Art & culture


Don't eat the fish

This past weekend several friends and I walked along the Housatonic River in downtown Great Barrington, Massachusetts: a short, shady stroll that is popular with local dog walkers and baby strollers. In sunny spots we saw butterfly weed and wild bergamot blooming, and in shady spots we could watch the slow-moving waters flow below us.

Butterfly weed

Gazing at the placid flow of the Housatonic River, it’s easy to forget its waters are polluted, not pristine. The Housatonic carries PCBs and other industrial chemicals from the long-closed General Electric plant in nearby Pittsfield. Signs along the river warn fishermen not to eat their catch, and environmental activists refer to the river as the “Housatoxic.”

W.E.B. Du Bois advocate for rivers

I knew that the author, thinker, and civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois was born along the Housatonic River in Great Barrington, and I knew there is a garden and historical sign marking a site near his childhood home. What surprised me when we found that marker, however, is that it focused on Du Bois’ environmental advocacy as much as his civil rights work.

Wild bergamot

Even during Du Bois’ lifetime, the Housatonic River was sullied by industrial runoff. When Du Bois returned to Great Barrington in 1930 to address a gathering of his high school alumni, he beseeched the citizens of Great Barrington to clean the river that courses through their backyard:

The town, the whole valley, has turned its back upon the river. They have sought to get away from it. They have neglected it. They have used it as a sewer, a drain, a place for throwing their waste and their offal. Mills, homes, and farms have poured their dirt and refuse into it; outhouses and dung heaps have lined its banks. Almost as if by miracle some beauty still remains in places where the river for a moment free of its enemies and tormentors, dark and exhausted under its tall trees, has sunk back to vestiges of its former charm, in great, slow, breathless curves and still murmurs. But for the most part the Housatonic has been transformed into an ugly disgraceful thing

Butterfly weed

It’s obvious that even after Du Bois left Great Barrington to become a writer, scholar, and outspoken proponent for racial justice, he never forgot the river in his hometown. Du Bois’ fondness for the Housatonic reminded me of the Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which traces the way heritage is tied to geography, not just genealogy:

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

Wild bergamot

Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” when he was only eighteen, and in it he describes his African-American heritage as running through both his bloodstream and the rivers of his ancestral homelands. In the ecological version of muscle-memory, Hughes’ soul recalls the landscapes where his people come from. Who you are as a person, he suggests, is irrevocably connected with the places you and your people come from.

Welcome to the Berkshires

Du Bois was so moved by Hughes’ poem, he published it in the July 1921 edition of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. Today, we know environmental degradation often occurs in places populated by the poor and people of color: it’s not the rich white citizens of Flint, Michigan who are drinking lead-tainted water. “Environmental racism” refers to the way the privileged and powerful often dump their toxic byproducts downstream in someone else’s backyard, and it’s a phenomenon Du Bois decried, even if he didn’t call it out by name.

Wild bergamot

Du Bois suggested the way we treat our rivers reflects our values as a society, reminding his audience that “we are judged by what we neglect.” Do we see rivers and the folks who live alongside them as rubbish heaps or sewers, places where we dump and disregard the effluvia we don’t want polluting our own neighborhoods?

If we choose to neglect a river, we can also choose to care for it, and this is what Du Bois ultimately advocated, urging the citizens of Great Barrington to “rescue the Housatonic and clean it as we have never in all the years thought before of cleaning it, and seek to restore its ancient beauty.” A community who cares for its rivers will care for the people and other living creatures that live alongside them, environmental justice rolling down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Edith Wharton's house

I’ve never been much of an Edith Wharton fan.  I read and disliked Ethan Frome as an undergrad, and I generally dislike the overwrought stuffiness of Gilded Age authors such as Henry James, who was friends with Wharton.  But this past weekend I visited the Mount, Edith Wharton’s lush country home in Lenox, Massachusetts, and seeing this place where Wharton lived and wrote helped soften my attitude toward her.

Drawing room

Like her prose, Wharton’s house is too formal and fancy for my taste.  Curatorial placards around the house insist that Wharton’s style was less ornate and more modern than the Victorian style of her contemporaries, but even Wharton’s more stripped-down decor is too busy for my taste.  But after wandering through Wharton’s house and surrounding gardens, I found myself sympathizing for her. Wharton believed so strongly that interior design should reflect a person’s taste and temperament, she co-wrote a book on the subject.  Although Wharton’s writing and home decor styles aren’t my cup of tea, I can understand her desire to use her house and gardens as a form of self-expression.

Dog treats

Both Wharton and her husband, Teddy, loved little dogs, and the Mount contains ample evidence of this one thing the couple had in common.  There are dog treats on the dining room table, an ornate dog bed in the drawing room, and pictures throughout the house of Edith and Teddy with small dogs perched on their laps.  Sadly, this shared affection for dogs wasn’t enough to keep Edith and Teddy Wharton together:  the couple divorced and sold their home only nine years after moving to Lenox, leaving behind the house, grounds, and a beautifully sited pet cemetery overlooking the gardens.

