August 2013


Sleeping cat paw

While Stan and our other cats spent the day lounging and sleeping, I’ve been busy grading final projects from my online graduate students while designing the syllabus for my First Year Writing seminar at Boston College.

That can't be comfortable

A new online term starts on Tuesday, my new classes at BC start on Wednesday, and I return to teaching at Framingham State on Thursday. The next few days promise to be busy with teaching prep and other back-to-school tasks, so I leave you with these pictures of sleeping cats to entertain you while I’m otherwise occupied.

Changing

This morning when I took the dogs out, I immediately noticed something different about the light, which has become almost autumnal in its bronzed and burnished hue. Winter light is white or blue; spring light gradually warms to the yellow glint of summer. But the light in autumn is like no other: a glint beyond golden, like the sheen off hammered copper.

Ripening

Today the crickets are keening with an ever-increasing insistence, fiddling away, emphatically, the waning length of their days. You can feel the life force of summer building to a crescendo that must crash: summer has become overgrown and overripe, trending toward decay.

The apples that were green last month have ripened and become ruddy, and now they lie in smashed and rotting piles along the curb and sidewalk, firm green tartness reduced to sickly-sweet mush. It is the corporeality of rotten apples that offends, their pink and gold and burnished salmon calling to mind human flesh and its propensity toward decay. By tasting the forbidden apple, Eve doomed herself and her kind to the way of all flesh. We flower then ripen then fall, death and decay always having the last word.

Sun-ripened

In late August, nature dances a tarantella, time spinning with centrifugal intensity, a feverishly manic fecundity that can’t be sustained. There is a note of urgent insistence—a hint of resignation—in the desire to pack as much as possible into waning August days: a kind of Carnival carnality that crams infinite exuberance into the period that precedes want and decline.

Before things slow down, they speed up: this is a law of both biology and physics, summer’s last gasps being her most impassioned. Nothing lives as fiercely or as forcefully as a creature that knows it’s going to die.

The Potluck

Yesterday morning, I went to the Cambridge Zen Center to practice and give teaching interviews, stopping on my way to photograph David Fichter’s “The Potluck,” a bright, larger-than-life mural depicting a happy gathering of all ages and races sharing an abundant meal. Yesterday was a gorgeous day—sunny and not too warm—so it would have been perfect for either a picnic or potluck, but instead, I started the morning by going to the Zen Center, where I spent a half hour quietly contemplating the Dharma room floor before secreting myself in the interview room, where I met individually with a handful of fellow meditators, one after another, each bringing some sort of question: a potluck of interactions, each presenting its own possibilities.

Dharma room

After I’d gotten home from the Zen Center, J and I took the T downtown, where we walked to the North End for Saint Anthony’s Feast: a whole other kind of potluck. Instead of the quiet minimalism of the Zen Center Dharma room, in the North End we encountered the pomp and camaraderie of an Old World religious festival, a marching band accompanying a group of men who carried a statue of Saint Anthony through the streets, stopping (and even raising the statue to second-floor level) when anyone wanted to pin money to the ribbons that adorned it.

Offerings

Although most of us easily understand the pomp and protocol of a picnic or potluck, Catholic festivals can be a bit more mystifying to the uninitiated. Both J and I are Italian and were raised as Catholics, so we don’t raise an eyebrow when we see colorful saint statues decorated and adorned…but I can imagine the consternation and even concern that people from other religious backgrounds might feel when they see folks in the North End apparently worshipping or even “bribing” idol-like statues with kisses and cash.

Dollar-pinned ribbons for Saint Anthony

When I see the obvious reverence that attendees at Saint Anthony’s and other North End feasts display toward these saints, though, I see tradition, not idolatry. Italians in Boston’s North End have been celebrating Saint Anthony’s Feast for nearly a century, continuing a festive tradition they carried with them from their homeland. Saint Anthony’s Feast might not match the kind of picnic or potluck you see in mainstream America, but it does suit North End tastes and traditions.

Saint Anthony pinned with dollars

America is often compared to a melting pot, but that metaphor is all wrong. When you toss (and then melt) disparate cuisines in a pot, what you end up with is a homogenous mush, the various tastes and textures all pureeing to gray. America isn’t a melting pot but a smorgasbord—a potluck—where each community offers something characteristic to their own tradition, even if “my” cuisine doesn’t perfectly match “yours.”

