April 2010

Almost, but not yet

The lilacs here in Keene are swelling and reddening, but they haven’t yet opened, unlike their counterparts further south in Newton. This is the last week of classes at Keene State–today, I teach my last three face-to-face classes of the spring semester, followed by a week or so of end-term grading–and I feel a bit like a lilac bud, waiting, waiting for a fragrant freedom that feels mere moments away.

This morning as I was prepping tonight’s final discussion in my Literature of Birds and Birding class, I found myself getting misty eyed as I reviewed a particularly poignant passage in Brad Kessler’s Birds In Fall, where one of the central characters, an ornithologist, releases a cluster of now-grown sparrows she had captured and studied as juveniles. The scene plays upon the themes of migration, love, and loss that echo throughout the book, which focuses on a plane crash off the shores of Nova Scotia that killed the ornithologist’s husband. As the old saying goes, sometimes you have to let your loves fly away like birds, and the ones that return to you are true.

“Dear God,” I found myself muttering. “Get me through this day without weeping in front of any of my classes!” It’s a prayer that any instructor can probably relate to at this time of year, when were all tired from end-term deadlines and we all feel a peculiar kind of Zugunruhe, the restlessness of migrants that pushes birds to fly, flowers to blossom, and both students and instructors alike to seek freedom outside the cage of classroom walls.

Bright and bold

Given the number of tulips I photograph every spring, you’d probably never guess that as a child, tulips were my least-favorite flower. Tulips always struck me as being boring and non-imaginative, the kind of flower you’d design if your tastes were monochromatic and you had no flair for texture. I’m guessing the tulips of my childhood were particularly bland, their uniformity as unimpressive as that of artificial flowers. Or maybe I just didn’t like Tiny Tim.

Tulip appreciation

On Saturday around sunset, J and I took a quick walk through the Boston Public Garden on our way to an evening symphony concert. The Public Garden tulips were in full-flower, and with them were throngs of tulip appreciators, many of them with cameras. Perhaps my botanical tastes have matured, or maybe there are more (and more interesting) tulip varieties in New England gardens than there were in the Ohio gardens of my childhood, because now I find myself truly liking tulips. Whereas those bland tulips from my childhood seemed boring in their monotone uniformity, now I’m amazed at how many colors, shapes, and sizes tulips take. Or maybe I just really liked Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire and haven’t been able to look at tulips the same way since reading it.

Among the throngs of tulip-appreciators in the Public Garden on Saturday night were the folks who’d come to shoot tulips…

Shooting tulips

…as well as a bride and groom fresh from a wedding photography shoot among tulips, exactly four years and a day after the last time I blogged an April-chilled couple posing for pictures in the Public Garden.

Another Public Garden wedding shoot

Maybe it’s not the tulips that are remarkably uniform, but the behavior of tulip-appreciators (myself included) year after year.

Click here for a photo-set from Saturday night’s quick walk through the Boston Public Garden.

Quinceañera finery

Last month when J and I spent a long weekend visiting family in Houston, we saw a teenage girl in frilly pink finery posing for pictures aboard the Battleship Texas, her Kate Winslet “queen of the worldTitanic moment at the bow of the ship back-dropped by the nearby San Jacinto Monument.

San Jacinto Monument

“This is a popular place for Quinceañera pictures,” J’s niece noted, and both she and I explained to J the coming-of-age celebration that Mexican families typically throw for daughters on the occasion of their fifteenth birthday. “It’s like sweet sixteen,” J’s niece observed: a ceremonial celebration of a girl’s passage into womanhood, with appropriately feminine finery. When J expressed amazement that any girl would want to pose for a pink and frilly photo-shoot on a retired battleship, I shrugged. Is a war monument any less appropriate for coming-of-age pictures than a harborside Presidential library is for wedding photos?

I forgot all about this anonymous girl and her sweet fifteen photo-shoot until yesterday, when I realized that crabapples, cherries, and other flowering fruit trees get to pose for pink and frilly Quinceañera pictures every year.

Pink & frilly


Thursday was an on-again, off-again sunny day, and as I arrived on campus before my noon class, I saw a basking groundhog nibbling the spring-green grass in front of Parker Hall until several students walked by and unintentionally scared the creature into some nearby shrubs. It’s just as well, as by the time I began teaching my class, the campus grounds crew had appeared to mow this same patch of green grass: as sure a sign of spring sunshine as groundhogs and shadows are.

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


Ethiopia’s Teyba Erkesso ended up winning the women’s division of today’s Boston Marathon by a hair: a mere three seconds over Russia’s Tatyana Pushkareva. But when we saw Erkesso cruising past Newton’s 18-mile mark, she was far ahead of the rest of the elite women front-runners.


Long after the elite men, women, and wheelchair runners have passed, the fun of Marathon Day lies in cheering on the ordinary folks far back in the pack.


These runners aren’t racing the men and women next to them; their only competition is the nagging voice inside that whispers “Stop” and “I can’t!” The job of marathon spectators is to overwhelm that small, nagging voice with clapping, shouting, drumming, chanting, cow-bell ringing, and sign-waving.





