Life lessons


Behind Fulton Hall

We’re ten weeks into the semester at both Boston College and Framingham State, and right on schedule I’m feeling the weariness that usually descends this time of the term. Last year, I blogged about this sluggish stretch, which I’ve come to call the Dark Night of the Semester: the point in the term when “teaching” feels like an endless slog through student papers, and both you and your students wonder (either aloud or secretly) why you ever chose to assign so much writing.

Steps near Conte Forum

During the Dark Night of the Semester, I often remember a line from the Bible: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” At those points in a long semester when I’m feeling uninspired and bogged down with paper-grading, it’s easy to feel like I’ve lost my “salt.” Instead of being zesty and full of flavor, I feel bland and insipid, without the energy to overcome my own (much less anyone else’s) inertia.

One thing I’ve learned from twenty years of teaching, though, is that the Dark Night always passes: somehow, the salt becomes salty again. It’s easy to get sidetracked (and deflated) by the seemingly endless logistics of teaching: papers to read, emails to answer, classes to plan. With all the busy-ness that teaching entails, it’s easy to lose sight of why you’re teaching to begin with. Did you start teaching because you wanted to spend the rest of your life grading papers, or did you start teaching because you love language, ideas, and the light in students’ eyes when they really “get” something?

Fides and foliage

Sometimes restoring your saltiness is a matter of stepping away from the paper-piles, and sometimes it’s a matter of adjusting what you do in your classes: what activities pique your students’ interest, and what activities leave them listless and disinterested? Sometimes, in other words, restoring your saltiness is a matter of moving away the things that are bland and toward the things that still have flavor. We’ve all heard the advice to “follow your bliss,” and I often tell my students that in their writing, they should follow their curiosity. So, what would it look like if both teacher and students alike followed that suggestion?

For me, restoring my saltiness usually involves some sort of creativity, some sort of movement, and some sort of connection with nature. I don’t find paper-grading particularly exciting, but I find it personally inspiring and energizing to write, take walks, and be outside in the living world. So when I got home from teaching today, instead of immediately tackling my paper-pile, I suggested to J that we walk to lunch through an afternoon full of golden light. If you can’t savor the sweetness of a golden afternoon, where will you find any salt at all?

This is my Day 6 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Half submerged

A colleague recently told me he’d explored my blog and admired my discipline, a word I don’t really associate with myself. “What discipline,” I quietly wondered. On a good day, my blogging feels like so much twaddle; on a bad day, I don’t blog at all. But I guess all the years I’ve been keeping both a journal and a blog amount to something: at least these entries reflect an intention to show up and chronicle what I can, as I’m able. It’s an intention to be faithful, most days, to my commitment to my craft, regardless of what kind of product that commitment produces.

Mongoose

I don’t consider myself to be a particularly disciplined person in the sense of having willpower to force myself to do things I don’t enjoy. I’m not particularly disciplined when it comes to exercise, diet, or other things I know I “should” do, and I’m a terrible procrastinator when it comes to things I find monotonous, like tackling a grading pile. When I’m doing things I like or find intriguing, I can concentrate for long stretches, but otherwise I’m antsy and easily distracted, finding all kinds of ways of filling my time with the things I shouldn’t be doing rather than the things I should.

Profile

But if remaining faithful to something I enjoy counts as discipline, then I guess my colleague’s remark is true. I suppose there’s a certain kind of discipline involved in returning to one thing over and over for a long stretch of time, “writing” being a thing I always find myself coming back to. Still, I think there are other, better words to describe this kind of blind, unswerving faithfulness: “tenacity” is one word that comes to mind, and “stubbornness” is another. “Bull-headed” is the term my mother often used to describe my headstrong teenage self: I don’t know if bulls are particularly disciplined, but they are renowned for having hard heads.

