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Adirondack chairs

August is the beginning of the end of summer, with back-to-school commercials playing on TV and Halloween candy on display at the grocery store. On Monday, I drove to Framingham State to help plan our annual retreat for first-year writing instructors: a time to come together and share teaching ideas before we put the finishing touches on our Fall semester syllabi.

Live to the truth.

I sometimes joke that my favorite time of year is August, when I’m planning my syllabi without any actual students around. When you’re ramping up for a new school year, absolutely anything is possible. All the practical problems you faced last semester are long forgotten, and a new school year offers the promise of a new beginning. This year, you tell yourself, you’ll engage your students with well-designed assignments; this year, you tell yourself, you’ll keep up with your grading and avoid the dreaded Dark Night of the Semester when both you and your students are tired and unmotivated.

Two chairs, no waiting

As soon as the school year starts, even a perfectly designed syllabus will be tested by practical realities: there’s never enough time, after all, to instill all the lessons you want your students to learn. As the late Mario Cuomo famously said, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” Just as political candidates promise the moon and stars, a teacher who is planning a syllabus sees the sky as being her students’ ceiling. There will be plenty of time later to revisit and adjust your actual expectations.

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 reflections

This past Saturday, J and I watched this year’s Pride parade in downtown Boston; early on Sunday morning, a gunman went on a shooting rampage at a gay nightclub in Orlando.  These two events are unrelated, but I will always associate them because of an accident of chronology.  First, there was a Saturday afternoon filled with rainbow flags, warm hugs, and lots of smiling people shouting “Happy Pride”; next, there was a Sunday morning filled with violence, bloodshed, and the heartbreak caused by one man’s hateful heart.

You deserve love

I’ve spent the last few days going through the pictures I took at Saturday’s parade, and I am tempted to caption all of them “Before Orlando.”  Going back through the happy pictures of Saturday’s parade felt a lot like going through the pictures I’d taken at the 2013 Boston Marathon.  Those pictures show the celebratory scene out in the suburbs before the front-runners crossed the finish line, before lives and limbs were lost and Boylston Street became a crime scene.  In April 2013, I struggled to make sense of the contradiction:  how could a happy, inclusive event suddenly become the site of carnage and hatred, and how could we ever celebrate a happy Marathon Monday again?

Looking fabulous

In the aftermath of tragedy, people talk of returning to a “new normal.”  By an accident of geography, Boston’s Pride parade starts at Copley Square, half a block from the Marathon bombing site and right on the spot where a huge and heart-felt memorial arose after the attack.  Part of the “new normal” in Boston is the simple fact that J and I think of the bombing every time we stroll down Boylston Street or visit Copley Square.  On Saturday, as floats, marchers, and squads of rainbow-decked motorcycles staged on Boylston Street before the start of the parade, J and I observed a gathering of Boston Police officers and a couple of bomb-sniffing dogs:  just another day in the age of terrorism.

Police K9

As a straight woman, I take a lot of things for granted.  I don’t think twice when I mention my husband to friends and colleagues, I’m not afraid to walk down the street holding J’s hand, and I don’t worry if co-workers see family photos on my laptop or tablet.  As a straight woman, in other words, I can simply be myself in public without worrying that someone might condemn or try to hurt me because of my lifestyle.

Hellfire and brimstone guy

Two years ago, J and I marched as LGBT allies in the Pride parade, and there are a couple things I remember from that day.  First, I remember a photo J snapped of two young men in band uniforms walking hand-in-hand as they marched down Boylston Street toward the Marathon finish line:  a blatant “screw you” to the bombers who tried to kill freedom there.  Second, I remember the happy and even grateful looks on spectators’ faces as the parade moved like a loud, rainbow-colored caterpillar through the Back Bay, South End, and Beacon Hill toward City Hall.

LOVE

But most of all, I remember one of the other marchers we met that day.  Ryan was a 15-year-old high school student who had recently come out to his family and friends. I will never forget the look of amazed delight on Ryan’s face as he looked around and saw crowds of joyful, self-assured LGBT folks being themselves in public. It was the look of a proverbial “ugly duckling” realizing the world is full of swans.

Newton South Gay/Straight Alliance

Straight folks take a lot of things for granted, like the freedom to love and be loved. Two years ago, the look on one gay high-school student’s face reminded me that the freedom to be yourself in public isn’t guaranteed. Places like Pulse and events like Pride are essential because they provide sanctuary from a hateful world. I wish everyone knew how wonderful it is to live in a world full of swans.

Pride flag

Little Free Library

Today on my way home from an errand, I left books at two Little Free Libraries in Chestnut Hill (pictured here in August, when the world was both warmer and leafier). I’ve described before the sense of serendipity the Little Free Library in our neighborhood inspires: taking a book that a stranger left for anyone’s enjoyment feels like claiming a grace freely given. That grace, I’ve found, works both ways: leaving a book for someone you’ll never see feels expansive, a small act of kindness that opens your heart with a sense of abundance and generosity.

Little Free Library

Although I know full well the joy that comes from possessing a full-to-brimming bookshelf, giving books away creates a different kind of satisfaction. Giving a book to a stranger you’ll never see makes you feel both generous and amply blessed: only someone who has enough can happily share with no need for stinginess. When I leave a book at a Little Free Library, I imagine myself as setting it free to fly wherever it is needed. I like to imagine the person who will claim the book that was formerly mine: someone I hope will enjoy it as much as I did and who might even have enough abundance of heart to share it in turn.

First crocus

This election season has been filled with too much aggressively inflammatory rhetoric from a certain politician who wants to Make America Hate Again. According to said politician, America is a place that needs to wall itself in like a treasure-hoarding dragon, there not being enough Greatness to go around. When I hear the exclusionary hatred espoused by said politician, my fists clench with a miserly tightness: if there isn’t enough grace, then surely it makes sense to keep ourselves In and all the others Out.

But when I walk outside on an almost-spring day–when I see crocuses poking through the bare soil or tiny spots of green sprouting from seemingly dead twigs–I’m reminded that the world is amply abundant and not-at-all miserly. In the spring, green is a grace freely given, and in a nation that is truly great, so are acceptance, inclusion, and joy.

Mugs and tea

This past year for Christmas, I asked J to buy me the same desktop radio and water boiler he has in his office: the radio for playing classical music while I work and the water boiler to provide a ready supply of hot water for tea. Yesterday, I completed my home office setup by adding some stacking mugs and a bamboo tea box to organize my supply of green and herbal teas: a simple addition that makes my home office more organized and visually appealing.

I type these words, I’m listening to classical guitar music while sipping a cup of pomegranate white tea, the simple addition of music and hot beverages making my home office much cozier and conducive to productivity. Controlling one’s environment is an important part of honing one’s habits, and I find myself more willing to spend hours at my desk working now that I have both music and hot beverages close at hand.

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