Tuesday, August 30, 2011


What does it mean to worship someone or something?

Speculating first, before checking my dictionary for the word’s etymology, I’d suppose that to worship is to attribute worth and worthiness to what you then revere; to hold it in high esteem and, in the extreme, to idolize it.

In olden days, people in stately places were called “your worthiness” or “your worship.”  Therefore, I’d say that to worship is to honor someone or something as possessing great goodness, virtue or value and possibly, but not necessarily, divinity.

Idolatry on the contrary, implies false worship, holding in high and reverent esteem what is unworthy, even baleful and pernicious, such as worshipping Satan.

To gauge people’s characters, discover what it is they worship, what they revere, esteem and devote themselves to regarding and to doing.  By that shall you know them.

Now, to the dictionary.


Monday, August 29, 2011


“The Bard of Avon”—better yet, the god!
Bardolatry has long since made this claim:
Where Shakespeare prances, other poets plod,
And none compares in mastery or fame.

At sonnetry, his hundred fifty-four
Outshine anthologies of rival scribes
Who seek to emulate what they adore,
But for their pains earn cool, derisive jibes.

For who can hope to share Parnassus’ peak
With genius such as his, a solitaire
To their rough-cut, unpolished gems, dull, bleak
Factotums of the jewels he made so rare.

     Still, we who follow meekly in his track
     Pray that the Muse may sometime bless a hack.


Sunday, August 28, 2011


One word whose overuse has grown chronic
In media where speeds are supersonic
Declares that this or that is now iconic,
Which in our faithless age would seem ironic.


Saturday, August 27, 2011


My title above could be a subtitle for our course, Personal Writing.

There’s an urgency to that imperative clause, “write for your life,” a spin-off from the more familiar “Run for your life!”  And if you’re drawn to take Personal Writing because you think writing first-person essays (which is our business) appeals to you, then you may already anticipate a certain urgency in the process of such composition.  Compositions of this kind invoke self-composure.  They induce, in the course of their writing, a kind of orderliness and completeness that life on the run, the busy life, lacks.

To compose a personal essay requires you to sit down, settle down, contemplate, wait, and see what arises in your poised and eager mind—and then to let thoughts roll out in language across the lines of the page under your hand.  I’ll assume that you, like me, find the manual scriptorial process gentler and more elemental than typing on a computer—low-tech but high tactility.  The pen is a magic wand that touches paper and produces durable yet easily modified language.

Besides the implicit therapeutic benefits to your life from simply invoking a state of contemplative composure, your personal writing enlightens your life by urging out of you perceptions, connections and insights that express and articulate themselves even as your writing rolls out on the ball point of your pen, leaving the track your mind has taken and lain down for others to follow.

Letter by letter, figure by figure, you figure out what’s on and in your mind while thought is teased from your brain by a hand ready and eager to inscribe the impulses of emerging language.  A structure of thought shapes up right under your hand, a miracle of emergence: Presto!  There it is!  Your life enlarged.


Thursday, August 25, 2011


for Bruce Novak

Human beings are constituted to appreciate and assimilate three classic values: Beauty, Truth and Goodness.  Our dedication to pursuing those values leads us toward Wisdom and expresses itself as Love.

Not to recognize or follow our innate inclination toward Beauty, Truth and Goodness betrays our deepest nature and leads us toward folly and suffering.

The germ of this thought occurred to me as I was walking our dogs around the neighborhood.  First I noticed a wonderful wayside flower, whose name I don’t know (see above) planted there no doubt by a random bird dropping.

Then I wondered why it was beautiful.  Botanists would say it looks as it does to attract pollinator insects who will perpetuate its kind.  But do bugs appreciate beauty?  More to the point, why do I delight in its colors and intricate design?  Why am I constituted with a sense of beauty?  Why can I look at even a modest leaf of that same flamboyant flower and find it fascinating and beautiful?  What’s the reason for that—what’s the Truth of the matter?

And thus I moved in my thinking to the second item of the classic triad: Truth.  I want to know what’s so.  What’s the truth of this matter and of all other questions that matter to me?  We humans are like that: we need food, clothing, shelter and truth.  It’s just that basic.

