Jun 26, 2016
Some days I rail against the page, reluctant to come to it: antsy. There is no clear reason; I just balk like a spooked and skittish horse.
Some days the words flow freely. I sit down with a thought in mind, and that thought leads to another and another like a parade of circus elephants, each attached to the next, trunk to tail.
Some days each word emerges slowly and with difficulty, like a foot pulled from sludge. Some days each line is a hard-fought battle, the end of the page an impossible destination.
Some days I have something to say; some days nothing. Some days I have something to say but the words won’t come, or they come slowly and with painful effort, each one creeping on crippled feet.
Some days I come to the page empty and exhausted, without a thought in my head, and the words nevertheless appear.
Some days I write as if I understood this thing called writing, my lines fluid and fluent, flowing. And other days I write as if I know nothing at all, following nothing but the sound of my pen scratching the page.
This is what appeared when I wrote this morning’s journal pages. I guess today is one of those days.
Jun 15, 2016
This past Saturday, J and I watched this year’s Pride parade in downtown Boston; early on Sunday morning, a gunman went on a shooting rampage at a gay nightclub in Orlando. These two events are unrelated, but I will always associate them because of an accident of chronology. First, there was a Saturday afternoon filled with rainbow flags, warm hugs, and lots of smiling people shouting “Happy Pride”; next, there was a Sunday morning filled with violence, bloodshed, and the heartbreak caused by one man’s hateful heart.
I’ve spent the last few days going through the pictures I took at Saturday’s parade, and I am tempted to caption all of them “Before Orlando.” Going back through the happy pictures of Saturday’s parade felt a lot like going through the pictures I’d taken at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Those pictures show the celebratory scene out in the suburbs before the front-runners crossed the finish line, before lives and limbs were lost and Boylston Street became a crime scene. In April 2013, I struggled to make sense of the contradiction: how could a happy, inclusive event suddenly become the site of carnage and hatred, and how could we ever celebrate a happy Marathon Monday again?
In the aftermath of tragedy, people talk of returning to a “new normal.” By an accident of geography, Boston’s Pride parade starts at Copley Square, half a block from the Marathon bombing site and right on the spot where a huge and heart-felt memorial arose after the attack. Part of the “new normal” in Boston is the simple fact that J and I think of the bombing every time we stroll down Boylston Street or visit Copley Square. On Saturday, as floats, marchers, and squads of rainbow-decked motorcycles staged on Boylston Street before the start of the parade, J and I observed a gathering of Boston Police officers and a couple of bomb-sniffing dogs: just another day in the age of terrorism.
As a straight woman, I take a lot of things for granted. I don’t think twice when I mention my husband to friends and colleagues, I’m not afraid to walk down the street holding J’s hand, and I don’t worry if co-workers see family photos on my laptop or tablet. As a straight woman, in other words, I can simply be myself in public without worrying that someone might condemn or try to hurt me because of my lifestyle.
Two years ago, J and I marched as LGBT allies in the Pride parade, and there are a couple things I remember from that day. First, I remember a photo J snapped of two young men in band uniforms walking hand-in-hand as they marched down Boylston Street toward the Marathon finish line: a blatant “screw you” to the bombers who tried to kill freedom there. Second, I remember the happy and even grateful looks on spectators’ faces as the parade moved like a loud, rainbow-colored caterpillar through the Back Bay, South End, and Beacon Hill toward City Hall.
But most of all, I remember one of the other marchers we met that day. Ryan was a 15-year-old high school student who had recently come out to his family and friends. I will never forget the look of amazed delight on Ryan’s face as he looked around and saw crowds of joyful, self-assured LGBT folks being themselves in public. It was the look of a proverbial “ugly duckling” realizing the world is full of swans.
Straight folks take a lot of things for granted, like the freedom to love and be loved. Two years ago, the look on one gay high-school student’s face reminded me that the freedom to be yourself in public isn’t guaranteed. Places like Pulse and events like Pride are essential because they provide sanctuary from a hateful world. I wish everyone knew how wonderful it is to live in a world full of swans.
Jun 8, 2016
In yesterday’s mail I received the UK edition of Alexander Masters’ A Life Discarded, which I’d ordered online after Steve had mentioned the book on his blog. Masters wrote A Life Discarded after friends gave him a stack of 148 diaries they’d found in a trash bin, and the book recounts his attempt to reconstruct the life of the person who wrote and then discarded the volumes.
