January 2004


Reggie in the snow, Jan 30, 2004

One of the reasons for having a blog is that it forces you to write; one of the reasons for having a dog is that it forces you to walk. Today the dog and I took our usual loop around the bike trail, a close-to-home place where Reggie can run off leash. The skies were a scattered patchwork of blue and gray, strewn with the heavy-bellied winter clouds I’ve grown to adore. Reggie ran ahead on the trail, sniffing, pawing, and peeing, at times sticking his entire face into the snow to get a deeper whiff of whatever delectable something lay dormant and buried below.

At the end of this particular stretch of bike path, where the trail meets the traffic of Eastern Avenue and we re-leash to walk toward home, stand a cluster of my mystery trees. I still haven’t identified these trees, which I first noticed back in September and which are planted ornamentally all over Keene. But named or not, my mystery trees have revealed a promising new side: today their twigs were tipped with fuzzy leaf buds, as gray and furry as miniature pussy-willows. On the way home from seeing this heartening sight, I heard a house finch singing rather than calling, just as several days ago I heard the chickadees and cardinals sing. If the trees are budding and the birds singing, can spring be far behind?

This past weekend my freshman Readings Conference teacher, Mary Sue Cave, passed away. I just sent the following remarks to my undergraduate advisor, Dr. David Hoch, so he can read excerpts at her memorial service tomorrow. I’m posting this here because none of you probably knew Mary Sue, but I wish that you could have. Her example proves that talented teachers can have a lasting impact on their students. Rest in peace, Mary Sue.

Mary Sue Cave was a remarkable teacher precisely because she never taught me anything. Mary Sue never told us what she thought a particular text meant, what she personally believed, or what we should think about any given topic. Try as we might, we never could “trick” Mary Sue into tipping her intellectual hand: the focus was always on what we thought a text was trying to say, not on what Mary Sue believed.

I was lucky: I had Mary Sue as my Readings Conference advisor for my entire freshman year. This was in 1987 when I was eighteen, happy to be away from home, and eager to rebel against everything I’d been raised to believe. Mary Sue must have sensed that I needed a little extra supervision, for as soon as she heard that I had changed my major from biology to English, she insisted on introducing me to Dr. Hoch, then the Chair of the English Department. In declaring that I needed to meet Dr. Hoch, Mary Sue steered the course of my academic career, but she did so in a typically non-commandeering way: my meeting Dr. Hoch was a simple necessity, so she promptly made the appointment. Mary Sue said it needed to happen, so it did: it was as natural as the sun rising in the morning.

Although I frankly can’t recall the topics of any of my readings conference papers, I remember that I always left my paper conferences feeling amazed: how had Mary Sue managed to find so many profound insights in a paper that I had duly pumped out the night before, as any other procrastinating freshman might do? How had she managed to get me to re-think not only my paper but the various “difficult” texts we’d discussed, and how did she manage to do this without ever TELLING me anything? Although I had heard, of course, of the Socratic method whereby instructors teach through questions, I had always imagined Socrates as being an aggressive trial lawyer, peppering his subjects with cross-examination. Mary Sue, on the other hand, was a master of the judicious pause: instead of grilling or prodding, she posed questions that gently invited us to think more deeply. Our readings conference class was a bright and rowdy bunch, yet Mary Sue governed with a light hand: she had an almost miraculous knack for asking questions that re-framed a given discussion, leading us to consider any given issue from a new and intellectually fruitful perspective. As someone who now has over 10 years of college teaching under my belt, I still look to Mary Sue’s example with amazement: I don’t know how she did it.

There was one time when Mary Sue came close to telling me what to do with my life, but in typical fashion her direction was more a provocative suggestion–the planting of a fertile seed–than a direct admonition. Having been raised Catholic, I was thrilled when our Readings Conference class read Martin Luther: I loved the boldness of a man who dared to split the Church asunder in the name of Biblical truth. When I met with Mary Sue to talk about a paper I’d written on Luther, I shared my evangelical zeal for Luther’s red-blooded interpretation of the Gospel: like Luther, I declared, I was going to leave the Catholic Church! Mary Sue paused and nodded–she always paused and nodded, no matter how hair-brained a point one of her students made–and advised me to wait.

