March 2010

Shy daffodil

It hasn’t been raining constantly in New England this past week or so; it just feels that way. On Sunday afternoon in Newton, J and I took a short walk around the neighborhood, on the lookout for blooming daffodils, sprouting peonies, and other signs of spring. Already in late afternoon, the sky was darkening with the gathering clouds of the latest rainstorm, which started on Sunday night and has continued until today.


This morning in Keene, it was gray but not raining when I walked Reggie, and it felt like an unheard of luxury to walk without a raincoat or umbrella. The soil was still saturated, with mud and standing water everywhere, and various neighbors’ sump-pumps still gushed chugging rivers out of basements. But I didn’t have to change out of rain-bedraggled jeans (or try–unsuccessfully–to towel off a soggy, wriggly dog) when I got home: a small victory. By by dinner time, though, the rain returned, and as I type these words, I can’t tell whether the pattering I hear outside my window is falling rain or dripping eaves.

Tomorrow is April, and I tell myself that spring and sunshine will be here soon enough…but not yet. In the meantime, I solace myself with the memory of Sunday daffodils glowing with their own cellular warmth, a sight stolen between raindrops.

Meltwater on daffodil

Today is gray, damp, and cold, with snow showers in the morning just to remind us that winter never leaves without a fight. This morning when I walked Reggie, there was a sludgy mixture of snowflakes, snow-melt, and frozen melt-water clinging to leaves and buds, so I took a smattering of soggy shots, trying to capture the entire range of spring precipitation.

Meltwater on daffodil bud

After all these years of blogging, I find my writing and photography are becoming increasingly connected. On days when I walk and see little worth photographing, I have a difficult time filling my morning journal pages. On mornings when I’ve seen things I find interesting, I have more to write about when I get home. It’s not so much that I write about what I photograph; it’s more a matter of my writer’s eye being opened by the things I’ve seen. The stimulus of seeing gives impetus to my writing.

It pleases me, aesthetically, to see winter snow melting into spring rain; it pleases me, too, to know that budding daffodils will outlast this morning’s snow shower. In late March, we have no other choice but to live in the present moment, yesterday’s (and even this morning’s) weather slipping like quicksilver through our grasp.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Pleasure. There’s no good reason for me to snap images of raindrops, other than the act of looking at them brings me pleasure.

First forsythia

J and I left Houston on Sunday just as the bluebonnets were beginning to bloom…and this morning, I noticed the first forsythia flowers in Newton, blooming three weeks ahead of schedule. And just like that, my spring break is over and I’m back in Keene, not-quite-ready to face another full week after not-quite catching up with the work I’d planned to accomplish.


In other words, time flies when you’re on break presumably being productive. Every year, I look forward to spring break thinking I’ll be able to use the time I’m not teaching face-to-face classes to catch up with other tasks…and every year, the end of break arrives before I’m completely caught up. “How was your break,” both students and colleagues will ask by way of making small talk, and “too short” is my standard reply. I had hoped to spend this past week catching up online paper-grading, draft commenting, class-related reading, and other teaching tasks; instead, I’m no more caught up today than I was a week ago even though I spend much of last week working.

What surprises me about this scenario isn’t the fact that once again I find myself on a nonstop treadmill called “catching up”; it’s that I somehow fooled myself into thinking (again) that catching up was actually possible. Last spring, I reminded myself that “being caught up is as elusive as the rainbow’s end,” and years before that, I realized you can never pick all the apples a full harvest offers. When you teach at two different colleges, you’re never really on break anywhere: there’s always something on your to-do list, and on any typical day, your to-list consists of the various tasks you’d intended to do yesterday.

Forsythia buds

Time, it turns out, is still flying, and the items on my to-do list still adamantly refuse to do themselves. At the same time, time has taught me that the tasks on my to-do list aren’t going anywhere, so the catch-up I’d envisioned for last week can be accomplished this week, and the next, and the next after that. Time, it turns out, never stops flying, and the treadmill called “work” and “catching up” never run themselves out until semester’s end, when everything necessarily comes to a stop. In the meantime, I need to remind myself time and again that a teacher’s work, like a mother’s, is never done.

Spring green

“You never know if you’re going to write another good poem,” Gary Snyder reminded us on Tuesday night as he received this year’s Robert Creeley Award. And so I never know whether I’ll write another good blog post, or take another good picture…and in mid-March when the heavens fall in torrents, I never know whether the rains will stop and spring will ever come.

