Art & culture

Mountain laurel

Today I started reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. I’ve been wanting to read the book since it was published last year, but since it is loosely based on Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, I wanted to re-read that novel first.

Most of the reviews of Demon Copperhead insist you don’t have to have read Dickens’ novel to appreciate Kingsolver’s coming-of-age story of an impoverished Appalachian boy. But since I had read David Copperfield in high school, I wanted to refresh my admittedly fuzzy memories of the story.

All I’d remembered about David Copperfield was the character of David himself, the slimy villainy of Uriah Heep, and the financial disasters of Mr. Micawber. I’d forgotten all the other characters as well as the particulars of David’s rise from poverty to respectability.

It took me three months (!!!) to listen to an audio version of David Copperfield. Dickens’ novel was originally published in serial format, so listening to the story in small bits here and there felt fitting. Since the novel recounts David’s childhood and coming-of-age, there isn’t a single narrative arc: instead, each chapter describes an episode in the boy’s maturation. This makes the book perfect for slow, occasional reading.

Since Dickens’ David Copperfield is fresh in my mind, I’m enjoying the allusions Kingsolver weaves into Demon Copperhead. Since I know how Copperfield’s story ends, I can imagine where Copperhead’s story will eventually go…but Kingsolver’s retelling of a story from Victorian England to modern Appalachia provides enough novelty to make every episode fresh. I’m looking forward to turning every new page.

Quiet contemplation

Last night I started re-reading Judy Blume’s Deenie. When I turned 50, I bought myself box sets of books I’d enjoyed as a child with the intention of re-visiting them as an adult. Although I have re-read Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time trilogy, I haven’t yet revisited the Walter Farley, Laura Ingalls Wilder, or Marguerite Henry books I bought myself. Like a well-stocked wine cellar, my brimming bookshelves are full of pleasures I intend to savor someday, eventually.

This summer, I’ve decided, is time to revisit Judy Blume. I reread Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in advance of seeing the movie adaptation several weeks ago, so now is the perfect time to reread the other books in her box set.

One of the humbling aspects of re-reading childhood favorites as an adult is realizing how much you’ve forgotten. When I started re-reading Deenie last night, I realized I’d entirely forgotten the tension between Deenie and her mother, who wants her to become a model. All I remembered about the book was that Deenie is diagnosed with scoliosis and has to wear a back brace to straighten her curved spine.

It’s not surprising I’d remember that detail, since I was diagnosed with a mild case of scoliosis before reading the book. Although I never had to wear a brace or undergo any kind of treatment, I was amazed to encounter a book that spoke frankly about a condition I’d never heard of until I was diagnosed with it.

As I’m starting to re-read Deenie, I’m realizing a lesson that was too profound for my adolescent self. Sometimes life, like a malformed spine, curves in ways you hadn’t anticipated. When multiple modeling scouts mention Deenie’s poor posture, she and her mother have no idea there is a medical reason for her slouch. The first time I read the book, I fixated on the back brace Deenie had to wear; I didn’t realize then there are other ways life can curve in surprising ways.

Cardboard robot

In my first-year writing classes, I typically start with five minutes of freewriting. Since some folks don’t know where to start when they set pen to paper or fingers to keys, I use a random word generator to give students a nudge if they need it.

The fish listened intently to what the frogs had to say.

Frog fountain

Today, I realized the random word generator I use also has a random sentence generator. According to the FAQ on that page, the sentences are not computer-generated; instead, the site draws from a database of human-authored sentences. (It isn’t clear where these sentences come from, although the FAQ says it’s possible to “donate” your own sentences to their database.)

Pat ordered a ghost pepper pie.

Now serving beer and wine...with pie?

Next week, a handful of my Framingham State colleagues and I will start planning this year’s retreat for first-year writing instructors. The topic of this year’s retreat will be the impact of ChatGPT and large-language models (LLMs) in composition classrooms. Although much of the media coverage of LLMs focuses on plagiarism and cheating, I’m equally interested in the ways tools such as ChatGPT can be used ethically, as a way to kickstart (not replace) creative and critical thinking.

