Art & culture


Wall at Central Square

I recently started reading Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. The main premise of the book is that many of the things people do to study or memorize things actually aren’t effective, and what does work is counter-intuitive.

Wall at Central Square

One of the things the book insists, for example, is that pure repetition doesn’t implant long-term memories. You might memorize something for a test by repeating it over and over, but you’ll quickly forget that information: a nugget of wisdom that matches pretty much every student’s experience with cramming.

According to Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, repeatedly re-reading a textbook or class notes won’t help you master the material because repetition lulls you into thinking you understand underlying concepts when actually you’re simply memorizing someone else’s explanation. Instead of memorizing material through blind repetition, you need to apply the material, either by re-stating concepts in your own words or using those concepts to solve a problem.

Wall at Central Square

The example Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel use at the beginning of the book involves aviation. You can memorize the parts and functions of a plane engine, but that knowledge won’t become real–it won’t be yours, something you’ve truly mastered–until you face a situation where you have to use that knowledge, either in a flight simulator or actual plane. If you can connect abstract concepts to your own life–something you’ve lived and care about–those concepts will “stick” longer than facts you’ve simply drilled into your head through repetition.

Wall at Central Square

The other insight I’ve gotten from the book so far is the importance of “interleaving”: the cognitive multitasking that happens when you study multiple subjects side-by-side rather than focusing your entire attention on one subject. I haven’t read far enough into the book to understand exactly why interleaving is so powerful, but I suppose it’s the mental equivalent of interval training. In my own experience, studying more than one subject allows you to take breaks by switching back and forth between topics, and it also allows you to draw novel connections among subjects. (As a professor, for example, I’m always happy to hear students connect something they’ve learned in another class to something we’re discussing in mine.)

Wall at Central Square

The concept of interleaving reminds me of the intricate clockwork desk naturalist John Muir built when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin. Muir loaded the desk with his various textbooks, and it would automatically open each of his books at pre-arranged intervals so he couldn’t spend too much time on any one subject. Although it might be a bit obsessive to design a desk that forces you to cycle through a set number of subjects, I often read more than one book at a time: when I grow tired of one book, I move to the next, and the connections and I make between the two keep me engaged longer than focusing on merely one.

Wall at Central Square

So, while I’m reading Make It Stick, I’m also reading Sam Quinones’ Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, which is about a whole other kind of “sticking.” Sometimes you want to etch information indelibly into your brain, and other times, you want to disentangle yourself from habits that stick too tenaciously.

The only rule is work

Last year, a friend bought me a poster-sized copy of Sister Corita Kent’s rules for artists, which I promptly posted in my office at school. Although all of Sister Kent’s rules are helpful, my favorite is #7: “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.”

Wire panther

I don’t consider myself to be a naturally creative person: I don’t write fiction, for example, because I’m not good at dreaming up imaginary worlds. But I’m a naturally curious person, and I’m not afraid to work. A creature of habit, what I lack in creativity, I make up for in sheer stubbornness. Whether or not I have anything to say, I show up at my notebook, and once I set pen to paper, I fill pages out of obligation, having trained myself through long habit to follow Natalie Goldberg’s exhortation to “keep my hand moving.”

Two headed turtle

I suppose some people see creativity as being a delicate, fluttery thing, like a butterfly or hummingbird that flits and flirts according to whim and mood. My muse, on the other hand, is more like an old ox that no longer fights his yoke. Others might follow a muse that is as occasional and enlightening as a shooting star; I follow a muse that plods down predictable paths.

Wire rat

I don’t know what sort of muse visited Sister Corita Kent, but I know this much: I’ve been following the rule of work for years, and it’s the best way I know to create. Perhaps there are writers, artists, and other creatives who can show up only when they feel inspired, but I’m not one of them. My muse requires regular practice even when I don’t feel like writing, and the rule of work points to that truth.

Scheming

One of the benefits of being an English professor is the way my job forces me to read several books at once. Right now I’m re-reading Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio for my American Short Story class, Toni Morrison’s Sula for my American Ethnic Literature class, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me for my Introduction to College Writing class. This particular combination of books isn’t one I’d intentionally plan: instead, it’s a serendipity of semester scheduling.

