Jul 30, 2016
I’m back home in Newton after having spent the past two weekends away: first visiting a friend in western Massachusetts, then visiting family in central Ohio. I’m a creature of habit, so it takes a while to settle back into my usual routine after being away. Having been here, there, and back again, I’m still finding my feet here at home.
On Tuesday night, I gave interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center. Because the usual interview room was being renovated, I used a small Dharma room typically reserved for meditation classes. Before it was a meditation room with cushions and an altar, this room was a bedroom with a kitchen sink: the first room my then-husband and I lived in when we moved into the Zen Center some two decades ago.
It’s a bit surreal to teach meditation or give interviews in a room where you used to sleep: I sometimes joke that after I moved out, the Zen Center turned my bedroom into a shrine. It’s been years since I lived in the Zen Center, but it always feels like home when I return. Here are the same walls, floor, and windows that surrounded me as I juggled my marriage, graduate studies, and Zen practice. The particulars of my life have changed, but this place where I spent two and a half years of my life remains more or less the same.
Visiting my family in Ohio is a similar experience. I haven’t lived in Columbus since I left for college in 1987, and I haven’t lived in Ohio since I moved to Boston in 1992. On this visit, my parents and I walked through the twin-single unit where we’d lived when I was little: my first childhood home. I hadn’t been that house since one of my sisters rented it from my parents when I was in college, so it was strange to visit a now-empty dwelling where so much of my childhood happened. Despite the improvements my parents have made over the years they’ve rented out the home where we once lived, I can still remember the courtyard where I played beneath a branching maple tree, the basement rec room where I raced Matchbox cars, and the two bedrooms where I slept: first a tiny one, then a larger one after my sisters moved out.
After I gave interviews in Cambridge on Tuesday night, I walked through Central Square toward my car and marveled at the places I’ve been: here, there, and back again. Newton, where I currently live, is far tonier than the neighborhood in Columbus where I grew up; Central Square, where I used to live, is gritty and ethnically diverse like my childhood home, but far more cosmopolitan. When I first moved to Boston, I tried very hard to fit in here, my proudest moment happening on a morning when a tourist asked me for directions on the T during one of my commutes to campus. Although I was new to the neighborhood myself, I was pleased to think I at least looked like I belonged.
Settling into a daily routine is one step toward making yourself at home in a new place: first, you need a place to hang your hat and a place to rest your head. Once you have those, you can settle into a regular rhythm of finding your feet wherever your footsteps lead.
Jul 21, 2016
This past weekend several friends and I walked along the Housatonic River in downtown Great Barrington, Massachusetts: a short, shady stroll that is popular with local dog walkers and baby strollers. In sunny spots we saw butterfly weed and wild bergamot blooming, and in shady spots we could watch the slow-moving waters flow below us.
Gazing at the placid flow of the Housatonic River, it’s easy to forget its waters are polluted, not pristine. The Housatonic carries PCBs and other industrial chemicals from the long-closed General Electric plant in nearby Pittsfield. Signs along the river warn fishermen not to eat their catch, and environmental activists refer to the river as the “Housatoxic.”
I knew that the author, thinker, and civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois was born along the Housatonic River in Great Barrington, and I knew there is a garden and historical sign marking a site near his childhood home. What surprised me when we found that marker, however, is that it focused on Du Bois’ environmental advocacy as much as his civil rights work.
