July 2012


Alone

This weekend, J and I went to the North End to check out Saint Joseph’s Feast, the latest in a series of religious festivals that happen every summer in Boston’s Italian enclave. Of the various photos I shot of this year’s feast, my favorite is this one featuring a rather dejected-looking Saint Joseph statue draped in ribbons in an empty shrine.

An offering for Saint Joseph

The sight of this small statue standing forgotten while a larger, more colorful one was paraded through the neighborhood, stopping at every block so admirers could drape him with scapulars pinned with money, immediately reminded me of the ending of James Joyce’s “Araby,” in which an adolescent boy eagerly anticipates attending a local bazaar. Arriving late, the boy is disappointed to find half of the stalls closed or closing, the bazaar filled with a “silence like that which pervades a church after a service.” As the boy tries to find an acceptable gift for a girl he likes, he is disappointed to realize the wares are cheap and tawdry, not elegant or exotic as he had hoped.

Diptych

I’m guessing we’ve all had moments like the one James Joyce describes in “Araby,” when we’ve realized something we once thought was magical is merely ordinary. The shrine in which Saint Joseph sat was a handmade thing, framed with ordinary wooden boards and adorned with tin foil and electrical lights. By night, Saint Joseph’s shrine must look heavenly to a child, lit with an otherworldly glow; viewed by adult eyes in the light of day, it’s just another facade for yet another festival.

Shrine

Great care goes into the planning of any religious feast–imagine the devotion and dedication it took to design and apply every inch of tin foil–and yet at the end of the day, what lies underneath the pomp and spectacle is the stuff of ordinary life. Saint Joseph’s feast parades down the same old street that residents use every day; every year, these North End festivals happen in the same old neighborhood. We can, on special occasions, dress up the drab sites of our mundane lives, but ultimately the same old substance lies under the spiffed-up surfaces. Calling a bazaar “Araby” doesn’t make it any more exotic: bazaar-goers are still stuck in a nondescript corner of Dublin, and they still go home to their same old Monday-morning lives.

Passing procession

And yet, perhaps this is the wisdom of a religious festival, at least a Christian one. The very idea of incarnation insists that God himself took on ordinary flesh to dwell in the mundane world: before Joseph was a saint, he was just another dad to yet another kid. Every now and then, a bazaar comes to town and brings with it a break from the usual routine, and once upon a time, God adorned himself in flesh, was born in humble stall made of boards, and lay otherwise forgotten while the world distracted itself with its usual pomp and frivolity.

Frog face

I wasn’t able to find any frogs at Hammond Pond on Tuesday, but I did see several at Mount Auburn Cemetery last night, when Leslee and I met up for an impromptu after-work walk.

Head to head

The best way to find frogs, I’ve found, is not to look for them. The various frogs I’ve found over the years don’t typically look like frogs: they’re either floating with only their heads above water, thereby hiding their frog-shaped form, or they’re covered with algae or duckweed, thereby masking their froggy coloring.

When you’re looking for frogs alongside a pond, you can look for movement…but then you’ll see only a splash that announces where a frog used to be. If you try to find frogs by looking for movement, you won’t find any frozen, well-camouflaged fellows watching you with one or both eyes poised right above water level: you won’t find, in other words, the frogs who have found you.

The trick to finding resting frogs is to forget how frogs are shaped, how frogs are colored, or how frogs move. Instead, when you’re looking for frogs, the eyes have it: their eyes, not yours. When you’re looking for frogs in or alongside a pond, what you’re looking for is any small glint or glimmer that isn’t water, isn’t shore, and isn’t either vegetable or mineral. Many of those unidentified glints and glimmers are frog-eyes, and they’re watching you, waiting to see whether you stop then step closer or walk by, unaware.

Lily pads

I didn’t find any frogs basking on the lily pads at Hammond Pond this afternoon, but I had fun looking.

