September 2009

One among many

Year-round, there are many pickup trucks in New Hampshire, and at this time of year, there are many changing maple leaves. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll see an eye-catching juxtaposition of the two: two out of many coming together as one.

Miranda's Verandah

A friend unfamiliar with my Zen practice once asked if I do formal walking meditation when I walk my dog, and out of courtesy I refrained from exclaiming my gut response: “Good lord, no!” The question was genuine, as my friend had read some things about Zen, but my instinctive response was equally sincere. Formal Zen practice–whether done while sitting or walking–is about consciously training your mind, and my dog-walking, for good or ill, is about leaving my mind alone.

Pretty pumpkins

I’ve come to crave my day-end dog-walks as much as some folks probably crave their after-work cocktail. After my last class ends at 5:45, I walk home, drop off my bag, and change clothes, shedding my teaching persona along with my outfit. Wrestling a leash onto an ecstatic and wriggling Reggie, I leave my apartment mere moments after having entered it, heading back onto the same streets where we’d walked before sun-up.

This is how my teaching days are framed, with mirror-image dog-walks at 6:00 am and 6:00 pm. At 6:00 am, my mind is groggily rehearsing the day’s to-do’s, wondering where I’ll find the time to do everything; at 6:00 pm, I’m ready to call it a day, content to put off until tomorrow that which I didn’t get around to today. At 6:00 pm, I feel tired, satisfied, and grateful for another productive day; at 6:00 pm, I feel like I’ve put in an honest day’s work and deserve to spend the rest of the evening on the couch with my feet up. But first, I walk.

Shop window pumpkins

In the past, I’ve skipped this after-work walk, heading straight from school to couch. But these days, I relish the chance to Unwind before I unwind. Settling into a leisurely stroll as Reggie and I take a quick walk downtown and back, I feel today’s to-do’s fall away with each step. Some people say they enjoy walking, jogging, or other forms of exercise because these activities give them time to think; for me, I enjoy walking for the opposite reason. Teaching requires your mind to be constantly “on”: even when you aren’t physically in the classroom, you’re reviewing materials, mentally preparing in-class activities, or reading student work. On either teaching or grading days, you’re constantly thinking, planning, and juggling. When I come home, change out of my teaching clothes, and grab Reggie’s leash, I’m taking my own brain for a breather.

I’m still surprised at how deeply I crave these walks, and at how quickly they bring respite. Once I’m no longer “on,” I can leave my mind alone, letting it relax, renew, and wander wherever it will. Tomorrow morning, after I’ve just woken up, I’ll drag my groggy body onto my meditation mat to sit before I walk: a chance to Unwind before I unwind. But on an evening after teaching, my brain is like an antsy dog that doesn’t want to Sit and Stay but instead wants to Roam, unleashed and unrestrained.

Acorns galore

This morning I took a handful of pictures of the gathered acorns along a Newton curb and storm sewer: a river of acorns that has puddled from an ongoing torrent from overhead branches. This year’s bumper crop of New England acorns has been reported in the news and on the blogs, and it’s a phenomenon I’ve already Twittered twice. Whenever I drive into J’s driveway, I hear the snap-crackle-popping of crushed acorns under my tires, and whenever I walk Reggie around the block, we watch our step, careful not to roll and stumble over marble-like nuts underfoot.

Curbside acorns

This year’s over-abundance of acorns has everyone talking. The neighborhood mail carrier Reggie I see pushing her mail cart from door to door most mornings remarked about them today, predicting a bad winter given the number of nuts underfoot. I don’t know if trees “know” what the meteorological future holds, but their insentient guesses are probably as good as anyone’s.

I do know we had an abnormally rainy June here in New England, and I don’t know what sort of effect that has on the life cycle of oak trees. An abundance of autumnal acorns, in other words, might say more about this past summer’s weather than it does about the coming winter. Still, whatever the winter has in store, the squirrels and chipmunks will be well-fed, at least if their autumn hoarding has keep up with a healthy supply of rodent-food.

