I gained a priceless response: Dr. Boorstin’s statement that the OED might be the one book from the millions of books in the Library of Congress that he would save.

Search and explore, if you will, all the published interviews with Dr. Boorstin, and I daresay that you will not find this little nugget anywhere other than in the September/October 1987 issue of Insights: The Library of Congress Professional Association Newsletter that published the full interview.

But I digress, as I am so inclined to do, as I so love to do when I’m fooling around with ideas and words.

Let’s get back to my students, wherever it was that I left them before my digression caused my moment of forgetfulness! Ah, there they are: I found them again. I usually do! It seems that they might be talking about how preposterous the topic is that I asked them to explore, how unrealistic it is.

If they feel that way, I get it. I feel that way, too. No doubt, you do, too. No doubt, we all feel that way because we have all gone through so much during a pandemic that has lasted for two years and that threatens to dog us into the future. Globally. Nationally. Personally.

How do we cope with the challenging times ahead, whatever they might be?

Maybe, just maybe, we make it through the same way that my students will make it through as they write about what they have learned.

Maybe, just maybe, we take a moment to pause.

Maybe, just maybe, we take a moment or three or more from all the busy-ness that so often prempts the genuinely important things in our lives.

We let our minds wander. We pause in wonder. We think about what we have learned. We reflect.

We seize the unrealistic question–the call–as an opportunity to formulate a response. Maybe my “call” and our “responses”–yours; mine; my students’–might be just enough to anchor us, to ground us, to keep us steady, and to keep us connected to what matters most.

I have no idea how my students will respond to the call–absolutely no idea. I am writing this blog post days before I will have seen their submissions. But I am confident that they will respond. And it won’t be because of a grade. It will be because they have an opportunity to sort through it all.

It will be an opportunity for them to explore a question that, perhaps, no one has asked them to explore before, especially with the requirement that they chronicle their explorations in writing.

As they sort through it all and share what they have learned, I reserve to them the right to preface their lessons learned with the same caveat that Dr. Boorstin used to preface his response: “I might say […].”

Tomorrow, my students might change their minds and explore another lesson learned. Actually, I hope that they do!

Whatever it is they might say, I will value, honor, and respect their responses. For they will have done what I hope each of us will do as we grapple with a pandemic that baffles science and scientists and that requires daily changes to the game plan.

Respond. Write. Distill.

Since my students have to grapple with and respond to my unrealistic question, it seems to me that I should have to do the same. It seems to me that I should have to sort through my own pandemic experiences and arrive at a lesson that I have learned.

And that’s exactly what I’m doing in this post.

What I have learned (re-discovered, if you will) is how much I love fooling around with ideas and words. It brings me great delight. It always has. As a child, I fooled around with ideas and words in the dictionary, letting one definition lead me to the next and that one to the next and so on, just as my mother ran reference in her Biblical commentary books. It was so easy to get lost running after ideas and words. Sometimes I even lost myself.

More important, though, sometimes while fooling around with ideas and words, I landed upon moments when a great calm washed over me and comforted me and made me believe that everything might be all right after all.

It’s akin to what Robert Frost observed about poetry and about love: “[Poetry] begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life-not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion […] Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting” (“The Figure a Poem Make,” Collected Poems, 1939).

I’d like to claim that thinking about today’s post began in delight. It did not. My initial thoughts were a mishmash of all that I have missed out on–lost, if you will–during the last two years. I won’t even begin to list my woes and heartaches and tragedies here because you know them all, already, all too well. I’m betting that yours have weighed as heavily on your spirit as they have weighed on mine.

I had to reign myself instanter. I had to shift my focus from lost to found. From lost to learned.

Ideas and words have always anchored me and held me fast during the raging storms of life, even before the pandemic, and they will continue to do the same long afterwards.

As soon as I made that much-needed attitude adjustment, my essay-in-progress–this post– started giving me delight! Then, I allowed impulse to take over, and I went with the flow as the essay rode along on its own melting.

And, by the time that it ended–as it is about to do–I had a moment of clarity– perhaps even a moment of wisdom.

I am delighted that I called on my students to tackle my unrealistic question.

I am even more delighted that I tackled it myself because in sorting through my own lessons–in creating my own “call and response”–my essay ran a course of lucky events, and I achieved my own Frostian stay against confusion, momentary though it might be!

A Cursive New Year’s Resolution

“We spend January 1 walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a lot of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance this list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives … not looking for flaws, but for potential.” –Ellen Goodman

I have never been a big believer in New Year’s resolutions. In fact, I have never ushered in a new year with any firm resolution to do–or not to do–something. This year, however, I may make an exception. This year, I may make one, single solitary resolution.

Here’s why.

Last week I sat down to write some personal notes to a few alumni of Lord Fairfax Community College where I am a professor of English. It seemed to me that the personal touch would be the right touch. 

