Art Wall

My twelve-year blogiversary was several weeks ago: it’s been twelve years and a couple of weeks since I posted my first blog post on December 27, 2003. Each year, I usually use the occasion of my blogiversary to review my favorite posts from the previous year, but this time around I want to reflect on a broader theme: what have I learned from a dozen years of blogging?

Walkway

The deepest and most lasting lesson I’ve taken from twelve years of blogging, I think, is that it’s always good to be writing. Sometimes on a doubting day I second-guess the time I spend on my blog: surely there must better, more lucrative, or more prestigious projects I could devote myself to. But when I consider how I actually work—how and where my Muse strikes, the kind of things that interest me, and the way I spend my days—I realize blogging nicely matches my creative proclivities. I like writing about an assortment of little things, and I like the way both journals and blogs focus on a ragtag selection of loose ends. Given the challenge to write a Big Book about Something Profound, I clam up, but given the opportunity to share whatever little something comes to mind, I always, eventually, find something to say.

Contemporary

Truth be told, if I weren’t blogging, I probably wouldn’t be writing much. It’s easy to assume that if you didn’t spend a little bit of time every now and then writing about whatever random stuff interests you, you’d suddenly have ample opportunity to focus on sustained profundity, but I think the opposite is just as true. If I ever were to write a Big Book about Something Profound, it would be exactly because I’d flexed my noticing on the scales and arpeggios of daily writing. Henry David Thoreau didn’t write the books that made his reputation despite the fact that he kept a journal; instead, Thoreau’s journal is where his books were born. As much as I enjoy and have come to rely upon my daily journal pages, I also enjoy the accountability and immediate feedback that writing in front of an online audience provides.

Face to face

Blogging is an ephemeral form—a genre that focuses on the minute details of passing days—and as such can sometimes seem not to count for much: at the end of twelve years, what do I have to show for the time I’ve spent? But I’m not sure a lasting legacy is the best way to judge a writer’s (or any other mortal human’s) real worth. After a dozen years, an architect might point to a building erected, but what does a chef have to show for her devoted labor? Does cooking nourishing meals—each one consumed with grateful gusto down to the last crumb—count for nothing simply because the leftovers do not last?

Walkway

If I write something fulfilling and tasty today, I still need to write something tomorrow and the next day and the next: a blogger’s work, like a woman’s, is never done. But some of life’s greatest joys are ephemeral, every dance begging another just as every kiss commands its consequent. Just because something doesn’t last and thus must be repeated doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. To the contrary, the impermanent and the ephemeral push us to live in the moment, spending with abandon whatever we have NOW and trusting that in the future, more will be provided.

Korean art

What I have to show for the past twelve years of blogging is nothing more than a determination to keep blogging for another dozen, the practice of almost-daily writing being its own reward. Whenever I teach the basics of meditation, I note the special temporal nature of the breath: unlike thoughts, which can wander into the past or future, the breath brings us back to the present exactly because it can happen nowhere else. Try as we might, we can’t recover today the breath we lost yesterday, and there’s no way to stockpile today’s breath for tomorrow. The only place you can breathe is right here, right now.

Partly cloudy

A blog is like a fog of breath on a mirror: yesterday’s brilliant utterance cannot make up for today’s sudden silence. If you want to stay alive, you have to keep breathing, and if you want to keep blogging, you have to keep writing. There is no resting on your laurels in this business: as a blogger, you’re only as good as your last post just as a body is only as alive as its most recent breath.

Cassie cuddles her chew toy

As I write these words, it’s a gray and rainy morning, and I have a spare 15 minutes before I need to shower, dress, and head to campus. The dog lies on her bed chewing her favorite bone, focusing all her attention on it as she does every morning after breakfast, as if all the world depended upon her ability to chew a simple toy.

Cassie relaxing

My classes are prepped and my bag is packed, and my journal sits on the dresser on the other side of the room, mostly neglected these past few weeks while I’ve been sick. Soon enough–tomorrow, or the next day, or the next–I’ll return to it and the simple ritual of writing four longhand pages every morning, but for now, I leave both my journal where it sits and the dog where she lies, choosing to type these words with my fingertips on my tablet, just a bit of verbal doodling before the serious work of the day begins.

This is my Day Seventeen contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Dharma room

Whether you sit by yourself at home or with others at a Zen center, meditation is an intrinsically solitary activity. As soon as you settle onto your cushion, there is nothing to entertain you but the parade of thoughts in your head. Regardless of who might be sitting, squirming, or sleeping on either side of you, what happens in your mind during meditation is entirely your business. Nobody can save you from your thoughts, and nobody can either blame or praise you for them, either.

