November 2012

Hubway bikes

Today’s Photo Friday theme is “Orderly,” so I’m taking a brief break from my grading to show you this rack of neatly arranged Hubway bikes in front of the Apple Store on Boylston Street. Locating a bike-sharing station in front of an Apple Store makes sense on two levels. First, there’s probably a wide demographic overlap between bike-sharers and Apple aficionados. Second, a sturdy rack filled with bikes provides a barrier from thieves looking to drive their car through a glass store front in order to pick up a new iPhone or iPad.

Apple Store elf

I recently replaced my ancient (first generation!) iPod Shuffle with a brand-new (fifth generation) iPod Touch, which I’ve been playing with during breaks from my seemingly bottomless paper-piles. (No, I didn’t crash into an Apple Store to “select” my new iPod: J ordered it for me online.) At this point in the semester, even my to-do lists have to-do lists, so it’s good to have a new gadget to play with during my grading-breaks.

Once the semester is over and I’m completely done with grading, I’ll probably want to enjoy another product J and I saw in an orderly arrangement through a Boston storefront window:

The high life

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, “Orderly.” In case you can’t read the labels in the previous picture, that’s an entire display case of Miller High Life at the Mass Ave Tavern: not necessarily my favorite beer, but an orderly and eye-catching display nevertheless.

Sun worshippers

I always vow to get caught up with grading before Thanksgiving, so I can take a proper break over the holiday…and inevitably failing to do that, I always vow to get caught up with grading over Thanksgiving, so I can finish the remaining weeks of the semester in a calm, leisurely fashion.

Warm enough to write outside

Instead, I’m woefully behind with grading, with looming paper-piles from all six (!) of the classes I’m teaching. It felt great to take Thanksgiving day off from grading, teaching prep, and even the thought of teaching and grading: on Thursday it was sunny and mild, so J and I took a long walk in downtown Boston, where we saw people sitting and enjoying the sun on the Charles River Esplanade, albeit in coats. Even when it’s not really summer, it can be fun to pretend it is.

Afternoon stroll

So, after a long holiday weekend of pretending I could take a break from grading, teaching prep, and even the thought of teaching and grading, it’s time to get back to it. I probably won’t have time to blog much over the next week while I’m digging out from my paper-piles; I’m even taking a break from writing my daily hour, having finished the three-month contract I’d made with my writing partner, with plans to resume the practice in December. For now, it’s time to get down to the business of reading rather than writing, those paper-piles not having disappeared despite all my attempts to ignore them out of existence.

Gone to seed

One of the interesting things about maintaining a daily writing practice is the way you can compare today’s mindset with what you were feeling last week, last month, last year, or beyond. On any given day, I might scribble words into my journal, type words into a file I save on my laptop, or post words to my blog. On some days, I might do all three. The result of so much daily writing is a cumulative record of my own psychological weather patterns: a vast supply of data chronicling my own inner climate.

Late afternoon wetlands

Two weeks ago, for example, I re-read an essay I’d started to write about a month ago. I’d intended to post it as a blog entry illustrated with photos I’d taken at a football game J and I had attended in September, but I never got around to sorting through those photos, much less polishing and posting the accompanying essay. I’d started the essay about a month into the current semester, and the novelty of the term is apparent in every line: this is something I could have written only near the beginning of the academic term, when I was still feeling fresh, eager, and energetic.

Japanese knotweed seeds

Two weeks ago when I re-read that essay, I was in the midst of a phenomenon I’ve come to call the “dark night of the semester,” that point in every academic term when you’re tired, overwhelmed with work, and frankly feeling like you’ve lost your way. During this dark night, you look at your own syllabus with disgust, realizing nothing you’d intended to do with your class makes any sense; you lament your career choices, feeling you are the last person on earth cut out to work with undergraduates; and you find yourself silently muttering much too frequently a mantra of “I’m too old for this shit.” During the dark night of the semester, the thought of facing a classroom full of students, a folder full of student papers, or your own endless to-do list fills you with nausea, and the thought of trying to teach anyone anything makes you want to curl up and cry. If this dire ebb in your morale and motivation happens to hit when your students, too, are feeling sick, discouraged, and depressed, heaven help you all as you face a perfect storm of academic ennui: a dark night of despair that threatens to derail the entire semester.

