When I was at Bible study on Monday, and we were just starting a plunge into the Gospel of Mark, the priest leading the study, who has a PhD in Scripture, asked what the meaning of "irony" was. No hands were raised. Then he asked if any of us had been English majors. I was, for one year, so I tentatively raised my hand and opined that irony meant saying something sarcastic, or saying one thing and meaning another. He was looking for the literary meaning of irony, and I either couldn't remember it or had long since forgotten. When he said the literary or dramatic meaning was the idea that the audience or reader understood something in the literary work that the characters in the work didn't know, and that that applied to Mark's Gospel. It was written to Christian believers, but the people portrayed in the Gospel didn't know the central truth: that Jesus was the Son of God.
After going through the exercise of trying to retrieve information that I suppose an average English major should have known, I later thought about my unusual path through the world of the university.
I had always loved literature and was an inveterate reader and became a writer in third grade when I noticed that the Nancy Drew book I happened to be reading didn't begin "Once upon a time," but rather in medias res. Immediately I started a story that also began in the middle of things, I think with a horse neighing.
However, by the time I finished high school I had decided there were more important things to do with my life; I wanted to go into politics and eventually saw myself becoming President, if my father didn't beat me to it. So when I went to the University, I chose Politics as my major (it was not called Political Science there as it was at most colleges). Then I discovered that their idea of Politics began with studying Aristotle's vision of the polis or city-state and moved forward philosophically from there. I was asked to take a graduate level course in Politics my sophomore year, and by then they had started offering a major in Humanities, which was basically a design your own major, perfectly suited to a student who never wanted to fit in a neat box. My father said professors would lurk around corners and entice me with, "Psst, want to take a course in ancient Coptic?" I did take two years of classical Greek and could recite the opening line of The Odyssey in that language.
By my junior year, however, I had veered off and become a Spanish major, enchanted with the head of the department who was English, married a Spaniard, and then became an actress in Spain until they moved to Texas. I had a whole year of studying Cantar de Mio Cid and another year of Don Quijote de la Mancha, both of which demanded more antique Spanish than I had previously encountered.
But I studied more recent works of Spanish literature as well, all of which contributed to an experience I had one day when one of the Mexican women who used to work for me told me when we were speaking Spanish, "You talk just like a book!"
Much as I loved Spanish, as I was about to start my senior year, I suddenly decided that I should become an English major. This meant that I had to do my junior poet and senior thesis in one year, which was one reason why I picked Emily Dickinson rather than Gerard Manley Hopkins--he was so intricately convoluted that I knew I couldn't focus on his poetry while I was also writing my thesis. And since I picked the Puritan period for my thesis (and had access to early American novels in the Concord, Massachusetts, library the summer before my senior year), Emily Dickinson was a good poet to work with, although I soon learned that I couldn't read her poetry and then set out to write my own without sounding like a very inferior imitation. Despite my unorthodox procession through the University, I managed to graduate first in my class (or, as the medal I received from the Bishop, says "Frist Honors"), as the first student to graduate with a 4.0.
I was accepted at Columbia University to study Comparative Literature, but then learned that deconstruction held sway there, and I was much more a believer in synthesis. I wasn't accepted into Columbia's MFA program, which the head of the Comp Lit department had suggested I apply to, and later heard from a former professor that Caroline Gordon, the Southern novelist who had read some of my poetry, told him that I would be ruined if I went to Columbia.
Instead, the year before I got married when I was living Manhattan, I took a poetry workshop at the New School for Social Research because I didn't think I'd have time for a novel writing course (at that point I still thought I'd write the Great American Novel). It was taught by the brilliant poet, Colette Inez, who shone such a light on poetry that I was utterly captivated. She invited me to send her poems to critique after the course was over, and we corresponded until her death last year. My husband and son and I went back to the East Coast in 2010, and had a memorable lunch with her on the upper West Side.
I never wrote as much as I thought I should because after I got married I had six children, my husband and I got very involved in World Wide Marriage Encounter and other marriage and family ministries. I always thought of the talks I wrote for Marriage Encounter as working documents, while my poetry was literature.
When I took up the French horn again 10 years ago, I also thought of it as a hobby, although I think if I'd known how challenging it would be I might not have gone into it so lightheartedly. Although I am not a professional I work hard at it and each year at Christmas I can see the progress I've made in the past year. Just recently, working on a new piece for our parish's 60th anniversary, I realized that I had learned most of it in a couple of weeks although it still needs some polishing. Although I know my poetry is good, and have had enough prizes and publications to confirm that belief, when I realize that I have made great strides in how well I play the horn, or when I'm complimented on talks I've written for Beginning Experience weekend retreats, I realize that I'm not tilting at windmills even though they are not my primary passion.