Art & culture


Andy Warhol dresses

Today I met A (not her real initial) at the Worcester Art Museum. As happens every time I visit a museum, I enjoyed simply being in a space devoted to art as much as looking at any individual artwork or exhibit.

I like spending time in churches because churches are dedicated to the practice of silence, and I like spending time in museums because museums are dedicated to the practice of looking. In a well-designed museum, every turn offers an interesting vista: something to observe in all directions.

Earlier this summer when I told A that simply being in a museum surrounded by art makes me feel a creative boost, she compared it to forest bathing, the practice of soaking in the psychological benefits of a natural setting. Just as spending time in nature is a soothing balm for the soul, spending time in a museum is, too.

Come From Away

Last night J and I went to the Boston Opera House to see Come From Away, a musical retelling of the story of Gander, Newfoundland, where 38 planes were stranded for nearly a week after the terror attacks of 9/11.

On September 11, 2001, the population of Gander nearly doubled as 7,000 travelers were forced to disembark there after the United States shut down its airspace. Come From Away dramatizes some of these travelers’ stories, and it also portrays the town’s response as locals flooded emergency shelters with supplies and opened their homes to confused and frightened travelers.

Although I knew many travelers were stranded in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I didn’t know the full story of how (and why) planes were diverted to Gander. Initially, passengers on the 38 planes didn’t know why they were landing in Newfoundland: in order to avoid widespread panic, flight crews didn’t divulge the full details of what was happening on the ground in New York, Washington, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. As a result, puzzled passengers were literally flying (and landing) blind.

Even after the diverted planes landed in Canada, passengers were prevented from disembarking, as nobody knew if there were additional terrorists on the planes. Flights were diverted to Gander and other remote Canadian airports because authorities feared they were carrying explosives, and isolating the potential danger at remote airports was deemed a safer option than having the planes land in densely populated areas.

Once the tired and disoriented passengers were allowed to deplane, the town of Gander hurried to provide food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities for the “plane people.” An elementary school was transformed into an emergency shelter, the local hockey rink was commandeered to hold and refrigerate bulk shipments of food, and extra televisions, phones, and computers were installed so stranded travelers could watch news coverage and reach out to loved ones back home.

Come From Away did an excellent job dramatizing the hospitality Gander, Newfoundland showed in the aftermath of 9/11 and the impromptu community that arose among locals and their transient guests. Not surprisingly, my favorite character in the musical was an SPCA worker who tended the 19 dogs, cats, and chimpanzees (!) riding as cargo in the stranded planes.

Although Come From Away wasn’t the best, most profound, or funniest musical I’ve ever seen–Hamilton, Fun Home, and The Book of Mormon take those honors, respectively–it was entertaining, sweet, and alternatingly heart-breaking and humorous. From beginning to end, I was captivated by the story of how residents in a remote town opened their doors to strangers in the aftermath of a dark day.

Halloween remnant

I start every morning with the same ritual, albeit at different wake-up times. J takes the dogs out and in, and I do a litany of kitchen tasks: load the dishwasher, take out the trash, clean the kitchen litter box, and give our three diabetic cats their breakfast and morning insulin.

Only then does my day splinter into particularity. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I walk the dog and do last minute class prep before leaving to teach at Babson; on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I head straight to Framingham State to teach until dark. Only on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays do I have the luxury of sitting at my desk, drinking a cup of tea, and writing a proper journal entry…unless, of course, I have meetings on campus or get waylaid by other obligations.

In theory, my teaching days include little pockets of time when I can scribble a few hurried lines: in my first year writing classes at Babson, for instance, we start class with five minutes of writing, and I’ve started doing this with my American Short Story students at Framingham State, as well. But I don’t usually have time to type up and blog these random scribbled bits, and my earnest intention to spend at least a few minutes journaling between classes is typically overruled by the demands of class prep and my ever-present paper piles.

