January 2009

Wintry mix

In case you’ve ever wondered what kind of beverage New Englanders enjoy after a day-long snowfall has changed to freezing rain, this snow-topped trash heap provides an answer: wintry mix.


This afternoon I had the delightful task of telling my first-year writing students that Keene State is canceling classes tomorrow as we anticipate our latest snowstorm. I don’t teach on campus on Wednesdays–it’s my usual online grading day, a job I do from home regardless of the weather. But I experienced a vicarious thrill listening to my students’ excited plans to spend the day tomorrow sleeping in and making snowmen and snow-angels. What better way to spend a winter Wednesday?

Mask & mirror

When I finished teaching the last of today’s classes, I rushed home to walk Reggie in the lingering light of late afternoon. I regularly walk the dog when I’m done teaching: a late afternoon walk is a great way to shake off the workday, and I’m convinced both Reggie and I rest better because of it. But today, there was an additional urgency and thrill.

Tomorrow we’ll be snowed in, I thought, so we’d better walk now while the walking is good. While others were rushing out to the grocery store to stock their shelves and refrigerators with storm supplies, I snapped images of downtown shop windows. I have plenty of food in the house to weather our latest winter storm, but what will I blog in the meantime?

Tomorrow morning I was supposed to attend a meeting on campus, and I had another commitment in the afternoon. Now, with a single announcement, both of those obligations are obliterated, as if they themselves were buried in snow. I’d planned to do laundry tomorrow, and I have an afternoon appointment to get my car serviced…but if the sky falls as snowflakes, I can skip this week’s laundry and postpone that service appointment. If need be, I can skip out on everything tomorrow, staying hunkered down at home while grading papers online, my dog and a warm blanket to keep me company. Apart from the requisite doggy bathroom breaks, there’s really no need for me to go out into the storm until it’s over and it’s time to start shoveling and scraping.

Masks with reflection

As I hurried around town this afternoon, I realized how much I love this phenomenon of hunkering down, content in the knowledge that I have a refrigerator full of food, shelves full of books, and enough grading to keep me occupied but not overwhelmed. Even as a child, I enjoyed sick days home from school, for on those days my mom would nestle me on the couch or in bed, a soothing beverage and snack, warm blankets, and my favorite stuffed animals all within easy reach. On those days, I felt like a snug ship facing stern seas: no matter what sort of threat awaited outside, inside my warm cocoon I had everything I needed to stay safe and secure.

As I type these words, I’m tucked in for the night, my warm laptop my only link to the outside world. The sky can fall as snowflakes if it likes, and I myself don’t mind.

They never covered THIS in Driver's Ed

Be careful what you pray for: you just might get it. If you’ve ever been tempted to ask God to give you a sign, be aware that the Deity might take you literally. Does God have a sense of humor? Only if you think having a snowplow-pushed road sign land on some hapless stranger’s car is funny. Or perhaps you have to see the other side of this sign to see the humor:

Is this a sign...

Toppled street signs

Maybe parking in front of the Waban Post Office, even on a Saturday when the one-hour parking restriction isn’t in effect, is never a good idea. During snowplow season, no sign anywhere is safe, so let drivers beware.

Shepard Fairey is a poser

Even icons and icon-makers occasionally fall prey to marker-wielding vandals. (Snapped on November 30, weeks after I blogged this image of Barack Obama hanging out with another sort of icon.)

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Iconic.

Dharma room sunbeam

You’d think that last week’s Photo Friday theme, Meditation, would be an easy one for someone who practices and teaches Zen meditation, but the exact opposite is true. Because I practice meditation, I actually have very few photos of meditation.

Dharma room altar

Taking a “meditation” photo offers the same challenge as capturing the ponytail shot in my last post: how do you take a picture of yourself sitting and not taking pictures? The Dharma room is, after all, one of the few places where I don’t carry a camera, so I had to go all the way back to August, 2007 to find a handful of images I shot after practice at the Open Meadow Zen Group one morning. Notice I that I shot these photos after (not during) morning practice. These aren’t photos of meditation; instead, they’re photos of the scene of meditation. Over the years I’ve taken more than a few pictures of Buddha statues, Buddhist ceremonies, and pretty Dharma rooms…but statues, ceremonies, and Dharma rooms aren’t themselves “meditation.” The accoutrements of meditation aren’t the same as meditation itself, and that makes “meditation itself” particularly difficult to capture in images.

Stained glass bodhisattva

Over the years, I’ve illustrated most of my Zen posts with images that don’t look particularly “Zenny.” Rather than returning again and again to the same old images of statues, ceremonies, and Dharma rooms to illustrate the practice of meditation, I usually illustrate my Zen posts with whatever images I have at hand. This is, I suppose, a particularly “Zennish” way of considering the question of how to depict “meditation.” Meditation isn’t a special thing limited to a special room where you sit on special cushions while wearing special clothes, and the simple act of just looking at (and just snapping pictures of) whatever you happen to see can also be a kind of meditation. Yes, the trappings of Buddhist iconography help put practitioners in the mood to meditate, but meditation isn’t dependent upon them. If you don’t have a pretty Dharma room, a cushion in the basement will do.

