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Solitude.

Time alone, socially with ourselves, can be a truly healing ordeal. When we’re alone, we tend to think. Thinking is hard work. It really takes a disciplined mind to reflect, to look at different items in life and piece them together differently than they are presented to us.…perhaps with more clarity. We may experience anxiety, left with our own thoughts in the solitude of quarantine. From whatever source or another, you may feel anxious about being alone. Develop calming practices. Curate calming activities in your life that bring you peace.

 

You may experience restlessness. What to do with all that time? Many of you will want to be productive. Do something you enjoy. What do you like to do with your (wrestling) hands? Hold a book? Saw wood? Bake? Knit me a scarf?!?

 

Whether you enjoy listening to music and talking about the memories and times music evokes, explore what you like to do. Me? I dance, read, write, binge on TV series, and digging my hands in dirt to grow stuff. I especially love propagating plants. I try any plant I can get ahold of. In my garden, I have a beautiful crawling flower I clipped in Barcelona. It spreads over soil and has bright green leaves with bright red flowers that unfold into a star at dusk. Curate creative activities in your life that bring you peace.

 

Solitude gives us time for introspection – a kind of dialogue with ourselves. We love all forms of art because of the internal dialogue with ourselves as we observe a movie, painting, sculpture, fashion, performance, etc. We know at the heart of each of those creations, there was an artist in solitude.

 

In my solitude…

 

 

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First edition

Alice walker sat and wrote The Color Purple with pen and paper. The screenwriters later came along and did the same. Each actor received their own script. On screen we watch Ms. Sofia tell Ms. Celie to “bash Mister’s head in and think about heaven later,” after confronting her for telling her step-son to beat her. Imagine how Oprah read all of THAT from just a few letters to god. On the page, Celie acknowledges her jealousy of Sofia’s power – she’s just as “poor, Black and ugly” as she. She apologizes and reconciles by helping Harpo’s next woman recognize her own power. There’s a whole storyline about this. The book more keenly develops more characters and their transformations. In our solitude, we read The Color Purple and for the first time view it in Technicolor.

 

In the book, of course, we neither see the bruises and blood nor hear the screams the children must have hears when Mister beats Celie senselessly throughout their marriage. We read how Celie gained the courage to leave this batterer. Oh, and the grandest surprise is that Shug reveals to Celie that God ain’t a man, and he ain’t white, neither. If God were a white man, neither could believe in him, according to the book. Both their redemptions came from there, not as the film shows. In the film, Shug is a floozy who redeems herself by becoming ‘respectable’.  The film doesn’t question the heteropatriarchal god, a central narrative in the book.

 

The book is really queer. Harpo loves to cook, clean and take care of kids while his woman works. Harpo resolves his Oedipal dilemma by accepting that he’s not a patriarch like his father. The film depicts his struggle but not this resolution. In the book, there’s an entire sub-narrative about how Celie’s kids in Africa – raised by her sister Nettie – reject the traditional gender roles. This is only hinted at in the film.

 

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Celie & Shug’s only on-screen kiss

Of course, Celie’s a lesbian, Shug’s bisexual and Mister is cool with their love triangle. In the book, Mister’s redemption is there, literally becoming just a tiny bit more feminist, though still not nearly as the flashy boxer Shug later marries. Another big twist is that in the book is that Shug and her husband split amicably; he moves south of the border with Harpo’s woman, Mary Agnes, to run their very own marijuana plantation.

 

Celie encouraged Mary Agnes to stop people from calling her Squeak, a sub-narrative that only is hinted at in the film’s iconic Thanksgiving scene, aka Celie’s uprising. I love Celie’s nasty retort to Mister’s sinister dad in this scene: “Seem like if he hadn’t been your boy, he might a made somebody a halfway decent man.”  Shug helps Mary Agnes have her own singing career, as implied in the Thanksgiving scene when she says she’s leaving with Celie and Shug Avery. In a deep hearty laugh that breaks the dramatic tension, Sofia declares: “Oh, Sofia(‘s) home.”

