Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Ginkgo snow

All education is local

Some people think our interest in the history of The New School is mere navel gazing, can you believe it? How can you be here now if you don't know where here is, and how it came to be the way it is? And if you're from an interesting place like The New School, which professes to think outside the box, wouldn't it be foolish not to learn from its extensive and varied experience in and out of boxes? Still, one might yet wonder if any of this has valence beyond The New School itself. Could our history, however inspiring or chastening it is for those of us whose destinies are linked to it, be of use to anyone else?

Our class (and we) had a chance to explore this question today. We invited two young student activists from our neighbor the Cooper Union to talk about their work calling their institution to task for abandoning its commitment to free tuition in 2013. Free Cooper is an inspiring story of successful student protest, if also of the way an institution with a distinctive and unconventional mission can lose its moorings. Cooper is 50 years older than The New School and from the start was meant to be more than a school. The Great Hall at the core of its dedicated building, a famous site of public events, helped define its civic role.

The Free Cooper leaders anchored the story of their organizing in a history of Cooper and its buildings. A slide of the inside of the signature building, hollowed out beyond its landmarked façade for renovation, illustrated better than mere words could what can happen when an institution moves beyond its original mission. Left standing inside was only the multi-story cylindrical shaft Cooper's inventor-founder had set aside for future use as yet unimagined (perhaps an elevator?), a lovely symbol, too. It was exciting to see a history put to such effective work.

We learned about the 65-day sit-in in the office of the president who had taken Cooper into such debt to build a stylish new building that they could pay for it only by introducing tuition, a sit-in which helped topple the president and his board. Part of how it worked was through the organizers' savvy use of social media, performances, parties and other public events, and it was exciting to be shown them by the very people who masterminded them. It was fascinating to learn how they collaborated with and learned from Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and tuition hike protests in Québec. It was moving also to hear them reflect on how hard it is to convey what it was really like, three years on, both as history and as continuing impetus for student activism.

I'm not sure what our students made of it but I'd be happy if they took from the talk some stories and strategies, a sense of the power of student organizing, and a renewed sense that the history of a place is a resource for present engagement and future hopes. All politics is local! New School isn't Cooper, nor should it be. But even in our lapses queer old birds like us can encourage each other in the struggle to resist the homogenizing of higher education. Our quixotic origins might make the lapses easier to see and to learn from. And who knows to what uses our future-focused founders' hidden shafts might yet be put!

Religion of love

Got to sit in on a class by one of my colleagues today. The subject was a novela by Sudanese writer Tayeb Saleh, which my colleague explained was replete with references to Islamic literary traditions. One was the the archetypal love story of Layla and Majnun, beloved of Sufis, which was introduced through images. Two of these were so striking I asked for the links. In the Timmurid illustration above the young lovers meet while studying the Quran in a mosque the viewer enters piously through the door at lower left; they are placed visually in the niqab, a sign that their love is a divine thing. In the Persian miniature below, Majnun in orange at top right spies on his love in the tent below, while life goes on around them in a riot of oblivious color. Divine love is like this, too.
In a time of growing ignorance and islamophobia I'm so glad our students have a chance to encounter Islamic civilization in this way.

Monday, November 28, 2016


As the last leaves of 2016 fade, Lang's courtyard has found new colors.

Sunday, November 27, 2016


I usually tell people I've been fortunate enough to circumambulate Mount Kailash twice, but that's not really true. I've actually been around fifteen times. Two were around the mountain in Western Tibet which has, for some time if not forever, been associated with the holy mount. The other thirteen (auspicious number) are around this Kailash, which presides in the middle of the courtyard of a Newar building I visited in Patan, part of Kathmandu, in August. Don't tell me they don't count!

Advent 1

Saturday, November 26, 2016


Here's a way of trying to homogenize, or at least bridge, the experiences of grandeur which supposedly greet every supplicant to a mountain and the experiences of sacrality which devotés of particular traditions might draw from it. The characterization goes beyond the idea that the latter project sacrality on to a shared experience, which is a plus.

Each of these themes or views brings together different ideas, images, and associations to evoke the experience of a deeper reality. Tibetan pilgrims, for example, view the peak of Mount Kailas as the pagoda palace of Demchog. The two images fuse in their minds so that the mountain becomes the palace. This fusion of images awakens the experience of something that imbues Mount Kailas with an aura of sanctity. The pilgrim becomes aware of a divine presence emanating from the mountain. 

The process works a little like the fusion of two slightly different photographs of a scene in a stereoscopic viewer to trigger a vivid perception of the third dimension inherent in each two-dimensional picture. The scene that looked flat suddenly seems to pop open with depth – in the case of a mountain like Kailas, a luminous depth full of meaning and significance for the pilgrim who reveres it as sacred. 