Sea lion

I do sometimes think there’s something ox-like in my plodding commitment to the monotonies of my daily routine, writing and blogging included. Young cattle are flighty and skittish, so the way to train a young ox is to yoke it to an older and more steadfast one. A mature, well-trained ox knows to pull straight and steady in his harness, but a youngster will champ and frolic after every butterfly. Farmers know, though, that mature oxen are both stronger and heavier than youngsters, so with one shake of his shoulders, an old ox can yank frisky Youngblood back in line. There’s no moving or budging an old ox who has settled in his traces, a lesson that generation after generation of youngsters has learned in the yokes, and I think my daily writing routines serve as a kind of metaphoric “yoke,” bringing me back to more or less the same thing almost every day, regardless of what other distractions beckon.

Three mergansers

My challenge as a teacher is to serve as an old ox to my young and energetic students, who much of the time would rather do anything in the world rather than schoolwork. I try instill a kind of creative discipline in my students by following the furrows of our course syllabus, acclimating them to the “yoke” of reading, writing, and revising assignment after assignment. Old oxen can become obnoxiously stubborn, however, with “discipline” quickly becoming “drudgery” if there is no spark of interest enlivening our steps. There’s a fine line between being disciplined and being too predictable, and that line is, I think, one of the roughest rows to hoe.

Click here for more photos from last week’s trip to the Central Park Zoo. Enjoy!

Viewing through

Today I spent four hours in my office at Boston College meeting individually with each of my students from one of my First-Year Writing Seminars. (On Wednesday, I’ll meet with students from my other section). I once had a professor tell me that he didn’t really get to know his students’ names until he sat down with them face-to-face across a desk to discuss their writing, and there’s a lot of truth behind that statement. When you teach first-year writing, you learn a great deal about your students as you read papers describing their experiences and opinions and perspectives, and sitting down to talk with each of your students individually provides a different dynamic than interacting on paper or in a group. You get to associate a face, personality, and entire person with the words on the page, especially as you listen to each student describe what he or she is struggling with in their writing.

Stokes Hall

When I first started teaching first-year writing as a graduate Teaching Fellow at Boston College twenty years ago, I was terrified to give my first round of student conferences. Standing in front of a classroom of students felt a bit like acting or performing stand-up comedy: you could hide behind a persona, filling the class period (if necessary) with silly stories and anecdotes. But when you sit face-to-face with someone across a desk, there’s a heightened level of expectation. The knowledge that students had dragged themselves out of their dorm rooms and trudged across campus to meet with me for fifteen precious minutes—time they could have spent sleeping or studying or doing homework—made me wonder if I had anything helpful to say. I worried that my students would show up at my office expecting wisdom and guidance, only to realize I’m as clueless as the next person.

Between the acts

Today’s conferences felt far less fraught than the ones I held when I was an earnest young Teaching Fellow just starting out. Back then, I thought I had to have some sort of wisdom to share: if I failed to hand each student a profound, neatly packaged nugget of insight, I’d somehow failed my job. Now, however, I see student conferences differently. Not only do I have more experience working with lots of students over the years, I also have experience answering questions as a Senior Dharma Teacher at the Cambridge Zen Center. Meeting face-to-face with a first-year student to talk about a piece of writing isn’t that much different, I’ve discovered, than sitting in the Zen Center interview room answering questions from fellow meditators. In both cases, you can’t ever predict what sort of situation you’ll face when you ask the next person to come in and sit down. All you can do in that split second between one meeting and the next is take a breath and quietly promise to be present with whatever question, situation, or scenario walks through the door.

Stokes Hall

When I first started giving consulting interviews at the Zen Center, Zen Master Bon Haeng (aka Mark Houghton) gave me a priceless bit of advice I’ve thought back on every time I give consulting interviews. Zen Master Mark said the purpose of a consulting interview isn’t to answer a person’s questions but simply to share an experience. Consulting interviews aren’t about explaining Zen practice in tidy terms that tie everything up in a neat little bow: the mysteries of human suffering are too complex for that, and no teacher can ever digest your life for you. Instead of worrying about saying the right thing (or saying the thing that will amaze and impress), teachers should focus on being present with their students. It isn’t a matter of giving students the answers as if from on high: it’s about sitting alongside students while they figure things out for themselves, offering whatever gentle guidance and feedback you can while being attentive to what’s being said on the page and between the lines.

