Fallen leaf on snow

By the time I left Keene last night, the several inches of snow we’d gotten throughout the day had already begun to melt. There was enough accumulation that I had to brush off my car…but the snow was wet, destined to melt. By the time I got to Newton last night, the half-inch of snow they’d gotten was gone, with nothing left as proof but cold, wet leaves.

That’s the trick with autumnal snow: it’s ephemeral, merely a harbinger of snowfalls to come. Soon enough, I’ll be tired of digging out my car, but last night, the novelty of the season’s first snow prevented any sense of tedium. On the roads yesterday, drivers seemed careful and unsure, spinning wheels when they accelerated too roughly. “How are the roads,” the woman at the apothecary asked yesterday afternoon when I arrived in a snow-sprinkled hat. “I don’t know,” I answered, “I’ve only walked in it.” In a matter of weeks, drivers will revert to their usual carelessness, and clerks won’t ask how you got to their shops. Yesterday, though, there was a mood of awe-inspired fragility as everyone re-remembered how to walk, drive, and cavort on snow. Thank goodness we’ve had months of leaf-fall to practice for the snowfalls to come.

Click here for a photo-set from yesterday’s snowfall. Enjoy!

First snow...

So far, it’s only a dusting. But that didn’t stop these college students from making the year’s first snow angels.

Milkweed pods

Wednesday afternoon was gray and colorless; on Thursday it rained incessantly. Neither “gray” nor “wet” makes for good pictures, nor does spending most of several days reading, commenting on, and returning student essay drafts. The colors in these pictures are muted, and that seems appropriate. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael described the “damp, drizzly November in my soul” that drove him to sea, but in my case, gray November days drive me to a long list of tasks. Does it matter if it gets dark by 5:00 if you’ll be spending the evening grading papers inside?

Originally, I’d planned to drive to Ohio this weekend. I have plans here in New England for Thanksgiving, and I typically visit Ohio in November: one last chance to travel before winter weather gets too unpredictable. But this year, the thought of scurrying to finish face-to-face teaching tasks before packing my car with a daunting load of online work seemed foolish. If I’m not hurrying home for a particular Thursday in November, wouldn’t it be easier travel home in January when my teaching load is lighter?

Defaced display

When my mom returned my message explaining I wouldn’t be driving home this weekend, she was supportive and sympathetic. “It gets dark so early these days,” she remarked. “At least when you drove here in August, there was light to drive in.” This morning as I was walking Reggie here in Newton, the still-colorful leaves underfoot were wet with last night’s rain: muted. It felt good to be walking rather than driving, and I felt strangely happy to be heading into a weekend where all I have to do is work. What kind of person enjoys gray November walks and working weekends? The kind, I think, who enjoys muted colors for their quiet calm.

Now in late November, I remember all those years when my ex-husband’s moods took a marked turn for the worse as winter approached. The period between our anniversary in early November and his birthday in late March was always a tenuous time; along with the constant undercurrent of seasonal depression, there was the sporadic drama of manic surges and surly slumps. Like the fabled hare, my ex was prone to fits and spurts of productivity punctuated by sudden urges to travel as an escape from the routine. I, on the other hand, was a tortoise who preferred to stay at home precisely because my shell was my home: why do you need to dash off anywhere when all you need is right at hand?

Defaced display

In those mismatched, married days, I remember coming home from teaching with a nervous dread: what Mood would I encounter upon arrival? Would my husband be upbeat or sullen, mad as a March hare or hopping with enthusiasm? This morning as I walked Reggie on the same sidewalks we take every morning we’re in Newton, I realized how thoroughly predictable my life has become. Tortoises thrive on stability, and here I am surviving a workload that would crush those with thinner shells. This morning, I felt grateful for the dependable monotony of my own incessant presence, Reggie’s nonstop dogginess, and J’s routine reliability: whereas C dreaded winter, J loves it. These days, I’ve traded the excitement of mood swings for the merry-go-round of the routine, and I love the slow, steady spin of that predictability.

It would have been fun to see my family this weekend; a change of scenery always offers its own kind of thrill. But Ohio in November is a known entity, and so is the experience of coming home to a daunting to-do list. Many times in the past I’ve returned from a whirlwind weekend away then pulled an all-nighter to prepare for class the next day: being married to a hare will do that to you. But I, it turns out, am a tortoise, and this weekend in Newton is my turtle-time. This weekend, I’ll enjoy the quiet tranquility of essay drafts and lecture notes as the semester heads into the backstretch of its last month. In January, there will be time for fun and family; for now, working slow and steady offers its own reward.

Picnic squirrel

You might remember this picnic table, sans squirrel, from about a month ago. Back then, I mentioned the shade under which this picnic table sits; what I didn’t mention was the walnut-laden source of that shade. If you’re a squirrel laying up provisions for winter, it’s mighty convenient to have a picnic table right under a walnut tree upon which you can sample your collection. And if you’re a strolling blogger who never goes out without a camera, these days blog-fodder is ripe for the taking.

