January 2018


Ram in snow

Yesterday we got a freshening of snow: just a few inches to brighten the ground as January ends. February in New England is always a trying time–the longest month–so it’s good to begin with a clean palette that will eventually turn February gray like everything else.

Morning commute / stuck in traffic

During yesterday’s morning commute, I saw a motorist accomplish an impressive (albeit inadvisable) feat. While steering with one hand, the driver next to me stuck one arm out his driver-side window and cleared his windshield with a snow-brush, all the while staying in his lane without swerving.

Drain

It’s not uncommon to see drivers hop out of their cars to clear snow while stopped at a light, but I’ve never seen a driver clear his car while moving. You know winter has overstayed its welcome when you’re so good at clearing snow, you can do it one handed while otherwise occupied.

Nest-like

Last week, sci-fi and fantasy author Ursula Le Guin died at the age of 88. Although Le Guin is best known as a novelist, I remember her most fondly for her quirky essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”

Pottery and textile

Like Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” Le Guin’s “Carrier Bag” is an essay about women’s fiction that is itself a kind of fiction. “Carrier Bag” is an essay, but it offers a narrative of how women’s writing evolved. In telling that narrative, Le Guin muses upon characters who appear as if by accident from an impromptu stream-of-consciousness reflection that would be entirely innocuous if it weren’t for its edge.

Woven

Le Guin suggests that male literature tells stories of swords, spears, and sticks: phallic weapons that make a point by focusing on heroic tales of conflict and conquest. Women’s stories, on the other hand, are like bags. They are capacious, inclusive, and eclectic: a narrative assortment of jots and tittles gleaned from random gathering rather than targeted hunting.

Folded paper

Carrier-bag tales are a compendium of ordinaries. Hunters and warriors need to work in solemn silence in order to focus on their heroic quest, but gatherers are the original multi-taskers. Long before men fashioned sticks into spears, Le Guin suggests women fashioned animal skins into slings for carrying infants, gathered food items, and all the random stuff that civilization depends on. (Anyone with an infant knows the most important invention of all time is the diaper bag, rivaled only, perhaps, by the miraculous repository known as “your wife’s purse.”)

Pottery and textile

Gathering nuts and berries is a social endeavor–there’s plenty of time for gossip and small talk while many hands make light work. While filling their carrier-bags with fruit, nuts, and berries, women shared stories to entertain themselves and their children, with all of this chattering happening amidst the constant interruptions of inquisitive toddlers, adventurous youngsters, and fussy babies.

Intricacies

When I read Le Guin’s “Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” I’m reminded of my blog. Hoarded Ordinaries isn’t especially heroic, it doesn’t have anything remotely resembling a point or plot, and it certainly qualifies as a ragtag collection of mundane minutiae: a proverbial mixed bag. So why bother to keep a carrier-bag account of my ordinary life? Because like countless women before me, I’m a social rather than heroic creature. Having gathered my own humble bag of pretty flowers and shiny stones, I want nothing more than to share.

View from footbridge over Leverett Pond

Today J and I took a trolley to Longwood, where we walked the Emerald Necklace to Jamaica Pond and back, stopping for lunch along the way. It was a perfect day for walking–partly cloudy, warm, and windy–with bare ground and long, stark shadows.

Muddy River at Longwood

All along the way, there were scattered throngs of pedestrians, Lycra-clad joggers, dog-walkers, families with strollers, and one rollerblader in shorts, taking advantage of the weather. In January, any day above freezing is a delight, so a day in the 50’s felt like spring, even with a brisk wind.

Sailboats in winter

The stretch of Emerald Necklace J and I walked today–a woodsy stretch of path connecting the Back Bay Fens, Olmsted Park, and Jamaica Pond–follows the Muddy River and runs through otherwise busy Boston neighborhoods, snaking along Brookline Avenue, crossing Route 9, and running parallel to the Jamaicaway with its constant stream of vehicular traffic. There is, in other words, no denying you are in the heart of a busy city.

Yellowing willow

But the genius of Frederick Law Olmsted is this: when he designed the Emerald Necklace, he knew natural landscapes needn’t be distant and untamed to refresh the human heart and mind. At no point today were J and I more than a literal stone’s throw away from traffic and densely populated urban neighborhoods, but we enjoyed the placidity of walking among trees and geese and flowing water all the same.

Leverett Pond

Olmsted believed that city-dwellers need green spaces to help soothe the stresses of urban life, and I think he was right. After we’d had lunch and were retracing our steps back toward Longwood, J and I saw an elderly couple sitting on a park bench overlooking Everett Pond. The woman had a walker and the man fingered a well-worn rosary as they sat chatting in Russian. How good it must have been for their bodies and souls to sit outside on a sunny January day, and how good it was for us, as well.

