Apr 30, 2016
This coming week is the last week of classes, and I’ve been buried in student essay drafts. My first-year writing students have been writing essay drafts all semester, and I need to comment on those drafts before my students revise them for inclusion in their final portfolios. My students are always shocked to see in retrospect how much they’ve written over the course of the semester: when you write one paper (and one page) at a time, it’s easy to lose track of how many words you’ve produced.
A college semester is a marathon, not a sprint. The only way to write a college essay is word by word, and that’s also the only way to read and comment on student essay drafts. For most of the semester, I drag my feet and do anything in my power to avoid my paper-piles, but during the last few weeks of the term, I turn into a paper-reading machine. Every year, I wonder why I assign so much writing; every year, I wonder why I went into English, a field where assigning and reading student papers is unavoidable. Whereas my students are shocked to realize how much writing they’ve done, the cumulative weight of their words comes as no surprise to me. The marathon that is a college semester is a course I’ve run many times before.
Click here for my complete photo set from this year’s Boston Marathon. Enjoy!
Apr 16, 2016
This morning on my way to meet friends in Harvard Square, I stopped at Copley Square to visit the Boston Marathon finish line. Yesterday was One Boston Day–the anniversary of the 2013 Marathon bombing–and on Monday, I’ll watch this year’s race here in Newton, cheering the runners before they face Heartbreak Hill. Today, I wanted to visit the two spots on Boylston Street where three people died and hundreds were injured: a chance to pay my respects at a place simultaneously festive and somber.
There is no permanent memorial commemorating the Marathon bombing; instead, impromptu offerings of flowers, handwritten notes, and homemade crosses mark the two spots where pressure cooker bombs turned a festive event into a scene of mayhem. If you didn’t know that lives and limbs were lost in front of Marathon Sports and the former Forum Restaurant, you’d notice nothing remarkable about these two stretches of sidewalk. But if you know the hidden history of these sites, you recognize them as invisible portals between the Here and the Hereafter: two otherwise ordinary places where souls prematurely crossed to the other side.
Today when I arrived on Boylston Street, a 5K race had just finished, and throngs of people were watching an awards ceremony for the winners. Boylston Street was closed to vehicular traffic, and tourists posed for pictures at the finish line: a festive scene. This is the disconnect that will forever mark the Boston Marathon finish line: a site of both triumph and tragedy, the sidewalk here holds a hidden history of heartbreak.
Apr 12, 2016
After years of working and writing wherever my laptop might take me, I recently got myself a proper desk. I’ve had various desks and workspaces over the years, many of them makeshift, crowded, or otherwise less than ideal, but this is the first time I purchased a solid piece furniture for myself.
It’s funny I’ve waited so long to carve out a workspace in the house J and I share, as I’ve always been strongly influenced by my work environment. I’m something of a nester and like the feeling of having My Own Place to do my thing, whether that’s writing, reading, or tackling teaching tasks. Suddenly the simple act of adding a desk to one corner of our bedroom has consecrated that space, and I find myself wanting to sit at this pleasant place that is officially dedicated to my academic and creative work.
As an inveterate piler, I have made a conscious effort not to turn my desk into another surface for stockpiling odds and ends. Instead, I’ve come to see my desk as a kind of intellectual altar, a place where I streamline my attention by allowing in view only those things I want to focus on.
On my desk are a short stack of library books, a mug with pens, a desk calendar, a soapstone Buddha, and a bird paperweight, each of which reminds me of the things I like to do. Overseeing this is a whimsical portrait of Henry David Thoreau I commissioned Bren Bataclan to paint: a visual reminder of an intellectual idol that reminds me to be simultaneously serious and playful, filled with the active engagement of a curious child.
So now when I sit down with a cup of tea and either my laptop or notebook, I have a clean, uncluttered space to contemplate: a place where I can spread out my books, papers, or whatever else I’m working on. Just as a Dharma room Buddha is a visual representation of the calm, compassionate focus we’d like to attain, my desk is a tangible reminder of the priorities and practices I’d like to cultivate.
Apr 3, 2016
We’re at the point of the semester when I have little time to write: right now my paper-piles loom large, and there are emails to answer and classes to prep. My colleagues are similarly stressed–the typical college semester is emotionally grueling for both faculty and students alike–and while I know I’ll catch up with my grading and other teaching tasks eventually, I lament every moment of lost writing time.
During busy times when I don’t have much time to write, I grow anxious and unsettled, fretting like a dog separated from her pups. Writing isn’t simply a job or pastime for me: it’s how I process my inner world. When I’m not writing, I’m not taking time to make sense of my life: writing even more than meditation is the keel that keeps me upright and centered.
These days when I do find time to show up at my notebook, I come to the page feeling scattered and disjointed: uninspired. After even a few days away from my journal, I’m rusty when I return, having forgotten the route a feeble, circuitous thought takes from brain to hand then onto the page.
What works, I know, is to write everyday. When I’m writing regularly, my thoughts flow automatically onto the page, my writing hand serving like an extension of my brain and my pen another finger. When I’m writing regularly, filling pages is no problem, even when I think I don’t have anything to say. When I sit and place pen to paper, the words simply appear: the secret to writing, I’ve discovered, is simply to be there with pen in hand, ready for whatever appears.
There’s an old Zen story about a young orphan living in a lonely monastery. An old monk tells the boy that if he sits in front of a certain shoji screen, an ox will eventually appear. The initial admonition to wait for the ox is a trick to keep an antsy boy occupied, like telling a child to sprinkle salt on a bird’s tail. But after the boy sits a long and faithful vigil, an ox does indeed arrive, leaping through the screen and astonishing both the boy and elderly monk alike.
Writing journal pages is a bit like sitting in front of a shoji screen, waiting. For months on end, you see nothing inspiring; instead, you face an expanse of blank paper that seems as impenetrable as any brick wall. But one day when you’ve nearly given up all hope, the ox of inspiration charges through the paper and carries you away, amazed. You never know in advance when this moment will come, and this is why you spend many lonely hours with eyes open and pen in hand, waiting for the words appear.