The people of Massachusetts will always remember

Thursday mornings are hectic, as I cross off a laundry-list of chores before heading to Framingham State to teach an 8:30 am class. This morning as I neared Natick on my way to campus, I saw a flag at half-mast and the date dawned. Today, thirteen years ago. The tears came as unbidden and right as rain: tears for the grief, confusion, and fear everyone felt that crisp and beautiful autumn day thirteen years ago, and tears for all the lives that have been lost since then. How many flags at half-mast have flown these past thirteen years?

Dearly departed

The spring we put Reggie to sleep, I acquired the habit of weeping during my long drives to and from Keene: 90 uninterrupted minutes each way during which I had nothing to do but steer the car and marshal my own thoughts. My car provided a cocoon of privacy; nobody needed to see or know why I had tears streaming down my face, whether for a person or a pet or for the whole sad and suffering world.

Flowers

This morning I once again wept in my car: not for any individual person, but for the whole suffering world. I didn’t personally know anyone who was killed on September 11, but that day was a collective wound. Watching the news, hearing the stories, and seeing the flyers posted with pictures of the missing: these were enough to unite us in a shared upwelling of sympathy. When innocent lives are lost, you realize how tenuous and random your own survival is. The people who died on 9/11 and the people who have died in subsequent military operations could easily have been you, me, or any of our loved ones. How can any of us feel safe in a world where some of us are targeted?

Wreathed

Thirteen years is a lifetime, long enough for a child to ripen into puberty. Now that the first generation of post-9/11 children is entering young adulthood, what has happened to our grief and remembrance? They say that time heals all wounds, but memory (as Salvador Dali suggested) is persistent. Thirteen years was a lifetime ago–I was an entirely different person then, leading a life that now seems alien and unknowable. But the simple sight of a flag at half-mast is all it takes to melt the intervening years, the passage of time revealed as illusion. Grief knows no timetable, and sorrow has no season.

One wilted rose

We live in an amnesiac culture that ignores the past while chasing the future. In the pursuit of positivity, we are denied the chance to grieve, instead being told to “get over it.” September 11 is one of the few days a year when we are allowed to drop the pretense of optimism and cheer in order to be somber and still. I wish it were more acceptable to grieve whenever the occasion calls for it. To be awake these days is to have one’s heart broken on a daily basis. Planes fall out of the sky, black boys are shot in the street, and journalists are slaughtered overseas. How can we get over the grief of 9/11 when that day was merely the first in a thirteen-year-long litany of loss? At every turn, there is suffering, death, and mayhem; humanity, it turns out, is infinitely inventive when it comes to hurting one another. But with each instance of hurting also comes an instantaneous outpouring of help.

Memorial

September 11, 2001 was an impossibly beautiful fall day here in New England, an irony that has always struck me as cruel. But perhaps this juxtaposition of tragedy and beauty is merely reflective of the world we live in. In the face of heartbreak, there are hands to help. In the aftermath of suffering comes the strength and resilience to carry on.

I’ve previously blogged these photos of the Garden of Remembrance in Boston’s Public Garden, which I’d shot in May, 2011. In the years since then, this stone memorial is already starting to wear away.

Roses through fence

My fall semester started yesterday, when I taught three first-year writing classes at Curry College; today, I’m teaching two classes at Framingham State. There’s something exhilarating about teaching the first few days of fall semester, when your freshmen are still truly “fresh.”

A fungus among us

The first few days of fall semester, there’s an air of excitement on campus as students meet new people and make new friends. I didn’t see this side of my Curry students last term, as I was hired in the middle of the second semester, in February, when my students were already tired, jaded, and yearning for spring. Soon enough my students at both schools will be settled into a regular routine, the same old habits emerging, albeit in a new environment. But right now, New England is gearing up for her prettiest season, and right now, first-year college students are full of resolve, determined to leave behind the baggage and bad habits of their high school years, when even the smallest mistakes or indiscretions quickly establish one’s reputation.