I used to live in my neighbor’s fishpond, but the aesthetic wasn’t to my taste.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Earlier this week, I heard an NPR story in which a college student described the ways he uses ChatGPT as a brainstorming tool in his academic work. In a textual analysis of The Iliad, for example, he used ChatGPT to generate possible thesis statements, then he chose a thesis he agreed with and asked ChatGPT to write an outline. Given that outline, he went back to the text to find illustrative quotes, then he wrote his own paragraphs to flesh out the argument, creating an essay that would be difficult to flag using existing plagiarism-detection tools.

Carol drank the blood as if she were a vampire.

No more interviews with vampires.

Using ChatGPT to write an entire essay is clearly wrong, but is it wrong to use LLMs to help with brainstorming, organization, or other composition tasks? I had an international student this past semester tell me he uses ChatGPT to correct the grammar of his essays, for example, and I (personally) don’t have a problem with that. Is relying upon spell- or grammar-check (or hiring an editor) unethical? What about tools such as Grammarly and auto-correct? Does every single idea in a given essay have to come from your own brain, or is it okay to use a random word generator or quick Google search to jumpstart your thinking?

The fifty mannequin heads floating in the pool kind of freaked them out.

Mannequin heads

We encourage students to ask their professors and writing tutors for help, and we know students sometimes ask their friends, roommates, or even parents to read their essays. How many brilliant essays started as thought-provoking conversations where multiple people contributed ideas? Does asking for help or conferring with peers count as cheating? If asking a human for help is okay, why is collaborating with a computer different?

I can’t believe this is the eighth time I’m smashing open my piggy bank on the same day!

Trojan Piggybank

When it comes to the impact of LLMs in the first-year writing classroom, I have more questions than answers. I know tools such as ChatGPT are here to stay, and I know this generation of students will use generative AI in the workplace of the future. Given those realities, teaching students how to use technology responsibly and transparently is more helpful than banning technology outright. Sometimes allowing (and admitting) the randomness of real life leads to something creative and curious.

Be curious!

Although I myself wrote these paragraphs (with occasional grammar and usage corrections from Google Docs), I did not write the random sentences in between.

Time to Bloom

Last night I finished re-reading Judy Blume’s classic coming-of-age novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in advance of (eventually) seeing the new movie adaptation. Although Blume’s book is tame by modern standards, it was a pivotal part of my adolescence: a book that talked out loud about the things girls like me were thinking.

I’d expected to be disappointed by the book, given how nostalgia can shift your perspective: surely a book that seemed epic when I was an adolescent wouldn’t have the same power today. Instead, I was thoroughly charmed. Re-reading Are You There God? made me remember how much I resonated with eleven-year-old Margaret Simon even though on the surface, our lives were very different.

Unlike Margaret, I wasn’t eager to start my period; instead of seeing menstruation as an exciting rite of passage, my adolescent self accurately predicted that getting your period would be a nuisance. Like Margaret, I was eager to start wearing a bra, but not because I belonged to a secret club where wearing a bra was a requirement for membership. Instead, wearing a bra made my middle-school self feel a little less awkward during gym class, where everyone could see what was (or wasn’t) under your clothes when you changed.

Re-reading Are You There God? reminded me that what I resonated with most in Margaret’s story was her spiritual struggle. Judy Blume gained my trust by talking about bras and boys and periods–the things I was too ashamed to mention out loud–and she used that trust to talk about another taboo topic, religion. Margaret isn’t “just” struggling with puberty; she’s also struggling with faith. As a girl raised without religion by a Christian mother and Jewish father, Margaret is trying to figure out where she fits as a girl who prays to God as comfortably as she interacts with her beloved grandmother.

