GUEST BLOG – Once there was; once there wasn’t

by Alissa Simon, Tutor at Harrison Middleton University, Tempe Arizona (first posted on the HMU website)

Once there was; once there wasn’t….*

I am blessed with many things, one of which is an excellent job. I read and discuss literature for a living. Everyday a piece of literature blows me away, moves me to tears, clothes my thoughts, brightens and often darkens my world. Everyday I have the opportunity to meet stubborn, brilliant, creative thinkers who think out loud. And that’s just everyday. Then, there are discussion opportunities, which further expand my world. And finally – to much applause – there are opportunities like those presented by Ann Kirkland and Classical Pursuits.

This July, I joined dozens of others for a week long discussion of the arts. Each participant chose one session from ten different morning session opportunities. Afternoon activities were open and the options were many. I chose Muslim Women Writers from the Middle East for the morning session. In the afternoons, I heard a little bit of everything, which meant that I visited a museum, watched some operas, and participated in discussion panels. This year’s conference focused on everything non-Western. Groups discussed literature by: Salman Rushdie, Chinua Achebe, Rumi, Halldór Laxness, and the Mahabarata, just to name a few. Non-literature based discussions were also available, such as Islamic art and architecture or Japanese film.

What do we gain by discussing books, music, architecture and the arts? What was I looking for from my week at Toronto Pursuits? Honestly, it is hard to quantify or even explain, but I’ll give it a shot anyway. First, I met wonderfully educated people who are involved in their community and enjoy supporting the arts. Meeting open-minded people is always refreshing. Second, I learned aspects about a new city, its diversity and pace. Third, I gained knowledge about Islam through some of its literature and female voices. Our leader, Üstün Bilgen-Reinart, grew up in Turkey and fostered amazingly in-depth conversations regarding the culture, literature and lives of women in the Middle East. After one week and a few novels I would not consider myself literate in the area of Muslim Women Writers, but I now have some educated questions to pursue. I have no adequate way to describe how vital this type of education is to me.

While watching a slide show of photographs by Colin Boyd Shafer, he used the phrase ‘bottom line humanity’. It struck a chord, made me think, what is bottom line humanity. Who are we if not people, where are we if not here, why do we pursue anything if not to learn? And then, I have to pinch myself because this world of literature and learning is my everyday. My everyday is a bit of a fairy tale and I am so spoiled as to have shared an entire week with others who enjoy the same rich world. If nothing else, Toronto Pursuits reinforced my belief that we do not live so very far apart after all. I have to thank the women in my small discussion group for their outstanding voices. I have to thank Ann for organizing the seminars. And I have to thank Üstün for a week of fairy tales. Whether through blogs, online groups, book clubs, courses, travel opportunities, or seminars, I hope you too join a conversation. Who knows, perhaps your own fairy tale will follow: once there was; once there wasn’t….

Questions? Email for further information on anything in this blog. As always, thanks for reading!

* A common stylistic technique used to introduce Turkish fairy tales. It is similar to the phrase “Once upon a time…” as used in English.


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