Sep 24, 2013
Some days the only thing that brings me to the page to write is a sheer stubborn commitment to the ideal of writing every day. I don’t come to the page with something profound to say; I come to the page because I’ve trained myself to think that “coming to the page” bears its own reward. On days like this, what I write is almost beside the point, which is good since what I write on days like this is neither interesting nor inspired. On days like this, the quality of what I write is secondary; what is primary is the simple act of showing up and putting in my time, with writing seeming like a kind of prison sentence where you get points for good behavior.
About a month ago, the simultaneous start of three separate semesters interrupted my daily writing practice, since I teach in the mornings and don’t have time to write then. Instead, during the academic year writing is something I do at odd times here and there, often when I’m likely to be tired, discouraged, or distracted by a particularly busy day. I might write during slow office hours when no students show up with questions, or during the sleepy lull between my morning and afternoon classes, or after I’ve gotten home from campus and want nothing more than to curl on the couch for a nap. On days like this, the only thing pushing me to the page is my own commitment to do it. I don’t write at the frazzled stub-ends of days because that’s when I do my best writing; I write then because that’s the only scraps of free time I have, and it’s either then or never.
I’ve learned from days like this that inspiration is optional. It’s fun to write on days when you’re surging with energy and ideas, your every thought seeming brilliant and original. But even on days when writing feels like slogging through sludge, it’s still possible to put in your time, pound out some words, and find yourself (at last) at the other end of an assortment of sentences, each word faithfully following the next. Sometimes when I go back and re-read the things I wrote at the waning ebb of inspiration, I’m surprised to discover what I wrote isn’t as bad as I’d thought. Some days, producing a perfectly serviceable piece is simply a matter of lowering your perfectionist standards, and there’s nothing like a busy schedule and inspiration-ebb to do that for you. Today’s writing has been a slow slog through afternoon sleepiness, my mind on my to-do list and my body craving caffeine. At the end of an inspiration-deprived hour, however, I still have something to show for: not anything spectacular, but something good enough.
Sep 23, 2013
Today I spent four hours in my office at Boston College meeting individually with each of my students from one of my First-Year Writing Seminars. (On Wednesday, I’ll meet with students from my other section). I once had a professor tell me that he didn’t really get to know his students’ names until he sat down with them face-to-face across a desk to discuss their writing, and there’s a lot of truth behind that statement. When you teach first-year writing, you learn a great deal about your students as you read papers describing their experiences and opinions and perspectives, and sitting down to talk with each of your students individually provides a different dynamic than interacting on paper or in a group. You get to associate a face, personality, and entire person with the words on the page, especially as you listen to each student describe what he or she is struggling with in their writing.
When I first started teaching first-year writing as a graduate Teaching Fellow at Boston College twenty years ago, I was terrified to give my first round of student conferences. Standing in front of a classroom of students felt a bit like acting or performing stand-up comedy: you could hide behind a persona, filling the class period (if necessary) with silly stories and anecdotes. But when you sit face-to-face with someone across a desk, there’s a heightened level of expectation. The knowledge that students had dragged themselves out of their dorm rooms and trudged across campus to meet with me for fifteen precious minutes—time they could have spent sleeping or studying or doing homework—made me wonder if I had anything helpful to say. I worried that my students would show up at my office expecting wisdom and guidance, only to realize I’m as clueless as the next person.
Today’s conferences felt far less fraught than the ones I held when I was an earnest young Teaching Fellow just starting out. Back then, I thought I had to have some sort of wisdom to share: if I failed to hand each student a profound, neatly packaged nugget of insight, I’d somehow failed my job. Now, however, I see student conferences differently. Not only do I have more experience working with lots of students over the years, I also have experience answering questions as a Senior Dharma Teacher at the Cambridge Zen Center. Meeting face-to-face with a first-year student to talk about a piece of writing isn’t that much different, I’ve discovered, than sitting in the Zen Center interview room answering questions from fellow meditators. In both cases, you can’t ever predict what sort of situation you’ll face when you ask the next person to come in and sit down. All you can do in that split second between one meeting and the next is take a breath and quietly promise to be present with whatever question, situation, or scenario walks through the door.
When I first started giving consulting interviews at the Zen Center, Zen Master Bon Haeng (aka Mark Houghton) gave me a priceless bit of advice I’ve thought back on every time I give consulting interviews. Zen Master Mark said the purpose of a consulting interview isn’t to answer a person’s questions but simply to share an experience. Consulting interviews aren’t about explaining Zen practice in tidy terms that tie everything up in a neat little bow: the mysteries of human suffering are too complex for that, and no teacher can ever digest your life for you. Instead of worrying about saying the right thing (or saying the thing that will amaze and impress), teachers should focus on being present with their students. It isn’t a matter of giving students the answers as if from on high: it’s about sitting alongside students while they figure things out for themselves, offering whatever gentle guidance and feedback you can while being attentive to what’s being said on the page and between the lines.
