“‘Where is here?'”

“I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life, / To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife…” || John Masefield, ‘Sea Fever’


Each time I go down to the sea I stand as close as I can to the water’s edge. On the days when the sun’s warmth is just enough, I tread into the water up to my knees, eyes lost to the horizon. Like the speaker of John Masefield’s poem, I suffer from an incurable case of sea fever, forever bewitched by the lap of the waves, the brine caught on the breeze. In light of recent events, it may be insensitive to attribute any sort of fever, literal and perhaps especially figurative, to my otherwise healthy body and spirit. Paradoxically, though, I find that my sea fever serves as my cure to the other ills of the world: anxiety, stress, and uncertainty.

This past Saturday I went on a trek to Middle Cove Beach, the early spring sun too enticing to ignore and to sacrifice its charms to my work. While dipping my fingers into the boreal seawater and collecting pebbles, Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s unusual rhetorical question, “Where is here” (7), wandered through my mind. I paused to let this question seep into my skin with the seafoam and sunlight. As I reflected on her words, I found that Atwood’s question can yield more than spatially-oriented answers. Here can indeed be a place but it can also be a moment on a timeline. Here can be a feeling: the sea, the gull song, the smooth stones in my pocket. This is here, now, me.


I interpret that Atwood believes “here” to be the unique mindset of the Canadian writer. Atwood poses this question in her essay “What, Why and Where is Here?”, in which she situates specifically Canadian works in the wider canon of Western literature. Atwood seeks the spirit of Canada itself in the texts of her predecessors and contemporaries; indeed, Atwood writes, “I’ve treated the books as though they were written by Canada” (2, emphasis my own). Atwood seems to suggest that the aura of Canada — distinct from its monolithic North American neighbor or its former imperial ruler — derives from its heterogeneous culture and the character of the land itself, which consequently influences the literary imaginations of the writers it creates.

In retrospect, considering Canada as the author of its own narratives, in the manner of Atwood, before attempting to engage with the works on my Public Intellectuals course may have facilitated a reading strategy that engaged with the course texts on a deeper, more meaningful level. In a significant way, I failed as a student. Given my proximity to Canada as an American citizen, I sublimated the Canadian authors’ responses to their national and cultural context to my American frame of reference, a tendency Atwood directly challenges in “What, Why and Where is Here?” I believe that my reading of the course materials signifies precisely what Atwood warns against: conflating North American perspectives and failing to register subtle differences in a way that sacrifices the effective interrogation of the Canadian writer’s particular rhetorical style, further muddying the essence of the Canadian perspective underpinning the narrative. I realize now that my lack of engagement with such close reading stems from discomfort, an unwillingness to tease out even the finest knot of ambiguous meaning or nuanced perspective. Despite my physical travels — my multiplicity of physical “heres” — the Public Intellectuals course exposes the empty spaces within my “geography of the mind” (Atwood 8-9), a geography that could benefit from further development from the literary influence of the Canadian experience of Canadian land, as Atwood suggests. 

Within these uncharted expanses of my intellectual development stands uncertainty, hic sunt dracones as the antiquated mapmaking adage goes. Microcosmically, I still question where the dividing lines of public intellectual, public celebrity, and academic fall within the confines of this Public Intellectuals course. Two minds assessed on this course, David Suzuki and Thomas King, for example, both produce work of a sophisticated caliber from within the space of the academy as a scientist and professor of English literature, respectively. However, as both engage in public lectures and debates, write short essays and articles, and produce works in a variety of mediums (i.e. short films published to YouTube), Suzuki and King demonstrate their prominence as public-facing intellectuals, as they “rely on their use of media to articulate a higher mode of thinking” (Deshaye 2020) while appealing to a broader scope of people, many of whom may not be academic. Suzuki and King’s use of various forms of media — from comedic radio broadcasts (King) and educational television programs for children (Suzuki) — further signifies their mutable identities, as such presences seem to connote the image of the celebrity, a word one tends to associate with “popular” figures like actors and musicians. The spaces between the categories of (public) intellectual, academic, and celebrity thus seem liminal. These ambiguous spaces allow the initiatives of these identities to collide and hybridize.

Yet is this uncertain, hybrid, fluid definition of what it means to be a public intellectual the ultimate learning outcome this course on Public Intellectuals intends for the student to achieve? Again, I return to Atwood’s question: “Where is here” in the context of my learning, publicly displayed on this blog, and in my relationship to the distinctly Canadian paradigm, the course emphasizes? Yet perhaps a better question, while retaining Atwood’s language, is: what is here?



Like the sea I so often turn to in times of uncertainty or stress, I find that my conception of my own understanding of particular intellectual concepts eddies in the various pools of my mind. Perhaps this is the geography of my mind (Atwood 8-9): protean and changeable under the various tides that influence it. Perhaps the significance of this course exists on a more self-reflexive level, intending for the students to utilize their own liminal status as burgeoning academics to challenge stringent definitions of intellectual activities. Essentially, perhaps we as students serve as the most effective of public intellectuals, particularly when we engage in activities such as blogging academically-oriented topics.

In her essay “Situating the public social actions of blog posts”, Kathryn Grafton suggests that “an exigence of frequent self-expression drives the blogger to write about something, but not about anything: the ensuing post must be a fitting response to her ongoing performance of self” (91, emphasis retained). The academic/intellectual blog thus exemplifies the “ongoing performance of self” Grafton identifies for the student, becoming a means to grapple with one’s own ideas in real-time as well as invite their public — whether social, professional, or intellectual — into a dialogue about this performance of self as the developing intellect. This tenuous position as “thinkers in progress” signifies that a connection to a wider, less specialized public is still maintained. Perhaps this opens a critical channel of communication, in which students such as myself may link the seemingly esoteric, complex ideas produced within the academy with those outside it, articulating thoughts about such knowledge in an accessible way.

As an intellectually inclined blogger, a hopeful student, and a sometime writer, I continue to cultivate the various aspects of my style and interest as a response to the courses I participate in. Though my understanding of public intellectualism stems from personal doubt, I intend to remain cognizant of the unique position I occupy in virtue of my studies and appeal to broader publics on the digital platform of the blog and the “traditional” space of the written text.

Thus I turn to what is here, the space of my mind: uncertainty about my next steps after academia. A willingness to continue cultivating my ideas, intellectual or otherwise. An interest in engaging with Canadian narratives. How to forge connections between my academic background and a professional career. The sea, the sky, the land: their influence, their lessons.

“Here” is a multitudinous thing.


Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “What, Why, and Where is Here?” Survival by Margaret Atwood, M&S, 1996.

Deshaye, Joel. ENGL7300: Public Intellectuals in Canada. 14 Jan. 2020, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s. Lecture: “Theories of Publics and Classes.

Grafton, Kathryn. “Situating the public social actions of blog posts.” Genres in the Internet: Issues in the theory of genre, edited by Janet Giltrow and Dieter Stein, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 85-111.

Masefield, John. “Sea Fever (1902).” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation. poetryfoundation.org/poems/54932/sea-fever-56d235e0d871e. Accessed 23 Mar. 2020.

Suzuki, David. “Idle some more: a novel climate solution.” David Suzuki Foundation,
David Suzuki Foundation, 18 Mar. 2020, davidsuzuki.org/story/idle-some-more-a-novel-climate-solution/. Accessed 21 Mar. 2020.

“Come away, O human child!” || On the Value of an Education in the Humanities for the Changeling Child – a Response to Tasha Kheiriddin

One year after I graduated from the University of St Andrews, I was unemployed. Meanwhile, my peers proudly displayed keys to their new flats, sported freshly-pressed business suits to begin their careers at noteworthy companies, flashed engagement rings in magazine-worthy photoshoots, and hung Master’s degrees upon their walls. I did not apply to any Master’s program for the following autumn, my final months at university so haunted by anxiety that I had little intellectual energy to spare. So, I began to apply for various jobs, even ones as small as part-time bookseller positions at Barnes and Noble. Soon, though, I accrued enough letters of rejection that I could stitch them together like the panes of a patchwork quilt. During this time, I did not even possess a bank account.

In throwing all of my effort behind a degree I believed would put me so far ahead in the world, I failed to see just how far behind I truly was.

The naïve graduate

While the so-called “entry-level” workforce remains highly inaccessible, reflecting on my first encounter with unemployment forces me to realize that most of the obstacles I encountered were of my own making. Yet I never consider my choice of an undergraduate degree to be the underlying cause of these struggles. Despite my time in the freelance and entry-level workforce, I remain an outspoken advocate for the value of an education in the humanities. This perspective consequently chafes against the arguments levied by conservative Canadian media personality Tasha Kheiriddin in “Engaging the Next Generation: Issues, Ideals, and Academia”, a chapter from her 2005 book Rescuing Canada’s Right: Blueprint for a Conservative Revolution co-written with Canadian journalist Adam Daifallah.