Flying kite

Usually, my “dark night” arrives around week five of the semester: a little more than a month into it, when the novelty of the new term has worn off. This year, perhaps because I’m still new to Framingham State, the semester had more than the usual share of novelty hanging around it, so the dark night arrived around week ten: later than usual, but undeniable all the same. Even when the dark night tarries, I’ve learned, it never fails to arrive, eventually.

Tall grass

One torturous aspect of the dark night of the semester is being subject to the syllabus, assignments, and other teaching materials you’d designed months before, when you were feeling optimistic. Looking at the number, kind, and frequency of writing assignments you’d chosen to require, for instance, you can’t help but wonder what you were thinking. Who was I way back when I thought assigning X or requiring Y was a good idea…and who am I now that I’m actually having to grade the stuff I asked my students to submit? Because of my daily writing practice, I have a written record of both of these people: in my words, at least, I can watch Dr. Jekyll gradually transform into Mr. Hyde.


Years ago, when I was researching Ralph Waldo Emerson’s brief career as a Unitarian minister, I read that he recycled his sermons as he traveled from pulpit to pulpit, revisiting and revising the ones he delivered on multiple occasions to various audiences. Writing and delivering a fresh sermon every week is a daunting task: what about weeks when your faith is ebbing or inspiration is difficult to find? Because of this practice of re-using sermons he’d written previously, Emerson once stopped in the middle of reading an old sermon, nonchalantly remarked “I no longer believe this,” and then continued reading as if nothing unusual had happened.


I have to admire and even envy the gall, gumption, and grit Emerson displayed in this instance. For all the creeds we proclaim in churches, temples, or shrines, who among us has the nerve to state, loudly and proudly, “I no longer believe this”? Emerson was a life-long journal keeper, so even though he stopped writing (and recycling) sermons when he gave up his career as a Unitarian minister, Emerson never gave up the daily writing habit. The same man who famously wrote that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” had ample opportunity in his daily writing practice to watch his mind change, backtrack, and contradict itself. “Speak what you think now in hard words,” Emerson insisted, “and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.” You simply have to love the nerve of someone who dares to waffle with such bold intensity.

Turkey tails

It’s difficult—the hardest thing on earth, perhaps, a task even harder than teaching—to remain true to our own convictions. Given the optimistic statements uttered at the beginning of an academic term, how closely can you hold to those ideals when the dark night descends? “I no longer believe this” is what I wanted to shout from the rooftops when I re-read that essay two weeks ago, but at the same time, I fully recognized that when I wrote it, I believed it entirely. So which utterance is the full and simple truth: an optimistic declaration of what I believe on a good day, when I’m brimming with energy and ideals, or a fatigued and despairing recantation of everything that statement stands for?

Sunlit trail

Today was a brisk and bright day, and I enjoyed an afternoon walk even though I’m still buried in last week’s paper piles. This past week’s classes went well after I’d tweaked my original approach, and I hope that tomorrow’s classes will go well, too: even if we can’t accomplish everything I’d set out to do this semester, I’m seeing small steps in the right direction, and I cling to that hope. This morning when I re-read that essay from nearly a month ago, I found myself nodding with nearly every word. It seems the dark night of this particular semester has abated a bit, with a glimmer of light presaging an eventual dawn.

Today’s photos come from a walk I took last weekend, starting at the Brook Farm Historical Site in West Roxbury–where 19th century Transcendentalists tried (unsuccessfully) to establish a pastoral commune–and wending toward nearby Millennium Park and back.

Placid pond

On Saturday afternoon, I took a short walk from Hammond Pond in Chestnut Hill to Houghton Garden, which sits on the other side of the MBTA trolley tracks from the Hammond Pond Reservation and Webster Conservation Area. On many occasions when J and I have taken the T into Boston, I’ve noticed people walking wooded paths near the D line, across the tracks from a marshy plot of conservation land. From my vantage point inside the speeding trolley car, I always wondered how those hikers got to where they were: where in suburban Newton are there wooded trails and wetlands right alongside the train tracks, and how do you get there from here? This weekend, I finally took the time to find out, parking my car near the Chestnut Hill Mall and walking through woods studded with outcroppings of Roxbury puddingstone to the park on the other side of the tracks.


