A President's Reflections

A little of this and that

Posted on December 20, 2010

This is one of my occasional “hitting to all fields” posts, a little of this and a little of that in no particular order of importance.

1. Carnegie Classification.  I am so proud of our recieving the new Carnegie Foundation Community Engagement Classification, recognition of the great work that our faculty, staff, and students do in improving our community (locally and globally), led by Eleanor and Sarah.  I alluded to it in my memo to campus, but want to highlight again the little case study to be found in Sarah’s first bringing the idea of service learning to our attention.  It was six years ago and Sarah presented to Scott and me a folder of information and a proposal to begin a modest service program.  She saw a need, took initiative, and really only added to her own work load with no promise of reward and a minimum of support.  Six years later she helps lead the largest student organization on campus, has a full-time job doing so, and the work receives national recognition.  Pretty great.

2.  Just finished another Sy Montgomery book, The Good Good Pig.  Spoiler alert, while a pig is at the center of the story, the irascible Christopher Hogsworth, it’s not really about a pig.  It’s about community, friendship, family, the Buddhist recognition that life includes ample suffering and ceaseless change, parents and children, our relationship to the natural world and especially animals, and so much more.

One of my favorite passages describes Sy coming to face to face with an ermine that has just killed one of her beloved hens (one of the Ladies, if you’ve read Birdology):

     Without backing down, the ermine looked at me, square in the eye, for perhaps thirty seconds.  I had never seen a gaze so exquisitely fierce, so intense, so filled with the moment.  Ermines may weigh as little as five ounces, less than a handful of coins, yet they are as fearless as God.  They stop at nothing to capture their prey: they snake down tunnels, they hunt beneath the snow, they will even leap into the air to catch birds as they take flight.  With their tiny hearts pounding 360 times a minute, ermines must eat five to ten meals a day.  They are fierce because they have to be.  This is part of what makes ermines what they are.  Ferocity is their dharma –as pure, and as perfect, as their dazzling white winter coat.

     The ermine has just killed someone I loved.  Yet I could not have felt more amazed, or more blessed, if an angel had materialzed in front of me.

    My sorrow vanished.  Holding the still-warm body of my hen in my arms, I felt, in that moment, the lightness of a heart relieved of the burden of anger — and the freedom that comes with forgiveness.

The passage ends a chapter about the death of her mother, someone with whom she had a painful and conflicted relationship. 

The passage is incredibly evocative.  It reminds me of a lovely passage in Lawrence’s Women in Love in which a father takes a squalling infant out to the barn and in the heavy, almost sensual presence of the horses (it is Lawrence, after all), the child quiets.  Solace in nature is so rare in our frenzied urban lives, and yet whether we find it in the mountains or gardening or riding a horse or sitting by the sea, there is something restorative that seems little available in pills or distracting entertainment.  Is it Ishamael who says “When I feel November in my soul, I get to water.” or something like that?

The theme of forgiveness also evoked an extraordinary day that Eleanor Dunfey-Freiburger, her brother Jack, and I got to spend with the great Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh.  He described an episode in the Vietnam War in which he and others, working in a poor village, were attacked by the Viet Cong.  Many of his followers were killed or wounded that night.  Later, a group of Buddhist nuns with whom he worked were rounded up and gunned down by the Viet Cong, but just before the soldiers opened fire, one of the nuns said that they “understood that the soldiers did not do this on their own and were following orders and that they [the nuns] were not the bad people the soldiers were told they were, so they forgave them for what they were about to do.”  As told by one survivor, the soldiers were anguished, but knew they would executed if they did not follow orders, so they shot them.  Thich Nhat Hanh, grief stricken, meditated and then issued an open letter forgiving the soldiers, echoing the sentiments of the nuns.  From that point forward, wherever they worked in the countryside, soldiers would get advance word to them if they were to attack and none of his followers were again  killed in this manner. 

We do not live in a culture or a world biased towards forgiveness, yet it remains one of the most empowering of human sentiments for both the forgiven, and more importantly, those who forgive.  Sy was a Visiting Writer in our MFA program and I have become smitten with her work, but more importantly with the way she is in the world.

3. Recently attended the ART’ performance of The Blue Flower, a somewhat unconventional musical that takes place  place mostly during WWI, the Wiemar period, and the rise of the Nazis.  And what says holiday cheer like a Weimar musical?  It is not a tightly constructed narrative.  More of a montage, one of the art forms popular during the Modernist priod and the art form practiced by one of the main characters.  While the drama is slim, the play was visually arresting and I loved the music.  Not everyone else did and Pat has a visceral reaction to the pedal steel guitar (which she hates just a little less than the harmonica), but I thought the live band on stage was terrific and the pedal steel provided just a note of yearning, an unconventional accent.  I arrived at the sad conclusion that I am a sap for love ballads and this musical had them in abundance.  Pat rightly noted that scheduling The Blue Flower on the heels of the amazing Cabaret, both having to do with the Wiemar and rise of the Nazis, seemed cruel to the former musical as almost anything would pale by comparison to the version of Cabaret we saw.  A very good point — this was not Cabaret, but it is worth a trip to Cambridge.  It runs until January 8, I believe.

4. If you grew up in the 70s you grew up with the music of Harry Nilsson.  We just saw a fabulous documentary about him titled Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everyone talkin’ About Him)?   I had forgotten just how amazing was his voice.  The documentary traces the arc of his life from birth, through the exceses of the period, and finally his death at too young an age.  Pat and I fell in love to a soundtrack that was mostly Nilsson Schmilsson and A little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night.  Here’s my advice: if you are currently unattached and want to be in a  relationship, find the person you think might be a match.  Put on the latter album.  If they do not fall in love you you by the fourth track, you or they are hopeless and you should move on.  In the meantime, rent the documentary — if you love music, you’ll love this movie.

We took only a week’s vacation last year, saving our time for upcoming winter break.  We will be traveling around Eastern Europe with our daughters, spending New Year’s Eve in Vienna and doing a circuit to Ljubljana, Budapest, Krakow, and Prague.  All of them new to us, all high on our must-see list.  I’ve always wanted to see Europe in the winter during holiday season (though Europe is getting a LOT more winter than we are right now).    I hope to post from time to time and share a bit of our experience.  Until then, best wishes for a happy holiday season and a New Year with more of the peace and joy our world so badly needs right now.

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