Today is sunny, the birds are singing, and both lawns and leaf buds are greening from last weekend’s torrents. My bag is packed as I type these words, and in a few hours J and I will hop a plane to visit family in Houston, where the weather should be only slightly warmer than the forecast for New England this weekend. Now that the rains have stopped and the clouds have parted, both the earth and I are ready to spring.

Three evening gowns

Last night J and I went to the first of three Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts we’d agreed back in December would be our mutual birthday gift to one another. Neither one of us had ever been to the BSO, which is kind of ironic given how long we each have lived in New England, so we felt like bumpkins when we walked out of the rain last night into the well-lit swankiness that is Symphony Hall.

Champagne wishes

“We’ve never been here before,” J explained, apologetically, as we presented our ticket stubs to an usher, looking clearly clueless as to where we should be. “Oh, yes,” she chuckled as she led us to our balcony seats. “That’s how we Bostonians are. We never do any of the interesting things until we have visitors!”

She’s right. J’s been to the Symphony in Pittsburgh, and I went to see the Toledo Symphony a half-dozen times when I was an undergraduate there. But neither one of us ever got around to going to the Symphony here in Boston, somehow eschewing such high-class nightlife in favor of more low-brow activities.

“So, how is this different from a Bruins’ game?” J asked after we’d settled into our seats, skimmed the concert program, and listened to the last half of a pre-concert lecture explaining the motifs we’d hear in Rimsky-Korsokov’s “Scheherazade.” We decided a typical hockey game features more drinking and more fights than a typical symphony concert (although fights aren’t unheard of at Boston Pops concerts). Judging from the concert program, which was filled with ads for retirement communities and investment brokers, the typical symphony-goer is both older and wealthier than the typical Bruins fan, although from our cheap “partial view” seats in the upper balcony, we spotted more than a few 20- and 30-something concert-goers who presumably were taking advantage of the BSO’s reduced rate for the under-40 crowd.

Evening wear

I’d worried a bit before the concert that our understated evening attire–a turtleneck sweater and skirt for me, and a dress shirt, tie, and chinos for J–would clearly mark us as Symphony Newbies, but everyone else in attendance was similarly dressed, with the only ballgowns and tuxedos we spotted being on the stage. Our “partial view” seats, we learned, gave us a great view of the sculpture niches that house marble statues of mythological figures overlooking the hall: instead of sitting in the proverbial nosebleeds, we sat in the heavens, surrounded by gods.

From our particular corner of the upper balcony, our view partially obstructed by a flanking row of seats, we had a perfect view of half of the strings and most of the percussion section…and if we leaned forward or sat up in our seats, we could just barely see the evening’s soloists. But a symphony, as J remarked, is not a play: you’re there to listen more than watch, and there isn’t a seat in Symphony Hall where you don’t find yourself submerged in a lushness of sound.


Now that we know where to go and what to wear–and now that we know that the BSO website’s stated policy disallowing cameras only prohibits pictures during the performance, as the folks around us snapped shot after shot of those aforementioned marble gods before the concert began–we’re looking forward to our next concert and its taste of Boston nightlife.

This is my belated contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, Nightlife. Because I left my camera at home last night, I have no photos from Symphony Hall, so these well-dressed mannequins from my photo archive will have to do.

Yard rake with shadow

March is an aesthetically challenging month: the season of visual doldrums. As much as I thrill to see the first snowdrops and crocuses, in March the rest of the ground is bare, the monochrome earth unadorned with snow and the glaring sun unmitigated by sheltering leaves. Recent days have been been bright, but the light of March is harsh and unforgiving, carving shadows like slashes on the cold, hard ground. In March, my eyes have grown tired of days that are paradoxically bright and cold, and my very cells themselves feel starved for color more than contrast.

String of pearls with shadow

In checking my blog-archives for this time last year, I see I suffered the same affliction, taking pictures of shadows for lack of anything better to shoot. When I was new to blogging, I thought dry spells meant my creative juices were drying up for good: I hadn’t seen enough seasons to realize the way inspiration ebbs and flows in its own time.

These days, I know to keep walking, keep squinting, and keep shooting even through the glaringly monochrome days of March, trusting that both color and inspiration will return with the gentle days of spring.

Crocus close-up

It’s more than a bit ironic that this weekend’s Photo Friday theme was “Cleanliness,” as I spent the weekend tending (and cleaning up after) three dogs and eight cats while J is overseas on business this week.

