An Island Reminds Me

atollThere’s a stark volcanic rock outside of my balcony. It juts up from the water as the lone point of profile across an endless horizon of Caribbean sea. We’re anchored in St. John’s Bay. Behind us lies Gustavia, a luxury port in St. Barts. People don’t bargain in the markets here. It’s not that kind of place.

Foreboding in the early morning light, this island of rock has mesmerized me for some reason, although I’ve seen plenty of similar structures since I began to work on ships as a Smithsonian speaker. It is so bold, so proud.

Despite its dissimilar profile, it reminds me of the mysterious island in Arnold Böcklin’s series of paintings known as Die Toteninsel (Isle of the Dead). In each of the five versions, created between 1880 and 1886, Böcklin made slight variations, including reconfiguring the shape of the rocks. A figure clad all in white appears in each, accompanying a coffin to the isle. She is regarded variously in the different interpretations, but usually as a symbol of death, or as the deceased seeking repose on the island. Any masterpiece of art invites such speculations.


Arnold Böcklin, Die Toteninsel III

Sergei Rachmaninov certainly speculated on Böcklin’s paintings. He was intrigued enough to compose one of his most gripping tone poems using the same title. Luminously beautiful in its opening, the orchestra introduces a rolling figure of five beats that hypnotizes the ear. Contrasting sections shape the piece into a cleanly symmetrical musical form, echoing the spacing of the stark rock towers and verdant crevice on Böcklin’s isle.

Isle of the Dead (whether paintings or composition) reminds us how an artist’s creativity casts a wide net, encompassing everything imaginable from topography at sea to ambiguous symbols. Art does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it created, or intended to be received, in a vacuum.

So as the morning continued, I found myself wondering if my peak in St. John’s Bay would be impressive enough to evoke such a luscious piece of music or masterful painting? Perhaps. A bevy of fishing boats clustered around it all day. The catch has to be good there. Initially it seemed not a single tree grew on the rocks, but as the dawn gave way to morning sky, I saw pines speckling the craggy surface. Their needles glowed with iridescent green. If I could swim there, would I find tropical flowers tucked into the clefts of the cliffs? What creatures might live on such an outcrop in the middle of the sea? Did birds prefer my peak to nesting sites on the shore?

As I speculated, somehow this massive rock jolted my memory back to fourth grade, when I first learned the basic vocabulary of geography from Mrs. Clark. You’d have to search hard for a teacher like Mrs. Clark today. Prim, with a ruffled collar peeking out from her proper dark suits, she simultaneously intimidated and embraced each of us. A child simply succeeded in Mrs. Clark’s class. The force of her talent as a teacher somehow scooted each of us into the path of progress.

I doubt Mrs. Clark ever saw even a fraction of the places she taught to us. Ordinary people didn’t travel back in those days. Instead, she probably worried herself every night as to whether her tireless efforts would make a difference in her pupils’ lives. She probably did not worry whether she would be remembered by us kindly in the future. Her purpose was to educate, not impress her persona upon us.

Such a teacher leaves a miniature presence on nearly every child. Decades later, that teacher’s voice will return, whispering, “Yes, see, that’s what I was talking about.” So, to all of those Mrs. Clarks laboring with an individual child or a room filled children, you will not necessarily see the fruit of your labors at the end of your year. But seeds do get planted. They may sprout like hibiscus in verdant climes when that fidgeting child gradually finds his footing in the world. Or they may jut dramatically out of the sea, joining hands with an adult’s understanding of far vaster knowledge.

An Evening with Wendell Berry

Author Wendell Berry doesn’t leave his Kentucky farm often, but this past weekend he agreed to be our honored guest at the Classical Consortium Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Amid the gilded cornices and sumptuous chandeliers in the historic Seelbach Hotel, Berry graced us with a delicious reading of passages from his magical novels. Like obedient children we sat, tired, invigorated from a day of stimulating sessions, eager to step into the world of his rich imagination.

The conference on the theme Truth or Nothing marked the first joint event of a group we loosely call the Classical Consortium: Classical Academic Press, CiRCE Institute, Institute for Excellence in Writing, Memoria Press, and Professor Carol. This three-day conference celebrated the quest for Truth in our spiritual endeavors, teaching, and learning. Speakers, break-out sessions, delicious meals, and non-stop, passionate conversation abounded in the corridors, the elevators, the coffee table, and virtually everywhere the rays of those beautiful chandeliers would reach. A magnificent reception welcomed us at the esteemed Highlands Latin School, sponsored by Memoria Press. Then two full days of plenary talks (one by yours truly), breakout sessions, and panels, filled out the next two days. The crowning moment, of course, was the dessert reception and reading of Wendell Berry. Ah yes, life is very good.

Berry understands so much about American culture through his mastery of rural life. He has his finger (and heart) on the pulse of what once were the driving forces of American life. He knows what it means to plant various crops so as to withstand the caprices of nature, to rely on one’s gut and gumption, and to turn to one’s neighbors as they turn to you. He can paint any character you ever could imagine with a fine, gentle brush, and yet these characters are so strong as to be unforgettable.


