Tiny pollinator

It’s a question I’ve been repeatedly asked by both my blogging and non-blogging friends. When you write a post, which comes first: the pictures or the post?

More raindrops on hosta

The answer, of course, is “It depends.” In some cases, I have a specific topic or theme I want to write about–often, something on my mind that I’ve written about in my paper journal–so then I find pictures to accompany that theme. These pictures might go along with what I’m blogging, or they might simply be whatever pictures I have on hand. This latter scenario is why so many of my posts about Zen are illustrated with pictures of graffiti. Because I typically walk through Central Square before sitting at the Cambridge Zen Center, on any given day that I blog about Zen, I usually have lots of graffiti pictures close at hand.

Kousa dogwood

In other cases, though, I have pictures of a particular event that I plan to blog, so I start with those pictures and basically write an essay “around” them. Some examples of this kind of post would be the entries I’ve written about the Boston Marathon or pretty much any of my sports posts. Given a bunch of photos from a hockey or basketball game, I try to think of something to say that would go along with the pictures. These posts feel more like news articles than journal entries: I’m basically reporting on something I did, and I’m illustrating with pictures of what I saw. These posts feel different (neither better nor worse–just different) from the more “personal,” journal-inspired entries.

Orange beetle

And then there are days like today when I simply have a picture–in this case, a tiny bee pollinating a cluster of pink flowers, which I took in our backyard one morning this week–that I want to share because I like it. There’s no big story behind how I came to shoot a picture of a bee in the backyard, or how I shot any of today’s other photos on various dog-walks this week. I just had these pictures lying around, so after posting them on Flickr, I tried to think of a reason (excuse?) to use them on-blog.

The all-time classic unanswerable question is “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” For writers who both blog and take pictures, though, a close second in the unanswerable question department is “Which comes first, the pictures or the post?”

A new leaf (or several)

Today at noon I met with small groups of my Creative Nonfiction Writing students to talk about the latest draft of their semester-long projects, which they subsequently turned in; tonight at 6pm, I’ll hand back a batch of essay drafts to one of my Environmental Literature classes, and we’ll spend some time in class working on revisions. And this afternoon at 4pm, I’ll meet with another section of Environmental Literature, sitting down to discuss Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge after not handing back the batch of essay drafts I’d promised them. In the maelstrom of incoming and outgoing student essay drafts that is April, I didn’t get to the bottom of that particular paper pile.

Lilac buds with new leaves

This is the endless loop that is my April: I hand back one batch of student essay drafts for every two batches still waiting for me to read. It doesn’t seem to matter how I schedule or stagger individual essay due-dates: in April, there are always more essays to read. At times at this point in the semester, I feel like one of those multi-armed Hindu goddesses, except instead of holding a single sacred object in each hand, I hold the various tasks I’m juggling: in this hand, a folder with papers I need to return; in that hand, a folder with papers I’ve just collected; and in another hand, a laptop with emails I need to answer. No matter how many hands I can find, those hands are always full, and all of my appendages feel like they’re spinning like a crazy windmill of collecting and returning, collecting and returning, collecting and returning.

In April, in other words, 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. At some point at the beginning of May, my students will give me their final projects for good, and I’ll grade my way to the bottom of those paper piles and be done with them. But between now and the beginning of May is the madcap month of April, “that time of the semester” for those of us who teach writing.

Ground phlox with dew

We writing teachers tell our students that writing is a process, not a product: it isn’t a matter of getting your essay perfect the first time, but of returning to it time and again until you get said whatever it is you’re trying to say. At this point in the semester, I feel like I’m up to my eyeballs in everything my various students are trying to say. Grading final papers is grueling enough, and reading essay drafts is even more daunting. Again, again, and again, you watch your students struggling to articulate whatever it is they’re “trying to say,” and you do everything but hold your breath and repeat incantations to your god of choice to help them through the labor of that creative birth.

In April, teaching itself feels like a repetitive, cyclical process: once again I’m walking students through the process of detangling the skeins of their own thoughts, and once again I’m scrambling to read batch after batch of student papers, waiting for each of my students to have that “a-ha moment” where their paper finally falls together. It’s easy for students to lose hope that this will ever happen, and it’s easy for their teachers to lose hope, too, especially when the paper piles are particularly high. During this time of the semester, I take comfort in the thought that Nature herself is in the throes of her busy season, producing draft after draft of green fecundity, each new leaf destined to face the inevitable cycle of grow it, kill it, mulch it, decompose it…then repeat, repeat, and repeat. All of it–every draft, every word, every green cell and leaf–is compost in the great soil of creativity.