Sinous

In addition to the books I read for work are the books I read for fun. This morning, for example, I finished reading Difficult Women, Roxane Gay’s new collection of short stories. Every difficult woman has a story of how life made her so, and this a collection of those stories. Gay describes women who make poor choices, but she also chronicles the cumulative cruelties that led to those choices. Gay is neither sappy nor sentimental: she never moralizes. Instead, she illuminates the dark, difficult roads that lead to human resilience.

Cocktail party

This morning, I realized an interesting overlap between Gay’s stories and Morrison’s novel. Sula is a difficult woman: even when Sula was a child, her own mother admitted she loved Sula but did not always like her. Both Toni Morrison and Roxane Gay realize difficult women aren’t born; they are made. Sula refuses to be owned by any man, and this gets her in trouble, repeatedly. The only person who understands Sula is her childhood friend, Nel, but even their relationship is not easy. When Nel marries and thus chooses a conventional life, her life is set at cross-purposes with Sula’s. Loyalty in love and loyalty in friendship don’t always coexist.

Genteel

Roxane Gay’s stories are full of twins and inseparable sisters, shared trauma bonding women together more strongly than blood. Toni Morrison’s Nel and Sula are such a pair: they are friends in part because they share one another’s secrets. Ultimately, both Morrison and Gay suggest a woman can be loyal only to herself, and this is a crime patriarchy can never forgive. Women can remain true to their sisters, friends, or even children, but men are infinitely replaceable.

Aristocratic

Mary Austin once said men can’t survive without women, but woman with a child will do perfectly fine. Both Morrison and Gay go one step further, suggesting that even a child isn’t necessary, difficult women having within themselves the resources to stand alone, resilient.

Self portrait with paper doves

On Saturday as I approached the Museum of Fine Arts, I saw a young couple walking ahead of me. It’s not unusual to see young couples walking in Boston, but what caught my eye was the young woman’s pink, pointy-eared hat. Although I’d read about the Pussyhat Project and knew knitters across the country have been making pink hats for the Women’s Marches that will take place across the nation next Saturday, I’d never seen a real live pussyhat in the wild.

Lime Green Icicle Tower

As I watched the couple ascend the stairs to the Museum’s Fenway entrance, I knew what I had to do. Although my own hat is black and store-bought, I’m planning to attend next week’s Boston Women’s March for America, and I realized it was time to come out as a Pussyhat-in-Hiding. Since my museum membership allows me one guest, I approached the couple as they stood in line for tickets, complimenting the woman on her hat and offering to get her into the Museum for free.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

While her boyfriend bought his ticket, “N” and I chatted about next weekend’s march: she is knitting pussyhats to give away to marchers, and I’m looking forward to marching even though I don’t have a pussyhat to wear. You can see, I suspect, where this is going. By the time her boyfriend had bought his ticket, “N” promised to mail me one of her knitted hats, and I gave her my email address to arrange logistics. None of this would have happened, of course, if “N” weren’t wearing a pink knitted hat with cat ears that inspired me to approach her. The simple act of seeing someone in a distinctive (and politically significant) hat inspired me to reach out rather than quietly minding my own business.

Lime Green Icicle Tower

There’s nothing stopping any of us from walking up to a stranger and doing something kind: inviting “N” to be my Museum guest cost nothing but the nerve to approach her. And yet, I would have never dreamed of walking up to a stranger before November. Suddenly, the election of a man who promised to Make America Hate Again makes simple acts of kindness feel subversive and powerful, a revolution powered by knitting needles and nice gestures.

Inside the Museum, in the sun-drenched enclosed courtyard that connects the building’s old and new wings, there are artworks made by local schoolchildren in honor of Martin Luther King Day. The most eye-catching of these are quilts bearing quotations from King, each letter whimsically decorated: a chorus of colors.

No person has the right to rain on your dreams

These quotes from King seem particularly relevant in today’s political climate, when the voices of hate have grown loud and it’s easy to give up hope. “I have decided to stick with love,” one quilt proclaims. “Hate is too great a burden to bear.” I’ll confess to carrying more anger than I’d like these past few weeks, unable to fathom how some voters could choose a mean-spirited, hot-headed bully over a woman with a lifetime of experience. But this, indeed, is a burden too great to bear: as King himself exhorted, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase

So how do we move forward, regardless of the burdens we carry? Dr. King said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” so what are these things? From where I sit, kindness matters, and so does compassion. Truth matters, even if some don’t want to hear it. Lending a helping hand matters, as does protecting the sick and vulnerable. Love matters, and random acts of kindness, and both solidarity and sisterhood. So next Saturday in Boston and beyond, women and men of all colors and stripes will march together for what matters: a chorus of colors, beautiful and harmonious.