Even during Du Bois’ lifetime, the Housatonic River was sullied by industrial runoff. When Du Bois returned to Great Barrington in 1930 to address a gathering of his high school alumni, he beseeched the citizens of Great Barrington to clean the river that courses through their backyard:
The town, the whole valley, has turned its back upon the river. They have sought to get away from it. They have neglected it. They have used it as a sewer, a drain, a place for throwing their waste and their offal. Mills, homes, and farms have poured their dirt and refuse into it; outhouses and dung heaps have lined its banks. Almost as if by miracle some beauty still remains in places where the river for a moment free of its enemies and tormentors, dark and exhausted under its tall trees, has sunk back to vestiges of its former charm, in great, slow, breathless curves and still murmurs. But for the most part the Housatonic has been transformed into an ugly disgraceful thing
It’s obvious that even after Du Bois left Great Barrington to become a writer, scholar, and outspoken proponent for racial justice, he never forgot the river in his hometown. Du Bois’ fondness for the Housatonic reminded me of the Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which traces the way heritage is tied to geography, not just genealogy:
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” when he was only eighteen, and in it he describes his African-American heritage as running through both his bloodstream and the rivers of his ancestral homelands. In the ecological version of muscle-memory, Hughes’ soul recalls the landscapes where his people come from. Who you are as a person, he suggests, is irrevocably connected with the places you and your people come from.
Du Bois was so moved by Hughes’ poem, he published it in the July 1921 edition of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. Today, we know environmental degradation often occurs in places populated by the poor and people of color: it’s not the rich white citizens of Flint, Michigan who are drinking lead-tainted water. “Environmental racism” refers to the way the privileged and powerful often dump their toxic byproducts downstream in someone else’s backyard, and it’s a phenomenon Du Bois decried, even if he didn’t call it out by name.
Du Bois suggested the way we treat our rivers reflects our values as a society, reminding his audience that “we are judged by what we neglect.” Do we see rivers and the folks who live alongside them as rubbish heaps or sewers, places where we dump and disregard the effluvia we don’t want polluting our own neighborhoods?
If we choose to neglect a river, we can also choose to care for it, and this is what Du Bois ultimately advocated, urging the citizens of Great Barrington to “rescue the Housatonic and clean it as we have never in all the years thought before of cleaning it, and seek to restore its ancient beauty.” A community who cares for its rivers will care for the people and other living creatures that live alongside them, environmental justice rolling down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Jul 20, 2016
I’ve never been much of an Edith Wharton fan. I read and disliked Ethan Frome as an undergrad, and I generally dislike the overwrought stuffiness of Gilded Age authors such as Henry James, who was friends with Wharton. But this past weekend I visited the Mount, Edith Wharton’s lush country home in Lenox, Massachusetts, and seeing this place where Wharton lived and wrote helped soften my attitude toward her.
Like her prose, Wharton’s house is too formal and fancy for my taste. Curatorial placards around the house insist that Wharton’s style was less ornate and more modern than the Victorian style of her contemporaries, but even Wharton’s more stripped-down decor is too busy for my taste. But after wandering through Wharton’s house and surrounding gardens, I found myself sympathizing for her. Wharton believed so strongly that interior design should reflect a person’s taste and temperament, she co-wrote a book on the subject. Although Wharton’s writing and home decor styles aren’t my cup of tea, I can understand her desire to use her house and gardens as a form of self-expression.
Both Wharton and her husband, Teddy, loved little dogs, and the Mount contains ample evidence of this one thing the couple had in common. There are dog treats on the dining room table, an ornate dog bed in the drawing room, and pictures throughout the house of Edith and Teddy with small dogs perched on their laps. Sadly, this shared affection for dogs wasn’t enough to keep Edith and Teddy Wharton together: the couple divorced and sold their home only nine years after moving to Lenox, leaving behind the house, grounds, and a beautifully sited pet cemetery overlooking the gardens.
Although I didn’t know much about Wharton’s life before touring the Mount, I’d heard stories about how she wrote. The library at the Mount contains an elegant desk where Wharton sometimes posed for portraits, but she is better known for writing in bed, tossing pages of longhand prose onto the floor where her secretary would retrieve and reorder them. Although it’s difficult to sympathize with someone so privileged she didn’t have to type much less number her own pages, I felt sad standing in Wharton’s bedroom. As light streamed through windows overlooking Wharton’s beloved gardens, I could imagine how lonely she must have felt as she lay alone writing while her marriage crumbled.
