January 2019


Babson redtail

The best time of day for writing is the early morning, before the rest of the world is awake–but the next best time is long after dark, when the earth herself is leaning toward sleep. On a cold winter’s night, you can almost hear the darkness, the hush of your neighbors tucked into their houses entirely different from the sound of midday, when cars zoom and dog-walkers pass.

Don't tell me I'm the only one who takes pictures like this to find my car.

The worst time to write is afternoon, when the world is restless and your body weary. A writer should ideally be awake when others are sleeping, or watchful while others are oblivious. In the afternoon, the eyes of the world are casting about, hungry, and my own eyes feel heavy. Better to wait until one’s soul is completely depleted, spent with the exertion of the day, because then you come to the page empty-handed and defenseless, your first-thoughts bleeding onto the page without impediment. In the early morning and late evening–before dawn or after dark, when others are asleep in the beds or mesmerized by their own distant, private pursuits–you come to the page raw and without pretense, your guile stripped away by the sheer exertion of being.

Babson College

This open-eyed, undefended perspective–this stance of standing like a bare nerve, ever-sensitive and reactive, watchful and incapable of fleeing–is how I picture May Oliver, writing, her poetry offering a clear mirror into truths that anyone with open eyes could see, but which are so rarely recognized. Oliver had a gift of observation, which means she had a firm grasp of the obvious–a phrase that sounds like an insult but is the highest praise. Most of us fool ourselves by clamoring after the remarkable and spectacular, thereby missing the all-abiding wonder that is our miraculous hand right in front of our ever-wonderous nose.

These are the words that poured out tonight when I sat down belatedly to write my daily journal pages. In the morning, I attended a faculty retreat at Babson College, where someone recalled a colleague who often used the phrase “a firm grasp of the obvious” to pooh-pooh the presumably pedestrian observations of his co-workers: an indirect insult. After I’d heard of poet Mary Oliver’s passing today, however, the phrase took a different meaning in my mind.

Oonas

Today I’m finally getting around to the mundane task of shelving the past few years’ worth of Moleskine notebooks. Every time I fill a notebook with journal entries, I add it to a pile in my closet, and when that pile starts to loom too ominously, I take each notebook, use a silver Sharpie to write the relevant dates on the spine, and then shelve it alongside its fellows.

Worth a shot

Today’s closet pile contains the ten notebooks I’ve filled since July, 2015. When I shelve my journals, I occasionally dip into a random entry or two to see what I was doing or thinking at any given point in my past. (Spoiler alert: the things I was doing on any random day in 2015, the year after, or the year after that are largely the same as what I did yesterday or today. The more the dates on the calendar change, the more human nature and a thing called karma stay the same.)

And so on Saturday, November 21, 2015, I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which I had mixed feelings about:

Art, etc.

I don’t buy Gilbert’s glowing talk of magic, but I agree with what she says about permission. It is too easy to fall into the trap of seeking either permission or legitimacy rather than simply doing what you do because you enjoy doing it.

The only thing keeping me blogging all these years is the fact I enjoy it, and the only thing that’s kept me teaching all these years (even in the face of perpetual disappointment) is the fact I can’t picture myself doing anything else. In some cases, it pays to be stubborn, just keeping one’s head down doing one’s thing because that’s how you work–slowly and gradually, like water wearing away stone.

My life’s work of blog and journal entries has grown like a stalagmite, each drop gradually growing the thing incrementally. You can’t see the progress–it’s too slow for that–but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Enter only

Three years and a couple months after writing those works, they still ring true. I’m still stubbornly journaling, blogging, and teaching even though none of those activities have led to consistently full-time employment: I just journal, blog, and teach because these are the things I do. The motivation is both internal and intrinsic: if I weren’t writing and teaching, I don’t know what else I’d do with myself. So page by page, day by day, I build up a stack of notebooks that gather dust on my shelves: a life in handwritten lines.

Dog walk shadows

After more than a quarter century living in New England, I’ve realized some inexorable truths. The day after a snowstorm is almost always sunny, and the most bitterly cold days often have the clearest, bluest skies.

Dog walk shadows

This morning when I walked Toivo, it was seventeen degrees: a temperature that felt brutally cold at the time, but I’ve lived in New England long enough to know there will be days when temperatures in the double-digits will feel warm. But today felt colder than usual, so I wore my longest, fluffiest down coat, and the dog and I kept moving.

It was bright and brisk, and I didn’t wear a ballcap or sunglasses: I just squinted into the glare, knowing that light more than warmth is the thing I crave in midwinter. Even the most bitterly cold days are bearable if the sun is beaming from a turquoise-blue sky; the winter days that crush your soul aren’t the cold ones but the gray ones.

