Science Center

Today I drove to Framingham State for the English department’s annual retreat for first-year writing instructors: the first time I’ve been on campus in months. Every summer, the first-year writing retreat feels like a dry-run for the start of the semester: a reminder of what it’s like to get up early, scramble to get ready, and then commute to campus for morning classes. Soon enough, my teaching-day routine will be a once-again familiar habit, but today I felt like I was fumbling through a forgotten dance.

Ripening horse chestnut

I’ve taught at Framingham State long enough now that I recognize the grounds’ own seasonal cycle. There is a horse-chestnut tree I regularly pass on my way from the parking lot to my office, for example: in September when classes start, it will drop buckeyes, the culmination of the flowers that appeared as classes ended in May. On my office windowsill, I have a collection of dried horse-chestnuts I’ve gathered beneath this tree. During the early weeks of Fall semester, buckeyes emerge from their hulls round and shiny, but over the course of the term they shrivel into misshapen lumps and lose their sheen.

Ripening horse chestnut

I suppose this is a metaphor for the school year itself. The start of Fall semester is a round and shiny time when one’s supplies are new and ample, one’s intentions are strong, and anything seems possible. In time, the sheen of a new school year will fade and enthusiasm will wane and wither. But seeds aren’t designed to live on a windowsill forever. Buckeyes are built to be buried, and only then do they open and emerge into the infinite promise of tomorrow’s trees.

Popping up like mushrooms

Monday was a gray and damp day, with thick fog and misty drizzle in the morning. For the first time in a week, it was cool enough for the dog and me to walk to the Place of Pines and back. Few dog-walkers were out because of the threat of rain, and it was too cool for bugs.

Eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) fruit forming

There’s a solitary American wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) I see blooming every year near where the trail forks toward Puritan Road, just past Beethoven Street. Right now, this shrub is done flowering and is forming green fruit that will in time ripen to red and burst. I stopped to take photos of these fruit in formation, but it was difficult given the paleness of the hanging globes and the lack of a contrasting background.

Solitary ghost pipe

I also photographed a solitary ghost pipe (Monotropa uniflora). It was odd to see just one blooming, as they usually grow in clumps. But I know now to look for others: if there is one blooming, there are presumably more, and the first appearance of ghost pipe always comes as a surprise, a reminder that it is later in the year than I think.

Mostly, these moist and steamy days are good for fungus and fern. There is a sensitive fern spontaneously sprouting by our back door, and dead stumps along the Aqueduct Trail are frilled with shelf fungus. Today there is a stand of mushrooms where there were none yesterday: a bit of fungal magic brought about by weeks of almost-tropical humidity.

Lime Bikes

Dockless bike-sharing has come to Newton, Massachusetts, which means our neighborhood is dotted with eye-popping green and yellow LimeBikes that people can rent via a smartphone app and then leave anywhere, with no need to return to a central location.

Needham Street Lime Bikes

When the city’s LimeBikes were first deployed, they were seemingly everywhere, prominently placed in front of stores, banks, and City Hall: anywhere people are likely to congregate. Now that people have been (presumably) riding them, the bikes are less visible. Instead of being parked in prominent packs, they now have scattered singly: a bike here and there, parked in front of houses or at residential intersections where riders have left them for their next hire.

Needham Street Lime Bikes

This means my daily dog-walks and routine errands have turned into a kind of Easter egg hunt: where, in a word, will I spot another Limey?

Although it’s been years since I’ve ridden a bike, I used to ride regularly. When I lived in Cambridge in the 1990s, my then-husband and I didn’t have a car, so my chief modes of transportation were my own two feet, the T, and my bike. Back then, I was young and fearless, riding in Cambridge traffic with nothing but a helmet and my own confidence to protect me.

Avalon Lime Bikes

These days, I wince whenever I drive past a cyclist, their bodies seeming so fragile and small. But I remember from my biking days that my sense of personal space was different then: as long as I could find an open area to maneuver my bike and myself, I felt shielded from larger, more lumbering vehicles, zipping in between cars and looking out for my own safety since I (accurately) assumed no one else was looking out for me.

