October 2012


Civil War soldier outside Edgell Library

On Wednesday afternoon I took a walk from Framingham State to the town common and back: a direction I hadn’t walked before. I took the pedestrian footbridge over Route 9, which I’d seen from my car but had never actually taken, then I walked down to the common, where I happened upon two things Google Maps hadn’t told me about.

Edgell Library with Civil War soldier

I’ve been relying upon Google Maps to chart my midday walking routes on days I teach in Framingham because I’m still unfamiliar with the lay of the land. Apart from a trip to the Garden in the Woods years ago, I’d never really been to Framingham (other than to pass through it) before I was hired to teach at Framingham State this past summer. For the first month of the fall semester, when my sprained foot made it uncomfortable for me to explore on foot, I knew only how to drive from my house to campus and then how to walk from my parking spot to my classrooms and office. Since walking around is how I typically get to know a place, during the first month of the semester I felt particularly transient and ungrounded, unable to do anything other than show up, teach my classes, and go home: a kind of “time-clock mentality” that felt completely at odds with how I usually settle into a new place.

Edgell Library

If you aren’t familiar with a particular town, maps are a great way to “let your fingers do the walking,” as the old advertisement for the Yellow Pages used to say. Once you’ve determined the precise point that marks “you are here,” you can scan in any direction to see what looks interesting enough to explore on foot. Scanning Google Maps is how I figured out how to walk from my office to the Winter Street side of Framingham Reservoir No. 1, and it’s how I figured out how to walk from my office to the Salem End side of the same body of water. When I scan Google Maps before setting out on my midday walk, I’m basically looking for two things. First, I’m looking for patches of green or blue, since those typically mark parks and waterways; second, I’m looking for a simple, easy-to-remember route to and from something that looks like I can walk to it, explore a bit, then walk back in less than an hour.

Autumn on the common

I’m gradually realizing that although Google Maps will show you the route there and back again, it won’t tell you all you need to know as a pedestrian. One of the things I’ve had mixed luck with in my Framingham rambles, for example, is sidewalk accessibility. Several of the roads I’ve already explored have sidewalks in some places but not in others, which means either crossing from one side of the road to the other, depending on which side has either a sidewalk or berm, or walking along the edge of the road, hoping passing drivers both see you and give you space. Walking along a roadside can be charming if there’s a leafy, wildflower-strewn edge between the road and wilderness, or it feel like a nerve-wracking game of chicken with passing vehicles. So far in my Framingham adventures, I’ve experienced a bit of both.

Framingham town common

The other thing Google Maps won’t tell you is what exactly how far it is between Here and There or the exact things you might see along the way. I’m not very good at gauging walking distances on a map, especially on maps where you can zoom your view in or out, so there have been days when I thought I’d have to walk a fair distance to reach something that was much closer than I’d expected. (This is particularly true of Framingham State’s campus, which is smaller than it appears on the campus map.) Walk Jog Run is a good tool to use for calculating distances traveled on foot, and Google’s “street view” feature can give you an idea of what you might see along any given route, but on most days I don’t take the time preview my walk on either site; I just set out to see what I can see.

On Wednesday, there were two surprises on my way to and from Framingham common. First, I had no idea that the Framingham History Center, which abuts the town common, is housed in an impressive stone building where even the Greek pillars are cobbled together with stone.

Cobbled

Although I didn’t have time to go inside the FHC, I made a mental note to return on a more leisurely day, and I enjoyed briefly watching a flock of cedar waxwings working a row of berry-studded crab-apple trees in the parking lot behind the building: the kind of serendipitous find Google Maps could have never prepared me for.

Two waxwings

Second, I didn’t realize from my cursory look at Google Maps that there is a large, woodsy old cemetery right down the street from the Framingham town common: Edgell Grove Cemetery and Mausoleum, which was consecrated in 1848 and emulates Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, one of my favorite places to walk. Discovering there is a large garden cemetery within easy walking distance from campus was even more serendipitous than finding waxwings behind the historical center, since those waxwings were presumably just passing through, but I’ll definitely return to Edgell Grove. (If nothing else, the red-tailed hawk I saw zoom across one of the cemetery’s gravel roads served as a kind of avian welcome-wagon: if hawks frequent Edgell Grove, then I know it’s the kind of place I’ll enjoy visiting.)

