Memories of Maurice: The Great Outpouring

The world is awash in memories of Maurice Sendak, and I’m so pleased that my colleague here at Messiah College, Anita Voelker, has a new editorial on her views of Sendak that just came out on the Fox News web site.  Anita is a wonderful teacher and a specialist in children’s lit. An excerpt from her article:

It is that time spent with you becoming one with the book that has me mourning Maurice Sendak. He was the miracle maker who could turn you into savvy kings or horrible ogres and still bring you back in time for a hot supper. 

Truth be known, Maurice Sendak allowed me to tame my unseen Wild Things. 

Sendak would have appreciated knowing he fed my grown-up spirit along side yours. He resented when his books were pigeon-holed for only children. 

So, today I call upon you and your now grown-up friends from childhood to honor Sendak by grabbing a copy of “Where the Wild Things Are” and reading it out loud. 

 Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2012/05/08/remembering-maurice-sendak-and-wild-things/#ixzz1uKEej1hQ

I’ve hesitated to add my own thought about Sendak’s passing to what seems like it could only be called The Great Outpouring, but I’ve been really touched and amazed at the broad and cross generational appreciation that Sendak’s death  is generating.  Everyone from my 17 year old son to my 30 year old former students to my fifty and sixty year old colleagues felt a little sad today, and a lot happy at having lived in a world in which Maurice Sendak lived.

My personal memory of Sendak will always be of the public library in Durham North Carolina.  I was an impoverished grad student with a wife and a two year old daughter.  Having next to nothing, we got our entertainment at free festivals in the park, tours of the art museum at Duke, and books and records checked out from the library downtown.  For a good long time we didn’t have a TV and claimed to not want one as a way of staving off having to admit the fact that we couldn’t have afforded one if we had wanted it.  Maurice Sendak was was a favorite of my daughter Devon, and week after week we would check out Sendak.  The Night Kitchen was a special favorite.  We were not really all that aware Night Kitchen was and still is on one of the most banned book lists.  I will say my mother was appalled that we read our daughter a book that allowed her to giggle and point repeatedly at a little boys genital.  Ah Well.  I’m sure we’ve done worse things to her in our parental lives than that.

Sometimes still, 20 years later, in fits of want and desire I will cry out Milk! Milk! Milk for the morning cake.  And I will remember Durham.  And Maurice Sendak. And smile.

Cosmopolis, My Home Town

In my first school years growing up as a child of American missionaries in Papua New Guinea, my friends and I lined up outside our two-room school house every day, stood to attention, and sang “God Save the Queen” to the raising of the Australian flag.  We played soccer at recess.  And cricket.  I learned quickly to speak a fluent pidgin–the standard language of commerce and conversion among the 1000 different language groups on the Island–and probably spoke as much pidgin in my four years there as I did English.  By the end of the first six months I spoke with an Aussie accent.

At the same time my friends and I were fiercely loyal Americans, even though America was mostly an idea our parents talked about.  A place in pictures we inhabited in the Polaroid versions of our infant selves.  I proudly proclaimed myself a Texan even though I had spent only the first two years of my life in Texas and had no living memory of it except hazy dream flashes of a  visit to a beach in Galveston.  Once, erudite already at the age of seven and reading my way through the World Book Encyclopedia, I proclaimed confidently that Australia was as big as the continental United States.  Fisticuffs ensued. My friends in utter disbelief that anything in the world could be so large as America–so large did it loom in our telescopic imaginations–and in disbelief too that I would have the temerity to state the blasphemy out loud.

I think this urgency to be American was born somehow out of an intuited recognition of our placelessness.  It was a longing to belong somewhere, and an acknowledgement that somehow, despite appearances, we were not entirely sure we belonged where we were. Unlike most of my friends, I returned to the States after only four years.  I shed my Aussie accent hurriedly.  When my father came to my third grade classroom in Bethany, Oklahoma, I refused to speak pidgin with him, embarrassed, pretending to forget.  No one played soccer.  No one had heard of cricket.  I semi-learned to throw a baseball, though my wife still throws better than I do.  For the first year back in the states, I rooted for the Texas Longhorns, before finally getting religion sometime right around 1970.  I’ve been a Sooner fan in good standing ever since.

This sense of cultural dislocation, of belonging and not belonging to two different countries and cultures, was, I think, felt much more acutely by my friends who remained in New Guinea for the duration of their childhoods.  And it has certainly been detailed and discussed much more movingly and thoughtfully by my former student here at Messiah College, Carmen McCain.  Still, I think this cultural lurching has remained important to me.  While I became thoroughly and unapologetically American, I retained a sense that people lived in other ways, that I had lived in other ways.  Somehow, to remain loyal to all the selves that I had been, I could never be loyal to just one place or just one people.  In that sense, I have always been drawn to a kind of cosmopolitan ideal, a recognition that the way we do things now is only a way of doing things now, bound by time, chance, and circumstance–that there are many different ways to live, and that these ways may be at different times taken up and inhabited.  And so the possibilities for our selves are not bounded by the blood we’ve been given or the ground to which we’ve been born.

