Stray Sunday Thoughts

Friday’s post ended up not being particularly fragmentary; in fact, it got tl;dr before I got through all I had to say about objectification. There will be a Part II soon. So here are the fragments, random bits that have accrued over the weekend.

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Tomorrow we have a brand-new provincial holiday, Family Day. I don’t mind a day off, but the name the government chose smacks of pandering and excludes some people. It also hasn’t escaped my notice that businesses think this is a great opportunity for sales, so retail workers aren’t likely to be getting a day off with their families.

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I recently read Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, so I found his short New York Times piece on the Google-mapping of North Korea intriguing. Johnson suggests that since North Koreans can’t see or comment on the site, it reveals more about us than about them, and what it reveals isn’t exactly heartening:

Yodok (Camp 15) is a family gulag and the subject of Kang Chol-hwan’s harrowing memoir “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.” Yodok was described by one Google user as “dated and in desperate need of a face-lift. We ran out of towels after the first day and the staff wasn’t very understanding of our towel needs.” (Four out of five people found this review helpful.)

Sooner or later, I guess, everything gets mapped. Providing perspective takes a little longer.

This piece made me think of some of the things I’ve read on the ethics of making art about the Holocaust. Art is one way we make sense of the world; does making art out of horrific events somehow diminish them and domesticate their horror? Is it right to make these things “comprehensible”? Is the comic mode ever appropriate? For what it’s worth, I thought that Johnson’s book managed to be funny at times without ever losing sight of the horror–his humor and horror are inextricably intertwined–and that he made me understand a little of what it might be like to live in North Korea without ever forgetting that such a life is in some ways beyond understanding, even for those living it.

I’ve always been fascinated by literature that tries to represent something even while declaring that it can’t be put into words. Pain and horror are such subjects. So too are love and desire. Anything transcendent.

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Some of you will be interested in these posts by David Voelker on the value of the humanities. (The links were tweeted not just by some of the Digital Humanities/English professor types I follow, but by his romance-writing wife, Ruthie Knox. I love when my Internet circles overlap in surprising, small-world ways like that.) Here’s Voelker’s basic description of humanities scholarship and teaching:

Neither individuals nor groups make decisions based solely upon financial incentives. Rather, most people search for meaning by pursuing values that transcend material concerns. Understanding this fact about the human condition, humanists take the activity of making meaning, often labeled as “culture,” as a subject of serious study. Sometimes we even contribute to this culture through our scholarly and creative work.

Years ago, I did a spiritual exercise called “sealed orders” (basically, it’s a way of asking “what is my purpose in life?” or “who am I?”). The phrase I came up with was “making meaning.” It underlies a lot of what I do: teaching writing and literary criticism; the governance work I’m doing right now, where I’m interpreting and writing policy, trying to create clear and fair processes; and reading and blogging about books.

Working at a community college with a lot of career-oriented programs, I sometimes find I have to defend the value of humanistic or liberal arts studies, and not always to the people you’d expect. I had a very privileged college education, for which I am grateful. I want our students to be equally challenged and engaged, even if the institution they’re attending is not elite. Sometimes, in the argument that the humanities are not “useful,” I hear the idea that students like ours don’t “deserve” them: they are to be trained as workplace cogs; they don’t need to understand literature or history, to think creatively or critically.

This undertone makes me angry. They’re all citizens as well as workers. They have private lives. They wonder about the meaning of life. The humanities can help them with all of that. I don’t think humanities classes are the only place they can learn about those things, of course. They learn them at home, from religious institutions, from life experience. And my colleagues in health and human services programs also emphasize advocacy, ethical practice, and critical thinking–good citizenship. Unsurprisingly, they also realize the value of some liberal arts study for their students, who need more than one way of looking at a blackbird, or at a problem they might encounter in their work.

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It’s Ash Wednesday this week. My Lenten observance is sporadic, but usually I take something on rather than giving something up. This year, though, I think I’ll give up buying books. I want to break the habit of impulse-buying books I don’t really want that much, the habit that has made my TBR so overwhelming. I’ll keep a list of books that tempt me, and see which ones still appeal after 40 days.

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Given the impetus behind Jessica’s new blogging endeavor, it’s ironic that her very first post about books made me buy one. I love heroes who are closed off or repressed in some way–though not especially the way that shows itself in cruelty or dominance. I’ve been thinking about why, and I may write about it. I’ll be looking for recommendations! (Uh oh, does that mean posting after Easter?).

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2 Responses to Stray Sunday Thoughts

  1. Is that “sealed orders” thing something you have to go to church to do? I would love to have a clear, concise purpose phrase like “making meaning.”

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      You could certainly do this as a kind of meditation or reflection without any God or prayer involved. It’s essentially a variant on Ignatian spiritual exercises.

      Imagine that before you came into the world you were handed “sealed orders” for your life. Now, embarked on your journey, you open them. What do they say? In what areas of your life are you following those orders, and where are you not?

      There are lots of things you can do to clarify this: for instance, a daily exercise where you write down what you were most and least grateful for that day, and think about why. Or imagine looking back at your life from your deathbed. What parts are you most grateful for? What do you regret? Where in your life do you feel most alive, most fulfilled, most “right”? I did this in the context of a class on contemplative prayer led by an amazing, insightful woman, so we spent a few weeks doing exercises like this. I really did find that these words just came to me and “clicked” after doing some of these exercises and reflecting on them, and also just being quiet and “listening” for the message. (I am so cynical about this kind of thing, and it sounds like a crock to me as a type, but the few times I have let go of this cynicism and tried something like this, I have found it very, very powerful).

      Most days, of course, I don’t think about my job or any other part of my life in those terms. But I find it really helpful to stop now and then and remember that is what I WANT to be doing in my work and life, and ask myself how well I am measuring up to that phrase.

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