Birthday treat

Last weekend I turned 50, a milestone I somehow never thought I’d reach. Turning 50 isn’t a remarkable task–given enough time, anyone could do it–but somehow I never imagined it happening to me.

Burdicks

When I was younger, being 50 is something I never (literally) pictured. As a child, I could readily envision myself in high school, college, and young adulthood. I could picture myself in my 20s and 30s, when I imagined I’d have long, disheveled hair and legs that would stride tirelessly through woods and streams, stomping fearlessly through mud and briars. But I never imagined myself as middle-aged, settled, and settling. Back then, I never imagined I’d transform into a gray-haired, thick-middled woman in a pink coat and gray beret, the kind of unremarkable older woman you might pass on the street without really seeing. I could if I really tried imagine myself as a white-haired and wiry old lady, but not as gray and middling.

Reflective self portrait

Thirty years ago when I was an undergraduate, I took a group singing class for non-music majors that I’ve since insisted was the most useful class I took in college. In that class, I had to stand in front of my peers and sing unaccompanied, including at least one opera song in Italian. This class is where I first learned about the passaggio. All singers–especially sopranos like me, my teacher said–have a low voice and a high voice, but the trickiest voice is the passaggio, the voice in the middle where the low tones in your chest meet the high falsetto in your head.

Reflective self portrait

My voice teacher was a rail-thin sliver of a man, but he physically transformed when he sang, standing up taller and emitting a big, booming voice that seemed to come from the center of the earth. After alternating between his thin, unremarkable speaking voice and his rich, deep singing voice, my teacher explained that mastering the passaggio was the secret to becoming a good singer. If you weathered the passaggio, he explained, you could link your high voice to your low voice to create one seamlessly connected voice that swelled effortlessly from low to high without any squeaks, croaks, or cracks.

Reflective self portrait

When you shift from low voice to high, he explained, your throat–your whole body–does all sorts of weird things. Your voice sounds squeaky and shrill. You think this voice sounds bad because it is unusual to your ear: it’s not the speaking voice you’ve grown accustomed to. Even though you’re singing from your own body–where else, exactly, could you sing–the passaggio is a place you might not ever explore.

“Put your hand on my shoulder,” my teacher would say as he sat at the piano and switched from his soft speaking voice to his infinitely rich baritone. He wanted all of us–a half dozen non-musicians in a one-credit pass/fail elective–to feel the physical change. “Your whole body is an instrument,” he’d insist, and yes, you could feel something shift in his shoulder as he went from slack-spined and insipid to upright and energized: Clark Kent transformed into Superman.

Burdicks

I am, at age 50, weathering a different sort of passaggio. Being 50 is physically weird. Your body becomes alien, with new aches and pains, less flexibility, and diminished energy. Fatigue becomes a kind of friend–a phenomenon you know right down to your bones–and so do disappointment and resignation. If you are a woman, your alien body will surge with heat, sweat, and restless, abundant energy as you lie abed, pondering life, the universe, and the eternally vexing question of whether you locked the back door.

Although I was (and am) an unremarkable singer, my college voice teacher did walk me through the passaggio once. Usually, he let us choose our preferred register for whatever song we decided to sing in front of the class: the whole reason I opted for this elective, after all, was to force myself to sing in front of strangers, figuring the experience of taming my nerves would be good practice for teaching. (I was right.) But occasionally, my teacher would choose a key on the piano and ask us to sing it, turning us the other way so we couldn’t see how low or high that note was.

My writing runs on chocolate

And so one day when he thought I was ready, my teacher did with me what I’d seen him do with other students: he asked me to do a warm-up exercise down low in my register, and then he gradually moved that exercise up, up, up the scale. After a half dozen steps, I started to waver, my voice feeling thin and squeaky. “If it doesn’t hurt, don’t stop,” he encouraged. “It sounds beautiful to the rest of us: keep going.” And when I reached the place where my voice finally cracked, he turned me around to the piano and showed me, there on the far right side of the keys, the impossibly high note I had reached. “If you don’t believe that’s the note you just sang,” he said, “just look at your classmates,” and indeed, they were all staring at me, amazed.

Although I never became a classical singer, what I learned from that one credit, pass/fail class was the courage it takes to stand in your own shoes, open your mouth, and trust with all your heart whatever sound comes out. At the still-strange age of 50, I’ve come to believe that in the middle of any passage, you won’t necessarily imagine what comes next; you just have to trust your body to work through its weirdness on the way to a pure, clear note.

Eeyore

Yesterday after months of secret angst, I turned fifty. Now that I’ve passed that venerable milestone, I realize what I had been dreading wasn’t being fifty by turning fifty. Among women of a certain age, there is a widespread expectation (spoken or implied) that you should Do Something Grand for milestone birthdays, and my usual low-key celebratory style felt completely inadequate, at least in my imagined build up to The Event.