And then we need Goodness—for goodness’ sake.  We cannot thrive without enjoying the kindness of caregivers, whether kin or strangers.  The essential value of unselfish generosity, even of sacrifices by us for others weaves the web of genial relationships into that social fabric our survival requires.

So there we are: Beauty delights us, Truth gratifies us, and Goodness sustains us.

Even so, it’s quite possible for people to ignore or reject all three of these supreme values and live in an erroneous mental world of ugliness, falsehood and evil.  Many do, poor souls, and suffer accordingly, having strayed from the Way of Love and Wisdom, the way of human flourishing, down the Road of Ruination and Dismay.

With what hope for salvation?

Healing and health, the fruits of Love and Wisdom, await, like a wayside flower, those who turn and attend to what is most natural.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011


What always has been steady, solid ground
Begins to tremble as the temblor rocks
The substrate, making everything unsound
While crumbling into rubble solid blocks.

A tall cathedral wavers in the air,
Its spires striated now with crevices;
The subway underground must also bear
The buffets, leaving riders feeling diz-

zy and alarmed—and then it stops.  What now?
We never thought that such a dread event
Could touch us here or Providence allow
Such injury.  For what must we repent?

     This so-called Act of God must have a reason,
     Or could this simply just be earthquake season?


Tuesday, August 23, 2011


You essay so as to discover, to find out what you may think about something that’s vaguely on your mind but needs eking out through the process of composing—of putting together—one thought after another into a more sensible mental construction, an elaborated and articulated formulation of thought—an essay.

Therefore, essaying is adventuring, undertaken for the thrill of exploring new pathways and viewing new vistas.  When you start out you don’t clearly know where you’ll go.  You haven’t been there before, and you’re eager to see what you’ll come upon or come up with as you press ahead, line after line on your writing tablet (or computer screen, if you must, but scribbling is more sensuous, tactile and manipulable).

Without the confined linearity of writing, your thoughts will buzz about like the electrons, like crackling static in your head; but writing gives them a wire to run through, forming an energetic current, a stream of contiguous thought taking a course toward a previously unpredictable conclusion.  What fun!


Monday, August 22, 2011


Because you are charmed by the power and beauty of language as employed by masters of the literary arts—storytellers, poets, playwrights, and essayists.

Because you want to experience a wider, richer range of such writing, learning better how to enjoy and appreciate its intricacies and its subtleties.

Because you hope to assimilate into your own writing and speaking some of those masterful techniques, if only by osmosis, but also by explicit imitation.

While you may not aspire to literary artistry and published authorship, you do want to write with style, grace and felicity.  You want to possess a copious vocabulary and know numerous syntactical forms for expressing yourself impressively.

Only as you immerse yourself in the best of literature will you absorb its methods.   Even more palpably than sight reading does, reading literature aloud impresses its sonorities and patterns of rhetoric on your pulse and your memory.

If you wish to be a wordsmith, attend ardently to the greats and emulate their ways.


Thursday, August 18, 2011


The ambivalent etymology from Latin of the word education (educare/educere) indicates that education should either nourish us or draw out something from us.  Why not take both meanings as informative?

If you then speak more specifically about a liberal education, you add the notion of liberation: education as a process that nourishes and develops that within us which frees us from the bonds of ignorance and inability of many kinds, allowing us to roam widely in the world of knowledge, rather than remain shut out from the discourse of experts in various disciplines and professions.

Simply: pursue a liberal education to open yourself to a wider world of knowledge and understanding, thus enabling you to choose wisely for yourself and others.  Growing in wisdom is our highest human goal and the measure of all human progress.

Realizing what is of value to yourself and others is both the definition of wisdom and the gift of a liberal education, the pursuit of which is the project of a lifetime


Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Why, essentially, are you here at college?  Let me, a veteran college professor, presume to answer that question for you.

You are here to begin to find your true Self.  Residing in you now is the seed of who you might in time become, that fully-realized person expressing unique talents and capabilities, contributing good works to a needy world, and gratified by the lovely way your life has turned out.