Since my busy morning hours are my most predictable hours–after I’ve finished my daily kitchen tasks, who knows where the rest of my day will go–I’ve learned that if I take a few stolen moments to start even an embryonic blog post on my phone while doing morning kitchen tasks, I’m more likely to go back later in the day and finish it. But if I wait to start writing until after I get home from a long teaching day–and when you teach a double-load at two different colleges, all your teaching days are long–it’s immensely difficult to find the energy and inspiration to say anything other than “Today I taught and graded papers, again.”

What I’m learning, in other words, is that if you want to write often, you’d better write early. In the morning, the day is fresh and full of potential. Later in the day, your schedule is likely to careen completely out of your control.

I started writing this post by the light of day this morning…and only now have I gotten around to posting it well after dark.

Japanese maple

This morning I woke up with an idea for a future blog entry: not this post, but one I might write tomorrow or the day after. This is, I’ve learned, how blogging goes. When you post regularly, ideas for entries fall out of thin air, but when you aren’t posting, ideas are hard to come by.

Writing, in other words, begets more writing, just as not writing leads to more of the same. When you do a thing, you build momentum, and when you aren’t doing that thing, you fall prey to inertia. This truth applies not just to writing but to all kinds of phenomena. It’s easier to save money if you have money. It’s easier to stay in shape than it is to get in shape. There’s no better way to meet people than to know people. The list of examples goes on and on.

This truth about momentum is why simply starting a task is so important. Keeping a habit is easier than making a habit, and continuing to do something is easier than getting started. During the months I barely blogged, I lacked either the time or inspiration to write. This month, though, I set my expectations as low as possible: every day, I want to post a picture and at least one sentence.

Since I was already in the habit of taking a photo a day, adding at least one sentence seemed attainable, and it is. And here’s the truth about sentences: they like to travel in groups. If you sit down to write a single sentence, it will attract another and another and another, just as a lone decoy attracts a bevy of ducks.

Frosted

My preferred mode of writing is by hand. I love the immediacy of setting pen to paper, and I love the actual materials involved: pens, paper, notebooks. Even on days I can’t write in my regular notebook, I carry a handful of note cards so I can dash off a letter or note of encouragement when the opportunity arises.

When I write for teaching or my blog, I use Google Drive to keep my documents in one place I can access from my home and work laptops alike. This summer when I swapped out my work laptop for a newer one, the campus IT guy was amazed to learn I had no files saved on the machine itself. Instead, all my lecture notes and other teaching documents live online so I can work on them on any machine from anywhere.

Through the technological wonder that is Google Drive, “any machine” includes both my tablet and (fortunately) phone. I can’t count the number of times I’ve found myself stuck in a line or waiting room, and instead of mindlessly scrolling through my social media feeds, I’ve pulled out my phone to work on whatever document needed my attention at the moment: the next day’s lecture notes, assignment guidelines for my students, or a blog entry.

When I write in my paper notebook, I enjoy the immediacy of tactile contact, the way a thought moves automatically from my brain down my arm, into my hand, and through my pen onto the page. Because I write by hand so much and so frequently, I sometimes say I’ve come to think with my left hand. The movement of thoughts into my typing fingers is similarly familiar but feels less intimate. The touch of laptop keys feels less organic to me than the touch of paper.

When I type on my phone, the experience is different still: not better or worse, just different. Unlike my students, who grew up texting, I am not a digital native. On my phone, I type with a combination of thumb and index finger. Despite many earnest attempts to master the skill, I still can’t swipe from one letter to the next. Instead, I laboriously tap out individual letters with my fingers, the smartphone equivalent of hunt-and-peck.

Still, I compose on my phone frequently enough that it too feels like a tool for writers. I might not be a digital native, but I’ve grown almost fluent in technology over time, almost reaching the point where I can think (and write) with my thumbs just as naturally as I do with my laptop-typing fingers. So this morning, I started this entry on my phone while the cats ate their breakfast, and I’m finishing it on my laptop after I’ve walked the dog, arrived back home, and settled at my desk with a cup of tea. Over time, this hybrid method of composition has become natural and even inevitable: simply the way we work these days.

