Keene


Central Square tower

I’ve been wanting to write about this past weekend’s riots in Keene, NH: I taught, after all, at Keene State College for a decade and lived near campus for most of that time. But everything I’ve imagined myself saying quickly devolved into a cranky rant, and the world doesn’t need more of those. Raising a fist at rioters doesn’t do anything productive; it only adds to the clamor and discord.

Gutted pumpkins

Drunken idiocy happens at all the colleges where I’ve taught: it’s not unique to Keene State. It’s true that Keene State has acquired (and, among some students, apparently relishes) a reputation for being a party school, and over the years the Pumpkin Festival has become an increasingly popular occasion for drunken partying and the reckless mayhem that ensues. But apart from timing, this year’s riot had nothing to do with the Keene Pumpkin Festival. Despite news headlines to the contrary, this weekend’s parties gone bad didn’t happen at the Pumpkin Festival; they simply happened during it.

Zucchini nose

There’s nothing that made this weekend’s events unique to Keene apart from an escalation in recent years in the number of revelers attracted to Keene State on a particular Saturday in October. The Pumpkin Festival wasn’t the reason for the riot, but it did serve as an excuse. There is, unfortunately, particular kind of college student—typically white suburban males, children of modest privilege with no real reason to take to the street in justified protest—who will take any excuse to over-imbibe in the name of “partying” and who quickly turn violent out of sheer boredom.

Pumpkin cannibalism

I say this not to defend Keene, its college, or the students at said college; I say this because what happened in Keene this weekend is indicative of a larger problem. It’s easy to peruse media reports of the Keene riots while politely shaking one’s head, quietly condemning those ill-behaved college kids who are nothing like me or my children. Make no mistake: what happened at Keene State could have happened at any college in any town. It’s not someone else’s problem; it’s our own.

You should see the other guy!

Let’s be frank, America: our college campuses have a drinking problem. Not all college students are violent, drunken vandals…but yes, all professors (and yes, all residents living near college campuses) can tell you horror stories of drunken, immature kids who frankly have no business being in college but were attracted to campus primarily because it’s a perfect venue for a four-year party.

Rows of pumpkins

We as a culture have come to see college as a right, not a privilege, and our campuses reflect that fact. For every student who goes to college out of a genuine desire to learn and grow, there are too many students who would be the first to tell you they don’t want to be there. These kids find themselves in college because they’ve been terrified into submission by teachers, parents, and guidance counselors who tell them they’ll never get a job without the piece of paper called a college degree: a piece of paper as essential today as a high school diploma was to my generation.

You look fabulous

Is it any surprise that students who have no real interest in becoming scholars—students who have no qualms telling their professors point-blank that they don’t care about their classes—would entertain themselves with drunken mayhem? Why not? If college is merely an extension of high school—a place where you have no real choice but to show up for four years in order to get the necessary, job-granting certificate known as a college degree—why wouldn’t you kick back and party your time away?

Creepy!

I’m not sure that scaring students into college by telling them it’s the only way they’ll ever get a job is a wise tactic. A college degree isn’t a guarantee of employment; if a student doesn’t get anything out of the classes they don’t want to take, that piece of paper isn’t going to hold much power. But our culture sees college not just as a right but as a rite of passage. We somehow believe that spending four years on a college campus will turn an unfocused, under-motivated eighteen-year-old into a capable and qualified adult without fully considering how that happens. If drudging your way through a high school curriculum isn’t enough to make you employable, how will drudging your way through four years of college help matters much?

Pumpkin skulls

I don’t know how to solve the drinking problem on American college campuses: I suspect it reflects larger problems in a culture that worships alcohol as both an escape from worry and an excuse for nearly any sort of bad behavior. But I do have a modest proposal for the problem of boredom-inspired bad behavior on college campuses: parents, don’t send your eighteen-year-olds to college. Save for your children’s education, and then insist they take a year or two off—a gap year—to figure out what they want from that education.

Apple-nose

As a college instructor I see a huge difference between the first-year students who come to college straight out of high school and the ones who have spent a year or two working, serving in the military, or otherwise engaging with the “real world” outside of college. Too many fresh-from-high-school students come to college with no real sense of what they want to attain from their studies. Instead, they’re in college because that’s what’s expected, that’s what their friends are doing, or that’s what mom and dad want.

