April 2004

Skunk cabbage, Goose Pond, Keene, NH

Today’s Photo Friday theme is “Natural.” This clump of false hellebore (not skunk cabbage as I originally blogged) is sprouting along a creek leading into Goose Pond here in Keene. The dog and I went walking at Goose Pond yesterday–it’s only Natural that we’d go walking there or somewhere green since I had the day off from teaching–and when I saw clumps of green leaves sprouting along that creek, it was only Natural that I’d walk upstream for a closer look. Several days ago, you see, I’d responded to a comment left by Hank from if you see kay regarding a freshly sprouted clump of leaves I’d blogged. In that response, I’d mentioned that those leaves looked a little bit like skunk cabbage, so I must have had skunk cabbage on the brain when I saw these large, parallel-veined leaves. Skunk cabbages look a little bit like false hellebore this time of year, after they’ve finished flowering and have erupted into large green leaves, but that other plant looks nothing like either. So those other leaves I saw will remain a mystery until they get bigger, send up flowers, or do something else that would help me identify them.

Such mysteries, actually, are perfectly Natural. Even experienced botanists occasionally see plants they’re not familiar with, odd specimens that don’t quite match what the books say a particular species is “supposed to” look like. Ornithologists have it even worse than botanists since they are forced to identify creatures on the wing. For this reason, birders have various acronyms they use to describe their favored variety of Unidentified Flying Objects: LBJ, or “Little Brown Job,” describes any sort of nondescript, unidentifiable brown bird (sparrow, wren, autumn warbler) whereas BVD refers not to a brand of men’s underwear but to any bird whose elusiveness results in a “Better View Desired.” (Actually, “better view desired” might perfectly describe many ladies’ impression of male underwear…and that, Gentle Reader, is a trashy comment included herein for the express delectation of Kathleen from unsettled, who commented last night over margaritas that I don’t say enough trashy things in my blog. Critique duly noted: I’m much more trashy in person.)

Mystery tree, Keene State College, Keene, NH

While I’m on the subject of Natural mysteries, it’s only Natural that I remark that last summer’s notable mystery trees are now in bloom, and I still don’t know what they are. I know they’re in the rose family, related to flowering trees such as cherries and crabapples, but I’m no closer to having a definitive genus and species. Although in this photo, taken on the campus of Keene State College, the flowers look like cherry blossoms, last summer’s fruits were entirely un-cherry-like: small, dense, and multi-seeded, they looked like tiny greenish-brown crabapples. I’ve decided that these trees must be crabapples after all, I just don’t know what kind. And I guess I’ll settle for “some kind of crabapple” until I break down and visit the science department on campus and inquire after this tree, which is labeled with a number for easy reference. “What kind of tree is Number 174?” After I’ve been answered with a name, after this tree goes from Midsized Leafy Job to something definitely identified, the mystery will be ruined and with it part of this tree’s allure.

There’s something intriguing about mysteries. Keene State has earned a local reputation for mystery, actually, given the fact that one of its dormitories is reputed to be haunted. The fact that TV crews from the Travel Channel came all the way to Keene this week to investigate the dusty attic of Huntress Hall says something for our desire for mystery. Ultimately, the phrase “Better View Desired” might be my own personal mantra: if those letters didn’t have a better-known, trashier connotation, I’d ask that BVD be engraved on my tombstone, wherever and whenever there be a need for that. At the end of the day, a better view is always desired, another piece of the puzzle unveiled while the greater Mystery lies eternally unknown and alluring. Who wouldn’t, after all, reach the end of a life spent looking only to utter upon death’s-door, “I would have liked to have seen more”? It’s only Natural.

    Thanks to the Sylph for corrected my botanic faux-pas: what I thought was skunk cabbage is actually false hellebore, an extremely poisonous plant. Thank goodness for keen-eyed blog readers!

Home, Keene, NH

These days I haven’t had much time for walking, so I’ve been hunkering down close to home. All this week I’ve spent most of my days on campus, inside, so I cherish that handful of moments in the morning when the dog and I go outside and inspect the premises. This habit of standing in the yard while the dog sniffs and pees is something I picked up when we lived in Hillsboro and our “yard” was a mossy, wildflower-speckled patch that refused the term “lawn.” I found it oddly refreshing to stand outside for a spell just taking in the neighborhood, and that experience hasn’t changed now that we’ve exchanged a woodsy housing development for a more thickly settled college town.

Home has always been where you find it, and Chris and I have moved around quite a bit. In twelve years of marriage, we’ve lived in seven different towns in three different states; the longest we lived in any one place was the four years we lived in Hillsboro, our solitary stab at home ownership. In general, I hate moving: I hate the disruption to my beloved ordinary routine, hate the inevitable weeding out it entails. (After so many relocations, I can point to various books and CDs I have bought two, three, or even four times since every time we move I sell or give away a huge portion of my belongings, a choice I always ultimately regret.) Chris is and always has been the restless, wandering type; I am and always have been something of a routine-loving homebody. At the same time, though, I’ve always ended up loving, deeply, whatever place we’ve found ourselves, seeking out those secret spots of familiarity that hide virtually everywhere.

