As autumn unfolds in the Northern Hemisphere, heavy blankets are being retrieved from closets and trees are preparing themselves for sleep. While we witness once again longer nights, cooler winds, and dwindling leaves, we are gently reminded of the world’s capacity to change.

Throughout October, in honor of National Arts and Humanities Month, the Federation will reflect on the changing world, explore the experiences that bring us together, and celebrate what it means to be human. Despite the push and pull of modern-day urgency culture, which can distract us both from ourselves and each other, “the humanities” remind us that we too are a part of the world we experience everyday. Therefore, we too are continuously changing with and within it. As poet Mary Oliver insists in her poem “Wild Geese,”

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting 

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Like “the humanities,” “the family of things” is an idea as broad and exciting as the cries of migrating geese themselves. Together, these concepts are stubbornly ambiguous yet incredibly akin. Embedded in this ambiguity lies relationality, potentiality, and possibilities to shape. Through their public programs, humanities councils across the country are here to help us wonder together, explore, shape, and make meaning of the many “families of things”  we find ourselves in. 

So what exactly are “the humanities” and how does one approach them? Sometimes misunderstood as academic rigamarole, the humanities make up an expansive net of practices and everyday encounters that help us connect, create, and relate to the world around us. Through experiences of community, history, language, literature, culture, cuisine, storytelling, philosophy, music and more, the humanities serve as a springboard for human connection, empathy, and change.

As writer and media activist Malkia Devich Cyril reminds us, “on either side of change is loss.” Over the past few years of the pandemic, the humanities have underpinned our ability to navigate loss, new challenges, and persistent patterns of injustice alike. While each of us experiences hardship (and healing) differently, most of us know what it means to grieve even the smallest of changes—the last bite of a treat, the end of a great book or movie, watching our children grow up or our parents grow old, transitioning to a new job or neighborhood, listening to autumn leaves fall, or witnessing the setting sun. The ways we relate to loss, to living, and each other varies depending on where we come from, what we’ve lived through, our identities, our access to resources, and relationships to power and privileges. Likewise, each of our relationships to the humanities can (and will) look different and will shift with us over time. 

To learn more about how the humanities touch the lives of our community members, we asked the Federation’s member council staff to describe in a few words what the humanities mean to them:  

“Windows and mirrors, lanterns of knowledge, collective reflection, conversations, curiosity, wisdom, stories, inspiration, idea-sharing, exploratory change, questioning, context, unexpected interlocking perspectives, relationship, who we are, how we are. Connection. Culture. Community.”  

These are just some of the ways the humanities can shape and show up in our daily lives. As space for connection, as tools for reflection, and deepening perspective. With each change, loss, and adaptation we experience, having a container to process with others is vital to our collective experience. Whether sharing a warm meal, enjoying a good book, making or talking about art, having a conversation with your neighbor, hearing a beautiful song, or the sounds of migrating birds, the humanities offer us a container to both process and probe. 

Councils across the country are providing containers for their communities by offering necessary tools and opportunities to converge, question, and create. To help us explore and to celebrate the innumerable ways the humanities invite us home to our places in “the family of things”—connected, changing, ever-new.

Exploring our shared world through the humanities nourishes ideation and initiates awareness of ourselves as connected to each other. By simply coming together, conversing, practicing curiosity, and engaging change, we are collectively “creating” the humanities day-by-day this October and every month of the year. 

*Thank you to staff at Alaska Humanities Forum, Minnesota Humanities Center, Kentucky Humanities, Georgia Humanities, New Jersey Council on the Humanities, Wyoming Humanities, Indiana Humanities, and the Federation for contributing keywords that inspired and were featured in this article.

Written by Jazzy DiMeglio