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“You told Harpo to beat me!” Oprah’s breakout character & breakout scene

 

Self-love and women supporting women are huge themes that can’t be captured in a movie, it needs a whole mini-series to watch at home.  Serendipitously, at the end of the scene when their boarding the car, Celie’s hex on Mister is almost taken directly from the pages. “Until you do right by me, ev’ry thing you even think about gonna fail!”

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Celie’s Thanksgiving uprising

Finally, in the book, Celie and Mister eventually become friends. Come back with her long-lost kids and the dear sister Nettie he’d banished and “whoop his ass.” I love, love, love the film, but all of this was erased from book to script. I discovered all of this in my solitude.

 

The Color Purple was originally written as Celie’s prayers, the way she escaped the hell of her existence. In the book, she found this through love. On the paper, we can see that she stops writing to “God” and instead addresses the letters to her sister Nettie, the one who taught her to read (in both versions).  The pages, not the movie, clearly reveal this spiritual transformation. Celie continues to write to Nettie, not knowing anything of her fate, only having found the old letters Mister had stashed away for years. Their love was so strong that in her solitude, writing the letters brought her peace. Curate writing activities that bring you peace.

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The revised book cover following the film’s success

Do you keep a journal, dabble in poetry, admire the prose in your head? Set aside time as a family for writing and reading. Experience solitude together. Share your work. Curate activities that bring you peace. Use this quarantine to strengthen your capacity to love.

 

A Love Letter: in praise of Agatha Christie

For most of my life, I have been an avid reader of all types of books. As my family will confirm, from childhood, I was never without a book. As an adult, I have regularly selected coats with large pockets and bags purely on the basis that they can hold a book. As many students will attest, my answer to most academic questions is “read, read and read some more”. Despite the growth of the internet and other media, which as @drkukustr8talk has noted recently, diverts and subverts our attention and concentration, reading remains my first and truest love.

This, my third ‘Love Letter’, focuses on my favourite author, above all others, Agatha Christie. I have previously dedicated ‘Love Letters’ to poetry, and art. Both of these forms took a long time for me to develop my understanding of and my love for. This ‘Love Letter’ is slightly different.

I first discovered Christie’s novels when I was about 12, since then they have formed a regular backdrop to my life. They act as a comfort blanket when I am tired, stressed, sad or away from home. I have read and reread everything she wrote and know the stories inside and out. Despite my decades of adoration, it remains challenging to know exactly what it is that appeals to me so much about Christie’s novels.

Perhaps it is the symmetry, the fact that for Christie every crime has a solution. Conceivably, given my pacifist tendencies, it could be the absence of explicit violence within her books. Maybe it’s Christie use of stereotypical characters, who turn out to be anything but. You don’t have to look very far to find the oh-so suspicious foreigner, who turns out to be a caring father (Dr Jacob Tanois) or the shell-shocked former military man trained in violence, who metamorphosises into a rather lonely man, who suffers from epilepsy (Alexander Cust). In all these cases, and many others, Christie plays with the reader’s prejudices, whatever they might be, and with deft sleight of hand, reveals that bias as unfounded.

To be honest, until relatively recently, I did not think much about the above, reading Christie was so much part of my life, that I took it very much for granted. All that changed in 2017, when I spotted a ‘Call for Chapters’

https://jcbernthal.com/2017/02/27/call-for-chapters-agatha-christie-goes-to-war/

It seemed too good an opportunity to miss, after all I had spent a lifetime reading Christie, not to mention a decade studying war and crime. After all, what did I have to lose? I submitted an abstract, with no real expectation that someone who had never studied fiction academically, would be accepted for the volume. After all, who would expect a criminologist to be interested in the fictional writing of a woman who had died over 40 years ago? What could criminology learn from the “golden age” of “whodunnit” fiction?

Much to my surprise the abstract was accepted and I was invited to contribute a chapter. The writing came surprisingly easy, one of very few pieces of writing that I have ever done without angst. Once I got over the hurdle of forcing myself to send my writing to strangers (thank you @manosdaskalou for the positive reassurance and gentle coercion!) , what followed was a thoroughly pleasant experience. From the guidance of the volume’s editors , Drs J. C. Bernthal and Rebecca Mills, to the support from many colleagues, not mention the patience of Michelle (Academic Librarian) who patiently held restrained from strangling me whilst trying to teach me the complexities of MLA. Each of these people gave me confidence that I had something different to say, that my thinking and writing was good enough.

