January 2005

I snapped this pencam photo blindly over my shoulder last night as Beth and Ivy and I shared a cold drink at the Peterborough Diner. What was this fellow’s story as he ate a solitary meal and drank a solitary beer on a Sunday night in New Hampshire, the Toadstool Bookshop looming in the window over his shoulder as the sun went down on a glorious January day? Was he lonely? Did he wonder about the three women who sat chatting and laughing (loudly, probably) at the next table?

When I came home from bidding adieu to Beth and Ivy–when I came home from seeing Ivy’s delightful studio at the legendary MacDowell Colony–I was aglow from the fire of interaction, the thrill of Mortal Connections. (Beth and especially Ivy will know where that title came from!) After eating a quick and solitary supper (one not unlike, I suppose, that anonymous man’s), I sat down and wrote the following in my journal:

There’s something magical about meeting and talking with someone you feel you already know–the same thing happened when I met with Fred First–you do away with the usual getting-to-know-you chitchat and get straight down to the nitty-gritty of relating. You’ve already touched souls, in a sense, so you needn’t worry about the usual pleased-to-meet-you pleasantries, instead cutting straight to the chase to talk about one’s truest and deepest loves: poetry and place, the passage of time and practice, karma and honesty and the simple courage of looking, the following snow tracks in the dark of night.

Talking to Ivy and Beth felt like talking to someone I’ve known forever–I felt the same thing with Fred, and feel it time and again with Gary. Ahhh, here’s someone who’s seen and knows me–I needn’t either dig out or deny all the crap ’cause they’ve already seen it, already surveyed it–they’ve seen and know it yet inexplicably love and accept me anyway, either despite or because of it.

It’s like meeting a like-minded person–like realizing before you’ve met them that they’ll be like-minded because they share a certain vision or outlook or philosophy. A sense of wonder, Ivy called it–perhaps it’s the eye of a poet, an eye that is trained with long practice in stripping down life to its beautiful essentials. Here’s what you or I need–here’s what any human needs–to be perfectly content, and here we’ve thrown away the wrapper that conceals it.

It occurs to me that Ivy and Beth and I talked for several hours about any of a number of topics, and the conversation never lagged, nor did I ever think to check my watch and wonder what other uses I could make of the time. When’s the last time you talked for hours with anyone–much less a person you’d just met–without any need for griping or complaining or criticizing, three women talking nonstop with nary a speck of gossip? For it strikes me that in all that was said, Beth and Ivy never complained about anything–our talk was wholly centered on possibility and promise, the reality of being blessed in the mundane world…and never for a moment did this sparkling optimism seem put on or Pollyanna-ish. The gem of conversation sparkled without the need for superficial gilt or appearance-keeping.

It was, in short, a conversation that transcended mere looking and seeming–a conversation that cut straight to the marrow of the moment, a meeting of unguarded, glowing souls. A beautiful time with beautiful people, each of them doing simply that which they simply do.

That reference in the last paragraph to mere “looking and seeming” is an allusion to Mary Austin’s 1909 short story “The Walking Woman”, about another kind of Mortal Connection forged in the desert southwest. When you’ve traveled a long time–when you’ve let time and nature and, yes, solitude strip away the superficial hull that protects and conceals–sometimes you encounter an oasis of human contact. It’s a wonderful, magical thing. I’d drive again to Peterborough or Vermont or anywhere on the map to seek it, on a Sunday or any other heaven-blessed day.

Moleskine shelf

Last night I marked the kind of small accomplishment that brings a spot of joy to these otherwise cold, gray days. I filled my most recent Moleskine.