The juxtaposition of images and associations also acts like the resonance of notes in a chord of music. Hearing the different tones resonate together creates a harmony, a sound with a quality that no note can produce by itself. In a similar way, a sense of the sacred issues from the resonance of images and associations in a view of a mountain, not from any single one of them. For followers of religious traditions, however, the fusion or resonance of cultural and spiritual associations in a view of a sacred mountain does not just create an effect: rather, it reveals an underlying reality present but hidden from usual awareness.
Edwin Bernbaum, "Sacred Mountains,"
in Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, ed. Bron Taylor (2006)

This is clever and hermeneutically generous - what to the secular observer might seem a mere "effect" to the believer "reveals an underlying reality" - but I'm troubled by it. Is it because Bernbaum implicitly asserts that the experience is in fact the same: an experience of depth? (The trekker's experience is already an experience of depth.) His language is full of the sublime - heights and depths, mists and mysteries, vastness and vistas infinite and hidden - but I wonder if that is indeed how a mountain like Kailas is understood by a pilgrim. Intuitively I imagine a reality one needs a trained eye and a prepared consciousness to observe might seem hidden at first but, once attained, reverses figure and ground: if it still slips from view, this is not because it is deep and far away but because the mind - not the mountain - is clouded.

I have no basis whatever for this counterclaim, just a perhaps perverse resistance to the idea that different travelers of course encounter the same mountain. (Well, I have one rather corny piece of evidence: years ago, I was in Hakone, a famous Mount Fuji viewing site, on a day of near complete fog. This didn't stop a class of high school students, their easels facing into the murk where Fuji was, from painting the mountain in its pristineness.) At the very least, I'm compelled to try to relativize the supposedly shared experience of natural splendor the way in which this narrative relativizes religious "associations." For now, at least, I think one of the methodological claims of my Spring course "Not to scale: On sacred mountains" will be that sacred mountains are not mountains. (Recall my brief for religious studies: the discipline that recognizes there is no consensus on the real. We don't experience the same human nature, the same future, the same world.)

But here as in so many things (the list goes on) the impending trumpocalypse ruins things. My effort at pluralism and humility could provide comfort to obscurantism and ignorance! At least some of the climate deniers who have taken over our ruling party believe what they say. They don't see what I think everyone must be able to see - record droughts! deadlier storms! melting icecaps! warming seas! vanishing glaciers! - and in at least some cases this is for religious reasons. I'm thinking not of those for whom the phenomena are there but dismissed as unimportant, but those for whom something else entirely is going on. They don't experience the same nature! Aware that my terms are janglingly inconsistent here, I don't want to represent a position from which there is no possibility of their eyes being opened.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Daily bread

Looking for a bag of things my Japanese friend H left in our storage room last year I happened on something I thought was lost forever: a beloved wooden plate from Italy which I used to use for bread all the time! (Her bag was found, too.) I had thought the people who'd contracted to sublet the apartment while I was in China but then left me hanging after two months had done away with it... but maybe I hid it away! In any case it's good timing, as my partner returns from China in a fortnight, and we've taken to saying grace before meals.

Thursday, November 24, 2016


I unwittingly enhanced one settler colonial festivity with another - making sticky date pudding (which I learned about in Australia) for American Thanksgiving at my friend L's house. I remember trying to explain Thanksgiving to a then wee Australian nephew a decade ago, a story of generous Native American hosts feeding hapless Pilgrims, symbolizing the need for gratitude to others. Fine for a three year old.

What would one tell now? The pretense that the people whose descendants think they are white arrived on these shores without tragically upending what they found has to be rejected (especially in a time when the words "white America" strike too many as a manifest destiny, not a history-denying oxymoron). I might try to include the Onondaga Thanksgiving Address (literally: Words That Come Before All Else) described in Braiding Sweetgrass (107f), a tribute to the natural sources of our being, each of which has a job in sustaining the life of all around and performs it graciously. From gratitude to responsibility: humans have a job too, a responsibility to learn the language of this land so they can do their part. To be native to a place we must learn to speak its language. (48) This goes for human as well as natural history.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Holding one's breath between seasons at the BBG yesterday morning.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Monday, November 21, 2016

Scattered thoughts from San Antonio

I haven't attended the American Academy of Religion annual meeting since before I went to China. Even before that I'd been losing the hang of it... Most members gravitate towards a few fields, listening and presenting to a stable group of scholars who share their specialties. (It can seem a huddle of parallel subdisciplinary conferences criss-crossed by networking.) Never having found a group I was interested enough in to go to all of its sessions, I've always been a grazer. Increasingly AAR has for me been about dipping into fields and communities of scholars new and unfamiliar to me. This year fit that (non-)pattern.

