Sehnsucht

I’m terrible at packing. Maybe you share the problem. But, seriously, for someone who spends much of her life traveling, you’d think I’d never owned a suitcase.

And it’s not just the packing. It’s the whole process of preparing to leave home. If I get to bed the night before a trip, it’s likely to be at 2 a.m. with a 5 a.m. alarm so I can finish the job.

Lists don’t help. I make lists. Starting earlier doesn’t help either. I start early, or at least early-ish. But the logistical problems remain, although the real struggle involves something else entirely.

On the surface, the first thorny issue involves choosing clothes. A relative who travels extensively in her job has shown me how easy it is. She lays out six or seven items, all color-coordinated. She adds two scarves, a belt, and two pairs of shoes, plus the shoes she wears on the plane. Her cosmetic bag stays packed. The exact right coat hangs in the closet. She grabs a book for the plane and she’s done.

Doesn’t that sound nice?

It sounds impossible. In fact, if that relative ever saw my staging area (a.k.a. living room) draped with wardrobe “possibilities,” she’d run shrieking from the house.

Then there’s the long list of tasks required before departing: running every speck of laundry through the wash so as to leave empty hampers, stocking up on paper towels and food for the family, driving to the pet store to buy the dog her kibble.

Oh, wait, let’s not leave out that classic midnight run to Walmart for non-essentials that seem so essential at the last minute.

Why can’t I do this better? Partly, I blame the weather. If you live in Texas, it’s almost always cooler at your destination. How do you envision sloshing through European puddles when the thermometer here reads 102?

Plus, I hate making choices. Do I need two black tops or three? Maybe I should take three white tops instead? Who knows what skirt I’ll want to wear in six days? I’ll just take it all. Oops, the suitcase just topped 20 kilos!

Finally, there’s the little stuff—from band-aids to dental floss. Such pesky things ought to be standing in readiness, considering how often I cross the Atlantic these days. But, somehow, the dental floss leaps to the upstairs bath; the band-aids flutter to the sun porch (could it be the work of grandchildren?). And everyone knows how mascara loves to roll under beds.

My husband looks at me in despair as I spin about. He streamlines his preparations to checking off a list of necessary papers and technology, getting a fair night’s sleep, and packing in fifteen minutes the morning of the departure. Uggh.

sehnsucht

Heinrich Vogeler, Sehnsucht

So, what is the problem? On the surface, it’s disorganization. But the actual reason is deeper. We moderns call it “separation anxiety.” But German poets of the 19th century had a better term: Sehnsucht, or longing.

Longing for the rivers and forests of their childhoods. Longing for mountain paths and the fragrance of wild flowers. Longing for the faces of long-lost relatives. They wrote poems and novels about it. Painters and composers joined in, and tuned Sehnsucht into a principle tenet of European Romanticism.

That’s all well and good. Maybe I should give a lecture on it (I have, actually). But, seriously, how can I be feel Sehnsucht if I haven’t left home yet?

Trust me, it’s possible. Travel, no matter how marvelous, is the antithesis of being home. For some people, that’s a reason to travel—a big part of travel’s allure. But for me, even the winding luxury buffets in our hotels on Smithsonian Journeys cannot compare with the beauty of sitting in my own breakfast nook, cradling a cup of tea and contemplating the back garden.

Home, whether the address one departs, or the images cherished in one’s memory, forms the cornerstone of the heart. It’s a perpetual point of reference. Even when problems beset our home, nothing, for me, is as comforting as my own rocking chair.

And this attachment to home grows stronger as the years go by, just as the poets said it would. “Get me outta here” was my battle cry as a teen. But today my theme is “Home, Sweet Home.” In fact, Hank and I have a framed rendition of that motto hanging on our wall, cross-stitched by a childhood friend for our wedding.

I look at this treasure each time I yank my suitcase out the door. My prayer is simple: May the trip fulfill the hopes and expectations of those in my groups; may I be of use to those I meet and address, and may God bring me safely home.

In a time where chaos and displacement affect so many people, that prayer grows even stronger. May you, too, be blessed by a dear sense of home, whether you travel often or not. May that sense of home nourish you daily, no matter what the rattle of the world around us. And, may you be far better at packing thanI am when you do go out into the world!

