Mannequins thinking of spring

This morning for the second Sunday in a row, I woke up early, did my morning chores, then drove to the Cambridge Zen Center, where I meditated for one session before heading to Harvard Square, where I wrote my morning journal pages over a small cup of Burdick’s dark hot chocolate.

Respect art / Not art

Sitting one rather than four Sunday morning meditation sessions means your practice is necessarily concentrated. You can’t space out for minutes at a time, figuring you’ll pay attention later. Knowing you have only thirty minutes to sit following your breath, you pay close attention to every minute, saving nothing for “later.”

This, in my experience, is the difference between living at a Zen Center and simply visiting. When I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, I quickly grew accustomed to the mundane nature of Dharma room practice, taking it for granted and not paying as close attention over time. When you live in a Zen Center, it’s easy to show up in body but not fully in mind. When you drive in from the suburbs to sit a brief half hour, on the other hand, you take care to pay close attention to that time, recognizing it as a precious respite in a sea of hurry.

Outside Warby Parker

A cup of dark hot chocolate is like this too. Burdick’s chocolate is rich, intensely flavored, and delivers a day-long buzz: a whole day of energy in one small cup. If I lived next door to Burdick’s, I might take it for granted, growing too accustomed to a mid-morning pick-me-up. Instead, a concentrated cup of dark chocolate is an occasional reward I give myself on those Sundays when I get up early and go to the Zen Center as planned: a good start to a new week, capped with something strong and just a little bit sweet.

Burdicks

This morning after sitting a single session at the Cambridge Zen Center, I slipped out of practice and walked to Harvard Square, where I treated myself to a small dark hot chocolate, just as I did several weeks ago on my birthday.

Reflective self portrait

This time, I brought a full-size notebook, tucking it in my purse so I could sit alongside the anonymous women of Cambridge: young women in pairs, chatting, and middle-aged women like me, shrouded in invisibility as we sit writing or reading over our solitary beverages. Early on a Sunday morning, men seem to venture into Burdicks only briefly to purchase coffee or chocolates to go, or they hurry in to join a wife or daughter after having accomplished the manly work of parking the car.

This, I’ve decided, is one of the key differences between women and men in our culture. Women willingly go places alone, sit alone, and are perfectly content to be left alone as long as they have a book, magazine, or notebook to occupy themselves. Men, on the other hand, need women to accompany them. A man needs a woman to pull him out of his isolation, to drag him into chocolate shops he’d never venture into on his own, and to make introductions and small talk and niceties. A man needs a woman (in other words) to do the emotional labor of socializing.

Letter writing

A lone woman–particularly a lone woman of a certain age–embraces her invisibility; she cherishes it, in fact, after so many years of being the object of others’ eyes. A man, on the other hand, needs a woman on his arm–the younger and prettier the better–to become visible, to be noticed, to make both an entrance and an impression. A lone man loitering is a threat–an object of suspicion–but a lone woman slips unobtrusively under the radar. The proverbial fly on the wall was, I am certain, female. Who better to observe and record the actions of others than a creature who is small, insignificant, and overlooked: a mousy creature, not a preening peacock.

Chocolate pigs??

There are, of course, exceptions; the differences I’ve outlined between women and men are, after all, conditioned, not innate. When I first arrived at Burdicks this morning, there was a young man sitting alone at a table across from me. Before I could wonder whether he was waiting for a wife or girlfriend, however, this young man pulled out a camera: a large SLR with a fancy lens that served to justify his presence. Snapping a shot of the delicate, dangling lights overhead–the same lights I’d surreptitiously shot with my phone, with no fancy lens necessary–this young man promptly packed his expensive camera into his backpack and left: mission accomplished.

Journal pages

When I chose a table this morning, I didn’t sit alongside this man or at the row of empty tables near him; instead, I squeezed into a single table between two lone women, one on either side. The ways that women and men behave in public are conditioned, not innate, but they are conditioned deeply. Men take up space with their backpacks and large cameras, and women (especially those of a certain age) shrink into the spaces between, our invisibility a silent, secret strength that allows us to see.

Plowed

We got a few dense inches of snow overnight, topped by intermittent freezing rain throughout the day. Weather forecasters measure snow by depth, but that is misleading: deep snow is typically light and fluffy, and even a few inches of wet snow is much more bothersome.

Sleet on burdock

Weight would be the most helpful measure of any given snowfall: how much does a bucket left out overnight weight by morning’s light? Over time, heavy snow settles into a shallow sludge that is difficult to shovel. Throughout the day today, I could hear snowblowers in all directions as J and various neighbors worked to clear as much as they could before tonight’s plunging temperatures. Any of today’s slop not cleared away will freeze brick-hard overnight.

Sleet on sleek

This morning after walking Toivo, I finished Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink, a thick brick of a novel. After initially enjoying the book, I faltered in the middle, getting bogged down in the history of Sephardic Jews in seventeenth century London, and at times I lost patience with the two modern scholars–one at career’s end, the other in graduate school–who gradually piece together the story of Ester Velasquez, a Jewish scribe whose story is hidden in a trove of old manuscripts found in a mansion.