Italian pastries

At a potluck, everyone contributes something, and everyone shares…but at a potluck, you have the opportunity to pick and choose, not every plate offering something for every palate. Do you prefer a quiet morning spent meditating in the shadow of a gold guy? We have that. Do you prefer a festive afternoon feasting among confetti and cannoli? We have that, too. Whether you stick with familiar foods or explore something new, you can help yourself to whatever you’d like, then come back for seconds. There’s plenty for everyone, and something to satisfy every taste.

Dipped

As much as meditating at the Zen Center and feasting in the North End might seem like opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum, I find a lot of ways that Buddhism and Catholicism complement one another. Both Buddhisim and Catholicism offer a rich iconography of visual images: when newcomers come to the Zen Center, for instance, I make clear that the Buddha sitting at the head of the Dharma room isn’t a god to be worshiped but a visual representation of the clear, pure nature we all possess. Similarly, the money that festival-goers pin to statues of Saint Anthony or Saint Lucy aren’t idolatrous bribes: they’re expressions of gratitude and hope. A Catholic festival like Saint Anthony’s Feast suggests that if we make a point to be generous with saints, perhaps those saints will in turn be generous with blessings.

Saint Anthony shrine

Both feasts and potlucks, after all, are celebrations of abundance: there’s enough for everyone to eat, enjoy, and come back for seconds. On a gorgeous August Sunday, I can’t think of a better way to spend the day.

Click here for more photos from Saint Anthony’s Feast, which J and I had first visited in August of 2007…or click here for more photos of David Fichter’s “The Potluck,” which I’ve blogged in May of 2009 and February of 2011. Enjoy!

Flags and flowers

On Tuesday morning, on my way to a meeting, I stopped outside the Stata Center at MIT to pay my respects at the makeshift memorial to Officer Sean Collier, who was killed this past April by the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. Although most of the mementos left by students, staff, and passersby have been cleared away, the site of Officer Collier’s death is still marked with flags and flowers. I’m not sure I can explain the human desire to create memorial shrines at the sites where people have passed, but I certainly understand it. To anyone not from Boston, the Marathon bombings are old news, replaced in our attention by other breaking stories. But those of us who live here haven’t forgotten what happened at and after this year’s Marathon, and even if we did, the places where these things happened would by their very presence remind us.

Thank you for the items you have left here

When J and I showed visiting relatives around Boston earlier this month, for instance, we insisted on walking them down Boylston Street to the Marathon finish line, showing them an otherwise ordinary patch of sidewalk outside Marathon Sports where the first of two deadly bombs went off. I’m not sure why J and I felt an insistent need to show this spot to relatives who hadn’t asked to see it. There’s technically nothing to see on this particular patch of sidewalk: the teeming memorial of mementos left at Copley Plaza in the immediate aftermath of the Marathon bombings has been removed and carefully archived by the city, and nothing in the way of a permanent memorial has yet been planned.

Marathon bombing site

Because the two Marathon bombs exploded outward rather than upward, there isn’t eye-popping evidence of a massive bomb-blast at either site: the bombs’ legacy was left on human flesh—so many amputated legs—rather than as lasting architectural damage. On the Sunday we visited, the only indication that Something Happened Here was a pair of running shoes discreetly hanging from the shady trunk of a midsized plane tree: a hidden memorial visible only if you stood right under that tree.

Memorial to slain MIT Officer Sean Collier

But just because there’s not much to see these days at sites related to the Marathon bombings doesn’t mean these sites haven’t achieved a kind of sacred power, like other places of pilgrimage. Regardless of whether visiting family wanted to see precisely where the bombings happened, both J and I wanted to show them. I’m not sure we could have explained why this was so, but in retrospect, I think we wanted to show our guests something indicative of what it’s really like to live in Boston, today. Visiting historical sites might help you understand what Boston was like in the distant past, but visiting the finish line on Boylston Street might help you understand why Bostonians were simultaneously heartbroken and outraged in the aftermath of terror.

