July 2017


First day of issue

Yesterday, J surprised me with first day of issue covers of two US postage stamps commemorating Henry David Thoreau: one issued in 1967, and the other issued this year. The stamp from 1967 is ugly as sin–its designer managed to make an admittedly homely fellow look even worse–but this year’s stamp is lovely, with a portrait of Thoreau in muted earth tones alongside a reproduction of his signature.

Postcard with Smokey Bear stamp

I was never a serious stamp collector, but I still have the albums from when I dabbled in stamp-collecting as a child, along with a souvenir postcard with a Smokey Bear stamp I bought and had cancelled at the Smokey Bear Station at the Ohio State Fair in 1984, when Smokey turned forty. (That sentence tells you pretty much everything you need to know about me as a fifteen-year-old. Not only was I nerdy enough to collect stamps, I was nerdy enough to love Smokey Bear.)

Stamps about stamp collecting

To me, stamp collecting was an aesthetic pursuit, like admiring tiny works of art. I enjoyed the serendipitous nature of stamp-collecting: getting mail was exciting enough, and getting mail with interesting stamps was even better. I still like to use pretty stamps for even mundane mail: if you have to stick a stamp on an envelope anyway, you might as well use an attractive or otherwise interesting one.

Thoreau stamps

When Thoreau’s new stamp came out this year, I bought several sheets even though I didn’t need any stamps at the time. I like to think that sticking Thoreau’s face on my mail draws attention to a writer who has left an indelible mark on my intellectual life. Even if the adult recipients of the mail I send don’t notice the stamps I use, maybe some curious child will, just as I did when I was younger.

This being said, I haven’t yet used any of the Thoreau stamps I bought; so far, I’ve been saving them, using other stamps instead. I like to think my secret stash of Thoreau stamps is there just waiting for me to use them when the time is just right: in the “nick of time,” just as Thoreau described his own birth.

Apparently, I’m a true collector at heart, buying sheets of Thoreau stamps when they became available only in part because I wanted to use them. In reality, I just wanted to have them.

Facing

It was hot and humid on Saturday, so Leslee and I didn’t spend a lot of time walking the grounds at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, choosing to spend more of our visit inside the air conditioned comfort of the museum galleries. But before we headed for home, we took a quick stroll to see the sculptures in Alice’s Garden and the grassy fields alongside the park’s entrance.

Queen of trees

I always enjoy seeing sculptures outside, as if in their natural habitat. A piece such as Richard Rosenblum’s Venusvine (pictured right) would make little sense indoors. Instead of being held captive in a gallery, Venus needs to curl her toes in the dirt and sprout her sinuous self among the trees.

Although Venus is rooted, like a tree she can unfold her slender arms and toss her twiggy head in both sunshine and storm. Does she tickle from the talons of birds perched on her head, and does she enjoy the summer songs of birds whispered into her ears?

Askance

Today Leslee and I went to the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum to see an exhibit of abstract paintings by New England women artists. I’m not an expert in abstract painting, but that’s part of the medium’s appeal. Because these works aren’t trying to represent anything specific, viewers like me are free to find their own meaning in them.

Cobalt

Viewing abstract paintings is like looking at the passing shapes of clouds, the flashing forms reflected in moving water, or the flickering colors that glow from the center of a campfire. You can let your eyes rest from their mundane work of deciphering meaning. With no symbols to interpret, you’re left to enjoy the wordless nuance of color, shape, and texture.

Geometry

When I first encountered modern and contemporary art, I struggled to make sense of it. If a painter isn’t trying to represent something like a face or landscape, how can you tell if it is “good” or not?

Only after abandoning this attempt to understand and assess abstract art did I learn how to enjoy it on a purely aesthetic level. When I look at flowers or eat a good meal, I don’t fret over what that food or flowers mean. Instead, I make a purely subjective decision about whether I liked this thing, and why.

