Behind Fulton Hall

We’re ten weeks into the semester at both Boston College and Framingham State, and right on schedule I’m feeling the weariness that usually descends this time of the term. Last year, I blogged about this sluggish stretch, which I’ve come to call the Dark Night of the Semester: the point in the term when “teaching” feels like an endless slog through student papers, and both you and your students wonder (either aloud or secretly) why you ever chose to assign so much writing.

Steps near Conte Forum

During the Dark Night of the Semester, I often remember a line from the Bible: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” At those points in a long semester when I’m feeling uninspired and bogged down with paper-grading, it’s easy to feel like I’ve lost my “salt.” Instead of being zesty and full of flavor, I feel bland and insipid, without the energy to overcome my own (much less anyone else’s) inertia.

One thing I’ve learned from twenty years of teaching, though, is that the Dark Night always passes: somehow, the salt becomes salty again. It’s easy to get sidetracked (and deflated) by the seemingly endless logistics of teaching: papers to read, emails to answer, classes to plan. With all the busy-ness that teaching entails, it’s easy to lose sight of why you’re teaching to begin with. Did you start teaching because you wanted to spend the rest of your life grading papers, or did you start teaching because you love language, ideas, and the light in students’ eyes when they really “get” something?

Fides and foliage

Sometimes restoring your saltiness is a matter of stepping away from the paper-piles, and sometimes it’s a matter of adjusting what you do in your classes: what activities pique your students’ interest, and what activities leave them listless and disinterested? Sometimes, in other words, restoring your saltiness is a matter of moving away the things that are bland and toward the things that still have flavor. We’ve all heard the advice to “follow your bliss,” and I often tell my students that in their writing, they should follow their curiosity. So, what would it look like if both teacher and students alike followed that suggestion?

For me, restoring my saltiness usually involves some sort of creativity, some sort of movement, and some sort of connection with nature. I don’t find paper-grading particularly exciting, but I find it personally inspiring and energizing to write, take walks, and be outside in the living world. So when I got home from teaching today, instead of immediately tackling my paper-pile, I suggested to J that we walk to lunch through an afternoon full of golden light. If you can’t savor the sweetness of a golden afternoon, where will you find any salt at all?

This is my Day 6 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Wellesley MLP/DPW

This morning on my way to Framingham State, I shot a picture of a sign framed by red ivy leaves on a brick wall. It’s an image I first noticed when the ivy on this particular wall started to turn last month, but this morning was the first time I got stopped at the light at this intersection, giving me a chance to capture the shot.

Stone gate

It might seem strange to compose photographic shots on my morning commute, but many days the time I spend in my car driving to or from that day’s campus is the one time I’m really quiet and relaxed, not thinking about much of anything besides the road right in front of me. When I used to drive from Massachusetts to New Hampshire and back, that long commute gave me ample time to meditate: a chance to “be here, now” in my driver’s seat. It’s more than a bit ironic that I could “be here, now” while zooming down the highway, en route between Here and There, but I found if I turned off the radio, a car is a closed environment with few distractions.

Stone steps

These days my commute is much shorter, but I’ve maintained that previous practice of keeping the radio switched off during my drive to campus. Whether I’m driving three miles to Boston College or twelve miles to Framingham State, my morning commute is a kind of daily quiet time, one of the few times during my waking hours when I don’t have to multitask, thinking ahead to X while currently devoting myself to Y. Although there are some mornings when I spend my commute worrying about the day’s to-do list or making last-minute mental edits to the day’s lesson plan, for the most part I simply leave my mind alone, letting it wander from one idle thought to another like a mellow old dog you trust off-leash, knowing it doesn’t have the energy or youthful foolishness to roam far.

Why did the turkeys cross the road

It is at times like these, when I’m not looking for them, that ideas and inspiration arise, even more so than when I’m consciously seeking them. It is at moments like these that an idea to pursue later might arise, or an image might appear that begs to be photographed the next time the traffic light turns red. You never know what you might see on your morning commute, so keep your eyes open.

