I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between words and images. I share a lot of words and photos here on my blog, and I produce a lot of words and images that never get posted here. I consider myself a writer who also takes pictures, the “taking pictures” always taking second place to the “writing.” But although I consider myself more a shutterbug than a serious photographer, I have to admit how reliant upon images my writing has become. Although I certainly can describe things without an accompanying photo to illustrate, whenever I find myself at a loss for words, it’s often because I haven’t been looking at (or photographing) much.


I’m coming to realize that looking at things–particularly new or interesting things–is an important part of my composition process, even if what I’m writing has nothing to do with what I’ve been looking at. I guess you could say I’m a visual thinker: whereas some people are inspired by ideas or sounds or even smells, my personal muse seems have big, wide-open eyes. When I’m in search of inspiration, looking is more fruitful than thinking: thinking just leads me in circles, but looking at something interesting perks me up in a way that few other things can.

Through leaves

Last weekend while I was at Northeastern University for the BRAWN Summer Institute, I went to a session on place-based pedagogy. I’ve always described Hoarded Ordinaries as being a blog about place, and when I taught a first-year writing class called “The Art of Natural History” at Keene State College, I encouraged my students to choose research topics that similarly close-to-home: “topics they could touch” was how I described it. Now that I divide my days between two different campuses, I’ve struggled to incorporate place into my teaching: it’s hard to feel rooted when your teaching is neither here nor there.


During that session on place-based pedagogy, however, something remarkable happened: we took a field trip. Half of the participants went to examine the Student Center food court, and my half of the session went outside, walking over to a brick wall where Los Angeles-based street artist El Mac recently painted a mural representing the union of arts and sciences. Our official assignment was simply to look at the mural, and when we reunited with the other half of the group, we discussed the various uses of these two spaces: indoor and outdoor. But what fascinated me most wasn’t that ensuing discussion but the simple act of looking an an interesting image.


Having taken so many photos of the Wall at Central Square, I’ve developed a certain fondness for the look of spray paint on brick. And having once had an office inside Holmes and then Nightingale Halls–two of the academic buildings housed in the re-purposed factory where El Mac’s mural is situated–I love the look of the neighborhood these days. A brick wall can be a frustrating obstacle–something that blocks the sky and gets in the way of forward progress–or it can be a canvas of opportunity, a window into a world you can envision only with your inner eye.

Click here for more photos of El Mac’s new mural at Northeastern. “Just looking” is a title I’ve used for two other blog posts: one describing a summer walk around my neighborhood here in Newton, and the other featuring one of my favorite photos.


In the hands of talented artists, even the most simple materials are transformed into metaphors. Last weekend when I attended the BRAWN Summer Institute at Northeastern University, I was captivated by “Banquet for Unity,” an installation by Farzaneh and Bahareh Safarani featuring gold mesh butterflies emerging from Mason jars.


Surely we’ve all had Mason jar moments: times in our life when we feel contained, our wings beating uselessly against our constraints. For a butterfly in a Mason jar, freedom is close enough to see, but impossible to reach. A trapped butterfly will exert herself to the point of exhaustion because she has no choice. There’s nothing more tragic than a butterfly contained because butterflies are designed to fly. Their element is air, not earth, and everything in their essence points up, ethereal.

The moment when a bevy of butterflies alights into the ether–sunlit dust motes rising up rather than falling down–is breathtaking, even if the butterflies move only in your imagination, where your own soul is free.


Too Many Men

I’m going to guess a man was working the Kelly Rink scoreboard in Boston College’s Conte Forum on Friday night, when the BC men’s hockey team lost in overtime to Northeastern University. Only a man would think having “too many men” is a bad thing!

Starting lineup

After having gone to two Boston Bruins games this year, J and I decided to give college hockey a try. Boston College is within (healthy) walking distance of J’s house, so we figured a day-after-Thankgiving stroll to and from BC would be a good way to celebrate Black Friday on foot. Whereas NHL games are memorable for their drunken fans and on-ice fights, college hockey is much more staid. Not only are college referees more strict when it comes to controlling player roughhousing, the announcer at Friday night’s game reminded fans that they should uphold BC’s reputation by exhibiting proper sportsmanship. That and the absence of beer–Conte Forum is a dry arena–meant that a sober time was had by all.

BC rafters

Whereas J and I enthusiastically root for the Bruins, on Friday night my loyalties were divided. I have hanging on my office wall diplomas from both Boston College and Northeastern University: BC is where I got my Masters degree, and NU is where I got my PhD. So although J and I agreed to cheer for BC since its Chestnut Hill campus is closer to home than NU’s downtown Boston one, I found myself watching Friday night’s game without any rabid attachment to either team. When you watch a sober game with an attitude of “may the best team win,” you can enjoy good plays regardless of which team executes them.

Shot on goal

Because college hockey games are less rowdy–and significantly cheaper–than professional games, they attract a good number of families. Sitting next to me was a man shepherding a handful of boys; next to J was a man with his son. As much as I enjoy the pomp and festivity of professional sporting events, I realize that many fans can’t afford their high-class prices. Part of the appeal of a BC hockey game was the fact we could walk to and from the arena, but another big draw was the fact that on eBay, J bought tickets for our mid-level seats for what we would have spent on hotdogs alone at a Bruins game. We might be super-fans, but that doesn’t mean we’re super-rich.

Baldwin Eagle works the crowd

One great irony of Friday night’s game was the fact it was the first BC or Northeastern game of any kind I’d ever attended. Yes, I went to and graduated from both schools…but as a grad student at each, I didn’t have time to watch sporting events. And so as J and I approached the Boston College campus and tried to find Conte Forum, I had to admit the only time I’d been inside was when I’d lined up in cap and gown before marching at graduation. Extracurricular activities are a fun part of any undergraduate experience, but one of the shocks you experience when you enter grad school–and especially when you start teaching–is the realization that grown up grad students don’t typically have time for undergraduate games.

Dropping the puck

So perhaps Friday night was my chance to reclaim some of the grad school glory I missed the first time around. When I was a grad student and teaching fellow at Boston College, I had too many books and papers, not too many men, to occupy me; there wasn’t world enough nor time to play or watch games. And when I was a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University, I lived too far from campus–at times, a full state away–to take a leisurely Friday night stroll there and back.

Now that my student days are over and I’ll forever be an eagle/husky hybrid-alumna, I can enjoy rooting for either or both of my alma maters. Having too many men might be a bad thing, but you can never have too many allegiances.