February 2005


General store, Dublin, NH

Yesterday I took a sunny Sunday drive around southern New Hampshire, and I saw several signs like this one welcoming troops home from overseas. The National Guard’s 210th Engineer Detachment returned to the States from Afghanistan on February 17th and were reunited with their families at the Peterborough armory on February 24th; they’d been deployed since January, 2004. That’s over a year they’d spent away from family, friends, and their “day jobs”: an entire year during which husbands kept in touch with wives and parents kept in touch with children via twice weekly telephone calls. Looking back over the past year, how much living and loving would you have missed if you’d been swept overseas by duty, honor, and country?

Welcome home, Keene, NH

Longtime readers of Hoarded Ordinaries might remember when we welcomed Captain Chad Fisk home from Iraq back in August. On the same day that the 210th Engineer Detachment arrived at Fort Drum, NY on their way home to Peterborough, I got an email from Chad’s mom, Linda, thanking me (belatedly!) for welcoming her son home. According to his mom, Chad’s a Keene native who spent “a very long 15 months” serving in Iraq with the Second Armored Calvary, having been deployed in Iraq “while it was still officially a war.”

I certainly never imagined I’d hear from Chad Fisk’s mom when I posted that Welcome Home: whether I knew Chad or not, it seemed right and proper to say an anonymous “thanks” to the unknown (to me!) soldiers serving in places far-flung and sundry. What applied to Chad Fisk last August applies to the members of the 210th Engineer Detachment now in February. Whoever you are and wherever you served, thanks and welcome home. The rest of us homebodies are glad you’re back.

Dearly departed, Dublin, NH

In other homecoming news, this week the chalkboard at the headquarters of Yankee Magazine in Dublin, NH announced the death and subsequent funeral service of Jessie Hale. (Click on the image for a larger version.) Some months ago, Kathleen posted a similar snapshot announcing the peaceful passing of another local citizen. Dublin is about 15 minutes from Keene and is a much smaller town, the kind of quintessential New England hamlet where, yes, everyone probably knows Jessie Hale as well as the entire Hale clan.

You have to love the citizens of those tiny towns who come out and post signs and banners when one of their own comes home, whether that homecoming be the return of a National Guard troop or the spiritual passing of a longtime citizen. I’d like to think that there are some signs, banners, and maybe even a chalkboard at the Pearly Gates to greet Jessie Hale: “Welcome home” and “Thanks for your faithful service.”

Guarding the car, Dublin, NH

And here in Keene, tomorrow will see yet another sort of homecoming. After lamenting the retirement of my pet-sitter, Reggie and I took the plunge: I found a local kennel, and this weekend Reg went for an acclimation stay. Reggie’s nose was working overtime when I left him at “doggy camp,” and I’m sure he’s doing fine after his short attention span survived the initial shock of separation. At least Reg, I tell myself, has a new environment–different sounds, smells, and all those other dogs–to distract him from thoughts of me. I, on the other hand, keep expecting to find four legs underfoot: whenever I walk past the couch, I expect to see Reg there, and whenever I come home (like from a sunny Sunday drive, for instance), I’m disappointed to find no doggy welcome awaiting me.

So while I’m wiling the hours until I retrieve Reg, I’ve been solacing my Desperate and Dogless self by taking surreptitious pictures of other people’s dogs, like this pair of Australian sheepdogs guarding their master’s car in Dublin, NH. It seems to me that servicemen and dearly departed citizens aren’t the only ones who deserve thanks for faithful service.

    And while we’re on the topic of happy homecomings, click on over to Ditch the Raft, where Andi is back from three months of retreat. Welcome home, Andi!

Sometimes these days, I feel filled to overflowing with gratitude like a vessel brimming with beauty.

Years ago when I first met my friend “A,” we both were working our way through Julia Cameron’s handbook of creativity, The Artist’s Way. The chapter that spoke to “A” the most powerfully was “Recovering a Sense of Abundance.” Cameron explained how artists, writers, and other creative people need to see the Universe as a full and generous place: if you dare follow your dreams, the Universe will provide you with what you need, albeit in simple and sometimes frugal ways.

I think I’m finally realizing what Cameron has been talking about all along. Last weekend while I wandered around New York City with three good friends and a pencam, I was dazzled by ordinary images of abundance: a bead shop full of bright baubles, a corner convenience store stocked with colorful produce and products.