Edith Wharton's bed

Although I didn’t know much about Wharton’s life before touring the Mount, I’d heard stories about how she wrote.  The library at the Mount contains an elegant desk where Wharton sometimes posed for portraits, but she is better known for writing in bed, tossing pages of longhand prose onto the floor where her secretary would retrieve and reorder them.  Although it’s difficult to sympathize with someone so privileged she didn’t have to type much less number her own pages, I felt sad standing in Wharton’s bedroom.  As light streamed through windows overlooking Wharton’s beloved gardens, I could imagine how lonely she must have felt as she lay alone writing while her marriage crumbled.

Edith Wharton's desk

After her divorce, Wharton moved to Paris, leaving behind the house and gardens she’d designed and the pampered pets she’d buried there.  Virginia Woolf famously insisted that in order to write, a woman needs a reliable income and a room of her own, and Wharton, who was born into wealth, had both, at least for a time.  Ultimately, though, Wharton was forced by circumstance to leave the house she had both designed and loved, her room of her own being nothing less than the entire world.

Reggie takes a swim

After taking my time deciding upon a project for the summer, I’ve started to revisit the blog entries I wrote from 2003 until 2006: that is, the years I lived full-time in Keene, New Hampshire, before I met J and moved to Massachusetts.

Water lily

When I first started blogging in December of 2003, my then-husband and I had lived in Keene for a couple months, and blogging was one of the ways I made myself at home in a town that was new to me. Taking pictures and writing about my daily dog-walks helped me find my way both literally and figuratively. When my then-husband and I separated and then divorced in 2004, blogging helped me navigate the alien landscape of my solitary life in a town some 700 miles from my family. During a particularly tenuous time, writing about my life helped me make sense of my life.

Pickerelweed

It’s been more than ten years since my first husband and I divorced, so revisiting the posts I wrote both before and after that event is a strange experience. Some aspects of my life in Keene are still crystal clear, but others have grown foggy with time. I vividly remember the dog-walks I took with Reggie along the Ashuelot River and around Goose Pond, for instance, but it seems like a lifetime ago that I lived alone in an apartment within walking distance of Keene State College. Revisiting the posts I wrote then is like bumping into an old friend on the street: here is a person I was intimately acquainted with, but we’ve lost touch.

Pickerelweed

Ultimately, I’d like to collate these several years’ worth of posts into a single year, just as Henry David Thoreau combined the two years he lived at Walden Pond into the single seasonal cycle recounted in Walden. Just as I love May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude for its clear-eyed account of her life as a writer in Nelson, New Hampshire, I’d like to distill my own experience in Keene into its barest, most essential truths. I moved to Keene as one half of a couple, but I ultimately lived there longer as a single woman than I had as a wife. How is it, I wonder, that solitary souls like Thoreau, Sarton, and myself found our way in our respective hometowns?

Reggie goes wading

As I work on this project, I find myself wondering how people who don’t write–people who don’t have the memory aid of a journal or blog–go about processing their pasts. I don’t have a particularly strong memory, so I rely heavily upon my journal, blog, and photo archives to remind me of where I was and what I was doing last month, last year, or last decade: without this record, I think my life would quickly fade into fog. It’s a psychological truism that we should learn from our mistakes, but to do this, we need to remember and revisit our past actions. If something as life-changing as my own divorce has already started to fade from memory, how can I internalize its lessons? Or do fading memories indicate an experience that has been gradually digested down to the dregs?

I shot the photos illustrating today’s post on a hot day in July, 2005, when Reggie and I went walking at Keene’s Ashuelot River Park.

Float like a butterfly

Some days I rail against the page, reluctant to come to it: antsy. There is no clear reason; I just balk like a spooked and skittish horse.

Yum

Some days the words flow freely. I sit down with a thought in mind, and that thought leads to another and another like a parade of circus elephants, each attached to the next, trunk to tail.

The Saw

Some days each word emerges slowly and with difficulty, like a foot pulled from sludge. Some days each line is a hard-fought battle, the end of the page an impossible destination.

WeMissUBradley

Some days I have something to say; some days nothing. Some days I have something to say but the words won’t come, or they come slowly and with painful effort, each one creeping on crippled feet.

2016

Some days I come to the page empty and exhausted, without a thought in my head, and the words nevertheless appear.

Curly

Some days I write as if I understood this thing called writing, my lines fluid and fluent, flowing. And other days I write as if I know nothing at all, following nothing but the sound of my pen scratching the page.

This is what appeared when I wrote this morning’s journal pages. I guess today is one of those days.

