July 2007


Under a darkening sky

Last night, I drove to western Massachusetts to catch a Pittsfield Dukes game with Rachel and her husband, Ethan. Last year, I’d met Rachel and Ethan in North Adams to watch Keene’s own Swamp Bats lose to the Steeple Cats, but this year, our schedules didn’t allow us to meet for a Swamp Bats game. So instead of root, root, rooting for my home-team, last night I made like a Pittsfielder and made pilgrimage to historic Wahconah Park to cheer on the Dukes.

Batter up

I’ve blogged before about the the New England Collegiate Baseball League, the regional collegiate league to which the Keene Swamp Bats, North Adams SteepleCats, and Pittsfield Dukes all belong. As much as I love Major League Baseball, there’s something delightful about seeing college kids playing their hearts out in a small-town setting. This is amateur baseball in the best sense of the term: baseball played for love, not money. Although many players participate in the NECBL to strut their summertime stuff in front of professional scouts, these are players who haven’t yet made it to the big time. In an era when many Major League fans are disgusted with players who lie about performance-enhancing drugs, whine about their multi-million-dollar salaries, and otherwise serve as poster boys for Bad Behavior, regional leagues like the NECBL offer a more wholesome, small-time version of America’s favorite pastime.

Safe

Part of the allure of any baseball game–major league or otherwise–is the game itself, the daunting challenge of hitting a round ball squarely teamed with the intricate dance of well-choreographed defense. Watching baseball is a leisurely pursuit: you spend much of your time waiting for the next batter, waiting for the next relief pitcher, or waiting for umpires to confer over a questionable call. The down-times of a good ballgame, however, serve as counterpoint to a good game’s heart-pounding moments. There’s nothing like a well-orchestrated double-play or a safely stolen base to get your adrenaline running, but these highlights tend to happen suddenly, in the blink of any eye, right when your mind might have considered wandering. Along with sudden surprises, a good ballgame offers hushed moments of expectation as everyone’s eyes follow a fly-ball, breathless, to a waiting fielder’s glove, or everyone gets on their feet, fidgety, during an inning-ending at-bat.

Sliding home

It’s easy to wax poetic about baseball, seeing the game as an iconic field of dreams. The young men of the NECBL seem to be a dream-filled bunch, sacrificing their summers to play ball in the hope of being noticed by scouts who can pluck them from small-town obscurity. And yet, I suspect that a young ball-player’s dream of fields is fueled not by wishful thinking but by old-fashioned blood, sweat, and tears: these are fields of doing, not dreaming. It takes a lot of work to make it to the majors; it takes a lot of work to finish a collegiate career and leave that league for the Big Time that is life after graduation. It’s easy to quote Hollywood by saying “if you build it, they will come.” What’s difficult is the actual building, the work required to realize one’s dreams through practice, practice, practice.

Historic Wahconah

Whether or not we’ve ever knocked one out of the ballpark–whether or not we’ve ever belonged to any league, major or minor–we all tend a private field of dreams: a wide, fertile space where almost anything can sprout with the proper cultivation. The magic of Hollywood’s field of dreams isn’t the unbelievable phenomenon of Shoeless Joe Jackson sauntering out of a cornfield; the magic of that field of dreams is the sweat equity it took an unknown Iowan farmer to coax a diamond out of corn.

Whether we dream of making it to the majors, making it out of college, or making a living in a world where bills pile more quickly than cash, it’s the building that causes the coming. In the real world as well as on ballfields, dreaming bears fruit only if it’s coupled with doing. Last night in Pittsfield, it was positively dreamy to see two teams of players, their coaches, and a ballpark full of fans gathered to cheer on some doing, the action of a small-town Monday night happening under lights that shone like stars.

Night lights

Click here to see my full set of photos from Pittsfield’s historic Wahconah Park. Enjoy!

Yin-Yang

Yesterday a friend and I went for a walk at the Garden in the Woods: a botanical garden in Framingham, Massachusetts that I’ve been meaning to visit for years. As much as I love my small-town life in southwestern New Hampshire, my best friends live in Massachusetts or elsewhere. In Keene, I walk the dog and take pictures alone; when I want to tour museums, botanical gardens, or simply spend time with human friends, I drive to Massachusetts.