As someone who’s been journaling on and off since high school (and we won’t do the math to calculate how long ago that was), I’ve written my way through lots of notebooks. Even greater, though, is the number of notebooks I’ve started but never finished. Life has interfered with writing, or a blank book that looked lovely on the stationers’ shelf has turned out to be uncomfortable to the hand or too scratchy under the nib. In a word, I’m picky when it comes to journals: when I happen upon a brand I like, I become obsessively loyal to it, stocking up on extras “just in case” Apocalypse or market trends make it impossible for me to buy one when I need it. Like Seinfeld’s Elaine hoarding a closetful of her favorite contraceptive sponges, I have a Moleskine stash that should keep me writing for, say, the next few years. (Yes, this should tell you something about my social life: forget about being sponge-worthy; what I want to know about any given person is whether they’re interesting enough to be chronicled in one of my precious Moleskines.)

I adopted large, lined Moleskines as my journal-of-choice back in August of 2002, and since then I’ve filled eight of them. Before that, I was obsessively insistent on black Blueline recycled-paper composition books: they open flat, are narrow-ruled, and have a medium-sized page. And they’re black: my journals must be black. Yeah, pretty journals are, well, pretty…but we’re talking the tools of my writerly trade. When’s the last time you heard a carpenter insist that her hammer had to be pretty?

Large Moleskines are smaller than Bluelines: large Moleskines nicely fit in a bag or purse. (Yes, I choose my handbags on the basis of whether or not I can fit a notebook in them: forget about carrying a wallet, my notebook is the True Necessity.) Moleskines’ compact size and elastic band make them more easily portable than my Bluelines ever were, and I really do stash stuff (stamps, stickers, stationery, photos, addresses, business cards, laptop backup CDs) in the rear pocket. Although Moleskines are substantially more expensive than Bluelines (the latter being intended, after all, as a school child’s comp book), Moleskines simply feel more substantial and serious. Carrying a Moleskine and pen (Waterman Carene fountain: the best $200 anyone’s ever spent on me), I feel like I’m carrying the toolbox of a working writer. Moleskines mean business, and I feel that when I write in one: although I have (and have thrown out) many a half-filled comp book, I’ve consistently filled (and kept) all my Moleskines, eight down and counting.

And now I’m working on number nine. Today is bright and sunny with highs predicted to top the freezing mark; this afternoon I have a date to meet Ivy and Beth, two of my long-time blogreads, for hot beverages and book-browsing. Yes, the morning after starting a brand new notebook, it looks like today’s going to be imminently Moleskine-worthy.

    For all the bibliophiles who are squinting to see what else is in my collection, I keep my Moleskines right under my God Shelf, which is home to the sundry remnants of my Bible-thumping days as well as books by and about my favorite Christian mystics: Merton, Rolle, Julian of Norwish, Teresa of Avila. And for Reggie, a guide to Dog Health and Care. This triptych to God, Writing, and Dogs says pretty much all you need to know about my life priorities, thank you.

I wasn’t planning on posting an entry today: I spent part of the day walking the dog along Airport Road in nearby Swanzey, NH, and then I planned to read some student papers. The usual drab winter Saturday. But then my day was totally transformed by this manifestation of my True Self, revealed by a keen-eyed blog-judge named Jute:

    Everything about this woman’s appearance and choice of Blogging subjects says “teacher”. Not your creative, inspiring kind of teacher, not the teacher who pushes students to do better, to achieve. But the can’t-hack-it-in-the-real-world, those-who-can’t-teach kind of teacher. The kind who makes a point in trying break students who have more smarts and talent than she will ever have, even with a thousand seminars and certificates. Ok, maybe I’m reading too much into the tedious words of this drab little woman. But it’s fun, so I’ll continue! She looks like the kind of woman who is just totally dead in the sack, no affection, no life. Which may or may not be true, I don’t want to know, but the Blog IS mindless, pretentious, with the low-grade, unambitious pretension of the second-rate mind. Nothing even remotely adventurous here, no imagination, no feeling. Hoarded ordinaries refers, I think, to the ideas in her head. -D

Now, this is exactly what I’ve been waiting for these past, oh, 36 years: someone who can take one look at my blog and blog-picture and tell me everything about me: my teaching style, my life philosophy, my true persona and personality…heck, apparently I’ve been wearing my Bedroom Behavior on my sleeve all this time, and no one’s had the nerve to mention it before Jute came along. Yes, this made my day. Who needs to spend one’s life searching for the Big Answers to life’s questions–who needs to waste time uncovering one’s True Self–when someone like Jute can do it for you on the basis of looking at your picture and blog template?