Journal pages

In yesterday’s mail I received the UK edition of Alexander Masters’ A Life Discarded, which I’d ordered online after Steve had mentioned the book on his blog. Masters wrote A Life Discarded after friends gave him a stack of 148 diaries they’d found in a trash bin, and the book recounts his attempt to reconstruct the life of the person who wrote and then discarded the volumes.

Keeping a journal is an immensely personal endeavor, but it is also an inherently egotistical one. You have to be a little bit crazy to think your life is worthy of a faithful day-to-day record. Even if you don’t plan on inflicting your thoughts on an unsuspecting public, as bloggers regularly do, when you set pen to page you make an implicit assumption that your thoughts–your mundane life and the things you believed and felt during that life–are worth jotting down for future reference.

There is, in other words, a hint of egomania in journal-keeping–a step or two beyond merely talking to oneself. And there is a complementary kind of craziness in the urge to read someone else’s journals: the friends of Masters who retrieve the notebooks are more than a little nuts in their belief that a life recorded and then discarded is worth diving into a dumpster to examine.

Shelved Moleskines

I’ve read only the first few pages of Masters’ book, but I’m already sucked and suckered into the mystery. What kind of person faithfully records the mental minutia of their life only to toss that record into the trash? This impulse to record–to scribble down inane thoughts into notebooks that are then carefully numbered and shelved–is obviously one I share, which is why I was eager to buy a UK edition of Masters book, which doesn’t come out here in the States until October. There is something both crazy and compulsive about journal-keeping: it’s an obsession that is but steps away from collecting old newspapers and stockpiling empty tin cans. (Surely it is no accident that the name of my blog contains the word “hoard.”)

But one person’s insanity is another’s art, and I am grateful that the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Merton, and May Sarton all decided to trust their thoughts as well as their days to the page. When great men and women keep diaries, it is the stuff of history, but when the rest of us do it, there is a hint of pathology: egotism, error, or worse.

Journaling about journaling

Part of what attracts me to the story behind Masters’ book are the layers of obsessive behavior it describes. A nameless woman is obsessive enough to chronicle five decades of her life, strangers are obsessive enough to retrieve her diaries out of the trash, and Masters is obsessive enough to read, research, and write a book about the whole story: obsession stacked upon obsession.

If a stranger were to happen upon the shelves of filled Moleskine notebooks I have dating from 2002 to the present, what would they discover about me? They’d learn my mind often falls into the same predictable ruts, with page after page recounting mundane chores and errands, the litany of an ordinary life. They’d see moments of observational brilliance interspersed with whines about the weather and a catalogue of aches and pains. They’d find, in other words, the kind of stuff pretty much any of us have rattling around in our heads: hopes and disappointments, resolutions and regrets, faults and failures. They’d find nothing at all remarkable, just random bits that are noteworthy only because they are captured and contained.

A journal is like a fossil, preserving one creature at a single moment in time. Pressed between the pages of a journal, you’ll find the faded flowers of someone else’s life, preserved. The journals tossed into a dumpster in Cambridge, England were discarded and then saved, the life they chronicle frozen into prose like a fly in amber.

The first and third photos illustrating today’s post show yesterday’s journal pages, where I wrote a first draft of this post. The second photo shows part of the shelf where I keep my filled Moleskine notebooks.

Face to face

There is only the solitary self facing the page.
–Dani Shapiro, Still Writing

I’m reading a ragtag assortment of books at the moment: this seems to be how my brain works. If I were a naturally disciplined, focused person, I’d read one book at a time, and those books would be on the same or at least similar topics, one logically following the next.

How are you?

But instead, I’m an omnivorous reader set loose in a banquet world. I read books I’ve browsed on library shelves, books I’ve heard reviewed (or even briefly mentioned) on the radio, or books quoted in other books. If in passing conversation I hear someone mention a book that might be interesting, I’ll add it to my to-read list and request it from the library. Some people have an in-depth knowledge of a particular topic, but for better or worse I’m a dabbler who is easily distracted in diverse directions.

One of the books I’m currently reading is Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, a book that one of my colleagues mentioned in the context of a yoga retreat she had gone on. The book is a ragtag assortment of short musing on writing: the kind of inspirational stuff writers always have (and presumably always will) publish because it’s easier for aspiring writers to read about writing than it is to face (and fill) the blank page.

In progress

The blank page is a mirror that reflects your insecurities, doubts, and fears. Writing is a form of meditation because it requires a quiet, unheralded kind of courage. The world is quick to praise (and rightfully so) the obvious courage of heroes running into burning buildings, leaping in front of oncoming trains, or standing up to bullies to save another. But it takes its own kind of quiet, inconspicuous courage to face the blank page with nothing more than an embryonic hope that something you say could be of use–inspiring or encouraging or even just entertaining–to someone else.