BPL Strong

As Red Sox designated hitter David “Big Papi” Ortiz so memorably phrased it, “This is our fucking city,” and standing on the sidewalk outside Marathon Sports, you might feel some of that territorial defiance, even if you’re just visiting. These are our streets and sidewalks, the place where one Monday every April, we practice radical hospitality. If you want to know what kind of spirit, swagger, and pride makes a Bostonian, sit in the nosebleeds at a Bruins game, cheer from the bleachers at Fenway, or spend a silent moment contemplating an otherwise ordinary patch of sidewalk outside Marathon Sports.

Memorial cross

These spots on Boylston Street in Boston and on the MIT campus in Cambridge are places where lives were lost, bodies were disfigured, and survivors were forever changed. These are the spots where those of us who live in and around Boston came to realize in our guts what it means to be “from” this city, regardless of where we were born. This IS our fucking city, I find myself thinking whenever I’m walking down Boylston Street, and by showing visitors this now-sacred spot, J and I wanted to share that solemn realization.

MIT Police / Boston Strong

As I stood outside the Stata Center at MIT on Tuesday morning, I felt a similar spirit of solemnity. Here at this spot, someone died simply because he was doing his job, and the very least I can do is stop and pay my respects, remembering someone who had his unfortunate moment in the headlines and is now gone. Folks elsewhere might have moved on to other, more gripping stories, but here in Boston and Cambridge alike, we haven’t forgotten.

The photos of the running shoes in a tree and the “Boston Public Library Strong” sign come from Boylston Street in Boston; the other photos come from the makeshift memorial to Officer Sean Collier outside the Stata Center at MIT. Last night, Officer Collier was posthumously sworn in as a Somerville police officer, a job he was supposed to have taken in June.

Wall at Central Square

The Buddha touched the earth with his right hand the moment before he was enlightened, but he continued to touch the earth with his two feet for the rest of his days. When we typically imagine the Buddha, we picture a sedentary figure seated in contemplation, but in the immediate aftermath of the Buddha’s life and death, the icon that represented him wasn’t a seated person but the image of a human footprint.

Pretty / Boston Strong

Picturing the Buddha as a walking rather than a sitting man is suggestive on many levels. Picturing the Buddha as a walking man reminds us that Buddhism isn’t primarily an idea; it’s a practice. What you believe isn’t as important as how you live: do you walk the walk? As an awakened man, the Buddha was fully engaged in the world: he wasn’t as unmoving and aloof as his statues would suggest. If you want to follow the Buddha’s teachings, you needn’t pay lip service to anything he said; instead, follow in the footsteps of what he did.

Warhol RIP

It’s significant that the cornerstone summation of the Buddha’s teaching is known as the Eightfold Path. A path is something you have to walk: a path is useless if you don’t use it. The Eightfold Path tells you how to live an enlightened life if you are willing to take the steps to get there: looking at or merely thinking about the path will get you nowhere. You have to put one proverbial foot in front of the other if you want the Eightfold Path to be efficacious.

B&W

Walking demands balance: if you are lopsided or top-heavy, laden down with worries and obsessions, you won’t be able to walk well…but the very act of walking will help you find balance, your wobbly steps gradually becoming more stable and assured. The Eightfold Path is often represented by the eight spokes of the Dharma wheel, each spoke balanced in turn. A one- or two-spoke wheel won’t get you very far, so you need to walk the fine line between excess and abstention: a just-right state the Buddha called the Middle Way. It is by walking the way of the eightfold path that you find your own inner balance.

Create more, consume less

The Buddha’s footprint is evocative of many things. A footprint is grounded, and it is also balanced. A footprint marks a journey, and it marks the incremental steps from “here” to “there”: a journey of a thousand miles, the saying goes, begins with a single step. People who fly, float, or otherwise transcend the earthbound world don’t leave footprints: only people who take things one step at a time do. Walking upon two even feet replicates the repetitive coupling of inhalation and exhalation: a two-beat routine that will take you wherever you need to go, and every place in between.