Home, Keene, NH

How very interesting, then, that several other bloggers have within the past few days grappled with this issue of place and our connection to it, a theme that I can’t seem to avoid. In some sort of cosmic convergence, Gary from Inkmusings has written several posts on the question of where we choose to find home while Andi from Overboard is contemplating the question of where to live (Korea or elsewhere, in a Zen Center or not) in several posts about priorities. The question of what to do with one’s life seems intrinsically and even necessarily linked with where one currently is and where one is ultimately headed. Although the motto “grow where you’re planted” has a certain ring of truth, we are in the end more ambulatory and more consciously sentient than plants. Unlike plants, we can and do decide to uproot and wander, and unlike plants we can and do exercise the power to choose where to set down our taproot.

Reading of Andi’s experiences as a single American woman teaching English in Korea always evokes in me a sense of what might have been: had I gone down a different path, I could be living that life, and I could live it still. Although I’ve always been something of a homebody, the thought of teaching overseas, of arriving somewhere with two suitcases and a passport, has a definite sense of allure, a fact that would probably surprise many who think they know me. Even now, Chris occasionally broaches the topic of us moving overseas: what would it be like, for instance, if I got a teaching assignment abroad and he could study and play early music in those very places where it was conceived? And yet despite my own what-if musings, I always hesitate when this idea is introduced: there is so much here, so much now, that gets in the way of such wide-ranging geographic speculations.

Home, Keene, NH

Gary is right in noting that it’s all about choices: as Andi likewise notes, it’s about having the independence both to make and to act upon one’s decisions. Deciding where to live or when to move is a hugely personal choice; in the context of marriage, such decisions are hugely complicated. The part of me that recoils from the “where do we live next” conversation is recoiling in large part from the give-and-take of deciding, the inevitable tension that results when two separate sets of what-if’s confront and collide. What happens when one person wants to live in the city and the other wants to live in the country, or one person wants to live in the States and the other wants to travel abroad? Apart from some Green Acres scenario, something’s gotta give. In past moves, I’ve felt a certain sense of being dragged into a new situation that I agreed to but didn’t actively choose. Although Chris’s sense of such compromises would undoubtedly differ from mine, there is a world of (internal) difference between choosing and assenting, from steering the ship versus agreeing to go along with someone else’s steering.

Home, Keene, NH

These issues are on the surface of consciousness for me ever since I finished the dissertation: once I grab hold of my diploma on Saturday, I’ll be free to apply for professorial jobs any- and everywhere I choose. Academic couples have it worse than Chris and I do: they have to navigate the impossible challenge of getting two scholars settled into academic positions within some semblance of geographic proximity. Some fifteen years ago when Chris also wanted to go to graduate school in English–back when he would have specialized in American literature just like me–one of our professors pulled him aside. “Schaub, you can’t go to graduate school in the same field as Ms. DiSabato. You’ll always end up competing with one another, and she’s brighter than you.” Whether this esteemed professor was right on that score is a matter of some domestic debate. What remains undeniable, though, is the fact that these questions of what to do, where to go, and when to take the next step are troublesome enough when contemplated by a single soul much less than by two.

Several winters ago, Chris and I put the dog in the car and drove to Arizona, where we rented a small RV and camped on the outskirts of Phoenix and Sedona. At the time, Chris was reading The Dharma Bums, a book I’d been assigning to my Lit of the Open Road students. Fueled by Japhy Ryder’s outrageous spontaneity and the pure joy that emanated from Jack Kerouac’s exuberant prose, Chris kept talking about quitting his job, playing guitar full-time, and swapping our house for an RV. To his chagrin, I was less than entirely thrilled with the idea; although we did agree that he should quit his job and pursue music full time, I nixed the RV. Does that mean I’m not a true Dharma bum, that my apparent zeal for the open road and the prose it inspires is mere sham? I don’t think so. Then as now I realized that an RV is a small space for two people; musicians in particular have a lot of gear and make a lot of noise. Although I’ve dragged my feet more than a bit on every one of our cross-country car trips, wanting to walk more and drive less, there is part of me (a secret, hidden part) that dreams of wandering, roaming, and Dharma-bumming from Zen Center to Zen Center with not much more than the Dharma in tow. It’s all about choices, though, and a gun-to-the-head Dharma bum ain’t much of a bum after all. The next time the two of us hit the road in an RV or otherwise, it want it to be me at the wheel steering.

Walkway violets

It’s the last week of classes at Keene State; it’s also the last week of classes for my current crop of online classes at Southern New Hampshire University. That means I’m up to my eyeballs in grading: SNHU grades are due on Monday, a new set of online classes (both of which I’ve never taught before) are set to go live then, and I’m still digging out from under a backlog of papers from this semester-from-hell. This weekend will be “crunchy,” but next weekend will be less so; the next week I’ll be free…for a while. Then Summer term will begin, and I’ll start the whole circus all over again.

In the meantime, I haven’t had much time for walking: I’ve spent most of the past few days in my office here at school conferencing with students. But this morning when I let the dog out, I saw a cheering sign: violets!

As you’ve presumably noticed, I’m a wildflower fanatic, so I’ll typically tell you that all wildflowers are my favorite, or that I particularly love whatever posie I happen to be considering at the moment. But I really, really like violets. They’re common. They grow everywhere. They sometimes, if you let your lawn alone and don’t nuke it with chemicals, sprout spontaneously in yards. They come in violet (as in “You’re violet, Violet!”), white, and yellow, and I love them all…but I particularly like the violet ones, with the whites coming a close second.