Reflected

When I walk into a gallery of abstract paintings, some works grab me and others don’t. Some works pull me in and all but beg me to keep looking at them, and others whisper “Keep walking; there’s nothing to see here.” With the works that beg me to look, I ask myself the simple question of why: why am I drawn to this piece, and what about it do I find interesting, appealing, or engaging?

Neighboring

This subjective question of why opens far more doors than the interpretive question “what does this piece mean?” There are many works I like without knowing what they mean. The things I like about such works are purely aesthetic. I might like a particular arc of brushwork or an eye-popping complement of colors. Something about a particular painting resonates with me while another work leaves me unimpressed and unmoved.

Cerulean

This almost visceral way of interacting with paintings allows for a variety of personal responses; I don’t know what any given artist was trying to say or suggest in a particular painting, but I know there are works I feel warm and almost friendly toward. “Could I live with this painting” is one question that sometimes comes to mind. Is this a piece that could hold my interest for more than a day or two, or is it one I’d quickly learn to overlook or ignore?

Gallery

I sometimes wonder what museum guards think about the works they protect, given the long hours they spend in any given exhibit. Guards are paid to watch museum-goers, not the art itself, but when you spend entire shifts in a gallery day after day, you must acquire a certain familiarity with the works you’re watching over.

Guard

Surely long-time museum guards develop a fondness for some works over others. Just as we inevitably like some neighbors or coworkers more than the rest, I like to think museum guards “make friends” with some of the paintings they sit with.

I’m glad Leslee and I went to the DeCordova today. Given the long hours I spend writing and reading, it sometimes feels good to just look at beautiful things without any need for interpretive explanation.

Your moment of Zen.

I spent this past weekend in Columbus, Ohio visiting family and attending my thirty-year high school reunion. I still can’t believe it’s been three decades since I graduated from Eastmoor High School, went to college in Toledo, and never looked back. In my mind, moving back to Columbus was never an option: moving home after college would have been an admission of failure, a white flag of surrender indicating I’d botched my one big chance to leave home and make it in the real world.

I'm here.

My ex-husband used to deride my lack of corporate experience, given I’ve only worked in academia, with brief, part-time stints in retail sales and secretarial work when I was in grad school. My ex-husband believed that because I’ve never worked in the corporate sector like he did, I didn’t have “real world” experience. But from my perspective, I’ve always been in the real world, and I never worked for a corporation because I never needed to. Even though my ex-husband dismissed academia as being too “Ivory Tower” to count as “real,” it’s taken me an inordinate amount of scrappiness to survive on a patchwork of part-time teaching jobs I’ve juggled not for fun, but to pay the bills.

And for the past thirty years, I have paid the bills, persevering with an exhausting assortment of adjunct jobs because teaching is what I do. There have been many times over the past thirty years when I’ve sweated the small stuff, wondering whether there would be enough paycheck to cover the month. But I always found ways to make ends meet–I always managed to scrimp, save, and budget my way–and it doesn’t get much more “real” than that.

Goodbye, Columbus.

The story of the past thirty years has been almost entirely self-motivated. My parents were proud when I earned a college scholarship, but they never pressured me to finish; even if I quit after just one semester of college, I would have achieved more education than they had. But even in the absence of pushy parents, quitting college was something I never would have allowed myself to do: the drive to finish what I started was mine. Although I’ve had friends, teachers, and mentors who have encouraged me along the way, I went to and finished both college and grad school because I wanted to.

What I lack in ambition, I make up for in stubbornness. My path through college, grad school, and a meandering career as an overworked adjunct instructor was a difficult, clueless road: I didn’t know where I was going, but I kept climbing. Because I enjoyed the work I was doing–because I enjoyed reading and discussing literature, researching and writing papers, and ultimately teaching and encouraging students–I kept doing it, persevering primarily because I didn’t know what to do other than take the next step, then the next, then the next.