City Hall Lime Bikes

Part of me would love to hop on a LimeBike: is it true when they say you never forget how to ride? But my older, creakier, more settled and sturdy self observes that I don’t have a helmet nor a definite destination: I have no need, in other words, to ride a bike when I can either drive or walk anywhere I’d like to go.

Hyde Playground Lime Bike

Recently, LeBron James explained how having a bike changed his life when he was a poor kid growing up in Akron, Ohio: “If you had a bike, it was a way to kind of let go and be free.” I remember the rush of freedom I felt when I was old enough to ride my bike to the library, pool, or even a movie all by myself. Remembering that breezy freedom of being on two wheels, I wonder whether the sassy confidence of decades past would reappear as soon as I straddled a seat.

Skyline from Scioto Audubon Metro Park

It’s been over a week since I’ve written in my journal, and two weeks since I’ve posted here: busy days. The week before last, I had jury duty and ended up serving on a two-day trial, and this past weekend, I flew to Ohio to visit family.

Scioto River

Before and after any trip or commitment, there is the necessary work of prepping and debriefing. Before I leave, I hurry through long to-do list to make sure J and the pets have enough food, medication, and supplies to last while I’m gone, and after I return, there is laundry, unpacking, and yet more laundry.

Egret and distant blue heron

I arrived home from Ohio yesterday morning after my flight the previous evening was cancelled, and both yesterday and today have been devoted to re-entry. I’ve resumed the household chores J did while I was gone, and I’ve re-acclimated myself to the daily routine that had been interrupted.

Under the bridge

All day today I’ve felt like a fish that has breached the surface, flashed quickly in the alien air, and then splashed back into its liquid realm. The ordinary world with its regular routine of laundry and chores is where I live, so returning to it is like (literally) coming home.

The photos illustrating today’s post come from a quick walk at Scioto Audubon, a new-to-me Metro Park that skirts the Scioto River right near downtown Columbus, Ohio.

Pan with his pipes

I recently finished David Sedaris’s new book, Calypso, a collection of essays that was a perfect follow-up to Theft By Finding, which I’d read last year. Theft By Finding was a collection of journal entries, and the essays in Calypso make perfect sense when you remember that Sedaris isn’t just a comedic writer; he’s a long-time diarist.

Moss steps

Reviews of Calypso invariably point out that the book is darker than Sedaris’s previous books. Many of the essays feature the beach house that Sedaris and his partner, Hugh, buy in North Carolina and the vacations they spend there with Sedaris’s father and siblings. Essays set at the house Sedaris names the “Sea Section” often mention the death of his alcoholic mother decades before, the suicide of his sister Tiffany in 2013, and the inevitable embarrassments of aging.

Turtle fountain

This isn’t to say, however, that Calypso isn’t wickedly funny. What makes the book striking, in fact, is the manner in which Sedaris writes essays that are simultaneously funny, poignant, and honest without a hint of pity. This emotional fluidity makes perfect sense when I remember Sedaris’s journals. As a diarist, Sedaris has trained himself in the nonjudgmental art of keeping an account of all the intellectual and emotional detritus of his life.

Castor and Pollux

When you keep a journal, you keep track of whatever is on your mind: the profound stuff, the silly stuff, and everything in between. Keeping a journal is very much akin to the litter-picking Sedaris does while he walks the roadways around his home in Sussex: you notice and pick up everything. If you’re not used to walking for miles and picking up trash, it will leave you sore, but it’s just another day’s work if that’s what you’re in the habit of doing.

Turtle fountain

One of the things that makes David Sedaris funny is the way he doesn’t censor himself: whether he is saying something tender, rude, or self-deprecating, he makes a statement then moves on without justification or apology. This is, I’m convinced, a skill honed through long and regular journal-keeping. The mind is like a child’s corn popper toy, where colored balls pop and tumble inside a clear plastic dome. Pop, pop, pop come your thoughts, which are disparate and nonsensical, and the diarist’s hand simply records them, one by one, without stopping to explain or make sense of them.

