April 2011

Maple blossoms

It’s easy to believe in resurrection on a warm and sunny day when even the trees are bursting into flower.


Saturday was gray and drizzly, with temperatures in the 40s; today was a mix of sun and clouds, with temperatures in the 70s. On a morning dog-walk and a lunchtime walk with J, I couldn’t stop snapping photo after photo of tree blossoms, unfolding leaves, swelling buds, and anything green or flowering. After a long and snowy winter, it’s a vegetative resurrection that’s long overdue.

Click here for a photo-set of Easter flowers, buds, and leaves. Enjoy!

Mutai in the middle

Today was a perfect day for the 2011 Boston Marathon, with clear skies, mild temperatures, and a brisk tailwind to speed the runners toward the finish. Due perhaps to these favorable conditions, it was a record-setting marathon, with Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai winning the men’s division with a time of 2 hours 3 minutes and 2 seconds: the fastest marathon ever. Unfortunately, that’s a fact that will never enter the record-books since the Boston route is mostly downhill, ending at a lower elevation than it starts, and linear rather than looping, giving runners an unfavorable advantage on days like today when the wind is just right.

Muscle memory

Mostly downhill or not, the Boston Marathon is a daunting challenge, with so-called Heartbreak Hill appearing right when runners are hitting the limits of their physical endurance. The spot where J and I watch the marathon as it races through Newton is a mile or so before Heartbreak, so the spectators who line the race route make a conscious effort to give runners some extra energy through enthusiastic cheering, sign-waving, cowbell-ringing, and lots of drumming.

Teach your children well

This year, the African-inspired drummers of the Drum Connection were joined by a troupe of Japanese taiko drummers, the Genki Spark, who brightened our vantage spot with their funky outfits, clever signs, energetic dancing, and lively chants: “Eat those hills! You can do it! Eat those hills! Yum, yum, yum!

You eat hills for breakfast!

The Genki Spark take their name from a Japanese word meaning “happy, healthy, and alive,” and the mood at our vantage spot was very Genki thanks to their energy and enthusiasm. In fact, I personally think the Genki Spark can be credited with inspiring two athletes from Japan–Masazumi Soejima and Wakako Tsuchida–to win the men’s and women’s wheelchair division: a moment of glory dedicated to their disaster-stricken compatriots back home.

the Genki Spark rocks on

And while we’re on the topic of eating hills for breakfast, let’s not fail to mention Kenya’s Caroline Kilel, who closely beat Desiree Davila of the U.S.A. to win the women’s division with an official time of 2 hours 22 minutes 36 seconds. Way to go, ladies!

Kilel leads the pack

As I’ve mentioned in past marathon posts, only part of the fun of watching the Boston Marathon every year involves the race’s elite front runners. As much as the crowd cranes excitedly for a good view (and good pictures) of the runners at the head of the pack, we cheer just as loudly for the anonymous folks further back: the ones who really need a spark of Genki to carry them over Heartbreak Hill and straight to the finish line.

Anonymous legs

Both this year and last, after J and I cheered ourselves hoarse at our usual marathon-watching spot, we walked a half mile or so down the road, toward Newton City Hall, where throngs of spectators create a festival atmosphere with music, cheering, and signs. Along one quiet stretch of Commonweath Avenue, near a shady corner of Newton Cemetery, the spectators thin and the loudest sound you hear is the steady slap of rubber soles on pavement.

The pack

At such a quiet moment, before you reach the hoopla at City Hall, you can almost imagine you’re running the race yourself, falling into step with the runners alongside you.

Ever onward!

At such a moment, you realize how inward-focused a sport like marathon-running is: apart from the drums and bells and cheering, there’s a quiet spot inside that only your own rhythmic footfalls can reach. Running in step with thousands of other runners, you’re nevertheless alone: alone to fight your own body, pushing it beyond its limits, and alone to listen to your inner voice wavering between “Yes, I can” and “No, I can’t.”

Stretch break

Perhaps this very solitary and downright personal nature of running is why so many fans line the marathon route to remind runners that the best kind of Genki is the emotional tailwind you get from having lots of friends to support your every step.

Run, Duvie, run

Click here to see more photos from today’s Boston Marathon: enjoy!

New leaves

This past week, I’ve returned to my usual routine of writing morning pages after a week or so of being too busy to write. For writing instructors, April is a busy time–the cruellest month–as we’re neck-deep in drafts from our students’ semester-long projects: a recurring cycle of writing, reading, and re-visiting as students and instructor alike rehearse their same old thoughts in search of something new.

Almost forsythia

Revising is largely a matter of courage: the courage to return to something you said yesterday, last week, or last month to see what (if anything) can be recycled, reused, or re-purposed. Returning to a neglected notebook demands a similar kind of courage. When I was new to journaling, I’d despair whenever I missed a few morning writing sessions, sure I’d never establish a lasting habit if I allowed myself to miss days at a time. Now that I’ve been keeping morning pages for years, however, I know better. Now that keeping morning pages is an established part of my morning routine most days, I know that occasionally missing a day here or there won’t destroy that established habit. What’s important is the underlying pattern: a settled sense that even if I fall off the bandwagon today, I’ll surely climb back on it tomorrow.

