Where have you been, Dr. Virago?

OK, that doesn’t scan quite onto “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,” but close enough.

Well, since I last posted in March (!!), the Polar Vortex winter we had here in the Great Lakes continued unabated, giving us an April snow that killed the buds on my flowering bushes and trees. Boo! The hyacinths you see pictured survived, though:

This just isn't right

This just isn’t right

And I finished up my first semester of being Humanities Institute Director with a big talk by a visiting bigwig and a couple more Humanities Happy Hours. The latter seem to be very popular and growing in attendance, so I’m definitely continuing them this coming year. I need to work on publicity, though, especially to draw in off-campus people. I met with a couple of high school teachers this year and they gave me good advice for getting their attention, so that’s good. And I’m collaborating more with local library events coordinators. At the very least, we can publicize each others’ events.

Then after the semester was over, it was off to Kalamazoo for the annual Medieval Congress. I think we did a good job of being more welcoming to newcomers at our annual Medieval and Renaissance Drama Society meeting, and I’m hoping we continue that trend in years to come! If you’re at all interested in medieval drama and are at the Congress in Kalamazoo, please come to our business meeting and find out what we’re about!

Speaking of medieval drama, then I took a long weekend trip to NYC over Memorial Day weekend to see The Mysteries at The Flea Theatre with another medieval drama aficionado and to hang out in Manhattan and Brooklyn with my sister and one of my best friends from graduate school. It was a *gorgeous* weekend, so my sister and I walked the High Line (where I think I was too stunned by the crowds and the thing itself to take pictures) and I spent a day strolling through Brooklyn water-front parks and walkways with friends:

Lower Manhattan from the Brooklyn Promenade

Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade

I also did a dumpling tour of Brooklyn’s Chinese neighborhood, Sunset Park, went for drinks and dinner in Red Hook, strolled Williamsburg, saw the Ai Wei Wei exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, and had a mostly Brooklyn weekend (well, except the day and evening in Manhattan). When I left NYC in 1994, that’s not something I would’ve done back then (except that I did have a friend who lived in Park Slope and did a walking tour of Brooklyn Heights back then) — Brooklyn is a whole new world compared to then, so it was like visiting a whole new city. (Even Sunset Park, which was a Chinese neighborhood back then, too, was much sleepier back in the day, as I recall.) And the High Line neighborhoods in Manhattan, too, were largely new to me — I don’t think I’d ever gone over that far west before in that part of Manhattan. And, of course, the skyline of lower Manhattan has sadly changed since I last lived in NYC, too.

And then in June, I went to Hong Kong for the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes annual meeting. It was kind of a weird conference, since, as scholars, we all work in different disciplines and subfields, but it was very interesting and largely pretty fruitful (though I would like more practical panels and sessions), and hey, it was in Hong Kong! Given the location and the theme (performative humanities), we were treated to performances of Cantonese opera and traditional music, and a poetry reading by a contemporary Cantonese poet and his translator. The reading and music performance also happened to take place during the 10-course opening feast of Cantonese food, which was *included* in the registration price. Other conferences have a lot to live up to! The conference was held at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, in the New Territories, so many of the rooms reserved were at the Hong Kong Hyatt Regency Sha Tin, right next door. Best. Conference. Hotel. Ever. This was my view of Tolo Harbor (which you could also see from the bathtub because one wall of the bathroom was also a window — though it had a shade if you wanted privacy):

Wish I could have taken this view home with me!

Wish I could have taken this view home with me!

I also wish I could have taken any of the charming Buddhas from the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery (really a temple; not a working monastery) home with me. This shrine, nestled in the tropical mountains just steps away from the Sha Tin MTR stop, was such a peaceful respite from the city and its equally busy suburbs that I went there twice. Here’s just a taste of it. I wish you could hear the deafening sound of the cicadas and the chattering of the monkeys, too.

One of the over ten thousand individual Buddhas, each with their own personality

One of the over ten thousand individual Buddhas, each with their own personality

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Nearing the very top

Nearing the very top

The ultimate Buddha

The ultimate Buddha

The view from the very top.

The view from the very top. See the red fences at the bottom, to the right and in front of the buildings in the center? That’s where I started! (The pagoda on the far right is not part of the 10,000 Buddhas monastery, but a cemetery/ancestral hall next door to the base of the monastery entrance.)

