January 2015


Back porch snow

Yesterday, in the aftermath of this week’s blizzard, I took a photograph of the earthenware jug sitting on our back porch. I’ve had this jug since I lived in Toledo, Ohio as a fresh college graduate. I bought it as a gift for my ex-husband before we were married in 1991, and it somehow survived all the moves and downsizings of an almost-thirteen-year marriage: from an apartment in Toledo to apartments in Malden and Beacon Hill, Massachusetts; from a room at the Cambridge Zen Center to a rented house in Randolph; and from a house in Hillsboro, New Hampshire to an apartment in Keene.

Morning light

Through all those moves with my ex-husband, we always kept the jug despite all the other things we jettisoned: unused wedding gifts, countless books and CDs, and almost an entire houseful of furniture. Through all these moves, we kept the jug—or, more accurately, I kept the jug, since I was invariably the one packing housewares, and I liked it. It’s a sturdy thing that doesn’t take up much space, and I would pack other, more fragile things inside it, wrapping the whole thing in a towel and wedging it in a box with our pots and pans.

This jug has never had a practical use in any home I’ve brought it to: I’ve never used it to hold milk, water, or comestibles of any kind. Instead, it’s a purely decorative thing, a container for dried flowers that always added a sense of settled décor—a homey touch—to any apartment or house I’ve displayed it in. I got to keep the jug in my divorce, as it was one of the things C left behind when he moved out, thereby underscoring a point I guess I already knew: the jug I’d bought for him was really mine all along. When I remarried and moved back to Massachusetts from New Hampshire, the jug necessarily came with me, an artifact from my past holding so many hopes and heartaches.

Fence with snowblower snow

I sometimes wonder about the maker of this jug, someone who formed it back in Ohio some twenty years ago. Could they have known when they held the wet clay in their hands how far this jug would travel once it was thrown and fired, or how many heartaches it would hold? When I bought this jug in a now-forgotten shop in Toledo, Ohio, could I have imagined how far I’d wander with it or how my journey would differ from what I’d originally envisioned? I bought this jug, after all, for a soul-mate I’ve since severed, and I ended up with it in the end: a jug I always liked, and one I ultimately bought for myself. Twenty-some years ago, I was still pliable clay, messy and malleable, but now I’ve hardened and settled into a place and shape I would have never predicted.

Snow on screened porch

The jug lives outside now, on our screened back porch, safe from the cats who knock over any tchotchkes we display inside. It still holds dried flowers and is mostly sheltered from the elements, except for occasional windblown rain or snow. This jug has proven to be a sturdy thing, withstanding a handful of moves between three states while witnessing countless life changes. Along the way, it’s become precious to me as only an ordinary object can: a simple piece of pottery that holds so much of my history. When the weather is mild, I sit beside it when I read or work outside, and year-round, I see it when I stop on the porch to put on or take off my shoes, which is several times a day. I don’t always notice the jug—it is, after all, an ordinary thing I’ve lived with my entire adult life—but when I do, I’m always glad to have a humble reminder of where I’ve been, from Ohio to Massachusetts to New Hampshire and back to Massachusetts again. This humble little jug has been with me, unassuming, through so many changes and upheavals, and it’s never cracked or broken. I wish I could say the same about myself.

Snowy patio furniture

I take some version of this same picture every few years, after every major snowfall. In 2013, Nemo dumped 24 inches of snow on our backyard, and I posted a photo of our buried patio furniture. I shot today’s version this afternoon, while the snow was still falling, and when J took a preliminary pass snow-blowing our driveway, we’d gotten 18 inches, and Juno still isn’t done with us yet.

Front door view

I think I take these same shots over and over because every year, the transformation between “before” and “after” a major snowstorm is so arresting. When you look at a snow-filled yard, it’s difficult to tell how deep it is…but when you see one to two feet of snow on top of a table, you get a sense of how heavy a load everyone’s digging out from.

At a certain level, it’s difficult to envision 18, 24, or even more inches of snow: after the snow tops your boots, another inch or so doesn’t make that much difference. So while J has an official snow stick he uses to measure our backyard snow, I tend toward more comparative measurements: is the snow ankle-, calf-, or even beagle-deep?

Bring me inside now, please

That’s Melony the beagle in our backyard dog pen, which is all the further any of us ventured today. J cleared a path to and from the pen, and I shoveled a space inside for Melony and Cassie, our white German shepherd, to “do their business.” This photo shows Melony giving me her most plaintive “I’m done, please take me inside now” look.