Wait? Why? Martin Luther hadn’t waited, I must have argued: Martin Luther acted, and so should I, intending to nail my own version of the 95 Theses on my family’s door!

Mary Sue then related a story from her own youth, a story whose precise details I’ve now forgotten. But I remember that she too at one point had wanted to convert from one religion to another, but a trusted friend had advised against it, arguing that it would be too traumatic for her family. And then Mary Sue made a gentle suggestion that made no sense to me at the time but which turned out to be remarkably prescient:

“The Catholic Church is home to a rich mystical tradition that you someday might want to explore.”

At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about. I didn’t know what “mysticism” was, and I certainly had no knowledge of the Catholic Church’s mystical tradition. And in true-to-form fashion, Mary Sue didn’t TELL me that I should learn about Catholic mysticism, nor did she inundate me with books I should read or ideas I should explore. Instead, she simply planted the seed of a suggestion: don’t do anything drastic because in time you might want to explore something you’ve hitherto overlooked.

And of course, Mary Sue was right. Some 15 years later, I’m finishing a PhD in English literature, and for one of my comprehensive areas I studied the writings of English medieval mystics. I didn’t end up studying texts such as The Cloud of Unknowing because Mary Sue told me to; instead, in the shadow of her gentle guidance, I eventually found my own way through my own unknowing cloud.

I personally don’t believe that heaven is a place where harp-strumming believers float on clouds, but I’d like to think that Mary Sue is in a better place. In my mind, I envision a long conference table where Mary Sue is leading a conversation with the thinkers she admired: in my mind’s eye, I see Plato there, and Jesus, and Luther and Descarte. Great thinkers all, they’ve never met the likes of Mary Sue: without any sting of confrontation, they each are feeling the intellectual stretch of her beautiful, gentle questions. Mary Sue, we all here sorely miss you, but as we remember, we all are sitting here, like you did, pausing and nodding.

According to this site, even a surface perusal of my blog reveals me to be “cool” and “new agey.” Well, shucks…I guess y’all found out my hidden “cool” side (although I’m not so sure about the “new agey” part). Does this mean I was less cool (and potentially more “old agey) before I started this blog?

And while we’re talking links, check out this site. Apparently my entry on campaign signs (along with Kathleen’s entry over at Unsettled) caught the eye of someone at a signage company. Does this mean that a lucrative corporate sponsorship of “Hoarded Ordinaries” is right around the corner?

Keene Industrial Heritage Trail

Here’s a side of New Hampshire you won’t see on the primary night news coverage: the back side. This is the Keene Industrial Heritage Trail, the official name for the bikepath that wends along the abandoned railroad bed not far from my apartment. If you walk about a mile down this trail, you’ll end up at Depot Square in downtown Keene; back in October, we saw Howard Dean grip-and-grinning his way down Main Street near Depot Square. I walk the dog nearly everyday along this trail, but I’ve never seen any sort of candidate campaigning here; today as on any day, this far-flung portion of the Industrial Heritage Trail is off the political beaten path, far from weary-eyed candidates and sign-waving out-of-staters.

Chris and I voted early this morning at a nearby school. There is something cheering about elections. Apart from the obvious swell of patriotic pride that voting inspires, I love the simple civic-mindedness of the folks, mostly volunteers, who tend voting places. I am heartened by the commitment of folks who willingly spend the day checking names off registration lists, filling out paperwork with first-time voters, or showing people how to put their ballot into a scanning machine unused since last November.

Since Chris and I have never voted in Keene, we had to register at the polling site. The pair of women who helped us were jovial as they asked various required questions: place of birth, last place where we’d been registered, etc. We’d brought documentation to prove our address here in Keene, but we still had to sign a sworn affidavit claiming a New Hampshire domicile. As Chris and I raised our hands and repeated the official words declaring that we live in New Hampshire, in Keene, at the address we’d given on the forms, I joked with the two election workers: “When else except today do you get to use the word ‘domicile’ in casual conversation?”

