Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Folding Cranes

An afternoon array of colored paper
opens before us on the table.
We study the photographs:
cranes dance, necks bowed,
black and white against the forest.

Making patterns, we fold and fold again,
Lines cross the midpoint,
still precise fold on fold, symmetrical.

Let the parts of the triangle flatten,
refold in upon itself to the secret parts,
our fingers find the way,
split triangles become legs. We pull edges,
and the heads and tails emerge.
We fold down the flapping triangle,
and our birds have wings.
We puff a small breath inside the paper bird,
and finally,
the cranes unfold before us,
a thousand cranes unfold.

Image from:
Tim Laman, National Geographic Posted by Picasa

Sunday, October 09, 2005

About humanities. Why study it? Why teach it? Imagine one end of a ladder grounded on the earth and the other kind of waving in the sky. The bottom of the ladder, its end resting solidly on the ground, represents our connection to the earth, our ability to use our 5 senses to understand, translate, and interact with reality – to touch, to smell, to taste, to hear, and to see. As we move up the ladder of abstraction, we use words that are progressively more abstract. We’re talking here about the universe, the cosmos, things that we imagine or think about, but that we may not be able to validate with our senses. Both faith and science come into play here. We have theories and perhaps hope, but no solid answers.

This ladder of abstraction is actually Chomsky’s flying ladder. Borrowing from linguistics, let’s imagine Chomsky’s flying ladder, where both ends of the ladder are waving in the air and the ladder is constantly swaying back and forth. He came up with this metaphor to describe how we mentally create language, that delicate and continual balance between selecting words (diction) and choosing the order those words appear (syntax). How do I know what I’m going to say until I say it is rather true. From Chomsky’s point of view, the ladder sways back and forth between vocabulary (diction) and sentence structure (or word order, syntax).

It’s this ladder that I am climbing on when I talk about comparative religions and comparative cultures because this level of understanding is about understanding others from outside the culture and, at heart, it’s about understanding ourselves, our hopes and dreams. Bad things happen. We are violent and cruel, greedy and rapacious. And we are insulated from the worst of human behavior. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist nor does it mean we are freed from the responsibility of caring for others or working to change the world.

But, what does the study of humanities bring us? If we are in a circumstance where the life of the mind and soul are not nurtured, studying what a sense of aesthetics brought to other cultures can bring us hope, perhaps a direction, perhaps answers. Some of us will need to function closer to the bottom of the ladder of abstraction; some of us are drawn to the world of ideals, Plato’s “perfect forms”. Some of us love argument, the heat of debate; others prefer not to think about theories at all. But the humanities, that is truly humanism, the valuing of human experience, comes right from the Greeks, and helps us see what is good and beautiful. We may disagree about individual works of art or music. We may not even like dance or theater. We may be nonbelievers or devout. But some of the time, we are connected by a common appreciation of craft, or skill, or vision, or belief. Just that awareness of beauty in our lives can help us to cope with the reality of human existence. That every day is not a paradise. That we may confront the reality that life can be nasty, brutish and short. That exploitations exist. That wars happen and loved ones die. That sometimes others die that we may live and our children live in a world that hopefully always has room for the creative spirit. And for beauty. And for love in the largest possible sense that expands to include the entire human family. And that’s why I teach humanities.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

On time for writing poetry. This week, a colleague, Terrance, and I were talking about poetry, journal writing and the lack of time . . . so I thought I'd look at what surrounds me as I drive to work each day. We had talked a little in humanities class about how prehistoric peoples must have been very aware of the weather; their lives often depended on "reading" the weather, while today we remain oblivious, most of the time, unless ice storms come. So I tried to look at the weather, to "read" it like my grandfather would (he was a cowboy in Wyoming at the turn of the century), by scanning the sky. Here's the weather report from this week, so far, written in bits each day as I drove to work.

October Weather Report

Early Tuesday morning,
clumps of clouds
hang low over the valley
as if they had fallen -- like stars,
like dreams too close to the earth.

On Wednesday, gray dimples fill the sky,
flecks of light at the horizon hint at the sun,
while trees shiver yellow.

Thursday, brilliant sun blinks and twins to moon,
traceries of cloud alternately hide and reveal the sun.
Wispy streamers of gray drift, filling up the sky.
Pale yellow bands light the edge of the world,
now yellow, gray and blue,
layered in morning harmony.

On Friday, what a curious mix of sky and dark cloud,
as if yesterday's god, Thor, Norse god of Thunder,
slumbered amid rumpled gray clouds along the horizon,
ignoring that one bolt of bright sun above,
dreaming of what giants, what wild nights,
lost in the morning,
as rain smudges the line of hills
where earth meets sky.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Detail of Chiwara Mask from Bambara of Mali, Africa. The first time I saw a chiwara mask was in the video, African Art, which had just a small clip of people in a small village talking about the importance of this ritual dance, done just before planting. The dance/ritual commemorated how the Bambara learned how to till the ground with a tool rather than by hand, probably adapted from the antelope's horns. The video vividly shows the mask in context, costume, drum, music, and that thin line between forest and field. But a photograph can never capture the artifact itself -- which Gary Westford has made more accessible to us by creating the library display at LBCC. Very few of us can ever hope to see the chiwara mask as it was meant to be experienced, at the center of ritual.

This impressive mask is about 3 feet tall, with intricate carvings. Some sources report that only men dance with the chiwara mask; however, the masks themselves answer this question as we can see two styles of chiwara -- male and female. Gary's mask (above) shows a male mask; the woman's mask inclues a baby antelope; she symbolizes the earth, the baby symbolizes humankind.

The costume in the African Art video is made of raffia (a kind of straw), and Parrinder (see below) shows a mask with black and white cloth decorated with symbols of the universe. The ritual itself is to ensure fertility -- of the crops and of the community, much like the underlying roots to our own Passover or Easter for spring planting, and then in the fall, somewhat like Succot or Thanksgiving for harvest.Posted by Picasa

Chiwara Mask from Bambara of Mali, Africa, Gary Westford exhibit, Linn-Benton Community College Library, Albany, Oregon. Posted by Picasa

Wedding Portrait Mask, Ghana, Africa. Gary Westford at LBCC put together an amazing exhibit of African artifacts at our main campus library, including this wonderful mask that shows two faces coming together as one. I don't know more about this mask, but I'm fascinated by the double image for in Benin (also in Southwest Africa), traditional stories about sacred or heavenly twins are common, originally from creation stories. Could this mask be actually a mask of twins but sold to tourists as a "wedding portrait mask"? My question comes because usually masks show gender -- and here the gender is subsumed. That could be reinforcing the melding of two to one in a marriage. So, more research is needed.

Geoffrey Parrinder talks about the primeval twins who were the parents of all other gods. Their first act was to create 7 pairs of twins (for example, the twins of Storm), all to rule different aspects of the earth, a neat turn on animism (page 23) in African Mythology (New York: Barnes & Noble 1996). Posted by Picasa