June 2009


Big Papi swings for the fences

J and I are leaving this morning for a weekend getaway to Atlanta, where we will attend three Boston Red Sox games just as we did two years ago. Today’s picture is from last year’s Red Sox pilgrimage to California, where we went to three games against the Oakland Athletics while I was in San Francisco for an academic conference. David “Big Papi” Ortiz unfortunately struck out during this particular at-bat, and the Red Sox unfortunately got swept by the A’s. We’re hoping for better luck this year against the Braves.

No more boring graff

It’s still raining from yesterday and last night, although “rain” is perhaps too strong a word for this mist that falls without the sound of raindrops. You can see it in the air, and you can see it in the drops and rivulets that gather on impervious surfaces. But you can walk through it, like a cloud, without feeling you’re getting wet.

Two faces

It’s a metaphor often used in Zen that meditation practice is like walking through mountain mist: without realizing it, you get soaked clear through. And I guess that’s how things have been with my own Zen practice: as I do it, it doesn’t feel like it’s working, but all these years later, look at how wet I’ve become.

I think many things are like that: if you do something daily, you get better at it without really knowing it. As Ken Kessel JPSN once said, we become what we practice, or as Malcolm Gladwell writes, it takes 10,000 hours of doing something diligently to become proficient at it.

Wink

I know that over the years, I’ve probably spent 10,000 hours on my meditation mat, and as many hours (at least!) scribbling lines in cherished black notebooks. And I’ve probably spent the equivalent of 10,000 hours blogging, or snapping photos if you could somehow tally the total time it takes to snap, snap, snap day after day, taking bad shots along with the good and gradually learning how to sort one from the other.

It’s not a mystery, this method of doing something every day whether it seems to be working or not. It’s simply the wisdom of mountain mist: an imperceptible influence that cannot be denied.

This is a lightly edited version of this morning’s journal entry, illustrated with images from yesterday’s misty-morning walk down Modica Way in Central Square, Cambridge.

Lush

You might say I’m addicted to color. Apart from a single roll of black and white film I shot in the early ’90s when I had to “use up” a roll of film after having taken several portraits of my then-husband for a company newsletter, I don’t think I’ve ever looked at the world monochromatically. Although J and I often joke that black and white photography is synonymous with “art,” I see the world in full technicolor splendor: the more (and the brighter) colors, the better.

Kind of blue

You can understand, then, why I laughed when I saw last week’s Photo Friday theme, Monochrome. “Oh, they’re going to get flooded with black & white art shots,” I thought to myself, and I figured I’d have nothing to contribute. But in the almost-week since last week’s Photo Friday theme was announced, I double-checked the definition of “monochrome.” If interpreted in its loosest sense, “a painting, drawing, or photograph in a single hue” could refer not just to a black and white image, but also to an image that is all-green or all-blue.

So today’s offering is a lush-green image of a rosette of new pokeweed leaves, and an accompanying image of an all-blue section of empty seats at Gillette Stadium before a New England Revolution soccer game. Each of these monochromatic images contains enough color to sate my color-addicted fancy, although I have to admit an unabashed fondness for this dichromatic version of those Gillette Stadium seats. Some addictions die hard.

Primary colors

Under the bridge

Saturday afternoon was bright, sunny, and perfect for walking, so J and I took a brief break from our household chores to walk to Hemlock Gorge in Newton Upper Falls, where we crossed (and photographed) Echo Bridge before turning around to head for home. It’s been over a year since I blogged photos of Echo Bridge after having visited with Leslee and a mutual friend: how quickly water flows under this or any other bridge.

Under the bridge

It’s been more than five years since I finished my dissertation and became “Doctor” in the spring of 2004; it’s been almost five years since I separated from and then divorced my then-husband in the summer and fall of that same year. Looking back on the past five years, I’m amazed at how smooth the flow of time seems. Finishing my PhD was a major milestone, and divorcing was a major upheaval…but as soon as the shock of those two life-changing events quieted, things quickly returned to a state of “normal” that has remained, for the most part, uninterrupted. Whenever I talk to people who are currently pursuing a PhD, I have a hard time believing I used to chase that same goal; whenever I for some reason remember that I used to be married, it feels like I’m remembering some other person, not “me.” How can the skin of time knit so flexibly over what once felt like an open wound?

