One of these things is not like the others

Whenever I sit down to write and can’t find anything to say, I think of the nursery rhyme about Old Mother Hubbard, who went to give her dog a bone but the cupboard was bare. (Apparently that nursery rhyme has verses beyond the one I know: it sounds like Mother Hubbard’s dog was quite talented.)

Isn't all water "skinny"?

Sometimes when I sit down to write, my mind feels like an empty cabinet…or, more accurately, a messy drawer so crammed with junk, I can’t find much less extricate whatever I’m looking for. Sometimes “nothing to say” means “I have nothing interesting to say,” and sometimes it means “the only interesting things I have are little bits of this and that, and I don’t know how to stitch them together into something worth sharing.”

New Age Drinks?

My inner-artist resonates so deeply with Old Mother Hubbard, a quick search shows I’ve mentioned bare cupboards in seven different blog posts, all of them describing this same experience of sitting down to write and finding nothing. Whatever else might be going on at any given moment, you still have to feed the blog, even if all you have to offer is a handful of crumbs and scraps.

Maybe this all explains why I enjoy grocery shopping, a chore I find doubly satisfying. First, there is the comfort of seeing shelves and cases neatly stocked with wares: abundance in aisles. And then there is the satisfaction of coming home and unpacking one’s purchases: a pantry of plenty.

Rainy day

Entirely by accident, today I realized it’s been exactly thirteen years since I defended my PhD dissertation. My life seems radically different now: in the thirteen years since Then and Now, I’ve divorced, changed my last name, remarried, moved to Massachusetts, left my job at Keene State, and started teaching at Framingham State. April 5, 2004 was the first and only time in my life I wore a pantsuit: the inexpensive one I bought specifically for my defense popped a button then left me with an itchy rash, so I’ve stuck with skirts ever since. This photo of me the morning before I defended, with exhaustion-baggy eyes and still-wet-from-the-shower hair, feels like an artifact from another lifetime, another person, another existence.

The doctor is in

In the thirteen years since I defended, I haven’t published the dissertation I spent a decade of my life writing; in the thirteen years since I defended, I haven’t published much of anything apart from the blog posts I cobble together from the tag ends of days. In the thirteen years since I defended, I haven’t secured a tenure-track job; in the thirteen years since I defended, I haven’t “secured” much of anything, my career continuing to be a crazy-quilt of part-time, temporary, and “visiting” positions.

Before I defended, people warned me about the post-dissertation blues: after spending so many years pursuing a single goal, many people look around them and wonder “What’s next?” In many ways, I feel like I’ve never answered that question. The teaching I’ve done after finishing my PhD is pretty much the same as the teaching I’d done before, and after printing my completed dissertation, I put it in a box atop my bookcase and haven’t touched it since.

Gray day

This isn’t, of course, the way such a story is supposed to end: a PhD is supposed to lead to something, as is a life. My inability or refusal to settle into a Life Work runs counter to the inspirational stories we grow up hearing, where each and every one of us is supposed to find and pursue their passion. It’s been 30 years–three decades!–since I graduated from high school, and I’m still not sure What I Want To Be when I grow up, or what sort of things I want to write and publish. I’ve made a living from teaching, to be sure, but I’m not sure I’ve made a career, and I’ve always felt I’m too much an underachiever to live up to my senior superlative of “Most Likely to Succeed.”

Normal Hill parking structure

I have, I think, a problem with success: success seems too big, too daunting, and too much requiring of a plan. I wrote a dissertation because my advisor and then-husband pushed, nudged, and cajoled me; left to my own devices, I squander my time with little projects in disparate directions. Both my brain and my attention span, it seems, are constitutionally fitted toward blogging, the kind of occasional scratching that satisfies an intermittent itch. But thirteen years after defending my Magnum Opus, I still wonder what place or purpose it had in my life, or where and why my attention should be directed now.

Snowy campus with Steelworker

This past Saturday was a gray and sleeting day to cap off a gray and drizzly week. Despite the weather, I drove to UMass Boston for this year’s Engaging Practices conference: a chance to swap teaching techniques with area composition instructors. This is the third year I’ve gone to this conference, and I always get a bit lost either going or coming. UMass is south of Boston proper on a lip of land that juts into the Harbor, and on Saturday the campus felt even more liminal than usual as the grim, overcast sky scrubbed the horizon with pelting rain.

Campus Center

Because of an interminable construction project that currently encloses much of the UMass campus in chain link fences and concrete barriers, I had to park in a different lot than I have in past years. This parking lot would be within comfortable walking distance of my destination on a pleasant day, but Saturday (unfortunately) wasn’t pleasant. I was mildly doused with sideways-sleet by the time I’d made my way from car to conference, my umbrella being no match for a fierce April wind.

After lunch I took a quick walk from McCormack Hall to the Campus Center and back, these and other campus buildings being connected by a maze of enclosed catwalks. It was a perfect day to be inside talking shop with other Boston-area writing instructors, the sound of slanting sleet on glass the only reminder of the spring nor’easter raging outside.

Bulletin board

I teach early until late on Tuesdays and Thursdays this semester, with my first class starting at 8:30 am and my last class ending at 6:30 pm. This means I have a big chunk of time between my morning and afternoon classes, and I typically spend that time in my office grading papers, prepping classes, and meeting with students. On any given Tuesday or Thursday, I spend the entire day in May Hall, all my classes and office being located there.