Consortium presenters Brian Phillips, Andrew Kern, Martin Cothran, Matt Bianco, Wendell Berry, Carol Reynolds, Hank Reynolds, and Andrew Pudewa

Perhaps the best part of the evening, beyond the beguiling readings, was the “question” period. It was as if people were asking a wise uncle to tell them more about one’s long-departed relatives. The questions were about specific characters from his stories set in the imaginary Kentucky town of Port William. People had the most questions about two particularly beloved characters: Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter from novels written in 2000 and 2004 respectively. ”How did you decide to have Jayber do such and such.“ Or, “When did you first hear Hannah’s voice in your mind?“ Berry had his usual gentle, insightful answers to offer—ones that kept begging more questions. It’s hard to express how engaging it all was.

The time evaporated and then it was over. People clustered around for pictures. One man told Berry that his daughter loved the author’s stories so much, she had photo-shopped a picture of her dad standing with Berry, so might he take a picture now and make it all real? Just watching it was fun. But we had a big day ahead of us the next day, so we drifted to the elevator and back to our rooms.

We hope to fill every event staged by the Classical Consortium with moments both enlightening and magical. We believe this conference had plenty of both, and certainly the time with Berry fed the highest goals we have for our agenda and our attendees. May we be so fortunate again in the near future. And yes, we are considering new conferences for this Autumn and again for Spring 2018, so stay tuned for more.

Playing with Elvis

elvisEarlier today we were about to cross the Mississippi River at Memphis, en route from Texas to a conference in Louisville, Kentucky.

Crossing the Mississippi is a big deal in our family. We do the countdown every time: “12 more miles, 6 more miles, 3, 2, 1, here’s the bridge . . . yeah! . . . we just crossed the Mississippi!” With my own kids, I would inevitably then launch into some kind of narration about the difficulties of crossing such rivers before bridges were built, or the importance of rivers in military battles.

But for our three-year old granddaughter, just crossing it provides enough excitement. She has done it already several times (I, on the other hand, first crossed it only after high school). But usually we’re on the southern route and the state of Mississippi is right there on the eastern side. This time, though, we were further north. Tennessee greeted us, instead of Mississippi.

Well, that brought on a small crisis. “Where is Mississippi, grandma?”

How better to solve such a problem than to invoke some music history? So I said, “Honey, we’re farther north, I’ll show you on the map, and this is Memphis.” I began to talk about Elvis—how he was born in Mississippi, but later came north to the important music city of Memphis. And how he had a big house called Graceland that we might visit one day to see the fancy costumes he wore in his shows. I sang the opening of Love Me Tender and Blue Christmas, and thought I was doing pretty well.

Then she asked the logical question posted by many a three-year-old: “Can I go play with him?”

We hear that question a lot these days. It seems to mean a variety of things, including “Is that person still alive?” She’s already figured out that grandma talks about a lot of people who died a long time ago. I still regret the day I brought up Charlemagne.

But Elvis, that should be easy. In my most tutorial voice, I explained that Elvis was not on this earth anymore, but that his music is still alive. That’s accurate, isn’t it?

From the back seat I heard the kind of hearty laugh only a toddler can summon up. I had obviously said something hilarious. Through her laughter, I understood her to say, more or less, that puppies are alive, people are alive. But music? Alive? Walking around on two legs?

It is quite a concept, isn’t it? A person creates something. It does (or doesn’t) touch the audience intended to receive it. In some cases, though, it continues to be heard or seen by future generations, who are moved by it too. What is more indicative of great art than the ability to speak both to audiences in one’s own time and to those in the future? Still, think about it. If you are three, and an artist does “live on” through his art, then shouldn’t you still be able to play with him?

About that time, we rounded the curve and passed by St. Jude’s Hospital for Children. I switched topics and was saved by her questions as to whether she would ever go there and, if so, would she be able to play with the children?

Elvis will come back into the conversation, I’m sure. In fact, several hours down the road, we ate a seriously southern meal at Loretta Lynn’s Kitchen (put your calorie counters down, all ye who enter). And that gave us another chance to talk about more American music history.

Meanwhile, tucked into a hotel now, I’m thinking how blessed we are that we still can play with Beethoven and Prokofiev, Bach and Gershwin, and, for that matter, Elvis and Loretta. I’ll be giving a new talk at this conference about the nature of Artistic Literacy and the critical role it plays in the spiritual triumvirate of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. I may rework a bit of it, so as to employ my granddaughter’s apt phrase. What do you think?

Wish I’d Saved that Piano (Sigh)

lonely-pianoYesterday I phoned one of the hotels where I’ll be speaking in 2017. The name and location isn’t important, because this could happen at any hotel or conference center.

I asked whether a piano would be available for me to use for my talks. Having a keyboard within arm’s reach is a great aid for the kind of talks I give. Not that long ago, pianos were scattered about in such facilities, much as power-point projectors might be today.

