Art & culture


Thoreau with replica house

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about Henry David Thoreau. This isn’t unusual: Thoreau is one of my favorite authors, and I spent a good deal of my doctoral dissertation analyzing his writing. I have a whimsical portrait of Thoreau over my desk because he represents many of the things I personally hold dear: he was a writer and a naturalist, a walker and a rebel. In a world insistent upon choosing sides, Thoreau was both an artist and a scientist, both poetic and political, both active and contemplative. When I try to imagine a well-rounded, grounded, and self-reliant person, Thoreau is who immediately comes to mind.

Spartan

I’ve been thinking more than usual these days about Henry David Thoreau because of “Civil Disobedience,” an essay published in 1849 that inspired both Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” a lesser-known essay that Thoreau first delivered as a lecture in Framingham on July 4, 1854, after escaped slave Anthony Burns was captured in Boston and sent back south. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau describes the night he spent in jail after refusing to pay his poll tax as a protest against the Mexican War and its expansion of slavery, and in “Slavery in Massachusetts,” he condemns Northern cooperation with the Fugitive Slave Act. In both essays, Thoreau turns his eye with all its acuity on the social ills of his day, as if politics were no less interesting than natural history. This politically engaged way of looking at the world seems particularly helpful in 2017, exactly two centuries after Thoreau was born.

Stove and two chairs

Although the popular image of Thoreau is that of a quiet misanthrope twiddling his thumbs alongside a peaceful pond, Thoreau was outspoken during the most politically tumultuous time in American history. When Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience” and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” the political debate over slavery was ratcheting the nation toward civil war, and Thoreau was deeply engaged in that debate. Thoreau didn’t just sit back and ignore the political issues of his day; although he cherished his solitude, Thoreau wasn’t an escapist. Instead, Thoreau figured out how to balance engagement and renewal, speaking out on political issues as he was able, but also finding time to unplug.

Desk with guestbook

Ever since the election, I’ve been spending a lot of time following news coverage and political commentary on Trump, Trumpism, and the burgeoning resistance to both. There has been a surge on the left of people trying to learn and understand everything from the demographics of the white working class to constitutional law and immigration policy. While folks on the right raced to buy guns when Obama was elected, folks on the left are now racing to read books. Unlike Trump supporters who shield themselves from “fake news” by plugging their ears to any coverage that doesn’t come straight from the President himself, people on the other side of the political divide have been reading widely and deeply, seeking multiple perspectives in an attempt to stay informed.

Thoreau's snowshoes

This attempt to stay informed, however, can get tiring: sometimes I envy the quiet complacency of the right, who can sit back and trust that America will magically become Great now that Trump is in charge. Had Hillary Clinton won the election, I would have presumably done the same, patting myself on the back for doing my civic duty at the ballot box and considering my job as a citizen to be over. Since the election, however, I find myself moonlighting as an activist, keeping a constant eye on breaking news, receiving daily text messages and emails urging me to contact elected officials on the issue du jour, and otherwise staying vigilant, ready to cancel plans and rush off to protest the latest executive order, unsettling tweet, or constitutional crisis.

Thoreau's bed and desk

In the aftermath of 9/11, people quickly learned that you can’t remain on high alert forever, but that doesn’t mean you should let yourself be lulled to sleep. Beth recently wrote about self-care during the resistance: if you plan to be an effective activist in the long run, you have to prioritize and pick your battles. This is, again, where I find Thoreau to be particularly inspiring. Thoreau spoke out against slavery, the Mexican War, and other political outrages of his day, but he also managed to take daily walks, write in his journal, keep a careful chronicle of wild flora and fauna, and tend his garden. Thoreau, in other worlds, figured out a way to simultaneously exist and resist.

Weathered

What Thoreau didn’t do, of course, was stay inside glued to either CNN or his Facebook feed: instead, he was outside and active. A lot of modern-day critics of Thoreau argue (rightfully) that his activism was largely symbolic: the single night in jail Thoreau describes in “Civil Disobedience” didn’t single-handedly bring down slavery. But just because an act of protest is symbolic doesn’t mean it is isn’t powerful, as many of the accoutrements of power are themselves symbolic.

Peace

Donald Trump didn’t magically become a different man when he raised his hand and took the oath of office, but that symbolic action marked a monumental transition of power. Some of the most alarming news items these days stem not from official policy Trump and his administration has enacted, but the tone-setting influence of angry rants and recklessly worded tweets. Words are nothing more than symbols, but that doesn’t mean words don’t matter.

