Crabapples

Yesterday I had a spare half hour between my last class at Curry College and a Friday afternoon meeting in Boston: a spare half hour I should have spent grading papers. But it was a glorious fall day–sunny and unseasonably warm, shirtsleeves-and-sandals weather–and I knew I’d hate myself if I spent the whole day inside. There will be plenty of time to catch up with grading, I told myself, when the weather’s cold and dismal.

Green Dot trail

It had been years since I’d gone walking at the Blue Hills, which are just down the street from Curry College. Years ago when my then-husband and I rented a house in nearby Randolph, MA, I frequently walked Reggie at the Blue Hills: those were the days when Reggie was young and full of energy, and seemingly no amount of walking could tire him. That was, in other words, a literal lifetime ago, when I was still married to my first husband and Reggie was still alive.

Nest box

Autumn is a naturally retrospective time: seeing so many living things wending their way to their eventual demise naturally gets you thinking about past autumns and the things you’ve lost in the interim. Autumn is a naturally retrospective time that sometimes leads you to wonder how many more seasons you have in you and what, exactly, it is you’re doing with your life in the meantime.

Distant color

But yesterday, as I said, was perfect walking weather: no ghosts of autumns past could distract me from that. I pass the parking lot for the Blue Hills’ Trailside Museum every time I drive to or from Curry, and usually I don’t have time to stop, much less go walking: usually I’m hurrying to campus to teach or hurrying home to tackle an endless to-do list: so many papers, and so little time. An adjunct’s work is never done, so I always feel a bit wistful when I pass by the Blue Hills, remembering past walks there and wondering when I might find a spare half hour to return.

Autumn landscape

Yesterday was my chance, and I took it. I didn’t have a map and couldn’t remember exactly where the Green Dot trail from the Trailside Museum’s parking lot goes; I just set an alarm on my phone to tell me when I’d need to turn back to my car, and I let my feet lead me where they would. Where I found myself, I figured out later, was the Carberry Path, a side trail that dead-ends at the edge of the Blue Hills’ property…but before I found myself facing a No Trespassing sign that turned me back toward my car just before my alarm did, I spent a short but wonderful while in a fall field reigned over by a regal old hickory glowing gold in the afternoon sun.

Golden hickory

Charles River

Last weekend, J and I took a long, woodsy walk around our neighborhood, walking first to Hemlock Gorge to leaf-peep around Echo Bridge and then wending through the woodsy fringe along Quinobequin Road, which skirts the Charles River. The air was brisk and the sun was bright—a quintessential New England fall day—so walking just about anywhere was glorious. On sunny October days in New England, you look for any excuse to be outside in the golden gleam of autumn.

Overhead

Folks who have seen New England autumns only in photographs focus on fall foliage, but those of us who live here know that tree leaves are just a small part of the beauty. What’s magical about autumn in New England is the light. Autumn light angles low, refracting through the prisms of countless turning trees. In February, I’ll bemoan the white, oversaturated glare of our monochromatic winters, but in October, the light in New England is itself golden, like sunbeams filtered through stained glass.

Under the bridge

Because I’ve weathered enough New England winters to know how starved for light and color I’ll be come January, I find myself wanting to soak up every second of October’s golden light. Even sitting on a bench in October is a sensuous experience as your body relishes the contradictory sensations of brisk air and warm sunlight.

Sunlit

Emily Dickinson once said a true poem makes you feel like the top of your head has been removed, and I’d say something similar about autumns in New England. October is the one time of year when I want to steep myself directly in sunlight, even if that means ripping off the roof and removing the top of my skull: anything to better bask my brain in this fleeting gold gleam.

Sunlit

This week, our Jewish neighbors have erected sukkahs like Rachel’s in their yards, and I find myself quietly envying them: I have to admire a religion that requires its adherents to spend as much time as possible outside in October, simply sitting. And yet, living in New England, I’d make a terrible Jew, as any sukkah I’d erect would be topless, or at best convertible, the better to let God’s own golden gaze in.

