Monday, March 22, 2010

Great Minds

I’m thinking about Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and JS Bach (1685-1750). They lived so differently and yet were both so brilliant. Newton was able to think clearly and elegantly explain some mysteries of our known universe. Bach was prolific in composing powerful, meaningful music. Both believed devoutly in God. Bach was social with a large family. Newton was a priggish outsider prone to jealous grudges. Both were teachers. Bach wrote and shared prodigiously, even weekly. Newton guarded his treasures of knowledge like a Dragon often only coaxed into sharing by flattery and assurances that there would be no criticism or competition. Bach was undiscovered outside of Leipzig until 100 years after his death. Newton made “natural philosophy” (science) cool, was famous, hailed and even knighted in his lifetime. Bach died making music. Newton, experimenting to the last, nevertheless spent his latter years (27) as head of the English mint for coins and was secretly both a biblical scholar and an (illegal) alchemist.

It seems that a love for music and the responsibilities to his family propelled Bach into a position of constant creation. Whereas the discoveries for which the introverted Newton is most famous were made during an 18 month period of total seclusion induced by the black plague. Bach was welcomed into a family four generations deep in musicians. Newton’s father died shortly before Isaac’s premature birth and was left to his grandparents at the age of 3 as part of his mother’s new marriage contract. Who is to say if Bach would have been so prolific without the support and motivation of his family? Who is to say if Newton would have had the time or inclination to meditate and discern solutions if he had been more social? Frankly, I am inspired and grateful that the potential and achievement of human greatness grows in a variety personalities and circumstances. There is hope for all of us.

I can see myself, like Isaac Newton, paranoid of criticism and anxious to seek knowledge without interruptions, obligations or food. Still, I find that like J.S. Bach, I am motivated not only by a love of learning and love for my children, but also inevitable deadlines. Reading about eminent thinkers and contributors inspires a vision of myself as potentially great. I’m not referring to delusions of grandeur, just applying my honest faith in the greatness of humanity to myself as well as to others. These people were human. They had oddities (especially Newton). They had parameters. Nevertheless, they contributed. What will I contribute? What will I share?

P.S. Bach’s music was launched into outer space using Newtonian
Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F. First Movement
"Gavotte en rondeaux" from the Partita No. 3 in E major for Violin
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue No.1 in C major

Adam of the Road

Adam of the Road has been the most enlightening book we've read of life in the Middle Ages. It includes old Roman roads, buildings made of Roman bricks, bits of Latin and linguistic history, contemporary superstitions, architecture, fashion, falconry, etc. We catch a glimpse of the drama surrounding the Magna Carta (signed 79 years prior to this story telling) and the first Parliament convened with common folk. Although it is woven through with all aspects of English culture in 1294, it is largely the adventurous coming of age story for a young minstrel named Adam who is guided by his strong sense of identity, his love for his father and his devotion to his dog, Nick. While showing the grit and struggle of the Middle Ages, Adam of the Road also reveals generosity, humor and humanity. I've never seen the Medieval life this way before.

Below are a few of our favorite quotes. We got too interested in reading to stop and write down each one, but we did pause to listen to the bells of St. Paul's Cathedral on youtube after reading Adam's description of them.
"A road's a kind of holy thing," Roger went on. "that's why it's a good work to keep a road in repair, like giving alms to the poor or tending the sick. It's open to the sun and wind and rain. It brings all kinds of people and all parts of England together. And it's home to a minstrel, even though he may happen to be sleeping in a castle."

Adam gave her two of his remaining comfits-- a poor widow in a village wouldn't taste such sweetmeats once in a year's time -- and a silver penny. She gave him a cabbage leaf full of strawberries that she had found for him. It was easier to say goodby when you had something to give. (50)

Adam threw back his head too and laughed, strangely eased of his pain. For the first time in his life he had played the part of an oyster. He had taken the bit of grit that was scratching him and made something of it that was comfortable to him and pleasing to someone outside. He had made a valuable discovery, but he did not know it at the moment, he only knew that he felt happy again, and he wagged his head a little. (63)

Green apples ripen in time. (65)

Adam felt as though all his powers of seeing and feeling and wondering had been stretched almost to the snapping point. (66)

They had a great deal of tiresome practicing to do, the same exercises over and over again, with very little praise to sweeten it and even less sympathy when they got tired. (78)

Adam started to say, "But I couldn't sing to it; it takes all my breath to blow, " but he bit the words off short. He saw too plainly in the miller's broad honest face the struggle between the pain of sacrifice and the joy of giving. (301-302)