Opening tip

On New Year’s Eve, J and I went to an afternoon Celtics game, where I took my final photo of 2013: an image of the opening tip I shot on my phone. I intentionally didn’t bring a camera to the game since I knew I had to take only one more shot to meet last year’s 365-day photo challenge, and a cellphone shot would suffice. So with this one shot, my 2013 challenge was done, and I took no photos on New Year’s Day: the first day in a year I didn’t snap a picture of something.

Two squirrels, one mourning dove - Jan 5 / Day 5

I’m grateful to have completed last year’s photo challenge, which I can revisit any time by scrolling through my “365 in 2013” photo-set. Now, though, I’m looking forward to being free of that particular challenge. Shooting a photo a day was easy in the spring and summer when the earth was green and new flowers emerged at every turn. In the barren days of November and December, however, finding something new to shoot became more of a challenge: there’s only so many times, I learned, you can take closeup photos of sleeping cats.

Standing - Feb 15 / Day 46

Since I took so many photos during 2013, however, I had little problem coming up with 13 images for the photo calendars I make each year for family and friends: 12 photos for 12 months, plus a cover image. Selecting images for this year’s calendar was one of the first things I did after I submitted final grades last week, and it was fun (as always) to review twelve months’ worth of photos in advance of the new year.

Snowdrops in snow - March 27 / Day 86

Now that I’ve crossed those two photo commitments off my to-do list, now my only remaining creative challenge (for the time being, at least) is January’s Mindful Writing Challenge, in which I’m committing to write a “small stone” every day during the month of January. I’ll be posting January’s stones on Twitter, tagging them #smallstone. I participated in the Mindful Writing Challenge last year, and I’m looking forward to a month-long challenge that focuses on wordsmithing than photo-snapping: a chance to flex a different set of creative muscles.

Three of the four photos illustrating today’s post appear in my 2014 calendar; click here to see the complete photo-set, or click any of the following links for previous years’ sets: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. Enjoy, and happy New Year!

Sundial on sunny day

It’s a strange, unseasonably warm day: rainy and dismal this morning, and intermittently cloudy now. The sun is chasing the clouds across the sky: one minute bright, the next minute gray. The quality of light keeps changing, too, from iron-clad to gold-toned. I just posted my final small stone for this month’s Mindful Writing Challenge, and it was difficult to describe a day so mercurial: as soon as I’d mentally crafted an adequate description of Now, the light and tenor of the day had already changed.

Inside, looking out

I sit writing these words on the last day of the January in my office at Framingham State. I have work to do, as always, but more than anything I want to walk. What better way to experience a kaleidoscopic day shot through with a rotating assortment of glinting, metallic light than by walking through that light, illuminated?

In today’s small stone, I compared the clouds to hammered pewter, and indeed some of them are gray and mottled, capping the heavens like a lid. But at the fringes, these thicker, darker, more solidly heavy clouds fray into something more miscible: spun-sugar and cotton-tuft. On the dull, muddy ground, the rain-sodden grass is etched with spider-tracery, the weirdly wending shadows of overhead tree limbs. Students pass in sweatshirts and long-sleeves—no jackets, but no bare arms, either.

Stark

What have I learned from a month of mindful writing? Every day gives you something you can boil down to its essence, the meaty broth of experience. Every moment offers something to see.

I crafted one version of today’s Tweet in my head while I was driving to campus through windblown drizzle this morning, but by my office hour, when I had a chance to post it, that moment had already long passed. Looking back on a month of Tweets, I see not a month of days but a month of moments. Why this arbitrary decision to post a small stone a day when one could easily Tweet a small stone an hour, small-stoning rather than rocking around the clock? If my heart had thumbs with which to Tweet or text, could I emit a small stone with every heartbeat, my Twitter feed pulsing with the emphatic urge of Now, Now, Now?

Frizzy

A car passes, its engine whining, in one direction; two women pass, chatting, in the other. Right now the clouds have parted and the light is golden; in a minute, the cloudy curtain will close, and the light will turn leaden. Nature’s alchemy works in both directions on partly cloudy, late-January days: gold turns to lead, and lead turns back to gold. Given the anvil of time, what will you hammer from your days?

