Gerri Jones, Professor Cleese, and Me

Last summer, Gerri Jones called to tell me that Cornell Professor at Large John Cleese would be coming to Ithaca in September for a week. She told me that she had scheduled me for a public talk with Cleese on September 11th at Bailey Hall that would become the last chapter of the book we were working on together.

Since joining this amazing Press in 2015, moments like this seemed to occur with some regularity. I attended a poetry workshop at Olin Library café with a former leader of the SDS at Cornell, a Nobel Laureate and an A.R. Ammons biographer. Today, I am surrounded by correspondence rejecting Vladimir Nabokov’s novel in verse and a ledger that holds the 1939 pencil-written royalty entries for the publication of The Nature of the Chemical Bond. I am also keenly aware at times of Cornell founder Henry Sage and his wife Susan who initially occupied the mansion where I work. Gerri Jones fit right in as part of an emerging entourage.

A small family of deer mingled outside my window looking in my direction as if waiting for an answer. Surely someone else would want the opportunity to have this conversation. Gerri confirmed that she had cleared it with the Provost’s office, and that the Provost would be introducing us both. I still didn’t believe it was going to happen.

cleese cover

More than one year after that call and the event that formed the final chapter of Professor at Large: The Cornell Years, Gerri Jones passed away on August 10th, 2018. She was 68. She died from an infection in the hospital while being treated for leukemia.

This mystical and extraordinary woman who first alighted upon the second-floor landing of the Sage House during a folk concert never got to see her book get published. It was Gerri who brought one of the world’s most impressive and hilarious minds to Cornell over a span of seventeen years.

“Start thinking about a plan for the conversation,” she instructed me.

 

As it always was with Gerri, I knew what she meant. Avoid the cliched version of the Professor. Don’t spend a lot of time on Python—which I already knew anyway. If my words didn’t energize Gerri—she became bored and disinterested. She’d make a face. You had to elevate your game to be on the field with her. Those words reverberated in the weeks after the call. I dove into the Cleese canon of books, movies, and television shows. His mind came first. I read the manuscript of lectures and talks over and over.

While studying the Minister of Silly Walks, I recalled Gerri’s return to Sage House after the folk concert wearing knee-length boots and John Lennon shades. She carried a white shopping bag of Cleese talks and lectures on CDs. She told us about the never before published lecture entitled “The Sermon at Sage Chapel” that included a passage about “The Psychopaths for Christ.”

I received word of her passing and attended her funeral. She was supposed to be in remission now.

Through her friends, I came to discover that this whole episode was another glorious chapter in the amazing life of Gerri Jones. She could tilt the universe in any direction. She brought the Dalai Lama to Ithaca twice as the house mother to the Tibetan monks. She carried Kurt Cobain’s ashes back to Courtney Love after the monks had prepared them. She had even used one set as a door stop. She broke Reagan’s blockade of Nicaragua. She was the pride of Central Islip High on Long Island. To everyone there, she was simply “Ger.”

She loved Mardi Gras, dogs and Professor Cleese fiercely. They trusted each other and their chemistry was telepathic. She engineered a schedule that both challenged and protected him and left him with enough space to be creative. “I can’t read him,” he told Gerri during our second meeting after trying to discern the meaning of my facial expression. I can tell you that in that moment I felt absolute joy. My preparation for the talk had been rigorous and thorough. Professor Cleese had been talking about the brain and I leaned back in my chair and smiled. Yes, I had a little secret. I had known exactly what he was going to say before the words came out but I didn’t want to tell him that in the aftermath. Getting to know John Cleese is like learning how to play guitar. The chord structures are accessible, but they merely serve as a launch pad into an endless galaxy of improvisation.

I was ready for the public conversation and had enough confidence in his presence to suggest how the show was going to begin. After nearly falling off the chair with laughter, he agreed. Until now, Gerri was the only one I told this to in the hallway after we left Cleese that day. She and I have other secrets related to the book. Those we will keep. She swore me to it.

“We make a good team, don’t we?” She pinched my arm.

GERRI
Photo courtesy of Slade Kennedy.

 

About the author of this blog post: Dean Smith is the Director of Cornell University Press.

Gerri Jones, Professor Cleese, and Me

What Does Faith Demand? Elizabeth Seton and the Beliefs of Others

This summer has found Americans arguing over religion. What do we think of a baker who refused, on grounds of religious liberty, to make a cake celebrating a gay couple’s marriage? Should Catholic hospitals consider offering contraceptive services if they’re the only hospital in their region? Is it ever a good idea to turn to Scripture in order to justify or criticize government policies? Arguments like those made news. Other moments, in which someone looked with kindness, indifference, or contempt at a neighbor’s hijab, or crucifix, or flying spaghetti monster bumper sticker, didn’t. But in their daily accumulation, those small encounters also make history: the history of how people who disagree on things they consider supremely important, decide how and whether they will live in peace.