According to Kheiriddin and Daifallah, “Student groups complain incessantly about the cost of higher education and the agony of paying back loans. They should realize that it’s much easier to pay back a loan when your degree actually qualifies you for a job” (“Engaging the Next Generation” 129). Specifically, Kheiriddin and Daifallah seem to condemn university degrees in the humanities that offer courses on diverse subjects such as gender — a significantly more fluid concept in 2020 than in 2005, when their book was published — monsters, and witchcraft. However, Kheiriddin and Daifallah’s rather condescending argument falls short on two accounts. First, though the pair were writing fifteen years ago, what they fail to consider is the potential for technology to become increasingly pervasive in the minds of youths. From a now-contemporary standpoint, technology radically changes the character of the classroom as children are given tablets from primary school through to their graduation. For example, in many of the high schools I worked for as a substitute teacher in 2017 and 2018, most reviews for tests and examinations take the form of a game played between the teacher and the students using their tablets and other interactive software. This example evidences the alterations educators have made to the traditional structure of the classroom to accommodate the increasing integration of technology, particularly smartphones, with the minds of both America and Canada’s youth (Twenge 2017).

The young people entering into institutions of higher education are thus dependent on intense stimulation, as scintillating screens influence many of their lives (“Engaging the Next Generation” 120), including those moments spent in the classroom. However, what Kheiriddin and Daifallah consider of “dubious academic value” (“Engaging the Next Generation” 128) may offer an inviting and engaging path for the students of today to traverse on their way to developing their intellect. Such unorthodox topics possess the potential to capture the imagination and subsequently stimulate increased attention for the content. While more traditional scholars could argue that using critical notions of monstrosity, to maintain Kheiriddin and Daifallah’s example, in such a way may cheapen academic study, the value in this instance is an offer to bridge the gap between scholarship and the highly stimulating worlds of today’s youth. Once academics establish this link, perhaps students will grow more receptive to the development of the skills intrinsic to success in these humanities courses, skills such as identifying the critical concerns of a text and crafting articulate responses to various ideas through discussion and written arguments. “[D]ubious academic value” (“Engaging the Next Generation” 128), indeed.

Proudly showing off my undergraduate thesis on “The Princess Bride,” which received a first-class mark.

When Kheiriddin and Daifallah charge students to reconsider how their “degree actually qualifies [them] for a job” (“Engaging the Next Generation” 129), they fail to register the ways in which the curriculum structure of a humanities degree cultivates professional development, particularly in graduate study, which signifies the second weakness of their argument. I will acknowledge that privileging any degree ahead of work in the trades does nothing to alleviate this debate. Rather, ignoring or even demeaning those whose skills are not compatible with the traditional classroom model of education only further entrenches this discussion in problematic ideas. Yet for the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on the debate between “employable” and “non-employable” degrees that underscore such vehement critiques of humanities scholarship.

While working as a substitute teacher, and indeed at other moments in my professional journey, I noticed an unsettling trend. In a full classroom, students would prefer to text their friend a desk or two away from them rather than speak to one another. When I worked with any student, he or she rarely met my eye (not including those students with diagnoses that may alter such interpersonal skills). More disturbingly, if I were to speak directly to a student, I was often met with an uncomfortable silence, an outright refusal to engage in conversation with me. What I began to realize was the absence of interpersonal and verbal communication skills as curriculums and external bodies privilege STEM-based learning ahead of the humanities. Once, while attempting to get a class of advanced placement English literature students engaged in a discussion on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a student I was fortunate to possess a rapport with raised his hand and said, “Miss Sadler, no offense, but none of us really care.” These were to be the students entering university the following autumn.

One AP English student’s take on “Jane Eyre.” A humorous observation, yet one not even articulated in a full sentence and lacking any attempt at critical engagement.

In her article “Why ‘worthless’ humanities degrees may set you up for life”, journalist Amanda Ruggeri consults former Forbes technology reporter George Anders about the common misconceptions surrounding humanities degrees in the workplace, specifically in the professional world of “Big Tech.” Ruggeri writes:

Anders says that Silicon Valley ‘was consumed with this idea that there was no education but Stem [sic] education’ […] But when he talked to hiring managers at the biggest tech companies, he found a different reality. ‘Uber was picking up psychology majors to deal with unhappy riders and drivers. Opentable was hiring English majors to bring data to restauranteurs to get them excited about what data could do for their restaurants,’ he says (2019).

As Anders observes, the value of an education in the humanities rests not simply in the content of one’s study. Rather, it is necessary to consider the skills, skills that are applicable to any professional sphere, one cultivates while earning such a degree. In my academic and professional experience, such capabilities include but are not limited to:

  • Analyzing the meaning of any body of text and identifying its key arguments
  • Articulating one’s perspective in a discussion and negotiating conflicting ideologies
  • Collaborating with one’s colleagues (fellow students and professors alike) to peer review work or further develop one’s research
  • Conducting independent research using a diverse range of sources
  • Crafting clear, concise pieces of written work to exhibit mastery of any language one writes in
  • Networking with academic professionals in the classroom, at extra-curricular events, via email, and at academic conferences

I contend that the effectiveness of any professional organization significantly diminishes if its members cannot demonstrate a command of such interpersonal and communicative skills. As a direct challenge to Kheiriddin and Daifallah, what about these curricular foundations in the humanities does not “actually qualif[y]” (“Engaging the Next Generation” 129) someone for gainful employment?

However, I believe that it is crucial to consider the value of an education in the humanities beyond its financial risks or rewards. As previously discussed, allegedly “non-useful” courses in seemingly “ridiculous” subjects, including fairy tales and monsters (some areas of my personal research interest) may prove a useful tool for stimulating renewed interest in academic scholarship, particularly in the fields of literature. Perhaps this is what struck me so deeply about Kheiriddin’s perspective, considering that her daughter, Aria, “considers herself a changeling” (“How Autism can Make a Better World” 2:40).

“Fairy Stealing a Child” by Arthur Rackham (1908)

In her 2017 TEDx talk “How Autism can Make a Better World: 5 Things I Learned from a Fairy,” Kheiriddin uses her testimony as a mother of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder to discuss certain issues in Canada’s education system. Kheiriddin encourages listeners to not “shut out the unusual because you would be missing out on an opportunity” (“How Autism can Make a Better World” 10:12), as if in a plea to prospective employers of individuals who register on the autistic spectrum.

Kheiriddin seems to value the unorthodox as it manifests in her daughter, and treasures her daughter’s intense imagination. Would not her daughter in the very least be interested in, if not benefit from, an educational institution that does not drill employability and marketability into its students but instead cultivates their specialized interests, including interests in fairies? Kheiriddin’s intense critique of academia and scholarship in the humanities came in 2005, and her daughter was born four years later. One can only hope that she has since altered her critical perspective in light of the new world view her daughter has exposed her to; a sixth lesson, perhaps, learned from a fairy. 

Though I do not register on the autistic spectrum, I myself was something of a changeling child. I felt as though the world’s most fantastic things danced at the edge of my vision, tempting me, so I trained my gaze far into the distance to witness them. I played by myself, I read stories of adventure and daring, and I created my own world out of the sticks and pebbles of my collections. I would not be the scholar I am today without the support of parents who saw that my unusual imagination would thrive only in the humanities, that this path would entail a fruitful life for their wee changeling. I am also fortunate to have encountered academic professionals who believe in my projects, as steeped in fairy magic as they are. Perhaps what the world needs, particularly in times such as now, is a little more magic and mystery.

Works Cited

“How Autism can Make a Better World: 5 Things I Learned from a Fairy” by Tasha for TEDxKelowna.” YouTube, uploaded by TEDx Talks, 6 Jul. 2017, youtube.com/watch?v=HALkEa7sgTU. Accessed 14 Mar. 2020.

Kheiriddin, Tasha and Adam Daifallah. “Engaging the Next Generation: Issues, Ideals, and Academia.” Rescuing Canada’s Right: Blueprint for a Conservative Revolution by Tasha Kheiriddin and Adam Daifallah, John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd., 2005, 119-139.

Rackham, Arthur. “Fairy Stealing a Child.” 1908. pinterest.com/pin/138907969727761464/. Accessed 17 Mar. 2020.

Ruggeri, Amanda. “Why ‘worthless’ humanities degrees may set you up for life.” Worklife BBC, The BBC, 1 Apr. 2019, bbc.com/worklife/article/20190401-why-worthless-humanities-degrees-may-set-you-up-for-life. Accessed 16 Mar. 2020.

Twenge, Jean M. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group, Sept. 2017, theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/. Accessed 15 Mar. 2020.

Yeats, W.B. “The Stolen Child.” Poets.org. American Academy of Poets, poets.org/poem/stolen-child. Accessed 16 Mar. 2020.

“[…] my heroes were warrior-intellectuals” ||The Treasonous (Public) Intellectual in a Multi-Cultural World

My childhood aspiration.

For a child, rainy days do not usually bring the most exciting of adventures. They are spent indoors, cooped up, and without fresh air and freedom. A grim forecast during a vacation? Even worse. However, as my brother and I spent sepia-toned summers at our grandmother’s cabin in northern Michigan, a part of me would yearn for just one rainy day sprinkled into the mix of fishing, collecting shells along the beach, and indulging in an Oreo cookie with Grandma Sue. When the rain would speckle the thin, luminous window glass, my mother and my grandmother knew just the thing to keep two rambunctious forest urchins occupied for a few hours of the day: and his name is Indiana Jones.