Memorial Drive near MIT

We’ve had a relatively snow-free winter so far this season, but on Saturday we had a weekend nor’easter that dumped about five inches of snow on the Boston suburbs before changing to rain. I had a meeting at MIT on Saturday morning, so I took the T into Boston, then I walked over the Mass Ave bridge to Cambridge. Usually, there are plenty of pedestrians crossing the Charles River, but on Saturday morning it was just me, a few intrepid cyclists, and a handful of Lycra-clad runners muddling through the unshoveled snow. The mid-river view of the MIT skyline veiled in snow and fog was worth the walk.

MIT from Mass Ave bridge

At my meeting, most folks from the outlying suburbs–people who would have had to dig out their cars to drive into Boston–had stayed home, leaving those of us who could get to MIT by T, foot, or both. On the T ride to and from Boston, I noticed the wide range of winter footwear: rubber rainboots, leather hiking boots, quilted nylon boots with fur or flannel linings, and steel-toed work boots. The people riding the T on a snowy Saturday seemed to realize their own two feet are their most dependable all-terrain vehicle and dressed accordingly.

MIT snowman

After a relatively snow-free winter, we’re now hunkered down for a blizzard that could bring one to two feet of snow. It looks like the enterprising undergrads at MIT will be well-equipped to engineer more and bigger snowmen.

Looming

On a recent foggy-day visit to the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, I took a detour through the drizzle and slush to revisit Steven Siegel’s “Big, with rift,” an installation J and I had seen (and I had blogged) back in November, 2013.

Towering

When I’d first seen it, “Big, with rift” seemed perfectly suited to its surroundings, its towering stacks of decaying newspapers standing alongside windblown piles of autumn leaves. On a brisk November day, “Big, with rift” seemed both crisp and earthy, its mass serving as a kind of compost to the plants taking root in its upper layers: paper returned to the elements.

On a gray and drizzly January day, however, the dripping stacks of “Big, with rift” seem almost lonely: a sad, soggy assemblage of heaping trash. There is a kind of dignity in the careful piling up of accomplishments, but there is also something sorry in such hoarding. If newspapers represent the constant influx of new knowledge, it’s senseless to cling to ideas that have outlasted their relevance. There is nothing more useless, after all, than yesterday’s news.

Drooping

In my original post, I noted that newspaper columns are a kind of structure, “a pile of words we build as a kind of warren, a burrow of beliefs we retreat to, entrenched.” In November, retreating to a burrow sounded cozy; in January, what once was comforting suddenly seems confining. What could be sadder than standing in a slushy woods with nothing more than wet words to keep oneself company? Looking at the dripping pillars of “Big, with rift,” I fought a nonsensical impulse to throw a blanket over the work, or at least to light a fire.

Strata

The exhibit I’d gone to the DeCordova to see several weekends ago was “Walden Revisited,” a collection of pieces inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s stint at Walden Pond. I suppose there were dark, drizzly days when living in a shack alongside a pond might have felt like cold comfort to Thoreau, and countless more readers have clung to his words than he probably ever envisioned. But Thoreau, I tell myself, wasn’t a hoarder of ideas, his mental cellar being clear of such clutter. Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for only two years; it was subsequent generations, not Thoreau himself, who tried to deify his image into that of a life-long hermit rather than a wanderer who tried one way of living and then moved on.

Compressed

When I first saw “Big, with rift” in November, 2013, I felt bad that it would eventually decay into nothingness; in retrospect, I think there are far worse fates than simply fading away. Left on their own for long, stacks of paper will compress and solidify, their sentiments becoming sedimentary. Instead of being piled higher and deeper, wouldn’t any active and vibrant mind prefer to clean house, jettisoning any junk that has outlived its usefulness?

Come spring, I trust “Big, with rift” will be reborn, wildflowers sprouting from its upper layers like hair. In the meantime, though, I think this slush-sopped stack sends a cautionary tale. Before you cling to your own or anyone else’s ideas, remember that words are too heavy to hoard.

We out here though

This morning I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center, and as always there was a pot of hot tea waiting for me when I went into the interview room to begin. Sunday mornings when I give interviews are hectic: I have to get up early enough to do my morning chores before I leave, so by the time I arrive at the Zen Center, I’ve already taken the beagle out and in, loaded the dishwasher, cleaned the kitchen litter box, and fed the cats. It feels good, in other words, to sit down to a hot pot of tea someone else prepared: a chance to play guest.

