Philip Gura’s American Transcendentalism

Emersonians, awake!

Evening Grosbeaks & American Dawn

You regulars from the comment thread know who you are: mynocturama, peggysue, bobby, allison, nother and of course, potter, among the vast and various summer circle

We’re wallowing in the transcendent mystery of things with Philip Gura, the author of American Transcendentalism: A History. Gura is an eminent professor of literature and culture at the University of North Carolina, but he’s also “one of us,” avid in the non-dogmatic, non-exclusive pursuit of the ecstatic, the invisible, the divine.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philip Gura here (32 minutes, 15 MB MP3)

Toward the end of this conversation, Philip Gura explains how it began for him, 44 years ago. He was a child in Ware, Massachusetts, the son of immigrant mill folk, when he came upon a nest of “huge, garrulous, yellow birds eating choke cherries.” When he wrote to the American Museum of Natural History for help identifying his find, the great ornithologist Dean Amadon wrote him directly to say the birds had to be evening grosbeaks, cousins of the goldfinch.

Naturalist and Prophet: HDT

Birds and New England nature led to Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau led to the genius moment and the genius cluster of the American renaissance in Concord — writers, thinkers, social consciences that to this day “represent something about our past that we want to be part of” and a key that perhaps hasn’t been turned all the way in the door of American life.

The insistent voice of Mary McGrath asks, as always: “Okay, Chris, what’s the question for listeners?”

Okay, Mary, here it is: Do the mostly sectarian, literalist and Fundamentalist questions around our politics of 2008 prove that transcendentalist impulses thrive — or expired long ago? Does the tempest that Mitt Romney, for example, has stirred around himself and his Mormonism mark a dismal falling-off — or rather an amazing continuity — of the old transcendentalist passion about faith, spirit and the religious underpinnings of this nation’s life. Extra points for apt Emersonian quotes. And extra-extra points for apt quotes from other than Emerson.


Comments

46 thoughts on “Philip Gura’s American Transcendentalism

  1. Delightful show.

    As to the question, I’d favor “the dismal falling-off”, as who couldn’t after listening to Romney’s sonorous clap-trap. But Garry Wills might have a different answer…

    Quotation:

    Margaret Fuller: “I accept the world.”

    Thomas Carlyle (in response): “She’d better.”

    I remind everyone of a book I’ve an irritating habit of recommending to anyone with an interest in the Transcendentalists, American literature, matchless prose, the great poet William Bronk’s The Brother In Elysium; Ideas of Friendship and Society in the United States. Nothing like it since D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature. The original book hard to come by but the essays therein reprinted in Vectors and Smoothable Curves.

  2. Yo, Hurley, I want to be you when I grow up. The Bronk is on order. You are the Emersonian reader for our time. You are Harold Bloom without tenure. You are my ideal, and you get to live in Rome. This passeth understanding, but it’s a blessing every time to read you.

    From today’s mail bag… of the snail-mail variety, come this convergence of transcendental quotations from two of the great writers, forwarded by another great contemporary spirit, Christina of Providence, who didn’t know that the conversation du jour touched Transcendentalism:

    Men walk as prophecies of the next age. Step by step we scale this mysterious ladder: the steps are actions; the new prospect is power. Every several result is threatened and judged by that which follows. Every one seems to be contradicted by the new; it is only limited by the new. The new statement is always hated by the old, and, to those dwelling in the old, comes like an abyss of skepticism. But the eye soon gets wonted to it, for the eye and it are effects of one cause; then its innocency and benefit appear, and presently, all its energy spent, it pales and dwindles before the revelation of the new hour…

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the essay “Circles.”

    For each of us the old regime is that of which we witnessed only the end. What we see on the horizon assumes a mysterious nobility and seems to us to close a whole world that we shall never see again. Meanwhile we progress and soon we ourselves stand on the following generation’s horizon; meanwhile the horizon recedes and the world that seemed ended begins again.”

    Marcel Proust … she didn’t say where!

    Thank you, Jack. Thank you, Christina.

  3. Thank you Chris for your Emersonian spirit. And thanks to Philip Gura for an excellent interview.

    I am part of what is probably a great unwashed regarding Emerson, so my apologies in advance if I’m restating things in the following. My personal transcendental persons of letters, start with Hermann Hesse and meander through Wendell Berry, Rumi, Brother Antoninus, Frederick Douglass, John Coltrane, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. et al. For me, they are fellow travelers with Emerson and Thoreau for they show not Truth itself, but a way finding one’s personal path to a very personal truth, with courage and grace. This is a path where not only self-reliance can be attained, but self actualization, meaning, and aliveness can be found. And it is my strong conviction, though I still optimistically presume my convictions to have some unused malleability, that these tiny journey’s to the judgment seat of our very personal conscience manifest upon the human family in a multitude of ways, including the system of thought and action we call Politics. Though politics tends to avoid asking about such things, it is fully informed by such matters.

    Which is why the religious and spiritual thinking that have been with humanity across epochs will not whither away neither gently nor quietly (nor will the arts, letters, singing, and storytelling, nor will the enchantment of embracing the skeptical found in the scientific method and philosophical pondering’s) for it is in these areas of thought and action where human beings have embraced and examined the mystery which is life, which seems to me an encounter with the most ordinary and extraordinary. When I visit a nursery of newborns, when I bury a loved one, when I or a close friend or intimate await the test results regarding a health problem, when I sit bedside with an alive being in the process of consummating their life, or, a most vivid memory from the years of my youth: watching an apple tree grow from seedling, my politics are not there at these moments, for my questions and observations and feelings do not rouse in me matters which go towards the political. They meander into silence at these points. But these touchstones of existence give full import upon matters which are required to be reckoned with by politics. So I’ll restate, it is why the thinking across ions from religion and the spiritual will not whither, regardless of appeals for dogma and the doctrinaire found in behaviors we associate with the religious.

