August 2012

Cardinal in maple

This morning I rescued a fledgling cardinal that had fallen into the window well outside our basement laundry room. Scruffy, olive-colored with reddish tints, and no larger than a fat sparrow, he was peeping incessantly, calling to his parents as if they could extricate him from the deep, narrow space he’d fallen into. When I went outside to survey the situation, the fledgling was patiently sitting on the basement window-sill, looking in, as if he were both confident his parents would rescue him and curious about the kind of washer and dryer we have.

Singing cardinal

I lifted the fledgling from the window well with a small shovel that easily fit into its narrow confines. Scooping the bird onto the shovel blade, I tried to lift him onto a nearby shrub, but instead of hopping onto a readily available branch, the fledgling immediately fluttered back toward the known safety of the window well, catching himself then clinging to the brick wall above it. I scooped the fledgling back onto the shovel blade, this time walking him further away from the house before gently dumping him into a low, sheltering shrub where his mother zoomed in and shrieked, reclaiming him.


When you think of how clumsy and hapless fledgling birds are, it’s a wonder any of them survive to adulthood. Even in the lush and leafy suburbs, dangers abound: there are window wells to fall into, prowling cats and other predators, and omnipresent cars. A young bird that can barely fly can easily fall into harm’s way, there being no shortage of creatures who would enjoy a tasty bite of fresh fledgling.

As I gently dumped this morning’s young cardinal into the low, sheltering shrub where his frantic mother reclaimed him, I couldn’t help but think of the first-year students that harried parents are gently delivering to college campuses around the country this week. Like fresh fledglings, first-year students wear their plumage proudly, venturing into grown-up situations that they confidently believe they can manage for themselves. There are a lot of dangers, threats, and pitfalls a first-year student can tumble into, and part of my job as a first-year composition instructor is to stand near, eyes and ears open, alert for the first warning peeps of a new flyer tumbled into trouble.

I didn’t have time to photograph this morning’s cardinal fledgling, so today’s post is illustrated with images adult male cardinals from my photo archives.

Fern room

I recently started reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I don’t typically follow popular reading trends: I am, for instance, the only person I know who hasn’t read any of the Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and/or Fifty Shades of Gray books. But when I saw Wild listed among the Boston Public Library’s digital media offerings, I placed a hold for a Kindle download. Given the chance to read a free e-copy of book everyone including Oprah has been talking about, I couldn’t say no.


I’ve read the first half of Strayed’s memoir about her solo backpacking trek on California’s Pacific Crest Trail, and so far I’m enjoying the journey. Although I’ve been on only two weekend backpacking trips over the course of my life, I’m realizing you don’t have to be a serious hiker to appreciate Strayed’s quest. Strayed is one year older than me, and while she was hiking the PCT in the mid-1990s, I was living at the Cambridge Zen Center and sitting occasional week- and month-long retreats at the Providence Zen Center. While Strayed was rebounding from the death of her mother, the end of her marriage, and an aimless interval using heroin and sleeping with strangers, I was married, teaching college composition, and plodding away at my doctorate.


Is there much of a difference between any of these grueling disciplines: backpacking for miles, sitting retreats, or withstanding the monotonies of marriage, work, and graduate school? Reading Strayed’s memoir, I’m finding countless points at which our distinctly different paths nevertheless parallel one another in profoundly significant ways. There’s a long tradition of books about travel in which a physical journey becomes a metaphor for spiritual soul-searching, and in all of them, the actual distance traveled isn’t as important as the commitment it takes to continue. Ultimately, the point of a long, grueling trip isn’t the destination but the discipline it takes to get there, and any daunting task you commit to day after exhausting day can teach a similar kind of dedication.


