Blog 4: At work in Arkansas

 October 28 -- 29, 2013

            From Memphis we make a beeline for the Mexican border, stopping only for a week in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, to give six lectures at Henderson State University. I know that three questions have sprung immediately into your head.

            -- Do bees really fly in a straight line?

            -- Why is the name of the state pronounced AR-kan-saw rather than Ar-KAN-sas?          

             -- And who in their right mind would consent to give 6 public lectures in two days on 6 separate topics?


            The first question references not a fact but an assumption that nectar-laden bees return to their home hive in a straight line, avoiding any temptation to slurp an extra bit of sweet from a honeysuckle vine that is 7 degrees off course, or to zig fifty yards to the right to share nectar gathering stories with a worker bee buddy in a hive a couple of trees to the north. As best I can tell from a long and arduous research session of three or four minutes on Google, the beeline assumption has yet to be empirically tested.

            The answer to the second question is easy: Arkansas, derived from either a Sioux or Quapaw word sounding something like /akakaze/ and meaning “people of the south wind,” or perhaps “land of downriver people,” was pronounced both of the above ways, and some others too, presumably, provoking both conflict and rancor among citizens until the state legislature in 1881 passed a law that authorized only the first pronunciation: AR-kan-saw. In 2007 the legislature revisited controversy over the state name (presumably they passed other legislation in the interval in-between these two initiatives) and decreed the possessive of Arkansas to be Arkansas’s. Thank you Google. Go Razorbacks!

            The third matter remains a mystery, particularly to those of us without credentials in clinical psychology. Not to mention the fact that that ‘right mind’ is so squishingly imprecise a label that not being in it is a state that might convincingly be ascribed to any of us at certain moments in our lives. This particular two-day marathon of ‘not-in-ness’ in our lives came about in the following fashion:

            Maryjane Dunn, a former student of David’s from Nebraska, a former pilgrim with the two of us on the long trek to Compostela, and a former collaborator with Linda on four books having to do with pilgrimages and the Santiago de Compostela medieval tradition, is currently teaching at Henderson State. Linda and I thought we’d stop by for a brief visit on our way to Mexico, as we have done a few times previously.

            “As long as you’re going to be in Arkadelphia,” says Maryjane, “would you be up to talking with a couple of my classes?”

             “Sure, why not?” we answer. “Should be fun.”

            “Uh ... and uh ... maybe a public lecture? People in this part of Arkansas would love to hear about the work you are doing. Any topic at all –Sephardic cooking, Cervantes, the pilgrimage, the crypto-Jews, the Inquisition, the American-European food exchange? I can probably wrangle a small speakers’ fee for you.”

            “Hey, Maryjane, anything you like. Anything that you think would be useful to you or your department. You pick the topic, whatever floats; just tell us what you’ve decided.”

            [Memo to selves: never hand a carte blanche to an A-type personality without laying down some very specific parameters. Remember that ‘one of the above’ and ‘all of the above’ are very different instructions.]

            Maryjane went to work; and when we got to Arkadelphia, so did we. She had committed us to every single one of those topics, some to Spanish language and culture classes in Spanish, some to English and Religious Studies students in English, and a large-hall public lecture in English on “When a religion goes underground.” We guess it all went OK. We talked about tomatoes in the Columbian Exchange class, and nobody threw any at us. Eyebrows went up when we compared Spain’s “purity of blood” restrictions with Jim Crow in the South, and when we suggested that medieval Christians were far less tolerant than medieval Muslims, and that Muslims bathed frequently while Christians of that time bathed only for their baptism and their laying out. The audience accepted the proposition that the 3 religions each considered the deity a tribal god who looked out for their parochial interests and protected them from all others; but they visibly flinched when I said that to ask God to bless OUR troops was pretty much the same thing. Still, nobody got out the tar and feathers and we saw no crosses burning.

            And, if truth is to be told, despite the exhaustion we had one rousing good time, both at Henderson, and in ‘leisure’ moments with Joe and Maryjane. We ate well, hiked (MJ and I), knitted (MJ and Linda), fought about politics (all of the above + Joe), shopped for wool (MJ and Linda), baked cookies, watched the Red Sox triumph, swapped bibliography, gossiped about colleagues living and deceased, met lots of interesting people, and even got to wash our laundry. What more could migrant laborers ask?