February 2013


Mangled

Last week I opened the folder of files I keep for a perpetually-ongoing book project to see what I’d written for the chapter devoted to February, and the file for this month was empty. February is empty, I thought to myself, and that thought somehow seems apt. February is a blank month—the final month of winter—a short month that seems to sprawl on indefinitely. February is like that wending arc of labyrinth where you can see the end at hand—it’s just a step or two away—but you still have to take the long way around, following an illogical orbit that takes you toward your destination by arching away from it.

Dorm atop a (snowy) hill

February is empty: a blank page. But February is blank in a way that, say, December isn’t. December is the start of winter, when the sudden stopping of summer activity and the abrupt departure of autumn color seem interesting and even enchanting. December is an empty page that’s almost inviting: a fresh field of unmarred, pristine snow. February, on the other hand, is both empty and old: a field of stale, dirty snow you can top with fresh whiteness, but is still stale nevertheless. February is a palimpsest that has been scraped and overwritten to the point of bland nothingness: a blank page worn too thin to accept your impress.

Castoff

Last week, the grounds crew at Framingham State was breaking up sidewalk ice, chipping it with shovels before hoisting it into trucks. February’s hard-packed ice, born of trampled snow and frozen snowmelt, is tenacious: slick and harder than stone. Anticipating the next snowstorm, the grounds crew worked to clear as much of this ice as they could before fresh snow fell. Shoveling, plowing, and snow-blowing are difficult enough when you’re removing snow from a bare surface, but if you’re removing fresh snow from a pockmarked surface of old, compacted ice, heaven help you. If you don’t remove last week’s snow before this week’s arrives, you’ll learn to regret that decision.

Chilled

The problem with February isn’t that it’s empty; the problem with February is that it’s winter with a history. Taken on its own, any given snowstorm isn’t unbearable, but what makes it seem so is the heavy history of all that came before it. The crushing weight of February is cumulative. The snowfalls that seemed quaint and picturesque in December have become soul-crushing and exhausting. The snow that falls in February is just as fresh as the snow that falls in December or January…but in February, we ourselves feel old.

In memoriam

I remember last year, my February mantra was “Just get me to March.” March is the month with spring break in it; March is the month for crocuses. March isn’t yet spring, but it begins to feel like spring. March is winter’s last stand: the point of the year when finally, at last, winter seems more tired and demoralized than you are. The earth, Whitman said, never tires, but in February the snow pack does, growing gray and grainy with each melting day. The bare honesty of March mud comes as a surprising relief after the turncoat treachery of February snow: a substance that falls white but ages into gray. March, in comparison, starts out gray, ripens into brown, and ultimately leans into green: springtime’s most welcome color.

Snowbound

But first, there’s February, the month of blankness. Pour anything you’d like into February, and what you’ll get is exactly nothing: blankness topped with a veneer of bleakness. Pour your whole heart into February, and what you’ll get back is exactly nothing. February is a month when the earth herself has grown tired of being tired; a month when even fresh snow seems old.

I started writing this post last week, on a dismally gray day. I hurried to revise and post it today, while it’s still February.

Book signing

I first met Teju Cole years ago when he was someone else, and he can say the same thing about me. Teju was at Boston College for the Lowell Humanities Series last week, so just as J and I walked a mile along the ocean to see Teju when he accepted the PEN/Hemingway Award in April, 2012, on Thursday night, J and I walked a mile through sleepy Newton to see Teju deliver his lecture, “The Senses of the City,” on a campus where in a previous lifetime, I was once a fresh-faced graduate student.

Writer and reader

One of my favorite definitions of friendship comes from the film Smoke Signals, where one character says of another, “We kept each other’s secrets.” One of the things that makes old friends golden is the way they keep both your secrets and your history, remembering who you used to be when your life was significantly different.

Quiet preparation

I didn’t know Teju when I was a fresh-faced graduate student at Boston College, but it seems like more than a few lifetimes ago when I and a few blog-buddies converged on his New York apartment in 2005, intent on seeing The Gates, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s temporary installation in Central Park. Looking back, it seems crazy that a few blog-buddies and I would travel to New York to sleep on the floor of a friend we knew only virtually: who was I when I acted so boldly? I might not fully understand or recognize the Previous Self that first met Teju in the flesh in 2005, but since then we’ve crossed paths in various cities, with each encounter adding a layer of meaning and resonance to our friendship.