Partly cloudy

Hammond Pond is a scenic pond in Chestnut Hills, right behind the mall where I regularly go grocery shopping. Hammond Pond, in other words, is one of those hidden jewels that isn’t wild enough to attract tourists from far away, but a close-to-home respite for local residents: a place where you can take a brief break between errands to take a short, shady walk through woods studded with outcrops of Roxbury puddingstone to a peat bog and back, then get back in your car and be on your way.

Remodeled

Yesterday morning, I photographed the latest addition to our backyard bald-faced hornets’ nest. In the days since I’d shown you this nest, the workers had added a floor and entryway on the bottom and some eyelid-style vents on the top, transforming what had been an open, bell-shaped structure into a covered, well-ventilated sphere.

Storm damage

And then came yesterday afternoon’s torrential thunderstorm, which sheared off the outer layer of the nest, exposing its inner chamber.

All day today, the hornets have been working nonstop, some of them tending to the fat white larvae in their cells and others worrying over the outer edges of the nest’s papery surface, repairing it with individual mouthfuls of chewed wood fibers. It takes a while to build a paper wall if you’re moving one tiny mouthful at a time, but hornets (like bees) are tireless and resilient creatures. I have no doubt that within a week, if left undisturbed, these sister hornets will rebuild their nest as good as (or even better than) before.

Tending the larvae

Meow

I’m slowly re-reading my hand-written journals, starting with one I began in August, 2002: nearly ten years ago, when I began journaling in large, lined Moleskine notebooks that now fill a shelf of their own.

Blue

It’s strange and surreal to have a day-to-day chronicle of one’s own life, an account that’s infinitely more raw and personal than anything I’d share on my blog. I’ve always enjoyed reading writers’ journals: my fondness for May Sarton, for instance, comes from her prose journals, not her poetry, and I love reading the mundane thoughts of essayists such as Virginia Woolf and Henry David Thoreau. I’ve intermittently kept a journal since high school, but I destroyed most of my scattered and self-absorbed notebooks from high school, college, and even the early days of graduate school. Only in 2002 did I start keeping the journals I kept.

Little rebel

It’s interesting to eavesdrop on another’s mind; it’s interesting to see how the rhythms of thought get patterned into prose. When you read the journal of a writer you’re familiar with, you can recognize in embryonic form the ideas and images that appear in later published pieces. One fascinating aspect of reading excerpts from Thoreau’s 1851 journal with my former writing students, for instance, is the way bits of Thoreau’s later essays appear there: for instance, scattered passages that ultimately appeared in the essay “Walking,” which was published in its present form only after Thoreau’s death.

Pastel

When you read your own journal, you can trace the foreshadowing of a story whose outcome you know, having lived it. In 2002, my father was diagnosed with a cancer I now know he survived; in 2002, I applied and began training for an online teaching job I still have. In 2002, I knew my first marriage was doomed but didn’t have the courage to end it: that wouldn’t happen until two years later. In 2002, I lived with, tended, and had as my constant companion a dog in the prime of life who I couldn’t envision ever growing old, much less dying.

Orange

When literary scholars read the journals, letters, and other ephemera of published authors, they are looking for the seeds of greatness: how did this artist take the thoughts in her or his head and commit them to paper? When I read my own journals, I’m similarly looking for suggestive patterns, but only as they provide insight into personality: who was I then, and what happened in the interim to make me who I am now?

Buddha with spray cans

I think it’s significant, somehow, that it took me ten years to complete my PhD; I taught for just over ten years at Keene State; and now I’m revisiting nearly ten years of journal entries that offer their own partial slice of both experiences. Now that Reggie’s dead and I’ve left Keene State, it feels like it’s time to move onto something new–something Next. When I finished my dissertation, colleagues warned me of the let-down graduates often feel in the absence of a Big Project…but when I finished my dissertation, I quickly moved onto the big transitions of divorce, life as a single woman, marriage to J, and ultimately moving from Keene. Only now do I feel like the emotional aftermath–Buddhists would say the karma–of so many changes is starting to clear, providing an opportunity for me to discern my next step. What better way to figure out what to do with the next ten years of my life than by re-visiting my journals with their day-to-day account of the past ten years?

