November 2004


Today’s Photo Friday challenge is Patterns, which led to a bit of mid-shower inspiration. Yes, I’m childlike enough to have rubber-ducky shower curtains; yes, I’m blog-addicted enough to think up blog ideas while showering. I’m sure a good therapist would see a Pattern here.

Yesterday I spent an inordinant amount of time tweaking my CV and writing a cover letter to apply as a Preceptor of Expository Writing at Harvard University.

Those of you who know me or are close readers of this blog might be shaking your heads. “We thought you loved Keene and your job at Keene State,” you might say. “And didn’t you announce that you weren’t going on the academic job market this year?” you might add.

You’d be right on both counts. I do love Keene and my job at the college here: I have no desire to move. And yes, I decided earlier this year, around the time that Chris and I separated, that I want to wait another year before applying for a tenure-track academic position. Right now, I’m trying to settle into life as a newly single person, and I still haven’t decided whether academia is what I want to do full-time for the rest of my life.

So right after I’d firmly declared to the Universe that I Wasn’t Looking for an academic job, I saw this Harvard writing position advertised in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I’d seen this same listing in past years: every year Harvard hires a handful of new instructors to teach their freshman writing classes, and every year I’ve considered applying. This year, though, with both my doctorate and my divorce papers fresh in hand, I felt ready to take a chance. Since I’m Not Officially Looking for a job, I have nothing to lose. Why not send off a harmless CV and cover letter just to see what kind of response I get?

Applying for a job, of course, is always more time- and energy-consuming than you’d reckoned. In my case, I procrastinated my application until the very last minute, tomorrow being the deadline. So yesterday as I sat in front of my laptop to do the “simple” task of writing a two-page cover letter to accompany my freshly tweaked CV, I encountered a massive block. How can you reduce over ten years of college teaching experience into two single-spaced pages? What could I say on paper that would impress a Hiring Committee at Harvard of all places? When I applied to various Boston-area graduate schools with my Ohio-earned BA fresh in hand, Harvard wanted nothing to do with me: I ended up going to Boston College for my Masters and Northeastern University for my PhD because they were the only institutions that would have me. (To their credit, Brandeis waitlisted me when I initially applied to their doctoral program straight out of my undergraduate studies in Ohio, but they didn’t want me two years later after I’d completed my Masters at BC.)

Given that Harvard didn’t want me as a paying graduate student, what sort of insanity makes me think that they’d want to pay me to teach their freshmen? If I wasn’t Harvard material a dozen or so years ago, what makes me think I’m worthy of their ivied halls now?

In a word, I have no idea whether I’ll impress the Decision Makers when they see me on paper: personally, I’ve always been the kind of person who interviews well, but to get that initial interview, my CV and cover letter have to land near the top of an impressive pile. From what I understand, several hundred candidates usually respond to Harvard’s nationwide search each year, and from this pool the Hiring Committee selects about 25 to interview for a handful of open positions. So this morning as I Express Mailed my CV and cover letter–me on paper–to an address in Cambridge, I felt like I was rolling a pair of dice. Who knows what the Decision Makers are looking for, and who knows what sort of impression I make on paper. Either way, I like it here in Keene, but it’s sort of fun to think that possibly, maybe, I might get a second chance at proving myself to be Harvard Material.

After getting home from Houston after dark on Monday night, yesterday was my first chance to see New Hampshire once again in daylight. I’ve lived here in Keene for about 16 months: long enough to have seen her in all her seasons, weathers, and temperaments. Still, whenever I leave Keene to visit other places, I feel the need to check back in with her when I return: how are things, how have you been, what has happened since I’ve been gone?

Yesterday I walked the usual rounds with the dog and digicam in tow. Like a doctor walking her rounds, I was on the lookout for anything unusual: what graffiti has appeared since my last rounds; what objects have been moved or rearranged? It’s not so much that I expect Keene to fall to pieces while I’m gone since as “patients” go, my little town is about as “stable” as they come. Still, I continually feel the need to check and re-check the old familiar sights after having not seen them for a couple of days: like any long-time friend, my adopted hometown is a “person” I care to connect with frequently lest we grow distant and find ourselves fallen gradually out of touch.

This might seem like a quaint metaphor, this insistance that Keene is a person with whom I have an intimate relationship, a person I both want and need to check in with on a daily basis. But in the months since my separation and divorce, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I relate to both places and people, and I’ve realized that I relate to the two in nearly the exact same way. In the aftermath of separation and divorce, I’ve seldom felt lonely even though I’ve spent a good deal of time alone. This aloneness is something I’ve cherished not because I’m intrinsically antisocial but because it’s been punctuated by contact. Every day I’ve been in contact either in person, online, or via phone with friends who support me, and every day I’ve set foot in the actual, tangible world–the streets and sidewalks of my hometown–as a way of staying literally grounded.