Pink

This week promises to be busy, but I’m still showing up at the page, still writing. It’s as if I’ve reached a point where walking and writing are such a guaranteed part of my daily routine, I know they’ll happen whether life gets busy or not.

Band-aid

Life always gets busy, so don’t postpone the important stuff. That’s one thing I’ve learned over the years–don’t wait until you have the time, because you won’t. Life’s busy-ness isn’t the kind of thing that comes and passes, leaving you a blissful break when you can get your life together. Instead, life’s busy-ness is like the coming of waves, one after another. There is no end to waves, as water by nature perpetually moves. Even at low tide, when waves recede, the water still moves and your floating leaf of a life is tossed on its surge. Don’t wait for the ebb and flow to relent. Instead, strengthen your sea-legs and learn to walk on water.

Imaginary meat

For years I spent more time not writing than writing, my notebook lying neglected when life got busy. I’d tell myself I’d get back in the habit of writing when life calmed down–next week, tomorrow, or after the next deadline. But procrastination is self-perpetuating, and next month leads to the next month, tomorrow to the next day, and this deadline to the next and the next and the next. There is no end to noisy demands on one’s time, and one’s notebook never complains, sitting silent and neglected when you fail to write for days or even weeks on end. And so gradually but inevitably you move from being a writer to being someone who wants toplans tomeans to write.

Peeling

Every day I have a long to-do list, and every day my to-do list contains the things I failed to do yesterday. But every day I walk Reggie, and nearly every day I write in my journal. Through sheer force of habit, these two things–walking and writing–have become as automatic as eating, bathing, or brushing my teeth. I’ve come to see them not as optional additions but as absolute essentials: the daily maintenance it takes to be “me.”

And so on busy days, I don’t skip writing, although I might write less than usual. But I set pen to page even on busy days, seeing that routine as being central to my productive functioning. Coffee-drinkers don’t skip their morning cup because they’re busy; they see that morning infusion as being the impetus that fuels their day, even (especially) when they’re busy. I don’t drink coffee, so my morning walks and my morning pages are my version of caffeine: the two things that get my day rolling.

Skull

I’ve given up trying to catch up; being caught up is as elusive as the rainbow’s end. If I’ll never catch up–if another wave of busy-ness will surely follow this one–there’s no use in waiting for calm, tranquil seas. Write right now, I tell myself, even as the boat rocks with the waves of activity. There will be plenty of tranquility when I’m dead, but no opportunity for writing then.

I wrote these paragraphs in my notebook yesterday morning, on a day I had time to write but not blog. For the complete photo-set of images from this weekend’s walk down Modica Way in Central Square, Cambridge, click here. Enjoy!

Moleskine

Given my geographically bipolar existence, I have not one but two morning routines: one for my weekdays in New Hampshire, and the other for my weekends in Massachusetts. The one thing that both of my routines have in common, though, is the paired ritual of walking and writing.

Buddha with roses

During my weekdays in Keene, I go to bed around 11:00 and wake around 5:00: a hold-over from my early-rising Zen Center days. On a good day in Keene, I do bows and then meditate first thing upon awakening; on busy days, I might tend to last-minute teaching tasks instead. When I meditate in Keene, my mat and cushion face a drafty window, so I sit with a folded blanket on my lap, both my legs and my mudra warm under the cover of fleece. After sitting, I get dressed, having bathed the night before; after dressing, I take Reggie for a walk. Only after walking do I settle to the business of breakfast: plain Jane oatmeal followed by morning pages at my kitchen table.

I call them “morning pages” even though they don’t follow Julia Cameron’s insistence that one’s journal pages be written first thing in the morning. Although I typically write my morning pages early, on busy days I might not get around to writing them until evening, and I almost never write them first thing. How exactly does Julia Cameron expect me to write, I wonder, on mornings when I haven’t yet walked? And so with all due respect to Julia Cameron, I’ve settled into my own morning routine: first I Wake, then I Walk, then I Write. JC and her disciples are free to practice in their own way, and I’ve settled upon mine.

Madonna with blinds

During my long weekends in Massachusetts, my morning routine is significantly different, but both the walking and the writing remain the same. In Newton, J and I keep west coast hours by going to bed around midnight and waking up at 9:00. While J tends to the previous night’s dishes, I walk Reggie then return to my morning pages, written in bed with J’s yellow lab lounging beside me while Reggie snoozes on the floor. Only after I’ve filled anywhere between two and four Moleskine pages with random scribble do I turn on my laptop to check email, online classes, and blogs. During my long, homebody weekends in Massachusetts, I shower right before lunch, and after lunch I sit with the dogs, my Zen Center fastidiousness about the proper time and place for meditation replaced with the mundane practicality of life in the outside world.

