Life lessons


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.

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.

Endlessly repeating, with legs

I did indeed go to the Museum of Fine Arts on my birthday, as planned, and I took the requisite shot of my legs reflected in the shiny base of Josiah McElheny’s “Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism,” a cube-shaped case containing rows of mirrored-glass bottles whose reflections repeat toward infinity. Given an endlessly repeating reflection, the temptation toward reflective photography is equally infinite, so it seems somehow fitting that I’ve revisited (and re-photographed) this same piece over and over and over.

Ad infinitum

Birthdays are a natural time for reflecting on the repetitive nature of our (sadly) finite lives: none of us, after all, is getting any younger. We might revisit (and re-photograph) the same artwork time and again, but we can’t step into the same proverbial river twice. The “me” who photographed this piece in 2014 is different—older, wider, but not necessarily wiser—than those earlier incarnations who photographed this piece in 2010, 2009, and 2008. Looking at those pictures, now, I can date them primarily by what I’m wearing: I no longer carry that purse; I still wear that skirt and boots; I no longer fit into those jeans; and I literally wore out those sandals, which the manufacturer sadly doesn’t make any more. “Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism” is part of the museum’s permanent collection, but everything around it (myself included) has done nothing but change since it was acquired.

Endlessly repeating, with legs

The illusion of McElheny’s piece, in other words, is that of objects endlessly repeating without changing: something that never happens outside the artificial realm of art. We humans repeat ourselves for a time, returning to the same scenes to do, think, and say roughly the same things over and over again…but our current selves don’t perfectly mirror our previous selves. Artworks, on the other hand, don’t have birthdays: they don’t gain weight, wrinkles, or gray hair, instead freeze-framing a particular moment in time that we changing and aging humans can never return to. Only in novels do portraits age instead of their subjects, Dorian Gray’s peculiar predicament being one that none of the rest of us share.

Bottled

I recently finished Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which tells the curious and convoluted story of Ursula Todd, a woman with endlessly repeating lives. Ursula has a seemingly infinite number of chances to live the life she was destined to lead: whenever her life takes a turn down a less-than-promising avenue, darkness falls and she is born again. Like the protagonist in the romantic comedy Groundhog Day, Ursula Todd has (and apparently needs) multiple chances to make the right choices in her life; the rest of us, it seems, are fated to botch and bungle our way without hope for an infinite number of re-tries.

Self-portrait with endless reflections

It might be tempting to wish for endlessly repeating lives, but perhaps we should be careful what we wish for. A few days before Henry David Thoreau died, he was asked by a family friend what he thought about the afterlife, and Thoreau famously replied “One world at a time.” Even without the hope or threat of endlessly repeating lives, our days repeat themselves with startling regularity: another day, another dollar; another year, another birthday. Some mornings when I’m taking the dogs to and from our backyard dog pen, I marvel at the cyclic redundancy of such mundane chores: surely in a past life I was a farmer tending livestock, my entire world revolving around the in-goes and out-goes of animal care. We might not have infinite lifetimes to attain our destiny, but we do have a lengthy repetition of days. What is a life, after all, but a collection of moments, “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow” repeating themselves, one after another, for a certain spell, a finite resource not to be wasted.

Building on blue

Last night, J and I watched part of Tom Brokaw’s “Where Were You,” a TV special commemorating the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Neither J nor I was born during JFK’s lifetime, so we don’t remember his death…but we did grow up hearing the stories shared by our elders about that fateful day. The JFK assassination was the 9/11 of my parents’ generation: a vividly shocking realization of impermanence and vulnerability. Something that wasn’t supposed to happen here suddenly did, shattering in an instant any illusions of immortality.

Pavilion with flag

Growing up After Kennedy, I was raised in a world where I simply took for granted the fact that a Catholic could be President and that a President could be killed, regardless of how charismatic he was, how elegant his wife was, or how young his children were. Growing up After Kennedy, in other words, I was raised in a world where nothing was unthinkable. People say that the nation’s innocence was shattered when JFK was killed, but I”m not sure human nature (much less a nation of humans) was ever entirely innocent. November 22, 1963 was reminder that life is fragile and idealism doesn’t come easy. Fifty years later, both of those realities are as true as they ever were.

This is my Day 23 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Today’s photos come from a 2007 trip to the JFK Library and Museum here in Boston.

Public Garden

I spent most of today inside, either teaching classes or grading papers between classes. Tonight as I tried to decide what to blog today, I started browsing my Flickr archive to see what I photographed this time last year.