On campus today, I saw more students in each of my classes than I’ve seen in months. Now that we’re heading into Thanksgiving with the end of the semester soon thereafter, students are getting serious about their studies. I’ve often joked that I do more real teaching–and to students who are actually listening–during the last two or three weeks of the semester than during all the other weeks combined. Weeks one through eleven are purely preparatory; weeks twelve through fifteen are when students sit up in their seats, listen to what you have to say, and actually seek you out for extra help.

Walnut squirrel

I guess it makes sense that students, like squirrels, get serious about stockpiling only when there’s a bite of briskness in the air. When the semester starts, it still feels like summer, so it’s easy to think “I’ll do it later” when considering assignments or even class attendance. As the days grow shorter and colder, things heat up academically. The next few weeks are when the intellectual rubber hits the road with term-long research papers and other projects approaching full ripeness. Which squirrels have been faithful hoarders and which have been only acting squirrely? We’ll find out in a few weeks. In the meantime, I still look forward every marathon Tuesday to the brief midday break I take to consider squirrels and other shade-loving creatures.

Frosted window with leaf

Thursday is a busy teaching day, so while I’m off to read essay drafts then teach classes, here are some images from yesterday’s first-thing-in-the-frosty-morning dog-walk. Enjoy!

Frosted mullein with maple

Frosty brew



Birth of an alien

This is where alien eyes are conceived: on the shining surface of otherwise normal windows. This morning when I let Reggie out for his morning pee, I saw the orange glint of sunrise reflecting in a psychedelic swirl on one of my across-the-street neighbor’s windows. One window had a neon glow; the other did not. Thus is illumination random, happening for one eye but not another.

In a matter of moments, after Reggie had peed and sniffed his way around my backyard, the reflected light on my neighbor’s window was gone. The Mother of Lights had returned to the mothership: alien absconditus.

Washington Cemetery

These days, my schedule doesn’t give me much time for dog-walks here in Keene. On Fridays through Mondays, Reggie and I walk in Newton, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I teach all day at Keene State. So Wednesday has become my default Walking Day, my one weekly chance to take a leisurely look at Keene on foot.

Sox-lovin' scarecrow

Inspired by Leslee’s Halloween post, today I set out to snap something appropriately seasonal. The homes in Newton have been decked with skeletons, mock tombstones, and witches for weeks, but for some reason I haven’t taken any pictures; it must be my lingering reticence to take pictures of other people’s lives.

This morning here in Keene, I didn’t find much that struck me as photo-worthy. Yes, there’s a funny Red-Sox-loving scarecrow on Water Street, and yes, downtown merchants have the usual pumpkins and black-hatted mannequins in their windows. But Halloween in Keene has always felt anticlimactic compared to the annual Pumpkin Festival that happens a week earlier; how can an occasional pumpkin or black cat compare with more than 20,000 lit jack-o’-lanterns? This year, for the first time since 2003, I missed the Pumpkin Festival by going to a Bruins game, so I’ve been feeling photographically deprived, my usually brimming October photo-archive feeling thin instead.

This morning as Reggie and I took our Wednesday walkabout, nothing jumped up and grabbed me; nothing screamed “photograph me, I’m worthy!” And then I saw the first of the morning’s alien eyes.

Alien Eyes alley

I suppose it’s appropriate I’d see on Halloween several examples of the gleaming, X-shaped window reflections I call “alien eyes.” If aliens have indeed descended to shine their intelligent eyes on earthlings, what better day to start one’s extraterrestrial investigation than a day devoted to the odd and unusual?

X marks the spot

Whereas in the past, I’ve seen alien eyes only on the sides of commercial buildings, this morning I saw examples on a handful of residential homes on Marlboro Street: a pretty plain Jane destination to travel across the universe for.

Residential alien eyes

Of course, the whole message of alien eyes–if said aliens came to this galaxy to impart a lesson–is that the supernatural nests in the natural just as the extraordinary imbues the ordinary. After seeing the first of this morning’s alien eyes downtown, I was on the lookout for them closer to home; after seeing the first one on a plain-sided house, I quickly spotted another across the street, then another next door.

Alien eyes in the shadows

This afternoon on the way from the laundromat to the post office and then gas station–this afternoon, in other words, on my way from one chore to another–I saw two witches, a wizard, a bride, and a couple of cats-in-the-hat strolling downtown streets. Wednesday is my one day for walking Keene streets, and Halloween is our one day for walking with the weird. The lesson of alien eyes, like that of Halloween, is that there is magic among us if only we have eyes to see.

