A seeker finds focus in JMU’s Lifelong Learning Institute
By Chris Edwards

Taken from www.eightyone.info, a weekly online magazine serving the Harrisonburg, Staunton and Waynesboro, Virginia areas. This article appeared in November, 2007, and reprinted here with permission. The author is a member of the James Madison University Lifelong Learning Institute.

Early one bitter cold, windy evening in February, I climbed a hill behind my home in search of Venus. That week, launching the Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI) astronomy class, instructor William Alexander had shown on PowerPoint the planet’s then position vis-à-vis the setting sun.

Now, through swirling branches, I beheld a pinpoint of light to the West around Venus’ expected location. A few steps higher, I ruled out its chance of being a streetlamp. (“YES!”) As empty trashcans blew along the ridge-top street, I turned East to watch the sky darken above U.S. 33. A brilliant star appeared. I had no idea what it was, but minutes later, a constellation emerged that belonged to the handful I’d known before enrolling in the course: Orion My brighter, mystery star glowed in a straight diagonal down from the Hunter’s belt.

Although my reading glasses proved unequal to the dimly-flashlit chart, once home I identified the object unmistakably as Sirius, brightest star in the winter sky.

“That discovery,” remarked my punster husband, “sounds Sirius.”

Astronomy is one of 12 short classes I’ve taken through LLI, termed “a learning association open to all adults 50 and over” and offering topics that have ranged from Bridge and bird-watching to Einstein, economics and existentialism.
(see http://www.jmu.edu/socwork/lli/index.html)

Enrollment has topped 450 in this semester’s 27 offerings. (Additionally, 130 are taking guided daytrips, including one through the fabled Greenbrier Bunker)

Most classes cost $35 plus a $15 yearly membership (with scholarships available) and meet primarily around Harrisonburg, with some expansion into Augusta. They normally consist of five two-hour sessions. No papers, credit or grades – just intriguing glances along paths to follow deeper if we choose.

Alexander’s class visited the huge telescopes of Greenbank, W.Va., and observed a lunar eclipse, plus Saturn’s rings, from JMU. I still do not find identifying celestial bodies easy (constellations don’t line up like connect-the-dots), but on my hilltop I discovered it was possible. I’ve regretted the darker skies I failed to take advantage of these 62 years, but this July, off the Maine coast, I thrilled at the Milky Way.

Opening “The Iliad” my first autumn in college, I’d rolled my eyes over Achilles’ and Agamemnon’s squabble about Briseis and Chryses. Why, I wondered, didn’t those captured maidens get their say?

This spring, however, I became curious about twins Castor and Pollux and sometimes-upside-down queen Cassiopeia while locating their abstracted images in the sky. Mike Allain’s Greek mythology class introduced us to Ovid’s panorama of lusty, squabbling, so-powerful yet so-human gods and goddesses, got us howling at the schlocky nostalgia of Frankie Avalon’s “Venus,” and reflecting on “The Iliad’s” moving reconciliation between Priam and Achilles.

I knew so much less, circa 1963. I could not have comprehended either “The Trojan Women” or “Lysistrata” as I do now. I’d been even less tolerant of Plato than Homer, but insight about the former in Bill Painter’s “Before, Behind and Around the New Testament” course led me to reread
“The Allegory of the Cave,” this time with awe.

An English major, I’d written forgettable papers on Shakespearian symbolism. In Nancy Beall’s “Shakesperience” class, we enacted scenes from “Richard III” and “Much Ado About Nothing” before seeing them at Blackfriars. Beall guided us through Elizabethan puns, royal genealogy, and speculation about why we loved to hate Richard, whether Queen Margaret is a ghost, and ways “Much Ado’s” big scene might be played.

I’d always watched films for the stories and actors. George Wead’s “Movies R Us” opened new dimensions: early voice-dubbing and brighter-than-life colors; the intentionally grainy newsreels of “Citizen Kane;” Hitchcock’s tension-building, off-kilter angles. It was fascinating to discover that a classmate’s grandchild believed the real world, back in our generation’s youth, had been all black and white – just as one of mine had at age five.

One of the most popular classes through LLI’s 10 years has been Harvey Yoder’s “Mennonites in the Valley.” When Yoder took my group to a local three-room school where barefoot girls in bonnets and boys in broad-brimmed hats played softball at recess, I saw – for the first time in maybe 45 years – sentences diagrammed on a chalkboard.

At the Bank Church cemetery, beside the Civil War-era grave of infant John Brunk, Ruth Stoltzfus Jost sang from a ballad about her ancestors – young John’s family, pacifists compelled to flee their home. Yoder later shared a Pennsylvania Deutsch lullaby from his childhood.

LLI instructors – some hailing from academia; others not – teach what they know and love. The former often pay such compliments as, “You’re the only class where I’m asked better questions than ‘Will this count on the mid-term?’”

Having retired from JMU’s English department elated to be through with committees and grading, my aforementioned husband Robin McNallie was eventually recruited to teach these classes, where he enjoys just focusing on favorite literature.

I, however, hesitated before joining LLI. Wary of being pigeonholed or ghettoized, I’ve considered those corny old-age jokes that contemporaries began circulating in their 40s to represent self-loathing (though they might say my response represents denial). I’m not really retired; I just
don’t make much money. The only meaning of “senior” I accept (well, other than the discounts) is what my first grandkid, now a high-school junior, should be next year.

And in a culture that is utilitarian as well as ageist, a part of me still sometimes asks what use these studies are. They won’t help me increase the Gross Domestic Product, let alone build a demonstrably better world.

What’s left? The question may have sparked what has unintentionally become my LLI “major”: quests for meaning.

I haven’t acquired answers, but classes with that focus have unearthed wiser attitudes toward aging: Biblical matriarchs (though we need not aspire to pregnancy at 90); Taoist transcendence of our busy-busy, linear thought enculturation; Native American wisdom from “the elders;” and a Hindu tradition of passing from life’s responsibility-laden “householder” stage into a “retirement” I could maybe live with: a “forest-dwelling” time of inner-directedness.

“Leave all . . .” the Upanishads suggest enticingly. Maybe they point toward travel (a prospect some of us have been thinking about during Enrique Morales’ lively course in the culture and history of Mexico).

Or to the stars.

Chris Edwards lives in Harrisonburg. She can be reached at edwards.chris@comcast.net





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