Oddly enough, Indiana Jones occupies a treasured yet unusual memory from my childhood trips to Grandma Sue’s cabin. I found this “warrior-intellectual” (Trudeau 19), to borrow Canadian poet George Elliott Clarke’s words, captivating, a scholar with the charisma and devil-may-care charm of a Wild West gunslinger. Until my early twenties, the fantasy of Indiana Jones signified what I hoped to accomplish in my life: the marriage of academia and adventure, to follow Indy’s footsteps and become a “warrior-intellectual” (Trudeau 19).

Publicizing my thoughts and intellectual work on this blog as a part of my Master’s degree has certainly engendered an awareness of my privilege as an educated young woman. However, the focus of this course, public intellectuals, forces a reckoning with the responsibility I possess as an educated individual in articulating both the unorthodox experiences I have had and how they relate to the kinds of work the academy produces today. Specifically, I reflect on the disparity between my time as an undergraduate student at one of the world’s most prestigious, multi-cultural, and indeed affluent universities and my brief foray into volunteering with the United States Peace Corps.

In a rather oblique way, Canadian poet and literary critic George Elliott Clarke’s play, Trudeau: Long March & Shining Path and his self-proclaimed “decision to write up [Pierre Elliott] Trudeau — to actually put my words in his mouth” (Trudeau 20, emphasis my own) inspires my reflection on my past ambitions. In a previous life, I dreamed of gallivanting across the world, collecting and preserving the antiquities of other cultures a la Indiana Jones as a dashing, adventuresome scholar. In my naivety, I would wax on about my desire to abandon the “prison” of the classroom (Marshall McLuhan qtd. by Deshaye 2020) to obtain a more “grassroots” experience of the orally-based, more “traditional” cultures around the world I intended to study.


To cite my application to the Peace Corps: “[…] what essays and textbooks cannot provide is a real-world understanding of how theories of the methods and effects of cross-cultural exchange on cultural products apply beyond the classroom and to affect those cultures discussed in a Comparative Literature program. I also find myself wondering who it is taking the initiative to promote change in the areas my peers and I identified as problematic, such as women’s accessibility to education on the global stage. I then realized how this motivation to experience personal interaction with diverse cultures and my educational background could be used to benefit such people. Volunteering with the Peace Corps would provide such an opportunity to apply what I learned at university while aiding those who could benefit from my skills.” The desire underpinning my motivations to embark upon two years of voluntary service in the Peace Corps was, whether I was cognizant of it or not, was to put my words in the mouths of the marginalized people I encountered to enrich my own storytelling. While Clarke articulates the same idea, the thoughts running through my adventure-craving mind were, unbeknownst to me at the time, a bit more sinister in their critical implications.

Much like the heroic Indiana Jones declares, “That belongs in a museum” (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade 1989), in the guise of the “warrior-intellectual” (Trudeau 19), I too aspired to “preserve” the traditions of the world’s most remote lands and isolated communities. I looked to embalm their words in the jeweled sarcophagus of my own romanticized narrative voice, to archive their stories in the leather-bound notebooks of my private collection.

What I failed to realize was how little those people needed me to be their storyteller, to be their intellectual hero.

In The Gambia, an individual known as a griot serves as the community’s historian, storyteller, and musician. The griot is the keeper of cultural tradition. While I never had the privilege of meeting a griot directly, during my Ngente ― or naming ceremony, which formally welcomed me as a member of my host family ― I do recall an individual who sang during the ceremony and performed an oral narrative. It was then I realized: these people do not need my words in their mouths. The Gambian people had their storytellers; I was just another toubab struggling in the heat of the summer sun. I could never tell their stories with my imperfect grasp of Wolof, with my ability to return to the comfort of an American home after my two-year service concluded.

When describing the various “treasons” an intellectual of color may commit today, Clarke concludes that silence, particularly his own, in the face of “supercilious claims” made by a white woman against a black student is “the rankest treason” (“Treason of the Black Intellectuals?” 1998). My experience as a white, highly educated, reasonably middle-class American woman is in no way equitable to Clarke’s. However, as a burgeoning intellectual, I find my treason to be of the opposite, and perhaps more insidious, nature: I was not silent, daring instead to add my own voice to the milieu of ignorance that contends with an increasingly multi-cultural world. Today, I am careful when choosing my words to express my experiences abroad. I steep my reflections in gratitude and respect, not out of fear of offending given my exceedingly privileged position, but out of genuine appreciation for the diverse people I have encountered who offered me a warm welcome despite our differences, despite whatever intentions lurked beneath the surface of my outward quest for knowledge.

In Trudeau: Long March & Shining Path, Clarke uses his perspective as a Black intellectual in Canada to interrogate former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a man whom Clarke identifies as having “loved donning the garb of other cultures: a turban here, a rob there. No Canadian prime minister before or since has associated as closely with the Third World ― or with Canadians ‘of colour'” (21). Yet is his fascination with Trudeau a kind of “treason” itself? Specifically, are Clarke’s dichotomous representations of Trudeau problematic in relation to his role as a public intellectual? Should we even conflate a public intellectual’s person with the work that they produce? Ultimately, these questions frustrate a clear reading of Clarke’s text, particularly in light of my own brief history with cross-cultural encounters and the difficulty that inevitably emerges when attempting to appropriately articulate those experiences as a privileged, educated individual. However, Clarke’s intellectual project in Trudeau: Long March & Shining Path inspires a reconsideration of one’s “heroes”, the “warrior-intellectuals” (19) as Clarke clearly grapples with in his ambiguous representation of Trudeau. Does the public need or desire such figures as the “warrior-intellectual” or an Indiana Jones-like scholar-adventurer? While they may be entertaining on a rainy afternoon, perhaps they are best left in the “theatre of imagination” (Trudeau 15).

Works Cited

Clarke, George Elliott. “Treason of the Black Intellectuals?” Canadian Writers: Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Athabasca University, 4 November 1998, canadian-writers.athabascau.ca/english/writers/geclarke/treason.php.

Clarke, George Elliott. Trudeau: Long March & Shining Path. Gaspereau Press Limited, 2007.

Deshaye, Joel. “Marshall McLuhan Review.” English 7300: Public Intellectuals in Canada. 11 February 2020, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s. Lecture.

“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Wikiquote, 7 January 2020. en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Indiana_Jones_and_the_Last_Crusade.

‘Mishigamaa’ and the Question of Native

There is a story I know. It is about an island and how it flourishes on the back of a turtle. I’ve heard this story many times, and each time someone tells the story, it changes. Sometimes the change is simply the voice of the storyteller. Sometimes the change is in the details. Other times it’s the way the story is presented, either in language, print, or art. But in all the tellings of all the tellers, the turtle always becomes the island. || Paraphrase of Thomas King, my own details added.


I am not sure what I was expecting when I opened to the first page of Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Despite King’s prominent place in the canon of contemporary Canadian literature — and being an American expatriate — I had never encountered his work, nor even heard his name. I settled in with this narrative with the attitude to churn out yet another text for my “Public Intellectuals in Canada” class. My mind remains open to engagement but I find that it is often closed to being truly affected by the words waiting for me in those pages.

One of the difficulties with my place in this “Public Intellectuals in Canada” course is the fact that I am not Canadian. At times, I often feel as though the local and national knowledge is taken for granted. A colleague or the professor will mention certain public figures, events, and cultural products — whether it be novels, films, television shows, or even something as simple as advertisements — and everyone will immediately be in the know, allowing the conversation to charge ever-onward. I find myself left behind. The trouble is, I am different from my peers in two very crucial respects: I was born in the United States but received my undergraduate education in the United Kingdom. I straddle two distinct spheres while attempting to orient myself in this third space, as though I, alone, am playing a game of intellectual Twister. I am always balanced precariously amongst these places: I never allow myself to come crashing down definitively on one circle, letting it swallow me up.

As Thomas King opens his narrative, “There is a story I know,” something remarkable happened. I found that I too know this story. I know it almost as intimately as I know my own. King is an American in Canada and a storyteller; I, armed with stories of my experiences told one too many times, wander the streets of St. John’s, Newfoundland, a most unlikely place for a girl from rural Michigan.

Yet King’s story is different. King tells about a woman he calls Charm who falls through the sky to the earth, enlisting the aquatic creatures she met there to create land for her to live on upon the back of a great, giant turtle (12-21). King calls his story “the Woman Who Fell from the Sky” and it is a “Native” narrative of Creation (22). King himself is a prominent scholar of Cherokee heritage and a Professor of English at the University of Guelph. Once again, the story has evolved into one I do not know. Once again, I find myself on the outside.

The study of indigenous literature and perspectives is a topic that I consistently grapple with. My interest in indigenous storytelling began as a young, pebble-collecting urchin trundling along the shores of Lake Michigan. The creation story King tells is a variant of a story told frequently at home about a popular tourist destination: Mackinac Island. Today, this story appears in a strikingly illustrated children’s book by Minnesotan (and non-native) author Kathy-jo Wargin. It tells of the great turtle Makinauk who transformed into Mackinac Island after the most stalwart and least-esteemed creature, a tiny muskrat, managed to capture soil from the bottom of Lake Huron to place upon the turtle’s back.

Almost every child-friendly household in Michigan owns Wargin’s picture book, alongside her companion work The Legend of the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Many knew these legends before they were fixed in print and in artwork. In Michigan, legends flit along the shores of the Great Lakes, hiding buried in the sand with Petoskey Stones. They lurk in the deep pine forest with the black bears, wary of the humans that pass them by. Legends feed the Michigan imagination; they nourish its sense of self.

