December 2011


One of the cool things about starting a blog a few days after Christmas is you get to do your annual blogiversary post around the time that everyone else is doing their year-end retrospectives. I started blogging at Hoarded Ordinaries on December 27, 2003, which means my blog-birthday was last Tuesday. Following the tradition of past years, here is a look back on the past year in blog-posts, now that Hoarded Ordinaries is eight years and several days old.

Soft focus

Just keep doing it

When I first started blogging, I tried to post every day; more recently, though, my posting has been less frequent. Now that I post photos to Flickr and quick jots and tittles to Facebook and Twitter, I typically save my blog for more substantial pieces, which means I tend to post about once or twice a week. There have been two exceptions to that in 2011, however. Last January, I participated in the “River of Stones” daily posting practice and thus shared a photo and short observation every day, a practice I plan to continue this January. And this past November, I participated in National Blog Posting Month by posting at least a photo every day.


Momentous milestones

This past year marked the end of an era as Osama bin Laden was killed, an event I reflected upon in a post titled “At last.” This past year also marked a significant milestone on the ten year anniversary of the September 11th attacks, which I remembered in a May post titled “Memorial” and a September post titled “Sunday on the Charles.” On a more personal level, this past May I moved out of my apartment in Keene, an experience I chronicled in “Moving On” and “Unbound.”


How fragile we are

The theme of mortality is a continual undercurrent here at Hoarded Ordinaries; as a Buddhist, I’m perpetually mindful of impermanence and the fleeting nature of the present moment. This realization of the precious fragility of sentient life is illustrated in “There will come soft rains,” which I wrote in response to the spring earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in Japan, and this same theme echoes throughout “When you live with an old dog,” which chronicles Reggie’s recent decline into old age. In September, a storm that knocked down countless limbs in our neighborhood inspired me to reflect on mortality in “Left hanging,” and earlier this month, a bit of graffiti reminding us that we’re “still gonna die” gave me a bit of “Perspective.”


Art and Writing

I started Hoarded Ordinaries because I wanted a forum to showcase my writing; very quickly, however, this blog became a place where I marry word and image. Because of that ongoing focus, it should come as no surprise that I wrote about both art and writing in 2011. This past summer, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts featured an exhibit of works by Dale Chihuly, which I blogged in both “Enormous” and “A thousand flowers.” (I never did get around to finishing a promised follow-up post about Chihuly’s “Ikebana Boat,” however.) In “Two views,” I blogged about an afternoon spent sketching with a friend; in “Returning,” I talked about the courage it takes to revise a piece of writing; and in “Completion,” I recounted the lessons I learned from writing 50,000 words of nonfiction during November’s National Novel Writing Month.

Traveling a great deal in Boston

Although J and I traveled to Los Angeles and Seattle in August, I didn’t blog our vacation. Instead, I wrote various posts inspired by day-trips J and made in and around Boston. In “Run like the wind,” we watched the Boston Marathon from a vantage point within walking distance from our house. In “Time upon time,” we visited an archeology exhibit at Boston College, and in “Between the lions,” we visited a Civil War exhibit at the main branch of the Boston Public Library. Finally, in “One picture” I shared (yes) one image from a walk in South Boston.

Self-portrait with green mannequin

Inspiring reads

As a college writing and literature instructor, I spend a lot of time reading student papers, so any time I’m able to devote to pleasure reading is precious. Although I didn’t blog any full-length book reviews in 2011, I did write several posts that were inspired by books I was reading at the time. “Remembered landscapes,” for instance, is a meditation on walking and place inspired in part by Teju Cole’s Open City. “In sickness and in health” was my response to Diane Ackerman’s recent book about her husband’s recovery from a stroke, One Hundred Names for Love, and my Christmas Eve post, “Christmas Finches,” was inspired in part by an earlier Ackerman book, A Slender Thread, which describes her experience working for a suicide prevention hotline.

So that is the year that was here at Hoarded Ordinaries; who knows what the next year will bring, blog- or otherwise. Here’s hoping 2012 will be happy, healthy, and hopeful for us all.

The photos illustrating today’s belated blogiversary post feature the mannequins from the Great Eastern Trading Company in Central Square, Cambridge, both past and present.

Ever upward

Today’s Photo Friday theme is “Best of 2011,” which gives me an excuse to revisit my photo archives for the past year. As it happens, my favorite photo from 2011–an image of Jonathan Borofsky’s “Walking to the Sky” from the campus of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh–also illustrated one of my favorite blog-posts from 2011: a July entry titled “Out of reach,” which I wrote after joining Google+ and feeling more than a bit of ambivalence about social networking and the Instant Information Age.

Upwardly mobile

Revisiting that post today, I find myself chuckling and nodding in agreement with the things I said nearly six months ago:

In this era of smart phones, texting, and Twitter, I feel like a dinosaur when I admit that sometimes I don’t want to “be in touch.”