At the start of fall semester, one’s self seems supple, September offering an excuse for midyear rather than New Year’s resolutions. This year, students tell themselves, I’ll buckle down and keep up with homework. This year, instructors tell themselves, I won’t procrastinate grading. Hope (in other words) springs eternal, and not just in spring. September is as eager a time as any other, the start of a new school opening the door to ample opportunities.

Heading north

One of my favorite vistas in Boston is one you see when you’re headed northbound out of the city toward either New Hampshire or the northern suburbs. After you’ve snaked through the subterranean labyrinth that is the Tip O’Neill Tunnel, you suddenly are above ground and bathed in light as you ascend the Zakim Bridge with its gleaming white cables.

Zakim Bridge

I don’t know if heaven has a gate, but if it does, surely it can’t be any lovelier than the Zakim Bridge arching overhead on a sunny afternoon.

Let sleeping beagles lie

This morning, Melony the beagle showed no sign of wanting to get out of bed, cuddling into my pillow as if she could slow the inevitable progress of the day through sheer determination. I’m sure we’ve all had mornings when we wanted to lie abed just a little while longer, as if closing our eyes to the clock would make it run more slowly.

Not ready for morning

Late August is when teachers and schoolchildren around the world try to slow the hands of time through sheer determination: please, Summer, can’t you stay just a little while longer? And yet late August is also when both parents and retailers are eager for time’s passage, happy to herald another back-to-school season. While a lot of schools and colleges started their fall semesters this past week, I’m one of the lucky ones: both of the colleges where I’ll be teaching this year wait until after Labor Day to start their fall semester. So like Melony the beagle, I’m spending this weekend cherishing every last minute of freedom until I, too, have to head back to school. The hands of time are moving whether I’m watching the clock or not.

Technicolor hippies

As I type these words, a rafter of wild turkeys is scratching for seed beneath our backyard birdfeeder: two hens and their combined offspring, a true Boston marriage. We didn’t see much of our resident turkeys in the spring and early summer, when the hens were incubating eggs, but now that the poults are leggy and ravenous, we’ve seen them and their mothers more frequently.

Fantastic 'fro

The other day, J and I saw a small group of tom turkeys crossing a side street about a half mile from our house, one striding slowly in front of the other like the Beatles crossing Abbey Road. This is how turkeys live in August: the females band together to shepherd their combined young, and the males hang out singly or in loose-knit throngs, fattening up for breeding season. It’s a strict division of labor where the females look after the poults and the males do little more than strut and breed.

Birth-control pill chastity belt

A week or so ago, J and I watched an episode of the CNN documentary The Sixties that discussed the women’s movement. The episode discussed the advent of the birth control pill, Gloria Steinem’s stint as a Playboy Bunny, and the one-two punch of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl. Once you acknowledge that some housewives are unhappy tending children and doing housework and some women are enjoying sex outside the bonds of marriage, you’ve crossed a revolutionary divide. Everything is possible between the sexes because everything has been called into question.

Eclectic

A strict division of labor between tom and hen turkeys has worked for eons: just look how many turkeys there are! But human beings aren’t turkeys. We no longer live as hunter-gatherers, when it made sense for larger, stronger males to pursue large game while bands of women gathered nuts and berries, their babies and children in tow.

His and hers

Nearly all of today’s jobs can be accomplished by either gender, and the job of gathering groceries knows no sex. This means each household is free to divide chores however works best for them, individually. In our home, J does yard work and cooks, and I do dishes, take out the trash, and shop for groceries. J and I don’t divide these chores by gender; instead, we’ve settled upon a routine that works for us, and we don’t expect that routine to be universally applicable to other couples. We’re talking about conscious choices, not binding cultural rules.

Braids

I don’t know if male and female turkeys are content with their lots in life: I suspect turkeys live the way they do because they don’t have much choice. Does an abundance of choice make us humans more or less happy in the long run? That’s a question for philosophers to decide. All I know is that once a choice is offered, you can’t take it back. Once you know other options are available, you’ll always want the freedom to choose between them.