The first time I went on a Zen retreat, I spent a silent and austere week hurting and struggling in a monastery in Rhode Island. For a week I spoke only during 5-minute, every-other-day interviews with the Zen Master; I ingested no sugar, alcohol, or caffeine; and I showered every other day in a monastery-mandated attempt to save well water. When I returned to Boston after my week-long stint of monasticism, I remember standing agape before a Copley Plaza shop window filled with colorful soaps, lotions, and sponges. I was dazzled at the abundance of shapes, colors, and textures. After a week of austerity, my mind couldn’t process the wide assortment of personal care products presumably needed to keep a human body working and presentable from day to day.

The first time Thomas Merton visited Louisville after entering the austere Abbey of Gethsemani, he railed against the rampant consumerism he found in the big city. What need did people have of all the crap that merchants hawked in shop windows? With the typical zeal of a newly converted young monk, Merton wrote a seething rant about the foolish people who spent their lives in active pursuit of material goods while he and his fellow monks held the world together through their contemplative and abstemious lifestyle.

In a future visit to Louisville, Merton’s view changed markedly. Softened by months of prayer and silence, Merton did that most miraculous of things: he changed his mind.

    In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . This sense of liberation could have taken form in the words: �Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.”

In this passage (published in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander), Merton points to the Universe’s most astonishing example of abundance: the wealth of human persons who fill it to overflowing, each of them carrying within them like hidden treasure an untold story.

The abundance found in shops, markets, and busy diners isn’t a sign of wickedness. It’s a reminder from the Universe that we are amply and abundantly loved, and to whom much love is given, much love is required.

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Ghostly, which reminds me of the day last September when Kathleen and I visited the presumably haunted Pine Hill Cemetery in Hollis, NH. The Bible says that all flesh is grass, and it seems that given enough time, even stone eventually goes the way of all flesh.

The ostensible reason for my jaunt to New York City last weekend was to see the Gates as well as to spend some time with my blog-buddies Leslee, Elck, and Dave. But when in New York, you do as New Yorkers do, and one of the city’s favorite pastimes is, of course, people watching.

After scoping the Gates from ground level, our band of merry bloggers headed to the top of the Met to view Central Park from above. Once we navigated the line to the admissions’ counter, the line to the elevator, and the line to roof’s edge where we could properly peruse Christo’s spectacle, I turned around and considered the throngs of people mingling on the rooftop. Cameras were clicking everywhere: some folks were photographing the Gates, others were photographing their friends and family, and an entire phalanx of photographers was taking pictures of themselves reflected against the New York City skyline. In New York City at least, reflective photography comes naturally: how else will people believe you were really there unless you capture your Thereness in pictures?

Although I’m usually hesitant about photographing strangers, I don’t have the same qualms about photographing people already posing for other cameras. Both photographers and their human subjects are easy targets in the sense that they stand still long enough for you to capture their image. So although I didn’t act quickly enough to capture an image of the woman with the barking tits, I did capture an image of a woman who moved beyond “tree hugging” into the realm of “tree humping.” In New York City, the constant barrage of fascinating people is so unrelenting, it’s easy to become mesmerized by the sheer volume of oddity. In the case of Ms. Barking Tits, I had my camera on and in my hand as she approached with her canine-laden bosom…but in the time it took me to say, “Hey, nice dogs,” she’d passed without me raising my camera.

Fortunately, other subjects were more cooperative. Since last Saturday was sunny, about half the population of New York City was out taking pictures, which means the other half was posing and hamming it up for the camera. In the city that never sleeps, cameras are ubiquitous and ever-on-the-lookout. Where else but in Central Park would you see a stylishly dressed woman taking an extreme close-up of her boyfriend’s seemingly indifferent chin?

While Christo and Jeanne-Claude provided a saffron backdrop, the city of New York (and a handful of blogging tourists) came out to observe and make art. I’ve already remarked how the teeming masses are an essential part of the spectacle that is the Gates: more than a work of environmental art, the Gates is a performance piece in which passersby become part of the ever-shifting canvas. When you add photographers to the mingling mix, the result is an endlessly self-referencial artwork in which photographers make art out of passersby who are themselves art. In the case of this dapper photographer (whom you might have already seen on the the Eye’s blog), art is purposefully self-referential: rather than hiding from the camera’s eye as do many photographers, this unabashed Artist and his Marvelous Moustache actively courted the camera’s gaze. Why shouldn’t an Artist be Art himself?