However, critic Deborah McGregor argues in her essay “Coming Full Circle: Indigenous Knowledge, Environment, and Our Future” that “Our knowledge cannot be placed in a book or library; it does not work that way” (399). How, then, can we who were born and bred in a place like Michigan — as steeped as it is in lake water and indigenous narratives — who are not indigenous reconcile our love, respect, and interest in our home and its stories? I have never known what it means to not respect the indigenous narratives and legends that shape my home. As a child, I spent a large portion of my time away from the urbanized southeast of the state at my grandmother’s cabin in the far north. This childhood was spent toddling along quiet rivers, hunting for Petoskey Stones, listening for the call of the loon caught on the morning breeze, and taking in the stories that created that land. My mother was careful to educate my brother and I about the people that called the lakes and forests home before us, to expose us to their art, music, and stories so we could know lives different from our own, though we were both “Michigan natives.”

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In light of King’s The Truth About Stories — his testimony of native experience and scholarship — and McGregor’s essay, I struggle to reconcile the deep respect, and indeed pride, I feel for my home and its privileging of its indigenous past. I question my interest in the stories that nurtured my love of storytelling, folklore, and magic: of bears transforming into sand dunes, of brave muskrats, and turtles who carry the weight of human lives upon their backs. Though I have possessed a long-standing desire to study indigenous literature in an academic setting, perhaps even pursuing an extended research essay on the topic, instead, I ask: are there things that cannot be studied or taught by people who do not share the background of those who tell those stories? What role do I play — traveler, Michigan “native”, and burgeoning scholar — in the preservation of these stories, or would the best thing I could do to be to leave them be?

This post feels disjointed. Disconnected. Adrift. Perhaps it mirrors my own state of mind in reflecting upon the topic of nativeness, indigenous literature, storytelling, and the role scholars play in the respectful study of narratives that are integral to the people that tell them. Perhaps it feels lost in light of the notion that “Indigenous Knowledge cannot be separated from the people” (MacGregor 399), forever barring my curiosity from cultivating a deeper understanding of the narratives that nurture my home. What can I truly know?

Works Cited

Campbell, Tenille K. “The Truth About Stories – King.” Photograph. Tenille K Campbell: Academic, Photographer, Poet, 28 November 2016. tenillecampbell.com/?p=755. Accessed 3 March 2020.

King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Dead Dog Café Productions Inc. and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 2003.

McGregor, Deborah. “Coming Full Circle: Indigenous Knowledge, Environment, and Our Future.” American Indian Quarterly vol. 28, no.3/4, Special Issue: The Recovery of Indigenous Knowledge, 2004, 385-410. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/4138924.

van Frankenhuyzen, Gijsbert. “The Legend of Mackinac Island.” Cover art. Sleeping Bear Press. sleepingbearpress.com/shop/show/11482. Accessed 3 March 2020.

“into the soft irrational sea” || Reflections on Phyllis Webb by an Anxious Poet


I sit upon a hoard of words, like the dragon Smaug nestled within his pile of stolen dwarvish gold deep beneath the Lonely Mountain. Words that tantalize, words that bewitch, words that promise of another world: I gather them all to me, tucking them away in buried notebooks and hazy daydreams.  When I encounter a writer whose creative use of words grabs me by the breast bone, shaking me awake — Catherynne Valente, Karen Russell, Sena Jeter Naslund, and Phyllis Webb — I become ravenous for their work, devouring everything they have written.

While this love affair with words has encouraged my current path as a Master’s in English literature student, there are moments in this journey that seem to chafe against this passion, this fascination with the alchemical rendering of the English language. As it is apparent in this blog series, I have a tendency to infuse my academic word with a creative vernacular. In my amateur opinion, academic work need not exhaust the reader. Rather, what better way to introduce innovative ways of thinking to academia than to cultivate a unique writing style, a hybrid of intellectual and creative registers?

Perhaps my preoccupation with this question — one that features significantly in my work and my engagement with academia — is an underlying cause for my fascination with Canadian feminist poet Phyllis Webb. In addition to Webb’s formal education in English and philosophy and her career as a poet, Webb curated a radio-broadcast public lecture series, University of the Air, for the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC). Partnered with William A. Young, Webb also founded and produced the CBC program Ideas from 1967-1969, a program that still streams across the airwaves from the CBC (Thesen). I suggest that Webb’s multifaceted identity —  poet, public broadcaster, academic — situates her in the unique position of the public intellectual, as she stands at the focal point where publicity and intensely cerebral work converge.

Webb’s poetry is highly intertextual; a chimera of Shakespearean figures, Biblical allusions, and “canonical” (male) writers lives within her stanzas. Webb uses her poetic voice to invite her intertexts to move in innovative, unexpected ways. Given my obsession with collecting the words, images, and dreams of writers I admire, I found Webb’s skill for manipulating such sources to be enviable, as if she inhabits the same world as these figures and literary images and is, therefore, able to effectively deploy them in her work. Consider, for example, “Lear on the Beach at Break of Day”:

Down the beach at break of day
observe Lear calmly observing the sea:
he tosses the buttons of his sanity
like aged pebbles into the bay;
cold, as his sexless daughters were […]
And there Lear stands, alone.
The sun is rising and the cliffs aspire.
And there Lear stands, with dark small stones
in his crazed old hands. But farther and higher
he hurls them now, as if to free
himself with them. But only stones drop
sullenly a hardened crop,
into the soft, irrational sea (27).

At the outset of the poem, Webb’s repetition of the verb “observe” invokes an almost voyeuristic perspective, as if she shares the same maddened impulse that drove Shakespeare’s King Lear to the cliffside, that in her knowing she can gaze upon the spectacle of his mounting madness.

Yet here is where my close analysis of Webb’s poetry ceases. My voice wanes, my mind grasps at an intelligent analysis.

Throughout my career as a student of English literature, I consider poetry to be my weakest subject area. I admire the poet’s sensitive ear, how attuned they are to the rhythms of speech, their deftness in creating a world in but a line. In the case of Webb’s poetry, the way in which she strings adjectives and nouns together — like a mixture of bones, sea glass, and pearls on a string — leaves me in awe. Indeed, as Webb writes of Lear’s stones falling “into the soft, irrational sea” (27), I yearn to take up a place beside Webb in this intimate look at Lear’s unraveling, to let the waves of such a sea wash over me. However, I find myself unable to comprehend what the majority of her poems mean

In the words of literary critics Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus in their critique of this trend in literary scholarship, “As literary critics we were trained to equate reading with interpretation: with assigning a meaning to a text or set of texts” (1). As literature students, we are taught from an early age to burrow to the root of what a text, a line of poetry, or a metaphor means: how the words relate to the context in which the work was produced, what wider comment the author may be attempting to offer his or her audience, the symbols lurking beneath the surface of the text. As we mature through the academy, we are tasked with offering critiques on these assembled meanings through our interpretations, to weave evidence from a literary text together with the interpretations of other scholars to arrive at our own conclusions.

Having made it through one semester of my Master’s program, I clearly possess the skill necessary to perform these expected tasks. However, thus far all of the texts I have encountered have been novels, non-fiction travel writing, and short stories. The works of Webb and Phebe Florence Miller are my first contacts with poetry in this degree and I feel as though I am drowning in my attempt to plumb the depths beneath the surfaces of their poems.  This leads me to doubt my place in the academy and whether I am truly an effective candidate for this degree: if I fail to ascertain the deeper meanings of poetry, can I truly call myself a student of literature? An intellectual?

My difficulties with poetry come into sharp focus if one were to examine my annotations of poetical works compared to that of novelists. I am obsessive and fastidious when it comes to annotating a text, as pictured in the lefthand photo in my copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown. However, the righthand photo depicts but a few lines emphasized in Webb’s “A Tall Tale.” To be candid, my reasoning for picking out those lines does not stem from any keen intellectual source; rather, I simply appreciated Webb’s use of language in that particular line, the image she conjured with her verse. My annotations of poetry are mostly a collection of notations that embody my admiration for the poetical mind, with scant interpretations and analyses sprinkled throughout.

This becomes a significant source of anxiety for me while attempting to contribute to my seminars. I cannot rightly sit down in class and say to a respected professor, “I liked her words in this passage.” If so, the professor’s attempt to elicit more of a detailed and critical response from me would end there. Simply put: “because it sounded neat” or “made me imagine fantastical things” are not adequate analyses of poetry if such statements may be deemed analyses at all.

My anxiety about interpreting poetry as an academic trickle into my work as a creative writer as well. I dabble in poems, however, I only do so with the reassuring knowledge that they will not see the light of day. Rather, I tend to write in a vaguely poetic form when my creativity is not robust enough to produce a short story or “vignette” as I call them, scenes from what could be larger stories that I turn to most frequently when the creative urge haunts me. Though a piece of my poetry will be published in a journal later this year,  my first very real publication, when I received the letter of acceptance the first thought that crept into my mind was, “Why?”