Armed with my blue-ink, roller ball pen—and just barely into my second note—I realized that something was wrong. My fingers felt cramped. My upper arm muscles felt atrophied. My relaxed and cursive grace of yesteryear was gone. 

I was “drawing” my letters. They were tight and cramped like my unused writing muscles.

Once upon a time, I knew how to use those muscles, and they were robust and firm.

Once upon a time, I knew how to write naturally and smoothly and uniformly.

But that was long ago when I wrote letters in cursive—in longhand—with my special pen, on my special paper.

Suddenly, I realized that I had not written in longhand for a long, long time.  For nearly four decades, I have word processed nearly everything. I just don’t “do” longhand anymore, beyond the mechanical “Enjoy the holidays” or “Feel better soon” or “I love you” scrawls. How strange, especially considering that I love reading published volumes of letters and, in fact, I spent ten years locating, deciphering, and editing the letters of New England writer Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and I am now working on a revised, updated, two-volume edition. 

Suddenly, I realized that I have not received many personal longhand letters and notes in a long time either. Over time, the volume has decreased steadily, and I no longer need trunks and file cabinets to store those personal artifacts, treasured objets d’art. Handwritten notes from friends and family have been hardly better than the scribbles I have sent their way. Touché.   

Paradoxically, I receive far more communiqués these days. My smart phone goes with me everywhere because I want to stay connected and be accessible. My email inbox has nearly reached its maximum storage capacity. Truthfully, those messages are far more frequent, far more detailed, and far more extensive than the longhand letters of yesteryear.

I store these electronic messages in virtual folders, where, hopefully, they will remain, virtually forever. But I doubt it. Maybe I should start printing those messages. Maybe I should start putting them away somewhere for safekeeping.   

I’m thankful that I sat down to write personal notes to some former students. Writing them has given me a wake-up call. I realize that some traditions can be preserved alongside all the marvelous advances that propel us magically forward.      

Ironically, here I sit at my computer on New Year’s Day, pecking away at the keyboard, wondering: What else in my life is cramped? Atrophied? What else should I re-train? Re-learn? Preserve? Potentialize?

For now, I’ll resolve to make one—just one—New Year’s resolution for this year and this year only. I’ll strive to renew my old tradition of reaching out to folks from time to time with longhand letters—my hand, my pen, my ink, my paper, my postage stamp. My arm, my hand, my mind, my heart, my soul—retrained to a cursive tradition that is natural and social and graceful.

Touching Lives through Giving

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

Sir Winston Churchill

As a student and as a professor, I have learned some of my best life-lessons through classroom repartee—those lively, light-hearted and spontaneous exchanges that give way to intellectual magic.

As this season of celebrating and gifting winds down and as the year 2021 that gave us all fantods comes to a thankful end, I am reminded of one those magically powerful exchanges from long, long ago. However, its initial significance has been outdistanced by its long-range influence: perpetual mind food (more accurately, soul food) given freely (perhaps, unknowingly). It matters little or not at all whether it was intended for mind or soul. It matters little or not at all whether it was given deliberately or unknowingly. I have savored it and relished it down through the years.

I was a 25-year-old graduate student in an American Literature class at the University of South Carolina. One of the short stories that the late Professor Joel Myerson gave us to read was “Life Everlastin’” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.

I knew that I had better know all the intricacies of the story before going to class. It was, after all, a graduate class. Equally important, the class was so small that we met in a small conference room and sat around a small oval conference table, with Professor Myerson charismatically leading us. Youthful (only several years older than I and the rest of the class), energetic, and intellectually stimulating, he inspired us to come to class prepared to engage in stimulating conversations, demonstrating our abilities to analyze literary works. Professor Myerson was a Formalist and a Textual Bibliographer. Nothing mattered but the literary work itself. Nothing mattered but the text. Without doubt, I needed to give that story my best.

I had been introduced to Freeman the semester before when another professor gave us some of her stories to read, and I had fallen in love with her fiction. Having to read her “Life Everlastin'” was a joy for me.

I read the story initially, and I gave it a second reading, and I am confident that I gave it yet a third reading. Professor Myerson loved giving literary works a close reading. So did I.

I wondered what take he would give the story.

Would he give it a close reading based on the story’s accurate depiction of New England village life?

Would he give it a close reading focusing on the sharp character delineations of the two diametrically opposite sisters? Maybe Mrs. Ansel who is totally preoccupied with being fitted for a new bonnet: “She was always pleased and satisfied with anything that was her own, and possession was to her the law of beauty.”

Maybe her spinster, non-churchgoing sister, Luella Norcross, who was always giving to others, who was always going “somewheres after life-everlastin’ blossoms. … If she was not in full orthodox favor among the respectable part of the town, her fame was bright among the poor and maybe lawless element, whom she befriended.”

Would he take the conversation up a notch or three by pitting seemingly shallow churchgoers (e. g. Mrs. Ansel) against those of seemingly deeper convictions (e. g. Luella Norcross) who stayed home and foraged the fields in search of life everlasting blossoms to give away, much in the same spirit of Emily Dickinson’s “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church”? Or would he perhaps compare Mrs. Ansel’s apparent lack of religious depth to E. E. Cummings’ poem “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls”?