Glass gallery door

Today I went to the Museum of Fine Arts: a belated birthday treat. I went to the Museum to see an exhibit of paintings by William Merritt Chase but found more interesting an exhibit on Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock that I wandered into by chance. That is the serendipitous nature of museums: given the abundance of riches at every turn, you can wander until you find something that speaks to you.

Pollock and Picasso

One of the things I like to do at Museums is hunt for images. This means I roam from gallery to gallery looking rather than reading: I just wander, looking at everything, not just the art. I look at other museum goers, shadows on the floor, and reflections on the wall. You might say I’m interested in observing the entire museum space: not just the art on the walls, but the habitat the art lives in. While other museum patrons are snapping photos of their favorite paintings, I’m looking for interesting views through doorways and down corridors. It’s not that I’m not interested in looking at art, but I find museum spaces to be equally interesting.

Picasso and Pollock

You could argue that my way of cruising through museums is intrinsically predatory: I’m perpetually on the lookout for images I can use. Instead of seeing paintings and sculptures as finished artifacts, I see them as stimuli. An interesting image scratches an inner creative itch. When I see interesting paintings, drawings, or sculptures, they stimulate the part of my brain that wants to think and make connections. Going to a museum is a way to feed my Inner Artist, so I circle the galleries like a vulture scavenging shapes and shadows. If I find and photograph enough interesting images, my full memory card can last me for weeks: a restocking of inspiration.

Geometric

I didn’t go to the Museum of Fine Arts at all last year: not for my birthday, and not any other time. It’s not surprising, then, that I spent the majority of last year feeling like I had nothing to write about, because I didn’t. For me, writing often starts with looking, and there’s no better place to exercise your looking-muscle than at a well-stocked museum. When I haven’t been to a museum for a while, my spirit grows lean and hungry, craving a visual feast.

My birthday trips to the MFA take me away, if only for an afternoon, to a place rich with imagery and rife with inspiration. It’s a place we all should visit more often.

RIP Prince

Without much hoopla, Hoarded Ordinaries has made the awkward transition from tween to teen:  it’s been a little over thirteen years since I published my first blog post on December 27, 2003. Because my blog anniversary happens so close to the New Year, I typically use the occasion to post some sort of retrospect on the previous year in blogging. So in honor of Hoarded Ordinaries’ thirteenth birthday, here are thirteen posts from 2016.

End white supremacy

Many people were happy to see 2016 go, given its tumultuous conflicts, violent outbreaks, and tragic losses. When I look back on 2016 through the lens of my blog, I see frequent reminders of loss and heartbreak. I blogged relatively little in 2016, averaging less than a handful of posts most months. (In September, I only posted once, which is unusual for me.) One of my resolutions for 2017 is to blog more, and considering I posted only three entries in January 2016, I’m already on-track to blog more this January than last, at least.

Bunny enjoys her lap-time

Last year began with J and me putting Bunny the cat to sleep, a sad event I chronicled in “Traveling Mercies.” In May, we put another of our cats, Crash, to sleep, and I described the now-too-familiar experience of coming home to a too-big, too-empty house in “His ninth life.” As if euthanizing two cats weren’t enough, in October we put our elderly beagle to sleep after a sudden seizure led to a diagnosis of metastatic cancer. I never got around to blogging Melony’s death: I never found (and still don’t have) words to describe the sudden, beagle-sized hole in our household.

Float reflections

Many of the tragedies of 2016 transcended the purely personal. In “A world full of swans,” I responded to the Orlando nightclub shootings, and in “The cries of the world,” I addressed gun violence by and against police. The election of Donald Trump was a development I’m still reeling from, and I described my reaction in a post titled “Aftermath.”

Stickwork

Not everything in 2016 was drear and disappointing. In August, I enjoyed a trip to the Brookline birthplace of John F. Kennedy, which I blogged in “The house on Beals Street.” In October, I enjoyed a trip to the Tower Hill Botanic Garden to see a stickwork installation by Patrick Doughtery, which I described in “Where the wild things are.”