Boston Water Works seal

Karen Maezen Miller recently blogged about the differences between her first and second marriages: “I’ve stopped thinking that one husband is different than the next, or even that my husband is different than yours.” It’s an interesting and relevant observation. When I first divorced, I worried that all future relationships would follow the same doomed pattern…and here, almost five years later, I find myself almost-married once again. I could count the ways that J is different from C, or I could count the ways that J and C are remarkably alike…but what would either accounting add up to in the end? Almost five years later, I still face the same old “me” in the mirror every morning: the title “Dr.” doesn’t change the same old mind-habits, nor does a status switch from “married” to “divorced.”

Echo Bridge

One of the things I’ve learned from years of Zen practice is that everything changes…except, of course, the things that don’t. The images of Echo Bridge I snapped on Saturday don’t look substantially different from the ones I shot in 2008, or from the ones featured on 19th century postcards. Seasons change, and so might the names of one’s spouse, friends, or very self, but some things remain the same. Rivers still flow and grass still grows; regardless of whom I’m in relationship with, I still face my same old insecurities, irritations, and shortcomings. Am I doomed to repeat in this relationship the faults, flaws, and foibles of a failed marriage? Of course I am: that’s exactly what Buddhists mean when they talk of karma. Until I figure out how to divorce myself–an act still outlawed and impossible in every state–my same old behaviors, impulses, and inner tantrums will repeat, repeat, repeat, as incessant as echoes.

Atop Echo Bridge

But where exactly is the problem with that: why is it a bad thing simply to repeat? When I teach writing, I encourage my students to revisit and revise the same old page, same old paragraph, same old sentence. If at first you don’t succeed, they say, try, try again: one way that writing is better than baseball, I tell my students, is that you can take as many swings as you like without striking out. As Zen Master Seung Sahn was fond of saying over and over and over: “Only go straight – don’t know! Try, try, try for ten thousand years, non-stop, get enlightenment, and save all beings from suffering.” It’s not the having nor the getting: it’s the trying that counts, time and again.

Stairs to the bridge, with weathered sign

We want liberation from our Groundhog Day lives, presumably, because we can’t stand the monotony of yet another Saturday spent on household chores, but perhaps the repetition (and presumed stupidity) of our same old selves making the same old mistakes over and over is the Universe’s way of inundating us with second changes: an act of both generosity and grace. Do we extend to ourselves the same courtesy? Can we forgive ourselves, not just our fellows, the Biblical seven times seventy? Our karma leads us to make the same old mistakes over and over, but our precious Dharma–the fruit of our life-practice–allows us to forgive ourselves–our spouses, our friends–an infinite number of times, if necessary. Only then, it seems, have we made progress, taking a step up while the rest of our lives, like sound waves, echo back again and again across time.

Win this Subaru

As a satisfied Subaru-owner, I always notice other Subarus on the street: it’s like recognizing fellow members of a fraternal organization through a secret handshake. This particular Subaru, parked along Main Street in Keene this afternoon, grabbed my eye, though, because of the decal on its back window: a Reggie look-alike!

Reggie lookalike!

Surely the designers of the vehicle decals advertising Subaru of Keene‘s current car giveaway were inspired by this photo of Reggie in the backseat of my own Subaru, for the resemblance between the decal-dog at left and the real thing is too striking for mere coincidence. Apparently Reggie has a twin, and that twin also is a fan of Subaru car-rides.

As much as I love my Subaru, Reggie might love it even more than I do, for he contentedly sprawls across the entire backseat whenever we drive anywhere, whether “anywhere” refers to our frequent commutes between Massachusetts and New Hampshire or our annual trips to Ohio and back. What dog wouldn’t love having the vehicular equivalent of a couch on wheels while Mom zips to and from any given adventure?

Art Walk

Both this week and last, I’ve been zipping back and forth between Newton and Keene, feeling more geographically bipolar than usual. During the school-year, my dual residence follows a predictable pattern, with only one complete “commute” between the two states I call home. On a typical Monday afternoon during the school year, I drive from Massachusetts to New Hampshire so I can teach my Tuesday morning classes in Keene, and on a typical Thursday evening, after the last of my face-to-face classes, I drive from New Hampshire to Massachusetts to enjoy my weekend (and teach my online classes) in Newton.

