A song of Roland

Imagine my surprise when I looked in my email and saw a word of the day for “roland”. I instantly knew where it came from, naturally. I’d just read the Song of Roland recently, and loved it. Fighting the Moorish pagans, splitting shields and heads with swords, long white flowing beards, that last desperate blast on the trumpet (far too late, of course) — how can you not love it? The Song of Roland proves that the French knew how to fight — at one time, anyway. Those long white flowing beards inspired me to try and grow a beard on vacation recently. I won’t be sharing a picture of the results, but suffice it to say mine was neither long, nor white, nor flowing. (More like patchy, and scratchy, and wife-and-child-repelling.) Mountjoy!  
  • Orlando's Column (Roland's Column)

    Orlando’s Column (Roland’s Column)

    with Anu Garg


    noun: Someone who is an equal match for another. Typically used in the expression “to give a Roland for an Oliver” meaning “to give as good as one gets” (tit for tat).
    After Roland, the legendary hero of the 11/12th century epic poem “Chanson de Roland” (Song of Roland). His tale was inspired by Charlemagne’s nephew and military leader. Oliver was friends with Roland and his equal. They fought each other but neither won. Earliest documented use: 1525. A related word is rounceval.
    “My little lord, who was surrounded by savage women, poor thing, had the immense satisfaction of giving a Roland for an Oliver to an especially obnoxious young twit.”
    Samara Al-Darraji; Eclipse; PublishAmerica; 2005.

On Bearing the Pall

ImageIt occurs to me that being a pallbearer is one of the few tasks in the modern world that everyone understands is best left to the men. Women have achieved unprecedented parity in nearly every field of human endeavor (which is, by and large, a good thing), but when it comes to shouldering dead weight, men still are typically the ones who get the nod.

First of all, there’s the weight itself. Even if distributed among six, it still is nothing to sneeze at. I’ve known women who could lift their fair share of weight (my wife has a tendency to push all the furniture around a given room every eight months or so, only to decide she liked it best where it started), but should they have to? Men are typically more advanced in the brawn category, even in our soft, couch-sitting, high-fructose-corn-syrup-fed modern age. That physical strength still gets used (or, sadly, misused) on occasion, but there’s far less scope and call for it than there used to be. Most of us have jobs that involve pressing buttons or waiting on technology, rather than doing the work ourselves. Traditionally “manly” callings become less so all the time — even the military is being remade to reflect societal changes. (Whether or not you agree that’s a good thing is a different conversation.)

Then there’s the distance that weight must be carried — it must be reckoned with, even if the pain you might feel as a pallbearer might be more in your forearm muscles than in your heart (and I’ve had both). Just a short jaunt down the center aisle of a church and out the door to the hearse can often seem longer while carrying that weight (both kinds). And then you get to the cemetery, where the ground might be muddy, the wind cold and in your face, or the sun hot, burning down on your bare neck, the footing rutted or uneven, but yet you must plow steadily on, as the departed is borne to his or her last resting place. They sail on, tranquil as a ship, while you grunt and might begin to break a bit of a sweat underneath the collar of your dress shirt. (I actually heard a funeral director utter the phrase, “Grandma was not a big lady”, once while funeral arrangements were being made. Under different circumstances, I would have chuckled out loud.)

Yet we are glad to do it. It’s often the last thing, one last gesture, we can give the departed themselves, as our lives bob along in time’s wake and we are pulled ever further from the memory of them. Thomas Lynch, undertaker and author, once wrote of grief as being full-body work. It must involve all your large muscles in order to truly be put behind you, was his thinking. As one who has borne the pall in the past, I would tend to agree with him. Few duties in the modern world are as loaded with symbolic importance, yet still as practical and useful, as being a pallbearer. Here’s to doing a good job at carrying out the dead, and to not having to do it too often.


Everything Comes Together

Every so often I like to read something really technical, something not from my field. My conversation is more interesting, and I know more, if I push myself to read widely, not just a lot in the things I gravitate to without thinking. Lately my technical reading has been Hypnagogia, by Andreas Mavromatis. The book’s subtitle explains what hypnagogia is: “The Unique State of Consciousness between Wakefulness and Sleep.” You’ve experienced it, you more than likely just didn’t know that’s what it was called, or what exactly it was that you were experiencing.

The book is quite a quick read, actually. I’m making progress much more quickly than I thought I’d be. I started the book prepared for it to be a slog, but it’s not. It’s still somewhat technical, although not so technical as to render it unintelligible.

One of the neat things about reading as much as I try to, and as widely as I try to, is that after a while things start to coalesce and line up without my trying. Perhaps because I like things that are most alike under the surface, or through extraordinary coincidences — maybe I’m seeing through the surface to commonalities that I might have sensed but couldn’t explain — but lately my reading has started all to tie together.

