Mar 29, 2013
We’ve reached that time of year when I find myself compulsively checking my photos and blog posts from last year, wondering when spring will really arrive in New England. We’ve had a smattering of signs: snowdrops and crocuses, the first soaring turkey vultures and singing red-winged blackbirds. But the trees haven’t begun to sprout leaves, as they had this time last year, so the landscape is largely gray and barren. Spring is coming, slowly, but it seems to be taking its sweet time.
My body, too, is being uncooperative, last week’s chest cold becoming bronchitis. I’ve faced enough colds-become-bronchitis to know you simply have to wait until your lungs clear, your strength returns, and your ribs stop aching from frequent coughing. But in the meantime, I find myself losing patience: why can’t my body be better, now, and why can’t it also be warmer, greener, and more colorful?
If the name of the month is any indication, March should be a season of motion, the year marching and even springing forward. This year, however, March is more about waiting and lagging, both the landscape and my body reminding me that everything comes in its own due time, and no sooner. I want to be outside and walking, my body light and carefree in short-sleeves and sandals: instead, even modest walks leave me winded, a member (once again) of the walking wounded. I’ll be better—and the landscape will be greener—soon enough. In the meantime, both the earth and my body keep whispering “Not yet.”
Mar 27, 2013
Some days when I come to the page to write my hour, I have a definite idea or theme in mind: something I’ve been thinking over and want to write about. Other days, like today, I come to the page with nothing particular in mind, just the intention to put one word in front of the next. Writing is one way I make sense of the world, so whereas some people like to sit and think, I prefer to sit and write. Somehow, crafting one sentence then the next and the next helps me figure out what I’m thinking, even before I fully realize what it is that’s on my mind.
The interesting thing about thinking is that it never stops: even when you sit down with “nothing to write about,” your head is never close to empty. Anyone who has tried to meditate knows how never-ending the river of thoughts is: whenever anyone asks me how to “quiet their thoughts” when they are meditating, for instance, I have to stifle a hearty laugh. Quiet your thoughts? You’d have better luck containing a cloud or stopping a river. Even if you could calm or quiet your thoughts, why would you want to? There’s nothing more precious than a new idea—something arising out of nothing—so why would you want to halt the perpetual motion machine that is your own consciousness?
When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the sheer parade of thoughts in my head. In elementary school, I liked to climb atop the jungle gym during recess, while my classmates were running, shouting, and playing games, so I could sit quietly and think, alone and aloof like Saint Simeon. Later, after I was too old for playgrounds, I learned that sitting alone with a book or notebook served the same purpose: when you’re reading, writing, or sitting atop a jungle gym, people don’t bother you. Even though you aren’t doing much of anything, you presumably “look busy,” or at least you look like you don’t want to be bothered.
I don’t remember, exactly, what I thought about when I was a kid perched atop a jungle gym: I think I just liked to watch my thoughts, fascinated by the way they arose, transformed, and gurgled away like globules in a lava lamp. Some kids can sit for hours with a magnifying glass studying ants or rocks or blades of grass: I liked to sit and watch my thoughts. When I was a kid, I liked to take some simple idea or question and explore it from all angles until I’d stumped myself with the sheer inadequacy of my own understanding. If God created the heavens and the earth, for instance, where did God dwell before that? How is it that my brain knows how to move even the smallest muscle in my hand, orchestrating complex gestures automatically, without the need for conscious thought? Or, what exactly makes “pain” painful? If a little bit of warmth feels good, why and at what point does “warmth” become “hot” then “too hot,” crossing the threshold from “comfortable sensation I seek out” to “painful sensation I flee from”?
You might say I was born to be a writer or philosopher, or you might say I was just a really weird kid, preferring to sit alone with my thoughts rather than playing with my peers. In retrospect, growing up in a neighborhood where there weren’t many children my age might have had something to do with it: given the ten-year gap between me and my older sisters, I learned at an early age how to entertain myself. Or perhaps my fascination with the process of thinking—the way one thought leads to another, and the way close observation easily transforms into wonder—means I was a natural meditator, cultivating an open attitude of awareness and curiosity even before I’d ever heard the word “meditation.”