Dharma room altar

Several weeks ago, headlines highlighted a study that revealed many people would prefer to shock themselves than to sit quietly with their own thoughts: presumably we’ve reached a point where our collective consciousness is so accustomed to the constant stimulation of electronic gadgets, we can no longer tolerate simple solitude. What future does meditation have in a society where we can’t stand our own quiet company?

Stigmata

We might blame smartphones and other high-tech devices for eroding our collective attention spans, but the problem predates these devices. Henry David Thoreau decried his generation’s interest in news stories and light reading, even the low-tech entertainments of books and newspapers serving as mindless distractions. Years ago, before smartphones were ubiquitous, I remember walking through the Public Garden on a sunny afternoon when every lone person I saw was listening to music on headphones: an endless parade where each person marched to her or his own personalized soundtrack. Even a homeless man had a battered boom box perched atop a shopping cart piled high with his possessions, the volume loud enough to drown out any semblance of solitude. Why spend quiet time with your own thoughts when even entertainment is easily portable?

Haloed

Over the years, I’ve learned I actually enjoy solitude. I like sitting and doing nothing; I like the sheer boredom that comes from simply observing whatever thoughts roll by. Meditation is the formal practice of doing nothing in quiet isolation, but there are plenty of other things I do that are similarly solitary. Although sharing your writing is a social task, the act of writing is inherently solitary. A lot of novice writers like the attention that comes from having an audience, but many of these writers crumble when faced with the quiet loneliness of the blank page.

Buddha and friends

I’ve often said I was fated to become a writer because I like the sound of pen scratching paper. It’s fine and good to enjoy any attention or acclaim that might derive from something you’ve written, but at a certain point, you have to enjoy (or at least tolerate) the lonely hours it takes to produce, revise, and polish that work. There might be people who are born with a natural talent for meditation, writing, or both, but I’ve certainly never met any. In my experience, both writing and meditation are deep-rooted things that flourish with sustained attention. If you’re going to last as a meditator or a writer, you’d better like spending time with yourself, your closest companion being the cushion beneath you or the blank page before you.

This is my contribution to yesterday’s Photo Friday theme, Solitude.

Snow on oak trees

I wrote today’s journal pages after dark, after finishing the day’s assortment of teaching tasks and teaching prep. During the school year, so much of my time and energy is focused on teaching–on my students’ writing–I sometimes wonder how I can ever manage to find the time, energy, and inspiration to devote to my own.

Snowblown

Ann Patchett references this reality in the introduction to her collection of nonfiction essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which I finished reading last week. Writing, Patchett observes, is a challenging career because you typically have to do something else to support yourself while doing it: like music or acting or other arts, in most cases writing requires you to have a day job. Patchett explains that when she started out as a young and aspiring writer, she tried to support herself through the two things she knew how to do–teaching and waitressing–but neither one left her enough energy to write: teaching was too intellectually exhausting, and waitressing was too physically exhausting.

Snowy bench

For Patchett, there was a third option–writing freelance articles for magazines, which is what she did for years before experiencing commercial success as a novelist. But freelancing strikes me as being just as exhausting as either teaching or waiting tables: in addition to the effort and concentration required to research and write articles for Seventeen, Gourmet, or any of the other magazines Patchett contributed to, there is with freelancing the constant contingency of contract work. Writing is itself exhausting enough, and even more draining is the question of who will buy your next article, when exactly they will pay for it, and what you will do in the meantime, while the bills pile up without your next paycheck being anywhere in sight.

Frosted

I am, in other words, too risk-averse to thrive as a freelancer, as Ann Patchett did: I would spend too much time and mental energy fretting over clients and contracts and the need to drum up business. One benefit of teaching at the college level, after all, is the fact that the college is responsible for recruiting your “customers.” But Patchett is spot-on when she notes the intellectual demands of teaching. Although there are presumably instructors out there who merely put in the hours, collect their pay, and don’t give much of a damn whether their students learn anything in their classes, I am (for better or worse) an instructor who does give a damn, my day-job at times threatening to subsume every last ounce of my energy and attention.

Snowy seats

So how do you manage to have a creative life when your day-job consists of nurturing the intellectual lives of dozens of students, with all those lessons to plan and all those papers to grade? The short, honest answer is “I have no idea.” But part of me suspects that maintaining one’s own creative life is essential to good, quality teaching, that if your own intellectual fire isn’t kindled, you’ll never spark a fire in anyone else. When I turn off my laptop at the end of a long grading day in order to read anything other than my students, papers, I’d like to think I’m doing so for my students’ sake as much as my own.

Bee on sunflower

Yesterday J and I went to Arnold Arboretum to walk and take pictures: a change from our original plan to go to the Museum of Fine Arts. We changed plans partly because the Red Sox played a day game yesterday—the T from Newton is always packed with Red Sox fans on game days—and partly because yesterday was the last day for the MFA’s popular Samurai exhibit, and we had no desire to fight last-minute crowds queuing to see an exhibit we’d seen back in April. But more than anything, yesterday was a clear, sunny, and mild summer day, and it seemed a shame to waste even a moment of it inside.

