December 2004


This past Saturday while Gary and I were in New York City, we went for the first time to the Cloisters.

Located in Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park, the Cloisters is home to the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of Medieval art. In my usual perverse fashion, though, I walked the Cloisters this past weekend with an eye not so much for the art it houses but for the space it contains, the particular assortment of angle, light and shadow created by stairwell, doorway, and colonnade.

Medieval European sculptures, stained glass, and paintings, like the icons of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, are designed to serve as doorways between the mundane world of stone, glass, and pigment into a spiritual realm that transcends time and space. Through the act of looking, a spiritually minded observer can travel through light, angle, and perspective into a nether realm that defies temporal limitation.

Whether inside a museum or not, I love the look of abandoned doorways and forgotten windows, their particular slants of light beckoning with an irresistible allure. What lies behind and beyond? What souls have passed here in the past; what feet will tread here in the future?

In one of my favorite of her short essays, Annie Dillard describes a childhood memory of hiding from Santa Claus as he “stood in the doorway monstrous and bright” with “night over his shoulder, letting in all the cold air of the sky.” As a child, I too was terrified of Santa Claus and perhaps too of God, craving like all humans to be noticed but fearing to be seen, caught in my unavoidable imperfections.

Now more than ever, with Christmas looming like God’s eye over our shoulder, we grow mindful of what lies behind and beyond: after the hectic chaos of shopping and cooking and merrymaking, toward what end do we wend our days? Dillard concludes her musings about “God in the Doorway” by noting that “once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.”

These days when Love appears unannounced on our doorstep, will we be aware enough to heed or even flee? These days oblivion runs deep; these days, I fear we’ve shut our windows and barred our doors, leaving God to grow tired from knocking, his knuckles bruised and battered from our abundance of blind disbelief.

Temple of Dendur

I’ve always maintained that I was born in the wrong century, or at least born with an old soul. When other folks go to Manhattan, they shop and drink and party. When I go to Manhattan, I seek out spots of solitude, seeing the City That Never Sleeps as being an oddly fitting setting for contemplation.

Wide-eyed

Gary and I were in Manhattan for three days, and during that time I sought out three of my favorite quiet spots: the old (and old-fashioned) dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, the wending pathways of Central Park, and several quiet spots at the Metropolitan Museum. When I refer to these as quiet spots, I don’t intend to suggest that these places are devoid of people: everywhere in New York is crowded the week before Christmas. Instead, these are places where I can pause and visit a place that it neither ancient nor modern, a place that carries spots of tranquility amidst the rushing throngs.

Bathed in light

In a city renowned for its shopping (and in a season devoted to said pursuit), I spent less than $30 on purchases this weekend, buying a $13 scarf to replace the one I lost and $15 for a set of NYC walking tour cards. In a city renowned for its night life, this weekend I imbibed something less than one beer over dinner with Annette, the winter-brisk lights of Times Square being ample intoxication for a simple soul.

Stories in stone

When you take a Country Mouse to the Big City, she spends her time seeking out things she can understand: solid stone and shadowy corners and spots of sunlight. I love the rush of bodies that is Manhattan…but sometimes being near the fire is as good as touching it. Mine is an old soul born in an inopportune time, yet sometimes in a solitary instance even an old soul comes home.

If this were Punxsutawney, PA instead of Keene, NH, if it were February 2nd instead of December 15th, and if I were a groundhog instead of a human, we’d definitely be in for six more weeks of winter.

For the first time in days, the sun is out and shining brightly here in Keene, and with the sun come the shadows. As I walked the dog around Central Square this morning, I tried to snap a picture of the sun-drenched facade of the Cheshire County Courthouse. Back in October, I posted up-close pictures of the Courthouse, but I’ve long wanted to get a photo of the Courthouse juxtaposed with the steeple of the Methodist church further down on Court Street. Today from the vantage point of the island of green at the eye of the Central Square rotary, I snapped this picture of the Courthouse and Methodist Church, but what I didn’t notice until I got home was the huge impressive tree shadow that spreads over the street like a spiderweb. If I were a groundhog in Pennsylvania (or a groundhog anywhere, for that matter), I’d be taken aback if I popped my head above ground to spy a shadow of such looming immensity.