That True Self is one of countless other selves latent in you that might emerge—some of whom you would be happy with, if not delighted by; others of whom you would regret growing into.

So your mission in college is more than practicing various disciplines and methodologies, perceiving the world from several perspectives.  Although that goal is what our curriculum seems designed for, your personal mission of engaging in a liberal education transcends the framework of academic scholarship and aims essentially at Self-discovery.

“Who am I really?” is the question you need always to ask: “What is my element? How am I most happily engaged and employed?  What makes me feel most genuine?”  Then follow the trail of that bliss and become who you truly are.  Liberate your Self.


Monday, August 15, 2011


These should be the results of taking such a course:

•    You will have grown to enjoy the process of writing so as to express and explain yourself—to yourself and to others.

•    You will have found that you can think more clearly and fully while engaged in contemplative exposition, pressing your emerging thoughts into considered sentences and paragraphs; whereas merely sitting and mulling without getting linear, as writing does, won’t let your mind progress to clearer sense or to more complete conclusions.

•    And when you’ve written, you’ll have a record of how your thoughts have proceeded and of what you may have discovered, a draft that can then be revised and refined later on, if need be.

•    Although for other occasions you may wish to write stories or poems or plays (“creative writing”), the discursive prose you’ll practice in this course—essay writing—is an attempt (which is the etymological meaning of essay) an attempt to figure out, sentence by sentence, what’s on your mind and what you have to say about one or another topic—and then to revise and polish your writing for the good of other readers, whom you hope to impress.


Saturday, August 13, 2011


for Bruce Novak

While love and wisdom are the earthly prize
I aim to win and fully realize
In every act and moment all my days,
There’s that within which balks and disobeys.

The golden goal I promise to pursue
I’ll struggle toward, but then that good undo
By growing fearful, mad, recalcitrant
And proving that my heart’s not true but bent.

Likewise, my goal of wisdom comes to nought
When I refuse to reason as I ought
But choose in haste on impulse what I should
Deliberate, discerning what is good.

     For all my virtuous intent, I veer
     In practices compelled by foolish fear.


Friday, August 12, 2011


 for Sir Ken Robinson

       I’m in my element when, just as now,
       I’m perched alert in my cocked easy chair,
       Pen poised above my pad and set to plow
       Another row of verse tilled in the air
       Then turned to writing on the waiting page,
       With hopes of living in a later age.


Tuesday, August 9, 2011


What lies behind the seemingly silly saying, “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?” is something profound. 

Rather than being an excuse for blurting and blustering, what that sentence implies is that thought remains latent in our brains until it is articulated into syllables, words, phrases, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs—growing clearer and fuller as sense shapes up through syntax, even more so through writing than speaking.

The previous sentence, for example, would never have proceeded spontaneously from my mouth in conversation; only through the slower, more meticulous procedure of manual composition could I have fashioned such syntactical complexity.  And if some orators exhibit gifts of spontaneous eloquence (more than merely recitation from memory), I suspect their skill derives from the facility they’ve gained by practicing written composition.

While spontaneous speaking is self-expressive, a larger, more complex self can be expressed through written composition, and may never be discovered and realized without writing.  In a sense, you “write for your life”—that is, for the enhancement of your life, of who you can become.  While most people do not perform self-expressive writing and may think themselves none the worse for it, they simply do not know what they’re missing, alas.

A comparable situation would be singing.  Those who have learned to sing and can sing comfortably and skillfully have discovered a joyful mode of expressiveness in language denied to those who can’t.  Likewise, some people find that expressive writing comes readily and naturally, while others have less facility and inclination, or patience, for the process.  But both singing and writing, I would urge, should be encouraged in the education of children, continuing into adulthood.  Otherwise, what will become of one’s self?

My experience tells me there’s more to me than I know; there’s more yet to be revealed or developed (like an image on photographic paper gradually emerging in the developing solution).  We have latencies of self, needing to be drawn out, which is literally the meaning of education (e-ducere in Latin).  Expressive writing is self-educational: it draws forth from the inchoate shadows of latency a sharper, more coherent image of who we can be.