On our way out of the polling site, we passed a strategically-placed PTA bake sale. It was early, so the pickings were good; we bought a donut and a cookie for grand total of 50 cents. “Keep the change,” Chris said as he handed a dollar bill to the PTA member working the goodie-laden table; she seemed thrilled to have made a whopping 50-cent profit. It strikes me as odd that these two vital activities–voting and caring for schools–are tended by volunteers: in this, the world’s greatest nation, we seem to have our priorities backward, relying on cookies and donuts to subsidize our children’s education and asking unhired guns to preside over the selection of our Commander in Chief.

Perhaps this is the real backside of Keene, the truly unbeaten path. For good or ill, the things that really matter are the province of the dedicated few who give enough of a damn to do their job whether the rest of the world, peering through TV cameras and listening through boom-mikes, notices or (after tomorrow) cares.

Kathleen at unsettled has posted a great picture of the sign-waving campaign supporters who took over the Keene town square this past weekend. Go over and check out a great glimpse of our local color… (You’ll want to click on her picture to view an enlarged version.)

John Edwards

Last night we went to hear John Edwards speak before one of two packed houses here in Keene. I found Edwards to be articulate, sincere, and likable. His vision of citizens working together to bridge the gap betwen the “two Americas” was inspiring, a welcome change from the usual cynicism. In comparing his hope for America to the optimism of both FDR and JFK, Edwards didn’t sound arrogant: instead of boasting of his own accomplishments, he pointed time and again to the promise of the American people. Although he didn’t have time to answer formal questions, a crowd of people pressed forward at the end of his speech; as Chris and I left the building, Edwards was pressing the flesh and looking eminently presidential.

And need I say that Edwards is remarkably good-looking, too? Even Chris agrees, as did various women we overheard in last night’s crowd. Yep, that’s a fine looking man: this photo doesn’t do him justice.

Last night I was too wakeful to sleep but too tired to work, so I began re-reading pages from my hand-written journal, the first step toward writing my next issue of Pedestrian Thoughts. In the process I came across the following paragraph, written on January 1, that I think directly relates to blogging:

    I’m reading Nigel Nicolson’s biography of Virginia Woolf, and at several points he notes how voluminously VW wrote, maintaining heavy correspondence and keeping a journal in addition to all the essays, review, and novels she produced. And in all this, Nicolson writes, Woolf rarely repeated herself, rarely borrowed a line from a letter to flesh out an essay or vice versa. And so the joy of Woolf’s incredibly fresh prose–the sense that words spontaneously flow from mind to pen without any sort of restraint or intermediation–seems corroborated by this fact: Woolf’s writing was indeed fresh because her mind itself was supple and ever active, never wanting for ideas or inspiration because it simply received then recorded spontaneous thought and experience like a raw nerve.

Ever since I began keeping a hand-written journal in high school, I’ve worried about pumping the well dry: what do you write about when you run out of ideas? This fear grew stronger when I started writing my Pedestrian essays, then it grew even more when I started keeping this blog: if I keep writing, writing, writing, at what point will I run out of ideas? At what point will readers notice that I’m repeating myself, rehashing the same old themes over and over?

Nicolson’s comment about Woolf was heartening. Although Woolf was gifted with a genius beyond mine, it’s encouraging to think that even she couldn’t run the well of creativity dry: the more she wrote, the more had to write about. Elsewhere in his biography, Nicolson (the son of Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s friend and sometimes lover) mentions how Woolf once asked him and his brother to recount the precise details of their morning: what kind of light streamed through their bedroom window when they first awoke; which sock did they put on first when dressing, the left or the right? “It was a lesson in observation,” Nicolson writes, “but it was also a hint: ‘Unless you catch ideas on the wing and nail them down, you will soon cease to have any.'”

I can only imagine what Virginia Woolf’s blog would have looked like had she kept one; in my own private dream-world, I envision Woolf and Emily Dickinson, two of my favorite fertile minds, living together somewhere in a land where both could write and blog unmolested, in a society that could fully appreciate and support female minds of their ken. In the meantime, I’ll trust that blogging is one way of catching then pinning ideas on the wing; the more you capture or at least chase, the more come flying your way, willlingly and even joyously flinging themselves into your net of words.

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