Art & culture


Two lilies

I recently started reading Jeffrey Cramer’s Solid Seasons: The Friendship of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. One benefit of 19th century literary friendships is the wealth of written evidence they leave behind. Future biographers researching friendships between modern-day writers will have to pore over emails, texts, and tweets rather than the letters and journal entries Cramer read in writing his book.

Asiatic dayflower

Both Thoreau and Emerson kept journals and maintained voluminous correspondence, albeit not always with one another. In the portion of Cramer’s book I’ve read so far, Thoreau is more emotionally intimate with Emerson’s wife, Lidian, than with Emerson himself, sending her letters that could pass as journal entries, so intricately do they chronicle his thoughts.

Front yard ferns

The problem with writerly friendships–especially friendships between two journal-keepers–is that writers are very good at talking to themselves. Isn’t a journal entry nothing more than a letter to an anonymous audience that is never sent? When you are accustomed to pouring your heart on paper for an audience of none, it’s easy to think–erroneously and egotistically–that anyone willing to receive and read such correspondence actually understands and empathizes with you.

But while the blank page has no desires or concerns of its own, friends are not blank pages. There is a very real way that two friends who are also writers can correspond at cross-purposes, even when communicating face-to-face. Each person wants their own needs met–each speaker longs to be listened to–and these desires can clash rather than finding a complement.

Smartweed

In a radio interview about his book, Cramer said Emerson and Thoreau had contrasting views of friendship. Emerson had many friends and drew different things from each, but Thoreau had few friends and strove (unsuccessfully) to have all his social and emotional needs met by one. This difference is a recipe for relational disaster, perhaps, and it helps explain the tense complications of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s friendship. What started as a conventional mentorship between an established writer and an idealistic protege deteriorated as it became clear that Thoreau would always be his own man, a nonconformist who marched to a different drum.

Enchanter's nightshade

But longevity is not the only (or best) way to judge a friendship. Although their relationship would ultimately grow strained, both Emerson and Thoreau were forever influenced by the insights of the other. In a passage Cramer quotes near the beginning of his book, Thoreau compares long-time friends to two trees who stand apart but whose roots intermingle. Above ground, two venerable trunks might seem distant and disconnected, but beneath the surface, they take sustenance from the same soil.

Wood sorrel

What if discipline and habit are not the key to creativity? This morning as I sat reading then writing, a woodpecker called overhead; in the distance, a sparrow trilled. On sunny summer days like today, Toivo and I take a short stroll, then we settle on the patio to enjoy some fresh air before the day gets too hot. Opening my notebook without a particular topic to explore, my thoughts naturally turn to the question of inspiration.

Day lilies

My life revolves around the discipline of many schedules: the cats need to be fed and medicated specific times, the dog needs to be walked regularly, and there is always a daily litany of chores. I live most of my life at the mercy of schedules and checklists. Even when I’m not teaching–working for pay, that is–I’m always working. They say a woman’s work is never done, and although I can’t speak for men’s experience, as a woman I can say there is always something that needs to be done.

My perpetual goal–one that is perennially unsatisfied–is to perfect a routine where both work and chores unwind almost automatically: a time for everything, and everything done in time. For mindlessly repetitive tasks like scrubbing dishes or cleaning litter boxes, this approach works fairly well: my morning routine is so deeply ingrained, all I need to do is wake up, show up, and my daily tasks all but do themselves.

Spiderwort

Creative endeavors are different, though. Some days I show up at the page and the words are there waiting for me; other days, they are reluctant to come. I haven’t discerned, even after all these years of more or less daily writing, why I have Something To Say on some days but not on others. Is it something I can control by perfecting a smoother routine that lands me at the page well-read, well-fed, and well-rested? Or is it a matter outside my control, like the weather?

I’m coming to realize that discipline–the setting of and adhering to habits, which I am so very good at–is necessary but not sufficient. You need the discipline of hard work–the habit of showing up to the page whether you feel inspired or not–as much as a fire needs fuel. But discipline alone is like a dry pile of wood without a flame. I can religiously show up to the page, and I try my best to do so, but there is something else I can’t control. The blank page is kindling; the inspiration, a spark. In all my years of writing, writing, writing, I still can’t describe or explain why some days the lightning comes.

These past few months, my writing–both in my journal and on-blog–has been uninspired, my mind mired with the muck of an unremarkable life. But some days, I look up right as a hawk slices silently across the sky. Why does randomness happen: why do stars and starlings fall? As I write these words, a pair of titmice set up to scolding in a nearby hedge. Why here, why now? Or better yet, why not? Perhaps hawks fly and titmice scold at all and random hours, and occasionally the disciplined ones are lucky enough to notice. Isn’t this reason enough to keep watch?

Snow into sleet

Today brought a day-long mix of snow, sleet, and rain, so J and I took a break from the wintery weather by going to the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College to see their current exhibit, Eaglemania: Collecting Japanese Art in Gilded Age America.

Eagle and clock tower

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a monumental bronze sculpture that was donated to the College in the 1950s by the estate of Larz and Isabel Anderson, who bought it in Japan during their honeymoon. A gilded replica of the statue sits atop a pillar near the main entrance to Boston College, and subsequent conservation of the original suggests it was crafted during the Meiji period, possibly by the celebrated sculptor Suzuki Chōkichi. The McMullen exhibit contextualizes the original bronze alongside Japanese sculptures and scrolls depicting birds of prey as well as other items from the Andersons’ personal collection.

Eagle with necktie

J and I enjoy going to the McMullen regardless of what’s on exhibit there. The Museum is small, so you can take your time examining individual artworks, and the exhibits are well-curated. We always leave the McMullen feeling like we learned something: today I learned, for instance, that samurai warriors practiced falconry, a pastime forbidden to commoners even though hawks and eagles often appear in Japanese art. Even though I’ve seen the BC eagle perched on a pillar by Gasson Hall countless times, today I learned how huge and impressive it is when viewed at eye-level.

Although I didn’t take any photos at the McMullen Museum today, you can view official press images from the exhibit here. Eaglemania: Collecting Japanese Art in Gilded Age America is on view at the McMullen Museum until June 2, 2019.

Clear street, snowy trees

I often think of Emily Dickinson and her poem “There’s certain slant of light” on late February afternoons when my to-do list is long and the daylight is short.

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Well trampled

It’s easy to be upbeat and energized on sunny mornings when a fresh coat of snow brightens the ground, covering the scourge of of February gray. But after dinner time–after lunch feels like an eternity ago, the afternoon chores are done, and it’s just me and my bottomless paper-piles–my spirit lags and falters.

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

Snowy steps

People speak of seasonal affective disorder as if it were a monolithic thing, with one’s moods being perpetually in the dumps from December through March. But instead, winter is an oceanic surge with troughs and swells. In the morning, when the sun is low in the sky but glaring bright, all seems possible, but when darkness descends in early afternoon, so do one’s energy and enthusiasm wane and ebb.

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

Sidestreet

Emily Dickinson knew all this; I imagine her as a raw nerve cloaked in drab, her emotional barometer ever attuned to the psychic energy of the cosmos. Faith came easily on sunny summer days when all Dickinson needed was a clover, bee, and reverie. But on winter afternoons, her mood dipped toward doom.

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

I’ve lived long enough in New England to know that winter always ends–the days eventually lengthen, and both warmth and greenery return. But it’s easy to forget that truth on a late February afternoon when the world outside is cold and dark and one’s to-do list is long.

Plowed

We got a few dense inches of snow overnight, topped by intermittent freezing rain throughout the day. Weather forecasters measure snow by depth, but that is misleading: deep snow is typically light and fluffy, and even a few inches of wet snow is much more bothersome.

Sleet on burdock

Weight would be the most helpful measure of any given snowfall: how much does a bucket left out overnight weight by morning’s light? Over time, heavy snow settles into a shallow sludge that is difficult to shovel. Throughout the day today, I could hear snowblowers in all directions as J and various neighbors worked to clear as much as they could before tonight’s plunging temperatures. Any of today’s slop not cleared away will freeze brick-hard overnight.

Sleet on sleek

This morning after walking Toivo, I finished Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink, a thick brick of a novel. After initially enjoying the book, I faltered in the middle, getting bogged down in the history of Sephardic Jews in seventeenth century London, and at times I lost patience with the two modern scholars–one at career’s end, the other in graduate school–who gradually piece together the story of Ester Velasquez, a Jewish scribe whose story is hidden in a trove of old manuscripts found in a mansion.

Sleet on snow

Scholarship can be a tedious slog, like walking in ankle-deep snow, and the academy is an often-toxic place, full of backstabbing and politicking. The Weight of Ink captures all of that, but ultimately it was Ester’s story–her curious mind and her rebellious spirit, both dangerous in an era when women weren’t encouraged to be scholars and free-thinking was denounced as heresy–that pulled me through the book to its moving conclusion, where life and the desire for continuance prove stronger than the presumed virtues of martyrdom.

Nowadays, women like me are free to write and study as much as we’d like–no societal scorn or hidden inquisitions can silence us–and there is nothing weightier on my mind today than the sizzle of sleet falling on winter window panes.

Babson redtail

The best time of day for writing is the early morning, before the rest of the world is awake–but the next best time is long after dark, when the earth herself is leaning toward sleep. On a cold winter’s night, you can almost hear the darkness, the hush of your neighbors tucked into their houses entirely different from the sound of midday, when cars zoom and dog-walkers pass.

Don't tell me I'm the only one who takes pictures like this to find my car.

The worst time to write is afternoon, when the world is restless and your body weary. A writer should ideally be awake when others are sleeping, or watchful while others are oblivious. In the afternoon, the eyes of the world are casting about, hungry, and my own eyes feel heavy. Better to wait until one’s soul is completely depleted, spent with the exertion of the day, because then you come to the page empty-handed and defenseless, your first-thoughts bleeding onto the page without impediment. In the early morning and late evening–before dawn or after dark, when others are asleep in the beds or mesmerized by their own distant, private pursuits–you come to the page raw and without pretense, your guile stripped away by the sheer exertion of being.

Babson College

This open-eyed, undefended perspective–this stance of standing like a bare nerve, ever-sensitive and reactive, watchful and incapable of fleeing–is how I picture May Oliver, writing, her poetry offering a clear mirror into truths that anyone with open eyes could see, but which are so rarely recognized. Oliver had a gift of observation, which means she had a firm grasp of the obvious–a phrase that sounds like an insult but is the highest praise. Most of us fool ourselves by clamoring after the remarkable and spectacular, thereby missing the all-abiding wonder that is our miraculous hand right in front of our ever-wonderous nose.

These are the words that poured out tonight when I sat down belatedly to write my daily journal pages. In the morning, I attended a faculty retreat at Babson College, where someone recalled a colleague who often used the phrase “a firm grasp of the obvious” to pooh-pooh the presumably pedestrian observations of his co-workers: an indirect insult. After I’d heard of poet Mary Oliver’s passing today, however, the phrase took a different meaning in my mind.

Oonas

Today I’m finally getting around to the mundane task of shelving the past few years’ worth of Moleskine notebooks. Every time I fill a notebook with journal entries, I add it to a pile in my closet, and when that pile starts to loom too ominously, I take each notebook, use a silver Sharpie to write the relevant dates on the spine, and then shelve it alongside its fellows.

Worth a shot

Today’s closet pile contains the ten notebooks I’ve filled since July, 2015. When I shelve my journals, I occasionally dip into a random entry or two to see what I was doing or thinking at any given point in my past. (Spoiler alert: the things I was doing on any random day in 2015, the year after, or the year after that are largely the same as what I did yesterday or today. The more the dates on the calendar change, the more human nature and a thing called karma stay the same.)

And so on Saturday, November 21, 2015, I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which I had mixed feelings about:

Art, etc.

I don’t buy Gilbert’s glowing talk of magic, but I agree with what she says about permission. It is too easy to fall into the trap of seeking either permission or legitimacy rather than simply doing what you do because you enjoy doing it.

The only thing keeping me blogging all these years is the fact I enjoy it, and the only thing that’s kept me teaching all these years (even in the face of perpetual disappointment) is the fact I can’t picture myself doing anything else. In some cases, it pays to be stubborn, just keeping one’s head down doing one’s thing because that’s how you work–slowly and gradually, like water wearing away stone.

My life’s work of blog and journal entries has grown like a stalagmite, each drop gradually growing the thing incrementally. You can’t see the progress–it’s too slow for that–but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Enter only

Three years and a couple months after writing those works, they still ring true. I’m still stubbornly journaling, blogging, and teaching even though none of those activities have led to consistently full-time employment: I just journal, blog, and teach because these are the things I do. The motivation is both internal and intrinsic: if I weren’t writing and teaching, I don’t know what else I’d do with myself. So page by page, day by day, I build up a stack of notebooks that gather dust on my shelves: a life in handwritten lines.

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