What I find noteworthy here isn’t the fact that my morning routine in Keene differs so dramatically from my morning routine in Newton; instead, what interests me is the fact I’ve established an almost religious ritual in each place. Through trial and error, I’ve come to realize I live and die by my morning routine, and it doesn’t much matter if I’m following my Keene routine or my Newton one: either one works in its appropriate time and place. After years of grappling with my own morning woulds, I’ve boiled things down to the bare essentials: meditation whenever I can get it, and walking and writing before much anything else. Having begun the day with the things I need, I can move onto the things I’d like.

This is my several-days-late contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Morning Routine. The roses in the second photo are my after-Valentine’s Day windfall: a bit of Buddha bounty.

No parking

There’s always a Christmas-morning kind of thrill when I start a new Moleskine, the page under my pen feeling crisp and fresh. What pleasant excitement there is in the expansive possibilities of a fresh new notebook waiting to be filled! It’s like starting a new semester, where you have the possibility of doing good on past promises: a fresh chance, the opportunity of a do-over. Maybe this time won’t be a re-hash of past missteps: maybe this time you’ll get things right.

National Registry of Historic Places

I have a ritual for the start of a new Moleskine. I open and discard the cellophane wrap and take off the paper band, pressing sharp creases to preserve the folds left by the notebook’s edges. I put this paper band and the “history” pamphlet that comes with every new Moleskine into the back pocket. Then I sort through the stuff from the previous notebook’s pocket, taking out duplicate ticket stubs and the envelope of perpetual carry-overs I faithfully transfer from one notebook to the next: a calendar, leftover money from past trips to Canada and Ireland, and a handful of pictures of J and Reggie. I put these into the new notebook’s pocket, thereby initiating it. This is a kind of continuity, assuring that even a new notebook has some history behind it, like starting a new fire from embers of the previous.

Because I use my Moleskine pocket to store ticket stubs, I end up with a kind of scrapbook or time capsule of good times. When I sort through the old notebook’s pocket, I’m revisiting recent adventures: museum visits, sporting events, films. It’s a reminder of things I’ve done and places I’ve been, an implicit promise that these good times will continue in this new notebook’s “next chapter.”

Stop

If I didn’t have this way of keeping track of days–of literally keeping time–I’d have to invent one, but this method works (for me) as good as any. Now that I keep my daily to-do lists in my notebook, I have that additional kind of daily record–an account of how I spent my time. Although I hardly ever go back to revisit a truly old notebook, they’re all there on the shelf I want to dip into my own history: a silent record of days past.

I like keeping notebooks for their own sake, even if I don’t go back to “use” them. Like a time capsule, my notebooks exist as artifacts in the layered archaeology of my own life, each day piling atop its predecessor. Someday, perhaps, I’ll go back and be amazed at how I used to live my life; someday when I’m older, I think, even this record of mundane to-do’s and their accompanying dramas–these daily obsessions–will fascinate like windows into an age then forgotten. What was it like, I’ll wonder, to be a month over 40, in mid-winter, writing and alive? My notebooks (if nothing else) will remember and be able to tell.

I wrote these paragraphs in my journal this past Saturday on the occasion of filling my latest Moleskine. I always feel a surge of satisfaction when I’m able to turn the page from one notebook to another, and this particular page-turning marked a noteworthy milestone: the 20th Moleskine I’ve filled since I started using them in August, 2002.

The Art of Inside

It’s been a week that I’ve been blogging more regularly, and so far I’m happy with the result. Even when I wasn’t blogging much over the past few months, I was writing more or less daily in my handwritten journal, but blogging is somehow different. The act of writing in front of a live audience adds an element of intentionality and accountability: I can’t just “say anything” here as I do in my scribbled journal. In my journal, I can (and do) write ad nauseum about basically the same old stuff day after day, but online, I make an attempt to say something interesting or useful. It’s the difference between dressing to go out and lounging all day in sweat pants. My scribbled journal is a comfortable place where I’m concerned only with myself, but my blog is a place where I’m mindful of various “others” (both known and anonymous) who might be watching.