Adirondack Writers' Guild

By writing about his night in jail, Thoreau preserved it for the ages, reminding generation after generation that “under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” The concept of civil disobedience–Thoreau’s insistence that the government is a machine, and private citizens can strip government of its power by intentionally becoming a “counter-friction to stop the machine”–is not new or earth-shattering: had Thoreau not written “Civil Disobedience,” both King and Gandhi would have found inspiration elsewhere.

Henry David Thoreau's grave

But the fact remains that Thoreau did write this essay: he planted a seed. The tree of peaceful protest would have found some other method of germination had Thoreau never tended it, but he was a faithful servant in freedom’s garden. A solitary and sometimes cantankerous man, Thoreau probably never envisioned the communal movements that both King and Gandhi led: what started as one man spending one night in jail has inspired massive collective movements that have changed the world. Even the largest earthquake starts with a tiny tremor.

February

History is neither a marathon or sprint; instead, history is a relay race. Thoreau did nothing more than pick up the baton of justice and pass it on, and we should expect nothing less of ourselves. It’s important to show up–to engage in faithful, regular deeds, even if those deeds are small–as a way of claiming our priorities. It is not necessary to do everything, but do not fail to do something. As you are able, act. If you cannot act, speak up; if you cannot speak up, listen. If you can neither act, speak up, nor listen, by all means pray. Remain faithful in small things, and trust your acts will be echoed by others, achieving a cumulative effect. We’re in this for the long haul, and there is a need for all sorts of acts and activism.

Antique instruments

Last week, J and I went to a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert:  the last of three such concerts we’ve gone to this season.  The program featured a symphony by Sibelius and a piano concerto by Busoni, two composers I wasn’t familiar with.  The soloist who played the Busoni piece, Kirill Gerstein, was amazing:  the concerto was long, fast, and complicated, and Gerstein performed it without sheet music, committing more than 70 minutes of emphatic, keyboard-pounding music to muscle-memory.

I don’t know much about classical music, and during any given concert, my mind sometimes wanders.  But I’m always inspired by the mastery both regular symphony members and visiting soloists demonstrate as they perform long, intricately orchestrated pieces.  I’m not a musician, so playing an instrument seems difficult enough, and playing an instrument in unison with an entire orchestra of others seems downright miraculous.

Antique instruments

My favorite moments in any concert are the quiet ones, when all eyes are on the conductor and you can almost hear the musicians holding their collective breath.  These expectant moments thrill me in a way the dramatic crescendos and flourishes do not.  Playing loudly seems easy enough:  even I could make a lot of noise with a horn or drum.  But it takes talent and a well-tamed temperament to ride the crests and troughs of a well-written concerto, the music and surging and subsiding in unexpected and ultimately satisfying ways.

 

Ouroboros

Last week I briefly browsed a new exhibit at the Mazmanian Gallery at Framingham State University: Ouroboros, a set of works on paper by Jacquelyn Gleisner. The exhibit is colorful, with folded paper cones congregating on the floor and a long paper scroll unwound along one wall. On the facing wall is a shelf displaying filled watercolor books–sketchbooks like the one A bought me for Christmas–filled with paintings made over traced outlines of human hands.

Sketchbooks

Beside these finished books was a blank sketchbook set out for visitors to trace their own hand, which I immediately did. Gleisner will, presumably, use this book in her future work, but that’s not what enchanted me about it. Instead, I was excited to realize I could easily use that sketchbook A gave me to make my very own “handbook”: tracings of my own human hands filled in with color, a one-of-a-kind, personalized coloring book.

Ouroboros

That is, I think, the best effect an exhibit or work of art can have: not the bitter accusation “Even I could to that” but the awed realization “Even I could do that!” There’s no reason you should leave an art exhibit feeling dispirited, as if the act of inspiration is over and done. Instead, you should leave an exhibit feeling inspired, your view of the world and its possibilities expanded. If any given artist can transform the lifeless stuff of paper, pen, and paint into something interesting, why can’t I do that, too?

Ouroboros

This is why I like to walk up to the fourth floor of May Hall during my office hours: it’s a chance to see what anonymous undergraduates are doing in their art classes. It’s heartening to see beginners–many of them non-majors who don’t claim to be artists–exploring new media. It’s like watching nestling birds stretch and flex their wings. You know these fragile creatures will range far and wide once they fledge and fly, but for now, their promise hasn’t yet earned its feathers.