And as luck would have it, we have both kinds–violet and white–growing around our porch. Someone probably planted them there, I’m sure, but it certainly wasn’t me. I’d like to think, though, that they appeared spontaneously, just for my benefit. It’s a happy dream, this wish for Viola (not Narcissus) narcissism.

With violets in mind, I wrote the following in, of all places, my Expository Writing class, where we begin each class with 5 minutes of random scribbling:

    What would it be like to be a plant? A violet, for instance, who blooms from under a crevice along a brick-lined walkway. What would it be like to unfurl into greenery, and then into flower, after lying long underground, cramped and solitary. What would the touch of air feel like, the caress of light? Would it be shocking at first, even painful? Would there be trauma and fear, an impulse to go back down underground, into the cold, dark, known earth?

    Ultimately, even violets erupt, unquestioning, pushing with a fragile, leafy power that is greater than either brick or boulder, slow, small, and silent. The force of violets, their green and purple fire, cannot be stemmed or quenched. Squelched or stomped, they will multiply and spread, unseen, lurking in the shadow of the known.

Even when I don’t have time to walk, the force the fuels the flower finds me out.

New owners, Keene, NH

Back in early February I mentioned (and posted pictures of) this shop window in Downtown Keene. In October it was a thrift shop, in January it burned, and in February it was boarded up. Having photographed it at two stages in its life-cycle, I couldn’t resist photographing it again with its newly refurbished facade. Now in April, this storefront at the corner of Central Square and Court Street has turned a new leaf, sprouting up a flower shop where previously there was none.

New leaves, Keene, NH

Likewise, nature does her own turning act. On a dusty slope along the bike path, some sort of new leaves are appearing through a shroud of last year’s leaf litter. Sprouting around several new saplings, they possibly are non-native plantings, which explains why I have no idea what they are: my botanic knowledge is limited to wildflowers and a handful of garden perennials, but I’m in no way a horticultural expert. Whatever they are, these tight rosettes of green and maroon leaves are quite lovely, a welcome spot of color on an otherwise colorless hillside.

April is the cruelest month, but out of cruelty springs promise. With time, waiting, and patient pushing, even nameless leaves can find their way to spring’s sun.

Lori & Jen, April 25, 2004

In Zen we have a saying: Open mouth, already a mistake. This means as soon as you say one thing, you’re already wrong because the opposite is probably just as true. As you can probably surmise, I have a huge problem keeping my mouth shut, so already I’m making many mistakes at every given moment. This blog? HUGE mistake. So read everything that comes out of Zen Mama’s mouth with a huge grain (or two) of salt, because she’s just talking trash.

Yesterday, of course, I went on and on about how Zen retreats aren’t relaxing. They’re tough! You need to be strong to face your mind! Blah blah blah ad infinitum. This morning, though, I have to admit it: yesterday’s retreat was wonderful. Although I’m not sure that “relaxing” is the word to describe a day that started with Chris, a friend of ours named John, and me sitting on the side of the road in a broken-down car, the day ended up with me reuniting with a handful of dear friends.

I knew my solidly pregnant friend Jen was coming from Massachusetts to sit the retreat, but I didn’t know that she was bringing my nun friend Ji Hyang as a last minute surprise. So when I arrived at the Catholic contemplative prayer house where we have our retreats (thanks to a large-minded Catholic nun who said “No problem!” when a group of crazy Zennies approached her about using her chapel), I was greeted by a loud, enthusiastic chorus of “Doctor Lori!” The scene was chaotic and terribly un-meditative, with new people milling about looking confused, mats & cushions strewn everywhere, and my mind abuzz with a list of to-do’s that Chris had given me while we were waiting for a tow truck. (Thanks to our friend X, host of that infamous Boys’ Weekend, for giving me a lift to the retreat while Chris stayed with the car. I guess now I really owe X a strip, eh?)

The beauty of Zen, though, is that it recognizes that it is precisely these un-meditative chaotic moments where beauty dwells. In the instant when I realized that there was no way of accomplishing those to-do’s, I allowed a space for the retreat to just simply happen. No need to control it, no need to micro-manage it, just let it blossom of its own accord. Suddenly new people were chipping in to get the chapel organized. Jen stepped forward to teach meditation. Zen Master Mark arrived with his usual “No problem” attitude. By the time Chris arrived, having borrowed a car from the mechanic who was miraculously available to fix our car for no extra charge on a Sunday, we started the retreat only about 15 minutes late. If you keep a “no problem” mind, things just work out.

In his intro talk, ZM Mark said the first of two things that defined my day. “Today we have the opportunity to let things be.” Ahhhh….that’s it. Let things be! I’d been so busy running and stressing about organizing the retreat, about catching up with school work, about this and that and the other thing, I’d forgotten to let things be. Of course Zen retreats are relaxing…if you let everything be. Silly me, I’d gotten in the habit of thinking that I have to pick things up and carry them: if I don’t do it, who will? Well, the answer to that is simple. If I don’t do it, they’ll carry themselves. The result might not look like what I had envisioned, but it will suffice.

The second defining moment came after lunch. By another miraculous synchronicity, a women’s group was having a retreat right across the hall from our retreat. Although they kept distracting our silent meditation with their loud and boisterous hallway chatter (“Marlene! I just love your hair!”), there was an upside: the women in charge of cooking their lunch also prepared ours…and they cleaned up after! So after lunch instead of doing dishes, we all got a good long break to spend as we’d like.