Houghton Garden must be amazing in the spring because it’s brimming with rhododendron shrubs. Rhododendrons have evergreen leaves, so even now that most of the deciduous trees are bare, Houghton Garden is still a lush and leafy place, and it must be positively gorgeous when the rhododendrons are in full bloom. Houghton Garden was designed by landscape architect Warren Manning, a disciple of Frederick Law Olmsted who believed gardens should reflect the natural landscapes and native species of their location. Because Houghton Garden’s shrubs and other plantings follow the shape and contour of the surrounding terrain, I never realized from a passing trolley that the landscape I saw was a garden, not a patch of wild woods crisscrossed with trails. As a intentionally-designed “wild garden,” Houghton Garden blends into the larger landscape, looking like a natural outcropping of rhododendrons and other rock-loving plants rather than an artificially planted place.


Houghton Garden isn’t large, but it’s designed in such a way that you can meander the trails there without constantly realizing you’re in the middle of a residential neighborhood, with trolley tracks on one side and suburban backyards on the other. The trails at Houghton Garden skirt the banks of Houghton’s Pond, which is a narrow and meandering body of water fed by Woodman and Hammond Brooks: a human-engineered widening of two streams. The trails at Houghton Garden remind me of a maze, where sometimes you have to take a long, winding way to get from Point A to Point B. While I was exploring the trails at Houghton Garden, I encountered a couple and a family who were also enjoying the mild weather, and the park never felt crowded even though there was nothing but a thin veil of rhododendron leaves between them on their trail and me on mine.

At one point when I was circling back to the well-marked train-track crossing, a D-line train went rattling by, and I wondered whether anyone sitting inside the trolley car looking out was wondering where I was, exactly, and how they might get here from there.

Henry David Thoreau's grave

Last weekend, on the way home from an afternoon walk at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, I stopped at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery to visit Authors Ridge, where Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and both Bronson and Louisa May Alcott are buried. It was late afternoon, with the sun leaning low behind towering trees that cast long, slanting shadows: a preview of oncoming darkness. A steady trickle of tourists wandered through fallen leaves and slanting sunbeams to quietly examine the various stones while I waited for the quiet crowds to disperse before paying my own respects.

Thoreau family plot

I’ve visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery a few times before, but typically on foot rather than by car. When I first moved to the Boston area, I’d take the commuter rail to Concord a couple times each year, walking from the train station to Walden Pond, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, or the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge: a pedestrian pilgrimage where the journey to and from my destination took as long (and was just as interesting) as the visit itself.

Authors Ridge

If you drive to Sleepy Hollow, you’ll find dignified stone pillars pointing you toward Authors Ridge, and once you reach that eminent destination, you’ll find a small parking area where you can stop alongside one or two other cars. The folks who run Sleepy Hollow Cemetery make it easy, in other words, to make a pilgrimage to Authors Ridge: they know that’s what countless tourists come to Concord to see. It felt a bit too easy, however—a bit like cheating—to drive into the cemetery this way, as if I were checking Thoreau, Emerson, and the rest off a sightseeing bucket list: after you’ve made the requisite stop to see the stones, what’s next?

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The fact that so many tourists come to Concord specifically because of its storied history—Concord being not just the birthplace of the American Revolution, but the hotbed of the American Renaissance—was apparent before I’d even arrived at the cemetery, when we’d stopped downtown for a cup of chowder. The family next to us had an inexpensive copy of Walden sitting on their table, and our waitress asked us whether we were taking a break from shopping. “Is this what it’s come to,” I thought to myself, “that Thoreau’s backyard has become a place for Sunday shopping trips and literary sightseeing, that copy of Walden probably coming from the pond’s own gift shop?” This is, of course, a particularly cranky thought: even Thoreau wasn’t so misanthropic as to reject visitors to his cabin, and if you’re going to preserve ponds, cemeteries, and wildlife sanctuaries, you have to fund them with a certain amount of souvenir-selling.

