Life lessons


Blue hydrangea

It’s just after noon, and I’m sitting on the screened porch listening to a grackle flap and splash in our backyard birdbath. It’s too late to sit on the patio, which is now drenched in sun, but it is comfortable on the shady porch, where I can hear the rustle and flutter of birds.

Day lily

A single cicada sang this morning, emitting a shrill and simple whine. That sound will grow and expand as the summer moves to its climax, the sound of insects and birdsong being one surefire way to place oneself, temporally, in the season.

Right now, I hear two separate birds clucking and chuckling, but I can’t name either. Alarm calls sound similar across species, so the grackle clacking by the birdbath sounds akin to the chirping squirrels. One gray squirrel moves from the bird feeder to drink from the birdbath, perching on a stone rim the same color as his fur. Another squirrel hangs from the feeder, only his tail betraying his presence. Blue jays call from a distant yard, and a cardinal whistles intermittently, its song too placid to seem insistent.

Sunny spiderwort

Along the perennial bed, chipmunks dart and scurry. Even a quiet suburban backyard isn’t very quiet, instead bustling with activity. The soundtrack changes with the season, and the seasons themselves cycle and repeat. There is nothing particularly special about today: it is an ordinary July day, the likes of which happen every year. But today, unlike other, more hurried days, I stepped outside, ready to listen.

How many mornings did the Buddha, then a mere prince, see the morning star rise as he sat in meditation? One day the morning star rose like any other, but the Buddha finally saw it, his mental clouds parting to reveal a hitherto-hidden truth: everyone has it, they just don’t know it. It’s a statement so simple as to defy credibility: is this all the Buddha attained after six long years of striving and seeking, after having renounced his throne, his wealth, his family, health, and even sanity?

Bumble bee on spirea

Is this present moment all the Buddha attained? Yes, indeed. All the Buddha attained was the entire world, and his entire life, delivered in the instant that is Now. If we don’t attain the present moment, whatever else can we attain? If we don’t live in the present moment, where else can we possibly dwell?

I wrote this entry earlier today, during a free moment I had before lunch. The photos illustrating today’s post come from past summers, the hydrangeas, day lilies, spiderwort, and spirea that are blooming today looking just like those from seasons past.

Marble altar

The chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a paragon of simplicity. MIT is a place where brilliant people think deep thoughts while solving complex problems involving complicated technologies. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that famed architect Eero Saarinen designed a chapel that is almost painfully austere in its simplicity: a windowless brick cylinder surrounded by a shallow moat and shaded by a grove of elegant birch trees. Everywhere else on campus is where Thinking Happens, but the MIT chapel is where Thinking Falls Away.

Altar and skylight

I didn’t take any photographs of the outside of the MIT chapel when I was on campus for a meeting yesterday, but I did take several photos of the inside sanctuary, which features a plain marble altar and a metal sculpture by Harry Bertoia. This sculpture flows like a cascade of glittering metallic dust motes from a circular skylight that serves as the sanctuary’s only source of natural light. I’d arrived on campus early yesterday, giving myself plenty of time to get lost on a campus where a maze of buildings huddles around an Infinite Corridor, the name of which is enough to make you think you’ve left this world for an alternate one. But inside the chapel, there are no infinite corridors, only this present room, this present window, and an Infinity that streams down from above.

The simplicity of Harry Bertoia’s metal sculpture is so alluring, it finds echoes in a piece of even greater simplicity: a student-designed display of thousands of origami cranes folded, strung, and hung in the MIT Stata Center in memory Officer Sean Collier, who was slain while on duty protecting the MIT campus and community.

Skylight

Where do souls come from before we are born, and where do souls go after we die? Is there, somewhere, an Infinite Corridor where souls stream as free and unfettered as sunlight, and where time stretches inevitably into eternity? These are complicated questions, and their solution lies beyond my ken. But here and now, in this sadly mortal world, I know that sometimes the simplest gestures resonate with infinite profundity.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Simplicity.

Works on paper

It’s been just under a month since I submitted the last of my spring semester grades, and I still feel like I’m decompressing from the term.

Works on paper

I always spend the first few weeks of any academic break catching up with the mundane chores that fall by the wayside during a busy semester: only come summer do I have time for doctor visits and cleaning the bathroom and weeding through cluttered closets. In the immediate aftermath of a semester spent grading piles of student papers, it feels good to devote myself to something less cerebral: even the simple act of sorting, shredding, and recycling old paperwork feels productive in a way that paper-grading never does.

Works on paper

It usually takes me a few weeks after the end of any given semester to feel like writing again. One of the unfortunate occupational hazards of being a writing instructor is your brain often feels like it’s filled to overflowing with words, words, words, and spending time on even your own work only exacerbates the problem. These past few weeks I’ve been walking a lot, reading a lot, and scribbling a lot in my journal, but I haven’t felt like writing anything worth sharing.

Works on paper

Today I went to Framingham State for a professional development workshop: summer is, after all, when college professors take time to evaluate their teaching methods and make adjustments for the coming year. In the gallery next to the room where my colleagues and I met to discuss strategies for encouraging critical thinking, a new exhibit of “Textured Assemblages” by Robert Johnson, Jr. features canvases covered with crumpled paper, the lines of composition “written” in three dimensions rather than two.

Works on paper

I sometimes wonder how many pages of student prose I’ve read over the twenty years I’ve been teaching; I’ve never been brave enough to crunch the numbers. But if I were to assemble all the papers I’ve read, commented on, and then graded, surely I’d be able to cover countless canvases in innumerable galleries. Is it any wonder it takes me a while to decompress at the end of an academic year when I’ve been crowded, crumpled, and (yes) compressed by such a workload?

Lineup

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.

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