    Whenever Emerson or Thoreau come to the surface of thought, I think of these things, so I offer the following, or sort of psalm really:

    The Peace of Wild Things

    When despair for the world grows in me

    and I wake in the night at the least sound

    in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

    I go and lie down where the wood drake

    rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

    I come into the peace of wild things

    who do not tax their lives with forethought

    of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

    And I feel above me the day-blind stars

    waiting with their light. For a time

    I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

    — Wendell Berry

    It is a wondrous moment of freedom for me, liberating actually, to see the most cynical aspects that can manifest, a U.S. presidential race in 2008, not merely reflected by or generative of such metaphysical words but wholly contained within them. For me, in 2008, this poem contains the feelings bubbling around in the aether of concern, and show a way towards relief, relief found in a multitude of ways. In regards to the political season, I think this relief is found not in any particular candidate nor ideological affiliation, but in the very process of democracy, which asks so much from all of us after all the cynicism is scraped away: authentic, willing participation.

    I’ll conclude by saying what I’ve been telling people most of my life: I am neither religious, spiritualist, atheist, agnostic, it’s simply the case that the realm that makes sense to me has yet to be named, organized, nor turned into a tradition, nor hegemony. Yet, this silent partner, it has always been with me, for I recognize it’s reflection in so many, as others have seen it in me. We carry this silent partner around with us, and it sometimes carries us. I do not think it wise counsel to ask it to wait outside the polling station? Best to you Brother Lydon…

  4. Dear OCP:

    Your comment is smack on and a real gift. Keep them coming please.

    Your reflection on the cheerful silent partner that is not waiting outside the polling station reminds me of a favorite Emerson soundbite that I’d like to add here. I’ve quoted it before. The question it answers is how to reconcile a certain sane cynicism about contests of power (even or especially in a democracy) with some trust in a certain cosmic energy that we count on to be redemptive. Here’s Emerson’s answer:

    Things seem to tend downward, to justify despondency, to promote rogues, to defeat the just; and by knaves as by martyrs the just cause is carried forward. Although knaves win in every political struggle, although society seems to be delivered over from the hands of one set of criminals into the hands of another set of criminals, as fast as the government is changed, and the march of civilization is a train of felonies,- yet, general ends are somehow answered. We see, now, events forced on which seem to retard or retrograde the civility of ages. But the world-spirit is a good swimmer, and storms and waves cannot drown him. He snaps his finger at laws: and so, throughout history, heaven seems to affect low and poor means. Through the years and the centuries, through evil agents, through toys and atoms, a great and beneficent tendency irresistibly streams.

    Let a man learn to look for the permanent in the mutable and fleeting; let him learn to bear the disappearance of things he was wont to reverence without losing his reverence; let him learn that he is here, not to work but to be worked upon; and that, though abyss open under abyss, and opinion displace opinion, all are at last contained in the Eternal Cause:-

    “If my bark sink, ’tis to another sea.”

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the essay Montaigne; or the Skeptic, in Representative Men, (1850).

    Emphasis added for my favorite line!

    The next riddle is: why did R. W. Emerson name the Concord house he lived in: “Bush”?

    I do not know the answer.

  5. Thank you Chris for your response. The Emerson quote is absolutely tingling. This quote is probably going to stick with me for quite a while. The last paragraph brought a further consideration to mind, a never ending process, to my previous comment: Part of what I find illuminating in what I’ve come to think of as transcendental thinking, is that this type of thought can invite and explore the potential and balance between cooperation, altruism, and individual expression, at the very least as a self interest stratagem, and at it’s zenith, as the very best in what is possible to be human. There are some implications here for democracy and the spiritual, but my fingers and mind grow weary!

    Lastly, I found this by poking around on the web

    John Dewey on Ralph Waldo Emerson

  6. Chris

    You asked: ‘why did R. W. Emerson name the Concord house he lived in: “Bush”?’

    I was about to jest and say perhaps it was because it was from a bush that God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.” But the more I think about it, there might be some truth to it. After all, I assume Emerson was sitting at his desk in ‘Bush’ house when he wrote the following:

    “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being.”

    From Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance.

    “A little consideration of what takes place around us every day would show us, that a higher law than that of our will regulates events; that our painful labors are unnecessary, and fruitless; that only in our easy, simple, spontaneous action are we strong, and by contenting ourselves with obedience we become divine. Belief and love, — a believing love will relieve us of a vast load of care. O my brothers, God exists. There is a soul at the centre of nature, and over the will of every man, so that none of us can wrong the universe.”

    “Men of an extraordinary success, in their honest moments, have always sung, `Not unto us, not unto us.’ … Their success lay in their parallelism to the course of thought, which found in them an unobstructed channel; and the wonders of which they were the visible conductors seemed to the eye their deed. Did the wires generate the galvanism? It is even true that there was less in them on which they could reflect, than in another; as the virtue of a pipe is to be smooth and hollow. That which externally seemed will and immovableness was willingness and self-annihilation.”

    From Emerson’s essay Spiritual Laws.

  7. I’m not sure where this came from: “I’ll keep playing as long as they’re still listening.” Isn’t this the first principal of transcendentalism? Play first, second, check to see if they’re listening. Then there’s the corollary: listen to hear what’s playing. Finally the lemma:add what you hear to the internal bank account of ineradicable experience.

    To play first puts one out on a potentially skinny branch ego-wise. But as Miles Davis said, “I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later” or better, “Do not fear mistakes, there are none.” “To err is human” allows us all to exist on a level playing field. And if transcendentalism has truly been ingrained into the modern human psyche, as Harold Bloom suggests and I think Philip Gura would concur, then perhaps there really is no longer a need for “to forgive, divine” being human is being good enough.

  8. Thanks, Chris, you made my day, as you and others here often do with this groovy thing called Open Source. OCP aptly quotes Wendell Berry, who should absolutely be on your list of prospective guests. I prefer the essays to the rest, but nothing I’ve read of his is wanting. He’s one of a number of eminence grises I’d encourage you to interview (Evan Connell another) while you can. This elegant new format would seem to free you from some prior constraints, so why not take advantage of it and let ratings be damned? Not that you’re pandering to the market, but an awful lot get’s lost in the swamps of consensus opinion, taste, the new big thing, etc. Berry and Connell and others old as they are wise, so let’s hear from them, why don’t we?