I’ve long said that living in New Hampshire gives me the best of both worlds: at home, I live in a quaint little town with a five-minute walk to my job, and when I want a taste of big-city culture, Boston is only a two-hour drive away. At a certain point, though, you get tired of driving two hours to experience big-city culture or even 90 minutes to share tea with a friend. At a certain point, you begin to question your own geographically bipolar existence, living and maintaining a social life in two separate states.

Yin-Yang

When my ex-husband and I separated, I purposefully moved my checking and savings accounts to a bank with Boston branches just in case I ever relocated there. My ex-husband’s decision less than a year after our separation to move back to the Cambridge Zen Center, a place we’d lived together for over two years while we were married, squelched any secret plans I’d had of returning there. My ex-husband, however, has since moved to Vermont and now Nashville, leaving all of New England to me. Having lived in Boston before moving to New Hampshire, I’ve often said I’d love to get a chance to live in Boston again on my own and without the hunger I first experienced there. Boston is a haunted place for me because I have unfinished business there, the older, more confident “me” I am wanting to revisit the places that both fascinated and intimidated the younger, more insecure “me” I was. Boston is a haunted place for me because I only began to taste its richness when I lived there, eking a living on its surface before I’d learned to live and look deeper.

Floating Garden

For the past several months, I’ve become residentially bipolar, spending my long summer weekends in Newton, MA–a lush, leafy suburb of Boston–and my summer school teaching days back in Keene. As a place-blogger, I’ve found this first tentative step toward re-location disorienting. How do you continue to blog about Keene when you spend only three days a week there? Can you really claim to “live” in a place like Newton when you spend your weekends at a friend’s house, rent-free? As a place-blogger, what I do through both words and pictures is perpetually ask the question, “Where am I,” and for the past several months, I’ve been living weekends out of a suitcase and weekdays in a town where my roots seem increasingly shallow. Can you really claim to live “in” a town where you only work? And looking at it that way, have I ever really belonged in Keene, having so few friends and non-professional connections there?

Over a year ago, in an essay I submitted to qarrtsiluni, I wrestled with the conundrum of being a lone woman who feels out-of-place in a family-friendly community. What authority do I have, I wondered, writing about place like Keene when my lifestyle is so unlike that of many of my neighbors?

Like a soldier who has set down tent-stakes, I know the lay of the land around Keene: I’ve done more than my share of reconnaissance while walking with dog and camera. But unlike locals who have always lived here or newcomers who have invested by buying homes, bearing children, and starting businesses, I’ve no lasting commitments to this particular community. I don’t own property, I’ve no children to yank from school, and my circle of friends exceeds the limits of this town. In relationships mediated through phone and Internet connections, I could live my life almost anywhere. Even my job as an adjunct writing instructor is tenuous and temporary, a mutual agreement between college and contractor to stick around, for now.

Cardinal flower

These days, it feels as though that mutual agreement between my employer and me to stick around for now is the main thing tying me to Keene. As I wrote then, “I love my quaint little Keene, but we’re not married.” My oft-moving ex-husband used to accused me of being risk-averse, my reluctance to change addresses flying in the face of his wander-lust…and perhaps he had a point. If I had to pick a town in which to grow old and die, Keene is as good–indeed better–than many others, but who says I’m ready to settle down for good? Without children, family, or close friends keeping me in Keene, my only real tie there is my teaching job, and as an adjunct far off the tenure track, my job isn’t something I couldn’t replicate elsewhere.

As I’ve recently suggested, I sometimes wonder whether I’ve become stuck in a rut in Keene, my walks, photography, and blogging having settled into a comfortable but blandly predictable path. It’s been almost three years since my ex-husband and I separated, and during that time I’ve lived in the same apartment while he has relocated four times. Although I’ve no desire to relocate four times in the next three years, I have begun to wonder whether a change of scenery is long overdue.

Turk's cap lily

In the several months I’ve been sharing time between Newton and Keene, my social life has blossomed. I’ve started practicing semi-regularly again at the Zen Center in Cambridge and the Open Meadow Zen Group in Lexington, both of which are an easy drive from my weekend home. Now that I spend my weekends in the same state as my closest girlfriends, spending time with them has gotten easier, whether that means swilling Friday night margaritas on Leslee’s porch in Belmont, unwinding over Kerouac memorabilia in Lowell, or strolling among flowers in Framingham.