New mums / not yet blooming

Over the course of the semester, I’ll meet with my First Year Writing students at least three more times: one conference for each of the four essays they’ll write this term. I know from experience that when you meet individually with a student for that many times in a 15-week term, you end up covering a lot of emotional as well as intellectual ground. If you’re strong enough to stay present, you’ll see a combination of breakdowns and breakthroughs, frustrations and failures. Writing is hard work, and it doesn’t always proceed in a tidy line from “good” to “better” to “best.” Sometimes it feels like you’re writing in circles, and some of the sweetest successes are the ones that took the most effort to achieve.

Under her heel

This past Wednesday was the twelfth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, so after teaching my classes at Boston College, I walked the labyrinth there. The labyrinth at BC is a memorial to 22 alumni who were killed on September 11, so someone had left a bunch of maroon and gold flowers—BC colors—on the path’s periphery before I arrived, and the handful of students sitting quietly on the lawn and benches nearby seemed particularly quiet, subdued, and respectful.

Mary statue

I wasn’t alone in walking the labyrinth on Wednesday. A student was walking ahead of me, slowly and meditatively, and by the time I had walked to the memorial’s center and back, a small throng had gathered to pay their respects. One of them had set down a black duffel bag tied with a red bandana, presumably a tribute to Welles Crowther, a BC grad who worked in the South Tower of the World Trade Center and became known as the “man in the red bandana” after helping a dozen people out of the building before he died trying to save more. Near the entrance of the labyrinth, someone had set several more maroon and gold bouquets, waiting to lay them by the carved names that surround the memorial’s circumference. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that one of the bouquets bore a tag that had been signed “Mom & Dad.”

Even the landscaping has spirit

When you walk a labyrinth, you trust the path ahead of you to get you there and back, resting in the belief that each footfall will find its proper place. As I walked the memorial labyrinth on Wednesday, there was a single reddened maple leaf that had fallen on one of the flagstones, a harbinger of harvests to come. There is a Zen truism that every snowflake falls in its perfect place, and perhaps this applies to autumn leaves as well. But what about fallen souls?

First day

It’s poignantly fitting that so many lives were lost on a brilliantly beautiful September day: autumn is, after all, the season of falling, an annual reminder of impending mortality. Faith says our every footstep is guided by an unseen hand; faith reminds us that even the fall of a sparrow is heeded by the heavens. What wild and wending way led each of nearly 3,000 souls to their untimely end some twelve years ago? Were they in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were they precisely where they were (by some unspeakable mystery) intended to be?

Practice scrimmage

On my way back to my car, I heard the martial cadences of a marching band. When I’d arrived on the third level of the garage where I’d parked, I had a bird’s eye view of the BC football team scrimmaging on their practice field, recorded marching music piped over a loudspeaker. It was a quintessential autumnal scene—young and athletic men reveling in their strength—and it seemed particularly poignant, like the scene in Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams whispers “Carpe diem” while his students study the black-and-white photographs of former athletes in the glass cases in the school hallway.

Welles Crowther was a lacrosse player at BC, and he was 24 when he died. I wonder how often the healthy and strong athletes who play and practice on the same green fields as he did consider their own mortality and the sobering fact that we all are, eventually, following in his footsteps?

Changing

This morning when I took the dogs out, I immediately noticed something different about the light, which has become almost autumnal in its bronzed and burnished hue. Winter light is white or blue; spring light gradually warms to the yellow glint of summer. But the light in autumn is like no other: a glint beyond golden, like the sheen off hammered copper.

Ripening

Today the crickets are keening with an ever-increasing insistence, fiddling away, emphatically, the waning length of their days. You can feel the life force of summer building to a crescendo that must crash: summer has become overgrown and overripe, trending toward decay.