“You should use this opportunity,” ZM Mark reminded us, “for individual practice. If you take a walk, walk in silence. If you walk with a friend, which is wonderful to do, walk in silence with that friend.”

After lunch, I had to take registrations from retreatants, so all my friends had gone their separate ways by the time I was done. Instead of looking for a walking buddy, I went out into a sunny blue spring day to walk the streets of urban Manchester alone. Ah, how I wished I’d brought my camera, but it’s probably best I hadn’t since those miraculous synchronities seem to shy away from the lens. I didn’t mean to walk down past Saint Patrick’s church, which is about 10 blocks from Sainte Marie’s church, their geographic proximity and distinct ethnic makeup (Irish vs. French) suggesting a great deal about this particular Manchester neighborhood. But for whatever reason, I turned the corner toward St. Pat’s and saw none other than solidly pregnant Jen ambling toward me.

If you can’t tell from my giddy expression in the above picture, Jen is one of my dearest friends. I love Jen. We lived together for my entire stint at the Cambridge Zen Center, and she was one of the main reasons I cried when we moved out. If you’ve seen the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, you might remember the scene where Loretta Lynn learns from the radio that her friend Patsy Cline has died. “Who’m I gonna talk to now?” Loretta wails, and that says it perfectly. If there’s nothing else to be learned from shows like Sex in the City, it’s that women NEED their female friends: they NEED a Patsy, Charlotte, Miranda, or Samantha to talk to. In my case, Jen’s all that rolled up into a wise-cracking, bawdy-joking, quick-to-laugh package. In a past life, surely we were sisters. So seeing her glowing face and big round belly walking straight at me, entirely unplanned, was the high point of the day.

ZM Mark’s words came back in a flash: “If you walk with a friend, which is wonderful to do, walk in silence with that friend.” And so when Jen saw me and started laughing with her wonderful boisterous smile, I started laughing, too, them comically, over-dramatically, I threw BOTH hands over my mouth in a classic “Say no evil” pose. I walked straight up to Jen and made like I was walking past, then I made an exaggerated, goofy turn to come around next to her…

We walked the full 10 blocks or so back to Sainte Marie’s church, and it was wonderful. I usually am a brisk walker, but I didn’t mind walking slow, matching my steps to Jen’s. Without a word between us, I could feel she was tired and her back ached, but her spirits were good: I could feel the power in her belly, the combined power of that unborn baby and her own inner Buddha, rooting her to the ground with each step. The day was golden with the sun gleaming in a blue sky: everything was good. It was like we’d never said goodbye, like I’d never moved to New Hampshire, like she’d never moved to Malden. It was like we still lived together in Cambridge, where at any time night or day a simple door-knock would bring us together again to talk and laugh.

At one point in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s Ray Smith remarks while hiking with his buddy Japhy Ryder (a semi-fictionalized version of the poet Gary Snyder) that it felt like they’d walked these same or similar paths alone together long, long ago. In Kerouac’s case, he’s alluding to the famed friendship between the “Zen lunatics” Han-shan and Shih-Te, who wandered alone together in the mountains of China drinking wine and writing poetry. In every single painting of Han-shan and Shih-Te, the two of them are smiling and laughing boisterously: big, deep belly laughs.

Yesterday as Jen and I walked alone together, in silence, I felt something similar. Maybe sometime in a past life, Jen and I were two little old ladies living in urban Manchester, NH. Maybe one of us was Irish, maybe one of us was French; maybe we’d gone to the same or to neighboring parishes. Maybe we’d grown up listening to the rosary-clicks of the other; maybe we’d wiled the hours over a backyard fence, sharing stories of children and grandchildren, sick and dying spouses, grieving. Maybe on some bright spring day years ago, our old doddering paths crossed and we took a slow shared stroll, footsteps matched in time and sunny silence. We didn’t talk, these old, old friends, because we didn’t need to: we’d already shared the same stories time and again, and maybe one of us was deaf and the other had forgotten to put her teeth in. Whatever the particulars, I bet we had a great time on that imaginary day long ago: loving to walk alone in our own aged silences, we loved even more to walk alone together in a silence we could share.

When we returned to the Joseph House, the site next door to Sainte Marie’s where we had our retreat, Jen went straight to the bathroom, as usual, while I sought out a hidden hallway to do yoga stretches, as usual. We didn’t say goodbye since we’d see one another in the Dharma room in a half hour or so, and we’d do the usual catching up over dinner and more laughter after the retreat was done. Still, I felt a stab of sorrow when we walked through the door, me to my life and Jen to her’s. Sure, we’d chat over dinner; sure, we’ll keep in touch now via email and Christmas cards, emailed baby pictures and occasional Zen Center gatherings. But it’s not the same, a friendship of correspondence, a friendship of words. Once you’ve walked alone together, in silence, with a dear, true friend, there’s so much more to say than words can capture. Open mouth, already a mistake. Sometimes only shared footsteps and sun-drenched silence can sum up one’s true sentiments. Someday in a future life, perhaps, our paths will meet again.

Woodpecker tree, Ashuelot River, Keene, NH

Today our Zen group is having a one-day retreat at a Catholic contemplative house in Manchester, NH. Since Chris and I lead the group, we need to go early to attend to planning details: we need to set up the room, see to lunch preparation, get people oriented, and basically makes sure that everything goes smoothly.

