Life lessons


This past weekend was the third annual Boston Rhetoric and Writing Network (BRAWN) Summer Institute, a chance for Boston-area college writing instructors to spend two days talking shop. Being a writing instructor can be a lonely endeavor. On days when your students are under-motivated, it can feel like you’re the only one in the room who is excited to read, write, and talk about reading and writing. The BRAWN Summer Institute is one of those rare instances when you’re surrounded by people who think commas are cool and revision is revelatory.

Blue ribbon

When I arrived at the Institute on Friday morning, I learned that one of my colleagues had a medical emergency and couldn’t lead her scheduled workshop: could I possibly take her place? The session was on peer review–the practice of asking students to read and provide feedback on one another’s drafts–but since I was scheduled to attend another workshop, I hadn’t read the scholarly articles my colleague had chosen as background for the session. I was, in other words, completely unprepared to lead a two-hour workshop about the pedagogy of peer review; all I had were my own experiences (good, bad, and ugly) trying to facilitate peer reviews in my own classes.

Husky pride

The beauty of the Summer Institute, however, is that participants are self-motivated. How many folks, after all, would willingly volunteer to attend two full days of workshops in at the end of May, when the outdoors and other summer temptations beckon? When I introduced myself as the last-minute (and entirely unprepared) substitute facilitator for the session, I explained that all I had to offer were some basic questions to guide our discussion. What do we mean, exactly, when we use the term “peer review”? What do we hope or expect students to gain from the activity, and what hopes and expectations do our students bring? What challenges do we face when we ask our students to comment on one another’s writing, what strategies do we employ to cultivate a sense of community in our classrooms, and how do we know when peer review is “working”?

Destination NEU

As writing instructors from colleges around the greater Boston area went around the room introducing themselves and describing what they hoped to gain from our discussion, one woman perfectly summed up my experience of the Summer Institute: “It’s good to be here all together in the same room, talking about what we do.” If you care about what you do, you cherish the opportunity to share your experiences (good, bad, and ugly) with colleagues who face the same challenges. Ultimately, what we want for our students as writers is the same as what we want for ourselves as teachers: a chance to share our work with an audience who is willing to offer feedback, give encouragement, and provide camaraderie along the way.

This year’s BRAWN Summer Institute was held at Northeastern University, where I received my PhD ten (!!!) years ago. The Northeastern mascot is the husky, so that explains the unusual number of painted dogs gathered all together in the same room.

Memorial Day 2013

For the past five years, J and I have observed a simple ritual on Memorial Day. We walk somewhere for lunch, then we walk to Newton Cemetery to visit the decorated graves of the military dead. We don’t personally know anyone buried at Newton Cemetery, but it’s a lovely place to walk in the springtime, and Memorial Day offers as good an excuse as any to pay our respects to strangers we never had the chance to meet.

Muskrat - May 27 / Day 147

On last year’s Memorial Day walk, J and I saw so many frogs, turtles, rabbits, geese, ducks, and muskrats at Newton Cemetery, I posted an album solely devoted to the the cemetery creatures we saw. In the springtime, when everything is fresh, green, and young, it’s easy to forget the harsh winter reality that everything eventually dies. That’s why we need a holiday to remind us to remember.

Memorial Day 2013

Sometimes people die at the end of a long and full life, and other times young people are cut down too soon. In either case, the loss is tragic. Cemeteries exist as a final resting place for the dead, but they also exist as a reminder to the oblivious living. It’s too easy in the hubbub of living to forget how lucky we are simply to be able to walk the earth in springtime.

You can view past Memorial Day photo sets at the following links: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Enjoy!

Spring blooms

It’s Finals Week at both Framingham State and Curry College, where I’ve been filling in for an instructor who went on medical leave several months ago. Finals Week is a notoriously busy time for students and instructors alike, but there’s always a strange sense of calm that washes over me after I teach my last class.

Spring blooms

Once Finals Week arrives, I no longer have to juggle the distinct tasks of prepping classes, teaching classes, commenting on essay drafts, and grading papers. Once Finals Week arrives, I no longer have to multitask, concentrating all my attention on the single task of grading, grading, grading.

I used to collect fat folders of student writing at the end of the term, so I had actual paper-piles I could show as proof of how much work loomed. Nowadays, though, I have my students submit both their final exam essays and semester portfolios online, so instead of a weighty paper-pile, all I have is my slim laptop laden with downloaded papers.

Spring blooms

Although in the old days there was a certain sense of accomplishment in moving each fat folder from my “to do” to “done” piles, I don’t miss the end-term ritual of schlepping bags full of papers from and then back to campus. My students submit their papers online, and I post my end-term comments and grades online, too. there’s something strangely satisfying about clicking “Submit” for another graded batch of student essays: each file representing so much work for the student to write, me to comment on, the student to revise, and me to grade at last.

