Thursday, January 31, 2013

Fluid Communities

Portable Altar, Cluny Museum, Paris
It's late, but I don't teach tomorrow, and I'm so happy that my blog is now weirdo-ad free that I'm going to indulge in a little homecoming to the blog. (Plus, I get to tell you the really strange reason why those ads were there further down). Returning not just to teaching but to home and family has been a whirlwind.  My speaking on a panel at University of Chicago last week-end about how to present yourself (you, a newly minted UofC PhD) as a thriving candidate to a small liberal arts college, opened up into a 36-hour romp in Chicago for me and the girls, which included a night in a downtown hotel (pool with city views! cocktail hour for mommy!), and culminated in a visit to the (hang on) American Girl Store for Iris's birthday.  Wo. Ha.  Is it a blight? Is it a plague? No. All the parents I know and love agree there are good ideas behind it all. Is it overwhelming, but in a completely effective way? Yes.  Still relatively fresh from France, the ability of the place to create a community of fervent participants in no time flat was salient for me. How do they do it? I wish that I were more of a sociologist and I could tell you more. Is it that everyone uses first names? That everyone asks you what your plans are for your doll? That everyone there is so freaking happy? (This is not as snarky as it sounds, and please don't think that I was immune to anything there - I felt genuinely happy for my girls and I felt totally a part of something.). The objects that are the dolls are key, certainly, but it's really the care of the doll that unites the girls. (There's something here about "What It's Like to Be a Doll" and the Tool-Being of dolls, I swear). And I know that Americans get made fun of in France for being so quick to form communities, so quick to belong and join in, so quick to use first names and dispense with formalities, and so strange in finding authentic belonging in ephemeral, fluid (sometimes even virtual or digital!) communities. In France (she said, speaking broadly, but this is what stood out), authentic belonging can take generations.  It took our dear friend David a significant number of years to get a first "Bonjour" from a particular neighbor.  But of course, once that "Bonjour" has been made, then it's for keeps, then it's authentic.

Student photo of Pointe du Raz
All the stranger, then, that being out in the landscapes of Brittany gave so many of our students, so many of us, a sense of belonging.  Communing, bonding, euphoria - in a place so far from home and the familiar and yet, you instantly feel as though you are a part of something.  This generation being what it is, and my being fascinated to try this, I posted images on Facebook nightly about the trip (the one exception was our night in the nunnery), and so our sense of community moved seamlessly from the intensely material to the international virtual. 

new Facebook cover image
This is what currently graces my Facebook page.  Is it just the effort of the body in the space of this environment that gives this sense of belonging, of possession? There are more questions to be asked about why we feel so quickly "at one" with nature.  Why we are so sure this is wonderful and that we are a part of it. Why we can then walk away so easily.  I say this with the Ecology of Medieval Art, and its (in some ways) much more ambivalent responses to nature, very much in mind, and there will be much posting about that. I also say this with the fluidity of virtual communities in mind. While I was watching Iris's purposeful strides throughout the store, and still daydreaming about hikes in Brittany, and pondering which historical book and which pajamas I was going to get the girls, George Washington University was having a Digital Humanities symposium, filled with brilliant speakers and observations. The creation of communities was a big theme, as well as the spaces they inhabit: blogosphere (hello!), Facebook, Twitter. All authentic (oh my heavens, they have completely changed my life), all virtual, all fluid.  For my students, a now necessary step in their experience of nature is not just the gorgeous photography, but posting it on Facebook. Yes, granted, that was my last assignment to them (!), but many of them have gone on to post dozens of images on their own pages. And the fluid communities ebb and flow around "likes" and "comments," part of the authentic reach of being in Brittany.

That portable altar again
All of which brings me to the portable altar once again.  We'll be reading a rich article about it for EcoMed, but I paused at the Cluny and took this picture to savor a student's wonder that "God on the go" was a possibility in the Middle Ages. Despite its being made of stone and metal, there is something virtual about this object.  The architectural space that would normally frame an altar has become virtual.  The community that would worship around it was fluid, ephemeral, transitory. Virtual, as we now know, does not mean not real.  And this virtual altar allowed for an authentic connection/communication with the divine.  A real broadcast, if you will. Because that would allow me to tell you that it turns out that those weird ads, and our messed up Netflix, and our inability to screen pretty much anything for the past week has been the result of our router box thinking we're in Brazil.  That's right, our only subtitle option on Netflix was "Brazilian Portuguese," the kids' movie options were all in Portuguese, our queue disappeared, amazon-prime screening told me that I was out of the country, etc.  Oliver briefly contemplated watching his movies with Portuguese subtitles to maybe learn something. And so, for a week, we were unwitting members of a huge virtual community of Brazilian internet users. The kids were amazed: "Our internet thinks we live in Brazil!" We were transported.

I treasure ephemeral authenticity. I don't know if that makes me particularly American, or modern, or any other definitions.  But I treasure its possibility, I wonder about its traditions (the portable altar), I like to think upon the time of authenticity, and I love the thrill of it. Because it's the ephemeral authenticity that creates the fluid community - in forests, in Chicago, by the sea, in the virtual world. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Middle-Ages/d Professor in Winter

some important writing to be done
You know that early line in The Lion in Winter, when Peter O'Toole, as Henry II, pulls himself from bed to break the layer of ice that has formed over his wash basin and hears gentle Alys plead with him, knowing he will have to spar all week with the nearly indomitable Eleanor - and he says (something very like): "Don't, it's going to be a beast of day" as he splashes freezing water on his face? That moment? That's what it's like to come back from winter term in Brittany.  There's a beast of a semester that awaits, mostly (in humble deference to Henry II) of marvelous things that will take a lot of work, as opposed to complex personal and political negotiations. But a beast nonetheless, if you factor in all of the other (non-teaching and non-writing) song and dance of academe as it approaches spring and summer.  And this blog, my one place of safe respite, my spot to whisper in the reeds, is now besmirched with hideous banner ads and I don't know how to get rid of them!!! I've put something up on the forum, but honestly, that's like sending a little paper boat off the windswept sea cliffs of Brittany.