The Old Academy Building

The only downside to Edgell Grove Cemetery and Mausoleum is that photography isn’t allowed there, so I’ll have to content myself with walking around and admiring the scenery without taking pictures. This assortment of photos might give you a sense of what Edgell Grove looks like, though, and it might give you a sense of why I plan to go back. When you’re getting to know an unfamiliar town on foot, you can do worse than to frequent cobblestone historical centers and old, woodsy cemeteries.

Distant deer

There’s a good reason why white-tailed deer change their reddish-brown summer coats for dull gray coats in autumn: perfect camouflage when you’re standing in a field of goldenrod that has gone to seed.

Distant deer, closeup

Goldenrod meadow

Autumn is when the trees turn to gold and the goldenrod goes gray.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Change of Season.

Rose hips

I call it my office in a bag. “It” is a large and durable laptop tote with room for file folders, textbooks, my journal, Kindle, chalk, dry erase markers, pens, index cards, staples and a stapler, cough drops, tissues, a water bottle, and an emergency bar of dark chocolate. On days when I leave my laptop at home, my office in a bag is big but easily portable; on days when it’s fully loaded, my tote is bulging and heavy, the kind of burden I’d love to sling over a llama’s back or hand off to a Sherpa. Make no mistake: teaching is only partly about ideas. It’s also about the stuff you’ve learned you can’t function in the classroom without along with whatever organizational method you’ve devised to make sure those materials are always close at hand.

Tree with ivy

When I was an undergraduate, I remember my professors striding into class nearly empty-handed. They’d carry whatever text we were discussing that day, and they might carry a folder containing their lecture notes or a slim grade-book for taking attendance. On days when they returned assignments, my professors arrived with a fat stack of papers scribbled with red marks and ringed with coffee stains, but that was pretty much it. In the days before laptops, my undergraduate professors were “wired” only on caffeine, and they seemed to assume (accurately or not) that whatever classroom supplies they might need to deliver their lectures would be present in the classroom itself. Particular professors might have idiosyncratic needs—one, for instance, used to consume an entire package of menthol cough drops over the course of a single lecture—but for the most part, my undergraduate professors didn’t come to class carrying a large bag overladen with office supplies. Instead, they just walked into the classroom, ready to Deliver Knowledge.

Tree trunk with ivy

So, what has changed? First, there’s a difference between the classroom technology of today and the classroom technology of my undergraduate days, way back before Al Gore invented the Internet. When I was an undergraduate, chalk was pretty much the only pedagogical tool my literature professors needed, if they used even that. When I was an undergraduate, most of my professors either lectured or peppered their students with questions, Socratic style, and all they needed to do either task was the voluminous information contained in their own skull. On rare occasions, one of my undergraduate professors might show a video on a big, boxy TV that he or she wheeled into the room on a bulky cart, but that was it. Had the power gone out in most of my undergraduate classrooms, we could have easily continued class by huddling our chairs together, discussing that day’s assignment by candlelight. Back in the old days, professors lectured and students took notes, and this pedagogical approach required very little equipment.

Through the fence

In today’s undergraduate classroom, most instructors do more than lecture, so they need more than a textbook and a stick of chalk. Most of the classes I teach don’t follow a strict lecture format: instead of me talking while my students take notes, most of my classes consist of me presenting several activities that students do either in groups or individually. If small groups are summarizing their impressions of an assigned reading or brainstorming tentative essay topics, I might ask them to write these down on index cards; if we’re doing a grammar workshop, I might ask students to write on the black- or whiteboard selected sentences from their own essay drafts. Since few classrooms are reliably stocked with chalk and dry-erase markers (much less index cards), I always carry my own supply: anything to get my students actively engaged rather than falling asleep over their notebooks as I did when I was an undergraduate sitting through long lectures.