It’s also the season for the prickled seeds known as beggar’s ticks, which I can’t pull off quickly enough to keep Reggie seed-free. No sooner than I detach one clinging cluster of flat, microscopically hooked seeds than I find another and another…and by the time I’ve de-seeded the dog from one walk, it’s time to take another. There seems to be no end in the supply of beggar’s ticks, with each year offering another bumper crop. Whereas an over-abundance of acorns gets swept by autumn rains and homeowners’ garden hoses toward gutters and storm sewers, beggar’s ticks arrive inside suburban houses, smuggled in the nestling warmth of dog and cat fur.

Acorns all in a row

It’s a lush and fruitful world out there, even as Nature is closing up shop for the season. Trees are tucking the last of their summer sugars into roots and fruits, and squirrels and dogs alike are helping to disperse plant seeds, wittingly or not. Fall is, after all, a time to cast off leaves and fruit in mind-boggling abundance–nature’s dumping time, the season when cast-offs get carried and squirreled away, stored against the coming season of want.

Click here for this morning’s handful of acorn images. Enjoy!

Looks like a sleeping angel

Today’s Photo Friday theme is The Face, so here’s an extreme closeup of one of Antonio López García’s larger-than-life bronze baby heads, more formally known as “Day and Night.” Beside this sculpture’s angelic sleeping expression, I love the tints of green reflecting from the surrounding lawn: a tinge of summer adding color to a bronze baby’s brow.

Fenway entrance

I first blogged these paired heads in May of 2008, when they were installed outside the Huntington Avenue entrance to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts; they’ve since moved to the museum’s Fenway entrance, on the opposite side of the building. In either location, these big babies are attention-grabbing and seem both playful and a bit ominous. Given how enormous the job of parenthood already is, can you image trying to raise a pair of kids with heads this huge?

Click here for more pictures of Antonio López García’s “Day and Night,” or click here for images from the sculpture’s previous installation site. Enjoy!

Looking at you

This afternoon, six of my Keene State teaching colleagues and I will give a public reading of our original poems, stories and essays. Although poetry readings are common on college campuses, it’s unusual, I think, to offer a mixed-genre reading, a celebration of creative writing of various shapes and sizes. Although I don’t have much experience reading my own words in front of a live audience, I have an idea of how I want to approach this afternoon’s not-quite-poetry reading. Whether you’re reading poetry, short fiction, or essays from your blog-archive, I think the secret to telling a good story lies in how you breathe it. Deeply inspired—deeply breathed—stories come not just from the head or heart but from all the way down in the belly.

Good Fortune

I still remember learning how to breathe a good story. In elementary school, I was regularly chosen to read the Scripture readings at my church’s children’s liturgies. Being chosen to read at such liturgies meant several things: you stood in front of your classmates with a construction paper-backed photocopy of the day’s Bible reading; your parents smiled and nodded, proudly taking your picture before and after (but never during) your moment in the spotlight; and you practiced beforehand with Mrs. Sue Long. As director of my parish’s religious education program, Mrs. Long was something of a celebrity: after all, she was our religion teachers’ boss.

I remember Mrs. Long spending an inordinate amount of time (it seemed) insisting that I pace my reading correctly. “Just” reading the passage wasn’t enough: you had to time it just right. “Read S-L-O-W-L-Y,” she’d admonish from the back of the church as I stood by the altar declaiming “A reading from the Acts of the Apostles” for what seemed to be the ninetieth time. “Take time to breathe, and to breathe deeply” she’d remind me after each sentence. “Let the echoes of your words die off before you continue,” Mrs. Long would explain. “You need time not only to breathe but to let your words filter into the ears of your hearers.” I heard similar advice from a Victorian lit professor who years later explained how to recite a poem correctly: “Read as slowly as you possibly can, and then slow down.”


