August 2008

Ashuelot River Flow by night

Tuesday night, having finished my first day of face-to-face classes at Keene State and needing to submit end-term grades for SNHU Online, I returned to campus with my laptop to avail myself of Mason Library’s wired workstations, my home Internet connection being dead. It was bright and sunny when I arrived at Mason Library and hastening toward dark when I left, my literal moonlighting affording me a night-time view of the Science Center with its hallway installation of Ashuelot River Flow glowing from the windows.

Beware of book ladders

As much as it’s a nuisance to have a dead home Internet connection when you teach online, the past few days I’ve been oddly grateful to go to campus, do my necessary online tasks, and then power-down to return to my temporarily low-tech apartment. When the Tech Gods decide to pull the plug on your Internet lifeline, it becomes apparent how dependent you’ve become on the online ether. Typically, I make a conscious point to check my various work- and personal email addresses regularly, “just in case” someone might need me…but without a home connection, my check-ins on Monday and Tuesday were limited to times when I was within reach of the campus network in my office or at the library. Having downloaded final papers and exams from my SNHU Online students on Monday afternoon, I did my grading offline at home, all the while noticing how many times I was tempted to check email, Google Reader, or elsewhere to see what was happening “out there.”

Ashuelot River Flow by night

Coming back to my solitary apartment in Keene after spending the summer at J’s house in Newton was initially a bit discombobulating, my apartment seeming foreign: the abode of someone else who left it with scattered books and paper piles lying about, the printed detritus of another busy semester. But coming back to my solitary apartment in Keene felt a bit more meditative for the lack of connectivity I initially experienced: for those first few Internet-free days, I felt I was on a kind of retreat, the stone silence of early morning being uninterrupted by email and headline news.

Now that I’ve swapped out my four-year-old cable modem for a newer, much smaller one, I’m back online: a good thing given that SNHU’s next online term starts on Tuesday, when I’ll be back to moonlighting. But a brief break from the online ether felt good, as did coming home to a house that felt like an isolated (albeit cluttered) sanctuary: a place simultaneously very near and very far away.

You can see day-time pictures of the Keene State Science Center’s installation of Nancy Selvage’s Ashuelot River Flow here. Enjoy!


I’m back in Keene, where classes have resumed, the weather is sunny, and my home Internet connection is dead. I’ll be back when my connection to the outside world is restored.

Nothing happened

I arrived home from Ohio just in time this week to dive into semester prep, spending the last few days revamping syllabi for my Keene State classes, which start next week. Syllabus-prep is a tedious and mentally demanding task: you have to maintain both a long- and short-view in order to figure out the precise steps your students will take as they move from the proverbial “blank page” that greets them during Week One toward the 15- to 20-page research paper that’s due by Week Fifteen. And yet, despite the mental energy it takes to craft a well-planned syllabus, it’s one of my favorite aspects of teaching: a strong foundation that reflects my most optimist hopes as I stand on the brink of another daunting term.

Line 'em up

Some of my colleagues plan their semesters far less meticulously than I do, distributing single-page syllabi that are infinitely less detailed than my five- to fourteen-page (!!!) ones. I’ve always preferred a full-disclosure approach: students in my classes know from day one exactly what’s due and when, how they’ll be graded, and other important factors they’d have to figure out gradually in other classes. A well-planned syllabus is a life-line for me, too: on any given day, I have a road map that tells me exactly what we need to do TODAY to get us to the finish line of “Week Fifteen”…and every year, there are times when even I, as instructor, completely forget what exactly we’re all doing here and why.

Once in a faculty training session, I described the process of teaching first-year students how to write a sustained research project as being like climbing a mountain with a group of small children. There will be many times when you’ll get sick of the seemingly incessant whines of “Are we there yet,” “I’m bored,” and “This is stupid!” As some combination of den-mother, cheerleader, coach, drill sergeant, and makeshift sherpa, you keep spurring your Little Darlings on with glowing descriptions of what awaits them at journey’s end: “Keep going! You can do it! You’ll be so proud once you’re finished!” This works, of course, when you yourself are feeling energetic and chipper…but at those moments when you’re exhausted, out of patience, and wondering why you thought climbing a mountain was a good idea, you’ll want nothing more than to push those Little Darlings off the nearest ledge.

All in a row

A good syllabus, like a good map, helps guide the way when all hell is breaking loose. I’ve been teaching long enough to know that there will be times (usually around Week Five, a depressing lull I’ve named the Dark Night of the Semester) when even I, as instructor, will stare in disbelief at the ambition of my own syllabus: what the hell was I thinking when I decided to assign X or expect Y? But whereas my first-year students have probably never climbed the mountain of a 15- to 20-page research paper before, I’ve been there, done that. In my metaphoric role as den-mother, cheerleader, coach, drill sergeant, and makeshift sherpa, I know from experience that every writer eventually gets sick of her or his topic, every writer loses hope of ever finishing, and every writer has moments when simply facing another draft seems completely impossible…but those feelings pass. And so like a wise old matron who listens to a sobbing newlywed, pats her on the head, and sends her back to her hubby with instructions to kiss and make up, I know my job as a writing instructor is ultimately a matter of making sure my charges don’t give up. “Just keep trudging, and it will work out: I promise!”