Bald-faced

J discovered a bald-faced hornets’ nest in the shrub right next to the gate to our backyard dog-pen: a shrub J and I pass every time we take one of the dogs out or in, and a shrub I pass every time I get into or out of my car. The nest is small by hornet standards–only the size of a tangerine–and we had no idea it was there until J trimmed the shrub last week, and the hornets came buzzing after him.

Tangerine-sized

J is good about backing down in the face of angry hornets, so he wasn’t stung…and now that he’s finished trimming “their” shrub, the hornets have gone back to being placid, non-aggressive neighbors, quietly tending their larvae and otherwise ignoring the man, woman, and dogs who pass them multiple times a day.

Now that I know the nest is there, I take care not to brush up against this particular shrub, and I know to steer the dogs clear of it, too. If we were to remove this nest, hornets would take up housekeeping elsewhere nearby, potentially where we didn’t know to watch for them. For the time being, I feel safer knowing who my neighbors are and where exactly they live, and I’ll continue not bothering them if they continue not bothering me.

Asymmetrical

Earlier this morning when I stepped outside to carry the recycling to the curb, I heard cicadas singing from the trees and a chickadee chattering from the shrubs, the two sounds roughly equal in volume. “This is the soundtrack to July,” I thought. In June, the birds are louder than the insects; in July, the birds and insects compete in volume and persistence; and in August, the insects clearly win.

Sprouting

Later in the morning, however, while I was meditating, I heard a chickadee whistling his spring song right outside the open window: “Sweet, sweet.” It’s a song I haven’t heard since May, when the chickadees were courting; recently, given the demands of nesting and chick-rearing, the chickadees have been calling and chattering, but not singing. I wondered what inspired this spontaneous outburst of song: a surge of territorial ardor, a wave of vernal nostalgia, or an avian earworm hearkening back to younger, more carefree days?

I don’t know, but I sat up on my meditation cushion, jostled into awareness. What if the neighborhood chickadees have been singing–not just calling–all along, and I simply haven’t been awake to notice?

The pitch

Two weekends ago, J and I went to a sunny Sunday ballgame at Fenway Park, where we saw the Boston Red Sox beat the Atlanta Braves, 9 to 4. It was a perfect day to catch a game at Fenway: hot and sunny with low humidity, the sky offering only an occasional spot of shade from a passing puff of cloud.

Amateur papparazzo

The last time we’d caught a game between the Sox and Braves was in 2009, when we traveled to Atlanta to see three sun-soaked games. (You can see photo-sets from those games here, here, and here.) In my two blog posts about those three Hotlanta games, I talked about how interesting it is to watch other spectators watching a ballgame. At any given sports event, there’s action on the field and action in the stands…and at any given sporting event, the action in the stands is often just as interesting as the actual game being played.

Funky balloon

At that sunny Sunday ballgame two weekends ago, J and I sat in the outfield bleachers, with a panoramic view of action. One of the most exciting highlights of the afternoon, however, happened behind us when a guy proposed to his girlfriend, hiding a (boxed) engagement ring in their shared bag of popcorn. “Collective effervescence” is the term sociologist ร‰mile Durkheim used to refer to the charged emotional energy shared by participants in a communal experience, and collective effervescence is as good a term as any to describe the buzz in our section of the bleachers as word spread that yes, that happy, relieved-looking young man in a Red Sox jersey had just proposed to that happy, glowing girl in a Braves jersey…and she said yes.

Kevin Youkilis leaves the game

Collective effervescence is also a good term to describe the moment late in the game when fan-favorite Kevin Youkilis ground out a triple and was replaced by a pinch-runner on third base. Rumor already had it that Youkilis was going to be traded, so fans knew that when Youk was taken out of the game, this would be a final farewell. The walls of Fenway Park all but shook with a thunderous ovation as fans bellowed “YOOOOOOOUUUUUUK” from the bottom of their bellies, making it clear that the decision to ship Youk to the Chicago White Sox was made by the management, not the fans. Youk will return to Fenway in his new uniform when the White Sox play the Red Sox later this month, and I’m confident that fans in attendance will welcome him as warmly as we sent him off two weeks ago.