Central Square gazebo

This weekend’s riots in Keene suggest that college (like youth) is often wasted on the young. Older, more mature students are almost always more driven to learn. They’ve spent time working or traveling, they’ve lived on their own, and they’ve gotten some of their youthful hijinks out of their system. Older, more mature students have a better sense of what they want to do with their education and with their lives, and they realize that engaging in drunken mayhem doesn’t get them anywhere closer to their goals.

This post turned into exactly the kind of cranky rant I was trying to avoid. At least the photos, which come from the 2010 Pumpkin Festival, are a bit less crabby.

Cedar waxwing

One of the things I love about cedar waxwings is how unpredictable they are. Waxwings are nomadic creatures, traveling in flocks from one berry-bearing tree to another. A flock of waxwings will descend upon a fruiting crab-apple tree, feast until their bellies are bursting, and then move on to better, more berry-laden trees.

Cedar waxwing

Today, there were two flocks of cedar waxwings working the crab-apple trees at Keene State College: one in the trees by the Student Center, and other working the trees by the library. I wasn’t expecting to see waxwings as I walked from my car to my summer school class and back: that’s what I love about waxwings. Right when you’re not expecting to see much of anything is when waxwings typically appear, descending upon the trees of your otherwise ordinary afternoon, keening and calling until you look up to notice them, surprised again. The next time I’m on campus, who knows where these nomads will be, appearing like an unbidden apparition to some other oblivious soul.

Like fireworks

This afternoon I received the latest version of an email I’ve gotten once or twice every single semester I’ve been teaching online. The particulars don’t matter because it’s always the same basic scenario.

Pink horsechestnut

Student X has stopped participating in class because of a health, personal, family, or work problem; Student X is worried they won’t pass or get a good grade in my class; and Student X can’t drop the class because of financial, philosophical, or logistical reasons. The particulars don’t matter: what matters is that the story is almost universal. Whenever a student is panicking because they’ve stopped participating and don’t know how to get back in the swing of the semester, my answer is pretty much the same: “Just come back.” It’s an answer that is mind-blowing in its simplicity. “The way you finish the semester,” I wrote to this latest incarnation of Student X, “is by finishing the semester.” In other words, just come back: just resume doing whatever it was you were doing before you hit a bump and got derailed.

Almost poppy

I’ve taught many incarnations of Student X over the years, and the biggest barrier they typically encounter is their own panic, despair, or shame about having to start over. Once again, the particulars don’t matter: what stays true is this mental block about coming back. There’s this deeply ingrained feeling that you should beat yourself up when you’ve hit a bump because your professor or some other authority figure is standing with arms akimbo, scowling, wanting to punish you. In my experience, though, half of life is about showing up, and the other half is about coming back. It’s not about never missing a beat; it’s about getting back in step after you’ve stumbled.

All about the alium

I wish I could say I learned this lesson through some sort of esoteric or mystical realization, but the truth is, I learned it the hard way. I’ve spent a lot of my life hitting bumps, getting derailed, and otherwise abandoning whatever work I’m supposed to be doing. Today, for example, I spent a good portion of the morning not checking my online classes, not checking work email, and not doing the things I’d duly written on my to-do list: the usual procrastination of yet another Don’t Wanna Wednesday. It’s not that I wasn’t working; it’s that I was avoiding one set of tasks by busying myself with another set of tasks. There’s always something lying around waiting to be done, so it’s always easy to procrastinate by looking busy.

Opening

So, how do you tackle the to-do list you’ve spent the whole morning avoiding? You just come back. How do you resume the morning writing routine you’ve let fall by the wayside? You just come back. How do you return, again, to the meditation practice you’ve been doing on and off and on-again for more years than you can count? You just begin again, again…and when your mind wanders, you just bring it back. There’s a reason why one of my favorite Zen sayings is “Fall down six times, get up seven.” If we didn’t stumble, flop, and fall, we’d never experience the joyous relief of starting over, anew.

Graduation prep

I’ve been inexplicably missing Old Silver, the towering silver maple that fell across the quad at Keene State College during Finals Week several years ago. When he was still standing, Old Silver was a sprawling, multi-trunked tree that needed wire braces to hold him together, but even those couldn’t save him from gravity in the end.