This is my Day 5 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

I shot all of today’s photos from the driver’s seat of my (stopped) car while commuting to or from Framingham State or Boston College: selected scenes from this past month’s daily commutes.

Boston skyline from Alumni Stadium

Yesterday J and I walked to Boston College for a football game at Alumni Stadium. Our seats were high in the south end-zone bleachers, so we had a bird’s eye view of the Boston skyline towering over the turning trees at the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. J and I have been to enough BC football games that we’ve taken some version of this same shot countless times. There’s something about a skyline that just begs to be photographed, especially when the buildings of said skyline seem to be shimmering straight out of the water and trees.

BC vs Virginia Tech

This semester I asked my first-year writing students at BC to write about the history of a specific site on or near campus, and from those essays I’ve learned that the Chestnut Hill Reservoir used to have two basins, with Alumni Stadium now standing on the drained site of one of them. Chestnut Hill Reservoir is a manmade body of water, originally built to supply water to thirsty Boston residents, so I guess it makes sense that it would be re-engineered over time: first to provide water, next to provide extra land to the college campus next door, and now as a place where students from that campus go to jog, walk, or otherwise de-stress.

BC vs Virginia Tech

It seems a bit odd to look at the remaining reservoir from bleachers built on what used to be its other half: when else have I sat or stood on seemingly solid land without realizing the former fluidity of the very ground beneath me? Now that I know Alumni Stadium used to be water, however, that might explain a curious phenomenon I’ve observed at every football game we’ve attended there.

BC vs Virginia Tech

At some point during the game’s second half, one or two gulls quietly appear overhead, soaring from the reservoir next door and gradually being joined by more and more of their fellows. I’ve always assumed these gulls were looking to scavenge the peanuts and popcorn left behind by football fans: over time, I assumed, the reservoir gulls have learned that the sound of cheering crowds means lots of leftover snacks.

BC vs Virginia Tech

But that doesn’t explain the fact that these gulls are always gone by game’s end: just as they spontaneously appear overhead at roughly the same point in the second half, they just as inexplicably float away, back to the reservoir that remains, before the game ends and we football fans vanish, as well.

Maybe these stadium gulls aren’t looking for handouts, and maybe they aren’t even earthly birds at all. Maybe they’re the ghosts of gulls long dead, soaring over the site where they once in a past life dipped their feet and feathers in a reservoir made and then reclaimed by humans, those fickle folks who would build you a home then turn around to take it away. Finding nothing but a stadium, football fans, and the promise of scavenged snacks, these ghosts of gulls float overhead, disappointed, before they soar to find something more enduring to sustain them.

This is my Day 3 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Viewing through

Today I spent four hours in my office at Boston College meeting individually with each of my students from one of my First-Year Writing Seminars. (On Wednesday, I’ll meet with students from my other section). I once had a professor tell me that he didn’t really get to know his students’ names until he sat down with them face-to-face across a desk to discuss their writing, and there’s a lot of truth behind that statement. When you teach first-year writing, you learn a great deal about your students as you read papers describing their experiences and opinions and perspectives, and sitting down to talk with each of your students individually provides a different dynamic than interacting on paper or in a group. You get to associate a face, personality, and entire person with the words on the page, especially as you listen to each student describe what he or she is struggling with in their writing.

Stokes Hall

When I first started teaching first-year writing as a graduate Teaching Fellow at Boston College twenty years ago, I was terrified to give my first round of student conferences. Standing in front of a classroom of students felt a bit like acting or performing stand-up comedy: you could hide behind a persona, filling the class period (if necessary) with silly stories and anecdotes. But when you sit face-to-face with someone across a desk, there’s a heightened level of expectation. The knowledge that students had dragged themselves out of their dorm rooms and trudged across campus to meet with me for fifteen precious minutes—time they could have spent sleeping or studying or doing homework—made me wonder if I had anything helpful to say. I worried that my students would show up at my office expecting wisdom and guidance, only to realize I’m as clueless as the next person.