    Bronk: You might add Life Supports (poems) to your basket, and/or listen to some of his work here:

    http://www.writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Bronk.html

    Thanks again all around.

  9. Thanks so much for this interview, and for introducing us to Gura. He’s so right about the Transcendentalists representing something at the source and core of American culture (broadly put), something beautiful and at once tough and fragile, which hasn’t quite been brought to fuller fruition (I was about to write “full” fruition, but that implies a finality that goes against the spirit of this all – maybe Margaret Fuller would agree…). And the image of the key not being quite turned is very nice indeed.

    But if I may Chris push back on you in this interview. You spoke repeatedly of Emerson’s equanimity – which is definitely a quality of his style, but an equanimity of an especially steely sort – but maybe to the detriment of his very real edginess. I think he knew full well what he was doing when he delivered the Divinity School Address, and he at least had a sense of the sort of reception he’d get. The spirit is non-sectarian, sure, but there’s a hard, confrontational, provocative gleam to his writing, a kind of mischievous glint in his eye, that we shouldn’t lose sight of. His is an iron string, after all.

    And OCP – the Dewey essay on Emerson is one of the best tributes/intros to Emerson around. But the link you posted is only a little snippet. I have the full text on file (it’s actually pretty difficult to find online) – I can post it here, if that’s fine with Chris and all. And that train footage is very cool.

  10. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Cornel West talks about the crisis of meaning in the post-modernity age:

    “The capitalist market is just so powerful that people are looking for forms of transcendence that have to do with something far removed from time and space.”

    My humble reply to Professor West is that people will that transcendence when they are far removed from their self.

    I guess the Buddhists would say that I’m co-opting their ideas but whatever, I believe we find transcendence through humility.

    To be humble means striving to appreciate the context of nature.

    To be humble is to know temperance, to shed desires, and to view your will power as a gift of honor to yourself.

    To be humble is to listen.

    To be humble means having the courage to be vulnerable – the capacity to be loved will by your reward.

    Ohhh, the transcendent gift of love! Who better to describe it then ol’ Ralph in his essay “Love.”

    “a private and tender relation of one to one, which is the enchantment of human life; which, like a certain divine rage and enthusiasm, seizes on man at one period, and works a revolution in his mind and body; unites him to his race, pledges him to the domestic and civic relations, carries him with new sympathy into nature, enhances the power of the senses, opens the imagination, adds to his character heroic and sacred attributes, establishes marriage, and gives permanence to human society.”

    Emerson writing about love reminded me that I recently read the lyrics to all the songs on Bob Dylan’s latest album (put out last year), “Modern Times.” I was amazed that almost all of the songs dealt with romantic love. All along the way, Dylan has explored the human condition, and after everything, he chooses to wrestle with Eros. Bob Dylan makes a final push for transcendence – in love.

    “We learn to live and then we forgive 
O’r the road we’re bound to go 
More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours 
That keep us so tightly bound 
You come to my eyes like a vision from the skies 
And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.”

  11. [I tried to post this last night but the site was down]

    I don’t need any credit for this:

    “We want Iraq to be run by people who love their country, not by a bunch of thugs….” Iraqi academic in exile on the radio today.

    ————-

    Thank you everyone for wonderful posts and the “charge”.

    The Wendell Berry poem meant a lot. And the Philip Gura story of how the passion and curiosity about the yellow birds, an amazing person at the Museum of Natural History in NYC, led him to Thoreau I love Emerson, Emerson stretches my mind and expands my consciousness, but Thoreau gets to me in a deeper way.

    When things get challenging around here, for years we have been saying “everything is happening just as it is supposed to happen” and that has a calming effect. Though not his exact words, I think that notion/idea comes from or through Voltaire. Margaret Fuller says it so simply and directly: “I accept the world”. It’s really a mantra or meditation. It’s not easy to accept the world- to live that. For those, or me anyway, who would answer that Romney’s tempest, not to mention so much else, represents “a dismal falling off” the question is do we have to accept that? I don’t walk around accepting everything; I arrive there, sometimes pretty worn out.

    What bothers me most about how off track of our founding ideals we have gotten is the lack of tolerance. Without tolerance we cannot come together. This was reflected in Romney’s speech but also how far away we are getting from separation of church and state.

    I’ll continue Bobby’s on Emerson’s essay Spiritual Law:

    “There is a soul at the centre of nature and over the will of every man, so that none of us can wrong the universe. It has so infused it’s strong enchantment into nature that we prosper when we accept it’s advice, and when we struggle to wound it’s creatures our hands are glued to our sides, or they beat our own breasts. The whole course of things goes to teach us faith. We need only obey. There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word….”

    From Carl Jung- Psychological Reflections p.149

    “He who is rooted in the soil endures. Alienation from the unconscious and from it’s historical conditions spells rootlessness. That is the danger that lies in wait for the conqueror of foreign lands, and for every individual who, through one sided allegiance to any kind of -ism loses touch with the dark maternal earthy ground of his being.”

  12. Great show. I am pleased that Gura emphasized the place of the transcendentalists in a broader social and political context. That is an aspect that has fascinated me since ROS led me to Emerson this summer. I find fascinating the social dynamic among these brilliant thinkers and the various ways in which they related to their community and the issues of the day. The metaphysics are challenging and stimulating, but Gura keeps reminding us that these are flesh and blood people. I am in the middle of The Peabody Sisters right now and highly recommend it.

    By the juxtapositions made possible from downloading a variety of podcasts, I heard this interview immediately after listening to one on the relationship between the Burmese Buddhists and their government. Much more complex than a simple story of military repression of monks. It puts nother’s interesting comments and the tensions faced by the transcendentalists into a spotllight. How does a spirituality that uses transcendence through inwardness and “self reliance,” manage to become rooted in a society that squashes the humble and perverts the concept of self reliance as yet another way of seducing consumers?