All I know is that given an hour and a blank page to fill, I always seem to find something to say…at least if I can keep from distracting myself with email, Facebook, or the hydra-headed distraction of the Internet. Now that I think about it, spending an hour a day waiting for words—any words—to arise beneath my scribbling pen or typing fingers is the grown-up equivalent of sitting atop a jungle gym, watching my classmates race to and fro. Watching the world go by isn’t that much different from watching a river flow, or ants walking along a sidewalk, or the incessant parade of thoughts streaming through your own head. Given an expanse of time and the willingness to wait and watch, you never know what will show up on the page before you.
The sculpture pictured in this post is Jaume Plensa’s Alchemist, a figure made up of numbers and mathematical functions that stands in front of the student center at MIT. Perhaps mathematicians like to watch the numbers in their head as much as writers like to watch the words.
Mar 26, 2013
I finally finished Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave, which I’d originally reviewed here. When I wrote that review, I had read only the first half of the book. Now that I’ve finished the entire thing, I’m still thinking about it. Wave is a book you read slowly, then spend a long time processing.
At first glance, Wave is a memoir of Deraniyagala’s experience losing her parents, husband, and sons in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, but the book struck me as being several memoirs in one: or, more accurately, a memoir that recounts the cyclic and spiraling cycles of grief. Grief isn’t something you get over, as if life after loss could ever be the same again. Wave describes the way in which grief goes through its own seasons. In the first half of Wave, Deraniyagala is beside herself with sorrow, harassing the tenants who move into her deceased parents’ house and endlessly Googling ways to kill herself. In the first half of Wave, you aren’t sure whether Deraniyagala is going to make it: yes, her body survived the tsunami that claimed her kin, but will she survive the aftermath of that maddening loss, body and soul?
There is no clear dividing line between the first half of the book and the second: there is no clear corner that Deraniyagala turns. But in the latter parts of the book, the focus seems to shift from what Deraniyagala lost to what she shared with her husband, sons, parents, and the friends who remain by her side as reconstructs a life after unspeakable loss. Gradually, the book isn’t about a wave of destruction but a swelling surge of remembrance.
There are parts of the latter half of the book–most memorably, an account of a whale-watching excursion in the very ocean that swallowed Deraniyagala’s family–that are hauntingly beautiful, with Deraniyagala longing for her husband, Steve, and sons, Vik and Malli, who she feels should be on the boat watching whales with her:
I shouldn’t be on this boat, I thought, as I nibbled on a ginger biscuit to stop feeling seasick. Vik never got to see a blue whale. I shouldn’t be out searching for whales when Vik can’t. It will be agony without him. I’ll have hell to pay.
Deraniyagala will have hell to pay, indeed: how can you do things alone that your lost family would have loved to have done with you? And yet on the whale-watching boat, Deraniyagala discovers that she is never alone. Not only are there whales, as blue and enormous as the sky, gliding through the water beneath her, but the persistence of memory means that Steve, Vik, and Malli are somehow gone but never far away:
As the first blow of a whale was sighted, our boat speeded up, and I was in our living room in London. Vik and I on the red sofa watching The Blue Planet. I could hear him catch his breath as two blue whales appear on the screen, impossibly huge even as the aerial camerawork dwarfs them in an infinite ocean. He twists his hair faster and faster as they cruise and dive.
Whales are huge and mysterious, easily inviting awe. As much as Deraniyagala cannot stand seeing whales without her husband and sons, she experiences a moment of tranquility and calm in the presence of these huge, aquatic beasts: creatures who live in the very element that proved to be so deadly.
Where were these whales when the sea came for us? I wonder. Were they in this same ocean? Did they feel a strangeness then? Another whale who was in the distance has come closer now. I hear a loud, low bellow as it exhales. Now the whale inhales. Resounding in this vastness I hear a doleful sigh.
There is something inexpressibly beautiful in Deraniyagala’s description of remembering her dead family while listing to whales breathe: a moment both intimate and awesome. I felt a bit guilty for finding spots of beauty in an otherwise harrowing story, but perhaps that is what made Deraniyagala’s memoir so memorable. Perhaps the greatest shock of grief isn’t that human life is fragile, but that survivors are so resilient, and a cruel world is somehow so beautiful. Perhaps the greatest shock of grief isn’t that human bodies pass away but that love never dies.