Between the acts

Today’s conferences felt far less fraught than the ones I held when I was an earnest young Teaching Fellow just starting out. Back then, I thought I had to have some sort of wisdom to share: if I failed to hand each student a profound, neatly packaged nugget of insight, I’d somehow failed my job. Now, however, I see student conferences differently. Not only do I have more experience working with lots of students over the years, I also have experience answering questions as a Senior Dharma Teacher at the Cambridge Zen Center. Meeting face-to-face with a first-year student to talk about a piece of writing isn’t that much different, I’ve discovered, than sitting in the Zen Center interview room answering questions from fellow meditators. In both cases, you can’t ever predict what sort of situation you’ll face when you ask the next person to come in and sit down. All you can do in that split second between one meeting and the next is take a breath and quietly promise to be present with whatever question, situation, or scenario walks through the door.

Stokes Hall

When I first started giving consulting interviews at the Zen Center, Zen Master Bon Haeng (aka Mark Houghton) gave me a priceless bit of advice I’ve thought back on every time I give consulting interviews. Zen Master Mark said the purpose of a consulting interview isn’t to answer a person’s questions but simply to share an experience. Consulting interviews aren’t about explaining Zen practice in tidy terms that tie everything up in a neat little bow: the mysteries of human suffering are too complex for that, and no teacher can ever digest your life for you. Instead of worrying about saying the right thing (or saying the thing that will amaze and impress), teachers should focus on being present with their students. It isn’t a matter of giving students the answers as if from on high: it’s about sitting alongside students while they figure things out for themselves, offering whatever gentle guidance and feedback you can while being attentive to what’s being said on the page and between the lines.

New mums / not yet blooming

Over the course of the semester, I’ll meet with my First Year Writing students at least three more times: one conference for each of the four essays they’ll write this term. I know from experience that when you meet individually with a student for that many times in a 15-week term, you end up covering a lot of emotional as well as intellectual ground. If you’re strong enough to stay present, you’ll see a combination of breakdowns and breakthroughs, frustrations and failures. Writing is hard work, and it doesn’t always proceed in a tidy line from “good” to “better” to “best.” Sometimes it feels like you’re writing in circles, and some of the sweetest successes are the ones that took the most effort to achieve.

Under her heel

This past Wednesday was the twelfth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, so after teaching my classes at Boston College, I walked the labyrinth there. The labyrinth at BC is a memorial to 22 alumni who were killed on September 11, so someone had left a bunch of maroon and gold flowers—BC colors—on the path’s periphery before I arrived, and the handful of students sitting quietly on the lawn and benches nearby seemed particularly quiet, subdued, and respectful.

Mary statue

I wasn’t alone in walking the labyrinth on Wednesday. A student was walking ahead of me, slowly and meditatively, and by the time I had walked to the memorial’s center and back, a small throng had gathered to pay their respects. One of them had set down a black duffel bag tied with a red bandana, presumably a tribute to Welles Crowther, a BC grad who worked in the South Tower of the World Trade Center and became known as the “man in the red bandana” after helping a dozen people out of the building before he died trying to save more. Near the entrance of the labyrinth, someone had set several more maroon and gold bouquets, waiting to lay them by the carved names that surround the memorial’s circumference. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that one of the bouquets bore a tag that had been signed “Mom & Dad.”

Even the landscaping has spirit

When you walk a labyrinth, you trust the path ahead of you to get you there and back, resting in the belief that each footfall will find its proper place. As I walked the memorial labyrinth on Wednesday, there was a single reddened maple leaf that had fallen on one of the flagstones, a harbinger of harvests to come. There is a Zen truism that every snowflake falls in its perfect place, and perhaps this applies to autumn leaves as well. But what about fallen souls?