Over the course of the semester, I’ll meet with my First Year Writing students at least three more times: one conference for each of the four essays they’ll write this term. I know from experience that when you meet individually with a student for that many times in a 15-week term, you end up covering a lot of emotional as well as intellectual ground. If you’re strong enough to stay present, you’ll see a combination of breakdowns and breakthroughs, frustrations and failures. Writing is hard work, and it doesn’t always proceed in a tidy line from “good” to “better” to “best.” Sometimes it feels like you’re writing in circles, and some of the sweetest successes are the ones that took the most effort to achieve.
Sep 15, 2013
This past Wednesday was the twelfth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, so after teaching my classes at Boston College, I walked the labyrinth there. The labyrinth at BC is a memorial to 22 alumni who were killed on September 11, so someone had left a bunch of maroon and gold flowers—BC colors—on the path’s periphery before I arrived, and the handful of students sitting quietly on the lawn and benches nearby seemed particularly quiet, subdued, and respectful.
I wasn’t alone in walking the labyrinth on Wednesday. A student was walking ahead of me, slowly and meditatively, and by the time I had walked to the memorial’s center and back, a small throng had gathered to pay their respects. One of them had set down a black duffel bag tied with a red bandana, presumably a tribute to Welles Crowther, a BC grad who worked in the South Tower of the World Trade Center and became known as the “man in the red bandana” after helping a dozen people out of the building before he died trying to save more. Near the entrance of the labyrinth, someone had set several more maroon and gold bouquets, waiting to lay them by the carved names that surround the memorial’s circumference. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that one of the bouquets bore a tag that had been signed “Mom & Dad.”
When you walk a labyrinth, you trust the path ahead of you to get you there and back, resting in the belief that each footfall will find its proper place. As I walked the memorial labyrinth on Wednesday, there was a single reddened maple leaf that had fallen on one of the flagstones, a harbinger of harvests to come. There is a Zen truism that every snowflake falls in its perfect place, and perhaps this applies to autumn leaves as well. But what about fallen souls?
It’s poignantly fitting that so many lives were lost on a brilliantly beautiful September day: autumn is, after all, the season of falling, an annual reminder of impending mortality. Faith says our every footstep is guided by an unseen hand; faith reminds us that even the fall of a sparrow is heeded by the heavens. What wild and wending way led each of nearly 3,000 souls to their untimely end some twelve years ago? Were they in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were they precisely where they were (by some unspeakable mystery) intended to be?
On my way back to my car, I heard the martial cadences of a marching band. When I’d arrived on the third level of the garage where I’d parked, I had a bird’s eye view of the BC football team scrimmaging on their practice field, recorded marching music piped over a loudspeaker. It was a quintessential autumnal scene—young and athletic men reveling in their strength—and it seemed particularly poignant, like the scene in Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams whispers “Carpe diem” while his students study the black-and-white photographs of former athletes in the glass cases in the school hallway.
Welles Crowther was a lacrosse player at BC, and he was 24 when he died. I wonder how often the healthy and strong athletes who play and practice on the same green fields as he did consider their own mortality and the sobering fact that we all are, eventually, following in his footsteps?
Sep 9, 2013
One of my favorite lines from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is an epigram from Goethe: “Do not hurry; do not rest.” Whenever I find myself burdened with tasks and thus sorely tempted to hurry, I remember this quote and slow down. Hurrying, I’ve found, doesn’t help me get things done any faster; instead, hurrying only frays my nerves, causing me to make clumsy mistakes that are counterproductive. Rather than wasting an ounce of energy on hurrying, when I’m busy I make a conscious effort to slow down and be meticulous. There’s a sweet spot between hurrying and resting where you are maximally effective, without any superfluous action.
This is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way. I spent much of my 20s and 30s hissing and sputtering like a sparkler, with lots of flash and crackle, but very little targeted energy. In those days, I spent a lot of time running around looking busy, as if wringing my hands and complaining helped me get anything done. Only as I’ve grown older have I learned how to marshal my resources. When the hours are short and your to-do list is long, you can’t spare even a moment of misspent energy. Everything you do must be targeted: focused. There will be time to fret and panic later, after you’ve finished your tasks, but right now, it’s time to focus on the task at hand.
These days I teach in the mornings, and I have about two hours of chores to do before I leave. Setting my alarm for what I call Zen Center hours–that is, wake-up at 5:00 am–means going to bed earlier than I do in the summertime, and it also means doing as much as I can to prepare for a full teaching day before my head hits the pillow the night before. On a good night, I prep my classes, pack my bag, and set out my clothes the night before so that everything is ready when I wake up. Like a firefighter answering a call, I slide swiftly down the pole of the new day, ready to face the exigencies of whatever arises.