(Dharma) room with a view

If I had to pick, in other words, the scenes and objects of meditation in order to illustrate what meditation “is,” what scenes and objects wouldn’t I choose? Would I show you the sink where I follow my breath while washing dishes, or the car where I follow my breath while driving between Newton and Keene? Would I show you the streets and sidewalks where I follow my breath while walking, or the bed upon which I follow my breath while folding laundry, reading, or settling into sleep? Would I show the laptop where I sit following my breath as I type these words, or would I show the kitchen table where I will follow my breath while eating a late lunch after posting them?

The scenes and objects of meditation are many, and I’ve spent these past five years quietly blogging them, sometimes affixing the label “meditation” and sometimes not. But even when unnamed or unattributed, meditation is as close at hand as the breath on your lips.

This is my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Meditation. I was tempted to post a photo of virtually anything as my depiction of “meditation” but decided a trip to my photo archives was a more aesthetic (and cooperative) choice.

If you’re intrigued by the pretty Dharma room that illustrates today’s post, you can join us this Sunday for a one-day retreat at the Open Meadow Zen Group in Lexington, MA.

The Abominable Snow-Dog!

When I say that neither snow nor rain stops intrepid dog-walkers, I mean it. The above image shows Reggie in his guise as the Abominable Snow-Dog on this morning’s walk, and this image shows the tell-tale hat and ponytail of the Abominable Snow-Dog-Walker.

Snow-hat with ponytail

Obviously I can’t shoot photos of the back of my own head, so thanks to J for snapping that second photo.

Gorby emerging

Although it’s been bitterly cold this week, with temperatures well below freezing, the sun has been blindingly brilliant. Day after day in my journal, I’ve marveled at how the sky has been crystal-clear and cloudless and the sun blazingly bright: how can a day look white-hot when actually the temperature is in the single digits?

Icicles, with Obama window signs

Despite the frigid temperatures, the snow is shrinking, subliming into air that is bone-dry with chill. In the morning, I slather lotion on my legs, which immediately soak it up; the second I go outside, I can feel the air sucking moisture from my skin. Winter is the closest we get to desert here in the northeast: windblown snow stings just like sand, and like Bedouins we shroud our faces in scarves and other protective headdresses. Even the shortest dog-walk feels like an Arctic expedition in weather like this: you bundle up before you go, and you unwrap yourself like a present when you return. Identities in winter are accumulative: these days, “I” exist in layers duly donned, then shed, then re-acquired. Who would I be, in January, without my coat, hat, or gloves?


Turquoise-blue skies and crystal-clear days are perfect for photography, but snapping photos means stopping and peeling off a glove, and those are the last two things I want to do on single-digit days: the secret to dog-walking on frigid days is to keep moving. I find myself growing blind to the beauties of snow, which lies strewn and heaped like last week’s laundry: what seemed so lovely and picturesque in early December has outgrown its welcome by mid-January. Lines of icicles that once gleamed gem-like now threaten like razor-sharp incisors, a reminder (as if we needed one) that winter bites.

You can compare today’s lead photo of Gorby emerging from his snow-blanket to that of Gorby almost-buried a week ago. We’re supposed to get more snow tomorrow, which means temperatures will rise into double-digits and Gorby will be re-blanketed.

Just Paint

There’s an inherent danger in starting a new novel by an author you’re familiar with, for the new work has to fight against the expectations engendered by the previous. I first encountered Marilynne Robinson’s debut novel Housekeeping in the early ’90s, when I was a Masters student at Boston College, and in the intervening years I’ve repeatedly taught (and thus repeatedly read) it for the “Literature of the Open Road” class I teach at Keene State. When in 2005 I first read Robinson’s long-anticipated second novel, Gilead, it took me a while to warm to the story. It’s difficult not to make comparisons between a first and second novel when you’ve repeatedly read and taught the former during the years you waited for the latter. With her new novel Home, though, Marilynne Robinson invites comparison between her previous narrative and its successor, as Home tells the exact same story as does Gilead, but from a completely different perspective.

