Commonplace: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

                                                          Ay, but every age
(156) Appears to souls who live in ‘t (ask Carlyle)
(157) Most unheroic.157 Ours, for instance, ours:
(158) The thinkers scout it, and the poets abound
(159) Who scorn to touch it with a finger-tip:
(160) A pewter age,—mixed metal, silver-washed;
(161) An age of scum, spooned off the richer past,
(162) An age of patches for old gaberdines,162
(163) An age of mere transition,163 meaning nought
(164) Except that what succeeds must shame it quite
(165) If God please. That’s wrong thinking, to my mind,
(166) And wrong thoughts make poor poems.
(166)                                                                      Every age,
(167) Through being beheld too close, is ill-discerned
(168) By those who have not lived past it. We’ll suppose
(169) Mount Athos carved, as Alexander schemed,
(170) To some colossal statue of a man.170
(171) The peasants, gathering brushwood in his ear,
(172) Had guessed as little as the browsing goats
(173) Of form or feature of humanity
(174) Up there,—in fact, had travelled five miles off
(175) Or ere the giant image broke on them,
(176) Full human profile, nose and chin distinct,
(177) Mouth, muttering rhythms of silence up the sky
(178) And fed at evening with the blood of suns;
(179) Grand torso,—hand, that flung perpetually
(180) The largesse of a silver river down
(181) To all the country pastures. ‘T is even thus
(182) With times we live in,—evermore too great
(183) To be apprehended near.
(183)                                            But poets should
(184) Exert a double vision; should have eyes
(185) To see near things as comprehensively
(186) As if afar they took their point of sight,
(187) And distant things as intimately deep
(188) As if they touched them. Let us strive for this.
(189) I do distrust the poet who discerns
(190) No character or glory in his times,
(191) And trundles back his soul five hundred years,
(192) Past moat and drawbridge, into a castle-court,192
(193) To sing—oh, not of lizard or of toad
(194) Alive i’ the ditch there,—’t were excusable,
(195) But of some black chief, half knight, half sheep-lifter,
(196) Some beauteous dame, half chattel and half queen,
(197) As dead as must be, for the greater part,
(198) The poems made on their chivalric bones;
(199) And that’s no wonder: death inherits death.
(200) Nay, if there’s room for poets in this world
(201) A little overgrown, (I think there is)
(202) Their sole work is to represent the age,
(203) Their age, not Charlemagne’s203, —this live, throbbing age,
(204) That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
(205) And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
(206) Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,206
(207) Than Roland with his knights at Roncesvalles.207
(208) To flinch from modern varnish, coat or flounce,
(209) Cry out for togas and the picturesque,
(210) Is fatal,—foolish too. King Arthur’s self
(211) Was commonplace to Lady Guenever;211
(212) And Camelot to minstrels seemed as flat
(213) As Fleet Street213 to our poets.
~ EBB, Aurora Leigh, Book V, lines 155-213

Top Five 2019

My annual tradition with Walter and Dan, begun over a decade ago, although the friendship is much longer.

• Getting engaged: The Spring was um cranky. Both Jason and I were up for and got promotions that did not feel like victories in the moment. Academia is really good at making a yay moment feel like crap. Heck we didn’t even celebrate them because we were both doing so much extra work at the time. I was teaching an additional directed study and a capstone full online, which while I loved the class and the work the students produced, it’s such an anxiety inducing class that it being full online made it so much more work. By the end of the semester, I felt frayed. I knew Jason was being more loving and supportive than ever, which I found amazing given how stressful his work was. The semester ends, I get a bit of rest and get my hair done so I look less bedraggled—never underestimate the transformative powers of cutting off 6 inches of hair and hair dye. We’re doing a week night date night before leaving on a vacation, and Jason comes home a bit nervy. I figured it was just traffic and nerves about the trip. We get in the car, and he doesn’t turn on to the highway. We just keep going down Mockingbird. I kind of knew at that point. There’s only the store as a destination that direction, but I let him tell me that we were just picking up something. We get to the store and he has the keys. Even to the outer door, which I’m like wait a minute. He take me in and there’s this whole journey set up in the cases for how he and Jordan and my mom designed the ring. How long ago he asked and the process for making it. Then of course the ring. He asked me in the store because we wanted me to feel my dad present. It was perfect. Not how I ever imagined it, but perfect. Then we called and told people and went to dinner where he surprised me a second time by having both our families present.