Golden Autumn

Spring inspires the poet, but autumn offers the painter his most glorious banquet! Or, so it seems to me.

golden-autumn

Levitan, Golden Autumn

Oh, I do love fall. They say that one’s birth-season becomes the dearest season. Born in late September, I think that may account for my feelings.

Still, what is more gorgeous than the deepening blue of the autumn sky? The ever crisper air, and the drama of green leaves bursting into a tapestry of crimson, gold, and orange?

For us in North Central Texas, fall arrived three nights ago. We went to bed in summer, but awoke to the magic of autumn, courtesy of a noisy thunderstorm that petrified our old Border Collie.

I’m not a visual person. I took little account of nature growing up, despite living in the opulent beauty of the Shenandoah Valley. But traveling to many parts of the world has taught me a lot. One of the best lessons came when I moved to Dallas after living in Germany. Early on, a colleague taught me to orient my gaze upwards towards the unfathomably dramatic Texas skies in order to find the wealth of beauty under my feet.

But back to art and to a painting by Russian master Isaac Levitan entitled Golden Autumn (Zolotaya osen’, 1895). The name Levitan may be new to many, but it’s practically a household name for Russians. I had learned, as a student, that the beguiling autumn landscapes by Levitan were widely treasured. But I wondered why.

Well, I found out. In the northern climes, nothing guarantees a long, temperate autumn. The warmth of summer might extend into September . . . or it might not (just ask Napoleon). Unwelcome chilly, even icy, days loom as soon as September 1st arrives. So whatever remains of true, sun-lit fall is treated as an ephemeral treasure, something to be grabbed and enjoyed. Or, in the hands of a master like Levitan, painted.

With photographic accuracy highly praised at the time and still admired today, Levitan infused his canvases with the golden blush of birch trees and swaying wheat. He dotted his fall forests with swatches of red and orange, illuminated by mottled blue skies and cushioned by green-brown forest beds. He painted voluminously, choosing also winter, spring, and summer subjects. But his autumn works? They hypnotize with their beauty.

Let me end with a story. During my first weeks of doctoral research at Leningrad Conservatory in 1981, I was . . . well, let’s just say, overwhelmed trying to figure things out. It was not a particularly happy time. Everything was at stake and nothing was working well or easily.

One gorgeously sunny afternoon in mid September, my assigned advisor, a quiet, elegant professor of musicology, came to find me in the library. She was just as puzzled about what to do with me as I was about how to proceed with my research.

She gently folded my notebooks, took me by the arm and said, in essence, “Let’s go.” I assumed she had something to tell me in her office, yet she had her jacket with her. She pulled my jacket off the hook. (It was easy to identify Western clothing in those days.) She ushered me past the guard-lady (dezhurnaya) at the entrance and out into the street. We began to walk up to the Neva River. She explained nothing. I asked nothing.

We walked a long time towards the Neva river. I could feel her relaxing. Suddenly we paused. Two people, her husband and university-aged daughter, appeared next to us. We began to walk as a foursome. I got the courage to ask her daughter “Where are we going?”

“Oh!” She seemed genuinely surprised I didn’t guess. “To the Summer Gardens, of course.” She smiled, “You know, this could be our very best day of fall. Look, it’s perfect!” It was. The trees had turned vivid colors, the air was fragrant, the sky royal blue. But she realized I still didn’t understand. “We won’t have this for long. This might be the last day. We want to enjoy every minute of it.”

summer-gardens

Revisiting the Summer Gardens

And we did. Along the way, they explained the history of the Romanov gardens and the layout of the Classical statuary. They taught me the Russian names of the trees, bushes, and flowers around us. They told fabulous anecdotes about the line of composers from Glinka to Prokofiev, all of whom walked in these gardens at every opportunity, particularly on such tender days of autumn.

They also reminded me that soon it would be getting dark before 5 pm, and then before 4 pm! I knew all of this in theory; but hearing their descriptions of the icy darkness of a northern winter changed my understanding. My sense of urgency to drink in this autumn beauty intensified.

