” Momentary Stay Against Chaos”

La Primavera by Sandro Botticelli


Classes do not start until for a week, but today I went to school to begin organizing things for the semester. My office was as I left it on December 19th, the desk tidier than it will be until May. I needed to look at the texts I would be using. I needed to begin plotting out the term. I enjoy this part of the process almost as much as I enjoy the teaching itself. I decided to begin my English Comp II class with poetry, and scanned the table of contents in the reader I had chosen, putting a little check next to the poems I wanted to teach. By the time I was finished, (and oddly enough this anthology is organized alphabetically so that Anonymous and John Berryman near the beginning and Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas near the end) I had checked about three quarters of the poems, enough for an entire semester, not just one third of a semester. (And now that I am typing this, I wonder if there’s anything in the common course syllabus that would disallow such a thing. I will have to think about it.)

But before I was working through this table of contents, a friend of mine who works in the financial aid office, but whose real love is theater, brought his lunch to my office so we could catch up on how our Christmas vacations had gone. As these conversations tend to go, we got discussing the purposes of art. I said that I think one of the purposes of art is to organize the chaos we find around us. He said that one of the purposes of art is to teach us how to be human. I do not think these are conflicting definitions. I think art does many things. It does organize the chaos. (Robert Frost famously said that poetry is a momentary stay against chaos.) Music takes chaotic noise and organizes it into something that is interesting and often uplifting to hear. Visual art can make us reconsider the shapes, colors and relationships we see around us. Poetry often takes difficult situations and renders them in such language that they become tender and heartbreaking because of the poet’s use of language, sound and meter.

And so, as I was reading the table of contents of my textbook, I found favorites. Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” that begins “Sunday, too, my father got up early in the blue black cold/ and made banked fires burn./No one ever thanked him.” Or Frost’s “After Apple Picking” in which he says “I am tired of the great harvest I, myself,desired.” These poems not only organize chaos, but as my friend said, they also tell us something about being human, about how bad we are at thanking those who do things for us or how easily we become bored with what we thought we wanted.

However, art also reaches across time. The two poets I quote above wrote in the 20th Century, but once, in 1999, I stood in front of a Botticelli fresco that hangs in the Lourve with tears rolling down my cheeks. Painted in the late 15th Century, it seemed as fresh as the day it was painted, the colors bright and arresting, the expressions on the people something I could recognize. Nothing in the painting connected to the century in which I was living, and yet, it spoke across time to the point that it brought me to tears. Botticelli had painted a hymn to spring that made me, an American woman, from a place he could not have imagined, feel like I had seen something miraculous. This is what great art, whether it’s theater, painting, sculpture or literature, does. We see beyond the mundane, we see beyond the commonplace, even when it is the common place that the art is depicting. We are led deep into the best parts of the human soul.

Whether or not I spend the entire semester on poetry ( I suspect that my students will thank me if I do not), I hope that each one of my students finds at least one poem that he/she carries with her as a talisman against chaos or as touchstone for what it means to be human.


Junk Drawer Brain

drawer5When Frank went back to school this morning (in the snow, after 12 days at home), he said, “Stay away from my Legos.” He isn’t worried I will spend my day playing with his stash of plastic blocks; he’s afraid they’re going to disappear. It has happened before: the boys go back to school several weeks before I go back to teaching, so I start throwing things away. I scour closets for the shoes no one wears. I clear out cabinets and toy bins. I empty the freezer, the linen closet, and the 17 junk drawers in the kitchen. And it has happened: my children’s toys become causalities in my war on stuff. drawer7

January seems like the right time of year to start fresh, to clean the proverbial slate. It is a popular idea this time of year: Pinterest boasts 560 “decluttering” pins. Real Simple and lifeHacker offer checklists and expert advice. Even Lance Armstrong’s website LiveStrong makes the wild claim that getting rid of clutter will make us healthier, saving “time, money, and emotional stress.” Psychologists say that getting rid of our extra stuff has tangible benefits; clutter causes us to feel anxious, frustrated, and guilty. We will feel more productive, creative, and relaxed if we can keep our junk under control. Not to mention the obvious source of immediate gratification. New Year’s resolutions take some serious commitment, but purging is impulsive, fast, and instantly rewarding. drawer6

The experts are probably right. Most of us feel better in tidy spaces. Most of us have too much stuff. Most of us could stand to be more organized. But let’s be honest about the motivations. Purging our life of garbage may feel good, but it’s hard work that looks a bit like a small rodent on one of those exercise wheels – round and round and round. It’s a never ending chore. Those of us who are good at it are likely just feeding a maniacal need for control and order. We’re also lucky – the DIY world has made us into a bunch of organizing heroes.