I’ll keep these bits of advice in mind as I prepare two short essays from my blog-archives for this afternoon’s reading, doing the kind of homework Mrs. Long always required. First, I’ve prepared a clean, easily read text: a double-spaced copy in large type. Second, I’ll mark this text with the “traffic signs” Mrs. Long taught me to rely upon: underlining for words that should be stressed, slashes at points where there should be brief pauses, and double slashes where there should be longer pauses. Third, I’ll practice the reading aloud, again: only my tongue can tell me which words look good on paper but are difficult to pronounce in front of a live audience. In doing such preparation, I’ll presumably come to know my own prose in a whole new way, noticing how my words alternate between stressed and unstressed syllables, practicing how to punctuate my sentences with artful pauses, and revising so I can oscillate between long and short sentences.

Although I’m not reading poetry at this afternoon’s not-quite-poetry reading, I want to approach my performance as if it were just that: a performance where breath gives voice to song. What I’m aiming for, in other words, is to spend ten minutes breathing life into sentences in a full-bodied, belly-centered way: to offer a reading that isn’t shallow, panted from the nose or lungs alone, but one that comes from deeper inside, deeper below. It isn’t coincidental, I think, that Buddhists see the life center as being in the belly: the hara, the warm fistful of gut located a couple of fingers’ widths below the navel. As I read, I will try to focus (just as I do when I meditate) on this center and on the breath that comes from there. With the eyes of a live audience on me, it seems the least I can do.

If you’re in Keene and free this afternoon, Keene State College’s second annual Adjunct Faculty Reading will happen in the Student Center’s Mountain View Room at 4:00 pm. (Click here for additional details.)

Late-night laundry

It was too dark for birdsong this morning when Reggie and I set out on our 6:00 walk, the only sound being that of crickets calling from beyond the warm circle of light puddling at the base of every streetlight. Only on the walk back home, after the sky had lightened to a smudgy gray, did I hear the first stirring birds: a calling crow, a screaming blue jay, and an incongruously yodeling rooster from someone’s backyard coop.

Today’s photo is recycled from 2006…and from 2008, when I reposted it. Some images are worth revisiting, especially on a morning too dark for photography.

The title of today’s post is also recycled from 2007, but the post itself is ink-wet fresh from the pages of this morning’s journal entry.

I stand as nigh

Yesterday morning I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center, as I do about once a month. Consulting interviews give Zen practitioners a chance to have a private, one-on-one conversation with a teacher: a time to ask questions, talk about things you’d be too embarrassed to mention at a public talk, or simply check in. As a Senior Dharma Teacher, I’m supposed to be the one “answering” student questions, the assumption being that someone who has been practicing long enough to earn the title “Senior Dharma Teacher” must know her way around the karmic block. But of course, I’m as new to the metaphysical neighborhood as the next person, so I never know exactly what will come out of my mouth when someone enters the interview room looking for Answers From The Teacher.


I’m always amazed by how sitting face-to-face behind closed doors with someone creates a heightened sense of awareness, an experience just as intense as any silent meditation session. Perhaps it’s the sanctity of the Zen Center’s interview room, a place where I’ve spent many a face-to-face session on the student cushion puzzling over some metaphysical mystery or (more typically) struggling with some personal conundrum. Given this history, it seems outright comical to find myself sitting, about once a month, in the teacher’s seat. I always feel a bit like the Wizard of Oz when I don my long, bat-winged Dharma teacher robes. Walking down the street, I’m just another average Joe, but when I put on my Dharmic Disguise, people think I have answers, insight, or clarity they lack.


“Ignore the woman behind the curtain,” I’m sometimes tempted to say when students enter the Interview Room at the sound of the bell that signals “next”…but I don’t. As much as the Wizard of Oz turns out to be another clueless guy from Kansas, Dorothy and her companions need to believe that someone like the wizard exists. Before Dorothy and her companions are ready to realize they already have the things they seek, they need the feedback of an impartial third party to validate their quest. The Wizard of Oz doesn’t give Dorothy, the Tin-Man, the Cowardly Lion, or the Scarecrow anything they didn’t already have…but somehow they each needed to make the trip to Oz to realize what was already as apparent as the ruby slippers on Dorothy’s feet.