Thank you for sharing

On Friday, J and I had tickets for an afternoon Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, so on our way to Symphony Hall, we stopped by the Engine 33 firehouse on Boylston Street to pay our respects at the makeshift memorial outside the firehouse that lost two of its members in last week’s fire.

Two crosses

The pile of flowers outside Engine 33 is eerily reminiscent of the outpouring of offerings left down the street at Copley Square in the aftermath of last April’s Marathon bombing: another pile marking another Boston tragedy. I’m beginning to understand why piles of flowers, ballcaps, handwritten notes, and other offerings spontaneously appear in the aftermath of tragedy. When you first hear that someone has died or been injured, your first human impulse is to wonder what you might do to help. When there’s not anything tangible you can do, you offer instead whatever is close at hand, whether that be flowers, a hug, or a handwritten sign.

Thank you

In Buddhist iconography, the bodhisattva of compassion–Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit, Kannon in Japanese, Kwan Yin in Chinese, or Kwan Seum Bosal in Korean–is sometimes shown having one thousand hands containing one thousand eyes. As soon as one of Kwan Seum Bosal’s eyes sees someone suffering, Kwan Seum Bosal has a hand right there to help.

Boston Strong

So, where are Kwan Seum Bosal’s one thousand hands and eyes? Well, I have two of each, and presumably so do you. Whenever or wherever there is a tragedy—a fallen firefighter, a lost plane, or a town buried in a mudslide—Kwan Seum Bosal’s thousand hands and eyes appear in a spontaneous outpouring of help and support, stranger reaching out to stranger.

Memorial wreath

In the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s fatal fire, a fund was set up to help the families of Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy: an immediate and heartfelt response, as anyone with eyes in their head can see that families who have lost a breadwinner need financial assistance. But in the emotional aftermath of tragedy, some hands might want to do more than just write a check. A memorial gives people a place to visit, pay their respects, and deliver bouquets, handwritten notes, and other mementos: things a bit more (literally) touching than a donation submitted by mail or online.

Memorial plaque

In the weeks after we put MAD to sleep, I remembered that one natural part of grieving is the sorting of your world into two kinds of places: the places where you do and don’t feel safe to cry. In the weeks after we put MAD to sleep, I felt comfortable crying in my car, in the shower, or in front of a sink full of dishes; I did not feel comfortable crying in my classrooms, office, or any other public or professional space.

Eyeglass cases

A memorial is a safe place to cry, even if you didn’t personally know the deceased. A memorial is a place where strangers come together to share a moment of solemn sadness: the common experience that is the root of all compassion. A memorial like the one outside the Engine 33 firehouse isn’t built by any one person. Instead, it’s a communal offering, placed by a thousand hands and wept over by a thousand eyes.

Commonwealth Mall

When I heard yesterday afternoon that there was a nine-alarm fire in a brownstone on Beacon Street in Boston’s Back Bay, there were two things that immediately came to mind: a long-ago Halloween party, and the Hotel Vendome fire.

Vendome Fire Memorial

Years ago, my ex and I went to a Halloween party in a hip Back Bay penthouse overlooking the Charles River: a building on the same street as yesterday’s fire. The host was an engineer who worked at MIT’s Media Lab, so the party was attended by brilliant young people who designed computers and built robots. My ex went to the party as a dressed-to-kill vampire in a black suit, white face paint, and bloody vampire teeth, and I went as a sexy witch in a black dress and fishnet stockings, a witch’s hat, and two bite marks on my neck. The guest who took the cake at that long-ago party overlooking the Charles, however, was dressed as a (literal) flasher, clad in swim trunks, sneakers, and a trench coat wired to set off flashbulbs whenever he opened it.

Vendome Fire Memorial

The second and more serious thing that came to mind when I heard about yesterday’s Back Bay fire, however, was the Hotel Vendome fire. In June, 1972, nine firefighters died when the Hotel Vendome, which was undergoing renovations, collapsed after a four-alarm fire. The Hotel Vendome tragedy was the deadliest day ever for Boston firefighters, leaving eight women widowed and 25 children fatherless. The Hotel Vendome fire happened more than 40 years ago–long before I moved to New England–so I have no personal recollection of the tragedy, but there is a memorial to the fallen firefighters on the Commonwealth Mall, mere blocks from yesterday’s fire. Because of that memorial, when I heard about yesterday’s fire, I immediately thought of the Vendome tragedy and quietly prayed, “No more fallen firefighters, please.”