November

The past two months have passed in a blur. I’ve been teaching a double-load this semester, so even before my Dad died in mid-September, I’ve been preoccupied with the juggling acts of teaching, tending the house and pets, and simply staying upright. At the end of most teaching days, I arrive home completely tapped, wondering where I’ll find the energy to do it all again tomorrow. But somehow, the days, weeks, and months pass, and I’m still standing, still juggling, still trudging forward.

Every day this year I’ve made a point to take at least one picture, a continuation of the 365 photo challenge I’ve done in past years. Some days, I post my daily picture on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter; other days, I post it only on Flickr, where I keep an album of days. At the end of the year, I like to scroll through my year at a glance. I feel a small sense of accomplishment knowing I did at least one creative thing every day, even in the face of daunting deadlines and to-do lists.

At some point, I set the expectation that my blog is where I post longer essays: entries that are longer than my simple picture-and-caption social media posts. That means that during semesters like this one, my blog grows cold. Every month, I promise myself to write daily and post to my blog more often, but busy days without writing turn into busy weeks, busy months, and busy years.

In past years, I’ve participated in NaBloPoMo by committing to blog daily during the month of November. I don’t know if I can realistically post something every single day this month, but I want to at least try to post more frequent “postcard posts”: just a photo and a couple sentences, a brief note to check in with myself and say “wish you were here.”

Anthony and Jesus

Yesterday J and I went to Boston’s North End for the 100th annual Saint Anthony’s Feast. As a good little Catholic girl in Ohio, I grew up praying to Saint Anthony whenever I lost something. I remember my Mom explaining that praying to Saint Anthony wasn’t a magical guarantee you’d find whatever you’d lost, but repeating Saint Anthony’s prayer would help you stay focused while you kept searching. The purpose of the prayer wasn’t to find your lost things for you; the purpose of the prayer was to keep you from giving up hope.

Processing

It’s been years since I’ve prayed to Saint Anthony…and truth be told, it’s been years since I’ve been to church. But whenever J and I go to a religious festival in Boston’s Italian enclave, the pomp and iconography feels natural, like returning to one’s motherland.

Both J and I are a mix of Italian and Irish, we both are lapsed Catholics, and we both wonder how outsiders–that is, people who are neither Catholic nor Italian–react when they see a large statue being paraded through thronged streets, trailing ribbons pinned with money. What would a proverbial man from Mars make of such a spectacle? What, for that matter, do two lapsed Catholics make of it?

Saint Anthony buttons

I don’t personally believe Saint Anthony is a man looking down from a cloud, making sure people’s prayers get answered. But that doesn’t mean I make light of Saint Anthony’s Feast. Regardless of our own lapsed Catholicism, J and I made sure to stop at a makeshift shrine where a smaller statue of Saint Anthony stayed throughout the festival, pinning a donation alongside everyone else’s and accepting a small button in return.

Because I was raised Catholic, I know every dollar pinned to Saint Anthony’s train represents someone’s sincere prayer: a wish for something lost, a hope for something denied, or an expression of gratitude for something granted. (When my Mom taught me how to pray to Saint Anthony, she also explained that if your prayer was answered, you were obligated to thank Saint Anthony as many times as you’d petitioned him.)

Grand procession

Seeing all the prayers pinned like a cape to Saint Anthony’s statue, who am I to hold myself aloof from those who search, seek, hope, and sometimes lose hope? Haven’t we all lost things, and don’t we all continue to search? One person loses their car keys, another loses a ring, still another loses an important document. It is a universal fact of life that anything that can be held can just as easily be lost. Isn’t any of us lucky to reach the end of our days without losing our faith, heart, or mind?

Pinning offerings

Anne Lamott once said there are only three prayers: help, thanks, and wow. Pious Catholics appeal to Jesus, Mary, or Joseph when the Big Stuff is on the line, but even those of us who are feeble in our faith trust Saint Anthony with our trifles. As the patron of lost things, Saint Anthony is privy to our mundane frustrations, and he knows more than anyone the tiny trinkets we hold dear. How can anyone who hasn’t lost all hope belittle him for that?

Click here for more photos from this year’s Saint Anthony’s Feast. Enjoy!

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