drawer4I am almost too good at getting rid of things. I have thrown away key pieces of electronic equipment and federal tax documents. I nearly trashed my husband’s service medals and he is still upset about the mix tapes he found in the dumpster. But I married a keeper (sometimes less affectionately called a ‘hoarder’). Cody is organized – his elementary school report cards are alphabetized and filed – but he keeps everything “just in case.” I’m not sure which case might call for all of the unidentified keys in the bowl by the back door, but we are ready. drawer3

We have managed to train each other a bit. Cody’s favorite thing to save is wood. He’s built (a huge) chicken coop and two compost bins from the wood he’s salvaged, so I’ve learned to walk around the piles of lumber in the garage. And last week he let me take a few of his fifty thousand t-shirts to the Salvage Army. I will make off with the rest when he is at work tomorrow.

drawer 1I like to remind myself about the experts and the benefits of decluttering. It makes me feel less crazy. But the truth is at this time of year I feel a bit desperate to take control of something, to make visual progress. After the chaos and stress of the holidays, the world is slowing around me. The ground is frozen and the trees are bare. It is cold and quiet and the longest and darkest part of the year is just abating. Emptying drawers and closets feels like a reasonable coping strategy. Besides, I will never be able to give up on coffee. Or chocolate. Or beer.

~ S

The Stigma of being Ill: Thoughts on illness in America



The Stigma of Being Ill: thoughts on illness in America

At the beginning of each new year we often take the time to make resolutions which reflect our intention to change things we have done in the past. These can cover any number of behaviors and may range from, “I will get more exercise” to “I will be kinder to others”, for example. Often we start out well with our good intentions waning as the year progresses. But this year I would ask you to look at the ways in which you view illness and think about ways you may want to change those perceptions.

Since the end of May I have been looking at the new ways in which type 2 diabetes and obesity are treated. I am interested in these conditions and I teach this content to students in the nursing program at Sheridan College. Since I have the time to think about diseases/conditions and their prevalence I naturally have had some thoughts about disease in America. We don’t like it! Things that should scare us don’t and things that are unlikely to happen terrify us. Additionally, we have a propensity to assume that those who have diseases/conditions brought them on themselves while congratulating ourselves for being “well”.

I need to explain what I just said. I suggest that until meaningful discussion about disease/conditions becomes common, meaningful approaches to becoming a healthier nation are unlikely to happen. As a society there is often subtle blame ascribed to those with certain conditions and those who are ill often seem to have an uneasy feeling of shame for being afflicted or perhaps that it is a character flaw. There is an “ostrich” mentality to illness that dates back to the leper colonies of the medieval Europe. Society would rather not deal with the icky and simply avoid the difficult conversations. We don’t like to talk about disease in a way that is clear and honest nor do we like to admit to being ill. While in some cases causality is pretty clear, the smoker who has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, ascribing fault to that individual interferes with the goal of positive collaboration to afford the best outcome for that condition. What is the point in ascribing fault when there is nothing that can be done about previous behaviors?

The conditions that I am studying during my sabbatical are ones that are frequently thought of as being caused by “bad” behavior. Obesity may be the worst as it is seen as a sign of weakness in the individual afflicted with this condition. Type 2 diabetes often accompanies obesity and as such gets lumped together with that impression of weakness or lack of will power. This perception prevents those suffering from feeling free to talk about their worries and possible paths forward.

I wonder if the American individualistic spirit has something to do with this approach to health. Do we see it as a sign of weakness that we become unhealthy? Are we so committed to doing things ourselves that we are reluctant to asking for help, comfort, solace and validation? Do we sense that others may be sympathetic but may also be congratulating themselves on being healthy?

Stigma associated with illness is common with most psychological disorders such as depression, psychosis, and PTSD. This in turn makes it hard for anyone with these conditions to talk about them and to seek help. This stigma is not new but remains pervasive. However, I was interested and saddened to note that many of the same stigmas are present with physical illnesses as well. We are incredibly adaptable but we are susceptible to a host of different conditions. Cause is important for treatment and prevention purposes but ascribing fault does nothing but create an unhealthy atmosphere and interferes with human connections that are so important to healing.

Judy McDowell



A Pair of White Patent Leather Party Shoes





It’s December again,   and the sky outside my window is still dark at 5:20 this morning.  In my American Literature class this semester, we are finishing up the semester with Walt Whitman, that wild poet of the 19th Century, without whom 20th Century American poetry would not exist, and whatever else we learn from Whitman, we learn to love the particulars of his world and ours.