The apples that were green last month have ripened and become ruddy, and now they lie in smashed and rotting piles along the curb and sidewalk, firm green tartness reduced to sickly-sweet mush. It is the corporeality of rotten apples that offends, their pink and gold and burnished salmon calling to mind human flesh and its propensity toward decay. By tasting the forbidden apple, Eve doomed herself and her kind to the way of all flesh. We flower then ripen then fall, death and decay always having the last word.

Sun-ripened

In late August, nature dances a tarantella, time spinning with centrifugal intensity, a feverishly manic fecundity that can’t be sustained. There is a note of urgent insistence—a hint of resignation—in the desire to pack as much as possible into waning August days: a kind of Carnival carnality that crams infinite exuberance into the period that precedes want and decline.

Before things slow down, they speed up: this is a law of both biology and physics, summer’s last gasps being her most impassioned. Nothing lives as fiercely or as forcefully as a creature that knows it’s going to die.

Flags and flowers

On Tuesday morning, on my way to a meeting, I stopped outside the Stata Center at MIT to pay my respects at the makeshift memorial to Officer Sean Collier, who was killed this past April by the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. Although most of the mementos left by students, staff, and passersby have been cleared away, the site of Officer Collier’s death is still marked with flags and flowers. I’m not sure I can explain the human desire to create memorial shrines at the sites where people have passed, but I certainly understand it. To anyone not from Boston, the Marathon bombings are old news, replaced in our attention by other breaking stories. But those of us who live here haven’t forgotten what happened at and after this year’s Marathon, and even if we did, the places where these things happened would by their very presence remind us.

Thank you for the items you have left here

When J and I showed visiting relatives around Boston earlier this month, for instance, we insisted on walking them down Boylston Street to the Marathon finish line, showing them an otherwise ordinary patch of sidewalk outside Marathon Sports where the first of two deadly bombs went off. I’m not sure why J and I felt an insistent need to show this spot to relatives who hadn’t asked to see it. There’s technically nothing to see on this particular patch of sidewalk: the teeming memorial of mementos left at Copley Plaza in the immediate aftermath of the Marathon bombings has been removed and carefully archived by the city, and nothing in the way of a permanent memorial has yet been planned.

Marathon bombing site

Because the two Marathon bombs exploded outward rather than upward, there isn’t eye-popping evidence of a massive bomb-blast at either site: the bombs’ legacy was left on human flesh—so many amputated legs—rather than as lasting architectural damage. On the Sunday we visited, the only indication that Something Happened Here was a pair of running shoes discreetly hanging from the shady trunk of a midsized plane tree: a hidden memorial visible only if you stood right under that tree.

Memorial to slain MIT Officer Sean Collier

But just because there’s not much to see these days at sites related to the Marathon bombings doesn’t mean these sites haven’t achieved a kind of sacred power, like other places of pilgrimage. Regardless of whether visiting family wanted to see precisely where the bombings happened, both J and I wanted to show them. I’m not sure we could have explained why this was so, but in retrospect, I think we wanted to show our guests something indicative of what it’s really like to live in Boston, today. Visiting historical sites might help you understand what Boston was like in the distant past, but visiting the finish line on Boylston Street might help you understand why Bostonians were simultaneously heartbroken and outraged in the aftermath of terror.

BPL Strong

As Red Sox designated hitter David “Big Papi” Ortiz so memorably phrased it, “This is our fucking city,” and standing on the sidewalk outside Marathon Sports, you might feel some of that territorial defiance, even if you’re just visiting. These are our streets and sidewalks, the place where one Monday every April, we practice radical hospitality. If you want to know what kind of spirit, swagger, and pride makes a Bostonian, sit in the nosebleeds at a Bruins game, cheer from the bleachers at Fenway, or spend a silent moment contemplating an otherwise ordinary patch of sidewalk outside Marathon Sports.

Memorial cross

These spots on Boylston Street in Boston and on the MIT campus in Cambridge are places where lives were lost, bodies were disfigured, and survivors were forever changed. These are the spots where those of us who live in and around Boston came to realize in our guts what it means to be “from” this city, regardless of where we were born. This IS our fucking city, I find myself thinking whenever I’m walking down Boylston Street, and by showing visitors this now-sacred spot, J and I wanted to share that solemn realization.