Keeping a journal is an immensely personal endeavor, but it is also an inherently egotistical one. You have to be a little bit crazy to think your life is worthy of a faithful day-to-day record. Even if you don’t plan on inflicting your thoughts on an unsuspecting public, as bloggers regularly do, when you set pen to page you make an implicit assumption that your thoughts–your mundane life and the things you believed and felt during that life–are worth jotting down for future reference.
There is, in other words, a hint of egomania in journal-keeping–a step or two beyond merely talking to oneself. And there is a complementary kind of craziness in the urge to read someone else’s journals: the friends of Masters who retrieve the notebooks are more than a little nuts in their belief that a life recorded and then discarded is worth diving into a dumpster to examine.
I’ve read only the first few pages of Masters’ book, but I’m already sucked and suckered into the mystery. What kind of person faithfully records the mental minutia of their life only to toss that record into the trash? This impulse to record–to scribble down inane thoughts into notebooks that are then carefully numbered and shelved–is obviously one I share, which is why I was eager to buy a UK edition of Masters book, which doesn’t come out here in the States until October. There is something both crazy and compulsive about journal-keeping: it’s an obsession that is but steps away from collecting old newspapers and stockpiling empty tin cans. (Surely it is no accident that the name of my blog contains the word “hoard.”)
But one person’s insanity is another’s art, and I am grateful that the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Merton, and May Sarton all decided to trust their thoughts as well as their days to the page. When great men and women keep diaries, it is the stuff of history, but when the rest of us do it, there is a hint of pathology: egotism, error, or worse.
Part of what attracts me to the story behind Masters’ book are the layers of obsessive behavior it describes. A nameless woman is obsessive enough to chronicle five decades of her life, strangers are obsessive enough to retrieve her diaries out of the trash, and Masters is obsessive enough to read, research, and write a book about the whole story: obsession stacked upon obsession.
If a stranger were to happen upon the shelves of filled Moleskine notebooks I have dating from 2002 to the present, what would they discover about me? They’d learn my mind often falls into the same predictable ruts, with page after page recounting mundane chores and errands, the litany of an ordinary life. They’d see moments of observational brilliance interspersed with whines about the weather and a catalogue of aches and pains. They’d find, in other words, the kind of stuff pretty much any of us have rattling around in our heads: hopes and disappointments, resolutions and regrets, faults and failures. They’d find nothing at all remarkable, just random bits that are noteworthy only because they are captured and contained.
A journal is like a fossil, preserving one creature at a single moment in time. Pressed between the pages of a journal, you’ll find the faded flowers of someone else’s life, preserved. The journals tossed into a dumpster in Cambridge, England were discarded and then saved, the life they chronicle frozen into prose like a fly in amber.
The first and third photos illustrating today’s post show yesterday’s journal pages, where I wrote a first draft of this post. The second photo shows part of the shelf where I keep my filled Moleskine notebooks.
Jun 2, 2016
Tonight I’m scheduled to teach the weekly “intro to meditation” class at the Cambridge Zen Center, and as always I feel unqualified. What do I know about meditation that a person couldn’t learn from a book, video, or their own experience?
People come to the Thursday night intro class expecting profundity. Zen carries an aura of mystique, and this leads people to think that sitting in meditation must be essentially different and more profound than, say, waiting for the bus. So when I pull back the curtain and reveal that meditation is nothing more and nothing less than watching your breath go in and out, the disappointment is palpable. Why so much fuss, so much hype, so much pomp, and so much attention to candles and incense for something that isn’t essentially different from something you’ve done without thinking since you were born?
Breathing is boring–nothing special–at least when it happens freely: most of us don’t notice our breathing unless it’s somehow troubled or impeded, like when we have a cold or are breathless from exercise. All meditation does is ask us to pay conscious attention to the most mundane, ordinary, taken-for-granted thing–our own breath–and notice how amazingly difficult it is to accomplish even this most simple of tasks.
That is what makes meditation magic. Breathing itself is entirely ordinary: if you’re alive, you do it automatically. But the second you try to pay attention to your breathing, you realize how out-of-shape your Paying-Attention muscle is. Your heart and lungs are powerhouses, automatically doing their jobs nonstop without any conscious input from you. But your brain, on the other hand, is a far less focused entity. When you ask your brain to focus on just one thing, it has an incredibly difficult time, choosing instead to flit from thing to thing. When you start trying to train your mind to focus on one thing, you realize how scattered and all-over-the-place your mind usually is, wandering off in every direction except Here and Now.