As Leslee noted before her recent move, living in a small New England town can be isolating: “It is lovely here, but I need to be more engaged in life among people.” As a childless woman living on my own in a town filled with families and cohabitating college students, I know where Leslee’s coming from. As much as I admire May Sarton and the solitude she pursued in Nelson, NH, I’m not convinced I’m destined for that path. I like living with and among other people, and as much as I love small town New Hampshire, I was born and raised a city girl. Although I left the Boston area about eight years ago, whenever I return, I remember exactly why I fell in love with its streets and sidewalks.

Flying Saucer

As a native Midwesterner, I’m an outsider in New England; perhaps this explains my fascination with place as I try to understand via words and images the various landscapes I’ve encountered. Although I haven’t yet answered the question called Keene, I’m not sure I’m coming any closer to an answer by staying put. As I mused in that qarrtsiluni essay, “I know that ‘Here’ is relative: I could find that, along with my feet, ‘Anywhere.'” Sometimes you can’t understand a place without leaving, and sometimes you need to return to a previous home to experience something new.

Thoreau traveled a great deal in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, but I’m no Thoreau: if I were, I would have stayed in Ohio. Having crossed the Rubicon between “There” in the Midwest and “Here” in New England, I’ll probably always feel betwixt and between. These days, I’m feeling geographically bipolar, my two feet in two worlds as I spin my compass point around the two towns, Keene and Newton, where I hang my hats, not entirely certain which of the two (if anywhere) is my true home.

For more information about the Garden in the Woods and their 75th anniversary exhibit, Art Goes Wild, click here and here. For more photos from yesterday’s visit, click here. Enjoy!

Smoothing dirt

With all the construction going on in Keene this summer, things at home have been pretty loud.

Main Street with steam roller

I’ve always been more sensitive than many to sound. When I’m teaching, I’m easily distracted by talkative students walking the hall outside my classroom, and when I’m in a closed-door meeting, I notice sounds coming through open windows. Once at break-out session at a writer’s conference where we huddled in a crowded conference room, the session leader and I were the only ones who noticed the obnoxious, unending drone of an air-conditioner in a nearby building. Other participants were able to screen out the sound, but as we sat silently writing, I was acutely aware of a dull throb emanating from the walls: distracting.

Perhaps I’m sensitive to sound because I feel as much as hear it. One night at the midpoint of a week-long retreat at the Providence Zen Center, I suddenly felt the ticking of the head Dharma teacher’s hitherto silent watch sitting on the hardwood floor at her feet as she timed our meditation. It was as if my mind itself had become a vibrating crystal pulsing with a tiny sound sent through the floorboards beneath me. Another time on retreat, I heard rather than felt an earthquake rumbling like a freight train as it raced from the center of the earth into my own spine. Once at the Cambridge Zen Center, I sat chatting with friends in their third-floor room and felt the sudden, bone-thrumming rumble of a truck thundering down a nearby street. “Aren’t you distracted,” I asked, “by loud noises such as that truck?” My friends replied, “What truck?”

Saint Bernard's with steam roller & curbstones

It is, of course, possible to become acclimated to ambient sounds. When my ex-husband and I were first married, our apartment bordered a railroad track, and the train clattered by every morning around 4:00. After the first few nights of waking, noting the noise, then falling back to sleep, I learned to sleep through the train. In college, I was famous for my ability to sleep through my roommates’ sometimes blaring stereo: once I fell asleep on a mat on the floor right next to the thing, and my roommates repeatedly stepped over my oblivious body to switch stations. In college, I also trained myself to sleep through my roommates’ alarm-clocks but to wake to my own, differentiating in my sleep between the particular tone of my own alarm and the ignorable sound of theirs.

Sleeping soundly is one thing; noticing sound when you’re awake is another. Although I’ve trained myself to be a sound sleeper, when I’m awake I find myself noticing sounds that others ignore. It isn’t so much that I’m bothered by these sounds; I just notice them. While others are able, it seems, to be selectively oblivious, tuning out monotonous sounds like the drone of air-conditioners or passing traffic, I can’t help but notice them, finding them to be non-ignorable parts of my sonic landscape.

Curbstone cement-mixing

The only time my sound sensitivity proved to be practically problematic was when I was married to a musician who practiced at home. In any marriage, there’s a delicate dance as two individuals try to establish and maintain their own private space in the midst of their marital togetherness, and for me, this separate “space” was necessarily sonic. As a teacher, scholar, and writer, everything I do requires some semblance of quiet: it’s difficult to read papers or concentrate on research if you can hear the laughter on a downstairs TV or the distraction of an overheard conversation.