Foliage against blue sky

For any day’s class, I typically prepare my notes as a Word file that I post to Blackboard along with whatever web links I’ll be sharing, so students can refer to those materials later. If we’re talking about David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, I might show students a photo essay from the Brooke Army Medical Center; if we’re discussing grammar, I might show one of Taylor Mali’s spoken word routines. Incorporating multimedia resources into the college classroom keeps students more engaged than words scribbled on a dusty chalkboard, but it means I have to lug my laptop to classrooms that aren’t equipped with an instructor workstation. It also means I have to have a Plan B in place in case the Internet is down, the projector isn’t working, or some other technical difficulty forces me to use an actual blackboard rather than Blackboard. Although I suppose my students and I could continue class by huddling our chairs together and watching YouTube videos on someone’s smartphone, that isn’t a pedagogical technique I’d recommend.

Fall asters

But there’s another significant difference between the way I currently teach and the way my undergraduate professors taught. My undergraduate professors were professors, not “instructors,” “lecturers,” or any of the other euphemistic terms colleges use to refer to their part-time, contingent faculty. My undergraduate professors didn’t have to carry an entire day’s worth of teaching material in a single bulging bag because they had an office where their books, files, and office supplies lived. If Professor Z realized on his way to class that he needed a particular book, journal article, or brimming coffee mug, Professor Z could simply stride back to his office down the hall and retrieve it. When you’re a contingent faculty member teaching on multiple campuses, though, you learn to leave very little (if anything) in any of your offices. Not only do you share those offices with other contingent faculty, you learn by experience there’s nothing worse than realizing on your way to Class A on Campus X that you forgot the textbook in your office on Campus Y.

Cascade

I’ve come to the point where I can recognize my contingent colleagues by silhouette: they are the ones who are slung all around with bags as they trudge like pack-mules across campus. I’ve seen several colleagues use wheeled bags or carts to carry their things as if they’d just returned from a weekend getaway, but so far I’ve resisted the siren call of the wheeled carry-on. Carrying my office on my back like a turtle seems more dignified than dragging it behind me like an ox, and my still-pretending-to-be-youthful pride recoils at the thought of using anything even remotely reminiscent of an old lady’s folding shopping cart.

Stripped

In her memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed names her huge, looming backpack “Monster,” a load whose weight rubs scabbing sores on her back. At one point in Strayed’s journey, a more experienced hiker helps her sort through and jettison some of her things, many of which seemed essential when she was preparing for her trip but turned out to have no useful relevance once she’s actually hiking. In my case, however, my “monster” is huge, hulking, and heavy because I’ve been on the trail long enough to know the things that are essential are often difficult to find if you don’t carry them with you. When you teach out of your bag, you need that bag to be ample, expansive, and well-stocked.

Fallen leaf and leaf prints

A few nights ago, my writing partner emailed to let me know she hadn’t completed her daily writing commitment, but she’d done part of it: she’d showed up at the page. The phrase “showing up at the page” is a shorthand we both understand: showing up at the page is what you do on days when you don’t feel like you have anything to say, or you’re stumped at how to phrase what you do have to say, but you show up anyway, just in case words magically appear despite all your doubts and second-guesses.

Fallen leaf and leaf print

Showing up at the page takes a great deal of faith and dedication. Regardless of all the evidence to the contrary, you believe in your heart of hearts that the process of showing up is worthwhile and valuable even on (and even especially on) days when the product you produce is puny, disappointing, or just plain insipid. You believe despite all your doubts and second-guesses that the discipline of showing up is its own reward, and you believe despite all your doubts and second-guesses that showing up is important because there are, occasionally, those magically unpredictable days when Something spontaneously appears out of Nothing. If you hadn’t made a practice of showing up at the page, how could you have experienced that windfall?