Sometime last week I talked to my mother in Ohio, and somehow today’s retreat came up in conversation. (For the purpose of clarity I should mention that my parents are Catholic and don’t understand this whole “Zen” thing at all.) “Oh, that’s nice,” my mom said in reference to today’s retreat. “It’s nice you’re taking some time to relax!”

“Um, well, no. I’m helping lead the retreat, so it won’t be very relaxing.”

“That’s nice. I hope you have a relaxing time!”

Now, I’ve sat (and organizing) more retreats than should ever be tolerated by a living creature, and I’ve never found Zen retreats to be “relaxing,” even when someone else is leading. Zen retreats are relaxing in the way that marathon running is relaxing: after-the-fact. While you’re doing a Zen retreat, there’s so much going on in your body & mind (if, of course, you’re actually paying attention to your body & mind, which is the whole point of practice, rather than spacing out on some sort of bliss-trip) that it’s not exactly what most folks think of when they hear the word “relax.” In my mind, sitting on a beach sipping a margarita is “relaxing.” Sitting a Zen retreat, on the other hand, is like volunteering for a stint of mental boot-camp, except the Drill Sargeant screaming orders in your ear is none other than yourself.

This isn’t to say that Zen retreats are hard. Zen retreats, like anything in life, are neither hard nor easy: they are as hard as you make them or as easy as you make them. If you try to be strong and macho on a Zen retreat, you’re going to have a difficult time; if, on the other hand, you try to surrender yourself to the schedule, to the teacher’s guidance, and, yes, to the physical pain of sitting cross-legged for most of the day, you’ll have an easy time. Since I tend to have “strong and macho” karma, it usually takes a while for me to settle into a retreat. Eventually, though, I remember the greatest lesson of any retreat: the way to sit a retreat is to stop trying to sit the retreat. Instead, just show up for practice and see what happens.

Shady spot, Ashuelot River, Keene, NH

When beginners ask about going on retreat, the standard answer we give them is “Retreats are a great chance to see your mind.” To most folks, this phrase has an intriguing allure. “Ah, a chance to see my mind! That means I’ll find myself, or attain oneness with the Universe, or get enlightenment!” This phrase “seeing your mind” is actually a big trick. “Seeing your mind” might sound like finding yourself or attaining oneness with the Universe or getting enlightenment, and it’s certainly possible to do all three at any given moment. At the end of the day, though, “seeing your mind” means exactly that: seeing your mind. When you sit a Zen retreat, there is absolutely nothing going on for 99% of the time, so all you have to do is sit there and watch the way your mind bounces all over the place like a monkey on heroin trying to entertain itself.

“Ah, I must be going crazy!” you think to yourself. “My thoughts are all over the place!”

No, you’re not going crazy (unless, of course, you stopped taking your psychiatric meds right before starting the retreat, which occasionally happens. This is why leading a retreat isn’t necessarily relaxing, unless of course you think checking someone into a psych ward is “relaxing.”) No, you’re probably not going crazy on any given retreat: instead, you’re waking up. You’re finally slowing down to realize the psychic static–the interior background noice–that’s in your head all the time. Most of the time, we keep so busy we never notice the particular patterns that our minds follow (in Zen, we call these patterns karma). On a retreat, though, there’s nothing else to do than watch these patterns play themselves out over and over and over again ad nauseum, like listening to the same record skipping in exactly the same place over and over again.

Noticing this skipping isn’t the definition of craziness. Instead, ignoring this skipping, which is what we spend most of our conscious life doing, is the definition of craziness. Sitting a retreat and seeing your mind, you see, is the first step out of craziness, and for good or ill that first step involves seeing exactly how crazy your mind can be.

So, I’ll be spending today sitting cross-legged, watching the pain move from right knee to right hip, then into my back, then setting into my left leg. When I’m not fixating on physical pain, I’ll obsess about my own repetitive thinking: I’ll drive myself nuts with thoughts of how much work I have to do, what so-and-so really meant when they said such-and-such, what we’re going to have for lunch, what I really want to have for lunch, why the person sitting next to me is breathing so loudly, etc.

Relaxing? Not really. Boring? Yes. Strong? Definitely. The reason for sitting retreats, ultimately, is the same reason for running marathons: until you push yourself beyond the limit of what you thought you could possibly endure, you have no idea how strong you can be. You’re stronger than you think–in fact, your strength is precisely identical to the strength of the Universe. And just as the Universe doesn’t need to relax in order to find itself, neither do you.

Trout lily, Ashuelot River Park, Keene, NH

I had to walk a long way down the Ashuelot River to find a solitary stand of trout lilies, also known as fawn lilies or dogtooth violets (Erythronium americanum). This time of year in Ohio, the woods would be blanketed with trout lilies, spring beauties, anemones, toothwort, bloodroot… Instead, here in New Hampshire, the ground is bare and still semi-dormant, forcing amateur botanists like me to solace ourselves with cultivated flowers and year-round greenery such as ground pine.

Once again Fred from Fragments from Floyd has endeared himself to me with his plant-obsessed pictures, this time of horsetails. Earlier this week I’d mentioned finding some mysterious pink stems that I thought were horsetails, but I was stumped because the stems were pink, not green. In time I remembered that horsetails (genus Equisetum) have separate reproductive and vegetative stems. Here’s a paragraph from my yellowed, oft-thumbed copy of the Nature Interpretation Handbook, the bible of my high school volunteer naturalist days, published by what was then called the Metropolitan Park District of Columbus & Franklin County:

    The brown or pink fertile stems are one of the first signs of spring, growing rapidly on the bare ground to a height of 6 to 12 inches. Each of the joints on a given stem is sheathed in a whorl of black or brown, pointed, scalelike leaves that lie flat against it. At the tip of the fruiting stem is a conelike strobilus packed with sporangiosphores–small, umbrella-like structures which open when ripe to release the spores. The spores are unique in that they have appendages like spider legs which coil and uncoil rapidly with changes in humidity, thereby probably helping to release them from their cases.

