2016 Boston Marathon

This coming week is the last week of classes, and I’ve been buried in student essay drafts. My first-year writing students have been writing essay drafts all semester, and I need to comment on those drafts before my students revise them for inclusion in their final portfolios. My students are always shocked to see in retrospect how much they’ve written over the course of the semester: when you write one paper (and one page) at a time, it’s easy to lose track of how many words you’ve produced.

2016 Boston Marathon

A college semester is a marathon, not a sprint. The only way to write a college essay is word by word, and that’s also the only way to read and comment on student essay drafts. For most of the semester, I drag my feet and do anything in my power to avoid my paper-piles, but during the last few weeks of the term, I turn into a paper-reading machine. Every year, I wonder why I assign so much writing; every year, I wonder why I went into English, a field where assigning and reading student papers is unavoidable. Whereas my students are shocked to realize how much writing they’ve done, the cumulative weight of their words comes as no surprise to me. The marathon that is a college semester is a course I’ve run many times before.

Click here for my complete photo set from this year’s Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

Marathon bombing memorial

This morning on my way to meet friends in Harvard Square, I stopped at Copley Square to visit the Boston Marathon finish line. Yesterday was One Boston Day–the anniversary of the 2013 Marathon bombing–and on Monday, I’ll watch this year’s race here in Newton, cheering the runners before they face Heartbreak Hill. Today, I wanted to visit the two spots on Boylston Street where three people died and hundreds were injured: a chance to pay my respects at a place simultaneously festive and somber.

Four crosses

There is no permanent memorial commemorating the Marathon bombing; instead, impromptu offerings of flowers, handwritten notes, and homemade crosses mark the two spots where pressure cooker bombs turned a festive event into a scene of mayhem. If you didn’t know that lives and limbs were lost in front of Marathon Sports and the former Forum Restaurant, you’d notice nothing remarkable about these two stretches of sidewalk. But if you know the hidden history of these sites, you recognize them as invisible portals between the Here and the Hereafter: two otherwise ordinary places where souls prematurely crossed to the other side.

Remember Martin Richard

Today when I arrived on Boylston Street, a 5K race had just finished, and throngs of people were watching an awards ceremony for the winners. Boylston Street was closed to vehicular traffic, and tourists posed for pictures at the finish line: a festive scene. This is the disconnect that will forever mark the Boston Marathon finish line: a site of both triumph and tragedy, the sidewalk here holds a hidden history of heartbreak.

Buddha and bird paperweight

After years of working and writing wherever my laptop might take me, I recently got myself a proper desk. I’ve had various desks and workspaces over the years, many of them makeshift, crowded, or otherwise less than ideal, but this is the first time I purchased a solid piece furniture for myself.

Henry in his new habitat

It’s funny I’ve waited so long to carve out a workspace in the house J and I share, as I’ve always been strongly influenced by my work environment. I’m something of a nester and like the feeling of having My Own Place to do my thing, whether that’s writing, reading, or tackling teaching tasks. Suddenly the simple act of adding a desk to one corner of our bedroom has consecrated that space, and I find myself wanting to sit at this pleasant place that is officially dedicated to my academic and creative work.

Home office guardian

As an inveterate piler, I have made a conscious effort not to turn my desk into another surface for stockpiling odds and ends. Instead, I’ve come to see my desk as a kind of intellectual altar, a place where I streamline my attention by allowing in view only those things I want to focus on.

On my desk are a short stack of library books, a mug with pens, a desk calendar, a soapstone Buddha, and a bird paperweight, each of which reminds me of the things I like to do. Overseeing this is a whimsical portrait of Henry David Thoreau I commissioned Bren Bataclan to paint: a visual reminder of an intellectual idol that reminds me to be simultaneously serious and playful, filled with the active engagement of a curious child.

Pen holder

So now when I sit down with a cup of tea and either my laptop or notebook, I have a clean, uncluttered space to contemplate: a place where I can spread out my books, papers, or whatever else I’m working on. Just as a Dharma room Buddha is a visual representation of the calm, compassionate focus we’d like to attain, my desk is a tangible reminder of the priorities and practices I’d like to cultivate.

Snowy magnolia

We’re at the point of the semester when I have little time to write: right now my paper-piles loom large, and there are emails to answer and classes to prep. My colleagues are similarly stressed–the typical college semester is emotionally grueling for both faculty and students alike–and while I know I’ll catch up with my grading and other teaching tasks eventually, I lament every moment of lost writing time.

Snow on forsythia

During busy times when I don’t have much time to write, I grow anxious and unsettled, fretting like a dog separated from her pups. Writing isn’t simply a job or pastime for me: it’s how I process my inner world. When I’m not writing, I’m not taking time to make sense of my life: writing even more than meditation is the keel that keeps me upright and centered.

