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Showing posts from September, 2008

Inside, Outside*

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This is one of those posts that I've been mulling over for days now, which either means it's going to be brilliantly insightful or--more likely--hopelessly convoluted. I had an idea this morning that I had finally figured out a way to tackle the question that's been nagging me, but now, at the end of the day, tired from reading in the literature on late medieval Flemish art, I'm not so sure. I don't, however, want to let it go another day because I'm afraid my entanglement and fatigue is only going to get worse. So, here goes: why do we study history?

I know, I know, I'm an historian. I should know the answer to this question. But the thing is, I don't, not really. I know some of the answers that my colleagues have given, but even so, I'm still not sure. Do we actually care about the past "for its own sake"? If so, why? It's not like we can help the past be anything other than the past. Or do we study the past to tell us somet…

Books*

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This is a meditation on books. I'm not sure it really has an argument. Unlike a book.

I have spent my life surrounded by books. Students often remark on how many books I have in my office, although in truth I have no more than most of my colleagues. At home there are books on the floor, books in stacks by the bed, books shelved in front of and on top of other books. I have, literally, more books than I will ever be able to read, and yet I keep buying more books. Just yesterday I purchased even more books so as to have the materials to begin writing yet another book.

I don't have to write another book; I could spend the rest of my career publishing articles and giving talks. But somehow this thought simply does not satisfy, and not only because it is unlikely that I would ever be promoted to full professor (at least in History) solely on the strength of articles. I want to write another book just as much as I want to read all the books I have collected. There is somethin…

Off-white

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I'm finding it hard not to start this post with yet another apology, but there you go. Yesterday while I was making my breakfast--organic bananas, organic strawberries, all-natural (no corn syrup!) granola, organic milk from pasture-fed cows, organic herbal stress-relieving tea--I was suddenly struck by how white it all was. Unsurprising, you say? I am, after all, exactly the type of White Person Christian Lander's blog-turned-book is aimed at, both descriptively and in marketing terms: college-educated, upper-middle-class, wannabe artist-intellectual, urban dwelling. And, indeed, although I somehow missed the whole blog phenomenon last winter (too busy teaching the History of European Civilization, I suppose), I read the book as soon as I got back from Europe and could order a copy from my local, independently-owned bookstore. I even took the quiz at the back: "How White Are You?"


Organic food (check), tea (check), yoga (check), gifted children (check--he's…

Psalm 151

A prayer on awakening

Lord, help me, I am lost: trapped in a thicket of my own anxieties.

My friends ask for me to help them: but I do not have the strength to respond.

Loved ones offer advice: open yourself and let the universe flow through.

But my soul is clogged with doubts: obligations grow like weeds, and I cannot say no.

Last night I dreamed that I was robbed: a gang held up the restaurant where I was eating.

Lines of customers in feathered finery filed past the robbers: all were stripped of their possessions, one by one.

I tried to hide my jewelry, my camera in my skirts: surrendering only my cash, hoping that would satisfy.

But I knew that in the end, I would be required to give my all, or die: because they would kill me, and take my life along with my things.

What is the "I" that I am trying so hard to protect?: how can I protect it when I am too panicked to pray?

Sit still, my friend Badger replies: and just listen.

There is no I, only God.

“Woe is me!"

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One of the more comforting things about confessing one's anxieties so publicly (or, given my current rate of hits, semi-publicly) as on a blog is that one almost immediately begins to wonder, having posted, whether things are quite as bad as they seem. Falling back on my usual habit, I started making a list in my head while I was doing footwork this afternoon, tallying blessings in my life against misfortunes and disappointments.

My parents' divorce and my father's parents' deaths the same year loom large in the narrative of my childhood. The usual adolescent calamities and frustrations (being "fat", losing friends, falling in and out of love), my own divorce after three years of marriage in graduate school, my mother-in-law's death three months after my son (with my second, not my first husband) was born, having a skating rink built outside my office window while I was writing my first book (constant construction noise for over a year), being pillorie…

Update from the Field

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What can I say? The demons are winning. I've spent the whole week fighting Doubt and Impatience, trying to convince myself to allow myself the time for my project to develop; so what if it takes me ten years to bring this book to completion? I need--or so I have been telling myself--to find a way to follow Master Han's advice (as reported by Joe Hymans) and give myself time to work towards my goal without setting a limit on how long I will work. But now I'm not sure there is ever going to be any book because, or so I learned yesterday when I went to check my email for notice about a UPS delivery I was expecting, a colleague of mine, inspired by an article I published a few years ago, is going to write it before I do.

Blind Panic has now taken the field. No, of course, she is not going to write exactly the book I've been planning, but the argument is very much the one that I had wanted to make, and the methodology--reading the psalms through the lens of Marian dev…

Reasons to Study History

A list I made earlier, before descending into the morass I am currently inhabiting known as "doing the background reading for a new project".