Yep, “drab little woman” is my True Self, Revealed. How could I have missed it for so long?

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Youth. As seldom as I take photos of unidentified passersby, I photograph children even less. Since I don’t have children of my own, it seems invasive (and downright creepy) to snatch images of other folks’ young’uns. Wouldn’t you be spooked if some strange person started snapping photos of your youngster on the street?

Last summer while visiting Boston’s historic Granary Burial Ground, however, I couldn’t resist taking this distant snapshot of a touring schoolgroup strolling among the gravestones. The juxtaposition of old, weathered gravestones and (usually) rambunctious summertime youngsters was striking. (I say “usually” rambunctious youngsters because this batch was incredibly well-behaved, staying for the most part in a tight bunch right behind their chaperone. I couldn’t help but think they were secretly scared about wandering off alone in a cemetery, as if their chaperone had warned them of the horrors that happen to wayward children caught alone amongst gravestones.)

Morbid juxtapositions of youth and death notwithstanding, it’s a grand relief to see this image of green-grassed summer. These days, the playgrounds and schoolyards of snowbound southern New Hampshire look themselves like cemeteries, everyone either inside or off seeking other more seasonal-appropriate fun. Who needs playground equipment (or a trip to a historic cemetery) when there’s snow to play in? Maybe it’s not necessary to photograph other folks’ youngsters since this time of year, the snow brings out the kid in all of us.

While I head off for the day to Plymouth State University to meet with my former officemate and several other colleagues to collaborate on a book project, I’ll leave you with several recent images from Keene State College. Grab your shovel!

Yesterday was blue and clear, with a sun so bright it hurt. This morning is overcast with snow pouring from huddled clouds: the ground, sky, and air itself is dull white, the color of light denied.

Yesterday afternoon, one massive icicle fell with a clattering crash, and so did its shadow. Today, where have icicle and shadow gone?

It’s easy at this time of year to wish the winter to hurry along: please, can’t spring hasten and come? And yet time waits for no season: as I type these words several juncos twitter outside my window where yesterday a chickadee flitted. Last week I heard waxwings keening in the trees overhead, and by the next day they were gone: to whence?

Icicles, shadows, and the fleet-feathered birds of Time: I suspect they all wing to the same destination, Westward, beyond the horizon of inevitability.

It’s barely 8 am, and already I’ve taken an icicle image that beats all of yesterday’s. Something about the glint of morning light on ice is undeniably lovely (and check out that shadow!) I’d tell you that I took this photo in puppy pajamas and slippers while the dog took his usual morning pee, but that would be revealing too much, I’m sure. I’ll keep the rest to myself.

This morning I learned from Leslee that January 24th was the most depressing day of the year, so maybe that explains yesterday’s late-day fatigue. Late January is when the deep freeze really kicks in here in New Hampshire. Although until recently this year has been relatively snow-free, I’ve been feeling the weight of winter in my bones. These past few weeks I’ve been inordinately sleepy, and my sinuses and skin are screaming from the cold, dry air. This weekend, I bought a humidifier to sooth my sinuses, and last night I slathered myself with lotion to salve my skin. On sunny days like today, I feel myself turning toward the light like a flower: the effect of sunlight on mood is not mere theory to those of us who live in Nature’s nether regions. Sunlight makes everything shine, and gray days make me want to crawl under a rock.

Why should it surprise me that Nature’s effect on my body would be so obvious and apparent: why should it surprise me that I can feel winter in my sluggish blood? Have I so deeply internalized Emerson’s dead-wrong pronouncement that Nature is the Not-Me? No, no Waldo: you had it all wrong. If Nature’s not me, than who is She: if I am not Nature, who am I?

    A warm New Hampshire welcome to Ivy, who’s safely arrived at the MacDowell Colony for her month-long writer’s residency. Keep warm, Ivy: enjoy the snow, and write, write, write!