Or might he go even deeper and explore the story as a subtle indictment of religion similar to the charge that Mark Twain gave organized religion in his “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Who does not recall the fact that Dan’l, the frog, was so full of quail-shot that he when he went to hop, “he couldn’t budge: he was planted as solid as a church and he couldn’t no more stir than if he was anchored out.” 

And, without doubt, Professor Myerson had to give the backbone of the story lots of attention: Luella’s discovery of two murdered neighbors; her discovery that the alleged murderer (John Gleason) was holed up in a vacant house next to her home; her realization that she had to give him up to the law; and her dramatic decision that she had to give in to her faith: “I don’t see any other way out of it for John Gleason!”

I went to class fully prepared to give my own two cents worth on any or all of those angles.

Indeed, we gave all of them lively pursuits, all that is save one. We did NOT discuss what seemed to me to be the very essence of the story: life everlasting.

I was stunned. No. I was surprised. I suspected that it was with deliberate intent that Professor Myerson did not take the conversation in the direction of the story’s obvious eschatological meaning: the destiny of the soul and of humankind after death. I knew that he wanted us to think about—and talk about—that aspect of the story independently without giving us any coaching.

Silence fell over the class.

There I sat, feeling that we had an obligation to move toward the eschatological and that he had an obligation to take us there. I gave a question that broke the silence.  

“So, Professor Myerson, what exactly IS life everlasting?” I was hoping that the question I gave him would make him squirm.

But he had the upper hand and knew precisely how to make me squirm. An expert in the Socratic method, he gave the question right back to me. “What do YOU think it is, Brent?” 

Aha! The chance for repartee had arrived! I gave in to the moment. I seized it. 

I looked him square in the eye, with an ever-so-innocent look, as I gave him nothing more than the straight botanical definition—a flowering plant in the mint family, noted for its healing, medicinal properties. Then I rambled on about Luella’s inclusion of life-everlasting in the pillows that she made and gave to help neighbors, especially those who were asthmatic.  

I could tell that Professor Myerson was on to me. I was known for this sort of academic maneuvering, and he was not amused. He gave me his over-the-glasses look that he was so skilled in giving. 

I waited to see what he would say—he always said something whenever he gave that look—but we both had to give up for the time being. Class ended.

But Professor Myerson always had a way of getting his way, in one way or another. This time would be no exception. A few days later he stopped me in the hall. With a twinkle in his eyes, he gave me an offprint of one of his articles that had been published in a scholarly magazine. On the front, he had written:

Brent,

This is life everlasting.

Joel Myerson

“What does THAT mean?” I pondered, as I walked away. I confess, however, to no small degree of jealousy. At that point in my life, I was unpublished. Nothing had appeared in print under my name.  But here was Professor Myerson—already a well-known, published scholar, albeit a young one—giving me an inscribed, offprint of his most recent scholarly article.

I had to give this gift more thought.

Did he realize the full impact of his gift?

Or was he a young professor giving me the selfsame banter that I had given him in class?

Or was his gift more serious? Was he giving me another way to look at life everlasting—perhaps different from the traditional eschatological view? Was he suggesting that we live on forever through what we share with others, especially ideas that are immortalized in print? Maybe so. After all, some cultures believe that we live as long as our name is spoken. If that was his intent, he succeeded. Here I am blogging about him, nearly fifty years later. Here I am placing his name in public view, albeit this time under my own name. Whoever reads this blog post will speak his name, even if silently. They may even share my story with others. Professor Myerson continues to live. 

His inscribed offprint had an immediate impact. It gave me some extra encouragement not only to finish my doctoral degree in American Literature but also to publish my own scholarly articles and books. I wanted to give my ideas away to others through the printed word. When that happened for the first time, I was thrilled, and the high that I experience now through being published is as high as it was then.

But here’s the greater truth. His gift touched my soul perhaps more than it touched my mind. It kept me mindful that as human beings we all have needs—immediate and long-range.

It kept me mindful that the needs are great, always and in all ways. In fact, during these pandemic years, the needs are daunting. No. They are staggering. 

Fortunately, for us and for others, the ways that we can touch lives through giving— whatever it is that we have within ourselves to give—are countless. 

We can give our ideas.

We can give our talents

We can give our time.

We can give our purse.

We can give our love.

We can give ourselves—mind, body, and soul

Our gifts need not be large. Our gifts need not be given with any expectation of ever knowing how much they touch others’ lives or of how much they impact others’ lives. This much, though, we do know about giving. It connects us to one another. It binds us to one another. It makes us aware of our relatedness to one another. 

Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, when we touch others’ lives by giving freely of ourselves—without any expectation of receiving anything in return—we might be edging our way, even if unawares, closer and closer and closer toward the very essence of life everlasting.