Alcott family plot

I felt a bit sad visiting Authors Ridge on Sunday, but not because Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts would mind being visited by respectful tourists: wouldn’t any author be happy to know her or his words live on? Someone had left flowers on Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne’s graves, and Henry David Thoreau’s humble tombstone—a marker no different from any of the other stones in the Thoreau family plot, marked simply with the name “Henry”—was adorned as usual with offerings from previous pilgrims: stones, coins, and a pair of plastic pens even though Thoreau would have surely preferred pencils. Down the way from both the Hawthorne and Thoreau family plots, I overheard one family conferring with a stranger, trying to determine what they might have missed. “Emerson is down that way,” the stranger remarked, gesturing beyond the scattered family, who had fanned out among the weathered stones. “Oh, no,” the mother answered, presumably speaking for the rest. “We don’t like Emerson.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson's grave

What made me sad as I stood among sleepy stones in the setting sun on a late-autumn afternoon wasn’t the fact that some tourists pick favorites but the memory of those other times I’ve visited Authors Ridge: times when I was still in graduate school, actively engaged in scholarship on Thoreau and 19th century American literature. Back then, I wanted to be like Thoreau, believing that if I pursued a PhD, completed a dissertation on Thoreau and American nature writing, and attained a tenure-track job, I could join a coterie of literary academics who do what my own professors did, inspiring undergraduates with the intensity of their literary passions. Looking back, it all seems so idealistic, this notion that if I studied, researched, and wrote about what I loved, the academy would love me back, allowing me to make a decent living writing, teaching, and inspiring.


Instead, some eight years after I finished that dissertation and completed that PhD, I’m no closer to securing full-time employment within academia. Instead of teaching Thoreau to upperclassmen, I teach college freshmen how to write academic papers: a noble enough endeavor that brings its own satisfaction, but one so undervalued by the academy, most colleges believe it merits only part-time pay. Standing before Thoreau’s humble stone, I quietly lamented how far I’ve fallen from my own erstwhile hopes: while I once aspired to be an eminent scholar, now I’m merely another passing tourist, having forgotten more about Thoreau than most folks will ever know.

Mary Moody Emerson

Surely Thoreau himself knew more than a bit about the disappointment of unfulfilled dreams, having written a passage in his 1852 journal that rings sadly true:

The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.

Afternoon light

I’m in my woodshed-building years, my own late afternoon sun leaning long toward the horizon as I cobble together a patchwork of part-time jobs with the materials I’d gathered to build a career. Thoreau himself worked a ragtag assortment of jobs after deciding he wasn’t cut out to be a teacher: writer, Lyceum lecturer, handyman, surveyor. Did Thoreau ever look back on his life with a sense of disappointment, wondering silently, “For this I went to college?” In his own middle-age, did Thoreau ever feel he had wasted his precious potential?

Louisa May Alcott's grave

Emerson, at least, felt Thoreau underachieved during his too-brief lifetime, offering in Thoreau’s eulogy a backhanded compliment:

Had his genius been only contemplative, he had been fitted to his life, but with his energy and practical ability he seemed born for great enterprise and for command; and I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party. Pounding beans is good to the end of pounding empires one of these days; but if, at the end of years, it is still only beans!

Overlooking Cat Pond

Thoreau had no ambition? It depends, of course, on what you consider “ambitious.” Perhaps Thoreau collects more mementos on his simple grave than Emerson does on his monumental one because Thoreau’s goals had a longer, more subtle scope, with Emerson writing for his own age and Thoreau writing for the ages. “We don’t like Emerson,” that woman remarked, and perhaps what she detected in Emerson’s prose was an urgent prudishness that so earnestly pursued self-culture, no room remained for anything other than enterprise and command. Aren’t there plenty of people doing and leading, scheming and engineering? Perhaps the wisdom gained from pounding beans is that at the end of years, “only beans” is nothing to sneer at.

Henry David Thoreau's grave

Thoreau died at the age of 44, my own age come January. They say that middle age is when you realize you’ll never read Proust; for me, as a writer, middle age is when I’m coming to realize I’ll never write another Walden. Is pounding out blog posts or pouring over pile after pile of student papers worth the toil? At the end of days, do either potential or ambition matter, or only what you build with them?

View from May Hall

Last Saturday, a friend and I held our own two-person writing retreat: a full day devoted to our writing. Calling the day a retreat makes it sound like we went somewhere exotic and inspiring: a cottage on the beach, perhaps, or a cabin in the woods. But I’ve learned that what you need to work on your writing isn’t a picturesque place but an absence of distractions. The secret isn’t what you add to your writing practice but what you take away.

