Half submerged

A colleague recently told me he’d explored my blog and admired my discipline, a word I don’t really associate with myself. “What discipline,” I quietly wondered. On a good day, my blogging feels like so much twaddle; on a bad day, I don’t blog at all. But I guess all the years I’ve been keeping both a journal and a blog amount to something: at least these entries reflect an intention to show up and chronicle what I can, as I’m able. It’s an intention to be faithful, most days, to my commitment to my craft, regardless of what kind of product that commitment produces.


I don’t consider myself to be a particularly disciplined person in the sense of having willpower to force myself to do things I don’t enjoy. I’m not particularly disciplined when it comes to exercise, diet, or other things I know I “should” do, and I’m a terrible procrastinator when it comes to things I find monotonous, like tackling a grading pile. When I’m doing things I like or find intriguing, I can concentrate for long stretches, but otherwise I’m antsy and easily distracted, finding all kinds of ways of filling my time with the things I shouldn’t be doing rather than the things I should.


But if remaining faithful to something I enjoy counts as discipline, then I guess my colleague’s remark is true. I suppose there’s a certain kind of discipline involved in returning to one thing over and over for a long stretch of time, “writing” being a thing I always find myself coming back to. Still, I think there are other, better words to describe this kind of blind, unswerving faithfulness: “tenacity” is one word that comes to mind, and “stubbornness” is another. “Bull-headed” is the term my mother often used to describe my headstrong teenage self: I don’t know if bulls are particularly disciplined, but they are renowned for having hard heads.

Sea lion

I do sometimes think there’s something ox-like in my plodding commitment to the monotonies of my daily routine, writing and blogging included. Young cattle are flighty and skittish, so the way to train a young ox is to yoke it to an older and more steadfast one. A mature, well-trained ox knows to pull straight and steady in his harness, but a youngster will champ and frolic after every butterfly. Farmers know, though, that mature oxen are both stronger and heavier than youngsters, so with one shake of his shoulders, an old ox can yank frisky Youngblood back in line. There’s no moving or budging an old ox who has settled in his traces, a lesson that generation after generation of youngsters has learned in the yokes, and I think my daily writing routines serve as a kind of metaphoric “yoke,” bringing me back to more or less the same thing almost every day, regardless of what other distractions beckon.

Three mergansers

My challenge as a teacher is to serve as an old ox to my young and energetic students, who much of the time would rather do anything in the world rather than schoolwork. I try instill a kind of creative discipline in my students by following the furrows of our course syllabus, acclimating them to the “yoke” of reading, writing, and revising assignment after assignment. Old oxen can become obnoxiously stubborn, however, with “discipline” quickly becoming “drudgery” if there is no spark of interest enlivening our steps. There’s a fine line between being disciplined and being too predictable, and that line is, I think, one of the roughest rows to hoe.

Click here for more photos from last week’s trip to the Central Park Zoo. Enjoy!

Labyrinth parking

I haven’t blogged since the end of NaBloPoMo mainly because we’ve reached the almost-end of the semester and my daily to-do lists have me running in circles.


I’ve written before about the circular shape of the last month of the semester, when “there’s no stopping the madly-out-of-control merry-go-round that is the life of a writing instructor: assign it, collect it, read and comment upon it, return it…then repeat, repeat, and repeat.” This stage of the semester is entirely predictable–you revisit it twice a year, in winter and spring–but it always feels a bit surprising nevertheless. Oh, yes…here we go again!

The madly cyclic, circular loop that is the last month of any academic semester feels labyrinthine while you trudge its long and winding path. You can see the end of the semester, which seems alluringly close, but there’s no shortcut around the winding way you have to tread to get to that endpoint. Whereas you can get lost in a maze, there’s no getting lost in a labyrinth: you just have to be patient enough to keep walking, step by step, until you reach (and return from) the end.


