August 2004


Sky

Some days I sit down to write and I have no idea where the next sentence will come from…actually, most days are like that. Usually I begin with a picture or a series of pictures that strike me for some unknown, indescribable reason, then I let the sentences go from there. Maybe there’s an emotion bubbling behind the photos, or maybe I start to hear under the coursing of my blood a story that I didn’t know needed to be told. Sometimes what comes out is funny; many times, it’s somber and even sad; and usually, almost always, it has to do with time and loss, the way that our mortal coil is perpetually unwinding despite our grand and glorious attempts to convince ourselves otherwise.

There is a passage in Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard where Matthiessen, reminiscing about his recently deceased wife while trekking in Nepal, remembers the moment when he realized she was dying. After sitting a silent retreat, he had come home to his wife, with whom he had an emotionally volatile, on again, off again relationship. Seeing his wife looking thin, pale, yet pretty in a new dress, Matthiessen had a moment of clarity in which he realized a prognosis that doctors would make months later: riddled with cancer, his wife was dying.

Door

I’ve always remembered this moment in The Snow Leopard because I too have seen this “look” that Matthiessen describes. Although I’ve never foreseen an actual terminal diagnosis, occasionally when I walk through town and see passersby, the startling thought appears, “All these people are dying.” Looking in a child’s eye, I imagine the old woman she will inevitably become; looking at a flower in the bud, I envision that flower gone to seed, then denuded, then dead. And even when I look at myself in the mirror, which for some reason I’ve been doing frequently these days, I see not the face of a 35-year-old woman looking back at me but a sort of death mask: pay attention, girl, because the show passes this way only briefly.

This fascination with mortality is, of course, odd: it’s not something I share with family and friends. And yet how telling is this simple fact that we deem “odd” the realization that “all things shall pass” whereas we deem “normal” the delusion that that our lives, possessions, and the status quo will continue smoothly without change or end. Who exactly in this scenario is odd? Even so, I learned at a very young age not to tell my classmates what I was thinking as I sat alone at the top of my school’s jungle gym watching those other children playing: given that life is short, why doesn’t everyone try to figure out the meaning behind it all?

Tree

My infinitely weird childhood notwithstanding, I’ll go so far as to admit that I’ve seen “the look of death” in even inanimate objects: looking at seemingly stable, solid, permanent structures like buildings, roads, or trees, I sometimes see with visceral clarity the fact that they too are passing away. Sometimes when I snap photos, it is this realization that drives the shutter: “Someday when all this has passed, people will wonder what our houses looked like.” And so as I look at the stable, solid edges of tangible things, I see them as phenomena that are themselves perpetually and eternally in flux, their subatomic particles outpacing even the coursing of my blood or the lightning volatility of my thoughts. Foliage passes with every year, the sun passes with each day and cloudburst, and yet we foolishly think that our buildings and belongings will endure. “Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal,” St. Matthew exhorts, “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” If I knew the way to Heaven’s Warehouse, surely I’d store my meager treasures there; not knowing the way, though, I’ll hoard my cherished things here in the present, right here, in this heart that still beats between lungs that still breathe. For where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.

What a difference even a couple of days makes. Yesterday afternoon when I walked the dog into town, I was surprised to see blue sky where there used to be birches: construction crews had leveled the line of trees fringing a local segment of bike path. In the place of willowy birch saplings they’d erected spans of orange construction webbing: do not disturb this work in progress! Work crews had been so thorough in their post-destruction clean-up that I could find no trace of the trees they’d felled, only muddy tracks where earth movers had moved.

These days it seems the town of Keene has been overrun by construction workers. Water Street has been stripped of pavement, orange signs re-directing traffic around its rutted and dust-billowing surface as crews unearth and replace segments of sewer line. Much of the weedy overgrowth near my favorite decrepit factory has been cleared and mulched: what used to be my favorite shortcut into town is now a resting place for bulldozers and piles of concrete piping. In Central Square, blue scaffolding and yellow “Caution” tape bedeck the facade of the Colony Block building: billboard-sized signs assure passersby that this ornate 1865 building is undergoing a face-lift that will restore its architectural charm without modifying its historical authenticity. And even downtown’s landmark church steeple–the white spire topping the Congregational Church at the apex of Central Square–is going through changes of its own, the sidewalks below being littered with paint chips as workers stride narrow boards to scrape layers of old dingy paint, time’s own sediment, from the church summit.

Initially when I saw sky where there had been birch trees, my heart sank. These were, after all, the very trees where so many birders had seen elusive hoary redpolls last winter: these were storied trees, a stretch of greenery with a history. Whatever blueprinted plan that decreed their demise was surely misguided: where would each of the trio of mimics (mockingbird, catbird, and brown thrasher) I’d seen in this single span of bike path find similar shelter? Clearly this act of clearing was diabolic: what sort of human progress could justify the felling of trees who’d done no one any discernable harm?