Mar 23, 2013
A little over a week ago, I had dinner with Seon Joon, who was in Cambridge on her way to visit friends on the west coast. We went to an Eritrean restaurant in Central Square, sitting at one of the traditional woven-basket tables at the front of the restaurant, where we shared a platter of savory lentils, spinach, and curried vegetables arranged on flat injera bread. Seon Joon and I hadn’t seen each other since June, and before that, we hadn’t seen each other in seven (seven!) years. After lingering long over food and conversation, we ordered hot beverages—ginger coffee for Seon Joon, and cinnamon-spiced tea for me—and talked until we’d sated ourselves on conversation and conviviality.
On Thursday, it was Pica who was briefly in Cambridge, visiting by train from the west coast. I’d seen Pica last spring, when we’d gone on an early morning bird walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery, followed by pancakes and conversation at the Deluxe Town Diner. On Thursday, the weather was unseasonably cold, with sporadic snow showers, so instead of birding and sketching at Mount Auburn, as we’d initially planned, Pica and I met in Harvard Square, where we talked and admired her sketches over steaming cups of Burdick’s famously intense dark hot chocolate.
There’s something magical about spending time over hot beverages with an old friend. Whether it’s been a year or seven since you’ve seen one another, the time gone by seems to melt under the influence of warm caffeine. You pick up old conversations as if they’d never been interrupted, remembering the various milestones that have passed even as your friendship has remained the same. Conversations shared over hot beverages somehow feel timeless, a ritual all their own. You remember the people you were the last time you met over a warm, comforting cup, and you feel inspired to envision who the two of you might be the next time you meet up, where or whenever that might be.
Mar 20, 2013
Today Beth of The Cassandra Pages celebrates her 10 year blog-birthday, and the entry she posted to commemorate the occasion raises for me the usual questions about what my “real work” is. Is it writing blog posts? Writing books? Teaching? Taking care of pets? When it’s all done and I’m dead, will it make any difference that I blogged, or that I did anything at all? What does it mean, after all, to make a difference in a world that keeps spinning—change and impermanence reigning supreme—whether I do anything or not?
What, in other words, is any writer’s “real” work? Annie Dillard, whom I’d like to emulate as much as anyone, said at the beginning of Teaching a Stone to Talk that her short nonfiction essays weren’t written to supplement her “real” work; instead, her short essays are her real work. Another of my literary heroes, Henry David Thoreau, wrote essays, poetry, several book-length works of nonfiction, and a multi-volume journal he spent his entire adult life adding to, page by page. So what was Thoreau’s “real” work? The books published during his lifetime? The books published after his death? The journal he spent his entire creative life adding to, and which served as the source of his published essays and book-length nonfiction?
Blogging is an ephemeral genre: what I wrote last week doesn’t matter much tomorrow. But if you look at a blog as being an ongoing project, then the dedication it takes to keep a blog going long-term has to count for something. As Beth herself writes,
…what emerges is a body of work. It isn’t conventional, or even graspable, and perhaps will be impermanent, but I know that it is, in fact, THE body of artistic work accomplished in my lifetime which most closely represents me. It’s also taught me the most. Once upon a time I wasn’t satisfied with that. Now, I am.
Ten years is a long time to do anything faithfully, much less thoughtfully and with care. It took me ten years to get my PhD, and between you and me, those letters after my name haven’t meant much in terms of professional prestige: I make no more money and have no more job security as “Dr.” than I did as “Ms.” So is my dissertation—a book-length work that was the culmination of ten years of scholarly work and now sits in the archives of my alma mater—somehow count for more than Beth’s ten-year body of blog-work just because my dissertation was “published” and earned me some letters after my name?
Both Beth’s blog and my dissertation reflect ten years of work, but one has been reaching out to readers and encouraging them on an almost-daily basis to think, write, read, draw, paint, take photos, sing, make books, speak out, and otherwise be active and engaged, whereas the other is considered a scholarly work and collects dust. So what is the “worth” of an active mind engaged in creative pursuits? What is the “worth” of ten years of showing up, paying attention, and sharing what you see?