Unlike Margaret, I never had to question what faith I belonged to: my upbringing was entirely Catholic. But like Margaret, I was unmoved by church services, and I often wondered whether God was really listening to the prayers I spontaneously said every night. Then and now, I resonate with Margaret’s claim that she feels God’s presence most strongly when she is alone, and I admire her child-like faith in an entity she can (and does) talk to about anything.

Modern readers accustomed to children’s and young adult titles that explore Deep Topics rightly note that Margaret doesn’t grapple with any pressing social issues: she doesn’t pray for world peace, nor does she beg God to save the planet. A girl growing up in an intact family in a middle-class suburb, Margaret doesn’t have to worry about crime, poverty, or other social ills. Her concerns are entirely self-absorbed and small in the larger scheme of things. Margaret frets that she’s slow to develop, and she worries about boys and her first kiss…but she doesn’t have to worry about coming out as gay or trans, and when she does confide in her mother about her concerns, her mother is supportive.

But even though Margaret’s worries are small potatoes, one lesson of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is this: God cares about small potatoes. Margaret talks to God about both her developing body and her religious questions. She reminds readers of all ages that there is no real distinction between spiritual concerns and “merely” bodily ones. God is there to hear them all.

Bloodroot surrounded by pachysandra

My Comp I students are starting to write their final “Theory of Writing” project, and to prepare I’ve asked them to read novelist Zadie Smith talking about the craft of writing. In her essay, Smith describes something she calls OPD, or Obsessive Perspective Disorder, which she faces whenever she starts a new novel and has to figure out what perspective to tell the story from.

Since my students aren’t writing novels, I’ve asked them to consider any writing obsessions they might have: do they always write about family or food or work or sports? I obsessively write about time: how much I have, how much I need, how quickly it’s passing, or what I plan or want to do with it. Some people crave money or drugs or food or sex: what I want, always, is more time.

As a writer, I’m obsessed with what I call Time Travel, where I compare what I’m doing today, this week, this month, or this year with what I did at the same time back then. Yesterday, for example, I shot a photo of bloodroot, just as I did almost exactly one year ago; the year before that, we had April snow flurries. My blog, handwritten journal, photo archive, and social media posts all allow me to look back and compare Now and Then. The passage of time–like sand through the hourglass–fascinates me in an almost hypnotic way.

As I age, I realize I’ve always been an Old Soul. Young people tend to see time as an infinite resource, but I’ve never fallen for that trap. I’ve always known that time is short; I’ve always known our lives are wending their inevitable way toward death. For me, writing is like creating a personal time capsule: I tell myself that someday in the future, I’ll want to look back on the person I was today. Recording is a way of remembering, and remembering is how we briefly hold onto a series of seconds as they silently slip away.

United Nations

When J and I went to the Peabody Essex Museum this past weekend to see Tsherin Sherpa’s “Spirits,” we also walked through Gu Wenda’s “United Nations,” a monumental installation of flags crafted from human hair.

United Nations

When I first heard of Wenda’s exhibit, I didn’t know what to think. Weaving flags from hair sounded creepy: ghoulish at worst, and deeply unsettling at best. Even though a Museum FAQ explains that Wenda obtained his materials from barber shops, beauty salons, and willing volunteers, making art from human hair sounded weirdly invasive. Hair is literally a part of one’s person, so transforming it into art felt like a violation of privacy.

United Nations

What I didn’t expect, however, was for the installation to be both beautiful and strangely fascinating: something J and I spent a good while moving through and through again, circling back to see the flags from different angles and perspectives.

United Nations

It helped, I suppose, that we saw the installation on a sunny day. “United Nations” is displayed in a tall corridor, with natural light streaming from ample skylights. When lit from behind, the flags are dreamily diaphanous, as flimsy and insubstantial as a net or spiderweb. Instead of being solid symbols of national allegiance, Wenda’s flags seem like veils or panes of stained glass: things meant to be peered through.

