April 2012


Graduation prep

I’ve been inexplicably missing Old Silver, the towering silver maple that fell across the quad at Keene State College during Finals Week several years ago. When he was still standing, Old Silver was a sprawling, multi-trunked tree that needed wire braces to hold him together, but even those couldn’t save him from gravity in the end.

Graduation prep

Old Silver always cheered me on days when I felt like I was failing as a teacher, as often happens during Finals Week, when your paper-piles are tall and your patience is short. It was always a comfort to have a towering Gray Guy peering over your shoulder on days when you were stuck inside looking out with nothing but your grading to keep you company. There are plenty of trees on the Keene State College campus, but none of them holds the same place in my heart as Old Silver did. Old trees teach us how to stand tall, how to sway in the breeze, and ultimately how to fall. There are worse things you can learn in college.

Graduation prep

Today at Keene State, the grounds crew was setting up chairs for graduation: an annual ritual I’ve chronicled multiple times in past years. At the end of another long academic year, it’s a relief to see the clean, tidy lines of countless chairs arranged with meticulous accuracy. Teaching is a messy, inexact endeavor, but graduation ceremonies make a mysterious process seem polished and predictable with all their pomp and circumstance. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where Wisdom happens, graduation ceremonies provide a sense of closure by suggesting learning can and does eventually come to a full and finite fruition.

Graduation prep

Every year, I’m relieved to see graduation prep progressing because that means we’re close to being done with another semester, and this year, I’m particularly glad to see the term end. This semester has been emotionally draining in the aftermath of being cut to part-time, and I’m not ashamed to admit there have been days when merely commuting to Keene to teach two rather than three classes has driven me to tears. It’s not every semester that you question your career path, watch your dog die, and then reach the end of the term wondering “What’s next?” If Old Silver were still standing, I think he’d lean into the spring breeze and whisper that it’s okay to branch, to stretch, and ultimately, when the time is right, to fail and fall.

Modica Way

I have the habit of writing in the morning because that is when I feel the most awake, alert, and alive. This morning I did yoga then lifted weights, so my muscles sang with strength as I opened my notebook to write. Later in the day, I feel sluggish and thick, incapable of bright, interesting discourse, but in the morning my body feels both lithe and light, its strength and resilience reflected in the suppleness of my moving mind.

Modica Way

This morning I started reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. The book is favorably reviewed on Amazon, and I trust the taste of the friends who recommended it. But still any time I start a book by an author I’ve not read before, I wonder what I am in for. Will this person’s definition and practice of creativity differ from my own? Will there be breathy, New-Age aspects that clash with my down-and-dirty Zen approach–an insistence on praying to fairies, perhaps, or a pervasive belief in unicorns and leprechauns as totems of creativity?

Modica Way

I shouldn’t have worried. Tharp’s approach is as down-and-dirty as my own–no surprise, I suppose, since she is a dancer and choreographer, someone intimately acquainted with the poetry of bone and sinew and the languid beauty of shimmering skin. Tharp believes, as I do, that creativity is a practice–a habit–that thrives (as embodied things do) on ritual and regularity. Your Muse isn’t some ethereal spirit who imbibes rainbows and twirls with angels on the heads of every pin; it is a creature who must be both fed and exercised, as fierce and fragile as any animal.

Modica Way

I am already enamored with Tharp’s approach because what she says in her first chapter resonates so deeply with my own experience: not just what I believe, but what I do. Creativity doesn’t happen by magic nor by accident; it is a strength that must be exercised. Just as we all possess muscles that grow stronger and more flexible–more invigorated and alive–through use, so too does creativity thrive on habitual activity. No one lacks creativity any more than any of us lacks a muscular system. We all come with creativity as a standard feature–something factory-installed–but many of us never use the thing, so it becomes dull and dusty with disuse.

Modica Way

Tharp, who choreographed scenes in the movie Amadeus, makes an intentional effort to debunk the romanticized view of Mozart popularized by that film. Mozart’s creativity did not happen by accident, nor was it effortless. Any natural talent young Mozart possessed was honed by an attentive and at times overbearing father who exposed the boy to the best musical models and mentors while urging him to practice, practice, practice. Mozart himself denied the claim that writing music came easily to him; instead, his was a craft he honed through extensive practice and study.

