Words, words, words

This morning I found an old Dove Promises wrapper in my Bible. It read, ‘Find your passion’.

My passion is words — words strung into stories, stories that tell of our lives, of our past, future, where we come from and where we are going. Stories about what we do, believe, feel, think, live, love, and how, why. Stories about who we are.

It’s no wonder my life is wrapped up in books.

Unaccustomed earth

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

–Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Custom-House”

The above is the epigraph to Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, one of two short-story collections written by her. (The first is Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer Prize and is, of course, brilliant. There is a nice review at the American Literary Review Blog about it.) Some of you may be familiar with The Namesake, her novel that was made into a film. Each of her stories is a microcosm that offers a glimpse into the lives of those who move from one side of the world to another, from one world to a different one, different in language, colors, culture, and of their children. Most of the stories deal with Indians who move to England or to the U.S., but they also tell of the pilgrimages back to India and the tension of being caught between two worlds.

As I was reading Unaccustomed Earth, and reading about Interpreter of Maladies at the ALR blog, I noticed that in all the stories and discussion of the stories, the people who move are called immigrants. Which, yes they are. But as I thought about my own experience, and of the international community I know here in Scotland and in England, I have not heard any of us call ourselves immigrants. I tend to refer to myself as an ex-pat, and to us at large “internationals”, or to be more specific, “international students”. The definitions of the two words are as such:

immigrant, noun.
1. A person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence.

ex-pat, expatriate, noun.
1. One who has taken up residence in a foreign country.

As you can see, by technical definition they are very similar. I still find it curious that it is usually the “Other” that is referred to as an immigrant, and not oneself, but when I consider again the international community I know of, the key issue that separates the two terms is the idea of permanence. There are several of us who are entertaining thoughts of staying here, of putting roots in this foreign soil, but there is no sense of solidity to these plans, of being set in stone.  “A stranger am I, and a wanderer, searching for the edge of the world.”

And so I make this post on the 4th of July. This was not planned, but it is fitting. I consider myself an ex-pat because it is easier to love my country from a distance — I love its founding, the promise that it held, that it still holds to some extent today. But sometime over the past two hundred years, the eyes of the people turned inward; the American pioneering spirit became individualistic to the point of selfishness, and I, who had seen the outside world, first through books and imagination and then with my own two eyes, could no longer bear to be caged.

My American readers, I hope you have a good 4th of July. I also hope that you remember to read the Declaration of Independence. This is a day to enjoy with family and friends, with cook-outs and fireworks and games, but it is also a day to remember the spirit and the words that first created the United States of America.

And on a completely unrelated note, for the curious: 6066, but I haven’t yet written today.

The observer

From my room I can see out across the town, across the forest, the estuary, to the air force base and the hills and, on a clear day, the mountains. I can spend hours gazing as the clouds blow in or out of the sea, at the changing silhouettes of the hills, at the rain falling in bands of purple and gold, as the sunset lingers for hours. When I should be writing, I watch, trying to see every color, the brilliant white on a seagull’s wing, the flash of windmills turning in the sunlight. I used to watch until I saw the first star of evening, but darkness draws ever later, and now I find that I draw the curtains while it is still light.

As a science-fiction writer I personally prefer to stand still for long periods, like the Quechua, and look at what is, in fact, in front of me: the earth; my fellow beings on it; and the stars.

–Ursula K. Le Guin

I never feel that this watchfulness is wasted, for there is no crime in appreciating beauty or the hand from which beauty cometh; ‘There is no answer to beauty but silence,’ Christopher Morley.


Today I went back to the dictionaries. There are few things as mentally stimulating as going through the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the Dictionary of the Welsh Language, and two etymological dictionaries, one for modern German and the other an Old English-German dictionary, and finding what you are looking for. And there are few things as intellectually satisfying as finding that your German, while rusty, can still puzzle out that ‘elf’ comes from Middle Low German, from Middle High German, from Old Icelandic, from Latin, and to find that the German dictionary supports your thesis by saying that elves were rather dangerous, that the idea of graceful, friendly elves comes from the Romantics…

Wild Geese

Sometimes introverts need to have their introversion validated; to be told that it’s okay to wrap themselves up in the soft comfort of solitude, to talk only to the few people they want to and take a break from the rest of the world, to stare out at the long horizon and feel all the things that had been piling up spread out, thinning. Snow covers the hills in the distance and the clouds hang low over them, blurring the boundary between earth and sky.

I don’t like poetry as a rule, but I do like this one. And despite my reputation to the contrary, I do have a certain fondness for geese.

Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


A word that I like:

tact. noun.

  1. a keen sense of what to say or do to avoid giving offense; skill in dealing with difficult or delicate situations.
  2. a keen sense of what is appropriate, tasteful, or aesthetically pleasing; taste; discrimination.