Ouroboros

A large part of the appeal of any artwork is its tactile quality: it thrills me to recognize the works of human hands. Writers and artists share paper in common: we both fill notebooks, and we both know the smudge of pencil-lead and ink. I like the idea of an art project that involves the filling of pages, as that is something I’ve done as a journal-keeper for years upon years. Slowly, I am compiling a library of works made by hand: filled journal pages, and now, perhaps, sketchbooks filled with paintings and drawings and doodles. Filled notebooks are tactile things made by human hands, brimming with the intimacy of pen and pencil on paper.

Wall at Central Square

I recently started reading Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. The main premise of the book is that many of the things people do to study or memorize things actually aren’t effective, and what does work is counter-intuitive.

Wall at Central Square

One of the things the book insists, for example, is that pure repetition doesn’t implant long-term memories. You might memorize something for a test by repeating it over and over, but you’ll quickly forget that information: a nugget of wisdom that matches pretty much every student’s experience with cramming.

According to Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, repeatedly re-reading a textbook or class notes won’t help you master the material because repetition lulls you into thinking you understand underlying concepts when actually you’re simply memorizing someone else’s explanation. Instead of memorizing material through blind repetition, you need to apply the material, either by re-stating concepts in your own words or using those concepts to solve a problem.

Wall at Central Square

The example Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel use at the beginning of the book involves aviation. You can memorize the parts and functions of a plane engine, but that knowledge won’t become real–it won’t be yours, something you’ve truly mastered–until you face a situation where you have to use that knowledge, either in a flight simulator or actual plane. If you can connect abstract concepts to your own life–something you’ve lived and care about–those concepts will “stick” longer than facts you’ve simply drilled into your head through repetition.

Wall at Central Square

The other insight I’ve gotten from the book so far is the importance of “interleaving”: the cognitive multitasking that happens when you study multiple subjects side-by-side rather than focusing your entire attention on one subject. I haven’t read far enough into the book to understand exactly why interleaving is so powerful, but I suppose it’s the mental equivalent of interval training. In my own experience, studying more than one subject allows you to take breaks by switching back and forth between topics, and it also allows you to draw novel connections among subjects. (As a professor, for example, I’m always happy to hear students connect something they’ve learned in another class to something we’re discussing in mine.)

Wall at Central Square

The concept of interleaving reminds me of the intricate clockwork desk naturalist John Muir built when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin. Muir loaded the desk with his various textbooks, and it would automatically open each of his books at pre-arranged intervals so he couldn’t spend too much time on any one subject. Although it might be a bit obsessive to design a desk that forces you to cycle through a set number of subjects, I often read more than one book at a time: when I grow tired of one book, I move to the next, and the connections and I make between the two keep me engaged longer than focusing on merely one.

Wall at Central Square

So, while I’m reading Make It Stick, I’m also reading Sam Quinones’ Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, which is about a whole other kind of “sticking.” Sometimes you want to etch information indelibly into your brain, and other times, you want to disentangle yourself from habits that stick too tenaciously.

The only rule is work

Last year, a friend bought me a poster-sized copy of Sister Corita Kent’s rules for artists, which I promptly posted in my office at school. Although all of Sister Kent’s rules are helpful, my favorite is #7: “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.”

Wire panther

I don’t consider myself to be a naturally creative person: I don’t write fiction, for example, because I’m not good at dreaming up imaginary worlds. But I’m a naturally curious person, and I’m not afraid to work. A creature of habit, what I lack in creativity, I make up for in sheer stubbornness. Whether or not I have anything to say, I show up at my notebook, and once I set pen to paper, I fill pages out of obligation, having trained myself through long habit to follow Natalie Goldberg’s exhortation to “keep my hand moving.”

Two headed turtle

I suppose some people see creativity as being a delicate, fluttery thing, like a butterfly or hummingbird that flits and flirts according to whim and mood. My muse, on the other hand, is more like an old ox that no longer fights his yoke. Others might follow a muse that is as occasional and enlightening as a shooting star; I follow a muse that plods down predictable paths.

Wire rat

I don’t know what sort of muse visited Sister Corita Kent, but I know this much: I’ve been following the rule of work for years, and it’s the best way I know to create. Perhaps there are writers, artists, and other creatives who can show up only when they feel inspired, but I’m not one of them. My muse requires regular practice even when I don’t feel like writing, and the rule of work points to that truth.

Scheming

One of the benefits of being an English professor is the way my job forces me to read several books at once. Right now I’m re-reading Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio for my American Short Story class, Toni Morrison’s Sula for my American Ethnic Literature class, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me for my Introduction to College Writing class. This particular combination of books isn’t one I’d intentionally plan: instead, it’s a serendipity of semester scheduling.