First day

It’s poignantly fitting that so many lives were lost on a brilliantly beautiful September day: autumn is, after all, the season of falling, an annual reminder of impending mortality. Faith says our every footstep is guided by an unseen hand; faith reminds us that even the fall of a sparrow is heeded by the heavens. What wild and wending way led each of nearly 3,000 souls to their untimely end some twelve years ago? Were they in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were they precisely where they were (by some unspeakable mystery) intended to be?

Practice scrimmage

On my way back to my car, I heard the martial cadences of a marching band. When I’d arrived on the third level of the garage where I’d parked, I had a bird’s eye view of the BC football team scrimmaging on their practice field, recorded marching music piped over a loudspeaker. It was a quintessential autumnal scene—young and athletic men reveling in their strength—and it seemed particularly poignant, like the scene in Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams whispers “Carpe diem” while his students study the black-and-white photographs of former athletes in the glass cases in the school hallway.

Welles Crowther was a lacrosse player at BC, and he was 24 when he died. I wonder how often the healthy and strong athletes who play and practice on the same green fields as he did consider their own mortality and the sobering fact that we all are, eventually, following in his footsteps?

Eagle and clock tower

Several weeks ago, after having applied for an adjunct teaching position at Boston College that would nicely supplement my part-time position at Framingham State, I stopped at Boston College to walk the labyrinth there. It was a superstitious act: I somehow thought that if I walked with a grateful and meditative spirit, the Universe and the English department alike would recognize how perfect I am for the job. It was drizzling that day, so I walked with an umbrella, wending and winding my way from the circumference of the stony circle to its center, then retracing my steps to the place I’d started. It had been a more than a year since A (not her real initial) and I had first visited this labyrinth, and it felt comforting to return to familiar turns.

A way through grass

When A and I first walked the labyrinth at Boston College, I was still nursing the hurt of the previous year, when I’d applied for (and failed to get) a full-time teaching position there. After walking the labyrinth, A and I ducked into Saint Mary’s chapel, which was one of my favorite quiet spots on campus when I was a Master’s student at Boston College some twenty years ago. Instead of finding the chapel quiet and empty, we found a chamber music ensemble performing sacred music to an intimate and attentive audience. Silently watching the group for a song or two then quietly excusing ourselves, I turned to A and said, “See why I want to teach at this school?”

Labyrinthine

Walking a labyrinth is a process of retracing your own steps, as the paths there and back again are one and the same. If you visit the same labyrinth more than once, you re-trace your own re-tracings, labyrinth-walking becoming a self-reflexive and recursive thing: a process of turning and re-turning.

Whereas mazes try to trick you with a confusing array of forking choices, labyrinths merely try your patience. Most labyrinths feature a unicursal design, which means there is a single path bending and coiling its way from edge to innards. When you walk a unicursal labyrinth, arriving at the center is guaranteed as long as you keep walking, undeterred by the number of times you go in circles, think you’re going the wrong way, or fear you’ve reached a dead-end. If you keep going and don’t step off the path, you’ll get to your destination in the end, eventually.

Axis mundi

When A and I first walked the labyrinth at Boston College more than a year ago, I hadn’t yet quit my job at Keene State College, but my spirit knew I was leaving. I’d been reduced from full- to part-time status, and no longer made sense to cling to a part-time job in another state. I hadn’t yet quit my job at Keene State then because I didn’t have another job to move onto: I was poised in mid-step, one foot held in midair while I tried to find a place to plant it. When you can’t clearly see the path ahead of you, it’s difficult to believe your feet will automatically fall into their own footsteps. Poised between one step and the next, you feel anything but grounded, the earth beneath you seeming uncertain and untrustworthy.

Serene circles

This time last summer, I’d finally quit my job at Keene State, and I was grateful to have found a part-time job at Framingham State: a step down, financially, from the full-time job I’d had in New Hampshire, but a job mercifully close to home, and a new start. “Sometimes you have to take a step backward to take a step ahead,” I’d told a friend, but in retrospect, I’ve never veered from my path. That path might have turned, folding onto itself to veer in the direction I just came from: a complete about-face. But for the past twenty years, I’ve never turned from the path in front of me, taking each hesitant step as it’s been gradually revealed to me: one step forward, regardless of where “forward” is found.