Modica Way

This is a lesson Malcolm Gladwell emphasized in Outliers, where he argues both the Beatles and Bill Gates became great by practicing for 10,000 hours, and it’s a lesson underscored by Celtics star Kevin Garnett, who memorably remarked in an interview once that “The elite is the elite for a reason.” Mozart might have been born with more musical talent than the rest of us, but he would have made nothing of that talent had he not practiced. Practicing scales for 10,000 hours might not make me a Mozart, but it would make me far more proficient on piano than I currently am, without any practice.

Modica Way

Tharp begins her second chapter by describing her daily ritual of waking at 5:30, dressing in work-out clothes, then hailing a cab to go to the gym. “The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym,” she explains; “the ritual is the cab.” Regardless of what happens at the gym, in other words, the part of Tharp’s practice that matters is simply showing up. This rings so true to my experience, I wanted to shout “Amen” and “Hallelujah” when I read Tharp’s words.

Modica Way

“In order to be creative,” Tharp insists in a sentence that literally jumps off the page in large red print, “you have to know how to prepare to be creative.” Creativity, it turns out, is as much about preparation as it is about perspiration: creativity, in other words, is a phenomenon that starts the night before. This isn’t about sitting and waiting for your Muse to arrive on the back of a unicorn prancing down a rainbow; it’s about dragging your ass to the gym, the keyboard, or the blank page. Show up, practice your craft, then keep showing up and practicing. Judging from the opening chapter of The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp and I are kindred spirits.

Unfurling ferns

I haven’t taken many pictures since Reggie died, in part because I no longer have a slow-puttering dog to walk in the mornings and in part because April is always a busy month. Whereas for years my life revolved around the morning ritual of waking, walking, and writing, over the past two weeks I’ve settled into the slightly different habit of waking, doing yoga and meditating, and then writing.

Lily of the valley

It’s a routine that seems to work for me, at least right now, when I’m making a conscious effort to go gentle on myself. But this morning ritual of yoga, meditation, and writing doesn’t offer many opportunities for photography. Whereas on a walk you can be perpetually on the lookout for interesting things to photograph (especially if you’re walking an old dog who stops and sniffs every few feet), my yoga mat and the bare corner where I meditate aren’t visually interesting. That’s the whole point, after all, of facing a wall when you meditate: you’re not looking for interesting images, you’re just following your breath as it comes and goes.

Flowering shrub

This past week I’ve been walking our beagle, Melony, in the evening: a way of continuing the walking I love, but in a different way than I walked Reggie. Melony and I haven’t yet developed the same rapport that Reggie and I had, where he would quietly wait while I photographed things and I would quietly wait while he sniffed, peed, or pooped. Eventually, Melony and I will reach the point where we settle into a mutually agreeable stride; for the time being, though, I concentrate on walking the dog when Melony and I walk, not on taking pictures. That will come soon enough, but not yet.

Lady bug on garlic mustard

This morning I knew I wanted to write a blog post today, since the rest of the week promises to be busy. Knowing I didn’t have any photos from this week’s Melony-walks to share, I walked around the yard with my camera to see what I could see. Even without an old dog’s pace or an inquisitive beagle’s curiosity to assist me, I managed to find a few interesting things to share. During a week that promises to be busy, a handful of backyard photographs is a windfall indeed.

Parking lot labyrinth

A few weeks ago, A (not her real initial) emailed me a photo of a green, grassy labyrinth she’d walked near Cincinnati, Ohio: her first. In my response, I mentioned that I’ve walked a labyrinth in a parking lot off Church Street in downtown Keene, NH several times these past few weeks, on evenings when I’m teaching at Keene State. What a strange contrast between these two labyrinths, with A’s lush, leafy one looking so much more alluring–so much more inviting, soft, and contemplative–than mine of bare blacktop.