Forget Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry: the title of today’s post comes from a line from Pharrell Williams’ irresistibly peppy ode to joy, “Happy,” which invites listeners to “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.”

Hydrangea

Finally, at long last, I’ve taken the final step toward being a middle-aged female academic: I’ve bought a wheeled laptop case.

Dogwood berries

For years, I’ve carried my office in a bag: specifically, a cavernous shoulder tote I used to schlep my laptop, power cord, file folders, textbook, umbrella, spare pens, index cards, chalk, dry-erase markers, tissues, cough drops, chocolate, and a water bottle. I lugged this bag in addition to my regular purse and a Sachi lunch tote: walking to and from my car, I looked like a pack mule slung on all sides with bags. I’ve done this for years as I’ve commuted between two campuses, teaching out of my bag instead of an on-campus office. If something was worth having, you could find it in my bulging bag.

Mums

In the past, I’ve seen some of my colleagues gliding around campus with wheeled laptop cases as if they’d just arrived from the airport, but I’ve previously bridled against such practicality. Wheeled bags seemed so middle-aged. When I was a grad student, I carried everything in a shoulder bag, and even though it’s been a decade since I finished my PhD, I’ve fervently clung to this last sartorial vestige of my grad school days. Undergrads carry backpacks, grad students carry shoulder bags that could theoretically pass for enormous purses, and middle-aged academics trail wheeled luggage behind them. Although I was willing to leave behind my backpack days, I still clung to my enormous, purse-like tote.

Bittersweet

But this year, my attitude shifted. At Curry College, I don’t have an office where I can stash (and lock up) my things, so if I want to take a stroll around campus between my classes and office hour, I have to lug everything with me. Yes, I could lock my bag in my car…but since the lot where I park isn’t exactly near the building where I teach, that still involves a lot of lugging, and who wants to limit their midday walks to schlepping your stuff to your car and back?

Virginia creeper

The solution? A McKlein rolling leather briefcase. My Sachi lunch tote piggybacks on top, and I can glide around campus with only my purse slung over my shoulder. Now that I’ve swallowed my pride and crossed the Rubicon toward middle-age, I’m wondering why I didn’t do so earlier. Inventing the wheel was a momentous moment in the evolution of human civilization, and embracing the wheeled laptop case is a similar improvement. Now that I’ve mapped the curb-cuts and accessible entrances on both of the campuses where I teach, carrying my things to and from my car, classes, and office is easy. Where once I was heavily burdened, now I roll.

Drizzle drops on spider silk

Today has been a drizzly day: the kind of day when you don’t mind staying inside grading papers. After lunch, I went outside to photograph drizzle-drops on spider silk:  dewy jewels that draped our backyard shrubs with webs of wonder.

This is a test entry posted from the Flickr app on my tablet, just to see how and whether it works.

You looking at me?

I was tempted to skip my journal pages this morning, as I’d been hoping to comment on some more papers–always more papers–before leaving to teach today’s classes. But instead, I came across a line in Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age: The World Created By Us that stopped me short:

Finch

On the periodic table of the heart, somewhere between wonderon and unatttainium, lies presence, which one doesn’t so much take as steep in, like a romance, and without which one can live just fine, but not thrive.

This line comes in a chapter titled “Nature, Pixelated,” where Ackerman discusses the phenomenon of nature webcams and other forms of virtual reality. Simulcast betting is so last century: nowadays you don’t have to leave your desk to go birdwatching via webcam at any of a number of distant and exotic locales.

Black swan

Too much of our life is spent indoors staring at screens, Ackerman laments, and she doesn’t know the half of it. She’s talking about young people who stare at phones and tablets and computers for fun: the nature-deprived children whom Richard Louv describes as preferring to play indoors because that’s where the electrical outlets are. But what about those of us who are tethered to screens because our jobs demand it?