For example: Not too long ago I read the “Loveless” volume in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series. (Bloody brilliant series, if you’re a music lover…you should check it out.) In it the author made a passing reference to hypnagogia — which, if you’ve ever heard My Bloody Valentine’s music, makes perfect sense. I thought, That sounds interesting, and noted it on one of my reading lists. (I have at least three…sometimes curating my reading lists threatens to consume all my time. Then I remind myself that the purpose of the list is to help me read more or more interesting books…not keep a list.) I got it through inter-library loan (my best friend where I live), and dove in.

As I read, some of the descriptions of focusing attention during hypnagogia, or learning how to direct one’s attention, reminded me very strongly of other things I’ve read recently. As a renewal of an older interest, I’ve been doing more reading on lectio divina, which is essentially an ancient Christian method for praying the Scriptures. It involves contemplation, directing one’s attention in a very focused way, yet different than we usually do every day, and focusing in on the words of Scripture. I’m into it, and I try and practice it for myself. Throw in some references to meditation or mysticism which crop up, and which I’m also interested in, and the web draws tighter. It was fascinating to me to see how things I’m interested in, things themselves very different and disparate, coalesce and come together, all on their own.

Here’s the particular quote that especially reminded me of lectio divina. I share it with you because it may be of wider interest:

“In his experimental studies on meditation, Deikman, adapting a procedure from Patanjali’s Yoga, instructed his subjects to adopt an attitude of ‘passive abandonment’ as they concentrated on a blue vase. His instructions ran: “By concentration I do not mean analyzing the different parts of the vase, or thinking a series of thoughts about the vase, or associating ideas to the vase; but rather, trying to see the vase as it exists in itself, without any connections to other things. Exclude all other thoughts or feelings or sounds or bodily sensations. Do not let them distract you, but keep them out so that you can concentrate all your attention, all your awareness on the vase itself. Let the perception of the vase fill your entire mind.” Again, these instructions can be recognized as directions for psychophysical withdrawal and diffuse and absorbed attention which, as we saw earlier, are marks of hypnagogia. The instructions to attention and concentration can be seen as directions for the deliberate induction of a state of fascination that presents itself spontaneously in hypnagogia, and can be further prolonged and deepened in the latter by attending to and concentrating on the imagery. The relationship between hypnagogia and meditation becomes even closer when the object of concentration is an internal image. In the latter case, instead of the subject becoming fascinated by emerging hypnagogic imagery, as is the case with hypnagogia, the procedure is reversed and an image is visualized and used to fascinate the subject. As Deikman points out, “the active phase of contemplative meditation is a preliminary to the stage of full contemplation, in which the subject is caught up and absorbed in a process he initiated but which now seems autonomous, requiring no effort. Instead, passivity — self-surrender — is called for, an open receptivity.”” (Hypnagogia, Mavromatis, pp.112-113) (emphasis not in original)

This is hilarious, and the kind of thing that kids should be taught in school — if history were approached with this kind of eye, to find the little stories, for example, more kids would be interested in it. Too late they find out that history isn’t just names, dates, places, battles, movements — it’s stories. If they ever find that out.


Today’s blog is a guest post from Thijs Porck, a lecturer in the Department of English Language and Culture, Universiteit Leiden.

This week Erik’s tweet on cat-paws in a fifteenth-century manuscript went viral across facebook and the twittersphere when it was shared and commented on by thousands. Follow @erik_kwakkel  today for more animal-themed tweets #manuscriptzoo

Everyone who has ever owned a cat will be familiar with their unmannerly feline habit of walking across your keyboard while you are typing. One of the manuscript pictures tweeted by @erik_kwakkel (http://twitter.com/erik_kwakkel/status/303614922103865346/photo/1 ) revealed that this is nothing new.

Although the medieval owner of this manuscript may have been quite annoyed with these paw marks on his otherwise neat manuscript, another fifteenth-century manuscript reveals that he got off lucky.  A Deventer scribe, writing around 1420, found his manuscript ruined by a urine stain left there by a cat the night before…

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Time Stands Grey

It was a grey day, grey like the wool of her coat. 

Small things make me trusting: red hair, 
humming along to an Al Green song. 

Time steps back with a smile as 
we wander woods under bare branches, 
squishing through mud for the experience of it; 
a carpet of leaves for our feet to kick. 

Or stretch out on them, staring up at the sky with shining brown eyes,
as I marvel at small things and the luck of a beautiful, grey day. 

Small things -- a coffee cup empty and warm, 
a comfy chair empty and warm, 
hearts full, and warm. 