Parking lot labyrinth

Despite its aesthetic shortcomings, Keene’s parking lot labyrinth is close at hand, so I use it, not every Tuesday and Thursday, but enough days to make it worthwhile: a sanctuary close by. If you had to choose whether to have your sacred spaces in the world or not of it, which would you choose? I love the thought of walking a leafy labyrinth in a faraway, tranquil spot—anywhere but here—but at the same time I know I’d rarely, if ever, bring myself to that place. Labyrinths are themselves supposed to represent the travails of pilgrimage, but it shouldn’t take a pilgrimage to get there. I’ve grown to like Keene’s bare blacktop labyrinth because it’s already begun to feel like it’s mine: almost empty right after 5 pm, with only a few lingering parked cars and strangers going to or from their business, mostly ignoring me, a middle-aged woman in a long skirt or dress walking in circles, quickly, in their parking lot.

Parking lot labyrinth

I walk Keene’s downtown labyrinth quickly, not slowly and meditatively. In other cases, with other labyrinths, I’ve walked meditatively, but the whole point of my evening walks in Keene is not to dally. I have a class to get back to campus for, and my head is typically full of thoughts: whatever paper-grading or class-prepping or email-answering I’d been doing moments before during my office hour. I arrive to the downtown labyrinth with a full, distracted head, full of clamoring thoughts, so the only way to remedy the situation is to walk it off.

Winding

And so I walk briskly, at the same pace that I walk anywhere on my evening walks: a fast, steady stride. When you walk a labyrinth quickly, you have to concentrate intently on the path beneath you: there’s no skipping that. The turns in any labyrinth are tight and narrow, so you have to place your feet carefully, stepping precisely into your own footsteps. But you can do this at any speed, and in this case I enjoy walking briskly, perhaps because then my feet are in tune with the cluttered, racing thoughts that jangle in my head like loose keys and coins, or perhaps because rapid walking is such a welcome relief from the slow-poking walks I’ve taken for the past few years, when I lived with an old dog.

2004-11-06a

Walking a labyrinth swiftly is a different kind of meditation than walking one slowly: they each have their respective benefits. When you walk a labyrinth slowly, you can pay attention to the angle and arch of each foot as it falls, and you can pay attention to your body and breath as they settle into each stride. When you walk a labyrinth quickly, however, you pay attention to the path ahead of you, focusing outside of yourself, your thoughts, and your own corporeality. You aren’t thinking about the fact that you have a body; you’re simply moving in that body. Your walking, in other words, takes on a life of its own, with no thinking necessary. You simply follow the next step, then the next, then the next. Instead of being an exercise in mindfulness, this is an exercise in mindlessness: with each step, your thoughts sooth and settle as you leave your mind alone. It’s like letting a restless creature off its leash to race and pace at its own speed, your mental greyhound chasing its own fake rabbit round and around, lapping.

2004-11-06b

I think in an ideal life, one’s spiritual practice would have a time and a place for both kinds of practice, fast and slow. Sitting is slow, as is (typically) walking meditation. But in my Zen school at least, both chanting and bowing are fast: a time to let your body simply be a body as it runs at its own brisk clip. It’s fine and good to stop and think—it’s fine and good to take time to be contemplative. But for many of us, stopping to think easily turns into obsession and repetition as we rehearse time and again the same old litanies of worry, speculation, and regret. At times like this, stopping to think might be counterproductive, so doing anything fast and physical is a good antidote. Instead of trying to stop a racing mind, let your body outpace it.

2005-09-13b

I’m not a runner, but I admire runners because I can imagine, vividly, the hypnotic power of step following each step. I’m not a runner, but as a walker I love to reach that point after you’ve been walking fast and long when your body seems to lengthen, your legs feel light, and you can almost feel the earth turning slowly and broadly beneath your feet, like an enormous curved treadmill, your steps exactly in time with its rotation.

2005-09-13a

The builders of labyrinths are brilliant, I think, because they recognize this way that body and soul are connected: more accurately, they recognize the link between mind and sole. As a body thinks, so does it walk. If you want to get to the bottom of an infinite head-full of thoughts, try walking it out, one footstep for every thought.