Midway

Looking back at my twenty-year teaching career, the word “unicursal” perfectly describes it. For the past twenty years, I’ve patched together a full-time livelihood from part-time jobs, full-time but temporary positions, and all manner of adjunct appointments. For the past twenty years, I’ve made a modest livelihood doing one thing and one thing only: teaching all sorts of students in all sorts of places how to read, write, and think, believing that these skills are valuable no matter who you are, where you come from, or what kind of school you’re attending.

Heading out

At the midpoint of every semester, I quietly worry whether I’ll continue to be employed the next term, and at the end of each academic year, I quietly envy the folks with reliably stable year-round jobs with paid vacations, benefits, and job security. But no matter how many times I’ve been tempted to step off the path I’m on, at the start of each new academic year, I find myself abundantly grateful to be doing something that feels like I’m helping people by doing something I find interesting and profoundly satisfying.

Years ago when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, I had an opportunity to sit face-to-face with a Trappist monk who also practiced Zen meditation. As a lapsed Catholic, I approached this interview with a certain amount of trepidation, having been accustomed to sitting face-to-face with priests only when I was going to confession. When Father asked me if I had any questions, I tried to appear witty and nonchalant: “What’s a good little Catholic girl like me doing in a place like this?” Father’s answer was short and laser-sharp in its concision: “Never doubt the place where God has led you.”

Straight and curved

Boston College’s memorial labyrinth sits in one corner of the grassy lawn outside Burns Library. Before A and I visited the labyrinth more than a year ago, the last time I’d been to that particular grassy spot was the day I’d received my Master’s degree. I remember the ceremony feeling a bit anticlimactic: nobody but my then-husband was there, and I had to leave immediately after the ceremony to work a part-time retail job I had to make ends meet. Having earned a degree that declared me a “master” didn’t seem to make much difference in my mundane life: we still had bills to pay, and I was still scrambling to earn minimum wage plus a paltry commission.

Labyrinth through trees

It’s easy on the way from “here” to “there” to doubt the path you’re on. Looking around, you see others who seem to get to their destinations more quickly than you, their paths seeming more straightforward and direct. It’s easy to envy those folks who seem to know exactly how to get from point A to point Z without any mazy meanderings; it’s easy if your way is long to think you aren’t actually going anywhere, or you’re spinning in eternal circles, stuck in a dead end, or going the wrong way, fast.

Hairpin turns

It’s been twenty years—two decades!—since I taught my first first-year writing seminar as a second-year Master’s student at Boston College. A lot has happened in those twenty years: I graduated with my Master’s degree, entered a PhD program at Northeastern, and taught there as a Lecturer a few years before moving to New Hampshire, where I taught a bunch of other places. It took me ten years to finish my PhD, and it’s taken me almost ten years to settle into Whatever’s Next, a transitional phase that has involved divorcing and remarrying, moving back to Boston, and trying to re-establish myself as a college writing instructor here.

From the center looking out

In other words, what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Last July, I left my job at Keene State, a college where at one point I thought I could happily spend the rest of my life teaching. But instead, I fell in love with J, got married, and moved to Newton, which seemed to send my career in a different direction. It’s been difficult to find my feet, professionally, back in Boston. There are lots of schools here, and all of them need instructors to teach writing and literature courses…but there lots of graduate students to compete with, and at times I’ve felt like my career has hit a dead-end.

Leafy

Last July, I left my job at Keene State because I managed to find a part-time job at Framingham State, and almost exactly one year ago, I was busy with the logistics of starting over as a new hire there, fretting over the details of acquiring an office, email login, parking permit, and the like. This fall, I’ll continue to teach at Framingham State, and I’ll also be teaching at Boston College, where the Universe and the English department alike did indeed grant me that supplemental adjunct position. Today, I once again walked the labyrinth after picking up my Boston College parking permit on the same day my Framingham State permit arrived in the mail, with classes at both schools starting the week after next: an exciting time of new beginnings.