Bear'sVille Place

That switch in perspective makes all the difference, for even though I revisited (via audiobook) Gilead right before starting to listen to Home, I didn’t feel like I was being cheated by mere rehash. In Home, Glory Boughton’s perspective on her wayward brother’s story is as different from the Reverend John Ames’ account in Gilead as any two novels could be. In Gilead, the Rev. Ames writes as an old man who struggles to forgive his own namesake, John Ames “Jack” Boughton–the wayward son of his childhood friend and neighbor, the Reverend Robert Boughton. Rev. Ames is a Congregationalist and Rev. Boughton is a Presbyterian…but both clergymen share a similar outlook when it comes to young Jack, who returns to Gilead, Iowa after a long absence. Neither Rev. Ames nor Rev. Boughton knows what Jack Boughton, now in his 40s, has been up to for the past 20 years, but neither minister believes it can be any good. In Home, Robinson returns to Jack Boughton’s story, but this time as understood by Jack’s 38-year-old sister, Glory, who has returned to Gilead to tend her ailing father after having gone to college, taken a teaching job, and settled down elsewhere.

Stars and strips

Having read Gilead, I approached Home as a detective might re-visit the scene of a crime gone cold: where are there clues–hidden or brazenly in the open–that I missed the first time? Jack Boughton’s life is a modern re-telling of the parable of the prodigal son: having left Gilead after he shamed his pious family with a string of much-gossiped misdeeds (the very acts Rev. Ames agonizes over in Gilead), Jack returns to his father’s house after years of presumably misspent youth. No one–particularly the elderly and increasingly decrepit Rev. Boughton–knows why Jack has returned, and no one seems bold enough to ask him. Home at last, Jack is nevertheless a stranger to his own family and hometown, and his pained conversations with his sister Glory offer the only hints readers get into his unknown life outside Iowa.

If you’ve read Gilead, you know (eventually) the secret Jack harbors: you know the heartbreak that eventually drives him home. Reading Home with this bit of secret knowledge, you find the novel rife with dramatic irony. Privy to the story Jack isn’t telling, you note each of the clues that Glory, Rev. Boughton, and Rev. Ames miss. Privy to the story Jack isn’t telling, you wonder when, how, or whether his full story will be known.

Trust is unnecessary

Jack Boughton isn’t the only wayward child in Home, however. In Gilead, Rev. Ames notes that Glory Boughton returned to Gilead to tend to her father after the failure of her marriage; in Home, you learn that this, too, is an impartial story. Both the Boughtons and the Ames–like, perhaps, the inhabitants of Gilead itself–are quietly proud, keeping both their joys and sorrows close to their hearts. Whereas Gilead, like Housekeeping before it, is a first-person narrative, told in the form of a long letter Rev. Ames writes to his young son, Home is narrated in the third-person. We as readers aren’t privy to Glory Boughton’s hidden heartache, but a fragmentary story emerges from both the narrator’s limited view and the snippets of story Glory shares with her brother as they grow in confidence. At times, particularly at the beginning of the novel, the narrative seems to creep on crippled feet, the dialogue between Jack and Glory being so painfully polite as each tries not to betray the other’s feeble trust. In time–by book’s end–you realize that shared confidence is a sacred thing, not to be entered into lightly.

Cosmic Moose

Although I found myself occasionally comparing Glory, who feels trapped in Gilead by filial obligation, to the rootless character of Sylvie in Housekeeping, Home is more closely akin to Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. Each work features a piously close-knit Presbyterian family headed by a strict minister father; both the Boughtons and the Macleans deeply love one another but seem uncertain how to communicate that love. Whereas in Gilead, the Rev. Ames struggles with the question of whether a lifelong troublemaker can truly change, in Home both the Rev. and Glory Boughton struggle with the difficulty Norman Maclean faced in A River Runs Through It: how can you help a troubled, self-destructive loved one who doesn’t seem to want your help? Both Glory and Jack Boughton come home to their father’s house in Gilead when it seems they have nowhere else to turn: home, it seems, is where you go when every other road leads to a dead-end. While Glory Boughton is able to maintain an appearance of respectability in tending her father, however, the Boughtons, Rev. Ames, and all of Gilead, it seems, know Jack as nothing but a failure.

Parking by permit only

With Gilead fresh in mind, I wondered as I listened to Home how Robinson would end the story. I knew how Gilead ended, but I suspected Rev. Ames wouldn’t (indeed, couldn’t) have the last word in this alternative account. Knowing the secret that Jack keeps meticulously hidden from his father and sister–a secret whose unveiling serves as the emotional turning point of Gilead–I wondered when, whether, or how Glory, her father, or any of the town would learn the reason for Jack Boughton’s absence from and eventual return to his father’s house. As Robinson’s retelling, from a slightly different perspective, of a familiar story continued, I tried to guess various ways of bringing the narrative to a close, all of them somehow unsatisfactory. The ending of Home is much better than I envisioned: not exactly happy, but ultimately hopeful. Even when you’re exiled from a place you never felt native to, the hope of home can be an enduring balm.

2009 Audiobook Challenge

This is my first review for the 2009 Audiobook Challenge, whereby I pledged to listen to (and review on-blog) twelve audiobooks in twelve months. If you’re interested in participating in the challenge, please visit J. Kaye’s Book Blog for details; you can access links to other participants’ audiobook reviews here.