I can't summarize the trip, yet - I hope to do little meditations on individual photographs, à la after Israel (if I can deal with this stupid ad issue). But I can say that this tremendous world gives.  There are things I have (images, joys, convictions, elations) that I know will slowly, invisibly transform themselves into the writing I will be doing this spring.  I hope, in some not small way, that these gusts of seaside air, that these towering cliffs, that these misty and misleading forests I traveled for two weeks will push into my writing. Not in a descriptive way, not in my telling, but in some new breathing, in some lack of fear of academic reprisal, in some new-found freedom. Yes, at my age.

Musee d'Archéologie Nationale
Hope for writing, hope in writing - this latest abstraction we added to maybe what we think it means to be human.  Watching our students try to figure out how to move a 1-ton megalith in the forests of Broceliande, seeing a female student stride forth amongst the young men who had jumped at the chance to do this thing and found themselves stuck, witnessing the moment when they realized they needed to find the midway point of the rope to lash it around the stone in a way that would distribute their force productively (equally?)... I marveled at the abstractions (both social and geometric) needed for this brute movement, stone lumbering on land.  Standing before the impossibly small "Dame à la Capuche," (sometimes called the "Dame de Brassempouy"), I stumbled in thought, trying to imagine the moves 25,000 years ago that resulted in this carving of ivory (ivory!) of a figure whose head is so delicate, so full of human presence superimposed (?), interwoven (?), at one with (?) the ivory from which she is carved.  Maybe it is also these expanses of time that will provide this desired amplification of writing. In the meantime, it's time to shatter the ice on the wash basin and plunge my face in the freezing waters of academic-work-that-is-not-writing-and-teaching and think more on Eleanor dazzling the troops of the Second Crusade than poor Henry's tricky palace politics.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Agency of History

David said a perfect thing to the students this afternoon, as he was hosting them for good, hot, strong coffee and rich, sustaining sweets. He said that history bubbles up out of the ground in Brittany, the way that oil bubbles up out of the ground in Texas. We had a day filled with adventure, a comedy of errors, poignancy, and this history, this insistent history that keeps bubbling out of the ground. Barenton Fountain fooled me and I missed a turned and I knew we'd gone too far, and I was mortified even though the students were fine and along comes a knight in shining armor. Not really, a Breton on a bike. But it felt the same. He led us to the path's entrance and in we went up to the fountain and its trees, which I find even more beguiling. I don't know how images load up on Blogger on an iPad, but I have him below. I love his proud stance, single rescuer of 25 happy students, one relaxed adult, one nervous adult, and a totally ebullient kid. I also have a picture of those trees. I want a huge photograph of that. I want to keep that, even as it bubbles forth. A history of nature is an interesting proposition. Barenton Fountain is one f the few to _not_ be Christianized. It stands with its trees and its strange soil, and its unexpectedly clear water, in a historical trajectory. Locmariaquer (and I'll try to include a picture), lives under the crushing weight of its own poignancy, having fallen, being 60' (not a typo) tall.

Poignancy has multiple scales. I couldn't believe our beautiful friend Jose wasn't there this afternoon. I felt audacious in telling David I missed him. But I do. And David understood perfectly, of course. Oliver's sheer joy at being there, and his sweet assurances that all was well were so dear. I don't know that I've ever cried for so many things all at once. The walk away was really hard this time. But a return trip due to a student's forgotten backpack afford me an extra kiss on Oliver's cheeks. We are so lucky. To catch this history as it bubbles up. To be here now, enjoying this wonderful delusion that we have Brittany all to ourselves. Tomorrow, if it is not too muddy (oh please oh please), we raise a megalith. I have the students reading Tim Morton's "poetics of anywhere" section from _The Ecological Thought_. We'll see what bubbles up out of the ground, shall w e?

Friday, January 4, 2013

History of Emotions

Is it the third time that makes it familiar? does the third time make it mine? Coming in and out of jet lag unconsciousness on the bus, I read Campaneac, Malestroit, one fleeting glimpse of Josselin before turning off for Vannes... I love this place so much: even this litany of names fils me with pleasure. And now to share it with 25 students. To have them shape their own relationships with this landscape, these names. Tonight Vannes, tomorrow Carnac - becoming at ease in the footsteps of a medieval city, standing in awe amongst 3,000 stones. Harry asks Oliver what he's most looking forward to on the trip and Oliver says "Seeing David Stein." This is the central warmth of this trip: to see our friend, to claim our friendship once again, to live it for a few wonderful days. And then Vannes unfurled before us, and all the rest to look forward to. This place, this place that I still want to _be_ into in so many ways. Here where I dare to let myself imagine Neolithic efforts, and medieval fantasies, 19th century fervor, WWII fear and courage. the history of emotions is such a cool project for the simultaneous displacement and sympathy it asks a for. Tomorrow, Carnac: do I think upon the stones or the people who erected them? Both, of course, intertwined, animated by each other. For now, bed -and a return, to here, to writing (for I have missed it), other moments of striving.