Taking the podium

In Thursday’s talk, Teju talked about how cities are receptacles of memory. On any given street corner, what else has happened in that precise spot at some other moment: who has died, fallen in love, or had a sudden epiphany? I agree that cities, like friendships, are seasoned with experience, each life and lifetime layering over the previous one. I’ve previously written about the ways that places become haunted with memory, remembered landscapes that hold both our ghosts and our secrets. Cities are particularly rife with this kind of ghostly presence, given the sheer number of souls that live and travel through them, but any human habitation can become haunted with the presence of the past and passed.

Paging through

In his lecture, Teju used the familiar metaphor of a palimpsest, with each generation erasing and writing over the stories of their forebears. Sometimes, such erasure is incomplete, and the stories of the past bleed through like the ghostly images of a pentimento: one image painted atop another. On our walk home from campus on Thursday night, J compared Teju’s remarks to our own bit of accumulated history: Sylvia Fish, the once-beloved pet whose decades’ old grave marker we found in our backyard. Human history–both its stories and secrets–accrues in an archaeological fashion, with the detritus of time literally burying the past, sedimentary layer upon layer. Sometimes, if you dig (or even look) deeply enough, the past unearths itself, as undeniable as uncovered stone.

J shoots; Teju signs

After Teju’s talk, many of his fans waited in line to have him sign their copies of Open City, but I had no need for Teju’s signature, as he had signed my book at the Brattleboro Literary Festival way back in October, 2011. Teju and I share a long history, and the town of Brattleboro, Vermont, although not a “city” in any true sense of the word, has a long history of its own. Originally it belonged to the Abenaki, then it was the site of an 18th century fort, a hydropathic resort, and any of a number of mills. Who knows what forgotten stories and significant stones lie buried beneath its backyards.

Church fathers

For me personally, both Brattleboro and Boston College are haunted with memories of my former selves, so it makes sense that I’d meet up with Teju in both places. As I approached Brattleboro on that October day several years ago, I felt my muscles tighten as I recognized one forgotten landmark after another: Fort Dummer State Park, where my then-husband and I once hiked; Elliot Street, home of the apartment where he lived in the immediate aftermath of our separation; and Main Street, site of the now-closed stationery shop where I photocopied our divorce paperwork. It had been years since I’d been to Brattleboro, a town I used to visit regularly, so my visceral recognition of landmarks I hadn’t consciously remembered was discomfiting. The experience called to mind the nameless narrator of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who startles when he visits the college town where his former self once lived and taught: “He was here.”

City of God

Thursday night’s approach to Boston College was far less startling, mainly because my history there is paradoxically so distant and so recent. It’s been nearly twenty years–two decades!–since I was a graduate student at Boston College, so most of the ghosts from that period of my life–a time when I was young, naive, and perpetually hungry–have expired, replaced with new stories and secrets.

Question

When I attended Boston College, I spent relatively little time on campus, traveling by T to take or teach classes, then returning to either an ant-infested apartment in Malden or a subterranean garden flat in Beacon Hill. Now that I live above ground in lush and leafy Newton, Boston College is a place within walking distance where J and I go to basketball, hockey, or football games; a place where we attend art exhibits; and a place where I walk a labyrinth with a friend. Unlike Brattleboro, Boston College has been both reclaimed and purified, those long-distant days of hunger being overwritten by more recent days of plenty.

Centre Congregational Church

When I look at the pictures I took of downtown Brattleboro when my ex-husband first moved there as well as the ones I took when he subsequently moved away, I’m struck at how similar the town looked in 2011, and how it probably looks today: it is I who have changed, not this place I’d somehow forgotten I’d remembered. The Hotel Pharmacy is still in its proper spot, as is the Hotel Brooks; an advertising mural for Carter’s Little Liver Pills still looms over one of Brattleboro’s several used book stores. Harmony Place is still a funky little alley leading to a parking lot, and the shop where I once bought belly-dancing supplies is still in business, albeit in a site around the corner from where it used to be.