• Being engaged: obviously related to the first, but not the same. One of Jason’s friends Travis called me the first night of our engagement to say congratulations and then he offered this advice—enjoy being engaged. Don’t race to planning the wedding; don’t jump to the next stage. Enjoy being in this new stage of the relationship. It took an enormous pressure off. I detest event planning, and I’ve never been one of those girls who had her whole wedding planned out. I know the people I want to be there, the service, and that’s it. All the rest of it is just something that will get messed up somehow. I’ve been in enough weddings to know that they never go smoothly. No event goes smoothly. And unlike planning a class, many of the things that will go wrong I won’t be able to fix. At any rate, Travis reminded me that although Jason had been in the state of pre-engagement to engagement for awhile since he had the ring etc. I had not been. It is a completely new phase of our relationship, one that should not be overshadowed by planning for the next stage. It’s more comfortable, but also deeper. We’ve also been good about acknowledging the other’s emotional and physical support, but that’s deepened greatly. I feel even more like a team.

• My mom and Terry’s wedding. I thought seeing my mom get married was going to be weird and sad. Joyful but also weird and sad, but despite it being blazingly hot, it was only joyful. Terry’s absolutely amazing, kind, caring. He loves my mother and Jordan and me without reservation, and it was time to make him officially part of the family.

• The great gift of getting to care for Michou in her illness. Losing her was so hard, and I won’t say I hadn’t been wondering when it would come. She was approaching 18, and she’d given us a health scare three years ago that meant she’d lost weight. Nevertheless, she gave us this great gift this summer of getting to care for her instead of going quickly when the first symptoms manifested. They surprised her too. It was hard, and there were many days I annoyed her just because all I did was stare at her to watching for changes in her breathing, which was the only way we knew she was in distress because she didn’t present many of the other symptoms of heart disease. Or kidney disease for that matter, which she borderline had up until the end. As our vet kept on saying, she’s a fighter. Jason supported and shared this experience with me. He loved her so much too, and I wouldn’t have been able to care for her as we did without him. When I had to go back to school and she couldn’t go back to Fort Smith with me, he made all her vet appointments. And when it was time, he made sure I could be there and gently took care of her until I could be there.

• Writing and working with Natalie and April. We’ve collaborated for a long time. Since 2010, actually. And it’s always been a delight, but as we’ve worked on and published individual essays on our process this year, a conference panel on the pleasures of h. doing this work, two additional essay proposals, and the new front matter and design for version 2.0, it’s felt like we’ve entered a new and even better phase of our collaboration. Such collaboration in the humanities is rare, and we’ve enjoyed it so much.

Christmas Commonplace: Thomas Hardy, “The Oxen”

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

~ Thomas Hardy, “The Oxen”

Commonplace: Jane Kenyon, “Otherwise”

I went to the funeral of the associate pastor at my childhood church this past weekend. Chuck Moore taught me to sing, convincing me along the way that being an alto was okay. I grew up with his kids, in whom this weekend I saw the stricken-ness I felt when I lost my own father. How I miss the Christmas Eve services he planned with such care and ceremony. They were celebrations of light. He belonged to a group who worshipped via poetry at the end of his life. This poem by Jane Kenyon was the echoing refrain of his service, a reminder to appreciate the small and daily joys.

“I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.”

Jane Kenyon, “Otherwise”

Feeling grateful and sad

My cat of 18 years is dying.

Michou has heart disease, and given her age and kidneys, we’ve reached the point where we’re struggling to keep her out of congestive heart failure without completely destroying her kidneys. She’s got an old lady pill box and a do not travel order, so instead of my fiancé and I switching off traveling to and from each other, I’ve been coming into Dallas every weekend since the semester started. She also has old lady attitude, demanding brushings, food, and her routine with loud meows. Michou is insistent on family bedtime before 10, and she doesn’t like it if you miss your morning shower–and her morning steam because she hangs in the bathroom while you shower.

I’m, however, so grateful to have had this summer with her. Her first episode was right after the semester ended. She’s been a tough old trooper, taking twice daily medicines without a struggle. And she’s been her loving self, mothering and giving us so much unconditional love. I’m grateful for Jason, who has an unhesitatingly taken on taking care of her when I can’t be here. And today I’m grateful for morning coffee and pets with her, yoga, and getting some more time. I don’t know how much more that will be. It could be tomorrow, next week, next month, three months if the vet has her wish.

My head wants to minimize and be like she’s just a cat. But my heart knows better. Michou is a mighty cat. A cat who sat on my books while I wrote my dissertation. She ate the corners off of the first papers I graded, so I had to literally tell students my cat ate your homework. She moved with me to Arkansas, sat with me in the grief of my father’s death, enjoyed it when I added Jason as my partner. She embraced my honorary nephews, letting them pet her and sitting with them as they read, teaching them how to be with a cat. She’s trained Oliver and Dodger in how to be loving cuddlers. And right now, even though it does annoy her, she’s giving us the gift of caring for her. So I’m utterly grateful for the time I have with my mighty, mighty Michou.