MIT Police / Boston Strong

As I stood outside the Stata Center at MIT on Tuesday morning, I felt a similar spirit of solemnity. Here at this spot, someone died simply because he was doing his job, and the very least I can do is stop and pay my respects, remembering someone who had his unfortunate moment in the headlines and is now gone. Folks elsewhere might have moved on to other, more gripping stories, but here in Boston and Cambridge alike, we haven’t forgotten.

The photos of the running shoes in a tree and the “Boston Public Library Strong” sign come from Boylston Street in Boston; the other photos come from the makeshift memorial to Officer Sean Collier outside the Stata Center at MIT. Last night, Officer Collier was posthumously sworn in as a Somerville police officer, a job he was supposed to have taken in June.

Wall at Central Square

The Buddha touched the earth with his right hand the moment before he was enlightened, but he continued to touch the earth with his two feet for the rest of his days. When we typically imagine the Buddha, we picture a sedentary figure seated in contemplation, but in the immediate aftermath of the Buddha’s life and death, the icon that represented him wasn’t a seated person but the image of a human footprint.

Pretty / Boston Strong

Picturing the Buddha as a walking rather than a sitting man is suggestive on many levels. Picturing the Buddha as a walking man reminds us that Buddhism isn’t primarily an idea; it’s a practice. What you believe isn’t as important as how you live: do you walk the walk? As an awakened man, the Buddha was fully engaged in the world: he wasn’t as unmoving and aloof as his statues would suggest. If you want to follow the Buddha’s teachings, you needn’t pay lip service to anything he said; instead, follow in the footsteps of what he did.

Warhol RIP

It’s significant that the cornerstone summation of the Buddha’s teaching is known as the Eightfold Path. A path is something you have to walk: a path is useless if you don’t use it. The Eightfold Path tells you how to live an enlightened life if you are willing to take the steps to get there: looking at or merely thinking about the path will get you nowhere. You have to put one proverbial foot in front of the other if you want the Eightfold Path to be efficacious.

B&W

Walking demands balance: if you are lopsided or top-heavy, laden down with worries and obsessions, you won’t be able to walk well…but the very act of walking will help you find balance, your wobbly steps gradually becoming more stable and assured. The Eightfold Path is often represented by the eight spokes of the Dharma wheel, each spoke balanced in turn. A one- or two-spoke wheel won’t get you very far, so you need to walk the fine line between excess and abstention: a just-right state the Buddha called the Middle Way. It is by walking the way of the eightfold path that you find your own inner balance.

Create more, consume less

The Buddha’s footprint is evocative of many things. A footprint is grounded, and it is also balanced. A footprint marks a journey, and it marks the incremental steps from “here” to “there”: a journey of a thousand miles, the saying goes, begins with a single step. People who fly, float, or otherwise transcend the earthbound world don’t leave footprints: only people who take things one step at a time do. Walking upon two even feet replicates the repetitive coupling of inhalation and exhalation: a two-beat routine that will take you wherever you need to go, and every place in between.

Ajar

Early depictions of the Buddha don’t feature or fixate on his face, for the Buddha could be Anyman. By the scandal of particularity, the historical Buddha was a particular person born to a particular family in a particular clan in a particular tribe. By the scandal of particularity, the historical Buddha was an Indian prince born to a life of ease…but anyone, anywhere, can wake up. If you fixate on Buddha’s face, you might think he is different from you: a person of a different time, tribe, or personality. But if you contemplate the Buddha’s footprint, you realize this is a path you too can walk. The focus isn’t so much who you are as where you are going, and how.

Wall at Central Square

How might we live our life? This is the question underpinning the Buddha’s teaching, particularly the concept of the Eightfold Path. We do not set out to perfect ourselves through conscious striving for this goal; instead, we ramble and wander, often unaware. But if we persevere in practice, continually bring our mind back to this present moment (the ground under our very own feet), we gradually attain the grace the Buddha himself described. By following in the Buddha’s footsteps, we come into a right and well-aligned relationship with the world.

