March 2007

There aren’t enough first hours for me to write a proper post before heading off for a day of teaching and to-dos, so this extreme close-up of one of the dairy divas at Stonewall Farm will have to do. Here’s looking at you, cow.

Weathered wood

I’ve moved beyond lamenting there not being enough hours in the day. At this point, I regret that there aren’t enough first hours.

On any given day, there are at least three or four things I’d love to do first thing upon awakening. A faithful writer should write first thing; a good Zen student should practice. Unless I want to get increasingly soft in the middle, I should exercise first thing in the morning to make sure I don’t put it off, and on any given morning, Reggie is waiting by my bedside to make sure I let him outside and then get his breakfast first thing.

When I lived in the Cambridge Zen Center, I woke at 5:00 am and did two hours of bowing, sitting, and chanting meditation before breaking silence and beginning my day…but that often meant staying up late the night before to finish the necessary grading and class prep for day’s worth of teaching. These days, I don’t have the energy to stay up late grading and prepping classes, so if I don’t get everything done at a reasonable hour, those work-related tasks are waiting for me first thing…after, of course, I’ve done a quick check of my online classes to make sure there are no Urgent Issues that need to be addressed before I head off to campus.

Rural mailboxes

During the summer when I don’t have the deadline of an 8 am face-to-face class breathing down my neck, my preferred morning ritual is to wake, walk, and then write, the walk satisfying both Reggie’s and my needs for exercise, and the writing happening in the tranquil moments after we’ve both been fed. But during the school year, it’s difficult to find enough hours to get everything done, much less everything done first thing.
Roadside tree

My Mom once described the psychological juggling act of motherhood by saying “Being a mom means there’s always at least one person who’s angry at you.” Although I can’t speak toward motherhood, I can assert that being an adjunct instructor teaching a full-time-and-a-half courseload means there’s always a student email to answer, a pile of papers to grade, or a class to prep. I have an ongoing fantasy of leisurely mornings when I can wake without an alarm, reach for a handy pile of books and magazines, and lounge abed for a while, lulled by the comfort of pleasure reading. Instead, I have a dog who doesn’t believe in sleeping in and a pile of student papers stacked up to my chin. It looks like my morning would has gotten crushed again by a heap of morning shoulds.

Most days, my life feels like I live on a highway, or at least right near the Information Superhighway. Although I don’t enjoy the exciting urban nightlife of Sex in the City, my workdays are busy with a full dance-card of tasks related to teaching both off-line and on-. As I prepare yet another weekly to-do list with more tasks than hours to do them, it’s tempting to think that a country life would be easier than my close-to-campus one, a life close to the land being somehow simpler than the life of the mind.

In recent reviews of his film I Think I Love My Wife, comedian Chris Rock is quoted as saying, “You can be married and bored, or single and lonely. Ain’t no happiness nowhere.” I think Rock’s quip can be applied to many things. It’s easy to think that life would be easier, happier, or more fun if we were something we weren’t: maybe if I were (or weren’t) married, or maybe if I had another job, or maybe if I lived in another place, or if I owned X or had access to Y, then I’d be happy. Chris Rock’s mantra that there “Ain’t no happiness nowhere,” however, points to a simple if sobering truth: there ain’t no grass greener than the grass you’ve got. If you’re sticking your head through the metaphorical slats trying to scope out greener pastures, you might as well start munching the hay that’s within reach. If there ain’t no happiness nowhere, then it’s possible to make your own contentment anywhere. As I once heard a minister insist, “The grass is always greener where it’s watered.” You can spend your days wishing for the things you don’t have, or you can spend your days tending the things you do. Which do you prefer?

As I contemplate the to-dos that loom during another mid-semester work week, I have to remind myself that the tasks on tap are how I tend my own greening pasture. Might it be lovely to live in the rural slow-lane where life moves at the speed of slowly plodding horses? Perhaps. The realist in me knows, though, that life in the rural slow-lane isn’t as slow as it seems: farming and the chores of animal husbandry are back-breaking work, and both are accompanied by loads of manure. At least the shit I encounter in my day-job as a college writing & lit prof is entirely metaphorical, not the kind that comes from a literal horse’s ass.

    Today’s pictures are from this weekend’s massively muddy Sap Gathering Contest at Stonewall Farm. For more information about the contest, see my post from two years ago, when the ground was solid enough for me to follow a sap-gathering team into the sugar bush.

I’ve been meaning to re-visit May Sarton’s grave in nearby Nelson, NH but haven’t been back since I first photographed it a little over a year ago. As I explained then, I feel a strong sentimental connection with Sarton after having read and deeply resonated with her published journals over the years. As a divorced woman writer living on my own (and blogging bits of my private life) here in New Hampshire, I continue to consider Sarton one of my deepest inspirations: another solitary soul who saw the written word as being the most accurate means of communicating her true self.