Fenway in summer

Did I mention that the Red Sox beat the Braves, 9 to 4? The win was almost an afterthought: happy icing on a collectively effervescent cake. On a sunny Sunday, it feels nice simply to sit outside with other folks enjoying a beer, some popcorn, and a leisurely game. At any sporting event, there’s the action on the field and the action in the stands, at at the end of the day, both kinds of action are pretty enjoyable to watch, regardless of who wins. On that hot and sunny Sunday, even if the ballplayers hadn’t shown up, I suspect those of us in the outfield bleachers would have found some reason to cheer.

This is my belated contribution to this past week’s Photo Friday theme, Sports. For more photos from Fenway Park, click here. Enjoy!

Fingertips

Last Thursday, on my way back to Massachusetts from New Hampshire, I stopped at Walden Pond, which was thronged with swimmers and sunbathers, to say pay my respects to the statue of Henry David Thoreau that stands outside the replica of his famous one-room shack.

Thoreau with replica house

Thoreau moved to Walden Pond–where he would live in that one-room shack, write, and grow beans–on July 4, 1845: his own declaration of independence. Thoreau believed freedom is acquired through relinquishment: the more things you let go, the freer you’ll be. And so it seemed perfectly apt to stop and say hello to Henry on my way back home from Keene State, where last Thursday I cleaned out my office after having let go, at last, my teaching job there.

Desk with guestbook

Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for two years, vacating his shack in September, 1847 because he suspected he had “several more lives to live” and “could not spare any more time for that one.” I vacated my office at Keene State after having taught there for nearly eleven years–from September, 2001 until this June–because I also suspected it was time to move onto other things.

Weathered

When I started teaching at Keene State, I was married and living in Hillsboro, NH; over my years teaching at Keene State, my then-husband and I moved to Keene, I completed my PhD, my then-husband and I separated then divorced, I met then married J, and I ultimately moved to Massachusetts. It made sense to keep my job in Keene while I was teaching there full-time, but when my course-load was cut, commuting between two states for a part-time job made increasingly little sense. Why complicate your life by clinging to something that has lingered past its season?

Thoreau's right hand

Last Thursday night, I drove from Walden to Cambridge to give a talk at the Zen Center, my trunk still packed with piles and files: the accumulation of a nearly 20-year teaching career. At the Zen Center, I talked about letting go. The second of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths says we suffer because we cling to impermanent things, and my practice has taught me that sometimes there’s great solace in simply letting go: instead of clinging with a tight fist, relief comes from opening your hands into a gentle, receptive shape that simply gives way to gravity.

Thoreau's left hand

At Walden, a bronze sculpture of Thoreau shows him with both hands open, receptive: Henry carries a bag over one shoulder, but nothing else, his fingers cupped into a gesture of acceptance. At the Zen Center, I compared the experience of letting go my job at Keene State to the experience of putting Reggie to sleep: sometimes, after spending precious years of your life tending to something you loved without limit, the time comes when you need to let go, loosening your grip so that both you and the thing you loved can move on.

Spartan

After Thoreau left Walden Pond, he moved in with the Emersons, looking after Lidian Emerson and the Emerson children while Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled abroad. During this time, Thoreau worked as a handyman and surveyor, and he spent the next seven years polishing and perfecting the book–Walden, or Life in the Woods–that would become his masterpiece.

View from Thoreau Cove

Now that I’ve left Keene State, I’ll spend the next few months teaching online, then in September I’ll start teaching first-year writing at Framingham State University, a college much closer to home. I hope to spend more time walking and less time driving; I hope to spend more time writing and less time fretting about a job I always worried I wouldn’t be able to keep. Once you’ve let go of a thing, you don’t have to worry about losing it: you’re free to simply live without limit, your hands no longer clenched but cupped, receptive to whatever windfall the Universe decides to cast in your direction, the float of time being enough to support you, for now.