After dark

Footprints mark the spots at which a particular person touched the earth. A celestial or purely cerebral person doesn’t leave footprints; only people who are down and dirty, grounded in the actualities of life do. The Buddha’s footprint reminds us not to be too ethereal or too pure. Like a lotus flower rooted in mud, we lead lives that are silted in the nitty-gritty details of mundane life. Without our feet planted on the earth, we can’t reach, strive, or grow.

Bee on sunflower

Yesterday J and I went to Arnold Arboretum to walk and take pictures: a change from our original plan to go to the Museum of Fine Arts. We changed plans partly because the Red Sox played a day game yesterday—the T from Newton is always packed with Red Sox fans on game days—and partly because yesterday was the last day for the MFA’s popular Samurai exhibit, and we had no desire to fight last-minute crowds queuing to see an exhibit we’d seen back in April. But more than anything, yesterday was a clear, sunny, and mild summer day, and it seemed a shame to waste even a moment of it inside.

Rose mallow

We weren’t alone in our thinking, as the arboretum was alive with picnickers, dog-walkers, and families with strollers. There were children on scooters and children learning to ride bicycles, including one little girl whose pink training wheels lay on the side of the road, castoff, while she walked astride her bike, standing on two feet and crying, afraid to take the next step of actually sitting on the bike and pedaling. “You’re doing great,” I remarked as J and I walked by, figuring every little bit of encouragement would help. It’s a scary step to go from the known stability of training wheels to the wobbly uncertainties a grown-up bike: what felt like an exhilarating rush when you rode with training wheels feels like pure recklessness—far too fast and far too wobbly—when you’re riding without.

Hydrangea

I’ve never taught a child how to ride a bike, but I sometimes feel like I’m doing something similar with my literature and writing students, who sometimes cling to the known security of how they used to write papers back in high school (for my undergraduates) or back in their undergrad days (for my grad students). If you’re comfortable riding with training wheels, trying to ride a bike without them seems a lot less fun, given how much attention you have to pay to things like balance and speed and steering. But once you’ve faced (and cried your way through) the transition to a grown-up bike, you’d never dream of going back, part of the thrill of riding being the way your body eventually finds its own automatic equilibrium. Where once you had to think about steering, eventually your bike seems to know automatically where you want to go, and it goes there.

Golden Rain Tree

This is, ultimately, the place I’d like my lit and writing students to arrive: a place where making an argument—having something to say and then saying it—comes naturally, automatically, the pen on the page (or the fingers on the keyboard) naturally expressing the thoughts in mind. There is a beautiful fluidity in riding a bike or writing a well-argued essay, but balance doesn’t come by accident. Instead, you have to weave and waver and wobble before you can ride (or write) a straight, sensible line. Pedaling a grown-up bike takes a lot of practice, and so does crafting a mature essay. At first you rely heavily upon your training wheels, and eventually you cast them off, the experience of wobbling and even falling being the only way you can learn to trust the equilibrium of your own inner ear.

Click here for more pictures from the Arnold Arboretum: enjoy!

Asiatic dayflower

Anyone who is a teacher, child, or parent knows that August marks the beginning of the end of summer. August is bittersweet because you know the end is coming: you see the ads for back-to-school, and you become vaguely aware of the shortening of days, your nighttime forays to catch fireflies ending earlier and earlier even though you aren’t yet bounded by school-night bedtimes.

Feather on leaf

August marks the beginning of the end because the natural world can continue its unbridled fecundity only so long: the natural world can’t continue summer’s frenetic pace indefinitely. August heralds the end of summer because the sounds of insects—cicadas and crickets alike—grow louder, faster, and more insistent, and there is a limit to how emphatic even insects can sing. An object can spin increasingly faster for only so long: eventually a spinning top will spin itself out. August presages the end of summer because anything that spends itself with the unbridled fury of June and July can’t possibly last: as Robert Frost himself said, nothing gold can stay.