Just this month, after comparison-shopping to replace J’s dying cell phone and switch my New Hampshire cell phone plan to a Boston-area one, J and I made a conscious decision not to get smart phones like nearly everyone we know, opting instead for basic devices I immediately dubbed “dumb phones.” J and I already spend an inordinate amount of time online, plugged into our laptops for both work and pleasure. Had we gotten ourselves smart phones, I’m sure we would have enjoyed the luxury of being able to check email and surf the web when we’re away from our computers…but at what point would that convenience become confining?

Toward the clouds

For J, the deciding factor was the realization that if he had a smart phone, he’d feel obligated to check work email when he was away from his laptop, like the folks we see texting and checking email from their front-row seats at televised sporting events. “Put down your phone,” we shout at the TV screen, “and watch the damn game!” For me, the deciding factor was the monthly cost of a phone-and-data plan versus the basic bare-bones coverage we’ve always had. No matter how cool and convenient it might be to be able to check email, Tweet, and surf the web from anywhere, I don’t travel far (or frequently) enough from my laptop to make those features anything more than a luxury.

Now that I’ve revisited my July post, J and my choice to get “dumb phones” doesn’t seem so dumb after all. I still enjoy unplugging from the Internet and getting away from constant online contact–this past week, for instance, J and I took a whirlwind day-trip to New York City, and one of the most relaxing aspects of the getaway was the fact that we didn’t check email the whole time. And now every month when we pay our bare-bones cell phone bill, we can remind ourselves of what we’re saving by not paying for a mobile data plan when we have perfectly good Internet access here at home: a gift that keeps on giving. During a year when workplace budget cuts have inspired J and me to tighten our belts at home, saying “no” to smart phones might have been among our best decisions of 2011.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, “Best of 2011.”

Nestled turkey

If you’re a wild turkey looking for a quiet place to lie low for the holidays, you could do far worse than choosing to nestle beside a grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery, far from hungry hunters or cooks with roasting pans. Cemeteries provide a tranquil respite from even the most hectic holiday hubbub, and Mount Auburn has a long history of harboring creatures who simply want to lie in a safe spot.

Mourning his master

Purple finches

This year’s window displays at Creative Encounters in downtown Keene have a decidedly avian theme, with purple finches and a wise-looking owl taking the place of last year’s masks and mirrors. I shot these photos last week, when I was collecting end-term papers from my students at Keene State; now, those papers have been read and grades submitted, and all that’s left of Fall semester are two more batches of online papers to read before Tuesday’s final grade deadline: a spell of relatively Silent Nights.

Great horned owl

Although J and I don’t celebrate Christmas in any obvious way, quietly exchanging cards and enjoying whatever new gadgets and trinkets we’ve chosen for ourselves over the past month or so, Christmas Eve always seems particularly special and even sacred to me. Acutely aware that many find this night to be special, I find myself thinking of the quiet ones who feel left out of that companionable joy. Tonight, some children will lie antsy in their beds, eagerly anticipating the gifts Santa will bring; tonight, other children will shiver in slums and shelters, their parents wondering whether Santa will show up empty-handed, if at all. For many, Christmas is a particularly sweet time, but I’ve always found Christmas Eve to be a little bit sad, knowing that a holiday so many find joyous is particularly bittersweet to those who are in some way left out.

Christmas display

I recently started reading Diane Ackerman’s A Slender Thread, which describes her experience volunteering for a suicide prevention hotline. In the book’s opening pages, Ackerman speaks to human suffering, noting the way our lives are perpetually in transit:

Towns are like railroad stations, where at any moment hundreds of lives converge–people carrying small satchels of worry or disbelief, people racing down the slippery corridors of youth, people slowly dragging the steamer trunk of a trauma, people fresh from the suburbs of hope, people troubled by timetables, people keen to arrive, people whose minds are like small place settings, people whose aging faces are sundials, people desperate and alone who board a bullet train in the vastness of nothing and race hell-bent to the extremities of nowhere. In time, everyone meets everyone, either by repute or in person.

Purple finch

What better metaphor of the Christmas season than this? Into this world of coming and going, God himself set down his satchel, being born as a child of want. Into this world of human suffering, God himself took lodging among the lowly, walking among the sick, the outcast, and the demon-driven. On this night before Christmas–a night Christians see as being more holy than most–it comforts me to know that someone, somewhere, is sitting in front of a phone, invisible as God, ready to offer an empathetic ear to the lonely, lost, and distraught. What better vigil for a Silent Night in which both finches and owls fluff and hunker against the winter chill?

Be back manana

Any new project deserves a clean slate…or a freshly painted wall, in the case of street art.