Art Walk

During the school year, this dual-residence works. I love being with J and near Boston on the weekends, and I love walking to campus from my hermit-like apartment during the week. The 90-minute drive between Newton and Keene isn’t unbearable if you do it only twice a week; a lot of folks accumulate more weekly miles by driving back and forth from work every day. J sees more of me during my four days in Newton than some folks see spouses who travel frequently for business, and during the week, J himself is typically occupied with work and other responsibilities. When I arrive in Newton on Thursday night during the school year, I have a clear sense of having left my work “at the office” even though the realities of email and my ever-present paper-pile make this distinction more symbolic than real. Still, during the school year, it feels great to leave town for the weekend even when “leaving town” really means “going to my other home.”

Art Walk

This week and last, though, I’ve been doing several mini-commutes between Newton and Keene. Last week, I had several day-long faculty workshops and a routine doctor’s appointment in Keene; this week, I have several more faculty workshops, another medical appointment, and a date to get my car serviced. Rather than staying in Keene through the week and returning to Newton for the weekend, I’ve been spending my nights in Newton and doing a daily commute…and feeling like I’m neither here nor there. How exactly do you figure out where you are if you take your morning walk in one state and your afternoon in another?

Art Walk

Tomorrow night, I’ll stay overnight in Keene after finishing the day’s errands, and then I’ll drive back to Newton on Thursday afternoon, after finishing that day’s appointments. I’m looking forward to going not much of anywhere this weekend, spending all of next week in Newton, and staying there for most of the summer…at least until the second summer session at Keene State begins, at which point I’ll commute between two states as I teach the literature of the open road. They say a rolling stone gathers no moss, and although I’m not well-traveled, this week I feel particularly moss-less. Instead of enjoying the best of both worlds, after this week I’m looking forward to a spell of enjoying the leisure of living in only one.

Click here for a photo-set from the set-up for this year’s Art Walk, which happened in downtown Keene this past Friday night while I was in Newton. Enjoy!

Yellow-crowned night herons

Last weekend while I was visiting my family in Columbus, Ohio, my mom and I visited the yellow-crowned night herons that nest above a quiet suburban street in nearby Bexley, as I’ve blogged before. It’s something we do nearly every time I visit in the summer time, and I’m always amazed that such odd and interesting birds would choose to nest above a residential street. Bexley is a quiet neighborhood, but still: there certainly are quieter, less-populated places for a couple of secretive wading birds to perch and preen.

Two redtails

But apparently I don’t think like a bird. Yesterday here in Newton, I saw two red-tailed hawks perched at the top of a tall conifer not far from the Waban T-station: a sometimes bustling spot. Although I’ve seen a lone red-tail in the vicinity and assumed he or she had a mate somewhere, I didn’t expecte to see the two of them perched side-by-side, quietly calling to one another while I walked the dog far below.

I know there are wild turkeys in suburban Newton as well as the occasional great-horned owl…but an encounter with one of these wild things always catches me by surprise. Being accustomed to seeing Newton, Keene, or even Columbus as being “my” human habitat, it’s easy to forget that other beings share our space. The very fact that humans are largely oblivious to the wild things in their midst–especially if those wild things perch quietly overhead, far above the comings and goings of earth-bound bipeds–makes a quiet suburban street or subway right-of-way a surprisingly apt place for otherwise secretive birds. I’m well accustomed to watching my back when I walk the rough streets of my parents’ gang-infested neighborhood, but now I know I should keep my head up even when I roam the lush and leafy suburbs.

Pine Sharks

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Metal, which gives me an excuse to post this picture of Kitty Wales’ Pine Sharks, one of several images from an April visit to the DeCordova Sculpture Park which I posted to Flickr but never blogged.

Pine Sharks

Of all the ingenious, odd, and downright weird works at the DeCordova, Pine Sharks is probably my favorite. I love its fishily fluid lines; I love the juxtaposition of rusted metal, pine boughs, and blue sky; and I love the irony that a sculpture of sharks was conceived by an artist named Wales. (In checking out Kitty Wales’ website, I realize that I’d seen another of her installations, Canis Ex Machina, when it was featured in an indoor exhibition at the DeCordova Museum in 2006.) Only at a place like the DeCordova can you be surprised and delighted by the possibility of airborne fish fashioned from abandoned appliances.

Pine Sharks

It is exactly this element of surprise that I crave in any individual art work or exhibition. When I go to a sculpture park or museum, I’m looking to have my worldview widened. Even if I don’t “understand” an especially bizarre piece of art–and the DeCordova always features some head-scratching doozies–what I love about a good museum is the way you walk away from it feeling like you’ve seen the world, at least for a while, through someone else’s eyes. I would have never dreamed of seeing sharks swimming overhead among pine trees, backlit by sky; I would have never dreamed of seeing rusted metal transformed into fish. Having visited Wales’ vision of a pine forest patrolled by piscine predators, though, it now seems perfectly right and natural to imagine metallic sharks circling the sky.