Blue Trout Grill

Now that I’m spending four days a week in Newton, I’m finding Keene to be increasingly alien. I used to walk Keene streets on a daily basis, and I used to read the local paper to keep up-to-date on news I didn’t notice myself. But now that I’m in Keene only three days a week, it feels like I’ve spent a lifetime away. Who went and changed the town while I was gone?

I was expecting the change in scenery (and traffic patterns) that came when both of this summer’s rotary projects finally finished…mostly. But I didn’t know the restaurant I’ve always known as 176 Main was planning on changing its name to the Blue Trout Grill until I saw a new sign in front of a familiar facade. A couple re-designed intersections and a single re-named restaurant would be change enough, but this morning I spotted a whole series of new-to-me developments.

Since my last dog-walk in Keene last week, they’ve finished tearing down my favorite old factory:

Razed factory

And next to that, they’ve painted (brightly!) the once-peeling facade of an old mechanic’s shop:

Fresh paint

And also on Water Street, someone’s replaced their once-rickety porch railing and steps:

New steps & railing

Downtown on Main Street, they’ve replaced the summer’s lamp-post banners with autumn ones, and the trees are quickly following suit:

Autumn banners

And in Central Square, a storefront that’s housed more short-lived businesses than I can count is getting a face-lift, again, so another new store can make a go of it.

Same storefront, new store

It seems in Keene, change is the only thing that stays the same, even if I’m hardly around to notice.


Yesterday my friend A (not her real initial) and I met in Nashua to enjoy a glorious New Hampshire day. Instead of hunting for ghosts like Kathleen and I did back in September, yesterday A and I went shopping for outdoorsy clothing at L.L. Bean and then went apple picking at Lull Farm in Hollis, NH.

How about them apples?

Let me remind you that I am not a native New Englander: I’m a city girl from Columbus, OH. Although I’ve lived in New England for a dozen years, I’d never before yesterday gone apple picking. Yes, I’m sure there are apple orchards in Ohio; in theory, it’s probably possible to go picking apples at one. But in my Columbus neighborhood at least, apple picking was not the annual ritual it is for New England families. In Ohio, apples come from the grocery store, and apple picking is something done (for good or ill) by underpaid migrant farm workers. As a teenager growing up in Ohio, I would have responded to the thought of picking apples for fun the same way I would have responded to the thought of mowing someone else’s lawn for fun. Why spend your free time doing work?

If you are a farmer who relies upon a fruit yield for your livelihood, apple picking is work: serious work. But if you are a suburban, L.L. Bean-wearing New Englander who spends too much time inside eating food that sprouts from wrappers and cans, apple picking is a great excuse to take a walk. Whereas golf is a good walk ruined, apple picking’s just a good walk. When since Adam and Eve got kicked out of Paradise could two friends spend a leisurely hour or two strolling amongst fruit-laden trees, a surreptitiously nibbled apple taking the edge off mid-afternoon hunger?

Don't climb on the pumpkins

Before yesterday, my sole source of apple-picking knowledge was Robert Frost. Although everyone thinks of Frost as being a quintessential New Englander, he actually was born in San Francisco. Moving to New England as a boy after his father’s death, Frost relocated as an adult to England, where he lived with his wife on a farm in Buckinghamshire and mingled with the likes of Ezra Pound. A literary late-bloomer, Frost didn’t publish much of note until his 40s, and these early works (including North of Boston, the collection in which “After Apple Picking” appears) were written and published in “old” England. Thus the cherished New England landscape of Frost’s poems is actually a landscape of loss, a place associated with the death of his father and which he described from memory from afar.

After Apple Picking” is one of my favorite Frost poems. (Sometime I’ll talk about the oft-overlooked masturbation imagery in the seemingly innocuous “Birches,” but that’s a topic for another day.) Frost’s speaker describes apple picking as work, not leisure, and there’s more than a hint of guilt tinging his words as he describes the apples he’s failed to pick and bushels he’s failed to fill:

    My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
    Toward heaven still,
    And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
    Beside it, and there may be two or three
    Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.

Autumn abundance

Although he still has apples to pick and barrels to fill, Frost’s speaker is weary: he admits he’s “done with apple-picking now.” As autumn ripens more apples than the speaker can pick, autumn’s chill also skims his morning drinking trough with ice, a lens which makes his surroundings look far-off and strange. In the autumn of his life, his sight dimmed with both age and regret, Frost’s speaker finds his dreams filled with unpicked apples. No longer a tasty promise, these fruit are a reminder of work undone and youthful potential unreached: “For I have had too much / Of apple-picking: I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired.” Looking ahead to a long-awaited sleep that comes after his labors, the speaker of the poem isn’t sure whether he is falling into mere physical slumber or the death that such sleep emulates. Either way, he realizes his dreams will be troubled with apples, reminders of the tasks he’s left undone and promises he’s left unfulfilled.