Brick walkway

The inspiration for this writing retreat was twofold. First, we’d gotten the idea for a day-long writing retreat from the Cambridge Center for Adult Education’s annual Fall Writer’s conference, which we’d attended when we first met more than a decade ago. After we’d attended this one-day conference several years in a row, my friend and I decided we hadn’t learned anything from the workshops and workshop leaders that we didn’t already know; instead, the conference was valuable primarily because it forced us to spend an entire day focused on nothing other than writing.

Whittemore Library oak tree

“There’s no reason we couldn’t schedule our own writing conference,” we decided years ago, declaring over hot beverages that all we’d need was to set aside a fall day, go somewhere we could write, and actually spend the day writing rather than talking about writing: no need for workshops, workshop leaders, registration fees, or anything else. Deciding we’d pursue our own version of “writing without teachers,” my friend and I promptly forgot about the idea, letting it fall into the neglected corner where well-intentioned but abandoned resolutions hide. Sometimes all a well-intentioned resolution needs, however, is enough time to quietly germinate and take root.

May Hall from quad

The second inspiration for this weekend’s bare-bones writing retreat was a similar one sponsored by the Boston Writing and Rhetoric Network this past August. BRAWN is a network of Boston-area college writing professionals—writing and rhetoric professors, writing center administrators, and the like—and the premise of the August retreat was plain and simple: given all the time and energy we spend focusing on our students’ writing, why not take a day to focus on our own?

Outside Whittemore Library

At that August retreat, a handful of my Boston-area colleagues and I gathered in a windowless classroom in MIT’s Stata Center, the leader writing “BRAWN Writing Retreat” on the chalkboard at the front of the room. That was all it took to transform Just Another Day into a Day Devoted to Writing. Just as writing a contract and checking in with a partner are all you need to keep you writing every day, sometimes showing up in a classroom with few distractions and promising to stay there all day, writing, is all it takes to get words on paper. You don’t need a cottage on the beach or a cabin in the woods to make a “writing retreat”: all you need is a commitment to keep your backside planted in your chair while you type, scribble, squint at the screen, or edit.

Natural light

So on Saturday morning, my writing partner and I carpooled to Framingham State, where we commandeered an empty classroom in a building where I’ve never taught. All you need for a writing retreat, I learned from that BRAWN retreat in August, is an empty room with desks and chairs, a plug for your laptop, and a commitment to spend the day writing rather than aimlessly checking email, Facebook, and Google Reader. In the morning, we claimed a room flooded with natural light that shone over long, narrow tables; my writing partner set up camp in the middle of the back row, and I spread out my things (carried in my faithful laptop bag) at the far end of the room, where I had a window view of a bronzed oak tree lit by morning sunlight.

Behind May Hall

After spending a few hours writing, we stopped for lunch, driving through a landscape of late autumn fields and sun-dappled woods to a haunted tavern in a nearby town, where we talked over omelets, iced tea, and club soda: food of the gods if you’ve spent the morning with only your own written words to entertain you. After lunch, we drove back to campus, where we claimed a second, less-drafty classroom, opening our laptops and arranging our things on a large conference table while golden light from several towering oak trees cast lingering shadows.

May Hall stairway

One of the things I’ve learned from sitting Zen retreats is that there is a certain kind of intimacy that comes from sharing silence. I’ve sat retreats alongside people whose name I didn’t know and whose voice I’d never heard, but by retreat’s end, I intimately knew the sound of their breathing, the slouch of their shoulders, or the way they slurped their soup. Something similar happens on a writing retreat, whether it’s a formal, organized thing or something casual you arrange with a friend. You grow accustomed to the rhythmic sound of fingers tapping laptop keys, the quiet pauses to re-read or re-consider a line, and the staccato burst of the backspace button deleting a word. On one Zen retreat, I could tell a longtime friend was having a difficult time because I could hear her clicking her meditation beads faster than usual, and on Saturday’s writing retreat, both my partner and I were attuned, I’m sure, to those moments when the other sat back and sighed or leaned forward in her seat to break off another square of dark chocolate: edible inspiration.

Room with a view

It doesn’t take a fancy setting to make a writing retreat: had my friend and I rented a cottage on the beach or a cabin in the woods, perhaps we would have been so distracted by the scenery, we wouldn’t have been attuned to the quiet rhythm of our own inner prose. Who wants to sit inside writing all day if either the beach or the woods beckon? All it takes to make a writing retreat is someone who will hold you to your commitment. For about a decade, my partner and I planned to spend a day writing, and having finally decided to do it this year, we each almost backed out at the last minute, blaming our to-do lists and an onslaught of other social commitments. The minute we’d settled into a plain but perfectly functional classroom at Framingham State on Saturday morning, however, I knew we’d made the right decision: after a workweek complicated by a hurricane, power outage, and interrupted Internet connection, it felt like a welcome relief to return to the sadly neglected page.

