February 2011

Open to the elements

This photo from an August, 2009 concert at the First Congregational Church in Hillsboro, New Hampshire is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Open. It’s not yet warm enough to open our windows to this weekend’s rain and snowmelt, but that will come in due time.

Birdseye view of Keene in 1877

These days I’ve been doing something unusual during my weekday dog-walks in Keene: I’ve been walking without a purse or camera. Now that Reggie is old and needs to go out frequently, we walk three times a day: once around 6:00 am, once around noon, and again around 6:00 pm. In the height of winter, all but the midday walk are cold and dark, with the two of us venturing around the block but not much farther: just far enough for Reggie to relieve himself and sniff the snow, both of us moving carefully down frozen sidewalks. There’s not much new to see on these dark, around-the-block walks, so I’ve been leaving my camera at home, freeing my eyes to view the neighborhood directly.

Landscape scroll (detail)

I’m so accustomed to walking with a pocket-sized digital camera, it felt strange at first to leave both camera and purse behind on these frigid predawn and after-sunset walks. But quickly enough, in the inevitable way that the body itself becomes inured to cold, I’ve fallen into the rhythm of purely pedestrian days, carrying nothing but my keys, a handful of doggy clean-up bags, and a flashlight in the pockets of my heavy down coat. When you walk with a digicam, you notice the details of the world around you; when you walk without a digicam, you give your mind the freedom to wander the imaginary streets of memory: not this town now but that town then. Without the tether of a viewfinder to keep you rooted in the here and now, your sleepy self is free to meander across time and space, remembering the landscape as it used to be.

I’ve lived in Keene long enough that I can’t help but see it as a ghost town: a place filled with memories of what used to be. I’ve blogged before my own litany of the lost: the once-abandoned, now demolished factory that now has public housing sprouting from its frozen soil; the string of businesses that have come and gone downtown. Walking Reggie toward town this morning, we passed the shiny new hotel that used to be a lovely stretch of bike path, and our passing triggered the lobby’s motion-sensitive doors, which glided open as if to welcome us. “Leave it,” I said, tightening Reggie’s leash as he turned to go through the opened doors as if he belonged there. We might no longer be full-time residents in Keene, but neither are we hotel-dwelling visitors; instead, we’re the lurkers on the fringe, walking down predawn sidewalks while most of our neighbors are still asleep.

Landscape scroll (detail)

Walking has always been the way I’ve known any place I’ve lived or visited, and walking has become the way I keep my own personal sense of time, the rhythmic tread of footsteps being as meditative as my own breath. Within the first few pages of Teju Cole’s peripatetic novel, Open City, I’ve already settled into its familiar-seeming stride, the prose of a restless walker’s thoughts sounding as steady to me as any poet’s iambs. Julius, the protagonist of Open City, pulses with the Zugunruhe of migrating birds, his meandering walks filled with the stories of outsiders, immigrants, and others: all sorts of walkers along the fringe. It’s a path I’ve walked down before, whether tracing the footsteps of Mrs. Dalloway, Leopold Bloom, or my own sleepy, shivering self.

New York is a city where Julius seems in search of both self and place, walking with a pair of coupled conundrums: “who am I” on his left foot, “where do I belong” on his right. Or perhaps I read too much of myself in the novel, which I’ve only begun. Keene, after all, is a question I’ve not yet solved, and I’m long accustomed to walking here, my regular paths carved into the topography of memory. When I first moved to Keene, I was curious to discover who I was and where I belonged; these days, recalling the changes both the town and I have undergone, I find myself wondering who I was then and why I thought I’d ever belong anywhere. The places we visit leave an impress, the places we live mold us to their shape, and the places we remember hold us forever in their spell: not just this place, this time, but that place, eternally.

I wrote much of today’s post in my head while I walked the dog this morning, and I illustrated it with photos snapped in my Keene apartment, where remembered landscapes both real and imaginary decorate my walls.

Stairway with Valentine's balloons

This morning I did the math and realized it’s been six months to the day since J and I got married in San Diego. When we picked August 14 as our wedding date, we didn’t realize it was Pakistani Independence Day (a fact one of J’s coworkers promptly pointed out to us), and we didn’t consciously calculate that our half-anniversary would fall on Valentine’s Day. August 14, 2010 was simply a Saturday that worked for us, and now that will be our anniversary date for better or worse, ’til death do us part.

Valentine's cakes and cookies

In the past six months, J and I have celebrated one Christmas, two birthdays, and now our first Valentine’s Day as a married couple, and I’m still surprised at the novelty of shopping for a “husband” greeting card for each of these occasions. When J and I were dating, I’d always gravitate toward cute or humorous cards rather than the stereotypically romantic (read: mushy) “hearts and flowers” ones…and I always tripped over the term “boyfriend” and even “fiance,” both of which sounded terribly age-inappropriate. My 20-something students have boyfriends and fiances, so it always felt odd to use the same term for my sweetheart that they’d use for theirs.

Now that J and I are married, I find myself chuckling whenever I peruse the greeting cards specifically geared toward “husbands.” The first time I was married, “wife” wasn’t a term I felt comfortable with. I didn’t feel like I fit the job description of a “wife,” whatever that was, so the term always felt like an ill-fitting coat: big, boxy, and bothersome. Now this second time around, I no longer feel like “wife” is a job I have to “do”: it’s simply one way of describing one aspect of who I am. Either I’ve grown into that previously ill-fitting coat, or I’ve realized that “wife,” like a scarf, is a garment that drapes itself to whatever shape you’d like: you can wear it this way or that, depending on your style or fancy.