Yet. These trees were young and scrubby, their trunks only several inches in diameter. There are plenty of other birches for redpolls to ride as supple branches bounce in winter wind: even that favorite factory of mine, as toxic a site as Keene has harbored, has a supple birch sprouting from its basement. Although the word “birch” evokes nostalgic notions of pristine New England landscapes, the imagined site of Robert Frost poems, the birches here in residential Keene are colonizing trees, rushing in to reclaim disturbed soil along overlooked edges. Fast-growing, birches are short-lived: they rush to reclaim land that other trees (or buildings, parking lots, or sewer lines) will inherit. In a word, birches fear not to die, for that’s the direction their sprouting is perpetually headed.

Although I’m personally resistant to change, setting down deep, long-lived roots like a stubborn oak that refuses to bend, even I have to admit that there can be something constructive in destruction. This past week as I faced a different sort of remodeling–a change that I hope will reveal the hidden strengths of my personal architecture while stripping away the dingy accumulation of time and long-harbored resentments–I realized that change is only another word for growth. Left unchecked, those birches would ultimately be shaded and replaced by larger, more long-lived trees; even those trees would be ultimately felled by time and decay. Nature herself is a multifaceted, oft-changing practitioner of her own brand of plastic surgery: today a birch tree, tomorrow an oak. In time winding rivers will straighten, fields will revert to forest, and even factories, bricked against time, will crumble and decay, their skeletal piping re-fleshed in greenery.

In a recent email, a friend quoted none other than Suzuki Roshi, who when asked to define Buddhism succinctly replied “Everything changes.” Change is the rule of the jungle; it applies as well to the streets and bikepaths of Keene. Sometimes to remove the layers of old dingy paint that have stifled your soul, you have to withstand some not-so-pleasant scraping; sometimes to ease a short-lived birch into its next incarnation, you need to move the earth herself. As far as I know, leaves don’t weep when they fall in the autumn: every year, billions of leaves sprout and grow only to mature, fall, then decay. What blissful freedom is there in having the courage simply to fall when the time is right: what buoyant billow of hope cushions even a birch’s fall?

Abandoned

Overgrown

Edge

Frat house

I will be coming off my week of blog-silence tomorrow, so I’ll “talk” to you then! In the meanwhile, I hope you’ve enjoyed this week of photos, and enjoy the rest of your weekend.

Eave

In case of fire

Lines

Ivy

Because I’m enough of a Zen Lunatic to believe that everything is already perfect and complete, this is my contribution to the Photo Friday topic Perfection.

Sunlight on graffiti, Keene, NH

Low clearance, Keene, NH

Parking space, Keene, NH

Parking, Keene, NH

“Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.”

–Wes Bentley as Ricky Fitts, American Beauty

Parts

Blue window

Extra Ordinary

Scribbled

“Most people don’t take snapshots of the little things. The used Band-Aid, the guy at the gas station, the wasp on the Jell-O. But these are the things that make up the true picture of our lives.”

–Robin Williams as Sy “the Photo Guy” Parrish, One Hour Photo

Perseverance

Corrugated rust

Weedy

Transformers

Although I am not “speaking” here on Hoarded Ordinaries this week, I welcome & appreciate your comments. Thank you sharing this silent space with me.

Saint Bernard's Parish

I’ve decided to take this next week “off” from discursive blogging. Although I’ll post daily photos as a way of saying “I’m still here,” I’m feeling the need for silence. When Chris and I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, I’d often observe days of silence as a way of heightening my meditation practice. Meditation is essentially about investigating your karma: what are these habitual thought-patterns that course and chase through my consciousness, and who is this “I” who experiences them? As none other than Elmer Fudd knows, it’s important to be vewy, vewy qwiet when you’re hunting wabbits…so how much more quiet should you be when you’re hunting your True Self?

Rusty wall

There’s an old Zen saying that “silence is better than holiness.” This means Zen isn’t about right and wrong behavior; it’s about investigating your life. Those of us who read, write, and teach for a living tend to have over-active discursive minds: we think, write, and speak words, words, words. Although words can be one aid in attaining truth, ultimately words alone cannot help. Silence allows an open space for unpredictability: when I stop Knowing and Saying, a space for Simply Understanding appears. And although my students wouldn’t believe it, sometimes even I grow tired of the sound of my own voice. Sometimes the best way to understand what is going on in your head and in the lives of people around you is simply to sit back and watch, silent.

Sun on bricks

So this next week, I’ll be trying to be better than holy…at least here on this blog. I hope you’ll stop by to browse the daily photos; I hope you’ll pause and even rest a spell. But forgive me if I’m not very talkative during these visits: forgive me if for a couple of days here I let my pictures do the talking.

The problem with trying to describe a place is there’s so much that falls beyond the limits of even the largest narrative and photographic frame. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know my fondness for photographing parts of buildings. I like to take pictures of windowsills, doorways, and windows, and I particularly like to take pictures of the corners and edges of said apertures. Very rarely on this blog will you see an entire building; instead, you’ll see various pieces and parts. (If you click on any of the above links, you’ll want to scroll down to see the various images I’m talking about.)