Saturday, August 6, 2011


There is a place within my heart and yours
Where Presence dwells and faithfully endures,
And yet it is not evident always,
When it’s eclipsed by existential haze.

When trouble, worry, fearfulness intrude
To spoil serenity (that attitude
We need to set the visionary scene),
It’s absence that we feel; we’re dull, not keen.

So how may we regain the confidence
And poise we lack to re-experience
The certainty that all is well and good
And blissful, when it’s rightly understood?

     The only way’s to slow your beating brain
     And heaving heart so Presence can show plain.


Thursday, August 4, 2011


What do I mean by “personal writing,” which is the name of this course?

It is writing in which, unlike most academic writing that you do in college courses, you get to use the personal pronoun I.  You get to express and exhibit your own point of view, your own attitudes, feelings, opinions, and values.

It is not, however, private writing, like a personal journal meant not to be read or appreciated by others.  Personal writing has two audiences: first, yourself, for whom you write in order to articulate overtly what is vaguely on your mind.  Your motto for doing so would be: “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?”  It takes words rolling out into sentences to give shape to your otherwise inchoate thought.  Talking can and does do that, but writing, a slower, more deliberate and revisable process, can do it better.  Your second audience as a personal writer is any other reader to whom you wish to open your mind, a mind now clarified and specified and made comely by the writing process—a presentable mind.

Ultimately, then, the formal writing you do in this course is meant to impress others with the character and quality of your mind as it represents itself in prose.  Although your mind may display itself in poetry, in song, in music, in visual arts and other ways; in this course, essays are your medium.  An essay, literally, is an attempt: you essay (a verb) to express and convey your thoughts in well-made prose; the better your attempt, the better your essay.

A particular motive for doing personal writing, one especially pertinent to this course, is to make up your mind, a phrase that suggests both constituting and beautifying.  By engaging in the process of personal writing, you should come to see your thoughts growing more ample, orderly and impressive.  They are not blurted and scattered, as in conversation; rather, having been more carefully pondered during the slower, intermittent process of writing, your thoughts shape up artfully, not uttered, but composed.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011


How easy to forget the wondrousness
Of life, to take for granted miracles
So commonplace and plain we fail to bless
Their source, and apt appreciation dulls.

How can it be (we have the wit to ask)
That anything at all exists, but more,
A being such as we?  Is not our task,
Our duty, first to marvel and adore?

True, it’s a mystery how things evolve,
How out of emptiness matter appears,
And our intelligence may not resolve
Such vexing issues in a million years.

     But still the Mystery teases us to try
     To answer the ineffable, the why.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011


I do not believe in a god, except as a personified image of an ought, a moral imperative declaring the best ways for human beings to live.

To say, for instance, that “Jesus is the way” makes sense to me in those terms.  To the extent that the behavior and teachings of Jesus reveal the best ways for us to live—lovingly, peaceably, wisely—then Jesus deserves our reverence and commands our following, as do any others who demonstrate comparable virtues, of whatever time or culture—a pantheon of virtuous paragons.

These virtuous exemplars inspire emulation rather than command obedience.  They bid us to follow in the righteousness of their decisions and actions, but not to deify their persons, build statues or monuments to worship them, or to turn them into idols.

Moses is the way, Jesus is the way, the Buddha is the way, Lao-tse is the way, and countless others, women as well as men, ancients and contemporaries—all who keep and show the way of loving kindness, of compassion, of care for the well-being of all creatures, great and small.

To be thus godly is our goal.


Monday, August 1, 2011


I do not aim to glorify myself
Nor heap up mountains of ill-gotten pelf:
Fame, worship, riches, status, I despise—
All which I’d sacrifice for being wise.

Such lust for wisdom surely is no sin:
Of all the honors human beings might win,
The accolade of Sage transcends the rest
And by esteemed tradition proves most blessed.

Of what, then, does sagacity consist?
Might I compile a comprehensive list
Of qualities I must accrue to be
Regarded for my keen profundity?

     Or is it something simpler to attain,
     A matter for the heart more than the brain?