Will I continue Tweeting tomorrow? When the urge strikes, yes, but automatically every day, no. Having started the year with open eyes, now I’ll walk through the rest of these days, alert.

Bittersweet

January’s small stones:

1. I needn’t see the shadow of passing wings to know a hawk has been near: the hanging feeder bereft of birds tells the tale.

2. Two downy woodpeckers flit and chitter on a frozen branch, their chatter as brittle as clacking ice.

3. A blue jay calls, and the cardinals, nuthatch, juncos, and all but two house sparrows vanish. False alarm.

4. A downy woodpecker scoots around a slim limb while a male and female cardinal fluff their feathers against the cold.

5. A fat gray squirrel leaps from feeder to tree, spraying an arc of seed for the juncos and sparrows scratching the snow below.

6. A sugar-sifting of snow on my birthday. Two nuthatches scoot and honk overhead, neither looking a day older than yesterday.

7. A squirrel leaps from fence to tree, his tail curled into a question mark. A woodpecker startles, silhouetted in morning light.

Tall and narrow

8. Curbside trash bins sparkle with predawn frost. High above the streetlights, a thin sliver of moon glows like God’s thumbnail.

9. Two male cardinals are meticulously placed, each a spot of color in his own tree, each coolly eyeing the other: winter detente.

10. Two nuthatches work a half-dead walnut tree, probing for insects. Their claws scratch bark as they hop from branch to trunk.

11. With no gaudy mate to overshadow her, a female cardinal is perfectly complemented by her red bill, black mask, and olive coat.

12. A damp morning–the backyard fence green with algae. A white-throated sparrow sings, his whistle as cool and clear as water.

13. No birds at the feeder, just three fat squirrels who know they outweigh the invisibly lurking Cooper’s hawk.

14. A balmy day, humid with the souls of melted snowmen. The backyard, stripped of snow, is as bare & miserable as a fleeced sheep.

Zigzag stair-railing shadow

15. Outside before dawn, I see the ears and eye-shine of one of our cats in an upstairs window. In a nearby house, one lit candle.

16. Juncos fly into a black & white tree. A cardinal beneath the snow-topped feeder gives a spot of color to a monochrome morning.

17. Four squirrels scramble down a mazy maple, each taking his own circuitous path to the fence, where they scurry in a neat row.

18. A turquoise sky caps a fiercely cold morning. Sunlight glints on the birdbath ice, and chickadees chatter from brittle pines.

19. What unseen bit is wedged at the apex of this particular fence slat, luring a red-breasted nuthatch to hammer fearlessly there?

20. One fat squirrel on the bird feeder, a second tail-twitching on the branch above, quietly plotting strategies and trajectories.

21. A woodpecker calls, his “peeeek” as hard as the bird bath ice. Incongruously, a chickadee sings a spring song: two clear notes.

Bike rack with shadow

22. A thin film of snow squeaks underfoot. Three lines of rabbit tracks crisscross the driveway: this way, that way, and back.

23. The rising sun glows & sparkles through an opaque veil of ice crystals, the window feathered with bluish brushstrokes of frost.

24. Too cold to look for the woodpecker calling from the tall, twiggy trees behind my office, his cry as sharp as the winter air.

25. Beneath the feeder, two white-throated sparrows scratch for seed, so natty with their neat eye-stripes and clean white bellies.

26. A faint line of bird tracks wends delicately across the sidewalk, an intricate embroidery in a script I can’t understand.

27. Alerted by a downy woodpecker’s call, I look up just in time to see the sun glint golden on a passing red-tailed hawk’s belly.

28. A nuthatch zooms like a torpedo to the feeder, parries with a sparrow there, & deems the place big enough for the two of them.

29. Up before dawn or any birdsong. Underfoot, an inch of sugar-white snow crusted with ice, like walking through crème brûlée.

30. A soupy-humid day, with yesterday’s slush reduced to slop. Beneath the dripping trash bins, two flat rectangles of hidden snow.

31. An otherworldly light as hammered-pewter clouds roll in and out. High overhead, a lone gull circles on long, spindly wings.