Since I don’t have any decent photos of turkey hens and poults that have been visiting our backyard bird feeder, the photos illustrating today’s post come from last summer’s groovy MFA exhibit of sixties clothing, Hippie Chic, which I blogged last December.

Budding

This morning, in the aftermath of Robin Williams’ death, I watched the Grand Central Station scene from The Fisher King: one of my all-time favorite cinematic moments. Williams plays a mentally troubled homeless man watching the woman of his dreams walk through a busy train terminal, and for the two minutes she’s passing through, the chaotic crowds coalesce into a grand, beautiful waltz befitting the high-vaulted splendor that is Grand Central Station. It’s a magical, perfectly choreographed moment where hundreds of strangers move to the step of one man’s love: a scene where Williams doesn’t say a single word, his expressive face speaking volumes.

Raindrops on rose

When a special person passes through even the most ordinary place, the mundane becomes magical, at least for a moment, until they disappear in the crowd and the music reverts to hubbub again. That’s what it feels like this morning after Williams’ death: the waltz has ended, the crowds are no longer choreographed, and the sunbeams no longer scintillate with stardust.

Red rose

It would not be an exaggeration to say I grew up watching Robin Williams. I was nine years old when Mork and Mindy premiered, and it was one of my favorite TV shows. As a brown-haired tomboy, I wanted to be Mindy, a free-spirited, Jeep-driving girl living in a city that sounded both outdoorsy and cool. When Mork moved into Mindy’s attic, Mindy didn’t lose an ounce of her independence: Mork wasn’t a boyfriend, after all, but an alien. Long before we learned that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, I learned from Mork and Mindy that the best way to relate to the opposite sex is through humor and an open acknowledgement that men really are from another planet.

Pink rose

Years later, Dead Poets Society came out when I was halfway through my undergraduate English studies, and it gave me a new role model in Mr. Keating, a renegade teacher who encourages his buttoned-up students to think for themselves. I can’t say Dead Poets Society made me want to be an English teacher, as I was already long along that path, but it did stoke the fire of my enthusiasm by invoking two of my favorite authors: Walt Whitman, whose image hangs on Mr. Keating’s classroom wall, and Henry David Thoreau, whose commitment to live deliberately served as the Dead Poets’ motto.

Rainy rose

I wonder how many English majors have watched Dead Poets Society time and again, as I have, wishing they could be a Mr. Keating in some student’s life? Mr. Keating wants to change the lives of his students, and he does indeed succeed, but he learns too late that sometimes changes happens for the worse, not the better. Dead Poets Society is a tragedy that ends in death…but then again, so is life. Dead Poets Society is deeply romantic in its suggestion that a passionate teacher can inspire students, and as an undergrad English major, I drank that idea deeply, like a drug.

Raindrops on rose

By the time Williams appeared as the working-class community college professor Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, I was a graduate student living in Boston, where the film was set. By then, my Dead Poets Society dreams had been tempered by the reality of teaching actual first-year college students, none of whom stood on their desks and hailed me as “O captain, my captain!”

Wild rose with bumble bee

In my dreams, I wanted to be Mr. Keating, but in reality, I was more like Maguire, who in the movie teaches a course on “Dying and Bereavement” to a nearly comatose class of indifferent students. While his college roommate has become a revered professor at MIT, Maguire teaches at Bunker Hill Community College, where his talents are clearly going to waste. Most fans of Good Will Hunting remember the funny scenes where Matt Damon wins Minnie Driver’s heart by schooling snobby Harvard boys with his smartass wit, but what I remember from the movie was the awkward moment of recognition as I watched Maguire try to engage his students. George Carlin once said a cynic is nothing more than a disappointed idealist, and Williams captured that truth perfectly in his portrayal of a tender-hearted but tired professor who has weathered many heartaches.