I’ve already begun listening to Toni Morrison’s latest novel, A Mercy, so I’ll review that as soon as I’ve finished. In the meantime, if you’re intrigued by the colorful images accompanying today’s post, feel free to view my complete photo-set showing the funky fence at the corner of Franklin and Brookline Streets in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Enjoy!

Gorby in snow

There is no easy way to explain why J has a plastic Mikhail Gorbachev doll propped in a stand that used to hold a basketball hoop at the end of his driveway: it’s a long story, so you really had to be there. But when you set aside the question of “why,” one clear fact remains: good ol’ Gorby makes a great weather gauge. If Gorby is up to his eyeballs in snow, that means we’ve gotten another ankle-deep dose of the white stuff: another winter weekend in New England.

It was only a matter of time before I posted a fresh snow picture as my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, White. If you want a more picturesque view of this weekend’s snow, try here or here or here.

Empty in the middle

When I was a graduate student doing my PhD coursework at Northeastern University, I often took advantage of the fact that the Museum of Fine Arts was right across the street from campus. In those days, my student ID got me into the Museum for free, so on days when I didn’t have much to do between classes, I’d go to the MFA to stroll the galleries. Because I went to the MFA so often, I came to see it not merely as a storage vault for fine art but as an indoor pedestrian path: a kind of secular cloister-walk where I could walk even when the weather was bad.

Fisheyed and angular

I still like to go walking at the MFA, although I do so far less frequently now. When I go to the MFA with a friend, I look at art as you are supposed to, considering each of the works in a given gallery, dutifully reading the placards that identify and explicate each item, and otherwise absorbing the educational intent of the museum space. But when I go to the MFA by myself, as I did on Tuesday, I typically go there simply to walk, not focusing in particular on any piece of art or any given gallery. Instead, I occasionally go alone to the MFA because it is a space dedicated to looking and thus a space that is amenable to strolling. Where else (except, perhaps, at a mall) is it okay to walk around with no other purpose than just looking?


Tuesday just happened to be my 40th birthday, and Tuesday’s trip to the MFA to go walking was my understated gift to myself. Over the New Year, I made a list of 40 things I’m grateful for as I turn 40, and it was an illuminating endeavor. Although some material possessions made it to my personal Top 40 list–my car, for instance, which I paid off in 2008; my camera, which continues to work even though I’ve recently water-logged and then dropped it; and my audio player, which I use to listen to books for free–most of the items on my list are intangibles. I’m grateful that my apartment in Keene is within walking distance of my job, and I’m grateful that J’s house in Newton is within walking distance of the T. I’m grateful to be blessed with friends, family, and a menagerie of pets, both my own and J’s. I’m grateful for my good health, my meditation practice, and my blog and the people who read it. And in tough economic times, I’m grateful that I have food to eat, shelter over my head, and clothes on my back: more than enough.


Museums are a great place to go when you want to rejoice in simple abundance. Both greed and gluttony are deadly sins, but there’s no shame in relishing beauties we all can share. Why do I need to own a storage vault of beautiful belongings when museums house so many lovely things we can collectively enjoy? The fact that I don’t go walking at the MFA more often–the fact that this space and its contents are an easy T-ride away, but I only occasionally take the time to visit them–is an embarrassment of riches. Museums and the beauties they contain are simply there for the looking, as is the natural world with its ample riches. Given these gifts, which are already within my easy reach, why would I dream or desire to reach for more?

Light and dark

It’s not that I undervalue possessions; instead, I’ve come to realize I overvalue experience. I am deeply grateful for the things I own; nobody but the deeply deranged would rejoice to have their material goods destroyed by fire or rain. But this being said, there isn’t much I want other than more time to enjoy the things I already have. More than tangible things, what I want is my own life and the health to enjoy it. This past December, J and I agreed not to exchange gifts for Christmas or our birthdays; instead, we split the costs of board-walking in Ocean City, agreed to buy one another soccer tickets for Valentine’s Day, and have begun to brainstorm our next unorthodox adventure. Gift-wrapped surprises are fine and good, but J and I have come to realize that what we most deeply enjoy from one another is time and experiences shared.


And so on Tuesday, my fortieth birthday, I went walking at the Museum of Fine Arts, where I bought myself a membership so I can enjoy an entire year’s worth of gallery rambles. In the gift shop, I bought myself a bracelet and a pair of earrings: only the deeply deranged would deny herself some small, precious thing to mark a momentous milestone. And now, having come home and sorted through the photos I took while walking–free souvenirs captured by my still-functioning camera–I chose forty from my fortieth to share with you: a kind of virtual cake sliced and shared across cyberspace, there being no need for the further illumination of birthday candles lit and extinguished.

There are several reflective self-portraits in my images from the MFA, it having been a long time since I posted many of those.

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