This isn't me, but I kind of wish it was.

My Fitbit has an activity reminder that buzzes near the end of any daytime hour I haven’t logged 250 steps. When I’m teaching, there’s no need for reminders, as I pace and gesticulate, walking around the classroom and trying to keep my students awake. But during that big chunk of time between my morning and afternoon classes, when I’m in my office tending to sedentary tasks, I appreciate an occasional nudge (or buzz) to get moving.

Wire sculpture

There’s no telling how many miles I’ve walked in May Hall this semester. My office is on the second floor, and I’ve learned I can log 250 steps by going upstairs, walking through the History department on the third floor, walking through the Art department on the fourth floor, and then retracing my steps through History and back to English. If I get tired of that route, I can walk downstairs and past the first floor classrooms, through the basement with its ceramic studios and kilns, and back, taking quick peeks into the rooms I pass.

When the weather’s nicer, I’ll probably venture outside to walk around campus, but in winter time, walking laps through May Hall does the trick: it pulls me away from my desk and gets my blood moving, and it gives me an excuse to check out the art exhibits on display in the hallways and in quiet corners.

Art department stairwell

This week I heard a radio story about a former inmate who ran his first marathon in prison, logging 26.2 miles on a treadmill last April 18: Marathon Monday. This year, he’s out of prison and is running the actual Boston Marathon: same mileage, but a far more interesting route. I’ve never run a marathon, but if you can do it on a treadmill, I suppose there’s nothing stopping me from racking up 26.2 miles (eventually) in May Hall.

Notebook-finishing day

Today while writing my almost-daily journal pages, I filled one Moleskine notebook and moved onto the next. Notebook Finishing Day always feels like a special occasion: just by keeping at it, the pages fill.

Snow on the ground, new leaves on the shrubs. #signsofspring

I’m reminded of the story I re-read in Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street this morning: “Four Skinny Trees,” about the four city-planted saplings on Esperanza Cordero’s street. They teach her “how to keep” by sending down “ferocious roots.” These trees, she says, “grown down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with their violent teeth and never quit their anger.” It’s an image that could have been written only by a girl who had watched trees twist and toss their leafy heads in summer storms: a girl like me, or Esperanza, or Cisneros.

Almost spring

The four skinny trees give Esperanza hope when she is “too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, when I am a tiny thing against so many bricks.” The four skinny trees grow “despite concrete,” and so does Esperanza. Like the trees, she “reach[es] and do[es] not forget to reach.” This is how we all keep and keep keeping.

Emergent

I write my journal pages on paper, a product made from trees. This is, I think, part of why I like to write by hand. The touch of the page reminds me of all the trees I’ve known, like the big, branching maple tree in the courtyard of my childhood home, in whose leaves I’d play every fall: one of my closest childhood friends. Every child should have at least one tree–a big branching one, or several smaller skinny ones–to teach her how to stand, how to hold the sky, and how to keep. That last one is the most important: a lesson to last into adulthood.

Spring green

Tree at my window, window tree–why are there so many songs about rainbows, and so many poems about trees? Trees just keep keeping their quintessential tree-ness; there is no running away when you have roots. Day by day, page by page, I keep writing, most days not knowing what I want to say until the words appear under my pen: thoughts about the weather, worries about work, complaints and quibbles. All these are uttered page by page, leaf by leaf: baby leaves becoming big leaves becoming insect-eaten leaves becoming fallen leaves becoming compost. Leaves gathered in bushels and pages contained in books: this is how we keep keeping, “our only reason,” as Cisneros says, “is to be and be.”

Desert Room, with Desert Gold Star

Yesterday on NPR, I heard a story about a super-bloom of wildflowers in the California desert: a surge of lushness caused by an unusually wet winter. I listened to this story as I loaded the dishwasher, my eyes looking out on our snowy backyard.

Congregating

Flowers in the desert seemed very far away, but that wasn’t the best part of the story. Instead, it was this: the park ranger they interviewed said these seeds had been lying underground, dormant, for decades or even centuries–that in some places now covered in flowers, they didn’t know how long it had been since it had rained.

Right then and there with my wet hands in the sink, I knew who my new heroes would be: faceless seeds, buried and smothered in arid darkness, waiting. “Nevertheless, they persisted”–cotyledons coiled in seed cases, more patient and resilient than any of the rest of us.

Spiny

Trump’s budget has felt like a kick to the gut–so much cruelty masquerading as conservatism. I get conservatism–it’s about values and sacrifice–but Trump understands neither. It’s heartbreaking to think of a party so small-hearted, it would grab food from the elderly, care from the sick, and shelter from the poor. Trump claims to be rich, but he’s the most tight-fisted man I know: a miserable miser who wants to steal beauty and kindness and compassion from the rest of us.

Desert florets

And yet, we are seeds, and we continue to grow and germinate because the “force that through the green fuse drives the flower” cannot be denied. Trump’s roots are shallow and his will weak: “Low energy! Sad!” In two years, four years, eight years–however long it takes–we seeds will sprout and flower, a super-bloom of beauty.

Letter to Maezen

The photos illustrating today’s post come from a 2012 trip to Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh. The text of today’s post comes from a letter I wrote yesterday to Karen Maezen Miller, who lives in the lushly flowering state of California. Before I sealed that letter in an envelope to mail across the country, I realized it was a letter to the world, that never wrote to me.