Although some bloggers (like the aforementioned Eye) are notoriously enigmatic, eshewing any personal attention their blogs might garner, publishing under a variety of pseudonyms, and hiding like an invisible shadow from the camera’s gaze, other bloggers are not so retiring. The ever-erudite Dave, for example, is positively rubber-faced when cameras are concerned, aping and mugging for photos like a professional clown. Now that Dave has a digicam of his own, it’s only a matter of time before he too succumbs to the temptation of narcissism, mugging and aping in front of mirrors, windows, or any such reflective surface. In this age of memoir, a writer’s life becomes her art…so why shouldn’t a blogger’s face be part of his art as well? Knowing now what Dave looks like–knowing now how he acts in restaurants when the cameras come out–are you more or less likely to read his blog? I for one find it refreshing to know there is indeed a face–and a funny one at that–behind Dave’s prolific and thought-provoking words. In a blogosphere that is divided between superficial snarkiness and ponderous pretension, it’s good to know that there are some serious and thoughtful bloggers who nevertheless can laugh at themselves.

By the end of the day, I finally succeeded in catching the Eye in the act. Yes, it’s true: the Eye doesn’t have one in the back of his head, so although he might not mug and ape for the camera, it’s easy enough to sneak up on him when he’s distracted with shutter-snapping of his own. His version of this image focuses on the word “Gate”: a reference to the artwork we’d gathered to appreciate. In my version, though, the Eye is himself part of the picture, captured perpetually in pixels if not in stone.

    While we’re on the subject of Dave’s attention-getting antics, be sure to click over to Via Negativa to wish a happy birthday to Mr. Funny Face.

Right now, I have a yawn-inducing case of the winter blahs.

Having the blahs is quite different from having the blues. When you have the blues, at least you can sing about it, write about it, or wail, whine, and cry about it. When you have the blahs, though, you don’t want to do anything. And whereas the blues are usually caused by something–heartache, loneliness, loss–the blahs don’t have a discernable cause. Nope, the blahs just kind of happen for no apparent reason, and there’s not much of anything you can do to fix them. When you have the blahs, all you can do is face them full-on while you wait for them to pass of their own accord.

Since getting back from my whirlwind trip to New York City to see the Gates, I’ve been tired and out-of-sorts. In part this makes sense: traveling is always tiring, and my hurried trip to and from New York didn’t allow for much “down” time. It’s natural to feel a bit of a letdown upon returning from a trip, and it’s not like my life here in Keene has anything excitement-wise that can compare to New York. No, life here in Keene is pretty yawn-inducing compared to life in the Big Apple, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I felt something of a letdown coming back and returning to my usual mid-semester stride.

The fact that this is indeed mid-semester is also partly to blame for my present blah-dom. Right now is roughly the halfway point in my spring semester at Keene State, so right about now is when I typically start second-guessing nearly everything I’m doing teaching-wise. After the novelty of a new semester has worn off, I typically step back and start evaluating what I’m doing: what’s working, and what isn’t? Right now I’m teaching two different courses in which I’ve assigned the same texts and readings for several semesters in a row, so I feel like I’m ready for a change. Although it’s always more work to switch from a tried-and-true textbook, sometimes the novelty of working with something new is worth the trauma of changing.

And lastly, today while I was scribbling in my journal about this present malaise, I realized this is the first winter when I’ve been able to focus single-mindedly on the ebb and flow of my own emotions. This time last year, I was preoccupied with dissertation edits, and in other winters, I focused a great deal of energy on my ex-husband’s emotional health. Although he never deigned to visit a doctor for diagnosis much less treatment, C freely admitted that the depression that descended around our anniversary at the beginning of November and lasted until his birthday at the end of March fit the profile of Seasonal Affective Disorder. For the past dozen years, I’ve devoted a great deal of energy to someone else’s emotional crises, something I didn’t fully realize until being freed now of that burden. Now that I have “only” my own mental health to tend to, I’m marvelling at how easy (relatively speaking) my life is: for the first time in a dozen years, I’m not terribly behind with mid-semester grading, I don’t have a huge stack of unopened mail or unpaid bills, and I’m caught up with checkbook-balancing and other domestic chores.