I used to teach a whole semester’s worth of books about travel, and Strayed’s memoir reminds me of one of the books I assigned: Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Bryson and his buddy, Katz, set out to walk the Appalachian Trail even though they (like Strayed) are woefully unprepared. Although Bryson and Katz end up completing a mere fraction of the Appalachian Trail, Bryson gleans a book’s worth of insights and anecdotes from the experience, such as the realization that the whole point of hiking is to deprive yourself of simple comforts:

I was beginning to appreciate that the central feature of life on the Appalachian Trail is deprivation, that the whole point of the experience is to remove yourself so thoroughly from the conveniences of everyday life that the most ordinary things—processed cheese, a can of pop gorgeously beaded with condensation—fill you with wonder and gratitude. It is an intoxicating experience to taste Coca-Cola as if for the first time and to be conveyed to the very brink of orgasm by white bread. Makes all the discomfort worthwhile, if you ask me.


Bryson’s experience of the Appalachian Trail is so similar to my experience of sitting Zen retreats, I wonder if he sat a few alongside me, eavesdropping on my silent thoughts as I fantasized about pizza, potato chips, and chocolate bars. Sitting a retreat is a grueling experience: your legs ache, your mind wanders, and you wonder time and again why you agreed to do something as silly as sit in silence for days on end. What makes a silent retreat relaxing and renewing, however, is the simple withdrawal of life’s everyday comforts—an act of deprivation that leaves you clear-eyed and appreciative for what you do have. It’s a lesson that both Bryson and Strayed learned in their own separate ways.


Cheryl Strayed’s account of her hike also reminds me of the legendary Walking Woman in Mary Austin’s story of the same name. The Walking Woman doesn’t have a name; Austin’s narrator guesses the Walking Woman lost her name around the time she abandoned the notion of “lady-like” behavior. A name and Victorian gender conventions are burdensome things the Walking Woman jettisons as unessential, and when the gritty men she encounters along the way need to call her something, they use the term “Mrs. Walker”: a name denoting the respect you should show a married woman as well as the activity by which she defines herself.

Tropical Forest India

Strayed also jettisons her previous name before setting out on her journey: or, more accurately, she replaces her name when divorcing her husband, exchanging the hyphenated name of her married years for a name that more accurately describes who she is and what she does. The name “Strayed” describes a person with a proclivity to wander, a “stray” being a creature without a set family or home. Like the Walking Woman, who set out to wander the desert southwest after the death of a loved one, Strayed finds her (literal) footing after her mother’s death by embarking on seemingly endless pedestrian task. The monotony of walking is one way to find one’s way, even if one’s “way” is wandering itself.

Orchid Room

I had my own stint as a Walking Woman when I took a solo trip to California in the summer of 2003, the year before my divorce. I didn’t walk the Pacific Crest Trail, nor did I backpack, but I did spend a week sleeping at the San Francisco Zen Center while day-hiking the hills of Marin County. On that trip, I had no real plan or destination: each morning, I’d simply find a trailhead that looked promising, walk until my feet ached, then drive back to the Zen Center by dark, averaging about 10 miles a day, alone. I didn’t keep a journal on that trip–I was too busy walking to write–but I do have a list of the places and mileages I logged every day, and it reads like a litany of remembered landscapes: Tennessee Cove, Coastal Trail, Laguna Trail, Bear Valley Trail, Tomales Point Trail.

Butterfly Room

I didn’t have a predetermined itinerary for that California trek, just an unsettled heart that found comfort only when I walked. When I flew to California, I was bored and burned out, stalled with my graduate work and stumped when it came to knowing what else to do. When I flew home, nothing about my life had changed, but I felt different. Feeling stronger in body and more settled in mind, I was able to resume my work, focus on my studies, and commit to my writing in a way that hadn’t seemed possible before I left.

True blue

Perhaps because I can relate to it in this way, I’m enjoying Strayed’s book much more than I enjoyed that other best-selling narrative of a divorced woman on the rebound: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Strayed’s trek on the Pacific Crest Trail is more physically challenging than Gilbert’s junket to Italy, India, and Indonesia, and it therefore seems less indulgent and more worthwhile. Whereas I found myself envying Gilbert for her travels—few of us can afford the time or money it takes to spend several months traveling to exotic destinations—I find myself admiring Strayed for her stamina. Not everyone can devote a summer to a long backpacking trip: both Gilbert and Strayed are describing a privileged kind of pilgrimage. But Strayed pays for her story with the old-fashioned currency of blood, blisters, and sweat. Whereas I quickly lost patience with Gilbert’s book because of its painful self-absorption, Strayed’s emotional obsessions are quickly subsumed in the pure physical challenge of long-distance backpacking. Strayed doesn’t have the energy for solipsistic navel-gazing; she’s too busy breeding bruises, blisters, and backpack-sores.