When you teach at multiple institutions, you learn very quickly how to be organized: if you don’t, you’ll end up at the wrong job on the wrong day with the wrong supplies. This year like last, I have my trusty laptop bag perpetually packed with teaching supplies, and this year, I’ve added an additional organizational element, packing a separate zippered pouch with the relevant textbook and teaching journal for each college where I teach. On any given morning–or, better yet, on any given night before–I slip the appropriate pouch into my bag, and I’m ready to go to whichever campus–this way or that–where I’m teaching at that day. As long as I remember what day of the week it is, I’ll steer my car toward the appropriate campus, and once I’m headed in the right direction, the rest of the day takes care of itself.
Goethe’s proscription against resting doesn’t mean you have to perpetually busy yourself with busywork: pausing is not the same as resting. When I clean the litter box that two of our cats, Groucho and Scooby, share in a bedroom apart from our other cats, for example, I stop after moving the box from the wall and scrubbing the floor underneath. While waiting for the floor to dry, I sit with either a book or my iPod, quietly reading or checking email while either or both cats curl around me, pestering for petting. Stroking a cat isn’t mindless diversion but an intentional pursuit, your attention keenly focused on the creature rather than the task at hand. Just as walking meditation isn’t break from meditation, only a break from sitting, pausing to pat a pet is no less important than the chores that precede and follow.
That epigram from Goethe nicely dovetails with another quote Dillard includes in The Writing Life, this one credited to Michelangelo, who allegedly scrawled it on a scrap of paper found in his studio: “Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.” No matter who you are or where you live, the days are short, with not a moment to spare. There never has been enough time, and nobody’s days are getting any longer. Given the sobering shortness of our days, why would we waste even a minute either hurrying or resting when we could instead focus on the task at hand?
Sep 8, 2013
I recently finished reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Murakami is a novelist who is also a distance runner, and I adored the New Yorker essay he wrote in the weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings. I’m familiar with the Boston Marathon as a spectator, not a runner, so it was fascinating to read Murakami’s memoir of running marathons in Boston, New York, Athens, and Hawaii, as well as his training regime and day-to-day running practice.
I’m not a long-distance runner, or a runner of any distance. Instead, I’m a pudgy middle-aged woman with asthma who walks a lot but can’t run: a thoroughgoing pedestrian. But what Murakami talks about when he talks about running isn’t just running: he talks instead about endurance, perseverance, and downright stubbornness, the refusal to give up when one’s entire body is screaming STOP. Murakami could be talking about running or open-water swimming or mountain-climbing or sitting cross-legged on a Zen retreat: any endeavor that pushes you far beyond a place of comfort, where your own desire to continue to the finish is the only thing keeping you from stopping.
At a retreat of first-year writing instructors at Framingham State last month, one of my colleagues used the word “endurance” to describe one of the intellectual skills we want to instill in our students. We weren’t talking about anything as physically taxing as running a marathon; instead, we were talking about reading. Unpracticed readers falter or give up when they face a text that is long or challenging; they let the reading outlast them, like a long road. What both academics and athletes know is that you can’t give up when the way gets long or difficult. Continuing through the discouragement, discomfort, and doubt is what you train yourself to do. When you think about running and intellectual work this way, they end up having a lot in common. What’s important in each case is the endurance you cultivate. It almost doesn’t matter what you do as long as it takes you to a place of will-breaking discomfort, and you continue doing it anyway.
Murakami compares marathon running to novel-writing: two seemingly impossible tasks that many people dream of doing, and that you actually accomplish through sheer perseverance, letting one footstep or word follow the next. Both marathons and novels are finished through a long haul. Anyone can start to run a marathon or write a novel, but finishing is the true challenge. Murakami suggests that marathon-running is essentially a mental rather than physical endeavor, a paradoxical claim since the whole of your existence while running is reduced to purely physical concerns: the thirst in your throat, the pain in your shins, the sweat on your back, or the cramps in your legs.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running corroborates my suspicion that when you’re running, great existential concerns are subsumed by purely physical ones. Ironically, though, when you’re running, it is the mind that ultimately determines whether the body will continue. Murakami’s memoir reminded me of a passage in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where the narrator describes his inability to climb a holy mountain in India while older, pudgier, and more reverent pilgrims successfully attain the summit. The pilgrims who succeeded didn’t climb the mountain through sheer force of strength but through reverent submission to the suffering the climb caused. Their bodies might have been weak, but their spirit was strong, with every step being a kind of sacrifice.
Today was the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk, an annual fundraiser to raise money for cancer research. The walk follows the route of the Boston Marathon, and many folks who would never claim to be distance runners or even athletes nevertheless commit to walk the entire way from Hopkinton to Boston in order to raise money for a good cause. Reading Murakami’s account of running marathons, triathlons, and even an ultramarathon confirms that I don’t have the soul, will, or knees of a distance runner…but walking long distances, reading long texts, and writing, writing, writing seems attainable. The end of Murakami’s memoir came quickly and comfortably: you don’t have to have endless endurance to read his book. If I ever commit to walk a marathon—something I’d like to do, someday—I’ll keep Murakami and his insights in mind, from beginning to end.
Today’s photos come from this year’s Boston Marathon, before heartbreak happened.