Henry David Thoreau captured the spirit of showing up for the page when he wrote in Walden, “I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.” The sun will both rise and set without you, and there will be days when it’s too cloudy for you to see anything the sun might happen to be doing at the moment. But on those days, too, there is something to be gained from the discipline of showing up for the sunrise and observing whatever you can see. Think of all the things—an entire bustling Universe of activity—that happen every day whether we’re watching or not…and then think of the things we might actually see if we were present with our eyes open and alert.

Fallen leaf and leaf print

Years ago in Rhode Island, in the woods behind the Providence Zen Center, I saw a weasel by sheer accident. Hiking the winter woods behind the monastery where I’d been meditating and suffering, homesick and sore, for five days, I stopped to listen to the sizzle of rain falling on melting snow. I remember the woods were silent, hushed and expectant; honed by hours of meditation, I must have instinctively sensed the precise silent moment—raindrops paused in midair as if in a giant snow globe—when that tiny fanged predator, a curling wisp of sinew and muscle, would silently patter into view, running downhill into his own footprints, a limp and bloodied chipmunk dangling from his mouth. Had I not been walking in the silent Rhode Island woods at precisely the right moment, I would have never seen that weasel, that chipmunk, those sizzling raindrops.

Showing up at the page is like keeping watch at the bedside of a comatose relative: you watch, wait, and hold out hope because your patient might be present and alive in there, despite an unresponsive body. Just because your patient doesn’t seem to respond doesn’t mean they aren’t there: as Jesus said of a child he raised from the dead, “She’s not dead; she’s only sleeping.” On days when your own creativity seems dead, you show up and sit by the tomb, expectant. If today should be the miraculous day when your lifeless creativity should stir and then sit up in its shroud, you will be there to see it. There might not be anything you can do to help either the sun or the dead rise, but it is of the last importance that you be present just in case.

Fallen leaf and leaf print

Keeping a blog is a great exercise in showing up at the page. When you start a blog, you make an unspoken contract with your readers that you will show up and say something regularly enough to make their checking in worthwhile: a blog grown cold is like a closed and darkened house where a weary traveler had hoped for hospitality. Many days when you show up to “feed the blog,” you feel like Old Mother Hubbard reaching into a cupboard that’s sadly bare. When you’re forced to concoct a blog-worthy meal out of meager scraps, you often end up with a stone soup simmered with bits of this and that: nothing fancy, just something simple and savory. Out of the leftovers of your days, what kind of sustenance can you cobble together if you simply continue to show up for your own life?

Framingham Reservoir No. 1 dam and gatehouse

Yesterday after my office hours at Framingham State, I took a short walk to Framingham Reservoir No. 1, one of several reservoirs that dam the Sudbury River. I had hoped there’d be a path around the reservoir, but its shore was studded with houses—private property—so I limited myself to the tiny segment of public land abutting Winter Street, where the dam and gatehouse are located.

Gatehouse steps

All three of Framingham’s historic reservoirs were designed in the latter half of the 19th century to supply the greater Boston area with water. The water stored in these reservoirs would have flowed via the Sudbury Aqueduct toward Chestnut Hill, where a massive waterworks pumped it into the city. I’ve walked parts of the Sudbury Aqueduct in Newton, where these old waterways are now footpaths and Echo Bridge stands as a lingering reminder of an aqueduct that has since gone underground, and I’ve also walked around the Chestnut Hill Reservoir and explored the Waterworks Museum housed in the old (and architecturally impressive) pump house. We all know you can’t step into the same river twice, but you can revisit the same watershed, so it felt somehow satisfying to think that the waterways I can reach via a short walk from my office in Framingham share a history with the waterways I’ve repeatedly explored near my home in Newton.

