September 2017


Cup and saucer vine (Cobaea scandens)

Last spring, a colleague flummoxed me with a perfectly innocuous question: “Do you work on your own writing?” This is a seemingly straightforward question, one deserving of a simple “yes” or “no,” but it left me stammering. What does it mean, exactly, to work on “your own writing”? Of the various sorts of writing I do, which one is actually “mine,” what exactly counts as “writing”?

Asters

As a professor, I should be working on formal academic scholarship; if I ever were to join the ranks of tenure-track faculty, I’d need to hop on the merry-go-round known as Publish-or-Perish. But apart from a few book reviews, I stopped producing formal academic writing when I finished my dissertation more than a decade ago, and I remain deeply conflicted about the genre.

Secret garden

Part of the reason it took me so long to finish my dissertation was the identity crisis I experienced halfway through, when I realized I didn’t want write about Thoreau, I wanted to write like Thoreau. I’ve never reconciled the tension I feel between academic writing (the kind of writing I should be doing to advance my career) and personal essay-writing (the kind of writing I scribble in private notebooks and share on-blog). There’s the kind of writing I like to do, then there is the kind of writing I “should” be doing, and I haven’t figured out a way to build a bridge between one and the other.

Viewing through

Years ago, another teaching colleague mentioned that he reads my blog, and his voice was tinged with envy. “You can write about anything you want,” he observed, and again I wasn’t sure how to respond. Yes, I can write about anything I want, and that is exactly what keeps me writing…but my blog writing doesn’t bring any professional benefit. My blog serves as my own creative outlet, and being able to write about a variety of topics–whatever is on my mind on any given day–is a source of great personal satisfaction. But while that teaching colleague has moved onto a permanent full-time position, I continue to piece together a string of temporary “visiting” appointments. I can write whatever I want, but that writing isn’t something I’ve been able to leverage toward lasting full-time employment.

Silvered

So what counts, exactly, as “writing,” and which writing counts as “my own”? The words I write in my journal are both theoretically and practically my own, as no one other than me sees them. The words I revise and then post here are my own as well: I write them for no one else’s benefit, nobody compensates me for them, and I share them simply to satisfy my own creative itch. My blog-essays, then, should most definitely count as “my own writing,” so why was I so reluctant to admit that aloud in response to my colleague’s question?

Moss steps

I have never felt judgement from my colleagues because I write blog essays instead of academic articles: in all honesty, most of my colleagues are too busy to follow what I do in my off-hours, just as I am too busy to follow what they do in theirs. But even in the absence of external judgement, it’s entirely possible to feel self-generated guilt. Why am I wasting my time, my inner-critic questions, working on writing that does nothing more than make me happy? Given the perpetually temporary and thus tenuous state of my employment status, why aren’t I toiling away at academic projects: the kind of writing that could lead to more gainful employment?

Silvery

For better or worse, the only way I know how to write is by following my curiosity: my scribbling pen is like an unleashed dog that runs and wanders where it will. I share on my blog the kinds of things I enjoy reading: one way of understanding my blog, in fact, is to see it as a repository of my own intellectual interests, a personal cabinet of curiosities.

In “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson defined “genius” as the belief “that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men.” I don’t presume to know the hearts of all men, but I know what I like, and in writing about those things, I trust that there are others, somewhere, who are interested as well.

Takeoff

Today’s weather is the same as it was sixteen years ago today: brisk and beautiful, with turquoise-blue skies. I’m not sure if there is a meteorological reason why September skies are often so deeply, vividly blue, but that’s how the sky was on September 11, 2001.

Logan Airport flyby

Sixteen years ago, I was living in Hillsborough, NH with my then-husband, and September 11 was a Tuesday. I’d just started teaching at Keene State College, but I didn’t teach on Tuesdays that semester. Instead, I was working a part-time temporary job at a publishing company in Portsmouth, NH, about an hour and a half away from home.

Jet Blue on blue

That morning’s drive to Portsmouth was largely uneventful, but there had been a car crash on the stretch of highway between Concord and Portsmouth, and police had blocked the road and detoured traffic. I remember driving on small, rural roads through communities I’d never visited before. These were the days before ubiquitous GPS devices, and I was genuinely worried I’d get lost trying to find my way to work, but the day was so lovely, I almost didn’t mind.

Overhead

When I got to work, I learned someone had died in that crash: the first of the day’s many tragedies. But since I didn’t know the person who had died, I quietly settled into the cubicle of one of the of two women on maternity leave I’d been filling in for that summer. While I was working, someone sent out an inter-office email saying the World Trade Center in New York City had been hit by a plane, and I quickly skimmed and deleted the email. Since I was juggling this temp job with the new school year at Keene State, I had a lot of work to do that day, so I continued working without checking CNN or turning on the radio.

