Art & culture


Noiseless, patient spider

This weekend I started reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, which I have wanted to read since hearing him interviewed on NPR months ago, before the pandemic, when we took delights for granted.

Gay’s short, almost-daily essays about life’s simple pleasures read like blog or journal entries–in one of them, in fact, Gay talks about how his sentences unspool differently when he writes by hand, relishing what he calls the “the loop-de-looping” of written language.

I agree. Handwriting a long, wending sentence–a sentence that flows and meanders like water–feels different than typing a long, complicated sentence. The cursive of handwriting rolls and curves in a sinuous, continuous way that clackety-clack keyboard strikes do not. A typewriter or computer keyboard is a percussive instrument, whereas cursive words written by pen on paper are like woodwinds, melodious and fluid.

Reading Gay’s book reminds me of the days–the good old days–when I blogged frequently, almost daily, versus infrequently if at all. My blog used to be my online Book of Delights, each entry capturing the immediacy of daily life and its small joys.

I still faithfully write in my journal, but those pages don’t always capture delights. Instead, too often (especially during this pandemic) my journal has been a repository of worry and dismay: a Book of Frets and Grievances. And although Instagram is occasionally a place where I share photos of tiny delights, I save my blog for longer essays, and in so doing, I too often find I don’t have much to say or time to say it in.

I’d like to return to a more faithful practice of delight–an intentional practice of noticing, cataloguing, and sharing the things that bring me joy. Gay makes the process seem easy to do–it doesn’t take many words or much time to capture life’s simple pleasures.

Norway maple in bloom

Today has been sunny and brisk, and seeing the sun–or, more accurately, seeing sunlight–makes all the difference. In our backyard, the Norway maples are beginning to open hemispherical clusters of yellow flowers that look like pom-poms, and elsewhere on these same trees, new leaves unfold like praying hands.

This weekend on NPR, I heard a story about the Dear Stranger letter-writing project organized by Oregon Humanities. The letters they read on the air were delightful, poignant, and powerful. There is nothing more moving than a true experience honestly shared.

I stockpile stamps, postcards, and notecards in part because I love both paper and pretty things, but also because I love to send and receive old-fashioned, handwritten mail. The letters and postcards I send are the kind I would love to receive: do unto others and all that.

My blog is a kind of (virtual) Dear Stranger letter. Although I know some of my readers, many more lurk anonymously. Like Emily Dickinson (who in this age of quarantine is becoming my patron saint), I spend my days writing a letter to the world that never wrote to me.

People are too busy these days to write–to busy to write by hand–too busy to address and stamp an envelope. People are, in other words, Too Busy. Here we each sit in individual isolation, wrapping our Too Busy-ness around us like a comforting cloak. For as we are Too Busy, we are also Too Bored, somehow not knowing what to do with ourselves now that we have time, solitude, and our own alarming thoughts in abundance.

So this week, when others suggested buying stamps to save the United State Postal Service, of course I filled my online cart. I already had plenty of stamps, but now I have absolutely no excuse not to write to a dear stranger or two.

Journaling at Burdick's

This morning J had to wake before dawn for a work call, so after I finished my morning tasks, I drove to the Cambridge Zen Center, sat one meditation session, then walked to Harvard Square to write my morning journal pages at Burdick’s Cafe.

Although I was sleepy at the Zen Center, the brisk walk to Harvard Square and a small cup of high-octane Burdick’s dark chocolate woke me right up. Practicing at the Zen Center always feels like plugging into a power source: even during meditation sessions when my body nods and dozes, I can feel my inner battery charging with every breath. There’s something energizing about returning to a familiar place and a familiar practice, like climbing back into a well-worn saddle.

Reflective self portrait at Burdick's

When I lived at the Zen Center, I’d often go to Harvard Square, claim a table at a restaurant or cafe, and write in the bustling anonymity of a clean, well-lighted place. Burdick’s on a Sunday morning nicely suits this purpose. You can generally find a table for one if you wait for quiet couples to finish their beverages then bundle up to leave, and once you’re settled in, the waitstaff doesn’t care if you take a half hour or so to nurse your hot chocolate over journal pages or the morning paper.

Some days I bring stationery so I can write a quick, chocolate-fueled letter; today, it was just me and my notebook. Like meditation, journal-keeping is a habit I’ve practiced for decades, so doing it generates its own energy, like a turbine turning a gear. Meditation fills my lungs, walking gets my blood flowing, writing stimulates my brain, and high-octane dark chocolate gives me a buzz that lasts the whole day. This is how you weather a sleepy morning that started before dawn.

Books read in 2019

Recently in one of the reading-related Facebook groups I’m in, a debate arose between readers who set goals and those who don’t. Some of the goal-setters had linked to their Goodreads “Year in Books” lists, and some of the goal-avoiders complained, arguing that reading is a pleasurable activity that is ruined and made too stressful if you set numeric goals.

This is a debate that repeatedly arises in this and other groups I’m in, and as a goal-setter, I’m perpetually mystified by it. Yes, I set reading goals for myself, but just because I set a goal doesn’t mean you should, too. For me, setting and then tracking a goal makes it more likely that I will actually do the thing I’m tracking. I an ideal world, I’d have plenty of free time, and during that abundance of time, I’d simply fall into a comfortable chair and begin reading spontaneously, without the nudge of a goal.

My life, unfortunately, doesn’t work this way. I keep daily to-do lists because I am apt to forget and thus neglect any task not on my list, and it gives me an obscene sense of accomplishment to cross something off said list. But if listing doesn’t work for you, don’t do it. I’m not going to tell non-listers how they should organize their lives, and I’d love to receive the same consideration in return.

What perplexes me about the goal-or-no-goal debate is the assumption that counting an end-result automatically robs that process of its pleasure. Do golfers, basketball players, or video gamers enjoy golfing, basketball, or video games less if they keep score?

There are plenty of fun activities that people track and monitor. I know marathon runners, for instance, who religiously record their times against their own personal best, and they don’t seem to enjoy running any less because of this habit of keeping-track. To the contrary, I’d argue that runners who keep a log of their times have an extra incentive to train and improve. The process of keeping score, in other words, turns training into a kind of game, and it makes running even more pleasurable by adding a sense of accomplishment to the activity.

The non-goal-setters in this particular Facebook group would probably be horrified at the sheer number of things I log and track on a given day. I habitually count both my steps and calories, though a quick check of my waistline would reveal I’m not slavishly attached to either number. I keep track of the number of times I meditate, write in my journal, and blog each week, and I have goals for both postcard- and letter-writing, museum and Zen Center visits, and the doing of some sort of Fun Activity each week.

Again, in an ideal world, these things would happen naturally and spontaneously…but I don’t live in an ideal world. Instead, I live in a world where things that aren’t on my schedule get bumped to tomorrow and the next day and the next, and I’ve learned that tomorrow and the next day and the next quickly becomes Never. Yes, Spontaneous Sex is the most exciting sex, but even Scheduled-On-Date-Night Sex is better than No Sex At All.

So every year since 2014, I’ve set myself a goal of reading 50 books a year, and every year I’ve met that goal without feeling unduly pressured or stressed, my love of reading surviving unscathed. On any given day, I try to read 50 pages, usually at night after my evening chores are done; I even go so far as to list on paper how many days it will take to read any given book at that rate. This not only gives me a daily reading goal to cross off the list, it helps me manage my library loans: when multiple holds arrive at once, I can roughly estimate how many books I can realistically finish and which ones I’d be better off returning and checking out later.

To me, tracking the books I read is almost as fun as reading itself. In a life where too many days feel Too Busy and Too Hectic, it’s reassuring to know I’m not neglecting the things I want to do in favor of the things I have to.

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.”

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