Memorial labyrinth

Two weeks ago, I went to faculty orientation at Boston College with a roomful of second-year Master’s students, all of them poised to start teaching first-year writing in the fall. Twenty years after I was a second-year Master’s student getting my start at Boston College, in other words, I’ve come full circle, my mazy, meandering path never swerving from its unicursal intent. I’m still juggling a patch-work of part-time jobs: it’s more difficult than I’d thought to find full-time work in a town like Boston. But twenty years after teaching my first college-level composition class, I’m still managing to make a living teaching, and I’m still happy to trust a path that has always managed to manifest itself immediately under my feet.

Book signing

I first met Teju Cole years ago when he was someone else, and he can say the same thing about me. Teju was at Boston College for the Lowell Humanities Series last week, so just as J and I walked a mile along the ocean to see Teju when he accepted the PEN/Hemingway Award in April, 2012, on Thursday night, J and I walked a mile through sleepy Newton to see Teju deliver his lecture, “The Senses of the City,” on a campus where in a previous lifetime, I was once a fresh-faced graduate student.

Writer and reader

One of my favorite definitions of friendship comes from the film Smoke Signals, where one character says of another, “We kept each other’s secrets.” One of the things that makes old friends golden is the way they keep both your secrets and your history, remembering who you used to be when your life was significantly different.

Quiet preparation

I didn’t know Teju when I was a fresh-faced graduate student at Boston College, but it seems like more than a few lifetimes ago when I and a few blog-buddies converged on his New York apartment in 2005, intent on seeing The Gates, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s temporary installation in Central Park. Looking back, it seems crazy that a few blog-buddies and I would travel to New York to sleep on the floor of a friend we knew only virtually: who was I when I acted so boldly? I might not fully understand or recognize the Previous Self that first met Teju in the flesh in 2005, but since then we’ve crossed paths in various cities, with each encounter adding a layer of meaning and resonance to our friendship.

Taking the podium

In Thursday’s talk, Teju talked about how cities are receptacles of memory. On any given street corner, what else has happened in that precise spot at some other moment: who has died, fallen in love, or had a sudden epiphany? I agree that cities, like friendships, are seasoned with experience, each life and lifetime layering over the previous one. I’ve previously written about the ways that places become haunted with memory, remembered landscapes that hold both our ghosts and our secrets. Cities are particularly rife with this kind of ghostly presence, given the sheer number of souls that live and travel through them, but any human habitation can become haunted with the presence of the past and passed.

Paging through

In his lecture, Teju used the familiar metaphor of a palimpsest, with each generation erasing and writing over the stories of their forebears. Sometimes, such erasure is incomplete, and the stories of the past bleed through like the ghostly images of a pentimento: one image painted atop another. On our walk home from campus on Thursday night, J compared Teju’s remarks to our own bit of accumulated history: Sylvia Fish, the once-beloved pet whose decades’ old grave marker we found in our backyard. Human history–both its stories and secrets–accrues in an archaeological fashion, with the detritus of time literally burying the past, sedimentary layer upon layer. Sometimes, if you dig (or even look) deeply enough, the past unearths itself, as undeniable as uncovered stone.

J shoots; Teju signs

After Teju’s talk, many of his fans waited in line to have him sign their copies of Open City, but I had no need for Teju’s signature, as he had signed my book at the Brattleboro Literary Festival way back in October, 2011. Teju and I share a long history, and the town of Brattleboro, Vermont, although not a “city” in any true sense of the word, has a long history of its own. Originally it belonged to the Abenaki, then it was the site of an 18th century fort, a hydropathic resort, and any of a number of mills. Who knows what forgotten stories and significant stones lie buried beneath its backyards.