Elizabeth SetonNext month Cornell University Press will publish Elizabeth Seton, my biography of the woman who in 1975 became the first native born American citizen to be canonized in the Roman Catholic Church. Seton (1774-1821) changed her mind about her beliefs more than once during her life, and she also changed her mind about whether what she believed in should affect the society around her. As a very young woman, Seton laughed at the idea that faith needed any particular doctrinal content: if one found one’s way to cheerfulness and harmony, then all was well. This form of religion neither inspired Seton nor offended anyone else.

 

In her early thirties, after years of personal tragedy and spiritual inquiry, Seton converted to Catholicism. Her new faith allowed her to create a women’s religious community whose spiritual daughters serve others to this day. It also left Seton ablaze with certainty that only those who believed as she did were on the path to salvation. Her efforts to convince others of this angered many in her cosmopolitan Manhattan circle: they thought that faith should be held privately, its edges smoothed to avoid friction. Seton felt her friends’ and family’s insistence that she should keep her faith to herself was an assault on her beliefs and good intentions. Friends and family found her proselytizing a violation of their right to be left alone.  Everyone felt unfairly judged.

Within a decade, Seton had once again changed her mind. And although she continued to believe that the Catholic Church was the only safe path to God, she no longer tried to persuade others to follow it. Neither the venerable magisterium of the Catholic Church nor the First Amendment, its ink still damp, deserve the credit for this view; Seton’s growing desire for harmony and her growing spiritual humility do. She now believed that her faith imposed a different kind of obligation than she’d first believed, an obligation to offer specific, loving attention to those around her. Nurturing relationships, not spreading doctrine, would be the external manifestation of her faith. She wanted, she wrote, to “constantly find occasions of rendering [others] good offices and exercising kindness and good will towards them.”

As the summer’s arguments show, living harmoniously when people disagree vehemently will always be challenging. So will the act of creating a faith community that makes no unwanted claims on those outside it, but is meaningful to those within. Yet I think often of the principle Elizabeth Seton set forth late in her life: “Fear nothing so much as not to love enough.” Amid our many (and necessary) arguments, this seems like a promising place to start.

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Related upcoming event of interest: Living History Tour 

For more on Elizabeth Seton visit:

Daughters of Charity Federation

National Shrine of Elizabeth Seton

About the author of this blog post: Catherine O’Donnell is an historian at Arizona State University.  She writes and teaches about early America, religion, and the Atlantic World.

What Does Faith Demand? Elizabeth Seton and the Beliefs of Others

THE HEADSCARF IN THE UNITED STATES (or the celebration of freedom on this 4th of July)

The Fourth of July is so close you can almost sense it. And to most people, it feels like freedom and independence. But how does it feel to the Muslim American women wearing a headscarf (or hijab) on that day?

The question about the headscarf, its meaning, and, more than anything, the experience of the women that wear it, has fascinated me for a long time. Maybe because some people don’t seem to think much about it, beyond the simple act of wearing a scarf in itself; maybe because to others, it evokes sentiments of distrust and anxiety, led mainly by stereotypical images propagated on TV.

In April 2014 I traveled to Turkey and asked questions about this practice myself. Because I knew little about it, I was surprised to find out that most Muslim women embraced the covering of their hair, and sometimes their whole body, as an expression of their identities. They talked about religious liberty, their sense of femininity carefully embroidered and woven in cloth.

A few years later, as I strolled the streets of Casablanca, Morocco, I was witness to the same phenomena. Arm in arm, gossiping in their burkas, or with smiling eyes in a hijab, women were voicing their beliefs. How is it that I had not seen through the veil of my own cultural bias, unable to understand the subtleties of wearing a head-covering scarf?

HEADSCARF

The issue of Islamic head-covering and the political and social debates on the topic are as multiple as they are complex. This 4th of July, I invite those interested in unveiling its construction and political consequences, to listen to our latest podcast with Bozena Welborne, Aubrey Westfall, and Sarah Tobin, co-authors of The Politics of the Headscarf in the United States.

On this Independence Day, their book provides us with a chance to hear from Muslim American women, to learn about their values and beliefs, and how they express their identities in a country that aims to be the model of democratic pluralism.

 

 

“I love identifying myself as that, as a Muslim American, especially in that order, too, because this is my country and my religion is the most important to me. But after that, like . . .  this is where I was born, this is where I was raised and I was born with these values, American values of tolerating freedom of expression and freedom of religion and freedom of the press, and I think that’s one reason why our country is so successful is because we’re tolerating so much diversity and therefore people from all over the world can come and bring their talents into our country. So, I take a lot of pride in that phrase, Muslim American.”

—The Politics of the Headscarf in the United States (p.162)

 


 

Recommended artist to follow with this post:

http://www.boushraart.com/

 

About the author of this blog post: Adriana Ferreira is the Social Media Coordinator at Cornell University Press. She is grateful to have had the opportunity to travel around the world and meet people from various countries, with different cultural values and religious beliefs, and to be part of a diverse, multi-cultural and heterogeneous community.

 

THE HEADSCARF IN THE UNITED STATES (or the celebration of freedom on this 4th of July)