Exiting May Hall

So on Saturday I spent a bright and brisk November day inside looking out. I could have spent the day working: I certainly had plenty of things to do. I could have spent the day walking: it was a pretty enough day for it. Instead, I sat in an almost-empty classroom at Framingham State writing because a friend and I had made a promise, and after all these years of intending to retreat but never actually doing it, here we were, at last, taking a day to pause, step back, and devote time to something there typically aren’t enough hours in the day to do fully and without distraction.

Victorian grief

The other day, I saw a link to photos of the storm damage at Mount Auburn Cemetery: apparently they lost approximately fifteen trees in last week’s hurricane, one of which was an oak tree older than the cemetery itself. It seemed particularly sad to see photos of toppled trees looming over tombstones, a garden of remembrance turned into a scene of natural devastation. In the larger scheme, fifteen toppled trees at a cemetery don’t matter much: Hurricane Sandy caused widespread suffering, injury, and the loss of both life and property, and there was no human harm at Mount Auburn since all the folks there are already dead. But a landscape like Mount Auburn is designed to create the illusion of immortality—perpetual care—so any damage or devastation that ruins that effect is particularly sad. What place is there for loss and change in a landscape intentionally crafted to create a pastoral image of eternity?

Richard Duca sculpture

I’ve been visiting Mount Auburn for over fifteen years, since I lived in Cambridge in the mid-1990s. When I first started going to Mount Auburn, I saw it as primarily a birding destination, riding the bus or my bike to the cemetery from Central Square, where I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center. On spring mornings when I didn’t have classes to teach, I’d go on early morning walks led by members of the Brookline Bird Club, walking at the front of the group in order to eavesdrop on whatever birds the quiet leaders were listening to, all the chips and twitters of migrating warblers sounding the same to my lead ears. As 9:00 a.m. approached, the group gradually waned as members left to find their cars and head off to work, but I’d stay until the end, finally heading back to the bus or my bike so I could ride into Harvard Square for breakfast.

Sleeping angel

I’d always go to the Greenhouse Café, where I’d sit by myself a tiny, crowded table: all the space they could afford for a party of one. The more sociable members of the BBC lingered at the back of the group and presumably went off to have breakfast together, but either busing or biking to the Greenhouse Café by myself was simply part of my preferred birding ritual. While I sat by myself waiting for my breakfast—fried egg and cheese on a toasted bagel with a side of the Greenhouse Café’s thin-sliced home fries—I’d write up that morning’s field notes: the birds I’d seen, the birds I’d heard, and any other noteworthy insights I’d gleaned by walking at the head rather than the tail of the group, like how to tell oaks from maples from a distance in the spring (oaks leaf later).

Winding path

I no longer have those field notebooks, I’ve forgotten most of the lore I learned on those walks, and the Greenhouse Café has since closed. In the larger scheme of things, these losses are insubstantial, as most our heartaches are. But through all the intervening years, Mount Auburn has remained the same: the place where I took the bus or biked from Central Square is the same as the place where I now journey by car from Newton. In all the intervening years, Mount Auburn Cemetery has preserved the illusion of permanence: the same weathered stones, the same spring bird walks, the same faithful throng of birdwatchers breaking naturally into clusters of concentration, with the quiet birders whose ears are perpetually attuned to chirps and twitters at the head of the group, and the chatty conversationalists in the rear. Whether or not I have the time now to join them, those spring walks at Mount Auburn continue without me, and I take comfort in that fact.

Winslow Homer's grave

I don’t have any family or friends who “live” at Mount Auburn, but this past spring I went on a walk with Claire Walker Leslie, whose parents are buried there. Mount Auburn figures prominently in Claire’s nature journals and published books: there’s no better place in Cambridge to go birding, admire trees, or spend an afternoon quietly sketching. Mount Auburn is a garden of remembrance for me because I’ve spent so much time there: my memories of the cemetery center around what I’ve done, not whom I’ve visited. But for those who have family or friends interred at Mount Auburn, the cemetery’s pull is bittersweet: a place of tranquil beauty that is also a landscape of loss.