The flip-side of that final sign read “Keep going,” and the boy holding it dutifully flipped between one side and the other as runners raced past. You can see more photos of marathon runners and spectators in this photo-set: enjoy!

Raindrops on crabapple blossoms

One of my teaching tasks this weekend is to re-read the first half of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which we’ll be discussing in my “Rivers and Literary Imagination” class this week. Pilgrim is a book I first encountered when I was an undergraduate in Ohio, and it’s a book I’ve re-read so many times, my original copy is literally falling apart. Even though I’ve replaced that original, well-worn copy with a newer edition so my students and I will be on the same page as we discuss the book, I’ve kept my old, yellowed copy with my old notes and underlinings: a tangible connection with whoever I was when I first read it.


Over the years, I’ve downsized my personal library several times. When I was married, my then-husband and I frequently moved, and with each relocation I weeded through my stacks, selling or giving books away. When my then-husband and I divorced, one of the most painful parts of separation was the dividing of our already-diminished book collection into piles labeled “his” and “hers.” Whereas many of my tenure-track colleagues have offices whose walls are lined with bookshelves, as an adjunct I’ve always shared an office, so bookshelf space is at a premium. Unlike those of my teaching colleagues who still have copies of all books they’ve read, taught, or published research on, space constraints mean I occasionally have to do a book-purge, selling, donating, or giving away books I’ve read but don’t plan to revisit.

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a whole other story. Like my old, well-annotated copy of The Cloud of Unknowing, my disintegrating undergraduate copy of Pilgrim holds great sentimental value. Although I first heard of Dillard in an undergraduate Honors course titled “Ideas of the Natural World,” Pilgrim wasn’t a required text. Instead, it was on a list of recommended texts, and we each had to choose one title for an in-class presentation.

Raindrops on yew

From the list of texts, I chose to present on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which I had read and enjoyed in high school, and a friend of mine randomly picked Dillard. I remember my friend saying in her presentation that she’d enjoyed the book, so when I saw a remaindered paperback copy at a local bookstore where I and another college friend would often walk, promising one another that we would not return to campus with yet another armload of impulse purchases, I had to break my promise and buy it.

That was at least 19 years ago, and I’ve lost touch with both college friends. The store where I bought my now-crumbling copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is now closed, in a city I’ll probably never have reason to visit again. When I bought that old remaindered copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I had no idea what role it would play in my life; indeed, I had no idea where life would take us, Pilgrim and me, in subsequent years.

Raindrops on rhododendron

When I pulled out my old copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to review its notes and underlinings this past week, I spent a long time studying the signature on the inside front cover: Lorianne DiSabato. I bought this book as a virginal undergraduate in Ohio, before I’d married, moved to New England, and eventually divorced. I still own a handful of books from my married days as Lorianne Schaub, and I have plenty of books I’ve purchased after I divorced and reclaimed my original last name. But a book that dates from my maiden days feels like a relic, a reminder of that Other Person from my past who shares my present name.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one of those books I’ve read and re-read at so many different points in my adult life, the text itself has an accompanying personal history, a kind of marginal commentary in which I automatically remember Who I Was and What I Thought at the various times I revisited it. “How many a man,” Thoreau once asked, “has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book,” and this woman, for one, can claim Pilgrim (along with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Thoreau’s own Walden) as one such book.

Rain on forsythia

The first time I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I wished I had written it; upon later re-readings, I grew convinced that I could have written it, had Dillard not beaten me to it. Given Dillard’s interest in nature and spirit, two of my own favorite topics, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek articulates many of the ideas that existed as merely vague impulses until Annie Dillard gave them shape on the page.

Re-reading Pilgrim this time around, the text is so familiar to me, it almost feels like I did write it: just as I experience an odd kind of deja vu whenever I read something from my own blog archives, there’s a familiar nod of remembrance and recollection whenever I revisit some passage of Dillard’s that has nestled itself into my literary subconscious, a line or an image that rang so true the first time I read it, I felt Dillard must have been telepathic to have snatched the thoughts right out of my mind.

Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek is about vision in every sense of the word, as I tried to explain in a graduate research paper I wrote about the book in 1996. So much of what I do these days as both a writer and photographer relies upon this sense of vision, re-reading Pilgrim feels like re-visiting my own creative manifesto. When you live by a creek, Dillard suggests, the constant flow of water and light presents an ever-changing panorama for you to observe and appreciate. If you keep your eyes open to this nonstop show, you can’t help but ask deeper questions about the source of this boundless creativity, and by asking these questions, you open yourself up to realizations you might have never anticipated.


Although I live within easy walking distance of two rivers–the Ashuelot in Keene and the Charles in Newton–I don’t think you need to live by a creek or river to have the kind of epiphany Dillard recounts in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. All you have to have, I think, are wide-open eyes and a curiosity to match. I don’t know if any of my students will date a new era in their life by the reading of this book, but I secretly hope at least one of them does. I can imagine no sweeter thought than that perhaps one day nineteen years from now, one of my now-students will stumble upon her annotated copy of this book, now well-worn and crumbling, and wonder back upon the person she was when a simple paperback encouraged her to open her eyes.