When I was “born again” in college, the thing that appealed to me the most about evangelical Christianity was its insistence upon relationship. The standard one-liner we’d toss off when witnessing to strangers (“Have you experienced the joy of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or are you still on the way?”) is incredibly cliched, hokey, and impertinent: the practice of trying to “convert” strangers was never one I practiced with conviction. Still, something about the notion of having a “personal relationship” with God deeply appealed to me, and it still does. Although I don’t think one’s spiritual path can be summed up in a one-liner nor do I think it’s necessary to “save” those on different paths than mine, I do think that many of us secretly crave connection: we long to have deeper relationships with others, with ourselves, with our surroundings, and (yes) with God.

To say that relating deeply with others, self, place, and spirit is the summation of spiritual practice–to say that these seemingly different sorts of relationship are all of a piece, the four sides of a symmetric square–might (again) sound incredibly trite. But the more I consider it, I can’t think of any better way to describe my own spiritual path, a zigzag journey that included jaunts into Catholicism, fundamentalist Christianity, Zen Buddhism, and literary Transcendentalism. Whatever you might call your spiritual path, what interests me is how you relate to your world: are your eyes open or closed? Does your compassion encompass all beings or just your backyard? Having chosen to love and redeem the entire world, have you forgotten that charity (like its overlooked sister, mindfulness) does indeed start at home?

I’m always surprised when people compliment me on the photos I post on my blog, for these are snapshots of the most ordinary kind. Walking around Keene with a leash in one hand and a digicam in the other, I simply record what I see: there is very little “art” or intention behind it. And yet, this kind of simple seeing is indeed the very heart of meditation practice: without judgment or preconception, what is it that falls before your eyes at any given moment? Without judgment or preconception, can you love that sight as if it were your very last? If you knew that tomorrow your mother or lover or brother would die–if you knew that tomorrow you yourself would die–what parts of their face or person would you notice or cherish? If today were your last day on earth, what sights would you re-visit and remember; what details would you etch in memory as a shield against mortality?

We remember, occasionally, not to take our loved ones for granted: we take the time, ideally, to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, those temporal reminders that Relationships Matter. But what holidays or customs serve to re-connect us with place; what rituals serve to ground us in the here and now by reminding us to notice the overlooked and forgotten things that surround us perpetually? In our heart of hearts, we hope and pray that God remembers us, that when we die, God will notice and call us by name…and yet day by day we forget, overlook, and neglect God’s many handiworks in our lives, assuming that Divinity only happens in lightning and tempest, in great raging flood or firestorm.

In my mind, this present world is our proving ground, a practice place where we show God our true stuff. God indeed wants us in relationship: I truly believe that there is no one in the Universe more lonely than God. Why else would Supreme Deity create a flawed and mortal world if other than to love it; what other reason to create than to assuage one’s own inner loneliness? God in his heaven is entirely and deeply alone, and day to day God looks down on this world, waiting and wondering: when will someone stop, look, and notice the works of my hands, and when will someone–anyone–turn their eyes toward me and Love?

In our bumbling way, we stumble through our various earthly relationships, breaking hearts and having our hearts broken in turn. In the process, our souls grow tender, and in our lonely moments, we realize or remember that we were created to relate. In this need for connection, we are akin to all creation, for the whole kit and caboodle was created for this exact purpose: Love. God didn’t put us on earth as a punishment; the created world isn’t some cruel, sadistic joke. No, God put us here to love, to run through our paces as we learn to love one another, ourselves, and our surroundings. When we’ve gotten those earthly lessons in our fool heads, then maybe we’ll prove ourselves ready for the Next Level.

And yet, even this is a bunch of malarkey, for it suggests that God is separate and apart, an aloof judge looking down with one raised eyebrow. No, God is in this thing; God is this thing, suffusing, indwelling, and maintaining it. God is both heartbreaker and heartbroken; God himself stumbles and bumbles in our uncertain steps, the forgetter and forgotten. We err often not because we’re intrinsically evil but because Love needs failure in order to forgive. Original sin is a fortunate fall because of the caring kisses we receive as we lie crumpled and wounded, reminded of our own vulnerability and dependent need; salvation, the ultimate Make-up Sex with a God long accustomed to his Beloved’s serial infidelities.

And yet if we foolishly try to jump the gun–if we impertinently try to scale the stairway to heaven, headed straight toward God–God himself pushes us back. Not yet. You’re not ready. There’s still a whole turning world that awaits you, a world filled with heartbreak and hope, exploration and promise. God the Creator was right: it’s not good for man to be alone. And so we’ve been planted in the actual world–in Keene or in Houston or in sundry places in between and beyond–to learn and to love, lonely souls among countless other lonely souls. It’s all about relationship: it always has been, perpetual and eternal. This is the place where we meet and mingle, the place where we acquaint and re-acquaint. And if we reach out with hearts full of hope, God himself lies within every handshake, the very fabric of our union.

