Wednesday, July 28, 2010


I've been reading a lot of historical fiction lately. I picked up The Other Boleyn Girl last summer and finally got around to reading it this summer. Once I started it, I really couldn't put it down. It's the story of King Henry VIII and his decision to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn (one of his many mistresses,) and his ultimate decision to have her beheaded. It's well written and compelling. Even though I knew what the ending would be, I still wanted to find out what happened next.

I've gone on to read two more of the author's novels depicting the life and wives of Henry and have another sitting on my bedside table. They are an interesting read on the role of women in the culture and make one grateful to be a woman now as opposed to then - jewels and castles notwithstanding. Ultimately, women were chattel, which I knew intellectually but I had never really thought about 'being property' in daily terms - what they would be required to do to serve the men who owned them, whether that be their fathers, brothers, uncles or husbands. It's sobering, to say the least.

Henry, as Monarch, had ultimate authority. There was no one above him - particularly after he made the decision to split from the Catholic church and papal authority. He declared himself head of the Church of England, as he was head of the government of England. He answered to no one which made him, of course, an extremely dangerous man. Dangerous to oppose, dangerous to disappoint.

While I would like to believe that Henry was exceptional and historians certainly allude to his prowess in many arenas (and certainly he was exceptionally self-involved and ultimately insane) I suspect that, truth be told, he was rather common. He was a man who believed that he could put himself above the rules - that the rules simply didn't apply to him. That attitude is not unlike the attitude we still see today. Men and women, boys and girls, all making the determination that they want what they want and they have every right to go after it, no matter who they trample on the way. Whether the "rules" are social codes, laws, moral precepts, or even simply promises or oaths one has taken, many seem to believe that those things are for others - not them.

We cannot turn on the news, pick up a newspaper, or access the internet without seeing evidence of this behavior everywhere. Celebrities, politicians, church leaders, common people - no group seems safe from this incredible sense of our own 'exceptionality.' But the lesson we can learn from Henry and his decisions is that no matter how powerful we are, ultimately our choices always have consequences. And though we may escape them for awhile, sooner or later they do catch up with us.

On the brighter side, I also have Monarchs in my garden. They come in the morning to visit my zinnias while I sit on the deck drinking my coffee. They've been keeping me company while I read about, and contemplate, the lessons of Henry.

Image of Henry -

Monday, July 12, 2010


My summer classes have ended. The grades are done and posted, and I can take a moment and look back on my return to teaching. Summer classes are a mixed bag. For one thing, they are fast - very fast. In essence you condense a 15 week semester into a third of the time span. This can be good and it can be not so good. The good part is that if the class isn't going so well or if you and the students simply don't hit it off it's done relatively quickly. The bad part is that no matter what, it's done relatively quickly - meaning that you can't take an extra day to grade an assignment or make a decision. You'd better have it done and figured out before you start. It's intense, to say the least.

One of the things that drew me to teaching is the starting and the stopping. I like endings. I like the sense of accomplishment that comes from finishing something. Whether it's an afghan I've crocheted, a book that I've read, a recipe that I've cooked, I like to be able to see a project through from start to finish and be able to judge what I've accomplished. When I came to Minnesota to live, I briefly considered a career in corporate America and spent a year working as a temp to test the waters. I learned quickly that the "sameness" of corporate life was not for me. The projects never seemed to come to a close and I quickly began to feel trapped in that environment. It was drudgery to me - never-ending drudgery.

The academic life is much better suited to my temperament. There are any number of built-in endings. They're called semesters. I like the beginning of a new semester - the chance to meet 150 new students, the chance to try a new way to teach an old concept, the chance to explore new research, a new method, a new activity. It's new and exciting and a wonderful challenge. More than the beginnings, though, I like the endings. I like being able to look back and evaluate what worked and what didn't, where I need change or improvement, where I can take a technique to a new level or make the decision that it didn't work and doesn't deserve a second chance.

I even have the advantage of mini-endings. Each class period is a separate entity. It has a start and a stop. If it doesn't go well, it's over in 50 or 75 or 150 minutes. It's done. I can start fresh the next time and salvage whatever went wrong. That stop gives one the time to make mid-course corrections that other endeavors don't necessarily allow for.

At times I think that, if we aren't careful, life can begin to feel like a hamster's wheel. We run faster and faster and our momentum on the wheel means that we don't have time to think or consider or even feel - our jobs, our relationships, our values become a blur in our race. We must keep moving - there is no end in sight. Some people acknowledge that they have awakened one morning to the thought 'Where did the past 20 years go?' They've been caught in the wheel.

The endings in life allow for self-reflection. They give us the opportunity to take a breath and evaluate. They allow us to consider. They are a gift.

Image origins in order: