Art & culture


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.

Snowy magnolia

We’re at the point of the semester when I have little time to write: right now my paper-piles loom large, and there are emails to answer and classes to prep. My colleagues are similarly stressed–the typical college semester is emotionally grueling for both faculty and students alike–and while I know I’ll catch up with my grading and other teaching tasks eventually, I lament every moment of lost writing time.

Snow on forsythia

During busy times when I don’t have much time to write, I grow anxious and unsettled, fretting like a dog separated from her pups. Writing isn’t simply a job or pastime for me: it’s how I process my inner world. When I’m not writing, I’m not taking time to make sense of my life: writing even more than meditation is the keel that keeps me upright and centered.

These days when I do find time to show up at my notebook, I come to the page feeling scattered and disjointed: uninspired. After even a few days away from my journal, I’m rusty when I return, having forgotten the route a feeble, circuitous thought takes from brain to hand then onto the page.

Winter into spring

What works, I know, is to write everyday. When I’m writing regularly, my thoughts flow automatically onto the page, my writing hand serving like an extension of my brain and my pen another finger. When I’m writing regularly, filling pages is no problem, even when I think I don’t have anything to say. When I sit and place pen to paper, the words simply appear: the secret to writing, I’ve discovered, is simply to be there with pen in hand, ready for whatever appears.

There’s an old Zen story about a young orphan living in a lonely monastery. An old monk tells the boy that if he sits in front of a certain shoji screen, an ox will eventually appear. The initial admonition to wait for the ox is a trick to keep an antsy boy occupied, like telling a child to sprinkle salt on a bird’s tail. But after the boy sits a long and faithful vigil, an ox does indeed arrive, leaping through the screen and astonishing both the boy and elderly monk alike.

Snow magnolia

Writing journal pages is a bit like sitting in front of a shoji screen, waiting. For months on end, you see nothing inspiring; instead, you face an expanse of blank paper that seems as impenetrable as any brick wall. But one day when you’ve nearly given up all hope, the ox of inspiration charges through the paper and carries you away, amazed. You never know in advance when this moment will come, and this is why you spend many lonely hours with eyes open and pen in hand, waiting for the words appear.

Art Wall

My twelve-year blogiversary was several weeks ago: it’s been twelve years and a couple of weeks since I posted my first blog post on December 27, 2003. Each year, I usually use the occasion of my blogiversary to review my favorite posts from the previous year, but this time around I want to reflect on a broader theme: what have I learned from a dozen years of blogging?

Walkway

The deepest and most lasting lesson I’ve taken from twelve years of blogging, I think, is that it’s always good to be writing. Sometimes on a doubting day I second-guess the time I spend on my blog: surely there must better, more lucrative, or more prestigious projects I could devote myself to. But when I consider how I actually work—how and where my Muse strikes, the kind of things that interest me, and the way I spend my days—I realize blogging nicely matches my creative proclivities. I like writing about an assortment of little things, and I like the way both journals and blogs focus on a ragtag selection of loose ends. Given the challenge to write a Big Book about Something Profound, I clam up, but given the opportunity to share whatever little something comes to mind, I always, eventually, find something to say.

Contemporary

Truth be told, if I weren’t blogging, I probably wouldn’t be writing much. It’s easy to assume that if you didn’t spend a little bit of time every now and then writing about whatever random stuff interests you, you’d suddenly have ample opportunity to focus on sustained profundity, but I think the opposite is just as true. If I ever were to write a Big Book about Something Profound, it would be exactly because I’d flexed my noticing on the scales and arpeggios of daily writing. Henry David Thoreau didn’t write the books that made his reputation despite the fact that he kept a journal; instead, Thoreau’s journal is where his books were born. As much as I enjoy and have come to rely upon my daily journal pages, I also enjoy the accountability and immediate feedback that writing in front of an online audience provides.

Face to face

Blogging is an ephemeral form—a genre that focuses on the minute details of passing days—and as such can sometimes seem not to count for much: at the end of twelve years, what do I have to show for the time I’ve spent? But I’m not sure a lasting legacy is the best way to judge a writer’s (or any other mortal human’s) real worth. After a dozen years, an architect might point to a building erected, but what does a chef have to show for her devoted labor? Does cooking nourishing meals—each one consumed with grateful gusto down to the last crumb—count for nothing simply because the leftovers do not last?

Walkway

If I write something fulfilling and tasty today, I still need to write something tomorrow and the next day and the next: a blogger’s work, like a woman’s, is never done. But some of life’s greatest joys are ephemeral, every dance begging another just as every kiss commands its consequent. Just because something doesn’t last and thus must be repeated doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. To the contrary, the impermanent and the ephemeral push us to live in the moment, spending with abandon whatever we have NOW and trusting that in the future, more will be provided.

Korean art

What I have to show for the past twelve years of blogging is nothing more than a determination to keep blogging for another dozen, the practice of almost-daily writing being its own reward. Whenever I teach the basics of meditation, I note the special temporal nature of the breath: unlike thoughts, which can wander into the past or future, the breath brings us back to the present exactly because it can happen nowhere else. Try as we might, we can’t recover today the breath we lost yesterday, and there’s no way to stockpile today’s breath for tomorrow. The only place you can breathe is right here, right now.

Partly cloudy

A blog is like a fog of breath on a mirror: yesterday’s brilliant utterance cannot make up for today’s sudden silence. If you want to stay alive, you have to keep breathing, and if you want to keep blogging, you have to keep writing. There is no resting on your laurels in this business: as a blogger, you’re only as good as your last post just as a body is only as alive as its most recent breath.

New Year's letter to my future self

I spent most of the day yesterday curled on a friend’s couch, writing. A (not her real initial) and I used to go to a writers’ conference every autumn, but after a few years we decided we’d get more out of taking a day just to write rather than listening to people talking about writing. Toward that end, yesterday we spent the day having our own writers’ retreat at A’s apartment.

Sometimes you just need to take a day to do whatever it is you wish you had more time to do. Before I could break away to spend most of my Saturday writing, I had to tackle my morning chores, taking the beagle out and in, cleaning dishes and litter boxes, taking out the trash and recycling, and feeding and medicating one of the cats. By doing these things, I bought myself the rest of the day—a luxurious chunk of time between 10:00 am and 6:00 pm—to focus on writing without interruption before returning home to my usual obligations.

I used to have this luxury every day: that is, I used to be single. I used to live alone in my apartment in Keene, and the only living soul I was beholden to was Reggie, whose needs at the time were simple: a walk, a bowl of kibble, and a couple bathroom breaks. But now I have a husband and a houseful of pets, and life is complicated. Being married and surrounded by furry creatures is wonderful and bears its own satisfactions, but sometimes I long for the simplicity of my single days.

This is the value of a retreat. Retreats are like a vacation or a game of make-believe: instead of casting off your attachments to move to a monastery and become a monk, you take a day to role-play. You step outside your life and its obligations, at least for a little while, and you live a life that once was or still could be yours, but isn’t.

It’s remarkable how quiet even a thickly settled neighborhood can be when you yourself are quiet and not chasing after anything. My apartment in Keene was in a similar neighborhood as A’s—close to downtown, but affording solitude if you didn’t have business with the cars that occasionally approached and then passed. There is great tranquility to be found even close at hand when you simply stop, settle into your seat, and sip your tea, reminding yourself you have nowhere to go and nothing to do.

When you’re a wife, any place you don’t have to clean feels like a luxury resort, even if you’re simply sitting on someone else’s couch. After J and I were married but I was still teaching and living three days a week in Keene, I’d sometimes try to explain my arrangement to others. Their responses were amazingly predictable, with married women invariably looking at me with a wistful expression: “Oh, you have a place of your own!” J and I make a conscious effort to give one another space—we often and without a hint of irony insist that the secret to a happy marriage lies in having separate bathrooms—but even given such space, every married person I encountered (particularly the women) craved the solitude they imagined I had.

Notebook + pen + hot chocolate = brainstorming for the New Year. #gratitude

Solitude is, after all, an elixir: the simple act of stopping one’s usual mad dash of accomplishment serves to staunch a pernicious kind of bleeding. I love to write, in part, because it requires this kind of stopping—this kind of plug-pulling—this kind of turning inward. We are like deer who chase after grass, Kabir said, when the richness of musk lies within.

Solitude is not, in other words, a place: you needn’t go far—or anywhere at all—looking for it. All you need is a quiet couch and a cup of tea—or, if your mind is quiet, just the tea will do. Solitude, again, is not a place: you needn’t journey to monastery or mountaintop to find it. Instead, solitude is a decision to consciously turn away: a closed door, a silenced phone, a firm resolve to let one solid day pass without alarm or interruption.

This is why solitaries such as Henry David Thoreau and May Sarton, neither of whom was a proper hermit, are so widely misunderstood. You can, it turns out, live a solitary life in a house at the heart of town or in a cabin within walking distance of company, solitude being defined by inner rather than outer measures. Given the friends and commitments we all as social creatures have, can you occasionally and with full-hearted conviction say, “No, right now I need to be alone”?

Solitude blossoms when you say that single word “No.” Can you find the wherewithal and resolve to say “No” to the world—“No” to commitments—“No” to the obligations of caretaking, if only for a while? This commitment to say No needn’t be lifelong, but it needs to be wholehearted while it lasts: for this next solitary session, whether it last two years at Walden or a day on a friend’s couch, I resolve to ignore the world outside and look deeply at the world within.

This is often more difficult for women than for men, given how women are conditioned to be caretakers, but even women can find the resolve to kill the Angel of the House, as Virginia Woolf described it. The house will not collapse, the pets will not die, and my marriage will not fail if I take a single uninterrupted day to write.

It isn’t, ultimately, our external obligations that keep us from the task at hand: they are simply our excuses. For once you do close the door and silence the phone, there is that great existential fear: given a day to devote to nothing but your writing, what if you should find nothing to say?

Solitude is scary if you’ve become alienated from yourself, but when you’re on comfortable speaking terms with your own mind, you never are alone. Turning within, you discover yourself to be a remarkably interesting and insightful person with plenty of say and share, your inner world an untapped well.

Solitude, after all, is both fertile and fecund—a dark, deep, and mossy recess studded with gems. Your self is boring and inane only when you’re too busy, too hurried, or too harried to explore it properly. Given the time and opportunity to become acquainted with your own inner self, you’ll find an infinite font of secret wisdom there.

But this makes it sound mystic and aloof–a far-off, magical state–when what I’m talking about is much more mundane: a quiet couch and a cup of tea on a coffee table stacked with magazines. Nothing magical—nothing you couldn’t attain for yourself—if you simply said “No” to other obligations.

Head of the Charles regatta

Today is the last day of November, which means it’s the last day of National Blog Posting Month, or NaBloPoMo: a conscious commitment to post once a day, every day, during the month of November. I’ve done NaBloPoMo for several years now: it’s a good, annual nudge to get me blogging more at a point in the semester when I don’t have much time to write.

Head of the Charles regatta

Since NaBloPomo is basically an experiment to see whether I can balance blogging atop a teetering pile of daily demands, at the end of the month I like to look back and see what (if anything) I’ve learned from the experience of posting something every day, even on days when I technically didn’t have the time or inspiration to write.

Head of the Charles regatta

Every year, I realize (again) that I can always find something to say, even on hurried and uninspired days, and every year, I discover (again) that I sometimes surprise myself with the posts that seemingly materialize out of thin air. There is, I’ve found, something magical about the simple action of setting your fingers on a keyboard: once you start typing, your mind will furnish you with something to say, even if you had no idea what you were going to blog about.

Head of the Charles regatta

I sometimes think of this as being the “stone soup” nature of blogging: even when you think your cupboard is bare, you can always find a little bit of something simmer. The magic, again, happens when you set fingers to keyboard or pen to paper…or when you open Google Drive on your phone and start tapping out a new Doc.

Head of the Charles regatta

(Yes, more than a few blog posts this month were initially composed on my phone, that ubiquitous device that doubles as a word processor if you don’t mind typing with your thumbs. You’d be surprised how much you can write during the spare minutes you’re waiting at the vet, at your favorite take-out place, or in line at the drugstore.)

Head of the Charles regatta

As in past years, I’m a bit relieved to be posting my last November blog entry for the year. Now that Thanksgiving break has come and gone, the busiest part of the semester looms, and I need to focus on things other than blogging. But before I press my nose to the proverbial grindstone, it feels good to look back on a solid month’s worth of blogging: proof of what I can do when I set my mind to it, even if my mind claims to be too busy and uninspired to write.

Today’s photos come from this year’s Head of the Charles regatta, which happened back in October. The best stone soups are sometimes simmered from long-overlooked leftovers.

Fashion design display

This afternoon, I finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book about creativity, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. I ended up liking the book more in the end than I did in the beginning: early portions of the book where Gilbert emphasizes the mystical nature of creativity, with ideas floating in the ether just waiting for an artist to claim them, left me cold, but I resonated with those sections of the book where she describes the more mundane characteristics of a creative life.

Fashion display

I agree with Gilbert when she talks about the need to press on with undying commitment regardless of whether one’s creative endeavors seem to be bearing fruit: creativity, after all, is about doing, not judging. Writing, drawing, dancing, and other creative endeavors are enjoyable whether you do them well or not, so don’t worry about who’s watching while you do them. Creativity is something you do because the doing is intrinsically worth it: once you’ve been writing, drawing, or dancing for a while, you realize that you write, draw, or dance simply because these are the things that feed your soul.

Fashion design display

Gilbert rips to shreds the myth of the suffering artist, calling it out for its tendency to excuse bad and unhealthy behavior. Creativity, Gilbert suggests, isn’t about suffering: it’s about following your creative impulses with a sense of playful joy. Instead of worrying whether your work is meaningful, profound, or profitable, you continue doing it because the actual Doing It brings you satisfaction. Even in the face of rejection, criticism, or failure, you follow your curiosity because there’s honestly nothing else you’d rather be doing.

Fashion design display

Gilbert’s encouragements on this point seemed particularly apt because we live in an age that is perpetually starved for joy. So much of what we see on the news and in social media is inspired by hate, insecurity, and exclusion: by a desire to be seen as Right while everyone else is Wrong. In a world filled with so many attempts to get rich quick, so many attacks and insults, and so many pleas for attention and adulation, the only true antidote is joy: the seemingly frivolous things that creatives do for pure playful pleasure. This is why videos of children dancing or kittens cuddling go viral so quickly, attracting umpteen views and re-views. Deep down, we want to experience the joy that comes from doing something purely, with one’s whole-heart, and for its own reward.

Tricolor

It’s after dark and I’m bone-tired after a long day of teaching. I have a handful of tasks to check off before I can unplug for the night, but I feel uninspired: like Old Mother Hubbard, my cupboard is bare.

Kid Photo Op

I pick up a book I recently checked out from the library but haven’t yet had time to read–Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear–and read the first chapter, hoping for a glimmer of inspiration or encouragement.

And there it is, only a few pages in: a poet corners a shy student and asks her what plans to do with her life. When the student says she wants to write, the poet responds, “Do you have the courage? Do you have the courage to bring forth this work?”

Portrait

It takes great courage to show up to the page, especially when it’s dark and you’re bone-tired. It’s so much easier to curl up with one’s doubts and insecurity–so much easier to rehash the old complaints and rehearse the usual excuses. Last night, one of my colleagues quoted one of his own teachers as saying “It’s my job to make sure you pursue your ideas.” It takes great courage to pursue an idea wherever it goes, tracking it relentlessly like a bloodhound hot on her prey. Do you have the courage and tenacity to follow your inspiration wherever it leads?

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