At the same time, I’ve really been impressed lately by a couple of cautionary essays on the limitations of cosmopolitanism.  This week Peter Woods over at the Chronicle of Higher Education sounded a cautionary note about the ideal of global citizenship.

Being a “citizen of the world” sounds like a good and generous thing. Moreover it is one of those badges of merit that can be acquired at no particular cost. World citizens don’t face any of the ordinary burdens that come with citizenship in a regular polity: taxes, military services, jury duty, etc. Being a self-declared world citizen gives one an air of sophistication and a moral upper hand over the near-sighted flag-wavers without the bother of having to do anything.

Well, one can only say yes this strikes me as incredibly fair.  Though I will point out that it seems to me that a lot of times recently the flag-wavers seem to be not too interested in the basic things of a regular polity, like paying taxes.  Still, Woods has a point that cosmopolitanism can often devolve into a kind of irresponsible consumerist tourism–imbiber of all cultures, responsible for none.  He implies, rightly I think, that whatever the values of global awareness, the bulk of life is worked out in the nitty-gritty day to day of the local business of things.  All living, not just all politics,  is local in some utterly conventional and inescapable sense.

Wood goes on to critique Martha Nussbaum, though it is a generous critique it seems to me.

Higher education inevitably involves some degree of estrangement from the culture and the community in which a student began life. If a student truly engages liberal education, his horizons will widen and his capacity for comprehending and appreciating achievements outside his natal traditions will increase. Thus far I accept Nussbaum’s argument. But a good liberal-arts education involves a lot more than uprooting a student; showing him how limited and meager his life was before he walked into the classroom; and convincing him how much better he will be if he becomes a devotee of multiculturalism. Rather, a good liberal arts education brings a student back from that initial estrangement and gives him a tempered and deepened understanding of claims of citizenship—in a real nation, not in the figment of “world citizenship.”

I like a lot of what Woods is doing in passages like this, but I’m concerned that his only means of articulating a notion of particularity is through the category of the nation.  In a nation as big and baggy as the United States, does this give us a really very robust sense of the local and particular?  And does it solve my basic problem that I feel loyal to different localities, to the integrity of the memory of the person I have been and the people with whom I was and somehow still am.

I’m more attracted to what my colleague here at Messiah College, John Fea, has to say about cosmopolitanism in his recent and very good essay on the issue in academe, where he develops the concept of cosmopolitan rootedness as an ideal to strive after.

But this kind of liberal cosmopolitanism does not need to undermine our commitment to our local attachments. Someone who is practicing cosmopolitan rootedness engages the world from the perspective of home, however that might be defined. As Sanders writes:

To become intimate with your home region [or, I might add, one’s home institution], to know the territory as well as you can, to understand your life as woven into local life does not prevent you from recognizing and honoring the diversity of other places, cultures, ways. On the contrary, how can you value other places, if you do not have one of your own? If you are not yourself placed, then you wander the world like a sightseer, a collector of sensations, with no gauge for measuring what you see. Local knowledge is the grounding for global knowledge. (1993, 114)

Or to quote the late Christopher Lasch:

Without home culture, as it used to be called—a background of firmly held standards and beliefs—people will encounter the “other” merely as consumers of impressions and sensations, as cultural shoppers in pursuit of the latest novelties. It is important for people to measure their own values against others and to run the risk of changing their minds; but exposure to other will do them very little if they have no mind to risk. (New Republic, 18 February 1991)

So is cosmopolitan rootedness possible in the academy? Can the way of improvement lead home? Can we think of our vocation and our work in terms of serving an institution? Our natural inclination is to say something similar to the comments in the aforementioned blog discussion. I can be loyal to an institution as long as the administration of the institution remains loyal to me. Fair enough. Administrators must be sensitive to the needs of their faculty, realizing that institutional loyalty is something that needs to be cultivated over time. But this kind of rootedness also requires faculty who are open to sticking it out because they believe in what the institution stands for—whatever that might be. (This, of course, means that the college or university must stand for something greater than simply the production of knowledge). It requires a certain form of civic humanism—the ideological opposite of Lockean contractualism—that is willing to, at times, sacrifice rank careerism for the good of the institution.

Instead of Global citizenship, John is championing what is sometimes called by administrators institutional citizenship (and as an aside I would only say John is exemplary as this essay might suggest).  Yet I admit that I find myself still grappling after that thing that speaks out of our memories, those places to which we remain loyal in thought and speech because we have been committed to those locations too.  And I wonder then if it is possible that we might be loyal to the places and spaces of our imaginations, places and selves and worlds that we can imagine as places of becoming.  If I have been in and of these other places, how is that reflected in being in and of this place I’m in, and how should that be imagined in light of the places I might also be in and of, if only not yet.

John, I know, is a loyal citizen of New Jersey, and defends it when none of the rest of us will. I wish him well.  And I am a loyal citizen of the Papua New Guinea of my memory, and I am a fiercely loyal southerner and southwesterner who takes an ethnic umbrage at the easy sneering about the south that springs unconcsciously to the lips of northerners, and I am a fiercely loyal Oklahoman who believes the state has something to be proud of beyond its football team.

