on academic distance


I was discussing with my students the topics they have chosen for their “Explaining a Concept” essays during their House Tutorials yesterday. One of my students chose “religion” as her concept. I’m fine with that, as long as she does her research properly and I know that I will workshop how to research in class tomorrow. It’s also a chance for me to teach a different concept: academic distance. And it didn’t take long for me to demonstrate just that. As part of the group discussion for how she could focus her paper topic, another student said, “You could say how religions change. Like how there were Catholics and then the Christians came–”

“Catholics are Christians,” I said automatically.

“But Catholics pray to angels and believe in the Virgin Mary and Christians don’t,” said another student.

“Actually, Catholics don’t pray to angels. Catholics are Christians.”

“Are you Catholic?” they asked. To which I replied, “Now, about your topic, one way you can focus it is by choosing something specific…”

Which means, of course, they think I’m Catholic. Explaining the finer points between Catholicism and Anglo-Catholic Episcopalianism would take too long; also, my denominational preference doesn’t matter. They don’t understand that what I personally believe did not matter in that discussion: factually, Catholics are Christians. Catholics don’t pray to angels. As for saints and the Virgin: veneration is not the same thing as worship. “Praying to” the saints relies on the premise that all Christians, living and dead, are the body of Christ. “Praying to” a saint is, in a sense, equivalent to asking a friend to pray for you. Now, we could talk about the “cult of the saints” during the Patristic and Medieval periods, but that would be different–because it is in a different historical context.

You can be familiar with a subject without being that subject. It is possible to research a topic without being personally invested in that topic. It is possible to research a subject without putting your own beliefs “at risk.” If you are afraid of that happening, then perhaps you need to question the strength of your convictions. Investigating opposing or alternative viewpoints to your own is not a weakness, but a strength. And when you are personally invested in that subject? Challenge yourself. Identify your bias, become aware of it. Then you can set it aside. You can’t completely detach yourself from your bias; it will keep you company, sprawling on your papers, occasionally getting in your way, like a cat would, while you do research on that subject. Maintaining academic distance requires you to be intensely self-aware.

One of the things I try to teach my students is the habit of critical thinking, the practice of questioning everything, to not accept generalizations at face value. Question the source. Who are they? What authority do they have on this subject? Where are they getting their information? Are their sources credible? I can lecture, I can demonstrate, I can give examples–but whether they take any of it in is up to them.

Photo: Chiesa di San Francesco in Lodi, Italy.

stairs to the queen’s garden


The castle, built on a hill, had several levels; one level’s roof might be another level’s courtyard or garden. Not all of the gardens were ornamental. The gardeners tended vegetables, too: an architect’s provision for if the castle came under siege. As was the moat that filled at high tide. But they had been conquered without coming under siege. The invaders had simply entered through the city gates, at her invitation.

She now stood beside a low wall at the end of one such garden, traditionally referred to as the Queen’s Garden. And she had, indeed, made use of it. Fountains bubbled in each of the four corners and, larger, in the center. Two sides were lined with orange trees, with cushioned divans beneath their branches. One end of the garden opened into a covered patio which joined the palace. The opposite side, where she stood, faced the east. From here she could see both the city and the sea. She need only turn her head, look south, to see the gate the Caspar had entered, and the tree-lined avenue where her husband had been killed. She did not know by whom.

The Queen’s Garden was still hers, even though she wasn’t queen anymore. Caspar had annexed her country; now she was duchess to the Caspar duke. The barons blamed her for the Caspars’ coming and for the king’s death. Hadn’t she, after all, suggested they invite the envoy?

No longer holding any responsibility for the duchy, she often read poetry in the orange grove. Her new handmaidens didn’t like that she read, but she shouted down all of the curses from the Bedzi gods and her Akkadian ancestors that–even if they didn’t understand a word she said–they stopped trying to keep her from the library or from taking books out to the garden.

And of course, the Queen’s Garden was on one of the higher levels. She could access it from inside the palace, which, though longer, was a less grueling climb. However, she often chose to take the outer stairs. She enjoyed seeing her handmaidens, red-faced and puffing, as they collapsed onto the divans in the shade. The Caspar were not made for the Bedzi sun, and she took what victory she could, however small.

But, leaning against the wall, she, too, felt weak. The Caspar women, feigning confusion, refused to taste her food when she ate alone, and so she allowed herself only the food from her new husband’s plate at dinner. She did not know who wanted to kill her more: the Bedzi barons or her Caspar step-son.

What she did know was that she wanted to stay alive.

Photo: Castelo de São Jorge in Lisbon, Portugal.

here, now: morrison’s corn-kits


The air in the prairie, in the city, is not as clear as the air by the sea. Full of dust and pollution, it lends a different quality to the sky, a warmer tone, perhaps, a haziness, as the sky darkens into night. Against the pale orange and grey sky stands one of the city’s landmarks. I was momentarily confused when I first saw it, months ago now. “I didn’t know Morrison’s was here,” I thought, thinking of the supermarket I would often go to in the UK. But of course, this wasn’t a supermarket. Morrison’s Corn-Kits has been manufacturing ready-to-make cornbread mixes for nearly a century; it has been a mill for even longer. This is one building I don’t mind rising above the horizon. Despite still being in use, it has a neglected, abandoned quality to it; a nostalgia for times past. Some buildings seem to have grown out of the land–something about their design, their age, I can’t quite put my finger on it–so that it feels as though they have always been there, or, at least, belong there. When I see Morrison’s Corn-Kits, I feel its connection to the land and the community. It is rough and bare, as the land the farmers would have tended to grow their wheat, their corn, to bring to the mill. And yet, it also feels like some version of Dr Eckleburg’s eyes for North Texas, watching the city’s comings and goings in this dry and flat dusty land, keeping its judgment to itself.