Wild blue yonder

The same thing happened when another email came around saying the second World Trade Tower had been hit: I read the email and kept working. I hadn’t seen any photos or videos of the attack, so I imagined a scary but somehow explicable accident wherein two planes had gone off track, clipping a wing against one and then a second skyscraper. Because I was busy, I was able to compartmentalize the news: something bad was happening in New York, but I was in Portsmouth, and I had a tall pile of work to do. I was probably the last worker in my office–the last person in America–to realize the gravity of what had happened.

Fly-by

I wasn’t until lunchtime that I fully realized what was happening. I was supposed to attend a staff meeting, but everyone was so upset by the news from New York, several coworkers and I went for a quick walk instead. It was an attempt to dissipate some nervous energy on a clear autumn day that was too beautiful to spend inside. When we got back to the office, I finally saw my first glimpse of the attack.

Overhead

A throng of co-workers was crammed into a single cubicle, huddling around a computer to watch CNN, and that was when I saw for the first time the incessant replay of planes crashing and buildings falling. Like countless others before me, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It looked like a scene out of a movie, not something actually happening under an impossibly blue umbrella of September skies.

Overhead

Not long after my co-workers and I stood slack-jawed and silent around a single computer, our boss sent us home for the day: my co-workers to nearby homes and loved ones, and me to a lonely hour-and-a-half drive. The roads between Portsmouth and Hillborough were nearly empty, and I listened to the news on NPR while scouring the skies for planes. It’s been sixteen years since I took that long, lonely drive, and I still hold my breath whenever I see a distant plane fly anywhere near a city skyline, waiting to make sure it flies behind each silhouetted skyscraper rather than directly through.

New school for the new school year

Today on our way home from lunch, J and I walked past Newton’s brand-new Zervas Elementary School. Since Zervas is within walking distance of our house, we’ve watched its construction all summer, just as we’d watched the demolition of the old building last year.

Brand new playground

Curious to see the inside of this brand-new school, J and I peered through windows at the gym, cafeteria, lobby, principal’s office, and one festive-looking classroom. We obviously weren’t the first to have done this, as the new windows were already smudged with finger- and nose-prints from other curious passersby.

Newly built

Although J and I don’t have kids, Zervas is “our” school insofar as it’s in our neighborhood, and we’d voted “yes” to the tax increase that funded its construction. Anything that makes a neighborhood more desirable, like a new school, improves the lives and property values of all residents, so J and I were happy to support that.

Zervas sits on a larger corner lot with two separate playgrounds, an octagonal climbing structure, and a grassy field for soccer or other outdoor games. Today as J and I walked around the grounds, we saw several older kids on bikes peering into windows while a handful of parents watched their preschool children try out the new swings and slides. At the start of a new school year, there’s nothing more alluring than a new school even if you’re the wrong age to attend it.

Bee on stonecrop

I recently started reading David Sedaris’ Theft By Finding, a lightly-edited collection of journal entries from the years 1977 to 2002. The early pages of the book recount a Kerouac-like stint of hitchhiking, fruit picking, drug using, and general penury. In his introduction to the book, Sedaris advises against reading the book from cover-to-cover: as a diary, the book lacks anything remotely similar to a plot, instead reflecting the crazy daily existence of a person without a clear direction. Instead of reading it cover-to-cover like a conventional narrative, Sedaris suggests readers dip into the book at random, reading it like a joke book where some episodes or anecdotes are funnier than others.

Bee on stonecrop.

I have two good reasons for ignoring Sedaris’ advice. First, I’m reading a library copy that I have to return in two weeks, so I don’t have the luxury of a leisurely and random read. Instead, I have to start at the beginning and plow right through.

But my second reason is the more important one. I too am a journal-keeper, so whereas normal readers might grow tired of a the senseless ramblings of a young man trying to find himself in the most random of ways, I’m admiring the narrative fluency of that young man’s mind. I’m not reading for story as much as psychology: not what happened to young Sedaris so much as how he responded to what happened.

Bee on stonecrop

What I’m interested in watching is the suppleness of mind that allows Sedaris to write whatever comes to mind, even when what comes to mind isn’t remarkable or particularly noteworthy. Non-writers believe, I think, that you can spend your life not writing and then suddenly open your noticing eye when something important, exciting, or inspiring happens. But that isn’t how writing works.

Bees on stonecrop

How writing works, in my experience, is you practice by keeping track of minutiae. You scribble things down every day even when your everyday life is boring or uninspiring. You practice noticing the quality of light through the window, the sound of crickets chirping, or the insistent chip of a cardinal. A journal is to writers what scale-playing is to pianists. Playing scales isn’t interesting for listeners, but it’s how pianists keep their fingers flexible and their minds focused. After playing scales, scales, scales, a pianist hones her ability to play measure after measure of actual music. The music happens because of (not despite) the hours of disciplined drudgery that precedes it.

