Keene


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

Toy soldiers

It’s the time of year when Keene State College art students use whatever’s close at hand to make temporary sculptures they display on campus. Because the typical college student doesn’t have a lot of money, these art projects rely heavily on inexpensive supplies such as chicken wire and papier-mâché along with everyday objects like castoff water bottles, plastic coat hangers, or little green army men. You don’t need a lot of money to build an interesting sculpture, just a little creativity.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Little. For more photos of this year’s art projects, click here. Enjoy!

The Den of Solitude

Here is something I’ve never shown in all the years I’ve kept this blog: the front of the little pink house where I rented an apartment in Keene, NH for the past eight years.

Office, looking toward street

In the past, I’ve talked about the decisions any blogger makes about what is or isn’t appropriate to share online. Although I’ve occasionally shared parts of my apartment in Keene–the roses that bloomed in cascading torrents alongside the front porch, for instance, or random corners in the backyard–I never felt comfortable posting a picture of the entire facade. Posting an un-cropped picture of Where I Live felt too invasive of my privacy, too much like posting my address or phone number online for anyone to see. Knowing I was blogging from the imagined security of an “undisclosed location” made me more comfortable sharing those details I did choose to disclose. Setting boundaries isn’t about keeping everything a secret; it’s about choosing which secrets to share and which to hold close.

Living room with couch

When you blog about place, the scenes of your daily walks quickly become familiar to your readers, creating the impression that they could perhaps retrace your steps if they ever found themselves in your neighborhood. Since this blog has never been about inspiring the world to beat a path to my door, I quickly established the habit of not taking or posting too many pictures of my precise street. Partly I wanted to protect the privacy of my neighbors–nobody wants a photo-blogger living next door, posting pictures of one’s literal dirty laundry–but mostly I wanted to create the sensation of space in a neighborhood that’s otherwise densely packed.

Living room, looking into kitchen

When you share a dorm room or small apartment with a roommate, you quickly become protective of “your” space, protecting it from even imagined encroachments. I honed this ability to wrap a virtual shroud of privacy around myself when I lived in the Cambridge Zen Center. When you live in a meditation center that attracts a constant stream of daily practitioners, weekend retreatants, and short-term residents, you learn to create your own privacy wherever and however you can: this is my room, or my desk, or my meditation cushion. It’s no wonder, I think, that one of the Center’s revered Temple Rules reminds visitors and residents alike, “Do not use other people’s shoes and coats.” When you share the place you hang your hat, it can be very important to your sense of self and privacy simply to have your own hat.

Office corner

When you live within walking distance of the campus where you teach–and when you live on a street that is popular with student renters–you learn to pull a veil of privacy behind you when you enter your little pink house. J and I regularly referred to my apartment in Keene as my “Den of Solitude,” the place where I slept, graded papers, and quietly minded my own business on weekdays during the school year. Now that I’ve moved out of the Den of Solitude, my personal prohibition against showing pictures of it no longer applies. Now that I’ve broken the bonds of this particular place, there’s no need for the boundary I’d made to protect it.

Buddha altar

I’m currently moving out of my apartment in Keene, the place where I once lived with my ex-husband, came into my own in the days after my divorce, and have lived part-time after meeting and marrying J, dividing my days between Newton and Keene. As much as I’ve appreciated the convenience of having an apartment close to campus where I’ve stayed midweek during the academic year, I’m looking forward to living in one place rather than two. The time is right to make the next step.

Comfort food

Reviewing these pictures, which I used to illustrate a 2004 post about my apartment, I marvel at how clean the place was then. In the early days after my divorce, I spent a lot of time alone in my apartment–just me and the dog–so I took care to keep the place neat and livable. After meeting and marrying J, however, I’ve spent less and less time in Keene, driving in to teach my classes or go to meetings and using my apartment as a proverbial place to hang my hat. Gradually, my apartment in Keene has evolved from being my heart’s home to being a place I stay when I’m not home. Although I still enjoy teaching and walking in Keene, I realize do so now as a visitor rather than a resident. My relationship with the place is now migratory, with Keene being a place where I no longer nest.

Nestled nook

At the moment, the place where I pupated is looking downright grubby, with dusty piles of stuff I’m sorting through as I work, bit by bit, to move, donate, or sell an apartment’s worth of stuff. I’ve lived in this apartment since 2003, so I have a lot of history (and a lot of stuff) here. As much as I hate moving and want to be done with sorting, weeding out, packing, and moving things between here and there, it feels good to slough off stuff like an old skin. I’m selling some of my furniture on consignment, I’m giving some to my upstairs neighbor, and I’m taking carload after carload of smaller items to the Salvation Army. It feels good to send these things off to their new life: the grateful recycling of things I no longer need. It’s time for both my stuff and me to move on.

Golden

Yesterday morning, instead of writing in my journal, I did a quick scribble-sketch of my neighbor’s raggedy forsythia shrub, which I see from my kitchen table every morning I’m in Keene. It’s a scene I’ve sketched before, something I contemplate as part of my morning routine. Last week, I watched and sketched juncos flitting in this same forsythia, black and white birds illuminated by the harsh light of a monochromatic winter afternoon. Yesterday, though, was different: the morning light glimmered with a golden sheen, the forsythia looked like a clumpy cloud clotted with last weekend’s snow, and the heaps of snow clogging my yard glittered, crystalline. The scene was the same, but the light was different. Last week, the light was white, and yesterday, it gleamed golden, a subtle shift marking the earth’s gradual turn into spring.

Cedar waxwings

Yesterday afternoon was clear, with temperatures in the mid-thirties, so I took both of my first-year writing classes outside to walk and sketch along the Ashuelot River, as I have in the past. One of the benefits of requiring my writing students to keep nature journals is the excuse it gives us to walk outside on nice days, and yesterday was as good a day as any for walking: sunny and cold, but with the hope of spring.

On our way back to our classroom, my 2:00 class and I watched a single cedar waxwing, separated from his flock, foraging in a crabapple tree next to a dumpster behind the Student Center. I was the first to spot the bird, which was unusually low, close, and blithely oblivious to our presence, concentrating on the withered fruit he was gleaning. “Why are you guys looking at a dumpster,” a dawdling student asked as he caught up to the group, and then he saw what we were looking at. “Hey, he has yellow on his tail, and red on his wings!” Yes. My students didn’t know the name “cedar waxwing,” but they could recognize the details that make this bird different from the usual sparrows and crows they see around campus, a bird whose belly gleamed golden in a season of grit and gray.

I later heard the flock that lone waxwing had wandered from, just a few trees away: close enough for even a dawdling bird to catch up with his group. Today, I spotted a small flock of waxwings–the same group of nomads, or their neighbors–in a tree along Marlboro Street: the source of that second photo.

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