If you’re a writer of nonfiction prose, it’s easy to fall into the trap of categorizing your work on the basis of its length: sustained, book-length narratives are “real work,” and short, self-contained essays are something else. If you’re a writer of nonfiction prose who also keeps a blog, it’s even easier to get confused by these categories: short, self-contained essays that are published in print count as “real work,” but blog-entries (no matter how carefully crafted) do not.
I would love to write a book, as Beth has: I have always wanted to write a book. At the moment, I have the vague, sketchy outline of book-length narrative in my head, but whenever I turn to work on it, my ideas turn tail and flee. Given my desire to write this book, should I force myself to work on it exclusively, even when it doesn’t “want” to be worked on, or should I follow my muse wherever it appears, even if that means working on the book while also writing “mere” blog-essays that may or may not ever “lead somewhere”?
That is the sticking point, isn’t it: this idea that what we do should “lead somewhere”? The other night I had dinner with Seon Joon, whose blog is younger than Beth’s, but just as deep. Seon Joon asked me, point blank, whether I was working on a book, remembering (I’m sure) that I’d mentioned one, vaguely, the last time we’d talked. My response to her was yes, I’m working on a book…but no, I don’t know whether that work is leading somewhere, or whether the product of that work will ever be finished, much less published. But in the meantime, I know I’m enjoying the process of working on a book, keeping a blog, and basically being creative in one way or another every single day.
Regardless of where the road leads, in other words, I’m happy being on that road. Did Thoreau know when he started his journal that it would eventually fill some seven thousand pages and be published as a work in its own right? Or did Thoreau keep a journal simply because keeping a journal felt right as he was doing it?
I for one am glad that Beth has been blogging faithfully and thoughtfully these past ten years. She is one of the writers who inspired me to start a blog of my own, and the fact that she is still posting is immensely inspiring. Maybe the real work isn’t a noun—a product you finish and publish—but a verb: a thing you do and keep doing. If that be the case, then here’s hoping Beth keeps up the real work for a very long time.
Mar 19, 2013
Mar 17, 2013
I haven’t known the massive oak tree that stands near the library at Framingham State University long enough to give it a name, as I did with “Old Silver,” the multi-trunked silver maple that used to stand on the corner of Fisk Quad at Keene State. But the first time I visited Framingham State, I stopped in my tracks when I saw the massive oak that stands on the grassy slope between May Hall and Whittemore Library: such a large, sprawling, and admirably craggy fellow!
Because Massive Oak’s branches sprawl so wide, it’s difficult to fit him into a single photographic frame, so before this past Thursday I had only two pictures of him, both taken this past November, when a friend and I held an informal writing retreat on campus. When we arrived at Framingham State on that November day, my writing partner remarked how pretty the campus was, and since we were walking past Massive Oak at the time, I assumed she was commenting on how wonderful it is to teach on a campus with large, mature trees on it: craggy characters who refuse to be contained in a single photographic frame, deciding instead to spread into every inch of available space.
Because Massive Oak is both large and sprawling, taking up a large area of prime campus real estate, my heart sank on Thursday morning when I saw his huge trunk circled with pink utility tape. By Thursday afternoon, others had noticed the tape and drew the natural conclusion: Massive Oak is marked for removal.
On Friday–the Ides of March–an email confirmed our worst suspicions: trees wrapped in pink tape will be removed, trees wrapped in orange tape will be spared, and trees wrapped in both pink and orange tape will be transplanted, all to make way for a new Science Building that is planned for the site.
As much as my inner-Edward Abbey immediately considered an act of eco-terrorist sabotage–how simple it would be, I thought, to switch pink tape with orange, or to yarn bomb the whole damn tree–I’m old enough to know better. Massive Oak is too large and gangling a fellow to coexist with a sprawling new science building: new buildings prefer small, easily-contained trees, not a craggy behemoth whose roots and memory both reach deep.
Tree-removal is scheduled to begin soon after graduation in May, which means I and other tree-appreciators have the rest of the semester to take pictures, rest in the shade, and otherwise enjoy Massive Oak while he’s with us. We’re all destined to die eventually, and a terminal diagnosis–death with a date–reminds us to appreciate time with trees we might otherwise walk right past.
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