Faun of summer

When you’ve trained yourself to sit with your corn-popper mind, you learn not to judge or reject: you simply record without shame or blame. You also learn to appreciate the beauty and even wisdom of randomness. Things don’t have to fit to get along, and disparate things can happily coexist. It is this tolerance for randomness–an absolute fearlessness about saying anything that comes to mind, even if it doesn’t fit or flow with whatever preceded it–that is the main genius of Sedaris’s work.

Faun of wine

I’m not suggesting, to be clear, that Sedaris’ essays aren’t consciously constructed and revised: it takes a good deal of craft to assemble and arrange just the right assortment of anecdotes, and this means knowing what to leave out as much as what to include and accentuate. But if you’ve never arranged a bouquet, you might think the flowers all need to match, whereas an experienced florist knows the value of complementary colors or an occasional splash of the unexpected.

Classical

If you’ve never sat down and watched your corn-popper mind tumble thoughts, you might not realize how humor complements pain and how a seemingly irreverent story can be particularly poignant if includes just a dash of sadness. Readers who aren’t writers might think that sad stories, funny stories, silly stories, and serious stories can’t and shouldn’t mix, but journal-keepers are long accustomed to the way the colors of the mind blur and swirl.

The most tragic stories aren’t necessarily the ones that are solely and unremittingly sad. One of the most poignant moments in Calypso, for instance, is a brief, passing mention Sedaris makes to the last time he saw his sister Tiffany before her suicide, when he directed a security guard to close the door in her face after she’d shown up unannounced at one of his readings.

Forest folly

Many writers would have been tempted to linger on this story, voicing regret or offering some sort of explanation. Sedaris, however, mentions the memory in passing and lets his readers decide what to do with it, the details of his life slipped like a live grenade into his reader’s pocket. Sometimes a serious topic is best approached slantwise, like a wisp of cloud troubling an otherwise sunny sky.

It's post time

Every time J and I go to Suffolk Downs, we assume it will be the last time we watch live racing there. Back in 2014, the track announced it would be closing, and every year since then it has hosted three weekends of live racing: just enough to qualify for funding from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

Bearly broke a sweat

This year, however, is truly the end of the road for Suffolk Downs. The investment group that bought the property is planning to redevelop it for housing and retail, and if Amazon chooses to locate its second headquarters in Boston, Suffolk Downs is the site the city proposed for that project.

Ahead by a head

Horse racing is a dying pastime: as long as a handful of racetracks feature live racing, people far and wide can place bets via simulcasting. J and I have never placed a bet at Suffolk Downs: we go there to see and photograph actual horses and have no interest in the crowds of gambling folk staring at screens inside.

Backstretch

In its heyday, Suffolk Downs was a swanky establishment: the place to be. Those days, however, are long past. The grandstand, betting concourses, and dining rooms are large, and the crowds for live racing are modest. Every time J and I go to Suffolk Downs, we remark on how clean but run-down it is: a carry-over from a time when people weren’t glued to their TV, computer, and smartphone screens.

Let's go

For me, Suffolk Downs will always represent a simpler time: not only the heyday of thoroughbred racing (the sport of kings!), but also the days when I was a horse-crazy girl living in a suburb with absolutely no horses. Going to Suffolk Downs is like taking my inner child to a candy store. Everywhere you look, there are shiny, pretty horses walking and trotting and galloping, the stuff of my childhood dreams.

Whoa there fella

They can (and will) bulldoze Suffolk Downs and build something new and more lucrative on this plot of prime real estate, but there’s at least one horse-crazy lady who will remember it for the four-footed animals who trod there.

Click here for my photo set of photos from this weekend’s trip to Suffolk Downs. The track will offer one more weekend of live racing in August, then it will close for good: happy trails!

Lounging with my fur-shadow

Our house doesn’t have central air, so during heat waves J and I hunker down in the rooms that have window AC units. Our bedroom, which doubles as my office, has an air conditioner, so Toivo and I have been spending a lot of time this week inside: me with my books, notebooks, and laptop, and Toivo with her chew bone and dreams of rabbits.