After spending the weekend in Houston re-connecting with my old friend Gary, I’m back in New Hampshire, preparing to re-enter my usual teaching/work routine. Although I love airplanes and airports, I find air travel itself to be hugely disorienting. Last Wednesday morning, I scraped ice from my frozen car in the 15-degree pre-dawn darkness; by afternoon I was watching pelicans and porpoises while riding the Galveston ferry in 70-degree, sun-drenched comfort. This morning, I ate breakfast at a hotel in Houston; tonight, I’m munching last month’s Halloween candy in Keene. They say you can’t step into the same river twice, and modern air travel takes this truism of impermanence one step further: why step into the same river twice when you can move from New Hampshire’s Ashuelot River to the waters of Galveston Bay in less than a day?

Whereas I never even walk the dog here in Keene without carrying a camera, in Houston this weekend I made a conscious effort not to take pictures. Sure, I snapped a few photos of macaws at Moody Gardens: like any five-year-old, I love zoos, aquariums, and the like, and I’m a sucker for bold, brightly colored birds. But ultimately, my humble snapshots never capture the real-life phenomena I’m trying to capture: every picture I took of Moody Gardens’ incredibly tame flock of scarlet ibises came out blurry or incomplete, capturing a hot pink beak here and a glowing red tail there. (A better photog than I, Gary managed to get a shot of my tail while I crouched on the ground trying to photograph said ibises: miraculously, Gary snapped such a photo and lived to tell about it.) Eventually I decided not to try to blog my weekend in Houston: although I’m intrigued by the thought of two old friends chronicling their reunion on their respective blogs, there’s part of me that bridles at the potentially all-consuming nature of such bloggery. Once you as a writer have fallen into the habit of mining your life for material, where and when do you stop? Where does “public” end and “private” begin?

When I started blogging last December, I decided upon a couple of basic ground rules. Although I aimed for full honesty in my blogging, I drew the line at full-disclosure: there were and are certain things I didn’t feel comfortable blogging. As a teacher, for instance, I knew I shouldn’t blog personal details about my students: as a teacher who wants my students to feel comfortable expressing themselves in my classes, I don’t want anyone to think for even a minute that anything they say in class will be “recycled” as blog-fodder. Likewise, as a (then) wife I knew I shouldn’t blog personal details about my (then) marriage: although I’ve mentioned my divorce here, I haven’t shared any of the dirty-laundry why’s. When I’ve blogged about friends of mine, I’ve referred to them by initials and even pseudonymous initials; when I’ve posted pictures of other bloggers, I’ve mirrored the protections they themselves keep over their own image. Although a newbie happening upon my blog might very well feel like I’m “telling you everything” about my life, in my mind I’m keeping certain private boundaries clearly and securely in place: this you can know, that you can see, but these and those are off limits, private.

One of my favorite passages in all of Thoreau’s writing is the point in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers where he doesn’t describe climbing New Hamsphire’s Mount Washington with his brother, John. Thoreau wrote A Week years after John’s untimely death from lockjaw contracted from a shaving cut: Thoreau’s deep bond with his brother was evidenced by the sympathetic symptoms he himself suffered after watching John die. Although Thoreau describes himself paddling up the Concord and Merrimack Rivers from Massachusetts to New Hampshire and back again with a traveling companion, he never mentions John by name much less the fact that John had since died. And when the brothers meet the literal climax of their trip together–their ascent of Mount Washington–Thoreau falls uncharacteristically silent, noting that he and his traveling companion made the climb without reporting anything about what they saw, said, or felt during that portion of the journey.

Some scholars have surmised that Thoreau was awed into silence by the grandeur of Mount Washington; others suggest that he didn’t know how to incorporate this mountaintop experience into the rest of his rambling narrative. But Thoreau regularly wrote about awesomely sublime settings, and the disjointed nature of A Week suggests that he didn’t much care whether he could “properly” fit bits in. A prolific journal-keeper who regularly mined his notebooks for essay, lecture, and book material, Thoreau led a literary life that was in many ways an open book…and yet even he had moments before which he drew a metaphoric curtain. Whatever transpired atop Mount Washington, I personally like to think it was a brotherly moment that didn’t need to be shared with the outside world: I’d like to think that John and Henry laughed about a shared childhood, reminisced about the girl they both courted and were eventually both rejected by, or just lounged in the clouds before deciding to descend to the lowlands.