Graduation prep

Old Silver always cheered me on days when I felt like I was failing as a teacher, as often happens during Finals Week, when your paper-piles are tall and your patience is short. It was always a comfort to have a towering Gray Guy peering over your shoulder on days when you were stuck inside looking out with nothing but your grading to keep you company. There are plenty of trees on the Keene State College campus, but none of them holds the same place in my heart as Old Silver did. Old trees teach us how to stand tall, how to sway in the breeze, and ultimately how to fall. There are worse things you can learn in college.

Graduation prep

Today at Keene State, the grounds crew was setting up chairs for graduation: an annual ritual I’ve chronicled multiple times in past years. At the end of another long academic year, it’s a relief to see the clean, tidy lines of countless chairs arranged with meticulous accuracy. Teaching is a messy, inexact endeavor, but graduation ceremonies make a mysterious process seem polished and predictable with all their pomp and circumstance. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where Wisdom happens, graduation ceremonies provide a sense of closure by suggesting learning can and does eventually come to a full and finite fruition.

Graduation prep

Every year, I’m relieved to see graduation prep progressing because that means we’re close to being done with another semester, and this year, I’m particularly glad to see the term end. This semester has been emotionally draining in the aftermath of being cut to part-time, and I’m not ashamed to admit there have been days when merely commuting to Keene to teach two rather than three classes has driven me to tears. It’s not every semester that you question your career path, watch your dog die, and then reach the end of the term wondering “What’s next?” If Old Silver were still standing, I think he’d lean into the spring breeze and whisper that it’s okay to branch, to stretch, and ultimately, when the time is right, to fail and fall.

Parking lot labyrinth

A few weeks ago, A (not her real initial) emailed me a photo of a green, grassy labyrinth she’d walked near Cincinnati, Ohio: her first. In my response, I mentioned that I’ve walked a labyrinth in a parking lot off Church Street in downtown Keene, NH several times these past few weeks, on evenings when I’m teaching at Keene State. What a strange contrast between these two labyrinths, with A’s lush, leafy one looking so much more alluring–so much more inviting, soft, and contemplative–than mine of bare blacktop.

Parking lot labyrinth

Despite its aesthetic shortcomings, Keene’s parking lot labyrinth is close at hand, so I use it, not every Tuesday and Thursday, but enough days to make it worthwhile: a sanctuary close by. If you had to choose whether to have your sacred spaces in the world or not of it, which would you choose? I love the thought of walking a leafy labyrinth in a faraway, tranquil spot—anywhere but here—but at the same time I know I’d rarely, if ever, bring myself to that place. Labyrinths are themselves supposed to represent the travails of pilgrimage, but it shouldn’t take a pilgrimage to get there. I’ve grown to like Keene’s bare blacktop labyrinth because it’s already begun to feel like it’s mine: almost empty right after 5 pm, with only a few lingering parked cars and strangers going to or from their business, mostly ignoring me, a middle-aged woman in a long skirt or dress walking in circles, quickly, in their parking lot.

Parking lot labyrinth

I walk Keene’s downtown labyrinth quickly, not slowly and meditatively. In other cases, with other labyrinths, I’ve walked meditatively, but the whole point of my evening walks in Keene is not to dally. I have a class to get back to campus for, and my head is typically full of thoughts: whatever paper-grading or class-prepping or email-answering I’d been doing moments before during my office hour. I arrive to the downtown labyrinth with a full, distracted head, full of clamoring thoughts, so the only way to remedy the situation is to walk it off.

Winding

And so I walk briskly, at the same pace that I walk anywhere on my evening walks: a fast, steady stride. When you walk a labyrinth quickly, you have to concentrate intently on the path beneath you: there’s no skipping that. The turns in any labyrinth are tight and narrow, so you have to place your feet carefully, stepping precisely into your own footsteps. But you can do this at any speed, and in this case I enjoy walking briskly, perhaps because then my feet are in tune with the cluttered, racing thoughts that jangle in my head like loose keys and coins, or perhaps because rapid walking is such a welcome relief from the slow-poking walks I’ve taken for the past few years, when I lived with an old dog.