These are just a few of the over 700 pictures I took in Hong Kong, and only one of the sites I saw! I had about a day of free time before the conference started and two and half free days after, so I went to the top of Victoria Peak via the tram, visited the Hong Kong History Museum (really great, and new since I was last in the city in 1992), watched the Symphony of Light in the harbor, got a tour of the Chung King Mansions by an asylum seeker from Ghana (arranged by the conference), took a Star Ferry across the harbor, rode all the way up the “Mid-Level Escalators” (outdoor escalators! neat!), visited the Man Mo Temple (where I lit incense sticks upside-down! d’oh!), walked around SoHo and various other mid-level districts on Hong Kong Island, rode the “ding ding” tram car just for fun, and visited Lantau Island, where I saw the Big Buddha, had a delicious vegetarian lunch at a real, working monastery, wandered around the fishing village of Tai O (and felt miles away from the city), and took a boat to see Chinese White Dolphins. And the conference also organized a quick visit to Macau, though the bus tour concentrated too much on the casinos and didn’t give us enough time in the historical parts.

And *then*, in July, I went to Reykjavik, Iceland, for the New Chaucer Society Congress. Owing to a weather-related delays and cancellations of flights, I got there a day later than planned, and only had one truly free day, but also a day and a half of excursions organized by the conference. And I played hooky for three sessions. So I still got to see a lot, though I took fewer pictures because I was often in company. (I take more when I’m alone, as I was in Hong Kong.) I fell completely in love with Iceland and so intend to get back there with Bullock in tow next summer or maybe the summer after (for a 5th wedding anniversary/belated honeymoon of sorts).

My favorite parts of the Iceland trip were…well, everything! But especially a) soaking in cheap public hot tubs at public swimming facilities (no pictures of the hot tubs themselves, alas, just the sign for them); b) riding Icelandic horses in the mountains; c) spending a gorgeous day spent at Thingvellir, an awesome site of historical, political, and geological significance.

Not "bacon sitting," but hot tub soaking!

Not “bacon sitting,” but hot tub soaking!

Foreground: Saga, my horse. Yes, that was really her name. Background: a horse with a fabulous mane!

Foreground: Saga, my horse. Yes, that was really her name. Background: a horse with a fabulous mane!

The hidden waterfall to which we rode. The elf got cut out of the picture, alas. :)

The hidden waterfall to which we rode. The elf got cut out of the picture, alas. 🙂

The horses at rest while we explore

The horses at rest while we explore. Saga is in front right of the group in the center.

Thingvellir National Park, featuring the Almannagja rift, the eastern edge of the North American techtonic plate, and the "logberg" or "law rock" (the white flag pole), the site of the earliest parliamentary meeting in Europe, the Althing, founded in 930

Thingvellir National Park, featuring the Almannagja rift, the eastern edge of the North American tectonic plate where it meets the European plate, and the “logberg” or “law rock” (the white flag pole), the site of the earliest parliamentary meeting in Europe, the Althing, founded in 930

But now I’m home in Rust Belt, where I seem to have brought the cool, gray Icelandic weather with me. So where are our public hot tubs?!

Oh, and by the way, I presented a successful pedagogical paper at New Chaucer Society, which I want to write about in part soon. Now that I’ve settled back into a groove here, I will try to get back to regular posting!

>Learning a literary lesson for Good Friday

>Yesterday I taught the York “Crucifixion” play from the York Corpus Christi play cycle, and one of my students (the one who came to office hours on Ash Wednesday with ashes on her forehead) asked me if I purposely assigned it during Holy Week. Nope, I didn’t. In fact, two weeks ago I was looking up when Easter was this year, and until I saw a guy dressed as Jesus (and wearing an iPod!) walking across campus when I was on my way to class, I’d completely forgotten it was Easter week at all. And another student, in the midst of writing her paper for another of my clases, asked if I’d realized I’d appropriately assigned King Lear during Lent, given its bleak, penetential mood. No, again, I was unaware of the liturgical orientation of my syllabus. Apparently 12 years of Catholic school and over a decade of being a medievalist have not drilled the liturgical calendar into my head.

Part of my lack of awareness has to do with the simple fact that I’m not a practicing or believing Catholic (or Christian of any kind) anymore, and that the rhythms of my year are attuned to the academic calendar more than the liturgical one. (Though the historical correspondence between those two calendars has something to do with the coincidence of my fitting syllabus design.) But it also has to do with the rather narrowly focused, workaholic life I’ve had for the last month and a half. Today is the first day, including weekends, since late February that I didn’t have to be up and working at 7:30 a.m., and that I got to sleep more than six hours. (That’s a very good thing since I’m trying to fight off the cold that Bullock has so that I won’t have it when I run the Boston Marathon a week from Monday.) In fact, I think last night’s bedtime — 11:30 — was the earliest I’d had since late February as well. All I’ve been doing in that time is work, work, work, in that barely-keeping-on-top-of-things kind of way, where everything is getting done just in time, and some things that aren’t absolutely necessary or deadline-oriented are slipping through the cracks (especially any of my research work not related to finishing the book production stuff). My only breaks from work have been my runs, and they’ve taken on the aspect of work, as well. (This is a subject for another post — how to find running fun again.) It’s not a lifestyle I want or recommend or receive my joy from. Though there is a kind of adrenaline rush from it, so much that’s important and that matters — or that’s simply desirable — gets sacraficed: a healthy diet, a social life, a clean house, even attention to my beloved Bullock and our dear Wiley. (Indeed I worry that I missed signs of his ear infection, though Bullock swears he also saw no scratching or shaking of his head or anything like that.)