During the summer I was preparing for my PhD comprehensive exams, my ex-husband played drums in a rock band that recorded a demo CD in the basement of our rented house in Randolph, Massachusetts, and it was a constant challenge for me to concentrate on my work while listening to a seemingly endless loop of a handful of songs as the band practiced, recorded, and mastered. When I was finishing my dissertation in a two-bedroom apartment in Keene, I was perpetually aware as my ex-husband, having abandoned the drums for a lute, meticulously practiced what seemed to be the same three notes day after day. Although earplugs helped to dampen the sound of perpetual practice–and although listening to a lute isn’t as annoying as listening to, say, construction traffic–it was cumulatively exhausting to spend so much energy not listening to something so omnipresent. When my ex-husband and I separated, one of the first things I noticed was the blessed silence that came with living alone, my sonic space no longer invaded by someone else’s passion.

Cheshire Historical Society with steam roller

Being sensitive to sound isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When I was in high school, I began birding by ear, listening to audio recordings of bird-songs and going on walks with veteran birders so I could learn to identify birds by their sounds and calls. These days, I rarely bother with binoculars, birding almost exclusively with naked eyes and ears.

When I walk or go about my daily business, I’m not looking for birds, but I always have an ear out. It’s possible, I’ve learned, to peel back layers of sound like the transparent encyclopedia pictures of anatomical systems I perused as a child: here’s a body with skin, here’s the muscular system underneath, and here’s a skeleton beneath that. Walking in a morning woods, I’ve learned to do something similar with sound: from the cacophony of blended bird-songs, if you peel back the insistent chatter of a nearby ovenbird or the bold burble of a soloing wood thrush, you might hear a far-off tanager or vireo, that softer, more distant sound shimmering from the sonic backdrop like unearthed treasure.

Yesterday morning, when I let Reggie out to sniff and pee, I peeled back the sound of passing traffic to focus on a shrill, insistent peeping in a low hedge. Zeroing in on the sound, I discovered its source: a squat-bodied, wren-sized cardinal, barely fledged, that teetered its tailless body on a slender branch. Nearby, an adult male cardinal sounded a staccato chip, and the peeping fledgling quieted, staring at me with one shining eye beneath the first sprouts of a feathered crest. Later in the day, after I left father and fledgling to their own business, I heard the same shrill, insistent peep as I sat reading on the porch. Who would have thought a bird so small could be so loud?

This is my contribution to yesterday’s Photo Friday topic, Loud.

Rectory to St. Bernard's Church

It’s been a long time since I’ve darkened the door to a church of any sort, not because I have a problem with organized religion, but because I prefer to organize my religion elsewhere.

Clairvaux Center with thistle

When I visit my family in Ohio, I go to Mass to be agreeable, and for old time’s sake. But in New England, I’ve never properly belonged to any given church. When I first landed in Malden, Massachusetts, I briefly prayed with the Universalists, then my ex-husband and I found a temporary home with the local Lutherans. But by the time we’d moved to Beacon Hill, then Cambridge, then Randolph, and thence to New Hampshire, I’d given up trying to find a Christian church where I felt at home.

Along the way, I did more than my fair share of church-shopping, partly to find a doctrine that matched my own ragtag assortment of beliefs, and partly to find a community that felt like home. Ultimately, though, the fit was never quite right. Liberal congregations weren’t serious enough about scripture study; evangelical congregations took the Bible seriously but clashed with my ecumenical inklings. When you’re Catholic girl turned born-again Buddhist, it’s difficult to find a spiritual community where your whole self can be at home. The Catholics don’t know what to do about your Bible-thumping, and the Protestants can’t quite fathom your fondness for ritualistic smells and bells. When you’re a Catholic girl turned born-again Buddhist, you get used to feeling like a freak wherever you pray.

Bricked

In my case, I began practicing Zen meditation and ultimately found a spiritual home in my Zen school because people who sit quietly tend not to quibble over theology: in my experience, Zennies breathe no differently than Christians do, arguments arising only when someone opens her or his mouth to speak. I belong to a Zen school because I believe practicing with others is somehow different–stronger, richer, more challenging–than simply practicing alone. Although I have no argument with folks who deem themselves “spiritual, not religious,” whenever I hear someone declare they’re against organized religion, I wonder whether they’re against other organized pursuits: do they prefer undifferentiated sound to music, for instance, or anarchy to community?