Harmony Place

Like the town of Brattleboro and the campus of Boston College, Open City is also about forgotten selves and remembered places. The novel’s protagonist, Julius, is a psychiatrist–a professional keeper of secrets–who walks the streets of New York City during his off-hours, observing the city’s inhabitants and contemplating their stories. Any meditation on a place that is necessarily calls to mind the place that was, and Julius has the eyes of a historian or archaeologist, stripping away the surfaces he sees to plumb hidden and forgotten depths.

Book sales

I didn’t walk with a camera when I was a fresh-faced graduate student at Boston College all those years ago, but I have plenty of pictures of Brattleboro, and even more recent pictures of BC. Over time, I’ve constructed my own image of each place, stitched together from photos taken over time. In his lecture, Teju showed his own photographs, taken in cities around the world, and he explained how he sometimes uses slow shutter speeds to capture the ghostly presence of passersby in the act of passing. Everything that passes will one day be past, and that is something I’m mindful of in my own photography, the act of snapping shots being another way (along with writing) of keeping time.

Ghostly presence

I don’t know where, whether, or when my and Teju’s paths will cross again, but I hope they do…and who knows who either one of us might be or become by then. Life is, of course, more like a maze than a labyrinth: you never know whether you’ll pass this way again, or again, or again. All I know about Teju Cole is that our paths have crossed in the past, we’ve shared a stash of secrets, and we’ve accrued a storehouse of memories. The past can be found in accumulated photographs hoarded as history, but an image of an envisioned future is far more elusive.

Click here for an excellent account of Teju Cole’s BC lecture, “The Senses of the City.” I illustrated today’s post with photos I took at Thursday’s talk as well as photos I took in Brattleboro, Vermont in October, 2011, when Teju read at the Brattleboro Literary Festival. Enjoy!

Stata Center from Whitaker Building

I’ll admit it. In the aftermath of any mass shooting—particularly ones that happen on college campuses—I find myself harboring an occasional unsettling thought: could today be the day it happens here? On any given day when I’m driving to campus, making last minute plans for whatever I’m planning to do in class, I’ll occasionally wonder whether today is (as the Sioux battle cry goes) a good day to die.

Stata Center from Ames Street

When this thought arises, I’m usually en route to a campus where I teach and work: a campus, in other words, where I “need” to be, a campus where I know my way around, and a campus where I feel a responsibility to protect “my” students. When I’m wandering a campus that isn’t mine, on the other hand—a campus where I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know anyone, and I honestly have little business being—I’m not wondering whether today might be my last day on earth. Although being shot at work is senseless, at least there is an entirely sensible reason for being at work on an unlucky day. When you’re on your way to a writing retreat at a campus where you’ve been only one time before, however, you’re not wondering whether today might be the day when you’ll be at the wrong place at the right time. Being shot at work is senseless, but being shot at a place where didn’t truly have to be seems even more senseless.

Abstract

Today is the BRAWN writing retreat at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. BRAWN is the Boston Rhetoric and Writing Network—a group of Boston-based college writing instructors—and I went to their summer writing retreat last August, when we basically spent the day in a boring classroom at MIT working on nothing other than our own writing: a kind of creative peer pressure where you make a shared vow to write rather than endlessly checking email, Facebook, Twitter, and Google Reader. Today is the BRAWN writing retreat at MIT, and it’s also the day a person with a rifle and body armor was allegedly spotted nearby, sending the campus into a lockdown.

Ames Street, with Pru view

It turns out there was no such person…or if there was, he was just passing through. But before Cambridge police announced the “all clear,” my fellow retreatants and I did what any sane person would do: we retreated from campus to set up shop in a nearby café, where we spent the morning “sheltering in place” over croissants, hot beverages, and our writing projects.

“Sheltering in place” is an interesting term. It suggests that the safest place to be is right here, right now: given a vague report of a possible threat, the best thing to do is basically nothing: stay where you are, keep a low profile, and wait for the danger to pass. Many prey species instinctively shelter in place when something scares them: when one of our backyard blue jays cries “hawk,” for instance, the feeder birds automatically hunker down and the squirrels freeze in the trees. Whereas the natural human reaction in the face of danger is to turn tail and run, many prey species rely on stealth and camouflage to protect them: by remaining completely still, they play the odds that a threatening predator either won’t notice them or will choose to strike someone else.