Long shadows at Longwood

Once we’d returned to Longwood, J and I boarded a crowded trolley headed toward home. Standing alongside fellow strap-hangers didn’t feel any more stressful than walking alongside dog-walkers, runners, and baby-strollers. During the hour or so J and I had been walking, our daily lives felt very far away. At a time of year when cabin fever is endemic, it’s a welcome gift to spend an afternoon outside.

Gray day

The latest issue of the New Yorker shows on its cover an Advent calendar for the month of January–the cruellest month, according to the cartoon’s title. The month is shown to offer an interminable onslaught of challenges: sleet and sickness and existential dread.

The white wall

As if on cue, last night I overheard several of my students wondering how long it was until Spring Break–this, the end of only the second week of the semester. If we’ve already started to count the days in January, what will we do during the long slog of FebruMarch?

I’ve lived in New England long enough–a quarter of a century–to learn this: you need to marshal your emotions against winter’s bleak demands. Yes, you should bundle your body against the cold, and step carefully to assure solid footing, and bolster your immune system with citrus fruits, herbal tea, and properly titrated cocktails.

Parking structure on gray day

But more important than these physical safeguards are the psychological ones. You must pace your days and not grow weary, feeding your spirit with timely doses of light, color, and sun-soaked daydreams. Even when you are sunk to your eyeballs in a busy semester, you need to remember this: winter is its own kind of austerity, a vow involuntarily taken. Whether you choose to embrace or try to distract yourself from winter’s gloom, you dare not fight it. The only way to survive another interminable Northeast winter is to outlast it, and this requires an unrelenting inner stockpile of good cheer.

Thoreau's last journal entry, followed by a blank page. He died six months later.

Yesterday I went to the Concord Museum to see This Ever New Self, an exhibition of Henry David Thoreau’s journals that closes this weekend. It was inspiring to be in the same room as so many notebooks Thoreau had touched, along with a ragtag assortment of objects: for example, his desk, flute, and walking stick; the only two photographs taken of him; two pages from his herbarium; and the wooden chest in which his notebooks were stored.

Journal with Thoreau family pencils

Most moving, though, was the final entry in his last notebook: half a page of Thoreau’s indecipherable scrawl, then an empty page. Thoreau, the placard explains, wrote his last journal entry in November, 1861 and died six months later. The empty page that follows the final entry in Thoreau’s voluminous journals–nearly ten thousand pages written over the course of his adult life–is as stark and final as slammed door.

Journal with drawing of hawk feather

Journal-keeping is an indefinite endeavor, a kind of composition that defies the constraints of beginning, middle, and end. A story follows an arc, and a novel is definitively done when published, but a journal (and a journal-keeper) starts anew with each page. A journal is a compendium of loose ends, dropped narrative threads, aborted ideas, and discarded dead-ends. That is what makes Thoreau’s final journal entry so shocking. This is a story that was cut off prematurely in mid-thought. It’s the ultimate cliffhanger: the words To Be Continued abruptly replaced with The End.

Click here for more photos of Thoreau’s journals at the Concord Museum. Enjoy!

Rally against racism

Yesterday there was a student-led march to protest six racist incidents on campus last semester. This isn’t the first event students have organized to speak out against racism on campus, but it’s the first one that happened when I was on campus and not either teaching or tutoring.

Silence is betrayal / End racism

I’m not by nature a march-goer. Although I attended the Unity Walk students organized after the 2016 election as well as the Women’s March on Boston Common in January, 2017, my dislike of crowds makes me a less-than-ideal rally-goer. My personal political proclivities are more introverted in nature: I’d rather stay inside and make a sign than go outside and wave one.

Rally against racism

Yesterday, however, I ignored my personal proclivities. The whole point of a protest, after all, is to gather a crowd, and a crowd needs lots of bodies. “Silence is violence,” several signs reminded us: when bigots are spewing words of hate, doing nothing speaks volumes. Even if you don’t know how to fix a problem as big and complicated as white supremacy, the least you can do is show up to the fight.

You can almost hear them saying "Carpe diem."

Today Leslee and I drove to Palmer, Massachusetts to meet A (not her real initial) for lunch, cocktails, and a belated celebration of both Christmas and my birthday. The restaurant we went to–Steaming Tender, a railroad-themed pub in a restored H.H. Richardson train depot at the center of town–was still decorated for the holidays, so we could almost imagine we weren’t weeks behind with our celebration.

Festive libations, with @insta_leslee

We’d chosen to meet in Palmer because it’s halfway between the Boston suburbs where Leslee and I live and the western Massachusetts town where A lives. In summer, the three of us alternate between meeting in Northampton, which is closer to A, and the Tower Hill Botanic Garden, which is closer to Leslee and me. But during winter months when the days are short, it’s nice to meet halfway, eat lunch, and be home before it gets dark.

Leslee, A, and I have been celebrating holidays and birthdays over food and cocktails for more than a decade. Originally, I lived in Keene, Leslee lived in Grafton, and A lived in Chelmsford: over the years our addresses have changed, but our friendship continues.

Next Page »