If he were alive today, Thoreau would probably keep a blog of his own, including tidbits from his journals and field notebooks. Although he wrote profusely and published the minute details of his personal housekeeping and occasional rambles, at the same time Thoreau was a deeply private man who guarded his solitude as a cherished possession. I think there’s much to be said for being fully and deeply honest in one’s blogging, and I also think there’s much to be said for occasionally taking a break, for occasionally keeping silent. As Thoreau himself said in A Week, “The language of Friendship is not words, but…an intelligence above language.” When re-connecting with an old friend, the last thing you want to worry about is what might be repeated in cyberspace; when re-connecting with an old friend, the last question you want to wrestle with is what and whether to blog.

    Click here to read Gary’s account of our trip on the Galveston ferry and our jaunt through Moody Gardens, including that notorious picture of Yours Truly trying to snap a picture of those darn ibises.

The weather here in Keene has turned chilly: what better time to take advantage of a long Veteran’s Day weekend and some cheap airfares to head south without my laptop to Anywhere But Here, USA. I’ll be back Monday night, so in the meantime have a great week & weekend, and be sure to take time to smell the flowers.

(If you haven’t already done so, click on over to Fred’s place and help welcome him home from his and Ann’s trip to Boston this past weekend. And while you’re clicking ’round the cyber-neighborhood, check out what Tim of The Where Project had to say about his breakfast with Fred. Seems that everyone’s happy to meet Fred: in a word, he’s priceless.)

Yep, winter has officially arrived here in southern New Hampshire, where we can reasonably expect to get snow anytime after mid-October. Last night’s dusting didn’t stick to roads or sidewalks, but morning motorists will have to warm up Bessie while scraping her windshield. Temperatures are predicted to get up to 38 degrees Fahrenheit today, so our first snow will melt by afternoon or earlier in sunny spots. In the meantime, though, dogs are reminding themselves what snow-covered leaves smell like, and even my boring backyard suddenly (temporarily) looks like a crystal wonderland.

In case you were wondering, let me reassure you: this is not the face of an axe-murderer.

Yesterday I drove down to Boston to meet the most famous man in Floyd County, Virginia: the multi-talented Fred First, whose blog Fragments from Floyd is one of the first sites I stumbled upon about a year ago when someone clued me in on this whole blog phenomenon, including the fact that there is an entire community of “place-bloggers” who believe cyberspace is a wonderful place to sing the praises of your own neck of the woods.

Fred First is not an axe-murderer or psycho-stalker as various female acquaintances cautioned me he might be when I mentioned over Saturday night dinner party hors d’oeuvres that I’d be driving the next day from Keene to Boston to meet a “man I’d met online.” I’m always bemused at my inability to describe blogging to non-bloggers: it just doesn’t make sense to “normal folks” that there are some of us foolish enough to post the mundane details of our personal lives online for everyone to see…and that there are readers who gobble up these tidbits and who feel they’ve “gotten to know us” in the process.

I’m partly to blame for Saturday night’s female consternation: I’m awkward when it comes to defining blogging for non-bloggers. (After much consideration, I’ve decided I should say I “self-publish a daily online column” whenever someone asks what it means to blog: at least normal folks are familiar with newspaper columns, so this definition of blogging taps into something known and safe.) Yes, it’s probably crazy for me to drive an hour and a half one way to meet at a hotel a man I’ve never met before, invite him to hop in my car, then drive a half hour out of the city to go walking in the woods with a “virtual stranger.” But is meeting in-the-flesh a person whose daily life you’ve followed in text and pictures for nearly a year–a person whose children you’ve seen, whose wife’s job you’ve heard about, whose dog you’ve seen from puppyhood to rambunctious adolescence–any crazier than going on a blind date, meeting someone through the personals, or going out with someone you met at a bar?

Whenever I’ve (awkwardly) tried to explain the allure of blogs to non-blogging folks, I get variations on the same basic response: “People have nothing better to do than go online to look at pictures of someone else’s dog?!?” And yet, I’d be willing to bet that most of these folks “have nothing better to do” than to watch the latest batch of so-called reality TV programs, soap operas, or various homogenous sitcoms that offer stylized “real people” for us to watch and speculate over. People are intrinsically interested in other people: it’s part of our nature as social creatures. If some folks prefer to get their dose of “reality TV” online via text and still pictures, who are other folks to judge?

The irony of Saturday night’s dinner party was that its hostess, my fabulous friend “A,” is another person I “met online.” A (not her real initial) and I have learned to avoid using that phrase to describe our meeting: now when people ask how we came to know one another, we explain that we’re writing friends who once were in a writing group together. That’s one version of the truth…and it’s a version that’s more socially acceptable to normal non-wired folks. The belief that cyberspace is a threat, a virtual dark alley crawling with weirdos and freaks, runs rampant even in our 21st century Information Age. People assume that if you “meet people online,” there either must be a) something wrong with you that you “can’t meet people the normal way,” or b) something wrong with the people you meet since they are trolling about online for virtual friends.