After the laughter

I usually take about three sips of tea before I ring the bell for the first interview. While everyone gets settled on their cushions in the main meditation room, I get settled on my cushion in the interview room, making sure I have everything I need close at hand: a clock so I can keep an eye on the time, and a box of tissues I can offer to anyone who comes in with a heavy heart. (Sometimes I think the most important job a senior Dharma teacher can do in consulting interviews is listen without judgement while calmly doling out tissues.) Once I’ve determined everything is in place, I pour a cup of tea and take approximately three sips, breathing in the tea’s aroma, feeling the heat of the cup in my hands, and savoring the warm flavor on my tongue. The Zen Center is a ritual-rich place, and these three sips of tea have taken on an almost magical meaning for me. Before I can ring the bell that says “I’m ready to listen to whatever question or issue you want to talk about,” I have to make myself present to a simple cup of tea.

Rest in paint

A lot of profound, powerful, and deeply humorous things happen in the interview room: all that consulting interviews are, after all, is a chance for two practitioners to sit down and talk face-to-face behind a closed door. But sometimes I feel like the most powerful moment for me personally is the moment or two before I ring the bell, when it’s just me holding a cup of tea in my hands, wondering what sort of questions will walk through the door.

Je suis XXVI

Before I set my teacup down and ring the bell for the first interview, I spend a moment looking at the drawing of Kwan Seum Bosal, the bodhisattva of compassion, that hangs above the interview room mantel. In the guise of an eleven-headed goddess with a thousand hands and eyes, Kwan Seum Bosal looks like a harried mother with heads instead of eyes in the back of her head: ever watchful, and ever ready to lend a hand (or a tissue) when someone is suffering. Before I set my teacup down and ring the bell for the first interview, I silently invoke the spirit of Kwan Seum Bosal, whom I recognize as a representation of the compassion we all possess. Once I ring the bell for the first interview, I have no way of knowing what flavor of suffering will walk through the door. All I can hope for is that like Kwan Seum Bosal, I’ll find a way to be present in the face of whatever arises.

Degas' Little Dancer

Last night I shared on Facebook a link to an article about famous writers and their journals. The article begins with a quote from Madeleine L’Engle, who tells aspiring writers “if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you.” Now that we live in an age where it’s incredibly easy to publish one’s thoughts for all to see, L’Engle’s advice seems outdated and even quaint. What is the value of writing solely for oneself in an era when everyone can have an immediate online audience?

Noh masks

As a writer who keeps both a public blog and a private journal, I feel particularly qualified to comment on this. In many ways, my blog and journal repeat one another: I often blog essays that started as journal entries, revising and expanding upon an idea that arose in my morning scribbles. Occasionally, I’ll write in my journal about something I already blogged, either because a reader’s comment led me to think more deeply about the matter or because my published post didn’t feel “done.” But even though my public blog and my private journal often overlap, I don’t see either as being redundant: instead, they each have an important place in my writing practice, and they each offer their own unique benefits.

Hollywood glamor

Keeping a public blog forces you to consider issues of audience, especially if you blog under your full name. Using your name on your blog means you necessarily have to stand behind anything you post, and you have to be comfortable with the possibility of anyone reading what you write: friends, family, coworkers, strangers, and casual acquaintances alike. This forces you to make conscious decisions about what you will and won’t share to protect your own and others’ privacy. Some would decry this as a form of self-censorship, but I don’t think such limitations are always a bad thing. Professional writers have always made decisions about self-disclosure, deciding how and how much they should include personal details in their writing. In my mind, this kind of discipline is a good thing, as it forces you to express yourself in a careful and deliberate way rather than just spewing your raw thoughts without any thought about consequences.

Protest dress

This isn’t to say, however, that raw thoughts don’t have their place: that’s what both journals and first drafts are for. If my public blog is where I publish and stand behind the work that bears my name, my private journal is where I can go nameless. Nobody reads my morning scribbles, so I don’t have to protect my own or others’ privacy, and I don’t have to worry about making sense. In my private journal I can blather on about whatever inane thoughts happen to be rattling around my head without the need to pretty them up for publication. To mix metaphors, if my blog is where I put my best foot forward, my journal is where I let my hair down.