Perhaps I am a bit like “the soft, irrational sea” (Webb 27) that King Lear hurls his sanity into. My creative mind may be vast, malleable to the influences of other writers and intellectuals like Webb in the way the “soft” sea swallows Lear’s pebbles. Perhaps I am capable of joining the ranks of public-facing poets cum intellectuals like Webb — though without the same gravitas, of course — evidenced by my forthcoming publication that is a work of poetry, not fiction, the genre in which I feel most comfortable. Yet an irrationality that lurks in my mind prohibits effective engagement with this genre, a fear of insufficiency as an academic that translates into my passion for writing. What contributions could I make to both academia and the world of creative writing if I opened myself to this possibility, like “The poet in his vision tree” (Webb 32)?

Works Cited

Artist Unknown. Phyllis Webb: 2004 Judges. Date unknown. The Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry, griffinpoetryprize.com/judges/2004-judges/.

Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations vol. 108, no. 1, Fall 2009, 1-21. Proquest Central. doi:10.1525/rep.2009.108.1.1.

The Lamp Journal. Queen’s University, 16 February 2020. lampjournal.com.

Shadbolt, Jack. “The Place,” 1972. The Vision Tree: Selected Poems by Phyllis Webb, edited by Sharon Thesen, Talonbooks, 1982.

Thesen, Sharon. “Phyllis Webb.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 10 February 2008. thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/phyllis-webb

Webb, Phyllis. “EVEN YOUR RIGHT EYE 2. In Situ.” The Vision Tree: Selected Poems, edited by Sharon Thesen, Talonbooks, 1982, 31-32.

Webb, Phyllis. “Lear on the Beach at Break of Day.” The Vision Tree: Selected Poems, edited by Sharon Thesen, Talonbooks, 1982, 27.

Webb, Phyllis. “A Tall Tale.” The Vision Tree: Selected Poems, edited by Sharon Thesen, Talonbooks, 1982, 53.


“Gould” and Great: Glenn Gould, Public Intellectuals, and High Versus Low Culture


The gulf of difference between the places represented here could not be wider. To the left is Westminster Abbey in London, England, which I traipsed by on a jaunt to London in May of 2016 after completing my undergraduate degree. Westminster Abbey is distinct in its Gothic grandeur, in its twin spires piercing the grey London skies. The building to the right, however, is more perplexing. The parched red earth suggests a place far off the “beaten track,” so the well-known travel saying goes. The forlorn tire weighing down the corrugated tin roof and the trash dotting the background suggest a place a little less developed, a place so very far from London.  Taken almost exactly one year after my London excursion, this photo emphasizes the remarkable poverty I encountered in The Gambia, West Africa while briefly volunteering in the United States Peace Corps.  

I chose these two wholly disparate examples of local architecture to illustrate, in a rather striking way, the contrast between so-called “high” and “low” culture. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, high culture suggests “highly refined artistic or intellectual achievement; the manifestation of this in art, music, literature, etc.” (OED Online 2019). Perhaps to the imaginations that dreamed Westminster Abbey into reality, my Gambian abode would signify the complete antithesis to high culture, a dwelling void of artistic refinement. To the more critical, less forgiving eye, this traditional Gambian home could also indicate a lack of intellectual accomplishment, the kind of intellectual rigor needed to construct a majestic Gothic cathedral.

Yet herein lurks the critical issue at hand. In polite conversation, it would be rather outrageous to measure the merits of everyday Gambian architecture against one of the defining landmarks of a fully-developed Western European city. The definition of high culture, rather problematically, seems to privilege refinement of taste in art, literature, music, and so forth. However, “refinement” in this context seems to connote “superior.” Such categories are wholly subjective: what is the measure of refinement? Ascribing the labels of “high” and “low” culture in this architectural example also points to a second key problem. In deeming this example of Gambian architecture “low culture” when pitted against Westminster Abbey, one risks further marginalizing the cultures, nations, and individuals like the Gambians who do not have access to the resources that could “elevate” their cultural products.

Simply put: debating between “high” and “low” culture inevitably creates a hierarchy of value. In this hierarchy, one piece of art be it a painting, piece of music, a building, or a novel may fail to achieve a particular aesthetic standard. Consequently, it is deemed “lesser” than another work that more effectively represents these subjective categories of taste and refinement. 

Glenn Gould (photo from thestar.com)

The contrast between structures I encountered in my travels to London and The Gambia, therefore, illustrates the critical issues that surround discussions of high and low culture. To introduce a different example and a Canadian paradigm, I turn my attention to noteworthy twentieth-century Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould. Heralded as a child prodigy, Gould made headlines for his virtuosic musical ability as well as for his unorthodox methods. Despite frequently turning to the musical oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven, Gould was remarkable for his technical precision yet simultaneous disregard for the aura of the classical pianist. As the above photo illustrates, Gould often hunched over the keys, absorbed in the melodies his hands created. Gould was also known for humming or singing along to the pieces he played, which further emphasizes his distance from the erect, poised standard of classical piano performance.

At the outset, Gould seems to embody the tension between high and low culture. Gould not only toured the world performing classical piano music — the works of Bach and Beethoven themselves suggestive of a certain “refined” standard of music, particularly in the 1950s when Gould was ascending to fame — Gould further cultivated his public presence by engaging in intellectual activities such as writing essays and producing a documentary for the CBC entitled “The Idea of North.” However, the image of Gould seems to possess a certain “devil may care” quality. In photographs, his clothes appear habitually rumpled with rogue curls escaping the standard 1950s gentlemanly coif. From a contemporary perspective, Gould’s image seems antithetical to the “accepted” image of the poised classical pianist, appearing more aligned with the artists ushering in the controversial new genre of the era: rock and roll.

According to Graham Carr in “Visualizing ‘The Sound of Genius’: Glenn Gould and the Culture of Celebrity in the 1950’s”, the “growing multimedia network of communication” (8), particularly the use of photographs in marketing, enabled the rise of the celebrity, a trend that Gould capitalized upon. For Carr, “Gould’s celebrity reflected the ‘structural interrelatedness of intellectual and popular culture and the degree to which young musicians of all types had become part of a shared media discourse” (8). Carr attributes Gould’s meteoric rise in the 1950s to his utilization of the “shared media discourse”, or a marketable image captured by photographs and records, to frustrate the inaccessibility of classical music. Essentially, Gould seems to embody both “high” and “low” culture, signifying the possibility that such categories may not be as rigid as many may have initially believed. Consequently, Gould’s induction into the realm of “celebrity”, of “popular culture”, despite keeping a foot in the seemingly elite world of classical music offers the potential for the disparity between “high” and “low” culture to break down.

However, I find that the mutability of Gould’s persona ultimately re-co-opts Gould into the world of an inaccessible “high culture.” Specifically, it is when Gould drifts into the realm of the “public intellectual” and begins to cultivate a more cerebral public voice that he becomes a troubling figure. Gould retreated from the sphere of performance towards the end of his career. Instead, Gould privileged recordings of his music over live performance, as electronic media, in his view, returns art to a “pure, ideal” state (“The Prospects of Recording” 115) by enhancing the artist’s ability to perfect the piece. On the one hand, studio recordings democratize access to performance-based art forms like music, particularly works, like classical music, that orbits within the “high culture” universe. However, if artists privilege “perfection”, does genuine, organic creation become the sacrifice of this pursuit? Furthermore, it would seem as though striving for “perfection,” as Gould advocates in his rejection of live performance, the trappings of “high culture” become even more apparent. In pursuit of the perfect piece of music, artists such as Gould only create works that are highly filtered and refined, and thus more aligned with the aims of the world of “high culture.”


Lindsey Stirling live at the Hammersmith Apollo (photo from theupcoming.co.uk)

In 2010, a twenty-three-year-old amateur violinist named Lindsey Stirling entered the popular televised talent competition, America’s Got Talent. However, Stirling was eliminated from the competition, deemed “‘not good enough […] to get away with flying through the air and trying to play the violin at the same time'” (Varga 2014). Today, Stirling makes her living as an independent recording artist with several awards and international tours to her name, due largely in part to her active social media presence. For Stirling:

My big goal was that I wanted to be someone who was pioneering the way for the independent artist with this new [social media-fueled] model, and [show] that you could cross over from YouTube and be seen as a new artist. I wanted to be an artist who helped bridge that gap (Varga 2014).

Like Gould, Stirling demonstrates a notable command of a classical instrument. Like the piano, the violin is an instrument that the wider public may typically associate with the world of orchestras, intricate symphonies, and classical composers. However, Stirling’s poise is articulated in a wholly creative and unexpected way. Stirling flits across the stage in outlandish costumes, combining a lithe style of dancing that mirrors the unique melodies she composes. Visually, Stirling presents herself as a chimera of steampunk, ethereal, and fantastical aesthetics. Stirling defies the standard definition of the violin player through the embodiment of her music, which she self-produces with highly stylized music videos on her YouTube channel. Her music often hybridizes musical genres, combining the more classical strains of the violin with the contemporary rhythms of dubstep music. Amidst the stunning visuals and unique sounds she creates, Stirling smiles playfully at her audience, coyly inviting them to enter into her world.