Baby gorilla throws hay on mom

It’s easier for me to comment on essay drafts my students submit electronically: instead of carrying stacks of folders with papers my students can subsequently lose, all the papers I need to read are online in the cloud, backed up and safe for the semester and accessible from anywhere via my laptop. My students submit their papers online, I comment online, and none of my comments get crammed at the bottom of a students’ backpack, as happened in the Old Days when I commented on student papers by hand. Now, when the end of the term approaches and my students get serious about revision, all their work is waiting for them online, along with my feedback.

Peekaboo prairie dog

Collecting and commenting on papers electronically is a huge improvement over the old method, but a it also means I spend a huge amount of time every semester glued to a screen, answering emails, posting homework assignments, and commenting on draft after draft after draft while the whole wide world transpires outside, where I’m not. I miss those days at Keene State where the topic of my first-year writing seminar gave me an excuse to step outside and journal with my students. In retrospect, I wonder whether keeping a nature journal was the most helpful lesson I taught those students: a simple technique for Being Here, Now.

Camel

So much of college isn’t about Being Here, Now: it’s about biding your time until you get he piece of paper everyone has promised will lead to the Good Job everyone says you need to Be Happy someday, eventually. College, in the interim, is too often a series of hoops you jump through on your way from A to B, during which time you’ll write too many papers assigned by part-time faculty who have to teach too many classes to keep themselves fed.

Baby wildebeest

Where do moments of presence happen in today’s college classrooms? I’m not sure I know. Sometimes I’ve started class with five minutes of writing–the old fashioned kind, done with pen on paper–and that has felt grounding, the pen serving as an anchor to the here and now. But I’m not doing this in my classes this year, and maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe I’ve missed a prime opportunity to show my first-year students how the practice of the present moment can be as enthralling as any technological gadget.

Today’s photos come from a trip to the Franklin Park Zoo J and I took the weekend before last, and the title of today’s post is an allusion to Brother Lawrence’s spiritual classic, The Practice of the Presence of God.

All out

When J and I went to Suffolk Downs the weekend before last, we had no idea it would be the last time we’d watch live horse racing in Revere. Last week the Massachusetts Gaming Commission granted permission for a swanky new casino in Everett, thereby dashing Suffolk Downs’ hopes of building a casino there. Casinos bring in big bucks; live horse racing does not. After the casino decision was made, Suffolk Downs made an announcement that saddened but didn’t surprise me: the 79-year-old track will be closing, with live racing ceasing at the end of the month and simulcast betting continuing through December.

They're off!

The part about horse racing that interests me is the horse part, not the gambling part, so neither simulcast betting nor swanky new casinos interest me. Had Suffolk Downs won a casino contract, J and I would have gone there to slide a quarter or two into the slot machines, briefly ogle the table games, and otherwise mind our business on our way to the track, where the horses are. But there will be no horses or horse racing at Everett’s new casino, so I’m unimpressed by the proposed development. Why do we need a casino in Everett when the casinos in Connecticut are such a short drive away?

Into the Winner's Circle

When J and I arrived at Suffolk Downs the weekend before last, there was a little girl loudly cheering for her favorite jockey as she made her way into the Winner’s Circle: Janelle Campbell, the same jockey I’d photographed last year as she sat beaming atop her mount. Being a jockey, I explained in that post, is every horse-crazy girl’s dream job. After Suffolk Downs is shuttered, who will horse-crazy little girls cheer for? Their favorite poker stars or blackjack dealers?

Winner's circle

Suffolk Downs is a place past its prime: it’s clean and well-kept, but clearly run down. Every time we’ve gone to Suffolk Downs, J and I have wandered the grandstand, meekly exploring the empty upper concourses and wide, carpeted entryways. In its heyday, Suffolk Downs was packed with enthusiastic race fans; today, sparse handfuls of people watch horses race outside while the serious gamblers stay indoors, where races from other tracks are simulcast on rows of TV screens.