Years ago I heard Janisse Ray read an essay about a Vermont contra dance she’d attended, and her description of dancers, young and old, swirling to the same songs sounded like heaven to me, or Nirvana, or whatever name you prefer for blissful communion. Communing with God on your own in nature–the place where “spiritual, but not religious” types insist God is properly found–is fine and good, but what about the other folks you leave behind when seeking God in a solitary spot? Sometimes God is found in and among people; sometimes God is found in the people you like, and more often God is found, I think, in the people who challenge and exasperate. Although I’ve never darkened the door of any church in Keene, I like to think I often find God striding the sidewalks there, not hidden away from people both churched and churchless.

Who But WB Mason

Today’s grading-day has been rife with personal distractions, so I don’t have time for a proper post. But during today’s dog-walk I snapped an interesting picture of a WB Mason truck reflected in the local pizza joint: an image that intrigues me with its lines, layers, and colors.

If you watch Red Sox games on NESN, you know WB Mason as a major corporate sponsor of our beloved boys…and you also know their song-and-dance-laden commercials are among the most annoying on the air. Luckily, the drivers of today’s truck didn’t break into song as they sat in the parking lot of Athens Pizza. Maybe the WB marketing department could take a cue from this image: sometimes a quiet product placement is more striking than scores of showtune-singing dancers.

Intrepid Yankee fan

A word to the wise. If you’re going to drive around Boston with a hand-painted Yankees logo emblazoned on the back of your vehicle, you might choose a friendlier vanity plate to avoid offending (and enraging) Red Sox Nation.

Four canoes

I haven’t been in a canoe since I owned one, back when I was a married homeowner with a pickup truck, shotgun, and other accoutrements of New Hampshire domesticity that got jettisoned when my ex-husband and I downsized from a three-bedroom house in Hillsboro for a two-bedroom apartment in Keene. As the end of July approaches, it’s been almost three years since my ex-husband and I separated, which means I’ve been living in Keene without a canoe for four years: one year married, and three years on my own.

Kayaks at ready

When my ex-husband and I bought our flat-bottomed canoe, it cost $500 from a sportsman’s store stocked with hunting and fishing gear, and the salesman waiting on us was flummoxed by our insistence that we wanted a canoe simply for floating on quiet rivers and still ponds. “You mean you won’t be fishing or hunting with it?” he asked incredulously. When my ex-husband and I sold our canoe, we all but gave it to a young couple who couldn’t believe the $50 price tag it bore the first day of our house-clearing garage sale. “Are you sure you want to sell it for so little?” the woman asked. “It’s so nice, and it looks like new.”

Canoes on the Charles

Truth be told, we used that canoe only a handful of times in the several years we owned it: once on a flat stretch of the Contoocook River in Antrim, and several times on a quiet, secluded pond in Henniker. Once, we’d canoed with Reggie; the other times, it was just the two of us trying to make a go of it in a vessel that stumped salesman at the sportsman’s store had called a “divorce boat,” the delicate, cooperative navigation of which stresses even the best partnerships. The memory of selling, cheaply, our “divorce boat” to a young couple who looked active, enthusiastic, and happy is something I’ve remembered fondly over the years: I’d like to think they took the time and care to take it out of the garage more than we did, and I’d like to think their relationship, unlike ours, has managed to stay afloat.

Setting out

Today as a companion and I watched paddlers, singly and coupled alike, making a go of it on the Charles River in Newton, Massachusetts, I had no desire to try to prove myself (or test any relationship) by demonstrating my presumed prowess with canoe, pickup truck, shotgun, or any other accoutrement. If you and your partner are heading in different directions, or if you and your partner are long-accustomed to competing and keeping score with one another, any vessel becomes a “divorce boat,” your relationship being unsafe at any speed. In retrospect, my marriage was on the rocks long before we bought a house in New Hampshire or a canoe at a sportsman’s store stocked with hunting and fishing gear; in retrospect, the only domestic accoutrement I needed then was the courage to leap out of the boat called “marriage” and into the calm, buoyant water of “happily after.”

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