Interesting, no? Are you getting hot yet? Turns out those pink, erect, 6 – 12 inch stems are sex organs. No wonder that none other than phallo-obsessed Walt Whitman liked to celebrate spring by going to “the bank by the wood” (the place where horsetails grow) and becoming “undisguised and naked,” exclaiming with his typical poetic exuberance, “I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”

If plant-porn turns your crank, you might be a BoZo. Now, before you go thinking that them’s fighting words, let me explain. “BoZo” is short for “Botany & Zoology.” When I was a high school student thinking of attending the Ohio State University, “BoZo” was the nickname for people like me who wanted to major in science. I ended up not going to OSU; I ended up majoring in English, not either botany or zoology. But come spring, I’m BoZo to the bone.

Although most folks yawn and go glassy-eyed when the likes of me start talking plants, botany is actually a racy science. After all, when you study flowers, you essentially are studying reproductive organs, which might make you think twice before you stick your nose in a lily and inhale deeply. Mycologists (scientists who study fungi) have it even worse since the only parts that a mushroom or other fungus sticks above ground are its sex organs: yep, when you slurp down a double-mushroom pizza, you’re really eating…. In one of his journals, Henry Thoreau sketched a healthy-sized stinkhorn mushroom then noted with wry bemusement how much it resembled a certain manly appendage. Well, Henry darling, you’re right about that: it looks like one because in practical terms it is one. Although the precise mechanics of fungal and mammalian reproduction differ, the end result is the same: it’s all about getting it on. Scientists don’t call stinkhorns Phallus impudicus for nothing.

Dandelions, Keene, NH

Ironically, botany was traditionally the one science that Victorian-era women were encouraged to pursue, albeit as amateurs. The practice of walking in the woods to sketch and collect flowers was seen as a lady-like and ennobling exercise; learning plant names was something that genteel mothers could then pass along to their children, both male and female. At the same time, the Victorians acknowledged the potentially sexy nature of wildflower study in that “going botanizing” was a polite term for dating: a young man could without impunity ask any blushing maid to go a-botanizing, and all would recognize that as a chaste opportunity for the young couple to get outside, enjoy nature, and spent quiet time talking amongst the posies.

So Fred, next time you’re in my neck of the woods, I’ll gladly go botanizing with you. Tell Ann not to worry, though: we’ll be thoroughly Victorian in our plant-pursuits, as chaste as, well, amoebae. If I’d gone into science, I would have had to have taught classes with names like Plant Sex 101 or Sex and the Unicellular Creature. Guess I’ve earned that name BoZo after all.

Abandoned, Keene, NH

I remember reading somewhere–I’ve forgetten precisely where–that Virginia Woolf once compared her journal to a junky drawer filled with random bits. The purpose of a junk drawer, of course, is to stash things you don’t need now but might need later. And thus this analogy between journaling and junk-hoarding is an apt one. As a long-time journaler and newly obsessive photographer of abandoned places, I guess I know junk. I’ve seen junk, and it is I.

When you practice meditation long enough, you realize that your own mental junk drawer is infinitely expansive: everything and everything can fit inside, and does. In the middle of meditation, for no apparent reason, a memory from your childhood will bubble into consciousness, followed by an argument you had yesterday, followed by an intensely detailed sensory image of a double-pepperoni deep-dish pizza. These thoughts and images come and go regardless of anything you try to do to control them. One thing that Zen teaches you is to receive this incessant junky flow without judgment or discrimination: don’t cling to any thought, and don’t push any thought away.

Abandoned, Keene, NH

My writing students–particularly my adult writing students–are sometimes shocked by the level of comfort I have when it comes to sharing my own “raw” writing and the presumably “private” thoughts it contains. Some people like to hide their junk drawers, thinking that others will judge them poorly based on the random assortment of trauma and pain they contain. I, for one, believe that we all share pretty much the same traumas and pains, so showing you mine is not much different than looking at yours. Writing in this sense is like getting naked in front of other naked people: once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, albeit in slightly different shapes, sizes, and colors. But if you’ve ever spent time with dancers, you know that people who are intimately familiar with their own bodies are typically unashamed by nakedness, seeing their bodies as the comfortable tools of their trade.

Thus, just as I was once shocked to watch a woman dancer I’d recently met start undressing in the middle of a mixed-company conversation, my writing students are sometimes shocked when I read some scribbled bit from my journal, the ink still wet from my pen. “What do you mean, you have a missing sister?” “Do you often feel like killing yourself?” “Doesn’t it bother you that your parents have never visited you since you moved from Ohio?” These are, I suppose, pertinent questions: I suppose normal people would be troubled by missing siblings, self-destructive impulses, or seemingly indifferent parents. In the chaotic clutter that is my mind, though, these are simply random bits, pieces that are there but only occasionally considered: part of the unending stream of thoughts, they neither forgotten nor dwelled upon. Like blandly ambient music, such thoughts are neither irritating nor particularly likeable. Instead, they simmer just under the surface of consciousness, appearing every now and then: oh, you again?