I am also, in some sense, a loyal citizen of the heaven of my imagining where all and everyone speak in the tongues of men and angels  and we hear each and every one in our own tongues, a transparent language without translation, a heaven where every northerner finally learns the proper way to say “Y’all.”

What theory of locality and cosmopolitanism can get at this sense that I am one body in a place, but that this body bears in its bones a loyalty to many places, growing full of spirit at the smell of cut grass after rain in the hills of Arkansas, nose pinching at the thought of the salty stink of Amsterdam, remembering faintly the sweat in the air and on the leaves of the banana trees in highland tropics of New Guinea?

Marie Howe: What the Living Do

Marie Howe

“What the Living Do” manages to give me an unsentimental but still deeply felt picture of the pain of living beyond loss.  The immediate occasion for these poems is the death of several friends and family members over what seems, in the context of this books at least, a relatively short period of time.  The real focus, however, is not so much on the dying–the psychic and physical pain of disease, the fear of a passage elsewhere–as it is on the poet herself, or at least her personae. These are not elegies then; or at least not elegies to the dead so much as elegies to who we imagine we must have been before the clefts and rifts that the loss of those we love opens in our lives, or perhaps elegies to the selves we imagine we might

What the Living Do

have become.  Finally, though, these are poems of hope.  I would not call them poems of overcoming.  Grief remains, and in some sense we become, as we age, people who remember the dead, in our voices and in our silences.  But poems of hope in that they recognize that we do go on.  This is what the living do:  they go on, carrying with them acts of remembrance such as these.

Reading, listening and memory

Pursuing some of my recent posts on the idea that listening and reading create different experiences–without making a judgment regarding superiority–a forum on myspace directed my attention to the following study from Carnegie Mellon demonstrating that listening and reading activate different parts of the brain, and especially that listening requires a great deal more working memory–what used to be called short-term memory–in order to do the semantic processing necessary for understanding.

“The brain constructs the message, and it does so differently for reading and listening. The pragmatic implication is that the medium is part of the message. Listening to an audio book leaves a different set of memories than reading does. A newscast heard on the radio is processed differently from the same words read in a newspaper,” said Carnegie Mellon Psychology Professor Marcel Just, co­author of the report that appears in this month’s issue of the journal Human Brain Mapping.

This seems to go along with my general perception in yesterday’s post that in reading to a text we are experiencing a different object of consciousness–in some sense a different work of literature–that we do when we listen to a text. I’m not exactly a phenomenologist, but we might be able to go with this to say that our experiences of texts are how they appear in consciousness. To the degree that listening and reading activate the brain differently, I would hypothesize that the conscious mind is experiencing two completely different “objects,” objects here understood to mean our mental experience of words and their meanings.

First, during reading, the right hemisphere was not as active as anticipated, which opens the possibility that there were qualitative differences inBrain image–Pars triangularis the nature of the comprehension we experience in reading versus listening. Second, while listening was taking place, there was more activation in the left ­hemisphere brain region called the pars triangularis (the triangular section), a part of Broca’s area that usually activates when there is language processing to be done or there is a requirement to maintain some verbal information in an active state (sometimes called verbal working memory). The greater amount of activation in Broca’s area suggests that there is more semantic processing and working memory storage in listening comprehension than in reading.

Because spoken language is so temporary, each sound hanging in the air for a fraction of a second, the brain is forced to immediately process or store the various parts of a spoken sentence in order to be able to mentally glue them back together in a conceptual frame that makes sense. “By contrast,” Just said, “written language provides an “external memory” where information can be re­read if necessary. But to re­play spoken language, you need a mental play­back loop, (called the articulatory­phonological loop) conveniently provided in part by Broca’s area.”

This makes a great deal of sense to me and is consonant with some other things that I’ve read about how literacy accompanies the general atrophy of personal and cultural memory. Oral cultures require much more prodigious uses of memory, and I would suspect that people who train themselves to listen well–perhaps like those who listen to audiobooks!–are also developing memory capacities. At least, following this study, the short term memory would have to become much more exercised and probably developed by the consistent effort to remember the passing sounds and having to fit them together into meaningful units of language.

(Side note along these lines, my colleague who is visually impaired has a prodigious memory of detail of what seems to me to be almost everything. By comparison, I remember vaguely that an idea is found somewhere in a particular part of a book that I underlined at one point).

Following this out, and thinking through my earlier statements that what we need is more careful consideration of what kinds of things are lost and what kinds of things are gained through certain kinds of reading (or listening), we might well say that if we are entering into what is called a secondary oral culture this could signal good things for memory.

At least this would be the case if the culture that’s developing is one that would put a high premium on listening skills. I’m not really sure that it is given the dominance of the visual on the internet and in film and television. Still, it’s and interesting idea. It would be interesting to figure out if people who listen to audiobooks in a regular and devoted fashion show more highly development memory capacity–either short or long term–than those of us who spend more time reading.

This would leave for further study the question of what reading develops in the brain. I suspect it would be something along the lines of analytical skills, but I’m not sure. It also may explain the stereotype of the absent-minded professor. Maybe we really are absent-minded because in being devoted to books our short-term memory has atrophied!