Viewing through

There is, I suppose, an eerie similarity between spending a day on a retreat and spending a day sheltering in place. Both activities involve hunkering down where you are, anchoring yourself to your present location as a safe haven against possible threats. I think of Ulysses and his men lashing themselves to the mast of their ship: come what may, we won’t be moved. When you sit a meditation retreat, you emulate the Buddha’s decision to sit and stay under the Bodhi tree until he’d answered the question of why we’re born only to grow old, get sick, and die; when you participate in a writing retreat, you promise to remain glued to your seat until the day (or your writing) is done.

Wiesner Building

When you shelter in place, you trust that whatever threat is “Out There” can’t broach the borders of “In Here.” At today’s retreat, the three of us who had managed to arrive at our boring classroom before the full nature of the threat had been announced quickly decided to move off campus, sending an email to those who hadn’t yet arrived, telling them to meet us elsewhere. As we walked across one of MIT’s grassy quads, one of my fellow retreatants remarked, “I keep scanning the rooftops,” and at that moment I realized that something as simple as walking across campus becomes a bold move when you think there might be a gunman lurking somewhere, watching. As Annie Dillard remarks in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, quoting the medievalist Dorothy Dunnett, “There is no reply, in clear terrain, to an archer in cover.”

Rooftops

Call me morbid, but this isn’t the first time I’ve wondered what it would be like to be shot by a stranger. I first started meditating in the aftermath of the 1991 shooting in which six Thai Buddhist monks, a nun, and two other victims were killed in a temple in Arizona. We think of senseless mass shooting as being a recent phenomenon, and perhaps they have indeed increased in frequency and subsequent news coverage. But when I first started meditating at the Zen Buddhist temple in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the aftermath of the Arizona shootings, I often experienced a moment of panic when I vividly visualized a silent gunman creeping into the Buddha hall and methodically shooting each one of us in the back as we meditated, quietly (and quite helplessly) facing a wall.

London plane trees

The first time I went camping, I had a similar moment of panic, wondering what could stop a homicidal gunman from walking up to our tent and shooting straight at it, his bullet piercing both tent nylon and layers of sleeping bag before hitting the warm, vulnerable bodies therein. Again, this might sound like a morbid thought, but it’s not an entirely unrealistic one: in his book A Walk in the Woods, for instance, Bill Bryson recounts several murders that have happened on the Appalachian Trail, including the 1988 murder of Rebecca Wight, who was shot along with her partner while hiking in Pennsylvania.

This way

The practice of sheltering in place rests on the assumption that the world out there is more dangerous than the world in here; sitting a meditation retreat might lead you to question that assumption as you explore the layers of your own delusions. But when you’re pondering the possibility you’re on a campus with a gunman, you can solace yourself with odds and likelihoods, and one relevant statistic still remains: mortality always has the last word. A sniper’s bullet, a sudden heart attack, a prolonged illness: in the end, does it matter what hit you? When you’re shot by an arrow, the Buddha famously argued, it doesn’t matter who made the arrow out of what material or for what purpose: you’re dead all the same.

BRAWN Writing Retreat

Yesterday I almost got run over by a delivery truck while crossing a particularly tricky intersection by Symphony Hall. A group of pedestrians was crossing, and I was the laggard, walking in dress boots. Had I been hit by a truck that didn’t stop but instead thundered past just as I hurriedly stepped onto the curb, I would have been like a dawdling antelope snagged by a lurking lion: the rest of the herd would have continued on, either oblivious to my demise or secretly relieved it hadn’t befallen them.

After yesterday’s near miss, I looked at the photo I had taken seconds before stepping into that intersection near Symphony Hall and realized it could have been my last. Today at MIT, I took a handful of photos on my way to the BRAWN retreat, and fortunately it turns out that today at MIT was neither a good day nor a good place for me to die. Had today’s story turned out differently, however, this would have been my last shot before being shot.

Dreyfus Building

Trees as tresses

Last Friday, I received my most recent Photojojo Photo Time Capsule, a twice-monthly email that automatically sends me a random assortment of photos from my Flickr photostream, all taken this time last year. My twice-monthly time capsule serves as an interesting reminder of where I’ve been, what I’ve done, and what I’ve repeated from year to year. There’s no clearer proof that you’re a creature of habit, for instance, than receiving an email containing photos you took last year but look like you could have taken them yesterday. The details change from year to year, but the basic story stays the same.