Strayed learns very quickly that a spiritual journey is first and foremost a physical one. Strayed goes on this trip to grapple with the death of her mother and the end of her marriage: she is on a quest to find herself. But Strayed doesn’t find herself by thinking about herself: instead, the pure physical agonies of her trip quickly strip her of any sense of ego.

I’d set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect upon my life to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again. But the truth was, at least so far, I was consumed only with my most immediate and physical suffering. Since I’d begun hiking, the struggles of my life had only fluttered occasionally through my mind.


Strayed comes to terms with her emotional demons because she learns that outliving a mother then a marriage isn’t the end of life’s travails: instead, troubles like mountain crests keep on coming, and you learn to surmount them, one by one. Sometimes the way to heal yourself isn’t through indulgence but through wholehearted immersion into the reality of this painful, backbreaking world.

Orchid Room

One of the things I learned when sitting long retreats was that you’re stronger than you think. Strayed learns something similar from her experience on the Pacific Crest trail, lulling herself to sleep in the early, most backbreaking days of her hike with a mantra-like call and response, asking the question “Who is tougher than me” and answering “No one!” Whether you’re a hiker or not–whether you’ve backpacked the Pacific Crest Trail or walked no further than the end of your block–at some point in your life you’ve faced some metaphorical equivalent of Strayed’s Pacific Crest Trail, something you thought would break you, both body and soul. One lesson anyone can take from Strayed’s book is that these challenges needn’t defeat us. We can do more than we’d ever imagined if we just keep walking, refusing to give up and taking each obstacle as it comes, one step at a time.

Today’s photos come from the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, which I toured while visiting Pittsburgh earlier this month. Click here for more photos from the conservatory: enjoy!

Chihuly's Desert Gold Star

It’s sunny and clear outside, the sun burning bright with the desperate intensity of late August.


Summer always speeds up at its end, pushed by the crescendo of cricket song and the frenetic twitters of late-nesting goldfinches. Like a panicked child trying to pack everything into the last week of vacation, late summer seems harried and hurried, lacking the languid leisure of June and July, when the year was young.

It’s been strange to read Facebook updates from my former colleagues at Keene State, who started classes today. My new classes at Framingham State don’t start until next week, after the last hurrah that is Labor Day, so I feel like I’ve been given a brief reprieve from back-to-school: one last week to make hay while the sun shines. All day today, it’s felt as if the crickets have been urging me not to waste a single precious minute.

Today’s photos come from the Desert Room at Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, where it’s summer all year long. For more photos from the Desert Room, click here. Enjoy!

After the hummingbird

Yesterday I went to a faculty orientation for the “Introduction to College Writing” course I’ll be teaching at Framingham State University this fall, and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. There are many logistical details to attend to when you start teaching at a new institution, so I’ve been navigating a byzantine process of signing contracts, submitting paperwork, and acquiring various logins and passwords. I don’t know where my office will be, I don’t know whether I’ll have a campus mailbox and phone number, and I find myself spending an inordinate amount of energy worrying about getting a parking decal and ordering textbooks. All the things I normally would have taken care of months ago, in other words, are still up in the air because I’m a New Hire, and that means Everything Is New. It’s both exciting and a bit intimidating.


Amidst all the novelty, though, are some small victories. So far this week, I’ve managed to log into my new email and Blackboard accounts, I’ve discovered where to access my class rosters, and I’ve figured out where my classes will meet even though I haven’t actually set foot in those buildings yet. I’m simultaneously nervous and excited, wondering whether the textbook I chose will be a good one, whether my students will be moved by the common reading we’ll be discussing, and whether they’ll be engaged in the writing assignments I’m designing. I’m feeling all the emotions, in other words, that my students are presumably feeling, or will be, as the start of classes rapidly approaches: eagerness, anticipation, excitement, and more than a bit of anxiety. I want to be ready for the first day, but I also have a nervous, unsettled feeling that it’s impossible to be entirely, completely ready. You can do your best to be prepared, but at a certain point, you just have to dive in and brace yourself for the overwhelming sensation of full immersion: “C’mon in: the water’s fine!”