  13. This quotation is from the show on Buddhism and Power that I mentioned above. I think it speaks to what nother raised in his post. The quote is from Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi: “The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in those mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a nation’s development. … It is man’s vision of a world fit for rational, civilized humanity which leads him to dare and to suffer to build societies free from want and fear. Concepts such as truth, justice, and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power.”

    Speaking of transcendentalism and politics, I have a question: In our current political culture, what do you think would happen if a candidate revealed that s/he practiced meditation–even if “only” for health or relaxation?

  14. Great questions Zeke. Perhaps it’s better that quietly, meditation and yoga (as paths to transcendence – not religion) be incorporated into the curriculum of every school along with the arts, history, math and science. (Add comparative religion as well-as per Jos. Campbell).

  15. OCP says: “I’ll conclude by saying what I’ve been telling people most of my life: I am neither religious, spiritualist, atheist, agnostic, it’s simply the case that the realm that makes sense to me has yet to be named, organized, nor turned into a tradition, nor hegemony. Yet, this silent partner, it has always been with me, for I recognize it’s reflection in so many, as others have seen it in me. We carry this silent partner around with us, and it sometimes carries us. I do not think it wise counsel to ask it to wait outside the polling station?”

    I always struggle with how to define my “spirituality” to others. Your description is so close to mine, it’s refreshing. I have been known to say that I don’t know what to call it, because I’m not comfortable with these images of a god, or the strictures of a religion, and it feels far more truthful to say, “I don’t know” that to proclaim any absolute truths, but I do have a deep, abiding inner faith. I simply always have and I can’t imagine life without it. And while contemplating light of this faith would never lead me to political inquiries, I cannot navigate the political without it as my guide.

    As I raise my daughter, this is a constant dilemma for me: how to expose her to concepts of “spirituality” and to a community that helps her explore her own path to her own truths, without trapping us – well, me really – in the arms of a religion. We went to a Christmas service just last week. She loves to hear about Jesus. She loves to pray and to sing. But, I sat there cringing at the doctrine. At one point the minister said, “Love saw Hate and said, “I will go there.” And Peace saw War and said, “I will go there.” And God saw humans and said, “I will go there.”" I wanted to scream, “but it’s all the same! Don’t teach my daughter that “God” is separate. Or that humans are equivalent to hate!” Where do you find a congregation of transcendentalists?

    I think it would be a great exercise to compile an expanded list of people we consider to be inspirational in a transcendental way. Rumi, yes…. Jung, yes….. Sena Jeter Naslund, yes….

  16. BTW, I’m glad ROS and all of you are still here. Hearing this interview and reading the thread is a great gift to receive in this season of looking for light in the darkness.

  17. Allison! You’re back! I was about to send out a search party :) You said: “I always struggle with how to define my “spirituality” to others. Your description is so close to mine, it’s refreshing. I have been known to say that I don’t know what to call it, because I’m not comfortable with these images of a god, or the strictures of a religion, and it feels far more truthful to say, “I don’t know” that to proclaim any absolute truths, but I do have a deep, abiding inner faith.

    What you said above reminded me of what Jodi Foster’s character said at the end of the movie Contact:

    “I… had an experience… I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever… A vision of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are *not*, that none of us are alone! I wish… I… could share that… I wish, that everybody, if only for one… moment, could feel… that awe, and humility, and hope. But… That continues to be my wish.”

    You also asked: “Where do you find a congregation of transcendentalists?”

    I can’t say the following are necessarily ‘congregations of transcendentalists’ but these are two places where I personally find people whose interest is to serve humanity.

    1. Center for Nonviolent Communication: “A global organization helping people connect compassionately with themselves and one another through Nonviolent Communication” I found an interview with the founder, Marshall Rosenberg, on YouTube.

    2. Aikido (Though it’s a marshal art, the core principles are peace and reconciliation, i.e. you’re objective is to protect both yourself and your attacker.)

    Zeke, I just read the reviews of The Peabody Sisters. It looks good. Thanks for bring it to my/our attention.

    Nother, one definition of being humble I’ve always liked is: a humble man does not have a low opinion of himself; he has no opinion of himself.

    Potter, regarding what you said: “What bothers me most about how off track of our founding ideals we have gotten is the lack of tolerance. Without tolerance we cannot come together.”

    I head this story on NPR the other day:

    Finding Redemption Through Acceptance

    and also saw Daniel Goleman give this lecture on TED: Why aren’t we all Good Samaritans?

    (You mentioned Joseph Campbell. I could watch the Bill Moyers’ interview with him over and over. Great stuff!)

  18. Allison’s struggle to guide her daughter into a healthy spiritual life recalls an incident in The Peabody Sisters about the young Elizabeth Peabody. At the age of twelve she discovered writing by the English Socinians, “the most extreme supporters of the notion that Christ was human not divine.” This led her parents to become “much alarmed” and order a stop to her studies. After her vehement protests, a compromise was reached: for the summer she would read nothing but the Bible; if, at the end of that time, she persisted in her beliefs she would be free to study what she wished.

    Megan Marshall: “And so, at thirteen (my emphasis) Elizabeth proceeded to read the New Testament through thirty times (my emphasis) in three months, each time in reference to a different disputed point of doctrine.”

    I wonder if Allison has looked into contemporaray Unitarian Universalist churches or, more familiar to me, the Society of Friends.

    By the way, I, too, was delighted to see your byline above Allison!

  19. Allison I have thought of you often. Glad to see you here. I second what Zeke says about giving the Unitarian Universalists in your area a try. I have heard good things from those who have gone and become a part of their circles. Society of Friends sound good too.

    Also not a church, but a meditation/yoga group- the right one for you. Out here we have the Barre Center for Insight Meditation and for Buddhist Studies.I think there is one in Cambridge. I don’t consider Buddhism a religion ( not the American version anyway). I keep assuring myself that I can run there for spiritual help should I get desperate.

    If you are turned off by the dogma you don’t belong. It’s not for you. There are a lot of people who feel as you do and they find each other and then transcend.