Sudbury River below Framingham Reservoir No. 1

The Sudbury River has a long history of mercury contamination from the Nyanza Color and Chemical Company in nearby Ashland, which used mercury to manufacture textile dyes in the early 20th century. The Nyanza plant closed in 1978, and its chemical waste dump was declared a Superfund site in the 1980s. After decades of cleanup, the Sudbury River is now clean enough to swim in, as I did one hot summer day in Concord several years ago when the parking lot at Walden Pond was full, but signs along the Sudbury still warn fishermen not to eat their catch. Aquatic invertebrates still ingest the settled solids on the river bottom, and these metals concentrate in the flesh of fish: a lingering history that human hands haven’t yet erased.

Framingham Reservoir No. 1 dam and gatehouse

The warning signs along the Sudbury show a pictograph of a big black X over a fish with a fork and knife, and the accompanying text is printed in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Vietnamese. For good or ill, these signs haven’t been translated into the language of great blue herons, so the prehistoric-looking fellow I saw fishing yesterday didn’t know the great big fish he’d caught presumably carries the history (and heavy metals) of a long-defunct industry.

Great blue heron with great big fish

Click here for more photos from yesterday’s short walk to Framingham Reservoir No. 1. Enjoy!

Cornucopia

Last night just past 7:00, we had a 4.0 magnitude earthquake here in New England, with its epicenter in Maine and tremors felt as far south as Connecticut. When the quake hit, I was in the bedroom preparing today’s classes and J was in the next room, likewise working; he felt shaking and I heard rumbling, as if snow were falling from the roof. Downstairs, the dogs were unfazed, including our normally nervous beagle; the cats that were sleeping in the room with me were similarly oblivious. In the other bedroom, however, our cats Groucho and Scooby were unsettled by the quake: clearly they felt something the other pets didn’t.

Overhead

This seems to be how earthquakes are, at least judging from the four quakes I’ve experienced in my lifetime: some folks feel them, and others don’t. I suppose it depends on where you were and what you were doing at the time of the tremors: were you inside or outside, or in one part of a building versus another? When there was an earthquake in New Hampshire several years ago, for instance, Reggie and I felt it on the first floor—Reggie leapt to his feet and ran around barking as if trying to scare away an intruder—but my then-husband, who was working upstairs, didn’t feel a thing. When I was an adolescent and experienced an earthquake in Ohio, one of my sisters and I felt it from inside the house, where I thought the furnace had blown up in the basement, but my parents didn’t feel anything outside, where they were in the yard chatting with out-of-town visitors.

Pumpkins on fence posts

It’s interesting how some people are more sensitive to tremors, sounds, or other physical sensations than others are. During this past weekend’s Dharma teacher retreat at the Providence Zen Center, we did an icebreaker where we closed our eyes then tried to identify a person who was holding a hand over (but not touching) our leg. Others could identify whose hand was near their leg by differences in body temperature, but I couldn’t: if a person didn’t actually touch me, I couldn’t feel their presence, much less identify them. In one of the academic buildings at Framingham State, signs mark a designated restroom and copy-room for employees who suffer multiple chemical sensitivities, and anyone who uses scented soap, detergent, or other chemical fragrances is not allowed to enter. I can barely smell the scented soap and detergent on my own person, but there are others who are so sensitive to smells, they can’t physically tolerate the chemical wake left in the absence of an artificially scented person.

Across the tracks

When I felt an earthquake while on retreat in Rhode Island years ago, I heard the tremors before I felt them, the quake sounding like a low, rumbling hum that surged from far away like a slow approaching train. That was my most intense earthquake experience even though others in the same room didn’t feel it: because I was meditating and alert when the earthquake hit, my senses and attention were honed to their sharpest acuity. It was a sensation I was fully present for, something I couldn’t have ignored if I’d tried.

I suppose we all occasionally need to be shaken from our complacency, an intense physical sensation reminding us of the sensory world outside our own skulls. Whenever we grow too settled or sluggish, the earth herself can wake us up by shifting her old, weary bones right under our feet.

I’ve written about that Rhode Island earthquake before, back in 2004. Today’s pictures have nothing to do with earthquakes; instead, they are random images I took now that I’m able to go for walks on days when I’m teaching in Framingham.

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