I think there’s a third option. Although I wouldn’t (believe me) meet-up with just any random stranger I met online, and although as a writer I know that the selves we present online are crafted personae, not an entire depiction of who we each “really” are, I think it is possible to learn something–a lot, actually–about a person from what they say online about themselves and their daily lives. If someone claimed to “truly know me” solely from reading my blog, I’d respond that they know a version of me, not the entire enchilada: the “versions” of Lorianne you find here from day-to-day represent my various moods, but there is a gestalt of personality that is greater than the sum of these parts. At the same time, though, I think a gestalt of personality can never runs entirely counter to its individual parts: I think you can get a rough sense of how good a particular restaurant is by taste-testing a couple side dishes.

Yesterday as I approached the hotel where Fred and his wife, Ann, are staying for a professional conference, it took me a split-second to connect the tall, skinny guy walking toward me with “Fred First, blogger from Floyd County.” Fred was the first to state the obvious: “Hey, you look TALLER in your photo!” Although both Fred and I are fairly “transparent” on our blogs–we both post our full names versus only a first name or pseudonym, we both trumpet our (rough) geographic location, and we both post pictures of our own blogging mugs–there are all kinds of immediate physical cues that you can get only when meeting someone face-to-face. Fred is taller than I’d imagined, and skinnier; his hair is lighter than that in his blog-picture (sandy-brown rather than brown), and his eyes are bluer.

Apart from such minor differences between the “Fred” I’d extrapolated from his blog and the “Fred” I met yesterday in Boston, though, in-the-flesh Fred is pretty much what I’d expected. He’s a saunterer, not a strider; he likes to stop and sit a spell if fast-walking Ann isn’t nudging him to hurry up. He likes to stop, identify, and smell trees and flowers; although he’s tall, Fred is a great ground-noticer, pointing out wintergreen leaves I would have stepped on and stopping to investigate the composition of footpath duff. In a word, walking with Fred, a man I met through words, seems like it would be very much like walking with Thoreau, another man I know through prose: like Thoreau, Fred’s simultaneously a scientist, man of letters, and all-around thinker, a serious-minded chap whose equally comfortable pulling up two chairs for Friendship or three for Society.

And yet even this is only one version of “the real Fred.” In-the-flesh Fred is, well, goofier than I’d imagined. When we arrived at the cairn marking Thoreau’s cabin-site at Walden Pond, Fred noted a perfect photo-opportunity, trying out before my camera his best attempts at an axe-murderer pose. Even when I urged him, laughing, to “look serious,” Fred mugged an exaggeratedly contemplative air. Although I laughed when Fred over lunch started singing along to a piped-in version of a song from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, I’m not sure why exactly this surprised me. Why shouldn’t the fellow who inspired me to start a Keene-based blog with his Virginia-based musings (my very own Blog-Daddy!) have a fun and funny side?

Nope, Fred First ain’t an axe-murderer, but he is taller (and funnier) than you’d think. And I’m very happy that I drove an hour and a half one way to find that out for myself in the flesh.

2004-11-06a

Yesterday I took a break from writing my so-called novel to take a stroll to Jerusalem and back, and I think it was a worthwhile trip.

Last month I wrote about wandering a corn maze here in Keene. In that post, I noted the differences between labyrinths and mazes. As Rebecca Solnit notes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, labyrinths represent in spatial terms the inevitability of God’s grace: if you set out on the spiritual quest and keep walking that path, you are guaranteed to find God at the end. Whereas a maze forces you to make directional choices–right, left, or straight–the only choices in a labyrinth are stop, continue, or quit. Walking a labyrinth, you realize that the only task ever required of you is simply to take the next step. If you trust that path despite all its zigs and zags, you will ultimately find your true goal.

2004-11-06b

The world’s most famous labyrinth is the four-quadrant path paved into the floor of France’s Chartres Cathedral. That labyrinth was designed to give believers a way of walking a metaphorical pilgrim’s path to Jerusalem and back without leaving their own neighborhood. Pilgrimage has always been an expensive and dangerous endeavor: not every believer has the time, money, or freedom to cast aside mundane cares to walk across the world seeking enlightenment. Labyrinths remind believers that God can be found in a spot of time and even underfoot. If you prayerfully pace the steps to the center of a labryinth and back, you can replicate in spiritual form the physical journey made by Christ himself.

Medieval labyrinths such as the one in Chartres Cathedral are rooted in a particular cosmology. Even working with simple tools, Medieval geographers had a sophisticated understanding of the actual world. Traders knew, for instance, how to get to the Orient and back, and pilgrims knew the routes to Jerusalem and other sacred sites. Medieval orbis terrarum maps–circular depictions of the world–look crudely distorted and even inaccurate not because cartographers didn’t know better; instead, these maps were consciously designed with Jerusalem, the site of Christ’s crucifixion, placed squarely at the center of a round world. In his discussion of these so-called OT maps, geographer Yi-Fu Tuan notes how they are T-shaped, with half the world representing Africa and the charted unknown, one fourth representing exotic Asia, and the final quarter denoting the European “known world.” At the center of these maps–the intersection of the “T”–is Golgotha, the hill in Jerusalem where Christ was crucified. In a word, OT maps (such as the one seen in the background of this self-portrait) weren’t designed to help you navigate from Point A to Point B; instead, they served as spiritual place-markers, a reminder that “You Are Here” with your heart centered on God.