2004-11-06a

Walking a labyrinth swiftly is a different kind of meditation than walking one slowly: they each have their respective benefits. When you walk a labyrinth slowly, you can pay attention to the angle and arch of each foot as it falls, and you can pay attention to your body and breath as they settle into each stride. When you walk a labyrinth quickly, however, you pay attention to the path ahead of you, focusing outside of yourself, your thoughts, and your own corporeality. You aren’t thinking about the fact that you have a body; you’re simply moving in that body. Your walking, in other words, takes on a life of its own, with no thinking necessary. You simply follow the next step, then the next, then the next. Instead of being an exercise in mindfulness, this is an exercise in mindlessness: with each step, your thoughts sooth and settle as you leave your mind alone. It’s like letting a restless creature off its leash to race and pace at its own speed, your mental greyhound chasing its own fake rabbit round and around, lapping.

2004-11-06b

I think in an ideal life, one’s spiritual practice would have a time and a place for both kinds of practice, fast and slow. Sitting is slow, as is (typically) walking meditation. But in my Zen school at least, both chanting and bowing are fast: a time to let your body simply be a body as it runs at its own brisk clip. It’s fine and good to stop and think—it’s fine and good to take time to be contemplative. But for many of us, stopping to think easily turns into obsession and repetition as we rehearse time and again the same old litanies of worry, speculation, and regret. At times like this, stopping to think might be counterproductive, so doing anything fast and physical is a good antidote. Instead of trying to stop a racing mind, let your body outpace it.

2005-09-13b

I’m not a runner, but I admire runners because I can imagine, vividly, the hypnotic power of step following each step. I’m not a runner, but as a walker I love to reach that point after you’ve been walking fast and long when your body seems to lengthen, your legs feel light, and you can almost feel the earth turning slowly and broadly beneath your feet, like an enormous curved treadmill, your steps exactly in time with its rotation.

2005-09-13a

The builders of labyrinths are brilliant, I think, because they recognize this way that body and soul are connected: more accurately, they recognize the link between mind and sole. As a body thinks, so does it walk. If you want to get to the bottom of an infinite head-full of thoughts, try walking it out, one footstep for every thought.

On nights when parked cars make it impossible for me to walk the labyrinth in Keene, I sometimes walk part of the Industrial Heritage Trail, the rail-trail bike path that goes behind my former apartment. It’s a trail I walked many times with Reggie, at least when he was young and fit enough for long walks: it was the closest nearby place where I could let him off leash, and he’d run ahead in his own time while I lingered behind, snapping pictures of shadows and trees.

2005-09-13c

Everyone should have a place close at hand where they can let their mental dog off leash to sniff, explore, and race ahead. On the railtrail, Reggie was safe because a fringe of trees on either side hemmed him in: he could race ahead, but he couldn’t bolt far to either side. I didn’t need to worry about traffic or about Reggie wandering off where I couldn’t find him.

Coiled

This is, in a sense, how a labyrinth works. Because you don’t have to worry about getting lost, you can let your brain off-leash. You don’t have to pay attention to where you’re going, just to the fact that you are going. Paying attention to the next step is enough: no more planning or foresight is necessary than that.

Walking a labyrinth is a great exercise in trust. Do you have enough faith to take the next step, even if you aren’t sure exactly where it leads? Are you trusting enough to take the next step, even if it feels like you’re running in circles?

Labyrinth parking

These days, I don’t know what the future holds, but every day I know exactly what I need to do today. Walking a labyrinth underscores the idea that taking care of today—the next step—is enough to get you there and back safely, without undue worry or exertion. Don’t worry about the destination, which will come in due time: just keep going. It’s a lesson that we need every day, everywhere, regardless of whether we live with a labyrinth near.

Today’s post is illustrated with photos of the parking lot labyrinth off Church Street in downtown Keene, which I blogged in December, 2010; a visiting labyrinth at Keene State College, which I blogged in November, 2004; and the labyrinth behind the First Baptist Church in Keene, which I blogged in September, 2005.

Oak tree shadow

It’s raining in Keene today, as it has most Thursdays this semester, but on Monday it was sunny, casting tree-shaped shadows on brick walls. I’m heading home with my last stack of student essay portfolios for the term, ready to settle in for a weekend’s worth of grading, rain or shine. I’ll see you on the other side of “done.”

Spreading ivy

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