Oak tree shadow

It’s raining in Keene today, as it has most Thursdays this semester, but on Monday it was sunny, casting tree-shaped shadows on brick walls. I’m heading home with my last stack of student essay portfolios for the term, ready to settle in for a weekend’s worth of grading, rain or shine. I’ll see you on the other side of “done.”

Wall at Central Square

It’s finals week at Keene State, which means I spent all last week and much of the weekend reading and commenting on student essay drafts.

Wall at Central Square

I’ve often said that the end of a typical semester is like the final two minutes of a well-matched basketball game. The final two minutes can see one team pull further and further ahead, or it can see a stunning come-from-behind rally. Anyone can win in the final two minutes, and you can see that in the eyes of veteran players, who know to steel themselves against exhaustion in order to get it done when it truly matters.

Wall at Central Square

In theory, no well-matched basketball game needs to last more than two intense minutes…but in practice, it takes almost four full quarters of play before that “get it done” mindset kicks in. The same seems to be true in any given semester. I’ve seen a lot of students “come from behind” during finals week, finally kicking into “get it done” mode after spending much of the semester approaching their paper topics tentatively. It isn’t a question of whether you can play two intense minutes of basketball, or whether you can produce decent last-minute revisions: it’s a question of whether you can play two intense minutes or produce decent last-minute revisions when you’re already sweaty and exhausted.

Wall at Central Square

Now that it’s finals week, I feel like a coach on the sidelines watching those final few minutes of play. I’ve spent the semester shouting and gesticulating, drawing up plays and patting players on the back. I’ve spent the semester repeating “Keep going,” “You’re doing a good job,” and “More of this, and less of that,” and I can’t count the number of times I’ve said some version of “Good try, now try harder.” Now it’s time for me to take a seat, hold my breath, and see what kind of game my “players” have during this week of all-nighters, caffeine mega-doses, and foxhole conversions. I have vivid memories of all those semesters when it was me doing last-minute revisions over unhealthy amounts of Mountain Dew, the “midnight muse” of procrastination my main inspiration. Now it’s time to see what kind of fancy intellectual footwork my students are capable of.

Wall at Central Square

In the meantime, I keep thinking of the photos I shot the last time I walked down Modica Way, the graffiti wall there reminding passersby that regardless of how well you do in school, business, or life in general, “you’re still gonna die.” As strange as it may sound, I find the sentiment oddly comforting, a reminder to keep things in their proper perspective. In any given semester, you play to win the game, but regardless of whether you (or your students) win or lose, eventually your play will come to an end: game over. In the meantime, how intensely can you pour yourself into your life, spending every last drop of sweat and leaving everything out there on the court, holding nothing back for “later”?

Graffiti forest

For years I’ve been photographing the ever-changing assortment of street art on the Wall at Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen an urban forest of graffiti trees there. Usually, the trees I see outlined on brick walls are painted by shadows, not by spray cans.

Tree shadow

An urban wall of bricks is a bit like a forest of trees, each individual fitting among its fellows to create a larger, stronger structure. A quick walk around Central Square on a brisk Sunday morning reveals more than a few trees finding shelter in the city, undeterred by walls and fences.

Callery pear against blue sky

Dew on changing leaves

And just like that, the month of November is over, and with the advent of December comes the end of both National Blog Posting Month and National Novel Writing Month. During the month of November, I managed to post at least a photo–most days, nothing more–and to write 50,042 nonfiction words, just as planned. As always, it’s been a fruitful exercise, one that has taught (or reminded) me I can maintain a regular writing, photo-snapping, and blog-posting practice, even in the midst of a busy semester.

Dried hydrangea flowers with fallen leaves

This past month felt a bit like a writer’s retreat that I attended in the midst of my mundane life. My emphasis wasn’t on product (that is, the quality of the stuff I was writing and posting) but on process (that is, the mere fact that I was writing and posting). Posting a photo a day wasn’t too challenging, but writing toward my 50,000-word goal certainly was. This past month, I learned (or remembered) several important things about myself as a writer:

  • I can, if I put my mind to it, write between 1,000 and 4,000 words a day, but only if I write whatever appears.
  • If I sit down with the goal of Writing A Book, I can’t write. If I sit down and write whatever appears, I can write anything.
  • Like Thoreau, I write best in the mornings, before afternoon sleepiness intrudes.
  • Like Thoreau, I write best when I keep a journal in which I write whatever appears and then cull and revise the best bits.

Dew on changing leaves

When I started both NaBloPoMo and NaNoWriMo, my goal was to kick-start my blogging (which has been lagging this past year) and work on a book-length nonfiction narrative I want to write (which has been lagging my entire adult life). On both counts, I feel happy with what I learned and accomplished this November. Did I write an entire book, or even a draft of an entire book, this past month? No. Did I get a good start toward writing a draft of an entire book, and did I learn a technique (that is, “Write whatever appears”) that will fuel my ongoing work on that goal? Yes, most definitely. And that realization alone is worth a month of diligent effort.