As exhaustingly repetitive it feels as a writing instructor to keep collecting and commenting on subsequent drafts of the same semester-long research projects, the monotony of this seemingly endless feedback loop merely mirrors the repetitive tasks my students themselves are facing. For an entire semester, my Thinking & Writing and Creative Nonfiction students have been chipping away at their essays, one word (and one research source) at a time. Right about now, my students are ready to be done with their projects, and I’m ready for them to be done, too.

At times, revision feels like you’re revisiting the same ideas over and over as you pore over the stubborn knots in your thinking. The overwhelming enormity of writing a semester-long project and the sheer monotony of the effort it takes to actually do it are again labyrinthine: “The message of a labyrinth is to persevere–take the next step–keep going even if the way seems long or confusing. You will get there, and back, safely, a labyrinth seems to reassure. Take care with this next step, and peace will follow all the rest.”

Parking lot labyrinth

It’s a lesson that’s easy to forget, even if you revisit it twice a year, every year. It’s a lesson that bears repeating not just to my students, but to myself: the end will come eventually–soon enough, but not a moment too soon–but you have to keep walking every last step to reach it.

Yes, it’s true: there’s a painted labyrinth in a parking lot off Church Street in downtown Keene…and there always seems to be at least one car parked right on top of it.

Dry docked

These days are perfect for walking. The mornings are as cool and crisp as the bite of a fresh cucumber, and the afternoons are filled to overflowing with sunlight, the air as dry as paper. On bright, brilliant days like these, I feel as if I could walk forever, my feet light and suntanned in my sandals, the way ahead of me smooth and wide as I settle into a long-gaited September stride.


It’s easy to feel healthy on days like today. It’s the second week of the semester at Keene State, and already I feel settled into a regular rhythm, rising in the morning with a clear sense of what I need to do and what can potentially slide. Slipping back into my weekday, academic-year schedule–the life I live in Keene on Monday through Thursday versus the life I live in Newton the other days–has felt like changing from one pair of comfortable, well-worn shoes to another. Here, in both places, is a schedule that has grown to fit me, a schedule that curls around the curves of my psyche like a well-worn glove. There is no burden and little effort in wearing a glove that fits, a glove that remembers the shape and movement of your particular hand. A good schedule, like a well-fitting glove, molds to the shape of your being; a good schedule, like a well-fitting glove, is as snug as a hug.

This morning I got up at 5 am without effort or complaint, as if my body already has been trained: “On Thursdays, we get up at 5:00.” It helps to have lived at a Zen Center, albeit years ago. Like riding a bike, the routine of getting up at five, bowing, and then sitting is something you never forget: you might fall out of the practice, but resuming it, once you’ve burnt off your initial inertia, feels like coming home, a single step into your own skin.


My routine in Newton is entirely different from my routine in Keene, and I’ve come to accept and even embrace that. It’s all about following my situation, recognizing that one morning regimen doesn’t fit all, nor does one morning regimen work for every morning. One of the most practical, helpful outcomes of my Zen practice is this flexible acceptance of routine. Every day at a Zen Center, you know exactly what you’ll do from 5 to 7 am, and every day on a Zen retreat, your entire day will be clearly and inexorably charted for you. On early days of retreat or when you’re new to Zen Center life, you might bridle against this routine, seeing it as monotony. In time, you’ll learn to embrace it, recognizing that nature’s most basic, life-giving, and creative rhythms–the inflow and outflow of breath, the regular beat of a heart, the daily cycle of sleep and awakening–are themselves monotonous. When you fight the schedule of retreat, it’s brutal and oppressive. When you grow tired of fighting and instead surrender to your situation, letting the schedule move you through your day as you simply show up at every allotted task, you find and tap into the Universe’s own energy, which can be spent but not irrevocably exhausted.

So at 7:15 I type these words, illustrating them with photos I uploaded last night; at 7:40 I’ll walk to campus to teach my 8:00 class to sleepy-eyed students. I will, in other words, simply show up for my life, not fighting or bewailing it. On a sunny September day that dawns in due time after its predecessor, I will naturally settle into the stride of clear-shining days.