Pink & pretty

This time last year, my knowledgeable blog-readers identified a mystery flower I’d spotted as a Frittilary: an ornamental species I’d never seen before. This year’s April enigma is pictured above. Does anyone know the name of this pretty little pink flower growing along the same woodsy garden edge where I always see the year’s first snowdrops, crocuses, Solomon’s seal, and Jack-in-the-pulpit?


Once it finally arrives, spring has a momentum all its own, with the blushing tulip buds that were poised to flower on Sunday morning (above) swelling into fully open flowers by afternoon (below).


Magnolia with raindrops

When I was a kid, I had a picture-book titled What Do They Do When It Rains? The premise of the book was simple: for each two-page spread, the pictures showed someone doing something in the sunshine, and then the same person doing something else in the rain.


I don’t remember most of the scenarios pictured in the book: I think firefighters were shown polishing their fire engines inside the fire station on rainy days, and surely there were pictures of people walking outside wearing colorful raincoats. I remember, though, that the man who sold umbrellas was the only character who was noticeably happier on rainy days because of the brisk business he did, and I remember the book including a silly tableau depicting a house painter who painted houses when it was sunny (picture a man on a ladder painting the exterior of a house) and who painted houses when it rained (picture the same man inside his living room, painting a picture of a house).

Of the various picture-books I read as a kid, I think I’ve always remembered this one because of the cheery message it sent. Even though everyone apart from the umbrella-seller was happier when it was sunny, everyone made the best of even a rainy day. “Life doesn’t stop when it rains” was the implicit moral I took away from this picture-book. “You just make the appropriate modifications.”

Grape hyacinth

What do I do when it rains? I take pictures. Because my everyday-use camera is already well-worn, I don’t worry about raindrops; as long as the rains aren’t torrential, you can keep your camera “mostly” dry inside your pocket, taking it out for quick snaps between raindrops. The secret to taking pictures on overcast and even rainy days is to keep shooting. This morning was drizzly, so I walked in a raincoat and ball-cap; wanting to snap a picture of some rain-dampened magnolia blossoms, I ended up shooting a handful of poorly lit images before getting one that was good enough to share. This morning might have been overcast and drizzly, but that wasn’t enough to stop the birds from singing, the magnolias from blooming, or me from shooting pictures.

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

A new leaf (or several)

Today at noon I met with small groups of my Creative Nonfiction Writing students to talk about the latest draft of their semester-long projects, which they subsequently turned in; tonight at 6pm, I’ll hand back a batch of essay drafts to one of my Environmental Literature classes, and we’ll spend some time in class working on revisions. And this afternoon at 4pm, I’ll meet with another section of Environmental Literature, sitting down to discuss Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge after not handing back the batch of essay drafts I’d promised them. In the maelstrom of incoming and outgoing student essay drafts that is April, I didn’t get to the bottom of that particular paper pile.

Lilac buds with new leaves

This is the endless loop that is my April: I hand back one batch of student essay drafts for every two batches still waiting for me to read. It doesn’t seem to matter how I schedule or stagger individual essay due-dates: in April, there are always more essays to read. At times at this point in the semester, I feel like one of those multi-armed Hindu goddesses, except instead of holding a single sacred object in each hand, I hold the various tasks I’m juggling: in this hand, a folder with papers I need to return; in that hand, a folder with papers I’ve just collected; and in another hand, a laptop with emails I need to answer. No matter how many hands I can find, those hands are always full, and all of my appendages feel like they’re spinning like a crazy windmill of collecting and returning, collecting and returning, collecting and returning.

In April, in other words, there’s no stopping the madly-out-of-control merry-go-round that is the life of a writing instructor: assign it, collect it, read and comment upon it, return it…then repeat, repeat, and repeat. At some point at the beginning of May, my students will give me their final projects for good, and I’ll grade my way to the bottom of those paper piles and be done with them. But between now and the beginning of May is the madcap month of April, “that time of the semester” for those of us who teach writing.

Ground phlox with dew

We writing teachers tell our students that writing is a process, not a product: it isn’t a matter of getting your essay perfect the first time, but of returning to it time and again until you get said whatever it is you’re trying to say. At this point in the semester, I feel like I’m up to my eyeballs in everything my various students are trying to say. Grading final papers is grueling enough, and reading essay drafts is even more daunting. Again, again, and again, you watch your students struggling to articulate whatever it is they’re “trying to say,” and you do everything but hold your breath and repeat incantations to your god of choice to help them through the labor of that creative birth.

In April, teaching itself feels like a repetitive, cyclical process: once again I’m walking students through the process of detangling the skeins of their own thoughts, and once again I’m scrambling to read batch after batch of student papers, waiting for each of my students to have that “a-ha moment” where their paper finally falls together. It’s easy for students to lose hope that this will ever happen, and it’s easy for their teachers to lose hope, too, especially when the paper piles are particularly high. During this time of the semester, I take comfort in the thought that Nature herself is in the throes of her busy season, producing draft after draft of green fecundity, each new leaf destined to face the inevitable cycle of grow it, kill it, mulch it, decompose it…then repeat, repeat, and repeat. All of it–every draft, every word, every green cell and leaf–is compost in the great soil of creativity.

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