Series: Johnnie Bookshelves

Interview with Ms. Trigg – The Johnnie Bookshelves

By Brian Liu

This article is part of the Johnnie Chair project “The Johnnie Bookshelves”. We will interview Johnnies around the campus about their experience at St. John’s, the program and the books that they like to read outside and inside the program. 

Ms. Trigg has always struck me as a good illustration of how the heart and mind can collide in a person. The dichotomy – that is between the heart and mind – that we often complain about; how it seems that some of us are too rational, some too irrational, some who feel too much and some who don’t feel enough, is something that seems to be harmonized within Ms. Trigg.

Ms. Trigg’s bookshelves was interesting not so much because of the books, but because of the assortment of stones and geodes she had laid on top of them.

And, this is how I think she does it: Wonder. What? Simply that. Wondering isn’t just the mind pondering, but it’s also a seeing with the heart. When one wonders he is not only curious, but he is also captivated. It is the harmonious between the heart and the mind.

Ms. Trigg was a student here in Annapolis in 1984, having come from 3 years of training as a musician in the Eastman School of Music. On her way, full speed, towards entering the classical music world, she was required to take liberal arts courses as credit requirements. Her liberal arts course was in philosophy.

Rain imprinted in mud from millions of years ago.

“I became smitten.” She said. Wonder within her grew. When she least expected it, the classes, the books captivated her and began a hunger in her that resulted in her coming to St. John’s.  Despite this, Ms. Trigg did not grow up reading books, she grew up making music. I asked her whether she felt like she left music behind.

Prehistoric algae on stone.

“It became clearer and clearer to me that a musical life was only as good as my life. And that I would only become a fine musician if I became a fine human being. That’s what I thought of the time, I still think it’s true, but I don’t know. “

After she graduated she taught at the School Art Institute of Chicago, and then came back in 2006.

 “I’d been away long enough that I felt like I had something to offer.”

Currently, she serves as the Chair for the National Endowment for the Humanities. And quite serendipitously, though she had initially “left” music behind, she is now researching and studying Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas as a part of the endowment.

Ms. Trigg’s office struck me as particularly pleasant and pretty.

“I consider myself supremely fortunate.”

I was once again drawn back to that old adage in John Keat’s poem Ode To A Grecian Urn, where he writes that beauty and truth are one. In what way are they one? Ms. Trigg’s spirit makes me think that they are two sides of a circle. Or maybe they are two cords spiraled around each other that form a wreath. In is evident from her story, that following her heart necessarily meant that her mind was dragged along in the journey too. Her love of music led her into the search for wisdom in philosophy and her search in the Great Books somehow led her back to music. It’s a spiral. And somehow through all of it, she’s remained lighthearted as a feather and as warm as a summer day.


I asked her, towards the end of our interview, if there was any book that profoundly shaped who she was. For her it was Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

Iron ore that gave oxygen to the earth. Billions of years old.

“Often I think if I haven’t thought about it with Aristotle I haven’t really thought about it yet.” By “it” she meant the different life decisions that she had to make.  The Ethics taught her that there is a distinct difference between voluntary actions and chosen ends. In her Ms. Trigg way, she explained this to me:

“The fact that a choice to be a real choice, that it’s not just a voluntary action, that it’s not just a taking, it’s a…it has an end in mind, that the deliberation is towards that end, and that choices can be important because they influence our characters…so I think that Aristotle has kept me from in some sort of way cheating on choice…And that the big things in life better be chosen actions rather than voluntary actions.”


The sun has a tendency to subsume everything that illuminates. It is a flood and you become lost in it. I think, in a way that is how Ms. Trigg has preserved her spirit. She allows herself to be lost in the wonder and in some magical way, she preserves herself through it. She is one of the most humble people that you’ll meet on campus. She’s curious and always wants to know more. Her demeanor is not saturated with a sense of aloofness and she is not condescending nor overly self-assertive. Instead she is joyful and confident and grateful to have gazed upon the sun and still find it captivating after all these years. The world is just too beautiful to her for her to get bogged down.

Continue to wonder Ms. Trigg, it makes you a delight to be around.

The student writing staff of the johnnie chair blog

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