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Yesterday as I walked into the Young Student Center here on the campus of Keene State College, it seemed odd to think that I was approaching a symbolic representation of Jerusalem, the spiritually significant point where Heaven touches Earth. Different world religions point to various geographical places that are charged with cosmological meaning. Muslims point to Mecca, Jews and Christians (and to a lesser degree Muslims) point to Jerusalem, and various indigenous peoples point to specific sites where Creation commenced. As Mircea Eliade discusses in The Sacred and the Profane, one defining aspect of all religions is the way they divide the world into spiritual opposites, “the sacred” being situated at or near the symbolic center of the world (the Axis Mundi) and “the profane” being further removed from this cosmological center.

Yesterday as I paced in stockinged feet a canvas replica of the Chartres labyrinth, a day-long installation sponsored by the University System of New Hampshire’s “Embrace Life Fully” wellness program, I enacted a symbolic journey toward Jerusalem, the Spiritual Center where God deigned to die. Even though God is omnipresent, we as bodied creatures exist in time and place: we need reminders that God exists not just every- and anywhere, but specifically Here and Now. Pilgrim sites are significant because they point to the belief that God Happens with spatial and temporal specificity: on a Jerusalem hill, Christ was crucified; along a French stream, Bernadette saw the Virgin Mary; atop an Irish mountain, Patrick fasted for forty days; and on a Mexican hillside, a Lady from Heaven appeared to Juan Diego.

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Most of us won’t ever be visited by spiritual apparitions; most of us won’t ever witness miracles. But we all dwell in time and place, and we all want occasional reminders that God has not left the building. The toil and trouble of pilgrimage denotes the real effort of the spiritual life: if you want salvation or enlightenment, at some point you have to get off your ass and get going. Labyrinths, especially portable ones, remind us that the journey toward an ubiquitous God needn’t be a long and arduous one: God is the very ground we walk upon, and God can be known through contemplation as well as action.

Not having the time or resources to visit Jerusalem, Lourdes, Croagh Patrick, or Guadalupe, yesterday I walked into the Mabel Brown Room in the Young Student Center at Keene State College, where Dr. Nancy Puglisi and her parner had spread out a portable labyrinth. It took about five minutes to navigate the twists and turns to the center of the labyrinth, where a Tibetan bell marked the temporal (albeit temporary) meeting of heaven and earth. On most days, the Mabel Brown Room is the site of dance classes, organization meetings, and public lectures: the last time I’d set foot there, a packed crowd listened to KSC Writer-in-Residence and peace activist Janisse Ray speak out against the Bush administration. Yesterday, though, the Mabel Brown Room was a quiet, tranquil place, a place far removed from both war and politics. Oddly and even miraculously, a large white-and-purple canvas carefully spread transformed just another auditorium into a sacred place akin to that sacred space I stumbled upon on my way to my dissertation defense back in April.

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The moral of pilgrimage is that you sometimes have to travel to find God; the moral of a roll-up labyrinth is that sometimes God comes to you. Early Buddhists eschewed representational iconography, refusing to depict the Buddha’s face or body but instead revering images of his footprint. Don’t revere the Seeker, these images suggest; instead, focus on the Path he trod, and then go about making your own footprints. God indeed sets foot in the actual, tangible world; God himself steps perpetually in your very own footsteps.

Today’s Photo Friday challenge is Radiant. The past few days have been gray and drizzly here in Keene, but last week, before the leaves fell and when the sun was shining, the trees themselves positively glowed.

I never intended to blog substantial portions of my so-called novel-in-progress. But after yesterday’s meltdown and subsequent glimmer of hope, I’m ecstatic to have my first actual story, typed by my very own fingers this morning. The inspiration was that front-page photo of a dejected campaign volunteer in Des Moines; I kept her real first name and then embellished other details. The portrait of “Mr. Henley” is loosely based on my own high school civics teacher, a guy who nearly flunked out of college but got his act together after a buddy had been drafted, sent, and then killed in Vietnam after losing his student deferment. The real-life “Mr. H” didn’t use the term “goddamn motherfuckers” to describe Washington politicians: I think my first-time use of that particular word here on Hoarded Ordinaries might be something of a political Freudian slip on my part.

The title for this story comes from the caption to yesterday’s front page photo. The final line is my admittedly amateurish attempt to write a James Joyceian last line: a line that, if not an epiphany, at least points to something more.