Ajar

Early depictions of the Buddha don’t feature or fixate on his face, for the Buddha could be Anyman. By the scandal of particularity, the historical Buddha was a particular person born to a particular family in a particular clan in a particular tribe. By the scandal of particularity, the historical Buddha was an Indian prince born to a life of ease…but anyone, anywhere, can wake up. If you fixate on Buddha’s face, you might think he is different from you: a person of a different time, tribe, or personality. But if you contemplate the Buddha’s footprint, you realize this is a path you too can walk. The focus isn’t so much who you are as where you are going, and how.

Wall at Central Square

How might we live our life? This is the question underpinning the Buddha’s teaching, particularly the concept of the Eightfold Path. We do not set out to perfect ourselves through conscious striving for this goal; instead, we ramble and wander, often unaware. But if we persevere in practice, continually bring our mind back to this present moment (the ground under our very own feet), we gradually attain the grace the Buddha himself described. By following in the Buddha’s footsteps, we come into a right and well-aligned relationship with the world.

After dark

Footprints mark the spots at which a particular person touched the earth. A celestial or purely cerebral person doesn’t leave footprints; only people who are down and dirty, grounded in the actualities of life do. The Buddha’s footprint reminds us not to be too ethereal or too pure. Like a lotus flower rooted in mud, we lead lives that are silted in the nitty-gritty details of mundane life. Without our feet planted on the earth, we can’t reach, strive, or grow.

Eagle and clock tower

Several weeks ago, after having applied for an adjunct teaching position at Boston College that would nicely supplement my part-time position at Framingham State, I stopped at Boston College to walk the labyrinth there. It was a superstitious act: I somehow thought that if I walked with a grateful and meditative spirit, the Universe and the English department alike would recognize how perfect I am for the job. It was drizzling that day, so I walked with an umbrella, wending and winding my way from the circumference of the stony circle to its center, then retracing my steps to the place I’d started. It had been a more than a year since A (not her real initial) and I had first visited this labyrinth, and it felt comforting to return to familiar turns.

A way through grass

When A and I first walked the labyrinth at Boston College, I was still nursing the hurt of the previous year, when I’d applied for (and failed to get) a full-time teaching position there. After walking the labyrinth, A and I ducked into Saint Mary’s chapel, which was one of my favorite quiet spots on campus when I was a Master’s student at Boston College some twenty years ago. Instead of finding the chapel quiet and empty, we found a chamber music ensemble performing sacred music to an intimate and attentive audience. Silently watching the group for a song or two then quietly excusing ourselves, I turned to A and said, “See why I want to teach at this school?”

Labyrinthine

Walking a labyrinth is a process of retracing your own steps, as the paths there and back again are one and the same. If you visit the same labyrinth more than once, you re-trace your own re-tracings, labyrinth-walking becoming a self-reflexive and recursive thing: a process of turning and re-turning.

Whereas mazes try to trick you with a confusing array of forking choices, labyrinths merely try your patience. Most labyrinths feature a unicursal design, which means there is a single path bending and coiling its way from edge to innards. When you walk a unicursal labyrinth, arriving at the center is guaranteed as long as you keep walking, undeterred by the number of times you go in circles, think you’re going the wrong way, or fear you’ve reached a dead-end. If you keep going and don’t step off the path, you’ll get to your destination in the end, eventually.

Axis mundi

When A and I first walked the labyrinth at Boston College more than a year ago, I hadn’t yet quit my job at Keene State College, but my spirit knew I was leaving. I’d been reduced from full- to part-time status, and no longer made sense to cling to a part-time job in another state. I hadn’t yet quit my job at Keene State then because I didn’t have another job to move onto: I was poised in mid-step, one foot held in midair while I tried to find a place to plant it. When you can’t clearly see the path ahead of you, it’s difficult to believe your feet will automatically fall into their own footsteps. Poised between one step and the next, you feel anything but grounded, the earth beneath you seeming uncertain and untrustworthy.

Serene circles

This time last summer, I’d finally quit my job at Keene State, and I was grateful to have found a part-time job at Framingham State: a step down, financially, from the full-time job I’d had in New Hampshire, but a job mercifully close to home, and a new start. “Sometimes you have to take a step backward to take a step ahead,” I’d told a friend, but in retrospect, I’ve never veered from my path. That path might have turned, folding onto itself to veer in the direction I just came from: a complete about-face. But for the past twenty years, I’ve never turned from the path in front of me, taking each hesitant step as it’s been gradually revealed to me: one step forward, regardless of where “forward” is found.