And so these past few days, I’ve been contemplating the long view, at least from the perspective of a fifteen-week semester. While my soon-to-be first-year students are packing and preparing to move into their residence halls this weekend, I’ve been mapping the terrain, watching the weather, and otherwise scouting a 15- to 20-page long “mountain” my students don’t even know to start worrying about yet. The semester hasn’t even started, but already I know we have many long, tiring miles between here and there.

Between the cracks

I’m going to guess this broken-backed bench, located at the heart of Waban Square, hasn’t seen much sitting this summer. A rolling stone gathers no moss, they say, and a broken bench with an unidentified weed sprouting between the cracks probably hasn’t been gathering many tired passersby.

I’m leaving at the crack of dawn tomorrow to drive (with Reggie) to Ohio, where I’ll spend the weekend visiting my family. Although I’m taking my laptop to stay in touch with my online classes via painfully slow dial-up from my parents’ house and wondrously fast and free wifi at the local Panera, I don’t imagine I’ll spend much time blogging from Ohio.

While I’m out of the online loop, I’d encourage you to click over to the Cassandra Pages, where Beth has inspired a lively discussion on the current state of blogging. Beth is my un-official blog-mom since her Cassandra Pages (along with Fred’s Fragments from Floyd) was one of the sites that inspired me to venture into the blogosphere back in December, 2003. All these years later, I’m not exactly sure what I’ve learned about blogs and blogging…but I think Beth is asking all the right questions and providing a warm and welcoming forum (as she always does) for readers to formulate insightful answers. Enjoy, and I’ll see you when I return to New England next week.

This is not Bread & Circus

These days, I’ve been meditating almost every day after lunch, sitting for fifteen minutes on a mat and cushion stationed in J’s basement with the dogs, one room over from the washer and dryer. J’s basement is dry but unfinished, so the floor beneath my mat is poured cement, and I sit facing a bare concrete wall occasionally adorned with a sleeping spider. On days when either one of us is doing laundry, I meditate to the sound of the washer running through its cycles; on days when the washer is quiet, I listen to the dogs sleep, each snoring on its bed while I sit breathing on a not dissimilar-looking meditation mat.

Tow Zone - No Parking

I mention this to note all the things that my daily meditation session is not. I sit for fifteen minutes, not thirty. I sit after lunch, not first thing upon awakening. And although I sit on a traditional mat and cushion, my practice space is otherwise painfully plain and simple, an out-of-the-way basement nook that looks nothing like this but instead embodies quite literally the truism after the ecstasy, the laundry. My meditation spot in Keene is pretty; my meditation spot here at J’s is plain. Both places are perfectly sufficient for the work of Zen practice, which is simply a matter of waking up wherever you find yourself, whether that’s with the dogs, on a fancy cushion, or one room over from the washer and dryer.

As much as it might be difficult to define exactly what Zen is, it’s easy to define what it’s not. Zen isn’t somewhere distant and removed from the dogs, laundry, and basement spiders of your everyday life, and it isn’t something that requires the purchase of special trinkets or tchotchkes. The smells and bells of Buddhist iconography can make your practice pretty, but such decorations aren’t absolutely necessary. Zen is a matter of practicing where, when, and how you can, and a plain raft will ferry you to the other shore of This Present Moment just as surely as a pretty one will.

Picture perfect

All this week, I’ve still been feeling the blog-blahs I’ve previously described: when I think of something to share, I can’t find time to blog it, and when I find a spare moment to write, I can’t think of anything to share. A typical writing conundrum.

Last night, J and I went to see the New England Revolution play the Chicago Fire at Gillette Stadium, and as always we each took hundreds of pictures. Afterward, I came home, duly copied mine to yesterday’s photo folder, took a quick look at what I’d shot, and turned off my laptop, saving for some hypothetical rainy day another folder of photos that probably will lie neglected on my hard-drive. Someday, sometime, I’d like to sort the photographic wheat from chaff, post the best to Flickr, and post the bloggable…or not. At this point I have an oceanic backlog of photos from three Red Sox games in California this spring, a handful of Boston Cannons lacrosse games this summer, and all the silly random photos I snap from day to day, uncertain when (if ever) I’ll ever get around to re-visiting much less sharing them.

Say cheese

I have no idea when (if ever) I’ll get around to sorting through much less sharing the rest of last night’s soccer photos…but in the meantime, here are two shots of camera-wielding fans I particularly like. This morning I gave consulting interviews at the Zen Center, and one thing I find myself emphasizing time and again to the folks who ask me questions is the importance of simply showing up. Most of the questions people ask me have to do with struggles they’ve been having in their life or practice because they have some idea of how they should or want to be. Across the board, the people I meet in or out of the Zen Center interview room (and I count myself in this number) want to be calmer, healthier, more balanced, sweeter, skinnier, wealthier, smarter, or whatever: more of this, and less of that. And this very thought that “I’m not X enough” or “I’m much too Y” is exactly what keeps you, me, or any of the folks I encounter from realizing that everything, already, is pretty much okay as it is.