If you’re a Van Morrison fan, you’ll recognize the allusion in today’s title. Enjoy!

Two squirrels, one mourning dove - Jan 5 / Day 5

This month I’m participating in the Mindful Writing Challenge, which basically means I’m trying to note and record one interesting thing every day, using my Twitter account to post these “small stones.” Noticing and recording one small thing every day sounds easy enough—just open your eyes—but of course, simplicity is never as simple as it seems.

Furry neighbor

I’ve settled into a routine for generating each day’s small stone. In the morning when I take the dogs to our backyard dog-pen and back, I try to notice one interesting thing I can describe in a single arresting image. My walk to the dog-pen is short: from the back door to just beyond the garage. During that short stroll down the sidewalk, across the driveway, and back—something not long enough to count as a proper dog-walk—I watch for birds at the feeder, hawks in the trees, stars in the sky, or anything else that seems noteworthy: something seen in the brief backyard space between here and there.

Feeder raider

Because I’m using Twitter to post my daily stones, I can’t be wordy: instead, I have to boil things down to their essence. On Twitter, I don’t have room to mention how this morning’s squirrels reminded me of other times I’ve seen squirrels romping and chasing; instead, I have to determine what makes this morning’s squirrel-spotting interesting or unusual. What is the kernel of experience that makes this squirrel stand out as remarkable or noteworthy? Specific details, I tell my writing students, are what make your writing believable: you want to capture the essence of “squirreliness” in your description, proving how attentive an observer of squirrel-nature you actually are. You don’t want to describe a squirrel as if you’ve never met one outside a book; you want to describe a squirrel as if you know it.

On the fence

This morning’s squirrels were romping and scurrying, scrambling from all directions down one of our backyard maple trees onto a weathered picket fence, running along the top of it one after another. That was the central image in my head when I crafted this morning’s Tweet: squirrels rapidly converging as if from all directions, scrambling down a bare, branching tree and then chasing one another, one by one, along the top of the fence—one, two, three, four.

On the fence

I just spent an entire paragraph describing this morning’s squirrels running from tree to fence, and I still don’t think I’ve provided an accurate picture. I haven’t mentioned the tail-twitching, the scrabbling claws, or the sharp chits of four squirrels chattering amongst themselves. I also didn’t mention how later, I saw even more squirrels—these same four, I’m guessing, and one or more additional ones—chasing and tumbling in the tall pines that fringe our backyard. Describing one squirrel encounter is difficult enough; describing two is infinitely more complex.

Hawk overhead

Having failed in two paragraphs to describe for you these squirrels, I give up, opting instead to create only the sketchiest of outlines: a Tweet that implies more than two paragraphs of prose could ever tell. When I craft each day’s Tweet, I first notice something as I’m taking the dogs out and in, out and in. Then I think about that noticed thing while I’m washing the previous night’s dishes, rinsing the recycling, and taking out the trash. Given what I saw, what can I say about it? Only then do I actually try to commit words to paper, except there’s no paper involved. Instead, I log into Twitter on my iPod Touch, then I skim a few Tweets before typing a short, condensed description of what I saw, ignoring how many characters I’m using and only trying to describe one central image that might express or explain the whole experience.

Gray squirrel with walnut

I do this with my thumbs because that’s how you type on an iPod Touch, as if you were texting on a phone. I never thought I’d use my thumbs to compose miniature bits of nature writing based on things I see in my suburban backyard, but I’m finding my Touch to be a perfect compositional tool for the simple reason that I don’t have to turn on my laptop to use it. Before I’ve written my morning journal pages much less turned on my laptop for the day’s work, I’ve composed the first draft of my daily Tweet, which I then whittle and hone so it fits Twitter’s 140-character limit. This act of winnowing words is what makes such Twittering useful to me as a writer: a daily exercise in concision. When you don’t have room for all your words, you pare down to your best words. This and this and this, and not a jot or tittle more.

This morning’s result? A single sentence that took me five minutes to get just so:

Four squirrels scramble down a mazy maple, each taking his own circuitous path to the fence, where they scurry in a neat row.