Abandoned, Keene, NH

Writing, like meditation, is about befriending your junk, or at least tolerating it. With pen in hand, I do the same sort of thing I do when sitting on a meditation cushion: I pay attention to the flow of thoughts while consciously not minding their character, frequency, or tone. In journaling as in meditation, there is no difference between “good thoughts” and “bad thoughts.” Just as one’s nose makes no distinction between pleasing aromas and noxious ones but instead smells them all, the mind functions by producing a nonstop assortment of cognitive bits, all of which have no direct connection to who or what we “really” are. Thus, a good person can have bad thoughts during meditation; a bad person can have good thoughts. Typically, people have a range of thoughts, good and bad, that coexist despite their contradictions: one minute you love the person sitting next to you; the next minute you’d like to slap them. This isn’t a sign that you are good, bad, crazy, or sane: this is a sign that you are a living, thinking creature. After a while, you come to realize that who we are is, like our thinking, beyond categorization and judgment. Thoughts and the selves who think them are neither good nor bad, they simply exist.

Thus the trick to journaling is to cultivate a nondiscriminating mind: pretty or not, all thoughts deserve to be recorded. And so the brain that thinks becomes intricately and directly connected with the hand that writes; after years of keeping a hand-written journal, in fact, I’ve come to wonder whether I actually think with my hand, not my head. Stashed and saved, today’s random thoughts might come in handy someday, or never. I’d like to think, though, that new thoughts, surprising thoughts, provocative thoughts, and thoughts of astonishing shapes and sizes are more likely to show up on the doorstep of a mind that has made a practice of receiving all thoughts with equanimous hospitality.

Abandoned, Keene, NH

Since many blogs (my own included) are nothing more than online journals, blog-reading is a kind of junk-shopping: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. Like yardsale shoppers, we sift through one another’s castoff dribs and drabs, holding up piece by piece to consider what fits and is appealing. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, and since we aren’t entirely the same person from moment to moment (our moods as well as our identities changing and transmuting over time, as subtle as billowing smoke), our sense of what is necessary and precious gradually evolves. Thus the scrap I stash in my junk drawer today–an incomplete pack of cards, a handful of used batteries, a tape measure, an old magazine–might tomorrow hold some special merit or memory, offering a use or application that never previously suggested itself. In a word, you never know, and as my mother always says, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. My mother’s drawers, of course, are particularly junky; in my case, it is my notebook, not my drawer, where I save both hidden hurts and surprising joys.

    This entry and the accompanying photos are my contribution to the Photo Friday topic “Junk.”

Emerald Street picnic table, Keene, NH

Everyone warned me about the post-dissertation blues, that feeling of letdown that occurs after you’ve defended, you’ve been hailed as “Doctor,” then you sit back to ponder the inevitable question, “Now what?” For humanites PhDs, considering the drum-tight academic job market is enough to drive you despair: I worked this long and this hard to be unemployable? Once the hoopla of congratulations has died down, life returns to normal, or some semblance of normal, very quickly; as Chris ever-so-helpfully pointed out right after the defense, even Doctors still have to clean up after the dog.

Knowing that the post-diss blues loomed, I prepared myself. I told myself not to get too addicted to the emotional highs of finishing, for as much as I thrilled to dissertation joys, I’d sink just as low into dissertation blues when the party was over. I made a mental list of things I wanted to do–things I’d thrill to do–after the diss was defended: books I want to read, places I want to explore, skills I want to acquire or brush up on. I want to brush up on my Spanish, for example, so I can read St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila in their original tongue. I want to blast my brains to smithereens by reading as much James Joyce as I can possibly stand. I want to explore–finally–the Horatio Colony Nature Preserve and the Cheshire County Historical Society here in Keene and the Isles of Shoals off the New Hampshire seacoast. I want to visit Willa Cather’s grave in Jaffrey, NH. I want to start doing yoga again, and the other day I saw an inexpensive women’s mountain bike in a local thrift shop that has me itching to go riding again. I want to feel sun on my back and dirt between my toes; I want to take a day or two or even more to do a solo retreat, just me and a meditation cushion under a tree somewhere, Buddha-like…

Street signs, Keene, NH

But instead of feeling well enough to do any of these things, I feel like hell. Now, this feeling isn’t technically “the blues,” I think, because its not my spirits that are low: I still feel a rush of accomplishment and pride for having finished the diss. But physically, I’m thoroughly wrung out. I’m exhausted and zombie-like: Chris keeps looking at me and saying, “You seem really out of it.” And I am really out of it: I have a certain shell-shocked, been-through-the-wars thousand-yard stare. I have trouble keeping awake when I’m working and trouble falling asleep (or staying asleep) when I’m in bed. I’ve been prone to random headaches, stiff shoulders, the works. I feel like I’m sleep-walking through my teaching, mechanically reading through stacks and stacks of student papers (yes, I’m still behind) that accumulated during the last stages of dissertating. In a word, I’m a physical wreck, a pathetic hull of a person.

