One Mission Accomplished

January 3, 2012

This morning, I received an email update from a sociology professor at my alma mater, Bridgewater College. The message from Dr. Mwizenge S. Tembo began with this headline: “Mission Accomplished: Books Delivered to Nkhanga Library Dec. 20, 2011 at 5:15PM.”

In my graduate studies, I have read and written a great deal about the power and politics of reading and writing. Sometimes I forget to give equal space to the personal and positive sides.

The Nkhanga library project is part of a larger initiative called ZANOBA: the Zambian Knowledge Bank. Co-founded by Dr. Tembo in 1995, its mission is to “to encourage all Zambians in the Southern African country to document, preserve, and enjoy their traditional and modern Zambian culture and technology among people who live in the rural villages and Provinces to the towns and cities of the African country.”

Fundraising for this particular branch of the Zambia Knowledge Libraries began in 2006, while I was a junior in college. I have been following its progress since that time: watching, through photos, as trees were cleared and the foundation laid (May 2007); the walls were completed (September 2008); the roof was installed (August 2009); and the interior took shape (May 2011).

Setbacks were a regular feature of the progress updates, but also prominent were the determination and dedication of many individuals who did their part, however small, to make this vision take shape.

The main collection of donated books arrived a few days before Christmas. Dr. Tembo writes this:

I just returned from Zambia. I am thrilled to report to you that all the publicly donated total of 3,092 used books packed in 65 carton boxes were successfully delivered to the new Nkhanga Village Library in Lundazi in Eastern Zambia in Southern Africa on December 20, 2011 at 5:15PM local time and 10:15AM Eastern American Standard time. …

What the shipment of the books and the entire Nkhanga library project has shown is that there are so many selfless people both in the United States and Zambia who are genuinely dedicated to the success of this very truly unique grassroots project. On behalf of the project I would like to thank everyone in the community here and in Zambia for their contribution.

You can read more about the Nkhanga library project in the Fall 2011 issue of Bridgewater Magazine (beginning on page 21). Visit to find out more about the broader aims and goals of the Zambian Knowledge Bank.


Review: My Week With Marilyn

December 29, 2011

Point 1: Michelle Williams has earned critical approbation for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in the recent film My Week With Marilyn (2011). Point 2: It was a quiet night, and I needed something to do. So naturally, I went to see the movie: a skeptic about the film itself, a fan of Williams.

For me, the film had moments of brilliance and others that lacked a certain spark. The choice to cast Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olivier was, to me as a moviegoer, particularly unusual; to me as a Shakespearean, doubly amusing. That being said, Williams’ representation of Monroe is captivating.

I think my own appreciation for the film was enhanced by the fact that I read Arthur Miller’s controversial play After the Fall (influenced by his relationship with Monroe) a few years ago. In many ways, Williams’ performance brought the sentiments of the play to life for me, while at the same time the play added another layer of nuance to the film.

All in all, it’s worth seeing, particularly if the buzz is correct and it will be on the lineup for this year’s Oscars.

Check it out!

Three Trees on the Low Sky

December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Sesshū's (1420-1506) "Winter Landscape."

The Journey of the Magi
T.S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

3 Days of Holiday Poetry

December 24, 2011

I apologize: the twelve- (then eleven-) days model died rather quickly. Accept, from remorse, a subpenultimate Christmas poem.

The House of Christmas
G.K. Chesterton

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

Holiday Poetry for Day 11

December 15, 2011

To give the holiday fortnight a poetic note, I’d like to share some of my favorite Christmas poems with you. First is a poem with a captivating rhythm and powerful words. Read it aloud — in my opinion, that’s the best way to experience it.

Illustration by Frederic B. Schell

Ring Out, Wild Bells
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

What are some of your favorite holiday poems?

When Literati Step Away

December 9, 2011

The essay begins with a question, “When you’ve long been identified as a ‘literary type,’ how can it be that receiving books as get-well gifts leaves you feeling empty, angry, and determined to chug YouTube straight?”

Now That Books Mean Nothing, by Nell Boeschenstein is straightforward about the answer. She is a healthy 31-year-old woman with a genetic mutation predisposing her to reproductive cancer, so she made the decision to undergo a prophylactic double mastectomy. That’s how.

Boeschenstein describes her decision and the aftereffects in terms of her longstanding relationship to books. I cannot fully grasp the emotions she must be feeling, but her gift with words invites me to try. Take a look:

It’s not easy or appropriate to tell people who love you and who are trying to help you that what they are doing is not helping, that books are not what you want or need, that what you want and need right now are flowers, letters—notes, even—stupid movies, something that might help you feel pretty, emails that contain funny anecdotes from the outside world. That what you want is quiet company, conversation, to talk about you or him or her or whatever, who cares, that the last thing you want is to be left alone either with your thoughts or with a book chock full of someone else’s thoughts and into which your own encroach all too easily. Minds can become Frankensteins, and you’ve gotten gun-shy of yours and the noises it makes in the night. Of course, I don’t say any of this to those who hand me a book they say is lovely and that they hope I’ll enjoy. Instead, I say, “Thank you. I can’t wait to read it,” because that’s closer to what I hope I’ll mean in the end. […more]

Read the article. It is beautifully written, frustrating yet hopeful, and well worth your time.

Life in Hand

November 27, 2011

“The child is the father of the man.” – William Wordsworth

“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” – The Tree of Life

This weekend, I finally had the time to catch up on some movie-watching. Although The Tree of Life may not have been the best choice to watch while recuperating from a cold, I’m glad to have seen it.

If you’re looking for a film with a clearly identifiable plot and progressive action, then this is probably not the movie for your Saturday night. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life  (2011) “reads” more like a Salman Rushdie novel: lyrical, intensely visual, nonlinear, at moments solemn, at others grandiloquent or psychedelic.

Quick shots and voiceovers show the fragments of memory that form Jack O’Brien’s childhood and his effort to make sense of grief and growth. In Jack’s family, loved ones die and cruelty reduces physical presence to a shadow. The best description I can give for this film is that it shows the search for the way of grace in the midst of the way of nature.

Call it a “coming-of-age” story or a tale about grief and the loss of innocence, this film, to me, is all about the images. There is something in the movement of nature—be it a flow of lava, natural hot springs, the sun rising over the curve of the earth, or the logarithmic spiral in a snail’s shell—that fills the gaps in language.

Yet through all of this, human touch remains central.  Hands are a prominent point of focus in The Tree of Life. A caress, a blow, or a brush of the fingers zooms in from the epic scope and pauses there. Compared to the expansive space and time Malick explores elsewhere, these moments are tiny and insignificant. However, as emblems of humanity’s potential to choose what Mrs. O’Brien calls the “way of grace,” they leave, at least for me, the film’s most lasting impression.

A thought-provoker, to say the least.