November 2010


Ivied wall

During any month in which you’ve made a public promise to blog everyday, it’s a good idea to have at least one generic post on hand just in case you ever need to slap something up on a day when you’re too busy to write a proper post. This photograph of the ivy-clad wall of the Historical Society of Cheshire County, taken last month, is exactly that kind of post.

Yellow on red

These days, the most vivid fall foliage has already fallen, snagging in equally colorful shrubs.

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

An afternoon's work

Knowing that late autumn in New England can be fickle, last night when I went to the hardware store to buy more leaf bags, I also bought a 50 pound bag of ice-melt. It’s never too early to be prepared.

Rose of Sharon seed pods

It’s a simple fact of teaching I re-discover every year: the semester invariably follows its own rhythms, cycles, and moods. Yesterday at Keene State, my usually lonely office hour was devoted to two students who came to talk about their semester-long research projects without any prompting from me. After eleven weeks of researching and writing intentionally messy early drafts, we’re now turning into the backstretch of the semester: time to start revisiting those messy drafts, cutting redundancies, and tightening the organization. After eleven weeks of brainstorming, generating, and accumulating, now comes the season for revising, pruning, and tidying, and that always inspires a handful of early-bird students to seek me out, nervously wondering how they’ll ever get a handle on the big ideas they’ve been wrestling all semester.

Bluish

Every semester–every writing project–follows this life-cycle, and every semester I forget the predictable pattern. Somewhere around five weeks into the semester comes the first wave of disenchantment as students want to change topics and instructors want to change careers; somewhere around nine weeks into the semester, I’ve given up all hope of ever getting to the bottom of my omnipresent paper-piles. And then right about now, Week 12, as we head into the last month of the semester, something changes. The drafts are still messy, but one by one, I see students starting to take tentative ownership of their projects. Instead of me cajoling, pleading, and nagging in my draft comments–instead of me feeling like I’m spending more time thinking about their topics than some of them are–I see my students starting to find their own voices, their own perspectives, their own ideas.

Rose of Sharon seed pod

Novelists insist that if you work on a narrative long enough, the characters take on a life of their own, and I’ve seen the same thing happen with semester-long research topics. At a certain point of the semester, my students’ topics truly become “theirs.” Instead of asking in various roundabout ways “what I’m looking for” in their papers, right about now my students are starting to get a clearer sense of what they want to say. This isn’t an easy transition: ripening is always a tenuous moment. It can be frightening to realize your writing instructor really does want you to have ideas of your own, and it can be frightening to realize your writing instructor really does want you to express those ideas. It can be frightening, also, to realize that your research, while helpful, will not give you The Final Answer to the big questions you’re pondering.

Planetree leaves

It’s easy, too, for a nervous or inexperienced writing instructor to step in too quickly, to kill a student’s embryonic ideas with over-coddling. “Here, let me show you” or “Why don’t you do it this way” sound like helpful feedback or well-intentioned guidance, but these also might indicate an instructor who’s not willing to step back and watch as a student does her or his own intellectual heavy lifting. A coach can model and reinforce proper form, but she can’t enter the field of play. Ultimately it’s the players’ game, not the coach’s, and her proper place is on the sidelines, watching and shouting and hoping.

I’ve taught long enough to know that the biggest a-ha moments won’t happen until December, when the end of the semester is just weeks (or one week!) away. So far, the seeds of the semester have been gestating in the slow, steady heat of a temperate season, but come December, my students and their ideas will bloom like hothouse flowers forced into opening, never a moment too soon.

Recyclable

One surefire sign of fall at Keene State College is the annual appearance of student art projects. As in past years, these temporary outdoor sculptures feature cheap, widely accessible materials such as empty water bottles and plastic coat hangers. When you’re a starving student artist, you learn to use whatever you find close at hand.

Green bike

This practice of creative frugality is one I can appreciate. On a gray, mildly Melvillean day like today, it’s easy to feel like one’s cupboard of creative inspiration is bare. Finding nothing scenic or sensational to share, you reach for whatever is close at hand, even if “whatever is close at hand” is a handful of photos you shot last month. On some days, preparation for blogging starts the night before; on other days, it takes even longer than that.

One of the things I enjoy about my November commitment to post something every day is the way it forces my creative hand. If I were a student in a college art class, I’d have to figure out a way to impress my professor with yesterday’s trash by today’s deadline: I wouldn’t have the time or the luxury to wait for inspiration. Making a commitment to blog everyday accomplishes something similar. On any given day, you’ve promised to post something whether you feel inspired or not, and this discipline to “do it anyway” unlocks its own kind of creativity. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and it turns out that “invention” has a twin sibling named “inspiration.” Instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, a blogger who’s promised to post every day has to take her inspiration wherever she can find it.

Reaching

In the Importance of Being Earnest, one of Oscar Wilde’s characters famously quipped, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.” And so this weekend, apropos of nothing, I took from my bookshelf the very first Moleskine notebook I ever filled and began reading a random slice of something sensational.