Pumpkins & squash

Who among us can’t relate to such somber sentiments: only the youngest and most optimistic? I know that yesterday I felt saddened to see the fallen apples that lay either whole or crushed under every tree we passed: although like Frost’s speaker I realize that even fallen fruit will end up crushed as cider, it seemed a tragic waste to see so much food cast-off and forgotten underfoot. The Lord, it seems, is a harsh task-master, for from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded. And yet Mother Nature seems much less demanding and even downright careless, encouraging apple mothers to breed by the bushel-full babies that will end up rotting on the ground.

Super squash

So are our bushels half full or half empty: shall we dream of apples picked and cherished or fruit fallen and failed? As I type these words, I’m mindful of the tasks still left undone: emails unanswered, essays unwritten, papers as yet ungraded. My nightstand is stacked with books half-read, my coffee table piled with untouched magazines, my desk scattered with unsorted receipts and bills.

And yet, this spring I finished my dissertation; this summer I found the clarity to take a step I’d long known was necessary but hadn’t previously had the courage to pursue: surely this counts for something, a larger-than-normal apple for the pail? I’d love to think that God himself grades on a curve, that God himself gives points for effort. I’d love to think that God’s scales weigh not only the heft of apples picked but the burden of fruit attempted, those oversized harvests we duly tackled but perhaps left undone.

King of the pumpkin pile

In my heart of hearts I truly believe that God is an smiling-faced giant whose open arms welcome bushels both big and small: whatever fruit you’ve found for fun or profit, now you can come home and rest. What you’ve gathered will be shared and treasured; what you’ve left ungleaned will feed the cider-press, a drink to make merry. Wherever you come from and whatever you wear, you’ll find a well-stocked larder at the end of your toiling, other pickers falling behind you to gather the fruit you’d seen but left as yet unplucked.

Holey tombstone

What is it exactly that makes some places more haunted than others? All cemeteries are drenched with memories of days (and lives) gone by…so why do hunters of the paranormal flock to some cemeteries more than others? Gilson Road Cemetery in Nashua, NH is presumably haunted, crepuscular photos revealing blurrily glowing anomalies floating above its graves and against its stone walls. Believers insist that you can feel a watery chill as you walk toward Gilson Road Cemetery’s rear wall, but today in the midday heat I felt nothing but the sun on my shoulders. Yes, it is indeed strange to see an old headstone with a mysterious hole through its center, but does that prove this place is haunted by anything more supernatural than the usual nocturnal pranksters and vandals?

Abel Blood, pointing up

Pine Hill Cemetery in nearby Hollis, NH is likewise rumored to be haunted. Legends have it that the upward-pointing finger on Abel Blood’s grave points downward at night, and stories tell of a family murdered near the site who return to the environs to float and shimmer above their graves. All sites have their metaphoric ghosts, the memories that glimmer into consciousness when we let our guard down: here’s where I met my first love, or here’s where I lost my last. It’s human nature, presumably, to return to significant sites to recollect, reminisce, and try to understand: is it any surprise that we imagine the dead to share similar tendencies? Those who die with unfinished business, lore suggests, will return to tie up those loose ends: the ghost of Elizabeth Ford, for instance, is said to haunt the Country Tavern Restaurant in Nashua, NH, where she looks for the body of her murdered child. If you’d lost your child–indeed, if you’d lost your own life, too–to a jealous husband, wouldn’t you return to the scene of the crime again and again searching for some sense of closure? Reaching the end of our days, don’t we all take unfinished business with us? Is any death well-appointed, or aren’t they all untimely and premature?

Lined up

I love old cemeteries whether they be officially haunted or not. Primitive peoples saw the entire world as being peopled with spirits both benevolent and malign, and they might have been onto something. Although I’m Officially Undeclared when it comes to believing in paranormal phenomenon, it seems the known world is unpredictable and shocking enough: in a world where we can’t predict the weather much less map the warm and cold fronts of the human heart, how can we presume to understand the ways of spirit? There are more things in heaven and earth, Shakespeare suggested, than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Just because we can’t explain something doesn’t stop it from being and behaving so.

Toppled tombstone

More than anything, what fascinates me about haunted cemeteries is the morbid hope that underlies believers’ insistence that something either visible or palpable remains long after the body has presumably passed. Impermanence surrounds us, Buddhists would insist…and yet even Buddhists retain vestigial Hindu notions of metempsychosis. If the Self does not exist, what is it that passes on to be reincarnated or to haunt earthly sites? Is there an echo or shadow–some shimmering, shady blur–that remains after we’ve spent out the breadth and length of our days: is there something that cannot and will not be killed? A belief in ghosts suggests that memory is stronger than time: things may pass, but their memory and spirit remain the same. Isn’t that a hope worth returning to again and again?