Like the Wizard of Oz, I don’t have much in the way of Answers to offer those folks who are brave enough to sit face-to-face with me behind the closed door of the Zen Center interview room. Instead, I try to listen and be present with whatever question, problem, or situation each individual brings, and when I do open my mouth, I hear myself saying variations on the same basic responses. “Yes, I’ve experienced the same thing,” “You’re on the right track, so keep going,” and “You already understand” all sound like pat answers, the Dharmic equivalent of a doctor saying “Take two aspirins and call me in the morning.” But all of these responses are nonetheless entirely true. In most cases, even beginning practitioners already understand, in their heart of hearts, what they need to do in Situation X, or they already are halfway down the road to their own solution, and they simply need encouragement to keep going. And yes, there is very little any given Zen practitioner can tell me in interview that I haven’t done, thought, or otherwise experienced myself, too: there are only so many flavors of suffering we all keep rehashing and reheating in recipe after recipe, ad nauseum.

Walt Whitman with table and chairs

Before arriving at the Zen Center on Sunday, I took my usual walk around Cambridge to clear my head before practice began. In a park at the end of Auburn Street, between Central Square and MIT, I stumbled upon a plaza with the words of Walt Whitman inscribed on the sidewalk: “If you are a workman or workwoman, I stand as nigh as the nighest that works in the same shop.” In the 1855 version of Whitman’s “Carol of Occupations,” Whitman reassured readers that divinity isn’t some distant person or concept; it’s as close at hand as your nearest neighbor. Similarly, the answers any of us seek aren’t far off or even separate from ourselves: you needn’t visit a Zen Center, go into a special room at the sound of a bell, or ask a teacher.

The answers any of us seek are like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, already on our feet, or like the wisdom, courage, and heart the scarecrow, lion, and tin-man already had. The answers any of us seek are as close and familiar as our own nose: something immediately close at hand, but sometimes hard to see. The dialogue between so-called-teacher and so-called-student on Sunday mornings in the Zen Center interview room is like looking into a mirror. In case you need help finding and seeing your own nose, a teacher sits as nigh as a face-to-face neighbor ready to reflect back that which you already own and understand.


Is it so difficult to imagine some sort of leafy sentience in a thing that so persistently reaches and clings, clambering its way toward the light it needs as desperately as air?

This is my short-and-sweet contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, Plants.

As I type this, a great horned owl is calling outside my window, perched (I presume) in a taller, more rigid sort of greenery.

Nature journal-in-the-making

Last Thursday afternoon, I took my first-year writing students outside to draw in their nature journals. It was sunny and mild, and I gave them a choice of two tasks: either draw clouds or draw the lilac tree that sprawls in front of Parker Hall. It’s an exercise in seeing as much as drawing: once you stop and look, what do you see? I think looking is addictive, or at least I hope it is. What I want instill in my students, if they get anything from this class, is an inquisitive spirit that looks, notices, and wonders.

Nature journal - Sept 10 2009

This cultivated habit of noticing is a theme running through this entire course, “Thinking & Writing: The Art of Natural History.” It’s what Robert Sullivan does in his rat alley, it’s what both Henry David Thoreau and Clare Walker Leslie do in their journals, and it’s what I urge my students to do in their semester-long projects. Pick a topic that truly interests you and spend a semester investigating it from every conceivable angle. Really look at it, deeply and and repeatedly, noticing its nuance and details over time. Read about your topic, think about your topic, and talk to others about your topic: get to know it first-hand and up-close, in a way none of the rest of us do. Become our resident expert in the minute details of your topic and its intersection with your life.

Nature journal - Sept 11 2008

It’s a foreign concept to many of my students, this invitation to explore their own life deeply. When my students learn the first day of class they they have a 15- to 20-page paper to write, they immediately think of distant, well-publicized topics that they reason will will be easy to research because so much has already been said about them. Surely for a long research project, they think, they should pick a big and grandiose topic: serial killers or the death penalty or Global Warming with a capital G and W. These are Big Topics, ones that garner attention, headlines, and entire shelves in bookstores and libraries: the Brad and Angelina of research topics. With so much attention being paid to these types of topics, my students think, writing a long research paper will be easy, like a big scavenger hunt: just go out, find the “facts,” and bring them back.