Last week, my copy of the book arrived. It was very strange to see my chapter in print, complete with my name and a brief biography. Even more surreal was to read the editors’ introduction and to see my work described therein, with its contribution to the volume identified. I doubt many people will ever read my chapter, it is published in a very expensive academic book destined for academics and libraries. Nevertheless, I have left the tiniest of marks in academic literature and perhaps more importantly, publicly acknowledged my love for the writing of Agatha Christie.

The finished article:

Bowles, Paula, (2020), ‘Christie’s Wartime Hero: Peacetime Killer’ in Rebecca Mills and J. C. Bernthal, Agatha Christie Goes to War, (Abingdon: Routledge): 28-45

Three Tips for Uni:

There are lots of blogs, articles, and Youtube videos which offer some useful tips for going to university, yet it always appears as though students haven’t watched/read them or in the excitement of coming to university they have forgotten what they were. So in the hope that new and existing students might read this, here are my 3 tips for studying at university, and they apply to all levels:

1) READ!!!
At various stages throughout your degree you will be told that you are reading for a degree, and that is the truth. Now reading may not be everybody’s cup of tea, however it is vital to attaining a degree. Lecturers will provide reading lists for your modules, and readings for seminars, however it is vital you go beyond these lists. In first year everything is new, and the likelihood of you being experienced in reading academic journals and textbooks is pretty slim, and therefore there is a good chance you’ll be reading things that don’t appear to make much sense. That is how I remember most of my first year at undergrad! However, perseverance is key: if you didn’t understand it the first time round, take a break and read it again! Still not making sense, then read it again. Variety in source selection and reading is also key, do not feel like you have to read everything off the reading lists, or that those are the only sources you should be engaging with: get creative, mix it up! To change a phrase from a certain, loveable but forgetful blue fish: ‘Just keep reading, just keep reading, just keep reading reading reading, what do we do, we read, read…’.

2) TALK!!
University is a new experience and it is very different from school! There are no teachers who will give you the answers, but rather lecturers who will help you harness the tools in order to pursue answers. Even returning students who are familiar with the university format of being vocal in seminars still feel uncomfortable the first few weeks back as they find their rhythm. Reading is key to acquire knowledge, but so is talking. Share your ideas and understandings with your friends, colleagues and lecturers. Answer the questions put to you by others. Ask questions when you are unsure or curious. Challenge views. Seminars run much smoother for everyone when discussion takes place, and discussion cannot happen without first reading and second talking. It can be uncomfortable and unnerving, even at MSc level when you’ve had 3 years of undergrad experience of talking in front of others and sharing ideas. It is not easy, and there is always fear of being wrong or sounding silly, but that is how we learn. I’m not saying you should go around talking to everyone and anyone about anything and everything, because I most certainly would not do that. But in seminars and lectures where knowledge is the goal, talking is key.

3) ENGAGE WITH FEEDBACK!
Finally, part of university life is assessments. Now if you are successful with reading and talking, then the assessment part of university should be less scary and more positive than if you otherwise have not read or asked questions/shared ideas. A large part of assessment is writing style, and there are various resources provided by the university at your disposal to help improve your writing, and to tailor your writing depending on the assessment. But a really crucial and essential tool is the feedback given to you by your lecturers. Whilst the feedback given to you on a piece of assessment is specific to that assessment in terms of content covered, it can also be applied to future assignments and therefore should be engaged with. We spend a large amount of time constructing feedback for students, in order to help improve their work and ultimately to help them succeed but very few students engage with it. If we have said you need to engage with more sources, the likelihood is that this needs to be done for all your assessments, similarly if there is a referencing issue or writing style concern. Engaging with your feedback is one of the quickest ways to improve your work, and if you do not understand the feedback, TALK to your lecturer about it.

Studying any level at university is very different to A-levels and college: it is ultimately independent learning where the lecturers will guide you and help you attain the skills required to complete your degree. It is an exciting and challenging time regardless of which stage you are at in your academic journey, and ultimately when you look back it should be something you are proud of. So to new students, welcome, to returning students, welcome back, and to you all: GOOD LUCK! 😊

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