In no particular order of importance, the kinds of questions we study history in order to answer, some currently more (academically) fashionable than others:

1. Political: origins of nation-states; origins of structures of authority and oppression

2. Religious: out of a conviction that God speaks in history; community seen as one in time ("pray for us"); tradition as authoritative; wisdom in antiquity of decisions and teachings

3. Artistic: as a source of models for images and stories; images of human character and beauty; style

4. Exemplary: morals; heroes and villains; how to behave in different situations, especially crises

5. Nostalgic: sense of loss of old world; longing for the present to be other than it is

6. Historiographical: how we came to believe what we do about the past; changes in the way history has been perceived;…

Caption Contest

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You tell me what's going on here. Poems welcome.

*Picture credit: Pieter Bruegel I, De Val van de Opstandige Engelen (1562)

Off the Clock

About the time I was finishing my doctoral dissertation and preparing to go on the job market, my not-yet-then husband and I composed a little ballad. Think Flanders & Swann crossed with C.W. McCall, sung to the tune of Mercedes Benz with apologies to Janis Joplin. Here it is:

THE CURSUS ACADEMICA (sic)

Oh Lord, there is something I want to confess.
When I become grown up I want to profess,
Drink sherry, do crosswords and play lots of chess.
Oh Lord, there is something I want to confess.

Oh Lord, won’t you give me an honors degree?
I’ve passed all my courses with only one B.
I’ve picked out a topic for my Ph.D.
Oh Lord, won’t you give me an honors degree?

Oh Lord, won’t you grant me a doctoral gown?
For I have enrolled in a school of renown.
Tho’ my supervisor is getting me down.
Oh Lord, won’t you grant me a doctoral gown?

Oh Lord, won’t you get me a tenure track job?
I don’t want to be a postdoctoral slob.
I want to drink sherry and mix with the nobs.
Oh Lord, won’t you get me a tenure track j…

Back to School

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I really didn't expect it to hit me as hard as it did, but on Monday when I dropped my son off for his first day back at school, I was, well, envious. I want to go back to school. Okay, so as one of my professors in college used to say, I've never really left, but even as a teacher I still hanker after that feeling that I had as a student looking forward to autumn and the beginning of a new academic year. I loved everything about it: shopping for school supplies, getting new clothes (especially sweaters), making covers for my textbooks, color-coding my folders, learning my schedule. No matter how many adventures I had had over the summer, I was always ready to go back. Not that my schools were anything particularly special--no Hogwarts, just ordinary American suburban public schools. But, like Hogwarts, they still seemed magical to me (and, no, I was far from the most popular girl in my year; think Hermione at the beginning of Philosopher's Stone but without Emma Wat…

Morning Pages

Four days home and I'm still suffering from jet lag. Oh, to have crossed the Atlantic by liner instead of jet plane. A gradual reintroduction to one's ordinary life, the transition from holiday (holy day) to feria made less abrupt. Instead, it is a struggle to stay awake, a struggle to sleep, appetite thrown higgeldy-piggeldy, the days too long, the nights too long, everything out of joint. Like being in an Hieronymus Bosch painting, appropriately enough. Watched In Bruges on the flight over from London; life and death, choices and judgment, mistakes that one has made that can never be corrected. Is it possible to live in a fairy tale? Certainly I spent the two weeks that I had in Belgium looking for something, not fairies, not Elves. Marys? Finding and not finding. The life that my brother is looking for; the life that I am looking for. Joycean musings at 5:05 AM, the day after the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. If these were real morning pages,…

“Smakelijk!"

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Ever since I can remember, I have had an unhappy relationship with food. No, I have never suffered from anorexia or bulimia, thank goodness. But food has always been my enemy, and wanting food has always been (to my mind, at least) my greatest failing. In an ideal world, or so I have sometimes imagined, I would not even need to eat food. If only I were strong enough, I would never be hungry, never want another helping, never “lose control” or “give into temptation” by eating chocolate or dessert. Food, or so I have long believed, is something I do not deserve to have. Other people are allowed to have food, particularly those who are thin, but I, being ever at odds with my weight, am (or have believed I should be) embarrassed to eat.

A number of books that I have read this past year have helped me start to adjust this misconception, above all, Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008) and Vikki Hansen and Shawn Goodman’s The Seven Secrets of Slim People (19…

How you know when it's time to go home

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Courtesy of my long-suffering but ever-so-stalwart son, a.k.a. the skeleton. What I'm saying: "Goodness, another church!"

Sunrise over our last morning in Antwerp, and now we're on our way home via London.

Modern Devotion*

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The numbers are in: although 55% of Belgians consider themselves religious, fewer than 10% of Belgians attend church on Sundays. According to a Eurobarometer poll taken in 2005 (coincidentally, only a few months before Pope John Paul II died), 27% of Belgian citizens claimed that "they do not believe that there is any sort of spirit, God or life-force." On the other hand, some 29% were willing to admit that "they believe there is some sort of spirit or life-force," while 43% answered "I believe there is a God."* Presumably, it is this latter 72% that makes up the purportedly seven million plus Catholics in Belgium, some three quarters of the country's 10 million or so inhabitants.

All I can say at the moment is, "It's a good thing I'm a medievalist, otherwise I might actually believe most of these numbers." To be fair, I've only been here two weeks, so who am I to say what Belgians believe? But there are certain anomalies in …