On nights when parked cars make it impossible for me to walk the labyrinth in Keene, I sometimes walk part of the Industrial Heritage Trail, the rail-trail bike path that goes behind my former apartment. It’s a trail I walked many times with Reggie, at least when he was young and fit enough for long walks: it was the closest nearby place where I could let him off leash, and he’d run ahead in his own time while I lingered behind, snapping pictures of shadows and trees.

2005-09-13c

Everyone should have a place close at hand where they can let their mental dog off leash to sniff, explore, and race ahead. On the railtrail, Reggie was safe because a fringe of trees on either side hemmed him in: he could race ahead, but he couldn’t bolt far to either side. I didn’t need to worry about traffic or about Reggie wandering off where I couldn’t find him.

Coiled

This is, in a sense, how a labyrinth works. Because you don’t have to worry about getting lost, you can let your brain off-leash. You don’t have to pay attention to where you’re going, just to the fact that you are going. Paying attention to the next step is enough: no more planning or foresight is necessary than that.

Walking a labyrinth is a great exercise in trust. Do you have enough faith to take the next step, even if you aren’t sure exactly where it leads? Are you trusting enough to take the next step, even if it feels like you’re running in circles?

Labyrinth parking

These days, I don’t know what the future holds, but every day I know exactly what I need to do today. Walking a labyrinth underscores the idea that taking care of today—the next step—is enough to get you there and back safely, without undue worry or exertion. Don’t worry about the destination, which will come in due time: just keep going. It’s a lesson that we need every day, everywhere, regardless of whether we live with a labyrinth near.

Today’s post is illustrated with photos of the parking lot labyrinth off Church Street in downtown Keene, which I blogged in December, 2010; a visiting labyrinth at Keene State College, which I blogged in November, 2004; and the labyrinth behind the First Baptist Church in Keene, which I blogged in September, 2005.

Layered

It’s been just over a week since we put Reggie to sleep, and I’ve noticed that the tears now come unbidden and unexpectedly, inevitably when I least expect them.

Mysterious

I can do the dishes most mornings now without looking out on the dog pen and weeping, after having spent so many mornings checking for Reggie outside before our morning walks, wondering over the previous night’s dishes how long we’d make it at his slow, unsteady pace before turning back for home. I can, most mornings, do yoga in Reggie’s favorite resting spot–a sun-soaked segment of hardwood floor that still feels like it’s “his”–without tears streaming down my face like the first few mornings. And I can meditate now in the spot where Reggie’s food and water bowls used to be–a spot that feels empty and open now, somehow perfect for meditation–without tears, just gratitude for another sunny morning with open windows and birdsong, and the memory of the countless times I’d meditated in my apartment in Keene with Reggie lying a few feet away, waiting for me to be done with sitting so we could get down to the business of walking.

Shady

The times I might expect to weep for Reggie, in other words, aren’t necessarily when the tears come. When I get home from campus on Tuesday and Thursday nights, for instance, I now know not to look for Reggie lying in the bedroom as I ascend the stairs to the second floor: I know to brace myself for his empty spot. But it’s those random moments when I’m not expecting to be broadsided by grief that catch me unprotected, like this morning when I was folding laundry and casually caught a reflected glimpse in the mirror of the Empty Spot where Reggie used to lie, or those moments in the middle of the night when I get up, half asleep, to go to the bathroom, taking care not to step on a dog who is no longer there.

Reflective

This morning I found myself suddenly weeping over a passage in Diane Ackerman’s A Slender Thread, which I’m still reading (slowly) after having first mentioned it here last December. Ackerman describes a visit to Walt Whitman’s birthplace in Long Island, which leads her to recount the familiar story of how Whitman volunteered as a nurse during the Civil War, providing companionship and comfort to injured and dying soldiers. It was Ackerman’s description of Whitman embracing one soldier while telling him that death is nothing to fear that drove me to tears, the image of one soul helping another go gentle into that good night ringing too close to home. How great a gift it is to provide companionship to the dying, and how great a mystery is dying itself?