    I left early the orthodox Judaism that was being imposed on me as I felt choked by it. Through an odyssey I found a community in Roxbury of like minded “drop-outs” in awe of Emerson, Thoreau, Goya, Rembrandt ( don’t wince at the mix- I am just grabbing a few) and making music, writing,writing poetry, also reacting against the politics of the day ( Viet Nam). Didn’t stay there but that experience changed my life. There is nothing like having a group of people around you that you can care about and who, in turn, embrace you, mind body and spirit. That is true family. But it’s difficult to find and I believe it’s hard to make such a thing last long. ( I think they call this “intentional community” ) This particular community is still in existence, very successful, with several branches, having grown another generation. I would definitley call them transcendental. I am not there- long story. But I would or might be.

  20. Thanks everybody.

    On that Romney speech. Did I miss the outrage over the way the message was 180 degrees from the Kennedy message?

    is it a lost cause to attempt a public dialog about the distinction between faith and religion? I have faith so, I don’t need religion?

    On the UU suggestions: this is definitely a YMMV topic. (that is, Your Mileage May Vary) There is a UU church in Jamaica Plain and I was very excited to check it out. The minister was talking out Christ being the The One and Only. He lost me on that one. Come on, there have been other enlightened souls who have graced the planet…

    I also have a logistical challenge: I host a Sunday morning circle for my knitting community. While it is not the place for my philosophical/spiritual/intellectual explorations in an intellectual kind of way, we do refer to it as “Knitting Church” and the community is vital to my life. So, I need another time for this pursuit. (What can I say, I’m difficult.)

  21. I have to say I’m moved to see all of you here – I read these posts and I feel something deep and true is going on here. And since this thread is showing signs of some of the old vibrancy, I thought I’d ask a question that I think many of us have, about the present and future state of the online “intentional community” here. It’s not really a question in any specific articulated sense, more of a wonder about where this site/thing/project/meeting place/agora is going. I’ve liked-loved the interviews so far – there’s a free, unburdened, intimate, personal, one on one quality that represents, I think, a genuine evolution in the audio side of things. And I think the time has come, with the production changes, to really deeply reconsider the organization/organism of the site itself.

    In the (let’s call it) previous incarnation of ROS, two loci of especially intense activity were the threads generally as they lead into soon-to-be airing shows, and the pitch a show thread specifically. So, to start with, a simple suggestion would be to coalesce these two aspects together, to have what would essentially be various ongoing discussion threads, of whatever degree of generality/specificity, from which possible future shows would simply naturally bubble-up. It most likely wouldn’t work quite this easily, at least at first, but I do think the online dialogue-discussion-community needs to be its own thing, to have its own priority and autonomy, its own life. And the intimate connection to the podcast/audio content would by its nature make the site something more than just an online forum. And as far as generating new thread headings, starting new topics and branches and so on, I think the Emerson summer reading group showed that, if there’s an email liaison who’s relatively on the ball, new thread requests and the acceptance thereof could work pretty smoothly. And having to make the case for a new discussion heading, still keeping actual control of the thread architecture in the hands of Mary and Chris and whoever else at ROS, would keep the threads and branches from proliferating into a sprawling mess.

    I know this is pretty broad still, but I do think we should speak up and offer active input into this site. I remember, when the threads really got chugging, ROS had to be one of the most exciting and stimulating and intimately discursive places to be on the web. And I wasn’t even one of the more consistent posters, and still the engagement and involvement left a mark on me. It was a genuinely special place to be. And that quality and feeling need to be more than just recaptured, but taken up into something alive and new.

    OK, sorry to go off thread topic like this, but I thought this was as good a place as any to let loose some of my thoughts.

  22. A long Emerson quote from his “Lecture on the Times”:

    ….Everything that is popular, it has been said, deserves the attention of the philosopher; and this for the obvious reason, that although it may not be of any worth itself, yet it characterizes the people……

    ……Here is the great fact of Conservatism, entrenched in its immense redoubts, with Himmaleh for its front, and Atlas for its flank and Andes for its rear, and the Atlantic and Pacific seas for its ditches and trenches, which has planted its crosses, and crescents, and stars and stripes, and various signs and badges of possession, over every rood of the planet, and says, ‘I will hold fast; and to whom I will, will I give, and whom I will, will I exclude and starve:’ so says Conservatism; and all the children of men attack the colossus in their youth, and all, or all but a few, bow before it when they are old. A necessity not yet commanded, a negative imposed on the will of many by his condition, a deficiency in his force, is the foundation on which it rests. Let this side be fairly stated. Meantime, on the other part, arises Reform, and offers the sentiment of Love as an overmatch to this material might. I wish to consider well this affirmative side, which has a loftier port and reason than heretofore, which encroaches on the other every day, puts it out of countenance, out of reason and out of temper, and leaves it nothing but silence and possession.”

  23. We sick an’ tired of-a your ism-skism game -

    Dyin’ ‘n’ goin’ to heaven in-a Jesus’ name, Lord.

    We know when we understand:

    Almighty God is a living man.

    You can fool some people sometimes,

    But you can’t fool all the people all the time.

    So now we see the light (What you gonna do?),

    We gonna stand up for our rights! (Yeah, yeah, yeah!)

    -Robert Nesta Marley

  24. Leaving aside doctrinal disputes (which are trivial and boring) might it be argued that there are two fundamentally different approaches to “religion?” One offering answers and the other offering questions?

    Like the first generation of transcendentalists, many here seem to have been stifled by the first approach and liberated by setting out on various voyages towards Truth, to use Emerson’s metaphor.

    Most affirming of all, may be the discovery that Truth is itself an interrogatory process without end. As William Ellery Channing said: “the idea of God, sublime and awful as it is, is the idea of our own spiritual nature, purified and enlarged to infinity.” (Quoted by Elizabeth Peabody in her Reminiscences of W.E.C.)

    In other words, the questions and the quest are themselves could be the Divine.