But those days are gone. You may find a piano in the corner of the hotel’s bar or nice restaurant, although that too is rare now. And you usually can’t scoot it anywhere. The hotel might insist on paying a professional piano mover.

This was the situation in the hotel I called. Yes we have a piano in the lobby . . . but, no, getting it to the conference area won’t be possible without the expenditure of $500.

. . . except (I was told), if I’d called just a few months ago, they used to have a nice one in the conference area. It had been carted off a few weeks ago. The hotel staff decided no one would ever need it in this modern day and age. And, generally speaking, they were probably close to right.

They expressed their regrets. I expressed mine that I had not called earlier. I hung up feeling saddened. Could my call have saved this piano? Maybe not for long, but for a while.

Does this piano sit now in a thrift store? Or lie unloved in a landfill? Maybe I’m being pessimistic. Maybe it is much loved in someone’s living room, or in a church or school. But somehow I doubt it. Seeing videos like this one recently left me pessimistic about our modern musical life. I understand not every dumped piano is a top-notch instrument: some may have mechanical issues that render them too expensive to repair. But there was a time when even such compromised instruments had a role to play in daily life. 

“The world has changed, Carol.” I realize that. But I don’t have to accept changes that devastate the beauty, health, and value of our culture. And where I can, I will fight back.

Only this time I was too late to save that specific piano. Perhaps during that talk, I’ll ask for a moment of silence to honor all of the instruments, lovingly crafted, beautifully played, that have fallen victim to a digitally savvy, musically illiterate society. What do you think?

Image: Laura Gilmore, Lonely Piano (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Truth or Nothing

In our day, talking about “Truth” will raise some eyebrows. Particularly in academic circles, the trend has been to deny that there’s such a thing as truth universal to all men. That view has gained a wide acceptance in our society as a whole. Belief in a knowable and universal truth has been replaced by a casual acceptance that each individual has a claim to his own personal truth.

Not everyone is bowing to this fashion though. Nor is everyone accepting the degradation of our educational system by the experimental campaigns based on shallow, trendy concepts masquerading as foundational values.

summer_institute_banner_2017_0Come see what happens when a group of enthusiastic people join together to discuss these very issues. On January 20th and 21st, a regional Regional Conference entitled “Truth or Nothing,” sponsored jointly by the CiRCE Institute, Classical Academic Press, Excellence in Writing, Memoria Press, and Professor Carol, will convene in Louisville, KY. Admittedly it’s a bold theme—one we pondered over and planned together at various points during the 2016 conference season.

The roster of speakers is strong and includes Andrew Kern, Andrew Pudewa, Martin Cothran, Chris Perrin, Brian Phillips, Matt Bianco, Hank Reynolds (in a rare appearance), and yours truly, Professor Carol. Talks will cover many topics ranging from Classical values within the monastic tradition to the imperative of recovering the three transcendental values of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. On Friday the 20th, Hank Reynolds will offer a session presenting music within a context similar to that accorded the “Great Books”: How to Create a Great Music Program. On Saturday morning, I’ll deliver a plenary address entitled A Classical Approach to Artistic Literacy.

One of the high points of the conference will occur on Friday evening, as we enjoy a dinner together and then settle in for a wonderful address from none other than the great Wendell Berry. If you’ve never heard him speak, I won’t even try to describe the power of his words and the atmosphere when he addresses an audience. It can be life-changing.

The goal of this conference is to give us boots-on-the-ground tactics and practical tools to employ in situations that confront us—particularly those that seem to confound us. So I hope you can join us. These organizations and speakers are all on a multi-faceted mission to create the necessary educational materials and to provide the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional support that teachers and parents must have to guide the next generations up the rocky paths to repair our sadly tattered modern culture. They are guided by the warm, welcoming light of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. They work hard to embrace the “Three Transcendentals”—not as lofty concepts that look pretty on the page but as qualities we must grapple with daily in real life.

Conference details can be found here.

Tribute to the Red Army Choir


It was just after 2 a.m. when I saw the news flash. A Russian military plane leaving Sochi had crashed into the Black Sea en route to Syria. Like many of you, I was still awake at this wee hour. […] Read more.

Merry Christmas


Merry Christmas to all of our readers, students, and friends. We thank all who have followed our Advent Calendar this year. It was our honor to share the journey with you. On this Christmas Day, we invite you to listen to […] Read more.

O Holy Night


Listen. A quiet arpeggiated chord opens the piece. The voice enters, floating the first note softly above the harmony (O). Twice more the note repeats (Ho-ly), followed by a gentle rise of the melody (Night). The audience sits attentively, leaning forward […] Read more.

Thoughts on Berlin


I had intended for today’s post in our 2016 Advent Calendar to focus on the tasty seasonal treats we enjoy as Christmas draws nearer. One I had in mind was marzipan, the almond paste used in so many European treats […] Read more.



Christmas lights are everywhere now: bursting from the trees, outlining windows, dripping off of balconies, and flashing in the yards. What is prettier than Christmas lights? Well, the answer used to be “nothing.” But in recent years I suspect you […] Read more.