Degas' Little Dancer

In my mind, the point of keeping a private journal isn’t to write something that is useful, even though I do sometimes use the things I write there. Instead, my journal is a place where I can practice the art of thinking on paper without worrying about those thoughts. When you don’t have an audience, you don’t have to stay on topic, and you don’t have to make sense: you can, in a word, contradict yourself, exhibit faulty logic, say stupid things, and admit all kinds of foibles and hypocrisies. Your journal will never judge you for what you say: your journal, in fact, is simply a mirror of your own mind, reflecting your thoughts without comment or condemnation.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

When you establish the habit of writing without an audience, you become intimately acquainted with your own mind, seeing the ways you repeat yourself day after day. Over time, you become increasingly familiar with your mind-habits as they unspool in sentences across the page. Even if you never revise or recycle any of this material, you still derive a benefit from producing it. Whereas talking comes naturally, writing is necessarily a second language, and a journal gives writers a place to babble like toddlers, establishing a near-native fluency as we train ourselves to think on paper.

Ready for his closeup

Back in November, when J and I walked around downtown Boston on Thanksgiving Day, we photographed a bronze statue of Edgar Allan Poe that had been unveiled in October. Before seeing the statue in person, I’d seen photographs of it, so you might say its reputation preceded it. But before I judged the merits of Poe’s new statue, I wanted to see it face-to-face.

Taking it all in stride

Now that I’ve personally seen the statue, which is titled “Poe Returning to Boston,” I can say with confidence that it is simply dreadful. I like Edgar Allan Poe, and I hate this statue, mainly because it immortalizes in bronze all the stereotypes Poe spent his life fighting against. Poe wanted desperately to support himself and his family as a respectable literary man, writing serious literary criticism and whatever poems and short stories would pay the bills. Because some of Poe’s popular work was indeed popular, appealing to the Gothic and sensational tastes of the 19th century reading public, serious-minded writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow rejected Poe, pegging him as a sensationalistic hack.

Keep off

“Poe Returning to Boston” both reflects and codifies this derision, portraying Poe not as a serious intellectual but as a madman rushing around town with wild hair, a vampirish cloak, a pterodactyl-sized raven, and an anatomically accurate heart dropping out of his suitcase. The statue isn’t a portrait as much as a caricature that appeals to popular misconceptions about a much-misunderstood man.

Poe profile

Poe might have been a rootless wanderer who never attained during his lifetime the level of literary respectability he aspired to, but that doesn’t mean he was a fiendish freak who rushed down sidewalks with body parts in his bag. The symbols in popular works such as “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” are just that–symbols–so portraying them alongside Poe seems overly literal-minded. Should we immortalize Stephen King alongside life-size renditions of Cujo or Christine even though those reflect only one part of his oeuvre?

A tell-tale heart

Looking at “Poe Returning to Boston,” you’d never know there’s more to Poe than his scary stories. In addition to writing literary criticism, poetry, and an adventure novel, Poe invented the detective story. Most folks see Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as being a respectable chap, but he borrowed the idea of Sherlock Holmes from Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. Why is this less lurid aspect of Poe’s career overlooked in favor of his Gothic tales? If the literal-minded among us insist on associating Poe with ravens and beating hearts, why not also associate him with detectives and magnifying glasses?

Raven's head

Emerson famously dismissed Poe as being a mere jingle-writer, but there’s really only one thing distinguishing Poe from both Emerson and Longfellow: the latter had money and thus didn’t need to live off their writing. Emerson was born to a well-bred family of ministers–the New England elite–while Longfellow was the son of a lawyer. Both Emerson and Longfellow married well, with Emerson receiving a cash annuity after his first wife died and Longfellow receiving as a wedding present from his in-laws the house that now bears his name.

Ragin' raven

Poe, on the other hand, was the orphaned child of Irish actors: in the 19th century, a much-maligned and oft-impoverished lot. Poe wanted to be accepted and embraced by other members of the Boston literati, but he couldn’t afford to limit himself to high-brow literature. Like Mark Twain after him, Edgar Allan Poe was a writer of diverse talents who wrote whatever would sell. This doesn’t make him a sell-out; it just means that he (unlike Emerson and Longfellow) had to spend at least part of his time catering to popular tastes. 

Turning his back on Boston

Most passersby who see “Poe Returning to Boston” know very little about the man and his work: instead, popular culture contents itself with cliches and caricatures. According to the popular belief, Poe was a disturbed man who wrote disturbing stories. But doesn’t the popularity of Poe’s Gothic tales tell us more about his audience than it does about his own personal proclivities? Poe’s most successful (and well-remembered) works are the ones that gave his audience what they wanted, which was thrills, chills, and the ability to wash their hands of such sensationalism when they were done. Don’t we still blame the media for producing the violence-drenched entertainment we gladly, greedily, and guiltily consume? If there’s anything that Poe’s tell-tale heart reveals, it’s the darker side of his audience’s psyche, not his own.

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