Status of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer Persons in the Profession Committee 
Expendable Bodies, Knowledge, and Positionality

Religion and Ecology Group 
The Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Religion and Ecology Group

Animals and Religion Group and Religion, Affect, and Emotion Group 
Book Session: Engaging Donovan Schaefer's Religious Affects (Duke University Press, 2015)

Presidential Address
Serene Jones (Union Theological Seminary), Revolutionary Love

Two Spirits and Her Giveaway 

Teaching Religion Section and Chinese Religions Group 
Teaching Religions of China in Practice (Princeton University Press, 1996)

Public Understanding of Religion Committee 
Writing Religion Online: Scholars and Journalists in Conversation

I had a reason to be at each of these (I was one of the panelists at the very first), but it felt pretty scattershot. I should have known the second and second-to-last, being retrospective, would be only incidentally illuminating. Addressing exciting new work, the third and the last were the most engaging. The most inspiring - in that sinking-feeling way of true prophecy - was Serene Jones' James Baldwin-heavy presidential address. The somewhat corny (and non-academic) sounding "revolutionary love" seemed a good presidential theme when she chose it two years ago, she told us. Now, with forces of hate newly empowered by the sanction of a president elect she did not hesitate to call "fascist," it's indispensable. The love in question isn't sentimental feeling but fierce in its commitment to truth and justice. Like Baldwin Jones' love is grounded in owning the truth of America's foundational racism, which truth one can set us free: Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

Was seven sessions really all I could squeeze in to a two-day stay, you may ask? Well, yes. It was a weekend. On Sunday morning I went to mass at the Catholic cathedral of San Fernando. I'm so glad I did.
So let me widen the focus a little. AAR was my first trip since the election, and it took place in Republican-supporting Texas (albeit in the "island" of San Antonio). If it's a pretty good bet that the people you run into here in New York didn't vote for the new regime, in Texas it's not. Especially if you're white. What I began to feel from the minute I headed to the subway for the airport was the newly unassailable status of my whiteness. In the subway I found myself standing next to a seat where an older bearded Muslim man sat, perhaps Bangladeshi - but I realized that I was really standing over him, capable of harm. In the plane, a charming abuela was sitting next to me, and offered me the first of her biscuits. Just nice, perhaps, but also: how did she know I wasn't a white man who needed placating? In the taxi to my hotel, the driver was a Muslim too, perhaps from Africa. Perhaps just polite as folks are in the South, but I couldn't know.

In each case I wondered if I should say something to reassure them that I welcome them as fellow citizens, deplore the xenophobia of the white nationalism which now has a foothold in the White House, voted against it... but even supposing I could reminded me that I could also not, that there was some sort of force field around me of potential threat to them. I recalled a time, a few days before, when I stood above an older Muslim woman in the subway, thinking I was protecting her (there have been many stories of Muslims harassed even in New York's subways) - but that, too, was an experience of force, of violence. Later, recalling some passages in Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, it occurred to me that folks like me have been in that force field all along - even if it was only our non-white interlocutors who felt it.

This sense of an unwanted aura of violent impunity followed me the whole time I was in Texas. It felt like how I imagine it must feel to carry a gun - Texas is an open-carry state. (And "Don't mess with Texas" is all about guns; at a tourist gift shop I peeked into, a significant number of souvenirs had images of guns, including their most popular T-shirt, emblazoned with the words "Texans don't call 9-1-1.") But even before that, when citizens were entitled to bear arms but not show them, whiteness was surely like carrying a gun. Coates describes the violence behind whites' saying "I could have you arrested" to men of color - though it doesn't even have to be said. After the election of 2016, I could have you deported, or worse. (So the first thing I did on coming home was find a clothespin, inadequate though that gesture is, and affixed it to my favorite fleece.)

But back to San Antonio, and to San Fernando. That mass was the first church service I've been to since the election, and, at this their main English Sunday mass, many attending appeared to be Anglos... Who was carrying what political/racial views? Would the priests - the officiant from India, accompanied by a white man and a Latino deacon - tread lightly, or find a way to convey the Pope's recent condemnation of rising xenophobia? I was disconcerted that it was the Solemnity of Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, and the final day of Pope Francis' Jubilee Year of Mercy. Would truth be spoken to power?

It was, though perhaps not in a way all understood. The sermon was delivered by the white man, who turned out (I saw him after) to be a fellow AAR visitor, a Dominican who teaches at a Catholic seminary north of Chicago. He mumbled a little, as professors sometimes do, and quoted, as we do often: the atheist Ernst Bloch no less. The world is not true; truth will be brought into the world only by human beings, and then the world will feel like a homecoming. From his pronunciation of Bloch's name (and later Dostoyevsky - yes, the Grand Inquisitor) I sensed he was a native German speaker. Perhaps that is what inspired him to focus not just on Christ, the crucified king, but on the historicity of this feast day. It was introduced in 1925, we learned, in response to the collapse of western societies after WW1 - he named Russia, Austria, Germany - and a warning against the false promises of earthly kings.