  25. Allison,

    Zeke & Potter both mentioned the Society of Friends. I’m not a member; however, a book that I frequently read (and recommend), Let Your Life Speak, is by Parker Palmer who is a member of the Society of Friends, and at one time was the Dean of Studies at Pendle Hill, one of their retreat centers. Here’s an excerpt from Let Your Life Speak:

    “Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks — we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

    Buechner’s definition starts with the self and moves toward the needs of the world: it begins, wisely, where vocation begins — not in what the world needs (which is everything), but in the nature of the human self…”

    Sounds like Emerson to me!

    Zeke said: “Leaving aside doctrinal disputes (which are trivial and boring) might it be argued that there are two fundamentally different approaches to “religion?” One offering answers and the other offering questions?”

    I found this passage by Palmer this morning:

    “Authentic spirituality wants to open us to truth – whatever truth may be, wherever truth may take us. Such a spirituality does not dictate where we must go, but trusts that any path walked with integrity will take us to a place of knowledge. Such a spirituality encourages us to welcome diversity and conflict, to tolerate ambiguity, and to embrace paradox. By this understanding, the spirituality of education is not about dictating ends. It is about examining and clarifying the inner sources of teaching and learning, ridding us of the toxins that poison our hearts and minds.”

    and here’s an excerpt from Rumi’s poem Moses and the Shepherd:

    Ways of worshipping are not to be ranked as better

    or worse than one another.

    Hindus do Hindu things.

    the Dravidian Muslims in India do what they do.

    It’s all praise, and it’s all right.

    It’s not me that’s glorified in acts of worship.

    It’s the worshipers! I don’t hear the words

    they say. I look inside at the humility.

    That broken-open lowliness is the reality,

    not the language! Forget phraseology.

    I want burning, burning.

    Be friends

    with your burning. Burn up your thinking

    and your forms of expression!

    Moses,

    those who pay attention to ways of behaving

    and speaking are one sort.

    Lovers who burn

    are another.

    mynocturama, I’m mulling over what you said above.

  26. I am delighted that my interview sparked this thread, for the kind of spirituality represented by the Transcendentalists is sorely needed in these parlous times. I wish to emphasize what I say in my book, that it behooves us to pay attention to other of their voices besides Emerson’s. For those interested particularly in the spiritual dimension, I recommend Parker’s “Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” a piece as challenging as the “Divinity School Address” and widely available in anthologies of the movement. For those who want to read more about the social implications, try Brownson’s “The Laboring Classes,” a penetrating example of the group’s criticism of market capitalism.

    As I stressed in the interview, we need to get beyond the notion that Transcendentalism equals individualism. The point is that once the self is discovered, one has an obligation to those other myriad comparable selves to help them achieve, first, the same enlightenment, and then the commitment to social justice. When in “The Transcendentalist” RWE speaks of the group as withdrawn from the world, working alone in their studies, he fudges the issue. Already at that moment many of his friends–leaders in the Transcendentalist movement– were working indefatigably for a better world, out in the world. That is the ethic that Ripley and Brownson and Parker bequeath us.

  27. Finestkind of Philip Gura to chime in on his favored themes. I wish more interviewees were so generous (Jonathan Raban wrote a lovely note). To return to the themes of contemporary Transcendentalists, eminence grises, and the pleasant obligation to get them on tape, might I add Peter Matthiessen to the list? Novelist, naturalist, explorer, advocate, and Zen monk to boot. He’s also a marvellous raconteur, as in this interview:

    http://www.lannan.org/lf/rc/event/david-suzuki/

    His Killing Mister Watson trilogy, due sometime soon in one Great American Novel-sized volume, would be enough to warrant anyone’s attention, certainly mine. As for the rest, the match with so many of this show’s abiding themes make me wonder why he’s not on the board with Chris and Mary and the rest of the Trilateral Commission…Hmm

  28. I opened an old copy of Emerson’s “The Conduct of Life” to “Worship” and it’s previous owner had underlined in pencil what I have bolded here:

    “Each must be armed- not necessarily with musket and pike. Happy, if, seeing these, he can feel that he has better muskets and pikes in his energy and constancy. To every creature is his own weapon. However skilfully [sic] concealed from himself, a good while. His work is sword and shield. let him accuse none, let him injure none The way to mend the bad world, is to create the right world.

    further down underlined:

    ” I look on that man as happy, who, when there is a question of success, looks into his work for a reply, not into the market, not into opinion, not into patronage.”

    and of course I could go on because the next and the next is also so apt.

  29. Thank you, Professor Gura. You’ve started something here. Thanks for sticking with it.

    We have our assignment, kids. The theme of the short winter course is: “It wasn’t all Emerson…” And the new giants we need to get to know are fellow-Transcendentalists Orestes Brownson (1803 – 1876), Theodore Parker (1810 – 1860), and George Ripley, (1802 – 1880). Here’s a first stab at on-line introductions:

    Orestes Brownson‘s book on The Laboring Classes was described in Arthur M. Schlesinger’s first work of historical biography as “the best study of the workings of society written by an American before the Civil War.” When Schlesinger rediscovered and reintroduced Brownson to American readers in the late Depression, Henry Steele Commager began his New York Times review thus:

    If Orestes Brownson is remembered at all today, it is as a convert who attempted unsuccessfully to liberalize and Americanize the Catholic Church. Al the rest of that long and colorful career is forgotten, and readers who come across that amusing passage in the “Fable for Critics” have difficulty in identifying the victim. The twenty formidable volumes of his works gather dust on those shelves which they still burden; the biographical monument, raised by pious hands, is justly regarded as a curiosity. Yet in his day Orestes Brownson was respected and feared as were few of his contemporaries; European philo0sophers regarded him with hope; American politicians enlisted his vitriolic pen; denominations competed for his eloquence; and when he listed himself among the three most profound men in America there were those who took him seriously…

    Henry Steele Commager, “That Sturdy but Erratic Reformer, Orestes Brownson,” in the New York Times, April 23, 1939

    Theodore Parker was a Boston preacher of the Christian church’s social mission. He was a sometime Unitarian and among the most eloquent of Abolitionists. Parker’s version of what became the climax of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was: “of all the people, by all the people, for all the people.” And it was Parker’s line on the inevitable success of the abolitionist movement that Martin Luther King Jr. often quoted in the civil rights movement: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

    Theodore Parker was our Savonarola, an excellent scholar, in frank and affectionate communication with the best minds of his day, yet the tribune of the people, and the stout Reformer to urge and defend every cause of humanity with and for the humblest of mankind. He was no artist. Highly refined persons might easily miss in him the element of beauty. What he said was mere fact, almost offended you, so bald and detached; little cared he. He stood altogether for practical truth; and so to the last. He used every day and hour of his short life, and his character appeared in the last moments with the same firm control as in the midday of strength. I habitually apply to him the words of French philosopher who speaks of “the man of Nature who abominates the steam engine and the factory. His vast lungs breath independence with the air of the mountains and the woods.”