Midway

Looking back at my twenty-year teaching career, the word “unicursal” perfectly describes it. For the past twenty years, I’ve patched together a full-time livelihood from part-time jobs, full-time but temporary positions, and all manner of adjunct appointments. For the past twenty years, I’ve made a modest livelihood doing one thing and one thing only: teaching all sorts of students in all sorts of places how to read, write, and think, believing that these skills are valuable no matter who you are, where you come from, or what kind of school you’re attending.

Heading out

At the midpoint of every semester, I quietly worry whether I’ll continue to be employed the next term, and at the end of each academic year, I quietly envy the folks with reliably stable year-round jobs with paid vacations, benefits, and job security. But no matter how many times I’ve been tempted to step off the path I’m on, at the start of each new academic year, I find myself abundantly grateful to be doing something that feels like I’m helping people by doing something I find interesting and profoundly satisfying.

Years ago when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, I had an opportunity to sit face-to-face with a Trappist monk who also practiced Zen meditation. As a lapsed Catholic, I approached this interview with a certain amount of trepidation, having been accustomed to sitting face-to-face with priests only when I was going to confession. When Father asked me if I had any questions, I tried to appear witty and nonchalant: “What’s a good little Catholic girl like me doing in a place like this?” Father’s answer was short and laser-sharp in its concision: “Never doubt the place where God has led you.”

Straight and curved

Boston College’s memorial labyrinth sits in one corner of the grassy lawn outside Burns Library. Before A and I visited the labyrinth more than a year ago, the last time I’d been to that particular grassy spot was the day I’d received my Master’s degree. I remember the ceremony feeling a bit anticlimactic: nobody but my then-husband was there, and I had to leave immediately after the ceremony to work a part-time retail job I had to make ends meet. Having earned a degree that declared me a “master” didn’t seem to make much difference in my mundane life: we still had bills to pay, and I was still scrambling to earn minimum wage plus a paltry commission.

Labyrinth through trees

It’s easy on the way from “here” to “there” to doubt the path you’re on. Looking around, you see others who seem to get to their destinations more quickly than you, their paths seeming more straightforward and direct. It’s easy to envy those folks who seem to know exactly how to get from point A to point Z without any mazy meanderings; it’s easy if your way is long to think you aren’t actually going anywhere, or you’re spinning in eternal circles, stuck in a dead end, or going the wrong way, fast.

Hairpin turns

It’s been twenty years—two decades!—since I taught my first first-year writing seminar as a second-year Master’s student at Boston College. A lot has happened in those twenty years: I graduated with my Master’s degree, entered a PhD program at Northeastern, and taught there as a Lecturer a few years before moving to New Hampshire, where I taught a bunch of other places. It took me ten years to finish my PhD, and it’s taken me almost ten years to settle into Whatever’s Next, a transitional phase that has involved divorcing and remarrying, moving back to Boston, and trying to re-establish myself as a college writing instructor here.

From the center looking out

In other words, what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Last July, I left my job at Keene State, a college where at one point I thought I could happily spend the rest of my life teaching. But instead, I fell in love with J, got married, and moved to Newton, which seemed to send my career in a different direction. It’s been difficult to find my feet, professionally, back in Boston. There are lots of schools here, and all of them need instructors to teach writing and literature courses…but there lots of graduate students to compete with, and at times I’ve felt like my career has hit a dead-end.

Leafy

Last July, I left my job at Keene State because I managed to find a part-time job at Framingham State, and almost exactly one year ago, I was busy with the logistics of starting over as a new hire there, fretting over the details of acquiring an office, email login, parking permit, and the like. This fall, I’ll continue to teach at Framingham State, and I’ll also be teaching at Boston College, where the Universe and the English department alike did indeed grant me that supplemental adjunct position. Today, I once again walked the labyrinth after picking up my Boston College parking permit on the same day my Framingham State permit arrived in the mail, with classes at both schools starting the week after next: an exciting time of new beginnings.