The pure contralto sings in the organ loft;

The carpenter dresses his plank—the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp;

The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanksgiving dinner;

The pilot seizes the king-pin—he heaves down with a strong arm;

The mate stands braced in the whale-boat—lance and harpoon are ready;

The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches;

The deacons are ordain’d with cross’d hands at the altar;

The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel;

The farmer stops by the bars, as he walks on a First-day loafe, and looks at the oats and rye;

The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum, a confirm’d case, (He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother’s bed-room;)

The jour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case, He turns his quid of tobacco, while his eyes blurr with the manuscript;

The malform’d limbs are tied to the surgeon’s table, What is removed drops horribly in a pail;

The quadroon girl is sold at the auction-stand—the drunkard nods by the bar-room stove;

The machinist rolls up his sleeves—the policeman travels his beat—the gate-keeper marks who pass;

The young fellow drives the express-wagon—(I love him, though I do not know him;) The half-breed straps on his light boots to complete in the race;

Whitman’s work illuminates the common-place, the particular people who inhabited his time. I can think of no better thing to think about than this at this troubled time in our history.  We are, as a country, reeling from the deaths of young men at the hands of heavily-armed police, we are sending drones to the Middle East to kill people whose faces we will never see. Our politicians seem caught up in petty arguments and seem unable to come together to make the decisions the country desperately needs them to make.

 However, in Whitman’s middle age, the country he loved was engulfed in the Civil War, which wrought destruction and brutality on a nation barely out of its infancy. Whitman’s poems of the war show individual soldiers, not faceless combatants. By naming the particular, by showing, as he does, the curl of a hair on the back of someone’s hand, he shows us humanity.

And so, when my daughter posted a photo of a pair of white patent leather party shoes that her four-year old daughter found in a second hand shop, I stopped to remember a pair that my daughter had had at about the same age.  It is too easy to bemoan the materialism of our culture, especially at this time of year, but often delight comes from just such things as a pair of white patent leather shoes.  My granddaughter will wear these little shoes and feel like dancing, just as her mother did at the same age. As we get older, we learn that material things alone do not make us happy, but even as adults, certain things bring us joy.  The yearly flowering of my Christmas cactus, the touch of my children’s hands, a particularly good cup of coffee: it is the particulars that create our world.  We do not live generic lives, we are not, thank goodness, delighted by the same things, we do not sing the same tunes.  Whitman writes, “I hear America singing.”   He would have loved the white patent leather shoes.



When Did We Become Hostile to Knowledge?



In the last ten months, I have had two knees replaced, participated in months of rehab, and relearned how to go up and down stairs with alternating feet. If I had not had my knees replaced, I would soon have been limited to a wheelchair. I have great respect and admiration for my orthopedic surgeon, for the anesthesiologist who kept me unaware of the surgery, for the internist who helped me deal with drug allergies.

But a number of times in the course of this process, I have heard people say about my orthopedist, “Well, he’s just a carpenter.”  I have to admit that during the first surgery I heard the hammers and the saws that he was using, through a foggy distance that made me think the noise was happening next door, but to call an orthopedic surgeon “just a carpenter” discounts the years of training he has. Certainly carpentry is a craft, but if a board is misplaced, or a nail is bent in the process, it can be redone. Knee replacement involves understanding the muscles, the blood vessels, the nerves as well as the bone, but it also involves the person to whom the knee belongs. Orthopedic surgeons have to have knowledge of more than just bones. Orthopedic surgeons have five years of training beyond their four years of medical school. They have been taught by surgeons who have accumulated years of experience on top of that training. Surgeons continue studying the best ways to help people walk again. They keep learning.

I am not going to dwell further on orthopedics here, but I use this example because it seems to me to illustrate a disturbing trend in our society. We distrust knowledge. We not only distrust it, we denigrate it and often we, as a society, are downright hostile about those who are knowledgeable. The place where this is most obvious is in our politicians’ and our citizens’ attitudes toward climate change.  Most climate scientists concur that human activity is contributing significantly to changes in our climate, yet we continue to have people who deny that this is so. The people who deny the human connection to climate change generally have done no research, have done no reading on the subject, and base their opinion either on some politician’s distortion of science, or on some intuitive notion that fits into their narrow view of weather.

I think that some of this distrust comes from our need for simple answers. We would like an “expert” to tell us exactly what to expect. We do not like getting “I don’t know” as an answer for a question. We want to say “What do you mean, you don’t know?”.  What I’d like to suggest is that we learn to trust the people who say “I don’t know” more than we trust the people who say, “I know based on not much information.” My orthopedic surgeon sometimes answers a question with “I don’t know.” He made it explicitly clear that he sometimes makes mistakes. I expected him to do his best, to rely on his extensive training, but I also accept that he is human.

When I was growing up, when I asked my parents questions about something, their usual response was “look it up.” I would go to the encyclopedia we kept on the living room bookshelf. More than that, however, I remember how to spell encyclopedia (as do many of my generation) from listening to Jiminy Cricket sing the word on The Mickey Mouse Club, where he encouraged young watchers to look things up. We have become a culture where we want to be told the answers, when in reality, the answers keep changing because  knowledge keeps changing. Instead of denigrating those with knowledge, we need to celebrate them and celebrate their ability to continue to learn. We should take them as models.