Click here for the complete photo-set from my April visit to the DeCordova Museum & Sculpture Park, including several images of the mysterious J in action.

Big poppy

It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed now that cell phones have become ubiquitous. Whereas people used to ask “How are you” as a way of starting a phone conversation, now people ask “Where are you?”

Poppy bud

It’s an interesting substitution. In the old days, you automatically knew where a person was when you called them on their land-line: they were at home, work, or wherever the phone was physically located. In a large house with several telephones, you might ask whether a person was in the living room rather than the bedroom or kitchen, but you knew they were somewhere in or around their house.

With cell phones, though, all bets are off. When you call someone on their cell, they might be in their house, at the office, in their car, at the grocery store, or even on the toilet. (I’m always horrified when I hear women answer their cell phones in the ladies’ room: do we really need to be “connected” at every waking moment, even when taking a break for the “business” of bathrooms?) When you call someone on their cell, you can’t even know for certain if they’re in the same region as you are: the first time my father tried to call me on my cell phone, he couldn’t understand why he had to dial my New Hampshire area code even though I was visiting Ohio at the time. In his mind, the “area code” of a phone was tied to its physical location, so the thought of calling a phone number in New Hampshire in order to talk to his daughter in Ohio was completely mind-boggling.

Big poppy

I wonder whether this recent tendency to ask someone where they are versus how they are is simply a cell-phone-inspired quirk, or does it point to something more profound? Is a person’s geographical location more important–somehow, more telling–than her or his physical or emotional state? Can we tell “how” a person is simply by determining “where” that person is?

This past weekend, I found myself among the junked cars and porn shops of my parents’ seedy Columbus, OH neighborhood: my home turf. Earlier this week, I returned to the green lawns and well-tended gardens of J’s upscale neighborhood in Newton, MA, and yesterday and today I snapped pictures of poppies in quiet Keene, NH. So, where am I and how am I now? I always experience a kind of culture shock when I return to New England from my parents’ neighborhood: there’s far more than 700 miles separating where I now live from where I used to live. I’ve written before about the sensation of being betwixt and between I feel whenever I move between the working class world where I was raised and the educated elite world where I currently live and teach. If we are defined in part by the places we’ve lived, what does it do to our individual sense of how and who we are to move between places?

Welcome Alumni

Originally, I had planned to attend a conference in Victoria, British Columbia this week, meaning I would have gone from Ohio to Massachusetts to Victoria in the space of several days. Considering how disorienting it is for me to travel from gangland Columbus, OH to the lush suburbs of Boston, I can only imagine how out of sorts–literally lost–I would have felt had I arrived in Massachusetts and then immediately hopped a plane to Victoria. Most of my friends and professional colleagues are far more traveled than I am: most of the compatriots I would have seen in Victoria are combining the conference with other west-coast travels. For a homebody like me, driving to and from Ohio–and then leaving Newton to venture up to Keene for a few days–is wandering enough. When I ask myself the coupled questions of where am I and how am I, I find my personal contentment is often rooted in my ability to say with certainty that I am right here now. The precise location of “here” might be arbitrary, but having arrived, I quickly settle and find myself loath to travel “there” from “here.”

Picture perfect

As usual, I took very few photos while I was in Ohio visiting my family this weekend, which is curious since the weather was picture-perfect and I’d brought not one but three cameras with me. While I’m accustomed to snapping shots of nearly everything when I’m in New England, when I’m in Ohio, I revert to my pre-photography ways, simply watching birds (for instance) rather than photographing them.

Great egret

So when my mom, sister, nephew, and I took a short stroll at Pickerington Ponds Metro Park on Friday, I left my new camera in the car and instead carried only my purse-sized point-and-shoot…an unwise decision since there are nesting ospreys at Pick Pond, and we had great views of the parent birds as they took turns incubating eggs. I spent many hours birding at Pickerington Pond when I was a teenager, before I began dabbling with photography, so I’m used to going birding with binoculars, not a camera. There’s nothing more relaxing than sitting in the shade with family or friends while you watch ospreys, egrets, and the occasional groundhog or deer. But at the end of such an outing, you probably have few pictures–only memories–to show for it.

Click here for the handful of photos I took at Pickerington Pond: better than nothing.