Red rose

Robin Williams is remembered and beloved as a comic, but what always resonated with me was the way he captured the vulnerable, serious, and (yes) sorrowful side of his characters. Yesterday when I heard of Williams’ suicide, my first thought was, “Didn’t he know how many lives he touched?” I sometimes think being a teacher is a lot like being a stand-up comic: there’s nothing like the thrill of connecting with your audience, but there’s nothing worse than the sensation of crashing and burning when your material falls flat. When the laughter and applause subside, there’s nothing left but the nagging question, “But was I good enough, really?”

Raindrops on rose

I understand mental illness well enough to know that no number of fan letters, awards, and accolades can lift the shroud of depression: depression is, after all, a bug in the brain that makes it impossible to believe such affirmations. Still, I find myself wishing that at the split second before he slipped from this station to the next, Robin Williams fully realized the joy, wonder, and delight he inspired in so many of us.

The title of today’s post comes from Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to make much of Time,” which features memorably in a scene from Dead Poets Society. The photos illustrating today’s posts show some of the roses and rosebuds I’ve gathered (digitally) over the years. Rest in peace, Robin Williams, and thank you for so many years of laughter, life, and joy.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

Back in March when J and I went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History to see the famous glass flowers, I snapped several photographs of a more ephemeral phenomenon: several botanical specimens taken by Henry David Thoreau. Among the embarrassment of riches that is the Harvard Museum of Natural History, these pressed plants mounted on paper and labeled in Thoreau’s notoriously illegible handwriting seemed particularly fragile and astonishingly personal. When Thoreau picked, pressed, and preserved these specimens, he was acting as an amateur botanist. He had no way of knowing more than a century and a half later, someone like me would cherish these yellowed pages as a tangible connection with a long-dead writer.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

Thoreau probably never suspected his meticulous botanical records—not only the 900-some specimens housed at the Botany Libraries of Harvard University or the two held by the University of Connecticut, but also the lists of first-flowering dates for the wildflowers he observed in Concord, Massachusetts from 1851 until 1858—would someday be used to study climate change. Thoreau intended to compile his seasonal observations into a project he called the Kalendar, by which he could ascertain the date simply by studying what was blooming in Concord at any given moment. Thoreau died before his Kalendar was complete, but even an incomplete project can eventually bear fruit if it is ambitious and accurate enough.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

I’m currently reading Richard B. Primack’s Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods, which chronicles how Thoreau’s nineteenth century observations are contributing to twenty-first century climate science. Primack is a biology professor at Boston University, and he and a team of graduate students have spent the past decade comparing Thoreau’s first-flowering dates with modern observations of Concord flora. Because Thoreau kept such a meticulous record of what bloomed when in Concord, Primack and his colleagues are able to track the acceleration of the seasons, with species such as highbush blueberry blooming between three and six weeks earlier today than in Thoreau’s day.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

Primack’s book is grim reading insofar as it confirms the dire warnings of climate scientists. But part of me is cheered by Thoreau’s unintended contribution to the project. Thoreau liked to say he was born in the nick of time, but his death of tuberculosis in 1862 has always struck me as painfully premature. Thoreau was only 44 at the time of his death, and he left many unfinished projects. He didn’t live long enough to see the abolition of slavery, he never completed his Kalendar, and most of his book-length works were published posthumously, with only A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden appearing during his lifetime.

Thoreau's Maine Woods

Because of global warming, the spring wildflowers in Concord, Massachusetts are blooming earlier these days, but it seems that Thoreau himself was a late bloomer, becoming popular as a writer, philosopher, and citizen scientist only after his death. I often wonder whether Thoreau lamented on his deathbed the work he left undone: did it seem silly to have spent so much time gathering data for a project he couldn’t complete? I like to imagine that in his heart of hearts, Thoreau had faith that even a feeble seed would bear fruit, albeit years later. I like to imagine Thoreau himself wouldn’t be surprised his meticulous botanical records would be pored over and appreciated eventually, in the nick of (another) time.

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