Rose mallow

We weren’t alone in our thinking, as the arboretum was alive with picnickers, dog-walkers, and families with strollers. There were children on scooters and children learning to ride bicycles, including one little girl whose pink training wheels lay on the side of the road, castoff, while she walked astride her bike, standing on two feet and crying, afraid to take the next step of actually sitting on the bike and pedaling. “You’re doing great,” I remarked as J and I walked by, figuring every little bit of encouragement would help. It’s a scary step to go from the known stability of training wheels to the wobbly uncertainties a grown-up bike: what felt like an exhilarating rush when you rode with training wheels feels like pure recklessness—far too fast and far too wobbly—when you’re riding without.

Hydrangea

I’ve never taught a child how to ride a bike, but I sometimes feel like I’m doing something similar with my literature and writing students, who sometimes cling to the known security of how they used to write papers back in high school (for my undergraduates) or back in their undergrad days (for my grad students). If you’re comfortable riding with training wheels, trying to ride a bike without them seems a lot less fun, given how much attention you have to pay to things like balance and speed and steering. But once you’ve faced (and cried your way through) the transition to a grown-up bike, you’d never dream of going back, part of the thrill of riding being the way your body eventually finds its own automatic equilibrium. Where once you had to think about steering, eventually your bike seems to know automatically where you want to go, and it goes there.

Golden Rain Tree

This is, ultimately, the place I’d like my lit and writing students to arrive: a place where making an argument—having something to say and then saying it—comes naturally, automatically, the pen on the page (or the fingers on the keyboard) naturally expressing the thoughts in mind. There is a beautiful fluidity in riding a bike or writing a well-argued essay, but balance doesn’t come by accident. Instead, you have to weave and waver and wobble before you can ride (or write) a straight, sensible line. Pedaling a grown-up bike takes a lot of practice, and so does crafting a mature essay. At first you rely heavily upon your training wheels, and eventually you cast them off, the experience of wobbling and even falling being the only way you can learn to trust the equilibrium of your own inner ear.

Click here for more pictures from the Arnold Arboretum: enjoy!

Head full of numbers

Some days when I come to the page to write my hour, I have a definite idea or theme in mind: something I’ve been thinking over and want to write about. Other days, like today, I come to the page with nothing particular in mind, just the intention to put one word in front of the next. Writing is one way I make sense of the world, so whereas some people like to sit and think, I prefer to sit and write. Somehow, crafting one sentence then the next and the next helps me figure out what I’m thinking, even before I fully realize what it is that’s on my mind.

Number sculpture

The interesting thing about thinking is that it never stops: even when you sit down with “nothing to write about,” your head is never close to empty. Anyone who has tried to meditate knows how never-ending the river of thoughts is: whenever anyone asks me how to “quiet their thoughts” when they are meditating, for instance, I have to stifle a hearty laugh. Quiet your thoughts? You’d have better luck containing a cloud or stopping a river. Even if you could calm or quiet your thoughts, why would you want to? There’s nothing more precious than a new idea—something arising out of nothing—so why would you want to halt the perpetual motion machine that is your own consciousness?

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the sheer parade of thoughts in my head. In elementary school, I liked to climb atop the jungle gym during recess, while my classmates were running, shouting, and playing games, so I could sit quietly and think, alone and aloof like Saint Simeon. Later, after I was too old for playgrounds, I learned that sitting alone with a book or notebook served the same purpose: when you’re reading, writing, or sitting atop a jungle gym, people don’t bother you. Even though you aren’t doing much of anything, you presumably “look busy,” or at least you look like you don’t want to be bothered.

Made of numbers

I don’t remember, exactly, what I thought about when I was a kid perched atop a jungle gym: I think I just liked to watch my thoughts, fascinated by the way they arose, transformed, and gurgled away like globules in a lava lamp. Some kids can sit for hours with a magnifying glass studying ants or rocks or blades of grass: I liked to sit and watch my thoughts. When I was a kid, I liked to take some simple idea or question and explore it from all angles until I’d stumped myself with the sheer inadequacy of my own understanding. If God created the heavens and the earth, for instance, where did God dwell before that? How is it that my brain knows how to move even the smallest muscle in my hand, orchestrating complex gestures automatically, without the need for conscious thought? Or, what exactly makes “pain” painful? If a little bit of warmth feels good, why and at what point does “warmth” become “hot” then “too hot,” crossing the threshold from “comfortable sensation I seek out” to “painful sensation I flee from”?