Clinging

Reading one of your own journals is bizarrely fascinating, like window-peeping on an exhibitionist neighbor. Here is this seemingly familiar character viewed in an unaccustomed guise: should I watch with voyeuristic interest or should I politely avert my eyes?

The journal I pulled from the shelf dates from August, 2002, when I was working through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way with a friend and subsequently trying diligently (and with mixed success) to keep regular morning pages. What I ended up writing was a day-by-day account of my first marriage at one of its critical junctures: the last autumn my then-husband and I lived in our old house in Hillsboro, NH. Within a year, we’d sold that house and moved into the rented apartment in Keene where I still stay during the week; within two years, we’d separated before our eventual divorce.

Climbing

Re-reading one of your own journals is like re-reading a murder mystery: now that you know how the story is going to end, you can pay attention to the clues you previously missed. In retrospect, I see all the signs pointing to my first marriage’s demise, and this makes these particular journal entries especially painful to read. I cringe, for instance, at the number of times I mention sleeping in the living room in a favorite chair where Reggie would curl beside me before taking his accustomed spot sprawled on the couch. In retrospect, I clearly see how my then-husband and I used our house (and even our dog) as a buffer between us, the simple avoidance of going to bed conveniently shielding us from the awkwardness of intimacy. Had I known then that there is life after divorce–had I known then that I’d thrive on my own, and that I’d eventually (unimaginably!) re-marry–would have I have lingered so long in a marriage that was so clearly not working?

It’s all there on the pages: the bone loneliness, the oft-repeated and pointless arguments, the frustrations over housework, finances, and work. In the fall of 2002, I was teaching at two different colleges, working part-time as a freelance technical writer, doing occasional word-processing work for a lawyer in Boston, and plodding away at a dissertation I thought I’d never finish. I was doing everything in my power to pay the mortgage on a house I couldn’t afford while my then-husband was at home not walking the dog, not doing the dishes, not doing the laundry, and not cooking and cleaning. In one exasperated journal entry, I silently wondered why anyone imagined that Atlas, the mythical character who holds the world, was male when it was so obvious to me that it was women like me who shouldered the world’s burdens. In the fall of 2002–one year after 9/11, and two years before my divorce would be finalized–I silently wondered how much more I could stand.

Cornered

Whenever I consider the “Me” I was when I was unhappily married, I want to reach out to her: I want somehow to send my voice across time to tell myself how things turn out. Reading these old journal entries, I want to reach across the years to hug that tired, lonely, frustrated woman I was; I want to send her to bed for the rest she so clearly deserved, and I want to reassure her that she really doesn’t have to carry the weight of the world. I want to tell her that everything works out fine in the end: the dissertation gets done, the divorce isn’t the disaster she might have predicted it to be, and it doesn’t really matter, ultimately, whether she finished the dishes, the laundry, and the cooking and cleaning on any given day.

If the woman I am today could talk with the woman I was then, I’d tell her something sensational: that in a world of second chances, I came home from walking the dog this morning to find my very own Atlas had done the dishes while I was gone.

Dried hydrangea

Emily Dickinson knew that in the winter, afternoon light has a particular quality–a certain slant–that sets it apart. On winter afternoons, the light angles low on shadow-strewn snow, and the landscape is shot with hues of blue and gray. Dickinson felt the heft of those certain slants; she deemed them an “imperial affliction” whose imprint is indelible. On winter afternoons, those certain slants are enough to slay you, the warmth of spring seeming as unattainable as the glaring white sun.

Dried hydrangea

And then there is the afternoon light of autumn. I can quote no poet who captures it, this light that burns warm like gold or copper, filtered through a veil of lingering oak and maple leaves. Whereas Dickinson’s certain slant of winter is the light of loss and longing, the burnished brightness of autumn is intrinsically nostalgic, the whole world tinted like a forgotten sepia-print.

On winter afternoons, you mourn a sun that’s already gone; on autumn afternoons, you rejoice in a sun that’s in the process of going: a Now that’s hastening toward Then. Autumn light lingers long enough to break your heart, looking back as it leaves, tossing golden beams over one shoulder as a radiant reminder of its passing. Autumn light loves the look (as I do) of dried hydrangea blossoms, each petal outlining in vein and line the arc of afternoon’s exit.

Dried hydrangea

Iced tea

There’s nothing like watching a ballgame on a sunny summer day to put you in the mood for some liquid refreshment, which might explain why I shoot so many photos of beverages at the various sporting events J and I regularly attend.

This is my quick, day-late contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, Liquid. For a photo set from the San Diego Padres vs. Pittsburgh Pirates game that J and I attended with a group of family and friends this past August, click here. Enjoy!

Toppled

For as long as I’ve been snapping photos to share on my blog, my basic photographic philosophy has remained unchanged: shoot first, then sort the good pictures from the bad later. This photographic philosophy is pretty much the same as my approach to writing, which is “Write a lot, then cut the crappy stuff.”