Enjoy!

Nervous Wait

Larissa sat, head in hands, on the steps leading up to the stage in her high school auditorium. Her face was perfectly symmetric and composed, her fingers tipped with perfectly manicured nails, her face pristine with makeup. Her appearance completely belied her internal turmoil, though, as she sat waiting, a mix of hope, fear, and insecurity washing through her. She’d waited, prepared, and worked so long and so hard for this moment, and now it was nearly over. Would her effort result in the outcome she had so desired?

She hadn’t gotten involved in the campaign, initially, out of any strong sense of political activism: in fact, when she first volunteered, she didn’t know the difference between Republican and Democrat, right and left. At first her involvement with Dunbar’s campaign had been an entirely non-altruistic attempt to get extra credit points in her high school civics class, a course she found dry and boring. Mr. Henley, her civics teacher, was tall and slender with a shocking mass of thick black hair and a wryly grinning chin: he looked a little bit like Dunbar, come to think of it, but more boyish and charming. Yes, Mr. Henley had a way of mischievously smiling out of the corner of his mouth that made one of his eyes light up with impish glee: for a moment you felt that the whole high school teacher thing was an act, a way to make money, while inside was a boy who still would find joy in egging his colleagues’ cars or toilet-papering the principal’s house.

It was this mischievous side of Mr. Henley, perhaps, that spoke to Larissa. She wasn’t interested in civics much less politics; she’d dutily registered to vote on her eighteenth birthday because Mr. Henley made such a fuss about it, keeping the mail-in voter registration and Selective Service forms in his desk and bringing them out with pomp and hoopla whenever one of his students Became Legal. “When I was your age,” he’d intone to the class, “I registered for the draft but not to vote: I didn’t care for all that civic responsibility bullshit. But when my best buddy got sent to Vietnam and came back three months later in a body-bag,” Henley’s voice and eyes lowered, and the class listened respectfully if not wholly attentively, having heard this same story countless times before, “I registered to vote the next day. I wasn’t going to let those goddamn motherfuckers in Washington ship off more of my friends, or me, to get killed if I could help it.” Here Henley paused to brush back with one hand that shocking mass of black hair. “You have to realize that voting is the only way you have of letting the motherfuckers know what you won’t tolerate.”

This oft-repeated story was the only time Henley or any of Larissa’s teachers, for that matter, was heard to utter swear-words like “bullshit” or “goddamn motherfucker,” those terms being verboten in the hallowed halls of Perkins High School. Although Henley’s story and its colorful terminology no longer shocked Larissa and her girlfriends into giggling behind perfectly manicured hands, Larissa did respect, in a her own fashion, Henley’s point. Although she normally didn’t watch the news other than to keep up with the weather and the high school sports report (the later being a segment in which she herself had once appeared, having been interviewed by a cute TV reporter after her soccer team had won the regional championship), Larissa did believe it was important to vote and all that. Day-to-day, following the activities and outcomes of those goddamn motherfuckers in Washington wasn’t high on her list of priorities, but every four years, she thought, everyone should turn out and choose who they’d prefer in the White House.

So when Henley came into civics class one day with a different sort of sign-up sheet, one for campaign volunteering rather than voter registration or the draft, and when he mentioned those magical words “extra credit,” Larissa looked at her girlfriends with a perfectly mascara-ed eye. “Ya wanna do it?” she’d asked her best friend Dana, irresistibly tossing her straight brown hair as she turned to her blonde girlfriend in the off chance that Todd Olsen, her secret crush, might be accidentally looking her way at that precise moment. “I bet there will be college guys working the campaign, you know. College guys are so politically active, so maybe we could meet some cute ones.”

Thus with entirely non-political intentions, Larissa and Dana, friends since childhood, had volunteered to help with the Dunbar campaign, signing their names under the “Democrat” column because they’d remembered Henley saying that young people tended toward the left whereas older, more established folks tended to the right. “There will probably be more college guys volunteering for a Democrat,” Dana had concluded between skillful chomps on some contraband bubblegum, managing to look both innocently childish and devilishly sensual with each impertinent working of her jaw. “Although I bet the cute business majors will all be Republican, so if we want to meet college guys with good financial prospects, maybe we should volunteer there.”

Ultimately after some illicit in-class discussion, behind-hands giggling, and entirely obvious note-passing which Henley, somehow, willed himself into ignoring, Larissa and Dana employed their own version of the Law of Supply and Demand. Although the best (meaning, potentially moneyed) college guys would probably be found volunteering for the Republican candidate, himself an Ivy League rich kid born with a silver polo stick in his hand, Larissa and Dana concluded they should work the odds by volunteering with the party where they thought they’d find more cute college guys. Ruled by their scheming hearts more than anything they’d learned from Henley’s well-intended lectures, Larissa and her friend Dana had volunteered for the campaign of John Dunbar, Democrat and the preferred candidate (they hoped) of cute college guys everywhere.

