June 2012


A few weeks ago, I took an afternoon walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery. It was a mild Sunday afternoon–clear and cloudless, but cool enough for a jacket in the shade–and the Perkins dog was resting in deep shadow, spotlit by a single ray of late afternoon sunlight.

Afternoon shadows

That cool and clear afternoon feels like eternity ago now that the dog-days of summer have arrived. Temperatures this weekend are supposed to reach the 90s, and earlier today, I heard the first dog-day cicadas of the summer calling from neighboring trees. It seems this weekend, even the stone dogs will be panting in the shade.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Dog. Click here for more photos from that cool afternoon walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery several weeks ago. Enjoy!


Although I haven’t been blogging much, I have been writing…just not here. I’m still in the habit of writing four handwritten pages in my paper journal almost every morning, and most days this month that’s been all the creativity I’ve had time for, the rest of my energy devoted to the classes and course design project I started last month.

Mightier than the sword

I finished my course design project last week, one of my classes ended this week, and another class ends this weekend. Once I’ve submitted grades on Tuesday, my schedule will finally slip into something more comfortable: just one online graduate class that runs until September. As always, I’m looking forward to a (relative) break from teaching and grading: a chance to return to writing, letting my own words settle into the spaces recently filled to overflowing with the words of my students’ posts and papers.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Words. I’ve blogged the photo at the top of this post twice–first in February, 2009, and again in December that same year–and I blogged the photo in the middle of this post in May, 2010.

These days I’m still writing loopy words with a Waterman fountain pen in a lined Moleskine notebook…but recently I’ve been using purple ink rather than green.

After the race

J and I had barely arrived at Suffolk Downs in East Boston today when a grizzled regular approached us as we stood snapping pictures of the horses parading to post. “Who do you like?” he asked, and J and I shrugged. “This is our first time here,” J explained, and I added that we don’t really know anything about horse-racing, not having the heart to mention that we hadn’t even picked up a racing program.


“Well, who’d you bet on,” the grizzled regular asked, not ready to give up on us that easily. “Uh, no one,” J explained with a chuckle, and the old-timer sighed, clearly disappointed in the newbies who’d come to the track just to watch and take pictures of the fast, pretty horses. “Number Six is who I like,” the regular called out as he walked away, and we wished him luck, overhearing him throughout the race cheering on his choice: “C’mon, Number Six!”

Ready to cool down

Number Six came in third-to-last: although I don’t know much about picking (or betting on) winning horses, I know that third-to-last doesn’t pay anything. But since J and I didn’t put any money on any of the races we watched, we were free to admire all the horses whether they won or lost. In all the years J and I have lived in the Boston area, before today we’d never been to Suffolk Downs, which is rather remarkable considering how easy and cheap a day-trip it is: T-accessible and with free admission, just a stone’s throw from Belle Isle Marsh.

Warming up in the paddock

My dad is a huge harness-racing fan and a long-time regular at Scioto Downs in Columbus, Ohio. Unlike the Thoroughbreds that run at Suffolk Downs and in well-known races such as the Kentucky Derby, harness horses are Standardbreds who are trained to run in a trotting or pacing (not galloping) gait while pulling a driver in a lightweight buggy called a sulky. When I was a kid, I sometimes went to the track with my dad, watching the races as only a horse-crazy city kid could. While my dad and his friend put their money on the “ponies,” I watched slack-jawed and in awe of a place that was all about horses.

Ready to race

Going to Suffolk Downs today felt a bit like traveling back to my childhood…albeit with Thoroughbreds that gallop with tiny jockeys on their backs rather than Standardbreds pulling men in sulkies. Just like those trips to the track with my dad, I didn’t really care which horse won or which bet paid big: with no money on the line, I was free (then and today) to admire the beautiful, fleet-footed creatures that filled my childhood daydreams.

Click here for more pictures from Suffolk Downs. Enjoy!

Modica Way

This week in my “Buddhism, the Beats, and Beyond” class, we talked about Buddhist poetry. I told my class I am not a poet; I told my class I didn’t understand all the poems we read, either. But we talked about poems anyway, and we tried a version of the Natalie Goldberg exercise where you freewrite a list of statements all starting with the same opening phrase.

Modica Way

We took as our lead Allen Ginsberg’s “Why I Meditate,” which several students had been confused by. In our poems, we chose some other thing we do daily–why I walk, why I sing, why I dance, why I read–and we each made our own spontaneous, sometimes illogical list. The logic of our lists didn’t matter; what drew us in was the litany of the words themselves, ever-echoing that opening phrase: “I ______ because…”

I walk because the earth is round
I walk because my feet touch earth
I walk because my lungs breath green air
I walk because it rains invisible mist
I walk because you are here
I walk because sitting is too still
I walk because the earth is love
I walk because my body never tires
I walk to pump the billows of my heart
I walk because some people can’t
I walk because outside is bigger than inside

Modica Way

I walk because the afternoon is long
I walk because life is short
I walk because death nips our heels
I walk because the dog paces and whines
I walk because it is cheaper than gas
I walk because my feet can’t be still
I walk because the body is made to move
I walk because my brain never stops
I walk because I can’t stop
I walk because you aren’t here
I walk to find things I haven’t lost
I walk to chase the sunset
I walk because time marches on
I walk to meet a future version of myself.

Modica Way

My students are open and forthcoming, so a question soon arose. What makes a poem? How is a poem different from other things? Can a quick-jotted list be a poem? What about a story told in ordinary language like prose, but with line breaks?

We talked about Walt Whitman and his lists, and we listened to several of Diane Di Prima’s “Revolutionary Letters.” What makes a poem different from a letter, and what makes a poem different from a political rant? Sometimes the two sound the same, so what makes a poem unique?

Modica Way

My students and I quietly drafted our own ideas about what a poem is and what a poem is not, and we compared the results, which were remarkably similar. We seemed to think poetry is looser than other literary genres: poetry can take a form, but it isn’t limited to that form. We seemed to think that a poem isn’t defined by the particular arrangement of its words and rhythms–it can follow the format of a haiku or epic, list or refrain–but it is defined by the fact that its words are arranged with some sort of intentionality (whether formal or informal) chosen by the poet to express some sort of truth.

Modica Way

We read Gary Snyder’s “Riprap” after having listened to Snyder read several other poems, and we concluded that Snyder’s definition of poetry is as good as any. In “Riprap,” Snyder suggests poets lay words like rocks–carefully, intentionally–to create a path to truth. The way up Cold Mountain is slippery and steep, but a path cobbled together with whatever rocks are close at hand–shattered shards or polished river rubble–can make the way more passable. You still have to walk the path yourself; your experience of the mountain of truth will be uniquely yours. But a line of carefully laid stones can save your life along the way.

Cedar waxwing

One of the things I love about cedar waxwings is how unpredictable they are. Waxwings are nomadic creatures, traveling in flocks from one berry-bearing tree to another. A flock of waxwings will descend upon a fruiting crab-apple tree, feast until their bellies are bursting, and then move on to better, more berry-laden trees.

Cedar waxwing

Today, there were two flocks of cedar waxwings working the crab-apple trees at Keene State College: one in the trees by the Student Center, and other working the trees by the library. I wasn’t expecting to see waxwings as I walked from my car to my summer school class and back: that’s what I love about waxwings. Right when you’re not expecting to see much of anything is when waxwings typically appear, descending upon the trees of your otherwise ordinary afternoon, keening and calling until you look up to notice them, surprised again. The next time I’m on campus, who knows where these nomads will be, appearing like an unbidden apparition to some other oblivious soul.