My brother-in-law used to do architectural photography, meaning that firms would hire him to capture in images new construction or renovations to existing structures. When you think about it, it’s a daunting task to capture the shape and structure of an entire building…how much more daunting is it to capture the mood, nuance, and feel of an entire town, word and image being your only tools?

These days here in New Hampshire it’s been warm and humid. At any moment those of you reading this blog from far-flung sites on the globe can scroll down toward the bottom of my blog sidebar and see a weather graphic that gives a semi-current update on Keene’s weather conditions. But does knowing that the temperature this morning at 3:15 am was a mild-sounding 71 degrees Fahrenheit (22 degrees Centigrade) tell you anything of what it felt like to be tossing and turning in a blanket-free bed at that hour of the morning? Would it help if I mentioned that the humidity at that ungodly hour was a whopping 83%, the air a euphemistic “calm”?

There are some of you reading this blog who live in hotter climes than what we here in southern New Hampshire face in the summertime. Since I complained so emphatically last winter when I walked the dog in unbearably sub-zero temperatures, I try not to bitch and moan too mightily now that the weather is warm, the air humid, and everyone’s feeling sluggish. Many folks from Massachusetts and other parts of New England vacation in New Hampshire; in this land of summer cottages and RV parks, we get a lot of snowbirds migrating up from their retirement homes in Florida and points south. But if you’re vacationing in a lake-front cottage these days, you have recourse to said lake when things get too steamy. And even if you’re sweating your way to the top of one of our heart-pounding mountain-tops, at least there’s the promise of a cooling breeze at the summit.

When you live rather than vacation in a place like Keene, though, you have to tolerate her meteorological moods while dealing with the mundane details of daily life. I don’t live next to a lake; I’m not spending my days (although perhaps I should) sitting on a beach with a margarita in one hand and a fan in the other. Those of you who live in hotter climes generally enjoy the benefit of nearly ubiquitous air conditioning. Our modest apartment here in Keene, on the other hand, is not air-conditioned, and the a/c in our 11-year-old, 227,000-mile trusty blue Subaru doesn’t work. So if these days the humidity sometimes weighs heavily on our souls–if we dare to admit that some nights we lie abed naked on top of the sheets wishing that the perpetually humming window fan would please, please send some stagnant air this way, please–well, you have to spare us some sympathy. We’re semi-arctic creatures, here in New Hampshire. We’re used to burrowing beneath layers of flannel and fleece and wool, not lying draped and semi-liquified under pressing acres of warm, heavy air.

Even a sunny California guy like Shane admits that New Hampshire is humid. Los Angeles and other near-the-ocean cities have the benefit of seabreezes, a phenomenon I once heard a San Diego weatherman refer to as “Mother Nature’s air conditioning.” Here in New Hampshire, again, the air has been calm, heavy, and inert. These days that mood is contagious, the option of going to an air-conditioned movie theatre feeling like both a blessing (ah, cool air!) and an act of exertion: man, that film was exhausting!

These days elck and several spiritually minded bloggers have started an email list for folks interested in Literary Approaches to the Unorthodox Pursuit of Enlightenment. One of the tantalizing ideas buzzing through the inboxes of said LAUPEs is the idea of holding a face-to-face retreat of like-minded bloggers. As various potential sites are being bandied about by members of this international and eclectic group, lovely Leslee suggested that humble Keene, NH be considered as a potential site for said meet-up “since Lorianne has been relentlessly describing her neck of the woods as heaven on earth.” I must admit, I love it here in Keene, and the thought of such an illustrious group of bloggers descending upon my town is a delight: after kicking myself for missing Shane’s brief breeze through town, I relish the fantasy of hiking Mt. Monadnock, touring old cemeteries, visiting local pubs, and even packing the walls of our tiny Zen Group with the likes of Cassandra or Tish or Anne. If nothing else, imagine the joyous photos we’d take of sun-drenched windowsills, doorways, and windows, all of them filled with smiling-faced and enlightened Vernacular Bodies.

But before you pack your bags for a Keene retreat, keep in mind that the weight of heaven-on-earth can be heavy. Even celestial clouds can bake in summer’s sun, and clouds themselves are mostly moisture, a polite euphemism for the the dreaded “humidity.” The road to heaven–or to Keene, NH–can be uncomfortable at times: be sure the a/c in your car is working. Even if you can stomach the thought of withstanding the Zen Mama’s voluminous outpourings of Hot Air, be forewarned that Keene gets her share of heavy weather.

    This post is my contribution to the Ecotone biweekly topic Weather & Place. Anyone who feels like blogging their favorite place-based weather stories–and we all have them–should consider posting a link on Ecotone, another meeting place for cooler-than-cool like-minded bloggers.

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