Mourning his master

When I took that walk with Claire Walker Leslie, I hung back from the group at one point to stop at the stone I’ve claimed as Reggie’s grave. I had no desire to share why this particular stone—the grave of a stranger—wields a particular pull: any communing I do there is no different from the quiet remembrance I observe when doing the morning dishes and contemplating an empty dog pen. Cemeteries are special, I think, because they (like memorials) are a place where it’s appropriate to observe one’s private grief in public, so the shared landscape we walk with others is personalized according to our own proclivities. Although you and I might stroll the same cemetery together, our emotional understanding of that landscape is necessarily unique.

Mary Baker Eddy monument

It’s important to have spaces set aside for the private business of grief and remembrance, just as it’s important to have spaces dedicated to prayer and worship. Although you and I might enter the same house of worship, our spiritual experience of that sanctuary might be distinctly different. Both cemeteries and houses of worship are wide enough, I think, to tolerate such radical diversity: both cemeteries and houses of worship are large enough to hold our collective hopes and heartbreaks. It saddens me to know the landscape at Mount Auburn Cemetery will be different the next time I go there, marred by stumps and limb-scars, but it heartens me to think the place itself will endure. Storms may rage and trees may fall, but remembrance lives on.

I took these photos last year, during a Christmas Day stroll at Mount Auburn Cemetery, which I’d blogged here.


It’s the midpoint of the semester—a notoriously busy time—but whenever it feels like I can’t possible fit anything more on my proverbial plate, I find myself saying “yes” to something more. Sometimes the “yes” is work—yes, I’ll accept a last-minute online teaching assignment I wasn’t planning on—and other times the “yes” is play—yes, I can find time for a walk on a gorgeous autumn day. For good or bad, my unofficial motto has become “people before papers,” and it’s a mantra I invoke whenever a student appears with a question, J suggests we go for a walk, or my body screams for a nap. People and their needs are time-sensitive, but that pile of papers isn’t going anywhere: it will be there waiting for me after I’m done tending other concerns.


At both the mid- and endpoint of the semester, I typically practice to-do list triage, the invaluable art of prioritizing items on one’s task list. Given three competing paper-piles, which one do I really have to finish first? This might sound like a simple question, but it can be rather complicated. If I’m commenting on rough drafts, I need to return those drafts in time for students to revise them before the next draft is due; if midterm progress reports are due, I have to finish grading final papers before I assess students’ midterm status. My grad students are typically more “antsy” to get their graded papers back than my undergrads, and grading the first batch of papers, when students at all levels are particularly nervous about expectations, is more urgent than grading the second or third batch. All of these tasks are important, and I’ll finish them all, eventually. But some things can be put off until tomorrow, others can wait until the weekend, and yet others can (in a pinch) be set aside until next week.


In a typical triage scenario, the immediate takes precedence over the long-term. Answering a student’s emailed question takes priority over planning tomorrow’s class, but planning tomorrow’s class is more pressing than grading last week’s rough drafts. Planning tomorrow’s class is time-sensitive: class time is precious, and once a class is over, you can’t go back and re-do it. Over the years I’ve discovered that students are far more willing to cut you slack about how long it takes you to read and comment on papers if they know you’re prompt about answering questions and are present and attentive in class. I’ve also discovered that students are more willing to cut you slack about how long it takes you to read and comment on papers once they realize the level of attention you’re giving to their writing. Students are willing to wait their turn, in other words, if they realize you’re actually going to pay attention to them when their turn finally comes.


Whenever I find myself practicing this kind of to-do list triage, I remember the old truism, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” Busy people know that you can’t do everything at once, so the only way to tackle your to-do list is one item at a time, trusting that it will all get done eventually. Busy people know that fretting over your to-do list does no good: it just consumes time and energy that would be better spent on other, more-productive tasks like taking a walk, taking a nap, or actually getting down to the business of tackling the tasks on your to-do list. Busy people know that the cemetery is full of indispensable people, so it’s important to keep everything in perspective. Sometimes it’s sanity-saving to put off for tomorrow something you could exhaust yourself doing today, and if you’re already busy and behind with to-dos, saying “yes” to one more thing won’t necessarily break the back of a camel who’s grown flexible, strong, and resilient from a lifetime of loads.