Blocks

Last week I heard a radio interview with Sherman Alexie, who was discussing a children’s book he’s written about a young Native American boy who shares his father’s name. In the interview, Alexie mentioned reading Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day as a boy. Alexie said it was the first time he’d encountered a brown-skinned boy–someone like him–in a book, and the moment was life-changing. It was a moment of realizing he wasn’t alone in the world: there were other little brown-skinned boys who looked at the world the way he did.

I grew up as a little white girl in a world full of books about little white girls. But because I grew up as an introvert in a family of extroverts, I grew up befriending people in books more deeply than I did people in the real world.

BBQ dad's unite!

I remember wanting to be Anne Labastille when I was a girl reading about her work in Guatemala to study and save endangered grebes, and I remember feeling like I’d met not just a friend but a version of my own true self when I first read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. These were books I felt I could have written because they were inspired by eyes that viewed the world how I did.

Surveying his work

It takes courage for a solitary self to face the empty page: there seems to be so many more important things to do. But writers face the page with a deep-seated faith that somebody, someday, might find in their words an idea or insight they’ve waited their entire life to hear.

RIP Prince

Decades ago when I was an undergraduate trying to figure out what to do with my life, one of my professors gave me a terrifying bit of advice. Instead of quickly settling upon a major and then promptly getting down to the business of fulfilling my academic requirements, this professor said I should wait until the last possible minute to declare a major. “Keep your options open,” he said, and it’s a bit of advice I’ve always remembered even though at the time I didn’t follow it.

Wall at Central Square

Unlike many of my peers, I didn’t waver or waffle much when it came to choosing an undergraduate major. After initially declaring as a biology major, I switched to English before setting foot in a science class, and I remained faithful to English as I pursued my bachelors, masters, and PhD. But now after what seems like a lifetime of taking and teaching English classes, I think I understand what my undergraduate professor meant. When you rush to label yourself and your interests, you potentially miss out on other, seemingly unrelated influences that don’t fit your immediate goals.

Wall at Central Square

In retrospect, for instance, the most helpful class I took as an undergraduate wasn’t a literature or writing class but one that was completely tangential to my major: Group Voice for Non-majors. Group Voice was a singing class for non-musicians, and I took it only because I thought it might help me feel more comfortable teaching. If I could stand in front of a group of my peers and sing, I reasoned, then standing in front of a classroom of students would be no problem.

Wall at Central Square

I ended up taking Group Voice for Non-majors several times: it was a one-credit class that promised an easy A to students brave enough to participate, and I came to enjoy the break from my lit class it provided. While I was driven to do my best in the literature classes that counted toward my major, it was elective classes like Group Voice where I could simply try something new without worrying about my future, my GPA, or my eventual career. At the time, taking a class that taught me terms like “castrati” and “bel canto” and required me to sing at least one song in Italian didn’t seem to have anything to do with my career path, but in retrospect, learning how to sing (poorly) in front of a group gave me a confidence I rely upon every single day.

The spot I hit

Today I remembered this advice to “Keep your options open” as I struggle to set my summer expectations. I finished the last of my semester tasks on Tuesday, so now I’m decompressing, trying to return to life outside the academic year. Friends who have retired describe the unsettling sensation of no longer having a set schedule of external expectations, and when you live an academic life, every summer is a miniature retirement. Once your grades are submitted and your other obligations are met, you wake to the simple but disarming question, “Now what?”

Wall at Central Square

I know I want to spend a lot of time writing this summer; I know I want to spend a lot of time reading. I know I want to spend more time walking and taking pictures and being creative, and I know I want to catch up with sleep, meditation, and the other healthy things that unfortunately fall by the wayside during a typically hectic semester.

Wall at Central Square

But apart from simply showing up at the page and waiting to see what words appear, I don’t have any clearly articulated goals for the summer. I have the desire to write, but I haven’t yet decided upon a definitive project. If anything, I’ve been trying to avoid the impulse to settle on a project too soon, just for the sake of settling: I want, in other words, to keep my options open. Because I’ve been writing long enough to know the stages every project goes through, I know there will be plenty of time later to get sick of (and need to stick with) whatever topic I choose: the dictum “Marry in haste, repent in leisure” applies to hastily chosen writing projects as well as mates and majors.

Wall at Central Square

I’ve been writing long enough to know that whatever summer project I settle upon, there will be plenty of time to solidify and reshape it later, but right now at the outset, absolutely anything is possible. Before you start, you can do anything, but once you begin, your options shrink: by going down this road, you eliminate the options of the other, alternate roads. So for the next few days, I’m trying to show up at the page without expectation, hoping the words themselves will tell me where they want to go. “Keep your option open” is a daunting bit of advice, but it is also an alluring invitation to obey your curiosity.

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