Sleet on snow

Scholarship can be a tedious slog, like walking in ankle-deep snow, and the academy is an often-toxic place, full of backstabbing and politicking. The Weight of Ink captures all of that, but ultimately it was Ester’s story–her curious mind and her rebellious spirit, both dangerous in an era when women weren’t encouraged to be scholars and free-thinking was denounced as heresy–that pulled me through the book to its moving conclusion, where life and the desire for continuance prove stronger than the presumed virtues of martyrdom.

Nowadays, women like me are free to write and study as much as we’d like–no societal scorn or hidden inquisitions can silence us–and there is nothing weightier on my mind today than the sizzle of sleet falling on winter window panes.

Babson redtail

The best time of day for writing is the early morning, before the rest of the world is awake–but the next best time is long after dark, when the earth herself is leaning toward sleep. On a cold winter’s night, you can almost hear the darkness, the hush of your neighbors tucked into their houses entirely different from the sound of midday, when cars zoom and dog-walkers pass.

Don't tell me I'm the only one who takes pictures like this to find my car.

The worst time to write is afternoon, when the world is restless and your body weary. A writer should ideally be awake when others are sleeping, or watchful while others are oblivious. In the afternoon, the eyes of the world are casting about, hungry, and my own eyes feel heavy. Better to wait until one’s soul is completely depleted, spent with the exertion of the day, because then you come to the page empty-handed and defenseless, your first-thoughts bleeding onto the page without impediment. In the early morning and late evening–before dawn or after dark, when others are asleep in the beds or mesmerized by their own distant, private pursuits–you come to the page raw and without pretense, your guile stripped away by the sheer exertion of being.

Babson College

This open-eyed, undefended perspective–this stance of standing like a bare nerve, ever-sensitive and reactive, watchful and incapable of fleeing–is how I picture May Oliver, writing, her poetry offering a clear mirror into truths that anyone with open eyes could see, but which are so rarely recognized. Oliver had a gift of observation, which means she had a firm grasp of the obvious–a phrase that sounds like an insult but is the highest praise. Most of us fool ourselves by clamoring after the remarkable and spectacular, thereby missing the all-abiding wonder that is our miraculous hand right in front of our ever-wonderous nose.

These are the words that poured out tonight when I sat down belatedly to write my daily journal pages. In the morning, I attended a faculty retreat at Babson College, where someone recalled a colleague who often used the phrase “a firm grasp of the obvious” to pooh-pooh the presumably pedestrian observations of his co-workers: an indirect insult. After I’d heard of poet Mary Oliver’s passing today, however, the phrase took a different meaning in my mind.

Oonas

Today I’m finally getting around to the mundane task of shelving the past few years’ worth of Moleskine notebooks. Every time I fill a notebook with journal entries, I add it to a pile in my closet, and when that pile starts to loom too ominously, I take each notebook, use a silver Sharpie to write the relevant dates on the spine, and then shelve it alongside its fellows.

Worth a shot

Today’s closet pile contains the ten notebooks I’ve filled since July, 2015. When I shelve my journals, I occasionally dip into a random entry or two to see what I was doing or thinking at any given point in my past. (Spoiler alert: the things I was doing on any random day in 2015, the year after, or the year after that are largely the same as what I did yesterday or today. The more the dates on the calendar change, the more human nature and a thing called karma stay the same.)

And so on Saturday, November 21, 2015, I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which I had mixed feelings about:

Art, etc.

I don’t buy Gilbert’s glowing talk of magic, but I agree with what she says about permission. It is too easy to fall into the trap of seeking either permission or legitimacy rather than simply doing what you do because you enjoy doing it.

The only thing keeping me blogging all these years is the fact I enjoy it, and the only thing that’s kept me teaching all these years (even in the face of perpetual disappointment) is the fact I can’t picture myself doing anything else. In some cases, it pays to be stubborn, just keeping one’s head down doing one’s thing because that’s how you work–slowly and gradually, like water wearing away stone.

My life’s work of blog and journal entries has grown like a stalagmite, each drop gradually growing the thing incrementally. You can’t see the progress–it’s too slow for that–but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Enter only

Three years and a couple months after writing those works, they still ring true. I’m still stubbornly journaling, blogging, and teaching even though none of those activities have led to consistently full-time employment: I just journal, blog, and teach because these are the things I do. The motivation is both internal and intrinsic: if I weren’t writing and teaching, I don’t know what else I’d do with myself. So page by page, day by day, I build up a stack of notebooks that gather dust on my shelves: a life in handwritten lines.

Dog walk shadows

After more than a quarter century living in New England, I’ve realized some inexorable truths. The day after a snowstorm is almost always sunny, and the most bitterly cold days often have the clearest, bluest skies.