Bittersweet nightshade on chainlink fence

I’ve often said a digital photographer’s most valuable tool is the “Delete” button, and it’s true: you don’t see most of the pictures I take. When I go dog-walking with my purse-sized digicam, I shoot as if I have pixels to burn, and I do. I’m wasting nothing but battery charge if I take a couple dozen photos and share only a handful. Sometimes you can’t know what will look good on your computer screen until you take a couple dozen pictures, upload them to your laptop, and begin the process of delete, delete, deleting all but the best.

Over the years, I’ve discovered another so-called secret to taking and sharing lots of pictures. It all comes down to the morning’s first picture. It doesn’t matter what that first picture shows, and it doesn’t matter whether that first picture is “good” or not. What matters, though, is that I go ahead and take that first picture.

Twining

It sounds like a silly truism to say that you can’t take any pictures until you take the first one, but it’s true. On some dog-walks, my camera stays in my purse, either because the day is too dark or wet for pictures or because I’m feeling uninspired and nothing grabs me as being photo-worthy. Over the years, though, I’ve come to realize that “photo-worthiness” has more to do with me and my eyes than it has to do with whatever I’m looking at. As soon as I see one thing that’s interesting enough to make me reach for my camera, I’m likely to see another and another and another. The first photo, in other words, gets me to open my eyes for subsequent photos.

Berried

On the television show American Pickers, antique-hunters Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz travel the country in search of forgotten treasures buried in piles of rusty junk. On any given “pick” through a cluttered barn, garage, or cellar, Mike and Frank use the term “breaking the ice” to refer to their first purchase, which is usually something small and insignificant. In order to convince the owner of that cluttered barn, garage, or cellar that they really are looking for (and willing to buy) the dusty antiques they refer to as “rusty gold,” Mike and Frank buy something–anything–to get negotiations rolling. Once Mike and Frank have bought the outing’s first (and typically inexpensive) tchotchke, they’re ready negotiate larger purchases.

Each day’s “first photo” serves the same purpose for me, I think. Before I can get down to the serious business of finding overlooked visual goodies on my daily dog-walks, I have to break the ice by opening my eyes, reaching into my purse, and getting my shutter snapping. Once the ice is broken, you never know what you might find.

Flags for the fallen

This past Memorial Day, J and I took a walk (and took lots of pictures) at Newton Cemetery, as we often do. Cemeteries are lovely places to walk, and Memorial Day is as good a day as any to visit your deceased neighbors.

Flags and flagpole

While J and I were respectfully examining some of the stones in one of the sections devoted to military graves, we struck up a random conversation with a man and woman who were trimming the grass around the marker of a man they referred to as Uncle Fred. Uncle Fred, they explained, was an MIT graduate who served as a Navy fighter pilot because he loved fast cars and wanted a job that satisfied his thrill-seeking nature. Although he quickly rose in the ranks and had the opportunity to train other pilots, he preferred flying combat missions. Uncle Fred’s military career was cut short when he was killed in an accident while landing his plane on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific in 1944. He was 27 years old.

Uncle Fred, it turns out, grew up in a house just a few blocks from ours, living the length of his too-short life a generation or two before J and I were born. Due to the contingencies of time, in other words, Uncle Fred is a would-be neighbor whom we never had the chance to know. As we continued talking with the man and woman who were tidying Uncle Fred’s grave, J and I realized that they’d never had the chance to meet him, either. The woman had married into the family after Fred, her husband’s brother, had died, and the man, her son, was born years later. “I’m almost glad I wasn’t a member of the family then,” the woman confided. “I don’t think I could have handled that kind of loss.”

Memorial wreaths

I remembered this random conversation with two strangers about their Uncle Fred because it says so much about the power of memory. Neither this woman nor her son had met “Uncle Fred”; they’d simply heard the oft-repeated stories about him. And each Memorial Day, they kept these familial stories alive by visiting the cemetery where Uncle Fred and other family members are buried, bringing kitchen shears and garden tools to trim the grass around their graves.

Memorial Day is a holiday set aside to remember fallen soldiers, and November has its own share of remembrance days: All Souls’ and All Saints’ Days to remember the dead, and Veterans Day to honor living veterans and active servicemen and -women. Although a lot of folks dislike Veterans Day because of its association with war, in my mind today isn’t about anything so abstract.

Decorated and remembered

Veterans Day isn’t a holiday to advocate war or support the troops in an abstract sense; instead, it’s a day set aside for thanking the real-life men and women–our neighbors, relatives, friends, and friends of friends–who have served or currently are serving in the military. As Algernon noted recently, “[p]eople join the military for lots of reasons”: some are in the military because they support and want to serve in a particular war, others enlist because they’re looking for adventure, and others join the military because they see it as their best chance of getting an education and starting a career. Each and every “Fred,” in other words, has a story all his or her own, and today is the day we remember those stories with gratitude. Veterans Day is an annual opportunity not only to remember but also to thank our own “Uncle Freds.”

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