Today while I was inside for most of the day teaching at Keene State, outside the icicles were growing. I remember years ago on a winter retreat when a student asked the question, “What does it mean to follow one’s correct situation?” The Zen Master answered, “When the temperature rises, an icicle is not afraid to melt.”

Right now after teaching all day, I’m tired. Both my brain and body are weary from being “on” in front of a live classroom audience: I’m tired of trying to make sense. Right now I want simply to surrender to gravity, letting the earth’s inescapable pull draw me down, down, downward. Sometimes life as a sentient being seems too much and I envy the existence of the dumb elements. What do the snow, ice, and icicles know? What ideas hide in their white-crystalline cells?

Icicles know nothing; they just hang tight then drip, growing downward in a season when everything else dies. Imagine the foolishness of their plans, growing downward (and longer and leaner) as they drip and die. When the temperature rises, an icicle is not afraid to melt. What notions of strength and attainment am I clinging to, stubbornly, that make my life seem more tiresome than necessary?

Several weeks ago a person came for the first time to the Zen group I lead. When I introduced myself, he explained that he’d found our group on the web and had followed the links to my blog. “I feel like I already know you,” he remarked. “In fact, it feels kind of funny, like I might know too much about you.”

The remark was, I’m sure, innocuously given: I met this person, after all, on the heels of posting a somewhat personal entry that honestly admitted the pain and loneliness I’d felt for years in my marriage. Although I felt comfortable sharing those emotions with my long-time readers–those of you I “know” either by name or anonymously who have seen the various and sundry stages of my personal life–I can imagine how uncomfortable it could be to be a newcomer at the party only to discover the hostess getting Up Close and Personal about her emotional life. If you arrived on the scene expecting casual chitchat, it might be somewhat alarming instead to encounter Emotional Nakedness. Pain is something many folks aren’t comfortable talking about–pain is something many folks aren’t comfortable admitting–so encountering a “virtual stranger” who’s willing to put her pain out there in cyberspace is probably, admittedly, quite odd.

Compared to some of the other blogs I read–compared, in fact, to much of the literature I read–I don’t consider my blog to be very “confessional.” In my mind, the focus here is always on my writing, my photos, my so-called art, whatever the heck that is: the focus isn’t me per se. Yet this newcomer’s comment reminded me of something that not just one but three friends of mine have admitted on separate occasions: they feel a bit guilty (voyeuristic, even) reading my blog even though I put this “out there” for anyone to read. “It seems unfair,” one longtime friend remarked, “to stay informed about everything in your life while I keep all my business to myself.”

This comment surprised me. I don’t feel like I’m sharing “everything in my life”; in my mind, I still maintain clear boundaries about what I’ll share and what I won’t. At the same time, though, I realize I can’t exactly articulate these boundaries because I seem to make them up as I go along: what last month I never thought I’d share turns into the blog fodder of today.

As writers, we always write about ourselves, and as a long-time journal-keeper, I’m used to there being a direct connection between my feeling heart and my writing hand. In writing classes where I read my free-writing aloud as a way of breaking ice with students, I’ve sometimes found it has the opposite effect: faced with the nonchalant candor with which I address some subjects including my own pain, some students panic, feeling their writing has to reach a similar level of emotional courage. Truth be known, we each decide as we’re writing what we feel comfortable expressing. I’ve never, for instance, written in any detailed way about sex here on my blog, I rarely write about it in my handwritten journal, and I certainly don’t write about it when I’m in a classroom with students. Although I don’t have a problem with other people blogging their sex lives if they choose, in my mind that’s something personal, so I don’t go there. It’s not that I can’t write about sex–one of the shocking realizations I had while writing my so-called novel was that I can quickly and easily crank out lurid (and entirely fictional) sex scenes. But when it comes to my own actual bedroom, the blinds are drawn, thank you.