Logan Airport

The fact I’ve managed to support myself as an English major these past thirty years is, in my opinion, my greatest accomplishment: not even getting a PhD can top it. Simply surviving and supporting myself in New England, some 700 miles from where I was born and raised, is the thing I’m the most proud of. Not only did I go to college and get a degree, I’ve figured out how to support myself while doing the things I love. It’s natural at a high school reunion to compare your lot in life with that of your classmates, and I arrived back in Boston on Monday feeling pretty good about myself. I might not be the thinnest, least-wrinkled, or best-looking of my high school classmates, but after thirty years of making it in the real world, I feel like a success.

Thoreau diorama

Today is Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday. I wonder who of us currently alive will be remembered and still influential two centuries from now. We normally think you have to be wealthy, powerful, or both to have such an impact, but Thoreau was none of these. Instead, Thoreau is one of my personal heroes because he remained true to his own ideals and lived life on his own terms.

Thoreau stamps

I have to chuckle whenever I read critiques of Thoreau–or, more accurately, critiques of people’s image of Thoreau–since such critiques entirely miss what Thoreau himself was about. Thoreau wasn’t trying to live up to someone’s arbitrary ideal of what a pure, holy, or idealistic person is supposed to be like; instead, Thoreau’s outlook was the exact opposite of “supposed to be.”

Thoreau wasn’t trying to be perfect, and he wasn’t trying to be a role model–he never intended for anyone else to copy the lifestyle he tailored for himself. Thoreau, quite honestly, never gave a proverbial rat’s ass for what his neighbors thought, so he certainly wouldn’t be bothered with whatever contradictions or hypocrisies modern readers find in his life and work. Thoreau was simply trying to live a life that matched as closely as possible his own passions and proclivities, not the expectations of others. Centuries before the phrase was coined, Thoreau had exactly zero fucks to give.

Walden Pond selfie. #thoreau #walden

I don’t admire Thoreau because his lifestyle is one I can (or want to) perfectly emulate: in the opening pages of Walden, Thoreau himself notes that the purpose of his work isn’t to get others to try on the individually tailored coat of his lifestyle but to get them to consider critically their own. You don’t have to renounce worldly possessions and live beside a pond to live a Thoreauvian life, but you do have to consider your life choices with a wide-open and intentional eye. Why have I chosen to live my life this way rather than that, and how might my life be different–for better or worse–if I made other choices?

Thoreau seems more timely than ever

I don’t admire Thoreau simply or even primarily because he spent two years living and writing in a cabin beside a pond on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts. Instead, I admire Thoreau because he lived a life in accordance with his own principles. Not believing in corporeal punishment, Thoreau quit a teaching job that required him to spank lackadaisical students. Not believing in a war fought to further slavery, Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax. Loving nothing more than having the freedom to walk and wander for hours every day, Thoreau eschewed a steady job and worked instead as an occasional surveyor, pencil-maker, bean-hoer, and lecturer. These were not pursuits that would ever make Thoreau rich, but they gave him the time and freedom to be outside, and that was something he valued more than cash.

Henry David Thoreau likes my new desk. #henrydavidthoreau  #brenbataclan #moleskine #notebook #waterman #fountainpen #writingtools

When Thoreau died, he wasn’t a great or famous man: his influence then was chiefly parochial. But Thoreau didn’t let worries over his influence or legacy keep him from living life as he wanted. That, to me, is Thoreau’s true and lasting gift to subsequent generations of readers. Don’t for a minute feel that you have to walk in Thoreau’s footsteps, but do not hesitate for even a second from walking in your own.

Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

One of my goals for this summer is to write daily. When I sit down to write each day, I don’t usually have a topic in mind. Instead, I have a commitment to sit at my desk, uncap my pen, and fill four journal pages with whatever comes up, following Natalie Goldberg’s advice to “keep my hand moving” as faithfully as interruptions allow.

Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

This practice of sitting down and seeing what arises is very similar to what I do when I meditate; in fact, I’ve come to think of writing and meditation as being basically “sitting with and without pen.” When I write, I allow my sentences to follow wherever a given thought leads, regardless of how silly, stupid or scary that thought may be. When I meditate, I watch my thoughts without either chasing or repressing them. Like a flagpole planted on the edge of the sea, I stay standing no matter what the tides and surges throw at me, using my breath as an anchor.

Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

It turns out that these two practices–following random thoughts with a pen on one hand, and watching thoughts come and go on the other–are flipsides of the very same coin. In both cases–whether you’re following and recording your thoughts or simply watching them–the muscle you’re exercising is what Buddhists call non-attachment. You aren’t judging your thoughts, and you aren’t weighing their worth. You aren’t sorting your thoughts into piles to keep and piles to discard. You aren’t rating or ranking or recoiling from any of them. Instead, you remain firm and rooted in your commitment to simply stay sitting. Whether writing or meditating, you commit to staying firmly planted, regardless of what comes up.

Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

What you don’t do, in other words, is stop because you think your writing or your meditation “isn’t working.” The phrase “isn’t working” is code for “This activity isn’t immediately delivering the kind of results I want, so I’m going to stop and do something that feels more rewarding.” Both meditating and writing require you to ignore the demon named “Isn’t Working” and press on regardless. Does it feel like your writing “isn’t working” because what you’re writing seems stupid, disorganized, or inane? Keep writing anyway. Does it feel like your meditation “isn’t working” because your thoughts are scattered and disjointed? Keep sitting anyway. Ultimately, the quality of your writing or your meditation isn’t contingent upon the quality of your thoughts; it’s determined by the strength of your staying.

Retreat journal - March 1994

I recently discovered a journal I kept when I was on a week-long retreat in Rhode Island in 1994, when my then-husband and I lived in Boston. I don’t remember journaling during that retreat; as far as I remember, we were told not to write, just as we were discouraged from reading. So when and how did I scribble a substantial number of pages in looping longhand?

Dharma room Buddha

This morning I started reading Hourglass, a thin memoir of “time, memory, [and] marriage” by Dani Shapiro. In the opening pages of the book, Shapiro discovers a journal she kept on her honeymoon some eighteen years earlier. Like me, Shapiro doesn’t remember keeping this journal; even more oddly, it is a journal where she refers to herself in the third person, as “D.”

Shapiro is a memoirist; I am not. I continue to keep a journal all these years later; Shapiro’s honeymoon notebook, on the other hand, is significant in large part because it is one of the last she kept.

Diamond Hill Zen Monastery

Because of this, Shapiro and I have different approaches to memory and journaling. When she did keep a journal, Shapiro did so as an orderly act of closure. By laying down the details of her life in writing, Shapiro suggests they could be filed away and forgotten:

Keeping journals was a practice for me, way of ordering my life. It was an attempt to separate the interior from the exterior. To keep all my trash–this is the way I thought of it–in one place.

I, on the other hand, lack a memoirist’s memory: I rarely write about my childhood, for example, because I remember so little of it. For me, journaling is a necessary act of remembrance. Knowing I won’t remember anything I haven’t written down, I trust my days to the page so that it, my journal, will remember my life for me.

Retreat (not) in progress

Shapiro and I have different perspectives on memory and journaling, but we share one thing: we each have earned the wisdom of hindsight. Shapiro reads her honeymoon journal after being married for eighteen years, and I am re-reading my retreat musings more than two decades after I wrote them. Both Shapiro and I peek into the lives of our younger selves with a knowledge of how things turn and are turning out.

People sometimes talk about the advice they’d give their younger selves: what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? This is an interesting if useless exercise: useless because our younger selves would never listen to the advice of us oldsters, and interesting because it forces us to take stock of the wisdom we’ve acquired the hard and messy way.

I’m not sure whether Shapiro offers any advice to her younger self: I haven’t read far enough into her memoir to know. But all I’d say to my younger, greener self is this: Keep writing, and keep everything you write. One day, you’ll marvel to think you ever were so young and so green.

I shot the photo of my 1994 journal this afternoon and the photos of the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery in Cumberland, Rhode Island some ten years ago.

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