While Gould’s foray into writing, documentary production, and so forth solidifies his status as a public intellectual, Stirling lacks this diversity of activity which frustrates the likening of the two. However, Stirling’s palpable creativity and skill with a classical instrument indicate a dynamism that draws her into the realm of the intellectual. Simply put, composing, arranging, and performing musical pieces to the level of quality Stirling produces demands intellectual rigor. However, I believe that Stirling’s canny “intertextuality” (Carr 33) in the cultivation of her aesthetic, her sound, and her celebrity presence while keeping a foot firmly rooted in the classical tradition of violin playing signifies her deft manipulation of the boundaries between “high” and “low” culture. Rather, in hybridizing musical genres and disseminating her work on public platforms like YouTube, Stirling achieves a balance between these two distinct measures of cultural value in order to begin breaking them down. Essentially, Stirling democratizes classical music for the wider public and curates an easily accessible “celebrity” persona (Carr 33) while simultaneously upholding a highly stylized, intensely rigorous mode of playing compatible with the standards of traditional classical music performance.

In his “Advice to a Graduation,” Gould urges his audience to “remain deeply involved in the processes of your imagination” (7). When Stirling floats across the stage like the fay creature of contemporary music, one can only wonder at how Gould would have interpreted Stirling’s celebrity presence and musical aptitude. Perhaps Gould would have admired someone truly heeding his advice, whether intentionally or not, in an effort to truly explore the depths of her imaginative force.


Works Cited

Carr, Graham. “Visualizing ‘The Sound of Genius’: Glenn Gould and The Culture of Celebrity in the 1950’s.” Journal of Canadian Studies vol. 40, no. 3, 2006, 5-41.

Carroll, Jock. Glenn Gould. Date unknown. The Star, thestar.com/entertainment/music/2016/09/06/glenn-gould-foundation-triples-prizes-seeks-government-cash-for-its-nobel-for-the-arts-wells.html.

Cavalensi, Arianna. Lindsey Stirling at Hammersmith Apollo. 2019. The Upcoming, theupcoming.co.uk/2019/10/15/lindsey-stirling-at-the-eventim-apollo-live-review/.

Gould, Glenn. “Prologue: Advice to a Graduation.” The Glenn Gould Reader, edited by Tim Page, Vintage Books, 1990, 2-7.

Gould, Glenn. “The Prospects of Recording.” Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, edited by Cristoph Cox and Daniel Warner, Continuum Publishing Group, 2006, 115-126.

“high culture n.b.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2019, oed.com/view/Entry/86850. Accessed 6 February 2020.

Varga, George. “Lindsey Stirling bows way to the top.” The San Diego Union-Tribune, 13 May 2014. sandiegouniontribune.com/entertainment/music/sdut-lindsey-stirling-interview-2014may13-htmlstory.html.


Insufficiently Educated, Intensely Intellectual: A Response to Richard A. Posner’s “More Public, Less Intellectual”

“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me […] and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. ” (335) || Tara Westover, Educated


Upon the completion of my undergraduate degree at the University of St Andrews and return to the United States, I proposed to some of my closest friends that we create a book club, capitalizing on the instantaneous connectivity of Facebook Messenger to create our own contemporary, digital literary salon in lieu of geographic proximity. Here we would wax poetic about literary works, discuss our opinions, and encourage one another to grapple with texts outside of our respective “comfort zones.” I saw this book club not only as an opportunity to reinforce my bonds with my international circle of friends but also to prevent my critical thinking skills from atrophying as I faced unemployment and no opportunities for further study. It was through this book club that I read Tara Westover’s bitingly candid memoir, Educated.

I draw attention to Westover’s memoir as well as my encounter with it as these topics align neatly with the learning outcomes of this blog series, mainly an investigation into the intersection of public activity and intellectualism. Specifically, in reading Richard A. Posner’s “More Public, Less Intellectual” from his book Public Intellectuals: A Study of a Decline for class, Westover’s memoir and her unorthodox educational trajectory scratched at the back of my mind.

Posner defines a public intellectual as “a person who, drawing on his intellectual resources, addresses a broad though educated public on issues with a political or ideological dimension” (170). As a Cambridge-educated historian, published memoirist, and one of TIME’s “Most Influential People of 2019”, Westover seems to embody the definition of the public intellectual Posner articulates. Looking beyond Westover’s résumé, the issues that Educated a public testimony in virtue of being published highlights draw critical attention to intellectual matters that are positively charged with political ramifications, as Posner posits. Specifically, Westover addresses the accessibility of higher education, the disjoint between public and homeschooling, and negotiates critiques of institutionalized control over educational systems. Yet Posner’s definition of the public intellectual, and its relationship to an individual like Westover, begs a significant question. How might Posner quantify the wider public’s “education” in order for the public intellectual’s work to yield the desired effect?

Contemplating the measure one’s education drew my attention away from Posner’s study of the public intellectual in relation to the professional academic to Westover’s memoir. Westover was born in rural Idaho to parents who advocated “survivalism.” Essentially, the Westovers denied their children access to medical care and public education. They also evaded federal government regulations (i.e. procuring birth certificates for their children) out of suspicion for the pervasive institutional control over the lives of everyday Americans. As such, the Westovers’ efforts to educate their children significantly dwindled with each new child, eventually leaving the education of the younger children to the care of the elder children. By the time the seventh child, Tara, was born, she received hardly any “formalized” education at all beyond basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. However, Westover surmounted the remarkably fragmentary nature of her formative “education” to take and pass the ACT standardized college admission exam, attending Brigham Young University and later earning the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholar award to pursue her Master’s degree at the University of Cambridge. As of 2014, Westover holds a doctorate degree in history, also from Cambridge.

Westover’s accolades are well-earned. Her writing style, though frank, reveals a sharp wit and a perceptive eye that evidence her successes as a scholar. Furthermore, her demonstrable drive to obtain simply a formalized education is palpable in the vivid detail with which she recalls her experiences to prepare for collegiate life. Though Westover attended noteworthy post-secondary institutions, it is critical to recognize that without her courage to defy and overcome her upbringing, Westover may not have achieved access to Posner’s “educated public” despite her curious and intellectually deft mind. Furthermore, it may not be an ideological stretch to suggest that Westover’s appeal transcends intellectual barriers, appealing to those with similar formative experiences yet without the same degree of formalized education. In other words: there may be any number of Tara Westovers in America reading her testimony, individuals capable of engaging in the public discourse surrounding the issues Westover raises. However, the very experiences that align them with Westover ultimately bar them from this notion of an “educated public” that the public intellectual allegedly appeals to. What, then, is the mark of the adequately educated by Posner’s standard?

Over the past four years, I have wrestled with this question at one time or another, especially in my indecision to pursue additional degrees. However, it comes into sharp focus in light of not only this course’s forced reckoning with my responsibilities as a scholar but also in the pursuit of my Master’s more broadly. My relationship with academia has become increasingly ambivalent due to the distinct tension between what is “adequately educated” and what is “deeply intellectual”, particularly as these notions relate to the public sharing of ideas.

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According to Posner, there is a tacit expectation that intellectuals “should be able to speak about anything” (173). To some extent, Posner’s argument holds. An individual with a profound knowledge of a highly specialized topic may struggle to effectively communicate their ideas. The sheer complexity of their deep understanding muddies comprehension by non-specialists. By Posner’s estimation, though, I could be considered a poor excuse for an intellectual. My ability to speak even on a range of literary topics (my alleged area of “expertise”) is rather poor if breadth of knowledge is to be privileged over depth. When fantasy novels such as Lord of the Rings occupy conversation, I eagerly take up my critical stance with rigor and passion. However, were I to be invited into a discussion on Modernism, seventeenth-century metaphysical poetry, or the plays of William Shakespeare, I would wither. 

Does my niche knowledge of literary subjects indicate a lack of intellectualism on my part? Speaking in broad strokes, does my preoccupation with literature and a rudimentary grasp of, say, economics signify a shortcoming in my education? Would a scholar such as Posner dare to classify me “sufficiently educated?” If not, then perhaps I have no business articulating my so-called intellectual ideas on this public forum or sharing the fruits of my intellectual labors at two academic conferences this spring.

Yet in eight months I will (hopefully) belong to an “elite” class of Americans, an exclusive 11% as of 2018, that holds a degree beyond a Bachelor’s. This tension evidences the most troubling facet of Posner’s ideas. Posner fails to indicate whether the capacious intellectual should speak well about a variety of topics. Consequently, in privileging breadth over depth of knowledge, Posner runs the risk of championing a system that feeds the wider public a diet of semi-nutritious yet amply portioned “intellectual” content. Is the successful public intellectual, then, the individual whose voice carries far and wide, yet always serves the skimmings, never the cream? 

For Posner, “To be among the most prominent public intellectuals requires more than scholarly renown. Indeed, scholarly renown may operate as a drag on public prominence by taking time away from public intellectual work, or may reflect a mindset or intellectual style inimical to communication with a nonspecialist audience” (187). However, figures such as Westover blatantly challenge Posner’s assessment. Westover published a piece of work accessible to a broad audience, including those who may exist outside of the nexus of the “educated” who are able to identify with Westover’s formative educational struggles. However, a doctorate in history conferred by Cambridge suggests a level of expertise, an “intellectual style”, as it were, that could be hostile to general comprehension. Yet Westover gracefully straddles this divide, exhibiting a mind capable of earning high academic honors while simultaneously writing in a way that appeals to the average American.