I’ve been thinking with particular fervor about this question of what to share and what not to share now that I know with certainty that my ex-husband occasionally reads my blog. Although I don’t have a problem with Chris reading “in theory,” I have to admit I was a bit taken aback when he was the first to comment on my entry about meeting his new girlfriend. There’s nothing I’m ashamed of in that entry: you’ll notice, in fact, that I said relatively little there about Chris himself and even less about his new girlfriend. If Chris (or anyone, for that matter) came to Hoarded Ordinaries looking for the juicy, catty details of what Lorianne “really” thinks about her ex-husband’s new girlfriend, they’ll go away sorely disappointed.

Although I worried in retrospect that I came across as too pious and self-righteous in that entry–my insistance that “all is well” completely ignored the fact that I had a good long cry in the solitary privacy of my room after Chris, etc. went to the shared comfort of theirs–in the end I wouldn’t have wanted to use my blog to vent my catty first impressions, petty jealousies, etc. Yes, these feelings are there: if you’re a living, breathing human, you’re going to face an emotional rollercoaster of contradictory thoughts as you face the prospect of “my ex’s new love.” But just because a catty emotion arises doesn’t mean that’s the last word: if I judged myself on the basis of what emotions arise (especially in the aftermath of divorce), I’d have to diagnose myself as a hopeless, helpless schizophrenic, my perspective entirely scrambled and contradictory. Instead, I prefer a Buddhist perspective: thoughts and feelings arise, pass, and return without logic or predictability, but these thoughts and feelings aren’t who I am. They arise, but they too shall pass.

Part of why I’m comfortable sharing any of this rests on the fact that I don’t have to share all of it: in the end, it’s me calling the shots in terms of how much I care to disclose, and when. One benefit of meditation practice is it helps you strengthen your “looking” muscle: whereas many normal folks, I think, shy away from their own pain and vulnerability, what you “do” while you’re meditating is look at it, whatever it is, with a quiet, nonjudgmental acceptance. This pain I’m feeling: what is it? These catty feelings: what are they? This loneliness or anger or confusion or joy: what are they, and who is this “I” who thinks she can “have” much less control her emotions? At the end of the day, any pain I feel isn’t truly “mine” because that would imply there’s some unchanging, constant Self who can contain this pain. Instead, while meditating I’ve come to realize that “my pain” is simply Pain: it comes and goes, blowing in and out as it swirls and eddies at my feet. If I either cling to it or try to push it away, it will control me; if I simply let it be, it will rise and then fall away of its own accord.

In other words, there’s no need to chase snowflakes, and I really needn’t push the mountain either. If my semblance of self-disclosure here on Hoarded Ordinaries is extraordinary, it is so only because we live in a world that specializes in Denial. Got a problem? Bury it in work. Facing pain? Take a pill. Confused about your life’s direction? Have a drink. Although I’ve done my share of working, medicating, and drinking, thank you, I realize the efficacy of such approaches is temporary. At some point sooner or later, you’re going to have to look at it, whatever it is. Whatever’s wrong with your life–whatever is your life–one day you’re going to have to stare it straight in the eye: “Hello, Life, what are you?”

Meditation gives you the courage to do such looking, and so does writing. Sharing my emotional bumps and jostles with “any and everyone in cyberspace” is easy: the difficult audience is myself. I remember a remark from one of the teachers in my Zen school: “We become what we practice.” If we spend our lives hiding, ignoring, and denying our own and other’s experiences, we’ll become oblivious; if we spend our lives looking without judgment, we’ll become perceptive, wise, and compassionate. With much looking comes insight, and with much looking comes courage. Facing your emotional load–the heaps of white stuff you have to dig through to find your way–is the difficult part. After you’ve faced it, sharing seems easy. And after you’ve shared it, the load seems miraculously and unaccountably much lighter.

    And amazed “thank you” to my upstairs neighbor, who unbeknownst to me dug out my car–and shoveled our driveway–while I was writing this post. I don’t know what I did to deserve that, but it’s nice to see my car again.

Although the dog and I haven’t (yet) been outside to see how deeply our feet will sink into snow, this is the prospect that presented itself when I looked out the window this morning. Looks like I won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

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