Primly pretty

Starting school as a new instructor or a new student is really a lot like life itself. You do your best to plan ahead, but you also have to be ready to abandon your carefully crafted plans when it becomes painfully clear that what you expected isn’t what the Universe is handing you. Plan A might have been wonderful, but Plan B is often what you end up working with.

I’m reminded of the main lesson I took away from Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard the first time I read it–a lesson that is reinforced every time I re-read the book. Before traveling to Nepal to accompany the biologist George Schaller on an expedition to study blue sheep, Matthiessen asks his Zen teacher for advice. “Expect nothing,” the teacher exhorts…and then Matthiessen spends the rest of the book describing how his various expectations for the trip are frustrated. Matthiessen hopes to reach the legendary Crystal Monastery, study with the revered lama there, and see an elusive snow leopard, believing that each of these milestones will mark a progressive step in his spiritual development. But in typical fashion, life doesn’t go according to plan, and nothing that happens on Matthiessen’s trip conforms with what he’d expected.


I arrived at yesterday’s “Introduction to College Writing” orientation with nearly 20 years’ teaching experience and a nine-page draft syllabus, and I left wondering if even 50 years’ teaching experience would be enough to teach this class, and with plans to completely rethink the syllabus I’d drafted. None of this is entirely new to me, of course: my typical approach to planning a semester usually involves radically revamping whatever I did the previous term. I once read that colleagues of the writing teacher Peter Elbow sometimes call him “Write It Wrong Elbow” because his insistence that students write (and then revise) crappy first drafts, and I think this “no worries” approach to making mistakes applies to teaching, too. Sometimes you have to Do Things Wrong in order to figure out how to Do Them Better, if not Right. I’m headed into this coming semester with a lot of experience teaching writing the way I taught it at Keene State College the past 10 years…but the courses I taught at Keene State are distinctly different from what I’ll be teaching at Framingham State in the fall. I’m in a situation, in other words, where past performance isn’t indicative of future results, so I’m having to revisit and revise things accordingly.

Trellis-shaded bench

As a teacher, I often urge my students to take risks and try new things: this is, after all, what teachers do. But how often do teachers themselves try new things? It’s easy to get settled into your set routine of teaching Pretty Much the Same Thing to subsequent classes of Pretty Much the Same Students, wearing a familiar path from the beginning of the semester to the end. This term, though, I’m having to re-think and re-visit pretty much everything I’ve been doing the past ten years. What got me here won’t necessarily get me there…and that’s exactly the experience my students will have over the coming semester, the techniques that worked for them in high school not necessarily working in college. The thought that I’m responsible for helping them over that gap–that impressive learning curve–is both inspiring and daunting: a real (and awe-inspiring) challenge.


It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that if you cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s on your semester syllabus, you’ll somehow keep Chaos and Complete Semester Meltdown safely at bay. I’ve been teaching long enough, however, to realize things aren’t that simple. Even the best designed syllabus can fall apart in the middle of the semester, and sometimes the things that work for one class simply don’t work in another. There is always an aspect of chance and risk in any endeavor, and teaching is one of those activities where you do your best then hope for the rest.

Blue racemes

I have just under two weeks to prepare for the start of classes: just under two weeks to worry and fret over contracts, paperwork, parking decals, and office space. I have just under two weeks to revise, rework, and revamp my syllabus, not just once but probably several times. (Next week is the English departmental retreat, for instance, where we’re supposed to bring several copies of our syllabus for peer feedback. The thought of showing my syllabus-in-progress to my new colleagues fills me with an odd combination of excitement and dread: presumably the same feeling my students will feel before their first essay peer review.)

Path with trellises

This time next month, the semester will be underway, and I’ll be subsumed with the actual demands of teaching, struggling with the disconnect between what I’d expected or hoped my students and semester would be like with what they actually are. Whether I see the pedagogical equivalent of a snow leopard this next semester, I’m sure my experience of teaching will be nothing like what I’d expected. It’s a journey I know no amount of planning can completely prepare me for.