Vendome Fire Memorial

Despite everyone’s prayers and a valiant rescue effort, yesterday two firefighters died: Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy. Firefighter Kennedy was 33 years old and unmarried; Lieutenant Walsh was 43 years old and leaves a widow and three small children. The Hotel Vendome fire happened the day before Father’s Day, ruining that holiday for the children it left bereft, and I wonder how all those Easter stories about chocolate bunnies and rebirth will feel a month from now, as three children grapple with the fact that daddy, unlike Jesus, isn’t coming back from the dead this year.

Vendome Fire Memorial

Time is both treacherous and tenacious. It’s been years—a lifetime, it seems—since I wore fishnet stockings and sexy dresses, and these days the MIT Media Lab is designing prosthetic legs for Marathon bombing survivors. I never knew the nine men killed in the Hotel Vendome fire, just as I don’t know the two men killed yesterday, but I know their memories will linger long. Time slips away as fast as a building goes up in smoke—one veteran firefighter said he’d never in twenty years seen anything like yesterday’s fire, which was whipped to a frenzy by high winds. And yet for the families who lost fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers in the Hotel Vendome fire, does that fateful day before Father’s Day, 1972 feel like yesterday, not an entire generation ago?

Vendome Fire Memorial

The purpose of a memorial, of course, is to commemorate, but a good memorial can also educate, capturing the stories of people we never knew long enough to mourn. Forty years from now, will a memorial mark the site where two heroes perished on a day like any other? Forty years from now, will a writer who never knew Lieutenant Walsh and Firefighter Kennedy nevertheless remember them, touched by the tragedy of their sacrifice, finding theirs to be a story that must never be forgotten?

I took the photos illustrating today’s post on Thanksgiving Day, 2012: a brilliant fall day whose golden light seemed to exist outside time. If you want to donate to the fund set up for the families of Lieutenant Walsh and Firefighter Kennedy, you can do so here.

Wall at Central Square

For much of this week I’ve had the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” stuck in my head, the melody and lyrics wending in and out of consciousness. I’m prone to earworms, and I sometimes wake up with a song in my head that I haven’t heard in years as if someone pushed a random set of buttons into my mental jukebox. Memory is strange: how can I call up at random the lyrics and melodies of countless pop songs while struggling to remember names, phone numbers, or my own grocery list?

Wall at Central Square

As earworms go, I could do far worse than have the Beach Boys stuck in my head. I remember being amazed the first time I heard “God Only Knows”: the melody is simultaneously surprising and simple, with every note in its perfect place. I can’t imagine how someone writes a melody like “God Only Knows.” It’s a sequence of notes and a progression of chords I can’t see myself ever inventing, even at the end of a lifetime of humming…and yet the first time I heard “God Only Knows,” I couldn’t believe the earth managed to turn on its axis all the eons before that melody was known.

Wall at Central Square

When long-time Boston mayor Tom Menino left the hospital last year after a string of health problems, reporters asked him about his future plans, and he answered with a remark that made front page headlines: “God only knows.” Menino has since stepped down as mayor, and this past week he announced he’s battling advanced cancer, his doctors being unable to determine where the metastasized cells originated from.

When asked by his disciples whether God exists, the Buddha famously refused to answer, claiming that asking about God is like pondering the nature, maker, or trajectory of an arrow that has mortally injured a man. As a man lies dying, does it matter who we might blame? If God exists, he alone knows when and where Menino’s cancer came from, or where Flight 370 is, or what our own futures hold…but even if God doesn’t know, what does it matter? Once you’ve been shot by mortality, you can’t be saved by speculation. We tell ourselves that knowing will bring comfort and closure, but does it, really?

Wall at Central Square

On Wednesday night, I went to the Zen Center after too many weeks away from my cushion. Why is it I avoid a practice I need so desperately, my entire being falling into grateful exhaustion the moment I simply stop? God only knows.

Whenever I drive to the Zen Center, I pass the Cambridge gas station where the 26-year-old man carjacked by the Tsarnaev brothers last April finally escaped to freedom: a tale as haunting as any Beach Boys tune. “Death is so close to me,” the carjack victim, identified only as “Danny” in news reports, recalled thinking: “I don’t want to die….I have a lot of dreams that haven’t come true yet.”

Wall at Central Square

I think of “Danny” every time I pass the pair of gas stations at the corner of River Street and Memorial Drive, where he bolted from his car after the Tsarnaev brothers ordered him to stop for gas. By what accident of fate or chance was it “Danny” who was carjacked at gunpoint and not you or me? On any given night on our way from Here to There, what are the chances we’ll fall victim to cancer, carjacking, or a wayward jet randomly falling out of the sky?

God only knows what the future holds; God only knows what the next moment may bring. If I can’t understand the working of my own memory and the way it holds, retrieves, and replays snippets of a song I haven’t heard in years, how can I fathom to guess what tomorrow, the next day, or the next might offer, the path of our lives being as random and haunting as any unforgettable tune.

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.


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.


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.

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