Church fathers

For me personally, both Brattleboro and Boston College are haunted with memories of my former selves, so it makes sense that I’d meet up with Teju in both places. As I approached Brattleboro on that October day several years ago, I felt my muscles tighten as I recognized one forgotten landmark after another: Fort Dummer State Park, where my then-husband and I once hiked; Elliot Street, home of the apartment where he lived in the immediate aftermath of our separation; and Main Street, site of the now-closed stationery shop where I photocopied our divorce paperwork. It had been years since I’d been to Brattleboro, a town I used to visit regularly, so my visceral recognition of landmarks I hadn’t consciously remembered was discomfiting. The experience called to mind the nameless narrator of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who startles when he visits the college town where his former self once lived and taught: “He was here.”

City of God

Thursday night’s approach to Boston College was far less startling, mainly because my history there is paradoxically so distant and so recent. It’s been nearly twenty years–two decades!–since I was a graduate student at Boston College, so most of the ghosts from that period of my life–a time when I was young, naive, and perpetually hungry–have expired, replaced with new stories and secrets.

Question

When I attended Boston College, I spent relatively little time on campus, traveling by T to take or teach classes, then returning to either an ant-infested apartment in Malden or a subterranean garden flat in Beacon Hill. Now that I live above ground in lush and leafy Newton, Boston College is a place within walking distance where J and I go to basketball, hockey, or football games; a place where we attend art exhibits; and a place where I walk a labyrinth with a friend. Unlike Brattleboro, Boston College has been both reclaimed and purified, those long-distant days of hunger being overwritten by more recent days of plenty.

Centre Congregational Church

When I look at the pictures I took of downtown Brattleboro when my ex-husband first moved there as well as the ones I took when he subsequently moved away, I’m struck at how similar the town looked in 2011, and how it probably looks today: it is I who have changed, not this place I’d somehow forgotten I’d remembered. The Hotel Pharmacy is still in its proper spot, as is the Hotel Brooks; an advertising mural for Carter’s Little Liver Pills still looms over one of Brattleboro’s several used book stores. Harmony Place is still a funky little alley leading to a parking lot, and the shop where I once bought belly-dancing supplies is still in business, albeit in a site around the corner from where it used to be.

Harmony Place

Like the town of Brattleboro and the campus of Boston College, Open City is also about forgotten selves and remembered places. The novel’s protagonist, Julius, is a psychiatrist–a professional keeper of secrets–who walks the streets of New York City during his off-hours, observing the city’s inhabitants and contemplating their stories. Any meditation on a place that is necessarily calls to mind the place that was, and Julius has the eyes of a historian or archaeologist, stripping away the surfaces he sees to plumb hidden and forgotten depths.

Book sales

I didn’t walk with a camera when I was a fresh-faced graduate student at Boston College all those years ago, but I have plenty of pictures of Brattleboro, and even more recent pictures of BC. Over time, I’ve constructed my own image of each place, stitched together from photos taken over time. In his lecture, Teju showed his own photographs, taken in cities around the world, and he explained how he sometimes uses slow shutter speeds to capture the ghostly presence of passersby in the act of passing. Everything that passes will one day be past, and that is something I’m mindful of in my own photography, the act of snapping shots being another way (along with writing) of keeping time.

Ghostly presence

I don’t know where, whether, or when my and Teju’s paths will cross again, but I hope they do…and who knows who either one of us might be or become by then. Life is, of course, more like a maze than a labyrinth: you never know whether you’ll pass this way again, or again, or again. All I know about Teju Cole is that our paths have crossed in the past, we’ve shared a stash of secrets, and we’ve accrued a storehouse of memories. The past can be found in accumulated photographs hoarded as history, but an image of an envisioned future is far more elusive.

Click here for an excellent account of Teju Cole’s BC lecture, “The Senses of the City.” I illustrated today’s post with photos I took at Thursday’s talk as well as photos I took in Brattleboro, Vermont in October, 2011, when Teju read at the Brattleboro Literary Festival. Enjoy!