In a word, my life right now is good. Right before this bout of blahs set in, I’d spent pages in my journal expressing gratitude at my good-fortune: after a dozen years of feeling stuck on an emotional roller-coaster, now life is settling into a comfortable stride. Perhaps it is this unaccustomed comfort that is causing my present blahs: maybe I’d grown addicted to the excitement of crisis and chaos, and now that my life is “just” plain and simple, I don’t know exactly how to react. “Normal” is far more boring than the intensity of living with a troubled, mood-swinging soul; “normal” is, at times, downright blah.

And when all is said and done, I think I can get used to blah once the worst of it passes, a natural phase that will eventually ripen and fall away of its own accord. This afternoon when I got home from another yawn-inducing day of teaching yet more of the same classes, I sat on my sofa and paged through a magazine while afternoon light streamed through my living room windows. It was an entirely blah, boring moment, and it felt ever-so-sweet. Even the blahs, I’m learning, can be a sort of solace if you spend time with them gently, letting the comfort of their predictability soften the corners of your soul.

Straight on the heels of visiting Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s ode to impermanence in New York’s Central Park, I spent this afternoon watching the Buddhist nuns of Keydong Thuk-Che-Cho-Ling create a sand mandala at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College.

With their sacred geometry of circles, squares, and eight-petaled lotus blossoms, Tibetan mandalas embody the balanced symmetry of meditation practice. The particular design the nuns of Keydong are creating at Wellesley is a symbolic representation of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Around an eight-petaled flower representing Buddhism’s Eightfold Path is a square with four gates signifying the fruits of meditation: loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. On the petals of the central lotus blossom are inscribed the Sanskrit characters for Avaloskitesvara’s mantra: “om mani padme hum,” which translates as “the jewel within the lotus” or “may the mind be within the heart.” Containing the four directions that themselves contain the entire known world, mandalas offer a visual encapsulation of Buddhist cosmology. Through meditation, opposites are brought into symmetry, wholeness is attained, and World Peace is possible.

Creating a sand mandala is an incredibly painstaking task. The intricate design you can see (blurrily) in these images took nearly a week to complete; the nuns will continue adding to this design until next Tuesday when they will give a ceremonial nod to impermanence by destroying their handiwork and dumping its colored grains in Lake Waban. Although I’ve seen photos of sand mandalas, I’d never before today seen one being created. Tapping long silver funnels with thick butter-knife handles, the nuns deposit tiny bits of colored sand as they sit cross-legged and doubled-over for hours. Surrounded by museum-goers and a handful of shutter-snapping photographers, the nuns remained one-pointed in their concentration. Watching them work was oddly hypnotic. Although watching sand flow from funnels is about as action-packed as watching paint dry, the nuns’ mood of meditative attentiveness was contagious: it didn’t feel like I’d spent several hours watching a whole lot of nothing.

Just as powerful as the work of these nuns’ hands is the quiet testimony of their gentle spirit. Only one of the eight visiting nuns speaks English; the others communicate through smiles and clear-eyed gestures. After my friend Ji Hyang Sunim, Wellesley’s Buddhist chaplain and director of this mandala project, introduced me to several of the nuns, a couple I hadn’t met “accidentally” bumped into me as I signed the museum guestbook. When I turned to apologize for standing in their way, each nun gestured toward the other and giggled: “Her fault!” This playful spirit typifies these women’s spiritual practice. Intently focused on their work, the nuns were entirely gracious toward onlookers: when a family with children entered the gallery, one of the nuns came forward to show the youngsters how to use her sand funnel, and when a woman with a baby-stroller walked past a group of nuns returning from lunch, all of them crowded around the baby to coo and make adoring faces.

Although a sand mandala is infinitely less expensive to create than Christo’s Central Park installation, both point equally to the beauties of impermanence. From a practical perspective, it’s downright foolish to spend two weeks creating an intricate artwork that is destined for destruction, but knowledge of this mandala’s end doesn’t keep the nuns of Keydong from devoting themselves full-heartedly to their task. The jewel is in the heart of the lotus, and these women’s minds are in their hearts, their gentle attentiveness trickling out grain by grain like sand through an hour-glass. Beauty dwells in every grain, and there is no need for weeping even when beauty passes.

    The nuns of Keydong will continue creating their sand mandala through March 1st, when Wellesley will host a traditional dismantling ceremony. For more information about visiting the mandala, visit the Wellesley Buddhist Community website, or check out this Boston Globe article and accompanying photo gallery.

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