Today’s photos come from a rainy day stroll at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, from J and my recent trip to the Midwest. Click here for more photos: enjoy!


It’s been more than a week since I’ve posted here, and in that time, J and I have driven to the Midwest and back, visiting his family in Pittsburgh and my family in Ohio. Last night while I was taking the dogs out, one of the hornets in the nest near our dog-pen stung me, as if she’d forgotten who I was. While I gently shook her from my shirt-sleeve, I heard a screech owl wailing from one of our backyard pine trees: welcome home.

Today’s photo of a late-blooming pokeweed is one I shot this time last year.

Stata Center

Last Thursday, I arrived about a half hour early for a writers’ retreat at MIT’s Stata Center, so I spent some time scribbling in my notebook as a warmup to the day’s writing. It’s funny how the experience of being on a new-to-me campus–the simple novelty of trying to find the right room in the right building–brings back all kinds of school-day insecurities: am I doing the wrong thing, wearing the wrong outfit, or otherwise standing out as a clueless, uncool newbie who just doesn’t belong here?

Stata Center

Outside, as I walked around photographing the Stata Center–itself an architectural oddity–I kept expecting some sort of authorities–the Campus Coolness Police, perhaps–to approach me, automatically pegging me as an outsider: a fake or fraud. Clearly I don’t belong here: clearly I’m not smart enough, not cool enough, not cosmopolitan enough, and nowhere near hip enough to belong at MIT, home to some of the smartest and most cutting-edge scientists in the world. Clearly I’m just a bumpkin from Ohio who just doesn’t belong, but somehow pretends to.


As I tried oh-so-sneakily to casually take pictures inside the Stata Center (as if taking pictures didn’t immediately identify me as an outsider, an intellectual tourist just here to sight-see), the irony hit me. Am I really enough of a geek that I think I can’t hang out with (and even pass among) other geeks? If there is anywhere that a photo-snapping freak–someone quirky enough to take picture pictures inside an architectural anomaly, as if regular people naturally did such a thing–could fit in, wouldn’t it be at MIT, famed (or infamous) for its freaks, geeks, and creatives?


There’s something oddly intoxicating–infectious, even–about being on a campus that is renowned for innovation: it’s as if you can sense the buzz of new ideas reverberating in the air. After spending my subway ride reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s engrossing biography of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, I did a double-take to see a young man walking ahead of me suddenly enter an MIT building devoted to cancer research. Could it be I’d shared a sidewalk with a student who will one day cure cancer, or do something equally awe-inspiring? Stranger things have happened, and many of them have happened on campuses like this, where freaks and geeks are allowed and encouraged to shine, slump, or settle into their own comfortable quirkiness.


A few weekends ago, J and I ventured into the computer science building at Harvard, looking for restrooms while out for a walk around Cambridge. While there, we looked at a curious specimen preserved and arranged for display: the Mark I computer, a giant apparatus that was one of the world’s first computers. A wall of switches connected with an elaborate circulatory system of cords, the Mark I was controlled by a re-purposed typewriter, an ordinary device of the kind any writer alive back then would have used. Is the mind so elastic as to see no boundary between art and science, the tools of writing and the tools of science being one in the same?

Stata Center

There was something inspiring in the way the Mark I was preserved and put on display–an outdated relic that nevertheless ushered in its own revolution, its own New World. Today we have no patience for wires, cables, and switches: why twiddle with a manual typewriter when you can text with your thumbs? But every Big Idea has to germinate and gestate somewhere: the seeds of even the biggest innovation start small and unpromising, just a speck of speculation.

Who among the nameless souls sharing the streets and sidewalks of Cambridge with me last Thursday will be the next innovator? Who among the other writers who spent the day writing in a nondescript, windowless room will be the next creative person to change the world?

This is a lightly edited version of the journal entry I wrote last week, before a Writers’ Retreat organized by the Boston Rhetoric and Writing Network. Additional photos from the Stata Center are posted here: enjoy!