I’m a sucker for cemeteries and feel particularly sentimental about the graves of authors I admire. Although I haven’t been back to Willa Cather’s resting place in Jaffrey, NH since I first visited in July, 2004, I feel an inexplicable sense of groundedness knowing that Cather’s remains are nearby…and the mountain she so loved to contemplate during summer stints in New Hampshire still looms over my shoulder, Dame Monadnock being another of my grounding inspirations.

And although humble Henry David Thoreau lies buried a state away from me in Concord, MA, I get a little emotional (forgive me) when I remember that he himself once walked Keene streets, remarking during a stop on his way to Canada in 1850 that our own Main Street “strikes the traveller favorably, it is so wide, level, straight, and long.” Thoreau’s mother was born in Keene, where she lived in a house along the Main Street her son would someday admire and immortalize; is it any wonder that I feel a more-than-merely-literary connection with Thoreau and feel a bit sentimental about his grave, too?

Someday we’ll all find our own resting places whether famous or forgotten. In the meantime, I get a bit emotional knowing that three authors who have inspired my own writing–three authors who are long gone but whose words still resonate in my heart–lie within an easy drive of my humble abode here in Keene. We’re never alone, I think, if we’re surrounded by great ones and the ones who inspire us to greatness. That might sound a bit cheesy…or maybe it’s just me being Sentimental.

It's Keene to shop locally

Yesterday was sunny, clear, and cold, but the combination of sunshine and singing birds made it feel warm and spring-like: a perfect day for shutter-snapping. While stopping to snap a shot of a red “It’s Keene to shop locally” bumper-sticker in the window of a downtown menswear store, I managed to catch the reflection of a trio of pedestrians doing some window shopping of their own, the physics of reflection making it look like they’re checking out the same suit-clad mannequin I was photographing. How Keene is that?

The calendar claims yesterday was the first day of spring, but it sure looks and feels like winter out there. This morning when I walked Reggie, it was 10 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and when I walked to campus for my noon meditation group, the temperature was hovering just below freezing. Thermometers notwithstanding, for most of the day the warmth of the sun has been melting exposed surfaces, giving just a hint of hope that winter will be over, eventually.

Although I’ve lived in New Hampshire for about eight years now, I still haven’t gotten used to life without a proper spring. In Ohio where I was born and raised, there were four full seasons, and spring was one of my favorites with its riot of woodland wildflowers. In New Hampshire, we don’t have spring; we simply have Mud Season, a time when hunter-orange Frost Heaves signs are the brightest thing blooming along rural roads. On sunny days like today, what gets me itching for spring isn’t a hunger for warm temperatures; it’s a craving for warm, bare dirt with wild green things sprouting from it. Around month’s end, I’ll go stalking crocuses, planted greenery having to satisfy my yearning for wildflowers. It won’t be another month or so until the first of the flowers starts blooming in New Hampshire woods; until then, the ground is blanketed in white, not green.

Theriomorph recently described a malady that’s little-known outside New England: M.A.D., or March Affective Disorder, an annual depression that afflicts anyone longing for a spot of green before April. “We�re just worn out by this point,” she remarks, “hunching against the wind and slogging through snow in the dark, the ubiquitous mud our only respite – and that only between bouts of the year�s most energetic last-word storms.” Yes, that about says it; as I remarked in a “been there, had that” comment, here in New Hampshire “you’ll see snow in March, mud in April, and blackflies if you dare step out of your house in May.”

It’s heartening to have more hours of sunlight now: those hours of light are what keep us holding out hope here in snow-blanketed New Hampshire. But until the earth is bare, warm, and sprouting, part of me will continue to squirm with a different sort of March Madness, my inner eye fixed on wild blooms, not basketballs, as my heart yearns for the mild mirth of May.

I often refer to my upstairs neighbor’s cats as my “step-cats” because they’re not mine, but they occasionally visit. My upstairs neighbor and I share a front and back hallway, and in the summer when I leave my back door open so Reggie can lounge on my screened back porch, Tara or one of her house-mates will sometimes slink into my kitchen looking for an edible handout or a clueless canine to taunt.

Having had her first paws-on experience with snow earlier this winter, Tara has since turned into a homebody, staying inside and lounging on the front hallway steps that lead to my neighbor’s apartment. Apparently Tara’s stair-step is the perfect place for a step-cat to lounge, stare at clueless canines, and partake in an occasional game of peekaboo.

There’s nothing cozier than being holed away inside during an ongoing winter storm…as long as the precious radiators keep emanating heat.

In need of a fix-up?

At the first thousand or so glances, I didn’t get the unintentional visual pun. Yes, it’s odd to have several signs hawking online dating sites in the broken window of a long-abandoned paint and wallpaper store, but where’s the punchline? It wasn’t until last week that I got it: it’s all about fix-ups! Online dating is about getting fixed up, and paint and wallpaper stores are about fixing up, too. And judging from the broken windows, this place itself is in need of a good fixing-up. How about you? What in your life needs fixing-up these days?