Sinous

In addition to the books I read for work are the books I read for fun. This morning, for example, I finished reading Difficult Women, Roxane Gay’s new collection of short stories. Every difficult woman has a story of how life made her so, and this a collection of those stories. Gay describes women who make poor choices, but she also chronicles the cumulative cruelties that led to those choices. Gay is neither sappy nor sentimental: she never moralizes. Instead, she illuminates the dark, difficult roads that lead to human resilience.

Cocktail party

This morning, I realized an interesting overlap between Gay’s stories and Morrison’s novel. Sula is a difficult woman: even when Sula was a child, her own mother admitted she loved Sula but did not always like her. Both Toni Morrison and Roxane Gay realize difficult women aren’t born; they are made. Sula refuses to be owned by any man, and this gets her in trouble, repeatedly. The only person who understands Sula is her childhood friend, Nel, but even their relationship is not easy. When Nel marries and thus chooses a conventional life, her life is set at cross-purposes with Sula’s. Loyalty in love and loyalty in friendship don’t always coexist.

Genteel

Roxane Gay’s stories are full of twins and inseparable sisters, shared trauma bonding women together more strongly than blood. Toni Morrison’s Nel and Sula are such a pair: they are friends in part because they share one another’s secrets. Ultimately, both Morrison and Gay suggest a woman can be loyal only to herself, and this is a crime patriarchy can never forgive. Women can remain true to their sisters, friends, or even children, but men are infinitely replaceable.

Aristocratic

Mary Austin once said men can’t survive without women, but woman with a child will do perfectly fine. Both Morrison and Gay go one step further, suggesting that even a child isn’t necessary, difficult women having within themselves the resources to stand alone, resilient.

Self portrait with paper doves

On Saturday as I approached the Museum of Fine Arts, I saw a young couple walking ahead of me. It’s not unusual to see young couples walking in Boston, but what caught my eye was the young woman’s pink, pointy-eared hat. Although I’d read about the Pussyhat Project and knew knitters across the country have been making pink hats for the Women’s Marches that will take place across the nation next Saturday, I’d never seen a real live pussyhat in the wild.

Lime Green Icicle Tower

As I watched the couple ascend the stairs to the Museum’s Fenway entrance, I knew what I had to do. Although my own hat is black and store-bought, I’m planning to attend next week’s Boston Women’s March for America, and I realized it was time to come out as a Pussyhat-in-Hiding. Since my museum membership allows me one guest, I approached the couple as they stood in line for tickets, complimenting the woman on her hat and offering to get her into the Museum for free.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

While her boyfriend bought his ticket, “N” and I chatted about next weekend’s march: she is knitting pussyhats to give away to marchers, and I’m looking forward to marching even though I don’t have a pussyhat to wear. You can see, I suspect, where this is going. By the time her boyfriend had bought his ticket, “N” promised to mail me one of her knitted hats, and I gave her my email address to arrange logistics. None of this would have happened, of course, if “N” weren’t wearing a pink knitted hat with cat ears that inspired me to approach her. The simple act of seeing someone in a distinctive (and politically significant) hat inspired me to reach out rather than quietly minding my own business.

Lime Green Icicle Tower

There’s nothing stopping any of us from walking up to a stranger and doing something kind: inviting “N” to be my Museum guest cost nothing but the nerve to approach her. And yet, I would have never dreamed of walking up to a stranger before November. Suddenly, the election of a man who promised to Make America Hate Again makes simple acts of kindness feel subversive and powerful, a revolution powered by knitting needles and nice gestures.

Inside the Museum, in the sun-drenched enclosed courtyard that connects the building’s old and new wings, there are artworks made by local schoolchildren in honor of Martin Luther King Day. The most eye-catching of these are quilts bearing quotations from King, each letter whimsically decorated: a chorus of colors.

No person has the right to rain on your dreams

These quotes from King seem particularly relevant in today’s political climate, when the voices of hate have grown loud and it’s easy to give up hope. “I have decided to stick with love,” one quilt proclaims. “Hate is too great a burden to bear.” I’ll confess to carrying more anger than I’d like these past few weeks, unable to fathom how some voters could choose a mean-spirited, hot-headed bully over a woman with a lifetime of experience. But this, indeed, is a burden too great to bear: as King himself exhorted, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase

So how do we move forward, regardless of the burdens we carry? Dr. King said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” so what are these things? From where I sit, kindness matters, and so does compassion. Truth matters, even if some don’t want to hear it. Lending a helping hand matters, as does protecting the sick and vulnerable. Love matters, and random acts of kindness, and both solidarity and sisterhood. So next Saturday in Boston and beyond, women and men of all colors and stripes will march together for what matters: a chorus of colors, beautiful and harmonious.


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