Journal pages

Although I didn’t write much in 2016, I did meet my goal of reading (more than) 50 books, which I recorded on Goodreads. Of the books I read in 2016, I particularly enjoyed Alexander Masters’ A Life Discarded, which I discussed in “Trusting your days to the page“; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which I mentioned in a September post titled “Between the book and me“; and Kerry Egan’s On Living, which I reviewed in a December entry of the same name.

RIP Bowie

Many of my blog entries aren’t easily categorized: one of the things I love most about blogging, in fact, is its random and ragtag nature. In a February post titled “As the moment unfolds,” for example, I describe the flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants feeling I have whenever I teach a new course for the first time, and in “A grace freely given,” I describe the feeling of abundance that comes from leaving a book in a Little Free Library. Finally, in “Keep your options open,” I describe the spacious, free-fall feeling that comes in the summer when I have time to write but haven’t yet defined a topic.

Wake up and do good

For thirteen years, Hoarded Ordinaries has been a place where I’ve explored the creative abundance of writing by the seat of my pants, with or without a clearly defined topic. Here’s to another year of posts both random and ragtag.

Twas the night before Christmas

I recently finished reading On Living, Kerry Egan’s memoir of her work as a hospice chaplain. I took my time reading the book: like dark chocolate or strong medicine, On Living is best in small, savored doses. Each chapter describes patients Egan has met over the years and the lessons she’s gained from those encounters, and these seemingly simple accounts are surprisingly powerful.

Going places

Early in the book, Egan struggles to describe her job to a woman at a party who can’t quite understand what it is, exactly, that hospice chaplains do. I suppose the word “chaplain” evokes images that might not match the reality of the person standing next to you at a party: Egan isn’t a priest, nun, or pastor, and her book isn’t full of the God-talk and conventional piety you might expect from clergy. But that, actually, is what makes the book so powerful.

Caroling

Egan doesn’t spend much time preaching, praying, or enacting overtly religious rituals at the bedsides of dying patients; instead, she describes herself as showing up and spending lots of time listening. Egan calls this endeavor “being present,” and it seems a deceptively simple thing: surely anyone with a backside to sit on and a mouth that closes is equipped to sit and listen, but of course it isn’t that easy.

Ice cream shop

Judging from the stories Egan tells, a chaplain’s most powerful skills are the abilities to listen, empathize, and refrain from casting judgement. A good chaplain, Egan suggests, suspends her desire to jump in and fix the situations she encounters. Better than even the best advice and encouragement is a well-timed nod or genuine question that reflects a patient back upon her own lived experience: gestures that say “Tell me more” rather than “Let me tell you how it is.”

Bearing gifts

This practice of “being present,” in other words, is amazingly difficult exactly because it is unbelievably simple. “This is a real job,” Egan’s fellow party-goer asks her with a mix of hostility and incredulity, “that people go to graduate school for?” This question points to the paradox of pastoral care: the things that seem the simplest to do are actually the most difficult, many friends and family members avoiding awkward visits to the hospital or nursing home exactly because they don’t know how to act, what to do, or what to say when faced with a person who is terminally ill.

Carolers

I’m not a hospice chaplain, but I found myself nodding as I read Egan’s book, her experience at the bedside of dying patients ringing true with my experience giving consulting interviews as a Senior Dharma Teacher. When I started giving interviews, a Zen Master friend gave me a bit of advice that has proven to be invaluable. Giving consulting interviews, he explained, isn’t about answering questions; it’s about sharing an experience.

Photo opportunity

In the years I’ve been giving interviews, I’ve decided he’s exactly right on that point. The folks who come into the Zen Center interview room aren’t asking for advice; instead, they want the reassurance of knowing they aren’t alone in whatever challenge they face. Faced with a receptive listener who has reined in her desire to jump in and fix their life situation, the folks who come talk to me usually come to their own clarity and conclusions. All I do by being present is give them permission to listen to their own gut.

Band

Being a hospice chaplain, Egan explains, isn’t about being a storyteller; it’s about being a story holder. As people face the end of their lives, they are in a unique position to look back and reflect, and sometimes what they want is nothing more than a nonjudgmental person to sit quietly alongside them, ready to cherish whatever stories they want to share. On Living is a repository of these stories, and that is what makes it priceless.

DISCLOSURE: I received a free copy of On Living through a Goodreads giveaway.

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