And so this morning, I found myself insisting time and again that Zen, life, and everything else isn’t about getting things right, perfect, or “good enough.” Zen, life, and everything else is ultimately about showing up, trying your best, and accepting that as “enough.” Just show up, I hear myself saying again and again, and see what happens. So here I am on a Sunday afternoon, just showing up with the same old blog-blahs and seeing what happens when I toss a couple paragraphs and pictures together: enough?

In case of emergency, pray

This is, I think, my best found object yet: a well-worn Rosary hanging from a fire alarm. In case of emergency, pray!

Sky with flag

You wanted more?

This is my understated contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, Beauty.


Even though New England has been getting its fair share of torrential rain this summer, my blogging has been in a dry spell. It’s not exactly that I haven’t had things to say, and it’s not exactly that I haven’t had time to write. It’s more like I haven’t been able to coordinate these things so I have “things to say” when I find “time to write,” and that adds up to many days without blog posts.

Coffee cup

It’s not the first time I’ve had the blog-blahs, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. I’ve been writing long enough to know that sometimes, you run out of things to say (or at least it feels that way); I’ve also practiced (and taught) Zen meditation long enough to know that sometimes, you go “dry” in your practice (or at least it feels that way). New writers and new meditators often think these dry spells are a sign they’re doing something wrong: “Maybe I’m not really cut out to be a writer,” or “I tried meditating once, but it didn’t work for me.” What new writers or meditators don’t know–the sole secret we seasoned veterans have figured out–is that it doesn’t matter whether it feels like you’re “doing it right”: you just keep trying anyway.

Empty tables

I can’t call this current bout of blog-blahs “writer’s block” since I’ve been faithfully writing in my journal nearly every day, and there have been many times when a dry spell has completely derailed that practice. And I can’t call this current bout of blog-blahs a “spiritual crisis” since I’ve experienced a recent renewal in my meditation practice, coming back to my cushion to meditate regularly after too many months of practicing only sporadically. So in everything but my blogging, life has been stable and healthy; indeed, I’ve wondered whether this current blog-block is caused by the happy fact that everything right now is going fairly well with me, and there’s not much narrative excitement in a blog-post that duly reports “I finished grading those midterms,” “I made enough money last month to cover my bills,” or “I accomplished almost all the items on yesterday’s to-do list.”

Zorn Dining Commons

In other words, this bloggish dry spell happens at a time when I’ve comfortably settled, for the moment, into Normal Life. Every year as August approaches, my heart reminds me it’s my anniversary of independence: today marks four years since my then-husband and I separated, a personal milestone I usually mark by blogging some sort of State of the Psyche address. This year, I don’t feel I have anything significantly new or different to add from last year: perhaps one way that shock settles into stability is the way that ultimately, you stop counting the months, minutes, or years between Then and Now. These days, I don’t feel particularly mindful of the fact that it’s been four rather than three years since my separation and divorce; these days, apart from an occasional slip where I use my married name, I can almost trick myself into thinking it was someone else, not me, who was once married.

Spruce and Sky

And yet, interestingly, one lesson I learned from my almost thirteen-year marriage is one I’ve heard echoed recently by my still-married friends: relationships, too, have their dry spells, and the seasoned veterans who stay married somehow figure out how to wait them out. Although my ex-husband and I eventually called it a day, what kept us married for almost thirteen years–and what kept us trying to be decent human beings to one another even down to the day we separated, and after–was a shared commitment to keep trying, anyway. Even if you’re not doing marriage “right”–even if you’ve determined, at long last, to call it quits for good–you keep showing up to that realization: you face it rather than fleeing from it…or already having fled too many times and for too long, you keep coming back.

Fire alarm

Perhaps the twin mottos of “keep trying anyway” and “keep coming back” are the motivational bookends that embrace successful writing, Zen practice, and human relationships alike. Even if you think you’re doing it wrong, keep trying anyway. When you’ve all but given up, keep coming back: if this page, this moment, or this relationship eludes you, just show up for the next one. Did yesterday’s page of writing really stink? Keep trying to write a page today. Did you fail even to show up on your meditation cushion, again? Keep coming back, regardless of how often or how long you’ve gone AWOL. Did your last relationship fail, or does your current relationship (marriage, friendship, other) feel dry and routine, beset with a terminal case of ho-hum? Keep trying anyway, and keep coming back: in a word, just show up. Dry spells come and dry spells go, or as my grandfather used to say, “Marriage is easy; it’s just the first fifty years that are hard.” Even if a dry spell lingers, even that dustiness can be grist for the mill.