Working for the campaign itself, like most everything in Larissa’s oh-so-complicated teenage life, didn’t turn out to be anything like what she expected. Sure, she and Dana met some cute college guys, but they tended toward the hippie, long-haired, infrequently bathed variety, the sort of guy you’d see hanging around the local hemp store, their languid speech filled with talk of cotton pesticides and textile fabrics. “Do you think Dunbar is for legalization?” Dana had asked Larissa one day, breathless, as they’d sat stuffing campaign letters into pre-addressed envelopes. “I bet the dread-heads volunteered ‘cause they think their chances at smoking some legal pot are greater with a Democrat in the White House.” Larissa had shrugged. A couple of those presumably pro-pot college dread-heads were kind of cute, and one had chatted with her one day as they’d gone to fetch coffee and donuts for the other volunteers. “I chose Dunbar,” he’d remarked with a glint of earnestness in his green, bespectacled eyes, “because he cares for the environment, and I’m studying to be a marine biologist.” Larissa had been awed, in part by the ardor in those green, bespectacled eyes, but largely because she’d never met someone only a few years older than herself who already knew, and with such passion, what they wanted to do with their life.

Larissa herself had no idea what she wanted to do when she “grew up.” Now as a college senior, she simply went to class and looked forward to the freedom that she assumed would come with graduation. No one in her ordinary, working-class family had gone to college: her mother had been a typist in the office of a local factory until she met Larissa’s dad, a laborer at that same factory, then gotten married and quit her job to raise two children. Larissa’s older sister, Molly, had taken night classes at the local community college in the hope of getting certified as a paralegal: she’d figured that was a great way to meet cute young lawyers and ultimately marrying well. But Molly had met a recklessly cute accounting student on campus one night; they’d briefly dated, Molly had gotten pregnant, and she’d dropped out of school to stay home and raise her child as a single-mom with only dead-end career options.

Although Larissa didn’t know what they were, she had bigger dreams than what either her mother or sister had achieved: Larissa was going to Be Something, she just didn’t know what. So while Dana had ultimately stopped volunteering for the campaign after concluding that stuffing envelopes and getting paper-cuts wasn’t a worthwhile way of meeting college guys, Larissa had stayed on, spending a couple hours after school each day stuffing envelopes, running out for coffee and donuts, and updating computerized lists of local voter registrations.

It’s not like Larissa really understood what was at stake in the election…but she’d worked so hard for Dunbar, she’d come to believe in whatever it was that he stood for and sincerely believed it was better and more well-intended than whatever it was that the other guy stood for. Larissa had been raised to believe in causes for the sake of belief itself: her father often quoted to her the lyrics of a country song that advised “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Molly, Larissa believed, hadn’t really stood for something: her desire to become a paralegal was motivated by her desire to find a man and start a family, so she’d somehow gotten sidetracked into achieving the latter without any of the former. One day after Dana had stopped working for the campaign, Larissa had sat quietly stuffing envelopes after the other campaign workers had gone home. In the quiet of an empty campaign office, illuminated by a single bare light bulb hanging over the long folding table where she worked, Larissa vowed to Do Something with her life, to somehow Make a Difference.

And so some three months later, Larissa sat, again alone, on the steps leading up to the stage of her high school auditorium, the ground around her strewn with confetti and cast-off campaign signs. With her perfectly symmetric and composed face held glumly in her hands, she was a curious mix of little-girl dreams and grown-up disillusions. This was supposed to be a victory rally for President-elect Dunbar; Larissa had worn her favorite pair of fringe-tattered jeans, sneakers, and a white linen jacket she’d borrowed from her mother, a jacket she’d tossed over her campaign T-shirt in an attempt to look more professional. But as the voting results trickled in state by state, Larissa and the other campaign workers had sat down, one by one, to watch the bad news on television screens: all their envelope-stuffing, coffee- and donut-fetching, and voter registration list-checking had been in vain. Larissa imagined the girls who had volunteered for the Republican candidate: they’d be partying right now, slipping illicit sips of celebratory champagne when none of the volunteer supervisors were looking. Had she chosen differently all those months ago in Mr. Henley’s class, had she merely written her name in the other column, she could have been one of those girls. Not knowing what to do tomorrow, the morning after, much less with the rest of her life, Larissa sat on those steps waiting and wondering. After so much work, what next? After graduation, then what: how exactly would she Do Something with her life, how exactly would she Make a Difference?

It was a nervous wait as Larissa sat dejected and alone on the steps to the stage in her high school auditorium. It was a wait that was interrupted only when someone sat down beside her, silently; when she looked up, she saw herself looking into earnest eyes that were green and bespectacled.

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