I can't tie up these thoughts with a pretty little bow, as I often do in this blog. Instead: The nativity scene below, found at the airport gift shop, might not be intended as a depiction of a grim fugitive family under the white star of Texas, but that's what I see. Advent starts Sunday, but the world of truth is one we have to claim right away. Masks off!

Friday, November 18, 2016


I'm off to San Antonio for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion! The last time we met here, I remember having some great Tex-Mex food, and happening on an amazing concert in an old art deco theater. But of course that was back when America was great. Leaving the comparative safety of New York City fills me with apprehension.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Feel the love

The 14th Street-Union Square subway station is being taken over by colored post-its, each a mail-in ballot for a more generous America.

Going, going...

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The almost found

Our New School history course has been offering us many an eerie coincidence lately. Last week, the day after the presidential election, we were teaching about the National Student Strike of 1970, and the way students claimed the space of The New School to protest and imagine a better world in the wake of the bombing of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State. Graduating seniors from Parsons, which had just merged with The New School, put aside their senior shows for a pop-up exhibition they called My God! We're Losing a Great Country! ("Great" irony in that name today....) The new world opened up by the resistible rise of Arturi Trui - experienced as a crisis on many levels, including the level of even understanding what had happened and how and why - was just the sort of crisis the New School had been called into existence to respond to, we argued, an acknowledgment that not just better research but new structures of inquiry and education and community were demanded by the new reality, new schools.

Today's class introduced the work of Sekou Sundiata, whose "51st (Dream) State" was one of the most poignant responses to the election of 2004 - another time when it seemed we were not one but two nations, as incompatible as oil and water. (Sekou did what people are now saying is so necessary, traveled the land inviting people of all political persuasions to get to know each other at so-called "citizenship dinners," among other inspiring things.) Our focus was on the 1989 episode - you remember it, no doubt - when he wrote a big X across an offensive image in an exhibition of corporate logos in the Parsons Gallery, adding This is racist bullshit - Sundiata and catapulted the New School into an existential crisis. Freedom of expression vs. freedom from intolerance? How could The New School - or any institution, any community - respect both? At a time when hate speech has been nearly normalized, the issues are, alas, current in a new way. (You can read the story under The Matsunaga Affair here, along with My God!) Sekou's wonderful "Shout Out" (1997) was also a wonderful antidote to the divisive language of this moment.

... Here's to the crazy, the lazy,
the bored, the ignored,
the beginners, the sinners,
the losers, the winners,
the smooth and the cool
and even to the fool
... to the rule-benders and the repeat offenders,
to the lovers, and the troublers,
the engaging, the enraging,
to the yearless and the fearless
to the fixers and the tricksters
... to the was you been
to the is you in
to was deep in deep
to was down and down
to the lost and the blind
and the almost found.

Many of us in the academic biz have been asking ourselves this past week if what we do matters, or matters in the right way, as we confront the collapse of faith in our public institutions, and perhaps also in our common life. Some of my colleagues have been teaching students how to organize, where to protest. That's what they're about as faculty; they assume and assert we're a "community of activists"! But that's not quite me, and it's not why I do what I do. Activism has its place (J and I went to a demonstration for Sanctuary Campuses today, for instance) but so does the patient playful profound work of the liberal arts. In the last years we've been pushing back against the narrowly economic form of the question of the "value of the liberal arts," but we should't construe it in narrowly political terms either. I believe (as you know) that the right kind of pedagogy, the right sort of curriculum, the right practices of intellectual community produce "democratic virtues" of use in all departments of life. They make us more thoughtful, more open to new ideas and better arguments, more accepting of complexity and change, more compassionate of the struggles of others (and ourselves), and more able to see the gift of diversity.

Part of the pleasure of teaching this course with J is sharing the story of this community's efforts to realize the possibilities of education in new forms and times. We've made our share of blunders (today's quip: "You could have an exhibition called Balls we've dropped!") but we're less likely to make them again if we know where we're coming from, and why what happened happened. Encountering the ideals and experiments of our forebears (today it was the truly unconventional 1+2+1 structure proposed for the Seminar College, a ball quickly dropped) provides perspective, inspiration and a certain realism. Perhaps the eerie coincidence isn't a coincidence. The New School really has been trying to understand and respond to times of uncertainty and fear for a long time. We're lucky to be part of its history.

Sea change?