Or as the OED puts it:

‘Ready and delicate sense of what is fitting and proper in dealing with others, so as to avoid giving offence, or win good will; skill or judgement in dealing with men or negotiating difficult or delicate situations; the faculty of saying or doing the right thing at the right time.’

I recently read a short story in which rhetoric is described as the art of ruling; if so, then tact is the art of conversation.

Before tea

I recently explained to some friends that my brain tends to organize words by sounds. This can have some rather amusing consequences. I hadn’t had my tea yet this morning when Neil suggested that gin cures all ills for postgraduates. What I heard was jinn. So while he was wondering why I was staring at my tea with a very puzzled expression, I was wondering why on earth he was talking about genies. Unfortunately, if you were to give me a bottle of either, neither gin nor jinn would avail me.

Just a cat

IMG_9135Sir Sherbert, dear Sherbert,
He thinks he is divine
But Sherbert, you see,
Is but a tame feline.

He meows with insistence
And never says please,
He is entitled to all
And lives a life of ease.

‘Sir Sherbert, if I may,
I fear I must inform you
That you are, in fact,
Just a cat.’

‘Just a cat! Dear Madam,’
Sir Sherbert did purr,
‘There is no better creature
That ever lived in fur.

My whiskers are white,
And my tail is so furry;
My dinner will be late
If you do not hurry.

So human, dear human,
It is in error you say
That I am, in fact,
Just a cat.’


Finally I’ve gotten my computer to have Internet while on a train. I have happily been reconnected to the interwebs since earlier this afternoon. Whilst Kat, Felicity and I have commandeered a table for our long journey back north to Hogwarts (we even left from Kings’ Cross), our journey has not been at all peaceful. A group of disrespectful, mildly drunk, obnoxious teenage boys got on the train at Doncaster and finally got off, as Felicity predicted, at Waverley. They played loud music and pretty much aroused the ire of the entire coach. When the hooligans were at their worst, I was looking up a word from the Post Script to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. I looked up at Felicity and Katherine, tossed an imperious glance down the coach and glowered; “I’m trying to read smart words.” A hircocervus is a fantastical beast, half-goat, half-stag, and anamnesis is the recalling of things past; recollection, reminiscence. But I digress.

They did, however, get off at Waverley, and thus we thought the rest of our journey would be in peace. Hah! People and their mobile phones! How can I be so technologically contradictory? Because of DATA I have to have Internet injected intravenously, but I use the Internet to actually stay connected with knowledge. Mobile phone conversations should not be conducted in confined public places. But I digress, again.

We are back among the land that is properly rocky and stubborn, with yellow fields and architecture recalling Presbyterian sobriety. We crossed the Firth of Forth just as the sun glittered over it. We shall be home soon. (Then I shall buy milk, and make a list of things to do tomorrow, and shout silent curses at the seagulls, but I digress—finally.)

N is for Naiad

to_say_nothing_of_the_dogTo Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis is simply brilliant. It is a must-read for historians, English majors*, and time-travel enthusiasts. Ned Henry, a twenty-first century historian, suffers from an advanced case of time-lag. His prescription: two weeks’ uninterrupted bed rest, but he isn’t going to find it in this century. Instead, he is sent back to 1888 to escape the demanding Lady Schrapnell and, hopefully, recover. While he’s there (then?), he meets the calamity, communes with the Other Side, encounters a swan and the forerunner of Jeeves, and becomes one of three men in a boat, to say nothing of the dog. Or the cat. If you wish to ruminate on Waterloo, know the origin of jumble sales, the most hideous and indestructible object, or the identity of Mr. C, then read on. This may very well be the cleverest comedy you ever read. By the end you truly will believe (and cringe) that, “God is in the details.”

My only complaint is that in the entirety of this well-researched, historically sensitive book, Willis failed to accurately present a page’s worth of dialogue in Middle English. The rest of the book, however, redeems this fault. Kelly rates it a 9.5/10.0 on ‘the well-established grounds that if you do not think it is funny, you are not a human.’

In other news, I went to see Peter Pan performed in the castle on Monday. Pictures can be seen here. I had my last Arthurian Legend class yesterday, which is slightly sad, though I must admit that my patience was waning in regards to one or two of my classmates. I will be writing my essay on Sir Gawain in English folk romances, a topic of which I doubt anyone is surprised. My other essay will be on the idealization of chivalry and its relationship to kingship, and I am less confident about it. I have 2.5 weeks to write both of these essays.

I have turned in my PhD application and have accepted the offer of a room to live with the Keddie’s and their kitties (to say nothing of the dog). I have also done half of my to-do list for today, and it’s not yet lunch time, so I am going to have some tea and resume what hopes to be a productive day.


* Why do historians have a noun whereas those who study literature do not? Are we literary critics? (That sounds like we post reviews, and not study literature academically.) Litterateurs? Literati?