Life as Lorianne


Leafy

This morning I awoke in western Massachusetts, where I had been visiting A (not her real initial) for the weekend. Before packing my car to head back home, I wrote my morning journal pages in bed, listening to a distant dog barking and the emphatic bursts and bubbles of house wrens, robins, and song sparrows.

Gallery

None of those morning sounds were my concern: there was no need for me to hush, feed, or clean up after that distant dog, and the robins, wrens, and sparrows of western Massachusetts kindly take care of themselves. I have my own backyard birds at home, and my own awaiting tasks. I arrived in Newton around noon, and Toivo wiggled herself in a frenzy at the sight of me, and J gratefully relinquished my share of the household chores, just as I hand over his when he returns from business trips.

Airy

Everything, in other words, has quickly returned to normal: how could it be otherwise? Both humans and dogs (and backyard birds, I suppose) are creatures of habit, and I am so far sunk into the happy rut of my domestic days, I don’t quite remember how to function outside of it.

Natural light

Zen is widely seen as a crazy, spontaneous practice–the stuff of carefree Dharma bums and zany Zen Masters–but this popular perception overlooks the sheer repetitive monotony of monastic practice. For every spontaneous outburst recorded in a Zen Master’s collected teachings, said Master spent countless hours getting up every day at the same time, gazing for the same meticulously scheduled increments at the same habitual floor, chanting the same traditional words at the same regimented hours, and going to bed at the same precise time every night to repeat it all over again and again.

Doorway

Monasticism is the heart of Zen practice, and monastic monotony is the stable, steady heartbeat that sustains occasional spontaneity. How can you be truly free unless you have no need to wonder where and when your next meal will be or where and when you’ll lay down your head? Monastics free their minds by taming and harnessing their bodies; an ox long accustomed to the yoke has infinite freedom to wander anywhere in his untameable mind.

Through

It’s been a long time since I lived in a Zen Center, but my daily routine with its chores and domestic rituals is its own kind of practice. This morning I loaded my car and drove home to my mundane life carrying a weekend’s worth of dirty clothes: after the ecstasy, the laundry.

The photos illustrating today’s post are from Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Lithographs, an exhibit at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, MA.

Iris

Today I revisited a writing project I’d worked on last summer and then abandoned when the school year started. Over the intervening months, I remembered the various sticking-points I’d struggled with, but in revisiting the actual prose today, I was surprised at how much better it was than I’d remembered: yes, this is a draft with real problems, but it’s also a project with promise.

Spiderwort in bloom

The older I get, the more I find myself repeating the same advice to anyone who asks (and some who don’t). Whether you’re facing a work-in-progress, an abandoned resolution, or an obstacle that seems insurmountable, the same piece of advice is apt: always come back.

Iris in rain

I come by this advice the hard way: namely, by perpetually wandering off. I can’t count the number of times I’ve fallen out of the habit of meditating, fallen out of the habit of writing, fallen out the habit of exercising, flossing, or nearly any other beneficial-but-easily-procrastinated task. Whenever I find myself looking down the barrel of “how long has it been since you did X,” I return to my oft-repeated refrain: just come back.

Beauty Bush (Linnaea amabilis) in bloom

Always come back is a great piece of advice for those of us who are stubborn. Yes, we stubborn folk are easily derailed when we grow bored or frustrated with a given task, but we also are creatures of habit. We will return to tasks we’ve started–and we will keep on returning to those tasks–long after a saner soul would have given up for good.

Begonias

It’s not that stubborn folks aren’t quitters: I consider myself, in fact, to be a serial quitter, not only quitting one thing after another but the same thing repeatedly. But we stubborn folk often return to the things we’ve previously quit, unable to give up the ghost (or our hopes) entirely. Long after anyone else would have declared a project dead or a prospect hopeless, we return again and again to frustrate ourselves just a little bit more and more.

So this summer, again, I’ll be working on the unfinished writing project I failed to finish last summer. As many times as I wander away, I can’t stop myself from always coming back.

Honeysuckle on rainy day

This morning I submitted the last batch of spring semester grades, so once I finish a final round of faculty meetings this week, my summer will begin in earnest. “Re-entry” is the word I use for the stunned sensation of finishing another semester and returning to the things I enjoy doing in my free time, like walking, writing, taking pictures, and reading.

Lilac on rainy day

Throughout the semester, I’ve been doing those things in scattered snatches of time–the tag ends of days–but summer is when I can return to projects that require more sustained attention. But before I return to those projects, it takes a few days to sort through neglected piles of mail, catch up with procrastinated household chores, and tend to other overdue obligations that accumulated while I had my head down, grading.

Speedwell on rainy day

One of the drawbacks of teaching is that your busy season corresponds with spring: the time of year when you feel least motivated to work. Luckily, I have a dog who insists on being walked, so I haven’t completely neglected the great greening world outside. For the next three months, I’ll have more time to pay attention to it.

I posted a similarly themed blog post with the same title exactly nine years ago today: what goes around comes around.

Propane tank-filling day. #signsofspring #almostgrillingseason

Today I went to the hardware store to fill two propane tanks: an annual ritual that marks the start of spring and the almost-advent of grilling season. Every year, I park my car by the big propane tank at the corner of the lot, go inside to pay, and then return to the big tank, where a man wearing a hat, coat, and gloves fills each of my smaller tanks in turn.

Almost forsythia

Tonight when I finally sat down to meditate, I felt like I’d plugged myself into a power source: a chance to refill and recharge. We’re entering the busy part of the semester, and on any given day, I have to juggle a half dozen different obligations: pets to feed and errands to run, student emails to answer, classes to prepare, and papers to grade. On any given day, there are more to-do’s on my list than there are hours to do them.

Leafing

And yet, all it takes for me to feel grounded and centered is the simple act of stopping: right here, right now, I make a conscious effort to do just one thing as I follow my breath going in and out, in and out. When you have a hundred and one things to do, doing just one thing sounds like an indulgent luxury, but it’s just as practical as stopping by the hardware store for propane. One’s inner stores of energy are easily depleted, but the Big Tank where you can refill is always close at hand.

You can almost hear them saying "Carpe diem."

Today Leslee and I drove to Palmer, Massachusetts to meet A (not her real initial) for lunch, cocktails, and a belated celebration of both Christmas and my birthday. The restaurant we went to–Steaming Tender, a railroad-themed pub in a restored H.H. Richardson train depot at the center of town–was still decorated for the holidays, so we could almost imagine we weren’t weeks behind with our celebration.

Festive libations, with @insta_leslee

We’d chosen to meet in Palmer because it’s halfway between the Boston suburbs where Leslee and I live and the western Massachusetts town where A lives. In summer, the three of us alternate between meeting in Northampton, which is closer to A, and the Tower Hill Botanic Garden, which is closer to Leslee and me. But during winter months when the days are short, it’s nice to meet halfway, eat lunch, and be home before it gets dark.

Leslee, A, and I have been celebrating holidays and birthdays over food and cocktails for more than a decade. Originally, I lived in Keene, Leslee lived in Grafton, and A lived in Chelmsford: over the years our addresses have changed, but our friendship continues.

Euonymus in ice

New Year’s Eve is traditionally a time for taking stock. Looking back on the wins and losses of the previous year, folks with a penchant for self-improvement typically use the occasion of the New Year to make resolutions. Although I’m a sucker for self-help books, I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. I’ve seen enough New Years come and go to know that well-intentioned resolutions are often broken and forgotten by February, so setting grand goals for the New Year sounds like a guaranteed recipe for disappointment.

Ice-etched

That being said, I’m a big fan of small, attainable goals. This past year, for instance, I set a goal to meditate at least five minutes every day, so although I didn’t go to the Zen Center as often as I would have liked, I am happy to say I meditated at home every single day. I also met my yearly goal to read fifty books in 2017, a goal I reached by reading a little bit every day.

Iced

The other thing I managed to do in 2017 was take and post to Flickr one photo every day. In any given year, I take far more than 365 photos: on days when I go somewhere or do something visually interesting, I might take and post dozens of photos. But on otherwise ordinary, unremarkable days, I need a nudge to take photos, and a 365-day photo challenge provides that motivation. Even in the gray days of February or the busiest days of the semester, I knew I had to snap and post a photo of something, no matter how boring or inane.

Icy aftermath

Over time, a daily photo challenge starts to feel like a personal scavenger hunt or visual gratitude journal: no matter how uninspired or bland a particular day might have felt, you have to find at least one image worth sharing. This year as always, I posted lots of pictures of pets; this year for the first time, I also posted lots of pictures of postcards. Scrolling through my photoset of “365 in 2017” photos, I see a visual time capsule of the entire year.

Icy

Because noticing is contagious, once you push yourself to take at least one picture a day, it becomes easier to take two, three, or more images. Over the course of the year, you hone your eye so it is perpetually on the lookout for Today’s Picture, and you prove to yourself day after day after day that there is always something interesting and share-worthy going on: you just have to capture it when it happens.

Reaching

So on this New Year’s Eve, I’ve decided to continue into the New Year the three habits I honed over the course of the Old. I’ll keep meditating, reading, and snapping at least one photo a day, everyday. I hope what worked in 2017 will continue to work in 2018.

Click here to see my “2017 Year in Books” on Goodreads, or click here to see my “365 in 2017” photoset. Enjoy, and happy New Year!

Robin in redbud

Every year for the past decade, I’ve given friends and family a photo calendar with thirteen of my favorite images from the previous year: twelve months plus a cover.

Snow-laden

Every December, choosing pictures for my calendar gives me an excuse to revisit my photo archives: a way to literally re-view the previous year.

Waterfall

They say that when you die, your entire life flashes before your eyes.

Spring leaves

Since I’ve never died, I don’t know whether that is true, but I can say this: it’s interesting to revisit your life once a year.

Flying

Every December when I finally take time to scroll through my photo archives, I worry I won’t find thirteen photos worthy of sharing, and every December, those worries are unfounded.

Baltimore oriole

Throughout the year, I don’t try to take calendar-worthy photos: most of the photos I take are snapped at offhand moments when I see something that interests my eye.

As above, so below

I guess you could say I’m a collector of images: when I see something interesting, I capture the moment by snapping a photo.

Carter Pond erratic

I see this year-round scavenging of images as akin to my almost-daily journal-keeping: if I want to know what I was doing this time last year or the year before, I can check my blog, journal, or photo archives.

Cattails

This morning I watched a slideshow of images from each of the past ten years’ calendars: a decade’s worth of images.

Cup and saucer vine (Cobaea scandens)

For each of these pictures, I remembered the circumstances surrounding the shot: I remembered which photos were shot while walking the dog, which were shot in the backyard, which were shot in a parking lot on my way to teach, and which were shot on my way to or from the grocery store.

Tinged

Where anyone else sees a collection of pretty pictures, I see ten years’ worth of otherwise mundane moments.

Outbound

Anyone else sees what it is the photo, but I remember what was happening outside the frame.

Holly

The photos illustrating today’s post come from this year’s photo calendar. You can see past calendar sets here. Enjoy!

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