Still the King

I’ve learned–I’m learning–to be gentle with myself during this tender and tenuous time, recognizing that just as Reggie’s final days were precious because I made a conscious effort to be mindful of every moment, so too do these days of grief deserve their own attention. I’m learning not to fight anything: not the tears, not the memories, not the moments of sadness, relief, or gratitude. Whatever arises, I try not to fight it; I try not to judge it; I try just to watch it, open-eyed and attentive. I tell myself not to miss even a moment of this experience, because this too has worth and value: an emotional legacy that cannot and should not be denied.

I’m learning to be gentle with myself…and having learned to be a little gentle, I continually learn how to be even more gentle, letting go, gradually, of how I think grief should be or how it ought to progress. If you cast aside even the notion of “process,” all you’re left with is this present moment, this present emotion, this present teardrop, none of which has an exact comparable, ever.

Tight race

Here’s a confession. This is the fourth year that J and I have walked from our house in Newton to watch the Boston Marathon, and every year there’s at least one moment when the experience of cheering for complete strangers gets me choked up. (You can read previous years’ marathon posts here and here and here.)

Clearing the route

J and I always arrive at our usual intersection near Mile 18 in time to see the men’s wheelchair runners barreling toward Heartbreak Hill: an inspiring sight, but not typically enough to drive me to tears.

Catching up

Watching the elite women runners (above) and male frontrunners (below) is similarly inspiring…but these slender, fleet-footed runners are professionals, and watching someone simply do their job isn’t usually enough to get me all mushy, either.

In the lead

After J and I have spent about an hour or so cheering on (and photographing) the elite front-runners, we start seeing the ordinary folks who make up the rest of the race, and that’s the point when I always seem to get misty-eyed. There’s something about seeing regular runners–people who aren’t elite professionals–focusing on a personal goal that gets me choked up every time.

Jesus saves

We all have goals we strive for in life, and some of them might feel as daunting as a marathon. We all have goals we strive for in life, but not all of us work toward those goals in a public place with throngs of strangers watching, cheering, and waving signs to encourage us onward.

We can't all be heroes

Every year, locals throng the marathon route not only to cheer and wave, but also to hand out cups of water for anyone too thirsty to make it to one of the Marathon’s officially sanctioned water stations. What better way to be a good neighbor than to offer something as simple as a cold cup of water, either for drinking or for dumping on one’s head?

Keep hydrated

Because the weather today was hotter than usual, today’s bystanders offered a wider range of refreshments. One man, for instance, sat at the end of his driveway with a plastic cooler full of ice which he distributed by the handful, and another enterprising family handed out wet paper towels: an ingenious way to keep the runners (temporarily) cool.

Wet towels

My favorite variation on the usual cup of cold water, however, was the family who had stocked up on freezer pops that they handed to passing runners. Could there be anything sweeter than sucking a freezer pop before facing Heartbreak Hill?

Free freezer pops!

Typically, running is a highly individualistic sport: it’s just you, your thoughts, and the pavement beneath you as you strive for your Personal Best. What chokes me up on Marathon day, however, is the way spectators show up to cheer on strangers, shouting all sorts of encouragements: “Keep going!” “You can do it!” “You’re amazing!”

You trained for this moment

Can you imagine a world where we cheered each other on like this everyday, not just on Marathon Monday? Can you imagine a world where strangers shared simple kindness with one another, simply to keep them motivated and moving?

Want an orange slice?

We all want to feel like we’ve made a difference in someone’s life, either by handing them a cup of cold water, sharing a slice of fresh orange, or saying something encouraging when they’re down. It takes strength, determination, and a huge amount of commitment to run a marathon, and helps if you have a village of onlookers to cheer you along the way.

Click here for the complete photo-set from today’s Boston Marathon: enjoy!

Resting

J and I no longer live with an old dog: on Tuesday afternoon, we put Reggie to sleep. Both J and I knew it was time: the previous night, Reggie been restless and uncomfortable, waking us early with whines and occasional whimpers, and when I’d taken him out for his mid-morning bathroom break, he’d collapsed on the porch and immediately peed on himself, as if he were too tired to even try to get up. We made a last-minute appointment with our vet, I cancelled my classes and student conferences, and J and I made one last trip to the Angell Animal Medical Center to make Reggie comfortable for good. He was fifteen years old, and I’d had him for over thirteen years.