Does Westover’s success derive from her bilingualism, her ability to speak the language of the “insufficiently” educated to communicate more sophisticated ideas? Perhaps this is the mark of the truly skilled academic, the truly intellectual: a hybrid existence. What struck me about my retrospective analysis of Westover’s memoir is not necessarily its content — shocking though it may be — but rather her ability to transcend boundaries and gather disparate educational histories, cultural identities, and experiences to open broader discourse on subjects that require critical attention, such as the accessibility of higher education for children should they wish to pursue such a route.

Westover’s example and the troubling arguments surrounding the notion of a public intellectual Posner presents ultimately spur me to reconsider where the value in my higher education lies. Once, I believed it rested in the sheer fact that I read each and every piece of literature pictured at the top of this page. Nineteen-year-old Maggie would be chagrined to know that seven years later, while I am able to knowledgeably cite such texts, I believe my academic achievement transcends academia itself. Perhaps it is my ability to communicate to those without a specialist’s intimate knowledge of literature, to articulate unorthodox ideas at the expense of seeming “academic,” that evidences the value of my work in spite of my own insufficient education, my seeming lack of intellectualism (by Posner’s measure).

What this evolution of this perspective signifies for the future of my work remains to be seen.

Works Cited

“Educated by Tara Westover.” Goodreads. Accessed 24 January 2020. goodreads.com/book/show/35133922-educated.

“Educational Attainment in the United States: 2018.” U.S. Census Bureau. Accessed 24 January 2020. census.gov. 

Gates, Bill. “Tara Westover.” TIME 100. Accessed 24 January 2020. time.com/collection/100-most-influential-people-2019/5567699/tara-westover/

Posner, Richard A. “More Public, Less Intellectual.” Public Intellectuals: A Study of a Decline. Harvard University Press, 2001, 167-220.

Westover, Tara. Educated. E-book, Random House, 2018. Kindle Cloud Reader, e-book ISBN 9780399590511.

Disclaimer — 

I recognize that my discussions here today touch very little on the notion of public intellectualism in Canada, as is the focus of the course. However, certain circumstances necessitate the limiting of my discussion to an American context. Mainly, I am an American in Canada, and in light of the recent State of Emergency in St. John’s, my access to the class discussions about intellectualism in Canada, specifically, has been postponed until further notice. As such, my knowledge of Canadian public intellectualism will be limited until further learning from my peers and my instructor occurs, thereby pushing me to draw on my own experiences and national knowledge to fill in these knowledge gaps. Second, while it may be essentializing to root my discussions in the close geographic proximity of Canada to the United States (and Michigan in particular), I believe that my discussions of education, academia, and grappling with the concept of public intellectualism facilitated through an American lens are more germane to a Canadian context than, say, a British context, which occupies a significant portion of my educational background.



A Midwinter Wander: The “Land” in Newfoundland as Intellectual Stimulus

Despite my upbringing in an insular Midwestern American town, since 2012 I have had the remarkable privilege of pursuing higher education in two foreign countries. Yet what I find most striking is the wild aspect of these two geographies I have been able to call my home and the uncanny similarities they share. Perhaps it is the gulls wheeling down jagged, heathered cliffs or the deep coniferous forests whispering their secrets in their ancient language that capture my attention, drawing me ever northward, ever seaward. 

However, I often find it difficult to reconcile my intense dedication to my academic work with my boundless intrepid spirit. The disjoint inherent in myself often leads to significant questioning: what do these books contain that cannot be learned from studying the patterns the waves leave upon the rocks, from immersive traipsing around sites of tremendous history, from a warm exchange with a local encountered along those paths? More often than not, when my mind rebels against the tyranny of the blank page, I take to idle wandering, exploring the narrow trails hidden along the coastline or daydreaming under sunlight-dappled canopies of leaves. In these moments I find that I give myself permission to be, to allow my surroundings to comingle with my blood and infuse my thoughts with color, light, and depth. The bulk of my best academic work is born when I abandon my laptop and my desk for the great out there.

Upon reading scholar Vicki Sara Hallett’s Mistress of the Blue Castle: The Writing Life of Phebe Florence Miller, I was struck by Miller — the turn-of-the-century poetical postmistress of Topsail, Newfoundland — and her profound affinities for the land she called her home for the entirety of her life. According to Hallett, “while it is doubtful that her poetry would find a wide audience today because of its conventionality, Miller’s contemporaries considered her to be closely attuned to the emotional and cultural nuances of Newfoundland” (4). Grappling with Miller’s poetry myself, her pieces at times written in the local vernacular, Hallett’s assessment proves markedly keen. Miller’s modest verse style permits the assimilation of the Newfoundlander’s experience in the reader’s imagination. Consider, for example, the following passage — cited in my previous introductory post — from Miller’s “In Caribou Land”:

In Caribou Land the north winds blow

With whistle of storm and swirl of snow,

And the frost king works his will a while

On seas that bluster and lakes that smile (qtd. in Hallet 145).

Miller’s boreal imagery holds remarkable currency in light of the snowstorms battering the Avalon Peninsula for the past five days, an astounding display of nature’s might for a mainlander (and an American no less). During my snowshoed evening jaunt around Quidi Vid Lake today, Miller’s words permeated my experience. It was as though I could feel the frost king’s frigid, ethereal presence about me, seductively drawing me further and further away into the frost-bitten landscape despite the gathering darkness. In contemplating my entry about Miller for my “Public Intellectuals” blog series, it is in the winds howling across the harbor, in the dozens of gulls dotting the darkening sky like stars, and in the tombstones I passed, draped in winter’s finery, that I found Miller.

Dovetailing Hallett’s observation of Miller’s work, Newfoundland poet E.J. Pratt writes, “‘Newfoundland is in [Miller’s] poetry with the accent on the last syllable'” (ix). It is significant to note that Hallett mines comments about and examinations of Miller’s work primarily from sources that share the poet’s cultural and national heritage; indeed, Hallett herself hails from the province as well. The localization of Miller’s work poses a significant question: how would Miller conceive of her often nationalistically-charged pieces transcending their original receptive context to arrive in the hands of a scholar whose national and cultural background is wholly distinct from her own?

The removal of Miller’s poetry from its context frustrates the effective reception of poems such as “The Knitting Marianna,” composed as a response to the First World War, in the evocative and emotional manner in which they may have been intended. While the reserved stoicism of the poem’s chorus is palpable — “She only said ‘My eyes are weary, / But one must knit,’ she said./ ‘The mother’s sons are cold and dreary/ Who sleep without a bed” (Miller qtd. in Hallett 150) — the keen emotional sting is absented from my reading. The gravity of Newfoundland’s collective memory of the trauma of the First World War does not figure into my awareness as an American. Simply put, I can only grasp at straws conceptualizing how tremendous Newfoundlander casualties may have been during the First World War, given that Newfoundland possessed a small population (relative to, say, the United States) at the time. 

Though intensely local in her concerns, Miller entertained a high degree of public awareness that facilitated stimulating gatherings with her contemporaries in the form of a literary salon, known colloquially as the Blue Castle. The literati collected at the Blue Castle evidence Miller’s role in curating an artistic, intellectually engaged sphere that was distinctly Newfoundlander in its identity. Furthermore, Miller actively pursued publicity in submitting her work to publishers and newspapers, participating in writing contests, and hand-crafting journals out of natural materials in a way that suggests a hidden desire for such pieces to become archival artifacts. Ultimately, Miller’s intimacy with Newfoundland its heritage, its people, and its land — acquires dimension when placed in a dialogue with the notion of public intellectualism.

“The birchbark cover to Miller’s handmade 1920 journal” (Hallett 70).

As I take to the forest and the cliffside to alleviate my intellectual frustrations, I will observe my surroundings with a more sensitive eye in an active response to Miller’s work. Yet it is critical that I not only strive to appreciate this land with a newly inspired reverence but also heed Miller’s practice, not simply her words. Rather, it may be a more fruitful endeavor to consider how Miller would have utilized the opportunities I have been afforded to enrich her engagement with the public through her published works and circle of literary peers. Is the blog post a substantial enough medium to facilitate discussion about our world and how we interact with it? I find myself living like the sea, the waters of my mind flowing into an array of harbors whether geographic, artistic, or academic. Is there intellectual value in what I — creative writer, scholar, and Michigan girl who has roamed the Scottish highlands, shared conversations in broken dialects over a communal food bowl in Africa, and grappled with the question “Where y’longs to?” in Newfoundland — have done and have to say about it? Though she never strayed much farther than Topsail, Newfoundland, Phebe Florence Miller believed in her own voice enough to make her work known even to a global degree. Perhaps it is time that I do the same. 

Works Cited

Hallett, Vicki Sara. Mistress of the Blue Castle: The Writing Life of Phebe Florence Miller, ISER Books, 2018.

Miller, Phebe Florence. “Birchbark cover of Miller’s handmade 1920 journal.” Mistress of the Blue Castle: The Writing Life of Phebe Florence Miller by Vicki Sara Hallett, ISER Books, 2018, 70.

Miller, Phebe Florence. “In Caribou Land.” Mistress of the Blue Castle: The Writing Life of Phebe Florence Miller by Vicki Sara Hallett, ISER Books, 2018, 145.

Miller, Phebe Florence. “The Knitting Marianna.” Mistress of the Blue Castle: The Writing Life of Phebe Florence Miller by Vicki Sara Hallett, ISER Books, 2018, 150.