United Nations

When the flags are backdropped by a wall or other solid object, however, they appear much more substantial, looking both furry and fibrous. Anyone who has cleared a shower drain knows how strong human hair is, prone to clumping and clogging. A whole hallway of flags–188 in total, one for each United Nations member state–is surprisingly impressive: an entire corridor of Rapunzels, each letting down her hair.

United Nations

United Nations

CLICK HERE for more images from “Gu Wenda: United Nations,” which is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum through November 5.

Skippers (Kneedeep)

Yesterday J and I went to the Peabody Essex Museum to see Spirits, an exhibit of Tsherin Sherpa’s contemporary Buddhist art displayed alongside pencil drawings by Robert Beer.

Spiritual Warrior

Tsherin Sherpa’s playful and irreverent take on traditional Tibetan iconography was a visual delight. I was charmed and amused by deities chewing bubble gum, flashing peace signs, and dreaming halos filled with corporate logos and pop culture icons: the usual junk that passes as distraction.

Oh My God-ness!

We’re so used to sorting the world into the predictable piles of sacred and profane, it sparks something in our brain to see the two juxtaposed: deities, for example, channeling John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever or Lady Gaga at the MTV music awards. Why should art respect the arbitrary boundary between sacred and profane when the spirit knows no such limit?

8 Spirits

Butterflies are a ubiquitous image in Sherpa’s work–the path to the exhibit, in fact, was marked with butterflies on the otherwise bare hallway walls–and butterflies flutter like restless spirits over fields, backyards, and factories alike. The sun shines equally on sinner and saint, and the Present Moment makes no distinctions.

3 Wise Men

Tsherin Sherpa’s work reminds us that we all are spirits in the material world: spirits who practice ancient meditative arts, perhaps, right alongside our otherwise ordinary work, leisure, and social lives. As spirits, we know no limit or hindrance.

Fly High


CLICK HERE for more images from “Spirits: Tsherin Sherpa with Robert Beer”, which is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum through May 29. Enjoy!

Noh masks

I recently read Ruth Ozeki’s The Face: A Time Code, a slender volume written in response to an unlikely prompt: spend three hours contemplating your face in a mirror and explore what arises.

The thoughts that arise when a woman of a certain age considers her face are surprisingly deep. Initially, Ozeki’s observations are as superficial as you’d expect. Ozeki discovers she likes one eye more than the other, for example, and she notes the resemblances between her face and the faces of her white father and Japanese mother.

But if you spend three hours looking at a thing, you’ll eventually be forced to look more deeply. Ozeki notes the way faces are linked to identity: they are the public image we present to the world. Faces are like names: they are how we self-identify and how people judge us, for better or worse. Ozeki was born Ruth Lounsbury but took a pseudonym after her father asked her not to write about his family. A pseudonym is a mask–a crafted face–that both obscures and reveals.

As a middle-aged woman, considering how your face has changed over time is a psychological minefield. Ozeki describes her decision not to get a facelift and wonders if she should return to dying her hair. These seemingly insignificant personal decisions are rife with deeper issues. Ozeki explores, for example, the feminist implications of authorial headshots. Do glamor shots by professional photographers create an image that is impossible for an ordinary and aging author to live up to, or is the beautifying of one’s (female) face an inevitable part of marketing a book?

Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist, so her contemplation is also a meditation. The Buddha said impermanence surrounds us, and there is no better way to (literally) face that fact than to consider how your face has changed over time. Forget about seeing your face before you were born: can you accurately see the face in the mirror right now?

I’ve never spent three hours staring at my face, but years ago at a Dharma teacher retreat, we did an exercise where we spent several silent minutes looking into a random partner’s eyes. That activity was surprisingly eye-opening (no pun intended). Looking into an acquaintance’s eyes made me unusually self-conscious about my appearance and others’ opinions. Does this person think I look silly or stupid or ugly or boring? Should I smile or frown or maintain a neutral meditative expression? Should I try to tame my resting bitch face or just allow my face to rest in whatever expression it prefers?