I sometimes compare sitting in meditation to the process of teaching a puppy to stay. Our minds are like inquisitive puppies: they like to wander off and stick their noses in everyone else’s business. Telling our brain to focus on This Breath is like asking a puppy to sit still: it’s a war of wiggles. When you train your mind to Sit and Stay, you must do so calmly and patiently, with an abundance of love and gentleness. It’s not about yanking, smacking, or even scolding your mind-pup; it’s about gently steering it back, back, back to the Here and Now.
That is all that happens in meditation: your mind wanders, and you call it back. You do this over and over, more times than you can count: every time your mind thinks something other than the mantra you silently intone with each inhalation and exhalation, you calmly steer it back.
This kind of sitting and paying attention to your breath is nothing special, and it is very much like the kind of sitting you do when you’re waiting for the bus…assuming, of course, you aren’t checking your phone, reading a book, listening to music, or flipping mentally through your day’s to-do list while waiting for the bus. When you think about it, actually, very few of us truly wait for the bus while our bodies are physically present at the bus stop; instead, we’ve become incredibly adept at doing all sorts of other things while we wait.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this sort of multitasking, but too much of it alienates us from our own lives. Unaccustomed to being Where We Are When We Are, we find our minds wandering off when we want them to pay attention. This is how it happens that as our children grow, our elders die, and our lives pass by in a flash, we ultimately find ourselves on our deathbeds, wondering where it all went. “It” didn’t go anywhere; instead, “it” all happened right here under our noses while our minds were otherwise occupied.
The photos illustrating today’s post come from last year’s Katsushika Hokusai exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, which I viewed last summer.
Jun 1, 2016
There is only the solitary self facing the page.
–Dani Shapiro, Still Writing
I’m reading a ragtag assortment of books at the moment: this seems to be how my brain works. If I were a naturally disciplined, focused person, I’d read one book at a time, and those books would be on the same or at least similar topics, one logically following the next.
But instead, I’m an omnivorous reader set loose in a banquet world. I read books I’ve browsed on library shelves, books I’ve heard reviewed (or even briefly mentioned) on the radio, or books quoted in other books. If in passing conversation I hear someone mention a book that might be interesting, I’ll add it to my to-read list and request it from the library. Some people have an in-depth knowledge of a particular topic, but for better or worse I’m a dabbler who is easily distracted in diverse directions.
One of the books I’m currently reading is Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, a book that one of my colleagues mentioned in the context of a yoga retreat she had gone on. The book is a ragtag assortment of short musing on writing: the kind of inspirational stuff writers always have (and presumably always will) publish because it’s easier for aspiring writers to read about writing than it is to face (and fill) the blank page.
The blank page is a mirror that reflects your insecurities, doubts, and fears. Writing is a form of meditation because it requires a quiet, unheralded kind of courage. The world is quick to praise (and rightfully so) the obvious courage of heroes running into burning buildings, leaping in front of oncoming trains, or standing up to bullies to save another. But it takes its own kind of quiet, inconspicuous courage to face the blank page with nothing more than an embryonic hope that something you say could be of use–inspiring or encouraging or even just entertaining–to someone else.
Last week I heard a radio interview with Sherman Alexie, who was discussing a children’s book he’s written about a young Native American boy who shares his father’s name. In the interview, Alexie mentioned reading Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day as a boy. Alexie said it was the first time he’d encountered a brown-skinned boy–someone like him–in a book, and the moment was life-changing. It was a moment of realizing he wasn’t alone in the world: there were other little brown-skinned boys who looked at the world the way he did.
I grew up as a little white girl in a world full of books about little white girls. But because I grew up as an introvert in a family of extroverts, I grew up befriending people in books more deeply than I did people in the real world.
I remember wanting to be Anne Labastille when I was a girl reading about her work in Guatemala to study and save endangered grebes, and I remember feeling like I’d met not just a friend but a version of my own true self when I first read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. These were books I felt I could have written because they were inspired by eyes that viewed the world how I did.
It takes courage for a solitary self to face the empty page: there seems to be so many more important things to do. But writers face the page with a deep-seated faith that somebody, someday, might find in their words an idea or insight they’ve waited their entire life to hear.