You are enough

But now that the auspicious occasion is officially over, I can say I celebrated as I (if nobody else) saw fit. In the morning, I went to the Zen Center, left after one meditation session, then walked to Harvard Square, where I explored the old burying ground–there is nothing like visiting graves of the centuries-ago deceased to put your life in perspective–before stopping at Burdick’s, where I treated myself to half a slice of raspberry-chocolate cake and a small dark hot chocolate. And under the combined influence of meditation, a brisk walk, and high octane chocolate, I did something I love to do but hadn’t done in ages: I sat in a cafe and wrote, starting with nothing to say and eventually finding words to describe why turning fifty has been unsettling. I wrote my way, in other words, into my own sort of clarity.

Street salamander

This is how I’ve navigated the first fifty years of my life, so why wouldn’t it be an apt way to celebrate the commencement of the next? After that first decadent treat, the rest of the day unspooled like any other Sunday: J and I walked to lunch at our favorite Thai restaurant, where our waiter surprised us with ice cream, and then we played with the dogs in the yard in the afternoon, as we normally do.

It was a quiet and contemplative day–no grand trips or parties or eye-popping spectacles to advertise on social media–but it was a day with all the things I love: walking and meditating and time with J and the dogs. And it was a day, too, with not one but three deserts: Burdicks cake and hot chocolate in the morning, Thai ice cream at lunch, and a slice of chocolate peanut butter cake in the evening. It was a day, in other words, with an abundance of delights.

Pooh and Eeyore

At some point, I’ll blog the journal entry I wrote yesterday at Burdicks, but for now all that’s necessary is to note I had a quietly delightful day and couldn’t have wished for anything better. If the way you spend your birthday is the way you’ll spend the coming year, please sign me up for fifty more.

Meteorological terms

For Christmas, A (not her real initial) got me a weather observer’s notebook. A knows I love both nature and notebooks, so something that combines those two loves is a perfect present. And because I can’t let a blank notebook go unfilled, I’ve been trying since the New Year to write a short description of the weather after each day’s dog-walk, along with an account of birds I saw.

Kinds of clouds

Writing about the weather is nothing new for me: meteorological conditions are a frequent theme in both my blog and handwritten journal. Weather is, after all, both ephemeral and omnipresent, so if you have nothing to write about on a given day, you can always describe what’s going on outside. But having an entire, separate notebook devoted to The Weather is something new. It’s one thing to describe the quality of light falling upon your journal page and another to chronicle each day’s temperature and precipitation.

Snowflakes

So far this year, we’ve had weird weather: we’ve fluctuated between warm, cold, and wet without any snow (currently) on the ground. Today has alternated between rain and drizzle, the sky a monochrome shade of gray; earlier in the week, we had partly cloudy days that were glaring-bright with the harsh, low-angled light of winter. Tomorrow and Monday are supposed to be dry and partly cloudy; on Tuesday, we’re expecting either rain, snow, or both.

Writing the weather

I don’t know how long into the New Year I’ll remain faithful to this new habit of writing down the weather: once I’m back to teaching, I’ll have much less time to write, and even less time to maintain multiple notebooks. But for now, it’s been fun to chronicle each day’s meteorological mood swings, New England’s ever-changing weather inevitably giving me something to write about.

Millet

Yesterday J and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see an exhibit of French pastels. Pastels are a fragile medium: fine paper is vulnerable to light, and chalky pigments are prone to fading and smudging. For a short moment of time, these works were taken out of protective storage and displayed for all to see, and I appreciate the opportunity to admire them.

Cassatt

All works of art are handmade, but these pastel drawings seemed more immediate and tactile than paintings or sculptures. A brush stands between an artist and her paints, but pastels are held directly in an artist’s hand. The smudginess of pastels make them a perfect medium for landscape and portraiture, as they handily capture the fuzzy nuance of clouds, foliage, and skin tones. Looking at the blurred lines of these drawings, I could easily imagine the hands–indeed, the very fingers–that drew and blended them.

Mary Cassatt's pastel box

My favorite item in the exhibit wasn’t a drawing but an artifact: a well-used box of pastels formerly owned by Mary Cassatt. J is a long-time admirer of Cassatt, and before I knew him, he decorated his guest bathroom–now my bathroom–with prints of her paintings. You have to get your hands dirty to draw with pastels, so seeing tangible proof of the mess Cassatt made with her drawing supplies was thrilling, like seeing Virginia Woolf’s ink-stained hands in The Hours. Fine art can seem like an abstract or heady thing, but any individual artwork was created by a flesh-and-blood human. Mary Cassatt’s pastel box was a tangible reminder of the actual hands that drew her works.

Click here for more photos from the MFA’s French Pastels: Treasures from the Vault, which closes this weekend.