Because of that walk, I was better able to enter into Levitan’s paintings. I began to grasp that artists see nature not as a stand of trees or a flowing river, but as a moment in time that explodes with mystery. A moment that must be captured to the best of the artist’s ability.

May you have such days where you live. May you fold up the books, grab the jackets, and step into the beauty of this season as you breathe in the gift of autumn.

Overcoming Obstacles to Art

Recent conversations with a close friend have set my thoughts directly on this question: what obstacles keep people from appreciating the arts?

obstaclesThe first bugaboo, of course, is the verb appreciate. To me, it’s an obstacle in and of itself. When combined with words like music and art, appreciate seems to transform something joyous and natural into an artificial structure capable of torture.

Torture? Well, ask anyone who recalls a poorly taught high-school or college class in music, art, theater, or dance appreciation. They likely finished their final exam hoping to avoid these arts forever. Of course, others recall glorious experiences where they had their eyes, ears, and minds opened by skillful and passionate teachers. A life-long love of the arts is set in motion by such teachers.

At the root of appreciate is the Latin noun pretium, or “price.” So, one technical way to define appreciate is “to determine or set a proper value to something.” We see how this translates into determining the monetary value of a sculpture, for instance. But what about a lullaby? A folk dance? A children’s puppet show?

A more useful definition would be the idea of assigning to the art work a proper aesthetic or cultural identity, i.e. setting it high (or low) on a particular scale of values. And, yes, despite what modern critics preach, there are scales of values established for art over time. The standards of “good” or “significant” are not arbitrary, emotional, or solely individual (sorry).

Still, the value of appreciation most teachers seek to inspire is love—love of the arts. Excitement about the discoveries to be made there. Wouldn’t it be fun to attend classes sporting titles like “Falling in Love with 19th-Century Paintings” or “Losing Your Heart to Russian Ballet”? Or even “Discovering Why You Like the Sound of Trumpets better than Violins.” These are more apt goals, to me, than appreciating.

History is my term of choice: music history, dance and theater history, art history. Yet, “history” strikes young people as referring only to experiences from the past that are no longer relevant. Tell that to college horn players who have just performed Mahler’s Fourth Symphony . . . once they’ve recovered enough from the emotional drain to be able to speak coherently.

art-museum

“Dedicated to Art and Free to All”

Here’s the thing. In learning to “appreciate” art, we have to close gaps for most people. The causes of the gaps are easy to identify. Today’s “every man” does not grow up around theaters, museums, concerts, and dance studios. The popular culture explodes with things ugly and demeaning, not beautiful and inspiring. Crass, violent, and rude are enshrined in the images that inundate us today.

Plus, people have become fully alienated by the nonsense promulgated by the elitists. Critics respond more to vagaries of the Academy than to the response of the viewer’s heart. Yes, it’s sometimes useful to read “educated” responses—reviews, scholarly assessments. It can be interesting. It can even be comedic. (Did this critic and I attend the same performance? Or view the same painting?) But critics rarely draw people who are inexperienced or skeptical into a love for an art form.

The educated class has always influenced the standards of visual and performing art. But the beauty of the art still naturally communicated itself to most people. Artists want to reach a general audience. They have to respond to the desires of patrons, but they want, and need, to connect with the people viewing and experiencing their arts.

This natural pattern experienced tremendous disruptions beginning in the early twentieth century (particularly after the First World War). At that point, massive movements in abstract art, atonal music, and theater of the absurd ran the general audience out the door. The art screamed: “You don’t like this because you are too stupid to understand what it means!” And the general public yelled back. “Fine, I prefer this kind of ‘stupid’ to what you’re trying to pass off as art!”

Over the next weeks I will be writing more about visual art. I’ll share some of the adventures in my journey to “appreciating” painting and sculpture. Growing up without any background in the visual arts, I was lost at sea when it came to the subject. I even lacked the basic terminology that you’d expect a high-school graduate to have back in the 1960s (when high-school education was routinely rather good).

Dodging and fakery helped me cover up my ignorance . . . until it didn’t! But that’s a story for a different time. What matters to me most, now, is helping others set aside the things that distance them from the arts. I want to help people plow through the obstacles that keep them from forming a relationship with art, whether a positive or negative relationship. (Negative reactions to an art form can also be valuable!)