The Face was published in 2015, years before the widespread masking of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the masks Ozeki describes in her book are the highly stylized masks of Noh drama. Ozeki describes the process of crafting a mask, and she describes how Noh performers embody their characters through voice and gesture instead of facial expressions.

In an unofficial sequel to The Face, last year Ozeki published an article exploring the impact of COVID masking and Zoom meetings on self-image. I remember the first time I walked outside after outdoor mask mandates had been lifted: I found myself smiling uncontrollably whenever I saw another bare face, and the experience of walking among many barefaced people was almost intoxicating.

One of the weird experiences of teaching remotely is having your face constantly on view–and visible to yourself–while most if not all of your students have their cameras turned off. It’s just you and your trying-so-hard-to-look-enthusiastic face trying to engage with the camera as you see nothing but your own thumbnail video surrounded by a sea of black squares. It’s like teaching into the void.

Facing one’s face and the issues of identity, aging, and superficial judgment is not for the faint of heart. What seems like a silly premise for a book is surprisingly profound.

First leaves

The shrubs that line our driveway are sprouting their first tender leaves, and I can’t resist photographing them, just as I do every year. J and I joke that there is nothing more cliched than taking macro shots of flowers, but that doesn’t stop me from photographing crocuses or the first green shoots to emerge from our winter-blighted yard.

Probably daffodils?

Yesterday Beth Adams posted a Facebook link to the Substack repost of her Cassandra Pages 20th anniversary post: yes, this is the convoluted way we read blogs nowadays, through mirror posts linked on social media. Regardless of how I found it, Beth’s post was filled with the slow, long-form writing she’s been doing all along, with photos of her botanical illustrations: a visual and intellectual delight.

First leaves, with hand to focus

In her post, Beth acknowledged how difficult it is to keep blogging for years without repeating yourself. This is a concern I abandoned long ago. I know I repeat myself year after year, just as the trees sprout the same old leaves in spring.


On Wednesday, I went to the Museum of Fine Arts for this year’s (belated) birthday trip, just as I did last year. While I was there, I read the journal entry I’d written but never blogged last year:


It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and I’m having lunch at the MFA: my belated birthday trip. I’ve spent the past almost-hour wandering the galleries, not looking at anything in particular: just looking.


Several years ago, before the pandemic, A (not her real initial) and I coined the term “museum bathing” for this activity of wandering a museum, soaking up the space. They say spending time in the woods–what the Japanese call “forest bathing”–has a beneficial effect on one’s mental and physical health–and I’d argue the same is true of museums and other sacred spaces. The act of being in a space devoted to beauty has a healthful effect. I can feel the outside world and its worries falling away.


You could even go so far as to say a museum is like a forest–an indoor, curated one, with paintings and sculptures and tapestries instead of trees and rocks and streams. A museum is a kind of ecosystem: the individual galleries are microhabitats, and they all work together in a harmonious whole.


The challenge when you visit a large museum is seeing the forest for the trees. Usually when I visit the MFA, I have a specific exhibit I want to see, so I zip through galleries to get to that particular thing. Today, though, there isn’t anything in particular I’m here to see, so I am free to wander without destination, turning this way or that depending on what looks interesting at the moment.


I can wander from Greek statues to Egyptian mummies to Buddhas being restored to contemporary posters to postcards to Regency interiors and back. When you don’t have a destination, there is no hurry; instead of making good time, you can take your time, stopping to look when something looks good.


One of the delights of the MFA, like any good forest, is the abundance of places to sit–benches in front of individual art works, and tables, chairs, and occasional couches in visually interesting corners–and in a museum like a forest, every corner is interesting if you take the time to look.

Map paintings

So that is today’s task: to wander and watch, letting my inner eye guide me. There is no need to see everything, just a chance to find a secret, interesting vantage point to watch and wait.



Although I wrote the text of today’s post last year, today’s photos are from Frank Bowling’s Americas, which is currently on view at the MFA.

Next Page »