After her divorce, Wharton moved to Paris, leaving behind the house and gardens she’d designed and the pampered pets she’d buried there. Virginia Woolf famously insisted that in order to write, a woman needs a reliable income and a room of her own, and Wharton, who was born into wealth, had both, at least for a time. Ultimately, though, Wharton was forced by circumstance to leave the house she had both designed and loved, her room of her own being nothing less than the entire world.
Jul 8, 2016
I wake these days to an alarm on my tablet, so as I swipe to dismiss it, the first thing I see are the headlines that came in overnight. This means I awake these days to an alarm saying Wake Up and a string of news notifications saying Stay Woke.
First there was the tragedy of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, then the heartbreak of Philando Castile in Minneapolis, and now the outrage of five dead police officers in Dallas. Each of these deaths is senseless and unjustified: no one should be gunned down for selling bootleg CDs, driving with a busted taillight, or being a cop.
Our polarized world and the news outlets that reflect it see reality in terms of opposites: those who are with us and those who are against. According to this worldview, you’re either pro-white or pro-black, pro-protester or pro-police, pro-gun or pro-gun-control. But from where I sit, heartbroken by the whole sad story, the only thing I decry is hatred and violence, no matter where it comes from.
I believe in the power of peaceful protest: the civil disobedience outlined by Thoreau and perfected by both Gandhi and King is just as mighty as any gun. And I believe it’s possible to both support the police and condemn police brutality. What I see in the tragic footage of both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are officers who have failed to execute their most important duty, which is to protect citizens by deescalating tense situations. What I see in these videos isn’t proper policing but a catastrophic failure to do a difficult and underappreciated job.
If the Dallas sniper was motivated by his outrage over recent police killings–if he truly believed that Black Lives Matter–the sad consequence of his violence is this: one day after everyone was focused on the lives of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, honoring their memory by grappling with difficult questions of race and social justice, today those two tragedies have been overshadowed.
Goaded by news outlets that seem incapable of covering two separate stories simultaneously, especially if that coverage demands a nuanced balance between opposing extremes, our collective consciousness has moved on. Today, if you pause to remember Sterling and Castile, you’re seen as being insensitive to the police lives that were lost. Instead of drawing further attention to the serious problems of implicit bias and police brutality, the Dallas sniper has pushed the news cycle onto other issues. Black lives still matter, and so do the lives of cops: we have to cultivate a mindset that sees these two statements as being equally true, not opposed.
In Korean Buddhism, the bodhisattva of compassion is named Kwan Seum Bosal, a name that means “She who hears the cries of the world.” In Buddhist iconography, Kwan Seum Bosal is sometimes depicted as having eleven heads and one thousand eyes and hands: each eye and ear focused on the world’s suffering, and each hand ready to help. Because of all her eyes and ears, Kwan Seum Bosal can simultaneously hear the cries of black men dying in the street, the cries of police officers killed in the line of duty, and the cries of all the family, friends, and strangers who mourn. Because of all her eyes and ears, Kwan Seum Bosal is heartbroken every time she reads the news, her thousand hands wiping tears not just in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas, but also Orlando, Istanbul, Baghdad, Mecca, and Bangladesh.
Every morning when Kwan Seum Bosal opens her thousand eyes, she sees suffering in our sad, sorry world, and every time she turns her eleven heads, all her ears are full of our wailing cries. Kwan Seum Bosal has one thousand hands to caress and cradle all the brokenhearted, and the arms of Jesus are equally wide. There is no shortage of heartbreak these days, so we must respond at every turn with an abundant outpouring of compassion, hope, and love.
The photos illustrating today’s post show a Black Lives Matter display set up in front of the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain in June, 2015, in the aftermath of the Charleston church shootings. Sadly, “news” of violence and hatred isn’t “new” at all.
Jul 6, 2016
After taking my time deciding upon a project for the summer, I’ve started to revisit the blog entries I wrote from 2003 until 2006: that is, the years I lived full-time in Keene, New Hampshire, before I met J and moved to Massachusetts.