Public Garden

Last November 22 was Thanksgiving Day, and J and I took a walk around Boston’s Back Bay. It was a brilliantly sunny day: the kind of day when nearly everything looks lovely.

Public Garden

I took (and posted) over 60 photos last Thanksgiving Day, but I ended up blogging only a few of them: it was one of those semesters when I didn’t have much time to write.

Vendome Fire Memorial

One of the things I photographed during last year’s Thanksgiving Day walk was the Vendome Fire Memorial on the Commonwealth Mall, not far from the site of the Hotel Vendome Fire, which killed nine firefighters in 1972.

Vendome Fire Memorial

At the time, I planned to blog the memorial, but I never got around to it, which seems a bit ironic now. What is sadder than not finding the time to remember nine men taken in the prime of life?

Vendome Fire Memorial

As much as I would have liked to have spent more time outside today, I’m almost grateful to have been reminded of last year’s Thanksgiving Day walk and the pictures I took then. It’s never too late to remember something you never meant to forget.

This is my Day 21 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

BC flowers reflected in McGuinn Hall window

Last week, I showed you a sequence of photos I shot from my parking spot at Framingham State over the past few months. At Boston College, I’ve been collecting a similar series of photos of a plot of flowers that spells the letters “BC” in maroon and gold, the college colors.

During the first week of September, these flowers welcomed new and returning students with bright blooms…

Even the landscaping has spirit

…but two weeks later, those flowers had been removed…

Between the acts

…to make way for green chrysanthemums…

New mums / not yet blooming

…that bloomed throughout October…

In bloom

…until they were cleared in November, leaving a clean slate that won’t be re-written until spring.

Bare ground

This is my Day 20 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

St. Ignatius with clown wig

One of the core tenets of Ignatian spirituality–that is, the spiritual practice of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order–is the practice of finding God in all things. I’m not sure a clown wig is one of the “things” Saint Ignatius was thinking of when he established the spiritual exercises practiced by Jesuits around the world, but I’d like to think that even Ignatius would find a bit of humor in whatever prankster decided to decorate his statue with a colorful bit of whimsy.

St. Ignatius with clown wig

Boston College is a Jesuit school, so Ignatian attitudes abound there, as evidenced in this prayer map to campus. Although I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, I like teaching at a school where spiritual practice is actively encouraged.

Gasson bell tower reflected in Fulton Hall

Acknowledging that students are in school to cultivate a spiritual as well as an intellectual life seems much more humane than trying to teach young minds in isolation. In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf suggested that “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” and perhaps we might add “or prayed well.” How can students learn if their entire beings, body and soul, have not been tended?

Love your body week

During the eleven weeks I’ve been teaching at BC, I’ve carried a camera with me, as I do everywhere, and I’d like to think my practice of taking and sharing photos has more than a bit in common with Saint Ignatius’ practice of finding God in all things. What is it, after all, that photographers do but try to find a spark of spirit that might otherwise go overlooked?

In loving memory

This is my Day 15 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

A damp, drizzly November in my soul

By the time I arrived at Framingham State this morning, the smattering of wet, blurry snowflakes that greeted me when I left home had changed over to rain: a quintessentially damp and drizzly November.

November bare

Because I’m a thoroughgoing creature of habit, I tend to park in more or less the same spot every time I drive to campus, and over the past month or so, I’ve taken a photo of the parking lot from my car on (most) Tuesday mornings.

Almost bare

I’m not quite sure what inspired the practice other than the realization that fall semester is a particularly moody season, with the trees changing colors, the temperature wavering between warm and cold, and the sunlight coming and going.

October parking lot, one week later

Now that I look back in time at the various moods and wardrobe changes an otherwise ordinary parking lot at Framingham State has gone through this semester, I wonder how many times my own moods and weather have wavered: sometimes sunny, sometimes gray.

October parking lot

Forget about the time change involved with setting your clocks back or ahead, each change coming in its own season. The real Time Change in autumn is the way the same old landscape changes its very personality, right before our eyes.

This is my Day 12 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Behind Fulton Hall

We’re ten weeks into the semester at both Boston College and Framingham State, and right on schedule I’m feeling the weariness that usually descends this time of the term. Last year, I blogged about this sluggish stretch, which I’ve come to call the Dark Night of the Semester: the point in the term when “teaching” feels like an endless slog through student papers, and both you and your students wonder (either aloud or secretly) why you ever chose to assign so much writing.

Steps near Conte Forum

During the Dark Night of the Semester, I often remember a line from the Bible: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” At those points in a long semester when I’m feeling uninspired and bogged down with paper-grading, it’s easy to feel like I’ve lost my “salt.” Instead of being zesty and full of flavor, I feel bland and insipid, without the energy to overcome my own (much less anyone else’s) inertia.