Valentine's balloons

As much as I’ve settled into the role of “wife,” I’ve realized over these past six months that J was pretty much born to be a husband. J is one of those quintessential “nice guys” who simply likes being domesticated. Given the choice between going out and staying in, J will always choose the latter: even when we go to hockey games or other “man’s man” events, J’s the guy who’s quiet, sober, and respectful while the rowdies around us are swearing, spilling beer, and otherwise raising hell. J’s the kind of guy who thrives on predictability rather than spontaneity, so we’ve quickly settled into a “boring married routine” that fits like an old shoe: nothing snazzy or stylish, but something comfortably familiar.

And so the day before Valentine’s Day, the closest J and I came to celebrating was to rearrange our usual Sunday schedule so we could watch an afternoon Celtics game on TV, eating takeout sandwiches from the deli where we normally have brunch…and then promptly falling asleep in front of the TV, tired from having gotten up early so J could have a morning conference call with a colleague across the world. Last night, when J and I exchanged Valentine’s Day cards a day early, I had to chuckle at the unintentional appropriateness of the card I’d chosen, which showed a cartoon couple napping on a couch in front of a TV, the caption reading, “A kiss is just a kiss, and a sigh is just a sigh…but a loud snore means you’re happily married.”

Half buried

Today has been a predominantly gray day with temperatures hovering around freezing. This morning while carefully navigating Reggie down side streets still flanked by dirty, waist-high snow drifts, the majority of our local sidewalks still buried under thick slabs of petrified ice, I felt it: the first incongruous stirrings of spring.


It wasn’t so much an outer meteorological phenomenon as an inner psychological one. There comes a point every year when you remember in your bones that winter never lasts: although any individual snowstorm is strong enough to crush your spirit, ultimately endurance triumphs over brute force. There comes a point every year when you’ve surrendered to the season, compliantly adopting an ice-friendly stride best described as a “winter waddle,” your center of gravity hunkered low over your heels. There comes a point every year when putting on and taking off boots becomes second nature, and wearing a coat, hat, and gloves seems as natural as leaving the house with a shirt and pants. Eventually, you get used to the cold, but only after you’ve become completely compliant to it: you have to reach the point just before crying uncle, the point when your soul is supple and you’re almost-ready to tell Old Man Winter he’s won.

Tete a tete

But only almost.

One of my cousins back in Ohio–one of a number of seemingly interchangeable DiSabato men of my generation, a strapping slew of brothers and cousins, all of them state champion wrestlers in high school–once described the secret to the DiSabato clan’s legendary prowess on the wrestling mat. “Before any match,” he explained, “I look at my opponent long enough to realize there’s no way he can beat me.” At first blush, this remark sounds arrogant or unfounded: how can you beat a man simply by looking at him? But as DiSabato who has wrestled with my share of big, burly winters, I know exactly what my cousin was talking about.

There comes a moment every year when, after looking Old Man Winter in the eye long enough, I see him blink. Yes, there have been times this season when a particular storm has pinned me to the mat, an icy knee planted on my back. Yes, there have been times when I’ve been ready to tap my surrender. But then I remember that although my opponent is strong, I’ve always outlasted him. Come February, I know there are still plenty of snowstorms between now and spring…but I also watch as the hours of daylight lengthen, and I know in my bones that when this match is over, we the warm-blooded ones will triumph. Old Man Winter is destined to reign for only for a season, and then he too shall be vanquished, sent packing by the simple truth that nothing cold can stay.

Click here to see more pictures from the graffiti wall at Modica Way in Central Square, Cambridge, which I shot on my way to the Zen Center last weekend. Enjoy!

Help yourself

We’ve reached that time of year when I’m tired of photographing icicles and snow.

Snow drift and parking meter

January’s “river of stones” challenge ended a few days before another big storm left me snowbound in Massachusetts while J was stranded on a business trip. During the days J was gone and I was home alone with a houseful of pets, I taught my face-to-face classes online and ventured no further than our backyard dog-pen, my snow-buried car parked at the end of our snow-buried driveway. For the better part of a week, my days were full of teaching tasks, household chores, shoveling, and roof-raking: not exactly the stuff of interesting blog-posts.

Despite my best efforts, J came home to ice dams, a leaky porch, and a damp basement. It’s been good to have him home, and even better to have some warm weather this past weekend that cleared much of our roof more efficiently than either J or I could have done with a snow rake (although a tenacious ice dam still took down one of our gutters). Even though we know winter isn’t over yet, a spot of spring-like temperatures is enough to give us hope.


On Sunday morning, on my way to the Zen Center for mid-morning practice, I made a point to venture behind the Harvest Co-op in Central Square to photograph David Fichter‘s summer-bright mural, “The Potluck“: a cheery scene I’ve blogged before. When you’re starved for color and sick of snow, a colorful mural on an above-freezing day beckons like a promise: someday summer will return, and eventually it will be warm and sunny enough to eat outside.

Click here for more photos of David Fichter’s “The Potluck.” Enjoy!