I am, as you know, a fan of maps. But these "maps," produced by the ever more data visualizing New York Times, make me angry.
It's the same anger I have felt at the red and blue maps usually used for presidential elections (which at least have the justification that they report Electoral College votes). Most of America is purple - and if we're less purple (many regions closer to red or to blue) than we have been,
that makes even stronger the case that we mustn't abandon those who voted like us in areas where they are outnumbered. But of course we owe the effort of solidarity also to those who didn't vote as we did, and from that perspective anything which fuels secessionist fantasies is ill advised. (Secessionist fantasies are part of American heritage.) We're stuck with each other and huddling together will only make us more dangerous to each other - and ultimately to the American project.
This map isn't as pretty or as witty as the Times' Clinton archipelago - it looks like something violently contorting - but it's who we are.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Fan fact

As The New School continued to react to the weekend's blow to our feeling of safety (itself a localization of the anxiety so many across the land are feeling), the Religious Studies Program found a way to remind us again how much of comfort and care we have in each other.
Our Fall roundtable, like roundtables past, featured current faculty, a student and a visitor from afar, one more exciting than the next. Our theme was "queer religion," something we've explored and celebrated before in a more narrowly American Christian frame, and it was thrilling to welcome one of China's leading young gay Catholic leaders to our table. But what really grabbed everyone was the idea - presented by E, one of our brilliant undergraduate majors - that midrash can be seen as "Bible fan fiction," and vice versa! We all felt that vitality of living, loving interpretation, faithfully and playfully having our queer way with the texts and figures which won't let us go. A terrific experience of living religion and community, just what we all needed. I'm a fan!

Monday, November 14, 2016


I had the chance to sit next to a world-famous composer tonight - Kaija Saariaho, whose opera "L'amour de loin" opens at the Met next month. I was part of a panel on Simone Weil, subject of another of Saariaho's works, which is being performed at The New School this weekend. The panel, in turn, was proposed by her son, who's producing the New School performance, and included a group of New School folks with various kinds of engagements with Weil. I got to be part of it (I volunteered myself) because I included Weil in my reader on The Problem of Evil, and also say some nice things about her in The Book of Job: A Biography, even though our convener didn't want to talk about Weil's religious views, preferring to see her as a hero of the French left.

I think he was a little surprised (if his mother was, too, she was more discreet in registering her surprise) to find that Weil is no hero at The New School. One panelist sneered at the idea that she was a martyr, another described the puzzle of a life devoted to disappearing - but always in very visible ways. A little more positively my friend O described how Weil's ideas of a weak God might help imagine alternative to a world of fashion as shot through with violence as the Trojan War. And I tried for balance in assessed her uses of the Book of Job, finding them incomplete - but perhaps deliberately so. It seems impossible not to be provoked by Weil's life and thought, inspired, frustrated, appalled. Saariaho told us she had been reading Weil since she was a teenager, and turned to Weil's life for a work trying to engage the world more in response to 9/11. Even after working a year on it, she said, she understood no more than before.

It did all convince me that Weil is suitable material for opera. Saariaho's "La Passion de Simone" isn't a hagiography but a complicated dramatic oratorio most of whose text (by Amin Maalouf) is addressed in the second person to Weil (represented by an actress, who speaks a few lines from Weil), full of questions, both admiring and critical.

Quand ton peuple a été affamé, tu t’es affamée ;
Quand ton peuple a été crucifié, tu t’es crucifiée.
Mais tu n’as jamais su dire : « Nous souffrons ! »
Tu n’as jamais su dire « nous ». 

I was glad of the opportunity to spend more time with Weil, even if, on balance, I found her thought hyperbolic and cold and her life story quixotic and unedifying. But you know me, I couldn't just say that, so my criticism was tinged more with sadness than distaste.

I am not the girl who is waiting for her lover, but the tiresome third party who is sitting with two lovers and has to get up and go away if they are to be really together. 
We must reply to the absence of God, who is Love, by our own absence and love. 
My presence does infinite harm to those whom I love by maintaining in position the screen which I form between them and God … 
(The Notebooks of Simone Weil, trans. Arthur Wills, 404)

I wish I were going to be around to see the performance this weekend. (I'll be at AAR in San Antonio.) I have a feeling that musically as well as in its staging it captures the loneliness of this fearless thinker, throbbing with mute love of her fellow human beings but unable to be part of any "we."

Sunday, November 13, 2016


A concert of 17th century music looked to be sweet solace for a 21st which seems to be coming undone. But the distance it offered was bittersweet.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Carrot sticks

Despite the cosmopolitan delight of Ottolenghian delicacies, the annual dinner of the Religious Studies faculty was dominated by the cruel nativist who's emblazoned his name on all our lives - and by someone inspired by him, who scrawled swastikas on the doors of four rooms in a New School dorm last night. At The New School!?! Could the infernal DT put the genie of hate back in the bottle, even if he wanted to?


As I read in the Times that a "climate contrarian" will now lead the EPA ("contrarian"? he's a "climate change denier"!) I am filled with a new despair. I had thought there was some kind of intelligence at work in DT, however fitful and unmoored, however callously closed to human community. This proves a prideful, vengeful ignorance is in charge. To anger, fear and shame add a deep sadness. Who are these willfully destructive people? How are they possible?