Signs and wonders

All the images in my most recent Photo Time Capsule were from a single set of photos I shot on a sunny Sunday morning last February on my way to the Cambridge Zen Center. Since I shoot the window mannequins at the Great Eastern Trading Company nearly every time I go to the Zen Center, I have countless shots of the same heads decorated with a changing assortment of hats, wigs, and masks: same o’, change o’. When I checked Flickr to see what photos I’d taken last February besides the same old images of the same old mannequins, I was startled to remember that this time last year, I took (or at least posted to Flickr) only eight photos: the seven photos in that set, and one of my favorite photos of Reggie, taken when he was still alive and alert, resting comfortably in a golden spot of sun with Crash the cat.

Proof that cats and dogs can get along

Seeing this fondly remembered picture of Reggie startled me for several reasons. First, in many ways it feels like Reggie has been gone a lifetime, so it seems strange to realize that this time last year, I was still coaxing an increasingly incapacitated dog through a regimented routine of food, water, medicine, and potty-breaks. (I can’t count the number of times during our recent snowstorms when I’ve thought quietly to myself, “Thank goodness I don’t have to navigate Reggie through this.”)

Masquer

More tellingly, though, when I look at that photo now, I recognize what it is: the picture of a dying dog. I knew when I took it that Reggie’s time was short: when I shot that picture, I remember thinking, “One day, this will remind me what Reggie was like when he was alive.” Remembering how emotionally exhausting it was to guide Reggie through his final months, I’m surprised to remember that this time last year, Reggie was still alive.

Faraway

Reggie’s decline was one thing I was facing last February, but the rest of “this time last year” was fuzzy…until I checked my blog archives. This time last year, I was teaching two classes at Keene State while wondering how much longer I could afford to continue teaching there part-time; this time last year, I was in the middle of a career crisis, wondering whether a PhD and nearly 20 years of college teaching experience had brought me at last to a dead end.

Studly

Remembering last February, I remember what a miserable time it was. I didn’t blog much in February, 2012 because I was juggling a busier-than-usual online term, but I didn’t blog much then, too, because it was such a dark and cheerless time. Looking back on this time last year, I remember how demoralized I was every time I drove to Keene to teach at an institution where it felt like the administration was closing up shop around me. This time last year, I kept a box of tissues in the car for the times I spent my commute weeping, knowing that just as Reggie’s days were numbered, so were my days at Keene State.

Still in the building

Looking back on this time last year, I’m grateful for many things. I’m grateful to be in a better place, literally: this year, I don’t have to worry about an increasingly incapacitated dog, and I don’t weep when I make my wonderfully brief commute to teach at a school where I don’t feel demoralized, devalued, or depressed. I’m grateful to be in a better place, emotionally: last year, I worried that my job turmoil would permanently transform me into a bitter, cynical person, but on all but the most tiring of days, I can honestly say I like my job, I like my students, and I generally like my life.

Afro-licious

Looking back on this time last year, I’m grateful to be here rather than there…but I’m also grateful to have been there. This time last year, I was doing the emotionally messy work of anticipatory grief, saying goodbye, gradually, to two things I loved. As painful as it might be to know you’re losing something, there’s something emotionally honest (and thus freeing) about facing the present moment, experiencing whatever emotions that moment evokes, and admitting the terrifying (but universally human) fact that you don’t know what comes next. Last February wasn’t a fun time, but it was a time when I made a conscious effort to be awake to my own life, weathering whatever tumultuous emotions arose and not numbing myself to a single second. As much as I wouldn’t want to relive this time last year, I wouldn’t want to erase it, either.

Although I’ve taken plenty of photos this year, the ones illustrating today’s blog post come from this time last year: images I originally blogged last March, grateful to have weathered the month of February.

Cold flamingos - Feb 17 / Day 48

Yesterday, J and I walked to Boston College for an afternoon men’s hockey game. BC is about three miles from our house, so walking there and back is a healthy hike in good weather…and yesterday, we were weathering the aftermath of our latest snowstorm, which meant walking through ankle-deep, un-shoveled snow for most of the way.