Memorial labyrinth

Two weeks ago, I went to faculty orientation at Boston College with a roomful of second-year Master’s students, all of them poised to start teaching first-year writing in the fall. Twenty years after I was a second-year Master’s student getting my start at Boston College, in other words, I’ve come full circle, my mazy, meandering path never swerving from its unicursal intent. I’m still juggling a patch-work of part-time jobs: it’s more difficult than I’d thought to find full-time work in a town like Boston. But twenty years after teaching my first college-level composition class, I’m still managing to make a living teaching, and I’m still happy to trust a path that has always managed to manifest itself immediately under my feet.

Hampshire House / aka "Cheers"

It’s a long-standing joke among Boston-area residents that we never visit the usual tourist sites except when family or friends come to visit. For a couple years in grad school, for instance, I lived in Beacon Hill, but I never set foot in the Hampshire House, the bar whose façade appeared in exterior shots of the TV show “Cheers.” As a resident, I walked by the Hampshire House countless times, but going inside was something only tourists did. It became a perverse point of pride that I could live a few blocks away from a celebrated spot without rubbernecking or gawking: there’s nothing to see here, folks, so move along.

Daniel Webster

This past week, we’ve had family visiting from out of state, so I’ve set aside some of this long-standing residential snobbery. Although none of our visitors wanted to see “Cheers,” we did pass the familiar exterior of the Hampshire House on a tourist trolley we took around town, and J and I finally had reason to visit various landmarks we’ve often passed without fully exploring.

Trolley fan

Before this week, for instance, I’d often passed by the Old North Church in Boston’s North End, but I’d never set foot inside…and although I spent several hungry years in grad school working a retail job at the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, I’d never before this week set foot in Faneuil Hall’s impressive Great Hall.

Great Hall

Before this week, I’d often walked along Boston Harbor, but I’d never taken a “Spirit of Boston” lunch cruise, nor had I ever tossed tea aboard one of the harbor’s replica Tea Party ships.

Action shot

And for all the times I’ve been to Concord to visit Walden Pond and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, I’d never seen the inside of the Old Manse, where Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Nature and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote Mosses from an Old Manse at a desk built by Henry David Thoreau…

Side door

…nor had I ever toured the Orchard House, where both Bronson and Louisa May Alcott lived and where Louisa May wrote Little Women.

Front facade

The greater Boston area offers an embarrassment of riches if you’re interested in history, literature, or the arts: where else, for instance, can you stroll from a house where both Emerson and Hawthorne lived (and where Thoreau dug the garden as a wedding gift to Hawthorne and his bride, Sophia Peabody) to cross the bridge where the Revolutionary “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired?

Empty bridge

As we toured Boston and Concord with our relatives this past week, J and I marveled at how much has happened in the general vicinity we call home. At times, it seems like everyone in colonial and 19th century New England knew and was influenced by one another. On the morning after Paul Revere’s famous ride, for instance, Rev. William Emerson, Senior (Ralph Waldo’s grandfather) stood in his farm fields watching the battle at the North Bridge while his young son watched the fight from the window of the Old Manse…

Rear window

…and when an unknown Concord boy named Daniel Chester French expressed a desire to become a sculptor, he received encouragement from May Alcott–Bronson Alcott’s daughter, and sister to Louisa May–and grew up to sculpt not only the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, but also the Minute Man who stands at the foot of the Old North Bridge in Concord.

Daniel Chester French's Minute Man

“People want to know what’s in the water here,” our guide at the Orchard House remarked, given how many significant historical and literary events happened in the region.

History lessons

It does seem like something magical must have happened in colonial Boston and 19th century Concord to inspire so many great historic and literary deeds…and yet modern-day Bostonians’ reluctance to check out these sites points to the way history still happens here. For as thrilling as it is to stand in the room where Emerson and Hawthorne wrote or to admire flowers in a garden Thoreau planted, at the end of the day we each have our own proverbial row to hoe. If something great happened in that house, then, why can’t something equally impressive happen in this house, today?

The title from today’s post is borrowed from a chapter of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, where she suggests that writers should scour their surroundings for noteworthy details, just as tourists voraciously see the sights. It’s a title I used for a post several years ago when J and I toured the USS Constitution, which we re-visited with family this week: what goes around comes around.

Next Page »