I've been reading Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass, a chapter each night before bed. (Sleep is beyond my control.) Tonight's describes the way the Native peoples of the Pacific northwest used to set the fields atop cliffs alight to signal to the salmon returning from their time in the ocean to spawn, part of a ceremony celebrating the relationship of fish and people which continued with four days encouraging the salmon heading upstream, before any are caught for human consumption. Yearly burnings have made a strip of prairie on bluffs which would otherwise be dense forest, prairie which survives the destruction of the Native peoples by smallpox and measles in the 1830s.

Kimmerer describes walking out into that prairie, from the forest.

Before I knew the story, before the fire lit my dreams, I would have hiked here like everyone else, snapping photos at scenic viewpoints. I would have admired the great sickle curve of the yellow sand spit enclosing the bay and the lace-edge waves riding up the beach. I would crane around the knoll to see how the river cuts a sinuous silver line through the salt marsh far below [...] 
Before I knew the story, I would have written some field notes, consulted my field guide about rare plants, and unpacked my lunch. [...]
Instead I just stand there, tears running down my cheeks in nameless emotion that tastes of joy and of grief. Joy for the being of the shimmering world and grief for what we have lost. The grasses remember the nights they were consumed by fire, lighting the way back with a conflagration of love between species. Who today even knows what that means? I drop to my knees in the grass and I can hear the sadness as if the land itself was crying for its people. Come home. Come home.
There are often other walkers here. I suppose that's what it means when they put down the camera and stand on the headland, straining to hear above the wind with that wistful look, the gaze out to sea. They look like they're trying to remember what it would be like to love the world.
Braiding Sweetgrass, 247-48

I'm bawling as I copy these words from her book.

I've stood gazing out to sea that way. And it was, yes, a trying to remember what it would be to part of the world, loving and being loved by it the way Kimmerer shows Native peoples were, attuned to the life cycles of the plants and animals with which they shared the world, ensuring a mutual flourishing she calls the "Honorable Harvest" (175-201) - taking only what is given, and giving back, in mutual care?

I'm taken back to the start of her book:

One otherwise unremarkable morning I gave students in my General Ecology class a survey. Among other things they were asked to rate their understanding of the negative interactions between humans and the environment. Nearly every one of the two hundred students said confidently that humans and nature are a bad mix. These were third-year students who has selected a career in environmental protection, so the response was, in a way, not very surprising. They were well schooled in the mechanics of climate change, toxins in the land and water, and the crisis of habitat loss. Later in the survey they were asked to rate their knowledge of positive interactions between people and land. The median response was "none."
I was stunned. How is it possible that in twenty years of education they cannot think of any beneficial relationships between people and the environment? Perhaps the negative examples they see every day - brownfields, factory farms, suburban sprawl - truncated their ability to see some good between humans and the earth. As the land becomes impoverished, so too does the scope of their vision. When we talked about this after class, I realized that they could not even imagine what beneficial relations between their species and others might look like. How can we begin to move toward ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine what the path feels like? (6)

Can we learn to value each other without knowing we are part of a world which values us?

Friday, November 11, 2016

November, too, can be the cruelest month.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Unsafe America

A frightening day. Reports came in of racist attacks around the country, some even from children. New York City is no exception. Someone scrawled the president-elect's name on the door of a Muslim prayer space at NYU. One of my student described two white college-aged men hurling insults at a woman in a hijab in the subway. And one of our alums, also a Muslim American, described her fear and grief as a man in a pickup truck stopped across the street from her house, shouted Islamophobic invective in all directions, then trailed a man walking down the road until he was able to get to a busy avenue. She writes:
Friends, I am afraid. This is South Slope, Brooklyn, 2016. There is no bubble, there is no safety. There is only my raw, raw fear. This is my home. This has always been my home. And suddenly, overnight, I find myself feeling nothing but homeless.
Please, please, please. Help me find my way back home.

The students in "Theorizing Religion," too, including many people of color, immigrants, queer and trans folk, fear for their safety.

Meanwhile Trump's victory looks to these threatening bigots not only like a vindication of their hateful views but an assurance of impunity. A first "presidential" act from the man of the hour would be a condemnation of such behavior but I'm not holding my breath. He thrives on others' uncertainty. One of my students, a queer Latina, said that liberal white folks are freaking out about the election because we're only now experiencing the vulnerability that people of color live every day.

And yet our discussion (we put aside the syllabus) was not despairing. One student said that she'd discovered her "purpose" as a journalist. She was one of several who had participated in a student walk-out; other had been among the protesters in Manhattan last night, invigorated by the collective action. I told them of yesterday's "pray-in." I asked if it felt like something was starting, and they all said it did. I prophesied that historians in the future would look back at important movements and works which were born in this week. (How we will need them!)

There's no trace of the optimism of 2008 here. In our only reference to course materials (my question if religion might have a role to play went unaddressed) a student recalled the idea from Ritual and its Consequences that ritual acts "as if" the world were, or were on its way to being a just place; that's why ritual never ends. "That cynicism," another student remarked with approval, "is weirdly optimistic."