Proof that cats and dogs can get along

It was a peaceful–even beautiful–passing. After having been so restless and uncomfortable the night before, Reggie was tranquil on the drive to Angell, lounging in the backseat with his head up and alert, relishing the stream of fresh spring air from open windows. At Angell, I carried him into the waiting area and got him comfortably settled while J checked us in, and Reggie was both quiet and calm. I took one last picture of him while we waited, and in that photo he looks content and comfortable: ready.

Bloom where you're planted...

Reggie didn’t whine or whimper once in the family meditation room, a private lounge where we arranged him on a soft rug while Dr. Kaye and Alex, his assistant, readied Reggie for the injection. Dr. Kaye gave Reggie one last snack–some sort of healthy dog biscuits for sensitive stomachs, the treats some other family had apparently left after their final goodbyes–and then we gathered around. Reggie was lying with his head up, alert but relaxed, while sunlight from a partly cloudy, impossibly blue sky streamed through a high window. I stroked Reggie’s head and neck fur–his signature chow-mane, which never diminished even in age–while Dr. Kaye delivered the injection. One second, Reggie was calmly looking around; the next, he flopped his head onto my leg as he always did when he was tired; and the next, he was gone.

Basking

J and I cried in the meditation room, and on the drive home, and upon arriving at our too-empty-seeming house, Reggie’s now-useless leash in hand. The first thing I did was to gather up Reggie’s things, putting away his leash and bowls, his medications, and his food platform and the sturdy, rubber-backed mat we’d bought so he wouldn’t slip when he ate or drank. There are reminders enough of Reggie everywhere, mainly his conspicuous absence under foot and the now-empty spots where he loved to lounge. Why would we want empty bowls and now-useless medicines around to mock that absence?

Lounging

The first morning without Reggie, instead of walking I did yoga in the spot where he often slept, then I meditated in the now-empty space where his food and water bowls once sat. It seemed fittingly appropriate, the spots where Reggie found temporary rest and respite now permanently quieted. That first morning without Reggie was an impossibly beautiful spring day, with cloud-embellished blue sky just like the one I’d looked out upon at Angell, Reggie’s fur under my fingers. That first morning without Reggie, the tulips by the dog pen bloomed, an annual occurrence I’ll forever associate now with Reggie’s passing.

Still standing

Reggie was a good dog to the very end, a faithful companion who was with me during some of my darkest days, and my only “family” in New Hampshire in the immediate aftermath of my divorce. Reggie was a rescue dog whose “second life” with me was filled with everything a dog could hope for. He’d taken countless car-rides to and from Ohio and not one but two cross-country road trips. He’d served as official mascot and temple guardian for a Zen group. He’d climbed mountains, and he’d slept in an RV in Arizona, a tent in Virginia, and under the stars in northern New England. Reggie snacked on elk jerky while watching elk from a motel window in California, sniffed and peed at Old Faithful and Gettysburg, and nearly jumped out the backseat window at the sight of bison and moose. He had face-to-face encounters with groundhogs and snapping turtles, waded belly-deep in rivers and ponds, and chased countless turkeys, deer, and one memorable black bear: the only time in his life he’d actually come when called. Reggie had his portrait painted, and he inspired a whole category of blog-posts and a slew of photos. He was a fluffy-faced sweetheart whose resilient spirit humbled me in the end: a dog who needed help in dying because he just wouldn’t give up on his own.

Reggie reclines

My biggest fear in Reggie’s final days was that I wouldn’t be there when he died, either because he’d slip away quietly when J and I were out, or because a medical emergency would force J to make a final vet visit while I was teaching in Keene. Although my heart aches every time I see the empty spot where Reggie loved to lie, I’m grateful J and I were able to be with him in the end. These past few years as Reggie declined, I increasingly did anything I could to make him comfortable, carrying him up and down the stairs, easing him into a reclining position when he struggled to settle himself, and flipping him over when he’d squirmed himself into an uncomfortable position and didn’t have the strength to roll over. In the end, putting Reggie to sleep was the last thing we could do to make him comfortable, his body giving out before his heart. We was a loving, loyal friend I can’t possibly forget: a good boy until the end.

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