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoted on the excellent Theodore Parker Web Site which links to all the essential references on Parker’s life and works.

    George Ripley was an “Associationist” (capital A) as Emerson was famously an individualist. It was Ripley, with his wife Sophia Dana Ripley and a stalwart community, who in 1841 founded the Brook Farm community in what is now West Roxbury in Boston. The settlement and the social movement were transformed into legend by a fire in 1847. Ripley became a successful journalist — a writer on Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune and an editor of Harper’s Magazine.

    In the mornings everyone in the community would wake at approximately 6:00 am, eat breakfast, and then work for ten hours in the summer or eight hours in the winter. Even so, enjoyment was the first pursuit of Brook Farm. After the work was done and after dinner had been served, there was plenty of time for personal enjoyment and leisure. The members of Brook Farm had an insatiable desire for pleasure: music, dancing, cardplaying, charades, tableaux vivants, dramatic readings, plays, costume parties, picnics, sledding and skating. Even in stormy weather, impromptu discussions were started in the Hive. Literary societies and reading clubs were very popular at Brook Farm, as were the readings and performances of Shakespeare’s plays. Musical visitors were common, and some members also sang. Anti-slavery gatherings in Boston and Dedham were attended by many members. But perhaps the most important and symbolizing custom at the Farm was “The symbol of Universal Unity.” This ritual was performed by the entire company rising and joining hands in a circle and then “vowing truth to the cause of God and Humanity.”

    From Jessica Gordon’s history of Brook Farm on the American Transcendentalism Web.

  30. I’m really glad to see the thread move in the direction of the social implications of Transcendentalism. This is the aspect I have found most fascinating since we began this exploration over the summer: how the individuals related to each other, to their society and to the “world.” However, I think that we need to realize that the “world” changes with one’s times. Certainly, it meant something different to these 19th century citizens than it does to our globalized selves.

    Both Professor Gura and Emerson (as quoted by Potter) use the word:

    Gura: “Already at that moment many of his friends–leaders in the Transcendentalist movement– were working indefatigably for a better world, out in the world.”

    Emerson: “The way to mend the bad world, is to create the right world.”

    The “world” is certainly different for Sophia Peabody than it is for Margaret Fuller. And for Bronson Alcott than for Theodore Parker.

    Didn’t Thoreau say something like, “I would rather be a good neighbor than a good citizen.”

    It would seem to me that this is more complex–and more interesting– than a simple dichotomy between “individualism” and “association.”

  31. I love this! Thank you Professor Gura. I was really looking for a reading list and you gave me great fodder. And, thanks, Chris, for taking it further.

    It makes so much sense that working for social justice would be the natural outcome of searching for truth. And when we think of those who have graced the planet and left the most positive “spiritual” imprint they have all put their energies into social justice.

    Off to read….

  32. Bobby’s quote from Frederick Buechner (“Find the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”) has resonated for me since he posted it. I actually first encountered the quote years ago, except with the word “comfort” in place of “gladness.” I point that out not to question the accuracy of Bobby’s recall, but because, again, I think many of these “wisdoms” we have been quoting from Emerson and others can vary depending on the precise meaning of key words.

    And I think it is essential to read them in the context of their times before extrapolating them to our own. For example, for many of these people, blacks were inferior; abolition might not have represented social justice in the way we would assume.

    Anyway, underlying much of the Transcendental enterprise seems to be a search for connection: with God (as they understand God), with Nature (the same thing as God for some of them?), with each other (lots and lots of talk) and, with the “world.” It seems a bit ironic to seek these connections through transcendence–rising beyond something. In this perspective the social concerns could be seen as representing a closing of a loop; having gotten beyond a reliance on material reality, they turn their attention back to altering it through social engagement.

    The more I learn about them I find that it is hard to generalize about the Transcendentalists. They are a fascinating, complex group of human beings.

  33. Thank you Professor Gura. I appreciate your thoughtful contribution to the abiding conversation. I will indeed take up your advise and expand my transcendental horizons.

    For the sake of this conversation though, I’d like to push back and make the case that Emerson was as passionate in his pursuit for social justice as he was for individualism. My contention is that he did not see the two as mutually exclusive. In fact, he says as much with these words that ring like recurrent church bells in my head:

    “The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

    Professor Gura writes:

    The point is that once the self is discovered, one has an obligation to those other myriad comparable selves to help them achieve, first the same enlightenment, and then the commitment to social justice.

    But I ask you, who is this person so wise as to register the actual point of discovered self. Can they be humble? I believe Emerson viewed the struggle for self as a permanent ground zero – the good being only a ripple effect from this beautiful struggle.

    I do not believe that social justice can be ministered – only embodied.

    Professor Gura writes that the enlightened have an “obligation” to pursue social justice, RWE takes up that idea:

    “Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; — though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.”

    I’ve often contemplated the preceding passage and I’m only now coming to appreciate it. Emerson seems to stress that much of what we call social justice is actually self-flagellation or even self-aggrandizement.

    “Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade.”

    “Their virtues are penances. I do not wish to expiate, but to live.”

    It’s like a lame duck coach (who feels guilty) giving a impassioned motivational speech to the team he will soon be leaving – the team knows the words ring hollow. The speech serves only the speaker.