Jockeying for position

Simulcast races are something you can watch (and bet on) anywhere, including online…and simulcast racing is where the big gaming money is. My personal preference to watch horse racing in person might be shared by horse-crazy little girls, but apparently it’s not shared by the adult population at large. Why do we need live horses racing at Suffolk Downs when it’s so easy to watch (and bet on) horse races on TV? Why even leave the house when you can gamble online?

The winner

It’s too bad that Suffolk Downs is closing, as it was a place with a history. Both Seabiscuit and Cigar raced there, back when horse racing was glamorous and fast horses were celebrities. The racetrack where my father used to watch (and, yes, bet on) harness horses in Ohio added a casino several years ago, and the place never felt the same. Men now drop their wives at the casino while they go to wager on simulcast races, and my dad stays home to follow the stock market: a different kind of gambling.

Muddied

I’m saddened to think of all the horse-folks who will be out of a job when Suffolk Downs closes for good. The new casino in Everett will provide jobs for waitresses, cashiers, and card dealers, but where’s a good groom, jockey, or trainer going to go for a new job?

A dirty job

The horses who raced at Suffolk Downs will move on to other tracks, or they’ll retire from racing and find homes with folks looking to adopt sleek saddle horses. It’s a slower life after you’ve been put out to pasture. The world races on, and you get left behind.

Kleberg

Yesterday morning the schedule-gods smiled and I had a spare half hour to write in my notebook, at home, after having crossed off a list of chores: dishes loaded into the dishwasher, laundry piled into the washing machine, cats fed, and litter boxes cleaned. In the spare half hour before I left to teach three classes and prepare two more before coming home and collapsing, ready to do it all over again, I took a spare half hour to write in my journal.

Thank you for saving my life

Whenever I’m away from my journal, I struggle the first day I come back: what to say, and where to start? What I like about journaling is the way it requires you to consider each thing in turn: a neat line of words following words. During a hectic week, my thoughts buzz and swarm, too many flying past at once. When I sit down to write, though, these racing thoughts temporarily slow, with me considering one thought then another then the next. The whole mad dash of ideas, obligations, and must-remembers still zooms past, but for a half hour or so I focus on one face in the passing throng, then another, then the next.

Jamie Wyeth retrospective

Writing, in other words, takes the place of therapy for me: it is a place where I consider and make sense of my thoughts, a sanity-making device. It is also a kind of devotional act. I feel a sort of reverence and fidelity to the page—this present notebook—and feel a pang of guilt when I stray from it, a faithful friend who has never strayed from me.

Jamie Wyeth retrospective

It almost doesn’t matter what I write in my notebook; all that matters is that I do write, coming back to the page that reflects with such honest accuracy the contents of my wandering mind. It doesn’t matter what I write, in other words; it just matters that I have written. In this regard, I see writing as my own secular kind of prayer, as I doubt God cares much about the words we use when we pray, only the fact that we show up and spend some time.

Jamie Wyeth retrospective

With writing as with prayer, I think you show up as you are, then words are provided for you, each one appearing of its own accord. Both writing and prayer involve great faith. Not only do you need to believe your wishes will be granted, you also need courage to even utter those wishes in the first place. Do you dare open your heart and share the unspoken desires you find there? Do you dare think you can address God without God laughing in your face? Both writing and prayer require faith that what you say is both true and worth saying. Both writing and prayer demand you have courage to continue even when (especially when) no one seems to be listening.

Pumpkinhead (self-portrait)

Both writing and prayer, in other words, require infinite faith in yourself: faith that what lies in your heart is true and worth sharing, and faith that you deserve to be heard. Before a child can ask her father for bread rather than a stone, that child must believe she is deserving of bread. Whether God is there reading my words or hearing my prayers is almost beside the point. I myself benefit from the courage it takes to write or pray, whether or not anyone is listening.

(I wrote this entry last week and only got around to posting it today. The photos illustrating today’s post come from the Jamie Wyeth retrospective on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts through December.)

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