These days when I do find time to show up at my notebook, I come to the page feeling scattered and disjointed: uninspired. After even a few days away from my journal, I’m rusty when I return, having forgotten the route a feeble, circuitous thought takes from brain to hand then onto the page.

Winter into spring

What works, I know, is to write everyday. When I’m writing regularly, my thoughts flow automatically onto the page, my writing hand serving like an extension of my brain and my pen another finger. When I’m writing regularly, filling pages is no problem, even when I think I don’t have anything to say. When I sit and place pen to paper, the words simply appear: the secret to writing, I’ve discovered, is simply to be there with pen in hand, ready for whatever appears.

There’s an old Zen story about a young orphan living in a lonely monastery. An old monk tells the boy that if he sits in front of a certain shoji screen, an ox will eventually appear. The initial admonition to wait for the ox is a trick to keep an antsy boy occupied, like telling a child to sprinkle salt on a bird’s tail. But after the boy sits a long and faithful vigil, an ox does indeed arrive, leaping through the screen and astonishing both the boy and elderly monk alike.

Snow magnolia

Writing journal pages is a bit like sitting in front of a shoji screen, waiting. For months on end, you see nothing inspiring; instead, you face an expanse of blank paper that seems as impenetrable as any brick wall. But one day when you’ve nearly given up all hope, the ox of inspiration charges through the paper and carries you away, amazed. You never know in advance when this moment will come, and this is why you spend many lonely hours with eyes open and pen in hand, waiting for the words appear.

Little Free Library

Today on my way home from an errand, I left books at two Little Free Libraries in Chestnut Hill (pictured here in August, when the world was both warmer and leafier). I’ve described before the sense of serendipity the Little Free Library in our neighborhood inspires: taking a book that a stranger left for anyone’s enjoyment feels like claiming a grace freely given. That grace, I’ve found, works both ways: leaving a book for someone you’ll never see feels expansive, a small act of kindness that opens your heart with a sense of abundance and generosity.

Little Free Library

Although I know full well the joy that comes from possessing a full-to-brimming bookshelf, giving books away creates a different kind of satisfaction. Giving a book to a stranger you’ll never see makes you feel both generous and amply blessed: only someone who has enough can happily share with no need for stinginess. When I leave a book at a Little Free Library, I imagine myself as setting it free to fly wherever it is needed. I like to imagine the person who will claim the book that was formerly mine: someone I hope will enjoy it as much as I did and who might even have enough abundance of heart to share it in turn.

First crocus

This election season has been filled with too much aggressively inflammatory rhetoric from a certain politician who wants to Make America Hate Again. According to said politician, America is a place that needs to wall itself in like a treasure-hoarding dragon, there not being enough Greatness to go around. When I hear the exclusionary hatred espoused by said politician, my fists clench with a miserly tightness: if there isn’t enough grace, then surely it makes sense to keep ourselves In and all the others Out.

But when I walk outside on an almost-spring day–when I see crocuses poking through the bare soil or tiny spots of green sprouting from seemingly dead twigs–I’m reminded that the world is amply abundant and not-at-all miserly. In the spring, green is a grace freely given, and in a nation that is truly great, so are acceptance, inclusion, and joy.

Bearded

Years ago, my former brother-in-law repeated a mantra he learned in the Marines that has stayed with me ever since. He called it the 6 Ps: “Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance.”

Modica way

Wikipedia lists other permutations of this adage, including the so-called 7 Ps of “Proper Planning and Preparation Prevent Piss Poor Performance,” but the six-word version is what I learned. Every Sunday, I spend a good part of the day preparing for the coming week, packing lunches and setting out not just one but five outfits, each coordinated down to the jewelry. On any given morning, I don’t have time to stand in front of my closet wondering what to wear, so it makes the day go more smoothly if I can simply jump in the shower, knowing that day’s outfit is at the top of the pile.

Tagged

Following the 6 Ps isn’t the most exciting way to spend a Sunday, but if a little preparation makes a hectic week go more smoothly, I’m all for it. When my Monday morning alarm goes off, it’s a relief to know I don’t have to think about packing a lunch, gathering my books, or doing anything else that requires an awake attention to detail. Instead, my teaching bag is ready to go, and all I have to do is show up for another whirlwind week.

Mugs and tea

This past year for Christmas, I asked J to buy me the same desktop radio and water boiler he has in his office: the radio for playing classical music while I work and the water boiler to provide a ready supply of hot water for tea. Yesterday, I completed my home office setup by adding some stacking mugs and a bamboo tea box to organize my supply of green and herbal teas: a simple addition that makes my home office more organized and visually appealing.

I type these words, I’m listening to classical guitar music while sipping a cup of pomegranate white tea, the simple addition of music and hot beverages making my home office much cozier and conducive to productivity. Controlling one’s environment is an important part of honing one’s habits, and I find myself more willing to spend hours at my desk working now that I have both music and hot beverages close at hand.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,260 other followers