I hope you’ll enjoy where these threads go.

Sym + posium

I’ve always liked the Greek preposition syn. Meaning “together” (altered to sym before certain consonants), these three letters struck me decades ago when I first realized that symphony meant “sounding together.” The next coolest application (for me) came with the term synaesthesia while in college. At that point, I began to study the revolutionary ideas of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, a visionary who labored to involve all five senses into the composition and perception of music.

Now we’re approaching our second symposium called Teaching the Arts Classically, a one-day event that will be held October 7 on the campus of University of Dallas. I’m excited about the event, particularly when I contemplate the roster of speakers: Professors Matthew Post and Greg Roper, wonderful thinkers and activists in the revival of classical education, Barbara Rogers and Jenny Dickinson, two women whose lives and work in education have touched my heart, and our special guest from Memoria Press, Martin Cothran.

I could listen to Martin 24 hours a day, particularly when he reduces the imperatives of education to “math, Latin, and music.” Working with him closely over the past few years has given me more inspiration than I know how to describe. I too will be speaking, including a talk about overcoming the obstacles we face when teaching or encountering the arts. We expect to have a musical interlude as well.

symposium

Symposium Scene c. 420 B.C., Salamanca Collection (CC BY-SA 2.5)

While thinking about the event the other day sitting in Dallas traffic, I asked myself: “What does symposium actually mean?” Sym, okay I’ve got that part. But the rest of the word? I figured it had something to do with place, like position. WRONG!

Symposium combines “together” with an ancient root for “drinking.” If my sources are correct, the Greeks kept their beverages (wine) for after a meal, whereupon the men would gather, drink, and, discuss worthy ideas. That certainly brings any lofty sense of the term symposium down to the basics, doesn’t it?

Well, we’ll be having our beverages on both sides of our meal (and even during the meal!). We’ll open the morning with coffee, tea, and goodies at registration, 8:30, followed by lunch mid day and more refreshments between our afternoon sessions. The discussion of worthy ideas will likely begin in the parking lot as our attendees arrive. Based on our Spring 2017 symposium, that discussion will continue long after the day’s event concludes.

Over the next days we’ll be posting detailed descriptions of the sessions. And we’ll send out a complete program soon. But for today, I just want to encourage you to join us for the day (8:30 registration, 9:00 beginning, with a 3:30 conclusion). If you can come only for half the day, let us know, and we can work with you.

The link for the event is here. See you soon!

The Art of Hospitality

barbara-rogers

Barbara Rogers

When choosing speakers for an event in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on the topic of Classical Education, you really have to think of Barbara Rogers of Coram Deo Academy. I first met Barbara 15 years ago when we sang in the same church choir. I watched her raising, and educating, her children with great success and with a good-natured seriousness that I found inspiring. Leave it to Barbara to come up with a presentation that applies her depth of knowledge to the practicalities and delights of daily life.

A Cup of Beauty: The Art of Hospitality

In our fast-paced and informal society, it is easy to dismiss hospitality as a long-forgotten and lost art. Yet our frenetic pace of life with its constant digital distractions and disruptions needn’t hijack the family dinner hour or diminish our seasonal celebrations. Children can and should learn how to respond with attentiveness and kindness to friends and family, sojourner and stranger.

rublev

Rublev, The Holy Trinity

This workshop will explore practical tips for developing rituals at home and in the classroom which awaken the student’s heart and mind to see the needs of others. Beginning with the Greek concept of xenia, we will look briefly at examples in Homer and Ovid of both the rewards and abuses of hospitality. Rublev’s Icon of The Holy Trinity (also known as The Hospitality of Abraham) will also serve as a basis for reflecting on ancient hospitality.

Homeschool parents, administrators, and teachers will glean ideas for enriching the lives of their students and developing their characters through the practice of hospitality. Annual cycles of holidays and school events (such as admission meetings for inquiring families, history festivals, and Grandparents Day) also provide a rich palette for cultivating this art in formal school settings.

Conference details and registration information can be found here.

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