Dog walk shadows

This morning when I walked Toivo, it was seventeen degrees: a temperature that felt brutally cold at the time, but I’ve lived in New England long enough to know there will be days when temperatures in the double-digits will feel warm. But today felt colder than usual, so I wore my longest, fluffiest down coat, and the dog and I kept moving.

It was bright and brisk, and I didn’t wear a ballcap or sunglasses: I just squinted into the glare, knowing that light more than warmth is the thing I crave in midwinter. Even the most bitterly cold days are bearable if the sun is beaming from a turquoise-blue sky; the winter days that crush your soul aren’t the cold ones but the gray ones.

Birthday treat

Last weekend I turned 50, a milestone I somehow never thought I’d reach. Turning 50 isn’t a remarkable task–given enough time, anyone could do it–but somehow I never imagined it happening to me.

Burdicks

When I was younger, being 50 is something I never (literally) pictured. As a child, I could readily envision myself in high school, college, and young adulthood. I could picture myself in my 20s and 30s, when I imagined I’d have long, disheveled hair and legs that would stride tirelessly through woods and streams, stomping fearlessly through mud and briars. But I never imagined myself as middle-aged, settled, and settling. Back then, I never imagined I’d transform into a gray-haired, thick-middled woman in a pink coat and gray beret, the kind of unremarkable older woman you might pass on the street without really seeing. I could if I really tried imagine myself as a white-haired and wiry old lady, but not as gray and middling.

Reflective self portrait

Thirty years ago when I was an undergraduate, I took a group singing class for non-music majors that I’ve since insisted was the most useful class I took in college. In that class, I had to stand in front of my peers and sing unaccompanied, including at least one opera song in Italian. This class is where I first learned about the passaggio. All singers–especially sopranos like me, my teacher said–have a low voice and a high voice, but the trickiest voice is the passaggio, the voice in the middle where the low tones in your chest meet the high falsetto in your head.

Reflective self portrait

My voice teacher was a rail-thin sliver of a man, but he physically transformed when he sang, standing up taller and emitting a big, booming voice that seemed to come from the center of the earth. After alternating between his thin, unremarkable speaking voice and his rich, deep singing voice, my teacher explained that mastering the passaggio was the secret to becoming a good singer. If you weathered the passaggio, he explained, you could link your high voice to your low voice to create one seamlessly connected voice that swelled effortlessly from low to high without any squeaks, croaks, or cracks.

Reflective self portrait

When you shift from low voice to high, he explained, your throat–your whole body–does all sorts of weird things. Your voice sounds squeaky and shrill. You think this voice sounds bad because it is unusual to your ear: it’s not the speaking voice you’ve grown accustomed to. Even though you’re singing from your own body–where else, exactly, could you sing–the passaggio is a place you might not ever explore.

“Put your hand on my shoulder,” my teacher would say as he sat at the piano and switched from his soft speaking voice to his infinitely rich baritone. He wanted all of us–a half dozen non-musicians in a one-credit pass/fail elective–to feel the physical change. “Your whole body is an instrument,” he’d insist, and yes, you could feel something shift in his shoulder as he went from slack-spined and insipid to upright and energized: Clark Kent transformed into Superman.

Burdicks

I am, at age 50, weathering a different sort of passaggio. Being 50 is physically weird. Your body becomes alien, with new aches and pains, less flexibility, and diminished energy. Fatigue becomes a kind of friend–a phenomenon you know right down to your bones–and so do disappointment and resignation. If you are a woman, your alien body will surge with heat, sweat, and restless, abundant energy as you lie abed, pondering life, the universe, and the eternally vexing question of whether you locked the back door.

Although I was (and am) an unremarkable singer, my college voice teacher did walk me through the passaggio once. Usually, he let us choose our preferred register for whatever song we decided to sing in front of the class: the whole reason I opted for this elective, after all, was to force myself to sing in front of strangers, figuring the experience of taming my nerves would be good practice for teaching. (I was right.) But occasionally, my teacher would choose a key on the piano and ask us to sing it, turning us the other way so we couldn’t see how low or high that note was.

My writing runs on chocolate

And so one day when he thought I was ready, my teacher did with me what I’d seen him do with other students: he asked me to do a warm-up exercise down low in my register, and then he gradually moved that exercise up, up, up the scale. After a half dozen steps, I started to waver, my voice feeling thin and squeaky. “If it doesn’t hurt, don’t stop,” he encouraged. “It sounds beautiful to the rest of us: keep going.” And when I reached the place where my voice finally cracked, he turned me around to the piano and showed me, there on the far right side of the keys, the impossibly high note I had reached. “If you don’t believe that’s the note you just sang,” he said, “just look at your classmates,” and indeed, they were all staring at me, amazed.

Although I never became a classical singer, what I learned from that one credit, pass/fail class was the courage it takes to stand in your own shoes, open your mouth, and trust with all your heart whatever sound comes out. At the still-strange age of 50, I’ve come to believe that in the middle of any passage, you won’t necessarily imagine what comes next; you just have to trust your body to work through its weirdness on the way to a pure, clear note.