Day-lily

Last year from July into August, we watched a colony of bald-faced hornets build a papery nest in our back yard, beside the gate to our backyard dog pen. Even in July I knew that by winter, all but the queen would be dead, and the queen herself would burrow and hibernate underground. From July into August last year, we watched those hornets build and repair their nest with dogged persistence, reshaping and resurfacing it whenever summer showers stripped away entire sections. This time last year, I knew those hornets would die come winter, but what I didn’t know then was that they’d never make it until winter, growing so aggressive in September that we’d hire an exterminator to kill them in an instant, their once-precious nest left behind as an empty shell.

Bee on hydrangea

Human consciousness is both a blessing and a curse. Presumably animals do not know they are mortal; at least, this is what we tell ourselves. We humans, on the other hand, know our days are numbered, but we do everything in our power to deny and ignore that fact. And yet, any creature that devotes itself with one-pointed focus to the tending of its sister’s young—any creature that devotes itself with one-pointed focus to the storing of food for a winter that might never come, or for the nutrition of future young that might never be born—must have some sense of mortality, or at least of impending want, even if that creature’s end comes more quickly than anyone envisioned. No creature who is completely oblivious to impermanence would struggle so mightily to build, sustain, and defend, industry serving as a bulwark against extinction.

Memorial

Last night Leslee and I met after work to go walking at the Minute Man National Historical Park in Lexington. We picked the spot because it’s convenient and good for walking, with a big parking lot and long, shady trail—the so-called Battle Road—that wends its way through sun-dappled woods and stonewall-circled pastures.

Queen Anne's lace

If Leslee and I had met at the Minute Man on the weekend, we would have seen busloads of tourists visiting the sites of the American Revolution; instead, on a weeknight, we saw dog-walkers, joggers, and pairs of women, talking. The last time I walked at the Minute Man, I lent my cell phone to out-of-towners who were trying to locate relatives who had been patiently waiting at the North Bridge in Concord: right war, wrong parking lot. After those out-of-towners located their kin and I was leaving, I saw two Revolutionary re-enactors with muskets and tri-cornered hats chatting with a Lycra-clad fellow on a bicycle, a temporal mash-up the founding fathers could have never envisioned.

Queen Anne's lace

If you’re a visitor to New England, places like the Minute Man are hallowed sites where Something Important Happened; if you live in the greater Boston area, however, Minute Man is just another place to walk the dog. When you visit a museum, you hush and grow reverent, trying to imagine what things were like back then when history happened; when you live in a museum, on the other hand, you’re more concerned with the happenstance of today, like what you’re going to have for dinner.

Poison ivy

Years ago when I visited Gettysburg on a foggy summer morning, I remember seeing joggers, a fellow reading a newspaper in his car, and a family waiting for the Visitors’ Center to open. That particular assortment of people summed up that place for me. For the family, Gettysburg was an educational destination, a place where history lessons come alive. For the joggers and the man with the newspaper, Gettysburg is a quiet, calm place to get some exercise or take a break before heading to work.

Pretty pink flower

I suppose you could see these two mindsets as being at war with one another, the battle between tourists and locals being as deeply entrenched as that between redcoats and rebels. But the difference between those who see Minute Man as being a historical site and those who see it as a recreational one is temporal, not ideological. If you visit Minute Man to see the sites of the American Revolution, you revere the place because history happened here; if you visit Minute Man because it’s a lovely place to take a stroll, you value the place because history still happens here.

Lost shoe

What is history, after all, but the happenstance of yesterday viewed through the prism of days: surely those redcoats and rebels had dogs to walk, dinners to eat, and friends to catch up with. It’s an error, in other words, to think that past lives were somehow more pristine or pure than our own, enacted with hushed and reverent tones. Instead, history never stops happening, the stories of today simply layering-over the stories that happened before.

Click here for more photos from last night’s walk at the Minute Man National Park: enjoy!

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