One thing I’ve learned from twenty years of teaching, though, is that the Dark Night always passes: somehow, the salt becomes salty again. It’s easy to get sidetracked (and deflated) by the seemingly endless logistics of teaching: papers to read, emails to answer, classes to plan. With all the busy-ness that teaching entails, it’s easy to lose sight of why you’re teaching to begin with. Did you start teaching because you wanted to spend the rest of your life grading papers, or did you start teaching because you love language, ideas, and the light in students’ eyes when they really “get” something?

Fides and foliage

Sometimes restoring your saltiness is a matter of stepping away from the paper-piles, and sometimes it’s a matter of adjusting what you do in your classes: what activities pique your students’ interest, and what activities leave them listless and disinterested? Sometimes, in other words, restoring your saltiness is a matter of moving away the things that are bland and toward the things that still have flavor. We’ve all heard the advice to “follow your bliss,” and I often tell my students that in their writing, they should follow their curiosity. So, what would it look like if both teacher and students alike followed that suggestion?

For me, restoring my saltiness usually involves some sort of creativity, some sort of movement, and some sort of connection with nature. I don’t find paper-grading particularly exciting, but I find it personally inspiring and energizing to write, take walks, and be outside in the living world. So when I got home from teaching today, instead of immediately tackling my paper-pile, I suggested to J that we walk to lunch through an afternoon full of golden light. If you can’t savor the sweetness of a golden afternoon, where will you find any salt at all?

This is my Day 6 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Half submerged

A colleague recently told me he’d explored my blog and admired my discipline, a word I don’t really associate with myself. “What discipline,” I quietly wondered. On a good day, my blogging feels like so much twaddle; on a bad day, I don’t blog at all. But I guess all the years I’ve been keeping both a journal and a blog amount to something: at least these entries reflect an intention to show up and chronicle what I can, as I’m able. It’s an intention to be faithful, most days, to my commitment to my craft, regardless of what kind of product that commitment produces.

Mongoose

I don’t consider myself to be a particularly disciplined person in the sense of having willpower to force myself to do things I don’t enjoy. I’m not particularly disciplined when it comes to exercise, diet, or other things I know I “should” do, and I’m a terrible procrastinator when it comes to things I find monotonous, like tackling a grading pile. When I’m doing things I like or find intriguing, I can concentrate for long stretches, but otherwise I’m antsy and easily distracted, finding all kinds of ways of filling my time with the things I shouldn’t be doing rather than the things I should.

Profile

But if remaining faithful to something I enjoy counts as discipline, then I guess my colleague’s remark is true. I suppose there’s a certain kind of discipline involved in returning to one thing over and over for a long stretch of time, “writing” being a thing I always find myself coming back to. Still, I think there are other, better words to describe this kind of blind, unswerving faithfulness: “tenacity” is one word that comes to mind, and “stubbornness” is another. “Bull-headed” is the term my mother often used to describe my headstrong teenage self: I don’t know if bulls are particularly disciplined, but they are renowned for having hard heads.

Sea lion

I do sometimes think there’s something ox-like in my plodding commitment to the monotonies of my daily routine, writing and blogging included. Young cattle are flighty and skittish, so the way to train a young ox is to yoke it to an older and more steadfast one. A mature, well-trained ox knows to pull straight and steady in his harness, but a youngster will champ and frolic after every butterfly. Farmers know, though, that mature oxen are both stronger and heavier than youngsters, so with one shake of his shoulders, an old ox can yank frisky Youngblood back in line. There’s no moving or budging an old ox who has settled in his traces, a lesson that generation after generation of youngsters has learned in the yokes, and I think my daily writing routines serve as a kind of metaphoric “yoke,” bringing me back to more or less the same thing almost every day, regardless of what other distractions beckon.

Three mergansers

My challenge as a teacher is to serve as an old ox to my young and energetic students, who much of the time would rather do anything in the world rather than schoolwork. I try instill a kind of creative discipline in my students by following the furrows of our course syllabus, acclimating them to the “yoke” of reading, writing, and revising assignment after assignment. Old oxen can become obnoxiously stubborn, however, with “discipline” quickly becoming “drudgery” if there is no spark of interest enlivening our steps. There’s a fine line between being disciplined and being too predictable, and that line is, I think, one of the roughest rows to hoe.

Click here for more photos from last week’s trip to the Central Park Zoo. Enjoy!

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