And a student looked up a poem by Zoe Leonard she'd seen on the High Line and asked if she could read it. A hush, fingers clicked. She told me she was going back to see the poster of the poem again later that afternoon and I asked he she could take a picture and send it to me.
The ones we are waiting for are us.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Post-election prayers

Went with my friend L to a "soulful prophetic pray-in" at Washington Square Park. A return to an oppositional, countercultural existence most of my students are too young to know. As we pick up the pieces, trying to make sense of a political landscape rendered unrecognizable, painful memories flood back. For me, it's the election of 1984 - another time when a mere fourth of the potential electorate determined the fate of the nation (though Reagan received a majority of the votes actually cast). For others it's the outbreak of the second Iraq War, or the first. For yet others, it's what happened this day in 1938 in Germany.
We all recall the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. But it's long. "We shall overcome," we sing, "some day." Will it inspire, alienate or further terrorize our students to tell them we've been here before?

Rituals, continued

Decided to send the students from yesterday's class an e-mail.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Blessed dead

When the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time in over a century, fans started writing the names of departed family members on the wall of Wrigley Field - if only they could have lived to see this day!
Reading about that, I thought of all those dearly departed who, thank goodness, had not had to live so long as to see Trump a contender for President of the United States. Not to mention the unthinkable...

Religion of democracy

Something kinda wondrous happened in class today. It was "Theorizing Religion," and for most of class we acted as if this were any other Tuesday - but I'd set aside time at the end to discuss "voting as ritual," we knew reality would flood in while we were still together. Since I'd missed the last class we had a lot to discuss: "Ritual and the Subjunctive" from Ritual and its Consequences (by a team including Michael Puett, co-author of The Path), and the first two chapters of Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane, including the one on sacred time. But it turned out alright.

We started with the subjunctive - what is it? I told them about the exclamation of a Spaniard in a Latin class I took once, as the teacher explained that English largely did without the subjunctive: "that's how we say everything important!" The many native Spanish speakers in the class concurred, lamenting the flatness of contemporary English compared to Spanish's (admittedly prolix) acknowledgment of the penumbra of wishes, regrets, fears and hopes which are so important a part of subjectivity. A native Arabic speaker thought the omission of the subjunctive might be the reason English-speakers too quickly turned to sarcasm.

This discussion helped us get into what the authors of Ritual and its Consequences meant by arguing that ritual, contrary to most of its modern interpreters, should be understood as operating in the subjunctive - as if the world were not "fractured," as if unruly human passions might be harmonized, as if the ancestors had all been paragons of virtue, as if suffering could be redeemed, etc. People engage in ritual not in denial of this wishfulness but with a "tragic" sense that the ordered world of ritual will never transform or replace the messy world we live in. But in ritual we do experience moments of harmony, and can become different people and communities through our shared and repeated participation in these "not true yet not deceptive" practices.

I won't tire you with our extended discussion of a student's imagined ritual of buying the same bagel at the same shop each morning, or the abbreviated account of Eliade's view that since "history is suffering," ritual is needed to erase time and allow us to transcend the relativity of historical contingency, and cut right to the final ten minutes. "How many of you have voted?" I asked, Most of the class, many by absentee ballot. (The picture above's one of the murals at the school where I voted at 7:45 this morning.)

Then: "What if I told you your vote didn't matter?" "That's not the point," one student protested, before excoriating all those who might not have voted because they thought their votes didn't matter. "Even if everyone voted," I persisted, "indeed even more so then, your vote wouldn't matter. But you're right: that's not the point. I vote as if mine were the deciding vote, knowing full well it isn't." I didn't have to add that I voted as if this were an election like any other, not a toxic brawl between the two least popular presidential candidates in history.

Connection made! But then somehow we got to how we also vote as if the system were fair, when we're all too aware of the ways in which both sides (we're more aware of one side) try to put their fingers on the scales, and suddenly I was waxing eloquent about Al Gore's acceptance of the Supreme Court's verdict in "Bush vs. Gore," even though he thought it was mistaken - and said so. In saying so, he acknowledged the register of the subjunctive, I exclaimed! By explicitly acting as if the Court made no mistakes, he invited us to enter and strengthen the space in which it might make fewer. Indeed, democracy demands a lot of as if, and ours even has a motto acknowledging our failure to live up to it: a more perfect union.

I'd planned the voting-as-ritual stuff, but the Gore cameo caught even me by surprise. I think it was an expression of my own agitated apprehension at all that might yet go wrong this time, but also a profession of faith of sorts in American democracy, not because it always works but because the only way it will work is if we act as if it could. The polls are still open, let's do what we can to put the candidate in office who believes the system can work. 

Monday, November 07, 2016

Election mandala

How do you teach during the week of an election like this? Well, for Wednesday's class, encouraged by my co-teacher's gift of prescience, we planned a counterfactual exercise: Suppose Trump had won last night, how would you, as a citizen of The New School, respond? For tomorrow's, which happens in the afternoon before results come in, we'll go through the motions; by unplanned happenstance, the theme is ritual.