Lots of bikes

You might say I was born to be a writer or philosopher, or you might say I was just a really weird kid, preferring to sit alone with my thoughts rather than playing with my peers. In retrospect, growing up in a neighborhood where there weren’t many children my age might have had something to do with it: given the ten-year gap between me and my older sisters, I learned at an early age how to entertain myself. Or perhaps my fascination with the process of thinking—the way one thought leads to another, and the way close observation easily transforms into wonder—means I was a natural meditator, cultivating an open attitude of awareness and curiosity even before I’d ever heard the word “meditation.”

All I know is that given an hour and a blank page to fill, I always seem to find something to say…at least if I can keep from distracting myself with email, Facebook, or the hydra-headed distraction of the Internet. Now that I think about it, spending an hour a day waiting for words—any words—to arise beneath my scribbling pen or typing fingers is the grown-up equivalent of sitting atop a jungle gym, watching my classmates race to and fro. Watching the world go by isn’t that much different from watching a river flow, or ants walking along a sidewalk, or the incessant parade of thoughts streaming through your own head. Given an expanse of time and the willingness to wait and watch, you never know what will show up on the page before you.

The sculpture pictured in this post is Jaume Plensa’s Alchemist, a figure made up of numbers and mathematical functions that stands in front of the student center at MIT. Perhaps mathematicians like to watch the numbers in their head as much as writers like to watch the words.

Fallen leaf and leaf prints

A few nights ago, my writing partner emailed to let me know she hadn’t completed her daily writing commitment, but she’d done part of it: she’d showed up at the page. The phrase “showing up at the page” is a shorthand we both understand: showing up at the page is what you do on days when you don’t feel like you have anything to say, or you’re stumped at how to phrase what you do have to say, but you show up anyway, just in case words magically appear despite all your doubts and second-guesses.

Fallen leaf and leaf print

Showing up at the page takes a great deal of faith and dedication. Regardless of all the evidence to the contrary, you believe in your heart of hearts that the process of showing up is worthwhile and valuable even on (and even especially on) days when the product you produce is puny, disappointing, or just plain insipid. You believe despite all your doubts and second-guesses that the discipline of showing up is its own reward, and you believe despite all your doubts and second-guesses that showing up is important because there are, occasionally, those magically unpredictable days when Something spontaneously appears out of Nothing. If you hadn’t made a practice of showing up at the page, how could you have experienced that windfall?

Henry David Thoreau captured the spirit of showing up for the page when he wrote in Walden, “I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.” The sun will both rise and set without you, and there will be days when it’s too cloudy for you to see anything the sun might happen to be doing at the moment. But on those days, too, there is something to be gained from the discipline of showing up for the sunrise and observing whatever you can see. Think of all the things—an entire bustling Universe of activity—that happen every day whether we’re watching or not…and then think of the things we might actually see if we were present with our eyes open and alert.

Fallen leaf and leaf print

Years ago in Rhode Island, in the woods behind the Providence Zen Center, I saw a weasel by sheer accident. Hiking the winter woods behind the monastery where I’d been meditating and suffering, homesick and sore, for five days, I stopped to listen to the sizzle of rain falling on melting snow. I remember the woods were silent, hushed and expectant; honed by hours of meditation, I must have instinctively sensed the precise silent moment—raindrops paused in midair as if in a giant snow globe—when that tiny fanged predator, a curling wisp of sinew and muscle, would silently patter into view, running downhill into his own footprints, a limp and bloodied chipmunk dangling from his mouth. Had I not been walking in the silent Rhode Island woods at precisely the right moment, I would have never seen that weasel, that chipmunk, those sizzling raindrops.

Showing up at the page is like keeping watch at the bedside of a comatose relative: you watch, wait, and hold out hope because your patient might be present and alive in there, despite an unresponsive body. Just because your patient doesn’t seem to respond doesn’t mean they aren’t there: as Jesus said of a child he raised from the dead, “She’s not dead; she’s only sleeping.” On days when your own creativity seems dead, you show up and sit by the tomb, expectant. If today should be the miraculous day when your lifeless creativity should stir and then sit up in its shroud, you will be there to see it. There might not be anything you can do to help either the sun or the dead rise, but it is of the last importance that you be present just in case.

Fallen leaf and leaf print

Keeping a blog is a great exercise in showing up at the page. When you start a blog, you make an unspoken contract with your readers that you will show up and say something regularly enough to make their checking in worthwhile: a blog grown cold is like a closed and darkened house where a weary traveler had hoped for hospitality. Many days when you show up to “feed the blog,” you feel like Old Mother Hubbard reaching into a cupboard that’s sadly bare. When you’re forced to concoct a blog-worthy meal out of meager scraps, you often end up with a stone soup simmered with bits of this and that: nothing fancy, just something simple and savory. Out of the leftovers of your days, what kind of sustenance can you cobble together if you simply continue to show up for your own life?