Photo: Morrison’s Corn-Kits in Denton, TX.

where I haven’t been


I have a stamp in my passport from a country to which I have never been.

Countries that are part of the Schengen Area in Europe stamp your passport whenever you enter or exit that area–not whether you enter or leave a specific country. The agreement allows for greater freedom of movement within most of Europe (a convenient arrangement, even if it does come at the expense of fewer stamps for stamp collectors like me). The stamp also shows your mode of transportation, whether you arrived or departed by plane, train, or ferry. I already had train and plane stamps in my passport; I was excited to finally get the ferry stamp on my trip to Croatia.

When Jo and I queued up to board the ferry in Trieste, Italy, I expected to go through customs at the port. When we didn’t, I thought we would at the dock in Pula, Croatia. Unlike other ferries I’ve been on, the seats inside this ferry were aisled like they would be on an airplane. We managed to get seats by the window, where we watched as the Mediterranean coastline passed by, Croatian guidebooks and phrasebooks sitting on our laps. At some point, Italy became Slovenia and we came into port. Some passengers left, others boarded, and with them came a Slovenian customs officer. He took up all of our passports and, after a few tense moments (as is the case whenever my passport is taken from me, however legitimately), returned them. Jo’s passport came back empty, due to being a British national; mine came with a stamp saying that I was departing Slovenia by ferry.

That is, I was exiting the Schengen Area. My passport was stamped at the last port in the Schengen Area before crossing into Croatian territory.

I feel a bit like it’s cheating, to have a stamp from a country I haven’t actually visited. It does, however, give me another reason to visit Slovenia someday.

Photo: Slovenian coastline.

stepping on board


To those of you just tuning in and to those who have migrated here from Memoirs of a Vagabond: welcome!

I’ve been blogging well over a decade now. I started blogging before it was a “thing”, when Lola, our friends Danielle and Priscilla, and I launched Underneath the Dogwood in 2002, which was later re-branded Hard Soap. My first personal blog was at LiveJournal, as a Christmas gift from Lola in 2003. But my first, real, grown-up, public blog was Memoirs of a Vagabond, launched in 2008. Memoirs of a Vagabond served its purpose for seven (7!) years, but I’ll be honest with you: I never really liked the title.

Sure, the title captured what I was going for, but it never really jived with me. I found it hard to be inspired by, which could be evident from the times it fell dormant.

I spent January seriously considering the future of my blogging career. I argued for and against leaving the blogosphere entirely; when I finally decided to stay, I also resolved to find a new title, one that actually does what Memoirs of a Vagabond was meant to do. Cue more soul-searching, dictionary-reading, flipping through Shakespeare and Chaucer and reading lots of Emily Dickinson poems. Then, I thought of a compass, which made me think of the compass rose, then the four winds, then The Wind’s Twelve Quarters by Ursula K. Le Guin, the title of which was inspired by A. E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad,” part of which you will find quoted on my About page.

And that, my dear readers, is how The Twelve Winds was born. On this blog you will find photographs from my travels around the world and, for each photograph, a description: a memory, a fact, musings, or short fiction. The goal is to get me writing again so that, eventually, I can return to my fictional endeavours–and, in the meantime, share some of my travelling stories you might not have heard before.

So step on board, and enjoy reading these notes from the wind’s twelve quarters!

Photo: Woman with red shoes stepping onto a tram in Warsaw, Poland.

here, now: a snow day

On weekends I will post a “here, now” post that will feature where I live now. These posts might feature thoughts on repatriating to the U.S. (as this one does), or about teaching, what I’m reading, knitting, or life in general.


Ever since I moved back to America, I have felt claustrophobic. I am always inside: inside my flat, my office, my classrooms, my car. There is nowhere I can go to see the unbroken horizon, to go where I can’t hear any cars or see any buildings. Even from my eleventh-storey office the horizon comprises buildings and interstate-highways.

In Scotland, I lived in a town by the sea. Sometimes I would walk home “the long way,” which meant along one of the beaches until I reached my street at the other end. The openness of the air, the unending sky, the regular hushing of the waves would calm and quiet my thoughts after a long day. Here, in Texas, I end up standing in the car park texting a friend also recently repatriated from Scotland, “Are there some days you just wish you could walk down the pier or East Sands?

Yes,” she answered. “All the time.”

It snowed this weekend, and I had to get out of the flat. I love snow; I’m used to snow; I needed to be outside in the snow. But not here, in my flat near the university, surrounded by buildings and car parks.

So I braved the icy, slushy roads and drove north, to a nature reserve outside of the city. I had only been there once before. My car was the only one in the lot; I had the entire park to myself. The park had been transformed: snow hid the brown grass, frosted the bare trees. I chose a path at random, across the plain and into the forest.

There, finally, I could stop and drink in the silence. Snow, gently tapping my jacket, the trees. A dove, a jay. The creaking of branches. A noisy quiet, the forest, with no human sound nearby except my own. A flash of red swooped across my path; if I had blinked, I’d have missed it. Another cardinal followed. Back across the plain, I watched a flock of swallows fly overhead, a contrast of black on the white sky. Out there in the cold, warm enough with all my layers, my face wet with melted snow, I felt a little less “out of place.” The cold, the falling snow, being outside, the smell of damp wool from my scarf–this is what is familiar. I was reluctant to return to my car and thus return to the city, with even more cars and streets and buildings. But, I didn’t want to drive back in the dark, and I did have to go back eventually.

My brief sojourn did center me, for a little while. In Scotland, I was out of doors daily and naturally because I did not have a car–I walked or cycled anywhere I had to go. Here, I have to be intentional about finding refuge outside of the city. I have the nature reserve for now and I hope to find other places like it, especially places with water, to fulfill my need for trees and the open air.

Photo: Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center.