“Well, I’m back” (s)he said.


I find it difficult to comprehend that six months ago I departed my home once again to embark on a new adventure. In August I began my year-long Master’s program at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and so very much has unfolded in this little life of mine since this journey began. Finding my footing amongst the rigors of academic study once again has been a difficult task, which is a poor explanation for the lack of attention this blog has received despite my explorations of this new, wholly unique place.

The first semester consumed all of my energy and I found it difficult to focus on anything other than my research and my academic writing. When the holiday break arrived at long last, I still struggled to bring myself to attend to this space. Frankly: my relationship with writing has been tempestuous in the last eight years or so. Since beginning higher education, writing has become synonymous with anxiety and stress; I fear the flaws that others may find in my writing and think me lesser for it. I consistently struggle with simply articulating my often nebulous ideas and editing them later, a habit that tends to wreak havoc on my mental state. Simply put, I am a perfectionist that procrastinates when perfection cannot be achieved at the first attempt. While I had hoped to reflect on my first few months in Newfoundland over the holiday break, whenever I sat down to write I found myself paralyzed, especially after this semester of re-learning how to be a university student again. I felt tired; tired of putting my thoughts in a public space, tired of feeling vulnerable to criticism. However, the only true and vicious critic fixated on my work is myself.

As this first year of the new decade progresses, I am committed to improving my relationship with writing and rediscovering the joy and magic that comes with crafting worlds out of words. Though I journal sporadically, the most significant way to improve upon my perspective will be attending to this public space more often, publishing my work on my own platform and having the courage to recognize that being vulnerable is okay.

However, this will also mean a substantial change that will unfold here at West of Moon for the next twelve weeks. As part of a course I am taking on Public Intellectuals this term, my colleagues and I have been challenged by the professor to keep an academically-oriented blog that grapples with the notion of publicity in intellectual spheres. Specifically, with this assignment, I am interested in the most appropriate way to reconcile intellectually rigorous work with accessibility. The following questions will underline the upcoming series of ten academic blog posts:

  • How do I — with my background in literature and a firm footing in academia —
    write in a manner that is not only intellectually stimulating and appropriate for academic discourse but also engaging for and appealing to a broader public?
  • Is it possible to curate this space in a way that marries my academic work with my personal writing style and creative fascinations?
  • Will this work encourage discussion amongst my readers and invite them to think critically while still enjoying this blog and my thoughts?


It is my hope that for the coming months, though, this blog will not be entirely consumed by academic work. Instead, I do intend to intersperse some reflections about my initial encounters with Newfoundland as well as my upcoming adventures throughout this work. Though this task felt daunting at first, I am coming to realize how this evolution in the style and content of West of Moon, at least for now, will provide a critical signpost in the curation of myself and my creativity through distinct challenges. It is my hope that those who have enjoyed my thoughts for the past few years will continue to come to this space and ponder what I have said, as well as offer their support for this new direction as part of my growth as a student of literature and a student of life. I am also quite willing and eager to read feedback as this series progresses, so I encourage anyone to contribute their voices to my musings in the hopes of facilitating further discussion.

I will close with the opening lines of Phoebe Florence Miller’s In Caribou Land that resonated deeply with me, as entranced as I am by the northerly winds and frost-rimmed moons of winter. Miller was a celebrated poet local to Newfoundland and is the subject of study for the upcoming week in my Public Intellectuals course. May we all let the frost king bewitch us, even for just a moment.

In Caribou Land by Phoebe Florence Miller

In Caribou Land the north winds blow

With whistle of storm and swirl of snow,

And the frost king works his will a while

On seas that bluster and lakes that smile.


Works Cited

Miller, Phoebe Florence. “In Caribou Land.” Mistress of the Blue Castle: The Writing Life of Phoebe Florence Miller by Vicki Sara Hallett, ISER Books, 2018, 145.

Where the Wild Things Grow

“Wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving.” (Khalil Gibran)

Many of you may have been wondering where I have been these past few months, as the last entry in my digital journal was an attempt to find solace in the midst of unexpected heartbreak. Perhaps you may be wondering what I have done to recover from my loss, or if I am slated to begin another wild and wonderful adventure. You may also be wondering if my employment situation has improved or whether I will be undertaking the next steps in my education. Not only has this blog been dormant about such topics, but my overall presence on social media has indeed been rather distant and vague recently. The only answers to that “So what have you been up to lately?” question on my social media profiles are photographs of wildflowers and trees caught dreaming in the summer haze.

I could say that I have not so much as looked at this blog since February as I was without a laptop almost all summer. I could say that balancing a new “adult” job at the University of Michigan and my freelance writing currently demands most of my mental energy.

But I could also say that I was hiding. Back in June, I tucked away my dream of at long last gaining my footing after over two years of struggle. I gently folded this vision and put it in a box with the last of the rejection letters I received from potential graduate programs.

During the application process, I looked to these institutions for validation that my voice had power, that my ideas had value, and that my mind was worthy of further cultivation. I believed with all my heart that my life would begin again with a letter of acceptance in my hand, that I could resume my journey of becoming the person I longed to be. However, when I received the fourth and final rejection letter — a letter from the university I thought was invested in me — this vision I cultivated with such care and thought dried up in the summer sun. To say I was devastated is an understatement. I despaired with all the passion I could muster and lost all hope that my story and my ideas were worth sharing.

Revealing this intense dose of educational rejection on a public forum leaves me feeling tremendously vulnerable as I am guilty of romanticizing myself on this blog. I have spun my story as a shy, small-town girl who overcame herself to fulfill a dream of seeing the world. I was the girl who used her insatiable love of knowledge and intense work ethic to surmount the challenges of attending an elite university and graduate with the respect of her tutors. Admitting that each and every graduate program I applied to rejected me outright makes me feel as though I can no longer be an inspiration to my readers, to my friends, or to my family.

I had interpreted the two years of employment rejection and a brief struggle in the Peace Corps as signs that researching stories and writing papers were what I was put onto this earth to do, that my intellectual ideas would be my legacy. I felt a significant loss of self as I read the words, “We cannot offer you a place at this university” for a fourth and final time. My rejection letters found wondrous company in the destructive self-doubt I have struggled with for years. I truly began to believe that if I could not get a job, could not serve as an effective Peace Corps volunteer, and was not worthy of graduate school, then I no longer had a talent for anything at all.

Until one day I realized I could no longer allow myself to be a victim. 

No one was handing me these rejections to punish me. When I began to force myself to look deep into myself, I discovered that the only person punishing me was me. I invited the setbacks and challenges to burrow beneath my skin and coddle my insecurities, allowing them to affect me at the root of my soul. I learned that the true issue at hand was a warped perspective. I did not look at these difficulties for what they truly were: opportunities to grow.

So I deleted the rejection emails. I threw out my prospectuses. I even tore the idea I had been researching out of my notebook. And rather than walking away from academia for good, I stared at the blank pages and challenged myself to begin again. In the number of times I described myself and my ideas as “innovative” on personal statements, how many instances had I supported that claim and truly lived those words?

The more I reflected upon my thoughts, my priorities, and my actions over the past year, the more I realized I was not becoming the person I wanted to be at all. I had become a person who ignored the goodness of the present, who took the love of another for granted, and who sought validation not from living authentically, but from a title or an accolade. I convinced myself I was not doing enough and began to drown in that anxiety when all I had to do was simply stop swimming against my own current. I realized that the only thing I need to do right now is relax into the life I am living at this moment, to allow myself to take root and to grow.



I feel as though a great deal of us are fixated with that “So what are you doing?” question as of late. Social media permits instant gratification to our curiosity over what so-and-so from high school or university is up to. I am not condemning social media. However, the more I intentionally simplify my life and its goings-on, the more I perceive a web of busy-ness all around us, in which we all must consistently strive for creating and doing something to make our time worthwhile. Also, the more I strive towards simplicity, the more I realize where my true priorities lie.

Though I have developed a new research topic and have not given up my dream of attending graduate school, rather than allow myself to obsess over concocting a “better” or “more intelligent” research proposal, I put the notebook away from time to time and practice balance. I now read books for the genuine pleasure of reading. I lose myself in each dreamy brushstroke of my watercolors. I listen deeply to the needs of the horses. I bathe myself in sunshine, dandelion tufts, and river water with the love of my life by my side.

Each and every morning I awake with gratitude in my heart for comforts that surround me: I look out my window and see nothing but the country sky, I can pursue my passions freely and openly, and I am able to love and be loved in return. I also take the time to celebrate the various discomforts of my life at twenty-four, like not knowing where next I’ll go or what it is I am supposed to do. For me, this celebration of discomfort looks like dedicating myself to new experiences, even if they may be so simple as a new trail to hike.



So what on earth have I been doing over the course of the summer? I feel an overwhelming urge in my heart to say nothing. I have not been doing anything at all, but rather I have been living

I would like to take this opportunity to challenge each and every one of my readers. I challenge you to set aside a moment for yourself every day to simply be who you are in that space in time and to ask yourself the following questions: what do you love about yourself right now? What do you think could be improved upon? How can you act with more intention throughout your day? While I am doing nothing remarkable or inspiring in terms of achievements, accolades, or adventures, it is my sincere hope that my own journey towards authentic living at least makes you pause for a brief moment and simply revel in being alive.