But today, in "Buddhism as a Liberal Art," I tried to give each of us a store of peace to weather the upcoming emotional storms... or was it to slow down time? We did something I've done before, took a Thich Nhat Hanh-inspired slow silent group walk around the block. Last time it was Spring, and took twenty minutes. Today night was falling over autumnal scenes, and, with a different person taking charge of the pace for each of the sides of the block between 11th and 10th Streets, Fifth and Sixth Avenues, it took the better part of an hour! It felt like more, and less.

As we made our way clockwise around the block, people and cars passing ever more swiftly but gently by, it didn't take long for me to realize that we were on a sort of kora. Distracted by the streetscape I didn't say it then but I'll say it now: Om mani padme hum.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

From today's Gospel, the "Sermon on the Plain" (Luke 6)

Saturday, November 05, 2016

How the other half lives

The Times Magazine has a sobering story by Jim Yardley, a foreign correspondent who, after a decade working abroad (China, India and Italy), came back to see for himself "What is going on in the United States?" It's not a pretty picture: inequality, bigotry, conspiracy theories and political dysfunction.

I suppose this is how our news covers other countries...! But it reminds me what a bubble I live in, that it's a bubble. And it only deepens the sense of gloom and dread of this endless nightmare of a presidential race. (I'm one of the many Americans whose sleep is disrupted by it, though not every night.) Are the "American experiment," democracy bubbles too?

I went back in my diary to see if I had felt similarly spooked before. The closest was 2004. The pain was twofold (and yes, in this order): that a vision of America I believed in might lose, and that so many people didn't share that vision. This second took the form of a specter I've carried wth me since: the many who feel just as I do, on the other side. (Remember that more people voted against Obama than voted for any president before him.) Many of them have a vision which permits - even encourages - them to see those who don't share it as enemies to be knocked out any way they can. Many on my "side" have a similar view, too. I can't. I dream still of mutual understanding, broadening consensus and shared values, and take heart at every piece of evidence that American polarization is exaggerated and superficial. I like the prosaic slogan "Stronger Together," a lot. It's what I believe.

Perhaps that faith is the superficial one, a refusal of the reality that where there are winners there must be losers, of the heartbreak that is politics. I think it's the deeper faith, but this heart is breaking.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Thursday, November 03, 2016


Here's the view from the 23rd floor of a building I was in today on East 38th Street. I don't remember much else, since I was there for a colonoscopy (preventive care recommended for all when we reach a certain age), which involved my first experience of anaesthesia! I'm assured the doctor's view in was far less interesting than my view out.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Free to be you and me

In the New School history course today, we arrived at "the merger," the coming together of TNS and the Parsons School of Design in 1970. As in past iterations we capped the lecture with a student debate on the merits of such a mingling, from their own experience and perspective.
Today's lead-up was a little different, though, as one of our teaching assistants, a PhD student in the sociology of art, gave a mini-lecture on the history of Parsons in the decades before 1970. I learned a lot!

Particularly interesting was learning that Parsons had not followed the lead of the Bauhaus, or the American art and design schools to which Bauhaus artists fled with the rise of fascism, in anchoring its programs in a foundational course where students explored and experimented - with colors, materials, etc. - before choosing the genre they would pursue. A (not so) "Self-Critical Study" of Parsons in 1955 tartly observed that its students already knew what they wanted to do before they arrived, so no such program was required - quite missing the point of it!
A common (and grueling) Foundation year later become a defining part of the Parsons experience, and survives in the recently implemented new curriculum too. I need to find out when and why and how that got started. Its aims sound a lot more like the aims and pedagogy of progressive liberal arts colleges! But in the context of today's class, what was striking was what 1955 Parsons wanted instead: more "Liberal Arts," understood in a very traditional way: (western) history and art history, literature, music. Later added: psychology and aesthetics.

As in years past, we asked the students to formulate arguments pro and contra the question if design and liberal arts need each other. (As in years past, nobody took up the question if liberal artsers need design.)
There are echoes of several understandings of what "liberal arts" means here. For many Parsons students "liberal arts" meant what in Lang is known (and ignored) as "general education." I think our students would be as resistant to a liberal art requirement - as most Parsons students.

Day by day

The trees on our block are belatedly getting kitted out for Fall. But the indefatigable golden day lilies in one of the block's four bioswales haven't stopped blooming since summer! A marvel.

The trees in the Lang courtyard are putting on a show, too...

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Out the window

Two scenes from New School windows. Above is one of the pieces of stained glass from a small concert hall in the most recent home of the Mannes School of Music, now overlooking 13th Street. Below is my office view of the Lang courtyard trees. In some years the leaves were flaming red by now, but this year they may go a different direction, most currently green with yellow edges - but a few have turned a deep red.