Coca-Cola mural

When I compare the experience of blog-keeping vs. journal-keeping, I also like the intentionality that comes from my practice of either adding photos to blog-posts I’ve already envisioned or actively gearing my words to accompany pre-selected pictures. Regardless of which comes first, the pictures or the images, there’s an added level of thought, consideration, and care: I’m not just scribbling the absolute first thing that comes to mind. It’s as if I’m sifting through words and images to choose only the best to share, and even if the best on a given day are still only mediocre, they are better than the raw, unfiltered Whatever I scribble in my journal. Even on days when the additional craft of figuring out what to write and which pictures to post results in something that doesn’t look very planned or polished, I think the practice is good for me. It’s like playing tennis with rather than without a net, as Robert Frost once said about writing rhymed vs. un-rhymed verse. The care you take to tend to one technical detail makes you consider everything more closely.

Kristin's Bistro and Bakery

I remember how–during my college days when we wrote first drafts by hand and then typed them on typewriters–one of my undergraduate roommates, a philosophy major, used to write her first drafts in calligraphy, insisting that the slowness of the medium helped her consider every word as she drafted her carefully-reasoned arguments. Although I myself am a fan of the sloppy, shitty first draft–as my scribbled journal fully illustrates–I like the way that blogging offers a third alternative between “completely rough” and “completely polished”: a still-rough something that nevertheless is crafted enough to share with the world.

In a word, I think blogging is good for me, so I look forward to doing more of it, seeing it as an intentional practice that helps me and my writing. It’s good, I think, to have a format and forum that force me to check in with myself, as it were, to see how I’m “really” doing from one day to the next. In my teaching, I encourage my students to practice a three-step process of inquiry in their reading and research: first, notice what you see (the art of observation); next, ask questions (the art of inquiry); and third, explore potential answers to the questions you’ve posed (the art of hypothesis). What I do here in my blogging is a combination of all three, tossed with a dollop of contemplative self-reflection: the art of inside.

This is a lightly edited version of part of yesterday’s hand-scribbled journal entry: proof that blogging and journal-keeping aren’t always at opposite sides of the writing spectrum.

Just a note

One of the things I’ve missed during the past two busier-than-usual months has been having time to blog more regularly. On the one hand, I’ve missed being able to write long, carefully crafted posts: posts long enough to let my writer’s-mind wander off leash until it sniffs up something meaty to savor. The whole reason I started blogging, after all, was to give my writer’s-mind such a place to roam, so it bothers me when I’m too busy with other things to devote the time here I feel my writing deserves. After two months of such blog-neglect, my writer’s-mind starts to chafe at its chain: “Let me loose, already!”

Chris was here

But over these past two busier-than-usual months, I’ve also missed having the time, opportunity, and energy to post “early and often,” offering what I’ve previously called “postcard” entries–a quick picture along with a sentence or two–as a simple way of saying “I’m still here!” Although my writer’s-mind feels caged and cagey if I over-rely upon picture postcards to feed the blog, I’ve come to see a genuine value to these quickie posts . They keep Hoarded Ordinaries warm, so to speak, by keeping a virtual light on. Even when I don’t have time to socialize, I can pop in every now and then to let you know I’m still standing: “The weather is beautiful; wish you were here!”

When I first separated from my ex-husband, I spent a week or so sharing wordless postcards: my way of checking in even when I had nothing I wanted to say. At the time, an out-of-state friend told me she’d check the blog every few days just to make sure I was still “around” even when I didn’t have the time, energy, or wherewithal to email, like checking to make sure an elderly neighbor’s lights turned on and off at the proper times: signs of life.

Storm-tossed

This morning, Leslee announced that she’s thinking of participating in NaBloPoMo: National Blog Posting Month, a shared endeavor by bloggers to post every day for a month. Like Leslee, I’m not ready to make a definite commitment: I wouldn’t want to make a promise I can’t keep, and although November will be less busy than October was, it won’t exactly be leisurely. But I find it interesting that Leslee, on the eve of NaBloPoMo, has starting blogging mini-posts she calls Nubbins: two or three lines of prose that serve the same function as postcards. Could it be that the philosophy of “early and often” is in the autumnal air as folks in my corner of the blogosphere realize that in darkening days, it’s more important than ever to keep your lights on?

And so, I hope to be blogging more regularly now that November is here, realizing in retrospect that sometimes your writer’s-mind surprises you when it tugs free from its leash on a day when you thought you didn’t have time for a proper stroll. Sometimes, when you sit down to write just a note, your lines grow longer and more leisurely, and before you know it, you have an entire letter, ripe to share. What better time than November to commit oneself to such a daily harvest?