For the beauty of the night


I am a night owl. I’ve known this to be generally true for a long time, but I’ve only recently decided to take it on as part of my personality and acknowledge it more. As a teenager I fell in love with nighttime. It was so quiet and serene. The stillness afforded me solitude and time to be alone with my thoughts that daytime, with all its busyness, phony people, and loud, raucous emptiness could not. So much was going on, but none of it seemed to matter — or very little, anyway. I even took up running at night for a time. I’d lace up my running shoes and trot up and down my street in the suburbs, about a mile or so. (Luckily I outgrew that — wanting to run, I mean. I’ve since decided that I’m much more of a walker, and that’s fine.) But in that time I thought that perhaps my fondness for the night hours was but a reflection of my state in life — that it was part of my being a teenager, and that I would outgrow it when my body and mind matured a little and settled down. My parents evidently took that view, and I suppose I adopted it more or less without questioning it.

Then I got to college, and became almost nocturnal for a time. I think many college freshmen experience the same thing — they’re on their own, away from Mom & Dad’s rules and restrictions, so they do things just because they can. Like go for long, long, long walks at night when the weather’s pleasant and the spring breeze blows warmly, or stay up just because they can. I did too. I took to it with a vengeance. I was aided and abetted in this by massive amounts of caffeine, so much so that it’s a wonder I didn’t poison myself with it. Eventually terminal jitters and a perpetually wound-too-tight outlook persuaded me to back off on the coffee, or at least be a touch more judicious in its use. (That, too, is part of growing up.) But I was still a night owl. Life just made more sense by the light of the moon. I felt free to sort things out and muse in the night hours, knowing that most of the people around me had gone to bed (some long since.) I found the nighttime to be my best time for working, reading, thinking — and to a large extent it still is.

Then for the grad school I went to, I had to become an early riser. Classes started early, and I wanted to still have a devotional life and time for myself, even in the rigors of my studies. I was forced to curtail my late night sitting-up for the sake of being able to rise early to make it to class. I didn’t mind too much. I accepted it as part of the bargain.

Part of my acceptance came from a summer job I had in college of working in a warehouse. I had to be to work at 5am, so I’d rise at 4 and ride my bicycle through the blue predawn chill to work. That habit gave me an unexpected appreciation for the early morning hours. I found that they too held quiet and solitude, but of a different sort. At that early hour, the world felt expectant, like it was limbering up to rise for the day. I was still by myself and still had time to think, but there was a sense of everything about to happen, or begin happening, that I hadn’t felt in the nighttime. I tucked that away in my mind and have strategically gone back to the early morning time when I really need to get things done, or to get a jump on my day. When I rise early and do my reading, meditating, puttering, etc before everyone else is up, then I’m primed and ready to work by the time the rest of the world rolls out of bed. It’s great in theory but as I am more of a night owl, as previously noted, it doesn’t always work that way.

Kids also helped reintroduce me to the early morning time. They’re early risers, of course, and the best time is when they go back to bed but I’m awake for the day. Then I’m free to pray and read and watch the sun rise, drink my coffee, and prepare myself for the duties of the day. Time alone, solitude, is as necessary to me as air — it matters not what time of day it comes along. Nighttime is best, in my opinion, but it doesn’t always happen now, for a variety of reasons. I can’t very well stay up late and not give a thought to my wife, who is reluctant to turn in alone. The pressures of work and the cares of life, as well as various and sundry duties, all conspire to drain away time for contemplation and solitude. Yet one thing I’ve learned in just a few short years, is that the quiet time returns, things become more structured again, and I can resume my normal time to myself. The solitude will always be there, and I return to it as to a far and distant country, welcoming, refreshing, and blessed. Being alone isn’t necessarily all bad — you just have to appreciate it for what it is, and yourself for what you are.meister eckhart quote


It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this word in print, but it’s intriguing and I like it. I’ll have to work it into my everyday conversation. Say it out loud — it sounds neat. Looks to be useful.
realiaAudio Pronunciation\ree-AL-ee-uh\
noun plural
objects or activities used to relate classroom teaching to the real life especially of peoples studied
Among the realia used for the class’s lesson on World War II was a helmet and canteen that had belonged to one student’s great-grandfather.
“It’s common knowledge that eighth grade is one of life’s low points. Here, it literally makes Ginny Davis sick. Photo-collages of poems, notes, text and chat messages, comics, realia of all sorts and, especially, food document the descent of Ginny’s school year.” — From a book review in Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2012
“Realia,” as defined above, was first used in the late 19th century, and is still mostly used in the classroom by teachers, especially foreign language teachers. It is also used in library cataloguing (in reference to such bizarre things as an author’s hair and teeth donated posthumously) and occasionally finds its way into other contexts as well. You might, for example, hear of someone putting “realia”—objects that represent present-day life—in a time capsule. “Realia” is also sometimes used philosophically to distinguish real things from the theories about them—a meaning that dates to the early 19th century. “Realia” is one of those plural formations without a corresponding singular form. Like “memorabilia” (“memorable things” or “mementos”), “juvenilia” (“works produced in an artist’s or author’s youth”), and “marginalia” (“marginal notes or embellishments”), it incorporates the Latin plural ending “-ia.”