We’re in for far more than six more weeks of winter here in the newly frigid Northeast. Winter solstice, the official start of winter, isn’t until December 21, but Mother Nature is running ahead of schedule. Yesterday our daytime temperatures dipped to 20-something degrees with a brisk wind that made it feel notably colder; this morning my hands ached with cold as I waited for my body to acclimate to walking in the 17-degree chill. These temperatures are merely chilly by New Hampshire standards: 17 degrees feels like bikini weather compared to that day last February when the temperature hit 14 below. But since temperature is a relative phenomenon, a new chill feels colder than an accustomed freeze: it just might take my body until December 21st to acclimate to winter weather.

Winter solstice is the day when the northern hemisphere is tilted the farthest from the sun: the shortest day of the year. But because winter solstice is also the day when the sun shines at the greatest slant, it’s also the day of the longest shadows, a phenomenon marked at megalithic sites such as Stonehenge, Newgrange, and even New Hampshire’s own Mystery Hill.

Without traveling to England, Ireland, or even Pennsylvania, though, I can tell you what’s afoot: the sun is low, the shadows are long, and the wind is cool and getting colder. Like Bob Dylan said, you don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows. Here in New Hampshire, the wind is blowing in winter, long months of it: the shadows are long and, for the next few days at least, growing.

Yes, you know I’m scraping the bottom of the photographic barrel when I start posting pictures of empty classrooms. (If the cold, gray, and frequently wet weather of recent days keeps up, I’ll be following Ron’s lead and posting photos from the grocery store.) This is the room in Parker Hall where I proctored a freshman Essay Writing exam this morning. Absent from this picture are my students (I waited until they’d finished to snap a photo) or any sight of the snow flurries that were gently falling as my students sat writing in their blue exam booklets. (Nope, we haven’t had any major accumulation yet, although temperatures have suddenly dipped below freezing: a foretaste of the feast to come.)

After my recent whining about how much grading I have to do, it probably makes no sense for me to admit that I actually enjoy Finals Week. After the build-up of the last weeks of class, it’s actually a relief when classes end and the “real” end-of-term grading begins. Finals Week offers something of a break for instructors: instead of having to prepare and deliver lectures, we simply show up for exams, hand out questions and blue booklets, and then sit quietly grading while our students sweat and scribble. I for one am not a sadist–I don’t like to see my students suffer–but for once it’s nice to sit back and watch them do the heavy lifting. Although I’m still buried in grading, Finals Week at least offers a lighter, more flexible schedule that allows time to do said grading: last night, I graded one batch of essay portfolios; during today’s exam, I nearly finished another. After running ragged in the multitasking mill that is the end-of-term–after several weeks of lecturing, administering conferences, holding office hours, answering student email, and read, read, reading student drafts–it actually feels good to put my head down and do the One Thing that is end-of-term grading. The end is near, and after the end comes a long healthy break: both students and instructors know that rest is coming soon if we can survive the next handful of days.

These days, everyone on campus looks tired, rumpled, and unkempt: profs who normally wear shirts and ties are slumming in jeans and sweatshirts, and college kids show up to their Finals wearing pajama bottoms and baseball caps smashed over hair that hasn’t been washed in who knows how long. These days the clearest indication of which tired bodies belong to students and which belong to faculty lies in the loads they carry: instructors are the ones who are schlepping multiple bagfuls of papers and folders as they come or go from collecting or returning stacks of end-term assignments.

In some oddly perverse way, Finals Week always feels to me like grace. After working as diligently as we could, both students and instructors find ourselves tested: for the past three months, how good a job did we do? By this point in the semester, it’s too late to help the students who slipped between the cracks, and we instructors feel that loss to our toes: next semester, we vow, we’ll keep up with grading, we’ll be more available to students, we’ll in short do a better job, somehow, of Reaching the Unreachable. At times teaching feels like miracle-working: there’s so much to teach to so many, and there’s so little time to do it properly…but every semester we try, try, try because Trying is What Teachers Do. And during Finals Week, whether we feel like we passed or failed, we know in our heart of hearts that next semester we’ll get a new chance with new students, new intentions, and new resolve. Who wouldn’t love a job that perpetually allows you to begin anew, the “final” of Finals Week merely being a gateway to another fresh start.

Bad for you, on sale

…there is a God, and She knows that Zen Mama needs an ample supply of motivational junk food these next few days.

I’ve already confessed my habitual crunch-time ritual: whenever faced with a looming deadline, I fortify my morale with gallons of Mountain Dew and buckets of Doritos. It’s Finals Week at Keene State College, so today I collected three classes’ worth of student portfolios: at 3 to 4 essays per student, that’s a huge pile of grading. Add to this the final exams I’ll be proctoring this week and the usual influx of essay drafts from my online classes, and you can believe that I’ll be a Grading Machine these next few days.