Heal all

Over the years of keeping morning pages, I’ve learned that the simple act of keeping them is the point. It doesn’t matter what I say in my journal, but it matters that I do say something: it matters that I show up. It turns out that most spiritual disciplines are like that. Did you show up, and did you stay? And if you didn’t stay, did you at least come back, and do you keep coming back, again and again, no matter what the result, even when you’re not sure whether your practice is actually working?

If you keep showing up–if you keep returning–the pages and the practice are working. The simple fact of returning is the whole and entire point. This is true in writing and meditation alike. It doesn’t matter if you miss days or weeks in your journal if you subsequently return to the page, and it doesn’t matter if your mind wanders countless times while you’re meditating if you subsequently notice it wandering and then bring it back, bring it back, bring it back. If you keep showing up–if you keep coming back–if you keep try, try, trying–the words, the practice, the discipline won’t fail you. Words will appear under your pen; strength and stability will sprout beneath your rising and falling ribcage, as present as any breath. If you show up in prayer sincerely seeking the face of God, God’s face will appear to you, albeit in a guise you might not recognize. Ask, seek, knock, and return, return, and return. This is the universal truth of both spirituality and creativity.

Heather blossoms

Last month in a consulting interview, I described our inherent Buddha-nature like this. There is inside us a loving, compassionate being who wants nothing more than for us to wake up to our clear-minded and selfless potential. This being sits by our side like a patient grandmother, lovingly watching our every breath as we sleep in muddle-headed ignorance, looking for any sign we might stir. We might be sleeping late because we are sick; we might be sleeping late because we are drunk. Our Inner Grandmother doesn’t care: she just wants us to wake up, come home, and be present.

Our Inner Grandmother ultimately doesn’t care how long we slumber in our own selfishness; she’s patient and has brought plenty of knitting. Whenever it is that we stir and finally open one eye then the other, our Buddha-nature will sit up in her seat, smiling with kind eyes as she hands us the cup of tea she’s kept warm for us. It doesn’t matter to our Inner Grandmother how long we take to come home to the blank page, our meditation cushion, or our own true nature; what matters to our Inner Grandmother is that like a long-awaited spring, we finally return.

Reggie closeup

It’s after dark and drizzly, and Reggie has come in from his final bathroom break of the night: a quick pee in the front yard a few hours after our last walk. This is how it is when you live with an old dog: you measure your days and nights by the size of his bladder. When Reggie was younger, he would pace and whine when he needed to go out; nowadays, the moment he totters to his feet, awkward on arthritic legs, I hustle him toward the door. Sometimes Reggie makes it all the way outside before relieving himself; sometimes not. This is how it is when you live with an old dog.

Let sleeping dogs lie

When you live with an old dog, you gradually accept things that would have troubled you before, your patience blossoming like an unfolding flower. Another accident? No problem: you keep paper towels and a mop handy. Another bathroom break mere hours after the last one? No problem: you tell yourself it’s healthy to take a break now, not later. Another stint of patiently coaxing a dog who has never liked stairs to make his tentative way downstairs, one shaky step at a time? No problem: you learn how to meditate on each step, lavishly praising each one as if it were your dog’s first. When you live with an old dog, you gradually become accustomed to living your life moment-by-moment, the limitations of your pet’s declining body revealing the breadth and depth of your patience and priorities.

Sleepy dog

When you live with an old dog, you learn how to loosen your grip on to-do lists and time lines. Do I care about the papers left unread and the emails still unanswered? Yes, I do…but I care more about taking Reggie out when he needs it, cleaning up his accidents, and making sure he’s watered, fed, and comfortable. Do I have time to coax a dog down stairs three to four times a day when I have papers to read, classes to prep, and other work to be done? Technically, no…but practically, yes. Practically, yes, because your priorities shift when you live with an old dog, and you learn how to make time you technically don’t have. Mindful of the length of even the healthiest dog’s life, you learn to take the long view in all you do. “After he’s gone,” you silently ask yourself, “will I care whether I finished those papers, answered those emails, or checked off those other to-dos?” When you live with an old dog, you remind yourself time and again that sentient beings are always more important than tasks. After Reggie’s gone, I won’t care whether I accomplished everything on my to-do list, but I will care that I was fully present for his final days, however many they might be.

Reggie enjoys a car ride!

When you live with an old dog, you sometimes find yourself getting teary-eyed on an otherwise serene dog-walk because you know these days are precious: one day, you know, you’ll miss the trouble of cleaning up accidents and the glacial pace of coaxing an elderly animal down stairs, one step at a time. “How old is your dog,” strangers will sometimes ask me on our puttering neighborhood dog-walks. “Fourteen,” I’ll answer, to varying responses. Some folks marvel at how good Reggie looks for his age: slow-moving and methodical, but without noticeable graying. Other folks–the ones who have lived with old dogs of their own, I suspect–nod with a resigned expression. Fourteen, both they and I know, is ancient: a handful of friends have lost their dogs this past year, and all of those dogs were thirteen. When you live with a fourteen-year-old dog, you have no delusions: you know nothing is guaranteed, just this walk, this step. It’s the most valuable lesson any old dog–any sentient being–can offer.