Gave up

A lot of New Englanders are getting sick of snow at this point of the winter, as illustrated by this castoff shovel J and I saw along the way. (Maybe we should have taken it to clear our own path.) I’ve found from experience, though, that the weather is easier to deal with, paradoxically, if you get out in it. Once you’re moving, the cold isn’t as intolerable as you had imagined from inside, and the snow isn’t as slippery as you’d thought.

Toppled stop sign

The walk home after the game was a bit easier than the trek there: walking home, we travel mostly downhill, and we’d made a mental note of how to avoid the most treacherous drifts and snow-banks. Walking home, we were largely retracing our steps, treading a still-snowy path that had nevertheless been trampled by other intrepid pedestrians. It was dark on our walk home, so we had to stride blindly into our own footsteps rather than primly picking a meticulous path. On the walk home, we quickly settled into a smooth, almost fluid gait that felt like cross-country skiing, minus the skis: just one foot following the other, two mates in single file.

Joy

I’m typing these words from my office at Framingham State, where I sit facing a large window fronting the main road that bisects campus. The snow is piled nearly everywhere after this weekend’s blizzard: the grounds crew has plowed the main pedestrian paths, but not the sidewalk shortcut that runs across the gentle slope outside my window. If you want to reach the single door that leads to a lonely hallway of faculty offices in the basement of O’Connor Hall, you’ll have to take the long way around because the shortcut around the building is snowed in.

Kicked to the curb

This morning, I’ve already taken several pictures, and I’ll presumably take more this afternoon and tonight. The first photo I took today was one of a wreath one of our neighbors had left on top of the snow pile next to their trash bins: an odd adornment in an otherwise bleak snowscape. Here on campus, I also shot a looming overhang of snow sliding off the roof of Hemenway Hall and an upside-down, half-melted ice cream cone dumped in the middle of a snow drift. Surely there’s a story behind that.

Looming snow pack

Today I have lots of grading to do, paper-piles that accumulated over the past week and weekend. We’ve reached that point in the semester when I’m perpetually behind with grading: as soon as I finish one paper-pile, another one looms. It’s a nice idea to think I’ll catch up with grading, class prep, and other teaching tasks tomorrow or the next day or the next, but I’ve learned that catching up with a grading backlog really is like digging out from a blizzard: you quickly find ways to maneuver around the worst of the mess, but the bulk of the snow drifts will remain until spring. There’s simply no shortcut around that.

There's a Subaru under there, somewhere

I’m sure we’ve all heard the proverbial advice about how to carve a statue. Start with a block of stone, then chisel away everything that isn’t what you’re trying to carve. That makes stone-carving sound easy enough, and it pretty much applies to digging out a car covered in two feet of snow. Just start chiseling, and stop when you hit anything “car.”

Side mirror "wings"

In the past when I’ve had to dig out my car from a massive snowstorm, a broom has done the trick: just sweep away the bulk of accumulation, then use a snow-scraper to remove the rest. (That’s what I did in this post from eons ago, when I lived on my own in New Hampshire and Reggie was still alive and young.) When you’re removing two feet of snow, however, a broom just doesn’t cut it.

Chisel away everything that isn't "Subaru"

Yesterday I tried a regular broom then a push-broom to remove a few inches of snow from my car before settling on a compact plastic shovel, one I’d bought years ago to keep in my car for emergencies. Luckily, that shovel now lives in the garage, so I was able to use it on the snow-pile where my car had previously been.

Emerging

When you’re shoveling out a buried car, you aren’t trying to create something pretty. Instead, you’re aiming to uncover the rough contours of the vehicle: here a tail-light, there a door.

Almost a driver's side door

Once you’ve uncovered enough of the hood, grille, and tailpipe to make it safe to start your engine, you can concentrate on digging out the driver’s side door. Why? Once you’ve turned the car on, you can run the heater at full blast through the vents, melting the windshield from within.

Melting windshield

Once you’ve cleared most of the snow from the roof, hood, and windows, you can move your mostly-clean car into a spot where you know it will eventually be sunny. If you carve out the rough outlines, the sun will do the rest.

Ready to roll

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