Regular readers here may have noticed that I’ve been posting far less regularly than usual over the past few months. On one level, I haven’t been blogging much for purely practical reasons: between teaching full-time at Keene State, teaching part-time for SNHU Online, moonlighting as a dissertation and creativity coach, and generally trying to have some semblance of a life, there often aren’t enough hours in the day for blogging. Yes, in the past I’ve juggled the same commitments and still managed to post here nearly everyday, but right now that juggling act seems beyond me. At any given moment, if there’s not even time to do everything, you make a choice (conscious or not) about which ball to drop. Recently, blogging has been that ball: it doesn’t pay my rent, and I don’t feel the same sort of ethical responsibility to my readers as I do to my students.

On another level, I find myself being more protective of my off-line life, which these days means actually trying to have a life away from my computer and not necessarily blogging every moment and detail of said life. As a teacher who sometimes teaches online, I already spend too much time virtually, holed in my office or curled with my laptop in bed communicating with students I’ll never meet. As a writer who blogs, I’m always exploring the question of what to put here in cyberspace and what to put between the private pages of my offline notebook. What is wholly mine, and what stuff am I willing to share? In the past, I’ve perhaps erred on the side of too much self-disclosure, and these days I find myself gently and almost subconsciously pulling back, putting less of myself “out there” on the blog and saving more things as “only mine.”

Overnight alien eye

I wouldn’t go so far as to say my relationship with blogging was “broken” and in need of a fix-up, but it has changed over time, and recently I’ve become more conscious of that evolution. Sometimes fix-ups aren’t sudden, intentional things; sometimes you simply move away from something that wasn’t working and gradually settle into something that does. I don’t know if my current approach to blogging is here to stay: I suspect that blogging might be a seasonal thing, something that’s easier to do during summers when I’m under-employed versus winters when I’m over-committed. Whatever the summer might bring on the blogging front, I trust that will take care of itself when the time comes; for now, I continue to carry a camera with me wherever I go, and I trust that spontaneous, unbidden shots like the glance of an alien-eye on the side of an overnight delivery truck will appear without me even trying, no fix-up necessary.

After no pregnancies, an appendectomy when I was eighteen, and several months without my accustomed yoga/Pilates and belly-dancing classes, my stomach at 38 looks closer to Zhoen’s at 45 than Leslee’s at 48. In an era when super-models are emphatic exclamations, the women in my family have always been shaped like inverted question marks: small on top and curvy at bottom. (Hat tip to Dave, who once on-blog or off- used this punctuation analogy to describe his preferred feminine body type.) Although at insecure, mirror-scrutinizing moments I crave Abs of Steel as much as any girly-girl, at 38 I’ve come to realize I’m constitutionally Soft in the Middle, just like the nugat-filled candy bars I relished as a kid…and which now go straight to my stomach, butt, and thighs.

In terms of pop culture, I’m more JLo than Lohan, more Beyonce than Tyra. If you’re old enough to remember Madonna’s pre-Pilates “Holiday,” you know that she, too, was once softer than her current well-chiseled bod would suggest. I suppose if I ate less, worked out more, and generally made it a point to become an exclamation point, I too could have a flat and well-toned tum…but what precisely is the point? My belly’s soft because it’s flexible, expanding and contracting with every meal and every breath. Would I want to have a taut and sleek figure if it meant living a life that’s constricted in several senses of the term? Or do I love living a life that relishes food, luxuriates in laughter, and appreciates the way meditation encourages you to let it all hang out as your belly rises and falls with every breath?

Although I’m not tall, blonde, or busty, I’m slender enough that I could, in theory, have a Barbie Body if I worked hard enough…but I’m not enamored with working hard. Why would I want to work hard to be hard? Rock-hard abs are, in the end, rock hard: isn’t it enough that life itself is hard? Allowing myself a little bit of softness in the middle, I think, is the seat of compassion: allowing myself a little bit of slack and sag means I needn’t demand perfection in others, either. If old peeling paint has a certain appeal, why can’t beauty be a belly that has learned to go with the gravitational flow rather than insisting on being perpetually and unnaturally tight? Isn’t there a reason, after all, that we call an obnoxiously rigid person a tight ass?

These days as my belly gently rounds and sags, I’ve come to adore the line in the Song of Songs where the speaker describes his lover’s belly as looking like a heap of wheat set about by lilies: a round and even somewhat dumpy lump whose softness presages a garden of delights nearby. These days, telling someone their stomach looks like a heap of wheat would earn you a slap…but for the herd-keeping Israelites, wheat was a precious commodity, and a heap of it was as precious as gold. Barbie’s well-toned tum bears the price of plastic: hard currency that’s a dime a dozen. Those of us who have made peace with our inverted question marks know that booty is a stash of precious goods, there being something more valuable than junk in this trunk.

They say a mind is a terrible thing to waste, and I’d go a step further. Those nugat-filled candy bars I relished as a kid were unspeakably sweet, and so is the wisdom that knows a waist is a terrible thing to mind.

    If you want to join the Belly Roll, shoot a picture of your bare stomach, post it to your blog, and tell Mella that she inspired you.

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