Bumblebee on stonecrop

When you’re in the thick of your life, you’re not very good at determining what will be life-changing or profound. That’s why journal-keepers record all of it. Theft By Finding is a massive book–more than 500 pages–but Sedaris explains it’s still not exhaustive: he edited out the most boring, repetitive, and inane material, and even then, there’s still a lot that might bore or befuddle many readers. But that’s exactly what I love about reading the journals of practiced writers. I don’t read because every page is wonderful; I read because it’s wonderful to encounter a gem-like line in the middle of otherwise unremarkable stuff.

Carter Pond erratic

Today at 11:00 am, I turned on the radio, as I often do when working at home. Usually, I listen to the top-of-the-hour news update, walking in place while listening to the national and local headlines. It’s a routine that takes about five minutes: a chance to hear what’s going on the world while taking a break from my desk and its sedentary tasks.

Giant

On Sundays at 11:00, however, the local NPR affiliate broadcasts the interdenominational church service from Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. I’ve come to enjoy listening to the first five minutes of this service, when the presiding preacher announces the theme of the day’s sermon and thanks the people who are present in the pews, listening like me on the radio, or listening online.

Fern from stone

Once a week, I like to imagine the invisible folks I’ll never meet who listen along with me: the elderly and shut-in, the lonely and incapacitated, or simply the distant and far-flung. I like to think we vitual listeners share an intangible kind of fellowship even if we never set foot in Marsh Chapel. Once a week, I’m heartened to remember the campus ministry team and in-person congregants keep showing up and praying for the rest of us every single Sunday.

Balance Rock

Today’s opening hymn was one I hadn’t heard in decades, not since singing it at the interdenominational Christian camp I attended in college. Despite the intervening years, the words of the first verse came flooding back along with the melody:

Immortal, invisible, God only wise
In light inexpressible hid from our eyes
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.

Where in my brain had this long-neglected tune remained hidden, and why should it sprout into consciousness now, like a drought-stricken seed awoken by spring rains?

Through

In the months after September 11, 2001, I would occasionally turn on the radio to make sure the world wasn’t ending. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, every station broadcast the news–bad news–out of New York, Pennsylvania, and D.C. For days, it seemed, regularly scheduled programs and music were preempted by news coverage–everyone wanted to know what was happening, now–and for months afterwards, after the nonstop urgency of Breaking News had subsided, I would intermittently turn on the radio just to reassure myself they were playing music and other programs, not news flashes of the end times.

Moss on stone

Hearing the start of the Marsh Chapel service every week is reassuring in a similar way. We live in crazy, unsettling times, and the top-of-the-hour news is enough to frighten the bejeezus out of even the most placid soul. But as long as the Sunday morning service at Marsh Chapel is going on as scheduled, all is not completely lost or descended into chaos. Knowing there are people in the pews and a preacher in the pulpit is a helpfully hopeful sign: God’s in his heaven, and at least one thing is right in this world.

Overhang

I wonder if the other invisible congregants tuning in from afar are similarly reassured by the broadcast? The introductory remarks are typically catered to a college audience, with references to the school year and its milestones, and sometimes there are Boston-specific references that might not translate well for out-of town listeners. I like to think, though, that some things do translate, or that they serve as a sort of bridge. Might even a sick or elderly shut-in find comfort knowing that colleges kids are with them in spirit, praying and communing, even though the external details of their lives might be drastically different?

Overhang

Even across difference, there is union: that is, after all, one of the lessons of that hymn I heard this morning. Although I spontaneously remembered the first verse, my favorite is actually the third:

To all, life thou givest, to both great and small;
In all life thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree,
Then wither and perish, but naught changeth thee.

Although most the hymn focuses on God’s inscrutable majesty, the third verse talks about us and our lives, both great and small. Even as the details and destinations of our temporal lives change, there are some things that remain constant, and these are visible only through the eyes of faith.

Since I’ve never set foot inside Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, today’s photos come from an unrelated hike I took several weeks ago at Rock House Reservation in West Brookfield, Massachusetts.

Golden

There is something magical about the hour before sunset, when the sun sinks deep toward the horizon: a time photographers call the golden hour. Vertical surfaces glow as if gilded, and every grassy head is highlighted and haloed. The very ground seems hallowed, illumined with a metallic sheen. There is no magic, no shenanigans, behind such shows: it’s simply the sun casting everything into its best light.

Cattails

Last night Leslee and I walked at the Minute Man National Historic Park, saying farewell to August by walking into the sunset then back to our cars. Classes start next week, and already the days are growing shorter. A month ago, it was too humid for walking, and once winter descends, the evenings will be too dark. Yesterday, though, the weather was perfect: clear but cool, with the sun playing peekaboo behind intermittent clouds.

Hayfield

They say you should make hay when the sun shines; instead of making hay, Leslee and I walked alongside stonewalls, over a cattail swamp, and past an old hayfield, stopping by Hartwell Tavern to admire a small flock of pygmy goats and sheep. A woman in colonial garb tended the animals, pulling out an iPhone to see whether her shift was done: time to head back to the 21st century. During the golden hour, it’s easy to think time stands still as the sun lingers low, but everywhere, eventually, life becomes history, casting a long shadow on shortening days.