Crocus with shadow

Tending (and cleaning up after) such a menagerie means you spend approximately an hour and a half doing pet tasks every morning: the dogs have to go out, various food and water dishes have to be refilled, five litter-boxes have to be cleaned, and three cats and a dog need their respective medications. In the evening, there’s another hour or so of tasks: again the dogs go out, food dishes get refilled, and various medications are administered. Folks with one or two pets might be able to let some of these daily tasks slide, but if you have a houseful of pets and don’t want to appear on the next episode of Hoarders, you really have to keep on top of your chores.

After spending this weekend doing the chores J typically does every day, I’ve realized how much like living in a Zen Center his routine is. If you live in a Zen Center, you spend about an hour and a half practicing first thing in the morning: first there are prostrations, then there is sitting meditation, then there is chanting. In the evening, there’s another hour or so of practice: again you chant, and again you sit. During the two and a half years I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, this practice regimen quickly became routine: instead of fighting the schedule or complaining about how much time I “had to” spend meditating, I learned simply to show up for practice.

Crocus trio

This weekend felt like a return to old times…except instead of getting out of bed at 5:00 am to do prostrations followed by meditation, I got up at 7:30 to let the first of three dogs out, followed by litter-box cleaning. When you have a dozen pets relying upon you for food, water, and medicine, you can’t take the day off because you don’t really feel like cleaning litter-boxes today. Like meditation, the tasks of litter-box cleaning and pet-bowl refilling are mindlessly repetitive: while doing them, you have ample opportunity to leave your mind alone, and this provides a welcome break from the intellectual rigors of work and other concerns.

When you spend a weekend at home with three dogs and eight cats, there comes a time each afternoon when your chores are temporarily done and all the animals are resting. At quiet moments like this, the satisfaction you feel walking around a house of sleeping, contented pets feels a bit like the the surge of contentment you feel on a Zen retreat when, after dinner and a hot shower, you walk uphill to evening practice believing with all your heart that nothing in the world could be more blissful than the plain gravel path underfoot. When I first met J, I felt no need to teach him meditation, for even though he doesn’t practice Zen, I could tell J has his own practice regimen, the ritual of daily pet-tasks serving to ground him in a way that my Zen practice grounds me. Some folks refer to Zen practice as “just sitting,” and after having spent a weekend retreating with a houseful of animals, I feel confident that “just pet-sitting” works toward the same end.

Old news

April may be the cruelest month, but March is probably the dirtiest. Now that all but the most tenacious snow-drifts have melted, the muddy earth has emerged under a shroud of dead leaves and last year’s trash: the dessicated detritus of a spent season.

Even older news

Some of these emergent objects are grotesque, like the pair of road-flattened beavers I stumbled upon one spring, each of their freeze-dried bodies reduced to a leathery pancake of fur, teeth, and bone. Other emergent objects are more mundane, the annual thaw revealing last year’s lost balls and leaf litter. Some things that emerge when the snow melts are nearly unidentifiable, like this soggy residue where a snowstorm pulped a neighbor’s forgotten newspaper, last month’s news reduced to Nature’s own papier-mache. Many of us emerge from the travails of winter looking the worse for wear, desperate for the extreme makeover effected by sunny skies and warm temperatures.


As much as Reggie loves to sniff autumn leaves, he loves their aroma even more in spring, after a blanket of snow has allowed their individual odors to ripen, ferment, and blend into an intoxicating olfactory elixir. It’s as if snow is the best kind of time capsule, sealing away the stuff of fall until it emerges in the spring intensified, weathered down to its essential scent. In these early, muddy days of spring, my late-summer allergies often revive as the dust, mold, and pollen from months ago re-emerge as if from cellophane, wrapped and frozen to preserve freshness. What need do we have for time machines when Nature herself is in the business of cryogenics, resurrecting in the spring the very days she froze in fall.

Cleanliness by the bottle

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Cleanliness, so here is a shot of some of the cleaning supplies for sale at the local grocery store. It always amazes me to consider the wide range of brands, colors, and scents available for even the simplest cleaning task. Next to these various glass cleaners, for instance, the shelf of dishwashing liquid looked like a rainbow with bottled detergents in every conceivable hue and perfume. If Zen cleanliness is too bland for your tastes, you can always find a more exciting elixir for whatever dirty deed you face. The only cleaning product not for sale at the local grocery store is that old-fashioned standby, elbow grease.