    But I ask you, what if we were to deem our selves enlightened and thus set our sights on social justice…how would we know the right path? Because as Emerson writes:

    “One man’s justice is another’s injustice”

    If we take our eye off the ball (the self) and we spend our precious time focusing on “social justice” – we will for the most part swing and miss, because:

    “Virtues are, in the popular estimate, rather the exception than the rule. There is the man and his virtues.”

    “But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.”

  34. On the spiritual front, one can do worse than to bend an ear to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

    He tells us that “a great man is always willing to be little.”

    So I strive to be little when I contemplate spirituality.

    “Nature looks provokingly stable and secular, but it has a cause like all the rest; and when once I comprehend that, will these fields stretch so immovably wide, these leaves hang so individually considerable? Permanence is a word of degrees. Every thing is medial. Moons are no more bounds to spiritual power than bat-balls.”

    Merry Christmas and I hope you find some bat-balls in your stocking.

  35. I just listened to the interview while taking a long walk in Rockland County, NY – a great “setting” for this talk. I’m a little bit late to the table, but wanted to put a more instrumentalism spin on the thread. Professor Gura worries — rightly, I think — that communities like this one are by dar the exception rather than the rule. Similarly, Chris notes the rigid, dogmatic forms that spirituality has assumed in our public discourse. Under these circumstances, it seems to me that it’s critical to push back and fight the turn away from openness in our public life, and to reject the close-mindedness that tars those who even ask some questions (much less those who answer those questions in unpopular ways). Without that kind of “meta-change,” we court a brittle and hollow poliitcs (perhaps I should say an even MORE brittle and hollow politics).

    So, my question for Professor Gura (whose book is now on its way to me), Chris, and others is: What do the Transcendentalists have to say about fomenting openness and contemplation? To mangle the words of Richard Rorty, can’t it be said that if we take care of wisdom, self-governance will take care of itself? How can we channel the Concord gang (and, yes, the others too) to promote robust self-governance?

  36. hey nother, perhaps we need to define “social justice”.

    Beyond that, I think that in the pursuit of truth and a connection to the higher self, one hears a calling along the way. One does not have to claim enlightenment or transcendence. One only has to act upon the truth heard from the heart.

  37. I have just been reading the new (January) Smithsonian, an essay by Lance Morrow on the late Norman Mailer. It is interesting as a dismissal of Mailer’s final importance (read it to learn why), and in the course of the piece Morrow makes this interesting observation. “His [Mailer's] ego was first of all a reflection of his character as an American. . . . in his own ways he embodied America’s worst faults: self-indulgence, bullying, sense of entitlement, irrelevant belligerence, the obnoxious American self-importance that is a corrupted Emersonianism–Emerson without the sweetness, the calm, the brains, the transcendence.”

    I cite this because it reinforces one of the points I tried to make in the interview, that Transcendentalism has come down to us in diluted, caricatured form. Mailer no doubt saw hiself in the Emersonian tradition; yet, as Morrow points out, there is so much more to RWE than what debased popular culture has made of him.

    By the way, I do not know the origin of the name of Emerson’s home (“Bush”), but I remind readers that he affectionately called his second wife “Asia,” from his interest in and respect for the wisdom of that continent.

  38. So often light is dimmed through the filter of time.

    Thanks for the Asia, reminder. I was intrigued to see that the Transcendentalists were inspired, at least partly, by Vedic thought. More reading to do….

    (as I sit here waiting for my 8 y.o. daughter to fall asleep so that the magic of Santa can arrive in our house, where we celebrate Christmas as a time to appreciate each other for the light we bring into a world that can, at times, seem so dark.)

  39. In addition to calling his wife Asia, didn’t RWE also alter her name from Lydia to Lydian because it sounded more classical. This kind of troubled me when I learned it, and I hope she received it as also being “affectionate.” In contrast, I was touched to learn that Lydian insisted on naming their daughter Ellen as a reminder of Emerson’s beloved deceased wife Ellen Tucker. This struck me as awfully generous of spirit.

    Allison–At the Unitarian Christmas Eve service we attended last night, the minister made the point that meaning of Christmas starts before (though definitely includes) the birth of Jesus. She also incorporated Chanuka in a way that makes it more than a story of triumphant “rightuous” in warfare. (Even if your 8 y.o. was still awake as you wrote your message at 10:56 last night, I bet she has already been up for a while as I type mine on this bright, crisp Christmas morning in N.H.

  40. Funny, my Jewish friends are offended by the attempts to equate or conflate or compare, or whatever, Chanukah with Christmas just because they fall in the same time of the calendar year. They would prefer if non-Jews would show an interest in Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as these are their high holidays. Chanuka was a blip on their annual screen until the commercialization of Christmas.

    Yes, my daughter was up quite early this morning. Very excited that Santa ater her cookies and drank her milk, and left a “Thank you” note. Even more excited about her roller skates! (There’s a fun santa story behind that.)

    Merry Christmas to those that celebrate.

  41. In the midst of the Popular Racism of “Fate” (I suppose a hundred years later Emerson would have set his essay amid a different set of Popular Science topics) where the Irish and certain others are said to have a lot of guano in their makeup and “A learned physician tells us the fact is invariable with the Neapolitan, that when mature he assumes the forms of the unmistakable scoundrel,” which Emerson allows “is a little overstated,—but may pass,” maybe in the service of a nonracist larger point, there is this juxtaposition of superiorities that I had not expected to see: “Dante and Columbus were Italians, in their time; they would be Russians or Americans to-day.” What Russians were people admiring in those days?

  42. Don’t know if anyone will see this question, but I hope someone does and can help me out. My explorations of the Transcendentalists now lead me to want to learn more about Walt Whitman. I have never gotten his poetry, though recently, thanks to my reading and our discussions, some of it is beginning to make sense to me. Anyway, I know little about him and would like a good biography to add to those I’ve now read of the other luminaries we have discussed. I’d like something that could also help lead me into the poetry iteself.

    I notice a couple of recent and well reviewed ones at Amazon. One by Justin Kaplan and one, which looks a bit more challenging, by David Reynolds.

    I’d welcome recommendations–or any guidance on how to get into Whitman.

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