When I first started blogging in December of 2003, my then-husband and I had lived in Keene for a couple months, and blogging was one of the ways I made myself at home in a town that was new to me. Taking pictures and writing about my daily dog-walks helped me find my way both literally and figuratively. When my then-husband and I separated and then divorced in 2004, blogging helped me navigate the alien landscape of my solitary life in a town some 700 miles from my family. During a particularly tenuous time, writing about my life helped me make sense of my life.
It’s been more than ten years since my first husband and I divorced, so revisiting the posts I wrote both before and after that event is a strange experience. Some aspects of my life in Keene are still crystal clear, but others have grown foggy with time. I vividly remember the dog-walks I took with Reggie along the Ashuelot River and around Goose Pond, for instance, but it seems like a lifetime ago that I lived alone in an apartment within walking distance of Keene State College. Revisiting the posts I wrote then is like bumping into an old friend on the street: here is a person I was intimately acquainted with, but we’ve lost touch.
Ultimately, I’d like to collate these several years’ worth of posts into a single year, just as Henry David Thoreau combined the two years he lived at Walden Pond into the single seasonal cycle recounted in Walden. Just as I love May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude for its clear-eyed account of her life as a writer in Nelson, New Hampshire, I’d like to distill my own experience in Keene into its barest, most essential truths. I moved to Keene as one half of a couple, but I ultimately lived there longer as a single woman than I had as a wife. How is it, I wonder, that solitary souls like Thoreau, Sarton, and myself found our way in our respective hometowns?
As I work on this project, I find myself wondering how people who don’t write–people who don’t have the memory aid of a journal or blog–go about processing their pasts. I don’t have a particularly strong memory, so I rely heavily upon my journal, blog, and photo archives to remind me of where I was and what I was doing last month, last year, or last decade: without this record, I think my life would quickly fade into fog. It’s a psychological truism that we should learn from our mistakes, but to do this, we need to remember and revisit our past actions. If something as life-changing as my own divorce has already started to fade from memory, how can I internalize its lessons? Or do fading memories indicate an experience that has been gradually digested down to the dregs?
I shot the photos illustrating today’s post on a hot day in July, 2005, when Reggie and I went walking at Keene’s Ashuelot River Park.
Jul 1, 2016
In the summer of 2002, my then-husband and I took a long Western road trip, spending two weeks driving some 11,000 miles in a rented SUV with our dog. From our home in New Hampshire, we drove through Virginia, Arkansas, Texas, Arizona, then up the California coast before turning east toward home. Along the way we leapfrogged from one destination to another, stringing a great continental necklace studded with the Great Smoky Mountains, Petrified Forest, Redwood, Yellowstone, and Badlands National Parks.
I remember very little from this trip. It was before I’d started blogging, and my then-husband and I took only a smattering of pictures with a large, state-of-the-(then)-art digital camera that saved photos to a floppy disk. We spent most of our two weeks driving, trying to make good time rather than having a good time: many of my photos were shot from a moving car as we hurried from one destination to the next, the trip itself blurring into a fog of long-driving days and too little time spent walking.
I revisited the photos from this trip after recently starting to read Terry Tempest Williams’ The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. Williams’ book is a meditative rhapsody on the impact national parks have had on her psyche: wherever she encounters it, wilderness is a balm that soothes Williams’ soul. When I reflect back on my own hopscotch trip from national park to park to park, what I (sadly) remember is the disappointment I felt at how little time we spent at each one.
Whereas Williams describes wilderness as a place to slow down and appreciate otherwise overlooked natural wonders, the pace of that long-ago road trip was set by my then-husband, who was habitually driven by his own restlessness. Looking at my pictures of that trip is both strange and surreal: although I was there to either take or pose for these pictures, it feels almost voyeuristic to look back on what seems like another lifetime lived by someone else. When you’re in a hurry to arrive anywhere but here, you come home feeling like you’ve been nowhere at all.