Yesterday I ran into one of my colleagues at school who I hadn’t seen in ages: he teaches on my off days, and I haven’t been around campus to do the usual collegial mingling while under the diss-crunch. When I told him I’d defended, he was overjoyed; when I told him I felt too physically exhausted to relish the accomplishment, he nodded. “You’ve been running on adrenaline for too long,” he noted. “Now you’re running on empty.” He’s onto something. After 10 years of overwork, cyclic sleep-deprivation, and periodic spikes in caffeine consumption, my body’s saying “No more.” Back when I spent an average of 3 hours a day driving across the Granite State while teaching between 6 and 9 courses per semester at some 4 different institutions, everyone marvelled at my resilience. “How can you juggle such a grueling teaching load, diss-work, Zen teaching, and writing and still manage to be happy and perky all the time?” The answer, of course, is I was an addict. I didn’t need heroin or speed; I was arush with caffeine, adrenaline, and self-righteous pride. Complaining (and rest) was for wimps. Couldn’t anyone see that I was stronger and more self-reliant than that?

Door's open, Keene, NH

Last night our friend Jane Dobisz, Zen Master extraordinnaire and author of The Wisdom of Solitude: A Zen Retreat in the Woods, came to Keene to speak to our Zen group. Jane is one of the most vibrant people I’ve ever met. She has a razor-sharp wit, a bawdy sense of humor that can make even me blush, and a no-holds-barred approach to teaching the Dharma. At one point in last night’s Q&A time, a new practioner asked Jane what to do with his raging thoughts and his desire to cling to those shreds of mindfulness he sometimes finds in meditation.

“All you can ever do,” Jane answered, “is ask yourself moment-to-moment, ‘What am I doing right now?'” That, in a single sentence, sums up the entirety of Zen teaching: “What am I doing right now?” Thoughts of all shapes, sizes, and varieties will come and go, and Jane herself admitted that even she–a Zen Master!–feels distracted, stressed, and scattered 90% of the time. “It’s like training a puppy to stay,” she explained. “A puppy naturally wants to wander, so you gently keep bringing him back: ‘Stay.’ And so our minds constantly wander to a non-existent future and a non-existent past, and we bring them back to this single question: ‘What am I doing right now?'”

Jane’s words rang through like a wake-up call…or, more rightly, like a sleep-in call. Although I had work to do, I came home from the talk and went to bed. Although my body naturally woke up, like always, at 5:30 am, after breakfast I collapsed on the couch, surrendering myself to a much-needed 2 hour nap. In Zen, teachers will sometimes tell you to “Follow your situation”: when sick, only be sick; when hungry, only eat. And when sleepy, only sleep. Don’t fight it, don’t refuse it, and most of all don’t cling to some notion of your own strength or macho self-reliance. Put those notions done and only surrender to the situation at hand. “What am I doing right now?” Sleeping, only sleeping. The rest of the world will be there waiting when I wake up, rested.

Bluets, Keene, NH

Yesterday while walking the dog right before Jane’s talk, I stumbled upon the first wildflowers of the season: a handful of bluets, or Quaker ladies, or innocence, Houstonia caerulea, heaven’s-blue flowers named after the British botanist Dr. William Houston. Although the crocuses have been blooming for a week now and the daffodils and forsythia are newly blossomed, these bluets are the first wildflowers I’ve seen, blooming improbably on the edge of the bike trail right outside of downtown. Bluets have been doing their flowery thing for millenia, and they never tire, mainly because they never try. Instead, they meticulously follow their leafy situation, dying back in the winter for a months’ long sleep them emerging without hesitation come April. You don’t need a PhD or a Zen Master or a Zen book to know what bluets know: when sleeping time comes, only sleep; when flowering time comes, only flower. This afternoon I’ll read some more student papers, and when I get tired, I’ll sleep. Weathering the post-diss blues is easy if you follow your situation, trusting your body, like a bluet, to tell you exactly what it needs. Do I have the blues? Maybe, but I think not. Who needs the blues when the bluets do just fine?

Two estates, Keene, NH

The Keene Sentinel is our local newspaper, founded in 1799. We don’t subscribe to the Sentinel: actually, we’ve never subscribed to a newspaper, local or otherwise. Instead, we rely on the Internet, magazines, and Public Radio for our news and social commentary, which means we probably know more about what’s happening across the world than what’s happening down the street.

There’s something endearing, though, about an old, established newspaper that publishes short research projects by local high school students. I remember being a high school student, and it would have been nerdishly cool to have been published in the local paper. And where else can you pick up a newspaper and read about the 19th century hoopla over the planting of seven elm trees in Keene’s Central Square or a mysterious local death in 1869? Technically, these stories aren’t “news,” but what better way to get a sense of the mood and tenor of a place than to read about its past, and what better way to instill respect for the past by encouraging high school students to do some digging into local archives?

Kilkenny's magnolia, Keene, NH

Newspapers typically print weather reports; why not start a new trend by printing botanical reports? This week the daffodils in our own backyard have blossomed, and the magnolia tree outside Kilkenny’s Pub has flowered. The birches along the bike path are covered in catkins as are the reedy willows in the swamp behind Home Depot. The maples are poised to leaf any day now, their buds swollen with green, and in the litter-strewn gravel at Keene’s abandoned railyard, in the towering shadow of a century-old coal bin, a cluster of stubby pinkish stems sprouts silently. They look like horsetails, these strobile-topped stems, but horsetails are usually green.

And so another mystery erupts on the local scene, but you won’t read about it in the papers. No, the real news that’s fit to print seldom sees the shadow of a reporter’s notebook or the flash of a photographer’s bulb. The real news lies in forgotten, trash-strewn corners, silently sprouting beneath the hubbub of more robust controversies.

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