So it’s incredibly ironic that I taught the York “Crucifixion” the way I did yesterday. Because I know medieval drama so well I often go in to classes on any play without a detailed plan, just some ideas and activities rattling around my brain. With the “Crucifixion” there are two things that I always do, and I did them yesterday: 1) have students perform the section where the soldiers “struggle” to do their job nailing Jesus to the cross, lifting the cross up calvary (i.e., onto the pageant wagon stage), and raising and setting the cross into the mortice; and 2) draw students attention to the diction of “work” throughout the play (which also occurs throughout the cycle as a whole). In both cases, we discuss the meaning of what is seen and heard, as well as what is not seen and not heard. In the performance part I make the rest of the class get up and gather tightly around the performing space, as if on a narrow York street, and ask them to think about why it matters — how it might be meaningful — that most of the crowd can’t see Jesus until the cross is raised, and that the soldiers describe their actions and assume what pain Jesus must feel, as opposed to having “Jesus” enact that pain and suffering visibly. And I usually draw a connection from this discussion of the visual elements to the discussion of the vocabulary of work by asking students to think of the people playing and producing this play and the rest of the cycle — i.e., occupational guilds.

Almost always, through our discussion, students point out that the soldiers — who speak and behave like craftsmen themselves — are so focused on their “work” that they don’t realize the consequences of their work. And they point out that the audience, because they can hear and see only the soldiers, and not Jesus, are in a similar position. And usually I move from there to the traditional V. A. Kolve reading of the dark humor of the play and its conjunction with the visual effects, how it potentially lulls the audience into identifying with the solider-craftsmen because they are men like them and their neighbors, and laugh with them as well as at them, only to be shocked into realization of their complicity in the Crucifixion at the moment of the raising of the cross. And then usually I talk about the meaning of that moment in theological terms, especially the idea that every sin atemporally participates in Christ’s crucifixion, that although he is risen, he is also always being crucified, suffering for the sinners he redeems. Thus that complicity in the play’s structure enacts a complicity in the historical crucifixion and in the theology of the necessity of penance and redemption.

But I didn’t go that route this time. Instead, spontaneously, I turned away from the historically and theologically oriented reading of how a 14-16th century Christian audience might participate in this play and asked students to think about if there were any lessons here that might be more broadly applicable to someone who might not share the religious beliefs the original audience did. It took some leading — and really, this was my reading more than theirs — but ultimately I suggested that the play offers a lesson about work itself, one potentially as applicable to the original audiences of the play as to us. The solider-craftsmen are bumbling workers who do a terrible job in all senses of terrible: they do a poor job of things, they cause an extraordinary, almost ineffable pain that potentially provokes terror, and yet they also work part of God’s plan, which is also terror-inducing in its awesomeness and ineffability. They do not know what they “wirke” in the York play’s language.

But they are also intensely focused on the task at hand, at getting it done, to the extent that they can describe the pain it must cause without pausing to understand their role in that pain. (They are ironically well aware of their own “suffering” in the hard labor of lifting the cross, however.) They are blind to what the consequences — both bad and good — of their actions are, of what an obsessive attention to work, barring all else, might produce. And that’s the meaning I thought this play might hold for readers and viewers who were themselves not Christians or not otherwise invested in the Christian penetential meaning of the play (or potentially a social meaning of the play for its original audience, in addition to its religious lessons). That’s what I wrapped up class with, and I especially directed it to those students who felt otherwise alienated from such a religious play.

But it’s not until later that I realized it was a lesson I still needed to consciously learn myself, that my lack of awareness of the fittingness of this play to the liturgical calendar is part of my own obsessive attention to the tasks at hand. The point is not that I should always be aware of the liturgical calendar, since, as I said, I’m not a practicing Christian, but rather that I really need to be more aware of the world around me, of major events that might be important to a lot of my students, colleagues, and neighbors (which also includes knowing when the big college football rivalry match-up is and avoiding wearing the wrong color on that day, and things like that). Heck, just remembering what day of the week it is and where we are on the academic calendar might be nice, too. And being able to deal with more than the task at hand, understanding what the consequences are of such hyper-focus, might also be nice. There are times when the work must be done and it’s a little overwhelming, and March was definitely one of those times, but I can’t let “when this is done…” become my mantra, or else I’ll always be putting off the things that are just as or more important than work.