Nature journal - Sept 5 2007

My students don’t yet know–they don’t yet believe me, really, when I say it–that this is not the kind of research topic I’m looking for. I hesitate, in fact, to call this project a “research paper,” because that mere term causes my students to click into a familiar mode of producing out of sheer habit Whatever Worked In High School.

Veterans' Memorial

The long project is an exercise in investigating a topic close to home, like the rats that ran down an alley in Robert Sullivan’s own city. It needn’t be spectacular; in fact, the best topics are usually the most obscure ones, the ones that Only This Student deeply loves and is genuinely interested in. In asking my students to be intellectually curious, I’m actually asking them to take a deep and genuine interest in their own lives. I’m asking them to show up on a partly cloudy day in the shade of a sprawling tree and capture what they see.

Once again, I’m asking my first-year writing students to keep weekly nature journals as described in Clare Walker Leslie’s Keeping a Nature Journal: an assignment designed to complement the kind of observation and intellectual inquiry their semester-long writing project demands.

The three journal entries illustrating today’s post come from my own nature journal: three separate entries from three separate Septembers. You can read more about the philosophy behind my “Art of Natural History” class–and you can see another September nature journal entry–in this post from 2006. Enjoy!

Dry docked

These days are perfect for walking. The mornings are as cool and crisp as the bite of a fresh cucumber, and the afternoons are filled to overflowing with sunlight, the air as dry as paper. On bright, brilliant days like these, I feel as if I could walk forever, my feet light and suntanned in my sandals, the way ahead of me smooth and wide as I settle into a long-gaited September stride.


It’s easy to feel healthy on days like today. It’s the second week of the semester at Keene State, and already I feel settled into a regular rhythm, rising in the morning with a clear sense of what I need to do and what can potentially slide. Slipping back into my weekday, academic-year schedule–the life I live in Keene on Monday through Thursday versus the life I live in Newton the other days–has felt like changing from one pair of comfortable, well-worn shoes to another. Here, in both places, is a schedule that has grown to fit me, a schedule that curls around the curves of my psyche like a well-worn glove. There is no burden and little effort in wearing a glove that fits, a glove that remembers the shape and movement of your particular hand. A good schedule, like a well-fitting glove, molds to the shape of your being; a good schedule, like a well-fitting glove, is as snug as a hug.

This morning I got up at 5 am without effort or complaint, as if my body already has been trained: “On Thursdays, we get up at 5:00.” It helps to have lived at a Zen Center, albeit years ago. Like riding a bike, the routine of getting up at five, bowing, and then sitting is something you never forget: you might fall out of the practice, but resuming it, once you’ve burnt off your initial inertia, feels like coming home, a single step into your own skin.


My routine in Newton is entirely different from my routine in Keene, and I’ve come to accept and even embrace that. It’s all about following my situation, recognizing that one morning regimen doesn’t fit all, nor does one morning regimen work for every morning. One of the most practical, helpful outcomes of my Zen practice is this flexible acceptance of routine. Every day at a Zen Center, you know exactly what you’ll do from 5 to 7 am, and every day on a Zen retreat, your entire day will be clearly and inexorably charted for you. On early days of retreat or when you’re new to Zen Center life, you might bridle against this routine, seeing it as monotony. In time, you’ll learn to embrace it, recognizing that nature’s most basic, life-giving, and creative rhythms–the inflow and outflow of breath, the regular beat of a heart, the daily cycle of sleep and awakening–are themselves monotonous. When you fight the schedule of retreat, it’s brutal and oppressive. When you grow tired of fighting and instead surrender to your situation, letting the schedule move you through your day as you simply show up at every allotted task, you find and tap into the Universe’s own energy, which can be spent but not irrevocably exhausted.

So at 7:15 I type these words, illustrating them with photos I uploaded last night; at 7:40 I’ll walk to campus to teach my 8:00 class to sleepy-eyed students. I will, in other words, simply show up for my life, not fighting or bewailing it. On a sunny September day that dawns in due time after its predecessor, I will naturally settle into the stride of clear-shining days.

Next Page »