This is, of course, the usual routine I face at the end of every term…but this semester I’m under a particularly hectic deadline. Normally I’d forgo all personal hygiene and housekeeping duties during my stint as a Grading Machine, re-wearing any dirty clothing within reach as the laundry and dirty dishes piled to the ceiling, there being plenty of time to return to the realm of the Washed Masses after I submitted grades at the last possible moment. But this semester I actually have to submit grades early while maintaining some semblance of personal and domestic cleanliness: my friend Gary is arriving from Texas on Wednesday, so I don’t want him to hop back on a southbound plane the minute he sees how slovenly my end-of-term self is. And if Gary’s visit weren’t enough motivation to keep my nose to the grindstone, we have plans to go to New York City for the weekend, where among other things we plan to meet up with a mutual friend for dinner and libations…

In a word, I need to get as much grading done as humanly possible between now and Gary’s arrival on Wednesday, and even more grading done (and submitted!) before we head toward New York on Friday. Knowing that dinner and libations await me in New York, I’m tolerating my mountain of grading, my barrels of Mountain Dew, and my bushels of Doritos. And in the meantime, it’s heartening to know that at buy-one-get-one-free prices, the Woman Upstairs is making sure I’m amply supplied with the junk food I need to get me through.

Yep, it’s all about me this holiday season. Now that my nephews and niece are nearly grown, I send them money for Christmas: no more scouring toy stores for unusual gifts for faraway young’uns. My sisters and I don’t normally exchance gifts, having decided at some point in the past to focus our gift-giving on aforementioned young’uns…and buying for my parents, the bargain-hunting couple who has everything, has always been a challenge. But this year I’m giving a gift that truly only I can give: a literal gift of myself.

It’s probably narcissistic to give pictures of oneself for Christmas…but for my folks at least, this is a present that’s long overdue. Several years ago, one of my sisters emailed me from Ohio to explain that she and my other sister had each had portraits taken of themselves with their now-nearly-grown kids: wouldn’t it be cool if Chris and I likewise had our portrait taken and gave it to Mom and Dad for Christmas? It was a cool idea, and I agreed to do it…and then it never happened. Chris and I were busy, or Chris and I were yet again contemplating divorce, or I simply never pressed the issue to completion: whatever the reason, Christmas came and went without the two of us getting our picture taken even though Chris’s brother is a professional photographer and we’d long had our own digicam. Instead I sent my parents an empty frame with a note explaining that eventually there’d be a portrait therein…and after a year passed without me making good on that promise, my Mom wryly began displaying my empty frame on the shelf beside my sisters’ portraits.

So now that the divorce is no longer an on-again, off-again thing–now that I know I’m the only one in the picture, thank you–it’s the perfect time to make good on that old promise. This Christmas, I framed prints of the portrait-version of the picture I used to head this post about my graduation. Mom and Dad are getting a framed 8 x 10″ portrait as well as a framed 3 x 5″; both sisters and my aunt in Maryland are getting framed 3 x 5’s; and everyone (nearly-grown young’uns included) is getting a wallet-sized print of me shaking hands with the University President after getting my diploma, a dim image in which I’m glowing with glee. To top all that off, I’m also sending my parents, sisters, and aunt a 3 x 5″ version of my current blog-pic: it may be overkill, but I’m making sure none of the kinfolk back in Ohio forget about little ol’ me here in far-off New Hampshire.

And two clarifications before anyone asks in comments or email… Yes, I have three sisters, but I’m sending pictures to only two: my third sister estranged herself from my family about 10 years ago, so I don’t know where to contact her. (This is one of those situations that isn’t discussed in my family: Lynda is simply “gone.”) And yes, in the first picture you see a framed version of my PhD diploma, but in the second you see a framed picture of me: originally when I’d ordered graduation prints, I’d gotten enough for both my and Chris’s family, but now with things being as they are, I have extras on hand. So after I saw how tiny and pathetic my Northeastern PhD diploma looked compared to my HUGE Boston College MA rag, I decided I need a bigger matted frame for the PhD document. Hey, it’s all about me, baby, and I want to make perfectly clear to anyone who sets foot in my office which credential is the biggie. Get the picture?

Here is a handful of images from Downtown’s Central Square this past Wednesday, the last time we saw clear skies here in Keene. Today promises to be gray, chilly, and damp…but right now the incessant drizzle of the past few days has stopped momentarily, so that means it’s time to walk into the (once) wild blue yonder.

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